The Piece Need Not Be Built

"It is not generally a failure of execution but a collapse of taste – of critical and creative instinct – that brings art to eclipse. The error in the artist, which perhaps was only momentary and experimental, is echoed with approval by his admirers and a shoal of imitators, and gregariousness and snobbery complete the corruption. (“We understand this art, which the ordinary person can only gape at: we are distinguished people.”) So the flock gathers sheep. But poetry has never fallen so deep into this bog as painting and sculpture have, and I believe is now pulling out of it. Poetry must use language, which has a resistant vitality of its own; while sculpture (for instance) may sink to fiddling with bits of wire and tin trinkets."
Robinson Jeffers, “Poetry, Gongorism, and a Thousand Years”

The artist standing at the end of Jeffers’ thousand years and looking back in nostalgia may walk the whitewashed halls of the Museum of Modern Art and ask why his museum has been transformed from a verdant promenade of marvelous portals to a warehouse for collected trash and preschool geometry. He might ask, quite rightly, why art has been stolen away from the eye and heart by the pesky brain, he might comment on its hijacking by the academic complex, and he might cry in despair for the future of love in a world of driftwood barbed wire sculpture.

Is it in poetry that salvation lies? Is it language that will beat back the tides of relativistic pseudoart and reclaim the mystery of artistic shamanhood, the weaver of dreams, and the savior of men’s souls? Here, now, please read this fairly representative excerpt from a placard accompanying an art installation at the Museum of Modern Art:

“The work comes into existence at the moment he articulates an idea with words, a phrase that also becomes the title of the work. That work can be displayed as written language or as the physical manifestation of the described action but, as Weiner states, ‘The piece need not be built,’ either out of text or out of material – the decision rests with the ‘receiver upon the occasion of receivership.”

Were one to avoid looking at any of the art in the museum and simply read the descriptive literature – which this particular placard laughably implies would be equivalent experiences – he would sense the decay of the art in the decay of the language used to describe it. Nobody would call the vast majority of the works on the contemporary and modern floors of the Museum of Modern Art beautiful. The language used to describe art has been sterilized in the last hundred years to reference “space” and “acts” and “processes.”

It is somewhat ironic that the most moving piece of art on the lower floors of the MoMA is not accompanied by any placard or affective literature. I refer, of course, to the Museum of Modern Art’s “Coat Check,” an exhibit installed by the Board of Trustees as part of the museum’s renovation that ended in 2004. The structure of the exhibit is one of complex and intricate comment on art and its housing, and I will take a moment to lay out its ideological and physical components. Contrary to Weiner, however, I suggest that to truly experience Coat Check one must go see it in person.

Coat Check is the first piece of art one encounters at the MoMA. It is also the last. This is, of course, assuming one has brought a coat at all, or is accompanying somebody who has a coat and wants to check it. As the likelihood of wearing a coat is tied directly to the weather, Coat Check is a vibrant piece of art in the winter months and a decidedly mute comment on absence in the summer. One component of the genius here is Coat Check’s reversal of the implied characters of the seasons. Winter, the season of loneliness, flushes Coat Check with energy and conversation. Summer, season of warmth and freedom, makes of Coat Check a ghostly and quiet monument.

Coat Check is one of those rare pieces that has “capacity,” i.e. the length of one’s engagement with the piece is proportional to the number of other patrons trying to access it. Depending, then, on the time of year, Coat Check will involve different time commitments. If the line to see Coat Check is long, anticipation is built up as a function of standing in the winding, cordoned-off line. In the summer Coat Check is quite sad in its neglect from the patrons, but this is countered by the speed with which one gets through the ordeal. So Coat Check, in its ingenious layout, parallels the human inclination to dwell on happy moments and rush to forget sadness.

But of course the meat in the pie is the checking of the coat, and here Coat Check, unlike many of the less interactive pieces in the MoMA, really earns its keep. Behind a row of windows trusty museum employees stand ready to transfer your coat to the installation. You are prompted to forfeit your coat in return for a piece of plastic with a number on it corresponding to your coat’s place in Coat Check. Your coat is then placed on a large, rotating system of hangers and carried off into the darkness. Coat Check is a chameleon, its vestments changing with the fashions and whims of the museum’s patrons. On any average day, it is black and gray, but can be enlivened by a red trench coat or yellow parka at any moment. It is the intersection of machine and man, the utility of a storage space replenished hourly by the furs and wools of New York City’s cultured patrons.

As I mentioned before, Coat Check is the first installation one encounters at the museum, and it is the last. There is an implied circularity, that one must end up at Coat Check by virtue of having started there. If you bring no coat, then this contingency is avoided, your visit to the museum shortened. Coat Check’s dynamics are only reinforced by your decision re: coat, and in capturing your decision either to be or not be part of Coat Check it represents the true universality of any great art.

That Coat Check brackets a visit to the museum in an act of communal art-building – the creation of a rotating mosaic of clothing – inevitably promotes the notion of replacement. The coat, distilled to an idea, is one of protection. In Coat Check, the coat is stripped from your body. You are left vulnerable and must seek shelter deeper in the museum among the artwork. And when you’ve had your fill, you return to Coat Check to trade your heart for your sleeves.

Unlike the rest of the pieces and installations at the MoMA, Coat Check is shrouded in silence: there are no placards, no discussions about its merits, no docent on hand to wax on the Board’s intentions or artistic inspirations. It is in this understatement that Coat Check comes out as the real winner at the museum. In this era where art is described by words that mean nothing, better to shut up and simply be something.


Andrew Zolot

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