Alabaster busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt in Messerschmidt and Modernity at the Getty Center

The Vexed Man (detail), after 1770, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Alabaster, 15 ½ in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008.4. Foreground: Just Rescued from Drowning (detail), after 1770. Alabaster, 15 3/4 in. high. Private collection, Belgium

No amount of preparation over the life of an exhibition–from conception to development through implementation and finally installation–prepares you for the moments of surprise and delight as objects arrive from lenders and are uncrated and placed in the galleries. The days leading up to the opening have an atmosphere of heightened tension and excitement.

For years I’ve been working on developing the idea of, and selecting the objects in, the new exhibition Messerschmidt and Modernity and the book that accompanies it, but the physical exhibition came together in a little over a week of (mostly) action-packed days.

Day 1: Set-Up

We place the pedestals for the contemporary sculptures and Messerschmidt’s Character Heads and work out the distances between objects using cutout full-size mock-ups of the artworks. Short (but exciting) day!

Day 2: Waiting, and More Waiting

Nothing’s happening in the galleries today while we patiently await the arrival of the first couriers and loans. Not every day of an installation is eventful…

Day 3: The Crates Arrive!

The first courier arrives from Budapest in the late afternoon, and crates are housed in safe overnight storage. In the galleries that day? Again, nothing. My anticipation is increasing!

Day 4: The Suspense of Unpacking, and the First Day of Install

It’s an early day as installation of artworks begins to really take off. First, I collect a very jet-lagged European courier from the hotel, and later, I supervise the unpacking of crates and the movement of sculptures from the mountmaking studio to the galleries for installation.

Uncrating is a gripping process. Scores of screws and bolts are unfastened—the first side of the crate is lifted off, sometimes revealing the object itself. With some of the shipping crates, there is a glimpse of second internal crates, like geometric Matryoshka dolls. Then, the moment of revelation! How has the object fared in shipping? Any damage? Changes in condition? Now follows the laborious task of condition-checking by the registrar against photographs of the object before packing and crating. Sometimes the objects arrive without pedestal attachments, so the time-consuming process of constructing custom-made mounts for these three-dimensional objects begins, since we are in an earthquake zone. Working with sculpture in Los Angeles, I’ve often fantasized about being reborn as a “flat art” curator, where installation often means hanging a painting, drawing or photograph from a rail, or screwing a hook into a wall.

Self-Portrait after Messerschmidt / Tony Bevan in the galleries of Messerschmidt and Modernity at the Getty Center

Self-Portrait after Messerschmidt, 2010, Tony Bevan. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 38 3/16 x 39 in. Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Artwork © Tony Bevan

The first objects are installed—Bruce Nauman’s Holograms and the smaller of the two Tony Bevan Self-Portraits after Messerschmidt—and suddenly the exhibition seems to be a reality! Bevan’s painting hangs like a square of deepest black velvet night sky, with a Character Head resting on its lower edge like a striped moon.

Day 5: The First Character Heads

Today the first of Messerschmidt’s Character Heads are installed: Childish Weeping and Quiet Peaceful Sleep. Immediately we are able to discern the differences in their metal surfaces—one seems shiny, smooth and dark, while the other is a lighter, duller gray, but is equally beautiful. Surface appearance often relates to the relative percentages of metals in their specific alloys. For instance, Childish Weeping is made from an alloy of 52.6% tin and 46.1% lead, while Quiet Peaceful Sleep is 97.3% tin, 1.34% copper, and 1% lead. The heads with higher percentages of tin have a characteristic delamination, or peeling, which can be seen under the layer of varnish that has been applied to Quiet Peaceful Sleep.

Delamination is even visible on Messerschmidt’s A Strong Man (82.1% tin, 17.7% lead), whose surface is probably closest of all the heads in the exhibition to its original 18th-century appearance. Interestingly, this head also retains remnants of the original label from the 1793 exhibition on the front of its chest.

A Strong Man / Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

A Strong Man, after 1770, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Tin-lead alloy, 17 1/2 in. high. Private Collection

Day 6: The Surprise of Scale

Tony Cragg’s massive sculpture Mental Landscape requires elaborate rigging and hydraulic equipment for installation since it is close to 900 pounds! Its irregular shape and fragile surfaces cause us to hold our breath for most of the installation process, and release a deep sigh of relief as it is safely secured to its base.

Installation of Tony Cragg's sculpture Mental Landscape

Installation of Tony Cragg’s massive sculpture Mental Landscape. Collection of Tony Cragg. Artwork © Tony Cragg

Mental Landscape / Tony Cragg in the galleries of Messerschmidt and Modernity at the Getty Center

Mental Landscape, 2007, Tony Cragg. Jesmonite, 47 1/4 x 67 1/4 x 47 1/4 in. Collection of Tony Cragg. Artwork © Tony Cragg. On gallery wall left: Self-Portrait after Messerschmidt, 2009, Tony Bevan. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 104 x 90 1/4 in. Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Artwork © Tony Bevan. On gallery wall at right, two photographs by Pierre Picot. Left: “With Grief locked up inside the mouth turns into a steel trap, shut against all pain…no wonder that the cheek freezes into a smooth plane creased by hope of release,” 1998. Right: Untitled (The Difficult Secret and A Powerful Man), 1998. Both works collection of Pierre Picot, artwork © Pierre Picot

Scale also becomes a reality when all you’ve worked with for months are small images with exactly identical dimensions, making all objects conform to one size and format. Thus Tony Bevan’s monumental Self-Portrait after Messerschmidt seems even more monumental in relation to the other objects in the gallery than it had appeared in the design plans, even though it was to scale. The graphic, looming head based on Messerschmidt’s sinister Beak Head, has an even more disturbing effect on the viewer. And Cindy Sherman’s clowns loom even larger and more psychedelic than in catalogue illustrations, partly because of her use of vivid color, but also because of the size of her “jocular” figures. We have dubbed this wall the “colossal color wall.”

Self-Portrait after Messerschmidt / Tony Bevan in the galleries of Messerschmidt and Modernity at the Getty Center

Self-Portrait after Messerschmidt, 2009, Tony Bevan. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 104 x 90 1/4 in. Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Artwork © Tony Bevan

Day 7: Confronting the Physical Object

The installation of Arnulf Rainer’s Messerschmidt Series panels in a strict grid underscores the exaggerated expressionism of these startling images. The artist has scored the paper with violent gestures and scrawled black, red, and blue paint over the eyes and mouths of photographs of the Character Heads, literally effacing and obscuring their details.

Seeing the Rainer series reminds me again of the centrality of the physical object to our work in museums. Even in this age of digital photography and zoomify capabilities, no number of digital images will replace the experience of seeing a work of art in person. The violence of Rainer’s approach to the paper, the radiant color he added in bright daubs, and the integral role Rainer’s handmade frames play in the work, were totally lost in the photographic images we had been working with for months.

Messerschmidt Serie / Arnulf Rainer in the galleries of Messerschmidt and Modernity at the Getty Center

Messerschmidt Series, 1976–77, Arnulf Rainer. Overpainted photographs mounted on wood panel, each 23 1/2 x 18 1/4 in. Private collection. Artwork © Arnulf Rainer

Day 8: Listening to the Character Heads’ Conversations

The Ill-Humored Man from the Louvre and Just Rescued from Drowning from a private collection are the final Character Heads to be installed, and now the “conversations” that we have planned finally begin. The Ill-Humored Man’s tightly closed eyes and the rectangular strip obscuring his mouth (perhaps one of Viennese pseudo-scientist Franz Anton Mesmer’s magnets?), hint at notions of interiority, also echoed in The Difficult Secret. The ominous mirth of Childish Weeping is visually paired with A Strong Man, while the pairing of Just Rescued from Drowning and the Getty’s The Vexed Man allows us to understand Messerschmidt’s virtuosic use of alabaster as a sculptural medium.

Just Rescued from Drowning / Franz Xaver Messerschmidt in the galleries of Messerschmidt and Modernity at the Getty Center

Just Rescued from Drowning, after 1770, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Alabaster, 15 3/4 in. high. Private collection, Belgium. Background, left: Belisarius, about 1785, Jean-Baptiste Stouf. Marble, 13 5/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005.19. Background, right: The Vexed Man, after 1770, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Alabaster, 15 ½ in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008.4

Alabaster is soft and therefore easily cut when freshly quarried, which allowed Messerschmidt to carve complicated hairstyles. The undulating waves of hair in The Vexed Man contrast with the linearity of the lank strands of hair in Just Rescued from Drowning, as if showing us a “before” and “after” of the same man. For the other Character Heads in the gallery, made of metal alloys, Messerschmidt used a punching tool in rhythmic parallel lines to hint at the stubble on the shaved heads, especially noticeable on the bull-necked A Hypocrite and a Slanderer.

Day 9: The Expression Lab

We’re ahead of the game: the show is nearly completely installed a day early. Still to come is the placement of labels and the completion of the Expression Lab, where visitors can experiment with their own faces by trying to mimic some of the Character Heads. There’s a photo booth to capture the grimaces and share them with the world. The scholarly intent of this seemingly frivolous activity is to show how difficult it is to form Messerschmidt’s expressions. Many of these heads are composites made from a selection of eyes, noses, and mouths that Messerschmidt repeated, pulled, and distorted to their expressive limits. In reality, your facial muscles do not always allow you to pull these faces—but we encourage you to try!

A series of photographic pairings in this gallery further demonstrates how Messerschmidt has “mixed and matched” these individual features, as any artist would—it is called artistic license. Even though Messerschmidt professed that he was attempting to depict all 64 human expressions (the total number, according to the sculptor), as a true artist of the European Enlightenment, he was also a skilled craftsman who knew all too well how to employ artistic artifice to achieve his goals.

The exhibition Messerschmidt and Modernity runs through October 14, 2012, at the Getty Center. I hope you enjoy coming eye to eye with the Character Heads and their monumental contemporary counterparts.