St. Louis

Édouard Vuillard, Woman in a Green Hat (Madame Hessel), ca. 1905, oil on cardboard, 42 1/2 x 30 3/4". From “In the Still Epiphany.”

Édouard Vuillard, Woman in a Green Hat (Madame Hessel), ca. 1905, oil on cardboard, 42 1/2 x 30 3/4". From “In the Still Epiphany.”

*“In the Still Epiphany”

Édouard Vuillard, Woman in a Green Hat (Madame Hessel), ca. 1905, oil on cardboard, 42 1/2 x 30 3/4". From “In the Still Epiphany.”

To celebrate the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts’ tenth anniversary in its Tadao Ando–designed building, the institution decided to showcase the world-class reserve of work collected by its founders, Emily Rauh Pulitzer and her late husband, Joseph R. Pulitzer Jr. Charged with selecting a curator, Emily Pulitzer invited New York–based artist Gedi Sibony, a surprising choice, given that he is known for staging minimal sculptural gestures in decidedly unmonumental materials—drywall, plastic sheeting, patches of industrial carpet. But to the extent that his practice is largely one of responding to spaces rather than altering them, arranging rather than constructing, and perceiving the poetic in whatever’s at hand, he turns out to have been the perfect choice. With characteristic sensitivity and restraint, Sibony executed “In the Still Epiphany” such that the exhibition fully realizes the transcendent promise of its name.

While the Pulitzers’ acquisitions ranged from pre-Columbian ritual objects to site-specific pieces by Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly, Sibony’s selection of forty-four works focuses on late-nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century European and American modernism. He installed these pieces not according to a rational, museological plan, but in the manner of domestic interior design. Perhaps this is only fitting, given the intimate nature of the foundation: Access to the galleries is free but the site is open to the public only twice a week (to no more than fifty visitors at a time), and didactic wall texts are nowhere to be found. In the foyerlike space of the building’s Entrance Gallery, portraits hang just as you’d expect in a patron’s home—here featuring figures painted by the likes of Édouard Vuillard, Paul Cézanne, and Max Beckmann, and presided over by the elder Joseph Pulitzer himself, seated comfortably in John Singer Sargent’s elegant 1905 portrayal. The Main Gallery further supports this gambit, seeing as it has been outfitted with Picasso’s The Fireplace, 1916–17; Roy Lichtenstein’s Curtains, 1962; and Henri Matisse’s sun-drenched Conservatory from 1938. Meanwhile, in the Lower Gallery, a more intimate note is struck with works such as Lucia Moholy’s small, untitled 1926 photograph of Walter and Ilse Gropius’s dressing room, whose austere Bauhaus geometry is offset by a number of stylish shoes tucked in a cabinet.

The curatorial conceit is ruptured, however, in a few select places, including the darkened Cube Gallery, in which Sibony has used Lucio Fontana’s lacquered Concetto spaziale nero (Black Landscape), 1966, as the backdrop for two ancient human figurines, held aloft by arcing supports of Sibony’s design. In the Main Gallery, a totemic kitchen cabinet can be found, fashioned by Sibony to support an array of ancient Chinese vessels, Native American seed jars, and an accordion-like iron piece of Fang currency (from central west Africa), and capped by Alberto Giacometti’s wedge-shaped marble Tête qui regarde, 1930, which, in turn, is adorned with a copper Nariño headdress ornament, ca. 1000–1500.

Especially in these latter constructions, but indeed in the exhibition at large, what ultimately surfaces is Sibony’s sensitivity to the affective quality of objects and his ability to orchestrate subtle effects through constellations of forms and signs. Where another artist-curator might have used the opportunity to stage a critique (however gentle or accommodating), Sibony’s approach represents an unapologetic embrace of the beauty of these artworks, the Pulitzer collection’s genteel pedigree, and the building’s refined design. “In the Still Epiphany” truly delights in its pursuit of the “confirmation of the mystery of life.”

Ivy Cooper