The Museum embodies the ideas of postmodernism, and echoes the strategies of conceptual artists of our contemporary era and the recent past. . . . Isabella seems to have felt, in a very late twentieth-century way, that no object stands alone in its meaning, but is only important in how and why it touches the cultural issues of our lives.
— Josiah McElheny
Josiah McElheny wrote these words in an essay titled Now, forever, the Past shortly after his stay in the fall of 1998. McElheny was invited to be a resident at the Gardner by the former Tom and Lisa Blumenthal Curator of Contemporary Art Jennifer Gross, who saw his work in a gallery in New York. In that exhibition, McElheny crafted glass objects and placed them in museological displays. Although the objects appeared to be historical, they were made by McElheny, who created physical versions of, say, tumblers or vessels found in Renaissance paintings. The intersection of history, craft, and installation resonated with Gross, who saw in his work someone who would respond eloquently to Isabella Stewart Gardner's collection.
During his month at the Gardner, McElheny toured the galleries with Gross and then-director Anne Hawley and spent every morning outside in the garden, drinking coffee. He worked in the glassblowing studios at the Massachusetts College of Art refining ideas and objects for works that were subsequently featured in the exhibition the following year, "Josiah McElheny," January 22-April 25, 1999. One work was titled The Abominable Tumbler, and featured a cylindrical glass vessel, next to which appeared a framed page from Melville's Moby-Dick, as well as an enlarged excerpt from that page with a sentence reading: "Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison."
McElheny also made a work that responded directly to one of the works in the collection, Botticelli's Virgin and Child with an Angel. The Virgin's halo struck him as practically solid, although it also appears to float over her head. McElheny made a version of it in glass. "When the works in these series are presented as a whole," Jennifer Gross writes in her essay for the exhibition catalogue, "they represent the specific object as it exists as an ideal, beyond and between the physical forms that are actually made manifest in the world."
When he returned for the exhibition in 1999, he also participated in educational activities with students in the Gardner Museum's School Partnership Program.
Josiah McElheny was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1966, and lives and works in New York City. He has had solo exhibitions at Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. His work has been exhibited at SITE Santa Fe; the Whitney Biennial (2000); and the Carnegie International (2018). He is a 2006 MacArthur Fellow.