BooksWeekend

What Are Exhibition Catalogues for?

No exhibition of any pretension is complete without lasting proof of its existence, preferably in print on coated paper.

(photos of exhibition covers by the author for Hyperallergic)

What heretic just said that a show doesn’t need a catalogue?

In part at least, a catalogue is a matter of pride… No exhibition of any pretension is complete without lasting proof of its existence, preferably in print on coated paper.

The greater the institution, and the more important the show (to the world or to the institution itself), the greater the clarion call of the catalogue — an indispensable adjunct in terms of scholarship (the latest, the brightest, the best expressed), images (as beautiful and crisp as can be), and the look and the feel of the thing. A great exhibition has to have a catalogue that looks at least the equal of its subject.

There are problems of various kinds, however. Catalogues can weigh heavy in the scales. Too many all at once – a single day’s cull from the major Parisian museums, for example — can inflict irreversible spinal injuries. They can do untold damage to the pocket, too.

But what are catalogues really for? No, let’s start again… Who are catalogues for? Who exactly wants them?

Let us divide artists into two categories: the living and the dead. Set the dead aside. The dead don’t need them. The dead have their reward already. Posterity plays fast and loose with their reputations, and they express no opinion whatsoever. In short, the dead couldn’t give a damn about catalogues. They are above and beyond all that fiddle-faddle.

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Just a minute, though. What of the custodians of the reputations of the dead, those who make a living by them, who must surely include art historians? Quite right. They need them. They probably get paid to write them.

But living artists — what about them? They definitely want them. In fact, the living artist cares passionately about catalogues. Its presence there on opening night, in ziggurat-like, teetering heaps, means that someone – most likely your gallerist, whose job it is to gently nurture your reputation — thinks sufficiently highly of you to pay out good money for the creation of a catalogue.

You then use it as a calling card with critics or with anyone else – some jobbing journalist, for example (who has just been taught your name and needs to express an authoritative view of you by 3 pm and not a second later).

In short, if you are judged to qualify for a catalogue, it means that your reputation is on the upward climb. Or that someone is trying to make it so.

With a catalogue under your arm, you are able to quickly convince yourself that you are in possession of objective proof of your worth. (Your work itself is no proof because, being its maker, you probably change your mind about it from minute to minute).

You can now think well of yourself. You can sit back and, leafing the heavy pages, see yourself reflected in an object of some moment. One of your own. You can even pause to re-read the honeyed words of those who have been paid surprisingly little to embed you into the great continuum of all artists of the then and the now. (And you will never ever know quite what a challenge that may have proved to be…)

So what makes a catalogue good or bad? And what have been a few of the great catalogues of recent years?

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What a catalogue needs to bring over most of all is the visual content of the exhibition. That is its first duty. This means that the photography has to be magnificent. It has to capture and put on display the tremendous visual allure of the objects in the show itself. You notice that I wrote “objects in the show itself” rather than “the tremendous visual allure of the show itself,” simply because the production of a large and highly sophisticated catalogue must be virtually complete by the time the installation of the show commences.

So we have to settle for the objects themselves. Having said that, a good catalogue must nonetheless bring over something of the flavor, the temper, the attitude, the very feel of the show, while revealing something important to us about the nature of its subject. It has a duty, to a greater or lesser degree, to the onward march of scholarship.

Most catalogues, however, no matter how good they may be, are fairly formulaic: introduction, essays, works shown, works described — that sort of thing. But some are not.

When Frances Morris and Marie-Laure Bernadac edited the great Louise Bourgeois catalogue that accompanied the major retrospective of her work at Tate Modern in 2007, they chose to present the book in the form of a marvelously serendipitous dictionary (with 200 accompanying illustrations deftly slotted in throughout). The A-Z formula felt so appealingly wacky — and wholly at one with the spirit of Bourgeois herself.

I’ve just let it fall open at a sample page. The subjects read as follows: Creativity, Critics, Cruelty, Cumul I — the last being her omnisexual marble sculpture from 1969… What an appetizing prospect that does sound!

Through these entries, we capture something of the Bourgeois spirit, its jumpiness, its intractability, its willingness to go its own way – remember that she was a very mature artist indeed before she gained much public recognition — and the very fact that she was not tethered to gallerists, collectors, or the kinds of expectations exerted by a public that would rather you continue to do what you did last. Such isolation, it would seem, helped to benefit her work, made it freer, more unbiddable, more unpredictable.

Under the header word “Creativity,” for example, we find this savage, cheeky, pugnacious, teasing, rather waywardly delightful and slightly question-begging snatch of an interview with the curator and critic Robert Storr from February 1983:

The schizophrenic has been described as experiencing a train of thought which is completely jacked like the rat in a cage […] if through chemicals the sick person is brought back to a continued feeding, we have the image of the artist. That discontinuation of the train of thought, you call intuition or imagination. I call it a disruption. Artists are very conscious of their train of thought, and they can, to a degree, manipulate it […].

Ouch!

To those circling “Critics,” in a spiral notebook entry of 1994, she shows off the spirited, independent-minded sting in her tail: “I do not need the musing of the philosophers to tell me what I am doing, it would be more interesting to tell me why I am doing it.”

In 1996, the Royal Academy in London staged a show called Africa: The Art of a Continent, curated by the artist Tom Phillips. It was a magnificently wide-ranging visual compendium of delights and surprises, and the catalogue was its equal in both the quality of its photography and its careful, descriptive attention to the works themselves. The catalogue that accompanied La Grande Parade: Portrait de l’artiste en clown, an exhibition staged at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 2004, deserves to be praised for the same reasons.

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A great show needs to be driven by curatorial passion, and this is evidently the case with this year’s retrospective of the works of Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain, whose run has been curtailed by the coronavirus. The catalogue – black and flexi-backed, with gorgeous, gold-leaf embellishments — is utterly in the spirit of Beardsley himself: lovely, sensuous, and more than a touch louche.

What we were looking for in this case is a catalogue which would show us the works as comprehensively as possible, rekindle by its design and presentation the spirit of Beardsley, and give us the latest on what scholarship has turned up about this man and his astonishingly brief, six-year career — the fact, for example, that he had such a thorough understanding of how to use the latest technology of the day to present his work — zinc line blocks made photographically from original drawings, as Beardsley scholar Stephen Calloway tells us. It is almost 100 years since Tate mounted an exhibition of his work, so new generations had to get something of the feel of the man.

Beardsley was a sleekly sinuous subversive, and so is this catalogue, in its making and its very spirit, in its tallness and thinness of shape. It is printed on a luxurious buff paper which looks and feels a touch excessive, if not decadent, and its illustrations, often uproariously erotic in their fine and pernickety attention to detail, seem to be goaded into filling the spaces to excess and almost beyond.

Catalogues can be great and important — but only when they rise to the occasion.

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