In a room: Helen Molesworth on The Art of Our Time
In the art world’s hierarchy of prestige, museum collection displays are usually accorded a sort of secondary status. They sit somewhere below the curated group or thematic exhibition, where the curator is perceived to have more latitude for authorship, and the historical or single-artist retrospective — research-driven shows that, done with the right artists at the right time, can transform history. The collection show is, by contrast, a humbler prospect: organized within the bounds set by the strengths and weaknesses of a particular collection, and often without much visible curatorial authorship.
So it was striking when Helen Molesworth made her first effort as Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, a major reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection. No less striking was the exhibition itself. In its first half, especially, which Molesworth characterizes below as representing the collection’s “spine,” we found works we’d never seen before, and familiar works in new juxtapositions that shifted our sense of their meaning and place in history. On a rainy afternoon in early January, we sat down with her to discuss that exhibition, titled The Art of Our Time.
grupa o.k.: You arrived at MOCA just over a year ago and almost immediately started work on reinstalling the permanent collection. Why take on such a big project right away, prioritizing it, even while inheriting a rather sparse schedule of changing exhibitions?
Helen Molesworth: It was clear to me that the collection needed to be reinstalled. On the one hand I wanted to introduce myself — I’m only the third chief curator MOCA has had, and I wanted to show right away what I do and how I think — on the other the collection was installed in a way that I could no longer live with. It was based on a succession of proper names, with rooms dedicated to single people: all the Robert Rauschenberg works were in a room, then all the Franz Klines, Robert Motherwells, Claes Oldenburgs. I enjoyed those rooms, and there’s a benefit to that approach. But that approach tends to be exclusionary: those single-artist galleries are never devoted to a woman, or to a person of color, and they leave out the idiosyncratic and eccentric pockets of the collection. Furthermore, that approach isn’t necessarily conducive to looking at art. Rather than taking in each Kline painting, the viewer is overwhelmed simply by the fact that there are so many.
How did you go about organizing that sort of signature exhibition from MOCA’s existing collection? That collection was amassed by your predecessors, and according to their priorities, which might or might not match yours.
I arrived knowing already the history of Giuseppe Panza and the works that were acquired from his collection by the museum in 1984. That core collection is legendary in its in-depth holdings of work by ten or so extremely important artists. MOCA’s model of collecting is not the postage-stamp method — collecting one of everything — it is about a deep commitment to a few people. In this way, the museum is artist centered.
I understand the collection as beginning with Robert Rauschenberg. For me that is a huge conceptual difference between, for instance, MOCA and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since I arrived I’d been wondering, what is a museum of contemporary art, what does “contemporary” mean? As I tried to define for myself what the collection was, I considered that if MoMA begins with Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, then MOCA’s story starts with Rauschenberg. And Rauschenberg permits us to define what is contemporary: non-medium specificity, a radical engagement with the world of images and reproducibility, and a commitment to the idea that the image world is deeply corporeal. For me a Rauschenberg combine’s relationship to the nexus of the image and the body is as profound as the Cubist fracturing of the picture plane.
Much of our core audience is artists. I’ll continue to build the collection based on everything I know from having been in and out of artists’ studios for the last 20 years. What do they want and what do they need to see? We support artists in the acquisition of their work, but also in how we configure those works in the galleries. If art students now are excited about Walead Beshty, then I also want them to see work by Barbara Kasten. I want to put works by Lari Pittman together with those of Elizabeth Murray, with whom he studied. I want to show through such proximities that Pittman’s feminist patterns come, in part, from Murray — that it’s refined and audacious in Pittman’s approach, and messy in Murray’s case, but that his co-opting of décor is something that exists in both bodies of work. That reverb space in the galleries where those connections take place is important to me. I’m really aware of how many artists are in the galleries, and how they’re looking.
How did you begin?
The exhibition is organized in two parts, with a “historical side” that ranges from the 1940s to the 1980s, and a more recent side. The historical part is organized chronologically. It will not remain totally static. Instead, it will be reimagined by different curators every 12-18 months. The installation will retain its historical line, but my colleagues will be free to rotate other works in from the permanent holdings.
Part of what is pleasurable about a museum is that you get to go visit old friends. You can visit a painting you loved as a teenager, or in college, or that you once saw with a lover on a date. That pleasure is real. As a kid who grew up with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to this day there are rooms I go to at the Met just to have that moment. I want some of those feelings to be here, and so the “historical side” will only ever change slightly.
You pose the second half of the exhibition as provisional, and promise to reinstall it more frequently. This is not the permanent hall of muses we might expect in a permanent collection installation.
If the first part is a sort of chronological accounting of post-World War II art, then in the second part I take more of a cluster or constellation approach. I wanted the two sides to be different. It’s important that we plan to change more recent material every year. On the historical side, we’ve established a story from about the 1940s — our earliest piece is by Piet Mondrian from 1938 — through the 1980s. We know that story, we can change out the artists and the individual works, but we’ll continue to build on that spine.
Post-80s, there is no spine, and I don’t want to try to create one, or to force a narrative that none of us are necessarily comfortable with. Instead, I’d like to safeguard this space for the current moment. One of the strengths of this institution is that it has always treated its collection provisionally; it has never maintained a static gallery like encyclopedic museums do. We are actively collecting, and I don’t want to buy a Pierre Huyghe and put it in storage. I want to install it without having to wait six years. Sometimes I want the ship to be able to turn in the night.
The discipline of art history is interesting because it’s bifurcated: there’s the academy, and there’s the museum. Art history needs the museum because its objects of study need to be displayed. There’s an idea in many museums that what we should do is display the best examples of our objects of study. That’s an old idea that comes from the time when museums were attached to art schools, so as an artist you would go to the museum to inform yourself and memorize the works. But now the museum has begun to influence the academic discipline of art history. Can we, then, bring the most up to date version of what’s happening in the discipline of art history to the museum, full circle? For me the real joy of art historical thinking comes in the moment of comparison, rather than in identifying singular works. In school that was what always turned me on, that moment when we got out of memorization mode and into the comparative mode.
For us, that act of comparison is rewarded throughout this exhibition. You’ve installed Dan Flavin’s neon tube work “monument” for V. Tatlin, 1969, across from Robert Smithson’s Mirage No. 1, 1967, a wall lined along the bottom with framed mirrors that increase in size from one square foot to one square yard. The artificiality of the neon light coupled with the fragmentation of the mirrors creates a science-fictional space in which we become acutely aware of our own bodies and vision. In the next room, Valie Export’s photographs Identity Transfer 1-3, 1968, Senga Nengudi’s pantyhose and sand work R.S.V.P., 1975, and artworks by Charles Atlas, Ana Mendieta, and Günter Brus all augment this awareness. The ricochet of poses — of bodies that know they’re being seen — inflects our experience, or memory, of Flavin in the gallery that preceded it, by heightening that arena of physicality. Visibility is felt in every direction.
Yes, the Flavin room is the setup for the feminist room in the next gallery. Who gets to be looked at, when, and how? Who gets to be in the picture? The Flavin gallery is my favorite room in the exhibition. There’s another group of objects included there that you didn’t mention, and those actually make it my favorite room: a suite of four photographs by Danny Lyon from his series of pictures made in Texas prisons in the 1960s, later published as a book called Conversations With the Dead, 1971. Lyon had been one of the photographers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and had taken a lot of the famous photographs of early civil rights protests in the South. When SNCC decided they would no longer welcome white people — it was during that moment of exclusion that grew out of Black Nationalism — Lyon was quite wounded. After that, he went on to make those prison photographs in Texas.
In all honesty, that room came out of a kind of willfulness. Everyone told me that the Flavin sculpture didn’t play well with others and had to be in a room by itself, but I insisted that we stop treating it like an auratic object. The Smithson mirrors create a game in which the viewer has a moment of disorientation: “Where am I?” You’re there, but only as a fragment. Meanwhile in Lyon’s prison pictures, clearly those people didn’t have a choice about whether or not they’d be in those pictures. Yet the photographs are incredibly tender. Lyon is showing us something we don’t normally see, working in the moment after being told by SNCC organizers that he could no longer witness the civil rights movement together with them. I am interested in all of those vectors, and how they relate to the moment of feminism presented in the Nengudi and Export gallery, when women were insisting on being seen — seen not in an essentializing way, but in a way that viewers are aware of how they are looking.
In some ways the installation is me trying to show the viewer how Catherine Opie’s work emerges. I knew that two photographs by Opie would be at the end, and from the Helen Levitt photographs that appear early in the exhibition, all the way through the whole installation, I was trying to build a narrative to show how Cathy Opie gets to be Cathy Opie. I did that by including all those objects we usually omit from the permanent collection lineup. Along the way we broke the medium distinctions and put an industrially scaled sculpture in the same room with small photographic prints.
The exhibition brings together photography, video, sculpture, and painting, and in a similarly unspoken way brings together a range of artists with varied racial, gender, and national backgrounds. That is to say, this show is not all white, and not all male.
MOCA’s collection, like most major museum collections, is overwhelmingly white and male. When I organize an exhibition, I play a simple game: I say to myself, “I’m in a room. Who is in this room with me?” And if it’s all white men, I’m nervous, because I’m never in that room in my actual real life. So I have to make sure we have a diversity of artists starting with very basic demographic definitions: I’m making sure I have women, gay people, black people, people from the East Coast and the West Coast, from Europe and Latin America, and so on. And while the game starts with this super weak 80s essentialist position, then it has to evolve and present the viewer with another set of questions if it’s going to work as a compelling exhibition.
For instance, in the second gallery I included a painting of a face by Robert Colescott, Head, 1958-59. It’s hanging next to Jean Fautrier’s Dépouille, 1945. That early Colescott painting itself is not a great painting, but it’s interesting. It’s there because I couldn’t make the room without it, but I had to figure out how to make it fit not just because I needed a black person painting in the 50s — because I had to acknowledge that black people were making art in the 50s — but the real game is how to really include it, to make it provocative in a way that makes its existence undeniable. Colescott’s painting led me to think of Fautrier’s painting as an image of human remains. Once that comparison started to happen, then I was looking at how these two artists, from different shores, were both trying to articulate something genuine about the post-World War II moment. Colescott’s work grapples with the existentialist question of making a picture of a face in an America that denied that reality to black people. Fautrier was making his image of bodies in the wake of the nuclear bomb and world war. And that’s the game, that’s the perversity: I needed Colescott in the room, and then he helped me to better see the Fautrier.
All artwork by Dana DeGiulio