Vincent Fecteau

Views of “Not New Work: Vincent Fecteau Selects from the Collection,” 2009. Left (from left to right): Eric Rudd, Night Fairy, 1974; Max Ernst, Bauta, 1964; Ron Nagle, Untitled, 1982; Peter Young, Untitled, 1968; Wayne Thiebaud, Untitled (Two Ice Cream Scoops on Plate), ca. 1985. Right: Robert Overby, Hall painting, first floor; H. C. Westermann, Secrets, 1964; Charles Howard, Banner, 1934; Christopher Wilmarth, New, 1968; Ralph Humphrey, Untitled, 1972. (Photos: Ian Reeves)

Vincent Fecteau was perhaps an ideal choice for an “artist selects” exhibition: His own sculptures are potent, peculiarly honed works that take months to produce, and the twenty-three objects he culled from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s storage facilities reveal as much about the quirks of a collection as they do about the vision of an artist set free within it. Pieces by the likes of Judy Chicago, Ron Nagle, and Tom of Finland will be on view through November 8 at the museum under the fitting title “Not New Work.” Fecteau will also have a solo show at Matthew Marks Gallery this fall.

ARTISTS ARE A MAJOR—AND OFTEN OVERLOOKED—CONSTITUENCY OF ART MUSEUMS. In my experience, inspiration comes not just from spending time with so-called masterpieces but also from seeing the way other, less brand-name artists have dealt with the problems and challenges of making art.

History strives to identify “greatness,” but it often does so at the expense of a more accurate and messy story about the past. I like the idea of museums using their collections to expand and challenge notions of art and art history, since it’s often the things that have been edited out of the canon that inspire me to keep working. The most transformative experiences I’ve had in museums have almost always been the result of seeing something that I had never seen before and didn’t know existed.

When Apsara DiQuinzio, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at SF MoMA, asked me to participate in their “New Work” exhibition series, I proposed drawing a show from the museum’s permanent collection rather than showing my own work. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since collaborating with the painter Tomma Abts on a similar exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in 2004. For that show, we combined our own works with pieces that we selected from the Vanabbe’s collection. It was an incredible opportunity to explore the depths––and limitations––of a particular museum’s collection and to witness the conversations that occur among artworks when they are brought together.

I thought that the most authentic way for me to approach the SF MoMA exhibition would be to try and apply my studio methods to the curatorial task at hand. I wondered whether it would be possible to construct a show as I did a sculpture: intuitively adding and subtracting, allowing meaning to be generated by the objects rather than using them in service of an argument or idea. Priority was given to the object over the concept, the poetic over the narrative, complexity over clarity. For this reason, I decided to select work for the show that had rarely, if ever, been exhibited: Some of the pieces are by well-known artists (Max Ernst and Jess), but others are by much less familiar names (Richard Feralla and Dorothy Reid).

The exhibition came together organically, and I hope it will unfold in a similar way for viewers as they spend time looking and walking around the objects. Because I wanted to avoid constructing an overarching narrative, there is no official catalogue or brochure for the show. Instead, the museum will produce a set of postcards, each of which depicts a different view of a 1968 Christopher Wilmarth sculpture titled New. Sculpture is difficult if not impossible to accurately document—it resists photography. For this reason, the “overdocumentation” of a piece, particularly one that has been unseen for several decades, struck me as the perfect poetic gesture.