The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century Art, by Matthew Kirkpatrick. Cincinnati, Ohio: Acre Books, March 2019. 312 pages. $19.00, paper.
After spending a couple decades pretty bored with art museums, I’ve fallen in love with these spaces in the last couple years. I think the change occurred because my comprehensive exams at the University of Utah were focused on aesthetic theory and interdisciplinarity, and so I emerged from those intensive studies with a broadened view of things, speaking new language that allowed the galaxy of a museum’s referentialities to light up previously unwired parts of my brain. Lance Olsen, who was both my mentor and one of Matthew Kirkpatrick’s at Utah, also opened an exhibition in 2018 in Berlin in collaboration with his wife Andi called There’s No Place Like Time, which invited viewers to think of the gallery as a potential space for a novel to inhabit.
I read the first half of Kirkpatrick’s The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art on an airplane to Louisville for an artist residency associated with the release of my first story collection. I’d recently been treated to the surreal experience of seeing my book walk down a runway in the form of a gown at a show called KMAC Couture thanks to the ingenious work of Andrea Hansen, so I was thinking of prose in deliriously 3-dimensional terms. Like Steven Millhauser’s novella Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846), Kirkpatrick’s book primarily takes the form of descriptions, written by a shadowy and temperamental curator, of paintings, sculptures, films, and dollhouses in the eponymous museum. This novel is the Pale Fire of paintings, and the museum—a small, privately-funded institution in a town noted mostly for its shovel factory—is the unreliable narrator version of exhibition spaces. The objectivity we would expect in such labels is replaced by unsoftened opinions, a catalogue of strange deaths, and an accumulation of abrupt narrative scraps. These glimpses add up to create a larger view of the Seagraves’ circle of eccentric friends as well as the tragedy that struck the family’s lives: the disappearance of their daughter, Kendall Seagrave, on a boating trip when she was a young girl.
The museum features several portraits of Kendall, all of which her mother found unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons. Her many dollhouses are on display in the museum, and her affection or scorn for them is likewise a point of emphasis. One of a host of plot points that could either be magical realism or the curator’s delusion/fabrication is his visitation by the ghost of the fictitious artist Iris Babbitt and their subsequent love affair; overall, one of the novel’s delightful guessing games is trying to figure out if the curator is daft or smart, insane or just fucking with museum-goers. Interstitial prose vignettes tell the story of one such spectator, an old woman seeing the works of art for the first time in many years—another of the novel’s games will be our attempts to fit the old woman into the narrated escapades of the Seagrave family. The poignancy of her meditations on regrets of the past and the approach of her final moments on earth provide a profound contrast for the novel’s more comic material. The descriptions of Kendall’s sometimes sadistic interactions with her dolls parallel the curator’s flippant accounts of the artists’ peculiar deaths, revealing his curatorial approach to lived experiences and posing a critique of such a tendency toward life/art conflation.
While reading this novel I had the opportunity to visit the Speed Museum in Louisville. Likely as part of an attempt to draw a wider audience and revivify stale genres, the museum’s real curators added bits of verbal color to the descriptions, attempting, for example, to whisk museum-goers back to the time of the artist via “Imagine…” I found it mildly distracting, this dissonance that arose in the genre conventions of the labels, as if some other voice, some other motive, was cropping up between the painting and the contextual information I sought. Kirkpatrick’s novel marshals such dissonance to great effect, mixing the language associated with visual art aesthetics with that of recollection and subjectivity. The temperamental curator, feeling at turns embattled with and abandoned by the museum’s board of trustees, does little to veil his opinions about the artistic tastes of the Seagrave family, the quality of spectators’ potential interpretations of the art, and the artistic worthiness of certain artists included in the collection. His description of the fictitious Percy Shanks also reveals his tendency to lose track of the topic at hand:
Shanks, a notorious asshole, still inspires awe through subtle shifts in tone and luminescence and the collision of form and color smeared across substrates so expansive we can’t see anything else. Viewers may ask why we devote so much gallery space to this man-sized turd, this womanizer, this art-world climber, but I cannot answer them because I am too busy at my desk, ignoring a phone call or an email to gaze through the skylight at a dead tree limb or a squirrel about to gut a walnut.
He seems particularly scornful of the artists who in life were Iris Babbitt’s lovers—and we would have good reason to suspect that Shanks’s womanizing extended to Babbitt as well.
The novel includes a number of genuinely fascinating ideas for works of visual art, as if Kirkpatrick, perhaps lacking the time or the means to actualize his ideas, was still able to give them a sort of life via description, a solution reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s famous quote about his story collection Ficciones: “The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary.” One example of an intriguing but difficult-to-realize idea in the novel is the invented artistic movement Abstract Futurism, “an obscure movement centered around a dozen artists working in post-World War I western Pennsylvania and Ohio who sought to depict the future as it might have been predicted in the distant past.”
Running from January 26th to March 29th, 2020, the DAAP Gallery is hosting a show in the Reed Gallery on the University of Cincinnati’s campus in collaboration with Acre Books called Selections from the Seagrave Museum, for which visual artists from around the world realized certain works of art described in Kirkpatrick’s novel. For folks unable to attend the show, Selections from Selections are viewable online, and they enhance the novel’s moments of comic absurdity. For example, in Kirkpatrick’s description of the fictitious Geraldine Andrews’s “The Leather Menders,” the joke might be lost that the curator calls it “entirely abstract” while then going into an absurd level of detail; seeing Fred Smilde’s painting alongside the description, however, leaves no room for missing the joke. Kirkpatrick’s novel and the accompanying exhibition are examples of what Marjorie Perloff would call “differential forms,” works of art that can exist in various parallel mediums, and together they offer a considerable elevation of notions of novelistic hybridity and an expansion of the interdisciplinary possibilities between literary and visual arts. It’s also a great chance for museum-shy readers like my previous self to look beyond the page and behold the interconnectedness of all artistic disciplines.
Joe Sacksteder is the Director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts. His books are Make/Shift (Sarabande Books) and Driftless Quintet (Schaffner Press). His album of Werner Herzog sound poems, Fugitive Traces, is available from Punctum Books. He wrote this review under COVID-19 quarantine.