Carnegie International

Carnegie Museum of Art

Compared, say, with the Whitney Museum in New York, the Carnegie offers what to a new curator must seem a paradisiacal expanse. On the ground floor, a long, wide entrance corridor leads toward the Hall of Sculpture. Upstairs is a series of enormously high rooms off of which stretches a balcony that looks down on the sculpture hall and across from which is an even longer sequence of front galleries illuminated by natural light.

Unfortunately, this year’s International, curated by Richard Armstrong, too often makes ineffective use of the museum’s space. In the entrance corridor, the Joan Mitchells hang too close to the Per Kirkeby sculptures, so that in the afternoon her paintings are only properly visible if you stand with your back pressed against the windows. The Donald Judds, recently shown so effectively at Pace Wildenstein, seem lost in the sculpture hall. Similarly, the awkward division of one enormous upstairs room to display Miroslaw Balka’s sculptures behind Marlene Dumas’ works on paper wastes an expanse which, in the last International, was magnificently employed by Richard Serra. Most inexplicably, why stick Guillermo Kuitca’s paintings of architectural scenes in the middle of a room given over to Richard Artschwager’s crates?

To be fair, sometimes the installations do work. Robert Gober’s Untitled (Man in Drain), 1993–94, is humorously and effectively placed on the far side of a room on the second floor, so that you look down into the bowels of the museum. And Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995, intelligently and effectively colonizes the room in which it is displayed. The Cindy Shermans hang above the sculpture court to stunning and witty effect, juxtaposing her elusive art-historical references to the more literal ones of the casts of antique sculptures below.

In reviewing a large survey show, it seems pointless to merely oppose one’s own taste to that of the curator, especially when he, with the aid of a committee, mixes the famous, the mid-career, and the unknown artist. The paintings by Chuck Close, Agnes Martin, and Mitchell are, not unexpectedly, wonderful; and, as always, Richard Tuttle is extremely ingenious, as is Artschwager, who with 37 works on display is perhaps too much in evidence. In such a setting, I lose all confidence in my ability to evaluate artists previously unknown to me. Perhaps the Israeli painter Moshe Kupferman, the Brazilian painter Beatriz Milhazes, or the Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo are major figures, but they require a more sympathetic context.

“No explosions,” as Baudelaire wrote of his Salon of 1859; “not a single unknown genius.” Here, where the strongest work is by very senior figures, the mid-career artists seem, by comparison fatally belated. When I compare Tomoharu Murakami’s monochrome paintings to those of other artists, or when I imagine juxtaposing Robert Therrien’s oversized kitchen table with Claes Oldenburg’s witty sculptures from the ’60s, I feel trapped in a second-hand shop, where everything has been recycled and seems a little worse for wear. It is frustrating to see how relatively little, in the end, this very widely traveled curator has accomplished.

Andrew Carnegie desired that his Internationals be “for the masses of the people primarily, not for the educated few.” Perhaps his goal made sense when travel was so much slower; perhaps it still made sense in the 1950s when artists like the young Robert Mangold first learned about Abstract Expressionism in the International. But today when Carnegie’s desire to build a collection of “the old masters of tomorrow” is no longer a realistic ambition, what is to be done?

An exhibition that promiscuously mixed thousands of paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts, like a densely hung 19th-century salon, would, at the very least, have been more fun. There is certainly no lack of space here. Alternatively, a show with a particular focus would be more challenging—say, an exhibit of recent painting from Eastern Europe; or non-European sculpture; or, and this would be my choice, mid-career, female abstract painters. Then we Pittsburghers—those of us who live outside art-world centers—would at least be given the chance to decide for ourselves whether these art forms deserve attention, and those accustomed to the art scene in SoHo, London, or Cologne would have reason to visit. Today when the Pittsburgh industries owned by Carnegie and his contemporaries have disappeared or been radically reorganized, it is time for the Carnegie Museum to begin rethinking its goals.

David Carrier