Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Jerry Saltz meeting with MoMA’s Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Ann Temkin.

One of my favorite writers, Jerry Saltz, has been using Facebook to have discussions about various art topics. Unfortunately he has reached the limit of "Friends" Facebook will allow (an amazing 5000!) so, if you haven't already signed up, you won't be able to participate. However, it's not too late to sign on to Jerry Saltz Facebook Group, "Seeing Out Loud" at: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=92786967230&ref=ts.

I thought Saltz's latest note is important enough to share with people who aren't his Facebook "Friends." (Am I alone in thinking it obnoxious for Facebook to refer to members as "Friends?"

Jerry Saltz
June 29, 2009

Last week I met with MoMA’s Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Ann Temkin. We talked about the two week discussion (that took place on my Facebook Page) about the lack of representation of women artists on the fourth and fifth floors of the museum’s permanent collection (of work completed before 1970). Of the 135 artists installed on these floors only 19 are women, 6%. Temkin asked that this meeting be “off the record” but agreed that I would report on its perimeters and my impressions.

The meeting was cordial, relaxed, open, and serious. It began at 5:00PM and lasted a little under 90 minutes. It took place midweek at a bar in a midtown restaurant. I didn’t take notes on, or record the conversation. The restaurant was almost empty when we started; it was almost full when we left.

At no time was Temkin defensive, dismissive, or in the least hostile. She agreed with some points and was not shy about disagreeing with others. As I wrote many times in my FB posts, Temkin confirmed that she and every person at MoMA, from the Director on down, are well aware of the problem of the lack of representation by women artists on these floors. She stated at the outset that the museum is committed and determined to rectify this.

Temkin then took major issue with the focus and reasoning of my main argument about female representation at MoMA. She stated that concentrating only on the fourth and fifth floors of Painting & Sculpture, perpetuated and reinforced a flawed stereotype and prejudice about the history of modern art. Excluding drawing, design, printmaking, photography, etc. (areas where women are represented and made great contributions) reinforces an outmoded and strictly “masculinist” approach to art by privileging painting and sculpture.

At first as she said this my heart sank. Of course she’s right. I answered that it is MoMA above all art institutions that reinforces and maintains this separation between the disciplines. Although it is growing more common to see mediums being mixed at MoMA (August Sander now hangs in the gallery in P & S devoted to the German Neue Sachlichkeit), MoMA established and still exhibits the disciplines more-or-less separately and not equally. There is far more square footage situated far more centrally and prominently for P & S than any of the other disciplines. I said it would be fantastic to see the collapse of MoMA’s artificial barriers between the disciplines (“MoMA tear down this wall!”), but suspected that this wouldn’t be in the cards any time soon. In addition, MoMA’s collection of painting and sculpture is preeminent; it is unsurpassed anywhere in the world. Therefore it is on these two crucial floors that the so-called “official story” of Modernism is represented. This is MoMA’s boon and its bane.

This brought us back to the main issue. Temkin stated that work by women artists has been rotated into the collection over the course of the last two years, and that the FB protestors and I were not taking this into account. I acknowledged this but said that even with these substitutions and changes the percentage of women artists on these floors did not rise, and that these adjustments weren’t enough. (If you count the works of art, rather than artists, the figure drops to four percent women.) Temkin then said that talking about the collection primarily in terms of numbers obscures larger important changes. She cited the current installation of a Louise Bourgeois sculpture at the entrance of the fourth floor. The Bourgeois sculpture is being given pride-of-place, the space on this floor that Cezanne has long enjoyed on the fifth floor. Bourgeois is being presented as a touchstone figure. I conceded that it was true that by only counting the number of women artists does not reflect structural changes. Still, this didn’t seem like a solution.

I stated that the problem behind the problem of the lack of women on these floors is the 875 million dollar (almost criminal) failure on the part of those who built the new museum to provide enough space for this crucial portion of the institution (let alone other departments). Until the space can be substantially increased the museum is in a terrible double bind: It has to display its extraordinary collection and at the same time allow modernism to live, and not calcify in a masterpiece-by-masterpiece
installation of 94% male artists. With the economy the way it is, moreover, it’s unlikely we’ll see new space built within the next decade (the same day we met a community board reinforced its objections to MoMA’s future building plans). This puts even more pressure on the museum, now.

What to do? Temkin talked convincingly about how important it was to change the perception of these two floors, away from being seen as permanent to fluid installations of reappraisal and experimentation. She said that unlike all the previous decades the museum intends to alter these two floors on a more regular basis. Even “important work” might temporarily be de-installed. This would open up the story, expand it, and allow the focus of the collection to continually shift. Temkin suggested that whole rooms could be dismantled and all new work put on view. When I asked for an example she talked about de-installing the monographic gallery of Joseph Beuys and replacing it with a gallery devoted to late-1960s artists Beuys, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse.

MoMA desperately needs this to play with its collection. However, Temkin’s example perpetuates yet another problem plaguing MoMA. Beuys, Nauman, and Hesse are all bona fide top-dogs; the A-list as art history. I love them all but curators have to take more chances and not just default to the same artists. Other artists were working at extremely high levels in the late 1960s. It would be amazing to see that MoMA gallery with any combination of H.C. Westermann, Jay De Feo, Jess, Yvonne Rainer, Benny Andrews, Dorothy Iannone, Jim Nutt, Bruce Conner, Vija Celmins, Barclay Hendricks, Adrian Piper, Ken Price, or Martin Ramirez. And let’s not forget that Picasso was one of the best artists of the 1960s (or that Henry Darger was in the process of working on his epic masterpiece). MoMA could hang an entire floor with only the late work of artists. This would show that art is about 30-year careers not just 30-month careers.

This brought us to what for me was an emotional turning point in the conversation. We began talking about so-called “institutional time.” I said that institutional time, as she described it, was “glacial” and “too slow” to address the serious problems plaguing MoMA. Temkin talked about how every change at MoMA has implications and repercussions and that over time even small changes and minor adjustments make significant differences. “Art is long” she seemed to say. My reaction was that, time is short. I said that I believed that if enough isn’t done soon, the changes MoMA is talking about will come about when MoMA and Modernism have come to be seen as retrograde and the museum is seen as stuck in the mud.

I then brought up the possibility of a much larger change, the re-installation of the entire fourth floor. Temkin said that she has been seriously studying this for some time. She is considering having the entire floor devoted to one stylistic post-war period. This seemed hopeful. Then she added that this sort of plan could be implemented in three or four years. I complained, “Why not sooner?” After hearing her thoughts about considerations having to do with loans, schedules, restorations, etc., I said again that while I thought that revamping whole floors was a fantastic idea, the time was now.

We looked at each for a while, then at our watches. We left the bar and shared a cab uptown. We talked about summer plans and recent travels. We got out and said a friendly goodbye.

As I opened my umbrella and walked away I thought about how extraordinary this meeting was. Past MoMA curators of Painting and Sculpture would never have met with a critic who started a kerfuffle on Facebook (or anywhere else). I thought about how absolutely open and aware Temkin was of the situation. Then I thought about how she sees her responsibility as opposed to the way I see it. She is trying to do the best for MoMA, its history, audiences, and art. She is taking a long view. I value these things. I love MoMA. But I also see the situation as dire and deteriorating. And we had barely even discussed the thing that got all of this started; how to dramatically raise the percentage of women artists exhibited on these tow floors and not have it be about tokenism or quotas. To me, MoMA is becoming like a madman who thinks he is King; it is telling a story that by now only it believes.

As I walked through the rain I thought about how much I admired Temkin but that the problems at MoMA are so vast and inter-connected that if any change is to come it will likely come slowly, by piecemeal, and incrementally. The irreparable space limitation, a mindset still guided my mediums, the problem of exhibiting mainly well-know names, the issue of having so few women; each of these is gigantic in itself. Each will take time and effort to correct. When I think about how this museum built too small during the richest period in the history of the world I grow furious and morose.

As the rain started coming down harder I realized that despite Temkin’s valiant efforts, and the museum’s dedication to alter its course, that we can no longer look to institutions like this for change. Institutions have different responsibilities, mindsets, priorities, pocketbooks, histories, and internal clocks. They’re big, slow, and institutional. Change is going to have to come from all over and be done by everyone.

This is already beginning to happen. Locally, so many New York galleries have been doing such a tremendous job over the last decade (ditto out of town museums). The same day I met with Temkin I saw a wonderful show at Casey Kaplan Gallery in Chelsea about Russian-Georgian Modernism. A young Swiss curator, unable to get this work out of Georgia, mounted a show of catalogs, reproductions, Xeroxes, texts, and films. There was fantastic art by artists I’d never heard of, artists who it would be spectacular to see integrated into MoMA’s installation. At Kaplan (more than at MoMA) modernism breathed anew. The same thing happened this season when mega-mogul/puppet-master Larry Gagosian mounted two tremendous historical shows; one of late Picasso (that attracted over 100,000 people!), the other, a sprawling survey of Piero Manzoni. Carol Greene, Gavin Brown, Guild & Greyshkul, Matthew Marks, Barbara Gladstone, 303, Paula Cooper, and many other gallerists have done the same. The depth of the pockets is all very different between these galleries but the results have been thrilling.

In the meantime a new generation of a museum-going public and artists may be about to not see art they might otherwise benefit from. As MoMA tries to adjust all of its other problems it’s unclear how the woman issue will play out. As long as this is the case, as long as half the story is not told, more people will turn away from MoMA or see it merely as suffocating. I believe this is already beginning to happen. Artist Cheryl Donegan recently remarked, “Modernism should not be seen as Biblical; it should be seen as Talmudic.” Meaning the bible is static. Talmudic tradition (which is more Wikipedia than Encyclopedia) involves thousands of people making comments in the margins, debating issues and ideas, shaping tradition, changing it, and keeping it alive.

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