PRINT October 1983


Through an interesting convention, art critics’ associations tend to include among their ranks curators as well as writers. Although preparing catalogues locates the former in the realm of the word, the practice has other ramifications; the relationship appears to define curating as a critical activity, involved with discernment, judgment, and commentary. Within this framework, artwork and idea are easily interchanged as material and conceptual parallels unfold. Sifting through and editing ideas and physically arranging works assume analogous intellectual functions. The curator, not a follower, acts to originate criticism, partaking of the discursive dimension of the practice.

This parallel, paradoxically, injects a healthy variety into the interpretation of art, ensuring a range of individual speculation. Often overlooked, it assumes salience today in the light of a striking reversal. For to judge from surface evidence, today’s curators do not initiate but follow; do not advance but acquiesce to critical opinion. The criticality of curating falters as the meanings, modes, and personalities of the media, made over and frequently elaborated, become the recurrent substance of shows.

Strong evidence of this dispiriting situation was given in last season’s Whitney Biennial. In a stunning renunciation of professional responsibility, the curators of America’s foremost museum of national art—an institution in a privileged position to “comment” on current production—decided to repeat, in a predictable recapitulation of received ideas, established critical choices. Aiming to consolidate the demise of ’70s diversity, the Whitney chose to concentrate on the “resurgent interest in figurative, often expressionistic, painting and sculpture” (I quote here from the catalogue). The bombastic, big, and brassy dominated an installation that was punctuated by customary names; whatever did not appear determined from a cursory scan of the New York art press seemed the gleaning of regional affiliates, echoing—often with embarrassing reverberations—a pattern of established trends. This was a show that could have been constructed on paper, without traveling and with minimal intellectual effort. Or by telephone, for one could ascertain what seemed the reticulation of commercial interests, noting entrenched relationships or artists excluded through excessive representation of galleries.

Curatorial timidity in these matters takes the form of reliance on established supports. The urge for a blockbuster has a smaller contemporary analogue in the desire for an exhibition sanctioned by critical taste, seemingly ratified by conformity to acknowledged directions. Accountability to an unknowing and largely incredulous public is one motive for such reliance, but in this age of hype, publicity of both a critical and commercial nature produces a canon of heroes and neatly delineated directions, prepackaged for easy consumption. And the problem with adherence to word and to market, to written value or inherently spoken exchange, is that it tends to homogenize evidence. Difference becomes absorbed into a sequence of reductions as the system churns out the same thing all the time. What we are witnessing is the formation of an artistic moment, the production of an official narrative through the reinforcement afforded by repetition.

The Whitney situation is hardly unique, for a series of examples serves to indicate the sterility bred in the shelter of interpretative standards. Exhibitions fall like dominoes, one upon the other, as “figuration,” “appropriation,” and “neoexpressionism” become curatorial categories, masking significant issues. One example is the profusion of antic or frantic figure shows that clogged the schedules of the last two seasons, shadowing, under the rubric of urban anxiety, the moribund relics of humanism; that this tendency was intended to appeal to and to appease a long-alienated audience (a hypothetical entity at best) says nothing of its failure to address, within the framework of figuration, the important question of representation. Another is the absence, in the seemingly endless shows structured around appropriation, of attention to the use of images, to the differences separating them from historical precedents, and to the broad cultural concerns they imply. Scrutiny should also be directed to the institutionalized exclusion of women through acquiescence to a “heroic” macho style, and to their relegation to a category (“women’s art,” “girl shows”) that negates the ideological implications of their practice. And a fourth example would surely be the sudden, excessive celebration, following a prolonged period of staunchly enforced silence, of foreign national work, conceived as a homogeneous whole. The offensiveness of the focus lies not only in its critical and commercial production, but in the innocent disregard it manifests for preexisting European art.

However, curators are not entirely to blame for this phenomenon, which bears all the qualities of intellectual provincialism. Central among culprits is the limitation placed on traveling budgets, which are generally awarded only to implement proposals. In this manner they serve an a posteriori function of verification and finalization, confirming and refining hypotheses, rather than one of investigatory research. Another villain is the institutional pressure on curators to validate exhibition proposals, providing proof through preexistent articles and critical writings of widespread attention to a subject. Yet despite these pressures, there is an inescapable irony in the excellence of recent historical productions (“De Stijl: 1917–1931,” originating at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1982; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1980 show “The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910–1930”) in comparison with exhibitions devoted to contemporary art. And one cannot fail to notice a disparity between the exploratory reach of, say, the Whitney’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” (1969), or the Museum of Modern Art’s “Information” (1970), and the large-scale shows to come. The latter are marked by a conservative, retrospective urge (e.g. the massive, internationally traveling Willem de Kooning show which would reinterpret an older, established artist according to current “figurative, often expressionistic” trends) or by fashionably nationalizing directions (“Expressions: New Art from Germany”, for example). Perhaps it remains for the Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious “International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture” to reinject a necessary speculation, breadth, and verve into the moment.

The problems posed by the presentation of art through exhibition are serious, for we face the tremendous loss of the vitality of an arresting period. We also face a situation in which, through the distortion resulting from the decline of curatorial initiative, the visual arts threaten to fall below the level of endeavor evident in other, parallel fields. For behind the superficial oppositions of figuration versus abstraction or nationalism versus internationalism are significant issues which moor art to contemporary culture in relations external to “art.” In evading those issues, curatorial activity negates art’s discursive potential; in a similar manner, it injures the well-being of its own system, for the collision of interests developing from curatorial repetition results in implicit collusion. And galleries, magazines, and museums are different entities. The art world, despite points of concentration, is multifaceted, reflecting a diversity of perspectives and intellectual positions whose safe keeping is a “critical” responsibility.

Kate Linker