The Dallas Museum of Art as non-site: an astral unfolding (part 1)

In March of 1955 the Public Affairs Luncheon Club, a local women’s group, charged the Dallas Museum of Art with exhibiting the work of artists with Communist affiliations and neglecting the work of Dallas artists.

Frederic Edwin Church... The Icebergs... 1861... Oil on canvas; 64 1/2 x 112 1/2 inches


In March of 1955 the Public Affairs Luncheon Club, a local women’s group, charged the Dallas Museum of Art with exhibiting the work of artists with Communist affiliations and neglecting the work of Dallas artists. The museum temporarily removed works by Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, and other ideologically suspect artists from display.[1] Such policies have shifted since, but what this story teaches us is that museums are not simply bricks and mortar or even collections of benign artifacts. They are sites of ideology, or to borrow a term from Robert Smithson (whose exhibition recently closed at the DMA), they are non-sites.[2]

Museums are spaces where objects are studied, kept and put on display. But what prompts the choice of these objects? What decides the relative importance of a royal crown from Senegal vs. a piece of gum from Brooklyn? In a museum of art one would think that “art” helps us to narrow this determination . But after Duchamp’s readymades or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, the task is less certain.

The questions of authorship that these artists performed were paralleled by trends of writing and criticism. The critic could function as an artist as Donald Kuspit argued[3], or even as Clement Greenberg put in practice through his authoritarian genealogy of modernism. Smithson and Judd also showed us that the artist could function as a critic. So, since the position of “artist” seems less sound we are still left uncertain what parameters determine what should be studied, kept or put on display?

Can we treat curatorial practice as a kind of authorship like the making of art or the writing of criticism? What would it be like to treat the DMA as a meta-text in which each exhibition at a given time was a part of a larger whole? Would the architecture, educational programs, gift shop, website affect the nature of the museum as this work of art? What is the relationship between the museum and its geo-political landscape? How much is the Dallas Museum of Art a reflection of Dallas, of Texas and of America and its conception of not only art, but also museums in general?

If we look at a museum in this way, it ceases to exist as a static space whose sole function is to archive the past, welcoming pilgrims to visit the corporeal actuality of art that we have only heard about or seen in books. The museum also points to something else, a larger idea for whom its primary role is to signify. This makes the museum not concrete, but a virtual space, not unlike Smithson’s conception of a non-site.

How is an identity of both America and the American West presented through both the permanent collection and recent temporary exhibitions of the DMA? How is this idea constructed via America’s European roots?

Recently on view at the DMA is William Eggleston: Los Alamos, a traveling exhibition of color photos from a series of road trips that Eggleston took through the south in 1966-74. They are snapshots, manifesting an artlessness and populist air to match the imagery that they contain.

Eggleston’s photos include a lonely strip mall in Arkansas, a battered Coke dispenser in Louisiana, a statue of Jesus in Memphis treated just as much as a commodified object and dispenser of nourishment. They are full of signs: “beer to go” “open 24 hours” “it’s booze time!” “drive in prison slave kamasutra — x-rated” and a sign for sno-cones in Mississippi that must have at one time had eyes and mouth painted on animated cones, now all that is left are the apertures of ghosts.

This is “astral America,” as Baudrillard called it, “not social and cultural America, but the America of the empty, absolute freedom of the freeways.”[4] Americana speaks of an America that is brand new but fading fast. These images have particular resonance here in Dallas, more so than in New York, Cologne or Tokyo. Eggleston sets up a relationship between the kitsch and bombast of the fake and nostalgia for the idyllic wild of the American West.

Gustave Courbet... Fox in the Snow... 1860... Oil on canvas; 33 3/4 x 50 5/16 inches


Just up the ramp is a small show of hand colored lithographs, Audubon’s Animals. These prints include images of a Ground Squirrel, Red Wolf, American and Tawny Lemmings. They were based on sketches from a trip that Audubon took with the Reverend John Bachman, a Lutheran minister and naturalist who wrote the text.

But despite the seeming purity of their empiricism, even to the extent that a priest was brought along to lend not only the authority of nature but also the authority of God to these images, the prints were constructed from drawings based on taxidermied animals from natural history collections in Europe and North America, as well as the on-site drawings. The animals were drawn separately from the landscapes and the prints were hand colored by a team of technicians (usually women, acting as cooks to the spoils of the hunt). Audubon’s prints were about nature but filled with artifice.

John James Audubon was born to a French adventurer and his chambermaid in 1785. He later moved to Pennsylvania and soon became the naturalist that we know. This involved sketching animals in their natural habitat then killing them, stuffing them and bringing them back to his studio where their bodies were posed in lifelike situations. His innovation was to use “emotional” and dynamic situations to approach natural history, a domain that was previously dominated by objectivity and implicitly a more static composition.

It is interesting that the transition from France to America, old to new world, was embodied in the biography and even the innovations of Audubon. In the 19th century, artists such as Frederic Edwin Church made paintings that marked the transition from America being discovered by Europe, to America discovering itself. The promise of America to its European settlers was utopian. It promised religious and political freedoms, stories were told of riches washing up on its shores. It was even said to hold the elixir for eternal life.

Europeans have long argued that progress is inevitable. When ships set sail to the Americas, these new lands were treated as new territory given as a gift by the providence of God, an attitude that carried through explorations of the American west three hundred years later. The West held the promise of America not only as utopia, but as the new Zion, an Eden of untouched territory. Because of this, Church and his colleagues in the Hudson River school often treated the American landscape as if it were bathed in divine light. In The Icebergs, a painting in the permanent collection of the DMA, Church approached his subject not unlike Audubon. He went out into the wild and gathered sketches that would serve as source material for this larger canvas to be completed in the studio.

This process of facing and enduring the suffering of the wild and then making something transcendent from it was mirroring the Christian idea of resurrection.[5] The American West was to be the site of the new birth in the wake of the Civil War. Painted in 1861, Church’s Icebergs alluded to the civil war by valorizing the north through a romantic display of both its beauty and danger.

Camille Pissarro... Apple Picking at Eragny-sur-Epte... 1888... Oil on canvas; 24 x 29 1/8 inches (60.96 x 73.98 cm.)


This split between nature and culture, locating nature in the wilds of the Americas and culture in Europe, produced a number of American artists who spent much of their careers abroad. Sargent’s engagement with Manet and Velasquez as evidenced by his Study for the Spanish Dancer, 1882 and Cassat’s engagement with Impressionism (Sleepy Baby, 1910) are both examples of how this dialogue between Europe and the U.S. was reciprocal.

The European precedent for the Romantic deification of Nature can be found in the DMA’s European wing with two paintings by Barbizon painters. Theodore Rousseau’s images of Fontainebleau, the mythic forest outside of Paris began a French investigation of Nature, a trajectory that moves through Courbet’s Fox in the Snow, 1860, Manet’s Portrait of Isabelle Lemonnier, 1879, Monet’s The Seine at Lavacourt, 1880, and Pisarro’s Apple Picking at Eraguy-sur-Epte, 1888. European modern painting was becoming more and more about the real as both subject matter (nature or peasantry vs. aristocracy or the church) and as means. The “real” in modernism was becoming more and more about the stuff with which artwork was made. In this sense, it could reveal itself to be artificial even though it was about being more real.

This idea of the real was constructed from the perspective of the bourgeoisie who saw art as a rightful part of leisure. For the bourgeoisie, the real was located at work where serious issues were attended to. Leisure, and art as a subset, was the opposite of serious. It was for play, vacations and free time.[6] This sense of art’s function hasn’t disappeared. It is somewhat fitting that at the DMA, facing these Impressionist and Post-impressionist paintings, is a little living room for tired art lovers, two couches facing into each other with a bouquet of flowers on a coffee table. Art’s transformative power has taken the back seat to its power to distract. Leisure, or the way we spend our free time, is often used as a way to reproduce the state of things as they are, not change them into a new set of circumstances.[7]

The transformative power of art, both spiritual and intellectual, has its roots in Christian and mythic painting in Europe. Procaccini’s Ecce Homo, c.1615-1625, depicts the flagellated Christ, who performs his suffering to the viewers both in and before the picture. Its baroque theatricality is echoed by Paolini’s Bachic Concert, c. 1630, which (in the tradition of Carravagio) combines the mythic with the everyday. These paintings are about other times and places, but they were at the beginning of a process in western painting in which the attention of the image is outward, toward the viewer, unfolding into the real world.

Piet Mondrian... Place de la Concorde... 1938-1943... Oil on canvas; 37 x 37 3/16 inches


The approach to the real in 20th Century modernism is typified by four gems by Mondrian. These paintings give us less and less of an illusion of the real in place of greater and greater abstraction which in turn is more and more actual, more realistically portraying its own circumstance. From Blue Tree, 1909-10, to Windmill, 1917 to two abstract compositions of 1921 and 1934. Like many artists and intellectuals, Mondrian moved from Paris to New York as a refugee. He was excited to find that the grid of the city mirrored his own theosophical musings on Utopia. Broadway Boogie Woogie was a product of this conjunction. Mondrian believed that abstraction had transformative powers and found its correlation to New York to endow America with similar possibility. This idea of America’s transformative powers is not far from how we were talking about Frederic Edwin Church.

Speaking of church, Jackson Pollock’s Cathedral is unusual for his drip paintings in that it is relatively small and vertical. He was born and raised in the American west and much has been made of the correlation between the expanses of Wyoming and California and the horizontal spaces of his paintings. But Cathedral points to the utopian spiritual ambitions of both modernism and American painting.

Pollock was a westerner who traveled east to find the cultural sublime of New York. Smithson, from New Jersey, traveled west, not so much to find but more to test the sublime. “Abstraction is everybody’s zero but nobody’s nought. Museums are tombs, and it looks like everything is turning into a museum.”[8] Robert Smithson reacted against Abstract Expressionist artists like Pollock by looking for the iconic imagery that he felt was “lurking or buried” under the “purity” of their paintings. This included some early drawings that included Christian imagery of crucifixions and saints. Soon he became interested in going back to the source of these paintings, but not to go back as yet another essentializing gesture. Instead, Smithson began an interest in entropy through work that would be both inside and outside of a museum structure.

Through the lens of the avant guarde, we could look at Smithson as a reactionary against purity or stasis, against abstraction or the white box of museums. He seems to be encouraging us to look outward, to the untamed wild of the American west, yet another step forward in the march toward progress. But this would be to misunderstand the central concept of his work: entropy and its relationship to both place and time.

At a recent event at the DMA entitled Icons of the collection: Robert Smithson and his films[9], the conversation revolved around the cinematic as a state of mind. One would think that the major difference between sculpture and film is that film is time-based. It has a beginning, middle and end and it takes time to witness their transition. But Smithson saw his sculpture in similar terms. Spiral Jetty, his most famous work, was designed to perform time. Its primary material was stone, the product of ancient tectonic shifts and thousand of years. His gesture of structuring stones in the form of the spiral was yet another force enacted on these materials. Because of this, the tides that hid this sculpture until recently were just as much a part of the piece. For his indoor work, he brought stone and sand into museum spaces. He enacted a mutual infection of seemingly separate spaces. This was the importance of the mirrors in his work. He questioned fixed notions of inside and outside, nature/culture, art/life and not just art but the way that we think about art, whether it is an archive of experience or a transformative tool, but also the way that it partners with particular spaces.

Robert Smithson... Mirrors and Shelly Sand... 1969-1970... Fifty 12-inch x 48-inch mirrors, back to back; beach sand with shells or pebbles

Derrida has written about the Archive in terms of its roots: “Arkhe, we recall, names at once the commencement and the commandment.”[10] The museum is a place where we look for our beginnings and even where we might be headed, not just as artists but as citizens of both community and civilization. But this concept of time is structured via authority, we are in a sense commanded to believe that what is presented to us is fact.

On the panel Icons of the Collection someone quoted Smithson quoting Goddard as saying “The Camera filming itself would be the ultimate movie.” How could this alter our conception of not only film, but also of sculpture and ultimately the museum? In terms of time, backwards and forwards would intersect at points that we might not have predicted. We would also always know that we are being shown, not only what but also how to see.

In a recent conversation I had with Dorothy Kosinsky, curator of painting and sculpture at the DMA, we discussed the particular relationship that the Dallas Museum of art has with Contemporary Art (art made after 1945). The incident in 1955 in which “Communist” art was removed began a shift for a number of contemporary art patrons in Dallas. When the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art and the Dallas Museum of Art merged in 1963, the Foundation for the Arts was established. This private entity was able to protect and collect works of art that might be subject to ideological objections from the political tides of the region, Kosinsky said. Despite the conservative trends of Dallas, there has been a consistent group of courageous collectors who are deeply passionate about contemporary art that is not only new but also challenging. The recent announcement of a promised gift by a consortium of collectors is yet another example of this dedication.

Kosinsky says that they are currently planning a reorganization of their galleries that will approach this kind of self-criticism. The DMA is made up of multiple “museums,” both in terms of the architecture and the diversity of its departments. Fittingly, Kosinsky is curating an exhibition in the fall entitled Dialogues with work by Duchamp, Cornell, Johns and Rauchenberg. These artists all questioned the relationship between artist, art object and viewer as arbiters of meaning. “I don’t mind giving away the authorial voice if what you gain is transparency,” Kosinsky said. This tendency is growing into the rest of the collection. Most recently, the exhibition 100 treasures: 100 years (October 2003 – March 2004) was such an experiment, in which artworks from various times and cultures were placed side by side to construct intersecting narratives. This allowed for new ways of looking at these objects, but it also sacrificed the context from which they came. The balance between the historical strength of collectors of contemporary art in Dallas and more historical and non-western art is both the DMA’s strength and its burden to bear.

In my opinion, the key is not to confuse diversity with democracy. There are three entrances to the Edward Larabee Barnes Building. Like the National Gallery in Washington D.C. this is a message that the museum is open to all. But unlike the National Gallery, there is a charge to enter and if a stray visitor wanders into the galleries, an attendant will check for your wristband, sending you back out to pay the admissions fee. It seems to me that a simple procedural issue, like the overt charging of admission at each entrance, would alleviate a symbolic confusion.

As viewers, we are not pilgrims or pioneers, marching through the tundra to find objects of meaning. We cannot simply stand before these objects and wait for their wealth to blossom before us. When we walk into the museum we are engaged in an exchange, both of capital and of meaning. If we are to pay, we should pay up front and enter with a clear sign that we have chosen to walk through these doors with agency, taking up Duchamp’s challenge to viewers to complete the creative act.

Another site of commerce is the museum store. Why is it that the museum store is more like a gift shop, filled mostly with mass-produced imitations of the work that we see there? The Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art hosted Claus Oldenburg’s Store in 1961. Could the DMA use its store as a creative site of commerce that sells either artist-created objects of critique or design? Could artists engage the collection more directly either by acting as curators or by making work in response to the collection?

***

The DMA’s portrayal of the European and post-colonial American histories tells a story of unfolding spaces. Frank Stella called this “working space.”[11] The European collection most strongly begins in the 17th Century, when Stella claims the trend toward paintings reach outward into “real” space began. There is a western drive toward new spaces (both inward and outward) new territories (The Americas, the American West) and even utopian ends (pure abstraction). This story is part of the abstract structure of the DMA, the museum as non-site. The next step is for the museum to challenge itself and challenge us to embrace Smithson’s idea of entropy, to allow the museum’s departments, architecture and commerce to infect one another. For in astral America, the freeways promise endless circulation, with the vanishing point in our own back yard.

1. Entry “DALLAS MUSEUM OF ART” in the Handbook of Texas Online. [return to article]
2. “a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract yet represents an actual site.” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings [return to article]
3. Donald Kuspit, The Critic is Artist, 1984. [return to article]
4. Jean Baudrillard, America, 1988. [return to article]
5. Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, 1995. [return to article]
6. This is not to reduce the seriousness of ideas that Impressionist and Postimpressionist artists were involved with. No one can doubt the utopian piety of Van Gogh, the socialist aspirations of Pissaro or the call to the idyllic countryside that brought Monet away from the encroaching powers of industry. But the bars and dance halls of Manet, the parks of Suerat and Renoir were also mirrors of the exploits of their patrons. [return to article]
7. Theodore Adorno, The Culture Industry, 1991. [return to article]
8. Robert Smithson, “Some Void Thoughts on Museums” from Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. [return to article]
9. A conversation was held with Whitney Museum Curator Chrissie Iles and Nancy Holt, artist, collaborator, and widow of the pioneer earthworks artist. Eugenie Tsai, Ahmanson Curatorial Fellow at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, moderated the conversation. [return to article]
10. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, 1995. [return to article]
11. Frank Stella, Working Space, 1986.

Images courtesy Dallas Museum of Art.

Noah Simblist is an artist and writer living in Dallas.

also by Noah Simblist

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