Gary Garrels


Left: Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Red Butterfly III Yellow MARK GROTJAHN P-08 Filled in M, 3 753), 2008, oil on linen, 73 x 54“. Right: Philip Guston, North, 1961–62, oil on canvas, 69 x 77”.

“Oranges and Sardines,” which opened at the Hammer Museum on November 9, is one of the two final shows curator Gary Garrels organized for the museum before his departure to SF MoMA. Drawing the exhibition’s title from a poem by Frank O’Hara, Garrels invited six abstract painters—Mark Grotjahn, Wade Guyton, Mary Heilmann, Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, and Christopher Wool—to select works by others that had influenced their thinking and practice, to be shown alongside the six artists’ own pieces. Here, Garrels talks about the conversations that shaped the exhibition.

“ORANGES AND SARDINES” came out of a conversation I had with the artist Mark Grotjahn. I’ve followed Mark’s work for the past seven or eight years, and I admire it greatly. I had been a strong advocate of Mark’s works at MoMA, so when I moved to Los Angeles it was an opportunity to get to know his art better.

We started a conversation about Yayoi Kusama and her net paintings and discussed how important they had been for him, how he’d seen the Kusama retrospective at LACMA in 1988. I had never thought about Kusama in relationship to Mark’s work, so I asked him, “If I could hang one of your paintings with a Kusama, what else would be interesting to see at the same time?” He told me Paul Klee. Afterward, I went home and took down my MoMA catalogue from Klee’s retrospective, and it was one of those “Aha!” moments. I just saw Mark’s work in such a different way—it made so much sense, and it also refreshed Klee for me; sometimes it can feel as though you have cataracts on your eyes, looking at things you’ve seen too many times.

A few weeks later, I set up a studio visit with Amy Sillman, whom at the time I didn’t know. I’d been watching her work over the years, and I’d seen an exhibition in Berlin a couple years ago where the work had gone another step toward being fully abstract, and I was very interested in watching her move away from the figurative. I asked Amy the same question I’d asked Mark: “Are there other artists you’d be interested in seeing your work with, who’ve somehow been important in your work?” It was just like setting off firecrackers, and she told me Hesse, Chamberlain, and de Kooning. As I was coming back on the plane, I thought, “This could be a really interesting show.”

I’ve always been interested in abstract painting—that’s where I entered the art world—so I thought about other painters in this vein and winnowed it down to a group of six who represent a diversity of generations and approaches to the field. Another part of the show is about the situation of abstract painting today and how it remains a vibrant and vital form. It’s something that’s often written off.

Each of the artists could have included more objects or artists that have had significance to them, but really the exhibition was an attempt to make a definitive summary of influences. This is the tip of the iceberg—and in the catalogue, we’ve tried to make some of those other influences more salient. I told the artists that for the show we had to pick things from the twentieth century, noting that it was probably better to start from midcentury on, the 1930s and ’40s to the present. But aside from that, I didn’t try to establish any parameters. I told them, “Think about things that are really most important to you, and I will try my best to find those things for you.” It’s hard to say how different their final selections would have been without me. Each case would have been a little different; sometimes I nudged, I enticed, I pleaded.

With Mary Heilmann, I was astonished when she mentioned Francis Bacon. It just would never occur to me, but then again, as I looked at Bacon, and as she was talking about how he structures space, it just made so much sense. The Joseph Beuys piece presents an existential condition: what an artist is, and also the way his work and thought engage a kind of dark history from Europe. It’s so different from what she grew up with in California.

In terms of choices, I was open to whatever the artist was interested in. In some cases, they specified the exact work. Charlene von Heyl said, “I want this Malcolm Morley; I want the School of Athens.” It was that precise painting for very precise reasons. The work is Morley repainting Raphael’s School of Athens. But he had gridded it off and later got so involved in the act of painting that he lost track of the grid; one row of the heads of the figures are off, so they’re no longer connected to their bodies. Charlene just loved that. She had never seen the painting; she only knew it from reproduction.

Amy Sillman said, “I have to have a Hesse relief,” and I think there are twelve of those. And we looked at them together, and she said, “This would be my first choice, this would be my second choice,” and so on. And I miraculously located her first choice, and the person who owned it agreed to lend it. But again, the selection was very specific.

There are multiple plots organizing the exhibition. One is to look at contemporary artists and understand the complexity and depth of thinking that go into their work, to realize that there are underlying things that may not immediately be apparent. I also wanted to reengage the specificity of art objects, to take the work of art out of the service of art history or theory and focus on its idiosyncratic and obdurate presence.

— As told to Dawn Chan