FOUR YEARS AFTER its founding, Yale Union (YU) has officially embarked on a full season of programming. Opening this week is Steinberg, Saul. The New Yorker. New York, 1945–2000. (Harold, William, Robert, Tina, David, Eds.). The show provides insight into the contemporary art center's programming after a long, anticipation-heavy wait.
Co-founded by musician Curtis Knapp and Veneer Editor Aaron Flint Jamison—and located in Southeast's Yale Union Laundry Building, built in 1908—YU's stated mission is to "support emerging and under-acknowledged contemporary artists, propose new modes of production, and stimulate the ongoing public discourse around art." In short, it's an ambitious project. Even the building is ambitious, taking up a full city block, complete with a sizable exhibition space. It's currently a melting pot of a production site, including a print studio, a recording studio, a small library, a design area, and a couple distribution areas (one for Veneer magazine and one for Marriage Records), with further renovation plans on the horizon.
Following their grand unveiling in 2010, YU's exhibitions were sporadic. The center has been cautious about revealing its plans and in positioning itself within the Portland arts community, an approach that has garnered some criticism from local press (namely the Oregonian, which questioned YU's secrecy last June). However, with a new, more secure outline of programming, YU finally offers a glimpse as to how they may fit into the city's art landscape.
Saul Steinberg was the chief cartoonist at the New Yorker from the 1940s until his death in 1999. YU's exhibit spans five decades of the magazine, with issues on exhibit that are turned to the pages of Steinberg's drawings. The show gives a sense of both the New Yorker's evolution in design, and of an artist's evolving career, though this wasn't the show's explicit intention. When asked why they chose to exhibit Steinberg's cartoons, YU co-curators Robert Snowden and Scott Ponik cited an interest in "industry standards" and how art is ascribed monetary value, as well as a love for the artist's work. "He thought beautifully, even when he drew conventionally, and he did not draw conventionally," they explained, adding, "We had yet to see Steinberg shown in a way that took into account his neighbors and mass-produced context."
The title of the show is an MLA citation, placing it within the schema of research and academic objectives. Accompanying the Steinberg exhibit are two film screenings (Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and The Right Way by Peter Fischli and David Weiss) and two lectures (one with Ponik and Snowden and one with Stuart Bailey—of the design and publishing collaborative Dexter Sinister). After its debut in Portland, the show will travel to New Zealand.
As for the question of how the show fits into YU's plans on the whole, YU's first major event of the year was 100 Years of John Cage—a partnership with Fear No Music. Many other events have been collaborations; a previous concert by Mahmoud Ahmed was co-organized with Mississippi Records. Included in previous lectures were Benjamin Thorel, Paris-based curator, and David Senior, bibliographer at the Museum of Modern Art Library. Much like these other ventures, the Steinberg exhibit calls for conversation as much as looking. YU brings international and national perspectives to the city, recalling the Portland Center for Visual Arts (1972-1987). In general, YU has begun to nestle itself within contemporary art's proclivity toward ideas and the indefinite—this will bewilder and annoy some, excite others. Once again, time will tell.