New York

Fred Wilson

Already in the early ’90s, certain critics were balking at Fred Wilson’s museum interventions and his peculiar brand of materialist historicism, levying charges that the artist’s finger-pointing politics were not only too overt but, worse still, passé. While some argued that Wilson preached to a choir of self-congratulatory art world impresarios who surely knew better than to champion whitewashed narratives of art, or to revel in the power of institutions apart from that bestowed in inverse relation to the sanctimoniousness of their critique, Wilson’s work nevertheless raised discomfiting questions about the subjects of art and those for whom it presumably speaks.

Ten years later, on the heels of representing the United States at the 2003 Venice Biennale, Wilson’s traveling retrospective seems less belated than simply redundant. It isn’t that “Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations 1979–2000” lacks for significant work; on the contrary, much of what is on view is worth seeing and worth taking seriously. It’s just that most of the work, conceived as site-specific, functioned far more effectively in its original context.

Of course an installation like 1992’s Cabinet Making 1820–1960, with its volatile juxtaposition of Victorian parlor chairs and a nineteenth-century whipping post still quite viscerally counts—just not in the way it did in Wilson’s seminal exhibition “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992, which laid bare Baltimore’s unsavory antebellum history. There, a baby carriage replete with a KKK hood or a vitrine containing a ceremonious display of silver vessels in Baltimore repoussé style alongside slave shackles performed a deft exorcism, all the while remaining exquisitely conscious of the exigencies of place and the particular stories and selective histories told about it.

The question becomes one of accommodation; the problem is precisely how to curate a history of projects so dependent on desublimatory gestures born of the lamentable eccentricities of collections. How, then, to turn Wilson’s practice of icebox raiding into something that is flexible enough to avoid becoming the victim of its own methodology—that is, to escape retrospective-wrought neutralization of individual works in favor of a privileging of the very capital-H history Wilson otherwise seeks to undermine or altogether escape. Of all people, Wilson should have known what was at stake in this process of institutionalization, in the transformation of art as curatorial practice to an art of canny similitude in which work is less animated than assembled as witty formal arrangements appropriate to conventionally autonomous sculpture.

In his notes on the collector included in The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin wrote that “what is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind.” So it was in Wilson’s exhibition that functional relations ceded to relations between works. The iconic Guarded View, 1991, with its four headless, dark-skinned mannequins outfitted in various New York museum-guard uniforms faced five Nefertiti busts shaded from black to white, and the ensuing juxtaposition, here as elsewhere in the show, overwhelmed and confused the intended arguments. Museum became not muse but Medusa, the logic of which, for all the intended conceptual and practical mobility, is an inescapable stasis. But Benjamin also wrote that “collecting is a form of practical memory,” and for Wilson’s persistence we should, at the very least, be grateful.

Suzanne Hudson