PRINT February 2008


C’est Triste Venise

Jessica Morgan, Francesco Bonami, and Okwui Enwezor reply to Robert Storr

Had I known that a letter to the editor could run to eight thousand words (and still be printed), I might have waited to write about the Biennale in this expanded form. The curator himself has taken advantage of this opportunity, and his letter [Artforum, January 2008] revisits a number of the Fifty-second Venice Biennale’s excellent decisions and insights, many of which were overlooked by the commissioned writers. Maybe I have grown inured to the almost consistently negative and cynical press that greets any contemporary art exhibition in the UK, but I find it surprising how unwilling Storr is to open even a crack of vulnerability to any of the exhibition’s perceived faults. Perhaps it’s a gender thing, but I can barely think of a single exhibition that I have worked on that has not felt in some way deficient, with the negative press only increasing this self-generated doubt—Storr’s gibes at the weakness of my own exhibition titles, for example, are, I admit, spot-on—but it is precisely from this sense of failure that the desire to continue emerges. Fail again. Fail better. And so on. Yet Storr is decisively dismissive of the critical reception his show has received, an assessment he not only deems to be without merit due to an alleged lack of proper attention on the part of the critics but additionally demonizes as a “personal attack” rather than a professional, critical examination—in my case, apparently, driven by the desire to present “a kind of audition for the job” (a truly “melancholic” appraisal of current art-world conduct if ever I heard one). Perhaps all these various denials of significance are more comfortable to accept than the possibility that contained within these reviews might have been a desire to analyze a profession in which we are all deeply invested and that we wish only to see excel. The lengthy letter to the editor is, however, a trope of Storr’s (I will refrain from examining previous iterations of this type of response lest I again be accused of an ad hominem attack) and perhaps part of the autobiographical rewriting of his curatorial history as “controversial” rather than flawed. 

I want to concentrate here only on Storr’s defense of his exhibition and, in particular, on the rationale that he sets forth for the presence of an argument or thesis in the Biennale, the weakness or absence of which was the focus of my review. In his argument, Storr states that there was a structure, an anti-thesis of sorts, that largely negatively defined his approach: First was the desire to make an exhibition that was not constructed for colleagues and critics but for the “greater public”; second, he states, he “did not want to write a manifesto and illustrate it with art . . . nor to chose a slogan and use it as an umbrella for the miscellaneous showcasing of trends”; third, he did not wish his selection of artists to be “constrained by any false attempts at proportional representation”; fourth, he did wish to have the work shown “take account of the . . . grim social, economic, and ideological crises currently besetting the world”; and finally, he wanted to avoid “two extremes currently bedeviling curatorial practice: the exhibition by committee and the ‘auteur’ exhibition.” Rather, he took the “polemical thrust of Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’ to heart as a challenge to the notion that creative intention is all-determining,” and thus he had no desire to substitute himself “for the Author as presiding mastermind, thereby depriving individual viewers of the chance to make meaning for themselves.” The subtlety and light-handedness of such a curatorial approach was to be appreciated, according to the curator, through such formal correspondences as the recall of “[Shaun] Gladwell’s balletic skateboarder in the Italian Pavilion echoed in [Paolo] Canevari’s graceful footballer dribbling a skull in the Arsenale.” The same “curatorial eye that selected [Gerhard] Richter” and “recognized exciting correlations and thought-provoking differences with the materials-based abstract hangings of El Anatsui” also established the “visual jump from [Ellsworth] Kelly in the Italian Pavilion to Marine Hugonnier in the Arsenale,” where Hugonnier “inserts cropped sections of Kelly’s compositions into the front page of a Palestinian newspaper.” I did not, as Storr seems to believe, miss all such subtle correspondences (though in the first instance cited here, recognition did not lead to any greater enlightenment about the meaning of the works), but his reiteration of the various dualistic relationships in the exhibition still left a vacuum of significance for the overall operation of the show and indeed for the contextual background against which these works were produced. The idea, as such, of bringing together different generations and global positions within an exhibition is one that I applaud, the constant throng of newness in particular offering very little texture in an exhibition of this kind and failing to achieve the task of delivering a new understanding of the current state of play (one very much contributed to by older if not positively dead artists, as well as those just out of art school). But the instances of (intergenerational and interglobal) correspondence that he cites offer shallow ground for such understanding and are, moreover, of such a rarefied nature that I would be very surprised if the audience he claims to have developed the exhibition for—a non-art-world populace—benefited from such constructions. The activity, for instance, of spotting the reproduced Kellys in Hugonnier’s work sounds very much like the kind of insiderish connoisseurship that only a devoted gallerygoer might revel in having “got.” Moreover, while I am quite certain that there is much to be gained from thinking about Richter’s work in relation to that of an artist working outside the parameters of Western art, the comparison of Richter’s abstractions with El Anatsui’s surface effect reduces both works to a formalism that only hints at the information contained in each.

Storr himself may abhor discourse, but in fact many of the artists who participated in his exhibition are deeply engaged in it, and their work—and arguably much of contemporary art production—would never have come into existence in Storr’s imaginary landscape free of criticism and curatorial mediation. Most problematic in this context is his claim for a form of “pluralism,” which, as he says, “consists of crediting and presenting the actual diversity of artistic production rather than just paying lip service to difference.” In Storr’s response, it becomes evident that the potentially “controversial” nature of his exhibition was a matter, not unlike the Documenta curators’ method, of deselecting as well as selecting artists, of ostentatiously ignoring the “mainstream” for what he calls “fresh information” and thereby delivering his brand of pluralism. But whereas Documenta did in fact succeed in bringing to the fore previously overlooked artists from Eastern Europe and Asia, as well as a number from the United States and Europe who have remained underestimated over the past forty years, Storr’s Venice failed in the main to shed new light even on the artists with whom he has the greatest familiarity and did little to champion the new additions, whose work would have benefited more from contextual coherence than from the conceit of (curatorially perceived) correspondences. Pluralism can only be appreciated, I would argue, through a complex construction of difference. This is not a process of binary correspondence but rather a matter of thinking through the manifold connections, differences, and even correspondences that can be understood through a totally conceived exhibition.

—Jessica Morgan

I am wordless. I don’t mean speechless. I mean wordless. I am wordless for the simple reason that Robert Storr has used up all the available words in his . . . what would you call it?—prosecuting defense or defending prosecution against those who criticized his Venice Biennale. He deployed 8,110 words, which is a decent amount for a good catalogue essay, but he chose instead to disburse them in one long, intelligent letter that took a hybrid shape, something in between a résumé stapled to a job application and a theory lesson in a curatorial studies course. I don’t think that all eight of my published articles on Storr’s Biennale add up to as many words. If I had responded to each of the hundreds of brutal reviews of my 2003 Biennale, I would have had to come out with a three- or four-volume dissertation of about 810,000 words. I preferred to spend my time in a different way and never took any of the criticism personally—not even the gratuitous slander tailored for me by Storr in his recent letter. I suppose the only reason he didn’t insult my mother is because he doesn’t know her. At my age, to bend so low would only hurt my back. It is quite depressing to see legitimate cultural debate, no matter how brutal it can be, sink into the quicksand of personal frustration and recrimination.

I admit that I take immense enjoyment in abusing my sense of humor to amuse the reader, but I never indulge in personal abuse for the sake of a cheap laugh. My criticism of the last Biennale was about the Biennale, which happened to be curated by Robert Storr. If exactly the same Biennale had been organized by someone else, the criticism would have been exactly the same. For accuracy’s sake, when I claim to be the first “American” to have organized a Venice Biennale, I am not renouncing my Italian folkloric spirit; I am simply presenting the facts as they are. If our positions had been reversed, I am sure Storr would have clarified the issue in a few thousand words, also for the sake of accuracy. Yet Storr’s State of the Onion address is not completely accurate—or at least not complete in its accuracy. Storr went to great lengths to peel off each layer of his career and of his exhibition in Venice, but, strangely, he forgot to mention that one of this year’s Golden Lions was awarded for the first time, by the jury, to an art critic. And the winner was . . . Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, with whom Storr had in the past some diverging opinions on Gerhard Richter’s work. Buchloh’s award was not only a new feature of the Biennale but also a signal moment in its history; nevertheless, Storr preferred to edit out this highlight from his own personal achievements in order to concentrate the fire on “us” (Jessica Morgan, Okwui Enwezor, and me). A rare case of exerting almost surgical control over one’s Tourette’s syndrome.

One last question (which I hope will remain unanswered) before concluding: If the exhibition was made, rightly so, for the 319,000 paying visitors and not for the inbred circle of curators like us, why did Storr waste his time, stooping lower than low, composing his tantrumic-traumatic epistle? Shouldn’t he have applied his talents instead to addressing the crowd with a 319,000-word sermon?

—Francesco Bonami

I read with a hint of astonishment and a touch of sadness Robert Storr’s recent letter to the editors of Artforum, supposedly written in response to willful misrepresentations by Francesco Bonami, Jessica Morgan, and myself about last summer’s Fifty-second Venice Biennale. I remain mystified by what Storr intended to accomplish with his letter that would push him into penning one of the most ludicrous defenses in the history of the medium, revealing an insecure and unhappy man. No one loves Robert. No one loves his exhibitions, he bleats ad nauseam. As for his Biennale, even though I found it dull and plodding, I did not dismiss it with my so-called poison pen, nor was I motivated by rancor; nor did I, in any part of my review, defame Storr’s character. I did note that there were a number of enjoyable works in the exhibition. While I did not offer a running list of them, I never dismissed, as Mr. Storr claims, his effort. In fact, my very limited account of the show, though not wildly enthusiastic, was nevertheless measured and respectful. Any fairminded reader will come to the same conclusion. But in Storr’s world, the professional is almost always personal—the better to play the role of scrappy victim. 

Thus, in his lengthy response Storr charges me with accusing him of melancholia and with defamation of character. I am simply astounded by the latter charge, since my review bears no semblance to the one Storr responded to. While I had made no diagnosis of his emotional state in my published comments on the Biennale, after read-ing his letter I am tempted to offer a different diagnosis of his personality—namely, that our esteemed curator is deeply touched by paranoia. Yet, inasmuch as I am not privy to his medical records and not wishing to act as his psychoanalyst, I will for the sake of this reply confine myself to wondering aloud why Storr is so thin-skinned, so narcissistic, and so unqualifiedly embittered that he carelessly pens a self-serving screed longer than the catalogue essay to his Biennale in order to correct the record and in the bargain hurl a few infantile insults at his alleged tormentors. Storr, it must be observed, has made a habit of knee-jerk responses such as this, and has a history of intolerance toward critical dissent with respect to his curatorial efforts. He seems to believe that writing pugnacious missives to the editor, which waste precious pages—let’s not kill more trees, please!—is a way to seek redress against imaginary opponents, particularly those like me whom he charges with rancor and whom he believes envious of his exalted position in the world. Readers of Artforum will no doubt recall a similar masterpiece he penned five years ago, in response to the distinguished art historian and critic Rosalind Krauss’s critique of his Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2002. Like the present letter, the earlier one was similarly callow, impudent, and not without a bit of madness.

Any curator who has worked on a significant project like the Venice Biennale knows that rough treatment at the hands of critics comes with the territory. But it so happens that adulation, encouragement, and support are equally part of the package. None of this is news to curators, as Storr well knows. The critical response is never exclusively positive or exclusively negative, though I suspect Storr prepared himself only for the adulation and sycophancy that invariably come from certain sympathetic and/or self-interested quarters. The problem, then, for Storr is that his letter is self-serving and displays a crude attempt at revisionism in relation to both his exhibition and the assess-ment of it by others. To those disinclined simply to give him a critical pass he ascribes dark motives, frequently assuming the worst of peers who disagree. To those with more comforting observations to make, on the other hand, he imputes the finest intentions. Aiming to rewrite the record and also hoping to cut a figure of gravitas, he attempts with his response to kill two birds with one stone: to write a more favorable review of his failure of imagination in Venice, and to skewer those who did not sing arias celebrating his magnificence at MoMA—all to rehabilitate his own “wasted promise.”

Why the Fifty-second Venice Biennale turned out the way it did is everywhere evident in the pedantic curatorial lessons Storr composed. I did not know that the Biennale had been curated with the express purpose of correcting the many sins of omission committed by the international art world. Having failed to fully inhabit the starring role of self-anointed savior of women, Africans, Indians, and Turks, Storr resorts to accusing people like me of deliberately not appreciating his effort and of having the effrontery to question the patronizing, unseemly, colonialist powermongering that informed his idea of an African pavilion. If that failed project was not motivated by bad faith, I don’t know what is. That he botched the effort is apparently beyond Storr’s grasp, and his letter also exposed his many grand delusions, as well as his abiding wish to cut a larger-than-life figure in the cultural landscape.

His missive parades a procession of outlandish claims of what he did first, where, when, and how, including his claim to be the first curator to present animation as real art in a Biennale when artists like William Kentridge have shown such work repeatedly both in Venice and elsewhere. He also touts himself as the first Venice Biennale director to visit Africa for the purpose of researching his exhibition. Though the historical record shows that the late, great Harald Szeemann beat him to it by seven years, Storr nonetheless insists on his story, basing his claim on hearsay from the sidewalks of Dakar. Indeed, a number of his assertions are unsupported by evidence.

Take, for example, his trumpeting of his efforts to have a 3-D model developed for his installation scheme in Venice and his desperation becomes clear. To witness an experienced curator trying to score cheap points on such a normal, mundane matter as making a 3-D model of his spaces is astonishing. To my mind, a simple phone call to the architecture department at the University of Venice would have saved him all that effort of raising money for the express purpose of building such a model. This attempt to inflate normal procedures of curatorial work leaves me wondering what point he was trying to make. And how did he ply his curatorial trade at MoMA without any such visualizing aids as floor plans and models?

Furthermore, one reads with incredulity in his letter that the 2007 African pavilion was the first such exhibition included as part of the Biennale. That is patently false. At the Fiftieth Venice Biennale in 2003, Gilane Tawadros’s exhibition “Fault Lines,” organized by the Forum for African Arts, appeared in the Arsenale at the invitation of then-director Francesco Bonami. And already in 2001 the Forum had organized “Authentic/Ex-centric,” at the Fondazione Levi, the first exhibition of its kind in Venice by African curators. For Storr’s information, that exhibition was recognized as an official pavilion, and Yinka Shonibare was awarded an honorable mention for his contribution to it. Each of these exhibitions was highly visible in Venice and prominently covered in the art press, yet our curator, perhaps hoping to paper over his late arrival to the scene, attempted to construct an African tabula rasa so that he could fill the void with his own dyspeptic salvage operation. Why would he need to rewrite the history if it weren’t for the fact that others were there before him? Who, one might ask, is being competitive in this case?

Indeed, Salah Hassan and I, anticipating the problematic nature of that venture, wrote him a letter pointing out all these facts, but not because we wanted to control the discourse on contemporary African art, as Storr alleges. Of the several exchanges between us—which, by the way, shall remain confidential—Storr cavalierly ignores the last letter he wrote us, asking for reconciliation, even accepting that he may have erred, and imploring the Forum to reconsider. Since his desire is to dehistoricize our work in order to occupy an undeserved space within the field, I take solace in the fact that the archive of our exchanges will tell a very different story.

At this point it becomes patently clear that Storr’s response is not about my review, but rather an excuse for putting forward a wholly different agenda. Thus, of all the affronts he ascribes to me, the worst crime is what he deems my willful refusal to acknowledge his African pavilion and the African artists he included in the Biennale. He writes, “Indeed, but for a reference to El Anatsui, Enwezor has made every one of the six Africans in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion Invisible Men and topped this off by making the whole of the African pavilion invisible as well.” Well, if I turned the very artists whose works and lively ideas I have been preoccupied with for years (and showcased repeatedly in numerous exhibitions around the world) into “Invisible Men,” I wonder what he thinks of his ventriloquist’s act with respect to the selfsame artists. The reality he did everything to suppress was the controversy surrounding the “African pavilion.” Throughout the summer of 2007 he devoted considerable energy to damage control over the sordid issues raised by this pavilion. But I will refrain from the so-called airing of dirty laundry and the conspiratorial gossip in which he cloaked himself as balm for his punctured colonialist fantasies about Africa. Indeed, it is clear for all to see that somewhere along the way Storr’s suddenly acquired obsession with Africa inexorably led to the development of a weird form of Afrophilia. He describes the moment of epiphany: 

When I decided to announce an open call for the African pavilion, it was largely in response to the firestorm of complaints I heard from African curators and critics who were invited to a conference at MoMA timed to the opening at New York’s P.S. 1 of Enwezor’s exhibition “The Short Century.” What rankled for them was always being asked to participate on the sidelines but seldom if ever being offered access to the exhibition system—that system effectively being dominated by a few high-profile figures, of which Enwezor was the most conspicuous.

Now we know who had the agenda. But Afrophilia in its peculiar manifestation in Mr. Storr reveals a desperate character, and it degenerated into a parody of carnal pursuit. One learns from Storr—like Mr. Kurtz in his lounge suit, lolling in the sun like a well-fed crocodile on the banks of the Congo—his great restraint from playing any of the instruments in the ensemble (the invited jury) that selected the artists in the African pavilion for him. He tells us that he played absolutely no role in the selection, except as conductor—making the arrangements, issuing invitations, and packing the room with black experts (both from the motherland and from the diaspora), while observing the deliberations with a disenchanted objectivity. How a private collection acquired wholesale from the estate of the German collector Hans Bogatzke can represent his vaunted idea of access for African artists and curators in Venice remains mystifying. That he expects me to applaud this ridiculous farce reveals how unmoored he is from the problematic role he was playing. To compound the bad faith, of the three pavilions he promoted to the overlords at the Venice Biennale, the African pavilion was the only one for which an open call was made. For Turkey and India, no such call was deemed necessary. The curators were simply invited without fanfare, perhaps because he trusted their curatorial abilities. For Africa, on the other hand, supervision was required. Storr needed a cover. If the gambit were to fail, he would not be responsible; it was his black brothers and sisters, after all, who had made the selection. He had merely, benevolently, offered a swatch of space from the kingdom allotted him. But suppose Storr had decided instead to launch a rival British pavilion and had invited diasporic Brits from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada along with their UK cousins to choose the best proposal, and in the end that jury had selected an exhibition composed entirely of works from Charles Saatchi’s collection. How would British art professionals react? Storr never asks himself this question.

It was patently clear to most people, I think, that the gesture of the African pavilion was a political gimmick—and one that backfired rudely in a forum organized by the British Council during the preview days of the Biennale. Apparently (I did not have the opportunity to attend), an embattled Mr. Storr, challenged at the symposium by a member of the audience to explain what qualified him to launch an African pavilion in Venice with no consultation from Africans, responded with the incredible claim that he lived in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, and that that provided him unique insight. One wonders, with a sense of sadness, why he would go through all these contortions to establish such unsolicited intimacy when a simple invitation to an African curator would have sufficed.

Long believed dead and buried in the sludge of the nineteenth-century colonial game, Mr. Kurtz, we learned in 2007, is alive after all. His latest incarnation is Mr. Storr.

—Okwui Enwezor
San Francisco


Elizabeth Mangini’s “Slant” on arte povera, the Situationists, and politics [Artforum, November 2007] seems to have missed a trick or two. For a start, an important, if often overlooked, link between the two groups was the work of Pinot Gallizio, one of the founders of the Situationist International in 1957, and his Experimental Laboratory in Alba. Gallizio showed his industrial paintings in Turin and Milan in 1958, and his Cavern of Anti-Matter—a combination of the chemical, spatial, social, and cosmic, which precedes Mario Merz’s igloos by a decade—in Paris in 1959. Merz and Michelangelo Pistoletto both acknowledged their debt to Gallizio in testimonials transcribed under the rubric “Gallizio’s significance for the New Generation,” and it is known that Luciano Fabro and Giulio Paolini were also aware of this precursor.

In addition, it has long been plausible to discuss the arte povera artists’ work in social and political terms. This is not confined to “a few recent publications” as is claimed. However, it is tendentious, in contrasting these two groups, to reduce the SI’s activities to the terms of the dread academic phrase “visual culture” and to dismiss their production of pamphlets, agitprop banners, and graffiti in 1968 as a “narrowly political art.” For one thing, all the artists except J. V. Martin had been excluded by 1962. At least the much wider ambitions of the SI should still be recognized. Even in 1972, Guy Debord could still write of Asger Jorn’s garden in Albisola (in “De l’architecture sauvage” [On Wild Architecture], translated by Thomas Levin): “It is known that initially the Situationists wanted at the very least to build cities, the environment suitable to the unlimited deployment of new passions. But of course this was not easy and so we found ourselves forced to do much more.”

—Mark Francis

Elizabeth Mangini responds:

Mark Francis is correct that the arte povera artists, especially those in Turin, were aware of the Situationists—indeed, in the first chapter of my forthcoming study I explore the ways in which Gallizio’s example may have fed their growing interest in spatialization and the active reception/perception of a work of art as itself revolutionary. He seems, however, to have missed the point of the column. My aim was certainly never to denigrate the Situationists but instead to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Celant’s text and perhaps to deepen our understanding of arte povera by reconsidering both the cultural and social contexts in which its artists emerged. The Situationists were one part of that complex picture, though perhaps as a whole they provided a negative example, since, as Francis mentions, most of its artists were excluded from the movement by Raoul Vaneigem’s 1961 proclamation that art objects could not constitute a critique of the spectacle, and that therefore there was no Situationist art. (See Internationale Situationniste 7, 1962.) What, then, were the other models that the younger generation might use to imagine art’s role in relation to the political struggles of the later ’60s? Celant’s use of “guerrilla warrior” to describe the arte povera artists and their tactics came only a month after the death of Che Guevara, and was concurrent with the first major student demonstrations in Turin, suggesting that political contextualization, even if allegorical, was of great importance. These artists did not, however, imagine their works to take direct “guerrilla” action in political events. Rather, their works’ refusal of authority and solicitation of the viewing subject in the production of meaning was what catalyzed an engagement with the larger social, political, and phenomenological world. I am reminded of Herbert Marcuse’s words when considering arte povera’s critical impact: “Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world” (The Aesthetic Dimension, 1978)

—Elizabeth Mangini
San Francisco