Curating Consciousness “Mysticism and the Modern Museum”
Artists have often taken rational, material existence as a starting point for engagement with metaphysics and mysticism, but no book until now has traced a similar strategy on the part of curators. In Curating Consciousness, Marcia Brennan focuses on one of the transformational figures of twentieth-century curatorial culture, and the main protagonist of this (until now) unacknowledged curatorial practice. James Johnson Sweeney (19001986) was hired by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to be the Director of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935. He went on to become the director of the Guggenheim Museum in the 1950s and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the 1960s. Throughout his career, Sweeney provocatively engaged motifs of mysticism in order to cast the modern museum as a secular temple of art. Sweeney believed that artworks could engender visionary perspectives and induce alternative modes of consciousness in their viewers; his career can be seen as an exercise in curating modernist consciousness itself.\n\nBrennan describes how these motifs informed Sweeney’s curatorial and textual engagements with specific artists and projects, including Marcel Duchamp’s intricately androgynous constructions, Alberto Burri’s images of hermetic alchemy and blood miracles, Pierre Soulages’s creative transmutations of sacred stones into gestural abstract paintings, Jean Tinguely’s apocalyptic yet playful kinetic experiments, and Eduardo Chillida’s translations of theology and philosophy into sculpted fields of sparkling light.\n\nMarcia Brennan is Associate Professor of Art History at Rice University. She has previously taught art history at Brown University and the College of the Holy Cross. She is the author of Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics (2002) and Modernism’s Masculine Subjects: Matisse, the New York School, and Post-Painterly Abstraction (2006), both published by the MIT Press.