PRINT May 1975

The Great Curatorial Dim-Out

Hypothesis: That the profession of curator is in crisis. It will be discussed by means of a typology (the curator, the museum, the dealer) and by details of typical cases.

THE ROLE OF THE CURATOR is different in different museums. A curator is never “the person in charge of a museum,” as the unabridged Random House Dictionary has it, but is usually close below the director, who is in charge. Curators’ duties include (1) acquiring work for the museum, (2) supervising its preservation in store, and (3)r displaying it, putting it on exhibition. These traditional duties are based on the running of a permanent collection and to them must be added the act of arranging temporary exhibitions. This, in fact, is one of the main occupations of curators devoted to modern art. In this area they have to make a creative effort and do the research necessary in deciding what to show. This work contributes considerably to attendance. Only occasionally does the permanent collection have a comparable box-office value.

Out of the multiple possibilities for exhibitions presented by the art world at any moment, the curator selects what he/she wants to present and calculates the feasibility of the project. Hence his function is one of input as he sorts out the massive information about the art around. When he puts on an exhibition his position changes: as the exhibition is visited it is assessed as a part of the museum’s output. Thus the curator is at the interface of the museum as an institution and the public as consumers. The temporary exhibition is particularly the form in which the museum declares the form of its commitment to art. This is true of what use is made of the permanent collection, but this occurs within limits imposed by a stable store of past work. Though the collection can be viewed ideologically it is less generally interesting on this basis than the avowal by the museum of its present beliefs.

Any criticism of the Whitney Museum, for example, must take cognizance of the fact that in the five-and-a-half years between September, 1969 and March, 1975 there were about 140 exhibitions. This is an impressive figure, even making allowance for the fact that some of the units called exhibitions are rearrangements of bits of the permanent collection. However, 40 of these shows were held in the lobby, in the “Nigger” room between the sales desk and the elevators.1 In addition, there were six shows on the lower ground floor, between the restaurant and the lavatories, and two more combined the Nigger room and the lower ground floor. Thus about a third of the exhibition program consisted of small brief shows, such as four paintings by Morris Louis or interim reports on such artists as Frank Bowling, Lee Lozano, Gladys Nilsson, and Johan Sellenrad.

Without all these small shows, which act as a strung-out, one-at-a-time supplement to the Whitney Annual/Biennial, what does the schedule look like? There has been an absolutely first-rate series of 19th-century exhibitions, including such theme shows as “The Reality of Appearance,” “The American Frontier,” “American Impressionism,” and “The Painter’s America” and one-artist shows such as those devoted to Eastman Johnson, Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Winslow Homer. The 20th-century exhibitions for the same period are less authoritative. Theme shows include: “Human Concern and Personal Torment” (curated by Robert Doty), “22 Realists” (James Monte), “Contemporary Black Artists” (Doty), and “The Structure of Color” (Marcia Tucker). The “Torment” and “Black” shows acknowledged a new source of art, but in carrying out the shows protest withered to a Peter Selz-ish Expressionist revival, and the black artists liked their show no more than I did. The color abstraction show was a conventional reshuffling of current and recent abstract art without any updating by reinterpretation. “22 Realists” was largely O.K. Harris uptown. One-artist shows included: Jim Dine, Robert Morris, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Louise Nevelson, John Marin, Romaine Brooks, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, James Rosenquist, Lucas Samaras, Sam Francis, Bruce Nauman, Jules Olitski, Joan Mitchell, and Al Held (the roster is chronological). This list does not distinguish between shows originated by the Whitney, shared, or taken whole from other institutions: my criticism remains the same. Of these half a dozen represented substantial additions to the state of knowledge concerning the artist shown. They are: Morris, O’Keeffe, “The Psycho-Analytic Drawings of Jackson Pollock,” Romaine Brooks, Andy Warhol, and the Hopper Bequest. What was wrong with the other shows was not, on the whole, the choice of artists but feeble interpretation by the curators and complacency of evaluation. If I am right, it seems that various dysfunctions can be located on the curatorial level.

Museums have to be seen in relation to the rest of the art world as a system of information.2 If a museum is in the field of modern art, it depends, of course, on the cooperation of dealers and artists. This is easy to get while artists are in the initial stages of their careers but it gets harder as they become more prominent. Then artists like to curate their own shows and so do their dealers. What happens is that artists, dealers, and collectors have a shared taste and a common interest. The center of their attention is the work of art: it is a product of the artist, the commodity of the dealer, and the possession of the collector. The three types represent an alliance for the purpose of furthering the work both as cultural sign and as object on the market. Thus the dispute of Robert Rauschenberg and Robert C. Scull at Parke-Bernet in 1973 can be viewed as an argument about how to divide the take.3 They fell out on the details of this: Scull got $90,000 for Rauschenberg’s Double Feature, a picture he bought for far less when it was worth less.

Now that large sums are involved, the curator of modern art has a problem. Modern art in America developed at first in terms of a Bohemian, avant-garde, and slightly underground context. As a result the artists’ independence conferred on the museums that bought them a kind of audacity, but the basis of this mutual enhancement, in which each side complimented the other on their freedom, has changed. The collection of modern art, even by new artists, has acquired another meaning as its prices rose. The American museum is approaching the status of a national hoard collection and ironically the market benefits particularly from patriotic acquisition. Is a curator supposed to join the artist-dealer-collector group and thus make the museum a service for the expanded market or is he to figure out strategies of independence? One recent case of a curator’s decision to supplement the dealer’s interests with a museum show was Monte’s Richard Pousette-Dart show at the Whitney. Of the 31 paintings 23 of them came from a New York dealer and four from one in Boston. The artist has recently left Betty Parsons for Andrew Crispo and it is clear that Crispo, with Monte’s cooperation, mounted a new market compaign on behalf of his new artist.

Of course, this has occurred before. In the Samaras show at the Whitney in 1972, the curator, Robert Doty, relinquished control to the artist’s dealer, the Pace Gallery. As a result Saniaras’s early work, the fetishistic boxes and other objects, were jammed into the periphery of the display area, while the new work, the boutique period chairs, dominated the gallery completely. Here we see the museum functioning as an extension of the showroom. The dealer’s interest in the work for sale suppressed the far more interesting but commercially used-up early period. Its only function was to provide background and a touch of history to the present conceived as a bazaar.

Collectors, incidentally, frequently serve as museum trustees so that even if they are not actively pressing for exhibitions of artists in their collections, and some of them do, they at least constitute a niche of market compliance in the top echelons of museums. Collectors who are trustees may get preferential treatment from dealers who can expect in return not a direct payoff necessarily but sympathetic attention to future proposals in which they may be involved. If we equate the knowledge of collectors with their enthusiasm for ownership, it follows that the taste brought to the formation of the collection is likely to be a limiting factor on their decisions as trustees.

The curator is subject to numerous pressures, some of them welcome and some of them not recognized perhaps, to keep within safe zones of activity. The pressures include:

1. The desire to get along with the artist or artists.

2. The necessity to keep good relations with the artist’s main dealer or dealers.

3. The necessity of maintaining collector contentment.

4. Taste-expectations emanating from the trustees and director.

5. Taste-expectations of other members of the curator’s peer group.

In addition to keeping the supply of objects open, the curator must define himself in relation to the culture of two subgroups: that is to say, the opinions held by the section of society that already owns some of the art he is interested in, and the opinions of a younger generation to which the curator may be predisposed by age, education, style, or ambition. All these pressures tend to keep curators in conforming rather than dissenting postures. The pleasures of belonging to the group, an elite, often outweigh the satisfactions of nonconformity.

The position of the artist is complex in all this: on one hand he/she produces the work because art is a task of absolute control and personal satisfaction. But this esthetic level is not all that the dealer and the collector are concerned with. They advance by entrepreneurial means the work of art and the career of the artist through exhibitions, color reproductions, and loans. And at this point, artists’ solicitude for their work can become indistinguishable from its promotion. As artists become, in a sense, their own curators the museum curator is forced to narrow his ideas to those that are agreeable to the artists’ reading of their own art. This constitutes one more problem for the curator who might want to control his show.

One weakness of the present generation of curators is their subservience to artists.’ Because the artist made the work, he is not necessarily the sole judge of how it is best seen, or even of what it means. Production and consumption (interpretation) are different acts. The temptation to manage the work after it is done is hard to resist, especially when the artist seems to be confirmed in his original intentions by the market reaction on which he depends for a living. Deference is owed to the artist but an excess of it can lead to inflated or lopsided shows, such as Brydon Smith’s Dan Flavin (National Gallery of Canada, 1969) or Tucker’s Rosenquist (Whitney Museum, 1972). Smith’s catalogue contains a great deal of information but he was clearly prevented from interpreting it. Tucker’s choice of works seemed to have been subverted by the artist. A large exhibition is not simply a mirror held up to an artist who is then objectively disclosed. The curator is present either as the interpreter of a critical point of view or as agent for somebody else. If the latter, he can be viewed as either the artist’s servant or the market’s slave. (By critical I mean a point of view that is thought-out, consistently argued, and checkable against other data.)

In the early days of recent American art, that is to say the 1950s, many artists felt themselves neglected or they remembered neglect and resisted group shows with some justification. There is no situation of neglect now, however, and we have been sated with monographic shows. The monograph, in the form of a book or a catalogue, has enormous potential: it can reveal an artist at unaccustomed length, but it should rest on work that we haven’t seen, or seen often enough. H. H. Arnason’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1962 of Philip Guston was of this type, and incidentally the biggest show an Abstract Expressionist had had at that date.

This is simply not the case with many of the large one-artist shows today, in which extended showing tends to reduce our admiration rather than extend our knowledge. The Robert Ryman show at the Guggenheim (1972) was monotonous in the absence of any direct painting done on the wall, which is the artist’s especial contribution.

When asked about this, he said that he was so interested in seeing all his old work gathered together that he did not feel like doing new work. Diane Waldman, the curator of the show, apparently acquiesced in his withholding of the one gift that might have made his show extraordinary (Ryman paints Frank Lloyd Wright). I can see that the challenge might be unnerving, but Sol LeWitt tackled it later with complete success. In fact, the cambered walls suited his allover drawing style very well.

In the last five or six years, the Guggenheim Museum has arranged one-artist shows of Robert Mangold and Brice Marden as well as Ryman. This sequence of painters looks purposeful, especially in the absence of painters in other styles of a comparable age. Stylistically, these artists all continue the reductive mode of abstract painting in terms of sensuous painterly handling; their art picks up the fields of Abstract Expressionism but replaces sublimity by sensibility. It is a fact of social and economic record that these painters, like any artists, came to the museum with prior support from other segments of the art world, some critics but more decisively dealers and collectors. These three artists enjoy a particulady high repute in Europe; they are a constitutive part of the international American art market (as is Carl Andre who has also been shown at the Guggenheim). These shows, so prominent in the museum schedule, seem to be the result of the convergence of conservative curators and a pro-European director, Thomas Messer, whose taste would tend to be susceptible to European marketing successes. Incidentally Marden, as readers of this magazine must know, has become a central painter in the present attempt to expand formalist esthetics by an input from linguistics. This is a conservative tactic to ditch Clement Greenberg, but hold on to the sort of painting that he liked or that has developed from his kind of painting.

Thus the shows seem promotional in effect. The desire to further one kind of painting reveals an ideological bias that happens to favor a single section of the market (specifically the John Weber, Fischbach, and Bykert Galleries). Obviously any show that a curator puts on will have some commercial repercussions inasmuch as museum exhibitions are status-conferring. The point here is that in the absence of alternatives, one hit of the market is being overstressed by the Guggenheim. The defense against this is optimal assortment in programming. What directors should see, if their curators cannot, is that as museums become more dependent on galleries, they risk the unique character of their institutions. Exhibitions in museums will lose their status-conferral value if they become continuous with the marketing plans of dealers. Linda Shearer acknowledges in the Marden catalogue the help of a critic “who is writing the catalogue raisonné on Marden.” Why should an artist horn in 1938, whose style is ten years old, okay eleven, need a catalogue raisonné? A card file in his dealers’ office should be sufficient. A full catalogue will confirm the artist’s market value, and the methodology of scholarship is available for hire.

To the extent that museums exhibit the work of living artists, the dealer is a proper and essential source of information. This includes the location of works, their dating, persuading collectors to make loans, and all that. Since the ’50s, as American art has been more and more esteemed and as museums have participated increasingly in current art, the two forms of organization, gallery and museum, have overlapped. As American art has become more expensive, however, the liason has shifted in emphasis. It now strengthens dealer penetration of museums rather than favors curatorial control of the diverse sources of the art world including the market.

Let me give an example of loss of control. In 1963 I arranged a memorial exhibition of Morris Louis at the Guggenheim. I proposed the show because of my admiration for the Veils which were less well known then than they are now. I knew that this would benefit dealers and others who had invested in Louis, but so what. A conflict arose, however, when I stated in the catalogue the number of paintings left by Louis at his death. Under threat of losing all the paintings from the estate, and obviously Louis’s dealer, Andre Emmerich, would have followed the estate’s lead, I had to change the figure to the phrase “a great number.” The reason for the change is that Louis was being sold at the time in terms of scarcity; it was only later, when he had been firmly established as a “master” (to which my show contributed) that his copious output could be acknowledged without harm to the prices.

A symptom of the weakening of curatorial function is the decline of the catalogue, a serious matter inasmuch as the catalogue has a greater duration than an exhibition. Catalogues are the repository of both the result of research and the critical ideas formed in contact with originals. As museums constitute, to some extent, a protected form of publication (as when a museum membership absorbs a preknown number of copies), an opportunity for uncompromising study is provided. In addition, despite the complaints of curators at always being rushed, there is usually ample lead-time to prepare a decent catalogue, if the curator is capable of doing so. The standards for catalogues were set originally at The Museum of Modern Art in the ’40s by Alfred Barr and James T. Soby (I exempt J. J. Sweeney from this commendation). Their subjects were researched with a skill and thoroughness far in advance of anything else available. Some of Barr’s works retain their summarizing position to this day. The high standard was maintained by William Seitz, most notably in monographs on Gorky, Tobey (both 1962), and Hofmann (1963). Notice that all three, written in two years, are still indispensable. These catalogues were a major achievement of American museology. Only William S. Rubin has maintained this standard, in two collection catalogues, Picasso (1972) and Miró (1973) and in a monograph on Frank Stella (1970). The Abstract Expressionist catalogue he is understood to be preparing will show him at his best when it appears, but he is also preparing a large Anthony Caro exhibition with, no doubt, a matching catalogue. Caro, a Greenberg-influenced sculptor, indicates the cutoff point in Rubin’s interests.

For art since that esthetic and historical point, we shall have to rely on other curators in the museum. What can we expect from them? Kynaston McShine has published nothing since Information (1970) and there his function was mainly editorial. Jennifer Licht who recently curated “Eight Contemporary Artists” failed to produce a printable catalogue essay at all. In the absence of a reasoned argument about her artists, what does the conjunction of this eight look like? It is simply a 420 West Broadway package (six of the artists are from Castel li, Sonnabend, and Weber in that building, one from Bykert, plus an assimilable stranger). Why waste a museum’s resources on showing such familiar art, if the curator cannot even verbalize her reasons for keeping the bunch together? It does not look as if the museum can be expected to contribute much, in the near future, to the study of contemporary art.

On the whole, catalogues now carry unread bibliographies and short-winded writing. Errors can and do occur in any bibliography, but there is a difference between scattered slips and the kind of inertness that characterizes a bibliography that has been compiled by a researcher but not used by the curator. A blind compilation does not have the consultability and enabling emphases of a read and understood bibliography. As for the writing itself, this often seems to have been produced under a misconception of what a museum catalogue is for. It is not for puffing and it is not for amateur esthetics; it is useful if it contains verifiable biographical, stylistic, comparative, or social information in easily consultable form. When Linda Shearer wrote of Marden’s paintings, “whether they are romantic, sympathetic, sentimental or austere, they project, in an emphatic and moving way, a very real sense of alienation,” she has mistaken her channel. This is the stuff you write in reviews to generate attention for a new artist, and it is not needed when thirty-odd paintings of the past ten years are brought together. Analysis, which is not the enemy of cordiality or passion, is what is needed.

To stay with Shearer, simply because her catalogue is the most recent and what she writes is characteristic, she feels compelled to deal carefully with Marden’s influences, inasmuch as she is writing to please the artist (and, by extension, his market). She refers to Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue group and writes: “Like Newman, Marden is able to use this basic color scheme and lend it a quality uniquely his own.” Elsewhere she writes: “Marden’s two and three-panel pieces bear a superficial resemblance to certain of Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings, although, in reality, they are artists of greatly differing sensibilities” (my emphases). Well, sure, obviously, but in both cases Marden is the recipient of an influence. This is perfectly normal so why postulate a synchronic realm in which first-time and second-time uses are equal? It is because she is associating the lesser with the greater to enhance the lesser. In short, the act of flattery, which slides into promotion, is mixed up with the act of analysis.

To the extent that curators admire the same artists that influential dealers support, their intake of information will be restricted. This shows in various ways but perhaps with especial clarity at the Whitney Museum because of the Annual-Biennial surveyshows. The curators should be expected to be in touch with changing social and stylistic forces, but the history of the exhibition does not support this expectation.4 It was only after demonstrations that the curators increased the representation of women in the annuals. Why had the curators not anticipated the pressure of women artists and recognized their exhi bitabi I ity before the issue became a crisis? The fact that the representation of women climbed steeply is, of course, an admission of their previous error. If women’s work had not been esthetically acceptable to them, I assume that the curators would not have modified their original position. It is hard to imagine a more difficult task for a white curator than the Whitney’s “Contemporary Black Artists in America.” Then why was it organized in such a way as to antagonize the black community and embarrass the curator Doty? It is another failure of the power to assess correctly the changing situation in the art world. It is moreover a failure for which the director and trustees, with whom ultimate responsibility for curatorial projects rests, must be held responsible. The professional autonomy of the curator is not immune to executive judgment, of course, though this should not be casually invoked. The trustees’ executive view should have been engaged at these crucial points. The Guggenheim has avoided such outward twists and turns by remaining withdrawn, not understanding and not understood by the art world, and the Modern, despite cracks during John Hightower’s brief and bizarre regime, is armored and complacent. The Whitney, however, is a museum of American art and thus exposed to repeated encounters with a mobile and active art scene. The Whitney’s sins, therefore, are those of commission whereas the other New York institutions are protected to some extent by the fact that theirs are largely sins of omission.

Assuming that there is an academic ideal, it can be expressed in terms of knowledge. To quote Karl Jaspers: “The eagerness to know expresses itself through observation, through methodical thought, and through self-criticism as a training for objectivity.”’ Clearly museums are continuous with universities in the aim of training our investigative capacity and increasing self-knowledge. From this point of view, it can be seen that the contribution of dealers to museums, though essential, should not be dominant. The legitimate special interest of dealers as a group, as it functions unchecked, restricts the cultural range of museums. The market, though not incompatible with art, is obviously not the source of art’s prime meaning. Curators, instead of maintaining intellectual independence which can be equated with cultural responsibility, have allowed decisions to slide from their hands to others. The artist-dealer-collector triad has a monopolistic hold on art which acts to limit its interaction with society.

In a real sense there has been a failure of education in museums. This can be seen in the way in which museums habitually restrict the term, so that “education” has come to mean the complex of school visits, gallery, guides, talks, the provision of slides, simplified literature, and direct community services, all the peripheral activities around the collection and temporary exhibitions. The curators often provide the education department with cues and notes for the wider program, but as an additional chore, not as a central activity. Actually the fundamental educative acts are the presentation and interpretation of art, both in the exhibition and in the catalogue, which is the basis on which museums and universities are comparable and indeed complementary. By assigning “educational” functions to others, the directors and trustees have separated curators from what should he a central factor in determining their conduct. In the absence of an ideal of the museum’s unified educational service, curators have gravitated into various phases of dependency on the market, making a serious imbalance in the distribution of art.

If one wonders how it is that curators have fallen into this position, it may have something to do with their isolation within their institutions. They constitute a stratum under the director/trustee level and above the increasingly articulate and self-aware staffs below them.6 Close to the top table, but not at it, they take their lead where they can find it, in the artist-dealer-collector alliance. Possibly what is needed is some form of association which would be as much concerned with self-regulation as with job protection. A standard of ethics would begin to protect curators from reluctant, inadvertent, or conscious complicity in entrepreneurial pressure.



1. The Nigger room is a coinage of black artists who are accustomed to being shown in this small area at the Whitney.

2. See my “Network: The Art World Described as a System,” Artforum, September, 1972, pp. 27–31.

3. For general information, see John Tancock’s “The Robert C. Scull Auction,”Art at Auction 1973–74, New York, 1975, pp. 136–45.

4. See my “Institution: Whitney Annual,” Artforum, April, 1973, pp. 32–35.

5. Karl Jaspers, The Idea of the University, London, Peter Owen, 1960, p. 20.

6. See my “Museums and Unionization,” Artforum, February, 1975, pp. 46–48.