An Aesthetic Headache: Notes from the Museum Bench (with Diana Fuss)

June 12, 2015

Picture this: a gentleman, tired and overheated, reclines at his ease on a great circular divan. The commodious ottoman sits at the center of the Salon Carré in the Louvre, our visitor taking possession of its softest spot. With hat, opera glass, and guidebook thrown down beside him, the man lounges listlessly, his attention strained, his vision dazzled. His eyes wander from the paintings, focusing instead on the innumerable young female copyists sitting on high stools and reproducing the masters. On his stroll through the Louvre, our week-kneed lover of the fine arts suffers from Bädeker fatigue, retreating to the museum divan to relieve “an aesthetic headache.”

Josiah McElheny, Prison bench for Robert Gober (After Donald Judd), 2011.

Josiah McElheny, Prison bench for Robert Gober (After Donald Judd), 2011.

So begins Henry James’s 1877 novel The American, set largely in 1868 Paris, where our wealthy if unworldly hero has come to find a wife. 1 And where better to scope out the options than from the great ottoman of the Louvre, where people come not just to see but to be seen, and where the art of seduction rivals any veiled eroticism of painting or sculpture, objects serving not merely to frame romantic trysts but to abet them. A museum, James intuits, offers visitors more than an opportunity to admire the high arts; it provides an occasion to satisfy the baser instincts as well.

But if novels have long appreciated the full dramatic potential of the museum gallery—its ability to engage body as well as mind—modern museums and art galleries themselves have been largely indifferent, if not overtly hostile, to the demands and desires of the spectator’s body. Perpetuating a Western bias that dates back to the Renaissance, art critics view the spectatorial body as hardly a body at all, but more a disembodied eye, associated with mind, imagination, and vision, but rarely an actual body. Architects and designers are more aware of the spectator’s body, but grudgingly so; regarding the body as a mobile receptacle for the eye and the gallery as a stationary theater of spectatorship, they prefer to arrange the space of museum or gallery to regulate strictly the viewer’s range of motion and object of focus. And yet, there is no spectator without a body, a body that gets overheated, tired, bored, or distracted, like James’s earnest American on his outing at the Louvre.

Enter the museum bench, a near ubiquitous but frequently disparaged piece of furniture as routinely overlooked as it is regularly used. In discussions of museum and gallery, the hard bench or upholstered couch rarely makes an appearance. Instead it hovers on the edge of museum studies, always there but never acknowledged, its very presence an irritating distraction from the real activity at hand: appreciating art. Even in cultural histories and architectural manuals explicitly devoted to gallery interiors and their spatial arrangement, the bench finds itself side-lined in favor of frames, walls, colors, and lighting. In scholarship on the history or design of public art exhibition spaces, the lowly bench receives barely a nod. 2

Hidden in plain sight, museum benches are stealth objects, just below the radar. So what might happen if we acknowledge the elephant in the room? How might our understanding of aesthetic spectatorship change if we take full account of the utilitarian furniture found in most museums? In this essay we aim to do more than simply correct an oversight, adding the bench to a list of programmatic elements that comprise the gallery interior. We wonder why the museum bench was excluded from this list to begin with, and how it might challenge some of our fundamental assumptions about public display and private spectatorship.

The question we are thus chiefly concerned with is this: exactly why has the museum bench become an object of curatorial, critical, and cultural disdain? From the emergence of the museum in the eighteenth century until today, museum furniture (chair, stool, bench, ottoman) has shaped viewers’ engagement both with works of art and with one another. This seemingly inconspicuous accessory registers shifting cultural attitudes towards subject and object, private and public, mind and body, art and life. The bench’s very presence, when acknowledged, reminds us that the act of spectatorship may not be nearly as disembodied, nor the gallery space nearly as neutral, as we still commonly assume. To attend to the museum bench is to recognize the material ground of aesthetic vision: its location in a real body with real needs and real limitations. It is to appreciate what it might mean to re-embody vision while simultaneously re-envisioning bodies as they move, linger, or relax in a lived sensory encounter with art. In the end, the museum bench tells its own story of aesthetic contemplation, offering up a counter-history to traditional notions of disembodied spectatorship.




Since the birth of the museum, furniture can be found in the halls of the great galleries, remnants of the royal palaces and private salons from which many museums evolved. In spaces designed more to facilitate social interaction than to optimize individual spectatorship, the earliest museum furniture participates in the formation of what we might call a private public. The Tribuna at the Uffizi in Florence exemplifies how galleries in palaces were adopted as templates for museums; originally commissioned by Francesco I de’Medici as a private gallery for royal patrons at the end of the sixteenth century, the Tribuna’s design remained relatively unchanged when the Uffizi opened to the public in 1765. In the Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-77), Johann Zoffany painted not just a public museum interior but also a private group portrait, an exclusively male assembly of European diplomats and English tourists, clustered in conversational groups. The Tribuna’s dizzying array of paintings, stacked in tiers, mixes artistic styles, genres, and mediums. Antique sculptures share space with Italian and Flemish paintings, hung not to stand out from the room’s sumptuous decor but to merge with it, their gilt frames echoing not only the heavy gilt cornice but also the gold ornamentation on the prominent and plush red chair in the painting’s foreground. The color scheme of the upholstered furniture further harmonizes with the soft Persian carpets casually strewn on the floor and table, as well as with the red and gold brocade clothing worn by many of the fashionable visitors. These entitled viewers, who appear almost as extensions of the gallery decor, are free to move the furniture wherever they like.

Concerns over art-historical categories, narrative flow, crowd control, and proper viewing, which would all come to define the nineteenth-century museum, are unimportant in the eighteenth-century gallery, which relied more on picture frames to shoulder the burden of isolating images, focusing vision, and disembodying spectatorship. How precisely the eye became figuratively disembodied is a complicated story, but the picture frame clearly played a central role. Like the window frames from which they are derived, the decorative architectural moldings that constituted eighteenth-century picture frames articulate the transition from interior to exterior; the continuous perimeter of the picture frame forms a discrete margin that differentiates actual from pictorial space and thus art from everyday life. Sharing the point of view, or station point, from which the illusionistic representation was generated, the eye, liberated from the confines of the body, is invited optically to cross the threshold of the frame and enter into pictorial space. In short, by allowing viewers to focus on individual images, the earliest museum galleries, like the domestic galleries they were modeled after, could easily tolerate the visual cacophony of richly ornamented galleries crowded with art, people, and furniture.

The shift in the nineteenth century from private to public gallery, and the inverse shift from social conversation to individual contemplation that accompanies it, can be seen most clearly in the spatial evolution of the National Gallery in London as it moved from its first temporary headquarters in a private home at 100 Pall Mall (opened to the public in 1824) to its permanent home in a new public building on Trafalgar Square (opened in 1838). Frederick Mackenzie’s 1834 painting of the National Gallery’s initial residence in Mrs John Julius Angerstein’s House pictures only freestanding furniture: chairs, stools, bench, desk. Such moveable pieces de-center artistic spectatorship by situating the act of contemplation within a larger matrix of copying, writing, resting, visiting, and conversing. This first home of the National Gallery is an intimate domestic space, still as much townhouse as public museum, encouraging its visitors to see its collection, rehung in Neo-Baroque frames that match the décor, at leisure and in comfort. However, by mid-century, in its final location in the heart of London, the New Room at the National Gallery has removed any freestanding furniture, save a chair or two at the far end of the gallery. An 1861 wood engraving from a London newspaper shows a large room complete with picture rails and seating by the doors, though no central couch or bench. In this later incarnation, nearly everyone is standing, most in small groups, some with children well in hand, and all looking at the paintings. Resting, reading, and copying have all been banished, as the act of spectatorship—the aesthetic appreciation of art—becomes the room’s central activity.

Frederick Mackenzie, The National Gallery at Mrs. J.J. Angerstein's House, Pall Mall, 1824-34. Watercolor, 27 1/8 x 34 7/8 inches (69 x 85.5 cm).

Frederick Mackenzie, The National Gallery at Mrs. J.J. Angerstein’s House, Pall Mall, 1824-34. Watercolor, 27 1/8 x 34 7/8 inches (69 x 85.5 cm).

Much has transpired between 1824 and 1861 to relegate the bench to a more subordinate status, as curators and designers respond to the newly defined mission of the nineteenth century museum: to educate an emerging middle class viewer. Offering spectators a narrative sequence of single images arranged by national style and historical period, the nineteenth-century gallery significantly transformed conventions of display. While the dependable picture frame still assumes primary responsibility for focusing the viewer’s eye as it navigates between actual and pictorial space, hanging practices gradually become less crowded: if before it was not uncommon for eight or nine images to be stacked one on top of another, new standards dictate less dense tiers of two or three. This shift from mixed multi-tiered picture displays to more linear chronological hangings demands that everything within the gallery, including the seating, orchestrate a larger narrative. No longer encouraged to move freely within the gallery, visitors are required to circulate around the perimeter of the room. As museum attendance steadily increased mid-century, the task of directing and managing the flow of bodies through increasingly crowded galleries while protecting valuable works of art from damage became even more important. For the first time, picture rails (stanchions joined by horizontal bars or ropes and set three or four feet from the wall) line the periphery of the gallery, and the museum bench as we now know it—a hard or soft stationary seat—replaces moveable chairs. Freestanding furniture that obstruct the peripheral flow give way to large sofas or benches in the center of the gallery, out of the way of visitor circulation but too distant for close inspection of the art.

This historical and cultural transition was by no means a natural, seamless, or universal one. Some museums continued to hang pictures in tiers, and not all luxurious furniture was banished from the public museum. The heavy sofas that often replaced freestanding chairs were frequently more comfortable than their eighteenth century predecessors. In Giuseppe Castiglione’s 1865 oil painting of the Louvre’s Salon Carré, we see exactly the soft and commodious divan that so impressed Henry James. Nearly as many visitors lounge on the great divan as wander the gallery; seated individually or in groups, half a dozen men and women read, rest, or socialize. A female copyist, standing prominently in the left foreground, uses a stool for her paints, while low benches flank each of the gallery doors. The ottoman does double duty as a central source of heat in the cavernous and chilly hall, with the couch circling a coal grate to provide comfort and warmth. Similar heated sofas can be found in other museums; the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, for example, was using radiator seating as late as the early twentieth century, its oval sofas floating off the floor on raised platforms, creating islands of rest and tranquility. Rather than deny the needs of the body, such furniture unapologetically caters to it, encouraging museum visitors to make themselves at home as they quietly contemplate the art, close their eyes, peruse their guidebooks, or engage in intimate conversation.

What we see in these pictures of early museum galleries is ultimately a growing uncertainty over the museum’s priorities, a genuine unease in which the bench became a central flashpoint: should the gallery promote visual communion or physical comfort, individual freedom or public decorum, private education or social entertainment? In the beginning, a public museum was as much a rainy-day substitute for the park as a solemn temple to art; after the National Gallery first opened on the square in 1838, people frequented the museum on bad-weather days to teach their children to walk or to have a picnic. 3 The museum bench is in many respects an outgrowth of the park bench; outdoor seating moved inside as the new and expanding museums became ideal places to take a stroll. Just as the type of benches first found in the private gardens of palaces eventually migrated into the public parks, so too did versions of this seating find a way into the public space of the new museums. The new public parks and the new public museums, (which were often built inside or next to parks and promenades–like London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or Chicago’s Art Institute) shared a cultural identity: both were leisure destinations imagined to elevate the hearts and minds of the growing middle class. The museum also offered the same kind of peaceful refuge from the noisy and bustling metropolis that the park offered, with the added benefit of shelter and security. In both cases, circulation paths were strictly prescribed, as benches were placed with an eye toward the most artful view, whether the outdoor park’s carefully designed tamed landscapes or the indoor museum’s artfully composed pictorial landscapes. The museum bench thus performed a similar function to the park bench, providing not only a place for repose but also a platform for viewing, a viewing that encompassed not simply objects but other spectators as well. Looking-at-others-looking was a feature as much of the early parks, and in both cases strategically placed furniture facilitated this double act of spectatorship.

Yet it was this very furniture that provoked a backlash against what came to be seen as inappropriate uses of the museum gallery. Some of the most striking primary source materials cited in Charlotte Klonk’s useful survey of the nineteenth-century museum document furniture’s prominent placement at the gallery’s center, including an 1850 report from the keeper of the National Gallery complaining of the visitors, often “country people,” who drew the chairs around, made themselves comfortable with their basket of provisions, and feasted in the middle of the gallery. Another critical portrait of the museums, a satirical image from an 1885 German magazine, depicts a man flirting with a seated young woman in a gallery, while her mother sleeps soundly on the same ottoman. 4 A site of considerable social tensions around class and sex, museum seating came to symbolize everything understood to be improper about the use of this new public space.

Flirting, playing, eating, drinking, talking, laughing, and napping, activities suitable for the public park, become frowned upon and even explicitly forbidden in the public museum by the end of the nineteenth century. There are many reasons why the museum bench becomes an object of institutional disdain, including, as we will see, changing aesthetics of display and ideals of spectatorship. But one of the earliest and most enduring motivations for the demotion of the bench is the furniture’s ready association with the maddening crowd, the public masses whose very bodies, in all their messy materiality, threaten not only to damage the actual artwork but to further undermine the emerging notion of the museum as a place devoted solely to the disembodied contemplation of art.


The intimate association of benches with unruly social bodies provides only part of the story of why museum furniture slides into disrepute. The bench also falls victim to profound historical changes in both perception and subjectivity, changes provoked, to a significant degree, by modernity’s increasing preoccupation with the virtues of attention and the dangers of distraction. Attention, Jonathan Crary has convincingly argued in Suspensions of Perception, became a distinctly new kind of cultural problem in the late nineteenth century. 5 Total absorption in the contemplation of an object or the completion of an activity required an out of time, out of body experience, protected from the sensory overload and accelerated pace of modern life. Indeed, one definition of modernity is precisely a crisis of attentiveness, in which inattention comes to be understood as a serious threat with injurious consequences. For Max Nordau inattention represented a sign of moral degeneracy, for William James a suggestion of mental imbalance, and for Sigmund Freud a symptom of psychic hysteria. A failure to focus the mind, to attend selectively and exclusively to a distinct point in a chaotic sensory field, could land you, quite literally, on the couch.

Disembodied opticality continued to define spectatorship in the twentieth century, as art critics viewed aesthetic attention as not just a spatial matter but also a temporal one: instantaneous visual perception. Figures like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried saw abstract paintings as flat canvases that instantly evaporated into optical mirages, eliciting from the viewer pure retinal responses. 6 But the more these large paintings resembled material objects, the more they occupied the same space as the spectator. Staging a more intimate encounter with the body of the viewer, painterly abstraction strikes us as not the height of visual disembodiment but a concrete sign of spectatorial reembodiment.

Contrary to Greenberg’s claim that the picture plane displayed against the modern gallery wall optically dissolves, in actuality the frameless image–canvas on a stretcher covered with tangible traces of applied paint–confronts the viewer with its physical presence. Before, the frame valorized instantaneous opticality by concealing the thickness of the canvas, reinforcing a view of the picture plane as a dematerialized window inviting optical penetration deep into pictorial space. But now, evenly distributed skeins of pigment applied to unprimed canvas encourage the eye to scan laterally the surface of the image, thus forcing an encounter with the picture’s edge and ultimately the gallery wall itself. 7 In response, pictures are mounted on walls stripped of color, moldings, and ornament (white surfaces that provide a backdrop for the images they come to resemble) and are spaced more widely apart, hung on a discrete horizon line that coincides with average standing-male eye height. The frameless artwork materializes the space of the gallery and incarnates the body of the viewer, making the pretense of an exclusively retinal relationship between spectator and object much harder to sustain. Almost like a trampoline, the taut picture plane deflects the spectator’s gaze, a gaze that, ricocheting around the gallery space, encounters not just architectural surfaces but also actual bodies, including its own.

Installation view of the exhibition, "Jackson Pollock," April 5, 1967, through June 4, 1967. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photographic Archive.

Installation view of the exhibition, “Jackson Pollock,” April 5, 1967, through June 4, 1967. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photographic Archive.

The museum bench, which would seem to profit most from a historical reembodiment of spectatorship, actually finds itself under even greater cultural erasure, as the modern gallery works overtime to preserve the illusion of pure perception in the face of ever more visceral art. Examples of the white cube’s discomfort with the threat of a reembodied spectator abound, but one museum exhibition strikes us as particularly representative of the movement to eclipse the human body within the walls of the modern gallery. The Jackson Pollock retrospective mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in 1967 illustrates the extreme measures modernist gallery designers have often implemented to compensate for the presence of the corporeal. In keeping with the tenets of the white cube, MoMA’s installation designers sought to eliminate all traces of visual distraction by diverting viewers’ eyes away from their own and other bodies and concentrating their attention exclusively on the art.

Installed on the ground level of Philip Johnson’s East and Garden wings, the Pollock exhibition began with a dramatic presentation of Mural (1943), neatly mounted on a freestanding panel, bathed in artificial light, and displayed directly on axis at the entrance. A backdrop of floor-to-ceiling drapes shut out both natural light and potentially distracting views of the city beyond. This exceptional manner of displaying Mural–hung on a freestanding wall whose dimensions echo the color and proportions of Pollock’s unprimed canvas–underscored the curator’s conception of the gallery wall as a non-distracting foil for the immersive abstract image it both complements and resembles. Exit signs and HVAC registers (intrusive reminders of the presence of the all too biological body) are arranged inconspicuously in a neat grid on the darkened ceiling. Yet it is the track lights that do the most to transform bodily perception into disembodied vision, creating the illusion of an unmediated spectatorial encounter with Pollock’s heroic abstractions. In the same way that the six defining surfaces of the white cube perform the job once executed by the traditional picture frame–dividing art from everyday life–the track lights replaced the nineteenth-century guardrail and directed visitor circulation around the perimeter of the gallery. Concealed behind a white baffle overhead, MoMA’s track lights projected a band of light around the periphery of the white gallery wall and the edges of the dark reflective floor, distinctly illuminating a precinct for looking but not touching.

However, in the end, all these architectural innovations fail to guarantee spectatorial attention. In the world of the modern museum, the bench remains a persistent reminder of the embodied self; indeed it comes to signify the very seat of distraction, the place where one retreats when the eye is fatigued and can no longer attend to the art. The museum bench thus physically marks the limits of attention, the threshold at which concentration has been exhausted and the fiction of the transcendent eye becomes undone.

To counteract the pull of inattention, modern art museums like MoMA sought to manage spectatorship by reducing the number of seats within the gallery, eliminating benches entirely, or relegating seating to spaces like lobbies or hallways, now functioning as rest stops. When benches are allowed to intrude into the exhibition room, as they are at MoMA’s 1967 Pollock exhibition, they are notably less comfortable. The backless bench becomes the norm in the modern gallery, making it impossible for visitors to lounge easily, nap soundly, or sit indefinitely. It might be argued that, by offering museum visitors a place to sit, strategically placed benches offer more than a necessary concession to museum fatigue; they also enhance, rather than interfere with, the contemplation of art, offering a stationary platform for viewing those works curators deem especially significant. To be sure, creating and reinforcing aesthetic value is one of the most common curatorial uses of the museum bench. In the Pollock exhibition, the vantage point of a central, axially placed bench not only seeks to capitalize on the “energy and motion made visible” that Pollock claimed for a large painting like Mural, it also aims to signpost the painting as one of the artist’s masterworks. 8

And yet, the Pollock show bench, an awkwardly placed minimalist black bench that almost disappears into the black reflective floor, reveals how, in reality, modern museum benches are not ideally situated for viewing large works of abstract art. Unlike traditional framed easel paintings that can be observed comfortably within a close range of three feet, Pollocks’ mural-size canvases demand a viewing depth of roughly twenty feet, a distance that approximates the space of their production at Pollock’s own Long Island studio workspace. 9 Hans Nemuth’s famous Pollock photographs capture the artist in the process of creating his Action Paintings, immortalizing Pollock’s crouched stance and waving arm as he directly applies commercial paint to un-stretched canvas spread on the barn floor. The spectator’s actual experiential encounter with a Pollock painting contradicts Greenberg’s ideal of disembodied opticality: these paintings, mapping the arc of the artist’s own body, require viewers to inhabit a deep activated space of reception that directly corresponds to the space of the art’s full-bodied production—a charged zone that allows spectators to deviate from the normal circumscribed route around the perimeter of the gallery and instead move freely side to side, or backwards and forwards, to facilitate close inspection of the physical paint on canvas or distanced immersion within the image as a whole. Building upon Pollock’s achievement, American art movements (Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance) actively exploit arts’ potential to implicate, simultaneously, the body of the artist and the observer, something the White Cube itself only reluctantly acknowledges. For it is precisely the active zone of embodied spectatorship dictated by oversized abstract paintings that falls outside the narrow band of light illuminated by museum track lights; the spectator, along with the bench they might retreat to, is relegated to the shadows. Losing the proximity it once enjoyed to the nineteenth-century gallery wall, the modern bench becomes an isolated entity stranded in the dark center of the room.

Installation photos that document the 1967 Pollock retrospective at the MoMA, as well as two subsequent Pollock exhibitions at the Pompidou Center in 1982 and at the MoMA again in 1998, disguise the dilemma of the awkwardly placed bench. Visually evacuating the gallery space of people, these archival documents fail to record how the view from the museum bench, frequently blocked by other spectators, is a decidedly compromised one, limited both by the bench’s low height and its remote location. The Pompidou installation only exacerbates the problem; Mies van de Rohe’s smartly elegant Barcelona bench—perhaps in witty allusion to a therapist’s couch and Pollock’s adventures in Jungian analysis—finds itself marooned in the center of an enormous gallery, throwing into high relief the difficulty of a space far too vast for even Pollock’s largest paintings. In its most recent iteration, MoMA’s 1998 Pollock retrospective seems to have resolved the conflict simply by banishing the bench from the exhibition altogether.

The production of a restless spectator, a museum patron in continual forward motion, defines and distinguishes the White Cube from its inception. When MoMA opened in 1939 at its West 53rd Street location, the most widely read art critic of the time, Henry McBride, was quick to note the change: “Apparently, in the new museum, we shall be expected to stand up, look quickly and pass on. There are some chairs and settees, but the machine-like neatness of the rooms does not invite repose.” To early critics of the MoMA, its curved and angled galleries, which propelled visitors along strictly prescribed routes, left little room for deviation, detour, or delay. Disdaining “coziness,” modern art museums sounded the death knell for “the old-time habit of sitting in front of a masterpiece for half an hour ‘drinking it in.'” 10 Klonk rightly argues in her research on “the spectator as educated consumer” that what we see in the large new modern museums are interior layouts borrowed from advanced shop-floor designs. 11 As museums become increasingly commercial, and as art becomes more overtly commodified, art’s visual consumption owes much to the flow-management philosophy of department stores, which rarely provides seating in the main shopping areas. A seated patron, after all, is not likely to be a consuming patron; consumer culture requires bodies on the move, not bodies in repose. Simply put, the bench is anathema to the capitalist space of the modern museum.

But if the White Cube owes much to the modern department store, it also, Brian O’Doherty memorably argued, owes a debt to the medieval church: “The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished . . . . The discreet desk may be the only piece of furniture. In this context a standing ashtray becomes almost a sacred object.” 12 By the same logic, when seats do appear in the white cube, they behave more like church pews than park benches. Serviceable but not comfortable, modern museum benches offer something like the stations of the cross, directing individual worshippers in a sacred encounter with art.

Making only the barest concession to the body, the white cube all but escorts the spectator from the premises. And yet, like the Exit signs, HVAC registers, and air grilles that appear like blemishes on the white gallery’s pristine walls, the stripped down bench operates as the most obvious sign that still present within the hygienic white cube is a living, breathing body—a body vulnerable to temperature fluctuations, sensory distractions, and aesthetic headaches. More than any other element in the gallery, it is the bench that calls into question an entire Western history of ocular centrism, in which vision and vision alone, disassociated from a material body, serves as the privileged sign of rationality. A historical product of the Enlightenment, the gallery bench is also one of its greatest philosophical challenges, subtly reminding us that the transcendent, sovereign, roving mind’s eye was always, in point of fact, a fiction.

For a modernist thinker like Freud, the rational man is an upright man. It is our ability to stay standing, to think on our feet, to be ambulatory, that marks the threshold between the animal and the human, the corporeal and the intellectual, the primitive and the civilized. 13 The humble bench threatens to leave all these achievements behind by up-ending the subject onto his behind, in effect reversing human evolution and bringing us once again into closer proximity to the lower regions of the body. In an era that considers aesthetic spectatorship no longer a pleasant leisure activity but an intense concentrated labor, the erect body comes to stand in for the attentive body. 14 Removed from the modern museum bench are all traces of comfort, like soft upholstery or supporting backs and arms, too closely allied with the enervating effects of home and hearth. Valorizing the upright and the mobile at the expense of the seated and the stationary, the modern gallery’s disdain for the bench can be attributed, in part, to the bench’s ability to pull the subject both back and down, into a position of not attention but abjection, not sovereignty but submission, not labor but leisure—all postures deeply associated, not coincidentally, with the taint of femininity and domesticity. 15


As the twentieth century unfolds, the bench poses an even greater threat: not only can it distract museum visitors from the contemplation of art, it can itself be mistaken for art. Today’s museum benches have changed little from those first documented in installation shots of MoMA’s 1939 opening. The formula remains the same: unadorned wood or metal rectilinear legs supporting a solid or slatted platform, sometimes upholstered to add a modicum of comfort, but often without supporting arms or backs. 16 In the same way that the picture frame was originally designed to blend in with its architectural surroundings, the pared down modern bench was designed to harmonize with the austere aesthetic of the white cube, facilitating spectatorship by itself receding from view. Yet with the advent of a postwar movement like Minimalism, artists including Donald Judd and Robert Morris largely abandon painting and create serial objects that invade the space of the viewer—a development that makes the museum bench even more potentially ambiguous. Stripped down to their geometric essentials, these same benches risk competing with, or even being confused with, their factory-produced sculptural counterparts. Complicating matters further, a subsequent generation of post-Minimalists, ranging from Pop artists like Claes Oldenburg and Richard Artschwager to contemporary artists like Andrea Zittel and Jorge Pardo, create art objects that deliberately elide the distinction between the aesthetic and the utilitarian. The Hessel Museum of Art’s 2011 exhibit, “If you lived here, you’d be home by now,” showcases numerous examples of the ambiguity between art and furniture, including Richard Artschwager’s High Back Chair (1988), the only piece of furniture in the Hessel show visitors are forbidden to touch. These works subtly remind us that, from the beginning of its history in the late eighteenth century, the museum bench has held subversive potential, but nowhere more so than in its capacity in the twentieth century to rival art.
If the design potential of the lowly bench has been ingeniously and often whimsically embraced by artists, it remains the case that architects and exhibition designers have been reluctant to recognize the importance of museum furniture. For them, the modern museum bench poses an aesthetic headache not merely because it repudiates art but also, and more disruptively, because it threatens to become it. The single most important exception to this architectural neglect of the bench also finds a prominent place in the Hessel exhibition: Frederick Kiesler’s Correalist Instrument Chairs and Correalist Rockers. Designed by Kiesler in 1942 for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, these biomorphic units, made of ash but sheathed in linoleum, could be put to use in a variety of ways. Individual modules could be assembled alone or in groups, and they could be placed in different configurations to accommodate not just artworks but bodies: vertical pedestals or low platforms for sculptures, standing easels or stationary racks for single or multiple paintings, and upright chairs or horizontal benches for visitors. Unlike much of the artist-designed contemporary furniture they prefigure by nearly half a century, these multipurpose pieces comprise not just objects to be looked at but polyvalent and usable armatures. As a consequence, they level distinctions not only between utility and art but also between object and subject. In Kiesler’s correalist world, the bench is no longer a necessary evil or negligible prop but an integral part of the theater of spectatorship. 17

Jason Simon, Vera, 2003, and Josiah McElheny, Temporary platform for Jason Simon (After Donald Judd), 2011.

Jason Simon, Vera, 2003, and Josiah McElheny, Temporary platform for Jason Simon (After Donald Judd), 2011.

No less innovative than Kiesler’s famous biomorphic gallery furniture is his later cantilevered wall bench, designed in 1957 for the World House Gallery in the Carlyle Hotel, New York. Flowing seamlessly out from a curved wall, its seat covered in the very same material carpeting the floor, this continuous bench suspends the spectator from the wall as if the human body were a work of art. Collapsing the distance between bench and wall, the bench itself becomes wall art while simultaneously serving as a pedestal for the body, further dissolving the border between art and life. Reposing on Kiesler’s cantilevered bench with several paintings mounted on the wall above their heads, viewers do not so much observe the art as occupy or become it.

Almost seventy years after the Art of This Century, the Hessel show actively promotes the same full-bodied interaction between art and observer, inviting visitors to sit, sleep, or socialize on an array of artist-designed furniture. Creative variations on the orthodox museum bench instigate a three-way relay—a visual, visceral, and visionary dialogue between spectator, furniture, and art. In one gallery, visitors can peruse works by the contemporary artists John Currin, Glen Ligon, and Sigmor Polk while relaxing in architect R.M. Schindler’s Kings Road Sofa, Sling Chairs, and Ottoman designed in 1922 for his Los Angeles home and studio; their stripped down orthogonal forms prefigure the work of Donald Judd, who later reconstructed them as platforms for looking at painting at his compound in Marfa, Texas. In another gallery, museum-goers can study works by Imi Knoebel and Blinky Palermo as they sit in Scott Burton’s Pair One Part Chairs (1983), Knoebel’s two-dimensional photographs of illuminated geometric projections visually rhyme with the hard angular contours of burton’s three-dimensional solid granite seating, fixed versions of the freestanding chairs that once populated traditional galleries.

In yet another gallery, John Chamberlain’s Thordis’ Barge (1980-81), a huge four-sided urethane foam couch, recalls the nineteenth-century central ottoman but expands it to fill nearly the entire room. Although more comfortable than any of the museum furniture that historically precedes it, this barge-like couch, covered in a single white cotton sheet, also conveys the impression of a house closed for winter, an empty and shrouded space evacuated of a living, breathing body. If there is a body in this room it is virtual: a woman inspecting her mirrored reflection in Chantal Akerman’s 16 mm film, Dans le miroir, running on the wall. Josiah McElheny’s Temporary Platform for Jason Simon (After Donald Judd) (2011), provides another stage to watch video, this time Jason Simon’s Vera (2003). 18 An unfinished bench composed of foam mattresses set on engineered lumber platforms, it resembles nothing so much as a rustic daybed, as prosaic, chaste, and practical as the Pompidou’s Barcelona bench was chic, sensual, and impractical. The media room placement of both the Chamberlain couch and the McElheny platform suggest that benches in contemporary museums—spaces often devoted as much to new media art as older traditional art—need to evolve in keeping with not just changing notions of display but changing definitions of art itself.

John Chamberlain, Thordis' Barge, 1980-81. Installation at the Ayn Foundation at Dia Art Foundation, 535 West Twenty-Second Street, New York City. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

John Chamberlain, Thordis’ Barge, 1980-81. Installation at the Ayn Foundation at Dia Art Foundation, 535 West Twenty-Second Street, New York City. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

Such new approaches to the museum bench, by literally re-embodying spectatorship, provide a welcome opportunity to re-imagine aesthetic theory and practice. To acknowledge, finally and fully, the importance of gallery furniture invites careful reconsideration of the museum interior as a whole. As the symbol of embodied spectatorship, the museum bench challenges architects and designers alike to invent more innovative alternatives to the restrictive vocabulary of the orthodox White Cube. Shifting focus from exterior image and massing to interior design and display, architects could look beyond the modern gallery to provide more imaginative considerations of how all the smaller-scale components we now take for granted (walls, floor, lighting, and especially furniture) might interact not only with each other but also with the art on display to shape organically viewers’ physical encounters with the art and with the people around them. 19 Designers, for their part, could look to predecessors of the modern gallery, back to some of the early museum interiors for ideas about how to blend color, ornament, and furniture into more dynamic environments that stimulate all the bodily senses.

There are many reasons a piece of furniture as seemingly innocuous as the museum bench has become, over time, an object of suspicion and even derision: its association with unruly social bodies, its subversion of attention, its resistance to capitalism, its repudiation of rationalism, and its rivalry with art. But none of these objections to the bench are inevitable, inarguable, or insurmountable; indeed, they are heavily inflected by the anxieties and ambitions of their times. We believe that it is high time, perhaps even past time, to treat the museum bench as not an aesthetic headache but a creative opportunity.


  1. Henry James, The American (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1877).
  2. Architectural manuals for museum planning include Gerald George’s Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004), Paul von Naredi-Rainer’s Museum Buildings: A Design Manual (Basel: Birkhauser, 2004), and Walter L. Crimm, Martha Morris, and L. Carole Wharton’s Planning Successful Museum Building Projects (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2009). Cultural histories are much more attentive to the full design aesthetic inside the museum gallery, though even the best of these studies, Charlotte Klonk’s Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) and Victoria Newhouse’s Art and the Power of Placement (New York: Monacelli Press, 2005), mention the bench only in passing. Both cultural histories, however, are invaluable resources on the history of displaying and viewing art, and they make possible the type of study we engage in here.
  3. Charlotte Klonk, in “The White Cube and Beyond: Niklas Maak, Charlotte Klonk and Thomas Demand on Museum Display,” Tate Etc, no. 21 (Spring 2011),
  4. See Klonk, Spaces of Experience, 43-44 and 2.
  5. See Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1999), especially chapter 1, “Modernity and the Problem of Attention,” 11-79.
  6. Clement Greenberg outlines his aesthetics of abstraction in numerous essays, including “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” in Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol 1, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 23-37, and “The New Sculpture,” in Art and Culture; Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 133-54. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), 7.
  7. Brian O’Doherty discusses the affinity between the abstract modern canvas and the white gallery wall in chapter one of his Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, expanded edition (Berkeley: U of California P, 1999). Orig. pub. 1976.
  8. O’Connor, Francis V. and Eugene Victor Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works, Vol. 4 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 253.
  9. Victoria Newhouse argues that the most successful installations of Jackson Pollock’s work have been in, not the big museums, but more intimate spaces like the Betty Parson Gallery (1948-51) and Ben Heller residence (1960), both of which encouraged viewing the artist’s canvases from a distance of approximately twenty feet, the depth of Pollock’s studio space. Newhouse provides a comprehensive history of the many Pollock exhibitions in her Art and the Power of Placement, 142-211. It is difficult to judge the precise distance of bench from wall in the 1967 MoMA show, however this bench may be the least awkwardly situated in relation to Mural, as compared to those in later Pollock retrospectives, since the gallery itself was comparatively smaller.
  10. Henry McBride, “Opening of the new Museum of Modern Art, May 13, 1939,” in The Flow of Art: Essays and Criticsms, ed. Daniel Catton Rich (New Haven: Atheneum, 1975), 371.
  11. Klonk, Spaces of Experience, 148.
  12. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, 15.
  13. See two lengthy footnotes in section four of Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1930), ed. James Strachey, Vol. 21 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1961), 99-100 and 105-7.
  14. Interestingly, today the pendulum may be shifting as some museums, in search of revenue, are once again promoting themselves as places of leisure, with music, food, cocktails, and even overnights.
  15. Female visitors were especially central to the nineteenth-century view of the museum as a protected public space devoted to the cultivation and education of a mass audience. For more on gender and the changing demographics of museum attendance, see Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).
  16. Interestingly, the original MoMA benches did have backs, providing more comfort than most modern museum benches. Only later did MoMA switch to less comfortable seating, perhaps because the solid bench backs obstructed interior views, signified everyday furniture, or simply resisted aesthetic abstraction.
  17. Kiesler defines his correalist design doctrine as the articulation of “the interrelation of a body to its environment: spiritual, physical, social, mechanical.” As Stephen Phillips explains, this doctrine resulted in design research that explored architecture, furniture, and bodies in motion, in an effort to correlate visual and tactile information between mind, eye, body, and the built environment. See Frederick Kiesler, “Notes on Architecture: The Space-House,” Hound & Horn (January-March 1934), 292, and Stephen Phillips, “Toward a Research Practice: Frederick Kiesler’s Design Correlation Laboratory,” Grey Room 38 (Winter 210), 91. For more on Kiesler’s correalist furniture in the context of his numerous installations, see Cynthia Goodman, “The Art of Revolutionary Display Techniques,” in Frederick Kiesler, ed. Lisa Phillips (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art and W.W. Norton & Co., 1989), 57-83.
  18. In both galleries, the subjects of the media projections are women engaged in acts of self-spectatorship: women reflecting, literally or figuratively, on their own bodies or lives.
  19. Current debates about contemporary museum architecture often find themselves preoccupied with iconic museum exteriors and mired in evaluating the pro’s and con’s of “stararchitecture.” Typically, these discussions of style do no more than oppose the bravura buildings of signature designers like Frank Gehry and Daniel Liebeskind with the restrained buildings of architects like Renzo Piano and David Chipperfield. One way to break new ground is to shift the emphasis from the exterior of the museum to its interior, considering the precise ways the museum gallery orchestrates embodied spectatorship.