The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect

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

Cornell greatly admired Duchamp, who worked more compactly still, reproducing his own entire oeuvre as miniatures carefully organized in a valise. What a great conceit it is--to put your life's work into a little briefcase, which is editioned (one edition being partially assembled by Cornell), and so available to numbers of people simultaneously. Duchamp made several full-scale copies of his Readymades over the years, and those works are in visual terms functionally identical to their originals; but the miniaturization of the works in the various versions of the Boîte-en-valise (the first appeared in 194I) creates a peculiar class of objects, neither originals nor reproductions, worthy of that peculiar curator Duchamp.

Presaged here, I think, is the issue of the museum's traffic in reproductions, which, as the century proceeds, becomes a major preoccupation in a museum's marketing life. Perhaps schoolchildren in a museum store, buying postcards of works they have just seen, are creating a reference almost equivalent to the one Duchamp provided to his own work: they may feel they now have the work, if on a smaller scale. And of course postcards and posters have become ubiquitous manifestations of the museum, from the student's dorm to the dentist's office. Recognizing this as early as 1919, Duchamp used a color reproduction of one of the icons of painting--Leonardo's Mona Lisa, in the Louvre--to allow us a certain irreverence toward a museum-sanctioned artwork: applying a mustache and beard to the Mona Lisa's face, and titling the work L.H.O.O.Q. (in French, a lubricious pun), he not only plays with gender issues but reminds us that a reproduction is a reproduction. Embellishing the best-known painting in the world, but doing so harmlessly--for how can you vandalize a paper reproducrion?--Duchamp desanctifies the object, allowing us a mental proximity to it that we would not otherwise have even in the Louvre, standing before the painting itself. The reproduction is that much closer to our lives.

A recent descendant of Duchamps work in this respect is the rigorous art of Sherrie Levine, which comprises copies, produced by a variety of different methods, of artworks of the past. Her black-and-white images of paintings by van Gogh (1994) are all phorographed from the pages of books. Perhaps Levine can be seen as building her own, somehow poignant collection of the art she desires--a "museum without walls," in Andre Malraux's term. The 480 Plaster Surrogates (1982-89) of Allan McCollum form another collection that, like Levine's van Goghs, has had its content meddled with: each of these 480 "paintings" is a plaster mold in the shape of a painting, including the frame, but with blackness where the image should be. Is the world so full of images that it is redundant to maintain a storehouse of them' McCollum's works address ideas about the aura of the artwork in the age of the mass-produced object. Ironically enough, the Surrogates come close to suggesting that a museum of multiple imageless frames would be somehow viable: beyond our appreciation of a large installation of these works as a visual spectacle in its own right, our memories of paintings, our ideas about what painting is, almost allow us to fill in the blanks.

Another of Duchamps heirs, dealing this time, as in the Boîte-en-valise, with miniaturization, might be the Swiss artist Herbert Distel, who in 1970-77 asked artists around the world to contribute a work to a museum he was creating in a many-drawered cabinet, each drawer divided into compartments. A found object, the cabinet was designed ro store silk thread; Edward Kienholz made the base for it. Nearly everyone asked by Distel happily submitted an exquisitely executed miniature. (A few works were donated by others, for example, the piece by Piero Manzoni, who had died before Distel's project began.) The result, Museum of Drawers, contains works by 500 artists (or, rather, 501, including Kienholz). Some of the artists are well known--Picasso, for example-- while others are more obscure. The museum is usually displayed with several of its drawers removed and open to view in a vitrine. Where Oldenburg and Duchamp created museums of their own work, Distel is here claiming the function of the archetypal curator, creating his own selection of the art of a certain period, if insisting on the slightly unusual condition that it be shrunken to fit in his compact portable case. (At least Distel escapes the need of so many museums for a new building at regular intervals.) A similar wood cabinet, this one made for the occasion, was used by members of the Fluxus movement in 1975-77 to create a museum of Flux us artists; created almost simultaneously, these two "museums" stand as mini-monuments to the art of their time.

An ancestor of the personal museum is surely the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In a work painted in 1822, the artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale depicted himself as the epirome of the gentleman amateur/connoisseur who has amassed a treasury of the marvelous and fabulous. How proudly he shows us his extremely special collection of natural history objects, which symbolizes his status as a man of learning. The Artist in His Museum is a great nineteenth-century work tracing the emotions once available to an artist who had created his own museum.

Artists in this century generally show more complex attitudes to the museum than Peale's obvious pride. But the thrill Peale got from nature survives, perhaps against the odds, in Mark Dion, who is fascinated by the idea of the Wunderkammer and the miscellaneous specimens it contained. The Great Chain of Being, created for The Museum as Muse, is a modern Wunderkammer, a variety of objects--animal, vegetable, and mineral--that invokes different branches of knowledge and implies an evolution that ends with the human. Dion has a comfortable familiarity with the disciplines of mineralogy and geology, zoology and biology, but utilizes them toward the goal of making art. Like Peale but working in sculpture, he accumulates a variety of materials and displays them in an orderly way, in the process creating a self-portrait.

The Frenchman Daniel Buren has been one of the artists most associated with the use of the museum as subject matter, for example in installations at the Haus Lange and Haus Esters, Krefeld, in 1982. He has also written extensively on museological and artistic theory. Buren, in some sense, appropriates to himself the role of the curator of The Museum as Muse by adding to its roster of artworks four de Chirico paintings from the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. By incorporating the permanent collection (the maintenance of which is a separate activity from the preparation of a temporary exhibition) in the show, he engages the visitor's understanding of this Museum as a place. The de Chiricos are installed in the usual mode of the permanent galleries for painting and sculpture; at the same time, in those galleries themselves, Buren frames with his trademark stripes the blank spaces where the paintings usually hang, so that he imposes The Museum as Muse on those rooms, where viewers will have come to see something else. The viewer in the permanent collection confronts a situation that is not of the permanent collection, in a certain transference of concept over memory.

It is not, of course, that visitors expect no conceptual intelligence in the permanent collection, but many of them go there to see old favorites and to rehearse a particular, familiar narrative of which that installation gives an account. Most artists are extremely aware of that narrative, if not through their concern for their own place in it, then because artists tend to be interested in art history. For the general public too, one of the pleasures of museum-going--especially to an institution like the Louvre, or the National Gallery in London--is those museums' basically settled nature: the artworks have their more-or-less fixed place. There is a collective memory that we all share of the great museums. It is therefore poignant when Sophie Calle points out how fragile our memories are, in Last Seen... (1991): at her request, a variety of employees at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum--curators, guards, and other museum staff--used their memories of several paintings stolen from the collection to provide descriptions of them. These descriptions, differing not only in their degree of detail but in those details themselves, are incorporated as text in Calle's series, which accordingly undermines our sense of the reliability of our memory of what was there and is not there now. Of course it also speaks of the museum as workplace, of the perceptions that museum staff may have of an object that is a part of their daily business rather than something they travel and pay admission to see. But Last Seen... fmally enters a larger territory: at the same time that its verbal translations of a visual artwork arouse a need to see that work, they prove their own inadequacy as a substitute for it, and as such become an exercise in frustration and unsatisfied desire.

If the museum is a site of a culture's memory, of the story the culture tells itself about where it has been, then the work Fred Wilson has made for this exhibition, Art in Our Time (the title of a show at The Museum of Modern Art in 1939, celebrating the institution's tenth anniversary), explores a memory's memory of itself the Museum's photographic archive of its own exhibitions and public and private spaces over the years. From this archive Wilson has culled images of a diversity of visitors, of installations in both temporary exhibitions and the permanent collection, of storage rooms, and so on, the whole a fragment of the extraordinary memory that a museum has and embodies. What is not on display in the Museum is as crucial to it as what is: the large collections not on view, the library, the loaned works arriving for an exhibition and leaving after it, the works being considered for acquisition, the works being deaccessioned, the flies on artists and on specific objects, the collective memory of the staff--together become an infinite resource. A museum constitutes a less visible framework for the more visible art it exists to preserve; Wilson's work puts part of that frame on view. He shares this interest with Louise Lawler, another artist interested in the context in which the artwork appears, be it the museum, the home, or the auction house. Fascinated by the methods of presentation and the indirect functions to which art is subjected in these places, she documents them photographically, obliquely commenting on the different kinds of value that artworks come to comprise, and on the ways in which these values are expressed.

Lawler, of course, is far from the only artist to photograph the museum; the practice began within fifteen years of the invention of the photographic process in 1839. Once again, though, the attitudes discernible in those early photographs are less ambiguous and intellectually complex than those of an artist like Lawler. Victorian images by Roger Fenton, Stephen Thompson, and Charles Thurston Thompson are more documentary than analytic, recording both spaces and specific objects, and showing an absolute fascination with the special place that the museum was. It was not a religious space, it was not a domestic space, but it was a major place of convocation, of corning together. It was also a little closer in time than we are to the old-fashioned idea of the Wunderkammer, and additionally to another of the museum's ancestors, the royal or aristocratic collection of objects of great worth. The public accordingly saw the museum's objects as curiosities and rich marvels. In fact many spectators today still enter the museum with this innocent desire for the marvelous, no matter what form it takes--whether a well-conceived kettle displayed by the architecture and design department or an Alberto Giacometti sculpture. But artists of this century have shown a desire to explore the frame within which that sense of wonder is maintained.

Candida Höfer, for example, photographs museums' empty lobbies and lounges, revealing their blandness, their impersonality, and perhaps even their tastelessness. Her photographs suggest an irony of the contemporary museum: it is often thought of as an arbiter of taste, but it is also a large public institution, a role it may manifest in its architecture, its furniture, its lighting, and its general ambiance. Thomas Struth, similarly, has observed that "many people compare modern museums with train stations," a view to which he contrives a "resistance": his photographs' color and scale bestow on the museum a certain splendor. And the variety of the viewers he shows before large artworks in the galleries demonstrates the richness that art is capable of possessing for diverse people. Struth sees the beauty in the art, in the museum, and in the public. The interesting interplay happens when museum visitors confront a Struth photograph of museum visitors: it is as if they somehow step through the glass and become part of the situation they see. "Therein lies a moment of pause or of questioning," Struth remarked; "Because the viewers are reflected in their activity, they have to wonder what they themselves are doing at that moment."

Photographers other than Struth have been attracted to the spectator, and to the spectator's gaze-to looking at people looking. Given the exposure time needed by nineteenth-century film, this happened somewhat rarely in Victorian photography;Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray's "Les Demoiselles du Village" at the Salon of 1852, for example, shows a museum hall entirely without visitors. But in the twentieth century it became as easy to capture the museum visitor as the inanimate object. Henri Cartier-Bresson could pursue an interest in people as observers, and in the relationship between viewer and object. Eve Arnold and David Seymour have photographed particularly notable museum visitors (Edward Steichen, Bernard Berenson), but the general visitor, too, became a journalistic subject quite independent of the artwork; Lutz Dille provides a typical example, showing a couple holding slides up to a window on the garden at The Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile photographers such as Larry Fink and Garry Winogrand found their imaginations grabbed by the museum's evolving aura as a social space. Observing the public behavior emergent as the museum increasingly became a place of socializing as much as of study, these photographers commented on the distance between the basic act of contemplation and some of what now seems to be ordinary museum activity.

Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs, by contrast, are unpeopled, appearing to show wildlife in its natural habitat. Somehow, though, they seem to heighten the frozen quality that a still photograph necessarily must have, and on scrutiny we awkwardly realize that we are viewing not the vacation shots of a tourist on safari but stuffed animals in the dioramas of a natural history museum. Insisting on the artificiality of the museum experience, where, at least traditionally, there is nothing we come to see that lives and breathes, these images ask us to ponder the relationship between that experience and the world beyond: it is as if there were some creeping artifice in contemporary life, inspiring the artist to take these photographs. Artificiality is taken to an even more peculiar extreme in Christopher Williams's Angola to Vietnam* of 1989, a series of photographs of glass flowers in the Botanical Museum at Harvard University. Evoking the exoticism of these flowers--painstakingly accurate reproductions of specimens from around the world--by titling his photographs according to their countries of origin (all nations in which people had gone missing for political reasons during 1985), Williams catches in photography a museum-specific kind of beauty far removed from the experience of a tropical garden. The reproductions are so realistic that you almost have to be told they are glass.

The wonderful thing about photographers roaming in museums is the individual eye's response to the subject. Elliott Erwitt and Zoe Leonard provide idiosyncratic and pointed museum experiences, and Christian Milovanoff gives us an amusingly personalized tour of the Louvre, focusing on a single recurring detail: the feet of the figures in masterpiece paintings. An intellectually provocative sense of humor is also shown byVik Muniz, who, photographing the marble floor in the garden hall of The Museum of Modern Art, captured it as a series of abstractions resembling and titled after Alfred Stieglitz's much-analyzed Equivalents, photographic studies of clouds. More somber and ominous are Günther Förg's large studies of the Munich Pinakothek, the play of light and shadow on the building's grand staircase evoking a darkness attuned to the architecture's authoritarian style. Jan Dibbets takes a more redemptive approach, photographing natural light in the museum and mounting the photographs in geometrically organized assemblages informed by his love of the light in Dutch painting. The seventeenth-century Dutch artist Pieter Jansz Saenredam, a direct inspiration for Dibbets, painted church light; Dibbets gives us the light of a contemporary church. His work suggests more reverence for the museum than do many of the later photographs discussed here, which are subtly and not so subtly critical.



Quondam © 2016.08.05