Connie Butler joined the Hammer Museum as Chief Curator in 2013 where she oversees the Hammer’s curatorial department—developing and organizing exhibitions and building the Hammer Contemporary Collection. Since that time, she co-curated the Hammer’s critically acclaimed biennial exhibition, Made in L.A. 2014, and recently opened Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth.
Previously Ms. Butler was The Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings at The Museum of Modern Art (2006-2013), where she co-curated the first major Lygia Clark retrospective in North America. Additionally she co-organized the exhibitions Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone 1955-1972 (2011) and On Line: Drawing through the Twentieth Century at MoMA (2010), and co-curated the survey Greater New York (2010) at MoMA PS1. She is the co-editor of Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, a groundbreaking examination of works by modern and contemporary women artists in MOMA’s collection.
From 1996–2006 she served as curator at MOCA where she organized the internationally acclaimed exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007). Among other projects, Ms. Butler is currently working on an a retrospective of Italian artist Marisa Merz which will open at the Hammer in 2017.
Interviewed by Angela Fraleigh
>> BC: You are listening to Yale Radio, WYBC. This is Brainard Carey with The Art World Demystified.
>> AF: Hello, my name is Angela Fraleigh. I'm here today talking with Connie Butler, Chief Curator of the Hammer Museum of Art at the University of California, Los Angeles. Welcome. Thank you for being with us today.
>> CB: Thank you. I'm happy to do it.
>> AF: Let me just start by asking you what your personal path was into this field? What drew you to the arts in the first place?
>> CB: Well, I always ‑‑ I find that one of the things I always say is that being a curator at a certain point was a choice not to make art, but rather to be as close to the process of making art and facilitate the making of art and somehow enable that and support that in all kinds of ways. And so I guess I made a choice early on somewhere late in college years, when I was a dancer and choreographer and very involved in that. And that sort of has always been my kind of road not taken, I suppose. I made a choice, in fact, not to do that, kind of not to be a producing artist, but to go with my major, which was art history at the time, and instead really decided that I wanted to work with living artists and contemporary art and be as close to that and engaged with that as I could be, which initially was, you know, being willing to work as a security guard in a museum or whatever, anything to kind of be close to it.
And I then got an internship, still in college, at the Museum of Contemporary Art here, where I worked on the first exhibitions that opened what was then called The Temporary Contemporary. It is now the Geffen Contemporary. But I was sort of the liaison between the curators and the artists. So I worked with Michael Heizer, and Maria Nordman, and Robert [Inaudible], and all kinds of artists that they were showing, and did everything from, you know, get coffee and dry cleaning and whatever else, to paint the floors of the museum, to have more substantive ways of, you know, writing text, giving tours.
It was a young museum at the time, and so I was really exposed to kind of all aspects of it and just knew that that's what I wanted to do. And I was an art history major in college and sort of came to that late after experimenting with all different kinds of art making. But then it was really a choice, yeah, not to make art but to stay very close to it.
>> AF: So you did do studio practice, and at some point you thought you would maybe become an artist?
>> CB: I did. Yeah, I was involved in dance and choreography and was really devoted to that and loved it. But I guess I didn't love it enough, you know? And I think at the back of my mind was also just the very, very difficult life of dance. I kind of new that, because I had been performing sort of on the road at different venues and kind of was exposed to somewhat of what that life would have been. And for me at the time I just think I didn't want it badly enough. But I did ‑‑ I do think that my experience with studio practice, you know, studio art, with choreography, I was also a pianist for many years, all of those experiences, I think, really informed how I am as a curator. And I think it's essential actually to being a good ‑‑ well, it's not essential, I guess. Lots of my colleagues don't have it. But I think it's really enriched how I am as a curator.
>> AF: What specifically? What parts of the practice, any of the ones that you've mentioned, you know, dance or studio practice?
>> CB: You know, it's not so much in the specifics of like I know how to make a drawing or something, or I know how to make a dance. But I ‑‑ or I did at one time. But more in terms of I feel like I really understand and still value and have such huge respect for what it means to be in the studio. And that can be a studio of a painter, or a studio of a dancer, or a mover, performer, but I really get the ‑‑ the time of that process, the difficulty of it. You know, I think of those artists, women artists in particular at the end of the 1960s, artists like Eva Hesse, who writes about what it means to be in the studio, and from, you know, her time at Yale when she just understands that sitting in the studio doing nothing is actually the work of an artist, and that that's work, and what the labor of the studio is. So those things I feel really kind of deeply. I feel them deeply, but I also feel deeply grateful that I kind of understand them.
>> AF: And so do you see parallels in the curatorial research and kind of intellectual kind of pursuit that you engage with on a regular basis? I mean do you sit in the office and do nothing sometimes to have those kinds of ideas gestate or come to fruition?
>> CB: I would like to sit in the office and do nothing. But I ‑‑ yeah, I think particularly more and more for me, particularly since writing is a very important part of my practice as a curator, and it's something that is maybe at the core of what I do, in addition to dealing with objects and artists, that the ‑‑ I mean, yes, the times that are most fruitful for me as a writer and as a thinker, as a curator, are those times when you actually are just letting your brain wander. Whether it's wander through different source material and reading, and even as a way of warming up to writing or getting into writing, I find that that nothing time is hugely important.
And, of course, you know, in the culture we're in, it's the thing that's the most rare, and the more and more rare. And I'm very interested in that, and time, and how time figures into the curatorial practice as well.
>> AF: And I imagine there is multiple responsibilities that you're juggling at all times, beyond just the kind of ideation and putting those things into practice. So how do you navigate or balance ‑‑ I imagine there's just a creative process. I can see how they're very parallel in lots of ways. But there's the creative process of kind of coming up with an exhibition idea and then implementing it. Let's circle back, though, real quick. So you said right after school you were working as a security guard? Is that where you ‑‑
>> CB: No, I never did do that. But I do remember going to an opening, this is probably when I was in junior high school or something, going to an opening at a gallery here in Los Angeles, in La Cienega, and walking up to one of the security guards and saying how did you get this job, I want to do this, just because I wanted to be near it. But, no, I didn't ever work as a security guard.
But when I was in college, art history major, I did have an internship at the Museum of Contemporary Art here, and then from then on just kind of began to ‑‑ as soon as I graduated, I started working there.
>> AF: What was your first job there?
>> CB: I was a secretary, and a really bad one. I was a secretary then to one of the curators actually, a woman named Elizabeth Smith, who is now in New York with the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, but I was her secretary. I was shared I think between two curators. It was a very small staff then. And I worked on those exhibitions, and again was kind of a liaison with the artists that they were working with. And it was just a fabulous experience. And I then at a certain point realized I needed graduate experience, and so I went back to graduate school at Berkeley and then kind of just went from there to the different jobs that I have had.
>> AF: Can you just go through those jobs really quickly? Like what led you?
>> CB: Sure. Yeah, yeah. So after graduate school for my first official curatorial job, I followed Julia Brown Turell. She was then Turell. She had been the Chief Curator at MoCA in Los Angeles, and then she went to be the Director of the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. So I went to be the curator at the Des Moines Art Center.
>> AF: And she knew you, or you had known her from working together?
>> CB: Yes. We had worked together here. And she knew I was finishing school, and she just sort of gave me a leg up, because it was a huge open door to ‑‑ it's an extraordinary museum with a great history, great collection, one of these wonderful, venerable Midwestern institutions. So I just moved to Des Moines, Iowa, at 24 years old. And it was crazy on a social level. I mean it was just weird. And I hated it. But, it was ‑‑ by that I mean I really didn't like the Midwest very much. It didn't suit me at that time. And they did not know what to do with a 24‑year‑old single woman at all. They just thought I was weird and crazy. And, yeah, so I took that job for a few years.
But it was an amazing place to make exhibitions and to work on a collection. We worked with extraordinary artists. We did public projects in a park there with Richard Serra, made shows with Lewis Baltz, and Wolfgang Lieb, and Elizabeth Murray, all kinds of wonderful artists. And this was in the mid 1980s.
So that's where I sort of got my feet wet, and then from there took a job in New York, kind of thinking at that time that I had to do a little time in New York and wanting to. I took a job as curator of Artists Space, which was then in Tribeca. And that was fantastic, because it was a way to be in the New York art world, be really in the center of it, but be off to the side somehow, a little bit out of main ‑‑ the intensity of say the bigger institutions and the commercial gallery world. And so I landed there in 1989.
And immediately that institution went into a period of controversy with the National Endowment for the Arts over an exhibition that was organized by Nan Goldin, and involved David Wojnarovicz, and funding that was taken away. It was this very conservative moment. And that was amazing as an experience, because it really politicized me in a way that I never had been before. Sort of being a child of the '80s and the Reagan years and so on, I just didn't ‑‑ I had protested Reagan maybe once, but I never ‑‑ it really politicized me, and that was terrific, and changed me deeply, that experience.
So I went from there to being ‑‑ I was going to go to the Whitney program and instead got a job at the Neuberger Museum in West Chester as Curator of Contemporary Art. And one of the things I've always thought I did well by accident was to choose very different kinds of institutions to work at, so from Artists Space to a university art museum, which the Neuberger was, is. And that was wonderful and allowed me to stay in New York City. I lived in Brooklyn and commuted to West Chester and did great shows, I think, and really began there to do ‑‑ I mean at Artists Space I did all my own ‑‑ of course did my exhibitions also. But, anyway, yeah, sort of went from there.
>> AF: How did you find artists when you were working at Artists Space as compared to working in the museum setting? Did artists apply? It was a nonprofit? It's a nonprofit?
>> CB: Yeah, it's a nonprofit, non‑collecting space, whose really primary audience is the art community, which was amazing. And I loved, you know, making exhibitions for artists, which is what I still think I do.
Yes, people did apply, but rarely did we ‑‑ I guess rarely did an exhibition happen just out of someone applying cold. There was a wonderful resource called The Artists File I think it was called at the time, where anyone could submit their materials. And we did once a year go through that Artists File and make actually a group exhibition from that. And that was great. But it was ‑‑ what was great about it was that I really got in the habit of making many studio visits. Just every week I would make ten or eleven studio visits, just in an ongoing way. So to be able to do a sort of deep dive into the New York world of artists at that time, which was very big, but much smaller than it is now.
>> AF: Was this early '90s?
>> CB: Early '90s. So this is early '90s. That was fantastic. And to also mount an exhibition every six weeks, which is more like a gallery schedule, was amazing, because you don't have time to overthink it. There's a huge potential for failure, which is what those spaces are about and should be about, I think. Although they are a little bit less maybe about that now. But it was amazing, just the amount of material that I went through and that was really ‑‑ it was just a huge education, and in some ways the best job I've ever had. It was wonderful.
>> AF: How were you finding the artists that you were doing those ten studio visits a week with? Was it just from worth of mouth? Other artists recommending them? Or did you have a network that you were ‑‑
>> CB: I didn't really have a network, because I came to New York from the Midwest essentially. I sort of came out of left field. So it was mostly recommendations. It was that artist's file. Artists Space had a lot of artists on its board at that time; Cindy Sherman, Nancy Dwyer, Alfredo Jarr. They would suggest people. And that was great. And, you know, once you get on a roll with it, I don't know, somehow there's no shortage of people, you know, recommendations really, I guess. And also galleries, you know, the galleries served a different function I think than they do now.
You know, it was possible to kind of find this whole level of people who were not being served by the galleries at all, the commercial galleries. Now they do show a lot of emerging artists and there is much more of a ‑‑ less of a gap, I guess, between the commercial world and the museums. But at the time I was really kind of working in this area of people who were just under that level. And it was really exciting.
And also there was White Columns. Bill Arning was a curator there for years. I'm trying to think of who my other colleagues were, great colleagues at the New Museum, which was then in Soho. It was a whole network of people. And I would go to all those shows of, you know, Thread Waxing Space, which was on Broadway. You know, it was a really exciting time, exciting time.
>> AF: I want to shift focus, because you talked a little bit about the politicizing of your curatorial trajectory. And I guess I'd like to just kind of ‑‑ I mean clearly WACK! was ‑‑ I'd like to talk about gender. And WACK! was this groundbreaking survey of feminist art that in my mind helped reveal a lot of invisible histories from an incredibly tumultuous yet potent era of art making.
Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted to do that show, why then, and what were some of the road blocks that you kind of experienced along the way? I mean it's been years now.
>> CB: It has. It's kind of amazing. I mean what's been so interesting is to see the success and the legacy of that exhibition, which opened in 2007, so almost ten years ago, I guess not quite, which is completely still surprising to me, that I'm amazed at the impact that it's had. Because at the time, you know, I started working on it, I was a curator, I moved back from New York from the Neuberger Museum to be a curator at MoCA here, where I was for ten years, from about '96 to about 2006.
So when I started thinking about it in the late 1990s, it came from a number of places, both personal and also just in the culture I guess. On a personal level, I literally was thinking, when I went to MoCA and went to Los Angeles, I somehow knew ‑‑ well, that museum at the time had a history of doing important sort of chapter exhibitions, taking on these major fanatics in art history, or time periods, and really trying to summarize them, do a really deep scholarly look at some of these things.
So I was thinking, okay, what could be ‑‑ what could I do? Also it was a bit of a like what am I going to do by the time I'm 40. I swear, I really thought ‑‑ I was ambitious and somehow on this track. And I thought by the time I'm 40, I'm going to do a major, huge, great, giant blockbuster of an exhibition. And I had this idea that feminist art could be that thing, which at the time, this is maybe 1998 or 9, people said that ‑‑ literally one person ‑‑ somebody said career suicide, like really you should think twice about doing this thing, because that will be it. If you hang your hat with all these women, that's it.
And, you know, I'm a product of women's education. I went to a women's high school, a women's college. I didn't ‑‑ something in me just knew that that was not going to be career suicide. And I really thought ‑‑ I also knew that the only way to make it work was to actually make it a blockbuster, make it so undeniably powerful, scholarly, beautiful, and also just huge, that there would be just no denying it. I mean I really felt like it had to be a steamroller.
And it was. It was probably too big. It was unwieldy. When it opened in Los Angeles, it was like an explosion, it was so big. And you couldn't get through it. There was too much video. Like no one could possibly watch all the video that was in it. But it had the effect of ‑‑ you also just couldn't ignore it. And so that worked in some way.
And also actually Helen Molesworth said at the time ‑‑ she came to the opening, because we're old friends. And she said to me, at the time she said that she was overwhelmed by the feeling of ‑‑ by the sense of the humanity of these women, of dealing ‑‑ because, you know, the women that I was looking at in the show at the point in their careers that they were at, they were very young artists, very many of them, in their late 20s and early 30s. So the feeling of the humanity of these women, dealing with their relationships, dealing with their lovers, and their ex husbands, and their children, and what to do, and the politics, and the Vietnam War, I mean it was incredibly raw. So that was part of its power as well.
You know, culturally, the timing of these things is something I've never quite understood, but I've always had a really good instinct about. I certainly have done shows where the timing was wrong and they just fell on deaf ears and no one cared. But in the case of WACK!, you know, it was ‑‑ well, it was the Clinton years, you know, and I guess coming of age in the early 1990s, I mean what I've always said about that show is that part of the recuperation of that material came from the other women artists of my generation who were looking at it, you know, Beverly Semmes, and Janine Antoni, and Aki Fujiyoshi, and I mean I could just go on, and Andrea Zittel. All of these women were looking back at that period, and none of us had actually seen anything in person, because it wasn't in the museums. It wasn't possible to see it. So another thing that happened when the show opened was all of us had the reaction of like, there you are seeing that Joan Semmel painting of the Turkish bath in person for the first time. And it was amazing. It was just ‑‑ it's hard to understand even today, just eight or ten years later, because now so much of that material is in circulation. But something in the climate of the art world was ready for it. And I do think it was partly because of this generation coming out of the '90s wanted to see it. We wanted to see it. And so that made the timing right.
>> AF: Have you experienced any negative repercussions from that exhibition at all? Have you any backlash, experienced backlash or anything like that? I mean I'm a professor, so I work with these young people on a regular basis. And I was just talking to someone yesterday about five years ago every single female in my class said adamantly that she was not a feminist. Very clear.
>> CB: Only five years ago.
>> AF: Yeah. But now there are a number of women who are embracing it, 18‑ to 20‑year‑old set.
>> CB: So interesting.
>> AF: So I wonder if this is part of what's helped kind of cultivate that new approach to thinking about women and their role.
>> CB: Well, I think partly in the culture, the F word, the feminist label, the feminist word and language, has become more okay, right, I mean when you have like Beyoncé calling herself a feminist.
>> AF: And then doing a pole dance.
>> CB: Exactly. I mean it's certainly not unproblematic. It's broad. But I think that probably makes it more okay for your students than you or I doing anything about it, you know?
And I don't know what ‑‑ yeah, I don't really know what to account for that shift. I mean I do think that the generation prior to the ones that are your students are much more conservative, right, the ones who are now in their late 20s. I find that in the teaching that I've done that there was a moment, I don't know what you call those people. They're not quite millennials. I don't know what they are. But they are more conservative in every way. But I do hear, and I do as I lecture and teach ‑‑ it does seem like there's a younger generation coming up, and they see Pussy Riot, and they see these groups of women or single practitioners and authors who kind of cross over into popular culture and into the political realm in these very, very powerful ways. And, you know, even Hollywood, I don't know, who are those people, you know, Julia Roberts being in those movies where she is like a feminist art historian, or Maggie Gyllenhaal. There are some pretty powerful voices out there now, and that has to be giving them permission, I think.
>> AF: Yeah, maybe the viral nature of social media is giving them license as well. They kind of jump bandwagons.
>> CB: Yeah, completely. I mean I do find ‑‑ in a great way. I think a lot of them don't have any idea what it means, and they certainly don't have any idea of the history that led up to it. And once they go back and see how kind of gnarly and radical it is, I don't know how they feel about it.
>> AF: What do you think are some of the ‑‑ I mean I don't know if you saw the latest issue of ARTnews, but it's fully dedicated to women. And the statistics are grim. About 20 percent, maybe less than 20 percent of all art galleries in the country are by women, or exhibitions representing women. Museums are worse, et cetera, et cetera. What do we do? How do we change it? Who has the power? Do collectors have power? Do curators have power? Do the artists have the power? What do we need to do? How do we solve this patriarchal ‑‑ go.
>> CB: Right. I always wish I had a better ‑‑ I could be more articulate about this answer, because I never am. I mean just this morning someone was asking me about the Guerrilla Girls and whether or not they were still around, and still relevant, and what not. And I do think that one of the strategies that they used, that that ARTnews article written by Moira Reilly, who is my colleague and friend, which sort of adds up all the statistics, I still think there is a huge value to that. Just seeing those statistics, even to those of us who feel like there's been great change and inroads made, those statistics are really sobering. And certainly I mean do collectors make a difference? Yes. I mean I think that the economy, it ‑‑ you know, on some level, so much of it, the economy of it, there's such power in that. And so one thing when I was Chief Curator at the Museum of Modern Art, which is a big, old, conservative institution, and so often I would think to myself that the patronage, if we can fundamentally change the patronage, and little by little, because that's the only way it happens, I really believe, little by little to change the collecting patterns of these great patrons, these people who are the ones after all who build those collections, in part. If we can begin to change those collecting patterns, then we can begin to change the market. And the demand for what they want, and the prices, and all of that, will follow. And that's really hard, nearly impossible work. And it's impossibly slow.
When I was at MoMA, we started something called the Modern Women's Project. And that was actually started, initiated, by a philanthropist, who is also an artist. I think that's important. Her name is Sarah Peter. She came to the Museum of Modern Art with the idea of doing something for women, very broadly. She didn't really know what it would be, but she was willing to support something. And the initiatives that were talked about ranged from healthcare ‑‑ or rather child care for museum employees, to exhibitions, to acquisitions. And in the end we produced a big book that was about the women artists in the collection.
But I think maybe the most important thing that her initiative started was an acquisitions committee to buy work by women artists. And I know from trying to get people to join that committee that it's very hard. It somehow ‑‑ and I applaud all the women and men who are on that committee, because to put their money behind an initiative that just supports that somehow takes great courage and it's the hardest, at least at the time I felt, it was the hardest money to raise, especially to support purchases from what I think of as this entry level, entry‑to‑the‑market level and timeframe, which is like women of the '70s feminist generation, work made from around 1968 to '78 say, the early '80s.
That work is still undervalued. The entry level price is around $250,000 for something major, which in the market is nothing, and should be nothing. And yet it somehow was so difficult to get those purchases made. I mean with that committee that's finally what we did start to chip away at. But I've watched after the WACK! show a lot of those women ‑‑ and other exhibitions, a lot of those women reenter the market. And it's just fascinating to me. They enter at a completely different level than their male colleagues, even than their under‑known male colleagues. So I think the economy of it is what has to be addressed first.
And that said, any of us with any power at all in these institutions, I mean the other place where there's great power is in the real estate. That's what I always used to say at MoMA. You have to at a very basic and kind of primitive level, you have to say, okay, are there as many women on our exhibition schedule as men. No. Okay, we've got to do something about that. Are there as many big shows on the 6th floor of the Museum of Modern Art or on the main spaces at the Hammer Museum? Is there as much space devoted in an ongoing way to the work of women artists?
And I would add also artists of color. Because I don't just think it's about the women. I think it's about a kind of overall diversity that is lacking in these big institutions. And you have to just internalize it, and think about it, and work at it all the time. I mean it's a ‑‑ I sometimes feel like it's generational. I think, oh, my generation just does that. We've internalized that. But, no, not everybody does. And you have to. You have to.
>> AF: So what do you think are some of the most important themes of thinking happening in current contemporary, like the most cutting edge contemporary work right now? You have a reputation for finding, championing, celebrating artists who kind of sit the margins to a certain degree, who are not always the art market darlings. Where do you find those artists, and what are you thinking ‑‑ what are the narratives that are kind of emerging or engaging to you? That's kind of a big question, but what are you thinking about right now I guess is my question?
>> CB: Yeah, I mean I finally, after lo these many years, finally I guess embraced or been able to admit that that is actually absolutely where I want to be and work and where my comfort zone is and what I'm interested in. That said, it's not the only kind of artist I work with. But certainly, you know, over time, those are the kind of artists that I am drawn to. And I think in some ways that's what led me to the Hammer Museum and to this position, because this museum has made really one of its mandates to look at art history in a different way, and to try to look at those figures who are sometimes considered to be on the margins.
>> AF: Well, it's interesting too, because with WACK! you took something that's so complex and diverse, I mean, yes, there is like a core idea at the center of all of those kinds of satellite conceptual motivations, right? And I think that the way that you curated that exhibition really echoed or represented and mirrored that experience of trying to compartmentalize something you can't compartmentalize. That's kind of the problem with art history to a certain extent. And so I think it's the curator's burden to try to kind of make sense of these moving targets.
>> CB: Yeah. One of the things I'm really interested in is looking at ‑‑ I mean I like to work both historically and I like to work with emerging artists. And that seems like a kind of obvious thing, perhaps, at first glance, but I actually think in the field, and one of my colleagues sort of identified that and said that to me at some point, I never thought about it, but it's true, there are a handful of us that do that in the world.
And I find it to be such an interesting way to work, because what it enables you to do is look at history through the lens of the contemporary. And I think that that for me is how history becomes alive, is ‑‑ and what makes a historical show like I was talking about with the WACK! artists, you know, seeing it through the eyes of a subsequent generation who are looking at that material and engaging it and even reenacting ‑‑ enacting it in some way, not reenacting, but enacting, and enlivening it.
As an example, one of the shows I'm working on right now is with the Italian artist Marisa Merz, who is the long‑time wife of Mario Merz, her husband, and much more famous husband, who is no longer alive, who was an Arte Povera artist from the 1960s. And she's 87 or 8 years old and still working and going strong and just kind of this amazing person who, once her husband died, never looked up and is producing ‑‑ still producing incredible work.
She was the only woman artist in the Arte Povera moment, the only woman who showed in any of those exhibitions in the late '60s and early '70s, almost the only one. But what has brought her back into focus for me is really thinking about why does work like that look so fresh at this time? I had known about her work for years. And then I saw it at the Venice Biennale a couple of years ago where she won the Golden Lion, you know, this award that they give. But she had an extraordinary installation also at this place called the Piazza Stampalia, which is a museum of decorative arts, where her work was installed through the museum, where her work was the very contemporary work with these other decorative objects from, you know, 17th, 18th, 19th Century. And the work looked so extraordinarily fresh.
And I was talking earlier today to the painter Richard Aldrich about this, because I've asked him to write something for the catalog, in part to speak to this, you know, why is this work contemporary now? And he was talking about that there's something in certain artists that he's drawn to, and I share this, artists like Marisa, where there is utterly a lack of irony. There's nothing that mediates the work and its relationship to the world. She isn't looking at any text. She's not looking at history in any kind of articulated way. There is something almost naive or, you know, one can pick up a kind of outsider, the practice of outsider artists or something, that there is something on the verge there of being like an outsider artist, I guess. And I think it has to do with the lack of a mediating thing, of a mediating language, that her language is utterly her own. It's completely eccentric. Her relationship to materials is very rich and passionate and almost like a child or something.
So I think that's actually why her work is interesting to a younger generation. I mean Rich was talking about how 95 percent of the work out there is absolutely terrible. And artists ‑‑ his students that he comes in contact with, and I totally relate to this, these young students who are in their studio who are so worried about how to make, how to act, how to be an artist, that they're absolutely constipated and frozen. They can't even ‑‑ they can't produce. They can't do anything.
So looking at a practice like this, where she almost comes into her own by the time she's about 80, and is completely free, and I think ‑‑ I think this show will also I hope reevaluate how we even look at Arte Povera. Because when you go back to that historical moment, in fact what she was doing related to a lot of her male peers, but is completely different. It has aspects of the domestic, and there are things about maternity, and knitting, and weaving, and all of these things that come from a completely different place than those of the male artist.
>> AF: Does she talk about it that way?
>> CB: No. She does not talk about it. She doesn't talk about it in any particular way, which is also just fascinating to me. She lives in a kind of world of her head. And almost ‑‑ almost isolation. I mean she's 88; she doesn't go out so much. But she's an extraordinary ‑‑ she's like from the moon in the best way, you know? But so that's an example of I guess, you know, I am interested in how a career like that can suddenly come into focus and why does it come into focus at a particular moment? And that's one kind of work that I'm interested in.
On the other hand, I have a show that is opening very soon with Mark Bradford, who is not an emerging artist, but he is actually of my generation, but someone who I've known for many years, and actually have had some of the most important discussions to me about painting over the years, as well as feminism, and queerness, and all kinds of other things that Mark thinks about.
But his show will be a show of new paintings, but also a new audio work which comes out of his thinking about Los Angeles, and growing up here, and coming of age as a gay man in the queer community here, in the drag community here, in the early 1980s, the early years of AIDS, and specifically of an Eddie Murphy concert that he went to, where Eddie Murphy, who was also very young at the time, kind of came out as this incredibly homophobic, or at least language, very homophobic language, and Mark thinking about how when certain hateful language, hateful speech, becomes public and therefore validates a certain way of thinking about women, you know, gayness, queerness, and the body.
So the sound piece will be extraordinary. And I hope the two parts of the show will sort of knit back together the two parts of Mark's practice. So that's been a great experience for me, is to try to, in that case, kind of bring a little bit the part of Mark that has been kind of sidelined by the success of his paintings, the commercial success of his paintings.
So those are some things I'm working on now. And I've worked on here a biennial of Los Angeles art last year. So that gave me a chance to kind of still be in the studios of much younger artists, and that was really exciting. And I love that combination.
>> AF: You mentioned something about having the most important conversations about painting with Mark Bradford. Can you talk a little bit about what those were? What were some of the points that were most engaging for you? What's important about painting right now?
>> CB: That's a different question. I mean with Mark I think it was a discussion about abstraction, and content within abstraction, and how ‑‑ because there is really rich content in Mark's painting. But his choice to deploy mostly a language of abstraction is a very particular one. And that's mostly I mean what he and I have talked about over years I guess, as well as feminism and how his own work and his own painting has been impacted by feminism, and coming for him studying at CalArts and the history or legacy of the feminist art program there.
But what's happening in painting? You know, I'm a person who ‑‑ I love painting, but I'm really strict with painting somehow. There is very little of it that I actually really, really engage with. Because I think there's a lot of terrible painting. I mean there's plenty of terrible other things too. But, you know, I thought the Sigmar Polke show a year or so ago at MoMA was extraordinary, partly because what we learned about Sigmar Polke is that being a painter was one thing that he was among many. And I think that often the most interesting painting practices are that.
There's a young artist here in Los Angeles named Math Bass who I currently am thinking about. I just saw a big exhibition of her work at MoMA PS1. And while not working with abstraction, I mean she does work with images. It's a kind of interesting ‑‑ she works with almost a sort of archive of these very generic, schematic images that are drawn from both personal imagery, but also like the Internet and different places, and sort of recombining them in a way that almost seems by rote or sort of mechanically generated. But in fact the paintings are ‑‑ it's this great kind of new form of pop or something, it seems to me, that's quite interesting.
I'm also really passionate about people like Mary Heilmann, who I just think is one of our greatest painters. Lari Pittman is a wonderful artist who I'm working with in a few years, a long time Los Angeles artist, and great, great American painter. I think he's making some of the most complex political, social and extraordinarily painted things of anybody working today. They're gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. And the way that they have a kind of synthetic ‑‑ or the way that they synthesize different languages of art making, you know, the references that come from both himself as a person who comes from Latin American culture in part, from his experiences living a lot in Mexico, from his years in Los Angeles, but then also from his own issues as a very political person. I just think they're amazing paintings.
>> AF: I'd agree. Just one last question. How much of your practice is kind of intuitive in terms of following your nose with what's important to you, when it's important to you, and how much of it is a really kind of calculated strategy? Because I mean you do carry this real burden I think as a ‑‑ like you're creating history to a certain extent. You're deciding what's to come to a certain extent. What you deem important becomes important, right? So how do you carry that weight, first of all, and then how do you ‑‑ maybe a question like that can't even be brought into your mind when you're working, but yeah, what do you do with that? That's a tough one; I'm sorry.
>> CB: No, it's a great question. I don't think about it very often, not in any kind of ‑‑ not with any intentionality about not thinking about it. I just don't think about it very often, also because I think that ‑‑ I guess I think in a very nonhierarchical way. And I think history is really porous. And I don't really think I'm making history any more than the person who operates a tiny space on the east side of Los Angeles is making history or whatever. I really genuinely kind of don't.
That said, I do understand that I do have a platform of power. And certainly when I was at a place like the Museum of Modern Art, I was really very aware of it there, partly because of what that collection represents, which is, A, history, a particular history of modernism that happens to have some of the greatest artists of our time in it, as well as many, many artists who are not in it who are also really wonderful.
So I felt that ‑‑ I felt a certain obligation I guess there to really sort of aggressively or at least in a public and kind of articulated way to carry that torch. I mean working on an artist like Lygia Clark and making her retrospective there, which came really out of my work on the WACK! show, for me in thinking about who are the women artists out of that exhibition who deserved and needed the full treatment of the big retrospective so we could all really look at the work and think about it. And she is the most important artist in Brazil post war, I think, bar none, male or female, to my way of thinking.
So she is canonical. In Brazil she's canonical. And yet in the context of MoMA, at the time we started working on the show, she was nearly unknown. So I thought ‑‑ I felt it was really an important gesture for me and my colleague Luis Pérez‑Oramas, who is the Curator of Latin American Art there, to make that gesture. That was a kind of intervention in a way. And, again, when we first started talking about it, and even in things like talking to the publisher there about the book and how big should the book be, and how many copies do we order, and all of the diminished expectations that come with women artists. And the book sold out within a week. And now everyone kind of, I guess, knows about her. But, anyway, I felt a real ‑‑ I guess more an ongoing or something I did think about in a very active way there. And because of the Modern Women's Project, I mean I was constantly aware of sort of pushing up against this extraordinary institution, you know. And I think if you're a curator there, you have a kind of ‑‑ to me, the most interesting way to work there is to have that relationship with it. Because you can't ‑‑ you know, that said, you walk through the galleries and there are all those Matisses. And it's just the most extraordinary place.
But here what's kind of funny is now to be in a context at the Hammer Museum where, you know, if I said I wanted to do a show of, I don't know who, Jeff Koons, you know, we just wouldn't do it. Like you just don't do that here. That's not what we do.
So my idea, what was not canonical at MoMA now is working in LA where, again, the relationship to history is very different and I find quite liberating here.
So I guess that's how ‑‑ I'm always thinking about history. I'm always thinking about history actually. I'm always thinking about what's our position in relationship to it. I'm really thinking now about the history of the White Gallery at UCLA, and what does it mean that the Hammer Museum is 25 years old, and how can we represent the history of Los Angeles, which still is underrepresented in places like the Museum of Modern Art, when in fact it is the place for artistic production in the country right now. I would argue more than New York. Not by numbers, but in terms of a sort of energy and critical mass that's here.
So, yeah, I don't know if that answers the question.
>> AF: Yeah, it does. Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it.
>> CB: Thank you, very much.
>> BC: You are listening to Yale Radio, WYBC. This is Brainard Carey with The Art World Demystified.