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Review of “Curating Consciousness Mysticism and the Modern Museum” by Marcia Brennan

Curating Consciousness: Mysticism and the Modern Museum

by Marcia Brennan
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010
304 pp., illus. 60 b/w, 8 col. Trade $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01378-9.

Reviewed by George Shortess
Bethlehem, PA 18020, USA


I am an artist, and not a curator, but an artist with a long-standing interest in the place of consciousness, mysticism and related non-physical processes in the visual arts.  My own art has been much influenced by these ideas. These comments then are from one artist’s point of view.

Because of the general nature of the title, I was a bit disappointed that the book focused so heavily on one curator/critic, John Sweeny.  However, his work is certainly central to any discussion of mysticism in the modern museum, as the author very carefully develops. It is, therefore, a necessary part of any understanding Western 20th Century art. It would appear that a book that would discuss a variety of curatorial approaches to the same artists is another enterprise.

With the focus on Sweeney, the author not only clearly presents his underlying assumptions and the ways his approach plays out as he curates exhibitions by various artists but she also includes the museum culture in which these took place and with which they often clashed.

Chapter 1 is a general introduction to John Sweeny, his ideas and career.  Chapter 2 describes his writings, teachings, curatorial activities and collaborations with Alfred Barr that provided the basis for his curatorial approach. The remaining chapters deal in great detail with the approach Sweeney took when exhibiting particular artists as director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.  While the book is well researched and footnoted as a scholarly text should be, it is written in a way that is accessible for the informed non- specialist.

One of the central themes of the book and of Sweeny’s work is the concept of coincidientia opposiorum, the unification of opposites, “the saying the unsayable.” The author develops this very difficult theme clearly as it is involved in Sweeney’s curatorial practice. She approaches it in a number of different ways, which provides a framework for appreciating the subtleties involved.  Likewise the concepts of mysticism and the spiritual in the visual arts are clearly and amply discussed as Sweeny developed these ideas both theoretically and in his curatorial work. There are many quotes from Sweeney, but they are interwoven in ways to provide the essence and context of the concepts involved.

As an artist, the book helped me a great deal.  I would certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in gaining a more thorough understanding of 20th Century Western art.

Last Updated 2 November 2010

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