In the wake of recent allegations of impropriety against the artist Chuck Close, what are art museums to do with his work? There is a meaningful difference between including an artist’s work in a permanent collection gallery and in presenting an exhibition of an artist; let’s consider why.
An artwork in a collection installation may serve many purposes. First and foremost, it is an institutional assertion of that artwork’s significance. The institution may be saying the artwork is great, that it is art historically important, that it speaks to the present moment in such a way that it should be considered within broader cultural or sociopolitical conversations, or all of the above. A more specific way to think of collection presentations is this: An artwork’s inclusion is about an object rather than a specific human.
A specific example: consider the example of a collection hang at the Broad in Los Angeles. Close’s 1971–1972 John hangs next to a suite of fantastic Terry Winters paintings from 2000. The museum’s juxtaposition makes a point about how two contemporaries have used systems in their work to different ends: Close built the photorealistic John from a snapshot that he gridded, a painting system with a centuries-old history. Winters might be considered the father of abstract systems painting, canvases that seem to hint at (and are possibly informed by) the networks that undergird contemporary life. At the Broad, one kind of system meets another: the Close supports the Winterses, and the Winterses support the Close. To remove the Close from the gallery because of his alleged misconduct would deny viewers context that enriches our understanding of the Winterses.
A solo exhibition of a living artist is an entirely different thing. As with a collection installation, the work a museum presents in a single-artist exhibition may be about achievement, historical context, and/or an immediate sociopolitical situation, but because it is a solo exhibition, no matter how scholarly or research-driven the project, it is an honor delivered from institution to person, a de facto celebration of that individual.
This notion of honor has become embedded in how art museums present a solo exhibition. For example, art museums typically host one or more grand events that explicitly celebrate the artist, such as via a fundraising gala which museums themselves often promote as “honors.” Honor and deference (to power) have become closely tied; in recent years it has become common for an artist to wield power over museum exhibitions of their work, such as to insist upon the inclusion or exclusion of certain artworks. So thoroughly embedded in the solo exhibition are these ideas that some museums have allowed artists to install and present their own surveys or retrospectives, an awkward move that puts the institution in the position of hagiographer and the artist in the role of memoirist. (Examples include the 2014–2015 Robert Gober retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the spectacularly incomprehensible 2014–2015 Pierre Huyghe retro at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) Ultimately an institution should (must?) consider whether the artist—not just the artist’s work but the artist herself or himself—merits the offered honor and related deference, if the artist’s values and ethics reflect the institution’s values and ethics. If not, move on.
When an artist dies, the institutional point of address changes considerably. A late artist is no longer a collaborator or a celebrant; an exhibition of his work pivots from the celebration of an individual to an examination of an oeuvre.
While art museums are only beginning to consider living artists in the wake of #MeToo for dead artists, this and related issues are long and reasonably settled. Edgar Degas was an anti-Semite. No one did or would suggest that the Museum of Modern Art’s recent exhibition of Degas’s monotypes marked an acceptance of repugnance. French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes is said to have behaved in a manner that might seem immediately relevant: according to Suzanne Valadon biographer June Rose, Puvis asked at least one model if she would like to see the cock of a great man. No one thinks the Met should take down its Puvises.
The allegations against Chuck Close, who is said to have harassed eight women who came to his studio to pose for him and to have told one model that her vagina “looks delicious,” are serious and credible enough that there’s no reason an art museum should rush to honor him with a solo exhibition. (Close denied initial allegations, but apologized for making women “upset and feel uncomfortable” when Hyperallergic published a second round in January.) Meanwhile, it’s appropriate to hang Close’s work in collection installations. When Close is no longer with us, curators and historians will have the opportunity (and power) to consider his achievement and what treatments it may be due.