PRINT February 2000


Gary Garrels

THERE WERE A HANDFUL of small surprises wrapped inside the recent announcement that Gary Garrels, the forty-eight-year-old Elise S. Haas Chief Curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, had been named chief curator in the department of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. First, of course, was that Margit Rowell was giving up the post after six successful years, deciding to move back to Paris where curators are not so obliged to spend massive amounts of time hunting up funding for their shows. In fact, Garrels had distinguished himself in San Francisco as a stellar fund-raiser, courtier to such rich patrons as Phyllis Wattis, and a mender of fences with collectors Harry W. “Hunk” and Mary Margaret “Moo” Anderson (Garrels’s final show in San Francisco will be a mammoth survey of the Andersons’ collection).

Even Garrels, who isn’t particularly known for his expertise in drawings, claimed initial surprise when Glenn Lowry, director of the Modern, approached him with the job. “Glenn was in California and threw this curveball, but a couple of weeks later I came to New York and we had a long discussion, and I realized this was a serious idea,” Garrels says. “And I’ve always loved drawings—that you get both the center and the edges, the masterworks and the testing of new ideas. So I realized in talking with Glenn and Margit that this was a kind of extraordinary moment to move on. I’ve been in San Francisco for seven years, and all of my major projects are coming to completion this year. It was time to reappraise, to think about where I could grow the most. In any case, my tendency is to look at an integrated approach to an artist’s work. For instance, for the Sol LeWitt retrospective [which opens this month at SF MoMA], we’ll show the works on paper that lead to the wall drawings, along with the wall drawings, the photographs, books, and structures.”

Yet more intriguing was the second part of Garrels’s dual appointment, as a curator in the Modern’s department of painting and sculpture. With his legacy of distinguished shows, including “Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s,” (SF MoMA), “Robert Ryman” (Dia), and “Blinky Palermo: To the People of New York City” (Dia), the added offer made sense on both ends, underlining his potential in the field of contemporary art—a field in which the membrane between disciplines and mediums has become entirely permeable. That seamlessness rhymes well with the internal shift in thinking under way at MoMA, made public in “Modern Starts,” the museum-wide exhibition now on view in which paintings, sculptures, design objects, photographs, works on paper, even video pieces are dexterously juxtaposed to break each discipline out of its categorical ghetto and reexamine the way the history of modernism is told.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Lowry says, “that sense of porousness between departments is vital to the museum as we evolve, particularly with regard to developing the contemporary collection where the boundaries dissolve between mediums. And especially in the contemporary field, though not exclusively, Gary has enormous strength as a scholar and a curator.”

In fact, it turned out that if Lowry threw Garrels a curve, Garrels had already decided to play the field. The director’s aggressive pursuit was inspired by more than Garrels’s steadily rocketing reputation as he moved from director of programs at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York to senior curator at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center and then to San Francisco. Quietly, this past autumn, Garrels was deep in talks with Maxwell Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Lowry acknowledges that he was aware that Garrels “was in discussion with the Whitney and maybe several institutions.”

Yet, in the end, the Whitney’s need for someone concentrating solely on contemporary work hardly matched the breadth of the Modern’s offer, let alone the glamour of the institution and the enormous attention its exhibitions attract. Garrels’s challenge now is to study the six thousand works in the drawing collection, with its greatest depth in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’60s, and begin to pinpoint pieces to broaden and deepen the holdings. He must create a major drawing show to go up sometime in the next five years. And, as anyone who follows the Modern knows, he must ease his way into the curatorial staff, famous for its talent—and turbulence.

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.