Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first museum of historical masterworks that has been created in these days in which those works have attained such stratospheric financial value. So, perhaps not surprisingly, how the works are displayed, how many (or few) there are per room, how they are lit and described, is embedded into the DNA of the institution and its architecture—and is inherently different than museums of the past. The viewpoint at the Louvre Abu Dhabi is cross-cultural: a cohabitation of works from different cultures and times than has traditionally been the case.
You don’t miss a thing. Where previously there might have been rows and rows of objects in cases, now perhaps there are as few as eight objects in one large room. This focuses the eye. We look at new relationships between objects from East and West, and the brain is able to absorb so much more information because of the precise focus of the presentation.
And there is a flow: we don’t see traditional differentiation between departments. The museum is no longer merely a repository for great works: it is theater and engagement on a level that is now central to the very understanding of what a museum can be.
Regardless of the number of visitors (and the attendance goals are high), this is a more accessible museum than those we are used to. Here in Abu Dhabi there is a different notion of commitment to the masterwork and a different process of assembling material—some bought, some borrowed.
In these times of shifting borders and political vicissitudes, museum directors are rethinking not only funding but the nature of collaboration, ownership and engagement. There are dynamic models emerging in developing cultural hubs, while centuries-old institutions that have always functioned as islands of treasure unto themselves are attempting to deepen their offerings and reinvent themselves for new, plugged-in audiences.
What the future holds for museums was the focus of a lively panel discussion last week in London, artfully steered by Sir Nicholas Serota for the Sotheby’s International Council. My fellow speakers included Gabriele Finaldi (director of London’s National Gallery), Axel Rüger (director of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), and Fiammetta Rocco (chief culture writer at The Economist), each bringing their own insights into the current and evolving landscape.
Each museum has its own set of challenges, yet there are clear trends developing. Dr Finaldi talked about ways in which the National Gallery is considering sharing its collection, while also borrowing from others—a topic that has come up in our podcasts with MoMA director Glenn Lowry and LACMA director Michael Govan. It is worth recognizing that cultural wealth and patrimony is not as territorial as it has historically been, and that directors of many of the pantheon of the world’s museums are discussing sharing.
It seems to me that there are essentially five kinds of museums today. Firstly, the traditional and longstanding museums of masterworks, such as the National Gallery, the Louvre and the Uffizi in Western Europe, as well as the State Hermitage Museum in Russia, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Gallery in Washington DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago. These have historically been seen as exemplars of fine art museums, mostly formed in the era when major cities had a single museum of art, gathering the treasures of history in a model derived from the European tradition of housing the collections of royal families.
There is another European model, focused on exhibitions of recently made art and usually heavily subsidized by the government, most notably the German system of kunsthalles and kunstvereins and the French network of government-funded Fonds Régionaux d’Art Contemporain.
Thirdly, there is the American grow-or-die model of museum, nowadays forever in need of market and revenue expansion. These are typically both collection—and exhibition—focused.
In an era in which art is becoming increasingly highly valued and in which museums have become larger and their spaces fuller, there is the need to create models whereby patrons feel that the collections they have accumulated will be honored with a necessary focus of time, scale and presentation. Many collectors have bypassed the problem by simply building their own museums. The rise of this fourth model, the private institution, within communities that have been traditionally been anchored by public museums has created the need for delicate recharting of the relationship between public and private.
As the privately-funded museums age, there will inevitably be a “Barnes effect”. Just as Albert Barnes’ collection was controversially uprooted from its original home in Merion, Pennsylvania and moved to Philadelphia, a number of private institutions will change, be absorbed by or partnered with existing major museums over the next 50 to 100 years. Some forward-thinking museums and collectors are getting ahead of the game by simply creating new, inventive forms of partnership, as is the case with the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA.
Finally, in nations new to museum presentation, we are seeing innovation, specifically in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. These are wild, dynamic environments in which intimate and innovative, grand—sometimes garish—concepts are being made possible, many of which aren’t known about publicly yet.
We are set to see more “destination” museums opening. These institutions create distinction for themselves by building experiences that are simply unavailable elsewhere. The Guggenheim Bilbao opened the door to this way of thinking when the city made a comprehensive commitment to becoming a major cultural city. More focused on the architecture than the collection, it was designed to be a museum of the future.
For nations of new wealth looking to attract international travelers and innovative thinkers, culture is central.
We have been spending a lot of time thinking about the future of the museum. As a next step, we will be staging a panel discussion in Hong Kong on 29 March. Our speakers include Michael Govan (director, LACMA), Budi Tek (founder of Shanghai’s Yuz Museum and Foundation), Doryun Chong (deputy director and chief curator of Hong Kong’s M+museum) and myself, introduced by Kevin Ching (Sotheby’s Asia CEO) and moderated by Charlotte Burns.
Our discussion will take in such areas as the reshaping of institutional frameworks through new models of ownership, collaboration and audience engagement; the evolving roles of nations, directors and collectors; the potential impact of the diverse innovations taking place beyond the traditional centers of Europe and the United States; and the possibilities created by virtual reality.
We hope to see you there (RSVP here).
In Other Insights
The best I can say about last week’s Armory Show is that it briefly steered conversations away from Donald Trump.
During a dinner celebrating inspired new ceramic sculptures by Francesca DiMattio at Salon 94 Bowery, there was talk of The Shed, a multidisciplinary arts center currently under construction on city-owned land next to the dehumanizing West Side development known as Hudson Yards.
Discussion focused on Vessel, a colossally scaled ribcage of 154 crisscrossing, tenement staircases dreamed up for the site by the English designer Thomas Heatherwick. This atrocious work of art, scheduled to open to the public next year, has cost more than $150m. To my mind, the money would have been better spent on shelters for the homeless, which the 150-foot tall, steel Godzilla may well become.
The addition of this overbearing jungle gym to an already oppressive property is not just a scandal but completely pointless: The Shed could have—and should have—been the area’s primary public attraction.
Designed by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell Group, it is utterly unique in the world: a building that expands and contracts as needed to accommodate its exhibitions and performances. (One program includes a collaboration between the promising duo Gerhard Richter and Steve Reich.)
Originally conceived to sit within a landscaped garden, The Shed is now wedged between glass towers and the wretched Vessel. Heatherwick’s gargantuan structure is a plug-ugly insult to New York and to The Shed. It also overwhelms a plaza paved with stones by Lawrence Weiner that read IN FRONT OF ITSELF. The phrase, descriptive as well as poetic, nails the building’s ability to alter itself as well as public space with an economy of expression that has much to teach the forces behind Vessel. If only they were listening.
Here is the central problem: a public sculpture on private property, and therefore not subject to public review. Then again, examples of great public art are few, and even they can cause uproar before gaining wider acceptance.
Think of the ongoing controversy surrounding the monument Jeff Koons has designed for a public plaza in Paris. Bouquet of Tulips (conceived in 2016) was intended to be a gesture of solidarity after a series of terrorist attacks in Paris. But this is a city that also gave one of its own, artist Daniel Buren, a very hard time when it saw his Les Deux Plateaux (1985-86) installed in the courtyard of the Palais Royal. And let’s not forget that, in advance of its arrival in New York Harbor, many people hated the Statue of Liberty as well.
Let’s face it. This is not a great time for art, outflanked as it is by the daily turmoil of current events. Yet, there are reasons to be cheerful.
The Public Art Fund and the High Line, the pedestrian parkway bordering The Shed, are non-profits that have done much to give an aesthetic lift to public spirits. (Witness Wind Sculpture (SG) I, a colorful sail by Yinka Shonibare currently flying over Fifth Avenue on Doris C. Freedman Plaza, southeast of Central Park.) However, both of these agencies commission temporary exhibitions, not permanent intrusions on the cityscape.
Also consider “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” (until 13 May), a game-changing exhibition organized by curator Lynne Cooke for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. By making a strong case for the inclusion of so-called “outsider art” in the Modernist canon—something already supported by a healthy market for it—the show should help to settle a long-simmering, academic debate over whether to admit the self-taught into the elitist (and historically male) club of contemporary art.
Cooke was in the dense crowd at Gagosian for the opening of an exhibition by Koons (until 21 April), an artist who may well be considered an outlier for his continued resistance to working inside any fashionable box.
Though the gallery’s main exhibition space is devoted to the seven “Easyfun-Ethereal” paintings that Koons made in 2000 for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, the work eliciting the greater gasps and groans from spectators was a new sculpture in a front room, visible from the street.
Woman Reclining (2010-14) is a recently-completed black granite sculpture that Koons based on a 1950s ashtray of his grandfather’s, a beloved memento of the artist’s childhood. (His 1988 sculpture, Woman in Tub, was inspired by the same object.)
With a bed of red begonias at the bottom end, the sculpture strongly resembles nothing so much as a sarcophagus. It suggests, at least in the current #MeToo climate, that it is intended to bury, not praise, the sexism of the original knick-knack. Or, the work could set the cause of feminism back decades: it’s easy to read as an outrageous objectification of a nearly featureless, dark-skinned woman on her back, legs up. Then again, she could represent the revenge of the maid in Manet’s Olympia (1863) – move over, white mistress! Typically for Koons, you can read it several ways at once.
Meanwhile, the imbalance of power in the culture that spawned the ashtray lives on.
*Linda Yablonsky is writing the first book to take full account of the life and career of Jeff Koons for Henry Holt & Co., publisher.
In Must See
Many artists use collage, but few do so as effectively as John Stezaker. For more than 40 years this English artist has been slicing, splicing and overlaying found photographic images to create strange new visions. In his hands, black and white portraits of forgotten actors, old movie stills and vintage postcards of scenic spots assume eerie, dreamlike qualities and begin to conjure stories very different than the originals.
Stezaker’s current exhibition (“Love”, until 25 March) at The Approach gallery shows his early and rarely seen “Photoroman” collages dating from the 1970s, which are displayed alongside a more recent body of work combining old landscape postcards with black-and-white film stills. In both series, Stezaker prowls around notions of obsession, desire, suspicion and betrayal through the various embracing couples that line the walls.
Stezaker was making theoretical, text-based work when, on a trip to Italy in 1973, he first discovered the romantic photo-novels that would inspire him to start working with images. It is fascinating to see that many of his strategies of disruption and interrogation were in place from the start.
In Kiss V (Photoroman) and Kiss IX (Photoroman) (both 1977), the lovers embracing against a backdrop of geometric 1970s wallpaper have lost their speech bubbles and are instead subjected to rippings, realignments and superimpositions of new imagery. Stezaker complicates their storylines, destabilizing straightforward readings of their clinches.
In other “Photoroman” works, such as Enter…(Exit) … the Third Person III (Photoroman) (1977), which presents an embrace from a maelstrom of different perspectives, pasting in an image of a male observer, Stezaker mixes up the sequence of events and brings together different images into one story frame. Multiple elements and viewpoints mess with what were originally linear narratives: relationships become ambiguous, tensions flare and doubt sets in.
In more recent film-still works, Stezaker hides the lovers’ faces beneath picture postcards of scenic views, to disquieting effect. In Double Mask II (Film Portrait Collage) (2017), the artist superimposes a color postcard of bulging rocky cliffs over the faces of a movie couple. All we can see are is her bare upper body and glittering necklace, the side of his head and his hands clutching her shoulders.
In High Rocks X (2015), a still of a clinching couple is partially covered by a postcard of a tree-topped chasm that is linked on both sides by a bridge, upon which a tiny pair of figures stands. Are they miniature alter egos of the main players?
These later collages flip between the uncanny and the absurd, as the contours of the landscapes suggestively echo and play with the outlines of faces and bodies beneath. It seems such a simple act, to overlay one image with another. Yet, in his acute fusion of images Stezaker carries out an act of smothering and concealment while also opening up a dramatic alternative world. His art nods at the psyches of lovers, tipping a cap to Freud and the Surrealists along the way.
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