“The one hundred and sixty-third floor” is the final gambit in a series of skirmishes between Gillick and the institutions at which he’s presented “Three Perspectives and a Short Scenario,” a mid-career survey of sorts. Both exhibitions are on view in the halls on the main floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Gillick’s strategy at each venue has been to “gift” back a portion of the gallery space allocated to his exhibition to each institution, with mixed results.
The MCA had originally intended to use the space to present works of Gillick’s from its’ collection, countering his anti-retrospective with an historic object-based gesture. This has occurred, though not under the banner of “The one hundred and sixty-third floor”, an exhibition where Gillick curates the MCA’s permanent collection, but through an “Artists in Depth” exhibition (an ongoing series at the MCA), located in the adjacent galleries.
Thus the total domination of the first floor is Gillick’s, through an odd turn of events. It’s not unusual that most artists presented with surveys at the MCA get the main galleries, but here it’s cobbled together through three separate exhibitions, in a way that reveals, or questions, though not in an accusatory sense, the workings of the museum. One side is “The one hundred and sixty-third floor”, and on the other is “Artists in Depth” which puts Gillick alongside predecessors such as Sol LeWitt, Jenny Holzer and Donald Judd, either rightly or wrongly drawing parallels between them through color, geometry and use of text. And for better or worse we have a selection of works from the MCA’s holdings hand-picked by Gillick himself.
My first impression of the exhibition hanging was a big show of student work-- everything is spaced about 8-10 inches apart. It has the look of either a show for graduating students where everyone is in and everyone gets a certain amount of space, or when some of those students go on to mount shows of their own and use the same organizing principles. This is commonly known as “salon style,” but it took me a while to get there, since we aren’t in the 1800s and usually when it is put to use nowadays it is only by the ignorant or the strapped for space. Here Gillick is using it to a specific end, which I’ll get to later. Some of the works hang above others to hilarious affect. A muddy, two-tone, brown abstraction hangs above a less muddy, lavender, Jules Olitski-like Judy Ledgerwood. There is something satisfying about seeing artworks done in the Abstract Expressionist tradition (and some from that period, like an adjacent Franz Kline) hung in a manner that completely short-circuits their aspirations for monumental reductiveness.
Accompanying each piece is a card emblazoned with a year in bold sans serif, as per Gillick’s typographic style, and a terse staccato of vaguely descriptive sentences. At the bottom is the description of the piece. For the most part these are in chronological order beginning with 1967, the year the MCA started. Except the 1967 card is in the middle of the gallery on the far side, on a pair of back-to-back monitors, accompanying a video by Vito Acconci. Each paragraph is pulled from the MCA’s internal records describing exhibitions held within a given year.
The wall text outside the entrance to the show clearly states that there is no correlation between the sentences and the artworks they are next to, but I don’t believe it. Furthermore, I don’t know who is talking in this wall text, it’s not signed. It feels like it is written in a collective voice of the MCA, not Gillick. The labels are Gillick, talking through the careful selection and placement repurposed text. The big vinyl text makes me think there is a crossed signal, that they, the museum people, might have a slightly different take on what is going on than Gillick does.
As a whole, it’s interesting that we are presented with a schizophrenic display exposing the background workings of an art museum. More than a curated selection of the MCA’s artwork, I view “The one hundred and sixty-third floor” as a piece by Gillick that happens to include artworks by other artists in it. The artworks are there, but they aren’t present, they are obscured by this structure Gillick has imposed: the chronology, the salon hang, and the alphabetical arrangement (1967, Acconci, Vito; 1968, Ahearn, John; 1969 Althoff, Kai). This can be seen as illustrating the very act of bringing art into a collecting institution, which serves to shift its presence and status.
Lately, the more I’ve been encountering traditional art in traditional settings, the more it feels like there is nothing there to see or experience because it has all been pre-consumed. The institutions have chewed our food for us. This is especially the case with historic work that becomes more and more cut off from the present tense as time passes. In the new galleries of the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, the Abstract Expressionist masterpieces seem tiny, inconsequential and about as present as a really good reproduction in an art survey book. I felt this way with the much of the work “Constellations” at the MCA earlier this year as well. In an obtuse way, “The one hundred and sixty-third floor” takes this issue and pushes it to the fore: what is our connection to these works? How are they to be presented and how are they to be received? How can a collection of art in a museum now 40 years old be seen as contemporary?
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