Wednesday, May 13, 2015

When less is more

For an exhibition in the late 1970s at the then-Dowse Art Gallery, we hung a large Milan Mrkusich corner painting about half a meter in front of the wall suspended by two nylon threads. It floated there (who knows what Mrkusich thought of it) in an attempt to separate the painting from the walls that were made of unpainted concrete blocks. The first time Billy Apple visited the Dowse he said it was like being embedded in graph paper. We now see this effort was an unintended appropriation of some exhibition ideas devised by the Italian architect and designer Carlo Scarpa in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Scarpa was a pioneer in presenting historic art works separated out from their surroundings and highlighting their intrinsic qualities as aesthetic objects. He stripped away the usual elaborate gold frames replacing them with narrow fillets of wood or brass. This proved highly controversial even though, as he argued, most of the frames were not original and simply reflected the style of the period during which the works were reframed.

In Verona we visited an outstanding example of Scarpa’s exhibition design in the Castelvecchio Museum. Here the advantages of having an exhibition designer who was also an architect were clear. Many of the objects in the Museum's collection had arrived as the result of destruction by floods, fires and fighting. Scarpa's approach accepted that they had been cut adrift and he set out to present each object with its own authenticity. Each was given generous space and the presentation of each was given intense attention. The plinths for each sculpture were customised in both form and materials, and armatures and easels were designed so that the works related in intriguing ways with each other and in the space. 

The emphasis on artist installations has crowded Scarpa's careful and subtle approach out of many contemporary art museums, but his marriage of design and architecture has much to teach. It certainly showed in the exhibition Slip of the tongue curated by the artist Danh Vo (in association with Caroline Bourgeois) at the Punta Della Dogana in Venice. In this installation many of Scarpa’s techniques are evident and the curators even directly reference him by using some of his strange and elegant exhibition furniture.