Curators: The Younger Than Jesus Effect
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
School of Visual Arts, MA Curatorial Practice Department, New York
“I was wondering whether anyone has anything good to say about age as an organizing principle?” someone asked during the audience Q&A for “Curators: The Younger Than Jesus Effect,” a discussion hosted by the School of Visual Arts. Jenny Jaskey, director and curator of Hunter College’s Artist’s Institute, recoiled, “No one thinks it is.” When the next audience member rephrased the query—Is there an artist under 30 that you do like?—the five curators on the panel, all based in New York, were smiling but clearly looked uncomfortable. Alaina Claire Feldman, director of exhibitions at Independent Curators International, said flat out, “I think that’s exactly what we’re here not to talk about…. I kind of refuse that question.” Then why, I scratched my head for the hundredth time, are we even here?
Jaskey is allergic to the expectation that she assume her role to be a trendsetter, aggregator, and finder of cool things for people. Feldman recommended that people resist perpetuating trends and the market, and the artist, critic, and curator Chris Wiley concurred. “I don’t really want to be the biased person who names those names,” he said, blaming the short-attention-span economy of the internet for his reticence. Wait—isn’t a contemporary curator’s primary responsibility to select, to choose one artist or object over another? “There are tons of artists under the age of 33,” Wiley let slip, “who I think deserve a tremendous amount of attention and who are making incredibly interesting work.” Then why was it so painful for these curators to identify publicly a few artists making cool stuff, or to praise a few recent exhibitions that excited them? Is the specter of the art market so incredibly suffocating that art-world professionals have become paralyzed with fear to simply say what they like?
The teaser text for “Curators: The Younger Than Jesus Effect” promised a conversation on how “The global youth-obsession is manifest throughout contemporary society, including the complex relations of novelty, celebrity, capital, and youth in the art world and the curating of exhibitions.” Taking into account the exhibition The Generational Triennial: Younger Than Jesus, held at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 2009, the audience likely expected an investigation into “what might be called the Younger Than Jesus Effect,” because “This show turned the parameters of curating by age limit into a lively debate about talent and how it is recognized, nurtured, represented, and distributed.” Tonight’s participants were supposed to be “contending with the mechanisms of youth, novelty, and the market” and they would tell us “how they have navigated the narcissism of institutional power.”
Unfortunately, the assembled group preferred to avoid these subjects, and when they did talk about age, the discussion was slight. It turned out that the age of the curators, all 33 and younger, was the sole organizing principle of the panel, which superficially mirrored the conceit of the exhibition whose conditions it aimed to critique. If one can generalize about a generation of curators, based on these speakers, then one can say with confidence that this generation is equivocal, meaning curators are uncomfortable and defensive about discrimination, bias, and judgment, which is puzzling since a contemporary curator’s core function is to select. “It’s not me who does that,” the panelists knee-jerked, with only one person (Wiley) approaching a stance that it’s no big deal, that an exhibition organized by age can attempt to define a generation or a specific period of time.
Despite a rambling introduction, the moderator Jovana Stokic, deputy chair of the master’s degree program in curatorial practice at the School of Visual Arts (and the only participant who was older than Jesus when he was crucified), managed to describe the ideas behind the panel’s tongue-in-cheek, provocative title: youth, novelty, commodification, and fetishization. Curators, Stokic said, “have a mission, a messianic role to save the art, the eternal art.” Throughout the event I strained at times to hear her words, and even when I recognized a few, her sentences made little sense. Stokic didn’t want the imminent discussion to summarize anything—what a surprise—but rather open a discussion. How about continuing the “lively debate” that started five years ago, when the New Museum show opened? God forbid anyone take a position, propose solutions, or highlight successful activity from the past. Instead, at nearly every opportunity the panelists washed their hands of the topic.
Speaking first was David Everitt Howe, an art critic and the curatorial/development associate for a nonprofit space called Participant Inc., who announced his decision to “go a little bit off topic from the get-go.” He wanted to know the responsibilities of the institution to show diversity in race, age, and sex—a topic worthy of discussion, maybe at another panel or as the subject of an investigative essay. We did learn of Howe’s background: he began organizing exhibitions that often involved artists he met in the MFA program at Columbia University, where he was a graduate student in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. He worked with these friends and acquaintances (whom we assume are about the same age as him) out of “proximity and convenience,” and because he didn’t have budgets to invite older, established artists into his curatorial projects. Fair enough.
Howe awkwardly recapped an anecdote about including the fictitious artist Donelle Woolford in The Color of Company, an exhibition he organized at the Abrons Art Center, where he had a curatorial residency in 2011. As a black female artist from the South, Woolford would have been perfect for his show, Howe said, but later learned that she’s the creation of a white male artist, Joe Scanlan, who was then teaching at Yale University. “The art gods shat over me for this show,” he said disappointedly, but kept Woolford’s work, an abstract piece, in his show for formal reasons. The 2014 Whitney Biennial controversy surrounding Woolford, Scanlan, and the exhibition’s curator Michelle Grabner is well documented in online articles and blog posts, with many siding with the YAMS Collective, which withdrew from the biennial in protest because Scanlan’s work offended its members. Was Howe coming clean for his past curatorial sins? Was he making excuses for supporting Woolford’s work instead of defending his decision? It seemed like it. Instead of framing this episode as an instance in which a curator can drop his or her support of an artist whenever the critical tide turns, Howe shifted the blame to opaque institutions that aim to suppress or avoid dialogue. I nodded at his notion of a changing “alternativity” in society, but his advocacy of curatorial transparency struck me as ill advised.
Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, had spent all day installing the upcoming show, Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond, which she organized with her senior colleague Eugenie Tsai. Like Howe, she began her career curating shows with artist friends. And, like Howe, she wanted to change the panel’s subject, from “youth” to “emerging.” “My thing is that you can be emerging at any age,” she said, describing the longevity of careers, how artists can do weird stuff that people love or hate, make bad decisions, and double back again. Curators, too, should have jobs at age 60, she said. I can’t imagine anyone who would disagree and hope that curators of all ages have the freedom to experiment and occasionally fail. Institutional curators certainly need an organizing principle to justify their work, but if any differences exist between putting together a geographic-specific exhibition (such as Crossing Brooklyn) and a show based on age, Hockley didn’t say. Following Howe, she related curatorial ethics to curatorial transparency but admitted she wasn’t sure what either concept means.
Hockley revealed that she uses an organic process when organizing exhibitions, through studio visits, conversations with people, and her emotional responses to works of art. “These things feel good together,” she recalled after doing many studio visits for Crossing Brooklyn. “This looks like a show.” Artists who look at the world around them pique her interest, but not those with a “hermetic practice,” which indicates her predilection for social practice—the focus of Crossing Brooklyn—over traditional painting and sculpture. I found her binary framework to be misguided: just because a person’s art isn’t engaged with the world doesn’t mean the artist is aloof to social and political concerns. Hockley ended her solo presentation with an anecdote about a recent conversation with a curator of Egyptian art at the Brooklyn Museum, exclaiming to the audience that “He’s literally talking about things from Jesus’ time!”
If Chris Wiley wasn’t the voice of reason, at least he articulated a perspective that attempted to address the panel’s subject. He believes the curator’s role is to be an advocate, supporter, and nurturer; as an organizer of exhibitions himself, he advocates the photography of his peers. One of the notable things he said was this:
The primary onus of the curator is to tell a story about art, and within that, to allow the artists to tell their own stories. And if those stories happen to be about the world in this very pointed political and engaged fashion, then so be it. But I think that there is perhaps too much curatorial emphasis on a heavy-handed approach to using the artist as a tool to speak about the world rather than letting the artists speak about the world themselves.
His remarks deserved a standing ovation, though it must be said that art audiences can also learn from curators who bend the intentions of artworks and their makers to fit a particular vision.
Wiley worked directly on Younger Than Jesus, writing and editing materials for the catalogue and the reader; he also wrote the wall labels. The character of our present art world, he said, is different from that of Younger Than Jesus, especially regarding how art is consumed, looked at, and valued. How so, I wondered. And how different might 2009, the year in which the New Museum show took place, compare to three years earlier, a time when dealers and collectors allegedly trolled the open studios of MFA programs in the greater New York area looking for fresh, young, sexy blood. Wiley said that Younger Than Jesus was the among the first museum appearances for current art stars such as Ryan Trecartin, Elad Lassry, and Liz Glynn. The reader was “entirely open source,” that is, it wasn’t an edited book but instead reprinted what the artists sent to the museum and what was found online. Thus the project was, in Wiley’s words, “egalitarian and useful.” The exhibition and its title were “designed to be controversial,” he disclosed. “Part of the curator’s job is to bring people in the door.”
Two trends in contemporary art pursued by young artists unsettle Wiley: the rise of process-based abstract painting and the rise of global postinternet aesthetic, which he eloquently defined as “art that materializes the aesthetics of the internet in physical space.” These two genres, he argued, have dominated the way we think about youth, but he interestingly noted that they have no institutional support. Museums would “be run out of town on a critical rail” if they mounted a painting show of what the artist and writer Walter Robinson has called Zombie Formalism. “And collectors still wouldn’t care.” Putting the art market aside (which needs to be done more often), that’s precisely the reason why a curator should take on the undesirable task to historicize and contextualize this widespread practice. “Why are so many artists making work in this way?” is an important question not just to ask but to answer. Three writers have attempted to do just that. Articles by Raphael Rubinstein for Art in America in 2009 and 2012, Sharon L. Butler for the Brooklyn Rail in 2011, and Lane Relyea for Wow Huh in 2012 present convincing theories on the style. What’s more, each writer deals with discrete sets of artists that could serve as the basis of an exhibition.
Wiley offered interesting observations on new-media art. For instance, the first generation of postinternet artists were critically addressing how technology affects our lives, focusing on the posthuman, the singularity, the human brain, and biological augmentation. The newer generation, he continued, assimilates the aesthetic tropes of those earlier artists—which are only two or three years older—to create an “aesthetic pastiche of this previous work.” He favors the work of Josh Kline, who blends and inserts substances such as Red Bull, Emergen-C, spirulina, and gasoline into plastic intravenous bags and calls it an Energy Drip (2013), over the Jogging, an image-based Tumblr blog founded in 2008 whose aim, Wiley said, is to take “interesting, charged signifiers and smash them together to make a thing that’s meme-able.”2 The Jogging reduces ideas to images, he concluded, just as the vogue of process-based abstract painting severs itself from historical abstraction.3
Alaina Claire Feldman spoke about looking for blind spots in curating and art history—surfing the recent trend of rediscovering neglected artists—and doesn’t just focus on contemporary work. I’m not interested in age, she said, but rather in a “generational consciousness” and how artists present it and curators frame it. Rather than explain this notion, Feldman launched into an extended chronological presentation of her own career: her involvement in the scene at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, a gallery run by a collective of cool-kid artists called the Bernadette Corporation; how the Great Recession in 2008 and other significant New York events made her rethink life and stuff; moving to France to continue her studies (which were free), work for a journal called May, and learn French on the cheap; and settling down at Independent Curators International. She also described the impact of Occupy and Hurricane Sandy on her circles of friends and summarized several exhibitions, screenings, and symposia that she organized over the past couple years. Feldman sure has kept busy; she also drops a lot of names, too.
Jenny Jaskey declared that nearly all the artists with whom she works are older than Jesus, with a median age of 52. This begs the question: Why was she invited to speak? Jaskey equated youth with the art world’s obsession with “the new,” an intriguing proposition that deserved further exploration. Instead, she urged us “to consider time more carefully” in order to understand contemporary art. Like Howe and Hockley, Jaskey wanted to reframe the discussion, distancing herself from the panel’s subject in favor of talk about horizons and returns. After giving a few illustrations of her circular notion of time, Jaskey ended her presentation with two questions: “What are our curatorial priorities?” and “How do they fail to meet the demands of our times?” I wish this had been the starting point of her talk, with her providing answers to these questions as they relate to “complex relations of novelty, celebrity, capital, and youth in the art world and the curating of exhibitions,” as the panel description promised. Jaskey recommended that we follow art and not be distracted by our times, which sounded like the type of ahistorical, escapist work made by artists excluded from Hockley’s Crossing Brooklyn.
Opening the conversation among the panelists, Stokic made some incomprehensible statements about curatorial responsibility to the world. So aimless were these remarks that I couldn’t tell if she was muttering to herself, the panelists, or the audience. Panelists made their own scattered observations for a good while. Hockley wants to curate what she likes but is too oppressed by money and the market. Feldman said curators shouldn’t fit artists into a theme—“That’s, like, the worst thing ever” she spat out—but why foreclose this curatorial approach, which can yield interesting results? Her assumptions about young contemporary artists disregarding the history of abstract painting and working in so-called isolation, and suggesting that people go out more and get internships, make my jaw drop. At several times the panelists began commenting on a specific subject, such as a recent performance at the Kitchen, but lost the plot along the way. Instead of regrouping, they kept talking. This is what happens when a moderator fails to take charge of her discussion.
Despite having earned an MA in curatorial studies from Columbia, Howe questioned the usefulness of such degree programs. No academic training prepares you to be a good curator, he said, and a fledgling curator should instead focus on taking risks, failing, and meeting artists—doing what you want to do and “getting your hands dirty.” Feldman quickly read a list of names and ages of art-world figures—Gertrude Stein (30), Kasper Koenig (23), Walter Hopps (23), Claire Hsu (23) of the Asia Art Archive, and Harald Szeemann (24)—when they assumed prominent positions. “Maybe we’re old now,” Feldman trailed off. If any 23-year-old museum directors exist, she doesn’t know who they are. At least someone did some historical research before showing up tonight.4 An audience member inquired about privilege and access, but Hockley responded with a comment about longevity and sustained careers. Wiley wondered how things are different today than in the 1960s, when it was possible to make a living as a writer.
Wiley also touched on prohibitive student debt for young people, and Hockley noted that it’s important for graduate schools to mix artists and historians. Someone asked a question about the generation of curators that has came after the symbolic figure of the global curator of the late 1990s. Is there a gap in the education system? Stokic stumbled through an explanation that MA students in curatorial practice takes studio-art class to learn compassion and to recognize the difficulty of making art. I, too, have observed an imbalance in higher education in the arts for many years: often MFA students are required to take courses in art history, but MA and PhD students in art history remain relatively unexposed to the material properties of art and the processes by which art objects are made.
The panelists were stumped to make distinctions between the kinds of art shown in commercial galleries and in nonprofit spaces. They also couldn’t tell the difference between the qualities or roles of nonprofit and for-profit curators, while at the same time expressing anxiety about exhibitions in nonprofits that sell out. “The artist should not be pressured to sell their work in a nonprofit,” Howe said, “The artist’s work is not obligated to sell.” But is it a bad thing when it does? The curators agreed that galleries that make money from nonprofit budgets are pervasive in New York. How does that work, exactly? Howe noted that patrons of Participant Inc. buy art at Gagosian Gallery, one of the top commercial venues for contemporary art. The funding sources for nonprofits (I think) are different in Europe.
Stokic acknowledged that the perspective of commercial galleries on the panel would have been represented by the invited-but-absent Piper Marshall, who has worked as a freelance curator for Mary Boone Gallery since early 2014 but who spent six years as a curator for the Swiss Institute, a New York nonprofit. Jaskey thinks about long-term goals and said that her space, the Artist’s Institute, “should offer the artist something different” than another commercial opportunity. Since the institute is part of a public university system, I found it odd that it leans toward supporting the work of well-known, middle-aged artists such as Pierre Huyghe, not students from Hunter College or artists that have few if any commercial opportunities. Since galleries take care of artists more than anyone else does, according to Jaskey, I feel terrible for a creator, young or old, without a gallery.
An audience member (who sounded like the writer Orit Gat) asked the curators if they had ever considered starting their own institution. No one really had, and I don’t blame them. It’s a relief to have a stable, salaried job with benefits at a longstanding institution, which occasionally has the capacity for progressive,meaningful change. Feldman described a recent crisis at Independent Curators International, which nearly went bankrupt in 2008. The incoming director Kate Fowle gutted the nonprofit, Feldman said, and seriously questioned its relevance. A better organization resulted, and Feldman is thankful that ideas and criticism from its employees are welcomed. The audience member agreed: “You have to be young and stupid to start organizations.” On the panel’s request, this person threw out the names of several groups—P! in New York and Arcadia Missa and Auto Italia in London—that are working with hybrid models of curatorial work and entrepreneurship to produce and sell work. See how easy it was to name names?
A major flaw of “Curators: The Younger Than Jesus Effect” was the lack of such concrete examples. While the panelists occasionally referred to Younger Than Jesus, no one discussed the 2009 exhibition and its critical and curatorial aftermath with any depth; nor did they mention the approach in the New Museum’s 2012 edition of the triennial, The Ungovernables, or prophesize about the upcoming 2015 iteration. Nobody brought up Lonely Girl, organized last year by Asher Penn for Martos Gallery, whose seven female artists were all in their twenties, nor did anyone reach into the not-so-distant past (e.g., Another Girl, Another Planet from 1999). No one counted age beans for the Whitney Biennial and Greater New York. Without case studies and confirmed research—which neither the panelists nor the moderator really bothered to present—the conversation about age and youth in the contemporary art world failed to transcend personal anecdotes, reactionary feelings, and vague abstractions. What a pity.
In Terms Of count: 6.
1 Moreover, it became absurd to see each panelist constantly fiddle with the UGA adapter, jiggling it to connect the laptop to the video projector. It’s 2014 and people still can’t manage presentation technology. Why was it so difficult to rest the laptop on the table so that the equipment remained stable?
2 It wasn’t clear if Kline and the Jogging belonged to different generations. Though Kline resembles the earlier generation, according to Wiley’s breakdown, and the Jogging corresponds to the later group, both achieved recognition at about the same time. Oh, chronology.
3 Wiley took back his comment about the Jogging after Lauren Christiansen, a cofounder of the blog, spoke up during the audience Q&A.
Jennifer Burris, “The Younger Than Jesus Effect: A Conversation with Jovana Stokic,” On the Curatorial, September 29, 2014 (no longer available).