Paul Schimmel and Sanford Biggers – Experience or Interpretation?

The artificial construction people make is that painting is not intellectual, and does not involve much thinking, but involves psychic or subconscious pressures which are released through the act of painting. But I think painting like mine shows obvious kinds of hesitation and reworking which people associate with thought.                                                                          — Jasper Johns

This is a quote on a wall text which accompanies a Jasper Johns painting in the permanent collection display at Los Angeles MOCA. I take this is the work of Paul Schimmel, the (recently) former chief curator there.

There is a vociferous group of museum goers (especially in Britain) who strenuously oppose wall texts. My sense is that they feel insulted that they have to be told. And they are right – as confirmed by the artist Sanford Biggers, a bright rising star in contemporary art today.

My first encounter with Sanford Biggers’ art was at Kenny Schachter Gallery’s (then on Britannia street in Kings Cross, London) Notions, 2006 – and what an eye opener – literally. Lively footprints dance across the floor and walls, illuminated by a blinding disco ball. A truly firsthand bodily experience. But then when I read the context, a story and background of which I would have no clue – something hit the collective memory: it told of American black history, culture, slavery… and the strength to survive under the most adverse and impossible of conditions.

In a conversation this last Sunday at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Biggers, currently in the midst of an explosion of multiple museum exhibitions around the globe, while holding an assistant professorship at Columbia University, was cool.

He talked about his current show at MASS MoCA, The Cartographer’s Conundrum (Through October, 2012). Actually he talked about another conundrum – that of Experience or Interpretation – wall text or no wall text.

He felt his previous show at the Brooklyn Museum Sweet Funk—An Introspective (closed January, 2012) had too many wall text panels – and while it was helpful to the casual visitor, it may be ‘insulting’ to those more attuned. Of course there is another concern: that the casual visitor may start seeing what he is told to see. (I guess that’s why so many paintings are ‘Untitled’).

At MASS MoCA, Biggers dispensed with wall text. He was happy that some critics told of having to return to see the show after doing research – I hope to see the show in October with research done – but how many can afford to keep going back to MASS MoCA? (It’s not exactly in the middle of Manhattan). And what of the more casual visitor, who is probably the majority?

I welcome wall text. I usually ignore it unless the art on show triggers a question (or a curiosity) in me – and then I don’t always agree with the text, often seeing it as an opinion, a perspective from one expert.

However, the kind of wall text that I have really enjoyed – authentic and illuminating – like the one I quoted above from Jasper Johns (via Paul Schimmel?), shows a curator’s true understanding of history and art, and opens the door to our quest for knowledge: what is the relation between art and the thinking brain? Here’s another quote from the same exhibition:

If you look with your mind turned off, everything becomes abstract. – Ellsworth Kelly


8/23/2015     Explanatory wall text in museums has always been controversial. Some think it clutters the wall – so photographer Christopher Williams did without – for his The Production Line of Happiness,  a survey show (4/29 – 6/21/2015) at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. As an artist whose work questions many aspects of modern life, its  commercial and artistic collisions, even looking into the working mechanism of a camera… his decision to go without explanation is a curious one (See video of walk thru by curator). One feels excluded from an insider story. An ‘intellectual’ show of largely small format photos installed below sight line perhaps rightly invited almost universal negative reviews. The New York critics are a lot kinder than those in London:

The Guardian:   “An exercise in fastidious cogitation…[It needs the] accompanying catalog to have any sustaining significance for the eye or mind – it does not thrive on its own.”

New Yorker:   “Profiting an elite and trickling down, maybe to less privileged folks…Requires hours of study…” 

The Telegraph:   “…Is calibrated to ensure maximum irritation… Pretension and sterility [for those] without prior knowledge…”

New York Times:   “Probably more than you want to know…”  


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