With all the artist-curated shows currently in New York museums, the artist’s viewpoint may never have been represented so strongly. It’s hard to pinpoint a single reason for the growing chorus of artist-curators, but it’s become common practice inside New York’s historic institutions, allowing them to tap into the contemporary art world. Danh Vo shows us peer-friendly curation at the Guggenheim, composed entirely of artwork and objects owned by the relatively unknown Martin Wong; Matthew Barney brings us mercenary curating, with the Morgan Library’s objects merely adorning his own storyboards; and then, in a harder-to-define category, there’s Barbara Bloom’s excavations into the Jewish Museum’s collection.
For the Jewish Museum, bringing on an external curator appears to serve as an important reminder of the institution’s history, before it chose the path of contemporary art. Using only works from the museum’s collection, Bloom created new installations and accompanying texts out of nearly 300 designed objects and historical artifacts owned by the Jewish Museum. Throughout the galleries, Bloom and a team of designers then created furnishings (a bed, chandelier, piano, and other domestic vanities) to display those objects (cups, amulets, hats, torah pointers, and spice containers, among them). These furnishings are more interesting than your average vitrine, and within this array, there are only a handful of artworks.
Seeing so many artifacts seems strange for a museum with a strong focus on contemporary visual art; within the past year, it has shown work by the likes of Kehinde Wiley, Sharon Lockhart, and Sanford Biggers. It’s poised to keep its eye on the contemporary world with its just-opened exhibition by Jack Goldstein, an exhibition previously slated for Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art.
As much as I want to like Bloom’s exhibition—I appreciate solid, collection-based research—her execution falls flat. Mostly the blame falls on her elaborate furnishings. At times, the museum’s objects seem to suffocate under them. For instance, in Bloom’s installation of 13 antique silver spice containers, each container has been tucked inside frosted window panes, leaving just a fuzzy shadow in place of the original object.
It’s a perfect literalization of Plato’s Cave, an allegory about how what we think is reality is really just a shadow—and a fine allusion were it the installation’s only aesthetic layer. But it’s not. Bloom adds some rainbow-colored light, which seeps out from the panes’ edges. From the wall text, we’re told this has to do with synaesthesia and how spices are meant to enliven all the senses. This isn’t much more than confusing; adding color to these spice-less spice containers won’t transform viewers’ nasal passages—she’s just forcing synaesthesia. It’s too much, and the spice containers remain hidden in service of a gimmicky, Olafur Eliasson shower of light.
What Bloom excels at is detective work, and that’s a lesson curators can take to heart. As she tells it, the history of the Jewish Museum is more heavily anchored to objects than to art. That’s a conscious decision to highlight the museum’s non-art past by devoting so much of the gallery to forks, divorce documents, and the like. Regardless of the museum’s trajectory into the contemporary realm—which began with pioneering exhibitions on conceptual art in the 1960s like Jack Burnham’s Software and Kynaston McShine’s Primary Structures—it cannot rid itself of the weight of its history, which has nothing to do with visual art. The Jewish Museum of the 1960s looked more contemporary, and more emerging, than what’s on view in Bloom’s exhibition, when Software and Primary Structures brought in hordes of young, unestablished artists working outside of commercial galleries. Perhaps it would be difficult for the Jewish Museum make the same claim now, as it’s been years since Kehinde Wiley could claim the “emerging” title.
Bloom’s curatorial project, then, can be counted as a half-success; her research is solid, but her execution needs work. For all Bloom’s efforts of bringing the Jewish Museum’s collection to light, the exhibition’s objects remain hidden under her artistic embellishments. The original objects, then, may as well be cast off in the shadows.
As it were … So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom runs through August 4th at the Jewish Museum.