Bard Center for Curatorial Studies

Technically, the Center for Curatorial Studies has been open for two years, but it has only begun to hit its stride. The first show here (curated by Vasif Kortun, director of the museum) was, appropriately, a reflection on curatorial practices. A self­ consciously post-Modern exhibition in several ways, it emphasized differences in installation styles, while inviting the viewer to look at artworks in terms of their relationship to context.

Six rooms embodied six distinct installation styles, the works all drawn from the Center’s Rivendell collection (works rang­ing from the mid ’60s to the present). In one, the pieces were arranged according to visual or formal similarities. Any sociopo­litical context was more or less eliminated by the interplay of forms, the play of signifiers. Another room showed Minimalist works in a spare, clean, classically Mini­malist style. Here it became clear that the space was central to the formal interplay of the works, which were almost indistin­guishable in their sensibility.

In obvious contrast to this exhibition space, a variety of pictures were displayed in 19th-century salon style in another room. This installation style overwhelmed the individual works, creating friction between the “uniqueness” of each work and its place among other works.

Another arrangement was based on a masculine/feminine dichotomy—works by men facing works by women—suggesting isolation and noncommunication. The final installation set aside all considerations of content, genre, and form, by placing works in alphabetical order according to the artist’s name. The abstraction of language ruled over the specificity of works that nevertheless felt unsettlingly like themselves.

In this exhibition the focus was less on individual works than on the stylistic features of the environments, each of which became in effect a single complex artwork or stylistic statement. The repeated presence of photocopies of Thomas Struth’s Louvre IV, 1989, showing museum-goers in the room with Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, acted as a mise-en-abime of the entire exhibition, forcing the question of where the individual work ends and context begins. In a final room this photograph occurred repeatedly along with news material from the same year pointing to the artwork’s location within social and political networks of power and signification, just as Gericault’s painting was a protest against a government policy that resulted in a shocking and tragic shipwreck. In this way, Struth’s photograph also became a figure for the shipwreck of the Western tradition, which has ossified into a limited and repetitive canon.

On a simplistic level, this exhibition centered on the effect of context on artworks. Further manipulations of the material in this direction might be interesting—seeing what would be left of Minimalist works, for example, if they were clotted together in salon style. Yet most of the rooms evoke the visual ambience of different cultural periods and places, stressing their role in conditioning the viewer’s expectations and feelings. On yet another level, each installation questions the ontological boundaries of the works, given that they are in such intimate dialogue with their contexts as to be indissoluble from them.

“Exhibited” was eminently suitable for the beginning of an educational program at Bard College that will focus less on connoisseurship than on the more complex issues of boundaries, integrity, context, and function. It stands at the opening of this center for curatorial studies like a marker for the starting point of a journey.

Thomas McEvilley