PRINT November 1999


Paulo Herkenhoff

WHEN THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART bestowed the title of adjunct curator on Paulo Herkenhoff in May, many reacted to the Brazilian’s appointment as a godsend. “Herkenhoff is the new global curator,” says the New Museum’s Dan Cameron. Independent curator Carlos Basualdo adds, “Paulo will help Latin American artists to be considered simply modern artists, without the modifier of their nationality. The Latin American art community has a lot of optimism about this hire.”

MoMA director Glenn Lowry also has high expectations. “Paulo is ideally situated to curate shows of contemporary artists who are not being fully recognized in North America, like Lygia Clark,” says Lowry. “He can make them meaningful to our audience.”

What’s given Herkenhoff such cachet? A long-respected curator who worked at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro and a number of other prominent Brazilian institutions, it was his command of the 1998 São Paulo Bienal that truly gilded his reputation. The sprawling, four-part show centered on the theme of anthropophagy as a key metaphor within twentieth-century Brazilian art. Coming at the end of a decade of splashy yet intellectually fatuous international shows, the convincing presentation of unconventional art-historical narratives was, in Cameron’s view, “revelatory.”

Herkenhoff’s Latin American roots and global perspective mark a departure for the museum. Even though MoMA can claim a substantial Latin American collection, comprising works mostly from the ’30s and ’40s, Basualdo notes that few of the pieces date from the ’60s or later. “There’s a North American tendency to consider South American art marginal,” he says. “I think that by working at MoMA, Paulo will be able to make a greater place for Latin American art within the broader narrative of modern art.”

But working at MoMA may also put new limitations on Herkenhoff. Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the museum, called Herkenhoff’s job—an unusual three-year arrangement during which he will divide his time between New York and Latin America—an “experiment.” Of the limited plan, Varnedoe says: “Paulo has a lot of curatorial opportunities around the world and we have to see whether this arrangement works out in the right way.”

The three-year appointment may put extra strain on Herkenhoff’s ability to “shake things up,” as Cameron put it. “MoMA is a very large and bureaucratic structure. Sometimes talented curators only do one show every couple of years.”

There are signs that MoMA will provide Herkenhoff a great deal of freedom: Some suspect that he’s been hired to curate the post-MoMA-merger P.S. 1. “MoMA wants to have increased presence at P.S. 1. P.S. 1 is one place where Paulo might find a venue,” Varnedoe allows. The curator’s New York faithful would like nothing better.

Alissa Quart