How is the decolonization of the museum? Try the ax.

It was El Museo del Barrio her inner struggles, regarding whether the focus should be on her Nuer roots or the representation of the Latin American diaspora more broadly. But “Rafael Montanez Ortiz: A Retrospective Contextual Review” proves that at his best he can do both. The ambitious exhibition highlights the museum’s founder, who continues to do radical and compelling work at the age of 88. With this show, Montañez Ortiz’s legacy must be cemented in both his art and the museum he started.

Walking through the exhibition, I thought about the recent protests: London’s environmentalists Paste themselves on artwork On the continued extraction of fossil fuels, or last year 10 week campaign“Strike MoMA,” which claimed to link the activities of board members there to war, the prison system, environmental degradation, patriarchal violence, and more.

The museum exhibition is in part a timely response to this ongoing turmoil in the art museum world. But it’s also a reminder that all this isn’t entirely new. In my windshield was a photograph taken by Jan van Ray on May 2, 1970, Documenting a protest outside the Museum of Modern Art. “Black and Puerto Rican Art Should Be Here” and “The Racial Museum” read on the placards emerging from the crowd.

Another, May 6, 1970, news clip from The New York Post, shows a picture of a dazed mother pushing a bed away from a tangled group of New York University students, some of whom appear to be bloodied. The headline, “On Campus: Never Compromise,” reveals that the scene is a re-enactment of the guerrilla theater of the Kent State massacre, days before when four unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard.

Montañez Ortiz instigated this action, and together with Joan MacIntosh and Richard Schechner of the Performance Group (introducing the Wooster Group) recruited cooperating students. Next to the news clippings were Montañez Ortiz’s written instructions from The Blood and Flesh War Theater Survival Guide (1968), detailing how to obtain animal blood from butcher shops.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a “contextual retrospective” that places Montañez Ortiz, sculptor, performance artist, film and video artist, within history, among his peers – both lesser known and bold names such as Gordon Matta Clark, Anna Mendetta, and Faith Reingold Hermann Nitsch – and in his role as founder of El Museo del Barrio. The museum-wide exhibition about this unrecognized artist, who has taught art at Rutgers University for more than 50 years, is divided into four sections: “Destruction”, “Decolonization and Guerrilla Tactics” (which includes photo, clipping, and handbook), “Ethnoaesthetics” and “Physio-Psycho-Alchemy.”

The scene of destruction dominates the early period of the Brooklyn-born artist. For the experimental short film “Golf” from 1957 to 1958, he punched holes in a source film on the theme of the title, spoiling the sound and flooding the frame with white circles, as if the film was under attack from golf balls.

In 1958’s “Cowboys and ‘Indians’,” Montañez Ortiz, who is known to be of Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Native American descent, used similar Dada tactics to take more consistent personal and political action.

Using a tomahawk, he randomly cut up a Western film and then mixed the parts into a medicine bag before putting the film back together, creating a shamanic remix, with the pieces showing upside down and backwards, laying out the chaotic mix of emotion and violence that make up the genre.

The destruction continues in a room filled with what the artist calls his “archaeological finds”: burnt or destroyed mattresses, sofas and chairs turned into sculptures fixed to the wall. Dating from 1961 to 1965, they were made around the same time John Chamberlain was making his ruined colored car sculptures (and years before Chamberlain began carving functional sofas out of foam blocks with a knife). On the wall, in shades of brown and gray, they were anticipating the sculptural compositions of the objects found by Fire Ward.

The deconstruction of Montañez Ortiz’s making often emphasizes performance on a completed (or destroyed) object. The best-documented performance in the exhibition is a video recording of “A Piano Destroying Concert: Humpty Dumpty Witnessed a Great Fall”, which was recorded live at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996. Accompanied by his wife, Monique Ortiz-Arndt, in peasant dress singing in a pragmatic part Humpty Dumpty up a ladder. Montañez Ortiz provides the main musical accompaniment as he takes an ax for the piano, in one moment sweeps his blade through the exposed inner strings and into the following rhythmic chopping of the piano’s skeleton, creating a surprisingly dramatic and musical performance. By dissecting a piano in the space of a museum of American art, Montañez Ortiz appears to be moving away from the codified ideals of Western high culture.

Not everything is ruined. The curators, Rodrigo Moura and Julieta Gonzalez, chose to display the work of Montañez Ortiz alongside a variety of other artists, creating overlays and dialogues that heighten the significance of any single object. Take for example two of the feathered pyramidal sculptures, “Maya Zemi I” and “Maya Zemi II” (both 1975), which rest on a table-like pedestal, surrounded by an eclectic but energetic collection of works by other artists.

A zimi is a statue that contains the soul of, according to the tradition of the Taínos, the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. Nearby is a view of pre-Columbian Taino artifacts, all shapes of different axes. But the same also applies to a wonderful triptych, “Bird Transformation” (1972), of portraits by Cuban-born artist Anna Menedetta. She covered the body of a mannequin in white feathers that were bathed in fickle light. Across the room is running a slide show, Unstable Things (1968-1969) by German artist Lothar Baumgarten, consisting of 80 photographs from Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. The slides were printed with their artists’ texts, which criticize the colonial role of anthropologists and archaeologists. In particular , This museum It no longer displays human remains, like the famous Shrunk (tsantsa) group.

The exhibition’s notable work, “The Monument to the Sadistic Holocaust Destruction of Millions of Our Old Arawak-Taino-Latin Ancestors…” (2019-20), is also one of the artist’s most recent work. Like the Joseph Cornell Expanded Fund, the collection turns thrift-store finds into serious work of art: It invokes a medieval Christian altar. In the central scene, where one can find the image of Christ on the cross, there is instead a group of skulls, skeletal hands, and swords all covered in blood. (A closer look reveals these items were toys or perhaps Halloween decorations.) Stuffed leopard legs across the top of the central frame, and altar wings on either side are fused with copies of early printed books illustrating scenes of torture for the indigenous Spaniards they encountered. (A copy from the late seventeenth century of Bartolome de las Casas’ Narrative of the First Voyages and Discoveries of the Spaniards in America, which is the source for some of these photographs, under the glass nearby.)

There are a few vintage works that detract from the whole, especially the digital prints on vinyl from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Witch Hunt (2007) looks more like a student poster chronicling the history of witch trials in the colonial United States than a work of art. But the great video shown in this last room is worth watching.

As I left the museum, I thought about how both recent and past protests to museums are also declarations of faith in their power, and that their cultural role deserves to be challenged. Activists in MoMA or Whitney may demand it “Decolonization of this place,” But Rafael Montañez Ortiz, despite his focus on destruction, helped build a space free of colonization for more than half a century. It’s not perfect, but in its retrospective, El Museo del Barrio rivals those of museums with massive and challenging art while still maintaining space for beauty and wonder.

Rafael Montañez Ortiz: Contextual Retrospective
During September 11, Del Barrio Museum, 1230 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. 212-831-7272, elmuseo.org.