Contemporary Context

Amy Sparks Assistant Editor, Publications

Paola Morsiani is a blur as she moves from space to space in the CMA’s expansive new contemporary galleries. Curator of contemporary art, Morsiani carries her office with her—laptop, Blackberry, rolling luggage—and sets up shop on a table in what is loosely called the “minimalism gallery.” There, under bright lights, four people are drawing on a wall. 

“It’s very Zen,” she whispers. 

The first piece to be installed in these new galleries is “old” by contemporary standards: a 1969 wall drawing by Sol LeWitt. Two artists from LeWitt’s studio are orchestrating the ten-foot-square drawing with help from two members of the museum installation staff. A camera documents their every careful move.

Formerly at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Morsiani joined the CMA a year ago and spent several months evaluating the contemporary art collection, preparing and planning what should go where—and why. Viewers who believe they know CMA’s contemporary collection inside and out may be surprised when the new east wing opens in June. 

“Many of our contemporary works are monumental,” Morsiani says, referring perhaps to Warhol’s Marilyn x 100 or Oldenburg’s Giant Toothpaste Tube. She plans to balance these big statements with smaller, more intimate pieces, including prints and drawings from the CMA collection.

“Some of our works on paper have been in the dark for 20 years,” she explains. “I want to break away from the hierarchy of media traditional in 19th-century academic art,” an era in which paintings reigned. 

One such work is a suite of prints by Kara Walker, an African American artist known for stark, often disturbing narratives. “The museum bought these prints at the time they were made,” says Morsiani. “Not much of our collection catches artists at the beginning of their careers.”

Divided into five areas with a large open space in the center, the contemporary galleries have what Morsiani calls “pockets” of interest. One such pocket includes “a strong group of works by African American artists, including Walker, Glenn Ligon, and Lorna Simpson.” They hang together with a provocative loaned sculpture by Kiki Smith made of white bronze and beads that has not yet been on view at the CMA since an exhibition in 1998.

Also new to viewers is a large sculpture by Liza Lou, just acquired by the museum. Made entirely of black glass beads hand-knotted in a traditional Zulu stitch, Continuous Mile (Black) is a mysterious cylinder of coils resembling a village well. Nearby will be a video projection by Su-Mei Tse, a young artist based in Luxembourg and Paris.Morsiani’s objectives for the contemporary galleries depart subtly from the past. To start, she seeks a sense of openness, which the 6,000-square-foot space provides. And although the galleries are laid out chronologically like the rest of the museum, she hopes the artwork “breaks away and creates more dialogue within its five distinct time periods.” Her ultimate goal? “I want people to experience the contemporary collection in a way that is closer to how artists think.”

Liza Lou (American, b. 1969). Continuous Mile (Black), 2008. Cotton and glass beads, 1.9 x 160,934.4 cm (78.7 x 195.6 cm installed). Gift of Scott C. Mueller and Margaret Fulton Mueller and John L. Severance Fund 2009.2

 


Cleveland Art, May/June 2009