“I’m trying to avoid gushing about this film,” Virgil Marti says. He’s talking about Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), the last in a series of movies being screened in conjunction with Virgil’s exhibition, Set Pieces, curated from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), which closes at ICA on Sunday. The exhibition’s staged assemblies of objects have been influenced by these films in various ways, and one of the pleasures of the screenings is listening to Virgil explain how: getting a peek into the way his mind works.
Close to a hundred people turned out at International House’s excellent theater, where ICA provided ribs, cornbread, and Nashvillian Goo Goo Clusters (mentioned in the film) in addition to the movie. Afterwards there was a discussion, led by Penn film professor Kathy DeMarco, that vividly demonstrated how many people out there love Nashville as much as Virgil does. I have seldom been in an audience as passionate and knowledgeable as this one was about Altman, people raising their hands to cite his more obscure films, to fill us in on the film projects the director was almost offered but then wasn’t, and to quote (verbatim) from reviews, like Pauline Kael writing about Nashville’s “love of the supreme juices of everyday life.”
Many of the other films in this series (The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, L’Avventura, Citizen Kane), had very specific influences on Set Pieces, inspiring a particular vignette or the inclusion of a particular piece. With Nashville the influence seems more general. “There’s a car wreck at the beginning that throws everyone together,” Virgil says—meaning singers, groupies, stars, political operatives, weirdos, ordinary folks—and Set Pieces is certainly an exercise in disparate things being thrown together.
But no, not exactly thrown. Placed, maybe, or assembled: positioned, arranged, ordered, organized. Organize is the verb for what curators do—they organize exhibitions. When I first came to ICA I made the mistake of using the word design, and I was nicely corrected. Designing, I was told, was for interior decorators. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (as Jerry Seinfeld might have said), only it doesn’t imply the intellectual work that is so much of a curator’s job, and maybe the part they want to make sure we keep in mind.
Of course Virgil, as an artist, “organized” his exhibition differently than another kind of curator would have. Trekking through the vast steppes of the PMA’s storage to make his selections, he wasn’t choosing objects because of their significance in the ouevre of the maker, or because of their provenance; he was selecting the pieces that spoke to him.
Well, or maybe that’s exactly what all curators do. So maybe the difference is in the way the objects, once selected, were arranged: in a series of displays suggesting stories: the little bronze animals casting their enormous shadows, the decorous tilt-top tables screening the erotic couch, and so on.
But no. I argued here just the other week that telling stories is exactly what curators do.
So maybe the difference between Virgil’s show (which is also sometimes described as an installation) and a more conventional exhibition lies in the way the story is told. Just as Robert Altman revels in presenting overlapping stories and including all kinds of different characters from many walks of life, so Virgil offers us a fabulous range of things: busts and benches, pitchers and paintings, mirrors and models. They shouldn’t go together but they do, because the hand that has arranged them is so artful and so shrewd, and because the vision that has assembled them is so open to all kinds of aesthetics, techniques, approaches, styles, and at the same time so singular that it can synthesize all this stuff, making of it not a jumble but a marvelous teeming order.
Before the screening, Virgil said, “I think of this film as doing what history painting would be doing today if film weren’t here doing it.” I’m starting to think about Set Pieces, then, as a history installation of the American decorative arts—though I don’t think that was Virgil’s idea, exactly, nor are all the objects here American (though most of them are). Still, there’s something here: some sense that the exhibition explores—as the film explores—the weird, gorgeous, diverse, sometimes perverse, contradictory expansiveness that is America.
Though it’s best enjoyed on the big screen, you can see Nashville on DVD any time. Set Pieces, though, is only on view through Sunday, February 13. Don’t miss it.
Set Pieces was made possible by support from the Katherine Stein Sachs CW’69 and Keith L. Sachs W’67 Guest Curator Program.