There is something about art that begs us to get closer, which is why museum guards often stride up to visitors with a warning: “Please don’t touch the artwork.” To many, guards can be a nuisance, but to San Francisco–based photographer Andy Freeberg, they are an inspiration.
Freeberg’s Guardians, 16 large-format photographs that capture Russian women sitting sentinel in front of masterpieces, are on view now at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. In Russia, while most tourists’ cameras were trained on the art, Freeberg’s eyes were captivated by the stoic, older women who stood by the works out of love and civic duty.
“I loved that they were wearing their own clothes and sitting in chairs,” said Freeberg in an email interview. “In the US, the museum guards are almost always wearing uniforms and standing. As I approached some works of art, the women became a part of my viewing the painting or sculpture.”
Indeed, sometimes the women inadvertently become part of the artworks by unconsciously mirroring them — in stance, style or simply by virtue of their clothing.
In one, Matisse’s “Still Life with Table Cloth” gains a new dimension when placed side-by-side with a guard’s deep blue shawl. “I love the way her sweater matches the painting,” wrote Freeberg. “I gave her a print on my last trip and asked if she had bought the sweater because she was sitting by that Matisse, and she laughed at me and said ‘Nyet, nyet!’”
Yuri Kugach’s “Before the Dance” gains another patient wallflower as the guard mirrors the painting’s young women whose hands lay clasped on their laps. The guard by the mummy masks similarly stares upward, as if waiting for judgment to come. In front of Nathan Altman’s “Portrait of I.P. Degas,” the guard seems to be standing watch over a portrait of her younger self. Freeberg’s lens shows us that museums aren’t just a place for art, but a venue where art happens.
This isn’t the first time Freeberg’s camera has taken viewers a step back from traditional art. His previous photographic series also carry a strong hint of “meta.” In Art Fare, he captures dealers, gallery owners and collectors wheeling and dealing at New York’s Armory Show and Art Basel in Miami and Switzerland. In his photos, the art world plays itself. With Sentry, Freeberg adds a little humor to the mix by photographing just the tops of receptionists’ heads as they hide in giant white desks by gallery entrances. As these series show, while the world is busy looking at art, Freeberg is watching (and capturing) art’s watchers
Guardians: Photographs by Andy Freeberg is on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center until January 6, 2013. It will travel to Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York. The photographs are also featured in Freeberg’s book Guardians of Russian Art Museums.