PRINT February 1998


SUZANNE PAGÉ GENERATES A HOST of contradictory reactions. Some have described the director of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris as an extraordinarily sensitive curator, one who is always on the artist’s side. Others see her as an art-world player whose tactics can verge on ruthlessness when it comes to fulfilling her ambitions. When I finally managed to convince Pagé that it might be interesting to be interviewed (which wasn’t easy), I found myself in the presence of an articulate, energetic woman, elegant in that unmistakably French way, who made a point of—in fact insisted on—her insignificance in the face of the tremendous power of art itself. A curator’s power, she suggested, resides mainly in the ability to be vulnerable to artist visions.

In the contemporary French art world, one finds plenty of believers in elaborate theoretical discourses but just as many disciples of the Eternal Poetic. Pagé seems to lean toward the latter, but in her case the instinct for poetry is combined with rare administrative gifts. Since 1988, when she took over as director, the museum has staged a number of successful and influential exhibitions, including one-person shows by Louise Bourgeois, Gerhard Richter, and Fabrice Hybert as well as ambitious theme shows, of which the most recent are “Passions Privées” (a display of holdings from private French collections) and “Années 30 en Europe,” an attempt to grasp the artistic milieu of the ’30s in all its grotesque complexity. The critical consensus was that the latter show set new standards for its sop presentation of the re ships between art and politics.

Pagé is also one of the few directors of large museums in Europe who have been successful in their goal of revitalizing the institution through staging a continuous dialogue between contemporary and historical art. Since 1988, the museum has systematically juxtaposed cutting-edge contemporary art and modern classics, such as the work of Giacometti, Arnold Schönberg, El Lissitzky, and the German Expressionists. This sort of synthesis is clearly the ambition as well of the current three-part exhibition of Nordic art, “Visions du Nord,” which consists of a historical section focusing on five major artists from the turn of the century; a group selection of thirty-odd temporary artists (from Finnish video artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila to Swedish composer and installation artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff); and a one-person show of work by Danish painter Per Kirkeby.

Among museum people Suzanne Pagé is of course a well-known figure, but to the broader audience for art she is virtually invisible. She seldom grants interviews and generally refuses to be photographed. Indeed, during my repeated attempts to track her down, first in Paris and then in a succession of legendary European hotels, I became convinced that we would never meet face to face. Finally, in Berlin’s plush Hotel Kempinski, I found proof of her actual existence, and not just “behind the scenes,” but through the dim spotlight of the hotel bar.

Daniel Birnbaum

DANIEL BIRNBAUM: You have been working in the same institution, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, for a very long time now. How did it all start?

SUZANNE PAGÉ: In 1973 I was appointed the director of Animation, Research, and Confrontation [l’ARC], an institution that was founded in 1967 to open the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris to contemporary art and to involve the audience in more active ways. The idea behind l’ARC was very typical of the spirit of ’68. The sociological theories of Pierre Bourdieu about the thresholds of culture and society were important for our work, and we wanted to invite new audiences, to have people who normally would not even think about crossing that cultural threshold enter the museum. I am a product of those times.

DB: So what did you do before that?

SP: Well, in 1968 I hardly knew anything about contemporary art. I studied Latin and Greek at university and was pursuing an academic career in classics. I then took art history at the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre and specialized in the seventeenth century. After that I attended the École Pratique des Hautes Études, with Pierre Francastel on Brueghel. At that point I saw Picasso at the Galerie Leiris, and it had a profound effect on me. But it is very important to me to have this classical background, since I believe it’s a good thing to feel at home in a world that seems different from that of contemporary art. In fact, I think all art is for each of us contemporary to our experience. I always go see shows of classical art, even if I’m not professionally involved, and I am always stimulated by them. Actually, most of the people I admire in contemporary art have many other fields on the side.

DB: For many years your curatorial staff was almost exclusively female. Was this a political choice on your part?

SP: Well, a certain feminist ambition on my part cannot be denied. But the real reason the staff has consisted of women is economic: only women have accepted the lousy salaries our museum has been able to pay. The financial struggle has been constant, and I don’t think the future will be any easier. We’re facing difficult years.

DB: In your own generation there haven’t been many women in top positions in the museum world. That is slowly changing. Do you think your museum has played a role in this development?

SP: I don’t know, but I would hope so. I think that women can contribute a lot as curators, with a more “rhizomatic” position, in the Deleuzian sense.

DB: Who has been your most important source of inspiration as a curator?

SP: Artists have always been my prime source of inspiration. But if you mean other museum people, I must mention Jean Cassou, Pierre Gaudibert, Harald Szeemann, and of course Pontus Hulten.

DB: He’s not exactly a feminist.

SP: [laughs] No, but the way Hulten operated the Centre Pompidou as “pilot of the sea” was a great inspiration not only for me but for a whole generation of people in the ’70s. There is actually one other person from Scandinavia whom I have always admired: Knud Jensen at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. He has wonderful blue eyes, always wide open. It’s unusual—and enviable—to stay that open-minded and curious. Pierre Gaudibert was also very important at this time, and was the one who initiated my contact with contemporary art. And then of course there is Szeemann, who was really one of my heroes.

DB: It seems to me that although you’re the director of a powerful institution, you’ve never tended to take center stage yourself. You present a rather low-key version of the curator’s role.

SP: Yes and no. I don’t like to put myself into the spotlight, but I like to illuminate the backstage. What I suggest is actually very demanding. It takes an effort not to emphasize your own subjectivity, and to let the art itself be at the center. The real power, the only one worth fighting for, is the power of art itself. Artists should be given maximum freedom to make their visions clear to others, and to exceed the limits. That is my role, my real power. The curator helps to make that happen. And the best way for me to do so is to be open and lucid enough to accept the new worlds that artists reveal in their most radical dimension.

DB: But you choose who is going to show in the first place. You can’t deny that this involves great power.

SP: The curator should be like a dervish who circles around the artworks. There has to be complete certainty on the part of the dancer for it all to begin, but once the dance has started it has nothing to do with power or control. To a certain degree it is a question of learning to be vulnerable, of remaining open to the vision of the artist. I also like the idea of the curator or critic as a supplicant. It’s about forgetting everything you think that you know, and even allowing yourself to get lost.

DB: This reminds me of what Walter Benjamin writes in “Childhood in Berlin,” where he says that it takes a lot of exercise if you want to learn how to really get lost in a city.

SP: Yes, what I’m after is a form of concentration that suddenly turns into its opposite, being available for a true alternative adventure.

DB: Rumor has it that you were asked to direct the last Documenta, but declined. Is that true?

SP: I was never asked formally.

DB: Would you have done it?

SP: No, I don’t like the idea of being at the center in that way. I am not interested in that kind of power.

DB: If you were to produce an exhibition of the same size as Documenta, would it have looked like Catherine David’s?

SP: Look, that is empty speculation. But okay, it would not have looked at all like that. For me there is art, art, and then art. Then perhaps some theory. The emphasis on sociology, philosophy, and technology is not something I find particularly rewarding.

DB: Where do you find inspiration, when not in art itself?

SP: In cinema and music, but essentially in books. I prefer poetry and visionary thinkers. I read collections of translated poetry from everywhere. I am always engaged with Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, Flannery O’Connor, and others. When it comes to art, I tend to privilege the statements of artists themselves, as well as the work of writers, like Genet on Giacometti, Beckett on van de Velde, Deleuze on Bacon, Barthes on Twombly. That is to say, I’m interested in a form of lucidity that comes from a passionate approach to the subject. But contemporary philosophers who have influenced me include Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard.

DB: Which shows have you found most interesting to work with recently?

SP: I have found many of the one-person exhibitions incredibly fascinating, from Louise Bourgeois to Fabrice Hybert; for me I think it is the most rewarding form to work with. But among the larger projects in recent years, I want to mention “German Expressionism” (1992) and “Passions Privées” (1995–96), which showed a number of highly interesting private collections of art in France. I love people who love art, and this project was therefore strategic as well. In today’s climate, it’s important not only to present art, but to promote the idea that contemporary art is important for individuals—especially in France, where the state is so present.

DB: Recently there have been a number of fierce attacks on contemporary art by French writers such as Jean Clair and Jean Baudrillard. How has that affected your work in the museum?

SP: It’s dangerous, because it has a real impact on a very anxious part of the population. Clair and Baudrillard are obviously respectable in a certain way, but I doubt that they expose themselves to contemporary work, and their defensive discourse can seem to be a kind of armor to protect themselves from the uncertainty of the world. I also think that there is a problem of power, and that certain intellectuals can be jealous of artists because art can’t really be justified—no discourse can legitimate it. The artists can’t be grasped.

DB: Your recent large show on the ’30s, “Années 30 en Europe” (1997), must have been quite an operation.

SP: That differed radically from any other I have worked on. Generally, when you decide to mount an exhibition, you want to present the material in a positive light, to make it look as clear as possible. That was not the point here, because of the ambiguity of the material.

DB: Why do a show about the ’30s in the first place?

SP: The pretext was the anniversary of the museum’s founding, in 1937. But 1937 is primarily the year of a tragic confrontation. In Paris that year there was a great exhibition devoted to the modern arts and techniques, which was about international openness and a confidence in modernity and contemporary art. In Munich two months later, a two-part exhibition opened, one part of which was devoted to German super-nationalist, Fascist art and the other to “degenerate” art. Both parts pointed to the liquidation of the international avant-gardes and criticized the emergence of “Judaic-Bolshevik” and “cosmopolitan” culture as morbid, decadent, and psychopathic. The contrast between the Paris and Munich exhibits made explicit the tragic antagonism of a decade that in Europe saw Fascism grow to a pronounced barbarism. For me and the organizers of “Années 30 en Europe,” the extreme violence of this history excluded the possibility of a quiet curatorial neutrality, and that is why we exerted ourselves not only to trace the signs of that moment, but also to articulate the ambiguities relating the ’30s and the ’90s. Jean-Luc Godard, in his recent movie For Ever Mozart, compares the “lâcheté” of the two decades; the word in French has a double significance of both cowardice and flexibility. From Malevich’s Man without Face, which opened the exhibition, to Giacometti’s minute figure, Petit homme sur socle, which closed the show, it was a question of displaying the extraordinary trajectory of inhumanity. We were forced to invent a museography that moved between affirmation and questioning, leaving the viewer to define his or her responsibility and engagement.

DB: Since 1988, when you became director of the museum, you have continuously intertwined “contemporary” and “historical” exhibitions. What is the idea behind this dialectic?

SP: The general idea is to vitalize art history with contemporary perspectives and contemporary work with art history. This complementarity is quite fundamental for me, and is one of the central missions of the museum. Above all, I want to present a vision of art history from the perspective of the artist, in order to counterbalance the academic approach. That is why older art is presented from the perspective of contemporary artists, and nearly all the pedagogical endeavors are left to the artist. My very first show as director, “Histoire de Musée,” opened the museum to artists, offering them the opportunity to participate in every function of the institution: the production of exhibitions, the care of the collection, the pedagogical aspects, mailing, etc. That is how Annette Messager came to present her fetish animals amongst African and Oceanic sculptures; Sarkis made use of sculptures in our exhibition to create his own environments; Sophie Calle presented The Phantom, a work taking as its point of departure a nude by Bonnard; Daniel Buren created an installation with diffracted mirrors inspired by the exhibition space of l’ARC; Christian Boltanski turned the museum’s storage facility into a “storage space for the children’s museum.” All in all, there have been no fewer than twenty-two interventions of this kind. I think art refers to other art, which is why, from the artist’s perspective, creativity is related to memory.

DB: Your museum has also produced a number of big exhibitions that have been geographically defined: art from Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and now a big show about the Nordic countries. Do you see these projects as related?

SP: Yes, the idea is always to look at the sources of modernity from the point of view of artists of our time—to look at history with an enlarged point of view. I am not at all interested in national boundaries. I don’t believe in exhibitions that present artificially constructed units. But then again, I don’t think it’s pure coincidence that Mondrian’s paintings were produced in the specific landscape and under the particular light conditions that one finds in his part of Holland. That is to say, these shows are not about nations but about situations. The Nordic exhibit consists of three parts: first we have the historical section, which includes works by August Strindberg, Edvard Munch, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Carl Fredrik Hill, and Helene Schjerfbeck. What I’m after in this selection is not some generalization about the North, but a powerful and poetic display of five very personal positions, the obsessions of five anarchists who put marginality and alterity in the center.

They will function like five islands in a show that is about singularity and extremes as elective parameters of a still contemporary modernity. Then we have the first one-person show in a Paris museum of a very well-known Danish artist, Per Kirkeby, and finally a show called “Nuit Blanche,” presenting the contemporary art scene in the Nordic region and curated by Laurence Bosse and Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

DB: Do you find the French art scene interesting at the moment?

SP: I have always been very involved with French art, as you can see from the museum’s program. It’s a passion and a responsibility for me to look at what’s being created in the place where I live. It’s obvious to me that the French scene at this time is very dynamic; there arc a lot of new, unexpected initiatives and collaborations. At the same time, the way we have tried to view and present these French artists is always related to an international confrontation and context. You can’t enclose artists in a nationalistic context, which is a cliche anyway.

DB: What do you regard as the greatest threat to art in the future? And what is your biggest hope?

SP: The greatest danger is that contemporary art will be ignored because the ability to perceive it, and the generosity required to accept it, will be lacking. The biggest hope is that art will continue to generate its own necessity.

Daniel Birnbaum is a frequent contributor to Artforum. He lives in Stockholm.