New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 25 SUMMER ISSUE AUGUST 2012 July 31 to September 4, 2012

A Sad Day at the Met

Spies in the House of Art Photography, Film and Video
R. Wayne Parsons
Untitled by Cindy Sherman. Source:
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled" 1989

The visitor to the photography show at the Met titled “Spies in the House of Art” might hope to get the scoop on such interesting issues as: how museum funds are spent,how much is spent, the obscure relations between department curators and dealers, the ways curators become aware of and select new talent in the field, among many others mysteries. Unfortunately, that hypothetical visitor will be disappointed and will find instead one of the least rewarding departmental exhibitions in recent memory. The show seeks to present the “secret life of museums” as seen by contemporary artists and “surveys the various ways museums inspire the making of works of art.” Seventeen works by as many photographers are presented.

Works in the show are divided between those that are reasonably straightforward documents of museum settings and those that are more obviously interpretations of the museum experience. Although the former images comprise only about a third of the works exhibited, they are the more successful pieces, and certainly the ones to which museum goers can more readily relate. The most pleasing examples in this category are color photos by German photographers Candida Hofer and Thomas Struth. A big name doesn’t guarantee success, however. Diane Arbus’s photograph of a woman in a museum standing in front of a renaissance portrait is one of the least compelling images by this maker of compelling images I have ever seen.

Many of the interpretative pieces are good examples of the way much of contemporary art has relegated itself to a narrow esthetic ghetto, of interest only to other artists, critics and curators, and art insiders. And indeed, this exhibition is not heavily trafficked, much less than the concurrent exhibition of nudes around the corner.

Three of the seventeen works displayed are film or videos. Two are forgettable. Lutz Bacher’s five minute video following a young woman in a blue dress as she walks through a museum is the sort of thing someone with a new video camera might do to try out the equipment. We might as well be watching someone shopping at Macy’s – which maybe is the point!

“Flash in the Metropolitan” is described in some of the museum’s PR as “the centerpiece” of the exhibition. This short film by Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer was created by mounting a camera on a track and moving through darkened rooms at the museum at night while occasionally illuminating works of art with short bursts (less than a second) of flash; (although placing the camera on a track detracts from the spontaneity of a hand held camera, presumably the track was needed to prevent the artists from bumping into art works in these darkened rooms.) The result is a mostly black screen interrupted briefly with black and white images of art. The effect is similar to watching a slide show with a malfunctioning projector.

still from “Girl in a Blue Dress” by Lutz Bacher. Source:
Lutz Bacher, still from the video“Girl in a Blue Dress"

One standout video, and the most successful work in the exhibition, is Andrea Fraser’s 1989 video “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Tour,” though it is shown in a gallery down the hall where the higher noise level makes hearing the soundtrack problematic. This wickedly funny work, an over-the-top putdown of high-minded pretension in the art/museum world, takes you through a half-hour tour of the Philadelphia Museum led by a fictitious docent for whom art (High Art, that is) is definitely a capital A experience. Ms. Fraser’s video is reason enough to see this show.

But Ms Fraser’s video is not just an attempt to make a few jokes at the expense of the art world. She is a deadly serious person in her critique of that world, one she sees as complicit in rising income inequality now underway not only in the US, but throughout the industrialized world and much of the developing world. Her essay, “L’1%, C’EST MOI” in the current Whitney biennial, documents the connection between the big-bucks art scene and the world of the super rich. I recommend it for anyone seriously interested in the high stakes, high status world of the most pricey (I won’t say “best”) contemporary art. You can read the Whitney piece here.

The biggest problem with the Met exhibition is that too many of the works just are not very interesting. Several name artists, such as Cindy Sherman, Joseph Cornell, and Francesca Woodman, are represented by works less than their best. Some pieces are flat and obvious. Tim Davis’s photo, for example, of a portrait with reflections off the canvas obliterating the sitter’s face) or willfully obscure for no discernable reason (Lorna Simpson’s contribution falls in this category). All told the show has several fundamental problems: a not especially compelling theme; many of the works chosen seem irrelevant, while others are merely pedestrian and dull.

Spies in the House of Art Photography, Film and Video

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave.
UES         Map

212 535 7710

Tuesday, February 7 to
Sunday, August 26, 2012
Hours: Tues - Sun 9:30 - 5:30; Fri, Sat to 9 pm.