Design Analysis: The Redesigned Schmidlapp Gallery and the museum as frame
~ Gideon Fink Shapiro
Just as modern painting did away with the picture frame, modern art museums have typically downplayed their role as spatial frames. Increasingly neutral galleries suppressed architectural qualifications—color, texture, material, form, ornament—in a quest to make artworks immediately available to the gaze as stand-alone objects. Although the museum rigorously conditioned the air, humidity, and light surrounding artworks, it declined to condition the affective environment in which viewers encounter the works. The ideal architectural frame became the least obtrusive one.
But even a white box imposes a tacit set of values. It suggests that artworks exist autonomously, in a state of pure objecthood, outside the conditions under which they are made and viewed. Bodies and feelings and architecture become mere externalities. In the ideally unmediated relationship between eye and artwork, all the contingencies involved with curating, exhibiting, and viewing are concealed. Radical artists, however—from Robert Irwin to Jenny Holzer to Nick Cave—have productively challenged the neutral frame, interrogating and re-activating the space that lies between viewer and work. They have shown it to be a space laden with perceptual and emotional complexities. The whole genre of installation art can be seen as an artist-led effort to critically introduce the spatial frame as a subject for art itself.
What happens when gallery architecture is treated as a kind of installation? How can architecture “set the stage” for art, openly conditioning our perception? Questions like this seem to motivate the design of the permanent “Icons” exhibition in the renovated Schmidlapp Gallery at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), a showcase of 18 remarkable works from the across the museum’s collections, which opened in October 2011. The long, low processional space of the Schmidlapp connects the grand entrance lobby with the central atrium. It serves not only as a conduit but more importantly as a first taste of art after passing the ticket desk. When the economic meltdown of 2008 froze plans for a new addition, the CAM leadership refocused on updating its existing spaces, which include more and less neutral galleries built over different generations. The Schmidlapp, which sits right inside the main entrance, was a prominent place for Director Aaron Betsky and Chief Curator James Crump to intervene.
The transformed Schmidlapp is a sense-saturating cross between Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and a scene from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A tunnel of soft, black fabric beckons inside. Floor-to-ceiling veils of suspended black string define semicircular cocoons, each containing a single artwork lit by a focused spotlight, like fetish objects in an architectural jewel box. The floating, translucent scrims quiver gently in response to air currents and the occasional caress from a passerby. Their two-layer depth creates a subtle moire effect as one moves. To parse the mystery of this art oracle you have to enter the side chapels from the nave, as it were, or at least peek behind the curtain. At each threshold you expect to discover a holy relic—or perhaps a naughty secret? A tinge of sorcery suffuses the erudite presentations. Paintings seem to float free of the walls finished in nebulous gray Venetian plaster, and labels glow from within to make the white text appear to float. The floor directly in front of each work is also brightly lit, suggesting that the viewer herself is “on stage” as much as the work. In a throwback to the nineteenth-century architect and theorist Gottfried Semper, architecture finds its true purpose and expression in ritual décor. All that is missing is the scent of carnival candles.
Both the old and new Schmidlapp could be called cabinets of curiosities, displaying eclectic treasures for hungry eyes. But the old Schmidlapp—with its understated glass cases displaying ancient works, lit partially by natural light from clerestory openings—had become a place that many visitors would take in at a glance, passing through without breaking stride en route to somewhere else. The transparent openness of the space may have paradoxically made its contents less visible. By contrast, the new Schmidlapp defends itself against being treated with the indifference of a corridor. It attempts to stop you dead in your tracks in a way that is both strange and familiar. “The modern art museum exists at the intersection of the church and the shopping mall,” says Betsky. It is a place where spiritual revelation and sensory experience cross paths, allowing visitors to go farther outside and deeper inside themselves. Betsky once defined icons as “magnets of meaning” [http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/560 ]. The harder we look at one, the more we find ourselves immersed in a welter of associations.
On the practical side, the rounded alcoves are large enough to accommodate tour groups, but small enough to have a close encounter with each work. The heavy string is supposedly strong enough to withstand the weight of a child who tries to swing from it. And the softness of the partitions means that bumping into them won’t hurt or damage anything. The curatorial staff and Betsky—who has a graduate degree in architecture and worked in architects’ offices early in his career—entrusted the detailing and execution of the design to in-house designer Eli Meiners.
Although the “Icons” exhibition is designed to reveal the power of great works, it also has the effect of leveling the works by setting them into an abstract, uniform grid. The alcoves can be seen as repeating modules that give each work equal weight—and hence a kind of interchangeability. Has neutrality slipped back into the museum, dressed in black fringes? Can icons retain their ineffable power when lined up and displayed like goods at a trade show? The 18 works were selected not because they are the most valuable or the most popular, according to Betsky and Crump, but because they connect specifically with Cincinnati and the depth of the CAM collection. Crump says that the Schmidlapp will become “a springboard to the rest of the collection” as a new system of cross-referencing tags are installed to direct viewers to works throughout the museum that share common visual or thematic qualities.
Moreover, some works seem better suited than others to the new spatial frame. The Rookwood pottery looks amazing, for example, its rich earth tones catching fire from within the shadows. A seventeenth-century portrait of a man in armor by Anthony van Dyck, which uses dramatic Rembrandt-esque lighting effects, looms forth with vivid clarity. On the other hand, Warhol’s “Soup Can,” plucked from its natural habitat of stark-white walls and fluorescent-lit supermarket shelves, feels out of place. Some of the juxtapositions between adjacent or cross-facing works could also be fine-tuned, as Karen Chambers suggested in AEQAI in November 2011 [https://aeqai.org/2011/11/renovation-of-the-schmidlapp-gallery-cincinnati-art-museum/ ].
Whether the new Schmidlapp succeeds in heightening viewers’ curiosity about CAM’s far-flung collection, and whether the unorthodox presentation will remain powerful through the years, especially for local patrons as opposed to out-of-town visitors, remains to be seen. In staging a spectacle it risks introducing a note of absurdity into the realm of serious art. It knowingly risks distracting from the works themselves, if such a thing exists, rebutting Michael Fried’s argument that art ought to steer clear of the corrupting influences of theater and architecture. But if curatorial overstep is a risk of punchy exhibition architecture, banal exhibitions (curatorial understep?) are a risk of neglecting the spatial frame. The question going forward is how to build a frame that encourages rich art experiences, not in order to dictate reception of the works, but to open works and visitors to each other.