“Artistic License” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City presents some 300 works from the museum's collection selected by six established contemporary artists. Each artist's selections are displayed together in a dedicated section of the museum's spiraling rotunda along with signage that explains what that artist was trying to achieve by selecting these works.
Traditionally, the art works in a museum have been arranged according to mundane, administrative criteria. Most often they were grouped by historical period with the works from a particular time placed together. Sometimes they were grouped by school, gathering together works by artists who were part of a certain movement such as Impressionism. Another traditional criterion, often combined with the aforementioned criteria is nationality, e.g., French Impressionists. In any event, such arrangements were (and are) not meant to convey any message. Conveying messages is left to the works of art.
But, the selection and arrangement of the works of art in an exhibition can convey a message beyond the messages contained in the constituent works. To illustrate, if a portrait of someone is hung in a line with pictures of a number of notorious villains, it conveys a message about that portrait that goes beyond the message contained in the portrait itself. Museums are recognizing this as you see more and more works placed “in dialogue” with other works.
Such arrangements are not without danger. Done incorrectly, the curator's message may obscure or distort the message of the artist who created the constituent work. Using the previous example, the artist who created the portrait may not have viewed the subject as a villain or perhaps the artist was trying to say something about the subject without reference to other people. In such instances, the curator's arrangement may be misleading the viewer about the artist's message.
Nowadays, you have signage and audio guides to act as "Cliff's Notes" as to the message of an exhibition. For the most part, these are written as statements of fact without noting that there is usually a certain amount of opinion mixed in. However, that seems to be the way of our times even beyond the art world.
As mentioned above, for this exhibition, the Guggenheim chose six contemporary artists to select the works to be included. Of course, an artist's opinion on another artist's work is not inherently more valid than any other person's opinion. However, by turning over the selection process to artists, you do have creative people expressing their views on creativity. Furthermore, they can use their creativity to use the works of art as building blocks to convey their message.
Still, it is important to keep in mind that the messages expressed are those of the artists who selected the works, not necessarily of the artists who created the constituent works. The selections give us insight into the artists who assembled the exhibition and a better basis for understanding their work. Whether they provide a better understanding of the constituent works or the Guggenheim collection as a whole is up to the viewer.
Of the six presentations, the one by Cai Gou-Qiang had the most resonance for me. The artist selected early works by a number of artists who subsequently achieved fame. The works were then arranged in a mass extending up one wall. There was no signage next to the works. Instead, viewers could parse through a diagram in a brochure to figure out who did what work. Furthermore, because these were early or atypical works, they did not have the fully-developed styles that make these artists' works readily identifiable.
Because the artists were not readily identifiable, the works have to stand on their own merit. I found myself looking across the mass of works and stopping at the pictures that interested me. The more I looked at the individual works in this mass, the more I could see that there was something special about each one. It was only later when I looked at the brochure that I saw that they were a Picasso, a Matisse, a Klimt or a Kandinsky.
Cai Gou-Qiang refers to his selections as “Non-brand” - - works that do not incorporate the trademark styles of the artists' iconic works. The selections reveal that there is something inherently special about these artists without reference to their identity.
The other five artist-curators for this exhibition were Paul Chan, Richard Prince, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu and Carrie Mae Weems. Each presents a thought-provoking thesis. Furthermore, because the supporting works have the quality to be in the Guggenheim's collection, the presentations are worth exploring regardless of whether you agree with the various theses.
For more on visiting New York
Click here for our New York travel guide
Above: The selections by Cai Gou-Qiang.
Art review - Solomon Guggenheim Museum - - New York - - Artistic License