High Museum’s “The Coca-Cola Bottle: An Icon at 100” not the real thing

Esther Bubley hi-res SONJ_25784_nt sm
1915 Patent Coca-Cola Contour Bottle. Collection of and © The Coca-Cola Company
1915 Patent Coca-Cola Contour Bottle. Collection of and © The Coca-Cola Company

Nonprofit status subsidizes museums through the public tax code… to foster diversity of independent thought, free from the narrow economic demands of business or the ideological commands of government. Today, that independence is being corrupted as the wall separating art museums from business activities is crumbling.” Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times

Knight’s impassioned editorial decrying the commercialization of museums fingered so many august institutions that even the most naïve reader would have to conclude that this particular horse is out of the barn and galloping down the road faster than American Pharoah.

Right there in the middle of his list of offenders is the High Museum’s The Coca-Cola Bottle: An Icon at 100, created in collaboration withThe Coca-Cola Company.

When asked to comment about the article, the High responded: “The 100th anniversary of the Coca-Cola bottle’s design presented an exciting time for the High to partner with The Coca-Cola Company to develop an exhibition that explores the creative legacy of the bottle. The story of the Coca-Cola bottle’s iconic design and its impact on worldwide culture began right here in Atlanta, so the High felt it was fitting to present the exhibition at the Museum.”

The evolution of the iconic bottle is a legitimate story, and the section devoted to it is a tasty piece of design history. This small section of the current show, with material loaned from Coke’s archives, would have been a concise and appropriate nod to the anniversary.

But the museum chose to devote the lobby and second floor of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing to the topic, and, in straining to fill the space, purportedly to address the Coke bottle’s “impact on 20th and 21st century visual culture,” settled for contrived themes and questionable inclusions. A show that has all the rigor of a birthday present to a generous sponsor is an unseemly use of real estate.

Alfred Eisenstaedt: Little Boy Selling Coca-Cola at Roadside, Atlanta, Ga., 1936, gelatin silver print. Collection of The Coca-Cola Company.
Alfred Eisenstaedt: Little Boy Selling Coca-Cola at Roadside, Atlanta, Ga., 1936, gelatin silver print. Collection of The Coca-Cola Company.

It’s not that all of the work is inferior. The wedge gallery contains a selection of wonderful photographs by masterful photographers, all from the High’s collection, all of which contain a Coca-Cola bottle or advertisement.  I would wager, however, that for most of the artists, the Coke bottle was incidental to what they were trying to say. Coke appears in the photos because the company’s advertising was ubiquitous, its old weathered signs bespeak the rural South or the bottle just happened to be in the frame. To say that the bottle “inspired” William Christenberry or Sally Mann is just wrong.

Similarly, while it is interesting to see Andy Warhol’s Coke-themed work, it is questionable that, to quote the High, “the Coca-Cola bottle helped spur Warhol’s pioneering shift to his breakthrough pop art style.” To my mind, the reverse is true. Warhol’s fascination with consumer products made the Coke bottle an obvious choice and vehicle, just like Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes, which were closer to breakthrough images than Coke bottles.

There’s not much to say about the Coke-commissioned posters that fill one wall other than, why are they here? Ditto, a prominent vitrine filled with Nendo tableware made from recycled Coke bottles, which are for sale downstairs in the gift shop.

Nendo Bottleware, 2012. Photo © The Coca-Cola Company. Diagram courtesy of nendo
Nendo Bottleware, 2012. Photo © The Coca-Cola Company. Diagram courtesy of Nendo

You might argue that compromises are inevitable when government funding is abysmal and there are a lot of hungry mouths to feed. You might argue that mutually beneficial patron/museum relationships are nothing new. Having directed a nonprofit, I know about needs and temptations; far be it from me to be self-righteous about others’ lapses.

Still, a museum that does enough of these chummy shows (and this isn’t the first) ultimately undermines its credibility. It would have been less cynical to have put up a label saying “Here is a bunch of art with Coke bottles in it” than to wrap it in disingenuous curatorial premises.

Through October 4.

On home page: Esther Bubley: Coca-Cola Wall, Texas, 1945. Collection of Joyce Linker. Digital image courtesy Archives and Special Collections, University of Louisville, Kentucky.

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