Art in Context and the Pleasures of Looking
On a recent trip to Switzerland for Art Basel and the biennial exhibition Manifesta in Zurich, I was reminded of how much the experience of art can be affected by the context in which it’s shown. Located only an hour apart, the cities provided ample opportunities to encounter art of different kinds in varied circumstances.
Basically a high-end trade fair, the 2016 iteration of Art Basel included 287 galleries from around the world, each with its own carefully curated booth cheek by jowl with its neighbors. I noted the booths I wanted to visit on the fair’s brochure, knowing that, diverted by others that might catch my eye, I probably wouldn’t get to them all. Walking the crowded aisles, I stopped frequently to chat with friends and colleagues, because the fair is as much about seeing people as art. While fairs such as Art Basel offer an opportunity to see art from many places at once, they have their drawbacks. In these hyper-stimulating environments, works by artists who are new to me, are intellectually demanding, or visually subtle can be harder to digest.
Zurich provided a more relaxed art venue in an unconventional setting. At Manifesta, a floating dock in Lake Zurich acted as a cinema. Its grandstand seating looked onto an enormous screen with the lake in the background. Well below the screen was a swimming hole with children playing. The films were short documentaries narrated by energetic high school kids that featured artists exploring other peoples’ vocations (a chef, a kickboxing trainer, a doctor doing medical imaging). In a situation like Art Basel, it can be difficult to focus on film and video, but in this environment, with few distractions and comfortable seating, these narrative works were extremely accessible. Like the films on view, the architecture elegantly acknowledged the ways that life and art can intersect. The Lozziwurm play sculpture installed outside Carnegie Museum of Art resulted from a similar impulse.
There were also more traditionally satisfying art experiences on offer. The Kunsthaus, Zurich’s great modern art museum, had a retrospective of the work of artist Francis Picabia. Most closely associated with Dada—the early 20th-century art movement grounded in anarchy and abhorrence for social and political norms—Picabia actually worked in many styles over his lifetime. For instance, the exhibition featured his representational “Transparencies,” which influenced artists decades later. The installation was calm and respectful, allowing viewers to travel through the show at their own pace.
I also saw a small show of works by the American sculptor David Smith at the Zurich gallery Hauser & Wirth. A little gem, it brought home to me how freethinking Smith was for his time. At a point when to be avant-garde was to uphold the unique properties of a medium, Smith worked with his chosen medium of steel in unexpected ways. He often covered his sculptures in bright color, sometimes treating the surfaces in an extraordinarily expressive, painterly manner.
Taking a small bite of something, and savoring every bit of it because you’re not worried about missing what’s around the corner can the best possible art experience.
Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world.