Art Historians are Obsessed with Recovering Lost Names. But are they Asking the Wrong Questions?

Historians in the News
tags: exhibition, art history

Numerous curators and scholars have endeavored to recover names of forgotten, oppressed, or under-recognized artists as a countermeasure to the stronghold on name recognition maintained by a select group of white men—Rembrandt, Picasso, Warhol, and Koons, to cite a miniscule few. Independent curator Lucy Cotter pursued a different approach in “The Unknown Artist,” an exhibition she organized for the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in Portland that—rather than highlighting marginal names—probed the very values of attribution. The show featured eleven unattributed objects from around the world that spanned twelve centuries, as well as ten contemporary artworks exploring anonymous making in present contexts ranging from industrial manufacturing to collective movements.

Cotter selected the unattributed objects from among the roughly 1,300 such works that once belonged to Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft (MoCC). Since MoCC closed in 2016, these works have been stewarded by PNCA. The examples on view ranged from a pre-Columbian ceramic seated figure holding a gourd (ca. 800–1000 CE) to woven wool textiles from the 1940s to an intricately woven basket (1971) from the Nupe tribe in Nigeria. The label for each read, ARTIST UNKNOWN. The wide-ranging assortment spoke to the diverse reasons that works go unattributed: some pieces were considered women’s work and therefore craft rather than fine art, while others were ritual or functional objects later appropriated for the art museum context. Perhaps some were collectively produced, belonging to a time, culture, or tradition that places little value on authorship or autonomy.

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