Claes Oldenburg's "Hamburger" in an attic room. (all images via

Claes Oldenburg’s “Hamburger” in an attic room. (all images via

What is the bizarre pleasure in looking at art in banal rooms? Is it the economic disparity between the blue-chip objects and their more middle and lower class surroundings that make them interesting? Maybe this unexpected contrast emphasizes that context is everything in the realm of modern and contemporary art. Well, presenting Great Art in Ugly Rooms.

Outside of the white box, do these works lose a little of their power to inspire? It amazes me that Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912) looks surprisingly at home in a wood-paneled room, or that the Barnett Newman easily blends into the bargain store surroundings by visually being transformed into a generic super graphic. Some of the art does look out of place, like the work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which is far too edgy and busy for a typical fast-food chain.

If you’re ever seen a great work of art in someone’s home, you know that paintings often hang crooked in private hallways or sculptures can be blanketed with dust because cleaning staff are told not to touch them. These are the lives of works outside of museums, auction houses, galleries, and Architectural Digest spreads. Maybe these photos are fascinating because we know they are impossible. “Great” art should be inaccessible, many of us secretly believe, even if it is the opposite of what we say to the world. Recently, a Michelangelo went on view at an Italian prison, but the reason that decision made headlines was because the concept seemed odd. What would great art be doing there?


Do the Johns’ match the curtains?


The portrait by Lucien Freud seems strangely at home.


The Basquiat thing doesn’t quite fit … or does it?


This Joseph Albers seems almost too perfect.


The wood paneling is strangley appropriate for Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descening Staircase.”


Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased De Kooning” doesn’t look out of place in this room.


A little off-kilter, this Francis Bacon painting doesn’t look out of place in its gold frame.


This Dan Flavin neon sculpture looks like a high school art project in this context.


I didn’t see the Barnett Newman painting at first, because it strangely blends in, no?

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

6 replies on “The Pleasure of Great Art in Ugly Rooms”

  1. It makes so much sense. I’ve always wondered at the imperative of the white box. Rarely if ever are the interior [psychic] or exterior [studio] spaces in which art is made so orderly or pristine. Why always uproot the art from its natural dirt? Anyway, this is cool.

  2. The original source for this was a blog called – incredibly well written and really on-target. Check it out. Not even a mention by the writer here….Hmmm….too insecure to give credit??? Even Christopher Knight at LATimes ReTweeted the original posting.

    1. I never saw that post, and did that person create the blog? Probably not, so I’m not sure what you mean by an “original” source. When two reviewers discuss the same thing they have to reference the other? Are you new to reviewing?

  3. haha, please taco bell, please please make a deal to decorate your whole chain with Basquiat!

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