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When the Museum Is the Message

A traveling exhibition examines how artists are inspired by the institutions themselves.

October 10, 1999|LEAH OLLMAN | Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

SAN DIEGO — A pithy, biting little fact heads curator Kynaston McShine's essay for the catalog of "The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect." The museum as we know it, he writes, came into being at the same time as the guillotine.

Both, you might say, represent advancements over previous methods of getting a job done. But is that as far as the coincidence goes? McShine laughs a deep, rumbling, evasive laugh over the telephone from his office at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and refuses to explicate further. No, he finally concedes, there's nothing lethal about museums. They're not places where art goes to die.

"If they were, I wouldn't be here," says the 40-year museum veteran. "I wouldn't be an undertaker. There are other things I would do with my life."

Museum walls have, in fact, circumscribed the entirety of McShine's working life. Fresh out of graduate school, he began coordinating circulating exhibitions at MOMA, then took a curatorial position at the Jewish Museum. After serving as acting director there from 1965 to 1968, he returned to MOMA, settling into the department of painting and sculpture, where he's been senior curator since 1980.

It would seem natural, after charting such a path, to conclude that museums have been McShine's muse, but he laughs that one away too, not wanting a complex, multidimensional relationship reduced to an easy phrase. Elusive and provocative, McShine curates in his own image. "The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect," which opened recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, takes a broad look at the ways artists have used museums--their stature, physical structure, history and organizing principles--as subject matter for their art.

Kaleidoscopic rather than telescopic, the show is rich in complementary, sometimes even conflicting points of view. Gunther Forg's photographs render the Pinakothek Munchen a cathedral suffused with divine light, while Vic Muniz takes a nothing's-sacred approach, gently mocking the navel-gazing practices of art professionals. With wry, inside humor, he photographs small sections of the Museum of Modern Art's gray-and-white-streaked marble floor, and titles the works "Equivalents," after the legendary series of sky-and-cloud pictures that Alfred Stieglitz intended as emotional self-portraits.

Since their formalization in the late 18th century, museums have changed radically, becoming so fixated in recent years on democratic access and appeal that they've entered what one scholar calls "an age of populist deference." Art has changed just as dramatically over those 200 years, becoming, among other things, increasingly self-reflexive, critical of its own structures and the systems of its presentation and dissemination. Defining a relationship between two such fluid entities, as McShine attempts in "The Museum as Muse," seems an exercise in frustration, but one destined to generate a good deal of intellectual friction along the way.

When the show opened at MOMA in March, Roberta Smith, writing for the New York Times, called it remarkable, "stronger in big ideas than in profound visual experiences" but "unusually coherent [and] well-orchestrated."

"Part of its power," Smith wrote, "lies in the simple fact that, to paraphrase Frank Stella, what you see is where you see it. Its contents and its context are one."

In the catalog and the New York version of the show, McShine, as he puts it, "pulled the living and the dead together," stretching back to the early 19th century to illustrate how artists have long perceived museums as not just repositories, but also concrete manifestations of societal values, be they colonialist, commercial or otherwise. In an instructive painting of 1822, artist Charles Willson Peale shows himself pulling aside a curtain to reveal a vast hall holding his own collection of art and artifacts. That exhibition gallery evolved into the first American museum.

For the San Diego venue, the show has been trimmed of its historical precedents. It picks up in the 1940s with two Joseph Cornell boxes--reliquary-like portraits that function as intimate museums in themselves--and reaches to the present, with works like Mark Dion's 1998 "The Great Chain of Being," a massive tableau mimicking the taxonomic practices of natural history museums.

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