Mysticism and the Modern Museum
304 pp., 7 x 9 in, 60 b&w illus., 8 color plates
- Published: September 14, 2012
- Published: January 29, 2010
How prominent curator and author James Johnson Sweeney cast the modern museum as a secular temple of art.
Artists have often taken rational, material existence as a starting point for engagement with metaphysics and mysticism, but no book until now has traced a similar strategy on the part of curators. In Curating Consciousness, Marcia Brennan focuses on one of the transformational figures of twentieth-century curatorial culture, and the main protagonist of this (until now) unacknowledged curatorial practice. James Johnson Sweeney (1900–1986) was hired by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to be the Director of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935. He went on to become the Director of the Guggenheim Museum in the 1950s and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the 1960s. Throughout his career, Sweeney provocatively engaged motifs of mysticism in order to cast the modern museum as a secular temple of art.
Brennan describes how these motifs informed Sweeney's curatorial and textual engagements with specific artists and projects, including works by Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Burri, Pierre Soulages, Jean Tinguely, and Eduardo Chillida.
In this wonderful study of the curator James Johnson Sweeney, Marcia Brennan takes us back to Sweeney's mystical exhibitions of modern art and makes a case for an art history that can discern the color behind the color, the light behind the light.
Alexander Nemerov, Department of the History of Art, Yale University
This book is proof that the best art history is simply careful and astute inquiry. Brennan elegantly recuperates Sweeney as the oracle of coincidentiae oppositorum: the admissible and desirable contradictions that drove so much of mid-century Modernist creative thinking. These were the kinds of beautiful but elusive contradictions that compelled artists to step outside the safety zone of pure corporeality so that they might breach the dangerous spaces between the physical and the metaphysical the formal and the transcendental the visible and the invisible.
Paul Staiti, Alumnae Foundation Professor of Fine Arts, Mount Holyoke College