Perspectives ,

Autocorrect: The Politics of Museum Collection Re-Hangs

Curatorial staff and art handlers at the Whitney Museum, installing the 2015 exhibition “America is Hard to See.” NIC LEHOUX, 2015/COURTESY WHITNEY MUSEUM

Curatorial staff and art handlers at the Whitney Museum, installing the 2015 exhibition “America is Hard to See.”


Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, recently framed the curator’s central dilemma in terms of the problem of storage: at any given moment, only a tiny fraction of a museum’s collection can be displayed, leaving the vast majority of its holdings to languish unseen in warehouses and vaults. At the same time, even as the storage rooms threaten to overflow, the imperative to collect persists; we no longer conceive of the museum as a repository of unquestioned masterpieces but as a living organism, open to debate and contestation, preserving the past and interpreting it according to the priorities of the present. A great many works find a more or less permanent home in the bowels of storage for good reason: ultimately, some stuff just doesn’t age well. But shifts in taste and priorities go both ways, as artists whom one generation thought weird, provincial, or minor can be revelatory for another. As Temkin writes in a 2010 Artforum essay, “We cannot afford to allow the displays in the so-called permanent-collection galleries of painting and sculpture to be static, precisely because of what awaits us in storage.”

In the past year, three major New York museums—MoMA, the Whitney, and the Brooklyn Museum—as well as a host of others around the world, have reinstalled their collection galleries in ways that privilege the alternative historical trajectory or new discovery over the transcendent masterpiece. These institutions have also signaled their ongoing commitment to the idea of the collection display as something other than “permanent,” with each iteration of the hang representing one possible narrative among many. This shift reflects a new emphasis on correcting the blind spots and biases of the past; the purported universality of the white male artist’s perspective is no longer a given, but is now seen as a form of oppressive hegemony, obscuring the contributions and innovations of women, people of color, and artists working outside Western art-world centers. The inclusion of such works, rescued from deep storage—if they were even collected at all—serves as an important historical corrective, giving certain artists a belated recognition and blurring the familiar borders of canonical movements.

If the idea of museums radically altering their collection displays semiregularly is now not only uncontroversial but commonplace, it’s worth remembering that this is a relatively new state of affairs. Art historian Douglas Crimp’s influential 1980 essay, “On the Museum’s Ruins,” opens with a pointed analysis of an angry review by Hilton Kramer that lambasted a recent reinstallation of the Metropolitan Museum’s 19th-century-painting galleries. For Kramer, some works were self-evidently masterpieces, representing Western civilization’s greatest cultural achievements, while others were plainly second-rate curiosities, and the notion that both categories were worthy of equal consideration within the exhibition space bore witness to a pernicious “postmodern” hostility to critical judgment and connoisseurship. More recently, in 2004, Guardian critic Jonathan Jones expressed a similar sentiment in response to the presentation, back in 2000, of the collection at the newly opened Tate Modern, as well as the “MoMA 2000” exhibition cycle from that same year, which was the first significant reinstallation of the museum’s collection in decades. Both these shows abandoned chronological or movement-based narratives in favor of transhistorical, thematically oriented clusters. “It seemed so irrational to consign a great work to storage because it didn’t fit a reinstallation,” Jones wrote. “The occasional insight was poor compensation for the disappearance of [the museum’s] masterpieces.” These statements are tinged with a reactionary conservatism: acknowledging that art’s history can’t be fully collapsed into a series of major isms or that the category of “masterpiece” is historically exclusive need not automatically involve abandoning the idea that some artworks are more worthy of display than others.

At the same time, there are reasonable anxieties to be had about the collection hang as a free-for-all. There is a new prominence given to curators in these hangs, placing their decision-making processes front and center. Likewise, the emphasis on mutable collection displays over fixed monoliths is uncomfortably paralleled by a broader trend in museum operations toward perpetual newness, with showpiece buildings, event-driven spectacle, and an inevitable closeness with the commercial art market as more and more space is given over to emerging contemporary artists.

Curatorial staff and art handlers at the Whitney Museum, installing the 2015 exhibition “America is Hard to See.” NIC LEHOUX, 2015/COURTESY WHITNEY MUSEUM

Curatorial staff and art handlers at the Whitney Museum, installing the 2015 exhibition “America is Hard to See.”


The opening of the Whitney’s new downtown building last year offered its curators the opportunity to consider the installation and presentation of the collection from the ground up, freed from some of the baggage of institutional tradition. Occupying the entire building and, save for one loan, drawn entirely from the museum’s holdings, the opening exhibition, “America Is Hard to See,” served as a kind of manifesto for the reinvented institution, bringing a fresh perspective to the collection and recasting the museum’s mission as one in which the history and identity of American art would be treated as an open question. Though organized chronologically, the exhibition was subdivided into themes, allowing familiar collection highlights to be viewed alongside works that had rarely, if ever, been exhibited in the Breuer building, the Whitney’s former home uptown, providing a picture of American art that was both surprising and expansive. Moreover, it foregrounded the relationship between the evolution of collection and institution, describing the processes by which objects entered the collection as part of the museum’s “collective memory.” In a statement, the curatorial team emphasized that this survey was not meant to be fixed or comprehensive but was rather a “critical new beginning,” which would, in the years to come, lay the groundwork for numerous potential historical narratives.

The first of these is devoted entirely to portraiture. Titled “Human Interest,” this installation, which opened in April and will remain up until next February, treats the portrait as a lens through which to view both the unfolding of modern American art and the history of the Whitney collection itself. Though the boundaries of the portrait genre are treated as relatively elastic here—there is a section, for instance, devoted to “Portraits Without People”—this thematic hang allows for a great deal of diversity in terms of movements and styles while maintaining a firm conceptual anchor. Presenting the story of American art via portraits plays to the strengths of the museum’s collection, but it also provides an alternative reading of modern art centered on the figurative tradition. Figuration is often marginalized—along with prewar American art in general—in mainstream accounts of the 20th century, which is typically portrayed as a progressive obliteration of figural representation. Both here and in “America Is Hard to See,” revisiting American art is also a way to revisit modernism as a whole.

While the Whitney’s new building served as a tabula rasa for approaching its collection anew, MoMA curators have had to contend with the long shadow of the institution’s own role in defining the very canon that it and many other museums now find themselves attempting to reinterpret. In the past several years, the museum has made significant efforts to bring alternative perspectives to the display of its permanent collection, thus far with mixed results.

Though MoMA has periodically rotated works in and out of its fourth-floor collection galleries, typically devoted to painting and sculpture from 1940 to 1980, since the opening of its new building in 2004, the recent “From the Collection: 1960–1969” is undoubtedly the institution’s most dramatic statement. In addition to turning the entire floor over to a single decade, the curators gathered works from every one of the museum’s curatorial departments, as well as from the library and archives. In place of MoMA’s usual movement-based organization, often arranged in medium-specific galleries, is a rigidly chronological hang, with each year given its own space. Citing the decade’s significance as a period in which dramatic changes in the nature of art practice went hand in hand with sociopolitical upheavals worldwide, the 17-member, crossdepartmental curatorial team—led by Temkin and Martino Stierli, chief curator of architecture and design—describe the installation as “organized through the lens of the 1960s.” This phrase implies the self-consciously provisional nature of the narrative: the absence here of many of the permanent collection’s most iconic works from this era makes clear that this is intended as an array of interesting things that happened during that decade—in other words, not an authoritative history of ’60s art. Works will be changed out over the course of the year-long exhibition, reflecting both the dilemma of storage and, in the curators’ words, “the view that there are countless ways to explore the history of modern art.” At the same time, the idea of the ’60s as a “lens” points to the chronological determinism of the year-by-year hang that is ultimately this reinstallation’s greatest weakness.

Installation view of MoMA’s “From the Collection: 1960–1969,” featuring a Jaguar E-Type Roadster. MARTIN SECK/©2016 MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

Installation view of MoMA’s “From the Collection: 1960–1969,” featuring a Jaguar E-Type Roadster.


The exhibition opens with 1960, featuring an algorithmic painting by French artist François Morellet hung against a swath of Bubble Wrap, one of many juxtapositions throughout the show that emphasize a leveling of art and design objects. Presumably, hanging Bubble Wrap on the wall alludes to the fact that its designers originally intended to produce three-dimensional wallpaper before realizing that their product was far more functional as packing material for fragile objects; placing it alongside Morellet might hint at the ways in which the standard grid served as a point of departure and structural principle for both artistic composition and industrial manufacture. In the absence of any contextualizing label, however, the combination seems like an arbitrary provocation, something that might be said about any number of the pairings here. In one gallery, devoted to the year 1966, vitrines on pedestals hold small sculptures and editioned objects by artists like Vija Celmins and Allan D’Arcangelo alongside modish design objects, such as a Lucite tape dispenser. If there is a connection between these things, beyond the fact that they were created in the same year, it is elusive.

The most dramatic and egregious of these art-design confrontations comes toward the beginning of the exhibition, with the 1961 room, which is dominated by a midnight-blue Jaguar E-Type Roadster convertible at the center of the gallery. Let me be clear: this car is very cool, and its status as a design icon is undeniable. There’s also something symbolically appropriate about putting a sports car literally front and center in an exhibition on the ’60s: the automobile serves as a kind of metonym for the decade’s culture, embodying everything from the stultifying effects of suburbia to the mythologization of the open road. It’s also, of course, taken up as a theme by any number of ’60s artists: in John Chamberlain’s crushed-car sculptures, Ed Ruscha’s deadpan catalogue of Los Angeles gas stations, the tableaus of Edward Kienholz. But to place this car in the gallery seems to miss the point, offering it as an object of aesthetic contemplation and period design rather than the embodiment of a particular kind of fantasy that suffused ’60s culture, that often found its expression in a burgeoning ethos of conspicuous consumption. To put it bluntly, what’s missing is speed.

This problem extends beyond the mash-up of art and design: treating the year of production as the primary rationale for placing things together also has a flattening effect on artists employing similar mediums. It seems specious to cite the decade’s tumultuous political struggles without explicitly considering the radically different conditions and divergent motivations underpinning what might seem, at first glance, like similar-minded work. Artists working contemporaneously weren’t necessarily contemporaries. What to make, for instance, of the 1963 gallery’s cluster of black monochromes, by artists such as the American Daniel LaRue Johnson, the Argentine León Ferrari, and the Italian Alberto Burri? Without an understanding of the underlying context of such lesser-known works as these, the exhibition often reads as an eclectic storeroom tour.

The Brooklyn Museum’s rehang was more extensive and wide-ranging, reinstalling the galleries devoted to Egyptian, European, and American art. Of these, the treatment of the American galleries is the most polemical, emphasizing the close ties between American artistic production and nation building. At the same time, the presentation avoids triumphalism in its narrative of American history: with the new and welcome prominence given Native American and African-American artists, the installation frankly acknowledges that the rising fortunes of a new nation—reflected or celebrated in many of the collection’s finest works—were predicated on oppression.

In one particularly staggering section, “Visions and Myths of a Nation,” a gallery devoted to the 19th century features an elaborate gilded mantelpiece by the Herter Brothers, the robber barons’ interior decorators of choice, on the same wall as an 1801 silver peace medal by John Matthias Reich bearing the word “friendship.” (Peace medals were given as gifts to Native American leaders to commemorate treaties, many of which were swiftly broken.) Sitting at the gallery’s center is a tunic designed by a Red River Métis or Yanktonai Sioux artist. The triangulation of the three objects is a forceful reminder that these fates were linked. In a gallery focused on the American landscape, Albert Bierstadt’s majestic view of the newly explored Western territories, A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie (1866), is set against a display of dinnerware machine-printed with scenes of the Hudson River Valley and California, produced in England for middle-class American consumers.

Most impressive about this installation is the attention given to sightlines between galleries; the views from one thematic or temporal grouping to the next make subtle but effective points about their interconnectedness without being overly didactic. In the opening gallery, which displays pre-Columbian art by tribes across the Americas, the doorway frames a view of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, among the very first visual articulations of the new republic’s democratic aspirations. Later, the transition between a gallery devoted to international influences on art of the post–Civil War era and one focused on the rise of the modern city is marked by the little-known artist John Carroll’s unconventional jazz age portrait Showgirl (1929), conveying the liberation—or promiscuity—of the “new woman” via primitivist allusions to African art.

Reinstallations can occasionally feel like an Oedipal overcorrection, but the experimental impulse behind them is ultimately promising, allowing for any number of welcome incursions into a story that many of us assume we already know. Putting the contents of storage into the picture hints at histories that have been suppressed. The history of art has always been more unwieldy and complicated than any museum’s timeline allows.

Rachel Wetzler is a New York–based writer and doctoral candidate in art history at City University of New York Graduate Center.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “Autocorrect.”

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