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. Sweeney believed that artworks could engender visionary perspectives and induce alternative modes of consciousness in their viewers; his career can be seen as an exercise in curating modernist consciousness itself.
Brennan describes how these motifs informed Sweeney's curatorial and textual engagements with specific artists and projects, including Marcel Duchamp's intricately androgynous constructions, Alberto Burri's images of hermetic alchemy and blood miracles, Pierre Soulages's creative transmutations of sacred stones into gestural abstract paintings, Jean Tinguely's apocalyptic yet playful kinetic experiments, and Eduardo Chillida's translations of theology and philosophy into sculpted fields of sparkling light.
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
"The recent scholarly dismantling of modernism's rhetoric of purity has moved at a snail's pace; but now, plunging into this deconstructing discourse, comes Marcia Brennan's Curating Consciousness, a study which supplies greater momentum to the entire project. Brennan not only discovers such a seminal modernist figure as Duchamp embedding his work in mystical terms; she also places such important figures of modernism's museological history as James Johnson Sweeney and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., squarely at the center of her narrative of modernism's spiritual dynamic. It was especially Sweeney, Brennan finds, who in his spatial and literary presentations of modernist art authoritatively made the modern museum serve this spiritual agenda, to summon the invisible into sensible presence."
Kathleen Pyne, Professor of Art History, University of Notre Dame, author of Art and the Higher Life and Modernism and the Feminine Voice
"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