Residencies are a beloved and uncommon luxury for artists the world over, offering creative souls peace and remove from their everyday grind to shift their thinking, and their work, somewhere new. Artists can hole up on a rocky outcrop in Newfoundland, perch above a fjord in Norway, or land dead-center in the Atlantic Ocean on a mound of volcanic rock, surrounded by vineyards. That’s just a few. There are dozens.
But is there another residency quite so homey as the Gardner Museum’s? For 25 years, the Gardner has welcomed artists to not only work on the premises, but to actually live there. The first artists stayed in its carriage house, not far from the apartment kept by founder Isabella Stewart Gardner. More recent arrivals resided in the purpose-built apartment that was worked into the museum’s 2012 expansion.
Could artists be better positioned to absorb the particular intimacies between its namesake and the things she collected? Of course not. Since its beginnings in 1992, almost 100 artists-in-residence have passed through the museum’s rooms, given unfettered access to both its collections and deepest inner workings. For some, it’s simply the gift of time, a reflective pause; there’s no requirement to produce a single thing. Many, however, do, and this month’s “In the Company of Artists” marks the program’s 25th anniversary with seven of its favorites over the years.
Sophie Calle, “What Do You See?” 2013
Calle riffed on the famously-bereft museum’s missing pieces — 13, all told, stolen in 1990, still without a trace. All 13 maintain a ghostly presence throughout the museum — empty frames where the works would be, if they ever come home. Calle built around their absence a conversation, asking viewers what images the gilded emptiness evoked. Some recalled the specific works, while others saw what their imagination would conjure (one viewer saw butterflies when standing in front of the frame that once held Rembrandt’s glorious “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”) For a museum already haunted by loss, Calle’s work was a conjuring of fresh ghosts.
Bharti Kher, “6 Women,” 2013-15
Kher, British-born and now India-based, spent her 2013 residency combing through archives and looking deeply at everything, from Gardner’s furniture and decorative works to her architectural choices and art collection. (Kher also went whale watching, because, why not? One of her best-known works, a life-size sculpture of a blue whale’s heart, may or may not have been the result.) Her time at the museum produced several strands of new thinking, one of which became “6 Women,” a half-dozen plaster busts of Indian women made between 2013 and 2015. You might read their round and sagging forms as a retort to conventional notions of female beauty, or an upending of ancient fertility symbols. They might be that, but the casts are also of women working in the Kolkata sex trade, loading up Kher’s frank figures with the full freight of gender politics.
Luisa Lambri, four untitled works, 2008-2012
Lambri, who came to the museum in 2008, was among the last to stay in the old carriage house before Renzo Piano’s expansion gave future artists an ultra-modern apartment. Lambri made enigmatic photographs of the old building, focusing on looked-over details and empty spaces; it was almost as though she was conducting a séance, trying to call forth Mrs. Gardner herself with visual echoes of her fastidiously thoughtful arrangements.
Laura Owens, untitled work, 2001
Owens spent her 2000 residency living in the carriage house and diving deep into the Gardner’s collection of Japanese prints and textiles. The following year, the museum hosted a solo show of new work sparked by her collection forays, filtered through her irreverent painterly play. One of those works is featured here. For Owens, like many others, the Gardner relationship has been a lasting one. Owens’s banner project, hung from the Gardner facade, is a riot of lavender and gold that draws as much from old masters as it does from emojis.
Rachel Perry, “Halos,” 2014 (ongoing)
You could fairly describe Perry’s Gardner stint in October 2014 as immersive. She rarely left the building, went to the Sunday concerts, hung out in the conservation labs, read Mrs. Gardner’s guest books in the archive and researched her architect, Henry Hobson Richardson. Every day, Perry would spend an hour in silent communion with a single object in the museum’s galleries. Her close looking resulted in “Halos,” 445 abstract drawings made with a Braille punch, then numbered and gold-leafed by hand. Perry counted 445 halos in the Gardner’s collection, hovering above the heads of various divine figures. Given Mrs. Gardner’s predilection for Renaissance painting, the number shouldn’t surprise — though the intricate, intensive labor Perry applied to them suggests something otherworldly.
Dayanita Singh, “Museum of Shedding,” 2013
Singh’s time in 2002 was catalytic and direction-changing for an artist who made her name in photojournalism in India. Singh was struck by Gardner’s collection of chairs, culled from cultures the world over, and began photographing them like portraits of people — a cosmopolitan array at a permanent, worldly cocktail party. She continued the practice for years, pouring the images into foldout books she would produce in the hundreds, then thousands. Singh even began to build portable homes, or compact “museums,” for her images, including “Museum of Shedding.” Could it have evolved without Mrs. Gardner’s chairs? Maybe, but that’s a question, thankfully, we don’t need to answer.
Su-Mei Tse, “Bleeding Tools,” 2009
During her 2008 residency, Tse, who came from a musical family in Luxembourg, was struck by the museum’s connection to music and composition, past and present. (Mrs. Gardner held concerts in her Beacon Hill home and later at the museum; the museum has a robust music program to this day.) “Bleeding Tools,” an array of outsize calligraphy brushes, suspended above a surface and dripping with ink, invokes for the artist the physicality of the creative act, and its sometimes slow but inevitable hum.
IN THE COMPANY OF ARTISTS: 25 YEARS OF ARTISTS-IN-RESIDENCE
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, Oct. 17-Jan. 20, 2020. 617-566-1401, www.isgm.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.