PRINT May 2003

US News

John Elderfield

IN MARCH JOHN ELDERFIELD was appointed chief curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He succeeds Kirk Varnedoe, who left the post (often called the most powerful in the art world) to join the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2001 [see Artforum, January 2002]. Elderfield has held various curatorial positions at the museum since 1975; his most recent, chief curator at large, will now be occupied by another long-time MoMA curator, Kynaston McShine. Fourth in a line of staunch modernists—Varnedoe’s predecessors were William Rubin and Alfred H. Barr—Elderfield is likely to lead a smooth transition.

Before working with Varnedoe on the multivenue collaboration “Matisse Picasso,” currently on view at MoMA QNS, Elderfield organized major exhibitions including “The Wild Beasts: Fauvism and Its Affinities” (1976), “Kurt Schwitters” (1985), “Henri Matisse” (1992), and “Bonnard” (1998). During the past quarter century, shows like these have done much to sustain the Modern’s authority and prestige. Yet, in this same period, living artists have been chronically disgruntled with the museum’s persistent neglect of contemporary art, as Elderfield doubtlessly well knows.

Emphasizing his intention to make the current scene “a regular beat,” he seems to address the art world’s expectation that the Varnedoe-Elderfield transition will be all too smooth—that the new regime at the Modern’s flagship department will conduct business as usual: mending gaps in the collection, honoring establishment stars with retrospectives that double as blockbusters and exercises in canonization, and letting the Projects room take care of the contemporary side of things.

Though eminently tactful, Elderfield acknowledges a doubt or two about the Projects room’s usual focus on installation works. “I think it’s great for young curators to learn to cooperate with artists,” he says. “But I would also like to see Projects being used for young curators to learn to curate exhibitions.” Given his interests, he would be pleased if the Projects room were to offer “curated exhibitions of painting and sculpture.” Nonetheless, he adds, “I do think that younger curators should be encouraged to do exhibitions in whatever medium or mixture of mediums.”

Of all the Modern’s high-profile curators, Elderfield is perhaps the most scholarly. Having received his Ph.D. from London’s renowned and somewhat hidebound Courtauld Institute of Art, he places even the newest art in the grand perspectives of art history. As he sees it, there is no alternative. “We have been stuck with the art-historical model ever since Vasari invented it in the sixteenth century,” he says. “It was the model for Barr and, before him, Vivant Denon, who organized the Louvre to lead up to Napoleonic classicism.”

When Napoléon’s collecting (or looting) made Paris the capital of art, Denon became art’s emperor. And there was always an imperial ambition built into the job of chief curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, especially after World War II, when New York became the capital of art. This imperialism belongs to the role, not to the one who plays it, though William Rubin sometimes showed a touch of Napoleonic theatricality. Elderfield, by contrast, is reserved—like Barr, who often appeared to be absorbed by his vision of history. Elderfield has his own, equally absorbing view of the modernist past, yet his new position seems to have brought him fully alive to the complexities—and the demands—of the present. Moreover, he is truly interested in others’ points of view: “I really like collaborative situations,” he attests. Yet his conversation keeps returning to the Louvre’s Napoleonic beginnings.

“When the Louvre opened,” he says, “France still had the Revolutionary ten-day week. The museum was closed for cleaning on two days. Then, for four days, it was open to artists, and the remaining days were open to everyone.” Elderfield believes museums should educate artists as well as larger audiences, “and this goal has everything to do with the way the Modern collects and exhibits contemporary art.” Pointing to some of Varnedoe’s savvy additions to the Modern’s collection—Rosenquist’s F-111, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans—Elderfield notes their importance in fleshing out the collection. Yet the crucial point, he suggests, is to make the museum a more useful resource, to working artists and viewing public alike.

“This is a tricky problem, speaking to the moment,” he says. “I feel that my job is to make it clear that we care about historical things because they are really part of the present.” Determined to bring past and present into lively contact, Elderfield plans to hire young curators “who are actively, passionately involved with new art.” And he wants to subject the permanent collection to regular rehanging. “In its early days,” Elderfield says, “the museum had an almost clublike quality, in the best sense of a club, not the Groucho Marx sense. People would go there regularly to find out what was happening, and I think it can have that appeal again.” Alfred H. Barr was not solely a missionary bent on building a shrine to modernism. He also possessed an entrepreneurial spirit with a vivid sense of the part MoMA could play in the life of the city. Elderfield, it seems, would like to emulate the down-to-earth as well as the visionary Barr.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and art critic based in New York.