Image: Cy Twombly / Felix Gonzalez-Torres Installation, Gallery 293A, Art Institute of Chicago. Photograph: Art Institute of Chicago
Originally published on TheFinch.
Lauren Henkin In your book, Cy Twombly’s Things (Yale University Press, 2014), you describe two consecutive reviews that David Sylvester wrote about the first retrospective exhibition devoted solely to Twombly’s sculpture, first at the Kunstmuseum Basel and then at the Menil.2 You write about Sylvester’s “perceptual sea change” in his understandings of the works from one context to the next. In Houston the walls were white and in Basel they were a warm pale gray. You write,
“Against the white walls, the whites of Twombly’s sculptures were thrown into relief as colors instead of as colorless…
…the material variations of these sculptures’ surfaces can be perceived as coincident with, and certainly productive of, their effects rather than subsumed by them.”
Twombly’s sculptures seem like such a perfect example of how a slight shift in environment can bend one’s perspective on a work of art. Can you expand on this passage and talk about the importance of these considerations in the presentation of art?
Kate Nesin Twombly’s sculptures are not site-specific, in the sense of a work that is intended to engage and often challenge its location in particular, pointed ways. But I have thought about them from early on as differently tied to place. Each of the sculptures, when Twombly catalogued them, was documented not only with title and date but also with place of making, whether Lexington, VA, or New York, or Rome, and so on. All artworks, even the most hermetic and insular, are affected to some experiential and technical degree by a shift in viewing environment, but given that Twombly’s sculptures were so tied to place in their making—and appear to “stake” or “mark” place now, like tombstones or, differently, like archaeological fragments dug up from the ground–they’re relationship to their ultimate scene of display seems especially meaningful.
For one thing, different spaces very clearly allow us to see them better, or the opposite, different spaces might obscure their materiality. This has to do largely with their white-paintedness: the color of walls and choices in lighting can draw out the distinctions among and incidents within or upon the white coats of paint, or else they can flatten such qualities into a more general “glow.”
For another thing, while I always think about circulation in an installation space, and the breathing room a given work needs, with Twombly’s sculptures we’re dealing with three-dimensional works that I find unusually frontal. If it’s difficult for me, in other circumstances, to install a sculpture without the possibility of 360-degree circulation around it (so that viewers can see a sculpture fully “in the round”), here I have been surprised to find that enhancing or even exaggerating the sculptures’ frontality does help me encounter them as they are. In their fourth iteration at the Art Institute since arriving in 2010, they are currently clustered on a large, low platform, with an open pathway around them as a group rather than around each singly–which could open onto a whole other question about how these sculptures operate together above all. So we had to think very carefully about what counted as the “front” of each work, and which sculptures a viewer would in fact see first from a side or a back depending on point of entry, for there are a whopping five different doorways that lead into and out of this new space.
LH While visiting the Art Institute in Chicago, we saw some of Giacometti’s sculptures in front of a veiled view of Chicago’s dynamic and vertical skyline. The sculptures took on an added layer of meaning in that context, as did the surrounding architecture. The scale of both were affected. As a curator, are you looking for opportunities to make those kinds of juxtapositions?
KN On both the second and third floors in the Modern Wing we have a few northern galleries that face more or less the same skyline view. Even if we weren’t seeking to capitalize on that view, we know visitors will be drawn to it (and distracted by it!). Though to be honest, much of the time my own decisions about what to install in those spaces has more to do with the natural light that enters through the windows—what can stand up to it, what we’d love to see in it—than with what’s beyond the windows. Certainly seeing Twombly’s sculptures in natural light is valuable, and they were previously installed in one of these day lit galleries. Speaking more generally, we have the spaces that we have, and we always try to use them well, even sometimes to engage them more directly, in terms of questions of scalar relation like the ones you raise. If our first topic above was about changes in environment affecting an artwork, the same certainly works in reverse: I learn something new about each one of our galleries every single time I reinstall.
[I did not install the Giacometti gallery–the third floor is overseen by my colleague, Stephanie D’Alessandro, curator of modern art. So I cannot speak to how pointed her juxtaposition of those figures with the skyline was.]
LH There are certain exhibitions that can be experienced as a whole in addition to just the individual works. When planning an exhibition, are you thinking about how the placement of the individual works shape the room(s) as a whole? Do you think curators become active participants in how one understands the work?
KN I absolutely think about how individual works shape a given room—whether in a collection installation or in a special exhibition. Perhaps still more, I think about connecting and shaping across spaces. How is a visitor carried from one space into the next, and what does she carry with her? Does one grouping of works point to the next, flow into the next, transition us to the next, or to the contrary, is there a disjunction, a contradiction to be reckoned with? I feel, as a curator, I am an active participant in using, even clarifying, our spaces and how active objects can be in space; beyond that, I’d love to feel I’m showing visitors what it is to participate in meaning-making. That it’s not just me and the object who have communed in some special way for their viewing pleasure and/or edification. I’m a big believer in following the object, in understanding above all that it can and probably will change, for me, in a space, in relation to other objects and other viewers, in relation to its moment of making and to ever-advancing moments in time. I never want my *own* understanding of a work to seem (or to be) fixed.
Kate Nesin is an art historian, writer and curator. She spent four years as associate curator of contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she organized the exhibition Helena Almeida: Work is never finished. Nesin’s book Cy Twombly’s Things was published by Yale University Press in 2014.