The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), founded in 1926, began its 75th anniversary celebration last Friday, Oct. 27, 2000, with a gala held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The evening culminated in the announcement that Louise Bourgeois has been selected to create the celebratory work to be installed in front of the WCMA next year.
The announcement was the end result of a year-long process involving museum staff, members of the community, students and faculty in the selection of a work of art to commemorate the anniversary. The sculpture was selected to attract visitors to the museum and direct them to the museum’s obscurely located entrance, to interact with the landscape and to provide some sort of gathering space, and, above all, to celebrate the museum’s commitment to contemporary art.
In September, an Acquisitions Committee announced the selection of four finalists from the group of distinguished artists: Tom Otterness, Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Bourgeois and Vito Acconci. Their proposals were displayed in the museum, providing an opportunity for museum visitors to offer their opinions. Feedback was solicited from approximately 250 students in Art History 101 and from an ad hoc committee composed of students, faculty and members of the community. The final selection of Louise Bourgeois as the artist to celebrate the museum’s anniversary was recommended by the committee in mid-October.
Louise Bourgeois began her career as a sculptor in 1949 and has since earned her place in numerous renowned collections, including the British Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. She has recently been commissioned to create the Inaugural Installation for the Turbine Hall at the new Tate Modern Art, London.
In recognition of her powerful works, she has received such prestigious awards as the first Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Sculpture Center, Washington D.C. in 1991, the Grand Prix National de Sculpture given by the French Ministry of Culture in 1993 and the National Medal of Arts presented at the White House by President Clinton in 1997.
“She is a very strong figure in the art world and it would be an honor for us to have a piece of this scale by her, said Lisa Dorin, a curatorial assistant at WCMA. “She is a very important artist. It’s a strong work of art that is going to do all of the things that we wanted it to do.”
The museum already has on display a smaller sculpture by Bourgeois entitled Nature Study, an emotionally charged piece exemplary of her passionate style.
The original proposal displayed in the museum gave only a rough image of the sculpture’s concept. “We don’t feel that the plaster casts do the images justice,” says Dorin. “The materials are going to be much more rich, less garish than represented by the plaster casts. It is still very much a work in progress.”
The proposal shows that we can expect a piece of art characteristic of Bourgeois’s other psychologically moving and emotionally powerful pieces, allowing room for tinkering around with the space and for making sure that the piece is sensitive to its surroundings. Part of the benefit of working with Bourgeois, Dorin said, is the added flexibility of working with a living artist. She can continue to work with the project to make sure that everything fits together well and that the work is specifically designed to enhance the space in front of the WCMA.
Bourgeois plans to work with a landscape architect to animate the space in front of the museum, creating different levels of earth that will engage the viewer more actively in the piece. The sculpture eyes will be placed around the lawn on different levels and in different arrangements, many in pairs and one group stacked in a formation.
The sculptures themselves, hardly like the small plaster eyes put on display, will be large eyes ranging from three to eight feet in bronze, aluminum and Nubian granite. Investigating the themes of the variability of the gaze and the interaction of the viewer with art, the eyes will be positioned at different levels, looking at each other, at the viewer, and directing the visitor to the museum’s entrance with their gazes.
Usually, the viewer is able to look at and interpret art. In this work, art will look back, creating a shocking interaction that will both invite and perplex the viewer. Further interaction will be invited by the formation of some of the eyes into benches that provide the double function of allowing the viewer to interact physically with the art and of providing a gathering place for visitors to interact with each other.
Bourgeois also plans to integrate colored light beams into the sculpture â€“ possibly coming from the pupils of the eyes themselves â€“ in order to illuminate the sculpture at night. Also, the variety of the materials will itself create interest, not only through a variability of texture and color in a specific instance, but also in the varied experience over time as the materials react to the light and weather of the changing seasons.
Though the museum firmly stands behind its decision to commission Bourgeois, it also recognizes the overwhelming response in favor of the piece by Acconci, an opinion that I originally shared. “The opinions of the community were taken wholeheartedly into account,” says Dorin, expressing her appreciation. “We were very pleased to have so much input from the community, so many different ideas. We want the community to know that their opinions are important to us.”
However, the Acconci project presented many planning problems. To reach the depth intended by the artist would entail blasting through layers of stone, and the design itself may have presented some safety issues in Williamstown weather. The museum, though, does recognize Acconci’s distinction and the need for a gathering place on campus, a need that will be fulfilled to a lesser extent by the Bourgeois than it would have been by the Acconci.
The museum fully appreciates the depth of ideas contributed in the process and wants to make sure that the community feels that its input has been appreciated. Thus, it intends to forward Acconci’s name as well as their research and the community’s opinions to the Baxter Committee in charge of the incipient renovations.
There seems to be a general feeling of surprise on campus that the Bourgeois was chosen. I must admit that I was myself surprised, not being particularly thrilled with her proposal, largely because of its indistinctness. However, now I am beginning to see the flexibility of the work’s conception as one of its greatest assets; it can be molded to fit the space and changed to accommodate any situation that might arise, an adaptability that is important in installation art.
The proposal has been clarified enough so that I can see that the work will be an emotionally charged exploration of complex artistic issues, discussing both art and the viewing of art, perfectly commemorating the 75th anniversary of a museum that is dedicated fully to both enterprises.