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Art Letter (8/26/10)

On the job just a month, Michael Darling is the new Head Curator of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. Chosen by Director Madeleine Grynsztejn, Darling's appointment confirms the museum's shifted direction since Grynsztejn's arrival. What used to be a "We'll bring art to the Hinterlands attitude," has bloomed into a "We respect what's going on here; let's have a dialog" mentality. Look for it as you read the interview.

Paul Klein Let's start with the basics. What is a curator?

Michael Darling I think it's somebody that is, in a way, a filter for the public. It's somebody that's out there, looking at art constantly, seeing art from all periods, all areas, and is hopefully sifting through it, looking for the most exciting, most relevant material, and then bringing that to the public - usually in the form of a museum, or a gallery or, I suppose more and more, online in some way. But I think it would be that - almost an "editor" of all this material out there in the world.

PK I was sitting with Madeleine Grynsztejn when your hiring was announced to the world. We'd been walking around Art Chicago and she was getting email after email, congratulating her on how brilliant you are. So I have two questions here, and you can try to be humble: What is it that makes you so special?

MD Well, it is extremely humbling to know that she was getting all these emails and that people were...

PK Not only from this continent - I mean, everywhere! There must have been 60 of them in about 10 minutes. It was very impressive.

MD I really try, (like I said about a curator being an editor), to really get out there and see as much stuff as I can. I try to not be very political about that. I really try to be open-minded and not just follow what the art world's telling me I need to follow and, hopefully, look in areas that are under-recognized/under-developed in one way or another, really looking just for good art. So, maybe because I don't tend to play too much politics, I have fewer enemies - I try to be very direct. That's one thing I learned from being a critic, where your opinions are out there in the world and you have to stand by them. I try to do that as a curator, too, and be straightforward with people. And if that's not your cup of tea, you just got to say it because otherwise it's just going to prolong the pain of stringing someone along.

PK It seems like the obviously simple thing to do.

MD I think so, too. It's hard, though.

PK That is probably what makes you special because so many curators don't.

MD It's difficult, yes. And it's difficult to do it because it does require facing up to somebody and standing behind your opinions.

PK Why do you think you were picked by Madeleine?

MD I think we got along very well throughout the whole interview process. I think she recognized that I could be a good partner for her and a sounding board for ideas, and that I wasn't looking to usurp her role as director. But I was looking for a great director to work under, too, as a partner. So, I think we both recognized that there was a symbiosis there that could really take place.

PK Do you expect significant respect for your opinions?

MD Yes, which she has absolutely given me. But I also am really looking for her to test out my ideas, too, because every single thing I think of is not necessarily going to be great. So, she's a good reality check for me, and vice versa. So I think we've already developed a really good rapport - that way of bouncing ideas off each other and not being afraid to make difficult decisions when they are right for the MCA and right for Chicago.

PK There are a lot of curators, I think, who are frustrated artists, or present themselves as "artists" (drop the "frustrated" part), and see curation as their art form. I find that pretty annoying. Instead, I think that curators are servants, just as a critic is a servant. We are not there (as curator or as critic) to tell somebody how to think; we're there to give them possibilities and give them more ways to see, and more experiences that will enrich them, but I don't think we should be dictating what that experience is. Are you in agreement with that?

MD Yes. I think so. Another analogy may be that a curator is a bridge between the public and the artist, and sometimes you can help put the artist's ideas into words that might be more accessible, or easier to understand; to put them in a context...

PK Some curators do that, and...they put words in the artist's mouth that the artist is uncomfortable with.

MD Yes.

PK You know, especially in group shows, where they're forcing relationships. I accept that artists may not necessarily comprehend everything that their work is about, but I hope they're in touch with the significant core issues. And if a curator goes against those, I think that's a disservice. And you agree.

MD Yes. Although I would say that group shows can be a really good test of the staying power of an artwork. Because if it can contribute to what's under discussion in a group show, but then wriggle out of that and talk about all kinds of other things (or be capable to talk about all these other things), that's a really good test of its multi-valence - that it can do all these things. Because if you can explain away an artwork with one exhibition concept, that artwork's got some trouble, and it's not going to be around for long. So, I like the fact that group shows can often put some boundaries around something, and then allow the artwork to continue to emanate all kind of other meanings.

PK Here's another seemingly easy question: What is good art?

MD I'm a really visual person. I can go in for things that are purely intellectually stimulating on the one hand, but, I think that oftentimes that does alienate the public, and my job is to get people excited about contemporary art. So I think it's got to have some real visual appeal and pizzazz. It's got to know what tradition it's coming out of and how it's contributing to that tradition, pushing it forward. That's something I really look for when I'm doing studio visits - to get a sense if people really know what they're doing. If they're picking up a paintbrush and slathering paint on a canvas, do they know why they're using canvas? Do they know why they're using red paint? Why they're using that size of brush? There's a level of awareness that's required, and I don't really give people much slack about that. I think they really need to know what the heck they're doing.

PK If somebody says, "Your work looks a little bit like Gerhard Richter", they're not supposed to go, "Who?"

MD Yes.

PK I want to try and figure out how you got to be you. Where were you raised?

MD Long Beach, California.

PK And you went to high school there?

MD Yes.

PK And then you went to Stanford undergrad?

MD Yes.

PK And you stayed there for graduate school?

MD No. Before I graduated from Stanford, I had done museum internships during the summer (particularly in Long Beach, California at the Long Beach Museum of Art, where I grew up), and there I discovered this job of being an art museum curator and really got excited by it.

I didn't know that this job existed until I was in college and I was studying art history, and then I interned at the Long Beach Museum of Art, and then realized, "Okay, if I want to do this I've got to go out and at least get a master's degree." My mentor there said, "You've got to look, look, look, look all the time." And that still is my mantra to anybody and myself.

PK Do you have an aesthetic?

MD I think my tastes are quite catholic and I'm kind of just looking for good art, no matter if it's super minimalist, if it's super expressionistic, if it's super gory and physical and bodily. I'm looking for rigorous, good stuff in each of those categories.

PK Do you think of the art you've acquired in your home there are examples of most of those? Or do you narrow them all, narrow your thoughts?

MD Yes, that might be the litmus test, right? Typically everything I have in my house are by artist friends and so it's more personal, less about kind of assembling something that says anything about my tastes. It's more about those friendships that I've developed.

PK Who is art for? Is it for everybody, or just the 10%?

MD I think it needs to hold out the potential that it's for everybody, but there's only a small percentage (I've never figured out what that percentage is) that's willing to make the effort to seek it out, or has been given access to it in one way or another - whether they've been turned onto it at school, or a friend takes them to see it, or they stumble into a museum accidentally, or a gallery for that matter, or stumbled into an artist's studio. I think it holds out the potential to be universal, but it's an unfulfilled potential. I really do have a problem with art that is too hermetic.

PK I have a sense of what Madeleine Grynsztejn's vision is. Can you verbalize that and then implant yourself into it and tell me how that influences your curating?

MD One thing that we really wanted to do here is make the MCA as open and relevant and essential to the life of Chicagoans in particular as possible, and I think one way of doing that, which we've talked about a lot, is sifting through all of the art that's being made out there and really letting people know that if they come to the MCA, they're going to see something that's different and new and is contributing to the artistic dialogue in one way or another. Hopefully in a major way.

It's trying to kind of build that reliability - that you can always find the MCA as a resource for the city. But then, also - thinking more nationally and internationally - that the MCA's built a reputation of doing that same kind of rigorous editing over and over again so that we become a place that really stands for integrity, really stands for innovation and taking risks and presenting ideas that nobody else has thought of or is willing to present, Not to sound too corny, but it has to start locally and then act globally as we build that reputation.

Most of the insight that we can offer, I think, is going to be gleaned from artists themselves, and visiting their studios, because it's there that you really get a sense of what that cutting-edge is, where that knife is that's slicing through history. For as much schooling as I've done, I learn the most when I'm in an artist's studio. That's something that I know the curators here want to do, and I'm going to keep encouraging them to do it, to get out and do studio visits and figure out what those burning issues are for those working, breathing artists of today.

PK There are certain shows at the MCA of which I've been highly critical. And there is some artthat's made today of which I'm highly critical, and I'd like your opinion about that.

My wife refers to some of the art we see at the MCA and around the world as "dormitory doodles." My friend Mark Staff Brandl refers to this same stuff as "feebleism." You talked earlier a bit about how things that are good resonate. I think "feebleism" is an art that is really poorly executed. Karen Kilimnik is a good example of art that's poorly executed. I think Luc Tuymans is another example. I think Wolfgang Tillmans is another. I find it upsetting that a prerequisite of being a good artist isn't that you be able to make good art. I don't think it's sufficient for a work of art to have only good content. I think it has to have good execution, something that draws the viewer in. I believe that when a viewer encounters a work of art, the first thing that an artist would want to happen is that the viewer takes a step forward, as opposed to being repelled and physically stepping backwards.

Please address quality of execution (whether a painter should know how to paint.)

MD I got to say, I think certain artists, like Karen Kilimnik or Luc Tuymans, Wolfgang Tillmans, I think they're doing their job if they've made you uncomfortable and made you kind of question whether their art is art Because I think what those artists - and it's an interesting group - but I think there's a certain casualness to their work that is indicative of something else that's going on in culture. Not the only thing going on, but a certain strand of culture where there's a tenuousness and a lack of interest in claiming mastery. I actually think that those artists are trying to reach out in a really humanistic way to people that are scared of virtuosity. It's sort of a post-punk moment, where we're unlearning things to get back to this rawness is maybe a way to return to some kind of truth that might be masked by something that's more overtly recognized as mastery and facility.

PK So, your taste is truly more catholic than mine

MD Yes.

PK You're not put off by bad execution?

MD Well, you know what? It depends. It's got to be smartly-done bad execution. I came across a piece the other day that was really trying to be hyper-refined minimal and precious, and yet the artist didn't think through how this thing was going to hang on the wall. And so all of that beauty and that balance was completely thrown off by the choice of screws that this artist selected.
Sometimes with art that looks sloppy, you can tell it's strategically sloppy, and therefore you can see right through it. Other times it feels really heart-felt. With somebody like Wolfgang Tillmans, there's this curiosity about the world. This is one man, out there in the world, taking pictures of things, trying to make sense of the world, and as a whole, it starts to cohere into something that's really quite poignant and personal and authentic.

PK So, someone acquiring a Tillmans would do it because it is evidence of a larger whole, as opposed to having a singular, positive relationship with a given static work of art.

MD Yes. And you know it leads to this broader notion that has been developing over the course of the 20th century. Mark Tansey has a painting called "The Triumph Over Mastery," and I think an artist like Tillmans is saying that, "This one photograph that I'm taking cannot possibly tell us everything we want about the world. That it really is this picture, plus this picture, plus this picture that starts to make this mosaic," and really starts to distance us from this idea that there is this one perfect object. And I think a lot of the German painters, like Richter and those folks, suggest a similar thing in their work.

The message for me is that it's this more nuanced view of the world, that things aren't absolute and aren't black and white. You've got to keep assembling experiences to really be a fully-cognizant citizen.

Is that too lofty?

PK No, I kind of like it. I like it in my head. I don't know if I like it in my heart. It definitely resonates with a part of me.

In a previous interview with Lauren Viera, you talked about the collection at the MCA, and you mentioned that there's a lot of surrealists, and a fair amount of Chris Burden. Should we be deaccessioning? Should we refocus this collection? Should we refocus this collection while some of the donors are alive?

MD Any museum that has a collection inherits certain quirks and oddities that reflect the place that it's been built and reflects the people that built that museum.

And it's something to embrace. It's something that people that work in non-collecting institutions don't have. One image I showed in the very first presentation I made to the Board was a picture of a Victor Brauner painting that we have in our collection, and I'm sure that no other contemporary museum has a Victor Brauner. Maybe some Swiss museum somewhere. But I showed it next to a Nick Cave sound suit, and all of a sudden you've got something to work with, you know? You've got this inheritance...

PK Yes, but if you have ten Victor Brauners, would you only want two?

MD Maybe. Yes, maybe. There might be a point where you have more than you need.

PK You don't have anything of Nick Cave's in the collection.

MD No, no. Exactly. So, that's something to work on, and actually Nick was my first studio visit when I came here. So, maybe we're moving in that direction already, rectifying that problem. I think it ends up becoming part of the context, and what you can play with, and if all of a sudden there are artists out there that are working in kind of a surrealistic vein, well, we can pull out a Brauner to stick next to it. We don't have to go and borrow that from someone else. So, it helps to steer and guide some of your decisions in a way that is exciting, and suggests a certain longevity and roots that, again, another museum without a collection couldn't claim.

PK Okay. So the answer is, "Maybe." If something's too heavy, then it's a different direction.

MD I tend to have a fairly conservative viewpoint on deaccessioning because tastes change, and something that might feel passť to you and me now, where you say, "Been there, done that," you know, ten years from now another curator could come along that's following the lead of another artist who's absolutely rediscovered that work and made it look fresh again. So, to kind of jettison it just because...

PK But it also gives you money for acquisitions.

MD That's true. Yes, that's the other side of the coin. I just like this idea of accretion, and of history being alive, and of things falling out of favor and then coming back into favor. You could say the same about Alexander Calder. Ten years ago, there might not have been this burning need to show Alexander Calder and contemporary artists. And now, the work looks really fresh and artists are looking at it. What a shame it would have been to write off Alexander Calder and sell off things that we had in our collection.

PK I tried to figure out what makes Chicago artists Chicago artists, and working on the Chicago Art Project, and ultimately I ended up looking at Chicago history.

Chicago is a town, historically, without much of an aristocracy. Boston has one. New York has one. And LA doesn't, and San Francisco, barely. And you have rich, blue-collar people who made a killing here from, maybe, 1830 to 1900.

In that whole period of time, Chicago has always been a blue-collar city with a really solid work-ethic, and what they respect here is the work you are doing. The work you do. And they don't particularly care about the work you've done - bad or good. There's a lot of Aldermen here who have criminal records.

I think by extension that applies to Chicago artists. There is a solid work ethic among Chicago artists. You mentioned Nick Cave. Nick has a really solid work ethic and his pieces are labor-intensive.

But not since Hairy Who and the Imageists a few decades ago, I don't think that there has been a singular aesthetic vision that exists in Chicago.

If either of us named ten or fifty Chicago artists we like we would look through the list and say, "God, they're all different from each other! They all seem to work really hard, but they're all really different from each other." Have you experienced that? Do you get that same sense? Do you see the divergence full-flung, but a lot of labor?

MD Yes, and, of course, being a curator and trying to find patterns and find connections... I mentioned that comparison of Victor Brauner to Nick Cave, thinking about the Hairy Who and those type of people, and I asked, "Is all of Chicago surrealist material the bedrock of your work?" And he said, "No. It comes from elsewhere."

PK From Nick, it comes from living on a farm in Missouri. You know, looking at the stars at night, wondering about his people.

MD Yes. Even though there are these things that suggest hard and fast connections, and him teaching at the Art Institute, still, it's more slippery than that, and I'm still too new to have figured out if there is a unifying aesthetic, a unifying approach. I like this hard working nature that you're suggesting. But I haven't found it, either.

PK You know, when Madeleine was first here working at the Art Institute 20 years ago or so, she singled herself out by spending a lot of time - about one day a week- going to galleries. It felt like she came by once a month. I think that people get that. I think Chicago artists want to know you care. And I think there're a lot of ways to convey that. Madeleine has done that. I think she's succeeding in doing that, and I think you deserve accolades. It makes people like you, and you will get accolades because you do it, but really the truth is that all curators should look at where they are and 25% or so of their exhibitions should come from that experience.

MD I agree. And not only just showing up and paying attention to the shows, but bringing them into our exhibition schedule and putting them on view. Buying their work is a huge symbol of commitment that I think we need to make sure that we're constantly doing as well, kind of encouraging the best work that's being made here, and often times money talks. If you're willing to put the money on the table and buy that piece and say, "That's coming into our collection", it can be transformative for the artists and actually, I think, it sends a message to the community, like, "Wow! Okay, the MCA is buying that and respecting the ambition that's in that piece." Then hopefully it can up the dialogue...

I tried to use that very strategically in Seattle when I was there, too. Make purchases that I thought would send a message to the broader community that these are artists that we think are doing great work, and everybody else needs to step it up.

PK You were talking earlier about about curation being a by-product of looking and trying to be void of politics, and the various conforming schools of curation that people fall into. I think the same thing is true of looking at artists, and looking artists in Chicago specifically. Do you want to say anything about that?

MD I think what I really want us to be able to do is to be on the lookout for artists. Like you mention Nick Cave. I mean, we're too late. We should have figured out Nick Cave a long time ago before the rest of the world did. So, I think we need to be there early and be leaders in that and be willing to step up...

PK I think Nick is still early. His prices are still reasonable.

MD But that's an example where that should have been recognized earlier and gone for it before he gets canonized in New York or elsewhere, and I think that that kind of recognition of our best artists through exhibition, through purchase, and then through promotion through our network of curators and dealers and collectors in the world say, "You've got to check out this person. This person's doing great work." I mean, everybody likes to be there early and find good deals. So, if we can help push Chicago artists out into the world using our bully-pulpit of the Museum, I mean, that's a real goal for us, I think.

PK I think that's really admirable. I think it's really admirable just to hear it. Because I agree that so many museums... I mean, James Rondeau is still saying, "We don't want to ghetto-ize Chicago artists," and I still would pat him on the back. There's two rooms at the Art Institute that are solely dedicated to Chicago artists, though neither of them is identified as such.

I assume that over 50% of the visitors at the Art Institute, and perhaps close to that here, are from out of town, and I believe that they came to Chicago for a reason, part of which is to get to know Chicago better. And I think it's the Museum's obligation (the 12x12 Show addresses that, in part) to say, "There's something that's going on here: A didactic effort to enhance your out of town visitors."

MD And let them know that they're in Chicago, and not in San Francisco or LA or New York or wherever. And that's where, again, the kind of quirks of our collection hopefully can make us stand out from other places - that you're not just going to see a cookie-cutter display of the same kind of "Greatest Hits" here that you're going to see in all those other cities.

PK That's really annoying, because I wrote about the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute - how fabulous it felt, and what a great facility it was, and how nice it looked, and then I looked out the window and went, "Oh my God, I'm in Chicago!" You know, the flipside of that is that it's got the nice Gustons, it's got the nice Joan Mitchell, it's got - unfortunately - the Brancusis facing the window and you can't walk around them anymore. But it is too cookie-cutter There's this girl who's taking photographs of art fairs around the world. The pictures of an art fair in Dubai is actually quite different than an art fair in Miami or New York or Chicago. Thomas Friedman wrote about how flat the world is getting. I think we need to put some bumps in it.

MD Oh, yeah.

PK Seattle has a fabulous tradition. You go there and you want to see some nice clay, and some good crafts, and you're going to try and avoid Chihuly, and you turn your windshield wipers on intermittently, and you're going to have a different experience there in the Seattle Art Museum, and how the whole thing interacts. And Chicago should be unique in its own way too..

MD There's this danger of the universalization of culture when it becomes homogenous. So, I think finding these regional inflections, these regional strangenesses and weirdnesses, that we've got to celebrate, and pluck out, and try to identify in some way or another. And luckily, I think that there is that whole tradition of the image that's so Chicago-centric, but then how do we kind of help and identify those unusual qualities of the generations that have come after them, and celebrate them in some meaningful way?

PK We have to. Because there was that cohesion at that moment of the Imagists, and since then all this undeniable breadth, and I like that.

I think there's a lot of excitement about Madeleine. I've been excited about her for a long time, and I think the community's getting in touch with that, and I hope this interview with you enhances that stuff. I think there's a responsibility that you bring to intelligent curating, and emotional curating, and visceral curating, and curating that resonates that I think others can tap into, and I don't think we have to resort to art-speak to appeal to any audience. I think we can do these with normal words, and normal concepts, and then people can have... I mean, a good work of art is accessible to pretty much everybody, and then still has enough to give to those who think they're special. I think it's exciting to have you here.

Let's wrap this up. Is there anything else, in conclusion, you want to say?

MD Just that hopefully I'll be a really constant presence out there, in the galleries, and in studios, and I'm really in this period, especially, where I'm trying to figure things out, and figure out the city and how I get around the city and all that. So, I'm really looking forward to doing that, and trying to identify what those particularly- and peculiarly - Chicago things are here that makes Chicago art unique and unusual - special.

PK Fabulous. Michael, a pleasure.

MD Great. Thank you.

PK Thank you.