Creating an exhibit from the ‘lyrical and epigrammatic’
One afternoon last fall, an exhibit began to take shape under the delicately arched dome of the Gates Classroom, in Sterling Memorial Library. For nearly 4 months, Chucho Martínez Padres ’23 had been immersed in the archive of George Kubler, PhD ’40, a professor of the history of art at Yale from 1938 to 1983 and a prominent scholar of pre-Columbian America and Ibero-American art. Now it was object selection day.
The previous April, Martínez Padres, an architecture major, had been selected for the Senior Exhibit Fellowship at Yale Library, which gives one Yale College senior each year the opportunity to curate an exhibit. The selection of objects was the first concrete step in giving his research a culminating form. (The exhibit, which will be displayed along Sterling’s Wall Street Exhibition corridor, opens May 1, with an opening reception on May 10.)
In the classroom, four large blank sheets of paper were laid out on a table, standing in for the four sections of an exhibition case. Other tables held archival boxes, as did a steel-wire rolling cart near an oversized fireplace. Martínez Padres, in a dark navy button down and American flag sneakers, pushed his hair off his forehead and peered into a box, searching for the next item to pull.
While the library has featured senior exhibits in the past, this was the first time the selected student had been given an additional five weeks over the summer for research, supported by a $4,200 stipend. During that time, Martínez Padres’s research had been complemented by workshops and tutorials on curatorship and conservation, and intensive support and mentorship from library and academic advisors. The fellowship continued into the academic year, with additional research and writing.
Early on, Martínez Padres had set out a hypothesis: “The research and curatorship of the exhibit will be based on the premise that it is not history in itself that matters, but our relationship to it.”
As he decided what objects would be displayed in the exhibition’s five cases, Martínez Padres was joined by his advisors: Kerri Sancomb, Yale Library’s exhibition production program manager; Jessica Quagliaroli, now chief archivist of the Yale Center for British Art but who worked with Martínez Padres in her previous role as architecture records archivist for Manuscripts and Archives; Surry Schlabs, director of undergraduate studies at the Yale School of Architecture; and Sarah Davis, lead library exhibits technician for Sterling.
The group gathered around to consider Case 2, its four sections now mocked up. They started with section 1, which presented materials around Kubler’s curation of a 1945 travelling exhibition for the National Gallery of Art called “The Figure of Man in Early American Art.” Among the items was a slide reproduction of one of the exhibition’s panels, showing the detailed stone figurine of a mother in childbirth, along with explanatory text.
“A lot of these slides go side by side, so should I have two that go side by side or have the cover and then another one?” asked Martínez Padres. “The text is so small. I don’t know if people will be able to read it.”
“I think it is better to have the cover, because that will engage the viewer more,” said Sancomb. “If the font is super-small they aren’t going to engage.”
“Yeah, it’s super, super small,” said Martínez Padres.
“Good lord!” Schlabs interjected. “People used to have better eyes.”
The group laughed and then Sancomb snapped her fingers. “Ok, let’s keep moving.”
Taking a risk
Martínez Padres first encountered Kubler through an essay the art historian had written about sixteenth-century monasteries in Central Mexico — buildings Martínez Padres, who was born in Mexico City, had become fascinated by. Martínez Padres was further drawn in by Kubler’s 1962 book, “The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things,” which Martínez Padres described as “lyrical and epigrammatic, and difficult to understand.”
“It’s not a holistic structure of analysis,” said Martínez Padres, who, after graduation, will take a position as an architectural designer at Steven Harris Architects in New York City. “He’s throwing out ideas about how we think of art history and what should be considered art.”
(In a later reflection on the book, Kubler said his readers fell into two, roughly equal, camps: “One group is eager to say that they don't understand a word of it, and there are artists and historians among them. Those of the other group claim that they understood it all on first reading, without difficulty… What I say speaks to some, but not to others. Some are ready and others are not.”)
Taking on Kubler’s archive was a bit risky, since its 111 boxes had been “minimally processed” by the library: the materials they contained were described at box-level, rather than folder-level. A box containing hundreds of pages of material — say, one that had been loosely organized by Kubler’s personal librarian in 1998 — might be described simply as containing “Misc. Shape of Time articles.”
“It’s kind of a shot in the dark,” said Martínez Padres. “I have no idea what’s going to be in there.”
Quagliaroli was crucial in the work, sorting the boxes Martínez Padres expressed interest in and creating folders of material so that he could more easily find relevant items. “Kubler’s work was very conceptual, which means his archive is also very conceptual,” Quagliaroli explained. “Kubler’s collection is all over the place because Kubler was all over the place.”
“For two days I wouldn’t find anything, and I’d be like, ‘I’m done with the archive, I’ve seen everything, why did I choose this archive that’s so theory heavy?’” Martínez Padres said. “And then I’d find one thing and I’d be like, ‘This is so cool, I love this.’ That would give me fuel to keep going.”
“A lot of this is unpublished, so you can’t find it anywhere else,” he added. “It feels so special — I can only see it because I’m right here.”
The loose organization of the boxes allowed for serendipitous discovery: a letter from the sculptor Richard Serra, just after receiving his MFA from Yale, asking for help securing funding for further study of painter Piero della Francesca’s use of color; a typewritten draft of one of Kubler’s essays, marked with pen and cut and reassembled, like a collage; a letter from the artist Robert Horvitz arranging a meeting, most of the paper filled with an intricate geometric design.
Perhaps most electrifying for Martínez Padres was a list of potential art for “The Shape of Time” — which was ultimately published without any illustration. Using that list, Martínez Padres created for his exhibit a kind of alternate-universe version of the book, pairing once-considered illustrations with drafts of Kubler’s treatise — adding visual insight into the often-inscrutable text.
“Chucho was really brave in his work,” said Sancomb, who works closely with the student selected for the fellowship, from the project’s inception to its completion. “He did a really beautiful job of using the archives to tell a story that was true to his original hope and thread of inquiry but made more accessible through history and place.”
In all, Martínez Padres looked through roughly 30 of the 111 boxes — a process that taught him something about his own approach to learning. “The first week I was asking the librarians, why can’t I find this online? Can you help me find it?” said Martínez Padres. “And they’d say, ‘Well, it probably isn’t.’ And I was like, ‘Wait – that’s a thing?’”
From esoteric to accessible
In the Gates Classroom that day, discussion had moved to Case 2’s third section, headed by a noir-ish photograph of a group of mostly men and one woman — dark suits, sunglasses — walking down a dusty road past a sleek 1950s sedan and, beyond a concrete barrier, what appeared to be a military installation.
“I just love this picture – it’s got that kind of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ vibe to it,” said Schlabs. “I’m just imagining a bunch of bad-ass art historians showing up for this conference on Indigeneity. I have no idea what’s going on there, but I want to know.”
With a text-heavy archive centered on letters, essay drafts, and reference material, Martínez Padres’s greatest challenge was finding visual elements — like the photograph — to draw in a general audience. He’d found another in the striking cover of “Idols Behind Altars,” a book by the 20th century scholar and writer Anita Brenner.
“It put forward a lot of ideas that Kubler brings back in that essay on Indigeneity,” Martínez Padres explained to the group. “And I just think it looks amazing.”
Sancomb agreed and offered some options for displaying it: “It’s at the Beinecke, we won’t be able to borrow the book for this space. We can photograph the cover and make a fake. Or, if it’s not super expensive, we might be able to buy a copy and add it to the circulating collection.”
Davis, the exhibits technician, who was meticulously organizing and documenting each step of the process, scribbled notes. “OK, let’s keep going,” said Sancomb.
The conversation continued, on a wide range of topics — Kubler’s role in redefining the treatment of ancient objects as art, rather than archaeological artifacts; the political imperatives that drove pan-Americanism in art and architecture during the post-war period; Kubler’s own determinedly apolitical treatment of Latin American art.
“We’ve talked a lot about how you’re going to make this fairly esoteric thing that you’re super energized about accessible,” said Sancomb. “I feel like you’ve really nailed it here.” Quagliaroli and Schlabs agreed. Case 2 was done.
If Martínez Padres felt a sense of accomplishment, he also knew there were three more hours to go that day, and another long session the next. From there, Davis would identify where the explanatory text would go and finalize word counts for each spot. Then it would be up to Martínez Padres, over the next four months, to fill in the context — why this photograph? What’s the import of this essay?
“Now you have the hard job of just writing everything,” said Sancomb.
Martínez Padres laughed. “I know, terrifying.”