NEW YORK — In 1974, The New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg made an obvious but long since forgotten point: “Time in the world of the museum,” he wrote, “is slower than it is outside.”
In a trenchant essay studded with prescient warnings, Rosenberg argued that museums had no business involving themselves in contemporary art. It was not their role to pick winners and losers in a teeming field tugged in different directions by the riptides of fashion. This was better left, he wrote, to “risk-taking dealers, collectors, and critics.”
Well. Things certainly turned out differently.
In the four decades since Rosenberg’s piece appeared, museums — even the most notoriously slow-moving and conservative, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts — have been left with seemingly no choice but to get involved with contemporary art.
Why no choice? Because the public demands it: People now go to museums not just to find out what was made in the past, but what is being made now. Also, because today’s contemporary art is tomorrow’s exorbitantly expensive art of the past, and if they don’t try to get involved now, these works will never be affordable.
As a result, many museums find themselves on increasingly close terms with dealers and collectors. No one is remotely surprised when museums work with these people to mount exhibitions of shiny new art by the most buzzed-about living artists. Nor, perhaps, should they be surprised.
But money moves quickly. And the situation has evolved so rapidly that a strange inversion has recently taken place. A new generation of super-dealers, often with multiple branches in the United States and Europe, working in cahoots with collectors, artists and their estates, and established curators, has taken to staging museum-quality exhibitions — not only of work by living artists but also by important dead ones, too.
Do they threaten to sideline museums in the process?
This month alone in New York one could argue that there are more, and better, exhibitions by important postwar artists in commercial galleries than in museums.
I don’t mean the standard sorts of shows of recent work that are the traditional preserve of commercial galleries. I mean career surveys, retrospectives, and carefully selected exhibitions tightly focused on historically interesting bodies of work.
At Acquavella Galleries, just around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum, for instance, is a retrospective of drawings by Lucian Freud organized by Freud’s biographer William Feaver in conjunction with the London commercial dealer Blain Southern.
In 2008, the same dealer, Acquavella, mounted an exhibition called “Picasso’s Marie-Therese” to which, astonishingly, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, and London’s Tate lent works worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In Chelsea, meanwhile, at Sikkema Jenkins, which has just started representing the veteran textile artist Sheila Hicks, a superb survey of her career is this week drawing to a close (many of the works appeared in a survey of Hicks’s work at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover in 2010-11). And at David Zwirner, one can see an illuminating survey of late portraits by the electrifying portrait painter Alice Neel. All these works are for sale, but Zwirner has put on a number of shows in recent years – including “112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974),” a survey of On Kawara, a Fred Sandback show, and a survey of Californian light and space artists – where either all or a high proportion of the works were not for sale.
The galleries in question obviously stand to profit by mounting these shows, or they would not be doing them. But since, in each of these cases, a high to very high proportion of the works on show are not for sale, the financial benefits might only accrue later.
Strategically, it’s a way for galleries to interest and impress potential clients (including museums) and to forge closer and more lucrative ties with artists’ estates. What matters, for now, is the strength and quality of the presentation.
Leading the charge in this new phenomenon is the multinational, unprecedentedly powerful Gagosian Gallery, owned by Larry Gagosian, with branches in New York (three), London (two), Rome, Los Angeles, Paris, Geneva, Hong Kong, and Athens.
Over the past few years, Gagosian has worked on a number of occasions with the Picasso biographer John Richardson, and with the Picasso estate, to organize a series of important exhibitions focused on specific periods in the Spanish master’s career, including “Picasso: Mosqueteros” in 2009 and “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’Amour Fou” last year.
The latest, at Gagosian’s uptown gallery, explores Picasso’s relationship with Francoise Gilot, who was also a painter.
But Gagosian has two other shows in New York that would look very good in a museum. They are shows that must inspire envy in the hearts of ambitious museum curators — thwarted as they so often are by financial and ethical constraints and endless bureaucratic holdups.
Both shows are in Chelsea. The first, “Lucio Fontana: Ambienti Spaziali,” organized by Germano Celant in collaboration with the Lucio Fontana Foundation in Milan, is an eye-opening look at the Italian postwar artist best known for puncturing his canvases with slits or holes.
It comes after a similarly ambitious retrospective at Gagosian devoted to Fontana’s postwar compatriot Piero Manzoni. And like that show, also organized by Celant, it is revelatory — not least because, among familiar, signature works borrowed from major collections, it includes reconstructions of six large installations, called “Ambienti Spaziali,” that Fontana made between 1949 and 1967.
In these fascinating works, Fontana expanded his interest in “free,” unfettered space, and gave new expression to his burgeoning ideas about the dynamism of form in relation to color, architectural space, movement, light.
Some of the installations work wonderfully, some are less successful. And yet what a relief it is to get a sense of Fontana’s range and ambition, to see that there was much more to his oeuvre than those endlessly repeated slits and holes.
The Fontana show, it should be noted, is on at the same time as a show featuring another pioneer of installation art with similar interests — Brazil’s Helio Oiticica — at the nearby Galerie Lelong. Three of Oiticica’s “Penetrables” — architectural environments made from colored, transparent panels and the like — have been reconstructed in the gallery (two are for sale). They are expressions of the artist’s wish, so similar to Fontana’s, to blaze “the trail for a painting of pure color, space, time, and structure.”
Two things strike me as interesting about the phenomenon of commercial galleries putting on historically important, museum-quality shows. The first is that the galleries themselves — if they are wealthy and established enough — can move quickly and with a high degree of freedom.
Unencumbered by vast bureaucracies and budget committees, they can attract loans even from great museums, and put on shows that those same museums might not take on, because they might not be popular hits. (The exhibition at Gagosian of Manzoni, who died in 1963 at 29, was that influential artist’s first US retrospective.)
Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, by contrast, even after it finally opened a wing for contemporary art last year, seems either unwilling or unable to take risks in this area.
The second interesting thing follows from the first. Precisely because of their wealth and maneuverability, outfits like Gagosian in New York and White Cube in London can now attract the kinds of collaborators we might usually expect to see working with museums: big name architects to design the exhibition spaces (the Richard Avedon show at Gagosian’s 21st Street gallery was ingeniously designed by David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates), and prominent scholars such as Richardson, Feaver, and Celant.
How can museums compete?
There’s no reason they have to “compete.” They could just as easily see the activities of this still very small coterie of super-wealthy galleries as complementary to their own.
But they could also see them as inspiring. When you see others doing a job — no matter how mercenary their motives — that you should be trying harder to do yourself, it can spur you into action.
Museum of Fine Arts — among others — take note!
At: Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, through June 2. 212-929-2262, www.sikkemajenkinsco.com
HELIO OITICICA: Penetrables
At: Galerie Lelong, New York, through June 16. 212-315-0470, www.galerielelong.com
ALICE NEEL: Late Portraits & Still Lifes
At: David Zwirner, New York, through June 23. 212-727-2070, www.davidzwirner.com
LUCIO FONTANA: Ambienti Spaziali
At: Gagosian Gallery, New York, through June 30. 212-741-1111, www.gagosian.com
RICHARD AVEDON: Murals & Portraits
At: Gagosian Gallery, through July 6. 212-741-1717, www.gagosian.com
Correction: Because of an editing error, text omitted from an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect impression about the sale status of works by painter Alice Neel in a show at the David Zwirner gallery. All of Neel’s works in the show were for sale.