Material Mondays: Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Museum of Contemporary Art

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Wrapped Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1968-69 Photo: Shunk-Kender © 1969 Christo

This work resonates with the lockdown, perhaps, because it emphasises the logistical challenges, and indeed the sheer labour, involved in the withdrawal of parts of the museum from view. In this period, we can still see the contents of those museums which have digital access, but their material characteristics are somehow more vivid because of their absence.

At a time when the physical sites of most museums are inaccessible, there is an opportunity to reflect on our experience of art, especially on features which may otherwise go unremarked. Since the lockdown, there has been enormous effort to disseminate online access to museum collections. These resources allow important elements of museums’ cultural work to continue. Equally though, they highlight those features of the experience of art that are now unavailable.

A project by the husband and wife artistic partnership Christo and Jeanne Claude, Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, Wrapped is an interesting one to consider at this strange moment. Christo and Jeanne Claude (Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon) are best known for their signature wrapping of buildings, monuments, even coastlines, in a variety of synthetic or natural fabrics.

In the case of Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, Wrapped the building was entirely shrouded in 10,000 square feet of tarpaulin and rope by art students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The project was meticulously planned, both in relation to aesthetic and pragmatic considerations, including the need to leave space for ventilation and maintain entrance and exits to the building. Although the museum remained open during the two week-long exhibit, the interior showed a complementary work, Wrapped Floor and Stairway, the floor of an empty, newly-painted gallery swathed in cotton drop cloths.

This work resonates with the lockdown, perhaps, because it emphasises the logistical challenges, and indeed the sheer labour, involved in the withdrawal of parts of the museum from view. In this period, we can still see the contents of those museums which have digital access, but their material characteristics are somehow more vivid because of their absence. This materiality involves artefacts, spaces of display and buildings, but also the work of all kinds required to sustain such an institution, from the cleaners to conservators and administrators.

-Dr Kim Charnley, Staff Tutor in Art History, The Open University

Material Mondays extra: Pollock & Tureen

I wanted to share some work by Louise Lawler who I find a fascinating artist who exceeds categories, even though she can be in part located within traditions of institutional critique and feminism. She made her name with a famous series of photographs taken in the house of the art collectors Mr and Mrs Tremaine, and here is one of her famous shots of this series:

Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, 1984 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It shows Jackson Pollock’s famous painting Frieze (1953-55) the way only collectors can afford to see it, in a domestic setting, hence the association of her work with institutional critique. For me the juxtaposition with this eighteenth-century tureen is particularly interesting, as it connects the art work as commodity in the present with the trade in porcelain and so-called export art, that is Chinese vases, dished and other domestic objects that were produced especially for the European market and sought to adapt its shapes to the European taste. This work, much like Lawler’s, thrived on appropriation and translation, resulting in often curious mixtures and creative interpretations of patterns, designs and shapes. The extreme cropping of Pollock’s work, which in a sense becomes the backdrop for the tureen, shows the painting much like the tureen as a decorative object in a private space, that is as a commodity. Yet what makes the image so famous is the presence of Pollock’s painting, a clear sign of status. Historically speaking, porcelain dishes, however, used to occupy just such a place of privilege, not on the basis of artistic genius, however, but of the ‘exotic’ status of porcelain, that is the materiality of the dish, and its association with the ‘East’. Pollock, of course, also drew on ‘other’ visual practices, in particular native American Indian art, which this image also alludes to, if maybe somewhat obliquely, which is why I picked it.

This perspective reflects my work for A344 ‘Art and its Global Histories’, the new third level course for art history which launched in October 2017, which explores the movement of visual objects between cultures in respective cultural and political contexts and shows how central Europe’s global contacts and transcultural exchanges were for the forging of its art. I have edited and co-authored one of its course unit ‘Empire and Art: British India’. For me Lawler’s image also makes indirect allusions to the practice of appropriating the work of artists for decorative schemes on ceramics. I have explored this with regard to nineteenth-century prints representing Indian scenes on a Staffordshire meat dish on our OpenLearn Unit Travelling Objects.

If you are interested in exploring the global contexts of Chinese porcelain further, you will find a discussion of Chinoiserie and of the global commodity trade in Art, commerce and colonialism 1600–1800 as well as the earlier reception and collection of porcelain in the Renaissance in European Art and the Wider World, 1350-1550.

-Renate Dohmen, Lecturer in Art History at the Open University