The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect

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

Clearly there is a generation of artists whose attitude to the museum seems ambiguous and skeptical. One of these, perhaps, is Lothar Baumgarten, whose Unsettled Objects (1968-69) comprises photographic slides of the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, and of individual artifacts contained there. The Pitt Rivers is a Victorian anthropological or natural history museum; the installation has not been significantly updated, and as a visual presentation evokes the past tale of Western culture's attempt, through its museums, to represent the lives of cultures that did not share its taxonomies and informing assumptions. Within each image, Baumgarten inscribes paired terms--"claimed/ accumulated," "climatized/ confined," "displayedlimagined," "selected/fetishized"--that suggest alternate and often mutually exclusive ways of understanding the anthropologist's museological practice. The issue, in part, is the meanings of the objects displayed--generally utilitarian things--in the terms of the society in which they originated. Never intended to be collected and aestheticized or anesthetized in a vitrine, these objects have been in a way embalmed by museology. The system has paradoxically preserved them while also depriving them of their history and life. "The name," Baumgarten writes, "directs memory--and forgetting."

Invited to prepare a project for The Museum as Muse, Michael Asher challenged The Museum of Modern Art by proposing that a list of all of its deaccessions, from its founding to the present day, in painting and sculpture, be made available to the public as a printed booklet.This information is no secret, but has never been compiled in one list, and presenting it as such asserts that a museum is neither static and somehow outside history (as it may sometimes seem) nor incapable of mistakes and misjudgments. Following a demythologizing impulse, Asher does not take into consideration what works may have been acquired, what possibilities opened up, through the deaccessioning of other works, but he does powerfully conjure an imaginary musée des refusés.

Richard Hamilton's fiberglass molds of Frank Lloyd Wright's instantly recognizable building for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, reproduced as multiples, in various bright colors, to hang on the wall, divorce us from that institution and its contents and reduce it to a decorative object. Art & Language's series Index: Incidents in a Museum (1986-88) also comments on museum architecture and the art it contains: paintings showing the again quite recognizable galleries of New York's Whimey Museum of American Art, designed by the modernist architect Marcel Breuer, they pose questions about the ideological proximiry of art and architecture--about the kind of art that the architecture seems to demand. Showing a Whitney gallery containing paintings leaning against the wall, as if in their studio, this group of theoretical artists, whose work is often literary, also aggressively stakes a claim for their own right to be in the museum, and establishes the reciprocal relationship between artist and museum as one of eternal recurrence. These paintings stand as illustrations of their theories and philosophies about the making of art.

Some sense of the museum's darker side, or else a darker way of viewing the museum, dates back to its very beginnings. In 1796, Hubert Robert, an artist who was also the first "curator" at the Louvre and was instrumental in its transition from royal palace to public building, created a wonderful painting of his projected design for the museum's Grande Galerie. The oldest museum open to the public, the Louvre has long represented a summit of grandeur for artists and art audiences; countless artists have used it as their classroom, examining and copying the works displayed there. Many artworks, then, derive from or refer to its holdings. Much of this was yet to come when Robert painted his view of the Grande Galerie, but even then, one imagines, the companion piece he made for the painting must have caused a certain shock: perhaps in irreverence, perhaps with France's recent social upheaval in mind, he imagined the gallery in ruins. It is left to the viewer to conjecture whether the ruin stems from neglect, or from some act of violence, or simply from the passage of an enormous span of time. But surely one message of Robert's painting is the ultimate temporariness of even great works of art, and the vaniry of the museum's efforts to preserve them.

One suspects that the impulse to imagine the museum in ruins goes hand-in-hand with the artist's dependence on the museum, which becomes a personaliry either producing or withholding affection. How to circumvent the overbearing parent? Yves Klein, for example, conceived of immaterial art-works--gold foil, for example, that is thrown into the Seine and washed away. Work demanding an individual's physical presence is hard to collect, as when Manzoni signed a woman's naked body as a work of art. (Nakedness, incidentally, is a strategy artists often embrace when trying to challenge curators and trusrees.) A Christo project of 1968, represented in this exhibition by drawings and a scale model of the imagined scene, inverts the usual relationship of museum to art: rather than the museum containing the art, the art contains the museum. Christo proposed to wrap The Museum of Modern Art in cloth. He also wanted to block all entrance to the building by filling Fifry-third Street with 441 barrels. It is as if he wished to possess and appropriate the institution, to muffle its powers, to control the possibilities situated in it, to seal up the memory it embodies, and to remove it for a time from the world, implicitly asking whether ive without it.

Another recourse artists have explored is the production of works that physically challenge or defy the limitations of an institutional building, for example the earthworks produced by Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and others, works that are both specific to outdoor sites and enormous. Dennis Oppenheim's Gallery Transplant (1969) was both large and ephemeral, and dealt with the museum more directly than much of this work: he drew the floor plan of gallery 4 from the Andrew Dickson White Museum (now the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art), at Cornell University, in the snow in a bird sanctuary near Ithaca, New York. Oppenheim's piece, however, also reveals some of the contradictions of this kind of art, in that it did result in collectible objects-photographs and a map, which appear in The Museum as Muse. Smithson, too, developed a practice adapted to the gallery by placing within it aspects of contemporary nature, ingredients of the landscape--pieces of rock, a "non-site.” Yet this involved a certain dislocation of the museum's conceptual premises. Smithson also created plans for the almost inconceivable museum that could have housed his Spiral Jetty piece in Utah, and a Smithson drawing, The Museum of the Void (1969), shows the museum as an empty space, a tomb.

The desire to stretch the capacities of collecting is not aimed solely at the museum; this art, after all, cannot be acquired by private collectors either, and it stretches the parameters of both art dealers and art historians. But there is a body of recent art that seems hostile to the museum specifically--Edward Ruscha's The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-68), for example, a painting depicting the scene described in the title. (The work seems in part a wry response to the unpopular and unfriendly building designed in 1964 by William Pereira.) Ruscha's piece might be said to update Robert's Vue Imaginaire de la Grande Galerie en ruines, although the mood of the latter painting is more closely echoed by Komar and Melamid's scenes of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and The Museum of Modern Art as ruins in a pastoral setting. A more literal threat was embodied in Samson, an installation created by Chris Burden in 1985 at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle. Burden linked a 100-ton jack to beams aimed at the museum's load-bearing walls; the jack was also hooked up to a gearbox in a turnstile through which every visitor to the exhibition had to pass. Since every turn of the turnstile marginally expanded the jack, Samson could theoretically have brought the building down. In 1986, similarly, Burden had deep excavations dug below the floor of the Temporary Contemporary building of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Revealing the concrete footing supporting three columns, Burden literally bared the museum's foundations. Steps enabled visitors to descend into the excavation to observe where the concrete met the earth.

A museum is a corporate body in which no one person has full authority: there is governance, committees that have to be assembled, and clearances that have to be obtained. It is, by definition, a conservative institution, and its bureaucratic and hierarchical situation--its funding as well as its often labyrinthine decision-making process--is something a lot of artists have felt it simpler to ignore and circumvent. Others address a head-on challenge to the institution's internal politics and corporate morality. Hans Haacke, for example, is well known for questioning aspects of museum practices, ethics, and finances, and for high-lighting the role that the museum plays in the commerce of art. His Cowboy with Cigarette collage (1990) gently asks what could have inspired a tobacco company to sponsor an exhibition on the interplay between Braque and Picasso in early Cubism. In Seurat's "Les Poseuses" (Small Version), 1888-1975 (1975), Haacke frames and displays biographies of each successive owner of the pointillist picture, documenting its passage through various collections--including those of John Quinn, Henry P. McIlhenny (Curator of Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), and the European art investment group Artemis--thus representing it through its commercial history.

In the late 1960s in New York, the Art Workers' Coalition tried to make museums sit up: this was a group of artists protesting the institutions' lack of involvement with art by women and minorities. The Coalition was a strong force, particularly at The Museum of Modern Art, which it specifically targeted. A certain amount of this antagonism came out of the general questioning of institutional authority in the 1960s, which we have already noticed; but whatever its sources, it led to an interrogation of the degree to which a museum is implicated in the class structure (a museum's fund-raising demands tend to make some such implication inevitable), and a debate over its politics. Should the Museum, for example, have taken a position on the Vietnam War? The period's questioning of a museum's workings was to be pursued with the rigor of art by Haacke and others.

Vito Acconci's Service Area, first enacted in 1970 and revived for The Museum as Muse, gently subordinates the institution to the artist: for the duration of the show, Acconci has his mail forwarded to the Museum, which must look after it for him-letting visitors walk away with it would literally be a federal offense. Regularly stopping by to pick up his letters as if he had rented a post office box, Acconci is treating the Museum, he says, "not as a display (exhibition) area but as a place that provides services: since I've been granted a space in the show, I should be able to use that space for my own purposes, make that space part of my normal life." Proximity Piece (1970), also revived for this exhibition, disturbs the museum visitor's expectation of a sort of contemplative privacy: as Acconci has written, the piece involves "standing near a person and intruding on his/her personal space. During the exhibition, sometime each day, I wander through the museum and pick out, at random, a visitor to one of the exhibits: I'm standing beside that person, or behind, closer than the accustomed distance-I crowd the person until he/she moves away, or until he/she moves me out of the way." This transgression of the museum experience ruptures the institution's aura as "rarefied-space/isolation-box/home-for-museum-pieces."

The strategy is, in a sense, the inverse of Manzoni's in positing an artwork that a museum could not collect (a living woman's body): Acconci is creating an artwork by temporarily invading the museum with his own living presence. In Oh Dracula (1974), at the Utah Museum of Art in Salt Lake City, Burden worked similarly by replacing a painting on the wall with a large cloth "chrysalis" into which he then climbed. Invisible inside the cloth, Burden hung on the wall for one full day during ordinary museum hours. A lit candle stood on the floor beneath his head, another beneath his feet. Next to the work was an identifying label similar to those for the paintings around it.

Other manifestations of physical presence disturbing the museum air might include Duchamp playing chess with a nude woman in front of the Large Glass (that work's "bride"?) during his retrospective at the Pasadena Museum in 1963. In The Physical Self, an exhibition at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, in 1991-92, the filmmaker Peter Greenaway installed several nude models in vitrines. More recently, in a more accepting atmosphere, the British performance artist Vanessa Beecroft has presented performances in which unclothed or bikini-clad models have simply stood motionless on the museum floor, like mannequins in a store window. The attack on the museum's taboo against the living was taken to an extreme by the late Bob Flanagan, who, in failing health from a chronic and terminal illness, installed himself in his hospital bed with all its accoutrements for the duration of an exhibition held first at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, from December 4, 1992, to January 31, 1993, and then at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, from September 23 to December 31, 1994.

Andrea Fraser's parodistic performances as a docent in different museums are shown on video in The Museum as Muse. Fraser seems to question the institution's premises even while accepting them as a reality. Finally, two more artists, through the use of fictional constructs, also manage to play with human presence in the museum without actually being present: Gillian Wearing's video piece Western Security (1995) shows a gunfight between cowboy gangs enacted at the Hayward Gallery, London, by amateurs of Westerns; and Janet Cardiff, in a work created for the exhibition, provides an aural guided tour of The Museum of Modern Art. While traditional museum guided tours seek to instruct the public and provide a didactic experience, Cardiff's tours alter the visitor's perception of the ordinary surroundings, simultaneously adding mystery and wonder.

This last group of artists shows a welcome sense of humor about the museum. Also witty is Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler's MoMA Whites (1990), a group of eight jars containing the various white paints, in subtly variant shades, chosen by different curators for the walls of this institution's galleries. Leaf Peeping (1988), by the same artists, is thirty-one jars of latex paint, in colors associated with fall foliage, installed on the wall in a kind of chart of the placement of the trees in The Museum of Modern Art's sculpture garden. Acknowledging the supercharged space that a museum becomes, with every decision on interior and exterior decor provoking much debate, these works refer such choices to the systematic procedures and the principles of seriality that have been so important in various schools of twentieth-century art.



Quondam © 2016.08.05