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January 7, 2004

TT: When size matters

I just saw "Manet and the Sea," the Art Institute of Chicago's current blockbuster show. As a matter of fact, I saw it twice, once on Friday morning and once on Sunday morning, and the contrast between the two viewings was instructive.

I took a cab from Union Station to the Art Institute on Friday, there to be stopped on the steps by a guard who told me that I couldn't check my suitcase--the Art Institute was no longer checking luggage because of the orange alert. Dumbfounded, I asked him, not in a friendly way, what I was supposed to do (I was staying with Our Girl in Chicago, who doesn't live anywhere near the museum). He told me that I could try the front desk of a hotel four blocks away, which was what I ended up doing. Cold, tired, and exasperated, I trudged back to the Art Institute, where I found a line of warmly dressed museumgoers that already stretched halfway around the block. It was, to put it mildly, a bad omen, and sure enough, I didn't get much pleasure out of what followed.

Like most blockbuster museum exhibitions, "Manet and the Sea" requires a separate ticket that permits you to enter the show one time only during a specified half-hour span. I presented myself at the entrance and got in another long line. Once I finally entered, the galleries turned out to be crammed, with huge knots of spectators clustered in front of the wall texts and even larger knots of headphone wearers spread out four and five deep in front of all the paintings discussed in the audio tour. The thick crowds moved sluggishly and randomly, now this way, now that way, making it a struggle to get close enough to any particular painting to examine it in detail.

If all this sounds like standard operating procedure, it is--except that I almost never go to blockbuster shows during regular museum hours. As a working critic, I normally attend "press views," the pre-opening previews which, even when they draw good-sized audiences, are never too crowded. In the past couple of years, I've only had to fight crowds at one mega-blockbuster show, the Museum of Modern Art's "Matisse Picasso" (I reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal, then returned a second time in the company of a friend who had a spare ticket). As a result, I'd forgotten how oppressive it is to try to look at great art in the company of undifferentiated hordes of other viewers, a not-insubstantial percentage of whom are boorishly noisy.

It didn't help that "Manet and the Sea" is an unusually large and complex show, consisting of more than a hundred carefully arranged paintings, watercolors, and prints by Manet, Monet, Courbet, Morisot, Renoir, Whistler, and a goodly number of other lesser lights. That's a lot of art, far too much to take in under the best of circumstances, much less the worst. (The Metropolitan Museum's El Greco show, by contrast, contains only 70 items.) I was already tired by the time I shoved my way into the fourth gallery, and by the end of the show the individual paintings were no longer making much of an impression on me. Sad to say, I was glad to leave.

Our Girl and I returned to the Art Institute two days later, just as a snowstorm was moving into downtown Chicago, and our experience couldn't have been more different: no line in front of the museum, no line at the entrance to the exhibition, no more than a dozen or so people in any gallery at any given moment, not unlike a press view. We spent an hour and a half strolling through the show at our leisure, scrutinizing and discussing each piece, then went back through twice more to pick our half-dozen favorite paintings (about which we were in near-complete accord). Our eyes were still fresh when we were done, and the paintings that made the deepest impressions on us stayed clear in our minds for days afterward.

This isn't going to be the usual Screed Against Blockbusters. I don't feel like rehearsing all the old arguments for and against such shows--they've been done to death, and nothing I say, here or elsewhere, will change the economic realities that drive museums to put together 100-piece extravaganzas of Impressionism's Greatest Hits. Nor do I propose to gripe about wall texts or audio tours. In a perfect world, museumgoers would simply look at paintings, then go home, read about them, and come back to see them again. Alas, the world of art is far from perfect: not only do most museumgoers like to read about the paintings they see while they're seeing them, but more than a few like to hear about them as well. What's more, I don't doubt that at least some of them profit from the experience, and far be it from me to decree that they should be deprived of it.

Having said all this, I do want to make a couple of modest proposals:

(1) Once a year, every working art critic should be required to attend a blockbuster show on a weekend or holiday. He should buy a ticket with his own money, line up with the citizenry, fight his way through the crowds, listen to an audio tour--and pay close attention to what his fellow museumgoers are saying and doing. In short, he should be forced to remind himself on a regular basis of how ordinary people experience art, and marvel at the fact that they keep coming back in spite of everything.

That one's easy. This one's harder:

(2) Every "civilian" who goes to a given museum at least six times a year should be allowed to attend a press or private view of a major exhibition. The experience of seeing a blockbuster show under such conditions is eye-opening in every sense of the word. If more ordinary museumgoers were to have such experiences, it might change their feelings about the ways in which museums present such exhibitions.

Lastly, I'll take a flying leap into the cesspool of arrant idealism:

(3) No museum show should contain more than 75 pieces, and no museum should be allowed to present more than one 75-piece show per year. Tyler Green (whose Modern Art Notes is about to become an artsjournal.com blog, by the way) wrote the other day to tell me that Washington's Phillips Collection, our favorite museum, is putting on a Milton Avery retrospective in February that will contain just 42 pieces. I can't wait to see it, not only because I love Avery but because that is exactly the right size for an exhibit of that kind--big enough to cover all the bases, but not too big to swamp the viewer and dull his responses.

I'll close with a memory. A few years ago, I gave a speech in Kansas City, and as part of my fee I was given a completely private tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. I went there after hours and was escorted by one of the curators, who switched on the lights in each gallery as we entered and switched them off as we left. I can't begin to tell you what an astonishing and unforgettable impression that visit made on me. To see masterpieces of Western art in perfect circumstances is to realize for the first time how imperfectly we experience them in our everyday lives. It changes the way you feel about museums--and about art itself. I didn't realize it then, but that private view undoubtedly helped to put me on the road to buying art.

Perhaps one of our great museums might consider raffling off a dozen such tours each year. I'm not one for lotteries, but I'd definitely pony up for a ticket.

Posted January 7, 2004 9:01 AM

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