Saturday, November 6, 2010

Curatorial Flashbacks #8: Closet Artist, The Sequel

Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University
By Carl Belz

I made a career change in 1974 when I was denied tenure in the Department of Fine Arts at Brandeis and instead offered the directorship of the Rose Art Museum. It was a surprise move, angering me on the one hand and appealing to me on the other, a can’t-refuse proposal that—irony of ironies, as only the gods could have known—would be book-ended 24 years later by a like proposal to take early retirement. I stewed about it, and I talked to a few artist friends whose opinions I respected. They said I’d be fine without tenure, they said its comforts would just be confining. I listened, and I decided to run with the offer.

The Rose, you see, wasn’t exactly a plum I’d been tossed, not back then, not in 1974. Its program budget had been slashed in 1971-72 from $20K to $4K—that’s an 80% cut! — prompting director Bill Seitz—one of my Princeton mentors who’d also encouraged me to come to Brandeis in the first place—to depart for greener pastures at the University of Virginia. The high profile enjoyed by the museum throughout the 1960s had accordingly, even dramatically, receded. Still, the Rose had a lot going for it. There was the permanent collection, for instance, most noticeably the 21 new pictures—including the Warhol, the Johns, the Louis, the Lichtenstein, and the Rauschenberg—that director Sam Hunter had famously put together in 1962-63 with the Gevirtz-Mnuchin Purchase Fund, and that had put the Rose Art Museum on the contemporary culture map within a year of its opening. Whatever shows we couldn’t afford, we could always show the collection.

Also positive was the impact of a new addition to the museum that had been completed just months before I took over as director. It gave us a couple of modest galleries, but its primary purpose was to provide storage and work space for the collection and professional staff that had been desperately needed—no kidding—since the day the original building opened in 1961. What this meant to me personally was that my first job would be to move the permanent collection, at least the bulk of it, out of the makeshift, inadequate campus sites where it had for years been lounging and into the museum proper. Which meant getting to know the collection in depth, piece-by-piece, and not just the famous pictures, the Pop masterpieces, but all of them.
Roy Lichtenstein's Forget it! Forget me! 1962 (Rose Art Museum)
Which was in turn an eye-opening experience for me, arriving as I did with the baggage of an art historian, for as an art historian I had regularly dealt with a number of the artists represented in the Rose permanent collection, with Lichtenstein and Louis, for instance, with Kline and de Kooning, with Warhol and Wesselman, but that number was nugatory and insignificant in relation to the number of artists otherwise comprising the collection. In addition to those art historical peaks that I taught in the classroom, I came upon the seemingly countless artists who occupied the spaces in and around the peaks, the artists who were mentioned but once in the canonical texts, or maybe weren’t mentioned at all. Hey, there’s Milton Avery and Hyman Bloom, Ilya Bolotowsky and Bruce Conner, Max Ernst and Fritz Glarner, Philip Evergood and George L. K. Morris, and on it goes, on and on—OMG, I didn’t know we had a John Graham! An early Marsden Hartley, too! But who’s David Burliuk?  And who, for that matter, is Nicholas Vasilieff? Hold it, there’s Stephen Greene, artist-in-residence at Princeton whose drawing class I took, and it actually changed my life! Wow!

So I went on to mount many collection shows over many years, and in the process I increasingly saw the collection as an alternative to the history of art that I had brought to the museum. I began to see it as constituting a history of art in and of itself—or, more accurately, as constituting any number of histories, depending on which aspects of the objects’ content you wished to emphasize via any particular collection exhibition. Far from arranging themselves in a linear or arboreal pattern, which were the formalist models I’d learned via Clement Greenberg and Alfred Barr, the objects seemed at times to encourage connections among one another that, depending on how you turned them to the light, were more conceptual than visual, allowing the disconcerting impression that everything is connected to everything else.

Such thoughts were still buzzing in my head when I came out of the closet to perform my 2nd IC installation, which was in the early winter of 1991-92. I decided to cover the side walls of our two principle galleries—they measured 12 by 45 feet upstairs and 10 by 45 feet downstairs—top to bottom and end to end with pictures taken from storage racks and bins without regard for anything but the size and shape required to fill the next available space after the installation was started in the upper left-hand corner of the first wall. The effect was of a salon hanging—but with a vengeance, meaning the pictures were too tightly abutted to allow even minimal informational labels. To finish off the installation, I planned to hang a lone picture dead center on the back wall of each gallery to signal its privileged status, though I held off deciding which pictures they would be until the rest of the installation was complete. Otherwise, the show was set to go.

Except that it wasn’t, because our registrar, friend Lisa McDermott Leary, voiced deep concern that the installation was over-the-top outrageous, that it was going to be excessively demanding on our audience, and that it was even a bit aggressive—a response that had never even occurred to me. Then she insisted that we at least provide a few minimal clues about what was taking place on the walls, which I (somewhat reluctantly) agreed we would do.

First, we found a student who volunteered to make a diagram of each wall display, accurately outlining each object in terms of size and scale in relation to the other objects on the wall, and then adding to each a number corresponding to an informational master list that would be available at the front desk for anyone who wished to know the artist’s name, the title, and the date of the picture. (As it turned out, I loved the wall diagrams, they reminded me of photographs of members of the New York School that you’d see in old magazines—a picture of the artists on one page and on the page opposite a diagram outlining and numbering each figure, plus a caption that identified #4 as Jackson Pollock, #7 as Barnett Newman, and so forth. I thought it was a fun reference.)

And second, I wrote an explanatory wall label about the installation, a statement about how the objects resting in storage—which is the way they were presented in the show—are filled with potentials for interpretation and meaning, and how our curatorial responsibility in exhibiting them is to enable their voices to soar, to yield their bountiful pleasures. Implicit in the statement was the assumption that, freed from the baggage associated with names and dates and titles, our viewers would experience the exhilaration of pure looking. (If I were writing that text today, I would liken the installation to the albums we see on Facebook—gridded arrays of images, often unidentified, which suggest kinships and comparisons and are presented solely for visual delectation, along with the hope of maybe prompting a comment or two.)

As to the finishing touches, the lone pictures on the two rear walls, I vacillated among a bunch of options—best picture in the collection, most important picture, most valuable picture, and so on—but they all seemed pretty conventional, so I decided to finesse the big questions having to do with some kind of worldly significance in favor of a couple of pictures that just meant a lot to me personally, maybe even encourage me to take the dreaded risk of walking the line between feeling and sentiment.

One was a 1983 photograph I bought for the collection by John Kennard of a little league baseball field in upstate New York. It was taken looking out from behind home plate, and the field was empty. But it wasn’t empty for me, it was filled with the ghosts of the guys I had played with and against on fields just like that from the time I was 11 or 12 until I graduated from college—it was a haunting picture of my growing up.

The second picture was a 1979 watercolor called Service by Catherine Bertulli of her then-husband Roger Kizik, seen from above, serving up a tennis ball. Roger donated the picture to the collection, he framed it, and he installed it. He was our preparator at the museum for many years, he was a terrific painter as well, and he was also a close friend. We’d been through some things together on Team Rose—you could say we shared trunks of memories—so showing the picture of him was also my way of saying, Long may you run.

There’s an afternote to this story that I can’t resist including. During the course of the exhibition, John Hanhardt, Curator of Film and Video at the Whitney Museum of American Art, came to campus to deliver a lecture on a video presentation that had been guest-curated by colleague Pam Allara from the Department of Fine Arts and installed in the two galleries in the new wing I mentioned earlier. He arrived early to review the video, we met, we chatted, and he strolled—politely, I thought—along the walls I’d covered with pictures from the collection. When he started his lecture, however, the first thing he said was that the collection installation provided a perfect context for the video art—it reflected the visual cacophony of our culture, the cascade of images everywhere dazzling us, the improbable montages we’re daily confronted by and grope to explain.

How terrific was that? He got it, that’s exactly what I was thinking! I felt vindicated. What more could I ask? Standing at the back of the auditorium with my museum colleagues, I caught Lisa’s eye and nodded—not with a smirk, but with a modest smile of satisfaction. Which she acknowledged with a smile of her own.

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.


Deborah Barlow said...

The comments for this post were accidentally deleted, this is a recovered reproduction:

There is more to this story than just the misfire of bureaucratism and the short sighted, ego-driven decision making that happens in many institutions, be they art focused or otherwise. In the spirit of how to fend in matters such as these, I don't know what you could have done differently. I am moved by this account and by what we all missed out on having access to here in Boston had things gone differently. Thank you for the telling Carl.
By Deborah Barlow on Curatorial Flashbacks #7: The Frank Stella Acquisi... on 10/25/10

Kyle Gallup said...

The comments for this post were accidentally deleted, this is a recovered reproduction:

Thank you so much for this beautiful and interesting entry. Your personal experience of seeing all kinds of work together from the collection and then hanging the show salon style, is something I wish we'd see more of today.(not just on fb) The boundaries that separate art into different art movements is no longer helpful. To see work up against each other, opens doors to new ideas.
By Kyle Gallup on Curatorial Flashbacks #8: Closet Artist, The Seque... on 11/7/10

Kyle Gallup said...

The comments for this post were accidentally deleted, this is a recovered reproduction:

Artists are always looking at all kinds of art at the same time to aid them in their own work or for inspiration. Why can't curators have the same freedom to make connections across different boundaries when putting shows together?
By Kyle Gallup on Curatorial Flashbacks #8: Closet Artist, The Seque... on 11/7/10

Deborah Barlow said...

The comments for this post were accidentally deleted, this is a recovered reproduction:

This was so interesting, and there is certainly much more you could explore in this one story--the limitations of curating (imposed or otherwise),the malleability of art viewing, the importance of context, how to teach and learn about art from a particular collection in a more nonlinear fashion--among many other topics. Thank you once again for opening the kimono (so to speak) and sharing this account with many who want to hear what you thought, saw and did during that chapter of your life.
By Deborah Barlow on Curatorial Flashbacks #8: Closet Artist, The Seque... on 11/7/10

Ann said...

The comments for this post were accidentally deleted, this is a recovered reproduction:

Dear Carl, I'm so glad you wrote this piece. As a huge fan of the Rose I wondered what happened and have not gotten over the recent brouhaha, makes me sad and very suspicious of the Rose. Thanks so much for this great post, I'll be watching for more.
By Ann on Curatorial Flashbacks #8: Closet Artist, The Seque... on 11/8/10