Museums are strange. They’re dead, they’re alive. They’re graveyards, shrines, and storage rooms. Nothing much happens there on the face of it. Usually you go alone; mostly you’re silent, almost invisible—although you never completely disappear. You walk in, drift around, pause here and there in front of inanimate objects, look, tell yourself things—and then you experience rapture, your world changes, or you decide to change the world. Then you leave, or rather, you return from wherever you’ve been. It’s like visiting another continent.
I remember my first time. It was with Giovanni di Paolo at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was 10. My mother dragged me there and I was looking at di Paolo’s beheading of St. John the Baptist, and the earth moved. I suddenly understood that paintings told stories, and the museum became a place I wanted to be. If you’re reading this, the museum is probably a place you’ve wanted to be as well. Which makes “The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect” your kind of show. One of its subjects is the spell of art and the reveries that museums can induce.
A show of 188 works by 62 artists, this exhibition focuses exclusively on art about the museum. A few of the pieces are from the 19th and early 20th centuries; most are postwar American and European artworks of a decidedly conceptual nature. Provocatively laid out, brimming with ideas, “Museum as Muse” comments on nearly every aspect of the museum’s function and structure. This is a show in which even the audio guide, and some of the benches, are the work of artists. It is intelligent and accessible, neither didactic nor lite, and most of the art here fits into a wonderful Rubik’s Cube of meaning. Plus, this is as good and as relevant as a lot of this esoteric art is ever going to look.
The show’s organizer, Kynaston McShine, is an antiformalist in the House of Formalism—a kind of art-world inside man. A curator at MOMA for more than 30 years, McShine organized “Information,” the first museum exhibition of conceptual art, in 1970. Consisting mainly of photographs and text, it included Vito Acconci, Art & Language, Daniel Buren, Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke, Dennis Oppenheim, Edward Ruscha, Robert Smithson, and Jeff Wall—all of whom are in this show. He also organized MOMA exhibitions of Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, who are in the present show, too.
McShine is a be-true-to-your-school character. He’s best when he sticks to his cerebral, linguistic, information-oriented, conceptual roots. “The Museum as Muse” is “Information” with meat on its bones; it is McShine’s great statement, his manifesto—and his confession.
In the first, best, and most visually satisfying section of the exhibition, you can see the museum in use, or as sociological phenomenon. Here, a variety of photographers look at people looking at art in museums. Among the many photographs, and opposite each other, are pictures of people in the Louvre by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Thomas Struth. Though separated by only 35 years, they capture two different worlds. In the Cartier-Bresson, the museum feels quiet and cloistered, while Struth’s Louvre is abuzz with people. Democracy has come to the museum. In this brilliant juxtaposition, McShine not only foreshadows his exhibition’s ending, he depicts that drifting continent of the earlier museum after it has slammed into the shores of success, and the bustle of crowds. McShine highlights his own ambivalence, and looks for a way out.
In the next section, we see the museum as inventory and private archive. Here are the portable museums of Cornell and Duchamp. Nearby, an intriguing work by Susan Hiller catalogues bits of personal and found paraphernalia, and Mark Dion—the scavenger-arranger—builds his own Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, a case stocked with specimens from the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. Next door, Barbara Bloom’s The Reign of Narcissism is an index of objects all about Bloom. Although all these artists echo the mania of collecting, they also point toward the arbitrary nature of taxonomy. But in the end, they like the idea of museums. In the next sections, the inner conflicts spill over.
By the early 1970s, the love-hate relationship artists were having with museums erupted into hate-hate. The museum was seen as the new Babylon, and artists like Haacke and Lothar Baumgarten saw themselves as Rastafarians: they wanted to take the institution down. In an attempt to pull back the curtains on the rarefied politics surrounding acquisitions, Haacke traced the provenance of a single painting by Seurat. Though it takes forever to read, it does make you feel like you’re eavesdropping on history. But there’s something suspicious in this section of the show.
Look at Jac Leirner’s predictable wall work made of museum shopping bags, or Baumgarten’s hypocritical slide show of museum displays emblazoned with ridiculous captions like “neutralized” or “consumed.” You want to say, Get a job! If, as Oscar Wilde said, people who attack society are the ones who really want to get into it, then these artists have bumrushed their way into a club they supposedly never wanted to join.
After this strident midsection, however, things pick up. And in the penultimate gallery, McShine brings his exhibition to a head. A group of fabulous photographs taken by Garry Winogrand in the 1970s depicts museum openings and private dinners behind the scenes. There’s the beautiful Robert Rauschenberg dressed in a fleece vest, Andy Warhol talking to Henry Geldzahler at a Frank Stella opening, and Alexander Calder surrounded by patrons. It’s not until you turn away from this world of light, and face Fred Wilson’s installation, that it dawns on you: until now, this has also been a world that is exclusively white.
Using pictures culled from MOMA’s own archives, Wilson constructs a step-by-step photo-essay that also amounts to a kind of smoking gun. It’s titled Art in Our Time, but because of a group of pictures of white people shaking hands, it could have been called The Secret Handshake. Wilson simply reveals how white the world of museums has been—except for the black faces who work there. Included are images of smiling museum members dressed as cowboys and cowgirls and posing with artworks, and pictures of happy, shiny white children installed by Wilson next to darker-skinned museumgoers, who here look isolated and out of place. One photograph of a lone black custodian can make you cringe; another, of the black painter Jacob Lawrence “discussing” his work with a little white boy, can make you cry.
McShine seems to say we may not need the hordes of people traipsing through museums; we don’t have to subscribe to early-’90s multiculturalism; but unless we put the secret handshake behind us, the museum will not be a place that can change the world.