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The new mix-master museum installations. Will they anger the public as well as the critics?
by Thomas Hoving
One of the hoariest museum installation rules is to display all works according to a simple, linear, chronological format -- the foot bone connected to the ankle bone kind of thing. A day-by-day march through time, say, from B.C. 3000 to yesterday. Artists must be shown only by schools and styles. Works for the most part should be isolated by medium.
This is art shown as pure art history. Ph.D.s love them. So do folks checking a work out prior to buying something similar who really want to know how it fits in precisely to the artist's overall creative pattern. Yet, numerous surveys have shown that the lock-step deal is not what the well-educated general public finds intriguing. As one visitor has articulated the consensus, "Often I can find myself sleepwalking through a museum with a traditional layout, overwhelmed by the sheer number and sameness of the pieces."
Happily that rigid, formal technique is being broken, gingerly, yes, but at least given a shot. Curators now have the guts to mix, merge and meld artists and artistic schools in never-before-seen juxtapositions for the sake of esthetic get-up-and-go. It's happened most notably at the Museum of Modern Art and at the two new Tates, the Britain and the Modern. In the Tate Modern no longer will you find a chronological, art-historical sequence, you will see groupings organized under such headings as: "Landscape, Matter, Environment"; "Still Life, Object, Real Life"; "History, Memory, Society"; and "Nude, Action, Body."
And they might shock you. You may encounter a Cézanne still life with fruit and a water jug opposite a 1980 stack of Donald Judd's aluminum and Perspex wall-mounted boxes. Why? The Tate director, Lars Nittve, doesn't seem to have a clue, saying, "It's about the will to order, and how that has its roots in early modernism..."
I figure he can't be that dense about Cézanne and Judd's real creative motives and is spewing out artspeak to soften the obvious displeasure of the critic he was addressing. Why couldn't Nittve have simply said, "I did it because the pairing gave me a kick."
At MoMA in "Making Choices," a Jackson Pollock hangs not far away from Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World. Huh? Presumably, the viewer will be pleasantly struck by the "similarity" between Pollock's black whorls and drips and Wyeth's tightly woven interlacings of delicately rendered tempera wind-blown long grasses. Of course, the two works have nothing in common. I figure the juxtaposition was made because since the Wyeth is MoMA's most popular work and the Pollock isn't and MoMA nabobs were hoping that the public will stop looking at Pollock as the epitome of my-kid-can-do-better. (Funny, Wyeth's works used to be called "inherently abstract" to please anti-Wyeth critics. Now Pollock's whiplash style is, I guess, becoming a kind of post-modern realism.)
Hell, I've been guilty of the spinneroo myself. During the Met's Centennial I put on a show tracing mankind over 50 centuries with works displayed chronologically but with schools all jumbled together. I juxtaposed the Virgin and Child of the Flemish early 15th-century Merode Altarpiece with a chicken-blood slathered, nail-studded African effigy. I tried to blunt the critical furor by saying they were both intensely sacred objects, but I did it because they looked gloriously shocking together. I also was responsible for hanging Jim Rosenquist's F-111 near Jacques-Louis David's Death of Socrates -- hey, they were both excellent examples of history painting. The curator of contemporary art told me he was thrilled but complained to the press I had forced him to do it.
At Tate Britain the categories of the fashionable new jumble are "Public & Private," "Literature & Fantasy," "Home & Abroad," "Artists & Models." Some pairings work better than others. For example, Ford Madox Brown's bucolic The Hayfield of 1855 placed cheek-by-jowl with Mat Collishaw's 1995 video light box, Hollow Oak, makes a powerful statement about mankind's destruction of the environment. But the hanging of a 17th-century portrait of a squat Englishman not far from a 20th-century portrait of a squat English dog isn't very enlightening. And having Maggi Hambling's gnarly portrait of Frances Rose adjacent to Hogarth's The Bishop of Winchester has little esthetic bing-bang.
It's no surprise that the majority of traditional art historians and art critics have foamed at the mouth over these radical displays. The London Times' Richard Dorment blustered, "Rating the irritation factor of the new displays at the Tate Gallery on a scale of one to 10, I'd say the new director . . . scored an impressive 10 . . . Esthetically it is a disaster." Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard calls the Tate Britain, "a succession of shallow visual witticisms, not in the least enlightening ... natty nonsense, modish, clever in the pejorative sense."
The most enraged critic of all was Waldemar Januszczak, who thundered this past Sunday in the London Times about the non-traditional hanging at the Tate Modern: "I gasped at the raw ignorance of the display investigating The Myth of the Primitive. Perhaps the single most powerful transformational force unleashed on art in the first half of the 20th century -- the example of tribal art -- is reduced to a single African carving and a 10 x 9 in. video of some topless women dancing. Picasso, Modigliani, Kirchner find themselves traduced by a reading of their ambitions that would strike you as uninformed if you encountered it on the side of a Kellogg's packet…. A terrible wrong is perpetrated on Cubism, the whole of which is squeezed into a single gallery. A few rooms further on, a Cubist still life featuring a glass by Braque hangs next to a conceptual wall-piece, also involving a glass, conceived by Michael Craig-Martin in the 1970s. This is like taking the Pokémon movie and showing it in the same cinema as Citizen Kane because both happen to be films."
What fuddy-duddyism! Spirited, sure, yet fuddy-duddy blather all the same.
I applaud the jumble-jamble approach. A work of art is an act of magical genius and it essentially doesn't matter if it was created in the fifth decade of whatever century or is an example of the late middle mature style of whatever artist or school of painting. And it really doesn't edify the member of the viewing public if that work is isolated within other similar works in time or space.
I hope these museum directors and curators who have pushed the envelope won't turn yellow. Please, continue to mix up works and even at times juxtapose them wildly. Placing a Rembrandt next to a Warhol Elvis isn't going to harm either one, or the viewer. Juxtaposing an Impressionist landscape with a Georgia O'Keefe desert scene and an Alfred Stieglitz cityscape photograph makes us all see things in each we might never have perceived.
Excite us! Wake us up! Don't pedagog us with tired art historical visual jargon. Sure, keep your old-hat historical departments -- Egyptian, Ancient Near East, Western European Arts, European Paintings -- because they necessarily mirror post-graduate education, but at times allow the public to see a breathtaking melange of masterpieces displayed UNchronologically, UNgeographically, UNart-historically.
But never permanently.
THOMAS HOVING is editorial director of artnet.com.