PRINT Summer 1987


Missing sign language.

VISITORS TO MANY OF the rooms on the first floor and mezzanine of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, a wing built to contain art of the 20th century, will find on the walls short paragraphs in large type, usually offering some biographical information about the artists represented, a brief guide to the emotions that the work of those artists has been held to engender, and, sometimes, a history of the museum’s acquisition of the works shown. But at this date—five months after the opening–they will also find on the first floor two conspicuous rectangles of white foam board, each about 2 feet by 1 and 1/2 feet, and each bearing the legend “Future Text Panel” in heavy black letters at the lower left-hand corner. And on the second floor, which, along with much of the mezzanine, shows art of the last forty years, there are at this writing still three key locations that each sport the promise of a Future Text Panel. The one text panel that has been hung on the second floor is entitled “An Age of Anxiety”; the room in which it hangs shows contemporary paintings that, it says, “share an expressionist style.” After cataloguing the birthplaces of the artists, who include Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz, Roger Brown, Donald Sultan, and Richard Bosman, it also explains that some of the paintings are “allegories, rich in incident” while others are “less detailed” and “offer stark metaphors suggesting alienation, confrontation, and despair.” This amalgam of the catchphrases that have been used so frequently in descriptions of the art of the last eight years threatens to nullify the art it describes with the sheer emptiness of artspeak—a rhetoric stripped of meaning and vitality.

These problematic panels amplify not only the lack of rigorous presentation, even selection, in the Met’s new wing, but also the whole question of such wall labels in museum exhibitions here and elsewhere. In the first place, of course, one wonders why the Met did not get theirs finished before the opening of the wing, let alone by spring. But whatever the answer is, the wall labels’ apparent difficulty in materializing is a symbol of an inarticulate and deep-seated anxiety about the curatorial process of supplying a framework and a context for the indefinable audience who comes to look at art in museums. The proliferation of extras—wall labels, audio guides, maps, brochures, lectures, tours—reflects the growth of the concept of exhibitions as educational tools, but also as profit-making entertainment. Authors of these materials tend to assume a visitor whose previous education is primarily the experience of similar texts. The vocabulary is usually sufficiently technical to sound scholarly, while the points made, though not inaccurate, are often banal or, worse, irrelevant. Some of the wall labels adopt a sentimentalist approach; at the other extreme are dry, formalist labels that divorce the art they describe from any vital feeling. Reducing both the complexity of the art and the viewer’s response, these texts usually make art “accessible” only by misidentifying its significance.

The words “Future Text Panel” at the Met have great resonance for museums everywhere today, and point to these institutions’ growing crisis of identity, particularly in the departments that specialize in the art for which there is no ready-made framework for judgments–the art of our time. The Met’s installation often avoids the tensions, the deliberate discords and internal conflicts, within and among contemporary works by presenting them according to criteria of design rather than of content or significance; one gets the feeling that certain paintings are scale-coordinated or color-coordinated with one another and with works of sculpture. Obviously, the Met’s Future Text Panels are a promise of “information.” Fear not, they suggest; our explanation is forthcoming. This pledge to tell us something in the future seems intended as a comfort, but by the evidence of the second floor’s one existing panel, the texts-to-be will probably muffle the visual and ideological incoherence of art that shouts out contradictory histories, meanings, intentions, and ideas of communication.

The promise—and absence—of these wall labels for at least the first four months of the new wing’s life give rise to reflections on this museum’s particular difficulties with the relation between the verbal/theoretical and the purely visual in art of the ’50s and beyond—reflections that lead to an irony not to be missed. In an era in which Joseph Kosuth has turned the typed word into a visual medium of significance, and in a century in which numerous artists have articulated contextualist meanings surrounding the exposition of works of art, it is simply not possible to hang great white boards with words on them in galleries full of paintings without inviting comment. The word “panel” is particularly loaded; texts today do not ordinarily appear on panels. Paintings appear on panels. Perhaps the Future Text Panels are secretly conceptual paintings. Unfortunately they will eventually be replaced by texts, and those texts will probably not hold as much meaning as the blank promises they replace, promises forcing us to the conclusion that to show the public a large body of heterogeneous art with a false hope of order and future coherence is naive, foolish—even absurd.

Andrew Solomon has been doing postgraduate work in English at Jesus College, Cambridge, England.