The Carnival That Mocks the King

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This essay is the fourth of five that reviews a recent symposium at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Read the first, second, third, and fifth texts.

The Artist-Curator
Monday, April 7, 2014
Exhibit A: Authorship on Display
Center for the Humanities

Graduate Center, City University of New York, Skylight Room, New York

Installation view of Kazimir Malevich’s work in 0.10 (1915)

What happens when artists act as curators, organizing exhibitions for museums, commercial galleries, and other venues? Well, they become curators, if for one show only. Is this new? Is it a trend? What advantages and complications result when an artist takes on a different professional role? The third session for the conference “Exhibit A: Authorship on Display,” simply titled “The Artist-Curator,” explored these ideas and more.

In some ways, the artist as curator is as old as the curatorial professional itself, which developed in tandem with the rise of the modern public museum. Or so I imagine, since someone had to work in the Louvre and at the British Museum two hundred years ago. As the previous session demonstrated, artists organized exhibitions—usually of their own work—in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it seems little research has been conducted on curators from that time.

The current session’s moderator, Natalie Musteata, a doctoral student in art history at the Graduate Center, named a handful of significant artist-curated exhibitions from the last one hundred years: 0.10 in Russia, which featured works by Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and Lyubov Popova (1915–16); an exhibition of Surrealist objects in the Parisian gallery of Charles Ratton, a dealer of so-called primitive art (1936); Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox, held in several museums across the United States (1969–70); Richard Hamilton’s The Artist’s Eye in London (1978); the Artist’s Choice series at the Museum of Modern Art, whose inaugural event was a curatorial contribution from Scott Burton (1989); Joseph Kosuth’s The Play of the Unmentionable at the Brooklyn Museum (1990); and the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which features an artist, Michelle Grabner, among the three curators.

Installation view of Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox at the RISD Museum in 1970

A talk by the curator Florence Ostende titled “Exhibitions by Artists: Another Occupation?” added another exhibition to Musteata’s list, the International Exhibition of Surrealism of 1938. Ostende then explained how a demand by the Art Workers’ Coalition in 1969 for a committee of artists with curatorial responsibilities at MoMA was realized (in part) twenty years later through Artist’s Choice; she also noted two exhibitions by the artist Philippe Parreno, Snow Dancing (1995) and Alien Seasons (2002) as being projects that combined aesthetic and curatorial practices. For an important group show called The Uncanny (1993), the artist Mike Kelley rigorously researched his subject and used art-historical methodology, she said. Ostende also cited Jean-Luc Godard’s self-directed installation of Travel(s) in Utopia, Jean-Luc Godard 1946–2006, In Search of a Lost Theorem (2006) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and its abandoned predecessor, Collage(s) de France: Archaeology of the Cinema, as well as the Museum of American Art in Berlin, as examples of curatorial projects by creative types.

Acting as curators, Ostende told us, artists can subvert rules, turn things upside down, and present a “carnival that mocks the king.” While that may be generally true, and artists having a voice in an institution as powerful as MoMA is certainly important, it’s wrong to assume an artist curator would by nature resist conservative and safe approaches to exhibitions and challenge established categories and histories. After all, think about how often artists, when invited to give a lecture, follow a standard chronological method of presenting their work. It’s not that artists are inherently more imaginative and have more freedom than professional curators. I would expect an art exhibition organized by a lawyer, a plumber, or a biologist to be just as unconventional, even radically so. (Or not, considering the professional basketball player Shaquille O’Neal’s Size DOES Matter in 2010.) Rather, I would argue, institutional conventions, constraints, and inflexibility are factors that inhibit the organizer of an exhibition.

Ostende dated what she called the “decay of the empowerment of the curator” to the 1990s, which is, oddly enough, the decade in which the art world witnessed the rise of empowered curator, if we are to believe the traditional narrative. Perhaps Ostende referred to scholarly minded, museum-based curators in dusty institutions, not to roving agents such as Harald Szeeman and Walter Hopps or globetrotting stars like Okwui Enwezor and Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

In a talk titled “Gossip and Ridicule,” the sculptor Carol Bove positioned the artist’s career as a game to be played but wholeheartedly objected to the growing myth of a career as a single project, most crassly realized through the idea that everything an artist does is an artwork, based on the fact that he or she is an artist. In this situation, Bove said, the artist’s life is colonized by the career. “When the going gets professional,” she remarked, “the weird go away.” Her thoughts were especially provocative considering the erosion taking place between Americans’ work and personal lives, many are increasingly expected to be reachable after hours, in addition to the daily nine-to-five schedule.

Bove also said that “lying”—which I interpreted as withholding the truth rather than deliberate deception—is something that artists are allowed to do. Curators, on the other hand, with their budgets, boards, scholarship, and facts, lack this luxury. Nevertheless, she continued, curators lust after the looseness, personality, and potential for abuse that an artist can give to an artwork. Like Ostende, Bove articulated certain qualities that an artist curator can bring to an exhibition, but I reiterate that if a professional curator wants to organize more interesting exhibitions, he or she should closely examine his or her institutional situation and precipitate ways in which that situation can be changed, in both the short and long term.

Installation view of Carol Bove’s restaging of a 1993 gallery exhibition of work by Felix González-Torres

Bove’s sculpture, comprising wall-mounted shelves with decades-old books and small objects (stones, feathers) or composed of subdued, elegant juxtapositions of sizable pieces of wood, steel, and concrete, could be described as having a curatorial nature. Her intent with these works, however, is making art, but she was recently involved with selections for Felix González-Torres: Specific Objects without Specific Form (2010–11), a retrospective of work by the late Cuban American artist held at museums in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. The lead curator Elena Filipovic had organized the show at all three venues but, halfway through its duration, invited three artists—Bove, Danh Vo, and Tino Sehgal—to reinstall the works according to their own ideas. At Bove’s venue, the Fondation Beyeler, she restaged González-Torres’s 1991 show at Andrea Rosen Gallery, Every Week There Is Something Different, in which he switched out the works once a week. González-Torres was not the first to produce a solo show that resembled a group outing, Bove acknowledged, but he provided a template for it. And the result? “It looks exactly like curating,” she said.

Installation view of The Jewel Thief at the Tang Museum in 2010

For his talk, Ian Berry, curator of Skidmore College’s Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, declared that authorial roles shift even within a single project. A few years ago he worked with the artist Jessica Stockholder—an artist whose sculpture and installation are as much curated as they are constructed and painted—on The Jewel Thief (2010–11). This group exhibition of abstract painting, half of which came from the museum’s permanent collection and most of which was contemporary, was built from their in-the-studio conversations about the genre; it also emphasized the intersection of art with architecture and decoration. Berry said that he and Stockholder had fun choosing “hot and cold” artists, and works were grouped, hung, and installed in unconventional and playful ways. For her contribution, Stockholder created a multipurpose plywood platform that was used as an event space, a viewing space, and seating. You could say that she literalized the metaphoric “platform” fetishized by so many curators.

Josh Kline said he was asked to discuss ProBio (2013), a group exhibition on art, biology, and technology that he organized for MoMA PS1 last summer, but he hijacked his own talk to sort through the challenges emerging artists face, in particular those who curate. Artists today, he said, must become artist curators—which he explained through his own experiences. Working a day job at Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)—where he was director of public programs—Kline perceived himself as a curator who secretly made art. At one point he wondered if he would leave EAI for an institutional job or to open his own space, but was discouraged after the Great Recession began in 2008, when many galleries had either closed or become less experimental.

Installation view of Josh Kline’s work in ProBio (2013) at MoMA PS1

Kline was also suspicious of trajectory of emerging artists in the twenty-first century: gaining visibility at MFA degree shows, getting discovered, participating in group shows, getting a two-person show, and earning that coveted solo show in a gallery before moving onto art fairs and the “biennial circuit.” Prior models of career building didn’t cross his mind as a viable option. “Artist-run spaces,” Kline commented, “were something that happened in the seventies,” and he didn’t identify similar activities in New York—including Apartment Show, Real Fine Arts, Soloway, and Cleopatra’s—with that history. In 2009 he curated the inaugural exhibition (Nobodies New York) at 179 Canal, a space run by the artist, curator, and dealer Margaret Lee, whose initial idea was to throw art parties as an effort to help the landlord find tenants for the building in a bad real-estate market. (Lee’s studio was in the building.) During 179 Canal’s year programming, a scene developed, and other shows, such as Skin So Soft (2011) at Gresham’s Ghost, followed. Several of these artists, including Kline, now show at Lee’s critically acclaimed commercial gallery, 47 Canal.

The young artist-curators that Kline knows have worked as arts administrators, artist’s assistants, and art handlers or on gallery staffs—they have experience that comes from the real world, not expensive MFA programs. Those in his group include their own work in their curated shows, a common practice that some still find controversial or unethical. For ProBio, Kline gathered work by like-minded artists—including his own—exploring the dismembered, distributed, posthuman body through ergonomics, bacteria, depictions of the insides of the body, and use of nonarchival materials. (He also noted that this work differs from art about the body from the 1970s, which he described as dematerialized and antimarket.) Concluding his remarks, Kline finally explained that the title of his presentation, “Conservative Curation,” came from a traditional view of organizing exhibitions based on visits to artist’s studios, the interests of artists, and the “discovery of works that speak to our times.” He also believes that curation is a “tool to be used by artists” to present their work “on their own terms.”

DIS, Emerging Artist, 2013, video with color and sound, 1:04

During the Q&A, an audience member asked about a difference between an artist-curated exhibition and an artist’s installation work? The Kabakovs make a distinction, Ostende replied, but the lines are blurry elsewhere. The answer can be found, I think, not with a silver-bullet answer—which so many seem to want—but rather on a case-by-case basis. Kline does not consider his curatorial work to be art but acknowledges that Lee absorbs works of art by others into her exhibitions. Regarding The Jewel Thief, Berry affirmed that Stockholder was clear about what was and wasn’t her art.

The panelists discussed the curator as the primary creative force in an exhibition, eclipsing the roles of artists. Kline faulted graduates from curatorial-studies programs (like Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies) as those coming up with curator-centered exhibitions. He and his peers, he reemphasized, work in a different way, generating ideas from conversations in the studio. Berry said we learn interesting things from auteur curators, just like we find value in chronologically oriented shows. From the audience João Ribas suggested another curatorial genealogy—the collecting strategies of Alfred Barnes and Isabella Stewart Gardner—which derive from the nineteenth-century model of the connoisseur. This notion was off topic—Barnes and Gardner are not artists.

The panelists, from left: Natalie Musteata, Josh Kline, Ian Berry, Carol Bove, and Florence Ostende

A man in the audience said that he knows an artist who works as an institutional curator, and his dealers are telling him to stop. Another man suggested that artists become curators if they can’t find jobs. Someone asked a question about power, transparency, cronyism, and the decisions that lead to the work on the walls. The level of transparency, Berry replied, depends on the institution. Thankfully someone asked a positive question, about the pleasures of curating, to which Bove happily responded: “I feel like my entire MO is ‘look what I found!’”

As the session concluded, I thought about the anxiety many people have over what is and isn’t art, or what’s art and what’s curatorial work. It’s the intent of the artists, the panelists would probably agree. And it’s not too strenuous to make a distinction between roles. Reading and hearing about the debates covered in this session (and the overall conference) for many years has made me realized that scholars—not artists—are typically the ones who fret about creating categories, which is understandable considering their role as arbiters of history. What is strange is that these same scholars consistently often avoid challenging received wisdom regarding the authorial role of curators. When you break things down with case studies, as this and the other sessions did, you realize that generalizations many hold to be true are proved false again and again.

In Terms Of count: 4.

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IN TERMS OF

Reviews of lectures, panels, interviews, conferences, and other live speaking engagements in the visual arts.

 
Funding for In Term Of has been provided by the Arts Writers Grant Program.