If Harvey Danger Painted: Debating the Merits of the One-Work Show

by Reid Singer on September 16, 2011 · 2 comments Opinion

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. "The Supper at Emmaus," 1601. Courtesy he National Gallery of London

There’s something rather extraordinary about the amount of money MoMA will have spent on de Kooning: a Retrospective, which opens to the general public the day after tomorrow. Taking into account the money spent on borrowing, transporting, and insuring the paintings in the show (which experts value at more than $4 billion), it stands among the most expensive in the museum’s history. Happy as I am to see a show like this go up (and I really am), didn’t MoMA just put on an exhibition with many of de Kooning’s paintings? Some of us are wondering if this is really where our membership dues are going.

Contrasting big city surveys like MoMA’s are one-work shows whose merits were enumerated by Judith H. Dobrzynski‘s Wednesday article in The Art Newspaper. You can see her point. Exhibitions of a single artwork are naturally going to be less cumbersome to plan than those that stretch over an artist’s entire career. That they will also be significantly cheaper can only come as good news to museums in smaller cities like Louisville, Fort Worth, or Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the past few years, the Portland Art Museum has seized on opportunities to borrow Titian's “La Bella” (1536), Raphael's “La Donna Velata” (1514-15), and Thomas Moran’s “Shoshone Falls on the Snake River” (1900) and present them as single, stand-alone exhibitions, all with measured success. Faced with only a single work, visitors are encouraged to slow down and appreciate valuable details that a brisker viewing might miss. Describing the “La Velata” loan, museum director Brian Ferriso marveled at how “people sat for ten to 20 minutes looking, and often they'd come back after going through our Renaissance galleries,” concluding that shows like these will teach viewers “how to experience a great work of art and see why it is a masterpiece.” For a second there, it sounded like Mr. Ferriso was comparing the typical PAM visitor to Pam’s boyfriend in The Office. I’ll try not to ask why it’s such a big deal that people should look at a work of art for twenty minutes.

Dobrzynksi’s list of small-scale success included Caravaggio's “The Fortune Teller” (1595), which was shown at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville last spring. It’s interesting to me that she should have forgotten to mention Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1601), which was up in the winter of 2009 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Visitors saw something of a happy medium in the latter exhibition, in which the Caravaggio shared a room with a handful of lesser-known works that echoed the sculptural naturalism and shadowy, gestural drama of the Italian master.

Even on the weekends, the crowds assembled, disproportionately, around “Supper at Emmaus.” Paintings by Caravaggio don’t travel often; as an “event exhibition,” the show worked. Seeing it with a few other paintings by Bartolomeo Manfredi and Cecco del Caravaggio, you could at the same time see the vast breadth of the elder Caravaggio’s influence on the art of Baroque Europe. There was no need to expel the role of the curator as pedagogue. The focus of recent discussions about the cost of a successful art show has been pretty binary, anchored either in big, risky shows (whose consummate investments in curatorial capital are a tall order for most cities) and single-work shows that, when you think about it, don’t really need a curator. It’s not a choice a well-run museum should have to make.


GiovanniGF September 19, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Actually, MoMA’s Ab-Ex survey was heavily criticized by many (including Roberta Smith in the Times) for including so few DeKoonings (four paintings vs. 18 by Pollock). And while the idea of single-work exhibitions is good (and, as you point out, cheap), to suggest that the MoMA should hold those in lieu of shows of the breadth of the DeKooning retrospective is just silly. If the show can’t be presented by one of the world’s leading museums, then by whom?

Reid September 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Indeed MoMA can handle a show with $4 billion worth of art, and if the cause is worthwhile, then by all means, they should do it. If I came across as valuing single-work exhibitions over big retrospectives, it certainly wasn’t my intention. Both have their hazards. 

My real point was that the typical American city can make a show that’s focussed and monetarily within reach without taking the role of the curator out of the equation (as one-work exhibitions risk doing). The “Supper At Emmaus” show at AIC was a great example of that.

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