New York

View of “The Art of Scent: 1889–2012,” 2012.

View of “The Art of Scent: 1889–2012,” 2012.

“The Art of Scent: 1889–2012”

View of “The Art of Scent: 1889–2012,” 2012.

Baudelaire, whose soul soared “on perfume as other men’s souls soar on music,” devoted a notable portion of his literary genius to the question of how one might translate olfactory experience into language. His 1857 poem “Correspondences,” for example, routes a consideration of the relationships between the physical and the spiritual through a synesthetic inventory of scent and sensation: “So perfumes, colors, sounds may correspond. / Odors there are, fresh as a baby’s skin, / Mellow as oboes, green as meadow grass, / —Others corrupted, rich, triumphant, full, / Having dimensions infinitely vast, / Frankincense, musk, ambergris, benjamin, / Singing the senses’ rapture, and the soul’s.”

“The Art of Scent: 1889–2012,” on view at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design and organized by Chandler Burr, aligns itself firmly with such Baudelairean concerns. The elegantly staged show is the first for Burr since he took up the role of “curator of olfactory art” at the institution. A journalist by trade, he made his name putting words to aromas as the perfume critic of the New York Times, and his modest didactic texts for the dozen classic fragrances “on smell” here are models of engaging, descriptive clarity. Yet Burr is not content for his ambitious exhibition to simply present the various scents. He also uses the facts of their composition and context of their manufacture in an attempt to provide a reading of modernity, that matrix of social, cultural, and personal conditions that the poet spent so much time considering.

The show is built around a series of twelve “stations” designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Each of the teardrop recesses soft-scooped into the gallery walls like a Ricci Albenda intervention, hides a device that emits a waft of a given perfume when a visitor leans forward and puts his or her head inside. Burr begins his historical trajectory not with the very first fragrances—aromatic oils have been used on the body for millennia—but rather with scents from the latter part of the nineteenth century, an era typically thought of as the golden age of perfumery. For Burr and other scholars of fragrance, this moment was crucial because of two integrally related factors: the emergence of synthetically produced raw ingredients out of a burgeoning chemical industry, and the rise of mixed, multiscent perfumes, which brought together organic and artificial smells in previously unimagined—and increasingly “abstract”—compositions. In Jicky, for example, the 1889 fragrance by Aimé Guerlain, scion of the famous Parisian perfume-making family, new artificial materials (the terpene alcohol linalool, coumarin, and ethyl vanillin) were mixed to produce what Burr calls one of the first true works of olfactory art. Ernest Beaux’s Chanel No. 5 of 1921 more overtly deployed synthetic materials—in this case, certain aldehydes—to produce perhaps the single most iconic luxury perfume in history. Some sixty years later, Pierre Wargnye would incorporate scents originally manufactured for such industrial applications as soaps and detergents into his 1982 Drakkar Noir, violating, notes Burr, the long-standing bright line between “fine” and “functional” fragrances.

In addition to the smelling stations, the show includes a second room with an interface through which visitors are encouraged to attach their own words to the various exhibited scents in order to produce a sort of crowdsourced descriptive vocabulary. It also features a tabletop array of small wells, each holding one of the actual fragrances, along with thin strips of paper for dipping. I dunked some of my favorites and tucked the slips in my notebook: Aromatics Elixir (1971), first bright and warm with sage, then giving way to sweet touches of rose, all grounded in green moss; Light Blue (2001), powdery and effervescent with citrus and cedar; and Untitled (2010), Daniela Andrier’s “neo-Brutalist” perfume. Based on a plant resin called galbanum mentioned in the Book of Exodus, Untitled is a startlingly forward, sharp-elbowed scent full of bitter pine and metal, almost argumentative in its refusal to accede to conventional notions of olfactory beauty. These scents are all still there on the little pieces of paper, but each time I open the notebook and lift one to my nose, the smell grows fainter: Baudelaire’s famous construction—“the transient, the fleeting, the contingent”—proves true both for modernity and these thoroughly modern products of its arc.

Jeffrey Kastner