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David and Art - Curating Silence

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

When brought together by skilled hands individual works of art can say things together they can’t say by themselves.

I had never heard of photographer Robert Adams until a couple of weeks ago when I wandered into an exhibit of his work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The exhibit is entitled “American Silence,” and it’s powerful and a bit intriguing. The photographs themselves were striking. They showed a mix of scenes from small towns, suburbs, and landscapes from the west. The commonality was emptiness. The title of the exhibit was what you experienced from the cumulative effect of looking at these pieces—the isolation that seems just under the surface in American culture and society. It was effective.

The curators explain that through his photographs, Adams shows “the wonder and fragility of the American landscape, its inherent beauty, and the inadequacy of our response to it.” The show explores “the reverential way he looks at the world around him and the almost palpable silence of his work.”

To photograph, wrote Susan Sontag in 1973, is to confer importance. It’s impossible, she said, to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects. So, I was left wondering a bit. What was Adams trying to highlight as important in these pictures?

But I was leaving someone out. Someone critical to my experience. What began to strike me as I was looking at these photographs is that these were selections from the entire catalog of Adams’ works. These all could be in other exhibits. They live in other museums and collections. They had to be brought here on purpose to be together.

That got me thinking of how important the work of curators is. Curators take disparate pieces of art and arrange them in a way that says something of coherent substance to us. The works themselves don’t necessarily say the same things individually that they can be made to say when they’re brought together a certain way.

Curators certainly aren’t responsible for making art but they’re often responsible for how we experience it, and therefore they shape our reactions to it. I hadn’t thought of this before I saw the Adams exhibit but it was a perfect example of it.

The subject here, thanks to the curators, is in the exhibition’s title: Silence. This exhibit foregrounds silence—a tricky thing to do unless maybe you’re John Cage. It ushers us into the complexities we can perceive when silence takes over. The silence in each of these photographs is confrontational in our cacophonous culture. No one is shouting at you here, but the impact is even greater.

“American Silence” is up in the west building of the National Gallery of Art until October 2. If you happen to be in DC, don’t miss it.