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May 2019

Vol. 161 / No. 1394

Burlington Contemporary: a new journal

The fifty-eighth Venice Biennale opens its many doors to the public on 11th May. This year ninety countries will be represented in the national pavilions in the Giardini and elsewhere, including for the first time Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and Pakistan. In the same way that the Edinburgh Fringe overshadows the event around which it grew up, the pavilions usually attract more publicity than the multi-venue exhibition that sets the theme of each successive incarnation of the world’s most famous festival of contemporary art. This year’s exhibition is May You Live in Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff, who has written that although it will ‘no doubt include artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the “post-war order”’, he does not want the displays to have a theme beyond ‘a general approach to making art and a view of art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking’.1

It is perhaps wise to be as vague as possible when corralling a large number of artists – seventy-nine this year – some of great distinction. The modest terms for the exhibition as set out by Rugoff contrast attractively with the grandiose or febrile statements that have tended to characterise the thinking behind exhibitions in the past. In 2013 we had Massimiliano Gioni’s Encyclopedic Palace, described in this Magazine as ‘an investigation into the question of how we attempt to structure knowledge’.2 In 2015 Okwui Enwezor brought us All the World’s Futures, in which 136 artists addressed ‘the terrible wakefulness of new crises’,3 and in 2017 Christine Macel delivered Viva Arte Viva!, ‘a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist’.4

All these exhibitions, together with highlights of the national pavilions, were discussed at length in The Burlington Magazine, and it is an interesting exercise to read these reviews consecutively. In each case the reviewer identified aspects of the Biennale that seem in retrospect indicative of significant developments that cannot always have been obvious to the visitors to an exhausting and often overwhelming event. The emphasis on ‘museum’ in 2015, for example, raised the question of how curators create a canon that divides institutionally recognised artists from outsiders and Enwezor took this self-interrogation further by examining the Biennale as performance, as a reflection of geopolitics and as an embodiment of the failures of capitalism. It can be argued, therefore, that successive recent Biennales demonstrate the development of a dominant issue in contemporary practice, the way that the creation and display of art enacts social, political and economic systems.

In other words, within only a short period an event such as the Biennale offers itself up to historical analysis. A belief that contemporary practice forms part of the remit of art historians lies behind the creation of our new online journal Burlington Contemporary, which will be launched on 3rd May ( The journal is founded on the idea that there is room for academic analysis of work by living artists that is based not on the deployment of critical or theoretical discourse but on empirical research of the type that contributors to The Burlington Magazine have always practised.

This is not an entirely new departure, as the Magazine’s coverage of contemporary art in its reviews section has from time to time been complemented by articles on such subjects as Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Bacchus) paintings and the sources for David Hockney’s A bigger splash.5 In many ways, however, the six articles that make up the first issue of the journal go beyond what the Magazine has traditionally done. We pride ourself on our international outlook, but on the whole have been confined to what might be called the Western tradition. That seems narrow in comparison with the extraordinary global reach of avant-garde practice in contemporary art. This is reflected in the new journal by articles by Ana Bilbao on the complex relationship between goldmining and art in Colombia and by Massa Lemu on the central role of African townships in performance art in Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. By examining art that embodies or derives from indigenous practices both authors also question whether the terms and preconceptions of art history as developed in the West are appropriate for dealing with non-Western art.

One challenge for the journal lies in the fact that it will be publishing articles on living artists. A great deal of writing on contemporary art seeks simply to explain it, often by reference to an artist’s own words. Objectively placing that work in a historical context requires a degree of detachment. The way this can be achieved is demonstrated by two articles in the new journal that discuss work produced in the USA during the AIDS crisis: Bruce Nauman’s figurative neon works made in 1985, which are analysed in terms of sexual politics by Julia Bryan-Wilson, and Zoe Leonard’s Strange fruit (1992–97), the subject of an article by Nina Quabeck that discusses the complexities of the afterlife of a work that its artist intended should decay.

Other articles deal with particular groups or movements that although recent can be seen to have a self-contained identity that makes them ripe for historical analysis. Jenni Sorkin discusses the work of two American groupings in the 1970s and 1980s, the Pattern and Decoration artists and the Pictures Generation, who in different ways addressed biases in the art world against decorative aesthetics. An article by Michael Bracewell on the films made by the YBA generation in London in the 1980s, ranging from Damien Hirst to Sam Taylor-Johnson, exploits one of the liberating advantages of digital publishing, the ability to embed film and audio in articles. The author also invigoratingly stretches the terms of an academic article by incorporating his personal memories of the postpunk scene from which the YBA grouping emerged. We intend that in the future our fledgling journal will combine rigorous scholarship with just such innovations in the way that new research is presented and – like Rugoff’s aspirations for the Venice Biennale – we will aim for pleasure as well as critical thinking. This is only the beginning.


1 art/2019/58th-exhibition, accessed 16th April 2019.

2 A. Blood: ‘Venice Biennale 2013’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, 155 (2013), pp.647– 49.

3 See M. Barratt: ‘Venice Biennale’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, 157 (2015), pp.652–54, esp. p.652.

4 Idem: ‘Venice Biennale’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, 159 (2017), pp.667–68.

5 N. Cullinan and N. Serota: ‘“Ecstatic impulses”: Cy Twombly’s “Untitled (Bacchus)”, 2006–08’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, 152 (2010), pp.613–16; and M. Hammer: ‘The photographic source and artistic affinities of David Hockney’s “‘A big ger splash”’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, 159 (2017), pp.386–93.