Rachel Cohen

Arriving at Beauford Delaney

Frederick Project: In Storage

In the last few months, I've twice gone into the storage facilities of a large museum – once at the Art Institute of Chicago, once at the Knoxville Museum of Art. In storage, you can see what curators and conservators and art handlers know: all the contingencies and arrangements that get cloaked with inevitability once a painting is on a wall. It's my idea that the collection I'm making here could be a kind of storage facility.

It is a special moment, when the door opens to a museum’s storage facility. You had taken the elevator down, walked along a hallway, concrete, underground – the sort of place which, if you’re me, you imagine getting stuck in, and think about whether you have enough water to survive until they realize you’re missing – and then you come to the locked door, and then the door opens.

You’re still in a concrete place, no windows, the light is usually not that good, either dark or fluorescent, but now your mind is entirely turned in a different direction, toward the metal racks, the rows of them. They might be ten feet high or fifteen feet. They are the library shelves of this place. What’s on them is not books, but paintings, watercolors, drawings. And you are to be given time to look at them, almost as you would have been able to do in an artist’s studio, fifty years ago, two hundred years ago.

The person in charge, the kind person who has walked down with you and whose stores these are to protect and care for, grasps a handle and, with a metal creak, the first tall rack slides into the open space. On it, there might be three paintings, or, in a different storage unit, fifteen, odd assortments. Some will be high up, and you can use a ladder. In another, a basement, perhaps they will bring you a conservation light, so that you can really see in the darkness. Whether what you have come to look at is a tiny scrap of chalk drawing or a huge piece of an installation, you are about to concentrate your seeing, all your senses. You are going to move to another state of awareness.

The kind person who has brought you to storage pulls up the wheeled ladder and puts the brakes on it, sets the light, stands back, and you are free to begin.