The first-ever museum exhibition on perfume as an art form premiered at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in November 2011. Organized by MAD and curated by Chandler Burr, the scent critic for The New York Times, The Art of Scent, 1889–2011 examined 10 pivotal scents as works of art, crafted from both natural raw materials and synthetic molecules. A special installation designed by architect Toshiko Mori that utilizes atomizing machines also provided visitors with an olfactory experience for each work in the exhibition.
The Art of Scent highlights major stylistic developments in the history of olfactory art, beginning in the late nineteenth century—when the use of synthetic materials ushered in the modern era of fragrances—through the present day. Visitors could experience the work of leading scent artists, among them: Thierry Mugler, who created Angel, considered to be the paradigmatic gourmand work of the twentieth century; Jacques Cavallier, who introduced a more minimalist olfactory design in L’Eau d’Issey; and Alberto Morillas and Annie Buzantian, who, in using a carbon dioxide extraction in their influential Pleasures, mainstreamed a major technological advance in the art form.
"At MAD, we are always looking to push boundaries and question the hierarchies in art by exploring the materials and processes behind groundbreaking work,” said Holly Hotchner, the museum’s Nanette L. Laitman director. “There has not been the exploration or recognition of olfactory art as there has been of art that stimulates the other four senses. In plain language, this is a gamechanger.”
Presented in MAD’s second floor galleries, the exhibition facilitated a focused olfactory experience through the complete removal of bottling, design graphics, and other brand indicators. Free of their packaging, demarcated only by name, artist and year, the scent can be appreciated by visitors as independent works of olfactory art. The Art of Scent, 1889-2011 is accompanied by a catalogue featuring identically bottled samples of the ten works in the exhibition.
“Much as museum visitors typically follow the trajectory of modern art by viewing a succession of paintings, at MAD they will be able to explore the aesthetic evolution and creative innovations of modern and contemporary olfactory works using their sense of smell,” said exhibition curator Chandler Burr. “While these perfumes are often encountered, they are seldom acknowledged as the works of art that they are. My goal for this exhibition is to transform the ways in which people respond to scent artists and their art. The works presented in this exhibition are ones that have each had a profound impact on the history of this artistic medium."