My interest in inviting Walead Beshty to exhibit at the Institute was rooted in the nature of his work and the questions it raises for the art historical field. Beshty’s commitment to exposing systems, the movement and handling of works of art and the evolving meaning of the art object engenders timely and critical questions that challenge how we interact with, write about, and historicize art.
I also felt strongly about showing an artist whose work offered a contrast to the regality of the Great Hall but still complemented it. The glowing television, cracked glass cubes and clicking printer bring three new forms—along with novel sounds—into the space, contrasting with the Hall’s decorative mirrors, figurative sculptures, and lavish chandeliers. Between their radical transparency and diligent deconstruction, the works become a metaphor for the task of the art historian: dissecting art to offer a new interpretation of what it means.
When the editors asked Eloise and I to write something about the exhibition, we were hesitant to produce a formal curatorial statement and preferred, instead, to facilitate a dialogue with the various people who have interacted with the works over the past month. As such, we embarked on the somewhat dangerous task of asking our fellow graduate students in art history—and one very special security guard—for their reflections on the show. Each impression was gathered during an informal conversation with the respondent and was impromptu. We wanted immediate reactions rather than formally-composed assessments. Both celebratory and critical, the following is what we heard:
I really enjoy how it emphasizes the transient nature of art in the 21st century. Art is constantly in motion. The works really challenge the idea that art is sedentary. – Renaissance Scholar
I like that they are so dispersed in the space that you stumble upon them. They become part of the Institute’s architecture. -Modernist
One of my favorite things about this place as an exhibition space is that it is so loud and over-determined and the printer work, especially with its sound, gives a nice contrast to the forms that are already in the Great Hall. – Latin Americanist
I like how the work plays with the formal qualities of the Great Hall, as well as its functions – especially that this is where the mail is received and people are constantly in transit through the space. The Fedex Boxes really mirror the actions that take place in the hall. – Modernist
It reminds me of stage scenery in a play where things are filling the space. The works and their different mediums don’t register to me as having a cohesive meaning. I’m also curious about the role of the FedEx delivery person. Should Beshty be considered the sole artist? – Ancient Greek Historian
I see the FedEx Boxes as a clear reference to Duchamp’s Large Glass, particularly with the conjunction of the glass being cracked in transit. While I’m intrigued by it, I think the weakness of the work is that its references are too visible. – Modernist
I think it’s pretentious. I get it but I don’t like it. – Medievalist
The moment I saw this I started comparing it to the Felix Gonzalez-Torres show [Spring 2015 Great Hall Exhibit, Curated by Katharine J. Wright and Susanna V. Temkin]. I thought it was interesting how in that exhibit the golden wrappers brought out the aesthetics of the space. And yet the FedEx Boxes, which are so antithetical to the room, are just as interesting. I like how the aesthetics play with the space. – Modernist
I don’t understand the printer piece. I need to talk with someone about it and then maybe I’ll get it. – Roman Art Scholar
I like that it verges on non-art in a very specific way. I see the printer and its placement as a dystopian office, especially the way that the sound is incorporated. I wish I could see the works without the distraction of the building. – Modernist
I think it is very innovative art. I also think the intention of the artist was to confuse people a bit. One reason was that an actual FedEx delivery person came here and he was perplexed by the artwork. I teased him and asked if was going to pick the boxes up. I then explained the exhibit and he said if the artist were ready to take them around the world again he would be ready to go with them! Another lady very seriously came up to me and asked if packages that were here for students were part of the exhibit. Other people have expressed disdain and don’t get why it’s here, while others are on the other end of the spectrum and think it’s fantastic. I like that I get to hear comments from all directions. – Security Guard
Editor’s Note: The exhibition Walead Beshty, curated by Rachel Heidenry with assistance from Eloise Maxwell, opened at the Institute of Fine Arts on November 11 and closed last Friday, December 4. For more information about the show and the Great Hall Exhibition series as a whole, please visit the IFA website here: http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/fineart/events/great-hall-exhibitions.htm.