Massimiliano Gioni is Edlis Neeson Artistic Director of the New Museum, where he has curated numerous solo shows as well as the group exhibitions “After Nature” (2008), “Ostalgia” (2011), “Ghosts in the Machine” (2012), “Here and Elsewhere” (2014), and “The Keeper” (2016). He founded the New Museum Triennial in 2009 and curated the first edition, “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus.” Gioni has also organized major international exhibitions, including Manifesta 5 (2004), the 6th Berlin Biennale (2006), the 8th Gwangju Biennale (2010), and the 55th Venice Biennale (2013). Here, excerpted from Phaidon's 40 Years New, the New Museum's artistic director writes about the potential for solo exhibitions to engage the viewer in a "total" environment.
Over the last 40 years, the New Museum has presented an impressive series of solo exhibitions, specializing in particular in organizing the New York museum debuts of contemporary, often international, artists, many of whom were under-recognized by the local public at the time… Since 2007, at the New Museum’s home on the Bowery, a new model of solo show has taken shape, one which I like to call an “introspective.” An introspective could be described as a survey exhibition in which the choreography of the exhibition and its content are thought of in close dialogue and are constructed as a total environment.
The idea of an introspective is partly indebted to the title of Richard Hamilton’s 2003 exhibition (“Introspective”) at Barcelona’s Museu d’Art Contemporani. Widely regarded as one of the most important postwar artists, Hamilton also counts among the most original exhibition designers of the second half of the twentieth century—a reputation first built on such shows as “Growth and Form” (1951); “Man, Machine and Motion” (1955); and the collaboratively developed exhibitions “This is Tomorrow” (1956) and “en Exhibit” (1957). Hamilton was also a master of restaging and remakes, and is celebrated for his studies and various reconstructions of pieces by Marcel Duchamp, including The Green Book (1960), Hamilton’s typographical version of The Green Box, as well as the 1965-66 version of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23) that resides at the Tate in London.
This approach to history—which not only recounts past events, but revisits and recreates physical objects, artworks, and entire exhibitions—has informed many recent shows at the New Museum. For every solo and group exhibition, New Museum curators study previous installation shots and other exhibition documentation, searching for display methods that are unique to the exhibiting artists and that can be either fully reconstructed or partially evoked in their presentations at the Museum.
Notwithstanding his aptitude for historical reconstructions, Hamilton also held the view that the only exhibitions that would be remembered were those that invented a new display feature. A similar ethos has been at the heart of many of the New Museum’s exhibitions in recent years. The effort to think about exhibitions, particularly solo exhibitions, in a new way often yields an experience in which the presentation of the artist’s works offers a spatial analogue of the artist’s creative universe. In other words, the New Museum’s introspectives strive to layer content and form at the macroscopic and microscopic level: thinking of the individual works not only as links in a chronological, stylistic, or morphological chain, but also as agglutination, physical parts of a dramatic structure—characters, even. In the New Museum’s introspectives, the exhibition is not conceived simply as a series of discrete objects ranked on the walls and paraded before the viewer; instead, the show takes place around visitors as well, enveloping them, turning them into key agents and actions in a choreography that unfolds throughout the exhibition.
Of course, this approach has precedents. It belongs to a tradition dating back at least to the 1960s (but also including the visionary exhibitions of the early twentieth century organized by the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and the Constructivists) that rejected the supposed neutrality of the gallery space and used the exhibition itself as a medium and as a critical form. The history of the New Museum offers many examples of shows conceived not as mere sequences of works, but as choreographed environments and critical spaces. In 1970, for instance, Pat Steir painted a self-portrait directly onto the Museum’s walls, essentially equating her skin with the skin of the building. For his two-person show with Chen Zhen in 1994, Huang Yong Ping turned the Museum space into a car wash, while Xu Bing transformed his 1998 exhibition into a functioning calligraphy school. For her 2000 survey, Martha Rosler organized a yard sale (which MoMA recreated twelve years later), while in 1986 Hans Haacke discreetly altered the Museum’s architecture by painting its columns with faux marble pattern, lending a stately monumentality to his indictment of political authority.
These projects and those presented since the Museum’s move to the Bowery share an approach to exhibition-making that is akin to what the artist Ilya Kabakov has termed a “total installation.” Kabakov—who made his New York museum debut at the New Museum in a group show “Rhetorical Image” (1990), curated by Milena Kalinovska—has described his total installations as spaces where the visitor is both viewer and interpreter, detective and “victim.” In Kabakov’s environments, the viewer is “overcome by the intense atmosphere of total illusion” that results from experiencing objects, artworks, and texts as part of a complex but carefully crafted whole.
In Kabakov’s vision, the viewer’s role in a total installation also resembles that of a reader who surrenders to the fiction of a novel and is “submerged in its depth,” but remains perfectly conscious of being in the presence of a fabrication. Even when readers willfully embrace the illusion of literature, they remain capable of admiring the tools used to craft it—recognizing an author’s style compared to that of other writers, for example, or staying alert to a narrator’s distinctive voice. In both literature and Kabakov’s notion of the total installation, the reader or viewer is granted the bifold experience of “the illusion and simultaneously the introspection on it.” According to Kabakov, fitting analogies for his total installations can be found in theater as well as in fiction: installation is a form of halted action,” in which a drama unfolds not in time, but in space. It is, in other words, a theatricalization of the experience of art, punctuated by fractures and moments of disorientation that break through the fiction and awaken a sense of critical remove in the viewer.
Departing from similar considerations, Judith Barry, an artist responsible for some of the most original displays at the New Museum in the 1980s, used the expression “dissenting spaces” to describe the alternation of illusion, disorientation, and critical perspective that she engineered in her exhibition designs. In these installations, and particularly in the seductive geometries she staged in “Damaged Goods: Desire and the Economy of the Object” (1986), curated by Brian Wallis, Barry conflated the strategies of “theatrical, ideological, and consumer displays,” to borrow the artist’s description of, respectively the dioramas in natural history museums, the installations of the Constructivist avant-garde, and the layout of retail stores. Engaging these schematics of display and their effects on the viewer, Barry conceived of the exhibition space as a hall of mirrors in which the viewer’s desires are reflected, performed, and critically analyzed.
Mirrors and desires also play a key role in “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty” (2009), the first solo exhibition to use all three main gallery floors of the New Museum’s Bowery building. While “introspective” qualities do not necessarily depend on scale, Fischer’s show exemplified how entrusting all of a museum’s principal exhibition space to a single artist can allow an exhibition to become a full-fledged organism. For the duration of the exhibition, the identity of the Museum and the identity of the artist seemed to merge, and in turn, both artist and exhibition came to shape the nature of the institution.
The design of the New Museum’s building (by the Tokyo-based firm SANAA), with its relatively modest dimensions and windowless, enclosed spaces, is also particularly well suited to exhibitions in which the viewer is enveloped in an artist’s installations and forced into an intense proximity to the works. The quality of self-enclosure contributes to the dreamlike, or even hallucinatory, effect of disorientation that more than a few artists have deliberately played with in their exhibitions at the new New Museum, exploiting the visitor’s impression of repeated, near-identical gallery spaces, and amplifying the effects of an architecture that seems to willingly turn its back to the outside world. By the same token, in keeping with the “introspective” approach, when invited to exhibit their work at the New Museum, artists are also encouraged to think of their exhibitions as tours of their own minds and creative universes—as journeys into parallel worlds from which reality has been temporarily banished.
Fischer is one of the most original exhibition designers to have emerged in recent years, and his exceptionally dramatic projects include holes excavated in gallery floors or museum walls. At the New Museum, he chose to construct this show as three environments stacked atop each other in a neo-baroque dramaturgy of contrasting forms and spaces that both heightened and obfuscated perceptions. In the towering spaces of the Museum’s fourth floor, Fischer installed a series of suspended sculptures that resembled giant rock formations, or a forest of stalactites and stalagmites, while on the third floor he left the gallery almost completely empty, achieving an absurd tour de force of pictorial illusionism and trompe l’oeil by covering the walls and ceiling in holographic reproductions of the same architecture, perfectly reconstructed and lowered by just under a foot. The second floor housed a grid of mirrored chrome steel boxes silkscreened with images of knickknacks and cheap consumer items in various states of abandonment and deterioration, all monumentally enlarged to adorn these bastardized Minimalist sculptures.
The fusion of Pop vividness, geometric rigidity, and decaying beauty intensified this hall of mirrors; the exhibition space appeared crammed with oversize, imposing everyday things, but each was rendered weightless, almost to the point of disappearance by its own succession of mirror images. The reflective surfaces of the works caught the visitor’s bodies, seeming to literally make visible the very process of theatricalization that art critic Michael Fried had criticized in Minimalist art of the 1960s. In Fischer’s hands, however, theatricality was taken to new levels of spectacularization, simultaneously dissected and analyzed in a play of mirrors in which viewers saw their own reflections within an extraordinary concentration of bodies, objects, and images—a conflation of the real and its facsimiles.
The relationships between embodiment, representation, and desire; between vision and consumption; and, by extension, between entertainment and the space of the museum have been central to many solo shows that the New Museum has organized... Introspectives do not imply a position of solipsism or withdrawal on the part of the artist or the viewer; the total installation, as Kabakov observed, is a model of the world that does not hide its flaws, but rather accentuates them, because art—and the museum—is the space where we learn to coexist with what we do not understand.