Creating new art from old; Incorporating one artist's work with another gives museum officials plenty to think about: Will the new entity enrich or erode the original?


A familiar figure sits in a gallery at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It is a cast of Auguste Rodin's famous -- perhaps most famous -- sculpture, "The Thinker." Frozen in bronze, it rests head on hand, elbow on knee; its muscles taut and corded with thought.

But look again. A man, made of black beads, dangles by his neck above the sculpture. His limp body swings gently, mouth slack, arms and legs akimbo. Words are etched with red beads into his torso: "coon," "nigger," "kike."

The lynched figure is part of a temporary installation titled "Hate Crimes/Head Injuries," created by Baltimore artist Joyce Scott, whose retrospective, "Kickin' It with the Old Masters," is on display through May 21. Scott has used Rodin's sculpture as part of a new artwork that makes a pointed and poignant commentary on contemporary stereotypes.

Many artists before Scott have created art in response to art or have formed dialogues between existing and newly fashioned works. Eight years ago, for example, New York artist Fred Wilson created an exhibition, titled "Mining the Museum," by juxtaposing objects from the Maryland Historical Society, such as silver tea sets or family portraits, with slave manacles.

The show, a collaboration between the historical society and The Contemporary Museum, was a sharp commentary on how museums form and display their collections and received wide critical acclaim.

The BMA installation is different from Wilson's in that Scott actually incorporates one artist's work of art into her own work -- albeit temporarily. It should be noted that "Hate Crimes" does not touch "The Thinker," but hangs above it.

Whenever one artist wants to use another's creation to fashion a new work of art, interesting questions arise: Is art sacrosanct?

Should it be preserved forever untouched no matter how remote the ideas that inhabit it may now seem? What was the artist thinking when he created the work? Under what circumstances is it allowable to co-opt another's art into a new work?

These are all questions the BMA curators and administrators considered.

"We felt open to the idea from the start, but we knew that we needed to be respectful to the existing artwork," says Doreen Bolger, BMA director. "A living artist is one thing, they can speak up for themselves, but with a deceased artist I think you have to be particularly respectful."

Scott, who as a child came to the museum with her mother, has fond memories of "The Thinker," which then was kept outside. "When I was little you could lean on it and sit on it. It was an icon for me. I remember knowing that it was a piece of art but also being able to touch it, and this was cool," she says.

The idea for "Hate Crimes" came to Scott when she and George Ciscle, who is guest curating the exhibition, toured the museum, looking for ways in which links could be made between Scott's work and the permanent displays.

The artist already was considering somehow using the image of lynching in her work. But when she came upon "The Thinker," Scott says, "I really saw this lynched figure above it, but I didn't really know why or what it meant."

Scott and Ciscle then asked the BMA administrators for permission to create an installation that would incorporate the Rodin work.

Beyond juxtaposing

Curators constantly manipulate the way in which we "see" art. They choose which objects are seen and where the artworks are viewed. They decide if Object A should hang on the wall next to Object B, or across the room near Objects C and D. Even the color of the gallery walls can influence how we experience art.

"Every time you place one work of art next to another you are changing the context for how you see the work," says Jan Howard, the BMA curator who worked with Ciscle on "Kickin' It with the Old Masters."

"The way we see art is very much affected by how and where we place it and what is around it. We do that all the time when we plan shows, but I felt this went a little beyond simply reflecting or juxtaposing."

Before the museum administrators could make a decision, they needed to understand fully what Scott wanted her work to mean. And they needed to know what Rodin intended when he created "The Thinker."

"Works of art are created with a particular point of view and artists don't expect that work of art to be put or made into another person's idea. Our thought was to protect an artist's original concept," Howard explains.

"So if you, the artist, have an idea that has impact on an other artist's work, we have to think about it a little more to see if makes sense. It's like stepping back right away to ask, 'would this work of art, used this way, make sense with the original concept?' "

The curators researched "The Thinker" and discovered that it originally was designed on a far smaller scale than the version we see at the BMA. And it was designed as the central figure above the portal of Rodin's monumental sculpture "The Gates of Hell," which was completed in 1917. The "Gates of Hell," in turn, was inspired by the "Inferno" in Dante's "The Divine Comedy." The BMA's "The Thinker" is a 79-inch bronze cast that was made between the years of 1904-1917.

We researched 'Inferno' and found that Dante's view of hell is not this fiery thing or place but this thing in man. That is an interpretation that's consistent with [that of] other writers of his time," says Howard.

The curators decided that Rodin intended his work as a depiction of man contemplating his propensity for self-destruction. Scott's installation, too, deals with this subject. "After doing the research we felt that there were so many direct parallels between Rodin's thinking and his figure and Joyce's thinking and her work that it justified her idea. We felt that Joyce wasn't making fun of 'The Thinker,' wasn't saying something different with it," Ciscle says.

A lot to ponder

The extraordinary popularity of "The Thinker" also was a consideration. How many times have we all seen cartoons, coffee mugs, mouse pads, even advertisements that co-opted Rodin's masterpiece? The BMA did not want to further erode the image of a work of art that has become so instantly recognizable. "We talked about the use of icons like 'The Thinker' or 'Mona Lisa' and how they are used in all kinds of ways that were never meant -- that weren't related to the artist's intention," says Ciscle.

"We decided that what Joyce meant was for people to look at 'The Thinker' and think beyond the jokes and stereotypes. He is pondering man's potential for self-destruction and that is what Joyce's installation is all about."

The artist, too, says the discussion about "Hate Crimes" caused her to think about her own work. How would she feel if someone wanted to use her art in another work?

"It really depends on who it is and how they are doing it," she says. "It was a great learning experience for me. The curator said, 'Hey, wait a minute. How would you like your art to be used by somebody else?' I don't think I would.

"Jan [Howard] was using her curatorial skills in a good way. She said, 'I won't say "yes" without looking into this and I won't say "no." Because I have the wish and the responsibility to support this artist even though he is dead. And I would do it for you if you were dead.' "

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad