The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect


Kynaston McShine, "Introduction" in The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect (1999).     1   2   3   4

Having worked in a museum for virtually my entire career, I have long been pondering the different ways in which artists have made the museum a subject throughout the twentieth century and even earlier, and I have felt that this has provided the basis for an exhibition and publication. As time progressed, I realized that many more artists were dealing with this topic than I had initially thought, and in many more ways. The museum as an institution generally, and maybe even The Museum of Modern Art specifically, has had great meaning for contemporary artists, and they often have felt strong emotional connections to it, whether oflove or hate. They have probably spent a lot of time in the Museum and been influenced by individual exhibitions. We have frequently seen what we have shown here being reflected in what we have later received in new art. Most artists' education involves the habit of visiting museums and reflecting on what is seen there. This, of course, also has led artists to think about museum practices.

The fascinating thing about the relationship between artists and museums is that artists have studied every aspect of the museum, as if anatomizing an organism. Although the ways in which they deal with the museum in their work go far beyond any purely pragmatic consideration, their interest is, of course, partly professional: their sense of what the museum means in terms of public acceptance makes many of them eager to be represented in museum collections, and worry if they are absent. Others, meanwhile, question whether their work should be in a museum at all, feeling that to be included is to succumb to the establishment. In either case, artists are often, ultimately, wrestling with the issue of their dependence on the museum to endorse their place in art history. It is the civil institution of today, they feel, that will make them the cultural institutions of tomorrow.

The use of the museum as a subject for art has accelerated during the twentieth century in response both to developments within art and to the altered social role of the museum. In the early part of the century, however, the artist was distanced from the museum, which made little acknowledgment of contemporary art. Russian artists after the Revolution of 19I7 were an exception: desiring a total integration of art and life, they harbored the utopian dream of a museum administered by artists, and they brought art to the public on boats and trains and through theater design in ways intended to make the museum and its mission vital parts of everyday life. EI Lissitzky, for example, designed an exhibition room for the Hannover Museum (now the Sprengel) in Germany in I926, preparing detailed plans and drawings. Lissitzky's practice, however, was unique. The Parisian art milieu of the same period was marked by disdain for the museum as a traditional, antiquated, aristocratic authority, lacking understanding of the art of its time. It was Marcel Duchamp who pointed the way in this attitude, poking fun at the museum, puncturing its pomposity, and catalyzing the Dadaists' and Surrealists' relative indifference to it. Independent of authority and tradition, Duchamp and his colleagues were essentially derisive about the kind of history that the museum of that time promoted and constructed.

Curiously, though, it is not possible to ignore Duchamp's role in guiding artists toward museums. Despite his irreverent gestures, Duchamp was an essential advisor to the formation of contemporary art collections in the 1920S and 1930s such as those of Katherine S. Dreier and Louise and Walter Arensberg, which eventually led to the placement of works by himself and others in The Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery. This phenomenon of the artist actively fostering a relationship with a museum developed further with the exile of European artists to the United States during World War II; The Museum of Modern Art, along with other institutions, provided financial support to help a number of artists leave Europe and assisted them in finding employment in the United States. In consequence, exiles such as Joseph Albers and Fernand Leger, among others, created a certain energy around these institutions that stimulated a new relationship between museums and artists.

At around the same time, American artists in particular began to realize that museums were not paying adequate attention to them. In 1950 the Irascibles wrote their famous letter of complaint to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, protesting hostility toward the avant-garde in the organization of a large exhibition of American art. Their effort was followed by the Americans series of exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art and by other exhibitions of new work, leading to a less adversarial relationship between the artist and the museum.

This new relationship in the I950s, however, was partly undone in the I960s, when crises in the post-colonial world, exemplified by the Viemam War, brought with them a basic distrust of society and its institutions. In I960 The Museum of Modern Art agreed to show Jean Tinguely's Hommage à New York, an amazing and elaborate construction designed to self-destruct-as indeed it did, in an event in the sculpture garden that was finally closed down by firemen. By 1969, however, when Yayoi Kusama arranged for six women and two men to shed their clothing and frolic in the pools and among the sculptures on the same site, her intention was subversive rather than collaborative; the event took place without the Museum's consent, and, indeed, Kusama had organized it precisely to protest the institution's lack of modernity, its function as, in her words, a "mausoleum of modern art."

Something else changed in the 1960s. Before that decade there was a provincial quality to the art world; British artists were British, French artists were French-artistic activity was nationally compartmentalized. In the 1960s, however, the insular aspect of the art world was altered by travel. The new American painting had a profound impact on Europe, and European artists began to voyage frequently to the United States; the scene appeared to open up. This increasingly global situation contributed to a more open and relaxed attitude toward art and the art object, which also became more conceptual. The definition of art, and of how it was to be not only created but presented, broadened fundamentally. The result was that by the late 1960s artists had come to feel quite free in relation to the museum. One day they could love it, the next they could hate it, and the next ignore it, as in any family.

Conceptual art, with its fluid notions of the art object, presented a challenge to traditional museum practices. Yet an artist like Marcel Broodthaers was distinctly interested in the museum, and developed a complex series of works around it. From the I970s on, in fact, a good deal of art took the museum as its central interest, for the range of ideas about and attitudes toward the institution grew and deepened. A variety of techniques came into play; almost any method and medium could be used to address the subject, from installation, video, and more cerebral mediums to traditional photography and even, by the 1980s, traditional painting in oil on canvas. Still, in the 198os, the museum took a bit of a back seat in the art world. The driving force became an economic well-being involving private money, the gallery structure, and, in Europe, government funding. Non-profit institutions in the United States did not have these kinds of resources, so the intervention of the museum became less necessary in artists' careers; the life of the artist, now potentially lucrative, was sustained by large international exhibitions, by international collecting, by shows in commercial galleries, and by auction sales. The museum was a relatively passive participant in this activity. Nevertheless, the 1980s and 1990S have seen widespread growth in museum expansion and building. Temporary exhibitions at galleries and international venues have been unable to displace the museum's historical role as a storehouse of aesthetic memory.

These historical shifts in patronage are matched by an ambivalence toward the assumed ability of the museum to immortalize the artist in relation to history. Artists have seen the museum as a place that establishes and codifies their place in history; they have also resented the power that it may exert over their lives. Collecting is a byproduct of producing work, and most artists accept its necessity, but some of them are sensitive about the museum's possession of their art. They see patronage as patronizing, and question their dependence on a system based on private or public acquisition. The idea of the public patron is perhaps more offensive to some artists if they see it as representing political affiliations or alignments in conflict with the more progressive attitudes that are often components of the artistic temperament.

This kind of tension is evident in the work of many artists represented in The Museum as Muse and also in work that cannot be included here. For even as many artists have struggled to be included in the museum, others have resisted dependence on art-world patronage structures and have developed intricate critiques of museum practices. As an outgrowth of these approaches, many artists have purposely made works that, due to their size, ephemeral materials, or location, are not collectible by museums (nor by the commercial gallery system); still others have chosen to avoid the institution altogether. Although this kind of work is addressed in the present essay, it is by definition generally absent from the exhibition The Museum as Muse. Other artists, however, have examined the museum's political structure in works designed for conventional viewing and, particularly, for the expanded and increasingly various audience of The Museum of Modern Art.

The Museum as Muse is designed as a survey of some of the most notable museum-related art. It does not pretend to exhaust the field. Similarly, it does not attempt to establish a theoretical basis for the multiple focuses of artists. Rather, recognizing the variety of motives and interests that artists have brought to the subject, it illuminates the approaches taken by artists and discusses the aspects of the museum's life on which they have chosen to settle.


The fact that collecting is an obsessional activity both for museums and for private individuals has led me to become intrigued by artist collectors. Not only have some artists formed large art collections (those of Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Arman are only a few such), but more modestly and practically artists' studios have always been the sites of collections of materials they have wanted around them as they worked, for example photographs, objets, exotic ephemera, and copies of other art. This practice long predates modernity, but it has relatively recently expanded into the idea of making a museum of one's own, not just to preserve one's own work, in a kind of monument to oneself (for example, the Paris studio of Constantin Brancusi, which he bequeathed, with its contents, to the Musee national d'art moderne, sanctifying his working process along with his sculpture) but to apply museological principles to the production of art.

A prime example must be Marcel Broodthaers's Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles), a conceptual museum created by the artist in 1968. Broodthaers's museum was a fiction in that it had neither permanent collection nor permanent location. It manifested itself in its various "sections" created between 1968 and 1972. Another must be Claes Oldenburg's Mouse Museum (1965-77), a freestanding structure containing a collection of fictionalized objects (some found and altered, others created by the artist) displayed in vitrines: a landscape painting and objects relating to landscape; articles in the form of human beings; food forms; body parts; clothing remnants, cosmetics, and objects of adornment; tools; objects relating to animals; representations of buildings and monuments as well as souvenirs; money containers; smoking articles; and fragments from the artist's studio. The Mouse Museum is a comment partly on collecting (the selection's combination of irrationality and obvious system throwing the whole practice into question) and partly on the ingenious, yet inane, mass of mechanically reproduced material that floods our society. And although this may not be immediately apparent to the visitor, the museum's architectural plan is defined by the head of a certain cartoon mouse; so that Mouse Museum is also part comic, a parody. Filling this architectural space, the collection figuratively becomes Mickey's brain.

Quite different in mood is Susan Hiller's From The Freud Museum (1991--96), an example of the museum as a construct of the artist's imagination. Creating a museum from the "unspoken, unrecorded, unexplained, and overlooked," Hiller's installation comprises fifty cardboard boxes packed with specifically personal objects. But the poetic connotations of these objects are likely to engage the visitor's own experiences and memories as well. One box, titled Nama.ma (Mother), contains a photocopied diagram showing Uluru cave paintings and Australian native earth in different pigments that were collected by the artist, ground into powder, and placed in cosmetic containers. Another box, Chamin'Ha (House of Knives), contains a photocopy of a classic Mayan calendar, glyphs, numerals, day names, and modern obsidian blades, all in a customized cardboard box. The boxes together become a personal epic with biographical, archaeological, and political elements that move the spectator through a gamut of intellectual and emotional tonalities, from the banal and sentimental to the academic and metaphysical. Meanwhile the work addresses a basic issue of the museum, both for the visitor and the curator: the need for viewers to establish their own rapport with what is presented and to create for themselves a unique, personal poetic experience. Hiller's work may also stimulate them to consider their own activities as curators and collectors in their private lives.

Christian Boltanski's Archives (I987) is a group of racks suggesting a museum art-storage room of several hanging screens filled with photographs of 355 anonymous individuals. These people are completely unidentified, but the installation is infused by a sense of morbidity, created partly by the relative darkness (the work is lit only by small lights at the tOP of each screen) and partly by the idea of storage-as if this museum existed to preserve some unnamed collective memory. Were these people victims of the Holocaust or of some other disaster? As an assembly of data, an archive is often almost abstract in atmosphere, but Boltanski's version is rooted in a sense of loss. His Vitrine of Reference (II) (1970), more personal and autobiographical, contains artifacts from his childhood--photographs, a 45 r.p.m. record, a sling-shot--but the museological display makes them feel as if they came from a prehistoric civilization.

More romantic than these artists is Joseph Cornell, who made assemblages, dossiers, and constructions to house collections that sentimentally memorialize women he admired-ballerinas, the heroines of novels, and film stars. The nostalgia for the past that breathes through these works parallels the mood of, for example, a museum's period rooms, its rooms of miniatures, and its occasional recreations of a historical space, often a personal one--the living room of an aristocratic household (containing a collection, probably) or some other room furnished to demonstrate a period in history. But those displays are whole environments, as is Oldenburg's expansion of an apparently frivolous collection far beyond any expectation. Hiller similarly lets the "unrecorded and over-looked" take up an attention-getting amount of room. Cornell, on the other hand, follows a principle of compression, focusing the power of the artwork through the sense that a carefully chosen collection is concentrated in a diminutive space.

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