When, in 1968, Robert Smithson loaded the back of a station wagon with rocks from New Jersey and brought them across the Hudson to New York's Dwan Gallery for one of his non-sites, he was performing a material relocation that would have been familiar to countless medieval pilgrims returning home with relics from holy sites. How can the logic of one such destabilization of place and time elucidate the logic of the other, despite radically disparate circumstances? The seed of this question was planted in 2010 by art historians Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood in their landmark text Anachronic Renaissance. Now Nagel brings this inquiry to modernism. Giving Artforum readers an exclusive preview of his forthcoming book, Medieval Modern, Nagel here examines the spatiotemporal suspensions through which we might see and understand art across a historical distance both remote and surprisingly near.
It took a little while for the art market and museums to assimilate Minimalism and post-Minimalism, environments, Land art, and installation art. In the meantime, however, a number of collectors and curators looked to the past--to the multiauthored, multimedia, and multitemporal installations of premodern art--finding in them inspiring models for displaying site-specific work and restructuring art patronage. Dia Art Foundation, for example, was famously developed in 1974 by Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil in response to the new art, but following encounters with ancient and medieval art on trips to Greece and Italy. Friedrich has avowed that Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel in Padua was an especially powerful inspiration; a traditional commission, it is also a masterwork by the founder of modern European painting and thus a work at the limits of the categories of its time. Contemporaneously with Friedrich, the collector Giuseppe Panza epochally imagined his public installations of Minimalist art to be "taking the place of the cathedral." (1) And a decade earlier, John and Dominique de Menil, parents of Philippa, commissioned Mark Rothko's celebrated chapel in Houston. Unlike most church projects, even those of the twentieth century, that sanctuary's mission was generalized--belonging to no denomination, no single religion--in order to meet the art on its terms.
Collectors and patrons were generally following precedents established by the artists. Throughout twentieth-century experiments in site-specificity, from the Bauhaus to Dia and from Kurt Schwitters to Paul Thek, Ilya Kabakov, and Robert Gober, artists have consistently invoked churches and chapels as models of installation and viewer involvement. A recent revisionist trend has linked such tendencies to spiritual commitments on the part of modern and postmodern artists and their champions, as amply documented throughout the history of the avant-gardes. Yet to reduce the interest in chapels to religious sensibilities is to limit the scope of the question. Forms of art cross the borderlines of belief systems, and medieval chapels have proved compelling to nonreligious artists.
What made medieval chapel spaces so meaningful to twentieth-century practitioners? It was not only, or even primarily, that they were a link to the sacred, bur that in performing their religious functions these structures tampered with the spatiotemporal coordinates of lived experience. When it came to chapels, site specificity was only a primary stage in a logic of territorial and temporal destabilization, just as in biblical exegesis the literal reading of scripture as a historical narrative of events was considered only the first step in an interpretation of the sacred text at multiple levels (allegorical, topological, anagogical). The dislocations set in motion by medieval art's site specificity did not remain limited to its time. They became active again in the past century, especially at those critical moments when the boundaries of art were thrown into question. …