Curating 9/11

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Photo by Brian Chang.

On Sept. 1, a new show opened without fanfare in a hallway off the lobby of the Yale University Art Gallery. A second exhibit quietly launched less than a week later in the lower level of the Haas Family Arts Library, framed by library stacks and tables of working students.

The exhibits, “Remembering 9/11” and “The Book as Memorial,” commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by focusing on artists’ personal responses to the tragedy. Despite the challenge of organizing an exhibit that gives due respect to the event, Yale’s two shows approach the tragedy from different angles.

Joshua Chuang, Assistant Curator of Photographs at the gallery and the curator of the installation “Remembering 9/11,” said that he organized the show without the intention of making any broad statements or espousing a curatorial theory about the nature of post-9/11 art.

“I guess you could say it was my personal response,” he said.

Drawing from the works of four artists, three-fourths of which already belonged to the gallery’s permanent collection, “Remembering 9/11” focuses not only on art directly influenced by 9/11, but also on pieces Chuang said he felt resonated with the event. For example, he has included a pre-9/11 painting of the view from artist Yvonne Jacquette’s Manhattan apartment building — a sight that was altered completely by the attacks.

Chuang said that he knew of few New York institutions that had plans for commemorative 10th anniversary exhibitions; New Yorkers, he said, are not ready to think about the event in a museum setting. Two hours away in New Haven, he said, the subject is easier to address.

Across the street from the gallery at the Haas Family Arts Library, Assistant Director for Special Collections Jae Rossman has organized the library’s own show, “The Book as Memorial,” in a way that she said she felt was sensitive but not overly emotional.

The exhibition is comprised of a collection of artists’ books created in response to 9/11, which Rossman said she began to acquire on behalf of the library a year after the attacks. At the 5-year anniversary, Rossman considered putting together a show but ultimately decided against it, feeling like Chuang that the memories were still too fresh. Ten years, she said, felt like a more appropriate time to begin a discussion.

“We are starting to step back and look at it as academic,” she said. “This is a place where you can come to study; it’s a resource for scholars later.”

This is not to say that the artistic responses to 9/11 have stagnated: one of the books in the show was created so recently that it has yet to be bound.

“People are still making work, responding to this event,” Rossman said. “There are people who gathered their information, photographs and notes at the time [of the attacks] and then didn’t turn them into a more finished product until much later.”

But Yale is not the only university to commemorate 9/11 at its art institutions. The Princeton University Art Museum opened its own exhibition July 23, called “The Life and Death of Buildings.” Curator Joel Smith said he took a deliberately oblique approach to 9/11, seeking to draw the event into a longer-term relationship between photography and changing architectural landscapes across the world. The collection, which he began organizing in 2008 with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 on his mind, combines architectural photographs with comics, drawings and sculpture.

MoMA PS1, the museum affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art, is among the major New York art galleries to open an exhibition commemorating 9/11. Its show, “September 11,” will open Sunday.

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