Our latest regular contributor to the Bowdoin Daily Sun is Kevin Salatino, director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. His column is called “arttalk.”
The white wall’s apparent neutrality is an illusion. -Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube
Some visitors to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in the last few weeks have had a cornea-searing experience in the Zuckert seminar room (transformed, as it is each summer, into a gallery), its normally sedate white walls now a brilliant tangerine. The effect is startling, given the subdued grey galleries that precede it. The shock is intentional, and not just for shock’s sake; there’s always curatorial method behind deceptively simple decisions like wall color. In fact, we’ve been playing a lot with colors these days. The Zuckert gallery-where an installation of the Museum’s colonial portraits is currently on view ““ is one of several instances of bold color experimentation in the past year. You may have seen, for example, the Basquiat/Warhol show in the Becker Gallery last winter, its intense ruby red and acid yellow walls complementing the Jean-Michel Basquiat painting on view (in fact, the inspiration for the wall colors came directly from the painting). Or you might recall (you would if you saw it!) the recent Becker Gallery show (Banned in France: Recovering the Enlightenment Foundations of the James Bowdoin III Collection), its walls painted hot pink and lime green, a color selection inspired by 18th-century Sevres porcelain, in keeping with the show’s time frame.
The stimuli for the Zuckert tangerine were two. I’d seen a more subdued orange in the American galleries at the Huntington Museum in San Marino, California, where I thought it looked terrific. Then, when selecting the paintings for the Zuckert installation, I came across our Rembrandt Peale portrait of a gentleman with flame red hair, and bingo! The dye (sic) was cast. The effect is, I think, stunning, the color so magnetic it draws people into a gallery with the sort of art that often gets ignored. Bowdoin’s collection of Colonial and 19th-century American portraits is noteworthy, but it’s the rare viewer who spends much time these days before a Robert Feke, a Gilbert Stuart, or even a Copley, let alone more obscure portrait painters. So, one strategy for getting people to LOOK at these fascinating paintings is by other means of attraction. This wouldn’t succeed as a strategy if the wall color detracted from the works themselves, but, surprisingly, the tangerine, strong as it is, seems rather to enhance the pictures’ beauty, and the furniture and silver also included in the gallery look remarkably good as well.
In our excellent current exhibition (closing July 11!), Methods for Modernism: Form and Color in American Art, 1900-1925, we also adopted a bold palette of mostly primary colors (red, blue, yellow). In this case, we created a series of discrete rooms in our two largest downstairs galleries using five large baffle walls (two in one gallery, three in the other), each color-coded. The gallery walls were kept largely gray, as a suitable background to the many works on paper in the exhibition, while the strongest paintings (a Kandinsky, for example) were placed on the baffles. Two gallery walls were, however, accented in lime green, inspired by the show’s signature work, a spectacular picture by Joseph Stella (Spring, ca. 1914-16).
Spectacle and theater are essential to museum display, more so now than ever. The days of the white box gallery aren’t over, but that cold, modernist aesthetic-a form of mediation no less aggressive than the use of bold colors-is only one of many possible strategies in the curator/designer’s installation arsenal. Come to the Museum and have a look for yourself, though you may want to bring a pair of sunglasses.