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The Art of the Retrospective

What are Museum Retrospectives?

The retrospective is one of those famed genres of exhibition types that you might've just said "huh?" to as you walked past the entrance. Well, there is so much to what a retrospective means to the artist and what it means to the institution.

Mark Rothko paintings in retrospective

Paintings by Mark Rothko

I’ll make the broad assumption that we have all visited a museum once or twice in our lifetimes and I’d like to make the bigger assumption that one or both of those visits were art museums. If not, that’s okay and this gives you something to look forward to. I’d like to focus in on something that might be widely ignored and is extremely common in the museum space. You may have just passed by the word and gave it no thought because the only important (and needed) information was that it was an exhibition with all of Pablo Picasso’s work. So what the hell is a retrospective? This is one of those art words that you’ll need to know so let’s take a deep dive into what it is and what it means to have a retrospective.

Simply put, a retrospective is an oeuvre (or compilation) of an artist’s career. It is not everything they have ever done (unless it wasn’t that much) but a collection of the work most representative of that artist. Now, newer artists can have solo shows that encompasses everything they have ever made but that doesn’t quite measure up to the elitism of the retrospective. The retrospective is like an award. It is verification of the that artist’s contribution to the art world and ultimately sets their standing as a figure that has some historical merit.

For viewers, the retrospective is one way to understand an artist’s practice in a full chronological and comprehensive way. Think of it this way, let’s say you want to start reading superhero comics and only about Captain Marvel. You have no idea where to start because there are so many series and collections that just knowing the first issue ever made is not enough to understand years’ worth of comics. The retrospective shows you what you would need to know about an artist to understand everything they have ever done without having to do the work of figuring it out yourself.

Very often these exhibitions are accompanied with a catalogue. This is great for those that have attended the exhibition so that they can have a physical book full of the art they have seen and great for those who haven’t seen the exhibition so that they too can experience the collection of work. They’re famously great coffee table books as well because they are chock full of fantastic images. Catalogues offer a lot more background and critical takes on the work that the museum wall text doesn’t have room to cover. These catalogue essays are amazing resources for understanding not just the artist but the history they are situated in and the greater movement of art they might be involved in. Don’t skip them! They are valuable nuggets of information for you research folks out there.

Tips for your next retrospective exhibition:

1. Make sure to read the text on the museum wall.

It is there to guide you. It will introduce the artist and will help you flow through years’ worth of their life and art.

2. Museums offer great events to accompany the exhibition.

Because the retrospective is usually reserved to influential artists, there will be tons of events to bolster their career like talks, workshops and more.

3. Before going, check the museum’s website and look for the press release.

The press release is one of those essentials texts that detail everything you need to know about the exhibition and the museum. While the catalogue essay is great, it can sometimes be hard to understand in its academic tone. The press release is specifically made to be effective and concise, so information is quick to access.

4. Always visit the museum gift shop after.

This is where you’ll find the exhibition catalogue so if you thoroughly enjoyed the art, bring it home with you! There’s also tons of great stuff in the shop as well.

5. Think beyond the art

Artists that get a retrospective are always responding to something bigger even if it is slight. Art at this level is not just something pretty to look at and if it is that is saying something too! Think of the bigger context of what it is responding to and the issues that it is signaling. Art forces us to think about things bigger than ourselves and is meant to start these conversations.

So now you’re a little more prepared for your next retrospective. Curators put a lot of time into making these exhibitions worth your while and is usually an artist you might have already heard of. Retrospectives are a good first introduction into the world of art without feeling as overwhelmed so look out for your next retrospective exhibition and happy museuming!


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