PRINT March 2000

Hugh Davies

KATY SIEGEL: How do you think this Biennial will come to be regarded in relation to others?

HUGH DAVIES: The net was cast nationally in a way it has not been before. When you’re in New York and everyone’s just been to the same opening, there’s a kind of introverted closed-mindedness. People who live somewhere else bring breadth.

KS: Who were some of the lesser-known artists you championed?

HD: Roman de Salvo and Marcos Ramírez Erre, two San Diego artists my fellow curators knew little about; and Josiah McElheny from Seattle. I’d seen his work in a small gallery in New York, and then at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Larry Rinder had seen that show too, and there was sort of a groundswell that, yeah, this guy has been seen in New York but not nearly enough.

KS: Did the experience make you a fan of any artists you didn’t know before?

HD: Linda Besemer—it’s funny to come to New York and discover an artist from LA. Also, Carl and Karen Pope, and Chris Verene. Dara Friedman will present a video installation that I wish I had brought to the table.

KS: Are there people you think got left out?

HD: I think it’s a weakness that there aren’t more LA artists. Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari are doing incredible work now, and a lot of young artists look to Ken Price as well. There was a sense that the middle generation—Kelley, Pettibon, Ray, Burden—had received a lot of exposure. I went along with that reluctantly. The idea was to find the next generation of Angelenos and that never really happened, so I feel let down. And it wasn’t for lack of trying, because we looked at a lot of work.

KS: What were the team’s weaknesses?

HD: Well, that there were no LA curators. And we were too old. The good part was that we had all paid our dues, so we came to the table with credibility. If Jane Farver has seen the work of Chakaia Booker and she’s excited about it, then she’s an effective advocate. We’re old enough that we’re not trying to get someplace else, we’re not trying to impress anyone. I like the Whitney a lot and working with Max Anderson is a dream for a contemporary-art person because it’s not his field, so he’s not about to get in there and lobby for Jim Dine.

KS: I think at the beginning there was a certain amount of doom and gloom about how this process could actually work.

HD: Yeah, I think there was a certain amount of “Hugh and Michael are guys and they’ll dominate the process.” Or, “The East Coast people will take over.”

KS: If you got to do it all by yourself, how would you characterize your hypothetical solo Biennial?

HD: I think I probably would have had more installation work. But in general I’m really fed up with these heroic single-curator international biennials. I think they’re about the curator and the artists become visual footnotes to some incredibly boring lecture.

KS: Did you feel that way about Venice?

HD: Yes. And Catherine David’s Documenta was screaming to have one good painting or one decent site-specific installation or sculpture. With this Biennial there are six anonymous culture workers who are all contributing, and it’s not about the curators.

KS: How did you come to curating?

HD: As an undergraduate I took a class with George Segal, which just knocked my socks off. Through that experience, I got into art-history classes with Sam Hunter and others at Princeton, and discovered New York and SoHo.

KS: What is your own sense of your most significant curatorial accomplishment preceding the Biennial?

HD: We’ve built a collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, that’s very strong in installation work. I did a lot with artists like Vito Acconci, Bob Irwin, and George Trakas. We were the first museum to acquire an installation by Ann Hamilton, and the first with a Chris Burden. We did an exhibition a few years ago of installation art that’s traveling now called “Blurring the Boundaries,” and that may be my institution’s strongest contribution to the field.

KS: Is there another curator whom you especially admire?

HD: Of those in the Biennial, Jane Farver is the one I learned the most from. As far as others working in this country go, Paul Schimmel of MoCA. “Helter Skelter,” his survey of LA art, and “Hand-Painted Pop” are those rare moments when the concept transcends the individuals, but whenever Schimmel curates he retains a sense of the artists, and respects them.