A more descriptive title for the splendid new book by the architectural historian Victoria Newhouse would be Art as Diminished by Curatorial Incompetence. It is a work of genuine scholarship, filled with fresh and discerning insights about the art itself and its history, but her underlying theme is that, with few exceptions, those with the power to place art—museum officials, curators, and architects—do it badly. Where possible, she offers meticulous documentation and enlightening descriptions of great works of art that have been or remain empowered by where, how, and by whom they are placed. Those long gone are illustrated by paintings and drawings made during or after the decades or centuries of their existence. Newhouse tells how extant historical works were first created, discovered, and then—as survivors of the passage of time—came to hold positions of honor in the permanent collections of such venues as the Louvre and the Vatican Museums. She also describes and evaluates the settings in which the work of today’s leading artists is regularly seen.
Her introduction opens with a full-page Renaissance drawing of the legendary Colossus of Rhodes (c. 280 B.C.), a 110-foot-high bronze statue that straddled the island’s harbor for only five decades before an earthquake knocked it down. Pictures and text then focus on private, gallery, and museum interiors from the sixteenth century to the present that are filled with paintings massed from floor to ceiling. As arranged, these paintings have compelling power—collectively, if not individually. So does the introduction’s concluding two-page-wide photograph: a display of fifty-four photos and drawings of all sizes on a gallery wall and its opposite corners, from a 1991 exhibition at MOMA: “Head On: The Modern Portrait,” curated by Chuck Close.
With few exceptions, those with the power to place art—museum officials, curators, and architects—do it badly.
In reference to her first chapter, “The Complexities of Context,” Newhouse explains that “a few specific works from different periods, seen over time, demonstrate the implications of the charged zone where spectator and art meet.” To develop this theme she chooses examples from the classical art of Greece and Rome, including the Elgin Marbles (mid-fifth century B.C.) long displayed at the British Museum and the Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace (c. 190–180 B.C.) perched at the top of the principal stairway at the Louvre. Newhouse finds much to fault in the placement of the Elgin Marbles. They were positioned high on the Parthenon; in London, at eye level, they are viewed from an incorrect perspective. She writes: “The British Museum’s institutional interiors and London’s pale daylight complete the decontextualization of sculpture that was once part of a riotously colored temple bathed in the bright Mediterranean sun.”
The first fragments of the much mutilated Nike were found in 1863 and arrived at the Louvre a year later. After over two decades of further excavations and restorations, the statue acquired one original wing, and one copy, as well as its original pedestal—in the form of a trireme’s prow, in memory of the naval victory. Through the years, the Nike rose in the hierarchy of placement at the Louvre until 1883, when it was granted a place among miscellaneous classical works under a sky-lit cupola on the upper landing of the grand Daru Stairway. This position commands and is the climax of what was then the museum entry sequence that led to its greatest treasures. It wasn’t until 1932–1933, however, that the stair hall was cleared and expanded to allow Nike to stand alone, an event for which Newhouse has high praise: “The way the viewers saw Nike was the result of more than a half-century of restoration and repositioning, implemented by successive generations of curators. The statue’s 1932–1933 installation singled it out as one of the Louvre’s greatest treasures, the first major monument visitors encountered.” All remained well with this triumph of placement until the Eighties when I. M. Pei’s renovations and expansions forced viewers into a new set of itineraries that robbed Nike of its preeminence. Newhouse writes:
The new central entrance via the glass and steel pyramid offers paths to three wings, and depending on the choice, visitors may miss the Nike altogether. Even those who opt for the Denon Pavilion, where the statue is situated, will come upon it after a much longer walk. One itinerary in fact brings viewers directly to the foot of the stairway on which it is displayed. The thrilling processional along the length of the Daru Gallery, which conveyed the illusion of the figure floating down from the sky, has been lost to those who do not deliberately seek it out.
Newhouse’s concludes her focus on the past with the chapter “Art or Archaeology.” Here the art of ancient Egypt is the subject of an essay on the ways the museums of the world display collections of objects whose significance is to be found in the realms of natural history and science as well as the fine arts. She then steps boldly into the life of art today by taking on the challenging question of how best to exhibit Jackson Pollock’s poured and dripped murals. In her chapter “How Installation Can Affect Modern Art,” Newhouse examines the various ways dealers and curators, for better or worse, have presented it. She writes:
Jackson Pollock’s widely publicized and mythological personal life, his premature death at the age of forty-four in a car accident, his critical acclaim, and the astronomical prices commanded by his paintings in recent decades have made him an American icon, and the brilliance of his art is therefore perceived as immutable. However, it becomes apparent on seeing his revolutionary mural-size paintings in different venues that the work is highly sensitive to its presentation.
The well-known black-and-white photographs and two documentary films that Hans Namuth made in the summer and fall of 1950 reveal that Pollock’s studio, a barn in The Springs, Long Island, was a very small place, its working area approximately twenty-two feet square with a high ceiling and one north window. The dimensions of the studio limited the length of his canvases to somewhat over seventeen feet. Raised from the floor and propped against the barn wall, a poured work in progress could be studied by Pollock from a maximum distance of about twenty feet. Newhouse points out that this is the distance from which the mural-sized canvases come into focus. “From a greater distance,” she says, “they can appear unresolved, and at a closer range it is difficult to apprehend them in their entirety.” She correctly finds significance in the coincidental fact that in 1950, the year that the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City first exhibited these large murals, the room in which they were hung was also twenty-two feet square, and that it was Pollock himself who determined how his work should be presented there.
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Newhouse believes that curators who depart from the early Pollock/Parsons exhibition strategy (most have) seriously weaken the immense impact of this artist’s work. She illustrates her critique with numerous photographs of Pollock’s murals in wrongly scaled spaces at MOMA, the Pompidou Center, and the Tate Gallery. In concluding the chapter she states:
No installation can completely recreate the vibrancy of an artist’s workplace, the excitement of a commercial gallery’s introduction of a new talent, or the thrill of living with art. But even with the compromises required by today’s museum culture, each of the institutional exhibitions discussed here dazzled with boundless riches and intriguing new insights. The price exacted by their compromises and by departures from the artist’s intentions was the loss of the paintings’ full potential.
The words of praise for the good she finds in the otherwise compromised Pollock exhibitions can be used without reservation for her own book. It dazzles with boundless riches and intriguing new insights, and should be an obligatory read for all who have anything to do with the placement of art.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 10, on page 87
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