Invisible Man: At the Whitney, Fred Wilson Comments on Status of Museum Guards

NEW YORK—While the first four floors of the Whitney Museum are currently occupied by its biennial exhibit, the fifth floor features works from the institutions’s permanent collection. “Guarded View” by Fred Wilson stands sentry in the lobby of the fifth floor and consumes the space with its obvious brilliance and ironic context, challenging the very environment in which it is showcased.

The installation created in 1991 is composed of four black mannequins dressed as museum guards. The headless figures are wearing actual uniforms worn by guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney (second from the right).

“Guarded View,” 1991 (wood, painted steel, fabric). | Photo by Arts Observer

Wilson on “Guarded View”
Wilson’s experience working as a guard at his college museum in the early 1990s inspired him to create “Guarded View.” Here is how he describes its symbolism and intent (from the transcript of the musuem’s audio guide): “When you’re a guard, you are, kind of, on display like everything else. You’re standing there, you’re silent, people walk by you, but unlike the artwork, you are invisible. And that tension between the two is what really intrigued me and really made me want to make the work.

“On top of that, this work was really about having been to museums, going to museums for years, and noting that besides myself and the guards, and perhaps, the people in the food service or the maintenance, you know, we were the only African-Americans or people of color in the museum. And no one in the professional staff, who decides what gets put on display, how those things get described and discussed, what’s acquired by the museum—to me that was also very much a part of why I did this piece.

“I’ve had museum guards tell me that the people in the professional staff who worked side-by-side with them for thirty years, would walk in the in morning and not even say hello. And so, this piece was not only to make them visible for the visiting public, but also for the museum professionals as well.”

Whitney Guards on “Guarded View”
After viewing the installation, Arts Observer asked a few Black guards on duty what they thought of Wilson’s work. A woman said she liked the work, but that she didn’t feel invisible. After thinking for a moment, though, she mentioned that some visitors once asked her to pose with the mannequins so they could take a photo. She says she didn’t honor the request for two reasons: She didn’t want to get in trouble since she was on duty, but mostly because she was offended and felt like they didn’t consider her a real person. A pair of male guards at first didn’t want to respond. One just laughed nervously for several minutes, while the other said he couldn’t comment before finally admitting that he was fond of “Guarded View” and agreed with its sentiment.

More on Wilson’s Ouevre
Based in Brooklyn, Wilson represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2003. All of his art is thought-provoking. Rather than creating his own art from scratch, Wilson is known for reinterpreting existing works and objects in order to make a political, social or cultural comment. He worked for nearly two years on a public art installation in Indianapolis that was eventually cancelled at the end of last year because a select, vocal group in the African American community was averse to what they believed it symbolized.

His work examines how institutions and systems of display shape, interpret and determine cultural values and historic truths. Wilson often explores museum archives for inspiration as he did at the New-York Historical Society where he has juxtaposed busts of George Washington and Napoleon with slave shackles or repurposing found objects such as these Nefertiti heads which are a part of the permanent collection at the Brooklyn Museum.

Current Work
Wilson recently spoke at the New School about the Indianapolis project and said the experience, during which he engaged the local community repeatedly, hadn’t dissuaded him from considering another public project. And currently, he has a solo show at Pace Gallery, “Venice Suite: Sala Longhi and Related Works.”

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