Context Cues: Philadelphia Museum's Michael Taylor Busts the Blockbuster
By Richard Carreño
'I'm all about context,' says Michael Taylor, modern art curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Part scholar, part art historian, and part sleuth -- he's run down paintings throughout the world with the skill and patience of cold-case investigator -- the cherub-looking Taylor is also all about the serious study of art. By the public. By the masses.
'You don't bring in the masses by dumbing down,' he told me recently. 'The public will come to see great art,' he added, stressing 'great.' 'Unfortunately, marketing has taken over the art.'
Step forward a new breed of the curatorial anti-hero, of which Taylor represents its vanguard. Pedagogical. Pensive. And patient.
A properly mounted show, from initial conception, to research, funding, to hanging the pictures and selling the popcorn, takes about five years, according to Taylor. Minimum, four years, if you cut corners, he says.
'I've felt like I've spent my entire career in undoing what that man did,' Taylor quipped.
That man was the late Thomas Hoving, the show-boating director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977, and, most significant, the putative creator of what has become known as the art exhibit 'blockbuster.' (One of Hoving's first blockbusters was 'Kings and Things,' for which he commanded the Met's 18 curatorial departments to conceive and deliver within 30 days!)
If Hoving was the 'hero' of that mega-show movement, you can easily see why Taylor is its anti-hero -- balding, professorial, and erudite. And jolly. Taylor smiles a lot. And chuckles. He's also having a good time.
Not that Taylor, in his 13 years since arriving at the PMA from his native England (he holds a doctorate from the Courtauld Institute in London), hasn't his share of 'rilly big shews.'
Under his belt in recent years have been well-received exhibitions dedicated to Duchamp, Matisse, Cezane, Dali, Gorky, and, earlier this year, Picasso. None was simply a broad-brush retrospective, but rather 'slices' in the artists' lives that emphasized a contextual and supportive narrative. If an individual artist, say, Duchamps, highlighted that context, as was the need in the 'Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris,' then Talyor offered viewers that perspective. (Nude Descending a Staircase in this case).
Taylor was also a major contributor to the Art Museum's Bruce Nauman show at the Venice Biennale in 2009, in which the PMA picked up a covetted Golden Lion.
Further underscoring Taylor's virtuosity is his relative youth. (Only 42). And vigour. He still finds time to teach art history at the Univrersity of Pennsylvania.
Interestingly, Taylor's ruminative approach also runs counter to the flamboyant style of his former mentor, the late Anne d'Harnoncourt, the PMA director who recruited him in 1997 after seeing some of his work at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. (He was appointed the PMA's curator of modern art, on a fast track, seven years later).
D'Harnoncourt, who died in 2008, was, like Hoving, a larger-than-life figure and equally well known as a pioneer in staging blockbusters. (As the PMA director's torch has now passed to Timothy Rub, 58 years old, one can't help but think that Taylor also represents a similar generational change).
I met with Taylor not long ago at the main branch of the Free Library, where, he was, of all things, minutely detailing (slides included) his next show, another laser-beam focused exhibit on Marc Chagall (1887-1985). (The show will be titled 'Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle,' and will be installed in the Perelman Building from March to July, 2011).
Taylor was explaining how a major show, as the Chagall head-line act, gets put together. A least, in his adulthood. (He was 17 when Chagall died in 1985, the same year the PMA held its last Chagall exhibit, a retrospective).
It started as a discussion in 2006, and resulted in trips to Paris, Berlin, London, and New York. In all, about 50 works will be displayed, including works by Soutine, Modigiliani, and De Chico drawn from the Art Museum's permanent collection. Taylor said he followed 'context.' 'Again, we were taken on a journey,' he told a smallish audience. 'I didn't know where I would be taken.'
Starting with in-house work, Self-Portrait (1914), he moved to the Tate Modern, in London, for The Poet Reclining(1915), and later to New York, at the Guggenheim, where Paris Through the Window, a 1913 oil on canvas that Talyor branded as the artist's 'masterpiece,' was nailed down as the Philadelphia's show's eponymous signature work.
That last find wasn't easily acquired in that Guggenheim curators, according to Taylor, are 'something like horse traders.' The Guggenheim, he said, is 'notorious' for demanding reciprocal loans to their shows. 'I don't subscribe to this personally. I like to help other curators out,' he said.
Still, Taylor went on, the Guggenheim method is better than that of some French curators, who boldly request payment. ('We never pay for loans,' he said. 'We always say "no" to that. It always sets a bad precedent. Despite how great a work is, I'll walk away.')
On the other hand, private collectors -- one picture in the Chagall show falls into ths category -- are usually 'thrilled' to be counted in a major show. In the eyes of the owner, a loan request from the PMA 'validates' the work's value (and the owner's taste), and 'they also get attention at gala parties.'
One thing that Taylor doesn't have any control over is ticket pricing. 'I often think we charge too much,' he said.