My recent trip to San Francisco prompted two beautiful but unnecessary book acquisitions - Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris (currently on exhibit at the de Young museum) and The Steins Collect (currently on exhibit at the San Francisco MOMA). I have a terrible, terrible weakness for exhibition catalogs. They are big, glossy, gorgeous with heavy paper and vivid images that permit the owner to take the experience of a direct interaction with a work of art away with them albeit on a reduced level. But they are expensive. And take up a good bit of space. And encourage the consideration of art in the context of the theme of the exhibit. On one level, they attempt to control the entry point at which we access the works. I love museums and gallery shows but sometimes chafe at the organization of the presented material. So why do I love these catalogs so much? Even if I object to the subjection of the works to an artificial ordering?
The Steins Collect boasts some gorgeous pieces heavily focused upon the works of Picasso and Matisse as those were the two artists most favored by the family. Some simply took my breath away especially two 1902 Picassos. But my attention was equally focused upon the wall size enlargements of the Steins' Parisian dwellings, each with a key beside it that marked individual paintings on the walls of those homes with numbers and the location of that work within the exhibit. The works are grouped by owners, by residences from room to room. And my mind ultimately wandered more to Gertrude Stein than to any one artist's work.
The de Young exhibit is focused on just the works of Picasso and spans almost his entire career from early sketches to "The Matador," a 1970 self-portrait completed just three years before his death. Walking through this exhibit after The Steins Collect highlights the fact that the Stein family had a well-defined aesthetic, and the pieces they collected reflected their own individual tastes whereas the works in the de Young exhibit are a broad representation of an artist's collective work. But the really intriguing part of observing others observe this exhibit was that many struggled as to what to latch on to in the art they saw. By mid-exhibit, the observers (with exceptions of course) tended to either be lost in their head-phoned audio tour or challenging one another to "see" the concrete objects beneath the abstractions. Unlike the MOMA exhibit where a focused theme tightened the viewing lens for visitors, this far-ranging collection appeared overwhelming to many of the casual weekend observers.
So why do I have to have these books, catalogs? Maybe we all appreciate the organization of creative material around a thematic, and the material is best considered after an initial viewing. And a book provides a reference through which one may leisurely consider the organization or theme, and then critically note exceptions and alternatives. Or maybe it is something else? The print junkie, design aesthetic thing. The desire to view art through art, visual expression considered in word and image contained in the art of the book. Maybe this conflict is not as important as I thought walking through these exhibits and then marveling at the strength of the pull of those piles of exhibition catalogs.
Do you have an exhibition catalog problem?