Sensitivity led to removal of `terrorist' art, BMA says

Museum will rehang painting after adding explanatory placard

September 18, 2001|By Michael Scarcella | Michael Scarcella,SUN STAFF

Sensitivity concerns prompted the decision to remove Christopher Wool's "Terrorist" piece from the Baltimore Museum of Art's contemporary wing Friday morning, museum administrators said yesterday.

Responding to questions about the removal Friday morning of Wool's painting - acquired for the collection in 1990 - the museum issued a statement that the action was taken "out of respect to visitors' sensitivities."

The museum intends to provide "new interpretation" for patrons when the piece is reinstalled tomorrow alongside an explanatory text placard.

"The events of last week have given this work a new context," museum director Doreen Bolger said in a written statement. "The work hasn't changed, but our perception of it has."

Anne Mannix, museum spokeswoman, said the placard will be a small text panel detailing Wool's motive for the vertical alkyd, acrylic and aluminum piece, hanging 96 by 64 inches with the word terrorist in three fragmented lines - "TER," "ROR" and "IST" - in large black stenciled letters.

"We took it down to prepare a wall text taking into consideration recent events," Mannix said. Asked whether the panel will contain information on the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, she replied: "I am not sure."

Helen Molesworth, curator of the museum's contemporary gallery who is responsible for the interpretative text, was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

However, the museum issued a statement from Molesworth about Wool's provocative painting, saying in part that "the viewer has to think about how language works and letters may or may not make sense."

Will E. Hipps, the director of exhibitions at the Maryland Institute College of Art, agreed with the museum's whisking away of Wool's piece.

"We are in a new paradigm, a new reality," said Hipps, who teaches a graduate-level course at the school. "I think we see [the word terrorist] radically different today. We are feeling it. We are having a visceral, emotional response to it."

Museum guards said the painting visibly upset patrons of all ages Thursday, when they began to trickle back into the museum.

No reaction the next day

The crowd was sparse Wednesday, the day after the attack, and any reaction to the piece went unnoticed.

Asked why no panel or public statement was made regarding the removal of Wool's artwork, Mannix said that the museum "acted in haste" in pulling down the painting. She added that museum officials have been preoccupied with a new exhibition, which opened Sunday, called "Antioch: The Lost Ancient City."

The failure to tell the public earlier about why the painting was removed was criticized yesterday by Albert S. Sangiamo, chairman of Maryland Institute's drawing department.

"I am not too offended by them taking it down," Sangiamo said. "I am offended they didn't openly admit they were committing an act of censorship.

"This thing goes on all the time," Sangiamo added. "It makes it newsworthy because it strips away the liberal mask of censorship. They use this fancy language to mask censorship."

The museum denied censorship was the impetus.

Bolger said Sunday that Wool's piece "requires explanation and preparing people to see it."

Sangiamo said this position raises questions about the role of a museum in presenting artwork.

"Why should this piece require explanation?" he said. "Why aren't other pieces explained?"

Mannix said that there are two schools of thinking in the art world: "People can experience the work on their own, or the museum can demystify it."

A continuing process

The inclusion of text in the contemporary gallery is part of a continuing process with many of the paintings, Mannix said.

"It's been part of [Molesworth's] plan all along," the spokeswoman said. "I don't think it takes away from the viewer's experience. They can choose to read the text."

But Sangiamo said Wool's painting never should have been displayed at the museum in the first place.

"I would have taken it down, given my aesthetic judgment - not censorship," Sangiamo said.

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