Mr. Layton’s Gallery–The Salon-Style Hang


This post by Catherine Sawinski, curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, is a great survey of the history of salon-style installation and its use in museums today.

Originally posted on Milwaukee Art Museum Blog:

View of Gallery 10. Photo by Chelsea Kelly View of Gallery 10. Photo by Chelsea Kelly If you’ve been in the European galleries in the last few weeks, you’ve probably noticed a dramatic transformation in Gallery 10!

The gallery has been reinstalled as part of the celebrations of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Layton Art Gallery, which laid the foundation for what would become the Milwaukee Art Museum.  We’ve decided to call it Mr. Layton’s Gallery, after Milwaukee philanthropist Frederick Layton, who started it all.

You’ll find some paintings that are familiar (and part of the original gift from Frederick Layton): Old Stagecoach by Eastman Johnson, Hark! The Lark! by Winslow Homer, and Homer and His Guide by William Bouguereau. Other visitor favorites are part of this installation, such as The Last of the Spartans by Gaetano Trentanove and Le Père Jacques (Woodgatherer) by Jules Bastien-Lepage.

But what might be a surprise that you have probably…

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The Museum Is …

The museum is no longer simply the “place of the Muses,” as the word’s origins in Greek and Latin would have it. Interpretations of the museum as an institution liken it to a variety of spaces and concepts, including the laboratory, the artist’s studio, the flea market, and even the morgue! In On Exhibit: Victorians and Their Museums, Barbara J. Black gestures toward the range of these understandings: “the museum is a whorehouse is a mausoleum is a department store is a secular cathedral is a disease is a glory …” (19). Each of these formulations, in turn, recasts both art objects and viewers.

Art historian Dianne Sachko Macleod argues for art collecting as play and the spaces of display as playrooms.


Gertrude and Murray Warner in China, c. 1904-1909.

In her book Enchanted Lives, Enchanted Objects: American Women Collectors and the Making of Culture, 1800-1940, a number of women use the language of play to describe their activities. Here is Gertrude Bass Warner, a collector of Asian art, in 1924: “In my house … I had what I called my play room, where I had many of my treasures and where I invited my friends who were interested in Chinese art to come and play with me” (14).

For Macleod, these associations with play are positive. In her psychoanalytic interpretation, play fosters imagination and creativity that lead to empowerment and a greater sense of self. Decorative art objects (ceramics, lace, furniture) are most conducive to play because they can be handled and rearranged. In 1885, it was said that collector Mary Morgan “lived with her precious toys as if they were her most beloved companions. Every day the pieces on her table were changed” (49).

Another of Macleod’s examples is Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who repurposed her grown children’s playroom to showcase her collection of modern art and folk art. She hired Donald Deskey to rework the space after seeing his window designs for Saks Fifth Avenue. Deskey also designed Radio City Music Hall, as well as some familiar lampposts. For Rockefeller, he installed Bakelite (plastic) walls and gray carpet. In the print room, pictured here in Vogue, a system of metal tracks ensured that works on paper could be easily swapped out.


Helen Appelton Read, “Modern Art: The Collection of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Junior.” Vogue, April 1931.

The artworks visible in these images are part of a striking collection of German Expressionist prints that curator William Valentiner helped Rockefeller to secure: Emil Nolde’s Rich FarmersOtto Mueller’s Two Girls in the Dunes at SyltMax Kaus’s, Landscape at BodenseeKarl Hofer’s Milliner No. IVMoissey Kogan’s, Woman and Doe, Jussuff Abbo’s Head and Shoulders of a Girl, and George Grosz’s Gypsy Music. Writing about this space in the accompanying article, critic Helen Appleton Read makes an interesting case for showing sculpture with prints: “Sculpture shown in conjunction with painting and decorative backgrounds tends to be submerged. Black and whites, on the other hand, emphasize its plasticity without in turn losing their own effectiveness.”

Given the adventurous artwork, the expense (at least $33,000) and length (one year) of the redesign, and the number of experts consulted, Rockefeller’s private gallery would seem to surpass the playroom. In this light, her husband’s correspondence reads as dismissive: “I can imagine how much you are enjoying playing with your picture gallery again and only wish I could really share with you sincerely the interest which you take in it” (156). Collecting-as-play isn’t always convincing, or always positive. But it is hard to ignore the compelling number of instances Macleod puts forth in which women’s art collecting is construed as play.

At Home With Art


Florine Stettheimer. Soiree or Studio Party, 1917-1919. Oil on canvas, 32 x 33.5 inches. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Artists’ homes and workspaces are oftentimes closely tangled up in the exhibition of their artwork. These spaces can be the first to present works of art to potential buyers, friends, or other artists, as in Florine Stettheimer’s Studio Party. This painting shows the interior of her studio, where guests consider representations of actual paintings: Family Portrait No. 1 is on the wall and Nude Self-Portrait is on an easel. In the lower left, we see the back of a third painting. Stettheimer sits in the center of the long, red sofa.

In rare instances, artists’ dwellings and studios become public institutions themselves, time capsules exhibiting the art, belongings, and lifestyle of their former inhabitants. Several examples include Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s property on Long Island and Chaim and Renee Gross’s apartment in New York City.

I hope to post more on the idea of homes as exhibition spaces. For now, I mention a recent article in the New York Times spotlighting artist Walter De Maria’s residence in a former Con Edison building. The artist died last July, and the building is now on the market for $25 million. The article emphasizes the way De Maria modified the building to suit his working methods, while the accompanying images reveal personal and quirky arrangements, especially the installation of the 5-7-9 Series in view of a cushy, patterned sofa. It is even more surprising to learn that he didn’t use his rooftop as a terrace!


What moved from the Newark Museum, to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and finally to Colonial Williamsburg – all within the span of just 25 years?

American Folk Art!

In 1930 and 1931, curator Holger Cahill organized two exhibitions of folk art at the Newark Museum: American Primitives: An Exhibit of the Paintings of Nineteenth Century Folk Artists and American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen. Dorothy Canning Miller, future MoMA curator and Cahill’s future spouse, helped with the shows.

Birth Certificate for Nancy Loeffler, ca. 1805. From the collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller; gift of the Museum of Modern Art. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection.

Birth Certificate for Nancy Loeffler, ca. 1805.

These exhibitions presented objects made by house painters, sign painters, cabinet makers, blacksmiths, sailors, housewives, and girls in finishing school. Museum staff traveled the eastern seaboard from Maine to Virginia, combing antique stores, whaling museums, and farmsteads to gather items as diverse as ships’ figureheads, weathervanes, hunting decoys, toys, cookie molds, and embroidery. Contemporary American artists including Alexander Brook, Robert Laurent, Elie Nadelman, and William Zorach lent folk art from their personal collections. Art dealer Edith Halpert also played a major role.

Folk art fit neatly within the mission of the Newark Museum, where director John Cotton Dana had always been interested in this “homespun type of American art.” Fifteen years earlier, his Homeland Exhibit featured handmade items from about twenty of Newark’s immigrant groups, including German, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Hungarian communities. The objects were selected from items that students brought from home to their schools.

The Preacher, ca. 1870.

The Preacher, ca. 1870.

Holger Cahill defined folk art as “the untutored expression of the common people” intended for an audience beyond the elite and free from connections to art movements or academies. He argued that folk art was remarkable because of its aesthetic merit rather than its historic value. For Cahill and others, folk art provided modern art with a lineage in America and could serve as a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. Yet he cautioned, “like everything else in American art this simple and naïve expression cannot be called altogether indigenous.”

Newark Museum trustee Arthur F. Egner felt differently. He declared, “some would have us believe that all our Art has come to us in ships. This exhibit is a refreshing demonstration that native in America there have existed fine observation and handiwork.”

Folk art infiltrated the Museum of Modern Art in 1932 when Cahill was made acting director during Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s leave of absence. For the next year, Cahill presented an exhibition program that trustee A. Conger Goodyear called a “flood of Americana.” He restaged the Newark folk art exhibitions as American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750-1900. In the interim, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of MoMA’s founders, had bought many of the objects on view.

In 1938, Barr and Miller included folk art in the first traveling exhibition that MoMA sent to Paris. The following year, Rockefeller lent twenty-three works of art to MoMA’s Art in Our Time, the musuem’s tenth anniversary exhibition. In 1939, she dispersed her collection of folk art to institutions including Colonial Williamsburg, Dartmouth College, and the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA accessioned about fifty items of sculpture and painting from her collection, including some of the same weather vanes, painted toys, and embellished birth certificates discovered by Newark employees.

During this time, however, MoMA was struggling to define its relationship to the past. Critics continually assailed the institution for not being “modern” enough. It was unclear whether a museum of modern art should even maintain a collection of historic art. And so steps were taken to relocate the folk art collection.

Girl Seated on Bench, ca.1845.

Girl Seated on Bench, ca. 1845.

MoMA sold a selection of European art and American folk art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the mid-1940s. The works were transferred per the agreement of both museums that they had passed from the “category of modern to that of ‘classic.’” Though these European objects still remain a point of pride at the Met, the folk objects were ignored. In 1955, these objects and the folk art still at MoMA migrated to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection at Colonial Williamsburg, where they remain today.

The unusual journey of these objects highlights folk art’s dual and sometimes conflicting importance as both art and history.

For full information on the provenance of these and other works, use the search feature on the website of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum:

Quotes above are from:

American Primitives: An Exhibit of the Paintings of Nineteenth Century Folk                      Artists. Newark: Newark Museum, 1930.                                                                        American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century                     Craftsmen. Newark: Newark Museum, 1931.                                                                       Holger Cahill. “Folk Art: Its Place in the American Tradition,” Parnassus 4, no. 3 (March 1932): 1-4.                                                                                                                            A. Conger Goodyear. The Museum of Modern Art: The First Ten Years. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943.                                                                                           Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, 1929-1967. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977.

Green-Wood Cemetery and Hart Island Potter’s Field

175 years ago Princess Victoria was crowned Queen in London, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, and Green-Wood Cemetery was founded amidst the farmland of Brooklyn. Considered “New York’s first sculpture garden” and a model for Manhattan’s Central Park, the cemetery attracted about 500,000 visitors a year in the mid-1800s. It continues to be a tourist destination today, offering trolley tours and even an app for mobile devices.

The Museum of the City of New York is presenting an exhibition on the art and history of Green-Wood. A Beautiful Way to Go: New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery also spotlights about 100 of the distinguished people buried there. The show hadn’t been on my radar, but last weekend a tourist insisted that I use his extra museum tickets (thank you, wherever you are!).


The distinctive installation has several creative features. The floor bears a design based on historic visitor maps of the cemetery (the Art Institute of Chicago also took to the floor recently, using Astro Turf in Fashion, Impressionism, Modernity). Clear, vertical exhibition cases suspend artifacts related to prominent people buried in the cemetery. The position of the cases relates to the map below, so that each marks the location of its corresponding grave. These see-through tombstones display personal belongings, work products, and other objects signifying the importance of each notable figure to us today: a sewing machine for the inventor of the sewing machine (Elias Howe, Jr.), a baseball bat for “the father of baseball” (Henry Chadwick), etc.

The freestanding cases are both the best and the worst element of the show. They offer 360-degree views of the heterogeneous mix of items on display, but the wires connecting them to the high ceiling are visually distracting. Practically, the wires deliver electricity. Conceptually, they are meant to help the cases evoke lanterns at twilight (an end-of-life euphemism). Personally, I’m reminded of the umbilical-like cords pervading the movie The Matrix.

In addition to the show’s famous 100, about 559,900 other people are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. Though they fall outside the scope of the exhibition, we can infer that they had money and/or family and/or friends to secure their place within the landscape’s beautiful 478 acres.

Unlike those at Green-Wood, the one-million people buried on Hart Island were unidentified or unclaimed at the time of their death. A 101-acre portion of the island has served as New York City’s public burial ground since 1869. Tax-funded burials, carried out by those serving prison sentences, provide a spot in a mass grave indicated with only a numbered cement marker. There are no scenic trolley tours here, though the site’s manager, the NYC Department of Correction, provides “limited access to an area set aside for reflection and facilitates visits by community groups and others seeking to honor the memory of those who are interred on the island.” Last Tuesday, the New York Times published an article about recent efforts to identify and recognize the people buried there.

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Aerial view of Hart Island, in Long Island Sound.

What might an exhibition devoted to the history and people of this place look like? There are few monuments, maps, or artifacts to showcase, but the site has inspired a number of artists, including Melinda Hunt, Jacob Riis, and Joel Sternfeld. Too bad the title A Beautiful Way to Go is already taken.

For photographs of Hart Island, click the artist names above or see:

Franz West’s “Lips” in the PMA Sculpture Garden

When I started to write about Franz West’s sculpture Lips (2012), I thought I hated it. Instead it made me cry.

West created the work specifically for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s sculpture garden, which is dedicated to the museum’s former director. Unexpectedly, Lips was the final sculpture West completed before his death last July. When thinking about the work, especially its meaning within a memorial landscape, I thought a lot about my cousin James, who died in 2010. His birthday was Wednesday.


Franz West, Lips, 2012. Aluminum, epoxy resin.

West’s quirky, tensile, tubular forms loop and spiral to reach about thirty feet above the grass they coil on. The three components of the sculpture are sociably grouped. They are clearly of the same species, but also quite different. Each flaunts its own color, texture, and idiosyncratic path through space. Though the slender elements are far from representational, their organic shape and sense of free movement suggest all manner of land and water plants, invertebrates, and microscopic organisms. These are particularly appropriate evocations for a sculpture on a hillside banking the Schuylkill River.

Lips is an anomaly in the museum’s garden. It is by far the tallest and most colorful work, and the only one resting directly on the grass. In the company of more esoteric and high modern art, Lips first seemed to me a too-obvious concession to fun, families, play. Plus, the sculpture is touchable. In a space where landscaping, signage, and guards preserve the hands-off atmosphere of a museum, the sudden encouragement to touch rang false. So initially I didn’t like the crowd-pleasing Lips. It seemed too easy.

Philadelphia Museum of Art's west facade.

Philadelphia Museum of Art’s west facade.

Sculpture gardens can be both an extension of the museum and its antidote, the nature to its culture, the popular to its elite. The Philadelphia Museum’s garden slopes down from the heights of what is surely one of the most impressive museum edifices in America to blend with the bike path of a municipal park. If Lips looks and acts like a jungle gym, play dough, or pool toys, then the garden becomes the museum’s playground. Yet this relationship isn’t one-sided. Lips may warp the classical columns of the museum’s west facade, but it also mirrors its decorative curling capitals, colorful pediments, and patinated griffins.

Lips is smarter than I thought. The sculpture’s own inquisitiveness about its surroundings is also endearing. Peeking over hills and seeming to swivel around like a cartoon submarine scope, Lips checks out its neighbors. Formal and imaginative relationships abound.

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Claes Oldenburg, Giant Three-Way  Plug (Cube Tap), 1970 with Lips.

From its predestined position within the garden, Lips addresses examples of Western sculpture spanning the last seven decades. West engages Isamu Noguchi (also a furniture designer) on the terms of verticality and the biomorphic. Scott Burton’s severe Rock Chair (1981), Two-Part Chair (1986), and Bench and Table (1989) provide a counterpoint to Lips in their frustrated functionality (you are allowed to sit on these chairs, but there is no signage that says so). Pairing West’s sculpture with Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug (1970), another oversized, tri-part work, encourages whimsical associations. Lips becomes tangled electrical cords searching for an outlet. Finally, Lips is the antithesis of Ellsworth Kelly’s flat, horizontal, black, smooth, and rigidly geometric Curve I (1973). Yet even here there is a repartee with minimalism. Kelly’s form purportedly derives from the shape of a flattened paper cup. Perfect for lips!

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Looking up at Lips.

Set within a space dedicated to Anne d’Harnoncourt after her death in 2008, West’s final work makes for an unusual celebration of life and an unlooked-for meditation on mortality and impermanence. Lips thrives on the unpredictable while revealing underlying continuity in nature, things, and art. Though created for its present location, it too is only on temporary loan. Lips demonstrates that there are no straight paths or fixed positions, but that we are not alone. Connections are possible across time and space.

For more on Franz West, who started making art “mostly to calm my mother, who was fed up that I did nothing” see:

For a quick video of the Lips installation, see: