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On Hanging

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.

1.

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 the third and fourth Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace over three generations that is still shown in the family’s London townhouse, like the Frick Collection in New York. The splendid display in the great gallery includes works of art that range in date from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. But the installation works well because the collection represents the personal taste of private collectors displayed in a domestic setting.

Elsewhere in the building, the curators try to show like with like, with Dutch pictures exhibited in one suite of rooms, French cabinet pictures in smaller galleries, and Jean Baptiste Greuze given a gallery (almost) to himself. Renaissance majolica, glass, and sculpture are shown separately from the important collections of French furniture, Sèvres porcelain, and French painting. In America, the best-known decorative hang is in the Barnes Foundation, once again reflecting the private nature of the collection—and in that case the theories about art of the eccentric man who brought his astonishing group of pictures together.

Until recently the division between a decorative hang and a chronological display seemed fairly clear. Then, about five years ago a fad for thematic hanging swept through the museum world like a virus. Both the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Britain1 in London chose to show their permanent collections in this way on a temporary basis. Both institutions house encyclopedic collections of, respectively, twentieth-century art and British painting and sculpture from the seventeenth century to the present day. Apart from the distressing visual chaos that resulted from these installations, a thematic display meant that the visitor who wanted to see a specific painting might not find it on view—or, if it was on view, it may have been used to make some art historical point of the sort usually best left to the scholarly article, textbook, or didactic exhibition. The problem here is not that museums can’t use art to explore questions of, say, gender, politics, or social history (art history would be a very narrow discipline if it couldn’t). But once a museum places a picture in a particular setting it can be very difficult to see it in a different way. The distinction between what the curator can do in a temporary exhibition as opposed to a permanent display is crucial in a discussion of art and its placement.

At MoMA the thematic display might have worked if it had emphasized the visual similarities between different artists. This is normally done by placing works of comparable aesthetic intention together, as for example when you hang a white-on-white painting by Robert Ryman near a metal floor piece by Carl Andre, comparing and contrasting two different approaches to minimalism in late- twentieth-century American art.

Instead, there have been jarring leaps between medium, school, and date. An example cited by Newhouse was the placement at MoMA of Cézanne’s famous Bather (1885) next to a large-scale color photograph by the contemporary Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra of an adolescent boy in his bathing suit (1993). The curator John Elderfield noted that when painting his Bather Cézanne had relied on a photograph, which Elderfield exhibited in an adjoining gallery. The juxtaposition was meant to “demonstrate the formal similarities between the Cézanne and the photographs, and the interrelationship of different mediums and different times.” While the academic argument may sound reasonable, it doesn’t take into account the visual experience of seeing Dijkstra’s photograph and Cézanne’s painting side by side. As Newhouse observes,

Pairing the weighty nineteenth-century symbolic figure with the late-twentieth-century realistic adolescent…did the Cézanne a tremendous disservice. While both images are highly formalized modern statements that derive from a classical tradition, the photograph is about a bather, whereas the painting is about painting.

Another problem with thematic hangs is that they could discourage potential donors. Let us say you were the owner of a large private collection and were thinking of donating an early Cézanne strategically—that is, to an institution that had wonderful examples of his mature work, but nothing from the 1860s. Would you give it to a gallery whose holdings of that artist were distributed thematically throughout the building? Or to one that attempted to show the broad range of the artist’s achievement and allowed you to follow it, step by step?2

2.

When the Queen opened Tate Modern in May 2000, London acquired its first important museum since Edward VII opened the Tate Gallery at Millbank one hundred years earlier. Before Tate Modern, alone of all capital cities in Europe, London was without a museum of modern art. Everyone expected great things from this former power station on the banks of the Thames opposite St. Paul’s, now transformed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron into a gallery with space and light suitable for showing contemporary art. But for this critic, high expectations turned to dismay when I saw the way the art was hung. Chronological and to some extent aesthetic presentation had been discarded in favor of a thematic installation, accompanied by wall labels that condescendingly told viewers what to think and feel about the art they were looking at.

And yet, the idea of hanging the galleries at Tate Modern thematically was not, in itself, as reckless an idea as it had been at MoMA. What was wrong for comprehensive collections like MoMA and Tate Britain may be suitable for a less encyclopedic collection, and Tate Modern’s holdings of twentieth-century art are notoriously patchy. The curatorial solution was to distribute the works of art over two floors in themed sections broadly corresponding to the categories of art established by the French Academy in the seventeenth century: landscape, still life, nude, and history painting. Within each section there were some galleries devoted to a single artist—for example Francis Bacon, Bridget Riley, Frank Auerbach, and Joseph Beuys.

Had it been done with sensitivity, Tate Modern’s hang could have been interesting. But the result was flat-footed. Many of the galleries became didactic lessons in art history illustrated not with slides but with real works of art. Often the visitor was forced to read lengthy wall labels in impenetrable art-speak to understand why these particular paintings or sculptures were placed together. Whether the displays were aesthetically coherent or visually arresting didn’t appear to enter the curators’ heads. In an example cited by Newhouse for its absurdity, Monet’s Water Lilies hung opposite two works by the contemporary British sculptor Richard Long. One work was a stone circle on the floor, the other a dramatic wall piece created by spattering and dribbling mud on the gallery wall. In order to make sense of this comparison the visitor needed to work his way through a wall label lugubriously ticking off the similarities between each artist’s approaches to landscape. The curators did not seem to care that the scale and violence of the monochromatic wall piece by Long killed the pastel blues and greens of the Monet, making it appear insignificant.

Wherever you looked, there were terrible solecisms. Rereading my review of the opening exhibition, I see that I found particularly unfortunate the placement of Matisse’s series of monumental bronze reliefs, The Backs, opposite drawings by the contemporary South African artist Marlene Dumas. Not only did the physical mass of the sculptures visually crush Dumas’s delicate drawings, but to see the Matisses on the side wall of a small gallery that felt like a corridor between two more important spaces diminished a great artist. Astonishingly, all this was intentional. A young Tate curator told to me that to place a great Francis Bacon or a superb Picasso at the end of a vista or at the center of a wall was to “privilege” the work (i.e., to indicate, by its placement, that it was better or more significant than other works in the collection), and this was something to be avoided at all costs. But as Newhouse shows, it is precisely by isolating works of art that we emphasize their beauty or signal their historical importance.

  1. 1

    The Tate Gallery ceased to exist in 2000 with the division of the collection into Tate Modern at Bankside and Tate Britain at Millbank. Neither institution is prefaced by the definite article, so it is wrong to refer to the Tate Modern or the Tate Britain as Newhouse does throughout this book.

  2. 2

    Newhouse’s book does not consider in detail the hanging of works of art in Yoshio Taniguchi’s new Museum of Modern Art, which opened in November 2004. But in general the hanging was a retreat from the hard-core thematic presentation we saw in 1999– 2000. There are still themed galleries, and not all the works by a single artist are hung together, but in general the curators have kept together works according to their school and date.

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