Skip navigation
Hardcover | $30.95 Trade | £22.95 | ISBN: 9780262013789 | 304 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 60 b&w illus., 8 color plates | January 2010
Paperback | $18.95 Trade | £14.95 | ISBN: 9780262518093 | 304 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 60 b&w illus., 8 color plates | September 2012

Look Inside

Curating Consciousness

Mysticism and the Modern Museum


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.

About the Author

Marcia Brennan is Associate Professor of Art History at Rice University. She has previously taught art history at Brown University and the College of the Holy Cross. She is the author of Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics (2002) and Modernism's Masculine Subjects: Matisse, the New York School, and Post-Painterly Abstraction (2006), both published by the MIT Press.


“"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