After looking at Corporate Design I wandered through the rest of the Cantor. They’ve changed it a lot from the last time I visited. It’s now very clearly and unabashedly a teaching museum. I think this is great. Most of the museum is tied in with a class now. Most of which are semi-survey courses. Not all of which are specifically Art or Art History however as the introductory texts are from professors in multiple departments.
The content of the galleries hasn’t actually changed much, it’s just presented and framed in a completely different way. Rather than being the authoritarian curator’s voice which tells us what everything is, each gallery is introduced with more of a syllabus and greensheet describing the purpose of the room and posing questions or providing context for the artwork in the same way that a student would be introduced to readings. These aren’t things you’ll need to memorize for the exam, they’re readings for section.
It’s fantastic to see that Stanford is both using the museum this way and that it has invited the public to take part in the educational mission of the school. It’s an opportunity to take the education mission of the museum into new places and the resulting “novices welcome” sensibility creates a much less intimidating place to enter.
There’s a small gallery dedicated to Trevor Paglen. I’m a bit of a fanboy so I especially enjoyed seeing him here. There’s only one of his pieces on display but it’s a wonderful little room which makes a great comparison between Muybridge’s work and Paglen’s and how both of them have only one foot in the art world and are just as occupied by technical challenges and photographing things people can’t see.
Paglen’s work in particular is nice in how it consists of small gold-toned albumen prints and is a wonderful mix of old processes with new technology. Sometimes this kind of thing bugs me but it works here. The albumen process works really well with the atmospheric haze and shake caused by the extreme telephoto photography.
Photography and Ecology after 1970
There was a second small room of photography elsewhere in the museum. This time it was environmental photos but using a more expansive definition of “environmental.” Rather than being photos which were explicitly about the environment, it connected New Topographics to Documerica and treated the whole 1970s landscape photography world as inherently ecology and environmental.
This is a good framing. While the gallery doesn’t include people like Eliot Porter who were being intentionally environmental, the idea that all landscape photography can—and should—be viewed from an environmental angle is important. It’s impossible to separate human activity from the environment and photography allows us to both document our activity and to see what it’s affecting. When we look at a landscape now, even if it’s “pristine” we have to ask ourselves what we’re doing to it. We’re always doing something to it.