AFTER LEIGH MARKOPOULOS DIED it became common among her friends and acquaintances to remark on what a private person she was, and how she would have disliked the fuss and attention being paid her memory. Reflections like this one would have made her uncomfortable—so the wisdom went—and would have exposed her in a way that she would have deplored. I have my doubts about the accuracy of this. Leigh was territorial, perhaps even secretive, but not exactly private. She was the consummate diplomat’s daughter (her father, Dimitri, had worked for Greece’s foreign service): flexible, multilingual, and especially capable of making her interlocutors feel that she was revealing to them secret thoughts reserved for them alone.
Indeed, Leigh was constantly revealing herself, especially through the work that she admired most. Like any curator, she made meaning through the arrangement of artworks. She could be shockingly candid in this regard. There was, above all, the rigor of Bridget Riley: careful, repetitive, and controlled. But the ambit of Leigh’s interests just as soon included other forces that unraveled a sense of surface calm: the gabbling publicity of Fluxus, the ritual violence of Viennese Actionism, the gender games of Ulay and David Bowie. She was a private person with a surprising appetite for exhibitionism, a formalist with a sense of the absurd. Leigh was also fascinated by works like Giovanni Anselmo’s 1971 Entract nell’opera (Entering the Work), a version of which hung in her one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. It depicts a single figure, back turned to the viewer. But what meaning can we ascribe to his turning away?
I am only too aware of the limits of such reading and thinking. Nevertheless, in my grief, I cast around fragments of memories, trying to assemble a narrative to make sense of Leigh’s sudden absence. Here she is, soon after she arrived in San Francisco to work at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, sitting in the back seat of someone’s car, with me on one side and Fred Wilson on the other—a bemused smile on her face as Wilson chattered on about his partner, recent projects, and god knows what else. Here we are drinking at the Connecticut Yankee with Hans Haacke and his son Paul as the 2004 election results roll in—a fug settling over us as we understand that it will be another four years of W. and war. And here is her first email to me in 2005, when I was commissioned to write a gallery text for Tariq Alvi’s Wattis exhibition, and she was my editor. She is explaining with great candor why my first draft is a disaster, and advising how I might change course. Then, in the next email, Leigh calls my revisions “virtuoso,” a kindness that makes me glow with pride for a month.
Why do I circle back to these half memories? What is it that I think they will reveal? Leigh and I barely knew each other then, and in some ways that moment feels like ancient history, recollections of an exciting time just before it began to dissipate, as exciting times in San Francisco usually do. Our real story began later, in 2007, when Kate Fowle decided to leave her position as chair of curatorial practice at California College of the Arts, and Leigh took her place. Leigh and I did not choose to work together; it was more like we inherited each other. But what evolved out of that chance inheritance was a rare sort of partnership. Our collaboration came to involve generations of students from all over the globe, and several coedited publications and co-advised exhibitions on artists like Martin Wong, Etel Adnan, the Angels of Light, and Survival Research Laboratories. We both organized our lives around the project and community of the program, and therefore organized our lives together.
It is hard to account for one’s relationship with colleagues. Leigh and I were not exactly boss and employee. Neither were we mom and dad, as certain students described us. We weren’t good cop and bad cop, or Batman and Robin, as I jokingly called us (she Batman and I Robin). Maybe we were siblings, with the complex currents of trust, support, testing, and mostly playful antagonism that entails? Leigh and I were not each other’s confidantes, we did not share our deepest secrets, we didn’t talk about romantic relationships. We did come to know each other’s intellectual reflexes extremely well—in a way that felt special, rare, and intimate.
Leigh died in late February after she was struck by a truck while crossing Wilshire Avenue in Los Angeles. This happened outside the ninety-nine-cent store made famous by Andreas Gursky’s 1999 diptych 99 Cent—a weird and bleak context for someone with Leigh’s innate aristocratic mien. But maybe there is no context that would not seem surreal. Losing her was a terrible shock followed by the endless bureaucratic grind of hospitals and coroners and memorials, devoted to sorting out the ruins of a life lived with no expectation it would end when it did.
Another memory, a recent one, surges in among the others: Sue Ellen Stone, Leigh’s friend and the former program manager in curatorial practice, calls me at 1 AM the night after Leigh’s accident. Sue Ellen was part of the perfect machine that was Leigh’s early years chairing the program; Leigh was visiting Los Angeles in part to celebrate Sue Ellen’s birthday. Sue Ellen is the first to arrive at Cedars-Sinai and the first to understand the scope of Leigh’s injuries. “This is where her story ends?” Sue Ellen repeats, incredulous. The truth, though, is that there is no story and no end. Her life ended raggedly and imperfectly. That is what is so unbearable about it. As a lover of Bridget Riley and good detective novels, Leigh would have found this lack of a neat resolution bothersome indeed.
Julian Myers-Szupinska is an associate professor of curatorial practice at California College of the Arts and is senior editor of the Exhibitionist.