Museum Curators and their Public

By Steve Light

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently re-opened after a closure of over three years for expansion and renovation. Most of the opening exhibitions consist of artworks loaned by the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection on the basis of an arrangement and agreement which resulted in the Fishers funding the museum’s expansion. I haven’t been to SFMOMA in many years. I don’t visit the Bay Area often, but when I do it is the most sparkling and invigorating artists in the region whose work I want to see, and their work tends not to be in the MOMAs and MOCAs of the world, although they certainly ought to be.

Make no mistake, the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be at the forefront of our emancipatory political, social, and cultural modernities, and if its just as vital and vibrant artistic, painterly, and aesthetic modernities are under-appreciated in relation, for example, to the ones of Los Angeles and New York, or Berlin and Beijing for that matter, nonetheless with painters such as Alan Silver and Naoko Haruta, who I believe are the supreme talents of our contemporary epoch and who are producing our epoch’s most admirable, substantial, and sagacious paintings, the San Francisco Bay Area’s artistic vitalities, vivacities, and virtuosities should be regarded as second to none. As for SFMOMA, an episode there some years ago highlighted for me a not-uncommon curatorial problem.

From October 20, 2006 to January 21, 2007 the SFMOMA was home to a traveling exhibition entitled, “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth.” This was a large retrospective of works by the German artist Anselm Kiefer, the last such retrospective taking place in 1987.

Walking through the exhibition, one might have found oneself before a work depicting a stark and perhaps war-torn landscape with words painted across the top of the painting: Beschwert sind die oestlichen himmel mit leidensewebe dein leblicher Namen des herbtest Runengespinst — fur Paul Celan. Next to the painting, a curatorial card gave the name of the painting: Des herbstest Runengespinst — fur Paul Celan. But on the curatorial card there was no English translation of the words on the painting, nor a translation of the title of the painting. Was such information important? How could it not be? But even if the title and quotation were not “important,” certainly they would raise an inescapable curiosity.

Why, then, was no translation provided? After all, some works on display in this exhibition did have curatorial cards providing a translation. These were generally smaller works. But the one work that had the most significant linguistic component, the aforementioned “Paul Celan” painting, carried no helpful translation for non-German language viewers, doubtless, the vast majority of viewers at SFMOMA.

Can there be a good reason on the part of the curators and museum staff for failing to provide a translation? Lack of time? Lack of wall space? Lack of space on the curatorial cards? Insufficient knowledge of German on the part of the curatorial staff? None of these seem like good reasons. The curators at SFMOMA might claim that the exhibition was originally organized and curated elsewhere and the fault lay with the original curatorial staff. Perhaps the curatorial materials traveled with the show.

The show was originally organized and curated by Michael Auping, Chief Curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth where the exhibition began, subsequently traveling to the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C, and then to San Francisco. But shouldn’t the SFMOMA staff (and the staffs elsewhere, if the situation was repeated in each place) rectified the problem? They should have noticed this particular deficiency as well as other similar instances in the show where insufficient translation and insufficient curatorial information could leave the great majority of viewers with an unsatisfied curiosity. It should be added that neither the original curator nor subsequent curatorial staffs could claim that the information was available in the show’s catalogue, written by Michael Auping and subsequently published in book form — because it was not. What is involved here (both in terms of the curatorial cards and in terms of the catalogue/book itself) is more than just a question of insufficient translation and information. The deficiencies here constitute a disregard for the viewing audience and a disregard for the desire for knowledge that a viewing audience undoubtedly would have. The curators of this exhibition, as well as the curators at each museum prior, in effect said to their audiences: “Your intellectual curiosity and your will-to-know are things in which we are not interested.”

“The eastern skies are heavy with webs of suffering/your living name [is] autumn’s figment of runes.” It is a rather literal translation of a line from a poem by the poet Paul Celan, the line Kiefer affixed at the top of his aforementioned painting, Autumn’s figment of runes — for Paul Celan. Paul Celan (1920-1969), grew up in a German-language Jewish family in Czernowitz in Bukovina, at the time a province in Romania, and he went on to become one of the great German-language poets of the 20th century. His parents were killed during the Holocaust and after WWII he emigrated to Paris where he held an instructor position in German literature at the Ecole Normale Superieure until his death by suicide ––he leapt from a bridge into the Seine.

The curators needn’t have provided extensive information about Celan relative to Kiefer’s painting or otherwise, but not translating the title and the quotation the painting carried are lapses from the standpoint both of professional vocation and from the standpoint of civic imperative and courtesy. Visitors to the exhibition would also have benefitted from the translation of titles of other works, such as the Hebrew title, “Sefer Hechaloth,” [Seven Palaces, i.e. from the Kabbalistic work] or the German title, “Die Sechste Posaune” [The Sixth Trumpet, i.e. from biblical apocalyptic texts]. Museums are meant to serve the public; curators are meant to serve the public, too.

Yet, alas, this show was not an exception to the norm. Subsequent to the Kiefer show, SFMOMA was the stopping place for a retrospective of works by the American painter Brice Marden. When one entered an exhibition room one could find curatorial cards all bunched together at the entrance of the room. But ascertaining which of the curatorial cards went with which of the works in the particular room at hand was not always easy and sometimes impossible to determine. Now, I am not particularly a partisan of Marden’s work, especially as it concerns the automatic and received monochromes/duochromes which enabled Marden to gain entry to the upper reaches of the regime of visibility. After the black monochrome of the Jules Levy/Alphonse Allais Imposters exhibition in the 1880s (which cannot be reduced, historiosophically or otherwise, to satire alone), the monochrome/duochrome cannot escape becoming the most anemic of all art world ploys and “strategies” and this goes for all its “stars.” Even Rodchenko’s monochromes in 1921 were already historically, historiosophically, and aestheticosophically without function.

Marden’s career-making works could be said to obtain within the skein characteristic of art in the epoch of the hypertrophic saturation of all artistic and aesthetic possible-necessary instantiations and objectifications. His gigantic cursive works of the last several decades, which sell for millions, while preferable by far to his earlier work, are not the equal of Joseph Gorlice’s marvelous and ever vivifying cursive works with their meticulous and wonderfully intricate interlacings and colors, all done, already starting in his teens, on envelopes either front or back or both used for actual correspondence in what surely is a beautiful and enduring practice of the utmost artistic, aesthetic, and intersubjective generosity.

But in relation to the indetermination of the title cards in question, and in order to introduce a moment of humor which nonetheless is not without pertinence, it matters not that the identifying curatorial cards were jumbled together so that work and title found no identifying match. After all, one could shuffle works in the contemporary art regime and simultaneously shuffle commentary and curatorial materials relative to the works in question and no one would notice the difference. Or along just these lines one could take the year-end list of “best” and “worst” shows from this or that art-world publication and invert best to worst while leaving the commentary in place so that “best” now described “worst” and vice-versa, and, again, no one would notice the difference. But all this for another day.

Today the salient point is, again, that museums and curators are meant to serve the public. It is not unfair to say that the requirements of their vocation should include affixing translations and posting title cards in an efficacious manner. Savoir faire? It is an art we should all hope to know or learn and, above all, practice, and art museums and curators, doubtless, too. Of course, in many ways they do know it, and in some instances, quite well, but in this instance, sadly not.

 

Header image: Anselm Kiefer, Des herbstest Runengespinst–fur Paul Celan. [Autumn’s figment of runes–for Paul Celan]

Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset — and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins — is also a philosopher and poet.

 

Leave a Reply