The Magic of Reorganization: Moving Things Around

by Diana Ecker on June 30, 2013

I tend to think that everything Jerry Saltz writes is tremendous. I just ordered one of his books and can’t wait for it to arrive. He writes about art, and I have no particular background in art history at all. But the way he writes is just extraordinary, as is the way he frames things (no art pun intended).

In a recent piece, he wrote about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s transformation of its modern European painting collection, which was accomplished not by gutting what they had and starting over, but by rethinking and, in part, reorganizing what they had:

The ­museum has rethought and reordered its premier collection of premodern European paintings, added or moved over 700 artworks (up from the roughly 450 that were on view a few months ago), and carved out new galleries from spaces formerly devoted to rotating exhibitions. The results are profound.

sawhorse_deskAs I’ve written about before, I believe that the way that information is categorized can be extremely powerful in contributing to the meaning of that information — and how we come to understand the person who categorized it.

Here, Saltz describes how rearranging paintings allows a remarkable progression to emerge:

The new installation reveals itself in complex, unforced ways like a cosmos of multitudes blossoming before our ­astonished, grateful eyes. I saw indefinable essences I’d never seen before on each trip.

(These excerpted sentences don’t come close to doing justice to the full piece — when you’re done here, I would suggest going there to read it!)

Writer John McPhee has talked about a different kind of spatial organization and reorganization: the process of turning vast quantities of notes into the outline for a longer piece of writing. In “Structure” (The New Yorker, January 14, 2013), he describes an essential process that takes place on a key work surface:

“When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards….All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood — thirty-two square feet — on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the the free-floating ones would make the piece….I kept an eye on them all afternoon.”

He goes on to describe the process of moving the cards around, more obvious ones first, until eventually they all found a home.

Any piece of creative work with an audience may have the potential to be rearranged, whether it’s in the early stages of being developed or already exists. The collection at the Met already existed and was re-conceived; John McPhee moved around his index cards at the beginning of his writing process.

Oil paintings are not so easy to move around in large quantities, but we can all manage index cards or — my favorite — printed Word docs cut into strips. Divide what you have into smaller-than-normal components. Put them back together in radical ways. You may already have all of the pieces you need.

* * *
I wonder if John McPhee had a sawhorse desk as nice as the one in the photo above, photographed by Mae Chevrette and built by her boyfriend Mike; you can see the step-by-step process on her blog, To Go into the World.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required First Name Email Address *

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: