Photograph of the Carnegie Museum of Art featuring the water pool

The Refined Beauty of the 2013 Carnegie International

The 2013 Carnegie International opened last month at Carnegie Museum of Art, and I admire its uncommon restraint and focus; its integration of past and present, global and local; and the refined beauty of its installation. The exhibition has been ongoing for 117 years, and for half that time it was one of only two recurring surveys of new international art in the world (the Venice Biennale premiered some months earlier). In the last decades, these shows have proliferated globally, and thousands of galleries that exhibit the newest in contemporary art have sprung up worldwide. It is no longer compelling for a survey like ours to simply present a compendium of that work; the challenge is to go deeper and find meaning in the connections among works. Our curators, Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers, and Tina Kukielski, have done that well.

At its best, contemporary art has something to communicate about the moment in which we live. So, what does the 2013 Carnegie International tell us? In a new way, it embraces its location and history, building solid connections with Pittsburgh neighborhoods and emphasizing the role of past Internationals. The Lozziwurm play sculpture outside the museum invites people of all ages to an exhibition that sees play as essential to creativity. Transformazium, an artists’ collective based in nearby Braddock, has created an art lending collection in the library there that mixes works by local artists with those in the International. Anyone with a library card can take a work out and live with it for several weeks. Previously, there probably was no overarching need for this level of engagement; in fact, it may have been wise to avoid it. Located outside the main cultural centers, previous Internationals could have appeared provincial if they underscored the local. Also, in the past, you could take a sense of place for granted, but today the technology that makes every corner of the globe immediately accessible also makes every corner more alike. Yet, as the curators point out, it still matters if you come from a township in South Africa, a village in Poland, or Rio de Janeiro, and they have chosen artists who bring a strong sense of site to their work. In doing so, they reflect an apparent hunger in the culture at large to reconnect with the rich character of specific places.

In the show, abstraction mixes with figuration; video with sculpture on pedestals; black-and-white and color photography with installation, performance, and computer-generated work. For a while in the art world no particular medium or approach has dominated. Such periods are often viewed as transitional, a waiting time before a new, powerful, and marketable trend emerges. Examples are the resurgence of European painting in the 1980s and the impact of “Superflat,” influenced by Japanese anime, in the 1990s. There is nothing as dominant today. Perhaps we now have access to too many powerfully expressed artistic concerns for any one to take precedence; maybe what was previously understood as a period of transition is the way culture develops in 2013.

Major surveys of new international art typically mix different forms and media. What’s unusual in the 2013 Carnegie International is the manner in which diverse concerns create a cohesive whole. There is attention to how works complement and enhance each other and relate to the spaces and building they occupy. You see it in the interplay of grids of photographs by Zanele Muholi, paintings by Sadie Benning, and drawings by Joseph Yoakum, and in the gestures in Paulina Olowska’s figurative paintings mirrored in Vincent Fecteau’s abstract sculptures. A sense of connection—to a time, place, object, or idea—engages us intellectually and emotionally, and this show makes those connections on many levels and in unusual ways. The International is on view until March 16, 2014; please don’t miss it.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.