Monday, February 15, 2010

Roberta's rant

Last week Roberta Smith had a great piece on the crisis of curating within the contemporary museums here in NYC. It is a thoughtful complaint and poses strong questions for our arbiters of public display. Also, good to hear someone stand up for painting for a change. Why has painting become the ugly stepchild, yet again?

Here are some clips:

How did we get to this point? In the 1970’s the Whitney used to be committed to showing artists from across the United States; they were called regional artists in those days. That term has thankfully fallen out of fashion, but the artists have all but disappeared from museum walls. The Modern, for its part, used to present several works each by 10 to 15 artists under the rubric of its “Americans” show.

But a combination of forces threatens to herd all of our major art institutions into the same aesthetic pen. The need to raise and make money sends curators hunting for artists with international star power who work big at least some of the time, deploy multiple entertaining mediums and make for good ad campaigns (like the self-portrait featured in the MoMA ads for its coming exhibition of William Kentridge). The small show devoted to an artist who doesn’t have an immense reputation and worldwide market becomes rarer and rarer.

The consistent exposure to the big-statement solo exhibition becomes self-perpetuating, as these shows condition not only curators but the public to expect more of the same. I realize to my horror, for example, that the idea of seeing a survey of contemporary painting at the Modern makes me squirm. It would look — I don’t know — too messy and emotional, too flat, too un-MoMA.

But shows where we encounter an artist’s single-minded, highly personal pursuit that proceeds one object at a time tend to feature past masters. The Guggenheim’s recent, fantastic Kandinsky exhibition was an example (as was the Modern’s Ensor show). Yet there are plenty of artists working this way now. They may not be making history (or entertainment, either), but they are still making really good art whose very unfolding has its own integrity and is exciting to see.

Museum curators need to think less about an artist’s career, its breakthroughs and its place in the big picture and more in terms of an artist’s life’s work pursued over time with increasing concentration and singularity.

They have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.

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