Pity the writers of museum wall texts. Their unsung genre, meant to orient the public with basic information, is key to the educational missions espoused by many art institutions. Wall texts are also irritants, undermining the romantic notion that such institutions can be temples for aesthetic contemplation. In front of the great work of art, we all bow. Not to the genius artist necessarily, but to the small placard placed several inches away from the frame. Members of the public crane their necks to get a look at a few paragraphs written, most likely, by the curator’s harried assistant.
These texts can fail in many ways. Written too well, they risk imparting the illusion of knowledge. A brisk biography of the artist coupled with a pithy quote distilling his or her philosophy can provide readers a sense of satisfaction without any incentive to grapple with the visual complexity of the art. Yet trying to account for this complexity—a struggle for any scholar or critic writing in any format—can lead to tangled or leaden prose. Lengthy exegeses, studded with recently coined terms and embellished with broad political claims, are a commonly lamented feature of the international biennial circuit. Underlying these lamentations however, may be a deeper conflict about what, exactly, we expect from an encounter with a work of art. Is it the responsibility of the artist and the institution to deliver stable, familiar, and comprehensible meanings?
Some advocates of modernist painting espoused the notion that anyone could stand in front of a color field and be swept up in the experience. Wall texts, in a way, bring us back down to earth. Writing in opposition to modernist critics, Craig Owens and other editors of this magazine in the 1980s described what they called the allegorical meaning of contemporary art, a supplement to the aesthetic object. Even if they’re inscribed with only a name, some dates, and a donor credit, texts in the gallery serve as reminders of art’s embeddedness in the social world. At their best, labels are prompts or provocations, pointing to the inherent incompleteness of the museum experience: the need for visitors to put in their own work of discovery.
In this issue, Julian Kreimer writes about Steffani Jemison, a Brooklyn-based artist whose work serves as this kind of prompt, pushing viewers to learn more, especially about the history of black culture in America. The objects and installations she presents in galleries are charged fragments, embodying historical experiences much broader than any museum could fully convey. The texts she provides—about black-run communes, utopian languages, or historic publications—are neither substitutes for the work nor simply introductions to it. Instead, they are guides to new fields of knowledge.
Ariel Goldberg offers a glimpse at how one art institution, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, approaches the creation of knowledge. Goldberg analyzes a MoMA program called Forums on Contemporary Photography, an invitation-only event in which curators, critics, artists, and scholars discuss specific issues in the history of photography. The questions raised in these sessions—and the potential blind spots they reveal—may indicate which approaches to photography will be canonized in the future. The most recent edition of MoMA’s periodic “New Photography” survey—which opened in mid-March and features work by this issue’s cover artist, Stephanie Syjuco—reflects the kind of supplemental discourse that Goldberg foregrounds.
Some artists don’t wait for institutions to interpret and label their work. Certainly, Arakawa and Madeline Gins provided ample writings about their own artistic and architectural collaboration of nearly fifty years, in which they sought, to cite the title of one of their text painting series, to dissect the “The Mechanism of Meaning” and, ultimately, to extend human life. Matthew Shen Goodman here assesses their lives and legacies as artists, architects, and writers.