April 3, 2013

Barbara Bloom, The Jewish Museum, NYC - The museum collection in dialogue with the artist

As it were … So to speak. A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom
The Jewish Museum, New York, USA 
Through August 4, 2013

BARBARA BLOOM has devoted her career to questioning the ways we perceive and value objects. With a light touch and subtle wit, she divines the meanings encoded in the things with which we surround ourselves. The Jewish Museum invited Barbara Bloom to create an installation drawn from its 25,000 works of ceremonial, decorative, and fine art. The artist presentation sets a selection of 276 pieces in unconventional contexts, and offers visitors new ways to view the Museum and its holdings. 

The exhibition materializes the idea of people in dialogue across time and space, inspired in part by Barbara Bloom reflections on Talmudic discourse, which takes place over centuries. Integrating the former Warburg mansion’s historic rooms into her concept, the artist envisions the space as both museum and home filled with imagined historical guests from diverse times – Nefertiti, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Marcel Proust, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and others – engaged in discourse and argument. The subjects are wide-ranging and reflect ideas that have long interested the artist: inferring a whole from surviving remnants, navigating the intricacies of bestowing gifts, representing the unspeakable.

Furniture-like display cases contain collection objects that the artist finds intriguing or appealing. For example, Torah pointers with their delicate hands and extended forefingers stand in for strings inside a piano; a cigar box owned by Sigmund Freud is displayed in a psychoanalyst’s consultation space; and a Dreyfus Affair game board sits on a table with ancient Roman dice. Each tableau is accompanied by written passages suggesting conversations between people. These evocative juxtapositions of found texts, Barbara Bloom’s writings, artworks and cases, create unexpected associations and spark dialogue.

While the artist offers clues on how to read these tableaux, it is up to the individual to draw their own connections among the different elements. In Barbara Bloom’s vision, the objects at the core of the installation often transcend their traditional functions and stimulate new ideas. 

As she searched for a metaphorical structure within which to understand the collection, and sought to envision it in the museum’s historic rooms, Barbara Bloom became fascinated with the Talmud (a collection of Jewish law and lore) and its unique design. On each page, an original text is framed by centuries of rabbinical debates and commentaries that reach across time and space, as if the writers were conversing in the same room. In choosing works from the collection, the artist passed over familiar masterpieces and instead discovered value and beauty in those that she found peculiar in shape, historically resonant, or marked with traces of past lives. She was inspired by the architecture of the galleries, which still resemble the rooms in which Felix and Frieda Warburg once led a lively family and social life.

Barbara Bloom writes: “What if we were to consider objects not for their symbolic or metaphoric qualities, but as intermediaries, or carriers of meaning. Perhaps they could be considered as ambassadors.” She adds, “These rooms are filled with objects. And we are offered an opportunity not only to concentrate on the singular, but to observe the relationships between these many entities, and the meanings implicit in their positioning and combination. The objects are placeholders for thoughts, and when they are situated in proximity to one another, meanings can reverberate and ricochet off of each other.”

The exhibition opens with recorded voices engaged in debate and argument. Six pairs of portraits – masked so only the sitters’ eyes are visible – are placed at the entrance to each gallery, standing in for the guests in this imagined home. They remind us of the dialogues taking place within. 

Highlights include the shell of a piano with Torah pointers in place of strings that explores the friendship of two great composers: George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg enjoyed playing tennis weekly at Gershwin’s Beverly Hills home. As composer Albert Sendrey observed: “Two contrasting giants of modern music…united in one common thought: to make a little ball scale the top of a net, as though nothing else mattered.”

Another tableau suggests the different stages of romantic relationships. Beginning with the sensuality of courtship, singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and early twentieth-century psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé are envisioned singing Solomon’s Song of Songs. Love is seen to run its course through legal consummation and dissolution as represented in Jewish marriage and divorce contracts. A section devoted to ideas of a library includes miniature books, some with microscopic writing, nestled inside hollow books. These evoke the layering of text within text that is an important part of Talmudic discourse. An intricate cycle of gift-giving and its Freudian implications are explored through Sigmund Freud’s silver cigar box, a Roman ring from his antiquities collection, and his daughter Anna’s ivory letter opener, all donated to The Jewish Museum by an anonymous analyst. Four players – Nefertiti, Emile Zola, Amy Winehouse, and Jesus of Nazareth – are imagined seated at a table filled with games from different eras. Many temporalities are superimposed on each other, collapsed into a single game. 

BARBARA BLOOM Installation View of As it Were... So to Speak - The Jewish Museum, NY
Photograph © David Heald

As you can see on this Barbara Bloom Installation view by photographer David Heald, in the former dining room of the Warburg mansion visitors can see a table set with twelve glasses from the collection, dating from ancient to modern. Above them hangs a chandelier whose design includes copies of the glasses, upside down, mirroring and illuminating the conversation below. This work was commissioned by The Jewish Museum especially for the exhibition. Further reverberations among works in the gallery begin with the painting Friday Evening, by Isidor Kaufmann, in which a lone woman is seated beside a table prepared for the inauguration of the Sabbath. The chandelier in the painting inspired the commissioned work. Above the fireplace, across from Friday Evening, hangs a reproduction of the mirror from the painting, reflecting what is in Isidor Kaufmann’s scene rather than what is in the gallery. There are many opportunities for takes and double takes.

Chris Mann, a writer and performer, worked with Sepand Ansari to create a new website, www.010011.net, in correspondence with the exhibition. It was launched on February 20, 2013. Initially loaded with a library of 1,000 texts representing a wide range of disciplines, the site enables users to search for an idea and make rich and ever deeper associations among the works that contain it. In contrast to Google, which provides a prepared answer if you ask the right question, 010011.net is a celebration of the question you are trying to learn how to ask. 

As it were … So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom has been coordinated by Susan L. Braunstein, Henry J. Leir Curator at The Jewish Museum. The exhibition designer, Ken Saylor of Saylor + Sirola, worked collaboratively on the visualization and realization of this project.

BARBARA BLOOM was born in Los Angeles in 1951 and lives in New York. She studied with John Baldessari at the California Institute of the Arts and is often associated with the postmodern “Pictures Generation” that includes Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Richard Prince and Barbara Kruger. The Reign of Narcissism (1989), perhaps Bloom’s most celebrated piece, recreates a Neoclassical period room in an imaginary museum dedicated to the artist’s self-image. She is also widely known for her 1994 permanent installation of Thonet bentwood chairs at the Österreichisches Museum für Angewandte Kunst (MAK) in Vienna. In 2008, an extensive survey of her work, The Collections of Barbara Bloom, was shown at the International Center for Photography, New York and at Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin. The artist’s recent installation, Present (2010), addresses the intimacy of gift-giving and explores how other aspects of a gift - its wrapping, its anticipation, its transfer from giver to recipient – can become just as important as the object itself. 

Support: This exhibition As it were … So to speak. A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom is made possible with endowment support from The Skirball Fund for American Jewish Life Exhibitions. Additional support is provided by the Alfred J. Grunebaum Memorial Fund, the Leir Charitable Foundations, and the Leon Levy Foundation.

Also on view at the museum is the first exhibition by designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh. Upcoming exhibition: Jack Goldstein x 10,000.