From the moment the artist sells a picture or a work of sculpture, how it is displayed usually lies outside his or her control. Once the artist is dead, all decisions about where to hang or place his work, in what frame and against what color and texture, at what height and wall length and in what light, lie with the owner, and, more and more, with the museum curator. Victoria Newhouse’s Art and the Power of Placement is about the vulnerability of works of art in the hands of their owners. From the Musée d’Orsay to Tate Modern, she demonstrates that the people who build and run our most important cultural institutions sometimes have little understanding of the art that it is their responsibility to show under the best possible conditions. She has written an important book, one that could be read with profit by everyone in the art world. Some of the case histories she cites amount almost to an indictment of the curatorial profession.
Newhouse’s method is to look at the different ways museums have shown a single object or group of objects both in their permanent displays and in loan exhibitions. She contrasts insensitively conceived installations with those that allow works of art to be seen undistorted by curatorial interference. The examples she discusses in detail range from Egyptian antiquities to Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses and from Roman bronzes of the first century AD to Jackson Pollock’s mural-size poured paintings. In each case, she uses written and visual sources to document as far as possible the conditions under which works of art were first seen; she then examines the presentation of the same artworks at different periods in their subsequent history. In two of her most incisive chapters, she looks at the installation of two recent blockbuster exhibitions—of Egyptian art and of the work of Jackson Pollock—at the different venues in which they were shown.
The classic “hang” for museums in the twentieth century was epitomized in Alfred Barr’s installations at the Museum of Modern Art. He presented the art in a neutral setting, hung in a single line, arranged by school and by date. The advantage of this way of hanging is that it minimizes the personality of the curator. All works of art in all installations are susceptible to manipulation. The curator may use the works on view to tell a story or prove a theory of his or her own. But those shown chronologically are less vulnerable to distortion. If one picture was painted before or after another, the fact is inarguable. But even the strictest chronological hang has to be mitigated by aesthetic considerations, so a mixture of the two criteria—aesthetic discrimination and categorizing by time and place—usually serves the works of art best.
There are, to be sure, successful museum installations that are not chronological. An example cited by Newhouse is the Wallace Collection in London—a private collection assembled by …