A curator curating artists who curate other artists. It doesn’t get any more meta than that. The artworks collected in “The Artist’s Museum,” a nesting box of an exhibition organized by Dan Byers, are, in essence, collections themselves. Visitors encounter one idiosyncratic assortment after another, each installation exemplifying its own curatorial logic and complicating the dominant conventions for displaying art.
Goshka Macuga’s gorgeous Kabinett der Abstrakten (after El Lissitzky), 2003, reminds us that artists have long acted as experimental curators. The elaborate wooden cabinet was inspired by a modular gallery that Constructivist artist El Lissitzky designed in the 1920s to house a patron’s collection of abstract paintings. Macuga’s work is a self-contained gallery in itself. When closed, the blonde-wood case is a large cube, with each face embellished with a square of darker inlaid wood. The cabinet folds open at various angles to reveal miniature exhibitions in four interior chambers. The contents of these exhibitions change whenever Kabinett is on view. This iteration features a selection of postwar avant-garde multiples (mostly prints), all borrowed from a British collection. These works include pieces by canonical figures like Joseph Beuys and Jenny Holzer, but could easily be considered ephemera rather than artworks. In contrast to the luxurious form of the cabinet itself, the contents eschew preciousness, suggesting that anyone can take ownership of the histories they represent.
Several of the twelve artists in the show explicitly overturn cultural hierarchies by blending histories of fine art with those of popular culture. Pierre Leguillon’s La grande évasion (The Great Escape), 2012, includes dozens of archival boxes lying open on the floor. The interior and exteriors of the cardboard cases are adorned with photographs of dancers. These range from film stills of Fred Astaire to photographs of Degas’s sculptures of ballerinas to stills from Disney’s Fantasia showing a hippo whirling with an alligator. The installation occupies its own gallery, in which Amy Winehouse’s bluesy 2006 ballad “Back to Black” plays over speakers. Theatrical lighting that intensifies in sync with the song gives the impression that the images are somehow alive.
André Malraux and Aby Warburg, two art historians who pioneered the use of photographic reproductions in the field, are cited frequently in the catalogue. Warburg in particular is a touchstone. For his idiosyncratic “Mnemosyne Atlas” Warburg assembled hundreds of photographs of art in an attempt to trace the “survival” of certain motifs and images throughout world history. He also wrote about depictions of movement as having a primal, totemic power. Mark Leckey’s Cinema-in-the-Round (2006–08) picks up this thread. The video documents a gripping lecture the artist delivered on the circulation of images in the digital era. In a Warburgian spirit, Leckey makes huge associative leaps, discussing everything from Felix the Cat to Garfield to Homer Simpson to James Cameron’s Titanic to artificial intelligence. Yet Leckey forms a surprisingly tight argument about the fluidity, and even secular spiritualism, of animated forms.
Much of the work in “The Artist’s Museum” insists on the fluidity of art history, emphasizing narratives built on personal reflection rather than authoritative interpretation. Carol Bove’s La traversée difficile (The Difficult Crossing, 2008), for example, incorporates reproductions of two eponymous seascapes by René Magritte, one from 1926 and one from 1963. These images are displayed on a plinth among an array of objects—driftwood, shells, coral—that suggests a poetic response to the Surrealist compositions. Anna Craycroft’s project for the exhibition is the most ambitious attempt to examine how collecting and display can be vehicles for self-expression. She devised a two-part exhibition for the show, one a fairly straightforward presentation about the twentieth-century photographer Berenice Abbott, and the other featuring a selection of work by Craycroft’s contemporaries.
Abbott wore many hats, from photographer to inventor to Eugène Atget’s champion and protector, but she was determined to keep her private life very separate from her artist persona. Yet the photographs and artifacts assembled here, drawn from Abbott’s archive, bring this complex person to life. One vitrine features a 1985 epistolary exchange between Abbott and historian Kaucyila Brooke that captures the tension running through Craycroft’s display. Brooke wrote to the photographer seeking her permission to make the argument that a series of portraits Abbott took of lesbians in Paris in the ’20s was a way of affirming her own queer sexual orientation. But Abbott wanted no part of Brooke’s revisionist history. In her response presented here, Abbott writes, “I am a photographer, not a lesbian.”
Craycroft’s companion exhibition suggests an intertwining of artistic practice and social life. She has assembled what feels like a personal tribute to her friends that includes Jill Magid’s display of photographic slides featuring a diamond containing the ashes of Mexican architect Luis Barragán and Matt Keegan’s artist’s book of photocopied images that he considers a “history of New York.” If Brooke tried to assert that Abbott’s portraits of lesbians in Paris show a social circle to which she belonged and that contributed to her worldview, then Craycroft’s exhibition is an explicit embrace of such an idea of influence, serving as a tribute to the work of her own peers and the way that they shape her opinions.
The potential downside to developing our peer groups is that sometimes we get caught up in our own silos or bubbles, unaware of or disinterested in views that don’t conform to our narrow understanding of the world. Photos by Xaviera Simmons depicting assemblages of various items, including palm fronds and images of fashion models, are the only works, unfortunately, by an artist of color. This has other ramifications for the exhibition as a whole, which, in bringing together a selection of artists that is overwhelmingly white, quietly reinforces the very hierarchies it purports to demolish.
If only the exhibition offered some examples from outside of the Western hemisphere to bolster or round out this notion of how we create our own art histories to make better sense of ourselves—the Arab Art Archive comes easily to mind. (The excellent catalogue refers to artist-curated shows by Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker that successfully disrupted the usual, limited focus of museums.) But even in its somewhat imperfect realization, “The Artist’s Museum” suggests horizons as yet undiscovered, and offers hope for the further unpacking of pasts that may enrich our development as citizens of the world.