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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! Interesting and insightful.