HELEN MOLESWORTH on the whitney biennial
"The art of hanging pictures, to steal a phrase from Kerry James Marshall, is a bit like the craft of using words to make sentences, which in turn cohere into paragraphs, which accumulate in the service of an idea. It is part didactic instruction, part ineffable feeling about what things work well together. Both rely on the principle that the space between pictures is not neutral, that the pictures themselves are not autonomous (unless they are placed in a way to suggest that), and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Historically, in Western museums, arrangements of works thus took the form of curated rooms that were frequently nationalistic in nature; often they were teleological, championing some linear narrative of cultural progress. And these are the aspects of museology that came under justifiable scrutiny during the days of institutional critique and identity politics.
But the arrangement of pictures, to steal another phrase, this time from Louise Lawler, wasn’t bound up with master narratives alone. It was also inextricably tied to the primary methodology of art history: that of “compare and contrast.” Famously extolled by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945), compare-and-contrast was the binary system of looking at any two works of art simultaneously (made possible by the advent of the slide lantern), which led, from the nineteenth century onward, to the establishment of art history’s fundamental categories—stylistic shifts, early and late styles, nationalist movements, ideological differences. However it was deployed, the underlying idea was that meaning is built through syntax, that syntax requires difference, and that difference is something to be staged or spatialized or, at the very least, invoked through the act of adjacency.”