5 questions (and then some) with Helen Molesworth

Wow, I loved sitting down with this woman. What a gift to have 20 minutes in conversation with someone changing the landscape of art history. Take a listen or read below and let me know what you think. 

Helen Molesworth is the Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. From 2010-2014 she was the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston, where she assembled one person exhibitions of artists Steve Locke, Catherine Opie, Josiah McElheny, and Amy Sillman, and group exhibitions such as Dance/Draw and This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.

As head of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museum, she presented an exhibition of photographs by Moyra Davey and ACT UP NY: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis 1987-1993. From 2002 to 2007 she was the Chief Curator of Exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts where she organized the first US retrospectives of Louise Lawler and Luc Tuymans, as well as Part Object Part Sculpture, which examined the influence of Marcel Duchamp’s erotic objects. While Curator of Contemporary Art at The Baltimore Museum of Art from 2000-2002, she arranged Work Ethic, which traced the problem of artistic labor in post-1960s art.

She is the author of numerous catalogue essays and her writing has appeared in publications such as Artforum, Art Journal, Documents, and October. The recipient of the 2011 Bard Center for Curatorial Studies Award for Curatorial Excellence, she is currently at work on an exhibition on Black Mountain College and a monographic survey of the work of Kerry James Marshall.


   Helen Molesworth, interviewed by Angela Fraleigh


>> BC:  You're listening to Yale radio, WYBC.  This is Brainard Carey with The Art World Demystified.

>> AF:  My name is Angela Fraleigh.  We're talking today with Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  Thank you so much for being with us today. 

>> HM:  Thank you for having me.

>> AF :  So I like to start these interviews by asking how you found yourself in this field.  You know, what drew you to it in the first place and how did you get where you are?

>> HM:  I ask myself that often as well.  I think like many people who find themselves working in art and culture and ideas, you know, I had ‑‑ I was very lucky.  I grew up in New York City.  I grew up with parents who took me to museums and to cultural events.

I grew up, in other words, with a sense that the public cultural institutions in a city belonged to me.  I don't know how our public school teachers were able to convey that idea to us, but somehow they did.  And I remain actually quite grateful to them in that regard.

I always liked museums.  Even as a kid I liked being in them.  As an adolescent, I often cut school and went to the museum instead.  I read a book I think that a lot of people read of my generation as children of the ‑‑ and I never remember the name, which is an odd Freudian kind of moment ‑‑ called the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Something‑something.  But it's a children's novel or young adult fiction about two kids who decide to run away from their parents and hide in the Metropolitan and spend the night in the museum, evading the guards and doing things that you're not allowed to do, you know, like sleeping in the bed in the period rooms and stuff. 

And that, in some odd way, I mean obviously I didn't know any of this at the time that all those childhood and young adult experiences were happening for me.  But certainly in retrospect I came to see the museum ‑‑ one rule that the museum has is that it is a kind of place where people and ideas hide out from the culture.  You know, it's a bit of a blind, where you can both see the outside world and engage with contemporary ideas and culture, but you're also a little protected from some of the stuff out there that's hard.  And there's a lot out there that's hard, as we know.

Then, of course, I went to school and read a lot of theory and a lot of history about the museum and art and artists that led me to have very different feelings about the museum.  I saw the museum as a place that needed to be challenged, that needed to be open, that was too elitist, too esoteric, too bound up in the past.  So I have the ‑‑ you know, then I developed an adult's relationship to the institution of the museum.  And I think now in middle age, I'm 49, I try to ‑‑ I'm aware that I have these two contradictory impulses in me about the museum.  It's a mausoleum that needs to be ‑‑ just like if I can light a match, let it go, and I feel desperately protective of them as institutions and spaces for the things that they make possible.

>> AF :  That actually leads right into a question that I was going to ask you.  Because I think curatorial practice in a number of ways is a political gesture.  How do you balance that desire to want to expose or reveal dormant narratives that exist without marginalizing further on the one hand some of these narratives that have been left out of history?

>> HM:  Right.

>> AF :  How do you do that?

>> HM:  It's a really interesting question, because I just finished a week ago reinstalling about 10,000, 12,000 square feet of gallery space dedicated to MOCA's permanent collection.  And one of the things I did I think is very typical of people of my generation; you know, tried to use it as an opportunity to show the result of the last twenty to thirty years of scholarship, in which the canon has been opened up, in which art narratives about what happens to post World War II art has, in fact, change demonstrably from the way it was taught to me, which was very much triumph of the New York school, and New York steals the art world. 

AbEx is the beginning.  Now many of us see AbEx as a closure, as actually more connected to Europe and European ideas than to contemporary American ideas, that the bar for contemporary keeps getting moved up, you know.  We moved it to Warhol.  I think the generation underneath me has moved it to 1989, which is a really interesting way of thinking about it. 

But one of the ‑‑ we have ‑‑ MOCA has extraordinary holdings in Rauschenberg, Kline, Rothko.  One could easily do rooms here, a staggering depth of these big, famous, white male names.  But I don't work like that, right?  So my political gestures are like how many women can I get the room, how many people of color can I get the room, how many people who aren't American can I get in the room, how many works on paper, how many nontraditional ‑‑ can I hang Helen Levitt photographs next to a Jackson Pollack?  How can I make all of those little gestures? 

And one of our older trustees said, why aren't you leading with your strength?  Why didn't you put out all the great stuff?  Why didn't you do that?  And I realize that it's true.  We say it isn't true.  We say what we're doing is adding, and we're creating multiple perspectives.  But, in fact, when you get right down to it, if you're going to break open the canon, some of the old favorites aren't going to make it back in right away.

There's only so much room.  And so five or seven Rauschenbergs did get displaced so an Emerson Wolfer and a Ruth Asawa could go on the wall.  And that's real, and that's true, and that's hard for a lot of folks, you know, me included.  Nobody loves a room of Rauschenberg more than me. 

But if you want to tell new and different stories, then those old stories do ‑‑ they've got to shrink a little bit.  It's not perpetual growth.  So changing the canon has effects.  They're real.

>> AF :  How has the response been?  Do you find a public who is really willing to engage with these new ‑‑

>> HM:  I have no idea; it opened a week ago.  Yeah.  It could be a massive failure.  I have no idea.  And there's another half of it coming in a month.  So I really don't know.  I'm very much in process thinking about it for myself.

I mean, yeah, I really can't answer that.

>> AF :  Right, okay.  We'll find out.  I'll call you in a couple months.

So one of the questions I'm most curious about, I had a conversation with Connie Butler yesterday, and Susanne Vielmetter, and the question is who has the power in the art world, and how can we shift things so that it can be a more comprehensive experience where we get to hear all these voices without losing rigor.  And they both suggested that diversifying the collecting patterns of the institutions and also just educating collectors or diversifying collectors in general.

>> HM:  Right.

>> AF :  And that makes sense, right?  Where the money is makes a big difference.  Do you see any other ways to kind of puncture holes in the system?  Clearly you are engaged in a very powerful way.

>> HM:  Yeah.  I mean, I think, yes, you have to ‑‑ I mean I think the ballast of the shift in museums is the collection.  And when I first entered, I went through the academy, thought I was going to be an academic, started teaching and discovered that I did not enjoy the classroom as a site.  I liked museums.

And when I got my first sort of big full‑time museum job, my first big curatorial job, I was amazed by what I realized were two canons.  There was a museum canon, and there was an academic canon.  So in the academic canon, you talk about Vito Aconci, and Chris Burden, and Mierle Ukeles till the cows came home.  I got into the museum, none of that material was in the collection. 

What we talked about in the [inaudible] since, you know, now, you know, 15 years ago, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, you know.  And I remember thinking when I first got my museum job, God, I can't even imagine who would write a dissertation on Brice Marden.  Who would do that, right?

That's not where ‑‑ they might be nice, they might be even interesting to use Judd's form of aesthetic criteria.  But they couldn't sustain 300 pages of scholarly analysis.  So what ‑‑ so I just became really aware that the only way to change the museum narrative is to change the collection.  And I just started slow and steady.  You just have to buy different kinds of things for the collection.  Then perhaps the trustees and collectors around you are buying.  Because that's how the story gets really rich and complicated.

You mentioned Connie Butler.  I sent Connie an e‑mail last week saying so many of the things that you bought over the years when you were at MOCA make the galleries downstairs so much more interesting, right?  Because she bought Alina Szapocznikow.  She bought Tanaka.  She bought Lee Lozano.  And so there they are.  And they can get up now.  You know, we can put Senga Nengudi on the wall.  We can put Valie Export up on the wall.  But that's a new ‑‑ that's only really within the last 15 years that people ‑‑ that a group of curators have been consistently just like chipping away at what gets put in those collections.

>> AF :  Now, do you run up ‑‑ because it has to be approved by the board.  Who chooses who is on the board?  I know that's kind of maybe a silly question, but how does that get decided?

>> HM:  Well, board members nominate who is the board.  Directors and chief development officers are always looking for interesting people who have the means and the psychological and intellectual capacity to serve on a board.  Serving on a board is a lot of work.  So it's not just money.  I mean you really have to have people who are civically minded, interested in the public sphere, interested in not‑for‑profit management.  It's a whole complicated thing.  But, yeah, and then you educate your board, and your board educates you.

One of the cool things about ‑‑ I've learned so much in the last 15 years from board members.  They work in the for‑profit sector in very powerful and effective ways.  There was much to learn from them.

>> AF :  In terms of business and how ‑‑

>> HM:  Yeah, in terms of business, in terms about how do you have an idea and implement that idea.  If you think structurally, if someone has built a business up from scratch, that person probably has really interesting capacity to think about systems and analysis and structure.  And there might be things to be learned from those structural things into a museum and vice versa.  There are values that the museum is invested in and promotes that board members can learn from.

So I actually see it as a kind of interesting two‑way street sometimes.

>> AF :  So you began your curatorial work when, in the '80s, ' 90s?

>> HM:  God, no.  I would say ‑‑ I mean there's two ways of answering that question.  You know, as a very young person, I went to the Whitney ISP program in curatorial studies.  So I organized my first museum show at the age of 22 in 1989.  But then I ‑‑ I mean I bumped around in graduate school in the New York art world throughout the '90s.

>> AF :  Can you describe that time a little bit for you?  Like who were you hanging around with?  What was it like?

>> HM:  It was great.  I was hanging around with ‑‑ well, my Whitney ISP life turned into making Documents, which is a small magazine that I made with a group of friends, Chris Hoover, who was distributing independent film and video, Margaret Sundell, who is now I think at Creative Time in The Drawing Center, Miwon Kwon, who is at UCLA, and Jim Markovitz, who became a lawyer, left the art world.  And I was really good friends with Mark Dion, and Jason Simon, and Moyra Davey at that point in my life.  I was going to ACT UP demonstrations.  I was going to Colin de Land and Pat Hearn's openings.  You know, that was ‑‑

>> AF :  Were you writing about art?  Were you ever kind of doing criticism, playing that role?

>> HM:  I started writing criticism when I was in ‑‑ well, I mean I was writing criticism in Documents, but I started writing criticism for a commercial publication.  I started writing criticism for Frieze in the mid '90s.  And I wrote reviews of exhibitions and articles on artists.  And that I did when I was in graduate school, because I really needed ‑‑ I needed a different outlet for thinking and writing than my academic outlet. 

I always have had a very diverse practice, I suppose.  I'm not sure that's a word I really like anymore.  But I've always approached my work in a diverse way.  So at the height of my academic training I was writing for an art magazine, because I could write it quickly and there was a deadline, there was a word count, and the whole impetus around what it could do and what kind of access it had was very different than the very solitary labor of writing a dissertation.

>> AF :  What do you think of contemporary criticism today?  That's a broad question.

>> HM:  It is a broad question.  I think that there are some interesting ideas out there.  And I'm very aware that I'm at a point in my own life where there is a generation, you know, of people in their late 20s and early 30s who think very differently than I do.  And I'm incredibly interested in how they approach material, even though I don't often agree.  Because one gets formed, and then it's hard to stay actually ‑‑ I'm open to their ideas, although they don't persuade me that often.  And I fear that that is in fact the definition of old age.

My biggest sadness around contemporary criticism is that very few people know how to write well anymore.  And I mean ‑‑ I don't even mean the people who write jargon, I just mean grammatically correct sentences that cohere into paragraphs that are formed in the service of an idea.

The world has changed.  And a certain quality of writing has been lost.  And it makes me sad.

>> AF :  And through that thinking or ‑‑

>> HM:  Well, I do ‑‑

>> AF :  ‑‑ the rigor of the thought process?

>> HM:  Yes, I do think that ‑‑ yes, I do think that.  Although I am ‑‑ I try not to say that too much, because there is a moment I have of ambivalence around that, that it may be that the form of argumentation that I was taught, and I mean the form of argumentation I was taught from elementary school, where you made an outline, that outline was linear, you diagrammed sentences, there were topic sentences, there was who, what, where, when and why.  That was a report.  You know, that was ‑‑ there was real structure. 

And of course a lot of people aren't taught like that anymore.  People don't ‑‑ like there are new modes of teaching.  And there is this Internet and computer.  And very few people edit pen on paper anymore.  You edit in that horrible Track Changes program, which I use now, but I loathe to this day, because I actually think it ‑‑ it erases and manipulates and it is not as clear who is saying what on page.

And I think ‑‑

>> AF :  It waters things down in a way, you mean?

>> HM:  I don't know if it waters things down, but it resists a certain kind of linearity.  And I don't think linear thought needs to be hierarchical, needs to be limiting.  You can make an argument about nonlinearity using linear thinking.

>> AF :  Do you ‑‑ just to switch tracks a little bit, do you still do studio visits now?

>> HM:  Oh, yeah, sure, of course.

>> AF :  And I imagine you've been in the studios of a lot of LA artists?

>> HM:  I try to.

>> AF :  And you are from New York?

>> HM:  I am.

>> AF :  I guess I'm just curious what you're seeing as some of the more interesting emerging veins of thought happening in those spaces, or what you're most compelled by right now.

>> HM:  Well, it's hard to speak in generalizations about Los Angeles, because it's a city of ten million people.  And it is a city that's geographically really interesting, because it's a city of pockets.

Most people here have much bigger studios than they have in New York.  And because they have bigger studios, their studio life is actually really different, whether they're a very highly productive gallery artist making a ton of work with a lot of people in the studio, or it's someone who is combining a live/work space in a very kind of California inside/outside, live/work lifestyle studio.

>> AF :  Sounds dreamy.

>> HM:  Almost every studio visit you do here, the artist has like a bowl of nuts, a thing of coffee.  There's a hospitality around the studio visit here that I see as very domestic.  It's very generous.  There's a big premium on a certain kind ‑‑ having a certain kind of conversation in the studio.  People are more isolated here, just due to the nature of the way this city functions. You drive from studio to studio.  So the visit is a visit, and it's really beautiful and can often lead to like just fantastically expansive conversations.

>> AF :  But in terms of conceptual ‑‑

>> HM:  The art sale business.  

>> AF :  Yeah.

>> HM:  And you know what, when I'm in New York I'm all business too.  And in New York, I'm a New Yorker.  I'm like, this is great, like what have you got, let me see it, that's interesting, okay, you know, do you have a car service.  I've got [inaudible].  It's really different.

>> AF :  And what about the veins of thought, the conceptual motivations happening currently that you're most intrigued by?

>> HM:  Well, I'm super interested in all these painters who are trying to figure out like screen culture and the relationship between screen culture and this other six hundred year old technology of oil painting.  That is happening on both coasts, so I think that's happening in a lot of places.

I mean I'm interested in what Manny Farber would call termite art.  I'm interested in people who are willing to go down a rabbit hole, a kind of idiosyncratic rabbit hole of their own making.  That's what interests me.

>> AF :  Who are some of the artists that you think of when you say termite art? 

>> HM:  Moyra Davey.  Moyra Davey is a termite artist.  Who are some of the others?  Sadie Benning is a termite artist for me.  I just did a great ‑‑ I just had a really nice studio visit with Nicole Eisenman.  I don't know if she's a termite artist.  I think she's more like a ‑‑ I guess a brilliant satirist.  Lari Pittman is a termite artist.  Lari Pittman is a fantastic termite artist.  He'd make those paintings no matter who came, no matter where they showed.  Like it's his work to do, you know?  Yeah.

>> AF :  Yeah.  Wonderful.  Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about that we haven't covered?

>> HM:  No.  No, this is great.

>> AF :  Thank you so much for being with us.

>> HM:  Thank you.

>> AF :  I really appreciate it.  It was wonderful.

>> HM:  It's flattering that you would like to listen to me talk.

>> BC :  You're listening to Yale Radio, WYBC.  This is Brainard Carey with The Art World Demystified.