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Mixed Results

The pros and cons of CAM’s new ‘Greatest Works’ gallery

By Jane Durrell · November 22nd, 2011 · Visual Art
arts2_cam_bill_curryBill Curry - Photo by Richard Avedon
An almost funereal atmosphere envelops the narrow length of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s new, permanent installation in Schmidlapp Gallery — the long hallway connecting the main entrance from Great Hall. This space, which until recently contained objects from the museum’s antiquities collection, now is set off by undulating, floor-to-ceiling fringes of slim black strips marking off individual compartments, each containing a single work of art. These objects are, says CAM Director Aaron Betsky, selected from “our very greatest works of art” and are specific reasons people might visit the museum. 

There are 18 pieces in all. Three of them can be found just before the black-curtain promenade begins, in a teasing setting incorporating reflective and one-way glass. Hiram Powers’ “Eve Disconsolate” greets the visitor in her demure marble nudity, disconsolate at being turned out of Eden and at discovering herself unclothed. She is flanked on either side by large mirrors as though to confound her distress. 

Beyond the mirrors, though, are a couple of guys. To Eve’s right is a 2,000-year-old male mummy, enclosed in a fine example of late-period Egyptian coffin. What seems to be an X-ray photograph of the mummy is imposed on the glass, which now reveals itself as one-way with Eve beyond. 

Behind the opposite glass we jump in time to living memory with a new acquisition, Richard Avedon’s large photograph (silver print mounted on aluminum) of “Bill Curry, Drifter, Interstate 40, Yukon, Oklahoma, June 16, 1980.” Curry, an intense, unhappy fellow in a dirty T-shirt, is reflected on the glass and casts a ghostly image over Eve.

These three works, whose artistic relation to one another lies only in the high level of skill with which each was produced, are a fitting introduction to the black-rimmed spaces beyond. 

Nothing on view can be faulted for not being great art. However, the museum’s press release says the criteria for inclusion also includes “how they function in our society and how we see and use them,” standards I am not sure I understand. What does seem to be in force, however, is the reflection of collectors and choices made in forming the museum’s collection. The collection, establishing the character of the place, is any museum’s reason for being.

Getting to the works behind the curtains, “Ann Ford, later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse,” in her daring, cross-legged pose, occupies the first black-curtained cubicle at the left. A text panel glows, explaining that Thomas Gainsborough’s free style echoed the subject’s flaunting of societal norms. Because there are no other 18th-century English portraits around, we have to take the label’s word that this painting is a break with tradition. 

This is a weakness of the new Schmidlapp installation — it robs these works of relevant art-historical context. Although the aim is for each work to receive focused attention, inevitably, I found, there is interaction with whatever is across the corridor. Facing “Ann Ford” is Anthony van Dyck’s “Portrait of a Man in Armor,” another strong-minded person albeit from another century and of the opposite sex. The text there lets us know the interesting fact that the armor is outdated and in the portrait only as a symbol of strength. This is a very useful piece of information. But again, there are no other portraits from the same period (the 17th century) around to provide context.

Continuing down the gallery we find a strength of the collection tucked in each black-rimmed space: a particularly stunning, particularly large Rookwood vase; Frank Duveneck’s “The Whistling Boy”; a gorgeous piece of French furniture reminding of the museum’s now-stored Period Rooms; the superb simplicity of the marble Cycladic “Reclining Female Figure,” possibly 4,500 years old; and an equally pared-down “Human Figure” in wood, from mid-20th-century Africa. Although the intention is to highlight these pieces individually, I found myself making connections anyway.

Meanwhile, an opposite approach is in the offing next month when the museum opens “The Collections: Six Thousand Years of Art” in the largest upstairs gallery. Instead of concentrating on single, special pieces, the depth of a long-established museum’s collection will be invoked in an installation mimicking actual storage. Some of the antiquities once in the Schmidlapp gallery are to surface here again. Only the Cycladic figure and the mummy made the cut for the renovation downstairs.

This is an old museum with benefits bestowed by several generations of collectors, some of them inspired. But is this the best way to see these works? The installation flies in the face of accepted museology — not necessarily a bad thing — but I’m uncertain if it accomplishes its stated aim: to bring people and art closer together. 

As press officer at Cincinnati Art Museum for more than 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s, I have known many of these works for a long time. Now they seem, set off like idols, a little uncomfortable. They make me uncomfortable, too. ©



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