Elegy for an Exhibition

Last week Set Pieces closed. For five months the exhibition, curated by artist Virgil Marti from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, inhabited ICA’s big downstairs gallery. 6,200 people came to see it, 29 tours came through. The last few days, I spotted Virgil himself in there a bunch of times, talking with people, taking a last look.

On Monday, when I get in, the de-installers are already at work. Four yellow drill cases are lined up near the sculpture case where Claes Oldenburg’s “Miniature Drum Set,” Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s “Aesop,” and a marble “Head of St. John as a Boy” wait, their eyes elsewhere, pretending not to notice. Big wooden platforms and large pieces of Styrofoam lean against walls, and industrial lights cast unfamiliar shadows through which men in plaid shirts stride like cowboys, their drills casually dangling.
Miranda: Bust looking out

Photo: J. Katz

The tilt-top tables are the first to go. Their tops slide off to be wrapped separately, or else the whole piece is fitted into a wooden frame, shrouded in blankets, slipped into a crate. Table by table, the Dorothea Tanning erotic couch sculpture they’ve been shielding is exposed to view, but no one’s looking. Even the mirrors are going blind, lifted from the wall and covered, as Jews cover their mirrors at times of death. The carved wooden frames are labeled with bright orange identification tickets like toe tags.

In the next room—the bright white room with the marble busts displayed on fluffy poufs—two of the heads have already been crated. Braced like whiplash victims, they peer sadly out through wooden slats like children out of the back of a car at the end of summer camp. A few others, still in place, look on warily as a man in an orange T-shirt and purple Nitrile gloves changes his drill bit. The silver goose gleams murkily in its vitrine and is reflected in the great, gold-rimmed, fish-eye mirror still hanging on the wall. What else has this mirror reflected over the past five months? Arguments, illicit kisses, jealous artists, unhappy bankers solaced by art? And before that, back through the long centuries, what has it witnessed? Deaths, marriages, banquets, massacres? The long dull passage of empty days?

Perhaps, after all, like any eye that has watched so long without blinking, it is looking forward to its approaching rest.
Miranda: Empty Set Pieces Room

Photo: J. Katz

Set Pieces was made possible by support from the Katherine Stein Sachs CW’69 and Keith L. Sachs W’67 Guest Curator Program.