Touring The Art of Scent Exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design New York

Victoria’s Note: Today Daisy Bow will take us through the Art of Scent Exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. You may know Daisy from her comments here and from her fun blog, Cool Cook Style. Daisy recently completed her doctoral degree in French Literature from New York University, and she is currently teaching a course on French Food and Culture as part-time faculty at the New School. Her love affair with perfume began with Dune at the tender age of 14. She has smelled great ever since. 

“Scent can do what all art does: change the way we perceive the world,” says Chandler Burr, the director of the olfactory art department at the Museum of Art and Design. According to him, the fundamental concept for The Art of Scent exhibit, its layout, and its chronological organization has its genesis in a talk that he gave in 2008 at The Times Center when he was still the scent critic for the newspaper. For the sold-out event, individual blotters for each of the 15 different fragrances chosen were provided to over 400 guests. As the runners did their work, Burr played a piece of music that was also representative of the style of the scent distributed. Each work was accompanied by visual presentations of painting, sculpture, and architecture too.

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Since its opening in New York, much of the discussion on The Art of Scent has focused on how Burr uses different artistic movements and schools to talk about different works of olfactory art. Burr emphasizes that “none of these analogies are exact.” The parallels drawn between scent and other mediums exist to provide us an intellectual tool with which to talk about it as art. “I want to place scent as an artistic medium in the center of all the arts: music, dance, literature, painting, and sculpture. [Scent is] just one medium. Each medium is different. Some of them used certain schools and some of them didn’t. For example, Romanticism from roughly 1800-1840 was ascendant in literature, poetry, and painting. However Romanticism in music was in the late 1800’s. [Alfred] Einstein, the great cataloguer of music, takes the Romantic period up to 1940. Not every medium used it at the same time,” Burr explains.

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Not only is The Art of Scent crafted to provide a context in which to see how each work is representative of a style or a movement, the show is also a push towards making us more conscious of the language we use when we talk about scent. Burr is very careful about his words. Perfumes, for example, are works of olfactory art — or more simply works of art. Perfumers become olfactory artists.

“The reason I’m doing this,” Burr says, “is for us to be able to apply this incredibly rich, highly developed, argued over, thought over, constructed, reconstructed, and continually evolving language of art history and aesthetics. It’s a language like any other. It has strengths and flaws, but it is a language developed to allow us to look at works of art, which these are.”

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Organized around 12 scents, the exhibition moves from 1889 to 2012 and charts a trajectory from Romanticism to Post-Brutalism. The selection of Jicky for the first scent in the chronology is to show the point where the introduction of synthetic raw materials allowed olfactory artists to break with the perfumery of the past. Liberated from the limitations of an exclusively natural palette, these visionaries were able to transcend and transform scent from works of artisanship to works of art.

The exhibition, designed by the architectural team of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is divided into two rooms: a white and spare main gallery in which you place your head in indentations in the walls to smell the scents. These “dimples” isolate you from outside distractions as a diffuser element emits a puff of air when it senses you are close. The focus of second room is a long glass table in which each scent is found in liquid form. Blotters are provided for you, as well as the presence of a trained museum staff member to help facilitate your visit. These staff members also provide you iPads programmed with various descriptors that you can select to be projected onto the far wall.

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These descriptors, Burr points out, are antithetical to his curatorial intent. Their inclusion reveals how complicated it is to mount any major museum exhibition.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the exhibit for me was the presentation of five mods for Trésor, created by Sophia Grojsman in 1990. The story of the scent is “encapsulated” in 5 cards that you can take with you. Moving from Mod 1 to Mod 5, the final version of Trésor, you can reflect on the final scent’s development. According to Burr, it was actually Mod 4 that attracted the attention of Lancôme when Grojsman, who was only experimenting with it as something for herself, wore it to a meeting. The Mods 1-3 were developed by Grojsman to help to create a story for the exhibition through accords.

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I would not hesitate to recommend seeing the show (even more than once) before it closes on March 3. The Art of Scent presents a good opportunity to smell great fragrances, reflect on what makes them great, see how they fit into an art historical timeline, and understand how each work can be taken as representative of a specific school or artistic movement. Since talk of its creation, The Art of Scent has elicited a tremendous amount of dialogue about perfumery, perfume, and perfume as art, as well as provided a subject for debate over the scents chosen for the exhibition. The show has definitely gotten people talking and thinking about perfume. In this sense, it has been very successful.

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The Art of Scent is on display at the Museum of Art and Design located at 2 Columbus Circle in New York City until March 3. More information on the show and the museum can be found here.

If you have visited the exhibit, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Photography by Daisy Bow

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34 Comments

  • Noele: ‘Olfactory art’ is an intriguing concept. I’m quite eager for the day Sissel Tolaas does a dedicated exhibition here in the US, but this is the next best thing, and you’ve just convinced me to buy a ticket to NY. Aside, I think it’s about time we all have access to a National Perfume Library…the world needs this resource! Though I imagine something equivalent exists in Victoria’s possession :) February 8, 2013 at 8:51am Reply

    • Daisy: A Sissel Tolaas show would be fascinating! That reminds me of another show that was briefly in the city that I missed (it closed yesterday): The Les Christophs ICONOSMS exhibition at the Dillon Gallery.

      http://www.nstperfume.com/2013/01/24/les-christophs-iconosms-exhibit-in-new-york-city/

      I think The Art of Scent is a strong opener for the Museum. It very much makes me look forward to seeing what comes next. The events connected to the exhibition are also not to be missed. I was lucky enough to be at the Etat Libre d’Orange -Après midi d’un faun one and it was fantastic. Do try to get tickets to one of the remaining ones if you go! February 8, 2013 at 3:10pm Reply

  • Ariadne: This is just fascinating…thank you for the great pic’s and article!!!
    The thing I most like about perfume is that it prompts dialogue, often between perfect strangers who quickly are not. February 8, 2013 at 9:17am Reply

    • Daisy: Thank you, Ariadne, for the kind comment! I think that is exactly what the second room of the exhibit emphasizes. The smaller space helps to facilitate dialogue because you are close to other people sniffing and exploring too. February 8, 2013 at 3:25pm Reply

  • nastja: I went and found it fascinating and sensual. I’ve never had perfume spritzed in my nose directly by an invisible mechanism:) (who has?) the sensation was almost violent, like tolerating a needle to get a gorgeous tattoo (i exaggerate, but only slightly). The most interesting part for me was the perfume workshop on the 5th floor, where you could ask questions, smell the oils, and watch a perfumery student at work and make some chords together. What I found slightly odd or disconcerting is that we were smelling the essential oils and absolutes, whereas the perfumes themselves are largely synthetic, so there was this disconnect that, it felt, to address would be almost a faux-pas. But anyway, Chandler Burr did an amazing job and the exhibit was like nothing I’ve ever seen, I mean smelled. February 8, 2013 at 9:19am Reply

    • Daisy: That mechanism kind of surprised me too! I felt like I was at the optometrist’s. You know, when you go for an eye exam and that machine puffs air into your eyes? I tensed up a little!

      Did you see the show on a Thursday? I think your talking about the Open Studios for the Artists in Residence. Currently, Ralf Schwieger is kicking off the olfactory artist series. I bet it was so much fun seeing him in the studio. Was it him and a perfumery student? I didn’t get the chance to see him on the 5th floor, so you will need to let me know!

      At the ELdO event, we smelled some natural raw materials in addition to two synthetic ones. I think the percentage varies per scent, but I would imagine that almost fine perfumes are a combination of both unless the perfumer has decided otherwise. February 8, 2013 at 3:39pm Reply

      • nastja: Daisy, I went on a Saturday, and it was a student, a really knowledgeable and charming guy who skipped lunch so he could keep working with us. It was like being in a candy store!

        Your eye-puff-machine analogy is spot on! It was exactly like that, I remember scrunching my eyes shut so as not to get sprayed there!

        Yea, makes sense that the typical perfume formula these days is a blend of both natural and synthetic, but I wish we had smelled more synthetic. You can walk into any aromatherapy shop like Enfleurage (which I love btw, they’ll let you smell and smell!) but how often do you get to compare aldehydes and synthetic musks? Maybe I should’ve asked! February 8, 2013 at 6:50pm Reply

        • Daisy: Thank you for the additional detail, Nastja! Now I must definitely go back for the Open Studio! That sounds fascinating and like so much fun.

          At the ELdO event, they passed around blotters of Isobutyl Quinoline (leather) and Evernyl (Moss) while Burr interviewed Etienne de Swardt, Justin Vivian Bond, and Ralf Schwieger about the scent’s creation. Smelling the raw ingredients was fantastic, but smelling those two synthetics really caught my attention. I don’t know if I would have ever said “leather” if someone just handed me a blotter of Isobutyl Quinoline without any context. And I didn’t find that the Evernyl smelled like much, but when I moved the blotter away from my face, it just radiated out.

          If you get to go back to the Museum, do ask what else they have back there! I am curious! February 10, 2013 at 10:36pm Reply

  • Patt: Fascinating article, and only the upcoming snowstorm in the NE keeps me from hopping the next Amtrak to NYC. One comment: I think that the exhibition (sadly) ends on March 3, which doesn’t give us much more time to experience
    it. February 8, 2013 at 9:27am Reply

    • Daisy: You are absolutely correct, Patt: the show does end on March 3. Thank you so much for catching that! It has now been corrected.

      And this snowstorm looks like a doozy. I just walked home in it. It don’t think I would call it snow right now, but tiny shards of blowing ice!

      There is still a little less than a month left for The Art of Scent. But I’m sure that the Museum’s future offering will be just as interesting. February 8, 2013 at 3:45pm Reply

  • Elizabeth: It is an interesting idea for an exhibit. I wish I had gone earlier, but now I am confined to my home with an injury and doctor’s orders not to return to normal activity until late February. I will try to go on one of the last days! One of Burr’s lines annoyed me, though: Romanticism in music only came about in the late 1800s? Has he never heard of Schumann and Schubert? February 8, 2013 at 9:46am Reply

    • L.: The use of these “labels” applied to perfume is problematic. Their use should be viewed as an invitation to a discussion of the artistry in perfume, but I sometimes feel that Burr is using these terms didactically. Given the info in this post, I might blame his various interviewers for my impression. February 8, 2013 at 11:27am Reply

      • moi: Yes, I feel the same way. While I certainly believe a strong case can be made for perfumes having artistic qualities, are they, in fact, Art? I’m not quite sure. A high-level Craft, yes. But much in the way one does not look at a beautiful sofa and say, “Expressionist” I think imposing an “ism” of any kind onto a perfume is also a bit of a stretch. It may have a modern or romantic vibe–much as the sofa may be Mission or 1970s-style–but that’s as far as I think it’s useful to take it. February 8, 2013 at 2:33pm Reply

        • Daisy: Hi Moi. True, the idea of an “Expressionist sofa” rings a a bit strange to me too. As you pointed out, some artistic movements can have greater application for some mediums, and less or none for others. I like to think of the language of art history as another tool in the toolbox, so to speak, to talk about scent.

          The difference between art and craft? Or art and artisanship? That would be another interesting discussion! February 10, 2013 at 10:59pm Reply

      • Daisy: I think that Burr would welcome a discussion about the labels used, despite the impression that other interviewers might have given. The show is definitely an invitation to debate. For example, one might ask if not these labels, what others might be more appropriate? Or if we use these artistic movements and schools, are these scents the most representative of them? Which ones might be better?

        As an intellectual exercise, it really has the potential to open up different ways to talk about what we smell and how we think about it. February 10, 2013 at 10:46pm Reply

        • Daisy: The previous comment was intended for L! February 10, 2013 at 10:47pm Reply

    • Daisy: Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth! I’m not sure if that is exactly what Burr is saying. I think that he is just giving an example sometimes the generally accepted academic parameters for artistic schools and movements can vary depending on the medium. February 8, 2013 at 3:49pm Reply

  • L.: Daisy, could you follow up and find out if the essays in the catalog are available as a pdf or other e-format? February 8, 2013 at 11:28am Reply

    • Daisy: Hi L, As far as I know, the exhibition catalogue essays are only to be found in the exhibition catalogue. But I will check and if they are available in another form, I will let you know! February 8, 2013 at 3:51pm Reply

      • L.: Thank you! February 9, 2013 at 11:25am Reply

  • Kate: The Wall Street Journal had an interesting review of the exhibit this week. I agreed with much of it. If the exhibit features mostly mainstream companies then the concepts of marketing and the slick packaging of perfumes should be addressed. Isn’t the marketing and packaging of these fragrances an integral part of their “art”? February 8, 2013 at 12:43pm Reply

    • Daisy: That is a very interesting article, Katie. I hadn’t read that earlier and thank you for bring it to my attention. I think that Burr is looking at these scents as works of art created by artists who have little to do with what the marketing. I don’t think that a fragrance’s name, packaging, advertising, etc has much, if anything to do with the person who actually creates the scent.

      However, you are absolutely right to point out that perfumes on the market exist as a complete package. This exhibit has its parallel to Burr’s Open Sky project in which he proposes stripping away all the marketing and packaging as a way to get you to focus on the scent itself.

      Many of the points raised in the WSJ article have also been said of the Open Sky Untitled series as well. February 8, 2013 at 4:25pm Reply

  • Bryan Ross: It closes on March 3rd or May 3rd? February 8, 2013 at 1:53pm Reply

    • Daisy: You are absolutely right in pointing that out, Bryan. It closes on March 3. Thank you for catching that. The post has been updated to reflect the correct date. February 8, 2013 at 4:09pm Reply

  • Andy: Thanks for such a fascinating post. I doubt I’ll get a chance to go see the exhibit before it closes, but I was very curious about it. A few years ago, Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA had an exhibit about scent, which I found to be outstanding. This one sounds wonderful as well. I don’t mean to get into any debate, but I was curious what you thought of the fragrance choices for the exhibit. Did they seem like good choices to you, in the context of the exhibit? February 8, 2013 at 4:25pm Reply

    • Daisy: Thank you for the kind comment, Andy. I just looked up the exhibit at Longwood Gardens and it looks like it was a great show. Thank you for telling me about it!

      When I toured the show with Burr, he provided context for each scent, telling me more about each movement or school. I could easily imagine what his talk at the Times Center must have been like.

      I think that these 12 are good choices. I’m sure that there were many other good fits with the artistic movements chosen too. Burr mentioned that he probably made hundreds of lists before finally deciding. But that just shows how open to debate it is, yes? February 10, 2013 at 11:19pm Reply

  • brie: Daisy-
    What a fantastic post! Thank you for sharing such a memorable experience that many of us who don’t live in the city cannot partake in. The pictures are great as well! As much as I adore your food blog I hope to see more posts of yours on perfume!!! February 8, 2013 at 4:50pm Reply

    • Daisy: Thank you, Brie, for your lovely comment and your support! I had a lot of fun writing this post and really thank Victoria for the opportunity, and Chandler for giving me the tour. February 10, 2013 at 11:25pm Reply

  • Chelsey: This is a wonderful article! Thank you so much for sharing it here. I live in Seattle and will not be able to make it to NY for this exhibit so it is nice to live vicariously through this post. Thanks again! February 9, 2013 at 1:36pm Reply

    • Daisy: Thank you, Chelsey! I hope that you will be able to catch one of the museum’s shows in the future. This is only the beginning! February 10, 2013 at 11:28pm Reply

  • Carla: We are going to NY over Easter and I was sorry to miss the exhibit, but the Wall St Journal’s overall negative review made me feel perhaps I won’t miss that much. I’m sorry the exhibit was not able to escape slick marketing, as per the WSJ. February 9, 2013 at 2:52pm Reply

    • Daisy: Hi Carla, Apart from the wall where the exhibition sponsors were listed (I know this is not unusual), I wouldn’t say that the show was slickly marketed. The room is bare and spare. The fragrance descriptions were really short. I also didn’t feel like the museum staff member was intrusive. I knew that she was there to talk (and maybe to prevent people from double dipping blotters too), but she never tried to sell me anything.

      I do look forward to seeing the direction that Museum’s future shows take. I hope that one in the future will appeal more. I wish you a lovely visit around Easter! The weather has generally calmed around then and is a bit warmer :-) February 11, 2013 at 11:30am Reply

  • Ksenija: Oh, if only I could be there. It looks and sounds amazing, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. February 9, 2013 at 3:52pm Reply

    • Daisy: It was fun! Hopefully, you will be able to come for the next one! February 11, 2013 at 11:31am Reply

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