New York

“The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

“The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect” has, by all accounts, been some years from first proposal within the Museum of Modern Art to final realization. It is nonetheless difficult not to view senior curator Kynaston McShine’s exhibition in relation to the museum’s recent agreement to assimilate P.S. 1 across the East River in Long Island City. Like an old-line company absorbing a brash start-up for its innovative capacities and ability to scout the peripheries (read Disney absorbing Miramax), MoMA may in a stroke have shored up one of its most conspicuous weak spots, that is, the combined awkwardness with newer currents and lack of a sympathetic space in which to put them on display.

While thus seeking to bestride the widest expanse of the art world, this particular museum can currently spare only cramped and ungenerous spaces for “Museum as Muse,” in which it nonetheless strives to see its centrality as an institution ratified in as many works as possible. No fewer than fifty-nine artists occupy the labyrinthine installation. Encompassed are pieces that record objects in museums, that mimic features of museum galleries or back-of-the-house facilities, that restage visitor experiences with mock docents or acoustiguides, that appropriate to themselves the normal prerogatives of curators, or that merely go their own way in amassing, categorizing, and arranging treasured objects. Some selections suffer more than others from the pressures imposed by this catholic brief. Christopher Williams’s Angola to Vietnam* 1989, occupied an entire room on its first installation in “A Forest of Signs” in Los Angeles at the Temporary (now Geffen) Contemporary; an edited selection in a narrow corner of “Museum as Muse” robs the piece of the totality on which its meaning depends (the quantity of its framed photographs corresponding directly to the list of countries in which political “disappearances” took place in one given year).

It required thorough prior knowledge of Williams’s uncanny photographs of the Harvard Glass Flowers (selected and classed by the aforesaid countries) to grasp the work’s affinities with the nearby installation by Christian Boltanski. On walls of wire mesh like those to which museums consign their works in storage (many of which never see the light of day), Boltanski has hung several hundred framed photographs, found portraits of unnamed individuals in faded monochrome under wan artificial lights. Both artists draw on the anthropomorphic equation between individuals and museum objects, Williams making the more powerful contrast between the forcible extinction of human lives and the paradoxical permanence of the ephemeral in the botanical simulacra.

Boltanski’s mapping of the human collectivity onto the inventory of a museum—which now inevitably evokes his memorializations elsewhere of Holocaust victims—edits the endless under the sign of death, countering the exuberance of Douglas Huebler’s prototypical Conceptualist project (to document with photographs, “to the extent that he is able, the existence of everyone alive”). A similar drive to reduction in scale ties together a large, disparate band of works in the show. Miniaturizing containers for ephemeral treasures abound, often with more care lavished on the customized casing than on the matter within. One thesis of “Museum as Muse” is that all this fitting and filing has its pedigree in the edifying public project of Enlightenment taxonomy, as encoded in the cases and specimen arrays of the natural history collection. By contrast, the view of collecting adopted by many artists in the show evokes—with an uncanny accuracy—the mythic figure of the private collector as he was perceived during the nineteenth century, despised for his secretive, obsessive, and antisocial hoarding. This atavistic recluse, rejecting all balance and proportion, was seen to reduce the sum of pleasure available to others by irrationally bidding up prices and withdrawing his trophies from the sight of anyone else.

The progress of the nineteenth-century art museum, exemplified by the Louvre (here I draw on the important research of art historian Ting Chang), entailed socializing the collector and refurbishing his image so as to produce donations in return for celebrating the name and public virtue of the donor. But the collective memory instilled in the intuitions of these artists exposes the ineradicable roots of collecting and classifying in a scandalous privacy. One recurrent fantasy further marks this survival: narratives of art escaping the confines of the collection like wild animal specimens freed from a cruel zookeeper. Sophie Calle has made something of a specialty of this theme, eliciting the “downstairs” staff of museums (guards, cleaners, etc.) to narrate their memories of absent works of art, “ghosts” on loan, or, as here, works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. These last remain permanent scars—documented by Calle in a way that does homage to Louise Lawler’s nearby work—because of the founding donor’s (eccentrically private) stipulation that nothing in her domestic arrangements could be changed.

Michael Asher’s characteristically acute contribution, conceived for the occasion of the exhibition, documents other escapees. His piece consisted of a discreet announcement that a booklet is available to the visitor listing in a sober museological lexicon all the works deaccessioned—that is, sold off as superfluous—by MoMA since its inception. Acquiring the handsomely slick booklet, though it was free of charge, required a trip to the always bustling museum store and a specific request to the cashier, who then pulled a copy from a drawer under the counter as if providing some forbidden work of heresy or pornography. The scandal returned in a perfect circuit to the reprivatization of the museum object in the souvenir, handed over at the till but here without cost.

The Asher belonged to an unacknowledged exhibition-within-an-exhibition that might well have been titled “Homage to Benjamin H.D. Buchloh.” Marcel Broodthaers, whose stature Buchloh’s advocacy as a critic has done most to secure, stands as the genius (in the strict sense of presiding intelligence) of both this exhibition and that strain in Conceptual practice that goes under the name “institutional critique.” And the voice of Broodthaers, like Asher’s, is sly and off-message in relation to MoMA’s pretension definitively to contain this alongside every other brand of art practice. His nomadic and fugitive Musèe d’Art Moderne, inaugurated in 1968, is tellingly represented here by public notices that its “financial section”—a display of gold bars stamped as art—was up for sale on account of an unsurprising bankruptcy (the price of each was twice what it would fetch on the precious-metals market, the measure of its value as art). Museums are in fact less stable and permanent than most of what they house; the other side of MoMA’s expansionist coin is, say, a strapped Pasadena Art Museum surrendering its existence to the corporate magnate Norton Simon or a Hayward Gallery about to see its franchise stripped away by the juggernaut of the new Tate Bankside. The contribution of Hans Haacke, another institutional-critique mainstay, expands on this recognition by documenting, with unblinking objectivity, the extraordinary volatility in social, organizational, and fiduciary arrangements entailed in the survival of only one modest painting: Seurat’s Les Poseuses (Small version).

Where MoMA attempted to go Buchloh one better and foster its own bit of institutional critique from an artist he has championed, the results are fairly disastrous for all concerned. Daniel Buren directed that a slice of the permanent collection be displaced intact into the “Museum as Muse” installation, with his signature stripes left behind to mark the absence in the upstairs galleries. There was little more to this gesture than an unenlightening repetition of two landmark pieces performed by Asher in Chicago in 1980. Asher had shrewdly chosen his elements for displacement in order to make the institution speak about itself in unaccustomed ways; Buren drains his gesture of effect by primly withdrawing himself from the act of selection and leaving the details to the museum.

A corner of classic de Chiricos was the organizers’ choice, and it was reconstructed so as to shore up a thematic area devoted to the once-fashionable notion of the Museum as Ruin. Buren’s fastidious nonparticipation only opens the door to curatorial business as usual, a lesson—if one were needed—of the futility of the institution organizing its own critique. It does, however, allow success in the hang, in that de Chirico’s paintings succeed in conjuring up the pathos of a modern Italian nation consigned to be the perpetual custodian of a shattered museum classicism; the small canvases spoke eloquently in the direction of Jeff Wall’s nested panoramas: a vast back-lit transparency depicting desultory efforts by female curators (entirely staged by the artist) to restore an even more vast, circular painting of a nineteenth-century Swiss battle. The de Chirico paintings indeed make much more sense in this company than the historical canvas chosen to serve as a founding, tutelary presence for the show, Hubert Robert’s small 1796 painting of an artist drawing in the ruins of the Louvre. “Museum as Muse” has taken most of its cues from the theorizing of recent years that has redefined art as museum-dependent. Strong work in the institutional-critique mode has never fallen for this simplistic idea, nor did Hubert Robert. The point of the picture is that when the museum falls to ruin, as all grand schemes do, the Belvedere Apollo and the creative artist will continue their dialogue undisturbed. In 1796 that sculpture did not even belong to the Louvre.

Thomas Crow is the Robert Lehman Professor of the History of Art at Yale University and a contributing editor of Artforum.

“Museum as Muse” travels to MoCA, San Diego, Sept 18, 1999–Jan. 2, 2000, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte, Reina Sofia, Madrid, March 14–May 29, 2000.