When Linda Norden got hired by the Fogg Art Museum as associate curator of contemporary art, she faced a challenging problem.
Museums like the Fogg collect art objects, and they support research that focuses on careful comparative analysis within an historical context, an approach often referred to as “connoisseurship.”
Much contemporary art, however, resists such an approach. A work of art may not be an object at all. It may be a performance, captured on film or videotape. It may be a set of instructions for viewers to carry out, either in reality or in their minds. Or it may be an object that is indistinguishable from an everyday non-art object – Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, for instance, or Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes.
A museum can, of course, decide not to pay attention to such works. It can draw an arbitrary line at a certain date – say, 1913 or 1945 or 1964 – and declare everything beyond that too new and controversial to merit serious consideration.
But this can only be a rear guard action. Eventually the line must be moved, and the more recent work taken account of. When the Fogg hired Norden, it moved the line right up to the present moment, but it was up to Norden to confront the difficulties and contradictions inherent in her position.
She does so in the exhibition, “Extreme Connoisseurship,” on view through April 14 at the Fogg Museum’s Menil Gallery and the Sert Gallery in the Carpenter Center. The title is well chosen, suggesting – by analogy with the term “extreme sports” – that, as far as museum exhibitions go, this one is dangerous and on the edge.
Norden’s approach to incorporating recalcitrant artworks into a museum context can be seen most vividly as one enters the section of the exhibition housed in the Sert Gallery. Playing continuously on a screen facing the door is Bruce Nauman’s 1967-68 work, “Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square.” The black-and-white film shows a young Nauman in jeans and T-shirt slowly perambulating heel-to-toe around a masking tape square on the floor of his studio, his hips rocking rhythmically from side to side. At a certain point he stops and retraces his steps backward.
Take down a set of earphones from a peg on the wall and you can hear a commentary on Nauman’s work by British artist Bridget Riley. Riley, who is represented by a set of abstract drawings on a nearby wall, made the exciting discovery that Nauman was doing with his body something very similar to what she was doing on paper, delineating forms according to a predetermined formula.
This approach to art-making, devising a set of instructions and then carrying them out, is a theme that can be seen running through many of the works in the exhibition. Known as instruction-based art, it is a popular strategy among contemporary artists.
In an adjoining room another video is playing. Called “Phat Free,” it was created in 1995 by David Hammons. The screen is blank at first, and one hears a random metallic clanking. Then an image emerges. A man in a raincoat and sneakers is kicking a metal bucket along the streets of a city. The bright streetlights suffuse the scene with rich scintillating golds and greens, but the image is out of focus. It is impossible to read details or recognize faces. The man kicks the bucket across a busy street, then against a white wall. Finally, he flips it up with his toe, catches it, and the film is over.
By standing between the two rooms, it is possible to watch Nauman’s and Hammons’ videos simultaneously, and this comparative approach is one that Norden wants very much to encourage. By stationing oneself at this key position, one begins to notice similarities and parallels – for example, in the way Nauman’s taped lines seem to be mirrored by the crosswalk lines that the subject of Hammons’ film encounters on his walk.
“One of the things I was trying to do is to show artists’ response to other artists,” Norden said. “I think this is something that can be gained through the public viewing of contemporary artworks, the idea of comparative analysis.”
Comparing one artwork with another – which, after all, is what traditional connoisseurship is all about – underlies one of Norden’s recommendations for overcoming the puzzlement one is apt to feel on first encountering these works.
“The only way to appreciate contemporary art is to look at a lot of it,” she said.
The two-part exhibition, encompassing more than 40 artworks by 20 artists, offers plenty of opportunity to view and compare.
At the Menil Gallery, one can see the instruction-based approach applied by various artists with widely varying results. A large abstract painting by Rudolph Stingel whose flat surface conveys an illusion of rumpled metallic cloth is accompanied by an almost equally large panel showing the illustrated instructions for creating the piece.
Paul McCarthy’s “Red Poster Tapes,” created in 1971-72, faithfully carry out a series of straightforward but bizarre instructions: “I Smear Vaseline on Our Legs With a Pipe,” “I Break Pencils With My Teeth,” “Karen Releases a Rabbit at Night,” “I Eat All I Can and Laugh.”
There are several works from the series “In Search of the Miraculous” by Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader. Some handle the artist’s theme with humor, as in a group of 18 black-and-white photographs showing Ader wandering around Los Angeles at night. A line from the R & B song “Searchin'” by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller is scrawled on each photo in white ink.
In other of Ader’s works, the subject seems extremely mundane – a video in which we see a man from the neck down arranging flowers in a vase or a series of slides of a choir singing sea chanteys. As Norden explains, it was Ader’s belief that by examining the mundane with minute attention, the miraculous would emerge.
Although there seems an enormous gulf between these works and, say, Michelangelo’s “David” or even Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Norden finds continuity between contemporary art and the art of the past. In both, she believes, artists are concerned with the material and aesthetic means of addressing conceptual problems.
The difference is that contemporary artists have an almost unlimited range of media in which to express themselves, and this freedom has given contemporary art a radically different look. Approaching these works with the expectation that they should resemble the art of the past thus becomes an impediment to appreciating them.
“What I hope this exhibition will help to do,” said Norden, “is to get people to suspend their judgment and to learn to approach these works with the question, What is going on here? I think in that way, you can develop criteria by which to make informed judgments.”
On Wednesday, Jan. 16, at 12:15 p.m., the Fogg will host a special docent-led tour of the exhibition. On Saturday, Jan. 19, at 11:30 a.m., museum associate Scott Rothkopf will give a gallery talk, and on Sunday, Jan. 20, Norden will deliver a talk on the exhibition.