Critics’ Picks

View of “The Unmaking of Art,” 2014.

View of “The Unmaking of Art,” 2014.

New York

“The Unmaking of Art”

311 East Broadway
November 21, 2014–January 24, 2015

The sweeping arc of Western art history is the subject of this voluminous exhibition, which consists of hundreds of photographs, paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos, books, and other ephemera. The project begins with a presentation of Salon de Fleurus, a meticulously researched yet extemporized re-creation of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon, surreptitiously located on Spring Street in SoHo, which has been managed by an anonymous doorman for the last two decades and closed last spring. This is followed by a series of five galleries that have been temporarily erected, each devoted to exploring a defining moment in the story of art: in reverse chronological order, they include the 1855 Exposition Universelle (the first large-scale contemporary art exhibition); the establishment of the Louvre and the Musée National des Monuments Français, during the French Revolution (the origins of the modern museum); the publication of Vasari’s Lives, in 1550 (the introduction of the artist biography); and Apollo in the Belvedere Romanum sculpture garden around 1503 (the secularization of art). Two didactic panels flank each gallery—one a historical summation of the room’s contents and the other an allegorical once-upon-a-time narrative of emperors and kings.

If this description comes off as unwieldy or strange, it is not the only off-kilter element. Together this meta-museum is based on a lecture first presented in Guangzhou in 2011 by Walter Benjamin, who has been dead since 1940. “The Unmaking of Art” circuitously reveals not just how fictionalized the tale of art history is but how its attendant tropes of authorship and originality remain central in our seemingly decentered contemporary art world. Traditional Chinese music wafts through the entire exhibition, awkwardly clashing with the European narrative and further hinting at all that is left out from this story.