PRINT February 2000



Prediction being a fool’s game, the National Gallery is hardly the only major museum to mark the new millennium by looking to the past. Nor, in a year of seemingly compulsory celebratory blockbusters, is it the only institution to fall back on its own collection. (Imagine the frantic curatorial bargaining that would have preceded the shows of Y2K—the promises made, the favors called in—had everyone been competing to borrow the same landmark works.) The trick is to treat the collection in a way that suggests an opening of possibility rather than a resort to the tried and true. A number of museums have managed this smartly, and the National Gallery looks to be one of them.

For the “Encounters: New Art from Old” exhibition (June 14–Sept. 17), twenty-four artists are producing works inspired by an image of their choice in the museum’s collection. Appropriative and transhistorical, the concept seems strikingly au courant for this institution, but of course artists have long scoured museums for ideas, and “works after” are a venerable tradition. On January 11 the gallery announced the artists’ picks. “It’s been intensely interesting,” says the show’s curator, Richard Morphet. “The choice of source has been amazing in some cases. Bourgeois and Turner doesn’t seem at all obvious to me”—Louise Bourgeois chose J.M.W. Turner’s Sun Rising through Vapour—while “Balthus is completely in character. He was copying Poussin right at the beginning of his career.” (And the Poussin he chose, Sleeping Nymph Surprised by Satyrs, seems a perfect subject for him.)

The artists range in age from Balthus (born in 1908) to Francesco Clemente (born in 1952; Titian’s Allegory of Prudence), and run the gamut from abstract sculptor Anthony Caro (Duccio’s Annunciation) to conceptual photographer Jeff Wall (Stubbs’s Whistlejacket), from video artist Bill Viola (Bosch’s Christ Mocked) to painter Jasper Johns (Manet’s Execution of Maximilian) and British Pop artist Patrick Caulfield (Zurbarán’s A Cup of Water and a Rose on a Silver Plate). Curiously omitted are any of the young British artists lately so notorious. “It just worked out that way,” claims Morphet (who promises that Robert Rosenblum’s catalogue essay will discuss younger generations), but perhaps the gallery wanted to avoid distracting the public’s attention. “This is the largest manifestation of contemporary art there has ever been at the National Gallery,” says Morphet, “but the collection is at the core of this. A central purpose of the exhibition is to increase visitors’ awareness of the richness of the collection and bring them to the works in a new way.”

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.