Birds on a Wire

Every exhibition has a beginning and an end. At least on paper, in the plan of the exhibition designer, or in the mind of the curator. In reality, shepherding visitors along a chosen path can easily turn into a stampede. Museum architecture often does little to help and at times actively thwarts any attempt at gentle direction. Desperate curators—perhaps remembering their own formative experiences at Ikea—resort to oversized arrows or posted instructions to scream their marching orders at the disoriented public, and to keep them from fleeing for the exits all too quickly.

The last of a three-part installation called “Ways of Seeing” at the Drawing Center in New York was, by comparison, a masterclass in subtlety. So subtle, in fact, that it took more than a few minutes of reading and nervous darting around to understand just where to start. For the drawings from Jack Shear’s collection, it turned out that the beginning was at the end. Visitors moved along the sides of the room and followed the slowly lightening or darkening plaster walls to inspect drawings by a centuries-spanning roster of greats like Philip Guston or Pablo Picasso. According to curator Jarrett Earnest’s tight-lipped guidance in the introduction, the succession of drawings morphed either from “openness to precision” or from “clarity and containment to dissolution.” 

I’m usually a skeptic of heavy use of theory in exhibitions. Here, the reference to John Berger’s eponymous book, aside from the catchy title, seems to have been the inspiration for the exhibition’s design. Images are strung together like birds on a wire, one after the other. No labels. It’s just you and the drawings. You either construct your own narrative or simply look at each image on its own. So far so good. There’s nothing wrong with a little minimalism, especially if it looks this handsome. 

I can’t help but wonder, though, whether this show is exactly the kind of art historical priesthood that the anti-authoritarian John Berger decried as the mystification of art through obscure language and interpretation. Only in this case it’s not the language that’s obscure, it’s the way of seeing.



Ways of Seeing. Three Takes on the Jack Shear Collection

The Drawing Center, New York, New York