The art of choos­ing what goes on the wall

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PEGGY MCGLONE

Ev­ery­thing about the work — its bright col­ors and bold shapes, its mas­sive size — grabbed vis­i­tors’ at­ten­tion as they en­tered the Na­tional Gallery of Art’s East Build­ing.

“Woman,” a gar­ish but beau­ti­ful ta­pes­try by Span­ish mod­ern master Joan Miró, an­chored a wall of the I.M. Pei-de­signed build­ing for decades, bring­ing color and vi­brancy to a far cor­ner of the atrium.

The 20-by-35-foot ab­stract was one of four works com­mis­sioned by the mu­seum for the East Build­ing, which opened in 1978 as a home for its mod­ern art col­lec­tion. Pei, mu­seum of­fi­cials, and bene­fac­tors Paul and Bunny Mel­lon were in­volved in the com­mis­sions, which in­cluded the play­ful Alexan­der Calder that an­i­mates the atrium. The Na­tional Gallery even cel­e­brated the Miró work with a short doc­u­men­tary.

But the ta­pes­try was re­placed in 2003, when an­other mod­ern gi­ant, Ellsworth Kelly, lent his work “Color Pan­els for a Large Wall” to the mu­seum. And when the East Build­ing re­opened last fall after a three-year ren­o­va­tion, Kelly’s work was still in the ta­pes­try’s spot.

Washington res­i­dent Kyla Whit­more is one of many mu­seum vis­i­tors who miss Miró’s fan­tas­ti­cal

one that is in­ti­mately tied to her child­hood mem­o­ries.

“We had four or five pieces we had to see, and then we went for french fries,” Whit­more, 24, said of the weekly out­ings with her mother and brother. “That ta­pes­try was def­i­nitely one of the more mem­o­rable ob­jects. It was my first im­pres­sion of light and color and move­ment as a small kid.”

Now a col­lege grad­u­ate, Whit­more was back in Washington for a jour­nal­ism in­tern­ship and she de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate by dig­ging into the mu­seum’s archives for in­for­ma­tion about the ta­pes­try. Vis­i­tors rou­tinely voice opin­ions about miss­ing works or those on view, mu­seum of­fi­cials say. But Whit­more’s search il­lus­trates the deep emo­tional con­nec­tions peo­ple have with art and what hap­pens when art that is beloved by vis­i­tors falls out of fa­vor with mu­seum of­fi­cials.

“It was some­thing that was really mean­ing­ful to a lot of peo­ple,” said Whit­more, who said she spoke to other vis­i­tors dur­ing each visit.

She con­tacted the cur­rent cu­ra­tor of tex­tiles, and heard back from a mu­seum pub­li­cist, who ex­plained that the ta­pes­try was taken down for clean­ing and “rest” from long-term light ex­po­sure. Its re­place­ment, the Kelly work that the NGA has sub­se­quently ac­quired, “is a clas­sicpe­riod work from this key fig­ure in post­war art, and it is well-suited for the East Build­ing Atrium,” the Na­tional Gallery spokes­woman said.

In­flu­enced by many fac­tors

Whit­more’s query high­lights a ques­tion that arises fre­quently in mu­se­ums: How do cu­ra­tors de­cide what to dis­play? Such de­ci­sions are the cor­ner­stone of a cu­ra­tor’s job, said Harry Cooper, head of the Na­tional Gallery’s depart­ment of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art. “Gen­er­ally, it’s a fun kind of puz­zle to put to­gether,” he said.

It can be fraught with ten­sion, how­ever, es­pe­cially be­cause only a small frac­tion of any mu­seum’s col­lec­tion ends up on dis­play. The Na­tional Gallery of Art has al­most 148,000 works in its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, and only 2,834 are on view.

The de­ci­sion about what to dis­play be­gins with qual­ity, Cooper said. “Aes­thetic qual­ity — what is good and what is great that we have — that’s got to al­ways be in the fore­ground,” he said.

Cooper, who has writ­ten a book about Kelly, was not on staff in 2003 and there­fore not part of the Miró de­ci­sion. He spent sev­eral years work­ing on the re-in­stal­la­tion of the East Build­ing gal­leries ahead of the re­open­ing in Oc­to­ber.

Cu­ra­tors are in­flu­enced by many fac­tors, from per­sonal taste — “I love yel­low, am I hang­ing ev­ery­thing yel­low?” — to the story the ex­hi­bi­tion wants to tell, to stip­u­la­tions donors place on works. A lesser work from an im­por­tant move­ment might be se­lected to com­plete a nar­ra­tive, he ex­plained, while a great work from a par­tic­u­larly strong area of the gallery’s col­lec­tion might be passed over.

Art world trends in­flu­ence choices, too, as artists’ rep­u­ta­tions grow or re­cede. “There’s a whole ap­pa­ra­tus that cre­ates rep­u­ta­tions,” Cooper said, adding that cu­ra­tors are part of “a com­pli­cated sys­tem” of in­flu­ence.

“But I may pull against that,” he added. “If ev­ery mu­seum has a work by X, Y and Z, that gets bor­ing. I think it’s im­por­tant to have sur­prises, to have artists on the wall that peo­ple have never heard of.”

Pref­er­ence for Kelly’s blocks of color eclipsed the Miró ta­pes­try’s his­tor­i­cal link to the build­ing’s de­sign. In her re­search, Whit­more dis­cov­ered in­ter­views and cor­re­spon­dence de­tail­ing the in­volve­ment of Pei, the Mel­lons and even Henri Matisse (who served as a go-be­tween in the mul­ti­year process from com­mis­sion to in­stal­la­tion). She also learned that Miró ini­tially sug­gested a ce­ramic piece but that Pei didn’t like that idea. They agreed on a ta­pes­try.

Mu­seum of­fi­cials com­memo-piece, rated the open­ing of the mod­ern build­ing with four com­mis­sions and five pur­chases. The three other com­mis­sions — Calder’s gi­gan­tic mo­bile, An­thony Caro’s site-spe­cific sculp­ture “Na­tional Gallery Ledge Piece” and Henry Moore’s sculp­ture “Knife Edge Mir­ror Two Piece” — are still on view. Of the five pur­chases, three are on dis­play, in­clud­ing Robert Mother­well’s “Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion El­egy.”

The 1979 doc­u­men­tary em­pha­sizes the con­nec­tion be­tween Pei and his de­sign and the Miró com­mis­sion. “The art would have to have a ca­pac­ity for mon­u­men­tal con­cepts, with a sense of color and scale ap­pro­pri­ate to the site,” in­tones nar­ra­tor Lary Lew­man. “A unan­i­mous choice was Span­ish artist Joan Miró.” The doc­u­men­tary ends with ad­mir­ing crowds gazing at the mas­sive work and a smil­ing mu­seum di­rec­tor J. Carter Brown say­ing: “I just love it. It is ev­ery­thing we had hoped.”

But some crit­ics and cu­ra­tors judged it harshly. “Joan Miró’s huge ta­pes­try might please at poster-scale, but its whimsy is too slight and its col­ors too gar­ish for its enor­mous size,” Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote in May 1978, be­fore the build­ing’s open­ing. “It seems a heavy, mirth­less joke.”

Cu­ra­tor Jef­frey Weiss told the New York Times in 2003 that the Na­tional Gallery had been seek­ing to re­place the ta­pes­try. “For­tu­nately, we had a large wall look­ing for a great work of art and Ellsworth [Kelly] had a large work look­ing for a big wall. It was a perfect mar­riage,” said Weiss, who was Cooper’s pre­de­ces­sor. (Weiss, now a cu­ra­tor at the Guggen­heim Mu­seum, de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.)

The Post’s Blake Gop­nik weighed in on the change, too, writ­ing in 2003 that the ta­pes­try had been “the butt of gibes in the Washington art world. ‘Macramé with a runny nose’ is one com­ment I’ve heard.” He added, “We won’t have that old girl to kick around any­more.”

Ed­u­ca­tion cu­ra­tors

Al­though the doc­u­men­tary at­tributes the ta­pes­try to the Span­ish artist (and shows him in the stu­dio as it was wo­ven), the Na­tional Gallery’s on­line cat­a­logue cred­its the work as “after Joan Miró, wo­ven by Josep Royo.” The gallery also has the 8-by-51/2 -foot oil paint­ing that served as the model for the ta­pes­try in its col­lec­tion. It is at­trib­uted to Miró.

The dis­tinc­tion doesn’t make sense to Rosa Maria Malet, the di­rec­tor of the Fun­da­cio Joan Miró, a mod­ern art mu­seum in Barcelona, who de­scribed Miró’s tex­tile work as his “last ex­pres­sive ad­ven­ture.”

“Of course Miró did not di­rectly weave the ta­pes­tries. But his in­di­ca­tions about the fi­nal re­sult he wanted to achieve were pre­cise, and his fol­low-up of the process, ex­haus­tive,” Malet said in an email. She pointed out that the sig­na­tures of both artists are wo­ven into the ta­pes­try and said, “Miró al­ways avoided the di­rect trans­po­si­tion of his works into tex­tile. He didn’t want just a copy.”

Miró cre­ated about 50 works, in­clud­ing seven ta­pes­tries, be­tween 1970 and his death in 1983. The Na­tional Gallery’s work is the only ta­pes­try in the United States; an­other was de­stroyed in the ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the World Trade Cen­ter in 2001. At least four are on view in Spain, in­clud­ing two in mu­se­ums in Barcelona and Tar­rag­ona.

Cooper says he hears from mem­bers of the pub­lic fre­quently about what they like and what they miss. He said he con­sid­ers their sug­ges­tions but gives more weight to ed­u­ca­tion cu­ra­tors, who in­ter­act with large groups and “who let me know that cer­tain works are im­por­tant to what they do.”

Whit­more, mean­while, is dis­ap­pointed in the rea­sons for the change and the fact that the piece is still in stor­age. The mu­seum’s pub­li­cist en­cour­aged her to en­joy the Miró paint­ings in the per­ma­nent gal­leries and left open the pos­si­bil­ity of the ta­pes­try be­ing re­in­stalled. But that is small con­so­la­tion. “To me, the ta­pes­try was far more mem­o­rable and in­spi­ra­tional than any paint­ing hang­ing in the col­lec­tion,” Whit­more said. “I still miss the ta­pes­try a lot, and with­out it, the atrium feels kind of staid.”

“If ev­ery mu­seum has a work by X, Y and Z, that gets bor­ing.” Harry Cooper, head of the Na­tional Gallery’s depart­ment of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art

JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASHINGTON POST

Kyla Whit­more misses a Miró ta­pes­try that once hung in the Na­tional Gallery of Art.

NA­TIONAL GALLERY OF ART, GALLERY ARCHIVES

“Woman,” a ta­pes­try at­trib­uted to Span­ish mod­ern master Joan Miró and wo­ven by Josep Royo, was one of four works com­mis­sioned by the Na­tional Gallery of Art for the East Build­ing, which opened in 1978. The piece was re­placed in 2003.

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