PRINT January 2007


Marcia Tucker

PEOPLE TOOK NOTICE of Marcia Tucker, and in the mid-1970s I was one of them. She was an inspiration—a brilliant curator and strong woman who had something to do and to say. At the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Marcia had become famous for her groundbreaking shows, having arrived in 1969 to co-organize the first exhibition devoted to process art in an American institution, “Anti-Illusion: Procedure/Materials,” before giving Bruce Nauman and Lee Krasner their solo museum debuts, and James Rosenquist and Joan Mitchell their first retrospectives. And then she became infamous for the furor around her 1975 Richard Tuttle show, which ultimately forced her departure two years later at age thirty-six. “Where is the art?” angry visitors demanded of me, a young intern stationed in the galleries. But to me and to many others, Marcia, who died last October at age sixty-six, was a hero—someone who stuck to her guns, had great integrity, was full of conviction, and feared no one.

At that time I would have given anything to have an exchange with her. I never dreamed that two decades later I would be meeting her regularly to talk about the role of museums in the twenty-first century, after I inherited the leadership of her brainchild, the New Museum, which she founded in 1977—a radical art institution she created in response to being jettisoned from a traditional one. She accomplished this through sheer will and determination, without financial resources or a collection of her own, because she knew that a museum devoted to innovative contemporary art was needed. She championed new art, new ideas, and new ways of doing things, transforming the museum landscape and raising the bar for all of us. The New Museum was an upstart from the beginning. There, as Marcia had done at the Whitney, she continued to defend underdogs, unsung heroes, rebels, and misfits while staunchly opposing the star system as well as the belief that the museum should be an arbiter of high culture and taste. It was a place where radicality and controversy would necessarily lead to a certain amount of chaos, messiness, confusion—and predictably bad press. She confronted the latter head-on, creating a “bad review” archive—which she eventually posted on her website. “If your reviews are too good, you should be concerned,” she once commented.

Though she was a creative and capable museum director, Marcia was a curator first and foremost. She loved art and artists and continued to preside over the first museum shows for an array of important practitioners, including Barry Le Va, Leon Golub, Ana Mendieta, Christian Boltanski, and Nancy Spero, and she presented John Baldessari’s first retrospective. Many of these artists, in addition to those with whom she worked at the Whitney, are now household names and considered contemporary masters, but this was not the case when these shows went on view. Throughout her life, Marcia provided crucial early museum recognition for artists when others were questioning the value of their work.

There were other firsts. As I look at the roster of Marcia’s thematic exhibitions, her courage, openness, and prescience seem remarkable. “Anti-Illusion” is widely acknowledged in this regard, yet she achieved a similar impact nine years later in an entirely different genre with the polemical “Bad Painting,” which brought together artists who were deliberately breaking the rules, whose work looked kitschy, garish, and ugly. Marcia was one of the first curators in the US to bring performance art into the museum, with, for example, “Performances: Four Evenings, Four Days” at the Whitney in 1976, which featured Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson, among others. In the ’70s she also mounted small exhibitions on tattooing and bodybuilding as extensions of performance and body art.

Leading the New Museum’s charge at the front lines of art and culture, she was widely admired for forging her own way. Bigger institutions began to take notice, and soon her ideas were infiltrating their programming. But for Marcia, mainstream acceptance was a flashing danger sign. She knew she had to keep pushing beyond the confines of convention. As she put it in 1998, “From [artists] I’ve learned that the minute you’ve accomplished something that you’re truly satisfied with, it’s time to steer off-course and scare yourself again.”

Young people were drawn to Marcia, and at the New Museum she gave some of the best curators and directors working today (Allan Schwartzman, Ned Rifkin, Lynn Gumpert, Brian Wallis, Russell Ferguson, and Dan Cameron among them) an early opportunity to put their ideas into practice. As one of the first female art museum directors, she also influenced several generations of women in the field. Role models for women were scarce when Marcia started, and here was this outspoken feminist who had invented her own museum! Today, more than a third of art museum directors are women, but when Marcia joined the Association of Art Museum Directors in 1986, it was a boys club, and she was an agitator.

And while Marcia will always be remembered for launching and leading the New Museum, she was courageous in her private life as well. When she learned she had cancer several years ago, she approached her illness with great resolve and lived way beyond doctors’ prognoses through her indomitable spirit. After leaving the New Museum in 1999, she freelanced as a critic, lecturer—and stand-up comic. Assuming the persona of Mabel McNeil, aka Miss Mannerist, she dispensed bons mots and advice for artists and curators at Manhattan comedy clubs. She taught at Bard College and at the Otis College of Art and Design and explored an interest in Buddhism and its intersection with artistic practice. In her life and in her work, which were very intertwined, she was a kind of magnet who understood the power of people and brought them together around shared passions. She was and still is a force to be reckoned with.

Lisa Phillips is director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art.