Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Designer

For the past 12 years since I started Missives from the Art World, my wife has been my editor and we are still married after 45 years! In my last blog on “The Packaged Show” I left out one word that was vital, and she wrote it in! That word was, “Designer”. 

What brought this home was an obituary in the New York Times about Stuart Silver, who was a museum designer who began his career as a designer at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He was suddenly promoted from making signs and posters to head of the Design Department. The person who promoted him was the innovative director of the Museum at the time, Tom Hoving ...

Silver is best known for his design of the block buster “Treasures of Tutankhamen” which was a travelling exhibition as discussed in my last Missive presented at the Met in 1978. As usual one individual, Stuart Silver, received all the credit. Obviously, the head of a group does not do all the things she or he is given credit for. In this case another young designer in the Met department had originated the Tut entrance concept and continued working out the problems of numerous other blockbusters for Stuart: his name is Clifford LaFontaine. I saw his genius in the one museum exhibition where I curated with my wife called “The Grand Gallery” at the Met 1974-1975. When he went on to become an independent designer my wife subsequently worked with him on exhibitions for other museums and I enlisted him to create installations in our gallery.

As we have remained close friends over the years, I wrote to Clifford about this Missive, and he reminded me to include the critical importance of lighting as it could make or break an exhibition. The genius in that area he developed for Met blockbusters was Lamar Terry, another individual who got no credit for his role which revolutionized how works of art were lit. Penelope called him, “The Prince of Darkness” because before there can be light there is none. To quote Clifford, “He made everyone else, at least, look as smart as they thought they were” which certainly could be said of Clifford as well.

You might not have thought of something Clifford brought up as critical in exhibition design, and that is money. The designer has a budget within which they must remain. In order not to waste money there must also be a comprehensive and detailed plan for the concept and placement of every work otherwise, staff time will be wasted which adds to the cost.

Clifford also stressed that for an exhibition to be considered a success the entry to the show must be enticing and the exit must be memorable. Here is what the New York Times wrote about the Tutankhamen design in the obituary for Stuart Silver “He put visitors in the position of questing archaeologists. They began by walking up a staircase leading to a photo mural of the gloomy entrance to King Tut’s tomb in Egypt. The first gallery was bathed in darkness, recreating a cryptlike atmosphere. Each object in the show appeared in the order in which it had been removed from the tomb.” How much more exciting is that than just putting objects in vitrines.

But let’s look at a much simpler situation, if you wish to exhibit a collection of Mark Rothko’s then the most basic decision is important. What color do you paint the walls? If you put a Rothko on a white or black wall it will pop but if you put it on a green wall it will counteract the effect of Rothko’s very subtle colors.

Here again lighting becomes vital to the installation. My wife recalls struggling to light a Rothko with a series of large abstract paintings by other artists in an exhibition at the Met. After lighting the other canvases, she finally hit upon using just ambient light to allow the Rothko’s colors to softly vibrate.

At the Tate Modern an installation called “Inner Space” is an example of an exhibition playing one Rothko against another and giving visitors a chance to absorb the variations in the artist’s vocabulary.

Photo by David Silltoe for the Guardian

At the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam with the title, “Rothko and Me”. A visitor could become immersed in a single Rothko alone in an intimate setting.

It is amazing how the installation can make a show with the same objects a success in one venue and a failure in another.

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