PRINT October 2000


Madelein Grynsztejn

GIVE MADELEINE GRYNSZTEJN some credit for diplomatic consistency: She doesn't miss a beat when the subject of negative reviews of her 1999 Carnegie International comes up. “I would turn,” she says in response to my line of questioning, “to reviews by Steve Litt [Cleveland Plain Dealer], Katy Siegel [Artforum], and Graham Shearing [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review].” She adds: “A lot of the pieces were newly commissioned and allowed the artists to make leaps within their own work. This was the first time that Janet Cardiff could use video as well as audio, and the first time that Sarah Sze worked with siding material, for instance.” I had been (gently) prodding the thirty-eight-year-old contemporary curator—recently hired away from the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh to replace Gary Garrels at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—about her rep as a fairly predictable, politically correct (in a high-gloss, Masterpiece Theatre sort of way) selector of artists who, as the New York Times's Roberta Smith had put it, “jet from one show to another to create the same engaging effects.” (Downshifting for journalistic purposes into hint-of-hostility mode, I had asked what she made of the fairly negative press the Carnegie International received from Smith as well as from the Los Angeles Times's Christopher Knight, who criticized her show for conforming to “institutional norms.”)

Okay, you're probably thinking, but where's the story in Grynsztejn's appointment to a major institutional post, other than what's in the press releases from Pittsburgh and San Francisco expressing, respectively, congratulations and regrets, and congratulations and joy? Museum personnel are about as mobile these days as software designers, so it's hardly news that Grynsztejn is moving on, after just three and a half years in Steeltown, to an institution with a boardful of billionaires. And since contemporary curators are short on cosseting precious objects with white cotton gloves and long on compiling fat Rolodexes filled with international artists whom they hire to concoct on-the-spot work for theme shows, it's not exactly earth-shattering that providing creative opportunities for the likes of Cardiff and Sze would be a source of pride for Grynsztejn.

As usual, though, what's noteworthy about Grynsztejn's new gig lies between the lines. The curator hit the big time in organizing the most recent Carnegie International; SF MoMA director David Ross, who says one of the things he likes most about Grynsztejn is that she's “a dedicated internationalist,” conjectures that maybe the West Coast could benefit from hosting one of those every-x-years anthologies, “if it can be reinvented.” (Read: extracted from the mold of predictability into which Smith and Knight think a prominent example, the Carnegie International, has fallen.) Ross has a reputation for being well-meaningly progressive—and smooth; Grynsztejn has a penchant for being well-meaningly progressive and . . . well, here she is, verbatim: “SFMoMA is in an extraordinary position, both in terms of resources and appropriateness to the moment. It's in a position to make art, artists, and art history comprehensible and indispensable to the public. It's an exciting place to be right now.” Prediction: smooth sailing ahead in San Francisco.

Peter Plagens is art critic of Newsweek and a contributing editor of Artforum.