The art of hanging pictures, to steal a phrase from Kerry James Marshall, is a bit like the craft of using words to make sentences, which in turn cohere into paragraphs, which accumulate in the service of an idea. It is part didactic instruction, part ineffable feeling about what things work well together. Both rely on the principle that the space between pictures is not neutral, that the pictures themselves are not autonomous (unless they are placed in a way to suggest that), and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Historically, in Western museums, arrangements of works thus took the form of curated rooms that were frequently nationalistic in nature; often they were teleological, championing some linear narrative of cultural progress. And these are the aspects of museology that came under justifiable scrutiny during the days of institutional critique and identity politics.
But the arrangement of pictures, to steal another phrase, this time from Louise Lawler, wasn’t bound up with master narratives alone. It was also inextricably tied to the primary methodology of art history: that of “compare and contrast.” Famously extolled by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945), compare-and-contrast was the binary system of looking at any two works of art simultaneously (made possible by the advent of the slide lantern), which led, from the nineteenth century onward, to the establishment of art history’s fundamental categories—stylistic shifts, early and late styles, nationalist movements, ideological differences. However it was deployed, the underlying idea was that meaning is built through syntax, that syntax requires difference, and that difference is something to be staged or spatialized or, at the very least, invoked through the act of adjacency.
True, this binary logic tended toward old sawhorses like “progress,” the “canon,” and “genius” (all contrast and no comparison). But I fear we may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater when we sought to debunk and eliminate all forms of binary thinking. In the end, wasn’t what was wrong with binary logic its unthinking production of hierarchies, almost all of which were designed to maintain the status quo? And yet today’s status quo is virulent pluralism. Too many recent exhibitions have taken their installation cues from art fairs and the like, more prone toward leveling than toward difference, more inclined toward the presentation of opinion than toward the dexterity of argumentation. Is there no way that we can imagine holding on to the productive syntactic function of compare-and-contrast? Is there no way we can imagine opening up the binary nature of the gesture to encompass the Barthesian third term? Have we totally given up on art history as the governing methodology, or even the deep structure, of museum exhibitions?
— Helen Molesworth, “Review of the Whitney Biennial" for Artforum, 2014(via grupaok)
— Daniel José Older, Gentrification’s Insidious Violence: The Truth About American Cities, 2014 (via wakie)
— Romare Bearden, “On Art,” c. 1970 (via carlos)
Joseph Altschuler, Mari Altschuler, and Zachary Morrison, “Oscar Upon a Time” for Fairy Tales Competition, 2014