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Curating Consciousness

Mysticism and the Modern Museum

written by Marcia Brennan

MIT Press | ISBN 9780262013789

Hardback – 304 pages


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Artists have often taken rational, material existence as a starting point for engagement with metaphysics and mysticism, with the paradoxes of visibility and invisibility. But no book until now has consistently traced these compelling themes in modernist curatorial practices. In Curating Consciousness, Marcia Brennan gives voice to this unacknowledged story by focusing on one of its main protagonists, James Johnson Sweeney (1900-1986). As a colleague of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s and director of the Guggenheim Museum in the 1950s and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the 1960s, Sweeney provocatively engaged motifs of mysticism in order to cast the modern museum as a secular temple of art. Sweeney believed that artworks could engender visionary perspectives and induce alternative modes of consciousness in their viewers; his career can be seen as an exercise in curating modernist consciousness itself. Brennan describes how these motifs informed Sweeney's curatorial and textual engagements with specific artists and projects, including Marcel Duchamp's intricately androgynous constructions, Alberto Burri's images of hermetic alchemy and blood miracles, Pierre Soulages's creative transmutations of sacred stones into gestural abstract paintings, Jean Tinguely's apocalyptic yet playful kinetic experiments, and Eduardo Chillida's translations of theology and philosophy into sculpted fields of sparkling light.


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