Curating an exhibition involves many decisions, major and minor, no matter what the work or the venue. MOCRA’s space presents particular challenges but also some intriguing possibilities. Allow me to share a few notes from the planning and installation of our current exhibition, James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observer.
In this case, we had a superabundance of materials from which to choose, as MOCRA has on long-term loan or in its collection a significant body of works by Rosen. The majority are works on paper, including numerous sketches and studies. With nary a false note in the mix, we sought to identify a modest number that would demonstrate succinctly the qualities of Rosen’s work we wanted to highlight: the confidence and fluidity of his line in drawings, the subtlety of his watercolors and gouaches, his analysis of old master works for composition and form, and the occasional wry, playful image amidst more “serious” work.
Beyond the works on paper, we selected from a number of paintings, some quite intimate in scale, one an 8-foot tall canvas. Early on we made a decision to draw primarily on works in our collection or on long-term loan, to be supplemented by a few select works borrowed from collectors or other institutions. This decision helped frame the exhibition, not as a comprehensive retrospective, but as a generous survey of Rosen’s six-decade career.
A natural approach to this material would be a chronological presentation, but here we ran up against the challenges of MOCRA’s configuration, with its twelve intimate side chapel galleries and soaring nave gallery (see these earlier posts for some discussion of repurposing a 1950s chapel as a museum space). Smaller works are best served by the side chapels, and of necessity the large works have to be placed in the nave gallery. Furthermore, visitors may begin by heading down the south side aisle, or find themselves drawn into the nave gallery, so although we can try to encourage a particular pathway, we can’t ensure that visitors will travel the way we want them to.
We did an initial layout of the smaller works along chronological lines, but soon saw that we wouldn’t be able to carry that approach through consistently. Instead, we began to think in terms of theme or subject matter, with chronology and medium as secondary criteria. With this approach, things quickly began to shape up in the side chapels along the categories of Figuration and Portraiture; Architecture; and, Landscape and Abstraction. The limitations of space helped us further refine the selection of works, and the introduction of wall cases for the unframed works helped to anchor the arrangement of framed works.
Meanwhile, we had the larger works to consider. From early on, MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J., knew that he wanted to present six “Saints” paintingsl from Rosen’s two-year sojourn in Ferrara, Italy, together in one half of the nave gallery, along with the monumental Homage to Guido da Siena: La Maestà. His hope was to create a meditative space that would invite visitors to slow down and experience the subtle luminosity of Rosen’s work, to allow the work time to reveal itself. A generous number of chairs reinforces this invitation.
The other half of the gallery would display the Homage to the Isenheim Altarpiece and the Homage to the Pietà d’Avignon. Unfortunately, that left one large wall unaccounted for: how to balance out two major works? The solution was a combination of a wall case with three small portraits above it, and flanked by two medium-sized paintings, all on religious subjects.
One of the side chapel galleries on each side faces a gap in the long nave walls, so any work in that gallery can be seen from a relatively distant vantage point across the nave. Normally we place visually commanding works in those chapels, works that might seem confined in the other side chapels. In this case, we saw a way to link the side chapels with the nave. We placed works relating to Rosen’s time in Ferrara in the side chapel, including his images of an old monastery called the Certosa. Thus, with the help of the labels and wall texts, visitors can look out from the chapel at the Saints paintings produced during that time, while the wall case in the nave contains studies and drawings produced during the time in Ferrara.
Speaking of texts, throughout the process of selecting and placing works, we were also considering what sort of labeling and didactic texts would be used. How much should be made explicit in terms of “categories”? How could we give visitors sufficient context and bearings, without overwhelming them or the artwork with text? Fortunately, Rosen is articulate in discussing his process and aims, and we looked for opportunities whenever possible to let him tell his own story.
The final stage in the installation process is the lighting — never a simple matter with 28-foot ceilings, and a particular challenge with Rosen’s favored oil and wax/oil emulsion medium. Our initial lighting scheme was very subdued, especially in the nave gallery. One of our student workers remarked that it was so dim he was afraid he would doze off during his shift! The light also gave a color cast to paintings at those low levels, even though it tends to bring out subtleties of detail. There was also the safety of our visitors (avoiding trip hazards) to consider. So, the lights came up a few notches, and we hope we have struck a good balance that shows the work to its best advantage.
Each exhibition tells a story; sometimes it is one consciously framed by the curators, sometimes it is implicit. We hope that with The Artist and the Capable Observer we have been able to highlight several chapters from James Rosen’s long, varied, and productive career, allowing the artist himself to draw our attention to both the significant and the subtle.
— David Brinker, Assistant Director