Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Panopticon: An Art Spectacular

Opening September 28, 2002

By Ellen S. Wilson

Imagine going to a party with hundreds of guests.  You can hear the noise as you climb the stairs, the din of talk, laughter, and argument.  At this particular gathering, with a group of startlingly diverse personalities, the behavior may turn rambunctious.  So much noise in an art museum?  Only metaphorically.  The party guests happen to be works of art, exhibited in an unusual way. 


“We want you to enjoy the crowd, make a few new friends, and look for them again when you come back,” says Louise Lippincott, curator of Fine Arts at Carnegie Museum of Art, in describing the experience of visiting Panopticon:  An Art Spectacular.   “It’s not a small, carefully selected guest list.  At this party, the possibilities for conversation are endless.”

Floor-to-Ceiling Art

During renovation of the Scaife galleries, Carnegie Museum of Art is looking at the permanent collection in a new, yet somewhat old-fashioned, way.  Art was hung "salon style," floor-to-ceiling, until the early twentieth century, when the dictates of Modernism insisted that each work be isolated in its own space.  Galleries then hung art in a linear way around the walls.  “We are conditioned to that now,” says Lippincott, which explains why the salon style of hanging art looks unusual at first.


One goal of this salon-style hang is to put as much art into two rooms as possible, with the result that visitors have not only a new look at the art, but also a new way to think about it.  “Large-scale Baroque paintings were meant to be hung up high,” says Lippincott, pleased that for this exhibition, they will be.  “Cézanne and Burne-Jones were contemporaries, and we lose sight of that fact because we have always been careful to separate impressionist work from representational art.”  By looking at them side-by-side, the visitor can see just how shocking impressionism was when first introduced in Paris in the 1860s. 


Panopticon is defined as “a place where everything may be seen.” But the world of art defined in this exhibition is divided into Europe, the United States, and Pittsburgh, since the collection falls predominately into those categories.  During the renovation of the galleries, most works made after 1945 from the Carnegie Museum of Art collection will be either on tour or at The Andy Warhol Museum.


What's a Party without Chairs?

Space is limited, so the chair, versatile and enduring, was selected to represent decorative arts. (And what is a party without chairs?) “Other furniture changes according to fashion,” says curator of decorative arts Sarah Nichols.  “Sideboards may go in and out of style, but the chair is a constant.” 


As the old ways of mounting exhibitions were set aside, so, too, was the tradition of setting chairs on the floor. In Panopticon, chairs will be mounted so they spiral up the four columns in the corners of the room.  “Paintings go floor to ceiling,” Nichols says.  “So why not chairs?”


One column will deal with laminates and plywood, which are generally used to create curved forms.  One will consider the more geometric chairs in the collection, another the different approaches to chair legs, and the last will contain art nouveau chairs.  There will also be chairs grouped by style or material on elevated platforms.


“I never met a chair I didn’t like,” Nichols says.  “We have an excellent chair collection, which people don’t realize because the chairs are generally spread around in the museum.”  Seen together, however, “The chair tells the story of 19th- and 20th-century furniture design.”


Sculptural Themes

A similarly freewheeling approach was used in the selection and placement of sculpture, which was done by Elisabeth Agro, assistant curator of decorative arts.  “I began by looking at the different ways that sculptors represent the human figure,” Agro explains.   “I chose what struck me as provocative or interesting.”   


Agro was inspired by the idea of a sculpture garden, organic and loose, with pieces organized into groups that complement each other in untraditional ways.  She says, “When you put things in a line, you compare them, as if you were choosing a can of tomatoes in a supermarket.  I didn’t want to line things up.  I didn’t want to invite value judgments.  I wanted to impose an idea of structure on randomness.”


Agro did away with the idea of chronology, and instead chose five themes:  standing male figures; female figures; two or three figures together; busts; and figures in action.  Viewers can find their own themes within themes, such as how the female figure has been depicted through the centuries. (Medieval works barely show the body, while in 20th-century pieces it can be completely exposed.)  “It is interesting to see what different cultures think of the body and the variety of materials—clay, metal, wood, stone, porcelain, ivory—that can be used to depict the human form.”


Changing Works on Paper

The mood changes when the visitor enters the third room of Panopticon, which is given over to works on paper.   This last space will be relatively quiet after the hubbub next door.  In it are five sections with a constantly changing array of small and more tightly focused exhibitions, such as 15th- and 16th-century Italian prints; 17th-century Dutch landscapes or 16th- and 17th-century Dutch genre prints (including works by Rembrandt).  There will also be prints and drawings by friends who worked together—Manet, Degas, Cassat and Pissarro—and French color prints of the 1890s, as well as American realists such as Edward Hopper, photographs, Japanese prints, and contemporary works on paper.     


“By showing just a few things in context, we can provide rich insight into the subject,” says Linda Batis, associate curator of fine arts.   “It is a luxury to show so many different types of prints, drawings, and photographs, some of which we do not put on exhibition very often.”


The Opposite of Normal

Back in the first two rooms, some of the things visitors see may in fact be a little odd, but then the best parties often include a few eccentrics.  Bob, the Vigilant Fire Company’s Dog is one example.


“We show relatively few Pittsburgh paintings normally, due to space constraints,” explains Lippincott in introducing the painting of Bob.  Bob was poisoned in 1860 and painted posthumously by Henry Rebele, a German immigrant.  Who poisoned him, why, and how Rebele managed to paint Bob’s portrait three years after his death is all a mystery, but there he is, a poodle standing next to a fire hydrant and gazing balefully at the viewer.   

“We’re hoping to learn a lot by doing this,” Lippincott adds, although the circumstances of Bob’s demise are lost to history.  There will be interactive stations where visitors can give feedback or see the comments of other people, including curators (“like eavesdropping at a party,” Lippincott comments).  Several audio tours will be available, including one for families, and “Director’s Choice,” in which the museum’s Henry J. Heinz II Director Richard Armstrong takes visitors on a tour of his personal favorites.


“We’re doing the opposite of everything we normally do in the Scaife Galleries,” Lippincott explains.  “We wanted a theatrical effect, a Victorian feel.”  The decorative archway, the sumptuous drapery, scattered seating, and colors are orchestrated by Anne Mundel, coordinator of the Design Option and Drama School at Carnegie Mellon University. 


Mundel found this assignment different from her normal work.  “This really has nothing to do with theater, it has to do with storytelling and creating an environment in which the exhibit can happen,” she says.  The project started with a lot of conversation between Mundel and the curators.  “We began with a premise that we were going to present something that was not necessarily stylish, but gave everybody license to do different explorations. 


“There are a number of different interests in the rooms, and each piece has its own personality,” Mundel says.  “We wanted to create a controlled sense of energy, controlled disorder—a place full of movement that will still allow you to sit and look at one piece if you choose to.”


Finding a familiar work of art in an unfamiliar context, like meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers, broadens one’s acquaintance and shows us our friend in a new light.  This exhibition, like a good party, should be exciting and even liberating – an opportunity to reconsider how we look at art, how we visit museums, and how we see both the familiar and the strange.


Major support for this exhibition has been provided by The Henry L. Hillman Foundation and The Women’s Committee of Carnegie Museum of Art.


Additional support has been provided by the R. K. Mellon Family Foundation.


General support for the museum’s exhibition program is provided by The Heinz Endowments and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.



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