Curatorial Decor

After having spent an afternoon doing the rounds in Chelsea, zig-zagging from 29th Street down to 22nd; after having visited thirty or so galleries; after having spotted Jerry Saltz ambling down the avenue, gabbing on his cell phone (maybe to Sarah Jessica Parker!); after having bumped into several artists and acquaintances; after all that, the only thing I came away with is a profound longing for the days of hanging pictures salon-style.

It’s not an ideal way to encourage concentration on individual pictures, you would think, with all that one-thing-on-top-of-another hurly-burly. But who’s to say the lack of finesse in hanging them wasn’t a nod, albeit in a back-handed way, to the self-sufficiency of each image? What counted, after all, was making room for pictures, not making the room through the pictures.

Nowadays, artworks are often victims–sometimes willing, sometimes not–of curatorial caprice. Take a look at this:

Chris Marker’s photographs at Peter Blum Gallery, Chelsea

* * *

The installation of the Mapplethorpe at Sean Kelly Gallery show has a certain logic in terms of its (not uninteresting) gimmick–fifty photos chosen by fifty folks, one from each state in the nation. Still, it’s indicative of a shift from highlighting the art to highlighting the highlighter. Donald Kuspit once posited that the maker of the art object was merely a conduit for the true agent of creativity, the critic. Kuspit was wrong. The true agent of creativity is the exhibition designer. Did Walker head up her own oh-so-artful presentation or was it the folks at the gallery? Whatever: all that’s been accomplished is the deflation of righteous indignation through post-conceptual flummery.

The exhibition of photographs by Chris Marker at Blum is a particularly egregious example of the trend. Over two hundred pictures ring the gallery, checker board-style. Marker’s photos of mass transit systems and their weary patrons are, notwithstanding the globalist bent, run-of-the-mill. But who’s to say cherry-picking ten or fifteen of the things wouldn’t make a stronger case for them? As for Plensa at Lelong: Reiterating the artist’s deftly applied formula through an equally numbing installation may be a Warholian tactic, but that’s not to say it isn’t damning and dull.

It’s enough to make you think that artists and their representatives purposefully set out to obscure a lack of invention (or inspiration) through quantity, yes, but also through exquisitely calibrated juxtapositions to the surrounding architecture–that is to say, interior decoration.

Most artists I know are happy to have their art hanging above someone’s couch, even if it’s been acquired with a partial eye toward matching the upholstery. And didn’t Michelangelo have to work around that chapel thing? The best artists thrive under imposed limitations. But there’s a difference between matching the sofa or placating the Pope and having the work usurped by someone who distrusts (or hates) art. Shuffling the work around like a Pottery Barn window display might make sense to commodity fetishists, but for those of us who love art for its wily independence, it’s a sign of contempt.

There have always been people intent on stifling art’s free-standing integrity. That the contemporary scene is increasingly defined by them is a matter of no small irony and disheartening.

Postscript:  You’ll find additional thoughts about installations-gone-wild here. As for Kara Walker, what I say here is pretty much applicable to the pieces in her current exhibition.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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