Art historian and curator Mike Maizels is the Mellon New Media Curator and Lecturer at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. He was previously a predoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.
As a PhD student, Maizels visited ICA’s archive to learn about Barry Le Va’s major exhibition Accumulated Vision, organized by Chief Curator Ingrid Schaffner in 2005. He has been developing his doctoral dissertation into the book Barry Le Va: The Sculptural Aftermath (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
ICA spoke with Maizels about his experience in our archive…
By far the biggest stage Barry Le Va ever had was his ICA exhibition in 2005. That show, Accumulated Vision, also fostered the best writing that’s ever been done about him. The literature in the ICA catalogue was a primary resource for getting started with my book.
I did look through the physical archive at ICA—it was great to see installation views from the eighties, and to read a long, unpublished interview with Le Va. I reviewed all the material, right back to the sixties. But when you’re researching a living artist, the archive is not necessarily just the hanging files, boxes, and binders of slides that come out of the woodwork. It’s also about institutional memory. The sensibility of Ingrid Schaffner, who curated Accumulated Vision, and the way that show was set up, were absolutely pivotal for me. Word from Ingrid as a historical source and the work that she did in establishing Le Va’s exhibition history and bibliography—I definitely stood on Ingrid’s shoulders.
Accumulated Vision was the primary source for the last chapter of my book, which is about Le Va’s curatorial practice—the ways he remakes his works over time, these ephemeral constellations of material. The key concept in Le Va’s work is this idea of the art as an aftermath. He is a great reader of detective novels—especially Sherlock Holmes—and started thinking of his works not as presences, but rather as crime scenes, where the viewer could reconstruct what was supposed to have happened there. In this way, the ICA exhibition became a living archive.
There’s a similar process involved in being an art historian, heading into the archive—or into the exhibition as archive—to try and piece things back together. Psychoanalysis is interesting to bring up in this context, in terms of its strange relationship to the mystery novel. In the architecture of the mystery novel, which predates psychoanalysis, there’s a crime at the beginning that has to be uncovered by the detective at the very end. This parallels the process of psychoanalysis—especially the encounter with the primal scene—where something private happens between two people, the traces of which are left as an aftermath. There’s a witness who can’t figure out what’s happening. The detective or analyst pieces together the evidence in order to recover what truly must have happened.
This reminds me of visiting Le Va’s studio archive. I interviewed him many times. His work is so much about ephemerality that he isn’t worried about conservation. His stuff seemed organized by entropy—it’s in a musty basement, documents are crumpled, and things are haphazardly labelled (or not). In these conditions, the meaning of the archive is not neutral.
I said to him, “You’ve created a big headache for future art historians.”