An old, short essay - made new again
In memory of Sol LeWitt (September 9, 1928 - April 8, 2007)
Bright green paint covers all the but edges of otherwise empty walls. Hammers, tape measure, levels, power tools, paintbrushes, and a couple unopened cans of blue paint are strewn across the floor. Is this the newest exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum? Or will it be? One must travel full circle in the building to reach this spot—past the European art, the new Sol LeWitt installation-in-progress, American impressionism, even a tiny room with mannequins clad in fashions of elegance, and artistic reflections on the history of Hartford’s glorious Bushnell Park. This spot is separated by a mere pair of glass doors from the contemporary art wing (funny name considering the most recent pieces hardly breach the 1970s), featuring, to my delight, works by Miró, with his whimsical black-outlined creatures straight out of the subconscious.
No yellow “CAUTION” tape, no deep red velvet rope blocking the glass doors, I almost think this work is a true contemporary piece, acquired by the Atheneum to perfectly complement the current restorations and renovations taking place inside and outside of the building. A fitting site-specific tribute to the beauty of scaffolding, of men in hard hats and sweat-stained clothes, constructing—creating a new space, an improved space, a restored space, a renewed space. Upon exiting the large room, and the museum, one could walk right under the scaffolding, and pass by a medium-sized tractor, perhaps looking at them a little closer, as less a nuisance, appreciating their unique function in the entirety of the museumgoing experience.
But of course part of me knows better. Were this an actual exhibit, surely the Atheneum would have posted a shiny, gold placard with some custom black lettering which would detail the intention of the project, force-feeding a very particular reading of the “contemporary art” contained within. These ubiquitous placards - attempting as they may to demystify a form so often elusive to minds whose art education goes no further than the 19th century (of course, some “modern” works are, indeed, favored by such individuals - if we can call Thomas Kinkade “modern”) - are simply missing. And if a museum is not about contextualizing, compartmentalizing, controlling, then what is it about?
Upon my realization this is not, in fact, a new exhibit (of course this process took less than three seconds, despite my eager hopes to the contrary), a fear took over - fear of going somewhere “forbidden.” These museums, they’re all about direction of traffic - it’s the surest way to determine the experience that patrons will have. The Atheneum is no different - in fact, upon arriving and inquiring about recent acquisitions, a woman at the desk in the lobby proceeded to tell me exactly which path to take to see the newest and most interesting pieces. Conspicuously absent in her “tour” was any mention of the contemporary art wing, which was marked on the map by a bold, capital letter “E.”
In spite of better judgment, I open the glass door, and stand in the doorway looking through. It is the most direct path back to the lobby (by now I am about ready to leave for the day), but the fear keeps me from continuing forward into the wonderfully arranged workspace, which is, it seems, being prepared for the “newest” pieces to be installed (though what pieces would be complemented by bright green and blue walls is beyond me). I allow the door to close and stand looking a while longer, careful to pretend my attention is directed “elsewhere”, for fear the museum security (or the large priest who had first seen me examining surveillance cameras in the Impressionist room) would approach me.
Left unapproached after all, and now satisfied, I take the long journey back around the perimiter of the building. Past the food court, past the ornate ceramic objects (protected by glass cases - oh, how gleeful it would be to give a few children little hammers and gloves and set them upon this room), and finally, importantly, past the museum gift shop (which I now realize I would have missed had I gone through the “green room”). Curious.
I exit the building, walk under the scaffolding (past the tractor) and down the steps, turning around to look again, certain that I am the only one doing so.