Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Curator of the Month (November 2005)

Preface: Unlike the ongoing Artist of the Week series for which I research and present my thoughts without contacting the artist, this series of interviews will be based on responses to questions I email the curator. I'll generally use the same questions for each column, asking the curators to respond to the ones that interest them (and rotating out those that continuously don't get answered), but present only the answers that time and space contraints permit. Do feel free to suggest questions on issues that interest you more for upcoming interviews.

I've known art historian, independent curator, and art critic Courtney J. Martin for several years now, and she's generally my example of a Renaissance woman, as comfortable and knowledgeable discussing obscure 17th Century art world figures as she is the most underground of edgy rock-and-roll bands.

Currently completing her doctorate in the history of art at Yale University, Courtney most recently curated an exhibition of artists books (in 2004-2005) which traveled to the
Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York and was included as part of the exhibition "History of Disappearance: Live Art from New York 1975-Present" at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England (images throughout from the Nathan Cummings Foundation installation). Prior to entering Yale, Courtney worked in the media, arts, and culture unit of the Ford Foundation in New York. She's an absolute delight to talk with (whether the topic be art world gossip, shopping, whiskey, politics, or whatever) and, as evidenced in the first response below, she's someone who sees the bigger picture almost immediately:

Edward Winkleman (EW):
Robert Storr recently argued that curators are not artists, despite an increasing chorus of art world types insisting the contrary. Do you think curators are artists? Why?

Courtney J. Martin (CJM): Can I turn this question around? Curating is a concerted activity that can lead one to many allusions. I do not think that curators are alone in fantasizing outside of their station. Don’t collectors want to be artists as well? I am more intrigued by artists who curate. It seems like such a removal of ego to transcend ones own work in the service of an others. What motivates that desire? Does being an artist qualify one to curate? I have worked with artists on curatorial projects and found the exchange both beneficial and refreshing. Artists ask different organizational questions. And they pose different challenges to the curatorial process. Damien Hirst’s Frieze (1989) or Rasheed Araeen’s The Other Story (1989) stand out as incredible examples of artistic vision refocused as curatorial acumen. In the process both (Hirst and Araeen) become statesmen of sorts.

EW: Having worked both independently and for an institution, what would be the most outstanding advantage of each situation in your opinion?

CJM: I am currently working as a researcher on a major exhibition slated for 2007 at an incredibly well-run and well-respected institution. Since I have not been in this situation in some time, it feels foreign to have delineation of tasks, funds, resources, etc. I feel that I am being allowed to think and develop properly because I have the appropriate time to think, and a proper balance between my contribution and the labor involved in the exhibition. I am really working efficiently in a way that can get lost when I have had to scramble to put together a show by myself. Ironically, I feel wildly creative. I have come up with at least ten concrete ideas for independent projects. Perhaps, I will always need to vacillate between being inside and outside.

EW: Do you feel that international Biennales are now redundant with the Big art fairs? Why?

CJM: Yes! And, no! I am not sure what either is anymore. Since I am an art historian I spend a lot of time looking at reviews and observations of art fairs and international exhibitions from the last century. There are some clear indicators that the market has also infected the exhibitions (e.g., was the Salon de Refuse merely an exercise of avant guard defiance? Or was it a more complicated marketing strategy? Maybe it was both?). Perhaps the more important question is how will biennialization alter exhibition in general? Are museums and galleries now more international as a result? I think so. Would recent exhibitions in New York like Russia at the Guggenheim or Little Boy curated by Takashi Murakami at the Japan Society have happened without the to and fro between new and existing international biennales and art fairs? Why are we so concerned with the merger of the two? I cannot help but think that our fear of the mass (be it Freud’s or Kracauer’s articulated anxiety) has something to do with our fears about opening the gate. Be it mediocrity or inclusion.


EW: What are you currently most excited about in non-contemporary art? Contemporary art?

CJM: The options for presenting video are amazing. Monitors, feeds, projection---the list goes on---demonstrate significant advances in technology that have allowed us to ignore the technology (or not) and re-focus on the content and context of the work. Video has really come into its own irrespective of cinema or performance, or other media/mediums with which it is associated. This is an observation that seems almost too obvious now that I have made it. But art students really do approach video in a manner that they did not five or ten years ago. Their process is not altered simply because the equipment is more widely available and technical knowledge is a given. Video is in a state of maturity, at least in the States. Germany reached this stage much earlier in the previous century. Steve McQueen is but one example.

I am still waiting for the reinvigoration of land/earth art. The Smithson retrospective and the recent press accorded to Michael Heizer’s City give me hope that this is fast coming. With the recent devastation in the coastal areas ephemerality has a much more significant resonance and convoluted relationship to space and place.

EW: How do you most frequently end up doing a studio visit with an artist? Is there an approach or set of circumstances that dominates in the way that happens?

CJM: I have a very strict, and simple, policy about studio visits. I have to know that I will like the work before I agree to a visit (fullstop). One of the most exciting aspects of curatorial practice is the opportunity to enter into someone else’s private sphere and see not only what they produce, but also under what conditions they produce. How much light do they receive during the day? What time of day do they work the best? Do they sleep in their studios? What color(s) are the walls? Do they have walls? What sounds from the neighborhood filter in? Which do not? All of these questions are important to me because they give me a sense of their work that is not simply bound to its form or materiality. If I cannot connect to the work, I cannot make these other connections that I find equally important. Also, I feel disingenuous engaging with someone’s production in the space of its making, if I cannot positively connect with it. Worse than disingenuous, I find it disrespectful to both the art and the work. “Liking” the work sounds reductive, but I usually spend time trying to get a sense of an artist’s work before I agree to a studio visit. I am not really hoping to like it, rather to be compelled to see it. My visits tend to be long and full of questions. Many people have told me that they feel like they are in an interview, of the psychoanalytic sort. Interestingly, I do not use tape recorders/recording devices in initial interviews. Of course, I make some exceptions; I will make studio visits with students or with emerging artists simply because I have a sense of what a struggle it is to have interaction.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(Disclaimer: Courtney co-curated
an exhibition with artist Amanda Church at our gallery in 2002.)

9 Comments:

Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

I think "Curator of the Month" is a terrific feature, Ed. The questions are straightforward and, more importantly, reading interviews with curators is exciting for artists, collectors and curators/dealers alike. Good idea.

Plus I'm impressed with Ms. Martin's answers.

11/01/2005 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks HH

For some reason though, the Blogger system is awfully finicky today. I hope folks aren't having the same trouble I am.

I was concerned that the Curator of the Month series might be considered a bit heavy for a blog, though, so I'm pleased at your response.

11/01/2005 03:10:00 PM  
Anonymous pd said...

I am so glad that you started curator of the month and you couldn't have picked a better curator to start with. Courtney stands out as a curator how cultivates her own unique vision despite the winds of art world change. Also, few can explain the goings on with the clarity and eloqunce evidenced here. Many of us look forward to her projects.

11/01/2005 03:16:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I'm glad you started this, too. This is easily the most informative art blog on the web, at least for artists.

Having said that, the more I read interviews with people who function as gatekeepers of the quote/unquote 'art world', the more I doubt the value/validity of that structure.

11/01/2005 09:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

the more I read interviews with people who function as gatekeepers of the quote/unquote 'art world', the more I doubt the value/validity of that structure.

Ouch?

...you want to elaborate?

11/02/2005 05:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great thread!!! i will look forward to this each month...

CM generously offer much for artists and others to consideer, although slightly disconcerting for artists with little exposure that CM needs to know the work before engaging in the visit, but these are her parameters, not necessarily those of other curators

ANONartist

11/02/2005 09:48:00 AM  
Anonymous pd said...

CJM what is your opinion about the pedigree an artist needs. is it true that a mfa is a prerequsite? Do you take the pedigree into consideration when you consider the work? or is the mfa more of a filter and way of gaining visiblity for artists?

11/02/2005 03:06:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Ed, it's not personal to you, certainly -- how many gallery owners have been as forthcoming and educational as you? Few to none -- color me grateful, sir.

It bothers me more and more that fine art (unlike fine music for example) has very little cultural trickle-down into the world of normal people. Mom and Dad Sixpack go to MOMA but see everything there as removed from real life. But the same people are able to connect solidly with many fairly high-end musical expressions, jazz and classical among them. I'm beginning to see the current art-market and museum infrastructure, curators and all, as being part of the mechanism responsible for sealing fine art off, intellectually, practically, from the culture at large. Street art expressions and outsider expressions are small consolation (even though I own a great Sudduth) --

It's an issue that's needling at me. I've got no answers, but I'm thinking that, somewhat like the CIA is still a perfect Cold War institution long after the Cold War, the Art Market infrastructure (in spite of its success in selling art) is tuned more to a prior era's way of looking at what art is in the first place. It seems to deal with Art as elevated and etherealized and scandalized by people who are dead, or nearly so. I'd almost prefer to come up with a different word to call what we do, just to get away from that musty, out-of-reach, museum-ized thing 'art'. Call it 'Baddiddio'. "Check out this nice piece of baddiddio." "Hey, Inka, how's the baddiddio coming along?" "Damien, you really have got to work out your baddiddio, man."

Am I making sense?

11/02/2005 07:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Courtney J Martin said...

PD, pedigree is tricky. it seems as if an MFA is a must today to gain art-related jobs and/or gain recognition. sure, time and (constructive)criticism aid an artists work. I hope that mfa programs have not become the
sole spaces for artistic development. In answer to both your question and Anon.'s: I don't consider pedigree, nor do I care where someone has/has not
shown.

11/02/2005 08:57:00 PM  

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