PRINT October 1999

Collins & Milazzo

Before Collins & Milazzo, “independent curator” was a sleepy designation for moonlighting art critics and academics. After the pair’s roaring descent on the scene circa 1984, it became a full-blown job description. A visit to a show organized by the twosome was an instant entrée to a world in which cool Conceptualism, an overheated market, and French theory in overdrive shared the same bed; for artists, being tapped by the curatorial duo meant that suddenly one’s work was part of the discourse. It was a heady time, made even more so by the deliberate ambiguity fostered by the curators themselves over the role they played in marketing the work they championed.

While permanently altering the nature of curatorial practice in the US, Collins & Milazzo’s role as catalyst in the late-’80s neo-Conceptual takeover of the East Village was no less decisive. Even a cursory study of the former couple’s résumé is enough to make the current generation of peripatetic curators blush: in the course of a decade, from March 1984 to May 1993, a mind-boggling forty-four exhibitions, virtually all accompanied by catalogues, or at least a co-authored text. In many cases, the verbal pyrotechnics and occasional lapses into self-parody outweighed the work on view. Unsurprisingly, the pair’s most fertile period came early, with a series of groundbreaking minisurveys of new art, whose titles still read like postmodern primers: “Still Life with Transaction,” “The New Capital,” and “Paravision.” One of the taboos they punctured was the notion that serious curators don’t make exhibitions in galleries. Along with nonprofits like White Columns, a partial list of their local venues included International With Monument, Nature Morte, Postmasters, Tibor de Nagy, American Fine Arts, Massimo Audiello, John Gibson, Annina Nosei, Sidney Janis, and Tony Shafrazi.

In the end, the reign of Collins & Milazzo fizzled for the same primal reason it came into being: Times changed, and the art that people wanted to see changed with them. One vainly scrutinizes the list of twenty artists in their 1993 swan song, “Elvis Has Left the Building (A Painting Show),” to find more than a couple of names that even register. As art in the ’90s attempted to grapple with issues found in the world outside the white cube, the work promoted by the duo began to seem shallow in its endless attempts to rekindle the embers of postmodern irony. Today, Collins continues to promote younger artists at her Grand Street gallery, and Milazzo publishes critical texts and produces the occasional exhibition, but the torch of their collaboration has been passed to a younger generation. Perhaps, like the social Darwinism that flourished in their wake, Collins & Milazzo helped set up a system that ran only on the flamboyantly new, leaving anyone who could not adapt in the dust.

Dan Cameron is senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.