When Los Angeles collector Michael Gold asked me why I was standing somberly at the entrance to the Santa Monica Museum of Art during the opening of its "Ant Farm" exhibition last June, I deadpanned, "I'm security, Michael."
Gold knows me as an artist, but, needing the cash, I'd taken a summer job as a guard at the SMMoA. The experience certainly gave me a different point of view, and provided time for daydreaming (er, artistic and critical musing). Thankfully, I didn't have to wear a uniform, and when the museum was empty, I could sit down and work on some writing or take notes. I enjoyed the freedom and anonymity. I could compose entire paragraphs in my head while keeping an eye out for suspiciously milling visitors.
In fact, I was upholding the long-standing tradition of artists and critics doubling as guards in some of the world's most revered institutions. When Santa Monica Museum director Elsa Longhauser interviewed me for the job, she noted that many famous artists had moonlighted as security guards, among them Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman and Fred Wilson.
More recently, Ross Rudel, an L.A.-based artist who shows at Angles Gallery in Santa Monica, learned the security ropes at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art), where he quickly discovered that Francis Stark, another L.A. artist who shows with Marc Foxx, had been the head of security there for two years. It was heartening to know I was in good company.
Surely, artists find the experience inspiring. One imagines that Robert Ryman, who did his stint at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s, must have used his many hours with the museums collection to hone his ideas about painting; perhaps it was among MoMA's Maleviches that he gleaned his understanding of how to reduce the modernist esthetic to an even more precise essence.
Fred Wilson, on the other hand, brought his experience as a guard directly into his art. His large sculpture, Guarded View (1991), currently in the Whitney Museum collection, is a group of African American mannequins dressed in museum guard uniforms. With Duchampian elegance, the work cites the racial divide in the fine art world, and at the same time notes the way that a bureaucratic role can reduce an individual subject to a one-dimensional figure.
While the job certainly had its fair share of mundanities ("Excuse me, do you have a bathroom here?"; "Sir, could you please refrain from leaning your elbows on that vitrine?"), many strange and amusing things happened under my watch at SMMoA. One woman stood in front of an artwork for a full two hours; finally giving way to fatigue, she sat down, but only after having opened her umbrella. Another patron took the liberty of sitting in a chair provided for the guards, and proceeded to grade a stack of his students' papers. When I suggested that he would be more comfortable in the nearby Bergamot Café, where he could spread his work out on a table, he replied curtly, "I will only be a minute."
The Santa Monica museum wasn't my first experience with guarding art -- but at three months it was by far my longest. My first gig, at the L.A. County Museum of Art, ended after a mere two days, when I was fired for attempting to explain the meaning of Claes Oldenburg's work to a young couple from Detroit. Just as I'd launched into a brief explanation of the artists accomplishment, a voice boomed over the intercom, "Miss Wood, please return to your post at once." I was first surprised, then oddly disheartened, to hear my name echoing through the vast halls.
Indeed, guards are encouraged to have as little visible personality as possible, a strange and unsettling paradox given that they are surrounded by so much evidence of human individuality, eccentricity and imagination. Walk into MoMA, MOCA or LACMA these days, and most guards are alternately surly or apathetic. Could their profession actually exhaust the possibility of any kind of internal dialogue with the art?
But I'll leave these questions for now. On my last day at SMMoA, my luck turned. I got a call from my dealer, Cliff Benjamin at Western Project, announcing that he had just sold five of my paintings. Clearly, there is some small justice in living the life of an artist.
EVE WOOD's new book of poetry, Love's Funeral, is published by Cherry Grove Collections at the University of Cincinnati.