Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach by John Beeson

John Beeson reports from Mönchengladbach on the Museum Abteiberg’s discerning approach to curation which is based on works’ autonomy and particular vibrations. This installment of “Sight Mapping” exports some valuable perspective on curation.

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Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


Fionna Banner, Arse Woman in Wonderland, 2001, silk screen on paper, on wood. All images courtesy Museum Abteiberg. Photo by Reidel.

Perhaps more than anything, it’s those specific works in the room where the conversation took place that illustrate my understanding of chief curator and deputy director of the Museum Abteiberg Dr. Hannelore Kersting’s approach to installing works based on formal relationships. There were three medium-sized affichiste works—by Raymond Hains—hung together taking up the wall to the right of the entrance. Past those were a stalagmite-shaped, translucent, free-standing sculpture; a black-and-white painting with text by Jannis Kounellis; and a sculpture in the shape of an egg constructed from wood by Martin Kippenberger. On the far wall hung an enormous print with neon pink text mounted on canvas. The color literally shone throughout the room and bathed the other works in pink. Finally, along the near wall to the left of the entrance stood a Franz West sculpture in two pieces, including an openwork metal chair, and a black-and-white raster painting by Sigmar Polke.

Installation view. Photo by Riedel.

Although she probably attributes too much in the configuration of works to the layout of the museum building, Dr. Kersting explained that the non-chronological installation in the Abteiberg is the only style possible and appropriate for works of art since the year 1945. All three together—the building, the curator, and the works—demand that viewers be responsible for what they look at, how they do so, how they come to a work, and how they engage with it up close. What is best for these artworks is an immediate experience, since these works of art are marked by incredible autonomy. Though it is important for the Abteiberg to present an accessible, intelligent, respectful, and attractive installation, the ultimate objective is to do what is best for each work.

Fascinatingly, Dr. Kersting seems to subscribe universally to the principle that form and content are equivalent—or, to say it another way, that form follows function—when it comes to art of the period. It is with this as a philosophical foundation that she contributes to the museum’s remarkably intelligent installations, which in some cases are based almost exclusively on the arrangement of works in relationship to one another given their formal resonances. These formal relationships are practically ubiquitous in terms of their appearance to viewers, whereas the same cannot be said for technical, historical, stylistic, and conceptual relationships as well as those based on subject matter. As an aside, Dr. Kersting also mentioned that she avoids simply reinforcing accepted art historical relationships; this was in the room where Joseph Beuys was paired with Arte Povera, evidently, for their common use of raw, simple materials.

Installation view. Photo by Riedel.

To return to the gallery where the heart of the conversation took place: it is here that Dr. Kersting mentioned that a room which has been successfully installed based on formal resonances “vibrates,” as it were. As long as the works are allowed enough space to manifest their autonomy—that is, to command the viewer’s complete attention—but also are arranged so that a subtle formal relationship is apparent, then viewers can simply perceive the intended insight as they perceive the works. It is important to emphasize, however, the absolute importance that these relationships be subtle. For, if the formal relationships were blatant, then it would be as if the sun in Monet’s Impression, soleil levant had been painted with neon pink as light as cotton candy—the image would not vibrate. What is more, when these heavy-handed resonances were perceived by viewers, they would have too much of their own identity and autonomy and thus would distract viewers from the art at hand; they would no longer reflect an element of each work but an autonomous existence of their own. Alas, the simplicity of these now dumb exercises would contradict and undermine the intelligence lying in wait in the works—what the curator had intended to illuminate in the first place. Fortunately, this is not the case at the Abteiberg, where one finds a fine example of curating with real formal sensitivity.

Mircea Cantor, Ciel Variable, 2007/2010. Installation view. Photo by Kukulies.

For a museum of its kind with a staff the size that it is, the Abteiberg presents a staggering diversity and fluidity of exhibition types. As best I could count, there are: temporary installations of work from the permanent collection, permanent historic spaces (e.g. the Sigmar Polke room), rooms devoted to single artists, rooms devoted to movements in art history, rooms based solely on formal relationships, a solo exhibition by a contemporary artist (at the time of my visit it was Mircea Cantor’s Klug wie die Schlangen und einfältig wie die Tauben), the installation of historical work from the collection (primarily German Expressionist painting), site-specific commissions (by Lawrence Weiner, for example), works on loan that the museum hopes to acquire, and an impressive sculpture garden. The fluidity of these variations of exhibition types within the space of the museum stands as a testament to the effective cooperation between the staff—especially between Dr. Kersting and Susanne Titz, the museum’s director and the curator of the Mircea Cantor exhibition. The Cantor exhibition moved through all of the museum’s three floors—as single works here and there, works pooled together in larger spaces, and even an aspect that spilled out onto the front lawn.

Mircea Cantor, Shadow for a While, 16 mm, 2008–2009. Photo by Riedel.

The Abteiberg exists today as somewhat of an anomaly. Its peer institutions—the former Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Van Abbemuseum, mentioned by Dr. Kersting, and Dia:Beacon. Based on my own experience, each differs from it in drastic ways, particularly following recent expansions and considering the latter’s reliance on private collections. Since the 1980s, the Abteiberg has flourished within the spaces of the same award-winning museum building through a visionary approach to collecting and a reliably progressive exhibition program. It is exactly for this reason—a willingness to take risks on and invest in young artists—that the museum has developed as an institution with sustained, close relationships with artists as well as one which is supported by international visitors. What is also clear is that the day-to-day appearance of the Abteiberg has been equally important in garnering the museum such a cherished place among contemporary institutions as well as in the opinion of museum-goers.

The exhibition Mircea Cantor, Klug wie die Schlangen und einfältig wie die Taubenwas on view from July 4–October 24, 2010.

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