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PRINT October 2001

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Catherine David

IT CAME AS SOMETHING of a surprise to art-world observers when it was announced this summer that Catherine David, the quirky, possibly brilliant curator of the most recent Documenta, would take over from Bartomeu Marí as director of Rotterdam’s Witte de With come January. David, after all, once held prestigious curatorships at the Jeu de Paume and the Centre Georges Pompidou. The Witte de With has been in existence for just over a decade and puts on only six exhibitions a year. It is an important alternative space—Europe’s Dia perhaps—but one had to wonder: Couldn’t she have done better?

Yet for those who’ve fondly followed David’s career, the choice simply came as further proof of the depth of her independence. David is known as an early advocate of Jeff Wall and Chantal Akerman and as one of the first curators to exhibit film in an art setting. A prolific traveler, she has discovered and promoted artists from around the world—in South America (Brazil’s Hélio Oiticica is a favorite) and the Middle East in particular. As of press time, David had yet to disclose plans for her forthcoming tenure (no surprise there: She waited until the last minute to announce her Documenta picks to the media, and then only did so in a kind of distracted and nearly indecipherable rush), though a Witte de With press conference later this month might shed some light. But friends and colleagues speculate that she was attracted by the cross-disciplinary freedom offered by the Witte. As Benjamin Buchloh puts it, “If she were to return to [the Pompidou] as a contemporary art curator, she wouldn’t be able to do a series on radical Palestinian cinema, for example. The film department there would say, ‘Get back in your box.’”

Not that David doesn’t have her detractors. Many were either irritated or baffled by her Documenta X, which seemed to eschew the ultra-cutting-edge for older, soixante-huitardish artists, many of them (e.g., Marcel Broodthaers) in fact dead, literally—embalmed in the catalogue, a weighty tome resembling in its ragtag yet academic graphic and intellectual style Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau’s S, M, L, XL and given to long dialogues between David, Buchloh, and photography theoretician Jean-François Chevrier.

But as the next Documenta gears up—in the wake of this summer’s low-risk Venice Biennale—some are already reminiscing about David’s as, if not perfect, at least ambitious and smart, a stimulating argument about what a show like that could be. Which is typically Davidian. As Jeff Wall puts it, “Catherine was one of the first to see the connection between political discourse and aesthetics, to be interested in the global creole of cultures, how ideas can be expressed through art. She’s been aware of these issues since the early ’80s. She’s not one of these curators who’s just read her Derrida and her Foucault and is now running around trying to apply it. She’s lived it.” And, from the looks of it, she's not about to stop.

Adam Lehner is a New York-based writer.