Friday, July 12, 2013

How Curating Got A Bad Name, Or How To Ruin An Artist Retrospective: The Pompidou's Spectacular Failures

Mike Kelley,  Ahh... Youth, 1991 (otherwise known as "the cover of Sonic Youth's Dirty")

The Pompidou Center has a long history of curatorial mismanagement, not so much that it has succumbed to celebrity culture the way US art museums are doing right now, but for lack of true scholarly rigor and international vision.
It got a rather late start in 1977 when it opened, compared to most big capitals - though Brussels is lacking a modern and contemporary museum right now - and from the beginning was committed to either showcasing French artists (it opened with a Marcel Duchamp retrospective) which is fair enough as most national museums do represent their country after all; or organizing sprawling, messy  mammoth exhibitions centered around a locale that has been a hotbed of artistic innovations (Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, Los Angeles, etc.) or  on some über-vague thematic idea, like "Time" or "Political Art".

The latter type of exhibition was always too complicated and usually crammed to the rafters with objects that were easily missed (I remember marveling at seeing a Copernicus manuscript in 'Le Temps, Vite' that was exiled away in a small vitrine that everybody overlooked, as it wasn't signaled in an obvious manner). The exhibition design or "scénographie' as they like to grandiosely call it in French would usually be so clever you wouldn't understand exactly the subdivisions, the layout and the relationships between concepts and objects*.
The Pompidou catalogs also tend to be stubbornly published in French-only, which can be a saving grace for foreign visitors because they can't wince when they see mistranslations (for example, an article in the Warhol retrospective catalog back in 1990 had "viscous" instead of "vicious" when referring to a Lou Reed lyric, which kinda change things, especially if it's the heading of an article) or wonder at the generally poor proofreading.

 Full disclosure, I worked there as a lowly curatorial assistant back at the end of the last century, and I witnessed piss-poor planning, general chaos, temper tantrums, or important tasks being given over to unpaid interns or temp workers whose contract were renewed (or not) every 2 months or so.
The main reason for this is linked to arcane budgetary rules arbitrated by the French Ministry of Finances and trickling down to cultural institutions,  but you can also blame a very French attitude when it comes to work ethics, a mix of overconfidence in being able to pull things off at the last minute and a blind belief in nationalistic clout.
Ah yes, if you ask MoMA for a loan 2 months before your show opens, of course you gonna get it. Ah yes, Guernica will be lent to my show because of course, I work at the Pompidou, that flagship of French male chauvinism, the centerpiece of French high culture. Ah yes, my group show with a complicated if ill-defined subject will look fantastic because I started working on it only a year prior to the opening and I'll be able to convince the Tate Modern, the Hermitage, MoMa and other large museums to lend me over their foot traffic-attracting masterpieces, never mind we always refuse them our own show-stopping artworks .  You get the drift.

As a rule, the Pompidou shows don't really travel that much internationally, but the Pompidou does "take shows", as we say in the profession, that is hosts an exhibition curated elsewhere by somebody else, usually some retrospective.
 "Take shows" are a good way to split expenses in Europe (in the US it's different, the show travels for a fee on top of the expenses), and everywhere they serve the purpose of saving an institution some resources (say, you have a reduced staff that cannot spend too long on research, or your museum isn't very well-known or has a small collection to leverage so it wouldn't get the loans needed for the exhibition to be as complete as possible) and in some instances they can fill a gap in scheduling (which happens a lot, when you need to postpone an exhibition to raise more money or wait for loans to get back from elsewhere).

Mike Kelley, a detail from one of the Memory Ware pieces.

As you may know if you follow FBC! the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam organized a Mike Kelley retrospective that opened back in December. That exhibition was planned long in advance, when Kelley was still alive, and will travel to MoMA PS1 in September, and then to MOCA in Los Angeles next year.
But before that, a considerably reduced and incredibly poorly installed version stopped at the Pompidou for the Summer.
Being a Mike Kelley scholar, even though nobody seems to know it (I wrote my dissertation on Kelley and got the Ph.D back in 2003), I thought I should do a quick day trip to Paris to go see the exhibition, if only because I'm planning to write a book on his work, so it's always good to see the work again in person.
Of course I'm incredibly biased because in my opinion (which seemed to be shared by a bunch of other critics and scholars and writers, so I'm not being quixotic here) Kelley is one of the most influential artists of the last 30 years or so.
 Having stated this, you can understand I was expecting his retrospective in its Pompidou incarnation to be quite substantial, on the same scale as it was in Amsterdam, maybe with the addition of local loans (Kelley is well represented in François Pinault's collection, for example). So imagine my disappointment when I arrived at the Pompidou to see that the show wasn't even announced on a banner hanging from the museum's façade. They had one each for Roy Lichtenstein and  Simon Hantaï, a French-based Postwar abstract painter,  both being given the top floor, the most prestigious real estate at the Pompidou, and one other banner for the permanent collection. I'll get back to that a bit later.

Kelley's retrospective is located in one of the mezzanine galleries on the right hand side of the building when you come in, and to add insult to injury there is a crapstatic show of younger artists in the other, because nobody at the Pompidou thought that devoting more space to Kelley's work would have been a smarter option.
From then on there was no way this could have ended well, and to confirm my suspicions the show starts on the wrong footing with a didactic proudly announcing that "this is the first Mike Kelley retrospective in France" which is patently untrue as a traveling one organized by Thomas Kellein stopped in Bordeaux in 1992. You can find the reference on Kelley's website, and it's listed in most of his bios, so it's not exactly a secret. I guess people at the Pompidou must think that if it didn't happen in Paris, then it never happened, right?

Unlike in Amsterdam, the exhibition starts chronologically with a few birdhouses from his CalArts MFA show in 1978, then jumps up to some "performance-related objects" and after that it's complete chaos. One slanted wall brings you to 2-dimensional works from Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile (1986) and right behind that wall you then get to a few sculptures and hologram videos from the Kandors (so that would chronologically be the end).
The most real estate is taken up by The Poetics Project, an installation made in collaboration with Tony Oursler for the 1997 Documenta and acquired by the Pompidou. By far not a very significant piece for both artists despite its sprawling footprint, but interesting as a transitional piece for Kelley. It's normal for a museum to showcase its collection so no beef from my part here, but it means that within such a small gallery space a lot more interesting or important pieces are missing, that could have given a much better idea of Kelley's work to the public. Oh but who am I kidding here, there's absolutely no way a visitor could get a good idea of his importance and influence with such a crappy installation.

Behind the Poetics Project, on one side you have a couple of Memory Ware 2-D pieces (an accumulation of buttons, pins, beads and shiny objects glued on a flat panel that command huge prices from unenlightened collectors, a bit of in-your-face-fuck-you from Kelley to the market, if you will, most of them from 2000-onward), one blobby sculpture called Cuttlebone I won't discuss here for lack of time but that is interesting for many reasons (if you want to know why, wait for me to write that book).
On the other side, a few stuffed animal pieces, not too many nor very significant ones, maybe because these are the kind of pieces the curator thought were the most well-known, so no need to show the seminal ones, right?
There are some very minor paper pieces scattered here and there and in the last room you have stuff thrown together for no other reason, seemingly, that the curator had no fucking idea what to do with them.
There's the magnificent Educational Complex maquette (1995) that shares some space with one of the sculpture from Day Is Done, one projection of the Heidi video on a wall, and a couple other videos elsewhere. You get the feeling that someone thought, "oh I'm gonna put all the videos in the same space, because it's the same medium, it must mean something, right? Oh and the maquette and the Day Is Done sculpture are loosely linked with memory and education, let me put this here" while there are 2 panels from Sex To Sexty on another wall.

Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler, detail from the Poetics Project, 1997 (an interview between John Cale and Tony Oursler)

This is what I'd call "curating by Wikipedia", taking a few pieces from various periods of Kelley's art career without carefully selecting them, throwing them in a space and not bothering to rigorously link them to explain a bit why they are significant, why they are displayed here in relation to what, etc.
The wall labels and didactics are particularly idiotic in that regard. They wallow in a succession of empty adjectives (he went to the "famous" Cal Arts school,  "from the "astonishing richness of his works on paper" to "his "spectacular mixed-medias works", his "erudite work tinged with irreverence" is laid out in a "striking" visual & sonic path", and OF COURSE it's an "acidic  critical commentary on art and society").
 This may very well be but at no point during the show do any of the didactics explains how Kelley arrives at that. Unlike in Amsterdam, where all the wall labels and didactics were extremely well-written and informative, and where connections between artworks were explained clearly.

I left the show so pissed off by its poor organization, installation and educational components that I didn't even bother to buy the catalog, which I would have normally done to expand my collection of Kelley-related books, and I'm glad I'm didn't because I've been told yesterday by someone who will remain anonymous (because I'm not sure the person would want to be quoted) that a massive catalog produced by the Stedelijk will come out at the end of the Summer just on time for when the show arrives at PS1. Now I recommend you buy that one. Apparently the Pompidou went rogue and decided to publish its own catalog, why I wonder because it could have spared the funds to maybe, maybe expand the exhibition as it stands and make it, oh, I don't know, scholarly? Educational? Intelligent? The Pompidou isn't a contemporary art center destined to be a cutting-edge destination for the happy few, but a national museum that attracts a large international audience that could have benefited from 1) learning more about Mike Kelley, 2) be informed why he was such an influential artist over the last few decades 3) in a way that makes sense for a virgin audience 4) so they'd see his work within a larger art historical context.
Instead, they decided to cut the size of the show in such a way it's incomprehensible for the large majority of the (paying) public, giving it a vague air of hipsterism by locating it right next to a show of inane young artists.
Well done, Pompidou Center powers that be, here's a totally wasted opportunity to do your job.

Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, video from the Heidi installation, 1992, (Timothy Martin interviewing Peter and asking him, "do you know what masturbation is?)

What the Pompidou has done instead was welcoming the public to a totally imbecilic work by Loris Gréaud in the center of the foyer, where some stuntman was jumping out of some spiraling tower onto a large inflatable cushion. BIG DEAL. Oh, performance art, you've come such a long way. Not.
Then if you were so inclined you could have gone to the Simon Hantaï retrospective on the top floor, the one reserved for, you know, the masters. There was also a Lichtenstein one I skipped for lack of time, and that might have redeemed my whole Pompidou experience except I've been told by several people who've seen it that the curatorial choices were odd and that, too, was curiously installed. Oh well. Anyway, I chose poorly because that Hantaï retrospective demonstrated in the most clear-cut way possible that the poor schmuck took twenty years churning out crapstatic paintings (you know the kind: brown, brown and brown muddy brown painterly ones with an occasional maroon highlights or two), all 400 of them,  before he eventually arrived at something half-decent. Which are tie-dye origami-like jobs being unfolded, mostly in blue, but you also have some yellow ones. If you see just one of these it's actually enjoyable, if you see several together they make you realize what a mediocre painter he was, someone who actually never influenced anybody at all in his entire life. 

Why am I hating on Simon Hantaï, will you ask? Well I have nothing against the poor schlemiel, besides I think he's dead. Rather, I am hating on the Pompidou right now. The Hantaï retrospective could have easily be swapped with the Mike Kelley one in terms of real estate and not suffered from it, on the contrary,  editing out the brown sauce paintings by a few hundreds would have been very smart to avoid de-evaluating the work of an artist I was fairly neutral about before.
But now I know, Hantaï has never been a good artist, period. Not worth devoting that many resources for. So why did the Pompidou decide to spend its public funds on someone nobody will ever wake up thinking about, "this artist changed my life and the course of Postwar painting!"?

 Because he was quasi-French for fuck sake! Let's show the world the French had great Postwar artists! You see, when you learn art history in France, you are taught that the great drama of Modern and Contemporary Art was when Rauschenberg was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennial in 1964, thereby ending France worldwide domination in modern painting (and art, then). It came two years after the definitive loss of the French colonies, so you can imagine the trauma.
The French art world, which is managed and dominated by mostly male and mostly white civil servants, never recovered from that loss. Ever since, they lament the lack of French artists in the collection of major international museums (read "American", I rarely see a French apparatchik bemoaning the absence of French crappy painters in the collections of, say, the Tate Modern or the Moderna Museet in Stockholm), and every decade or so they spend a big chunk of French public money to organize a showcase of French artists in the United States. That's when my US friends usually come to me and ask, how come there isn't good contemporary art in France? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind alongside French pop music's international hits.

Last night as I was discussing how terrible a painter Hantaï was, a French friend joked and said, "oh but you see, I was brought up in the cult of  Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, so Hantaï is actually a spot above". While not being totally untrue, I was, yes, but this summer the Pompidou doesn't devote any single solo show to a woman artist. None. So crappy painter for crappy painter, if they really want to make a point of showing off terrible Postwar abstract painting by foreign artists who were living in France, then why the hell not show Vieira da Silva? Seriously, if the Pompidou wants to spend money on artists who lived in France but are not well-know internationally, then I propose they should explore the work of Lea Lublin, who did really interesting work in the 1970s and would likely interest people abroad.
There's a whole side discussion to be done about the current sexist and racist cultural politics of the French (and European) art world, because they're terribly backwards here, but then when you see how they organized all their exhibitions at the Pompidou this summer you begin to understand it's a symptom of a much larger problem, mainly a lack of curatorial vision, self-reflection and stringent intellectual standards.

If you wonder where curating got its bad name to be used by all and sundry in the fashion industry, music blogs, novelty stores and lifestyle magazines, look no further than the cultural institutions that lose their sense of purpose and meaning to abandon all pretense of educational or scholarly goals.
The Pompidou is a shining example of that, even without organizing a TV reality show featuring a threesome between Marina Abramovic, James Franco and Jay-Z.
Just by selecting where to display which artist within the premises of the museum and how to give up on all pretense of intellectual organization within the Kelley retrospective, the museum let all its standards slip, and by doing so not only it let down the spiritual and historical legacy of a great artist, but its audience as well.

UPDATE: I've been told yesterday there was a banner indeed for Mike Kelley. But not on the facade where the main entrance is located, but on the back of the building where there is no visitors entrance (there's one for the library, if I remember well). Still looks like an afterthought to me and it doesn't make the exhibition better or more respectful of the artist, the public and the institution.

*The one notable exception I can think of, on the top of my head, was the rather wonderful Let's Entertain around 2000. It was so incredibly well-installed with very good wall labels and didactics. It was curated by Philippe Vergne and came from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where he was working at the time. 

1 comment:

Tosh Berman said...

Fascinating! A very good blog.