Fred Wilson uses the museum as his palette

Studio 360
Fred Wilson

Most artists strive to make work worthy of hanging in a museum. But Fred Wilson’s art not only appears in museums, it’s about museums. “I’m an artist that uses the museum as my palette,” Wilson says.

A New York-born conceptual artist and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, Wilson has spent a lot of his career examining the way art and artifacts are chosen and exhibited. He wants everybody — the curators and the visitors — to reconsider how and why artwork makes its way into museums.

“I kind of found a lot of problematic issues within museum display,” he says. “You know, the collections are the collections, fantastic. But … how they wrote about them, how they talk about them, how they display them is extremely different from one museum to the other. And how people react to them, relate to them, is different because of how they talk about them.”

His controversial 1992 exhibition “Mining the Museum” was a career-defining work. In that show, Wilson took items from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society and displayed them in provocative juxtapositions, such as placing elegant silverwork next to slave shackles.

For a better understanding of Wilson’s fascination with museum display, Kurt Andersen met him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Wilson led him on a tour of some of the spots at the Met that he finds most intriguing: the studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, the transitional space between the Greek and Roman galleries and the African and Oceanic galleries, and Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting “Bashi-Bazouk.”

Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, ca. 1478–82. Designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini.
Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, ca. 1478–82. Designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini.Public domain
“Bashi-Bazouk” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1868-69.
“Bashi-Bazouk” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1868-69.Public domain

Fred Wilson’s new show is an exhibition of his giant chandeliers made from Murano glass. “Fred Wilson: Chandeliers” is on display at Pace Gallery in New York through October 12.

“No Way But This,” Fred Wilson, 2013.
“No Way But This,” Fred Wilson, 2013.Fred Wilson, courtesy Pace Gallery.
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