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Special Exhibition: Pablo Bronstein at the Met

Artist Pablo Bronstein and curator Gary Tinterow discuss Bronstein's new drawings and etchings that suggest mythical histories and hypothetical futures of the Metropolitan Museum.


Gary Tinterow: Hi, I'm Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Chairman of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art at the Met. I'm here with the artist Pablo Bronstein to discuss his new work, featured in the exhibition Pablo Bronstein at the Met, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Pablo, it seems that you've created in your drawings, etchings, and computer drawings a mythical history of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I wondered why it was important for you that the events you depict—the construction of the facade, the transport of The Temple of Dendur—why are these demonstrably false histories?

Pablo Bronstein: They're false because the Museum is relatively new, and so we know that the history did not happen this particular way. They're not false in the sense that they are outright lies, because there is a sense of emotional truth to them. So, for example, when you're looking at The Temple of Dendur, the impression that the Museum wants you to have is one of awe. And so the idea would be that, as it is so impressive, this temple was also brought into the Museum in an impressive way. I think the Museum—all museums—that show art at world-class level talk about their heritage in an emotional sense, as if it were a kind of Napoleonic exercise.

Gary Tinterow: Okay, but, you know, an important difference, let's say, with an American museum as opposed to, say, Napoleon's Louvre is that, as far as we know—this could be debated—everything is brought here legally. It's not a question of invading armies removing works of art against the will of the local powers. But you seem to want to criticize museums, in a way, but you also seem to do it from the position of an insider.

Pablo Bronstein: That's right. In fact, this exhibition really grew out of a collaboration that we had about how to capture not only a mythical past of the Museum but a present and a future of the Museum, which is perhaps different now than it was two or three years ago. But I think, going back to the reason why I might have betrayed a lot of these seminal, mythical events in the foundation of the Metropolitan Museum is because the Metropolitan Museum, in a lot of ways, looks towards Europe and looks towards the glory days of museums in its construction and in its composition of the collection.

Gary Tinterow: And is that good or bad or indifferent or simply an object of interest for you?

Pablo Bronstein: That depends on when I'm asked that question. I realize that I give very different answers to that all the time. I think I tend to think that the worse it is, the more interesting I find it. I can't help but love the huge, awful endeavors of European museums of the nineteenth century. It's politically very incorrect, but I'm a sucker for theater. And so I love theatrical excess and paraphernalia, and it's not always a happy place.

Gary Tinterow: One thing that interests me is that you have a completely unabashed love for the Baroque. Most artists would have looked at the Baroque as the purest example of bad taste, and yet you clearly love it. What aspects of the Baroque do you most respond to?

Pablo Bronstein: Well, I think that one of the things that I find most interesting is that throughout the twentieth century, the Baroque has been used as a rebellious force against high modernism, high modernity. And so you have these characters—they may have been within the tradition of modernism, or they may have been really rebellious and outside it—that used the language of the Baroque in order to draw our attention to the fact that modernity, modernism, the white-wall aesthetic, the Machine Age technology, is an aesthetic as much as anything else. And so people like Chick Austin become very important in this debate, in this history. And I'd like to feel that I am a part of that kind of history. It's a history that still continues. The fact that art fairs, museum galleries, the homes of collectors tend to be white-wall, minimal interiors means that to put something in a funny Baroque frame or to make a very, very decorative—shamelessly decorative—piece of art, is, on certain levels, a rebellious position to be in.

Gary Tinterow: Can you tell us a little bit about your interest in the work of previous architects and how you explore their work?

Pablo Bronstein: Well, the way I explore their work is two pronged. On the one hand, I look at a lot of the historical material around these architects and so I do a lot of research into their drawings and their drawing techniques. On the other, there's a moment in which a bit of theater has to take place and in which I have to assume their mantle—their architect's wig or their architect's pen—and get into their shoes and then make work as if I were them. And in that situation, all sorts of new things can happen. I'm not an academic and I'm not an architectural historian and so I'm not making a piece of work that is precisely in the style of something that Pietro da Cortona would have made. I pretend to be Pietro da Cortona and then I lose the plot a little bit because, of course, I'm speaking to a twenty-first-century audience.

Gary Tinterow: So why, Pablo, when you drew the construction of the facade of the Metropolitan Museum, you drew it in such a way that was innately inaccurate? One simply can't build buildings the way you show the Met being built.

Pablo Bronstein: And in particular, the Metropolitan was absolutely not built in this way. Not only would it be impossible to construct any building, but the Metropolitan was constructed in a way that is exactly the opposite. It was built in stages, over a very long period, with a lot of haggling and different interested parties, and with very, very modern building techniques. And in this drawing, the building is constructed as if it really were the construction of the Louvre in the 1660s or so. I was really referring, I think, to, in particular, a history of engravings depicting construction sites in the eighteenth century. But I think I wanted to portray the Metropolitan facade in that way because the idea is to show the Museum not as a history of haggling interests, competitions, thoughts, arguments, collapses—which any large construction creates—but as a building with a single and powerful ambition, such as, for example, the building of the Louvre by Louis XIV.

Gary Tinterow: Then you give us a beautiful, small rendering—a bit in the style of Hugh Ferriss, who was, you know, one of our early-twentieth-century urban planners and American architects—that shows the Met as the Museum that ate the Upper East Side.

Pablo Bronstein: Yes, that's right. I think that was the kind of excessive point of the optimistic strand in this exhibition: to take a building such as the Met in the 1920s and to really take it to its utter limit, in terms of the way that it was imagining it could develop.

Until very recently, the Metropolitan Museum, along with all of the other major museums in the world, really did feel that they would last for a thousand years, that they were going to have almost limitless expansion, bar this or that minor blip, and that they would just continue to grow. And, as we both know, since the economic crisis, a lot of the cultural institutions all over the world have had very, very serious problems. And so that's how these two bodies of work within the exhibition began to separate. So on the one hand, we have an incredibly optimistic set of drawings that is really about the Museum without limits, the Museum as the originator of all of these monolithic exercises, like transporting an enormous temple halfway across the world, and on the other, we have a series of computer drawings that are really developers' plans, very cheap developers' plans, that really talk about a future of the Museum, using the Museum facade as an example, that talk about a future of the Museum that is far more uncertain and far more risky and problematic.

Gary Tinterow: One of the most charming aspects of the exhibition, I think, are the set of etchings that you made almost as an afterthought for the show, which really show your wit—I think they're like Goya Caprichos or like Piranesi sketches—that show familiar, well-loved aspects of the Museum in decline, with a jungle growing in the American court and a dog standing on one of our best American Neoclassical sofas.

Pablo Bronstein: The meaning of that work I find very complicated, because I feel that I can adopt two sides in my relation to it. So on the one hand we have the series of etchings, which show the Museum as really a place in which a bunch of rich Fifth Avenue women will come and get inspiration for how to decorate their apartments. I don't know whether that's good or bad. I mean, I think the engravings don't make that clear. I love coming to museums and getting inspiration for my home. But I also love the museum as a place where I can get a lot of information on social history or on the cultural value of a particular object. And so I'm very confused by that work, if that makes sense. I don't think it's clear what the meaning is, if there is a clear political meaning. I don't think there is a clear political meaning.

It's also, in a sense, portraying the Museum as a kind of ruin—it's true, that a dog would be allowed. It's not just any dog. It's clearly a very, very well-groomed pug dog. So there might be a little bit of fun being poked, but I'm not going to be more specific than that.

Gary Tinterow: Well, like Piranesi—he showed the things that he loved in his Capricci as ruins—and so for him, the state of decay also was evidence, in another way, of the perpetual value of the great thing and that even in ruin there is something to respect, admire, and beauty to be found.

Pablo Bronstein: Absolutely. I mean, and that's why Piranesi is absolutely more the source for these prints than Goya is. These are not whole-heartedly vicious attacks on the human condition; these are ways of, I guess, trying to scratch a surface a little bit.

Gary Tinterow: Pablo Bronstein at the Met is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 21, 2010.

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