What's that smell? New York museum calls it art

NEW YORK — The nose rarely figures in the sensory experience of a museum visitor. That is about to change at one New York City museum.
The Center of Olfactory Art, dedicated to scent as an art form. was launched at the Museum of Arts and Design this month.
The center's first exhibition, "The Art of Scent, 1889-2011" which will open next November, will examine the reformulation and innovation of olfactory works by some of history's best-known perfumers through 10 seminal scents.
An audio guide, narrated by Chandler Burr, former fragrance critic of The New York Times, will explain the context in which they were created. Each perfume will be identified only by artist and year to allow visitors to appreciate each as an independent work.
And do not expect fancy fragrance bottles, brand perfumes, design graphics and packaging to be part of the exhibit.
Visitors to "The Art of Scent" will experience each fragrance along a 6-foot-wide path that will follow the curvature of the gallery wall where buttons on a specially designed atomizing machine will release "the work of art."
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"What we're going to be able to do ... with the center is place scent directly in the mainstream of art history and demonstrate that it is the equal of paintings, sculpture, architecture and all other artistic media," said Burr, hired by the museum as its — and America's — first curator of olfactory art.
More a curatorial department within the museum than a separate entity, the museum created the new center because "scent is a really interesting part of the world of design," museum director Holly Hotchner told The Associated Press.
It fits the institution's DNA as a "sensuous, sensory-orientated museum" where patrons can touch and feel many of the objects. And of course, smell is as much a part of the senses," she added.
With the center's launch, the arts and design museum is the only one to study fragrance as art. A museum in Grasse, France, focuses on the history of perfume, and another perfume museum in Madrid "is entirely about bottles," said Burr, who is also the scent editor at GQ magazine and the author of two books on scent.
Among the featured perfumes is Jicky, one of the first to use nonorganic ingredients and pave the way to the modern era of fragrances. Designed in 1889 by Aime Guerlain, Burr called it "the first work of modern perfume art ... and the first major perfume to use synthetic molecules that freed the scent artist from nature."
"Jicky is one of the great neoclassicist, romanticist works of olfactory art of the late 19th century," he said. "It's an expression in this artistic medium of exactly the same aesthetic concern and intellectual concern and the artistic style used by (Jean-Auguste-Dominique) Ingres in painting and used in music by (Frederic) Chopin."
Scent artists or perfumers, colloquially known as "The Nose," are fragrance composers or painters. Among the masters featured in the exhibition will be Jean-Claude Ellena, whom Burr called "one of the most important artists alive in this medium."
"He is intentionally wiping away any reference to nature, effacing and erasing natural landmarks. He is doing work that is cutting edge in its forcing us to experience and rethink works of olfactory art," he added.
Other leading perfumers whose work will be shown include Olivier Cresp, creator of Angel, and Alberto Morillas and Annie Buzantian, whose Pleasures made the use of a carbon dioxide extraction that is considered a major technological advance in the art of perfume-making.
A pivotal role of the center also will be to present public programs, including informal discussions with scent artists and perfume industry executives talking "about the tension between olfactory works of art and perfume as product," said Burr.
Future shows will include a retrospective on Ellena's work; a technology exhibit demonstrating the use of synthetic molecules in perfume making; one on the raw materials that constitute fragrances such as Ugandan vanilla and Peruvian pink peppercorn. Many of the exhibitions will travel to other museums, Burr said.
The new center also will have an artist in residence program in which perfumers will work and be observed in MAD's artist studios creating new fragrances over a period of several months.
Because most people don't associate perfume with art, Hotchner said, the center will introduce them to the creative work of "very serious, very talented and very sought-after designers who are artists who create scent and have for hundreds of years."