Cover image of the review

Abstraction 17: A Field of Interest, c. 1968

12 May 2018
Charles Nodrum Gallery 26 Apr - 19 May 2018

What is the art museum for? What is its distinctive function? Is it, as the traditional humanist explanation holds, to preserve the treasures of humanity embodied in art works, collective treasures to which the public has the right of access as a source of ‘ennobling enjoyment’ (as a Parliamentary Commission in 1857 explained the role of London’s National Gallery)? Is it simply the ‘graveyard’ of dead art, as so many avant-gardists have claimed? Or is its function, as Boris Groys argues in a characteristically paradoxical and polemical essay, precisely to ‘kill’ what it collects in order to make ‘life’ possible, by providing in its collection the model of what artists should not do, what their work should not look like if they wish it to appear lively, relevant, and new – thereby becoming a sort of ‘machine that produces and stages the new art of today’?

This question about the purpose of the museum came up at dinner after a visit to the NGV’s current The Field Revisited exhibition. Perhaps, though I didn’t make the connection at the time, it was because in this exhibition the museum does something sightly different from usual, or does something in addition to its usual roles, however these might be defined. In commemorating the 50th anniversary of an important exhibition by attempting to restage it as faithfully as possible, the NGV is clearly not simply providing an opportunity to see the artworks exhibited in the original show, or presenting the work of the Australian non-figurative sculptures and painters of the late 1960s as historically important. It is also commemorating itself, paying tribute to the moment of its supposed entry into international modernism. And with good reason, for as Ian Burn and Nigel Lendon suggested in an essay written in 1984 on the occasion of the first exhibition to look back on The Field, the historical importance of the original exhibition has less to do with the works displayed than with the novelty of ‘institutional sponsorship of an “avant-garde” context for contemporary art in Australia’.

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