This post can be divided into two parts. The first part is my thoughts and understanding on the artworks as interface inspired by the reading of this week. The second part is my experience in The Philipps Collection and the questions I have after visiting it.
Artworks that have survived history and been preserved in museums can be regarded as medium bridging modern people and history. To a certain extent, an artwork can epitomize a period of history, because artists, like sand in a river, are unavoidably influenced by the social context at their time. Each school of fine art is born in a unique historical environment. From this perspective, an artwork hung on the wall in a museum provides an opportunity for art explorers to have a conversation with artists across the time and to understand the big picture of a time through the small world depicted in an easel.
To think it from the angle of the social network system, an artwork which can be regarded as a node in the network-like artworld (Irvine, n.d.). An artwork might be interwoven in a huge network that interconnects to different groups of people and institutions, including artists, collectors, curators, patrons, dealers, art critics, museums and universities, etc. An artwork exhibited in a museum confirms the network pattern in the Artworld. On the one hand, it is obvious that the artwork is directly connected to the museum in this case. On the other hand, there is a chain of unaware connections underlying this single tie. According to Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander (2007), collection, conservation, research, exhibition, and education or interpretation are the main functions of museums. Furthermore, I believe that, though sometimes there might be an overlap, usually different functions can serve or involve different groups of people or institutions. For example, the collection function of the museum gratifies the collecting passion of collectors; the conservation function of the museum involves skilled conservators who have chemistry and physics knowledge; the research function of the museum serves researchers; the exhibition function serves mainly visitors; the education or interpretation function may involve students, professors or institutions like art schools and universities. In this perspective, the artwork exhibited in a museum can thus directly and also indirectly connect to all groups of people and institutions I mentioned above.
Walking in The Phillips Collection was a special experience. None of the museums I have been to is like The Phillips Collection, whose exhibition space includes both modern architecture and an old historical building. After we walk through the hallway connecting the new modern building to Phillips’ family house, the feeling suddenly changed. Historical ornaments and the modern lines and color blocks are so different that at first, it made me feel strange. I was familiar with the pattern that modernist artworks are exhibited in a large empty room where the labels on the white walls are the only ornaments. However, in the Music Room, Mondrian’s two artworks are hung on the wall with wooden lattice decoration, between which there is a huge fireplace delicately decorated in a very European way. This firstly reminds me that exhibition arrangement is also a critical factor in whether people could efficiently comprehend the artwork or the museum as an interface. Artworks have a conversation with other artworks in the exhibition room and also have a conversation with space where it is shown. Mondrian’s artworks in a historical building might be strange at the first glance but if people look at it more from the angle of network and interface, it is easy to realize that the seeming incoherence between the modern paintings and the historical ornaments is also bridging them. The combination of modernist art and historical building reflect on changes and different trends in the history of both fine art and architecture. It proves that my initial imagination for a modernist museum is cliché, and is framed by the knowledge that has been admitted by the mainstream, which apparently neglects other possible perspectives.
The short field trip to The Phillips Collection also made me come up questions about the influence of museums and problems arisen in this area. Buren (1985) argues that the museum marks its exhibition and imposes a frame on it. Does it also mark and frame people’s mindset in some way? Is it because we focus so much on the artworks hung on the walls in the museums that we usually ignore their identity as media in a broader social context? The online introduction of the Rothko Room in The Phillips Collection says: “Rothko visited the room and treasured the atmosphere. On a 1961 visit when Phillips was away, he asked the staff to make several small adjustments to the space. Phillips noticed—and reversed—the changes when he returned.” Thus, the authority is also a problem I am concerned: who has a say in the space of the museums, artists (of those exhibited artworks), the patrons, the collectors or curators or directors of the museums? Shouldn’t we respect the thought of artists the most?
Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007).
Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.
Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld.”
The Phillips Collection Website, https://www.phillipscollection.org/collection/rothko-room