Fire When Ready

John Haber
in New York City

The Museum as Muse

O for a Muse of fire! Shakespeare wrote that, not a press officer. But when a museum calls its exhibition "The Museum as Muse," I only half hear postmodern mind games. I hear boasting.

It has already greeted me with the inevitable gift shop and high admission prices. Now it comes on stage before the principal players, the artists. Like that opening chorus in Henry V, it demands to "ascend / The brightest heaven of invention." Any flashier the bravado, and it might have to go up in flames. Charles Willson Peale as the Artist in His Museum (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1822)

Okay, the Museum of Modern Art would not go that far, not even to clear ground for yet another upcoming expansion and self-definition. Yet its latest show ends with the perfect image, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire. Artists, like Ed Ruscha here, may think they can outsmart the art world's institutional politics. In a fascinating exhibition, they analyze the museum to death and take its strategies for their own. And somehow the museum's power and presence survives it all. Art has once again succeeded not by containing its subject, but by setting it free.

The museum as ruse

Ruscha's painting dates from the 1960s, back when protests still had more anger than irony. Who wants to burn down the Brooklyn Museum, just because it gives its shows over to the Rubell Family Collection of one artist, Hernan Bas? With its new building, LACMA had set itself up as a hugely oversized monument to itself. If Ruscha had a community's alienation in mind, however, he was also a safely prominent artist having fun. If you can't beat 'em, join the fire.

Those memories of Southern California sit in a room called "The Museum Transformed." The Modern divides its show by theme, and here one meets transformations that I have admired rather more. A sketch by Christo asks to wrap MoMA itself, and what a shame he never got permission. Robert Smithson moves bits of terrain inside the museum, challenging its ability to select from and stand outside nature. On the one hand, he creates a category beyond architecture or sculpture, what he and Rosalind Krauss called nonsite. On the other hand, he tears those neat categories to shreds.

"The Museum Transformed" does not stop with works of art. The exhibition exemplifies the theme, too. By putting on this show, the Modern transforms itself. It joins in the postmodern analysis of museum politics. It questions where the art ends and museum practices begin. By the same token, in once again taking center stage, it comes all the more into question.

And then comes a further twist. The museum bursts the limits of its own theme. It shows any artist's transformation as one among many. It shows the museum quite intact, with the same old low-ceilinged galleries one loves to hate. And a funny thing: the works of art have exceeded their self-definition, too. They may no longer make sense as a rejection of the museum, but their criticism may actually get more bite that way.

I have rarely found Ruscha challenging enough for my liking. His easygoing style has at times felt as glib to me as Richard Hamilton's DayGlo museum models, on display nearby. (Talk about the '60s! Maybe the British artist should have had the Guggenheim tie-dyed, too.) However, a give-and-take between criticism and the imagination enters into all the works on display, and in his drawings and reflections on America's decline, he continues to darken his vision.

Art's dizzying imagination allows its subject and the work to remain always in play. It takes only the viewer's openness to art. As the chorus said, "On your imaginary forces work."

The museum as excuse?

Ho-oold on a minute. Think about the show's subtitle, "Artists Reflect." Reflect on what, the art museum? Surely artists have been merrily reflecting for some time now.

The Modern all but admits as much. One work here dates all the way to 1822, by Charles Willson Peale. The Philadelphia portraitist paints himself, drawing aside a curtain to reveal a long wall of cabinets. Tunneling back in disorienting perspective, they comprised the first American museum. In no time, painting had ascended to an art for the ages—an art of the museum.

So artists latched onto the muse as soon as it existed? No, earlier. The Modern forgets to point out that Peale worked in an established genre. Portraits since the Renaissance had placed a philosopher and collector amid an array of objects valued most. They set forth the sitter's wealth and erudition. They also put painting up there with the other liberal arts, able to stand up beside them as it encompassed them visually.

Encompass and stand beside: I mean it to sound paradoxical. Art has this way of getting inside what it stands back to represent. Once artists reflects on art institutions, the boundaries get hard to pin down. The museum's walls start to burn.

Modernism took the conflagration as essential. With Impressionism, one had to look not only at the work, but at one's own eye and what it saw around it. Certainly by Minimalism that included the museum. Carl Andre with his steel plates and cinderblocks stand as only one path among many in a gallery's interior.

So art has long taken on the museum, but "The Museum as Muse" has something else in mind, something properly postmodern. A museum here stands not for a realm of experience, but a subject matter. Collage alone does not qualify, but Marcel Duchamp's moustache on The Mona Lisa does. And subject means politics, like the politics of inserting that museum into downtown LA. Yet the exhibition also questions the division between politics and esthetics, subject matter and "pure" experience. As I watched the museum decide when to join the show, I found myself watching my two views of the exhibition, the modern and postmodern, collide.

The museum as mews

Peale's self-portrait introduces another room, "Natural History Collections: Questioning Modes of Classification," while Duchamp falls within "Artist-Collectors and the Personal Museum." Since Michel Foucault, philosophers have feared the power to classify as the power to control. They are out to spotlight Modernism's obsessions and to subvert them. They want to set the art museum against Borges's Library of Babel.

These two rooms hold tantalizing museums in miniature. They start with Joseph Cornell boxes, and they might well be trying to trump him. Perhaps they fear that his delicacy hides too easily the work's mania and fixation on the artist's self. Barbara Bloom in fact calls one of her installations The Reign of Narcissism. Others here include Christian Boltanski with his relational esthetics and dark cabinet of wonders. Childhood, he knows, becomes fragmented and yellowing with age from the moment one hopes to preserve its memory.

If these rooms pursue interesting variations on "The Museum as Muse," they also play the same game I was to experience with "The Museum Transformed." Again the Modern outdoes the artists by taking on their theme. The rooms amount to a classification scheme, and they offer the curator, Kynaston McShine of the Modern, a personal museum. The Cornell boxes sit in a long row, behind a glass case, like boxes within boxes.

Art comes to seem in love with the museum after all. One wants to handle and to cherish the relics Susan Hiller supplies From the Freud Museum. When Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs dioramas from a natural-history museum or Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber build their own, one has trouble telling reality at a third remove from the real thing. One distrusts oneself and the museum a little more, but one almost no longer minds.

Art's love affair with the museum lingers long after the political attacks. I had to check a catalog to recall Hans Haacke with his reduction of Cubism to cigarette advertising or General Idea's documentation of museum marketing. I instead remembered Gunter Fogg's calm abstractions based on museum shadows. I could hardly accept Thomas Struth's insistence on the randomness of experience, his comparison of a museum visit to the comings and goings in a train station. I did, however, appreciate how grand galleries can look in his large photographs.

Does the note of placid acceptance reflect the Modern's biases? One can see, of course, one more museum out for itself. Once more the art world appropriates dissent. It forgets alternative spaces that mimic The Empty Museum Ilya Kabakov or remain in perpetual reconstruction, like photographs of an actual empty museum by Wijnanda Deroo. But that too acts out the show's themes, and art's hall of mirrors continues. Within and without, "artists reflect."

The museum as you

Deconstruction talks about the "supplement." To say something, whether in words or in images, one has to exclude something else. The alien, the past, a painting's frame—these things have a way of coming back to haunt one. One needs them in the end to define oneself, to make art. Art can "recuperate" them, but only by watching things spiral joyously—or painfully—out of control.

Peale's painting stands as one supplement. A single entry from a century before the rest, it lets Romanticism and tradition back into Postmodernism. A life-size portrait, stage curtain, and exaggerated perspective let in art's theater. Throughout the exhibition, artists call out to the muse to play art's supplement, and the museum welcomes the request.

I am uncomfortable with the byplay. I agonize over what went wrong. How easily the museum accommodates the demand to politicize it. How easily, too, the show excludes so much of the overtly political or feminist, such as Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer. How easily artists' play with precious relics avoids real politics. They rebel against the institutional pressures, acknowledged by Emily Fisher Landau and Philippe de Montebello, and return after all to André Malraux's modernist dream of "an imaginary museum."

I wanted to ask about real wealth and museum politics. What about the Guggenheim's puffing up a donor's sculpture collection or relegating abstract art to Modernism's past? What about the Whitney's American idyll? What about the Met's dismal careerism or the Modern's own threat to alternative spaces? By contrast, Garry Winogrand might as well document sixth-century Tibet for all I recognize in his photos of museum openings.

A museum's discourse about art about the museum (about art about ...). What had gone wrong was perhaps inherent in the postmodern critique, which depends for its survival on a modernist target. It was certainly inherent in the museum. And yet I had to expect the results once art comes into play. Perhaps I had to celebrate, too, what the experience has in common with politics. The burden of art and politics alike, I mean, always falls back on the individual—to perceive and to act.

Are these artists up to the task? Am I? Maybe not, too much of the time, even when they trump this show by taking the gallery as muse. Still, at least I laughed to see someone with much the same idea as my own, a video performance as museum docent by Janet Cardiff, not to mention her usual role as tour guide. Oh, and one last twist: for this show the Modern commissioned her work.

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"The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through June 1, 1999.


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