As the exhibition Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks comes to a close today, it’s worth looking back at the work conducted by the team of registrars, conservators, preparators, and curators that made the exhibition possible. When Uncrated was first proposed in fall 2014, it was viewed as an opportunity to assess and examine artworks long stored in gallery E—a little-known space located deep in the Heinz Galleries that had been used as storage for nearly 15 years. But as the idea developed, it became apparent that this exhibition offered more than an opportunity to review an inventory of artworks: it could also afford visitors a unique yet fleeting window into the museum’s permanent collection.
With its high-key, high-contrast palette and jagged lines, Pierre Alechinsky’s Savage State (1968) carries on the look, feeling, and approach of CoBrA, a vibrant Paris-based artist collective that came together in the years following World War II. Taking their name from the first letters of the three northern European cities the artists hailed from—COpenhagen, BRussels, Amsterdam—CoBrA was an intense, if brief, coalition of radical artists and poets who were interested in recharging art with the sensual experience of the world. Their paintings and drawings share some aesthetic qualities like brilliantly saturated colors and playfully distorted human forms, but what really linked these artists was their intention—create a new art for a new postwar society. Against the intellectualism and cool aesthetic of Surrealism, CoBrA attempted to initiate a new “art of the people” out of artistic experimentation, emotional expression, and spontaneity.
In May 1961, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York presented an exhibition titled One Hundred Paintings from the G. David Thompson Collection. A few older artists (Cezanne, Monet, Degas) were represented in the exhibition, but the impressive check list, though not comprehensive, was a veritable who-is-who of artists whose main activity was or continued to be in the 20th century. From Josef Albers to Adja Yunkers, the exhibition offered one-man’s viewpoint of contemporary western painting. Artists especially dear to the collector were represented by multiple works: Braque, Klee, Legér, Matisse, Miró, Mondrian, Picasso, Schwitters, and Wols accounted for more than half of the total, with Picasso’s 12 listed works the most by any artist. Mr. Thompson, in his own introduction to the exhibition catalogue, expressed his thoughts on collectors and collecting, emphasizing his preference for exploring in depth the work of selected artists instead of aiming at a comprehensive survey. Indeed, in several cases, he had acquired more than 40-50 and in a few cases more than 100 works by a single artist. He attributed this to personal taste and individual preferences but also offered more pragmatic considerations as explanation, such as market availability.
By the time of the Guggenheim exhibition, Mr. Thompson of Pittsburgh was not only a nationally but also an internationally known art collector, whose profile had been featured in Life and Time and in several European publications. What was less well known is that by the time the exhibition came to New York after several European venues, Mr. Thompson had already sold nearly all the art to a Swiss dealer, as the New York Times reported just days before the exhibition’s opening. But we’ll have more on this later.
As the media archivist and co-director of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art, I am responsible for ensuring the long-term accessibility and usability of the museum’s time-based media artworks. Time-based media is a broad term that refers to film, video, audio, digital, and computer-based artworks or installation art with a specified duration and a dependency on changing technology. Collecting, preserving, and exhibiting artwork with technological dependencies can present unique challenges for museums. By nature, they are unstable, they don’t exist until they are installed, and they generally require additional documentation to support installation and preservation efforts.
CMOA’s collection is comprised of nearly 1,000 time-based media works, including numerous complex artworks that have dependencies on obsolete technology such as a cathode ray tub (CRT) monitor or a slide projector. Since I started working on this project last year, I’ve been drawn to Buky Schwartz’s The Big Video Chair (1987), a sculpture comprised of wooden beams, mirrors, and a closed-circuit television (CCTV) system. From a conservation perspective, it’s an interesting piece that poses several unique challenges: it is dependent on obsolete technology; the condition of the technical components are unknown; it was defaced the last time it was on display in 1988, leaving the condition of the affected parts unknown; and there is very little documentation available.
Like most museums, CMOA often has multiple artworks from a single artist in its permanent collection. Rachel Whiteread, one of the Young British Artists and the first woman to receive the prestigious Turner Prize in 1993, is a perfect example. While Untitled (Yellow Bath) is one of nine featured objects in the exhibition Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks, CMOA has another monumental work from the British-born artist that boasts a substantially larger footprint in the galleries. It’s also an artwork that reveals a somewhat uncommon shared arrangement between two museums.