Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Marcia and Me

by bonnieKate

“In Spite of my father’s plans for me, I wanted to be an artist. The fact that it never came easily to me was beside the point. […]There was no such thing as time when I was working. My family problems disappeared, my loneliness evaporated, self-consciousness flew out the window. I felt light, energetic, and just, well, there.”

– Curator, Marcia Tucker,
on childhood experiences of making art.

The Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA

I’ve always loved art. Looking at images, touching materials, thinking about what I was observing. I grew up visiting the grand halls of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor art museum, thumbing through books on Monet, and annoying my parents with the number of nail holes I put in my bedroom walls - as I installed a range of pictures and objects (Richie Tenenbaum style.) But I never quite got the hang of the classical art disciplines of drawing, painting, and sculpting. I eventually gave up any hopes of being that kind of artist and turned to the camera. But it was only a matter of time before the tools of photography too left me a bit unsatisfied.

Margot Tenenbaum. 10" x 13" pencil, ink, and acrylic on paper.
Buy the original on Etsy.

Then I was exposed to my first piece of installation art , a room designed by a professor of art history at my college. Suddenly, my understanding of the space an artist may occupy changed forever. I found myself moving from the cold camera lens to a much more involved and immersed practice. The aforementioned exhibit included a centerpiece fountain, stained glass windows lit by candles, floors covered with cow dung. Together it created a kind of muggy, stench-ridden chapel. While chants played low, there was a sense of longing for restoration. I had never seen anything like it, and I thought it was brilliant.

As time went on, I began to feel more and more at home inside the white walls of the gallery . Volunteering as a docent, I learned about each show as I spoke to the artists, and helped to install their work. It wasn’t only the walls that opened up a new world to me. The gallery housed a stage for one to perform on, contained airspace for sound, and was a laboratory for smells and other senses. Under the direction of another professor I began to consider the role of the curator, and eventually accepted a post-baccalaureate fellowship to curate a space in New York City for one year.

In light of my own trajectory which took me from wanting to create my own artwork to organizing, advertising, and advocating for the work of other artists, it is surprising that it took me so long to become familiar with Marcia Tucker—one of the most influential curators in recent art history—whose life in retrospect could have been an inspiration for my (still early) career.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY

Ms. Tucker was not simply a great curator, but a visionary of the museum world. She was a revolutionary for approaching the variables of contemporary art, and a forerunner for female leadership in the museum community. In 1969, she became the first woman to be hired as a curator by the Whitney Museum of American Art and eight years later in 1977, she founded the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Her approach was radical because she kept an open mind to absolutely anything the artist brought to her attention, embracing the avant garde, which had not been fully accepted in such a way in her time. Her career was full of challenges, which varied from the typical artists making last minute demands before opening night - to trying to find new ways to diffuse the sexism that existed within every level of staff in the sixties and early seventies, from art handlers to board members. But she rose above it, and became one of the most pronounced voices in the museum world.

The New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY

My first exposure to Marcia came through her essay, “Become a Great Curator in Six Simple Steps” in the book Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art, which featured pieces from over 60 essayist on the practice of curating. I received the collection as a gift from a friend on the opening night of my fourth curatorial exhibit, and browsed through her essay with the same passive naiveté as all the others. After all, each one basically affirmed the things I was learning first hand (or so my pride would have me think). She writes:

Live humble. […]Enjoy the trip without needing to know your destination. […]Put the artist first. […]Don’t forget who you’re talking to. […]Remember to ask yourself what you’re doing and why on a regular basis. […]Put your work in a larger context. If exhibitions of contemporary art don’t stress the relevance of art to other fields of endeavor, modes of inquiry, and ways of being in the world, including the ordinary, if art is seen only in the context of other art, or art history and the formal language of art, what value does it really have?

Much more recently, I was on a reading-rampage, hunting down any literature on “Art” that my local bookstore was vending. The only condition was that it must have been published within the last 5 years—I was tired of fading, albeit poignant, voices of the 1970s. (Weren’t there any truths revealed in the last thirty-some years?) One of the several titles I grabbed from the shelves was A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World, Maria Tucker’s autobiography. The chapters are arranged by dates, and they recount Marcia Tucker’s life, beginning with stories of her childhood, and following her through her 40 years as an art professional. The final pages of the book which would recount Marcia’ death were penned by Liza Lou, an artist and friend of Marcia’s (Lou had work included in the recent exhibit “Skin Fruit” at the New Museum).

Installation view of Skin Fruit, and Liza Lou's "Supa-Sista"

The title of the book implies that, in Marcia’s opinion, 40 years was only a short amount of time for her to rabel-rouse, and challenge the thinking of the public regarding art, and social issues. Also, that making “trouble” for the viewer was something that should continue long after her passing.

Nancy Grossman, Laurie Munn, Peter Bardazzi, Marcia Tucker, Jean-Marie Haessle.
Larry Williams, Katherine Sokolnikoff

Reading A Short Life of Trouble on the F train day after day, I fell head-over-high-heels in love with Marcia Tucker. She is now my curatorial godmother. Reading her first-person accounts of her accomplishments in her career, and even failures in making art as a child, I felt a connection with her. This empathy made pressing through the final pages of her life terribly difficult. I didn’t want this romance to end. I related to her gusto for life and her variety of interests. Both of us artists and administrators, I also discovered that she was a Brooklyn native, and (eerily) died on the same year, even the same month, that I moved into my first Brooklyn apartment, a fact that made the experience all the more haunting.

As one who currently feels societal pressure not to dilute the “brand identity” which I began making for myself only within the last ten years, it was encouraging for me to learn how diverse Marcia’s pursuits and interests actually were. She reminded me how wonderful it is to pursue what you love, be well rounded, and have multiple identities. Marcia was a signer, a feminist, a comedian (pictured here is her character, "Miss Mannerist") in addition to being a curator and director.

Another thing I enjoyed about getting to know Marcia was the manner in which she became so accomplished. She was not pampered as a child in a Park Avenue apartment, but rather raised in Brooklyn and New Jersey in middle-class 1950’s sub-urbanity. She didn’t accomplish her goals with a trust fund, but rather struggled in the typical artist’s modus operandi in Lower East Side squalor. She applied herself diligently, seized opportunities, and made friends without expecting any particular gain. Whether she was unknowingly chatting with Marcel Duchamp (renowned Dadaist) about her love life, or having lunch with benefactress Blanche Risa Sussman, she never tried to be anyone else. Nothing came on a silver platter, and yet she still accomplished much, and held onto joy, which is why so many people were drawn to her. And because of her hard work, she helped make New York the city it is today.

Cary Leibowitz, Marcia Tucker Puffy Print ( seat cushion) 2007

As I mentioned, I picked up this book because I desperately wanted to read something on the art world that was recently published - thinking it would be more contemporary, yet I found myself wading through the 60s and 70s yet again! Even so - the book was a most pleasant surprise. Not only did it renew my awe for the women of Tucker’s generation, but in lieu of the academic, and progressive writing which I was expecting, I found raw human experiences and emotions instead.

Just to give one example; the pinnacle of Tucker’s humanity was probably expressed most poignantly in her first-person account of giving birth to her daughter Ruby. For me to imagine this older woman - so educated, eloquent, prolific, and independant - finding herself at a loss for words other than “Baby! Baby! Baby!” moved me deeply. It was as though this small being was the greatest, most mysterious and creative work of art that she had ever encountered. This vignette shared the essence of her character. It showed how Marcia made room in her life for passion and optimism against odds that would stifle such notions, and that was what truly set her apart.

Marcia Tucker

At last, I put down this book with a sigh, wishing I could have lunch with Marcia and chat about the new iPhone ap “Is it art?” and sharing the same joie de vivre that she experienced with her mentors and friends along the way. Marcia paved the way to think more abstractly within the construct of the Museum and she a woman who wanted to be a woman, and yet do things a woman had never done. She challenged people to look hard at things not previously understood, even perhaps things that she was still attempting to understand. She pushed the boundaries and she succeeded which is why her legacy lives on not only in how she transformed art but also in how she continues to inspire others to do the same.

Friday, June 18, 2010

pt 2 - from Exhibit "Portrait of Success as a young Failure" curated by bonniekate

Essay by Laurel Dailey
Los Angeles is full of wanderers.

And it's no wonder, when the latent threat of the apocalypse shimmers and vibrates off the skyline, sending smoke signals of impending doom into the smoggy ether. Who would put down roots in a city whose own infrastructure can only penetrate so far as our rickety aqueducts will allow?
When I drive through the intersection where Santa Monica and Wilshire meet, it's as though I am vacillating between the great Once-Was and the Never-Again. Here, time has nearly halted and the maudlin, scotch-tinted brutality of the 60's will always be preserved. It's so soft around the edges, this mentality: at once blandly optimistic and acutely paranoid.

What exists here hovers invisibly over the manicured landscape like remnants of a nuclear fallout: Idealism about the future and its sterile, sparkling possibilities buttressed by the quiet terror that the best of times have long since detonated. What remains are the toxic permutations of change that implode and turn in on themselves with precise regularity.

We are the scattered multitudes, the Transient Generation, bumbling mawkishly through the fleeting zeitgeist of our twenties. Ours is a life spent navigating the pitfalls of a new kind of notoriety. Eyes downcast, we splay our lives onto the internet, acting as the liaison between our private self and our public self.

In the efforts to establish roots amidst a transitory world at odds with itself, we’ve chosen to plant our proverbial white picket fence on the internet. Beneath the looping festoon of upspeak and shorthand, banal anecdotes mingle with personal confessions, begetting an eternal adolescence no less callow or miserably powerless than the diary entries we burned along with our youthful vulnerability way back in ‘95.

The online personas of our age are rendered indistinguishable by the symbiotic partnership between unsolicited honesty and shrewd guardedness. Success and failure are only relative to the amount of bandwidth we assign to them. The fickle nature of celebrity and the public persona are reminders that it all looks the same when written in HTML.

In this brave new world of profound sameness, all things are disproportionately brighter, louder, faster--until all else fades and even manic screams and shouts are merely muffled threads in the aural and visual fabric of our age. Each and every event is chronicled with the same marketing strategy, the same deafening roar, the same zing-bam! immediacy of the one preceding it. Our history has lacked depth since the Gulf War, and now our personal narratives have flatlined as well. We are free to choose from a vending machine of smartly packaged events, able to build with the spare change of the information age the precise historical meal that fits into our flimsy diet.

If the generation before us was a generation of slackers, we are a generation of snackers.

Today I find myself in Los Angeles, braided into the endless plait of taillights. There is a lull in the start-stop pattern of traffic, the pace now humming along at a yawny 50 mph. It is dusk. Cars hemorrhage into the asphalt, and buildings melt into the ground. To the west, the sun’s giant bloody iris drips onto the skyline, its poisonous red glare softening a bit around the edges enough for me to see regret in its face. Here, away from the internet, where success and failure are at war with one another--and not unlikely bedfellows--I hear the sun say

This is the last sunset in the loving arms of the apocalypse and instead of an explosion, I gathered my strength and heaved a giant sigh.

pictured installation of:

“Artificial Tanning in the Glow of 21st Century Wanderlust“ 2006
Color Print
16 x 24

“Nice, France” 2002
Digital C Print

pt 1 - from Exhibit "Portrait of Success as a young Failure" curated by bonniekate

Essay by Justin Rigamonti

The obsolete definition of success is “outcome” – curiously replaced by our current connotation: “the achievement of wealth or fame.” These days if you are successful, you are kicking the world’s ass and getting noticed for it. To be successful means to be making heads turn, to be pulling in fistfuls of cash. Etymologically speaking this is unfortunate, since success derives from “succeed”, as in the succession of events –

one thing following after another. To have a success in this sense would be to have events follow one another in the way you hoped they would, resulting in an end situation or product which you intended, expected, hoped for.
Are you looking to be the next hot shit? I suggest hollywood. If you are looking to know what it means to be human in an organic and changing world, to begin to understand this time we have been given of talking, building, and eating, all leading up to death… make art.


The problem with success as we now define it is that it misdirects the mind away from what matters. If you are trying to be successful, in the tricked-out twentyfirst century sense, you are going to lose. Meaning what?
Look – if you are trying to achieve notoriety and the wealth that follows in its footsteps (which I think is a fair assessment of today’s definition of success), you are going to begin to realize that there are certain things you can make, certain ways of acting, that will achieve this. Madonna dressed up like a prostitute and sang like a siren and made a millions dollars doing it, and ever since we’ve had a series of young girls doing the same thing. It’s called mannerism. A celebrity will do some new bootyshaking and get America’s attention, or an artist will produce a piece of art that is recognized as compelling or beautiful and will be lauded for it, and soon every capital-savy shmoe will be making their own little rip-off versions, be bootyshaking in the same exact way. Why? Because it works. It makes a success, in the contemporary sense.
And if you are thinking that you want to achieve this fame and fortune, I’ll pretty much guarantee you that little copycat habits are going to start infiltrating your work – you’ll put the daub of paint like so, because you know that’s how they are doing it these days and people are eating it up.
Bowing to the machine just to be successful will make you forget about your craft – you’ll forget about making art. You’ll forget that making art is a thing that has to do with you, the people around you, ideas, and being alive in the world.


Desire for success betrays bad motivations. You might argue that you mean success in the classic sense – that you want to make art because you love making art, and you want to make lots of art that is satisfying to you and those around you. But rarely will you hear someone describe what they mean by desire for success without adding “But I think its okay to want a little fame and fortune.”
Yes, it’s okay to be motivated by greed, but insofar as you are wanting fame and fortune you are not wanting to make art. Even if you are telling yourself that you just want to get enough notoriety to feel good, and enough wealth to live comfortably, you have begun to use art-making itself as a tool for your success. In that sense, art-making isn’t the end product anymore – success is. Are we all so damn blind that we’ve swallowed this vain materialistic dream of renown and wealth, of comfort and peace through money and fame, and given up entirely the goodnessess of art-making: making it for its beauty, making it for its ability to communicate ideas, making it for its profound impact on our lives and the lives of those around us?


Those who want success in the fame-n-fortune sense should take a moment to reckon with death. We are going to die. All the praise and petting we desire so much out of fear - all the power and wealth we desire, because we want so much that kind of security- all of it will be gone.
Write or paint to be successful, try to be successful in above sense in the arts, and you lose in three ways:
1. You forget about death, and therefore the goodness of life before it – and the best thing it consists of: that is love.
2. You lose yourself - to be successful, you must aim your rhetoric always toward some target, and in as much as you do this, you are aiming it away from an honest growth and expression of the person God has made you to be.
3. You’re art itself gets put on a back burner.
I agree that one could say a symptom of "success" is “going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”, but this implies that success is something, that it is a happiness that is not attached to the product: either praise or perception on others part, but not on the goodness of the work, the excitement of it. Life. If you are bouncing through the failures this way, guess what – you are likely not thinking about them. You are likely thinking about your art, your craft, the thing you do.
Success is hunger's vain dream: a dream of freedom from fear. We will always be hungry until we have "learned the secret to being content in all things". Which is what?
That we do not have to be afraid. That God has made us, flesh and bone, and loves us. That we can love him, and love those around us. That we can open ourselves slowly, over this life, to one another and to him, and to ourselves, to show the beauty of what he has made.
Success is freedom from success.

“Conversation 2” 2006

Monday, June 7, 2010

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters - Deconstructionist Christians

Dani Scoville recently posed some interesting questions in her post on her blog regarding Deconstructionist Christian thought. She states the following concerns...

1.) We are not reconstructing anything in place of what we've deconstructed, we only tear down and critique, but then we do not take action steps or initiate something in it's place.
Agreed! I think we need to be flooding conversation with ideas of re-constructing our faith and it's application, or as N.T. Wright might say "ushering in Order".

2.) We stop seeking holiness, because we align piety with Christian culture. Suddenly, everything becomes fair game. And it's not like we look much different from our American culture already pre-deconstruction, but we sure continue to blend in when we do not even consider boundaries, whether it be with time priorities, relationships, drugs, binge drinking, spending, etc. This isn't a plea for legalism, because legalism is the easy way out. I'm not trying to set rules, but I am saying that just because we are deconstructing Christian culture does NOT mean we are allowed to deconstruct the bible. We should be deconstructing our interpretations of the bible and our actions from those interpretations. We should be constantly asking Jesus if what we are doing is what he desires for us. If anything, we should just focus on Jesus, and all those other items will fall in line behind him.
2) Regarding "blending into culture" I would say (as a broad statement) is an ok thing. We need to feel and respond to things that are actually going on in our broader culture. I don't see this as quite such a red flag because although we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) I think this should result in humility and virtue and not oddity. By dissolving the veil between us and the rest of culture we have the possibility of returning to the idea of being known primarily by our LOVE and not our faux-otherness.

In Matthew 13 Jesus shares a parable on wheat growing up with "tares" which are poisonous weeds that look just like wheat when they are young and then mature into something quite different. It is only at the time of the "harvest" that the reapers can properly distinguish and separate those who produce fruit and those who poison. Until that time all are mingled together in God's field - which is the whole world. The only possibility of being brought in with the good wheat is to produce good fruit as we grow up in the midst of Tares.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Body Art I: An argument for the Christian Community to embrace the "medium" of God's image.

In a grueling marathon of a performance given by artist Marina Abramovic over the last month at the MOMA the artist sat across from any voluntary viewer daring to look her squarely in the face. Jerry Saltz explains the viewers experience in his NY Magazine review, In the end, it was all about you, [] ..."A few wear wacky costumes; some cry; others stay all day, causing no end of complaining in line." Which caused me to question the human gaze, once again, as I often do, be it on the subway or walking across Fashion avenue, a regular route.

There is something powerful about our humanity, made alive by the breath of God. Looking into another person's eyes, and being seen (as James Cameron might remind us) is something we long for - to gain a sense of belonging, acceptance, sometimes approval. I found Abramovic's performance "The Artist Is Present" to be incredibly poignant within my "world view" because she offered something that we should be offering to people as Christians as a commonplace display of observing the worth of others who are made in the image of God. To gaze on others - anyone who comes across our path - to acknowledge their humanity without judgment, but only in love and affirming their ontological worth.

Perhaps Marina didn't anticipate all that to come out of her sitting in one place, fasting and abstaining from reliving herself for many museum viewing hours in a row, but she put it out there for interpretation and I think it is good for us to think about how the body is used and displayed in public as well as how it has power to move us on a verity of levels.

I acknowledge that the cannon of performance art has been riddled with works that cause us to squirm a bit. (I just recently watched a DVD of the notorious "Vagina Monologues" expecting to be totally turned-off, but that is a conversation for another time. Sufficed to say that it was actually a moving and lovely experience for me as a woman.) Two perfect examples for THIS conversation were also cited in Jerry's review... First Pawel Althamer's reenactment of A (not necessarily The) crucifixion (currently at the NEW Museum down town), and other works of Marina's being performed by nude surrogates in other parts of the MOMA's exhibit. However, I would love to see more performative work that invoke a sense of the divine nature of the body, causing us to be moved in awe by our humanity that reminds of of our creator.

On a similar note - last night I went to a musical performance by Andrew Rose Gregory and his Red Band who performed, for the first time, a selection from his Song of Solomon project. Andrew attempted to stay true to the obscure romance found in the old testament poetry through mixed meter, attempting not to turn it into pop music, rather exemplifying the wooing passion of the texts.

As a fellow artist, Zach Klein, once said to me "God is not afraid of sexual imagery". What does it actually look like and sound like to celebrate our bodies in a Godly way? To acknowledge the physicality of a person, and to praise it's beauty and specialness? I am not completely sure. I think that this is one of those areas in which there should be some restraint but not out of prudish shock but out of awe and amazement and reverence!

As I have said many times - experiencing art is a voluntary thing. I choose to look at many things in order to be better discerning, but I do not think we all need to view or indulge in the same way. I only hope that you will consider how God made you, physical, psychological, emotive... Sometimes I think that though we have no fear of death, we feel the need to fear life - as if we could do something to mess up God's grace!? Perhaps it will sound like a stretch to some, however I truly believe that ALL is permissible, and we should be living boldly and victorious - not afraid of "worldliness" - including that which pertains to our earthly bodies.

"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[m] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."