Museum exhibit labels tell the stories of an eccentric curator and visitor in Matthew Kirkpatrick's new novel


Matthew Kirkpatrick

Author photograph by Susan McCarty

The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art by Matthew Kirkpatrick is a novel in the form of museum exhibit labels. The labels reveal the art pieces in the museum, along with the curator’s unique relationship and what has happened to the Seagrave family’s daughter. In between the labels, occasional passages narrate a visitor’s exploration of and discoveries in the museum. 

Kirkpatrick teaches creative writing at Eastern Michigan University and previously studied at the University of Utah for his Ph.D. He also wrote a story collection, Light Without Heat, and a novella, The Exiles.

On Monday, July 1, at 7 pm, Kirkpatrick reads at Literati Bookstore with Joe Sacksteder (see related interview). The two authors met at EMU, and both received their Ph.D. at the University of Utah, though at different times. Pulp interviewed Kirkpatrick about his interest in museums, his new book, and what projects he’s working on next. 

Q: What brought you to Ypsilanti? Tell us about your path as a writer. 
A: I moved to Ypsilanti in 2014 to teach creative writing at Eastern Michigan University. Before that, I taught at a private college in the Chicago area for a couple of years, and before that, I was at the University of Utah for graduate school. I’ve wanted to be a writer for a long time but struggled to figure out how exactly to do that -- how to balance writing with a day job. I was an English major as an undergrad and had a twisty career starting in publishing and ending in technology, managing software developers for an e-commerce startup. As that company wound down, I started to think about how far my career had taken me away from the things I loved -- writing and reading -- and worked to figure out how to make those things more integral to my life, rather than something I did when I could squeeze them in. I was writing and publishing a bit, but wanted more; for me, grad school -- and then teaching -- was the best route because I didn’t expect that I would be able to make a full time living as a writer. I’m not sure that I actually have that much more time to write than before, but I love that my job is to think and talk about books and writing. I love being in the classroom, and the conversations that I have with students and colleagues inform my writing life.  

Q: In the acknowledgments of The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art, you thank the Art Institute of Chicago as the site where the idea for the book was generated. How did the idea come about?
A: When I was living in the Chicago area after grad school, my wife was teaching in Maryland, so I had a lot of time on the weekends when she wasn’t in town or I wasn’t visiting her. On many Saturdays, I’d take the train downtown and spend the day at the Art Institute, starting in the members’ lounge for coffee, then wandering around aimlessly. After I’d seen most of the museum over the course of a few visits, I started to just sit and watch people looking at the art, and started to pay more attention to where the visitors in the museum were directing their attention -- the crowds around Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte taking selfies with the painting, for example. At some point I had the idea of imagining an art museum entirely through exhibit labels -- I’m not sure at what point I got the idea, but it was certainly stimulated by aimless wandering in the Art Institute. I was sure that somebody else had had the same idea at some point, so there was a little research to find out if I was duplicating an existing project, but I never found anything quite like it.

Q: You also credit your wife, Susan McCarty, with “visiting countless museums.” How did you choose museums to explore? What did you observe and learn from your visits?
A: Once I’d started writing the book, I became very interested in reading as many exhibit labels as I could! My wife and I already love to visit art museums, so it wasn’t such a stretch, but I started to read the labels more intently, to photograph them to look at later, trying to capture the particular sound of the label. I also started to question the way that art was interpreted for the viewer via these labels -- it’s impossible for me not to read them, but I also hate the way in which the artwork becomes yoked to the supplemental interpretative explanations on the cards. So, part of this study was really thinking about the way art is described in museums. 

We chose museums based on where we happened to be visiting, but the focus was almost entirely on contemporary art museums since my limited knowledge of art is further limited to the 20th and 21st centuries.

Q: The layout of this book mainly consists of a museum exhibit label on the right page with a blank left page. Each label describes a unique piece of art, from paintings to dollhouses and sculptures, such as one of an imaginary creature called an “owlbear.” There are also forgeries and posthumous works of art portrayed by the labels. Are these descriptions based on artwork you have seen, or are they imagined?
A: Almost all of the art is imagined, though as I was finishing the book, I wanted to make sure certain major movements of the 20th century were represented -- I need a surrealist painting, for example, so sometimes that’s how I would start to imagine the art. 

I also knew that I wanted there to be several major characters -- Iris Babbitt and Gaylord Kellogg -- so I started to think about those artists in terms of their work, instead of individual paintings, and worked on thinking about how to use the formal constraint of the novel to create a plot around these characters. 

I’m generally interested in forgeries -- I love the book Hot Art by Joshua Knelman, for example -- and there are at least several real examples of paintings believed to be haunted or cursed -- copies of a mass-produced painting The Crying Boy by Giovanni Bragolin were at one time blamed for causing house fires.

Owlbears are a creature from Dungeons and Dragons game, which I’ve always thought was a really funny monster, so I didn’t invent that but was excited to reference it in the book! I think there are probably a lot of examples of art or stories that I’ve seen or read creeping into the book, or incidents that became part of the narrative -- this book was so much fun to write and the research took me in all kind of directions.

Q: The shortness of the exhibit labels reminds me of prose poems. In what order did you compose these labels: as they appear in the book, or as inspiration struck and then ordering them sequentially for the plot?
A: A little bit of both. As I was composing, I didn’t pay too much attention to the order. The first label in the book is the first label I wrote, but after that, the order changed quite a bit -- I kept a spreadsheet to help me distribute the exhibit labels throughout the book by artist, time period, etc. I also wanted to make sure the dollhouses were distributed evenly, and also to make sure certain plot points weren’t revealed until what I perceived to be the right time. 

Q: Going back to your earlier point that art gets “yoked” to labels in museums, I’m curious about the content of the labels in this book. While reading, it quickly became apparent to me that the museum exhibit labels are not objective. Instead, the curator gives opinions and anecdotes about the artwork that goes beyond what a sign might typically convey, or at least what I might expect. For example, the first label on page 1 states, “[t]he ball is so obviously out of place,” and depicts cardinals as “the plainest of birds” in the painting it describes. How did you develop and how would you describe this first-person narrator of the labels?
A: Before I started writing, I imagined that this book would work similarly to Letter to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth, in which the narrator gradually becomes more and more unhinged. I also knew that for the novel to work, the narrator couldn’t just describe the art -- that his personality, obsessions, and quirks had to come through in his descriptions of the labels, so from the start, I knew that the labels were going to have to gradually -- and then suddenly -- stop resembling exhibit labels. 

I’d describe the narrator as cynical -- he clearly doesn’t think too highly of the art in the museum -- and maybe a little crazy, but what I love about this form is that one can’t really know what the curator/narrator really thinks: his cynicism is clear in the way he describes the artists and paintings, but because we only see him through what he’s written, it’s hard to know how much of what he says is true, how much of it might be him poking fun at the museum.

Q: Additionally, interspersed with the labels are occasional, untitled passages of prose that report on an elderly woman’s visit to the museum. This woman is part of a mystery that unfolds through the exhibit labels. These passages about her include reflections on memory and mortality, such as the sentence, “What good comes of remembering, she thinks, when there is so much present.” Art provides a way to live on despite death, and the exhibit labels preserve a story outside of just memories. What are your thoughts on preservation and impermanence as they relate to this book and your museum visits?
A: The recent art world documentary The Price of Everything does a great job of showing how commodified contemporary art has become, and how art circulates through auctions and private collectors and often stays out of the eyes of the public -- moving from gallery to auction block to private collection. The documentary also shows how overblown valuations come about through largely unregulated speculation -- Jeff Koons, for example: does anybody really like his balloon animals? Because of that, I think the art museum is vital in preserving our recent -- and not so recent -- cultural memory for the public as a counter to the idea that art should be collected and hidden away or displayed privately. So in that sense, we need museums to combat impermanence, even though what gets displayed in a museum and the narratives created with what’s displayed need to be regularly re-examined. 

One of my professors in grad school would talk about the word “medium” as it pertains to art -- oil paint, for example, being the thing that stands between the artist and their subject -- but then would point out that a medium is also somebody who speaks to dead people. That idea has stuck with me and is probably why there are actual ghosts in the book, but it’s a great way of thinking about memory and art and writing -- the value’s not just in what you see or read, but how art and books create conduits to other people’s brains in a way that nothing else can. So the museum’s not just preserving works of cultural (and monetary) value, but it’s also preserving the stories embedded in the work.

Q: There will be an art show inspired by the exhibit labels in Cincinnati, the dates and details for which to be announced. How did this come about? What do you think it will be like to see your writing transformed into a painting or other piece of artwork?
A: My wonderful editor at Acre Books, Nicola Mason, is orchestrating this in conjunction with the Department of Art, Architecture, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. I’m not sure what it’ll be like -- this is something I had thought about at some point, how it might be cool to ask an artist to make a painting or two, but never imagined an actual exhibit, so I’m very excited to see what happens! Some of the artists participating are old and dear friends. What’s especially exciting to me is how the book, which I imagined in part as a critique of the art museum, will be in communication with actual artists -- how the book will, via the exhibit, have this creative life I hadn’t imagined for it. 

Q: In addition to this exhibit related to your book, what are you working on next?
A: I’m circulating another more traditional novel manuscript right now and working on two other things that I think might become books -- it’s probably too early to tell if I’ll stick with either of them, though. One’s about a man who thinks he’s being followed around by an “extra man” who came back on one of the Apollo missions, heavily inspired by J.G. Ballard.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Matthew Kirkpatrick reads from "The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art" along with Joe Sacksteder (see related interview) at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor on Monday, July 1, 7 pm.