Contemporary Art and Ancient Artifacts From Pompeii Converge in a New Exhibition

Painter Allison Katz is organizing the exhibition, which involves a lengthy roster of A-list artists.

Pinax (painting) with Hippolythus and Phaedra, first century A.D. (3rd style). ©MIC. Parco Archeologico di Pompei. Photo: Amedeo Benestante.

They may be nearly 6,000 miles apart and they may focus on material separated by thousands of years, but the Archaeological Park of Pompeii and the Aspen Art Museum are coming together on a show. Curated by London-based artist Allison Katz, “In the House of the Trembling Eye” will take over the entire 17,500-square-foot exhibition space at the Colorado institution’s Shigeru Ban-designed building, which opened a decade ago.

The art of today will hang alongside ancient painting: the show includes a group of fragments of frescoes from Pompeii, which are making a rare trip to the United States. There’s also an A-list roster, including figures like Lynda Benglis, Maurizio Cattelan, Marlene Dumas, Lucio Fontana, Eva Hesse, Damien Hirst, Jeffrey Gibson, Rashid Johnson, Bharti Kher, Yayoi Kusama, Kerry James Marshall, Alice Neel, Ed Ruscha, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. 

A surreal painting of the inside of a human mouth.

Allison Katz, Eruption (2024). Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Eva Herzog.

According to the museum, it’s the first time contemporary art has come together with these ancient artifacts, which were preserved when Pompeii was buried after nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79 C.E., resulting in one of the world’s most enduringly fascinating archaeological sites, where Katz conducted research for the exhibition while there on a fellowship. 

“Painting is for me a call and response, a question posed across time, techniques, and traditions to see who and what answers,” Katz said, “because at its core, painting is a conversation.” The conversation instigated with this particular exhibition will involve more than 100 artworks and objects by some 50 artists, drawn from personal art collections in and around Aspen. 

A painting of a person twisted and trapped in a small box

Jana Euler, Close Rotation (Left) (2019). Courtesy the artist; Artists Space, New York; Cabinet, London; dépendance, Brussels; Valerie Neu, Berlin; and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein.

Katz is exploring the boundaries—as well as the crossover—between different kinds of spaces; she sees ancient Pompeiian rooms as having been precursors to the modern museum. That concept forms the inspiration for the display architecture in Aspen, which echoes that of ancient Pompeiian environments: it will be designed by Katz with architect Caitlin Tobias Kenessey of Islington-based firm Bureau de Change. Departing from the standard white cube, Katz’s display will include raised floors, partitions, curtains, and other features to guide museum visitors’ movements and orchestrate their views. 

The artist’s ideas will be further explored in a catalog with contributions from Katz as well as author Nuar Alsadir, curator Stella Bottai, curator and writer Saim Demircan, writer Hannah Johnston, and poet and playwright Ariana Reines. 

A surreal painting of two men with shaving razors held to their faces

René Daniëls, Untitled (1982). Photo: Robert Glowacki. Courtesy: the artist, Modern Art, London and The René Daniëls Foundation, Eindhoven.

Katz, known for paintings that include mouths and various animals and sometimes include various plays on her own name, joined international powerhouse gallery Hauser & Wirth in 2022 after being included in “The Milk of Dreams,” the main exhibition at that year’s Venice Biennale, curated by Cecilia Allemani. She’s notched solo shows since 2009 at top-shelf venues from New York gallery Rachel Uffner to Shanghai’s Antenna Space and Germany’s Kunstverein Freiburg, as well as appearing in group shows at equally renowned forums, from Paris’s Palais de Tokyo to New York’s Lisson Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

She’s also proven alluring to critics. Artforum’s Andrew Hunt called her 2021 show “Artery,” at London’s Camden Art Centre, “an art critic’s dream,” saying that it asked questions about reflexivity “in a witty, sophisticated manner,” before finally asking, “did my brain actually get reorganized by this experience?” Writing for 4 Columns about the same show, Emily LaBarge called Katz’s subjects “vivid and energetic, unruly yet precise, as is her style and technique.”

The Aspen Art Museum, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary, is not afraid of unconventional displays. A few years ago, the institution invited artist Jonathan Berger to reimagine its gift shop; the museum has also had a fruitful collaboration with Italian luxury fashion house Bottega Veneta.

In the House of the Trembling Eye” will be on view at the Aspen Art Museum, 637 E Hyman Ave, Aspen, Colorado, May 30–September 29, 2024.

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