Interview with Robert Storr, curator in The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, at MoMA, NYC, November 22, 1993, by Jason Edward Kaufman.
This is the unedited text of an interview that appeared in The Art Newspaper, March 1, 1994 (Issue 36):.
NEW YORK CITY. If The Museum of Modern Art is to continue to function as a codifier of the history of twentieth-century art, it must navigate the sea of contemporary art and extract works of significance and quality that can stand alongside the Modernist masterpieces of its permanent collection Moreover, it must accomplish this task with ever-decreasing acquisition funds. Perhaps this dilemma led to the September 1990 hiring of Robert Storr, a savvy downtown critic, to serve as a curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture with primary responsibility for contemporary art. An artist, teacher, lecturer, exhibition organiser, contributor to several glossy art magazine, and author of monographs on Chuck Close, Philip Guston, Louise Bourgeois, and Robert Ryman, Mr. Storr was, and is, the sort of insider to guide the museum through the complexities of the contemporary field. The Art Newspaper spoke with Mr. Storr about his own ideas about contemporary art, and about the program he envisions for MoMA.
JEK: The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition program is one of the most closely watched in the world. Could you please explain how exhibitions are conceived and approved at the museum?
RS: Rather like acquisitions, exhibitions are based on the initiative of a curator. The decisions about programs are done in-house and voted on by an exhibitions committee composed of the full curatorial staff from all departments. At the moment, the museum is trying to program exhibitions in groups such that contrasts will enhance what any one of them alone might be. For example, starting in 1996, Deborah Wye in [the Department of] Prints and Illustrated Books, and Magdalena Dabrowski who’s in [the Department of] Drawings, and I will organize a series of three major exhibitions about what happened in the European avant-garde between the end of the Second World War and the mid seventies, which is the period in which Americans were more pre-occupied with their own affairs than with what was going on in Europe. It’s the gap, if you will, between when America last thought of Europe as the center, and when, in the 1970s and early eighties, America began to realize how vital Europe had again become. The hope will be to tell the story of the European avant-garde without basing it on comparisons with American Pop Art, for example, or American Minimalism, but to talk about the European counterparts according to their own logic.
Will each of you handle that topic within your respective departments?
No. We’re going to do this as a team, so we’ll make no divisions according to media. The first show we will do together, the second Magdalena will do by herself, but in consultation with Debbie and me, and the third show, which is the biggest and will be a two-floor show which Debbie and I will share.
How will the shows differ from one another?
The first will deal with what happened to the idea of space in the late 1940s and early fifties, and the move from textured or physical surfaces in painting to literal space, environments, and so on. The central figures will be Klein, Fontana, Manzoni, and others. The second will deal with image appropriation and manipulation, with affichisme, capitalist realism, and things that were analogous to Pop, but were not Pop. [Featuring which artists?] And the third show, which is going to be called “Art By Other Means,” will deal with the effects of those earlier developments and the explosion of types and varieties of work that took place in the late sixties to the mid seventies, with performance, installation, video, process art, arte povera, conceptualism, and so on.
Other than the three European avant-garde exhibitions, what shows are you working on?
I am doing a smallish exhibition next Fall which will be about map imagery and map thinking, a sort of anthology of recent and not-quite-so-recent works. And I’m thinking about another show for 1995 which will be a large-scale group contemporary show , but I haven’t decided on a focus yet; it’s too soon. Also, I’m a participant in the “Bruce Nauman” show which will be here in 1995.
I’ve heard the museum is looking for an off-site space to be used primarily for contemporary art. How would you make use of it?
Well, there are parts of our historical collection which don’t get seen often enough either. It’s important that it not be a situation where there’s exclusively contemporary in one building and exclusively historical material in another. For the sake of both, the work should be spread out so the connections can be made between, for example, early Dada and recent kinds of object making. It’s better to show Duchamp in the context of found-object work in the contemporary field than to put him over in the hallowed hall of art history, and the others in the raw space of contemporary art. The general feeling is that the two spaces should have a good deal of overlap, though it’s still in discussion.
The museum has been revising its display of contemporary art. Can you explain what’s going on?
Two things have happened: Within the permanent collection area that is not rotated regularly, the chronology now goes up to 1964-65; previously we stopped at about 1959-60. So what [chief curator] Kirk Varnedoe has done is to absorb the next five years and to install objects that represent a more permanent continuation of the story. Starting after that date (across the third-floor stairwell) is the contemporary collection which will rotate and will be rehung at six- to nine-month intervals. As in the past, that will be a shared responsibility in the department, with the display depending on who hangs it — Kirk, [curator] Kynaston [McShine], or myself. But I think on all of our minds is a desire to view things that have not been seen often enough, to try to use those hangings as a chance to write an essay, if you will, about another way of looking at those years.
The museum recently expanded its galleries for contemporary art from [how many?] to 11,000 square feet? What motivated this?
Well, it was the desire to have enough room to properly show what we have. Even without recent large-scale pieces, we just have lots more contemporary work than we can show comfortably or regularly.
Isn’t it also to show and attract recent donations?
By general consensus in this museum, we don’t want to close off the history of Modernism at some arbitrary date simply for a lack of room to show it. But it’s not fair to ask people to give works if you’re not going to exhibit them. You can’t ask people to give things unless they know they’re going to be useful and seen. So we’re trying to maximize the space within this building, and eventually to expand beyond it.
Does this represent a greater commitment by the museum to contemporary art?
Absolutely. I certainly wouldn’t have come to this museum if I didn’t think there was that kind of commitment. The change of generations at the curatorial level has included new department heads in Design, Photography, Painting and Sculpture, and other curators such as myself. And we’re all very eager to see the museum deal with contemporary art with the same kind of breadth and complexity as our predecessors did with the historical past.
How many works will be hung in the rotating contemporary installations?
There’s no way of telling. Last year I did a temporary exhibition in the long gallery, the so-called basketball court and I opened it up and had thirteen works and a lot of empty space. That’s just one way of doing it. Other times you want to tighten it up because you want to show more things. It will vary with each curator’s interest.
Will there be an effort to make the rotating contemporary installation mesh with Mr. Varnedoe’s Modern and Twentieth-Century installation, to follow certain strands already emphasized by the museum’s historical collections?
I think there are many, many ways to take off from the stopping point of 1964-65, and that’s what we’ll see — many different ways. It’s not as if there is an institutional opinion here about what is the essence of contemporary art. There are substantial differences of opinion here, and this museum allows them to be expressed publicly.
Are there certain strands that you want to emphasize?
My way of doing things is improvising. When I write as a critic I sit down knowing that I’m interested in certain problems, but I never know where it’s going to come out. And when I hang, I do
the same thing. I order up things that interest me and I look for relationships. It’s a puzzle that has no foreseen solution. My view of these things is not to argue a case that you’ve already decided upon, but rather to let the things themselves speak and to suggest ideas.
Are you doing the contemporary reinstallation that opens in January after the “Ryman” show?
No, Kirk will do that while I’ll be going with the “Ryman” show to California.
How much of the contemporary galleries will be committed to temporary exhibitions, or will that vary?
After “Ryman” that part of the third floor will revert to contemporary collection space until Kirk’s “Cy Twombly” show next year. Then it will again revert to contemporary collection space until part of the “Bruce Nauman” show goes up, and then part of the “Jasper Johns” show. So they are multi-purpose spaces.
When you were hired in September 1990, what were your initial impressions of the museum’s contemporary collections?
When I began to look at what was in storage I discovered that there was a more extensive contemporary collection going back to the mid to late sixties than I had been aware of. But it was also obvious that the most concerted efforts had been made in filling in the work of the 1940s and fifties, as a result of which there were pretty substantial holes in what came after that. Part of what I’m trying to do, along with my colleagues [Painting and Sculpture curators] Kynaston McShine and Carolyn Lanchner, is to fill in those gaps. Those lacunae are not just the result of the previous collecting strategy, but in a larger way reflect the fact that until very recently the American art world was almost exclusively pre-occupied with itself, and in only now catching up with what happened in Europe and elsewhere during the 1960s, seventies, and early eighties. A lot must be done before we will be in a position to show international work of the post-war period in anything like the coherent and comprehensive sense that we can the work of the periods before.
For which areas of the collection are you responsible?
My main responsibility is with contemporary, but I am free to make suggestions for the more historical part of the collections. I am for example very much involved with artists such as [Philip] Guston and [Louise] Bourgeois who have had very long careers. Collecting them in depth means reaching backwards. But if I wanted to have a hand in beefing up our Dada, or Russian and Polish Constructivist or German Expressionist holdings, or whatever, I’d be free to do so.
What about a recent work by a long-established artist, like the 1985 deKooning?
Kirk was the prime mover in acquiring that [painting], but because I had written about late deKooning he called on me and together we looked at a variety of alternatives before settling on the one we have — which I think is plainly the best of its kind and period.
And the 1992 Lichtenstein painting from Castelli?
That was Kirk’s acquisition.
Do you suggest acquisitions of contemporary prints, drawings, illustrated books, or videos?
I am occasionally consulted by other curators, but I don’t meddle in their affairs, nor they in mine. The point, however, is to enrich the museum’s collections and make them more representative as a whole.
What is the process (or processes) by which contemporary artworks enter the collection?
It’s the same for contemporary works as it is for historical ones. In my department curators are not at liberty to buy works outright at their discretion, even for small sums. The decisions are made by a committee composed of trustees, patrons, and art historians. [The acquisitions committee comprises 29 members.] But all works that pass before it are proposed by the curators, except for special gifts or legacies. Following our individual and collective interest, we go out and find work and arrange the terms of sale or donation, and then present it to the committee, like lawyers arguing the brief for things we believe in. It’s not enough to say one wants a work by [Sigmar] Polke, or [David] Hammons, or [Eva] Hesse, or Mike Kelley or Ellsworth Kelly — but why one wants this particular work. An important element of the process is that all works have to be brought into the museum and properly installed so that the people on the committee will be able to judge directly for themselves. Unlike some places, we do not acquire on the basis of a reproduction.
How often does the acquisitions committee meet?
The meetings generally take place once every other month, sometimes every month. Part of the attraction for committee members is to hear the arguments for and against particular types of art. At best, the sessions are a kind of ongoing forum, so we try not to meet unless we have enough interesting material for that to happen.
Have most of your suggestions been accepted?
I don’t know what my batting average is exactly, but it’s been pretty good so far. I figure it’s over .500 or better, which in baseball terms is high, but there have been some keen disappointments which I hope to rectify.
Have you found that certain types of works get shot down?
There’s no absolute pattern to the rejections. The committee can often be charmed by artists they have generally not heard of, as was the case with David Hammons and more recently with Stephen Pippin. But mid-career artists who are known but not yet fully recognized — artists’ artists — tend to have a harder time, as does work that gets misread as simply about this or that “idea” when, in fact, it has complex subtexts or a unique presence or formal logic.
How do the museum’s traditional departments deal with work that mixes media such as photography or video with paintings, sculpture, and drawing?
The acquisitions committees from the various departments don’t combine, but there can be interesting interdepartmental discussions at the curatorial level. For example, if we’re considering something that has a strong photographic component, we might check with Peter Galassi, who’s the head of the Photography Department, and ask what he thinks, how he, with his expertise, views the work. We’re not looking for approval so much as a different “take” — but in fact Peter was very supportive when I recently brought in a major piece by Annette Messager piece, which was a wall installation that involving hundreds of “votive” snap-shots of the body. The funds, in any case, come from the committee that takes the vote.
Do funds for acquisition typically come directly from the committee?
There are yearly contributions made by the members of the committee, as well as income from a variety of permanent and semi-permanent funds. But a great deal of what we acquire, particularly in the contemporary field, depends on additional contributions by individuals on — and also outside — the committee. By itself our annual budget could not possibly cover all the things we actually acquire. Also, one shouldn’t forget how important artists and their families have been as a source. For instance MoMA collected Philip Guston early on, and we hoped to be able to represent his whole career with major paintings but could not possibly afford to buy everything we needed to do so. But at her death, his wife Musa gave us a cross section of late work, and previously the family had given us numerous other paintings and drawings. Now we have the best quality and range of Gustons anywhere and can do a “room” any time we wish. One way or another I look forward to being able to do that for other artists.
How much does the Painting and Sculpture Department have at its disposal in a given year?
I am not at liberty to say, but it is not a vast amount given the cost of the best things.
According to the annual reports, for the last two years, the combined sum for all the departments has been a little more than $2 million.
But the basic “pot” is not that high, and a great deal depends on donations.
What portion of the department’s acquisitions are contemporary?
In the three years that I’ve been here probably more than half.
And about what percentage of those contemporary works have been purchases as opposed to gifts?
I’m not sure exactly, but a very substantial portion are gifts if you count works that are acquired with the help of additionally donated funds, or that are added as partial or promised gifts to the museum; that is to say, things bought for private collections with the understanding — and sometimes the artist’s condition –that they eventually come to us.
Trustees and other benefactors on the acquisitions committee account for a significant number of contemporary acquisitions. Do they often consult you before making a purchase intended for the museum?
The balance of power is simple: curators make the decisions about what the collection needs, and patrons help to make that possible. If I want to acquire a work for the museum and I would like to enlist the support of a particular member of the committee — absolutely, my judgment is the instigator. In other cases people who already own works of art come to us. But we don’t take everything that’s offered to us, even by artists that we believe in. Curatorial decisions are made by curators, and the generosity comes from the patrons. But they’re informed people so they tend to make logical suggestions.
Is there a core group of benefactors whom you can approach?
The committee as a whole is open to requests and suggestions from the curators, though each member has particular passions and convictions. That’s what they are there for. Everybody has been crucial to one or another, indeed, several major acquisitions.
Are there benefactors from outside the committee that buy things for the museum?
Yes. For example, Peter Norton [a computer software designer], who is currently on our Photography committee. His foundation gave me one of its curator’s grants of $50,0000 with the understanding that I was to use it to buy edgy work that the museum normally might not spend its own limited resources on. That is, it was money given for me to use at my discretion without departmental restrictions, though all purchases were made through the standard committee process. His support paid for works by Messager, [Cindy] Sherman, Pippin, and most recently Charles Rays’ Family Romance from the Whitney Biennial — [this last] especially not the usual MoMA fare though it was enthusiastically accepted. In a similar way Barry Stevens, another outside patron, made it possible for me to buy a large piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Their willingness to take risks sets an important institutional example as well as providing essential financial assistance.
Do patrons consult you before purchasing works for their own collections?
Yes, in situations where they are considering a piece that they intend to give to the museum. But we don’t hand out free advice. I don’t put myself in the position of being a general coach of their collecting. In any case, they are very independent in their taste.
Even if it’s a steady benefactor of the museum?
I think there’s an understanding about not doing that too much.
Has the tax change had a significant impact on gifts?
It has, and over the long haul I think it will have much more. The tax window was opened during a terrible low in the business cycle at the end of the Bush administration, and not all of the people who might have wanted to give were in a position to do so. But ultimately it’s an essential incentive for contributing to the national cultural wealth entrusted to museums. One hopes that soon the tax laws will be reformed to make it easier for artists to donate their own work. Now there is no incentive to do so at all and it’s preventing American museums from doing what they otherwise could for the public and for art.
Do ethical considerations come into play when accepting work from artists or dealers?
Of course they do. But we have a policy that we do not accept the first work of any artist as a gift from the artist or dealer or anyone else with a vested interest. So we avoid the reality or perception of the collection being “seeded”. If we already have a strong interest in an artist, it’s another matter. Leo Castelli’s gift of Rauschenberg’s Bed from his private collection was an enormous boon to the museum. There’s no way we could have gotten it otherwise, and it was pure generosity on Leo’s part since he was honoring a verbal commitment he’d made years ago.
Are gifts ever contingent on their being exhibited?
We wouldn’t accept things we didn’t intend to show, but neither do we enter into arrangements whereby we must show work in such and such a manner for such and such a period of time. Museums should never allow their hands to be tied in that way, and the Modern is quite scrupulous about not bending to those kinds of outside restrictions. The point is not just to amass objects, but to interpret them, and one of the principal ways of doing that is by constantly rearranging their display, reassessing their importance in relation to others.
On a more conceptual level, what is the museum’s collecting policy? Is the aim for historical completeness, in a sense?
That’s an evolving thing. There have clearly been different emphases in different periods of MoMA’s history. Now certainly there is a lot of discussion about what the museum is trying to accomplish with its collecting, and in Painting and Sculpture that discussion is sharpened by the fact we have a comparatively smaller pie to divide. [The Departments of] Photography, Prints and Illustrated Books, and Drawings can collect more widely for less money — and they do! But broadly speaking, MoMA was conceived as a comprehensive museum of the art of our time, and designed to deal with all media and, in principle at least, with Modernism in all its manifestations, wherever they showed up.
Founding director Alfred Barr’s notion was evolutionary and encyclopedic, and in practice he pursued significant non-“mainstream” art with the same enthusiasm as he did “mainstream” art. Documenting the full development of Modern or contemporary art is basic to our mission, but given the scarcity of resources, every choice between breadth in scope and depth in a given area is hard. If we want to build long suits in certain artists, we have to calculate what that will cause us to forego. But in the long run, to sacrifice variety for added strength in one area is worse than counting on a few major examples to stand for many of a type in order to remain open to alternative kinds of work. The chance at a dozen more Picassos shouldn’t distract us from the Katyrzina Kobro we lack — or the contemporary equivalent.
Chief curator Kirk Varnedoe, has stated (Art Dealers Association of America lecture, March 1992) that he wants the contemporary holdings eventually “to have the solidity, density, and feeling of inevitability of the early Modern collection.” Yet, you have argued against a restricted notion of the artistic mainstream. Is there a conflict here?
Kirk was talking about how the collection looks once the entire process has taken place and the dust has settled. And I would agree with him. The way you get to that point is to be experimental. Barr’s openness and his daring are the model. The fact that he did so well is directly proportionate to his appetite, his confidence, and his candor about the possibility of failure. To have the sort of solid collection he built continue to grow means looking in places where the market doesn’t generally concentrate. Of course not everything will hold up equally well. But as Barr once said, if three out of ten choices stand the test of time, then you’ve done well. And then some things you acquire fade for a while, only to increase in importance much later. Our representation of Frida Kahlo reflects this. For many years our Kahlos, acquired in the thirties or forties, languished in obscurity; she was the artist-wife of Rivera, an artist out of favor. Now she is the pre-eminent figure, and her paintings are prominently featured in the permanent installation.
But you do feel that eventually there will become evident a mainstream, a core group of artists, from each period?
I don’t like the term “mainstream” and reject it in principle, though in practice one must sometimes use it. It’s an American relic from the fifties and sixties, and the telltale sign of academic thinking. Art history doesn’t follow a single direction. Modernism was, and is, constantly fed by unexpected sources and often takes unexpected detours that turn out to be major formal and conceptual shifts. It resembles a delta more than a channel. Even Barr’s famous flow-chart of Modernist movements didn’t flow — it churned and spread. The contemporary scene has no center, but centers, plural; no pure and dominant ideas, but a host of promiscuous tendencies. That’s fine, and if you look carefully at the teens, twenties or thirties, it was that way then. The change today is that artists in Buenos Aires are as informed about what’s going on as those in SoHo.
Is the museum interested in non-Western art?
Barr kept a careful list of the national origins of artists in the collection during his tenure [1929-1967], and it is very revealing since it includes representatives from just about any country you could name in the Americas, Europe, but also in Asia and even in Africa where he travelled in the 1960s. Some of these examples are minor but some were important finds. This diversity is little known because it has generally been in little evidence on our walls, but it was part of the original idea of the museum. Now, even more than then, Modernism is a worldwide discourse and any institution which pretends to be a Museum of Modern Art will have to deal with what’s happening far beyond the old centers. Keeping up is very difficult though, especially since travel funds are very restricted. But there is obviously a lot of activity in Japan, in Korea, Latin America, and in various places in Africa that must be taken into account, not to mention Russia and Eastern Europe.
Still, the core of the museum’s collecting interests is European and American?
Yes, but that was because Modernism was originally focused there. Now we’re looking at a diffusion and transformation of Modernist ideas and methods, and we’re seeing changes and permutations one couldn’t have anticipated. Traditional Asian attitudes to nature are not the same as Western ones, nor are their attitudes toward technology. Such differences, and others elsewhere, will create new art forms. Nam June Paik was the precursor of those changes, but there is much more to come. Incidentally, we have just acquired a major piece by him — the first to enter the collection, believe it or not. The worst prospect that old-style Modernist museums face is of being made irrelevant as a result of their slowness to investigate new developments and expand their definitions accordingly. The fact that quantities of bad work gets made in the process of these changes doesn’t excuse museums from the obligation of finding the good stuff.
What guides your personal collecting/selecting? Do you focus on particular categories of work? I know you’ve been a champion of filling in representation of women artists, for example.
I have pretty catholic tastes. I think both in terms of fleshing out certain careers I think are important but underrepresented, and picking up examples of work that shows the actual variety of current art production. For example, I brought in two early paintings by Eva Hesse which complement the later sculpture we already own, and show her ties to Abstract Expressionism. In a similar vein, I acquired a work — our first — by H.C. Westerman which has real affinities with Hesse’s sculpture and, like hers, is another example of what I call the “Abstract Grotesque.” Then I’ve gone after works by David Hammons as well as by young German artists such as Georg Herold. At the same time I pursue things by more classically Modern artists, for instance Robert Ryman. I see no point in pitting these things against each other. I think this museum should be able to show a large public the full range of the art of their time. Where there are lapses one tries to correct them. Meanwhile there are certainly artists who deserve special and sustained attention and the museum is not going to stop doing that either.
I suppose you can’t make a wish list, but if you could have ten contemporary artworks….
I can’t announce a wish list, partly because it would make it harder to get what was on it; people would see us coming!
What are some of the acquisitions you’ve made that you feel are most important to the museum’s collection?
Among others, a recent Ellsworth Kelly painting, the Hammons piece High Falutin’, the Paik piano piece, the Guston gift which I was involved in, Louise Bourgeois’ large installation Articulated Lair, and Filette which she gave in Barr’s memory, a room from Ilya Kabakov’s installation Ten Characters — the one of the man who jumped into the void of his painting. Along with a [Mario] Merz igloo which [curator] Kynaston [McShine] brought in, this emphasis represents an interest by curators in our department to collect installations rather than side-step it on the grounds that they’re too difficult to deal with logistically. So much of that kind of work is being done, and if you’re serious about contemporary art, you have to be serious about it, too.
Who are some of the artists of whose work you acquired the first piece for the collection?
Many of the same I’ve just mentioned: Westerman, Paik, Hammons, Kabakov, Herold, Gonzalez-Torres, Charles Ray (though photography did have an early conceptual piece). I can’t remember what else, but there have been others.
Coming out of the artists’ milieu, do you get pressures from artist friends or former friends and colleagues to acquire their works?
I’m sure some of my friends wish I would do something for them, but I have to give them a lot of credit for having wished it quietly and without any direct pressure. I must say one of the pleasing things of the last couple of years has been to find that my real friends among artists have stayed friends and understanding the complications of my position have not exploited it.
Do you feel important work created today is somehow engaged with social and political issues?
There is a lot of important work that has that dimension. But there is relatively little that is traditionally “protest art” or “issues/topical art” that turns out to be very good in the long haul. The artists that involve themselves in politics who interest me involve themselves in the ambiguities rather than the certainties of politics. So, an artist like Felix Gonzalez-Torres who is making work in the context of AIDS and a critique of the possessible object — you buy 400 pounds of candy and the audience eats it and it disappears — all this has political dimensions. But he’s not making any speech about his politics, and I don’t think work that does is terribly compelling.
I’m not trying to get you to hang yourself, but how do you define quality in art? Is it a relative term with respect to art?
The first thing about quality is that it is relative. Quality is not a fixed entity. The reason that criticism exists and that differences of opinion exist within this museum is that all measures of quality are debatable. The activity of a museum has not only to do with presenting the best possible examples of a diverse range of work, but also arguing about how good the best possible example is. The museum is a forum for showing judgments of quality in play rather than for showing final, decisive and definitive judgments of quality enforced by institutional power. What one does in a contemporary hang each time is to reshuffle the cards, and as one does that certain works emerge as being stronger than you thought they were, and others always thought to be terrific don’t look so great anymore. That happens on the walls. Sometimes bringing a so-called minor work out of storage to hang with major ones raises these questions most effectively. Last year I included a tiny piece by Forrest Bess and a virtually unseen Hesse ceramic piece in a room with some of the most important things we have by Pollock, Kline, Newman, Johns, Nauman and others and they helped animate the relation among these more famous works.
But implicitly, when the museum buys works and puts them on the wall, it is saying, this is what we feel is quality.
You certainly do not collect things for a museum that you do not think have intrinsic merit. But, having said that, you’re not always collecting with a mind to create the final canon of the time. You’re collecting works of art which have both the benefits and the questions of anything which is living and uncertain.
Yet, is there some consistent aspect of art making, or art generally, that can be called “quality”?
What I look for in art, what I would say the criteria of quality are, is some mix of clarity and complexity. That is to say that it’s a complex thought, but not a muddled thought, that it is expressed with a certain economy of means relative to what it is. And that can mean an incredibly ornate and elaborate thing, or it can mean something as simple as a Ryman. But you recognize that degree of resolution in the work and that is what makes it stand out. That, I guess, you would have to say is quality.
Many people think of quality in more restrictive terms. Something has quality for them because it’s beautiful even though historically much of the best of art is not beautiful in any classic sense. Or they think it has to be affirmative to be good, or make you feel good to be good, when lots of art, especially Modern art, may make you feel bad or uneasy. The quality debate in this country is really fixated on a series of moral or political imperatives and prejudices, rather than on aesthetic arguments. I would counter by saying, Yes, there is something called quality, but it is often disruptive of social or moral certainties. It’s not the image per se, the contents per se, which define artistic value. The cultural right claims to be protecting the high standards of the past from the corruption of the new, but they conveniently forget how disturbing Modernism has always been sexually, politically, formally — in every way.
What about the facture of the work?
The same thing. If you say complexity and clarity, it can be either highly crafted — like a Martin Puryear work — or aggressively under-crafted — something like a Mike Kelley.
Did you agree with the approach taken in this year’s Whitney Biennial?
I think the Whitney Biennial was not a good show, but there were quite a lot of interesting artists and some really good work in it. As I said, we acquired the Family Romance [Charles Ray]. That is a standout sculpture of the last four or five years. On the one hand, that particular show had the courage of its convictions. It put forward a definition of what the curators felt was important work of the time. The liability was that definition was rather didactic, and it tended to take complicated work and make it less complicated, rather than more. Glen Ligon’s piece [Notes on the “Black Book”], which I admire, is anything but a politically correct work of art because it is, in fact, all about differences of opinions about the Mapplethorpe images. However in the context of the show it appeared more didactic than it really is. But it would be a pity if people dismissed the artists that were in the show because of it.
Do you feel censorship is a serious problem in this country?
Absolutely. It’s mainly manifested in self-censorship: nervousness about what you should or should not do, about the possible consequences of what one might do.
In terms of getting accepted by museums or of finding funding?
I was thinking from the point of view of making exhibitions, not the point of view of artists. Artists are making work that flies directly in the face of contemporary pruderies and pieties. But whether or not the institutions will be strong enough to show it is an open question.
So how do you feel constrained?
I try not to feel constrained. But I realize that at any given point if you show certain kinds of work you can get responses that are beyond your control. You have to know the risks you’re running. You have to intelligently choose the points at which you run them.
Are there certain artists that you would like to show that you can’t?
No. But there are certain moments and certain ways in which I would show them in order to make sure, if I could, that they weren’t under-estimated and made the target of simple-minded attacks. Many Modern artists — Picasso, the Dadaists, the Surrealists — did work that was overtly political, aggressive, and frankly obscene. That’s always been a part of Modernism. The present hysteria is truly that — hysteria. And so you don’t bait people pointlessly or just to prove your righteousness. But on the other hand, you don’t back off if you’ve got work that is really significant but bound to offend.
As an abstract artist and a critic, how would you explain to a layman the aesthetic value — the complexity and clarity — of non-objective abstraction?
That covers a huge range of things. A Kandinsky painting or a Pollock painting are, on the surface alone, enormously complex things. To see all of that, and to organize it visually and emotionally, is an enormously complicated thing. If you’re addressing the question to simpler examples, like Ryman or Ad Reinhardt, it seems to me that the simplicity of them is so exceptional that it puts an equal challenge to the viewer: to look at something that is finely tuned and calibrated is not, in fact, an easy thing to do. It requires slowing down and concentrating in ways that people are not accustomed or encouraged to do in most of their experience. And that is part of the whole point: to learn to pay close attention to something, and to see the balance of form and light as one would listen carefully to the balance of sounds in chamber music. That is almost an intrinsically worthwhile thing from my point of view.
In other words, those works are trying to evoke a certain experience or an attitudinal response in the viewer, not trying to communicate any idea, per se?
It depends on which artist. Ryman, I think, is an artist of the senses and of the effect these senses have on the spirit. That’s what he’s about. It’s about how one receives pleasure and how one takes pleasure — the refinements of visual pleasure. Whereas Richard Serra, who works with an equally severely limited vocabulary makes an extremely aggressive art emotionally and physically. Serra also has very complicated ideas on some issues, about what site-specificity is, and the social context of sculpture, and so on. So just because they sort of look the same, in that both ar “Minimal,” doesn’t mean they are at all the same.
But do you think that these sorts of works convey their meanings to the general museumgoer?
Absolutely. A lot of the generalizations that are being made by the Morley Safers of the world — that the so-called average American doesn’t know what to do with this, and doesn’t like it anyway — are essentially worthless generalizations. There are thousands and thousands of people who attend exhibitions of difficult art in this museum and in other museums. And they’re not masochists. They may be perplexed or upset by some of it, but they certainly wouldn’t be coming back if they’re getting nothing. I think, as with a lot of generalizations about the American public, they sell that public short.
What is the place of figurative realism in contemporary art? Is it something you collect?
It’s something we have not collected as actively as we might. I was a figurative painter for many years, and I’ve always had an interest in figurative painting, and I think it’s something that ought to be better represented in general. I don’t see figurative painting any longer as the antithesis to abstraction. It’s not a rear-guard action and shouldn’t be treated that way.
You have written about Lucian Freud…
…and Philip Pearlstein, and Rackstraw Downes, and a host of other realist painters….
Would you have liked to present the “Freud” show now at the Metropolitan? Was it offered to you or did you try to get it?
I don’t remember if it was offered to us. I don’t think it was. In any case, we wouldn’t have been able to do it given what the schedule was already. But a show of this kind I would have liked to originate rather than to receive. It’s important for this museum to do its own thinking. Although we do get shows from other institutions, to take an exhibition is not always the best thing, particularly with someone as problematic and interesting as Lucian Freud.
You are the chairman of the committee for the “Projects” exhibition series. What are your aims there?
The “Projects” series always was thought of as a place where the general art audience, which comes here to see work by more established artists, could encounter work by younger or less well known, albeit mature, artists. We’ve experimented in the last couple of years in doing thematic shows as well as one-person exhibitions. I’ve done a show with two German artists — Georg Herold and Markus Ohlen; Feri Daftari, also in this department, did a show on costumes and clothes.
Ms. Daftari’s show, “Readymade Identities,” consisted of readymade clothing exhibited as art. Do you agree with Duchamp that anything an artist designates as art, or puts into the “art” context, is in fact art?
Well, if they’re as clever as Duchamp I guess I’d have to.
But it would still have to have a certain clarity and complexity of ideas?
And you feel that was evident from the Fred Wilson, John Armleder, and the other readymade things in that show?
I thought that was a very interesting show. Of course there was criticism, but you can’t possibly do a show of contemporary art without getting complaints. In one sense, the level of sophistication of those complaints is an indicator of how good the show was, and of the several “clothes” shows done recently, I think Feri’s provoked particularly interesting responses. Exhibiting Fred Wilson’s piece for the first time in one of the museums which corresponded with his choice of guards’ uniforms stirred comments among our guards. Some of them didn’t like it at all but it opened up discussion with them and made others think about their situation with a little more vividness.
What happened to the “Artist’s Choice” series, in which living artists curate shows drawn from the collection?
That’s Kirk’s series. Because of all the big exhibitions in the building it wasn’t possible to do one for a while. But there will be one this Spring, I believe.
Would you say the museum sees itself as reflecting history or making it?
Frankly, it is about making history, or at least about making judgments about history — and about contemporary history. It is not a simple mirror to events; it’s a dynamic force, and always has been and always should be. I think the museum should not shy away from the influence it has, it just should use it very carefully and wisely, and with some verve.
Assuming the museum’s programs have a tangible impact, in which ways would you like to see them affect society?
I would like to see this museum do for the present and recent generations of artists what it did for the great Modern artists of the twenties, thirties, forties, and before, which is to educate the general public about work that may at first appear forbidding, but is in fact very much about the world in which they live. I think the educational function of the institution is a central one. This is not just a warehouse, a repository, or a shrine for works of art. It’s an interpretive mechanism and it should be used that way for the sake of the public as well as for the sake of the work.
Interview by Jason Edward Kaufman