Scenes from a Museum

By Peltomaki, Kirsi | Afterimage, July-August 1999 | Go to article overview

Scenes from a Museum

Peltomaki, Kirsi, Afterimage

The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect organized by Kynaston McShine The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York March 14-June 1, 1999

The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego La Jolla, California September 26, 1999-January 9, 2000

The Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain March 14-May 29, 2000

The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect by Kynaston McShine New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999 296 pp./$50.00 (hb), $24.95 (sb).

Website:, with links to on-line artists' projects by Allan McCollum and Fred Wilson

"The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect," organized by Kynaston McShine, Senior Curator for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, contains nearly 200 works by more than 60 artists, with an emphasis on American and European post-war work. The exhibition includes photographs of museums (e.g, by Zoe Leonard and Vik Muniz), personal museums by artists (e.g., by Joseph Cornell and Susan Hiller), work on exhibitionary and archival strategies (e.g., by Marcel Broadthaers and Mark Dion), appropriative uses of museological material (e.g., by Marcel Duchamp) and analyses of museum ideologies (e.g., by Andrea Fraser and Hans Haacke). The works vary in their degree of involvement with the idea of the museum. Some include only an incidental reference to, a museum environment or a museum-related concept, while others employ a museological frame of reference as the crux of the work.

According to the brochure, the exhibition is divided into five categories: Photographs: The Object and the Museum in Use; Artist-Collectors and the Personal Museum: Natural History Collections: Questioning Modes of Classification; Museum Practices and Policies; and The Museum Transformed. These headings, however, are not directly transposed on the exhibition space itself - a curatorial decision that leaves the exhibition space undivided and, apart from wall labels, text-free. While the act of museological categorization is precisely what some of the work critiques, the absence of contextualization in the exhibition unfortunately leaves the question of how these works are changed by their placement in and their relation to MoMA unexamined. Though the volume of the included material provides MoMA with an excellent opportunity for curatorial indulgence, "The Museum as Muse" evades an acknowledged critique of how museums both inspire and shape the work that they display.

Scattered throughout "The Museum as Muse" is an abundance of work about MoMA itself. Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler's MoMA Whites (1990) presents the custom white wall paint preferred by various MoMA curators alongside standard manufactured whites. Each "white" sample has been poured into a glass jar onto which the exact name of each color is etched. By juxtaposing the hues of white that constitute the "white walls" of the MoMA galleries, Ericson and Ziegler demonstrate how galleries are marked by the preferences of their curators. "McShine White," for example, differs noticeably in hue from "Rubin White," "Riva White" and the standard "Decorator White." Thomas Struth's Cibachrome print Museum of Modern Art 1, New York (1994) depicts museum visitors in front of a Jackson Pollock painting. By using long exposures that foreground yet blur the visitors, Struth's photograph encompasses the viewers' relationship to the painting unlike a reproduction or installation shot where the painting alone would command the field of vision. Komar and Melamid's Scenes from the Future: Museum of Modern Art (1983-84) portrays MoMA in ruins, sprawling in the middle of a pastoral landscape. Referencing Romantic paintings of ruins in pastoral settings, the sight of the modern MoMA becoming a fragment of classical architecture nonchalantly places the museum into a trajectory of history in which its role may only be transitory.

Of the works prepared specifically for this exhibition, Janet Cardiff's MoMA Walk (1999) takes visitors on a semi-nostalgic audio tour of MoMA's permanent collection galleries located outside the parameters of "The Museum as Muse" to reflect on the museum as a location of perception. …

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