Curation: a critical, and underappreciated, art

Yesterday, Laura and I went to the Seattle Art Museum to see the excellent exhibit Target Practice: Painting Under Attack, an exhibit that examines the assault on traditional painting by artists between 1949 and 1978.

The exhibit itself is quite good, but what struck me most was the positive change wrought in the permanent collection, where several of the pieces had been taken for the exhibit. The first room, into which patrons ride on an escalator, has been refocused on large, cinematic paintings and photographs. Some, like Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis have always been in that first room. But pieces by Jasper Johns and Jim Dine have been removed, and other pieces by artists whose names I’m embarrassed not to remember, have been put in place.

The transformation is astounding, and positive— not necessarily what I’d expect to happen when removing some of my personal favorite pieces from the gallery. But careful curation has turned the removal of pieces into a larger opportunity. Elsewhere in the permanent collection (particularly the glass collection, and the American galleries) I seemed to notice that fewer and fewer pieces used to greater and greater effect.

A Quartet of Suits consists of four suits, just as the title indicates. But the fanciful, imaginative African and American outfits (all from the permanent collection) stand out, and play off of each other nicely. It’s more than I would have expected from putting four pieces together in a gallery. (I also can’t help but mention how much I enjoyed seeing the Titus Kaphar exhibit, even if it’s otherwise unrelated to the theme of curation.)

I don’t know what’s happened at SAM, but the curation seems dramatically improved as of late, and highlights the value of a good eye for juxtaposition and relation.