Last night I caught up with Linda Norden, the first curator of contemporary art at the venerable Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University.
Yes, we did have beers but opted instead of burgers to meet at the Harvard Square landmark, The Hong Kong, which is a short walk from the museum. It was a bit after 7 and the end of a long work day when we settled into a booth for what proved to be a three and a half hour dialogue. We initiated the plan to meet some months back when she suggested getting together after completing the project with the artist Ed Ruscha which is currently installed in the American Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. The consulting curator for the distinguished exhibition, one of the oldest and most prestigious of its kind, was Donna Desalvo.
Although the Ruscha installation “Course of Empire” was designed for the unique space of the Venice building, about which there is a range of opinions, the exhibition will be reconfigured for the Whitney Museum of American Art opening on November 16. For that American version of the project Norden and Desalvo will be co-curators and produce a new text and brochure rather than recycle the small catalogue created for Venice. Norden related being excited about writing again and incorporating the different space and reconfiguration. She indicates that she likes to write, gets requests all the time, but doesn’t want to feel rushed and commits only when she “feels ready.”
She is deeply involved with her work and discussed some of the aspects of raw labor. The endless time on the phone brokering loans for exhibitions and their complex negotiations. That this take up some 80 % of the long hours she spends at her job. You sense that curating at her level in not for the faint of heart. That it entails not only ideas and insights but a kind of raw energy and stamina to bring them to fruition. But she rejected the word I suggested “passion.”
Generally, she is very detailed and precise about how she represents herself and the work. So much so that she debated and deflected, examined and deconstructed, most of my routine questions. It took an hour or so just to review ground rules of what would be on and off the record. Eventually, feeling that I was loosing a lot of very rich material, I asked if I might start taking notes? What follows are at best fragments and nuggets from an experience that was less like an interview, in the usual sense, and more like intellectual martial arts. She knocked me off my game. Not to imply that she played a game. Rather it was some form of freestyle in which there were no defined rules of engagement. So while I am an experienced interviewer I found myself struggling to adapt and maintain some shape to the dialogue.
Does this make any sense? What I am attempting to convey is not so much a full report, which may be beyond my grasp, but rather the flavor and originality, the intensity of the experience. So richly involved that some two hours had lapsed, and endless small cups of tea, before the subject of Venice even surfaced. Though clearly fatigued she agreed to stay another half hour, which turned into an hour.
So I am now violating one of the most basic rules of journalism and art writing by revealing that I don’t really know what I am saying. All that I can state with clarity is that I engaged in a dialogue which was the equivalent of a graduate seminar on contemporary art at the highest level. Norden succeeded at involving me in the conundrum to which she is deeply committed.
In no way do I imply that she was aggressive or impolite. In reality, the exchange though daunting was lively, fun, witty, warm, friendly, respectful, and inventive all at once. There were wonderful bursts of laughter as I struggled to hang in through a labyrinth of complex issues and ideas. By the end of the discourse, however, we came back full circle to concepts that make sense when you take the time to process them.
Her rationale for this approach was both succinct and hilarious. “Like a good Talmudic scholar you have to believe there is a reason to have a discourse because something is at stake,” she said. Norden’s heritage is Sephardic and later German. For instance, she suggested, should one not only wash hands before a meal, but also between courses? How does a question get played out, in the Talmud, through centuries by generations of rabbis? I suggested that her intensive process implied a search for truth and deeper meaning. Which is not what one normally pursues in writing a profile. This expanded the boundaries of journalism. Not the usual who, what, when, where and why of all that. Norden made me push, struggle and stretch which is precisely what she strives for as a curator.
We have had these tough exchanges in the past. It surfaced in response to the presentation of video work by Yvonne Rainer in the first Harvard show that Norden presented. I blurted out that it had “pissed me off.” She was not about to let that go and wanted to know in precise detail just what I meant. What are the “rules of engagement” for viewing video? I conveyed that the earlier dialogue had greatly impacted my approach to the medium. Often I feel her presence as I struggle to focus on challenging work. A kind of subliminal question surfaces of “What would Linda say about this?” She was surprised at the depth of that reaction and the degree to which our dialogue had transformed my critical thinking. But it’s true. When we are chastised by peers we respect it is wise to listen.
This seems like a good time to throw out some facts if you are still with me. It appears that she initially aspired to be an artist with a double major of metal work at RISD and art history at Brown. From there she spent four years preparing to pursue training in art conservation before deciding to concentrate on art history. Although there is no outside pressure she hopes to soon complete a dissertation on Cy Twombly. Prior to taking the position at Harvard she taught in and administered the renowned curatorial training program at Bard College. About her creativity she stated that “I love making stuff like the Halloween costumes for my kids (two sons) which were way over determined.”
Reflecting on her experience at Bard, as well as teaching at Harvard, she has unique ideas. “Curating is not a new profession but curating contemporary art is a new profession. Curating is not a science.” But, precisely because of programs such as that at Bard it is evolving to become an ersatz (my word) science that is largely theory driven rather than evolving from the primacy of the object which is the tradition of when a curator was described as the “keeper” of a collection. The focus was the object and exhibitions evolved from works preserved by the institution. This differs strongly from the current practice, which Norden describes as primarily European and particularly German in origin, where the curator has an idea or concept and the objects are assembled to illustrate or prove that thesis. This shapes up as a generational difference between those of my age who were trained in traditional art history and connoisseurship and the “nouveau” aesthetics which seem more reflective of thinking than looking.
How does Norden relate to the Fogg and its tradition of studying the object and forming collections? Particularly when contemporary art is about installations and concepts which are not readily collectable. “I took a job in a museum that never had a contemporary curator,” she said. “The position and department of Modern and Contemporary art was founded by the former director, James Cuno, in 1997. Harry Cooper was hired as the modern curator and he in turn wrote the job description for the contemporary position. The point is that I took a post as a curator in a museum that never had one and is renowned for its love of the object that informs what you do with it. So for me there was first the challenge of Harvard and secondly the challenge of bringing insights to the university’s commitment to the level of thinking about objects that is not typical of what is going on in contemporary art. My first exhibition was me wanting to ask what the experience of art is in a period in which the object is not supposed to be what it is about. What is the encounter with the work that is not about the object? I would like to think I am doing shows that I can only do at the Fogg. I don’t think that is what most contemporary curators have as their mission.”
This came back to one of the first points in our discussion. Her insistence on looking at the object independent of other information such as biography and sociology (that German trend). Her approach is not about putting the work into a zeitgeist. I brought up the example of how information in John Richardson’s biography of Picasso made me rethink his Blue Period painting in the Fogg’s Wertheimer Collection. Richardson stated that Picasso was using inmates in a female prison, primarily prostitutes, some with syphilis, as models for the series of seemingly traditionally based Madonna’s. Norden debated the notion of using the biographical information to interpret the work as limiting a range of other approaches. That perhaps it shuts down rather than opens up a deeper engagement with the work. Three hours later we returned to that point discussing the traveling exhibition of work by Eva Hesse, about which Norden wrote. How do you not treat Hesse as an icon and martyr? To attempt to ignore the circumstances of her early death by cancer resulting from the toxic materials she used for the sculpture? Or, an example I suggested, how do you take marriage to Diego Rivera and her tragic youthful accident, out of discussion of the work of Frida Kahlo? On the other hand, there is little impulse to use the biography of “abstract” artists from Cezanne to Mondrian and Malevich to explain the work.
Can you have it both ways I asked? Is it possible to use biographical information such as the extensive research in the Richardson volumes, which also incorporate insightful discussion of the work, as well as the more formalist approach of considering the creation as independent of the creator? Can we simultaneously allow the object, body of work, as well as the life experience of the artist, to dictate the terms by which we absorb visual information? Just as the form of this essay is a response to the unique process of the interview? This also evoked a strong position Norden has in response to the pervasive use of wall text, video documentary, brochures etc, which have become the norm of contemporary exhibitions. The urge of curators to make difficult work “accessible.” Perhaps the art world equivalent of “no child left behind.” And we all know what a disaster that has been.
“The minute you tell people what the work is about,” she said. “If an explanation is the point of entry (wall text or elaborately descriptive labels) then it is a guide to everything else you see. I don’t believe in ignoring what other people think of work but I feel that people should not be afraid of encountering what they see on its own terms or in context with other work.”
She discussed the intentions of an artist to have work seen in a particular way and the mandate to respect that. The installation and the manner in which the work is presented defines the art form of a curator. The mandate of the curator, however, is to respect how the artist wants us to experience the work. Clearly, many curators muck about with that. I agree strongly with Norden on that point and mostly don’t bother to read text on the walls and resent groups of visitors huddled around specific works listening to an art star on ubiquitous acoustaguides “explain” the work.
That effort may be counterproductive to encouraging visitors to have their own encounter. On the other hand, when I take students to museums they often convey engaging work that had previously been largely “invisible” to them. Just as I might benefit from having a musician “explain” a Mahler symphony. A high school student recently conveyed to me that when a work of literature is “explained to death” in class it “kills” the experience.
Are contemporary curators providing the short hand “Cliff Notes” for difficult contemporary work? In my avant-garde seminar, for example, students often convey frustration that I have not “explained” the work. There is the assumption that the professor should know the answers. I respond that it is the process and debate about the work that is important. Students must learn to deal with the manner in which the artist engages us. As the “consumer” or “critic” we have an opportunity and right to determine the degree and depth of our involvement. We can “pull the plug” or “hang in there.” Contemporary art challenges the limit of our attention span.
What about Ed Ruscha I asked? When we got to that topic Norden was tired but rallied. Executing the commission was a complex subject that she touched on succinctly. There was a lot about the politics involved in acting as “Commissioner” for the American Pavilion. The process has changed since 2003 particularly the jury and its current lack of funding. The prior ground rules mandated that the “Commissioner” be connected to an institution which would fund and administrate the project. This is no longer the case and Harvard stated that it would provide no support staff or administrative time. How Norden managed to execute the project above, beyond, and in addition to her Harvard responsibilities is not clear to me. But she did discuss how the project itself was done.
Under the current rules for American participation at the Venice Biennale an artist is selected who in turn designates a curator. Norden had previously worked with Ruscha. “I went out to LA,” she said and met with the artist. “Ed had wanted to do Venice for the past 30 years. He loved the building as well as the prestige of the Biennale. He said ‘What do you do?’ I said ‘I think it is crucial that the project be really specific to the space. I knew the building and we talked about its symmetry. Donna (Desalvo) suggested that we leave the rotunda empty which we did. I thought it was important that people not feel that they had seen the work before. He made new work for the installation. I particularly liked the earlier ‘Blue Collar’ series which was done in black and white (based on photographs of industrial landscapes). He said ‘How long will you be in LA’ and I answered ‘About a week.’ He said ‘Come back in 48 hours.’ He subsequently created a new series of works, in color, that relate to the original 1992 series.”
They were set up on opposite sides of the rotunda. Five each. The original works and the new ones. They entail some “degradation” she explained. “It is such a powerful idea,” Norden said. “The project was called ‘Course of Empire’ inspired by the series of works by Thomas Cole (The Hudson River School 19th century American landscape painter) Although Ruscha was inspired by Cole he “hates to explain his work,” she said. “But he is clever in articulating his work and is a good talker. Nobody discusses his work better than he does. He is a compelling phrase maker.”
Why Ed Ruscha I asked? Particularly considering that being selected for the Venice Biennale is arguably the highest honor conferred on an American artist. Just where does he fit into the pantheon? Norden did not hesitate to rank him among the top five American artists of the second half of the 20th century.
“He understands the way that photographs inform painting” she said. “The way that photographs make us think that we have seen everything already.” This is actually just short hand of an involved discussion of the photograph and its impact on fine art. It had started early in our meeting when she brought up a discussion of the topic earlier in the day in the studio of Frank Egloff who makes paintings that reclaim element of iconic photography. This also veered off into a discussion of Gerhard Richter and the use of photography in his work. Does the photograph, or the image painted from it, preclude our experience of the scene itself? Does looking at a photograph or painting of a familiar view substitute for the actual experience? Is the coding and absorption of photo based
visual information “like déjà vu all over again?”
How did that work in the 18th century when viewers responded to the “postcards” (my term) of Venice by Canaletto? And I asked just how memory works as a series of “postcards” or “snapshots” of our life experience? Why do all family albums tend to look the same? Is that what Paul Simon was getting at in his pop song “Kodachrome?” What happens when we directly experience for the first time landmarks we have already experienced as images? I am just hinting here at the complexity of that dialogue.
“Ruscha has figured out a way to paint that captures information before it’s processed,” she said. “He has managed to seem new for the past 40 years. It’s like he’s always current.” An accomplishment that she describes as unique on that short list of most important artists of our time. That said the interview ended. Abruptly.