Thursday, June 24, 2010

Curatorial Flashbacks: Closet Artist

By Carl Belz

I have to tell you I’m a closet artist, specifically an installation artist, albeit one with a limited output. During the course of my 24 years as director of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum I did two installations, the first of which, “Honoring Carl Belz,” I’d like to tell you about now.

The installation took place during the summer of 1984, meaning July and August. Generally, we weren’t open to the public during July and August, because we had virtually no audience during those two months. Located in Waltham, a suburb about 12 miles to the west of Boston, the museum enjoyed no foot traffic; you could get there by commuter rail, but most of our visitors came by car, they didn’t just drop by. Moreover, Brandeis at that time offered little in the way of summer school programming, so there was no student population to draw from. Nonetheless, the Brandeis president decided that year that the museum should be kept open so we could be included if any prospective donors showed up and wanted a tour of the campus. Which was really annoying, since the mandate came in late June, shortly before I was scheduled to leave for vacation, which in turn meant getting up a collection show on pretty short notice.

Well it happened that 1984 was my 10th year as director of the Rose, and I decided to mark the occasion by devoting two of our smaller galleries—our other two were much larger, which I worried might seem immodest—to my achievement with a two-part installation. One space would feature objects that had come into the collection since 1974, while in the other we’d borrow and hang a few of my favorite paintings from the larger history of art that I’d marveled at since my days as a student.

I put both two- and three-dimensional objects in the first gallery. The flatwork was dominated by paintings, and there were some beauties, among them a Morris Louis stripe, James Rosenquist’s “Two 1959 People” (which I had to love, as I graduated from college in ’59) and Robert Rauschenberg’s “Second Time Painting,” plus a Kenneth Noland pinched diamond, an Adolph Gottlieb burst, and a classic Mel Ramos girl astride a zebra (as anyone who knows the history of the Rose will tell you, some of these pictures entered the collection before I became director, but for this project I decided to exercise some poetic license with the historical facts). From our broad range of realist-type pictures, I selected a major Neil Welliver and a pair of stunning self-portraits by William Beckman and Gregory Gillespie. For paper works, I chose a Frank Stella study for one of his Polish Village pictures, a big Richard Serra oil-stick piece, and an early 50s David Smith drawing for “Australia” (because the Rose was designed as a picture gallery that didn’t comfortably accommodate sculpture, I had started a collection of sculptors’ drawings). I also included at least one photograph, a Cindy Sherman showing a tearful young woman lying on her bed waiting for her phone to ring (which, postmodernism notwithstanding, always reminded me of my life as a B movie). And finally there were a number of pictures by artists I had never heard of or read about in my art historical studies, artists now forgotten that I knew only by single examples in the collection, artists who filled the interstices around their more celebrated contemporaries, yet artists who, good, bad or indifferent, taught me to understand more fully what we mean when referring to the fabric called the art of our time.

We didn’t hang any of the pictures. They were stacked in clusters against the gallery walls, back-to-back and face-to-face and sometimes separated by sheets of cardboard or covered by plastic, suggesting they were on their way in or out of storage and weren’t yet meant for public viewing. Still, it was fun to look at them, to catch a glimpse of an image, maybe a fragment of landscape or part of a figure, and guess the artist; or to see the stretcher bars, some of them impressively professional, others clearly makeshift, and read the labels documenting the museums to which the pictures had traveled.

To accompany the paintings, I brought in some of the crates that our preparator had built for pictures we sent to other institutions, and they were worth beholding for their fortress-like character, as if daring the shipping fates to challenge their strength and endurance. As with the stretcher bars, labels revealed the crates’ histories and added to the gallery’s workaday, behind-the-scenes effect, to which I added an exotic touch by draping them with a couple of objects from our oceanic collection (our members got a major buzz when invited to go behind-the-scenes, like being invited to an artist’s studio or the locker room of their favorite pro sports team). Still, the highlight of the three-dimensional portion of the installation, at least for me, was the old black and white, rabbit-eared TV we got from Bertha Rose’s Back Bay town house after she died (we also got a refrigerator and a Matisse drawing). I ordinarily kept it on a chair in my office (I was in my “General Hospital” phase back then), but I installed it in the gallery atop an ancient middle-Eastern, marble architectural capital that had been given by a long-time friend of the museum/university who was just too endearing to say no to.       

The TV was turned on each day when the museum opened, and a label nearby invited visitors to change channels and raise or lower the volume if they wished—thus, the exhibit was participatory, it welcomed viewer interaction! Which was becoming a hot topic among museum professionals (and the granting agencies they depended on) in those days. No longer would museums present themselves as elitist bastions of culture, they would reach out to their audiences, embrace them, allow them to participate in educational programs and interact with exhibitions. A whole new museum world was dawning, and the Rose was right there at its cutting edge.

The second gallery—devoted to a few of (my) art history’s greatest hits—was a piece of cake compared to the first. Just three paintings: Velasquez, “The Surrender of Breda” (1634, Prado); Pollock “# 1, 1950” (1950, MoMA); and Matisse, “The Red Studio” (1911, MoMA). As you can imagine, we weren’t able to get the actual paintings by the time the show started (some of these museums take forever to consider loans), so I instead mounted a color postcard of each one in the center of the wall where it was meant to hang. Thinking some visitors might be disappointed by the substitute images, I also had our registrar place an explanatory note next to each postcard, thus: Temporarily removed for restoration, or Temporarily removed to be photographed, and so forth, just as you’ve seen in museums elsewhere.

And there you have it. Except I learned within a year of doing my installation that Marcel Broodthaers, among a handful of other conceptual artists, had beat me to the punch with a series of 1970s installations very like my own, so I clearly wasn’t the first to come up with the idea. But no matter, because I also learned that the idea had a name, it was called institutional critique, which meant I was part of a movement—an international movement, no less—and I was fully satisfied, even a little prideful, about that.

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