Student Voices: Rethinking Exhibitions

By Andy Gelfand
June 14, 2013
1987.106 Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, The Fredric Wertham Collection, Gift of his wife Hesketh

From sharpening my looking skills to making connections between objects, the Harvard Art Museums teaching galleries have truly enriched my experiences as an art history student at Harvard. Last semester, as a member of PhD student Kevin Lotery’s sophomore tutorial Strategies of Exhibition Design in the Twentieth Century: History and Theory, I used the galleries to explore how exhibition, a medium just beginning to receive scholarly attention, advances political ideologies, artistic visions, and scientific research.

After studying the exhibitions of El Lissitzky, Marcel Duchamp, Herbert Bayer, and others in the seminar, I understood the infinite possibilities of exhibition as both a physical space and a practiced message. But seeing works from these exhibitions in the teaching galleries deepened my perspective that much more.

Of particular note for me was studying and seeing firsthand Soviet designer El Lissitzky’s exhibition catalogue from the Soviet pavilion for the Pressa show of 1928. Since exhibitions are largely temporally and geographically specific, catalogue authors are tasked with creating a permanent intellectual and aesthetic record of the event. Pressa, held in Cologne, celebrated the print industry, and Lissitzky captured every ounce of the trade with working models, running films, animations, and, most importantly, photomontages.

Pressa’s catalogue recaptures the awe of its massive and engulfing photomontages through its layout—instead of reading as a booklet, the catalogue is folded like an accordion and can be flattened to reveal its entirety. The publication is structured as one photomontage, with images from different parts of the exhibit overlapping each other and captioned by Soviet-red text. The catalogue tries to compensate for its smaller size by amplifying the effects of photomontage—presenting a photomontage composed of photomontages. Since exhibitions cannot be recreated, I am grateful for the opportunity to study the legacies and representations of exhibitions like Pressa at the Harvard Art Museums.

For my classmate, Nora Wilkinson, the teaching galleries provided the opportunity to better understand the materiality of objects: “There is nothing like standing in front of the original. The chance to engage in conversation while looking directly and closely at the subject of discussion is such a privilege. It’s particularly true when we’re looking at the materiality or dimensionality of a piece. There is really no capturing that on a slide.” She highlights looking at Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-en-valise, a set of miniatures of the artist’s work that fit in a suitcase, as particularly enlightening in broadening her range of what can be considered an exhibition.

Andrew Gelfand just completed his sophomore year at Harvard College, where he is concentrating in the History of Art and Architecture.