November 8, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
A Curator Observing an Artist Being a Curator

Trisha Donnelly installing Gallery 22 on the fourth floor of the Museum (artist’s back is to the camera)

It has been just about a year since the artist Trisha Donnelly was invited to be the tenth artist to participate in Artist’s Choice, an ongoing series in which a contemporary artist is asked to create an exhibition from the The Museum of Modern Art’s vast collection. Donnelly began by reviewing our holdings in painting and sculpture from the late 19th century to the present, and proceeded through treasures in architecture and design, photography (roughly 25,000 photos!), drawings, prints and illustrated books, film, sound, and media. Her goal, which she came close to achieving, was to look at everything we have.

Curators at MoMA get to do this kind of thing all the time, and sharing the privilege of experiencing so many masterpieces—known and unknown, oddities of the collection, obscure works by well known artists, well known works by obscure artists—can only be described as a joy. It is clear though, that artists tend to look at art objects differently than you or I do, and certainly they diverge from curators when it comes to thinking about how to make an exhibition.

Curators like me, who have been trained as art historians and have been at this over a period of time, come to have systems of exhibition-making. We group objects according to certain criteria, which vary depending upon the kind of exhibition we are making, the kind of material we are displaying, and the kind of audience we are trying to reach. At MoMA, our Painting and Sculpture Galleries on the fifth and the fourth floors have traditionally been dedicated to a chronological display of international modern art dating from the 1880s to approximately 1980. Taking advantage of a collection that is unparalleled in both depth and breadth, curators try with their displays to give visitors an idea of the innovation and development of visual art in the 20th century through the juxtaposition of objects. Putting an artwork proximate to another one allows viewers to both compare and contrast both; to see their commonalities, like date of creation, country of  origin, subject matter, technique or style, or their differences. Gallery displays are highly planned; scale models of galleries and artworks are created and works are arranged well in advance of actually stepping into galleries and commencing to hang. Objects are chosen for their beauty and historical significance, but also for their role in what can be seen as a kind of visual symphony of objects that exist on their own but also in concert with one another.

Left: Gallery 22, fourth floor. Shown: Intel Corporation. Diagram for Intel486™ Microprocessor Chip. 1989. Computer-generated plot on paper; Otto Baumberger. Marque PKZ. 1923. Lithograph; and Hugo Leven and Hermann Fauser. Jarindiere. 1902–03. Pewter. Right: Gallery 22, fourth floor, with Giorgio di Chirico’s pencil-on-paper Euripedes from 1921, and a set of Siemens & Halske telephones, c. 1955


Eliot Porter. Blue-Throated Hummingbird, Southwestern Research Station, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona, May 1959 [Lampornis clemenciae]. 1959. Dye transfer print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of David H. McAlpin. Photo © 1990 Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Artists working with the collection are different. They are not beholden to a particular history, or even the general rules of display that we curators have adopted (like hanging all works in a particular gallery on the same center line). There are almost no rules to an Artist’s Choice display. For Trisha Donnelly, the only parameter was that she work within the Museum’s collection galleries, and not create a separate show in our Special Exhibitions Galleries as the nine previous artists who have undertaken Artist’s Choice had done. I watched Donnelly cull through our vast collection, choosing objects that struck her as relevant, or in her words, “urgent”: a suite of color photographs by the American mid-20th-century photographer Eliot Porter, which hadn’t been exhibited in 60 years; an exquisite clay pot by George Ohr, “mad potter of Biloxi”; a group of brightly colored plans for microchips from the 1980s. Freed from the burden of showing acknowledged masterpieces, Donnelly chose many lesser known, and even obscure, works that hadn’t been out of storage in half a century. Although we have gradually begun to integrate many different mediums in our collection galleries, paintings and sculptures have dominated our fifth and fourth floors. In Donnelly’s three galleries though, design objects cavort with paintings, and film is juxtaposed with architectural drawings and photography. Chronology has similarly been thrown out the window, with objects ranging from 1900 to the 1980s sharing not only the same room, but also sometimes, the same wall.

Instead of being subsumed in some sort of greater narrative, the works of art in this Artist’s Choice exhibition shine through as unique and beautiful objects unto themselves. They relate to one another not through history, or chronology, or nationality, nor even medium or style, but in a very intuitive way. Watching Donnelly choose, arrange, and display works was a surprising and enlightening experience for me, emphasizing what it is that a curator can, and in a sense, must do. Donnelly’s eccentric and moving group of works of art was chosen because each work in her mind urgently need to be seen, and her arrangement of these artworks is as it is because Donnelly believes that it will enhance our view of them and create the potential to redirect our mode of looking at objects, and even the world at large. This is a goal, it turns out, shared by both artists and curators however different our strategies for achieving it may be.

Artist’s Choice: Trisha Donnelly will be on view in three galleries on the Museum’s fourth and fifth floors through April 8, 2013.