by Philip Matthews
Friday night, October 19
“I can tell people are talking, but I can’t tell what they’re saying,” whispers too loudly the-hard-of-hearing-man to his wife in the row in front of me. We are–about forty of us–in a presentation room upstairs at the Contemporary Art Museum, where the artist Gedi Sibony is giving a craft talk–contextualizing the experimental mode in which he curated In the Still Epiphany, the exhibition next door at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.
In the Still Epiphany celebrates the Pulitzer Foundation’s tenth anniversary, exhibiting artworks from the Pulitzer family collection. Emily Pulitzer herself requested Sibony curate the show, and what resulted was a loosening of the objects’ socio-historic contexts, in favor of prioritizing their elemental components: color, texture, size, shape, structure, form.
In the Main Gallery, there’s a kind of scalene triangulation that occurs among a gold Colombian headdress, a gold Brancusi girl, and a sculpted gold mother-and-child by Rosso. Downstairs, there’s a binary relationship between Philip Guston’s abstract expressionist painting Room 112 installed beside an Incan mantle. The intervallic parallel lines which run down the mantle extend their sense of order to the seemingly messy painting, while the painting’s absence of apparent form as form cause the eye to see, on closer inspection, that no, the mantle’s lines are not exactly parallel, not exactly equal in weight.
On the screen in front of us now, the only source of light in the presentation room, is a photograph of the foam board simulation of the precarious case of artworks installed in the Pulitzer’s Main Gallery. Housed there are: Mississippian seed jars, a boat-stone, Chinese vases, African currency, Giacometti’s “Head Who Looks,” the Colombian gold crown. Sibony has assembled these objects into an abstract female figure: the seed jars and boat-stone become internal organs, the vases shoulders or breasts, the currency lungs, the head the head, crowned.
At Galerie Neu in Berlin, Sibony centered the foam board case among other detritus: a radiator, a stamped canvas, the verso of a poster taped into its frame. An audience member asks Sibony why he exhibits the verso of certain images; in the Pulitzer exhibition, too, Sibony chose to display the evergreen and maroon verso of a Dutch tapestry. “I can’t look at the thing itself. I’m looking at the frame.” To look at the thing itself is to look directly at “somebody else’s nostalgia…fraught dream. I don’t want to diminish anything.”
I think of the Modigliani drawing, faded almost to the point of non-existence, among a cast of more vivid characters in the Pulitzer’s Entrance Gallery. Before In the Still Epiphany opened back in April, Sibony led a run-through with the Pulitzer gallery staff; when a Gallery Assistant asked Sibony why he chose to display the faded Modigliani drawing, Sibony coyly answered: “He’s the introvert in the room.”
When Sibony answers a question, he is also talking to himself. Earlier tonight–headphones on, hands in pockets–he could be found wandering around “Joe,” the weathering-steel torqued spiral by Richard Serra, installed in the Pulitzer’s courtyard. Sibony examined the clouds bent over the sculpture’s rim, bent in closer to examine the sculpture’s cinnamon-crusted patina, tilted his head to a diagonal perspective, looked down, looked around, seemed to be looking for or at someone only he knew was there, then walked back inside.
“I can tell people are talking, but I can’t tell what they’re saying.” Having lived with In the Still Epiphany as a Gallery Assistant for six months now, I can tell that the cast of characters in the Entrance Gallery–indeed, all the artworks throughout the exhibition–are talking to one another, even if I can’t always tell exactly what they’re saying. This is what I know for sure: colors recur; motifs recur; gestures recur; and those recurrences assure me that I’m in solid curatorial hands. Those recurrences lead me to a deeper look into how ritualistic and domestic interior spaces overlap. And I think the exhibition very intentionally holds on to some of its mystery, to reflect the mystery and instability of those spaces. As a curator, Sibony encourages the viewer to pass into those spaces and interact with the objects found there, to layer one’s own perceptions and intentions onto those objects.
When Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry magazine, asked Hart Crane to write a letter clarifying what she felt was the muddled logic of his metaphors, Crane replied: “The reader’s sensibility simply responds by identifying this inflection of experience with some event in his own history or perceptions–or rejects it altogether.” And later: “It all comes to the recognition that emotional dynamics are not to be confused with any absolute order of rationalized definitions; ergo, in poetry the rationale of metaphor belongs to another order of experience than science, and is not to be limited by a scientific and arbitrary code of relationships either in verbal inflections or concepts.”
So, too, in the visual arts. There is a continuous instability which art depends on–in which the intentions behind creating the artwork, and the receptions which the viewer lays onto the artwork, like an altar or blank canvas: exalting or cancelling out–are twinned, reversed, entwined, conflated, interrupted–actions which, to quote Sibony, “want to expose whatever’s inside the door.”
Said another way: “When I looked at how the [Pulitzer family] collection was housed, I was just at the beginning of understanding something that was just known, thoroughly understood [by Emily Pulitzer].
“I felt: I don’t need to say anything, there’s nothing I can say that Emmy doesn’t already know.” Interjects Mrs. Pulitzer from the front row: “Not true!”