Shooting the Side Show

Behind the scenes with van Gogh and Donald Judd.

A bundled–up sculpture at the Katonah Museum of Art is the subject of Chad Kleitsch's Untitled #50 (Hostage), 2003.

A bundled–up sculpture at the Katonah Museum of Art is the subject of Chad Kleitsch's Untitled #50 (Hostage), 2003.


Photographer Chad Kleitsch credits a “Starry Night moment” for inspiring his show “White Box–Photographs of the Unseen Museum,” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

“I was working as an art handler at the Museum of Modern Art, and a framer asked me to help him,” says Kleitsch. “I looked down and realized I was holding van Gogh‘s Starry Night in my hands. It was light as a feather, smaller than I’d imagined, even though I’d seen it every day. I was enthralled, and it made me realize how dead I had been to what art was. How could I have missed something so clear and present?”

Kleitsch, who lives in Rhinebeck, New York, began asking museums nationwide for permission to photograph galleries during exhibition transitions. His years of living in a Zen monastery served him well, as he endured dozens of rejections. But he persevered.

Since 2001, he has taken hundreds of photographs, documenting show changes at 15 museums and galleries including MoMA, the Menil Collection, and the Norton Museum of Art. Ten large prints from the project are on view in the Aldrich show, which runs through March 14.

“I was really struck by the whole world that goes on behind the walls when a gallery closes for an installation, and the unique opportunity to see things that would disappear within a moment or a few seconds,” Kleitsch says. “My impetus was to help people remember what seeing is really like, rather than just looking, and to share these momentary treasures.”

One image shows a sculpture wrapped in a blue shipping blanket, tape circling her face and arms, standing next to a bottle of cleaning liquid and a hair dryer. Kleitsch calls it Hostage. Other moments Kleitsch has captured: a cascade of lowercase vinyl letters—formerly exhibition wall text—falling to the floor; a set of seven empty display shelves casting long shadows on a clean wall, an homage to Donald Judd‘s boxes; and an LCD monitor lying face–up on a cart, surrounded by various sets of wires.

Kleitsch says the images reflect not only his own esthetic, but the fact that many art handlers are themselves artists. In creating his photographs, he tried to be unobtrusive, and to preserve gallery workers’ unintended compositions. “What’s incredible is how they lay boxes on tables in particular ways, and sometimes the mess to a side of a work is more beautiful than the work itself,” he says.

The images impressed Richard Klein, exhibitions director at the Aldrich, which has allowed the public to observe curators changing shows since 2008. “He has a great eye, a great deadpan sense of humor, and then there’s the formal beauty of his work,” says Klein.

Now devoted to his photography (he is planning a trip to Europe to continue the “White Box” project) Kleitsch nonetheless misses some aspects of life as an art handler. “There’s nothing like holding a Brancusi in your arms,” he says. “It’s incredible to feel the weight of an object you idolize.”

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