Away Game

Installation view of "Ideal (Dis-)Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer." Photo: Adrian Duran.

Installation view of "Ideal (Dis-)Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer." Photo: Adrian Duran.

I’m in St. Louis, visiting family and art museums that I can only get to once in a while. There were some hits, some misses, but this seems like an opportune moment to do some actual art reviewing. I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about the quantity of non-art that has been getting most of this press.

Here’s a great idea that didn’t go well. The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts currently (through October 3) has on view Ideal [Dis-]Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer. To its great advantage, the Pulitzer Foundation is housed in a fantastic Tadao Ando building, poured concrete and those cute little recessed circles, plus a nicely calming, rectangular pool of water. There are loads of natural light and large, airy galleries.

The abundant natural light truly makes the Pulitzer a great venue for looking at works of art, though their usual collection of Richard Serra sculptures and other Minimalia doesn’t really make one aware of what that light can do. So, the introduction of old master paintings seems like a great idea. Oil paint and natural light are one of the world’s great pairings. Like beans and rice, Asterix and Obelix, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. Even the guy working the front desk was in on it. He told me something to the (paraphrased) effect of, “We wanted to see what would happen when we put the works in a setting like the one they were originally in.”

Quiz: What is wrong with the above statement?

Listen, I think the Pulitzer should get the prize for a noble effort, for bringing together a beautiful set of works from the St. Louis Art Museum and the Fogg at Harvard. Lovely things, the kind of works that really do it for me. Lots of 18th century Venetian painters, a Bartolomeo Vivarini Madonna and Child, a trio of wonderful canvases by Joachim Wtewael.

What went wrong is quite simple. Tadao Ando buildings are not good for viewing old master paintings unless the lights are on. And moreover, polished concrete is not “a setting like the one they were originally in.” Where’s the brocade, the charcoal braziers, the wafting incense, the stench of faded aristocracy and Grand Tourists? To try to convince anyone that looking at paintings with the light off is somehow more authentic is like trying to convince someone that Taco Bell is Mexican food. It’s an approximation, a bad approximation that is missing a million of the essential ingredients.

Attention all curators: I know you are much better at your jobs than I will ever be, so I am overstepping my bounds. But please don’t fall for the gimmicks. I know the economy is down and this is the climate where we pull things out of the basement, where we trade collections with other museums, but that doesn’t have to be done badly or disingenuously. I mean, hell, this exhibition had fantastic works in it. But the cheap premise absolutely undermined whatever good that may have supplied. I’d much rather go see a show called Good Paintings We Borrowed from the North Brunswick Museum of Contemporary Art than something plagued by an idea that seems like the bastard offspring of too much reception theory and curatorial studies pseudo-innovation. I mean, did we not learn from that thematic reinstallation of MoMA, or all of the shenanigans that surrounded the opening of Tate Modern?


Carey Young, "Nothing Ventured," 2001, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Photo: Adrian Duran.

On a positive note, I also saw the first American museum exhibition of Zambia-born, London-based artist Carey Young, Speech Acts, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Young’s work plays upon the ways in which corporate culture and customer service create pseudo-communication and anti-interaction. The best of these works, Nothing Ventured (2001), caused me a great deal of consternation. On the other end of the generic office phone, on the generic office conference table was a generic call center employee — except she was real, in St. Louis, and had just been hung up on by my wife, who experienced one of the technical difficulties that unfortunately plagued a few of the phones. “Why aren’t you saying anything?” she said to me. I was immediately on the defensive. “But I’m currently having a conversation with you. Should I say something more profound?” I responded. “Are you general public or press?” she asked. Knowing by then I’d be writing about the experience, I lied to her, also because I’m not really press, but mostly because I knew that explaining to her that I was going to blog the whole thing might be too much information, or confusing, or all of the above, which is exactly how I feel when I call the credit card people about a false charge, or get help regarding my frozen PC. It’s standardized and expected, but so creepy.

She asked me where I was. I told her exactly where, which I surely wouldn’t reveal, not even to people I know, most of the time. I then asked where she was. She was cagey, but let me know that she, too, was in St. Louis, but she wouldn’t answer when I asked if she was in the same building. It was partly hilarious, partly frightening. You see, the artist had supplied the woman on the other end and her colleagues with a CV, which they were to use to educate me about the artist. When asked if I needed any information, I balked and said, “Um, no thanks, I have the pamphlet, so I think I have enough information.” Frankly, I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

So Carey Young, kudos to you. I’ll never be able to talk to a telemarketer, or help desker, or 1-800 employee ever again without a huge case of the heebie jeebies. And for the rest of us, be careful. They know more about you than you want to admit, mainly because we’ve all given them permission to find out, or because we give out the information ourselves, as trusting as the last lemming in line. Attention all curators: this is the good stuff.

Until the next.

Jim Johnson, RIP. Proof that overpreparation is the only preparation.