Some Thoughts on Making Retrospective Exhibitions
I have found myself drawn (maybe “driven” is the better word) to the creation of monographic exhibitions. Paul Thek: Diver (which I co-organized with Lynn Zelevansky) is the most recent example. (It opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in October 2010 and will travel to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.) Certain artists, like Thek, fascinate me. This fascination nearly always emerges during the making of the exhibition and is not completely apparent in the beginning. At the outset, an artist’s work may simply attract me as an appropriate choice, in a particular context and time, for an exhibition and catalogue. But obsession takes over in the making of the show. Close study and research invariably lead me further and further into the complexities and mysteries in the work, into curiosity about the person who made the work, into the various ways the work has been fabricated, exhibited, received. Along the way I discover beacon characteristics that were not there at the start. And, invariably, although my focus has been on the one artist, the thorough attention to the artist that an exhibition demands causes my perception of a whole swath of art history to be transformed, rejigged, changed.
I have worked on monographic exhibitions of artists who were living — Rosemarie Trockel, Mike Kelley, Nan Goldin, and William Eggleston for instance — and artists who have died. In the second category, in addition to Thek, there have been Eva Hesse, Diane Arbus, and Gordon Matta-Clark. I believe that monographic exhibitions that engage the participation of the living artist will be ultimately immensely valuable as future primary sources for histories of art. With living artists, I have always had the advantage of the artist’s availability and guidance. With access to the artist’s collections and archives as well as to the galleries that represent him or her, works (both obscure and well known) can be located and reassembled. The exhibition itself will be captured in installation photos. The curator will have access to firsthand information about intentions, work processes, and installation strategies. And all or some of this will be preserved in catalogues, online databases, and museum archives.
This brings me to Thek. More than many artists, Thek had to be curatorially reimagined, since many of his works were ephemeral and he had by choice led a nomadic life, largely untethered to institutions or galleries. Numerous important pieces no longer existed. The so-called Dead Hippy of 1967, a cast of the artist’s body as a corpse, has disappeared, and only fragments remain of his Processions installations, changing versions of which he created four times in Europe in the 1970s. The Processions were immersive environments composed of sand floors, temporary structures covered in newspaper, taxidermied animals (swans, deer, dogs, rabbits), tree branches, and other fortuitously found objects. They were prophetic and magical, and today they are known only through photographs in mostly out of print catalogues. Thek, a near anomaly in his own time, was what I would call a skeptical believer. His installation practice stemmed from a combination of disdain for the growing market orientation of art, his own religious beliefs, and a concomitant belief in an art of immediate, sensual presence.
Paul Thek, as we suggested when we chose the title of the exhibition, Diver, was a lone swimmer in a huge ocean. His oeuvre could be plunged into, but most curators in the United States had hesitated because the remains of his career seemed so scattered, fragmentary, and (when they still existed) exceedingly fragile. Although he continued to make work until his death in 1988, his great ensemble works were gone, several early pieces that survived were impossibly delicate, and many works had ended up in European collections. Yet we went ahead, and as with other monographic exhibitions, the methodology was direct, dictated by the necessities of the artist.
It started with the reading of Thek’s writings and interviews with people who had known him. No curatorial work, of course, is transparent; the curator is an author, responsible for a particular point of view, and each foray into a monographic study is also, hopefully, a revelation about its presenter(s). Lynn Zelevansky and I had to find our own Thek. Our dilemma was whether to reproduce what was lost, either by reconstruction or by photographic documentation, or to let what remained speak for itself and let the exhibition somehow acknowledge what was lost, perhaps via a poetic installation that would evoke Thek’s way of working. We decided on the latter, but only after reading extensively Thek’s own writings. He was painfully aware of ephemerality, and though he wished for posterity and fame and enlightened museum support, he knew that much of his work could never survive him. We were greatly helped by the extensive archival collection of interviews and letters assembled by a fellow curator in Holland, Roland Groenenboom, a decade earlier.
The Thek exhibition that Lynn Zelevansky and I have organized is haunted, we hope, by the ghosts of what has been lost. As Thek would have preferred, the galleries are lit very minimally. We are of course in a different museum age today, bound by issues of security (pedestals) that certainly reduce the immediacy that the pieces were intended to have, and did achieve, at the time of their making. But the works are still extraordinary and compelling: meat pieces; body casts (known as the Fishman); miniature, folkish mice and artifacts; and casual, colorful, often funny as well as poignant paintings on newspaper. These are grouped and clustered in eccentric arrangements that mimic Thek’s own installations of his work during his lifetime. His journals are open to reveal his often laconic, sometimes contemplative, writings. And, most poignantly, Thek himself is present in the galleries, captured in extraordinary video and photography: a screen test by Andy Warhol, a series of Peter Hujar photographs of the artist in his studio working on the casts of his own body, and a video by Cindy Lubar of the 1973 installation at the Kunstmuseum Lucerne. We made this media imagery prominent by projecting it at larger-than-life scale.
This experience has rekindled my interest in the potentials of one-person shows, the prolonged exposure of curators to particular bodies of work, and the expressive depths that a spectator can come to in an absorption of one career. My involvement with Thek has led me to the knowledge that, though long repressed, his presence, jouissance, eccentricity, and melancholy must now interrupt our standard history of the art of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. That his legacy is as essential as that of Pop, Minimal, post-Minimal, and Conceptual art has been proven by the reference and recuperation of much traceable to Thek in recent art.
The Unauthorized Retrospective
Shelly Bancroft & Peter Nesbett
In October 1985, during a roundtable discussion with the curator Jean-Christophe Ammann and three other artists, Anselm Kiefer challenged Joseph Beuys on the subject of control. Beuys claimed that through language he could direct the meaning of his work; Kiefer countered that only after an artist’s death can anyone understands the true spectrum of his or her intent. Beuys died three months later.
Beuys is legendary for his self-mythologizing. While the story of his capture by nomadic tribesmen on the snowy Crimean front and their wrapping of his body in fat and felt have been discredited by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and others, it still enshrouds his work like a thick fog. Faithful collaborators — art historians, curators, designers, photographers — worked with Beuys to protect and propagate this and other stories, shaping how his work was seen and understood both during his life and since his death. Even today, Beuys exerts influence through his guardians, including his widow, Eva Beuys, who has been seeking to halt the creation of a Beuys Center at the Museum Schloss Moyland Foundation in Ger-many, claiming that the institution has been improperly caring for and presenting his legacy.
Legally, artists — even after they die — have the right to control how their work is both exhibited and published. If they want, they can refuse to have it made public at all, even when it is owned by others. For curators with a critical bent, this presents a considerable challenge, especially at the level of the retrospective, the most massive and comprehensive of solo show types. Without an artist’s (or an agent’s) consent, a retrospective is an impossible task; with consent, it can’t be anything but hagiographic. And yet, this issue aside, the retrospective offers the potential for a deep, sustained, critical engagement with an oeuvre — a kind of engagement that is unmatched by any other exhibition typology. Is there a way around this obstacle?
At Triple Candie in Harlem, we’ve made a specialty out of retrospectives, in particular unauthorized retrospectives. Though we started in 2001 as a more or less conventional nonprofit in an unconventional neighborhood, we have spent the past five years curating and producing exhibitions that are about art but largely devoid of it, using instead art surrogates such as props, posters, recreations, artifacts, and ephemera. Our goal has been to pioneer a new form of critical-curatorial activity in a city — New York — where the market reigns supreme and alternative art spaces are too frequently indistinguishable from their commercial peers. Our curatorial philosophy turns the idea of “alternative” on its head. We’ve abandoned artists completely and targeted “the institution of the artist” as our subject. The retrospective, being the most biographical and (usually) uncritical kind of exhibition, has provided, quite naturally, the perfect form for our critique.
Our first artless and artist-less exhibition was an exhaustive retrospective of the work of David Hammons, the enigmatic, Harlem-based prankster whose oeuvre has been difficult to grasp largely because he has resisted institutional, monographic treatment since the early 1990s. David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective (2006) was a celebration of his inarguably important career, but it was also a mischievous challenge to an artist whose work and professional choices at times seem frustratingly paradoxical, if not completely hypocritical.
The retrospective consisted of more than 100 photocopies and downloaded images affixed — in chronological order by each piece’s original creation date — with black gaffer’s tape to untreated plywood panels. Many were so badly degenerated that they were indecipherable. One photocopy picturing an oval rock topped with hair shavings, for instance, could easily have been misunderstood as an image of an abstract painting. Retrospectives generally clarify and elucidate; they enhance our understanding of an artist’s oeuvre on both a macro and a micro level. This show, appropriately, kept Hammons’s work tantalizingly just out of reach.
Cady Noland Approximately: Sculptures and Editions, 1984–1999 (2006), presented just two months later, was the first retrospective of the work of an equally influential artist. For this show, we incorrectly remade 13 of Noland’s sculptures (including her edition for Parkett) and exhibited them in uncomfortably close quarters at one end of our vast warehouse space. The show was meant to reverse the slow slide into obscurity of Noland’s legacy by partially filling the widening void with highly staged, theatrical substitutes. But the experience we offered was not simply ersatz; it was just plain wrong. A visitor without firsth and knowledge of Noland’s real work might easily have been misled, since the objects on view looked like sculptures, if not exactly like Noland’s. Therein lay the deceit and the danger, and probably the reason why the show ignited such furor among critics (Jerry Saltz, writing then in the Village Voice, said that Cady Noland should find a lawyer and “get medieval” on Triple Candie) and curators (Lynne Cooke, then of Dia Art Foundation, cornered Peter in the gallery and repeatedly asked, “Why would you do this to Cady?!”). Noland herself never saw the show (Hammons didn’t see his, either), though both responded in their own ways: Noland with a letter to the New York Times, and Hammons with a clown bean-bag-toss game left anonymously on our doorstep.
Retrospectives are emblematic of a curatorial culture that is boosterish and eulogistic. The strengths and weaknesses of a body of work, or a career, are rarely if ever addressed explicitly, in part because most artists and their agents wouldn’t allow it, and a museum would not — could not — be seen as unfriendly to artists. Working with surrogates has provided us a degree of freedom that would otherwise be impossible. We can curate shows on any subject we please, without permission, at a fraction of the cost. And we have been able to interject an editorial, often critical but also ambivalent, mindset into one of the least critical of exhibition genres.
Last year, we laid to rest the body of Maurizio Cattelan, a trickster not unlike Hammons. Maurizio Cattelan Is Dead: Life and Work, 1960–2009 was the first retrospective of his work. The show aligned the meteoric rise of Cattelan’s career in the early 1990s with the art market’s growth and expansion, presenting him as the poster child of a particular historic moment. The show’s opening sequence consisted of a closed casket festooned with flowers in front of a gray, tomblike wall. Behind the wall, the story unfolded. Strung along a painted timeline were reproductions, recreations (both accurate and not so accurate), props, extensive biographical notes, critical commentary on individual projects (by us, the curator and critic Francesco Bonami, and others), sales records, and the artist’s changing ranking in the Art Review Power 100 (which, incidentally, has declined since 2006). Within the history of curatorial practice, the show looked like a Group Material project and yet it read like nothing of the kind.
It was funny, myopic, and of little real consequence in and of itself except to those with a vested interest in the artist’s work. Nancy Spector, who is curating Cattelan’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2011, visited. So did Cattelan himself — unexpectedly — with a writer in tow whom he treated to a guided tour of his life. Several weeks later, he generously arranged for us to ship it off to the DESTE Foundation in Athens.
Despite Cattelan’s embracing of the project, it is worth underscoring the fact that none of these shows were simply about their artist subjects; all had larger aspirations. Among curators, however, they also fulfilled a whispered desire. Haven’t we all secretly wished that the artist whose show we were organizing was dead? Even artists, deep in their hearts, understand this. At one point in their conversation, Beuys conceded to Kiefer, “Perhaps it’s true that a dead artist is better than a living one.”