PRINT October 1994


ROBERT STORR SEEMS AT FIRST an unlikely curator for New York’s Museum of Modern Art: his art history is self-taught, he is first and foremost a painter, and his early biography reads less like a museum professional’s than an itinerant artist’s of a somewhat earlier moment. On the other hand, his sympathies are with modernist issues, however defined; he believes that Modernism is not over, just incomplete. And his approach to curating recalls the succession of auteurs associated with MoMA’s history. Now 44, Storr studied as a painter at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He looked closely at classical-modernist art and followed realists like Philip Pearlstein. In the late ’70s his own work took the form of richly painted “observational” canvases—a direction rather like Wayne Thiebaud’s, whose work, however, he didn’t then know. During the same period, as a contributor to the New Art Examiner, Storr wrote about other artists as a way of getting their art out of his head, of “making peace with it.” A lengthy response to a Peter Schjeldahl review of Philip Guston put Storr on the map. Moving to New York, he soon developed a substantial record as a critic.

In 1989, after teaching part-time up and down the east coast, Storr took a job at the Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia. After a year he reconsidered an earlier job offer—from MoMA’s Kirk Varnedoe. With this position he has put his painting on hold. Storr’s intellectual disposition blends old-school empiricism and deeply held esthetic passions. He is an energetic deliberator on art—a believer in its capacity to engage the possibility of changes in consciousness and social values.

I talked to Storr as he put the finishing touches on both his long-awaited book on Louise Bourgeois and his next show, “Mapping,” to open at MoMA this month.

Bruce Ferguson

BRUCE FERGUSON: You didn’t expect to become a curator, and you weren’t trained as one. Has your perception of the role changed now that you’re at MoMA?

ROBERT STORR: My sense of the curator’s role is pretty much the same as before I became one. Basically, what curators do is a lot like what critics do, which is to use their information and sensibility to consider as wide a range of work as possible, and then put forward the things they find interesting in a way that makes it clear why they’re interested in them. It’s dangerous when curators stop following their instincts and begin to think primarily in terms of their official status; on the one hand you can become overcautious, on the other you can end up fighting good causes that aren’t necessarily close to your heart or experience.

BF: For example?

RS: Shows done from a primarily educational point of view, or from the point of view of proving fairness and doing the right thing, often overinterpret the information, removing important complexities and confusions. The best shows—even with flaws in them—tend to he ones where the curators are close to the work, whether because they’re puzzled by it or because they love it and understand it. When I was writing solely as a critic, a lot of stuff I covered was work that had bugged me or in some way been a problem for me. Writing was a way into the work and through my problems with it. Sometimes I got to the other side and sometimes I didn’t.

BF: A critic, though, can move promiscuously through material. A curator has a responsibility to the collection, and a responsibility to continuing to collect. MoMA’s exhibitions today are widely seen as extending or even justifying what Alfred Barr started. What kind of constraint is that?

RS: Barr was an amazing character. I’ve lately come to a much, much higher appreciation of him by having dug around in the early history of the Museum. Without being blindly omnivorous, Barr plainly intended MoMA to he as wide-ranging as possible. He set the example himself by traveling a great deal—to Europe, of course, but also to the Caribbean, Latin America, Canada, Africa—and he brought things back with him, some marvelous things and some not so good. But he had the appetite and the curiosity, and he hired people to have the same.

Nowadays there are a lot of pressures on museums to play it safe. Eccentric purchases are discouraged not only because of the possible embarrassment of being “wrong” in the long haul, but because the cost of mistakes has soared. But you simply have to set aside those constraints as best you can, and stick to your intuitions. The point is to get off the beaten track—to get out there and find out if anything’s happening, then if it isn’t go back again because something new might have shown up in the interim.

Two years ago, for example, I found a wide variety of Conceptual art in Brazil and Argentina, including Conceptual painting. Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires are separate worlds; their artists may be thinking about many of the same issues, but they don’t come up with the same types of conclusions. The relation of these two places to each other, and to the rest of the world, suggests an interesting way to reconstellate the ideas we have about Modernism—post-Modernism, center and periphery, and so forth. To know that Hélio Oiticica’s Conceptual and performance work evolved out of European-style Constructivist painting and sculpture changes one’s perspective on stylistic developments that we tend to take for granted here.

BF: Raymond Williams talked about the “when” of Modernism—“when” it appeared in any given place. Is that the notion you’re referring to?

RS: I think what we’re experiencing right now is Modern art, but we’re also faced by the simultaneous development of many Modernisms, each with its own history and prehistory. Information moves so fast across borders and at the same time it’s always filtered as it moves, so it doesn’t end up meaning the same thing wherever it travels. Approaching the main historical thrust of Modernism is only one way to proceed; dealing with the simultaneity, spread, and discontinuity among all the various tendencies is another matter.

BF: Mari Carmen Ramírez has written that the moments when the U.S. is interested in Latin American art are defined by the political and economic structure of the U.S.1 Suddenly there’s the Latin American show at the Metropolitan and there’s the show at MoMA and there are countless other Latin American shows, and she sees these as part of the moment of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. How do you deal with that structural congruence, especially at MoMA, which many already consider a symbol of a cultural type in an America perceived as imperialist?

RS: Certainly foreign-policy considerations overlapped with the Modern’s interest in Latin American art in the years before and during World War II. But the fact that people are looking in a certain direction and in a certain context doesn’t completely determine what they see or what they make of it. If you say the reasons for the initial interest were strictly Realpolitik, they still opened up a world. In any case the important question is, Why do waves of interest turn off so definitively, and how can one prevent that? In the first 15 years of the Modern’s history, it did 15 shows on Latin American art. That wasn’t just a function of the United States’ global stance; it was the consequence of Barr’s broad esthetic scope. He also showed work by African-Americans way earlier than most other institutions did. Why did those interests shut down for so long, and now that they’re reopening, how does one keep them open against other pressures?

BF: You’re projecting a curatorial policy that now would have to take into account everything from Latvian artists to lesbian artists, I assume.

RS: I think that’s a good definition of what people ought to be doing. But there are interesting Latvians and uninteresting Latvians, and interesting lesbians as well as less interesting ones. If curators are serious about making institutions comprehensive, they have every right to be discerning about particular examples. If they’re not serious and not curious in the first place, then “discriminating taste” is just plain old discrimination, period.

BF: So you think a responsible curator has to look at art through identity politics?

RS: Not exactly. Sometimes art is about identity and some art about identity politics is major, and should be treated accordingly. But people whose identity has in some measure excluded them from the mainstream also make work that isn’t about that fact, and one has an equal responsibility to them. Adrian Piper makes the first kind of work, Jack Whitten the second; Piper hasn’t had her full day in the sun, but neither has Whitten.

As I said before, one of the biggest problems with the way art institutions and the art world in general have dealt with African-American or Latin American art is this rotation of interest followed by neglect. That kind of spiking cycle is unbelievably difficult for artists trying to sustain their momentum and their confidence. We all know artists who have had ups and downs, but the kinds of extremes I’m talking about are a function of politics and social indifference, not esthetics or fashion in the ordinary sense.

BF: How realistic is it for you to be talking in these terms? Speaking of artists named Piper, there’s a black artist called Keith Piper in Britain. Can MOMA potentially buy both Keith and Adrian Piper?

RS: First of all, my not knowing Keith Piper’s work is an indication of another problem. As one person, I cannot cover all the bases, nor am I presumptuous enough to think that I could. Institutions have to look at how they divide up the labor, and how much freedom they give curators to travel and read and look so that sooner or later the bases do get covered, and covered by people who have a real ground for their involvement. If I go to Latin America one year, that’s the year I cannot go to Eastern Europe or Japan. Barbara London, though, may go to Japan and Korea but probably won’t make it to Brazil the same season. In that sense we share the burdens—and the pleasures.

BF: If curators are divided by medium in a narrow, Modernistic fashion, can that problem be overcome?

RS: I think so. Still, there are substantial reasons having to do with scholarship for maintaining some of these divisions—a person who really grasps the history and technology of photography has a very different basis for judgment than someone without such knowledge. The question is whether departments get used to exchanging information, and whether, when artists cross the boundaries between disciplines, curators are prepared to cross with them.

BF: Do you find territorial protectionism still?

RS: When I first arrived at the Museum there seemed to be more than there is now. It’s a problem everyone is aware of and is trying to work out. On a given day somebody may get their back up, but everybody knows the fundamental issues, and the practical ones.

BF: Don’t the acquisitions still reflect the traditional hierarchies and mediums?

RS: Well, hierarchies and mediums are separate issues, and I think it’s dangerous to confuse them. I acquired a work by Annette Messager with the Department of Photography’s blessing—they’re doing a show with her soon, but as an assemblage of pictures and drawings this work is part of my department’s collection. I also bought a work by Cindy Sherman which Photography lists in their collection. What really matters is that they’re both in MOMA. Meanwhile, if you have an artwork that deliberately blurs those categorical distinctions, or that questions them directly, reimposing them for the sake of cataloguing the work and keeping the domestic peace is a violation.

BF: Your first show, “Dislocations,” dealt with the important emerging stream of installation work. Can you maintain that interest? There must be an institutional push toward works that are easier to collect, that don’t demand those commitments of maintenance and space.

RS: If you think these things are important, you have to be willing to play a long hand. Collecting installations is in any case problematic, because some aren’t meant to be collected. Others clearly are. Ilya Kabakov’s environments aren’t terribly hard to rebuild at the level of the originals; Joseph Beuys’ are often impossible. It’s not just the aura of the great man, but a feeling like “It just happened,” an “It was like this,” that is absent from almost every recreation I’ve seen. As great an artist as Beuys was, he’s ill served by attempts to preserve his spirit by building a chapel to it. Installation art tests a lot of curatorial habits of mind and practice—that’s part of why it’s important. This said, I doubt there’s a serious museum in the world that thinks it can collect contemporary art without collecting installations.

BF: Frankly, there must be people in your museum who aren’t so open. I remember Kirk Varnedoe, the head of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, saying he couldn’t put a Bill Viola in the same space as an Anselm Kiefer because the sound from the Viola would spoil the silence necessary for the Kiefer. That’s preserving the sensibility—almost the religiosity—to which museums have long been dedicated.

RS: The history of a museum’s infrastructure is as much a problem as the different attitudes of curators, or as the responses of public or patrons. Museums like the Modern weren’t structurally designed for video or the like. The building has dropped ceilings and lots of duct work; it’s murder for anything with sound. In “Dislocations,” people waiting to look at Kabakov’s room stood right in the midst of Bruce Nauman’s video installation. I was told that when he was asked whether he minded, Kabakov said it was all right because that was what Russia was like—you stood in line and somebody yelled at you. But that was a gracious adaptation to a situation that wasn’t ideal for either artist. Sometimes you can’t help presenting work on terms that differ from the artist’s preference.

BF: Tell me a little about the conceptual background of “Mapping.”

RS: “Mapping” and this past summer’s “Sense and Sensibility” are the products of conversations that have been going on at the Modern for about two years. There is a tendency at big museums to do only what I would call “treatise” exhibitions at one extreme or small showcases at the other, and I thought that periodically we should try to do something that was more like an essay. And so we’re experimenting with an informal sequence of shows where there’s room to test ideas, bring in different material, take risks—even make mistakes; in other words, do shows that are modest in scale and budget, as the more adventurous institutes of contemporary art, alternative spaces, and galleries do. These shows should happen fast and be based on somebody’s hunch or passion. “Sense and Sensibility” was the first; it was curated by Lynn Zelevansky, who set out to draw attention to a new tendency among younger women artists pushing off from Minimalist ideas. She wanted to say, This is happening and here’s a first, working definition of it. “Mapping” is the sec-and show of this kind, and it’s based on exactly the opposite premise: it’s sort of a slalom ride through a huge amount of art made over a long period of time. The idea is that if you cross-reference the things selected you’ll get a feel for the overall possibilities and variety of existing map-based work, even though, given the sheer quantity of material out there, this isn’t a truly comprehensive survey. The show is an anthology, and I hope what’s included will spur people to speculate on their own.

I’ve approached maps as pictures and patterns subject to various kinds of recomposition and repositioning on a sliding scale of abstraction and representation. There are about 30 artists, most of them represented by one work apiece. The earliest thing in the show is a previously unexhibited collage by Ellsworth Kelly. Then we skip around, from Kelly to Yves Klein to Guy Debord, back to Jasper Johns and on through Alighiero e Boetti, Adrian Piper, Richard Long, Waltercio Caldas, Raymond Pettibon, Luciano Fabro, Nancy Holt, Adriana Varejão, Öyvind Fahlström, Marcel Broodthaers, Kim Jones, John Miller, and so on.

In the catalogue I reproduced some other maps that intrigued me—one from the Nuremberg Chronicles showing the hand of God creating the world as a series of concentric circles, another the opening shots from Casablanca, where you see an animated line connecting Paris to North Africa and superimposed over footage of refugees struggling across Europe. There are a number of things like that, not direct corollaries to what’s in the show but examples of fantasy or fact that expand on those images.

BF: Mapping has been a central metaphor in a lot of writing in cultural studies. Were you thinking about that, or more in terms of a Baudelairean idea of “correspondence,” a tracing of a kind of coincidence?

RS: The show is about correspondences and coincidences. It’s actually based not on Baudelaire but on Jorge Luis Borges, and not just on his writing about maps but on his approach to the world generally. In Borges you find a series of alternating and self-elaborating patterns. His writing doesn’t freeze propositions, it shifts them around. The minute an idea is about to be pinned down it metamorphosizes into something else, and you start all over again to try to get its measure and meaning.

Right now there are four or five other map shows being done or in the works in various places. The material has been there all along and keeps accumulating, but I guess ideas have their moment. Maps may appear stable but in fact they’re extremely unreliable gauges of world order. With the break-up of the Balkan countries and of Eastern Europe, we know they can be redrawn at any point. That geopolitical or symbolic rearrangement of space takes place in real as well as pictorial terms. Americans have been largely protected from such experiences, since our borders haven’t changed much in this century except for the incorporation of Alaska and Hawaii. So the idea that borders are subject to abrupt expansion or contraction can be very disturbing to us.

BF: A show of this relatively modest scale and ambition is a philosophical shift from the “blockbuster” show.

RS: It’s important for the Modern to experiment. I think the Museum suffers from the weight of institutional history and augustness—from the burden, either self-imposed or there in the expectations of others (both, really), of feeling it always has to make big, definitive statements. When the Modern was founded it had a lot of flexibility. But after it became the museum of record, any hiccup or cry of delight began to sound like a breach of decorum. Precisely because the Modern is a great museum it can afford signs of life—and needs them.

BF: Why do you feel shows like this are the Modern’s responsibility? You could just stop at a certain moment—1968, 1964—and become the Museum of Modern Art, as it were, letting somebody else take up the slack.

RS: This is not a question one would pose to the Guggenheim or the Whitney. The reason it’s asked of the Modern is MoMA’s particular history—and the degree to which the institution has at times seemed concerned only with the pinnacles of Modernism, not the currents encircling them. But MoMA is also about Modernism’s uncertainties—we’re constantly rethinking the value of both historical and contemporary work. Because in our best days we functioned with a broad reach, no other museum in the world has the historical collection we do. To waste that resource by being too cautious about showing what’s in the Museum already, and about correlating it with contemporary work, would be stupid and a loss of faith.

In any case, I simply don’t believe in post-Modernism as a separate category. I don’t think Modernism is over; and I don’t think you can fairly assess contemporary art by acting as if it were, any more than I think you can do right by classic Modern work if you cut it off from its consequences and its futures.

MoMA was founded as an educational institution—that’s part of its charter. The idea was to help the general public see and understand the art of their time. The audience for historical Modernists—Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Klee, etc.—is there because people were repeatedly exposed to their work and patiently taught how to look at it. But Nauman’s work, for example, is in certain ways more accessible now than Marcel Duchamp’s, and if the Modern in conjunction with other museums continues to do what it did in the past, there’s every reason to think that ten years from now the public will connect with Nauman the way they now do with Surrealism. If they don’t, that will reflect museums’ failure to do their job as well as they did it before.

BF: A common criticism of the Museum is that individual curators have too much power for too long. There have been moments when curators became legislators or arbiters of history.

RS: It’s like the Supreme Court, I suppose; depending on where they’re coming from, people wish some of the justices would gracefully step down and hope others will go on forever. That’s not much of a problem at present, though, since the majority of curators are 40-something and several of us are still pretty new on the job. In any case, remembering that there’s life outside an institution is the key to not overstaying your welcome. I actually look forward to minding my own business again. John Szarkowski told a story about getting the MoMA job, then running into a friend who knew him as a photographer and telling him that he was going to be a curator. To which the guy said, “Well, it kind of sounds like you’re giving up your hunting license to become a game warden.” I often feel the same way.

BF: Do you think MoMA can ever be the kind of intellectual center it was? When I go to the talks there, which, by the way, aren’t very well publicized—

RS: I agree.

BF:—they don’t generate the heated debate you get downtown at the Drawing Center or similar places. Do you think it’s possible to reanimate the Museum as an intellectual center?

RS: Yes, it’s absolutely possible, and it’s a number-one item on a lot of people’s agendas. If the Museum doesn’t do that, it’s not only going to suffer relative to other institutions, it’s going to undercut its own mission and ultimately jeopardize its base of support.

In any case, though, the fact is that there really is no center anymore. The art world isn’t centered in New York, and the New York art world isn’t centered at the Modern or anywhere else. MoMA is now one of many interlocutors. The thing that must be understood, finally, is that protecting the Museum’s historical record will not be accomplished by sitting on it.

BF: You are now somewhat associated with installation and questions of identity in art. Where is painting in all this for you? And what about abstraction, your own field as an artist?

RS: I am interested in installation because of what has been done and can be done in it that differs from other media but also overlaps with them in unexpected ways. I am interested in “identity” in art to the extent that it specifies different perspectives on the world and promises new art and new thoughts. There’s no reason that shouldn’t occur in painting. I think the business of using painting’s problems as a negative example to justify every other kind of art practice has run its course. All artmaking is in crisis—and will continue to be.

When he was doing fresh work in the early ’80s, Eric Fischl was an “identity” painter—he showed us what white males might be thinking about themselves. And Robert Colescott has been playing havoc with racial and sexual stereotypes for years. Painting is a great lie detector for artists trying to avoid being themselves. When self-analysis is their subject, on the other hand, painting can bring it into focus with a clarity not found in more “objective” modes.

As far as abstract painting is concerned, the weather is changing for the better. We’re well past the point where it makes esthetic or historical sense to talk about an end to art history as we know it, that end being the definitive abstraction captioned by the perfect argument. The weight of that idea, and the pretentiousness that went with it, are the only liabilities to be faced that aren’t part and parcel of any other kind of art-making. I’ve just spent three years working with Robert Ryman on his retrospective, and it’s been the most encouraging experience possible. He thinks abstraction is still a new phenomenon and the way is open. I agree. We have all the working space we need; less theory and more action, failures and digressions included, and I’m certain we’ll continue to see surprising results.


1. Man Carmen Ramírez, “Brokering Identities: The Politics of Representation of Latin American Art in the United States,” paper delivered at a seminar on curatorial studies, Bard College, New York, 17 April 1994.