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The Carnegie Museums Grand Staircase

R. Crumbs poster for the "Carnegie International."

Neo Rauch

Rachel Harrison
(Untitled) Perth Amboy

Chiho Aoshima

Francis Alÿs
The Scavenger (El Soplón)

Kathy Butterly

Robert Breer
grouped stills from What Goes Up

Tomma Abts

Mamma Andersson
Traveling in the Family

Eva Rothschild

Senga Nengudi

"Carnegie International" curator Laura Hoptman

In Search of the Ultimate
by Roberta Fallon

Curator Laura Hoptman was up to her eyeballs on Sept. 9 installing the "Carnegie International" at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh when I telephoned to see how things were going. The show, the 54th in the history of the 108-year old exhibition, was only a month away -- it opens Oct. 9, 2004. After laughing and saying things were great, the voluble curator, 42, told me that the exhibition was perhaps one-third installed -- because 28 of the 38 artists are making new pieces and they hadnt yet been delivered.

Hoptman sounded pretty unflappable about what she called her "back-loaded" exhibition. She has confidence in her artists and in her museum installation crew. The curator, whose previous big international effort was "Drawing Now" at MoMA QNS IN 2002, has put her stamp on this International by selecting a preponderance of art that explores life's "ultimates" -- questions about life and death and the meaning of the universe.

What's that going to look like? With cartoon art by Robert Crumb, paintings by Neo Rauch, photography and sculpture by Rachel Harrison and work by Maurizio Cattelan, the show has some familiar elements. But many of the artists are less familiar names. And some, according to Hoptman, have turned in new work that surprised even the curator -- not least a series of photos of pole dancers from Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

Roberta Fallon: In your curator's statement you talk about getting back to the "ultimates." Does that mean getting away from pop culture?

Laura Hoptman: No, actually not. I love pop culture. I've got a comic strip artist in the exhibition, and I think comics are one of the greatest contributions to visual culture that America has made after movies and jazz.

Perhaps you are asking this question because the notion of the "ultimates" seems so un-frivolous. I am not against frivolity or lightness. It's that the time now might call for a look more at the macro rather than the micro. And in art terms maybe this exhibition is going to focus on the epic rather than the everyday.

Over the past ten years or so in contemporary art, there has been a great interest in the local, in the personal, in the autobiographical and a lot of great art has come of that interest. This exhibition, though, isn't going to be looking at the extreme everyday, the extreme quotidian, but something thats almost the opposite. I have become interested in how artists express spirituality, for example.

There are artists who have gone beyond the capturing of the beautiful everyday to search for something more ineffable. Now that doesn't mean that the people who are making videotapes of rocks aren't spiritual. It just means they are using a different method. It's a much larger, more macro look rather than a micro look. a more ambitious notion of what art is.

I mean I keep going back to the Abstract Expressionists. In fact, I have been thinking about all the artists making work immediately after the Second World War both in Europe and in the United States. Those artists had hubris. Barnett Newman felt that he could sum up the world in a single vertical zip! It might seem ridiculous, but there's something very potent about the notion that with this kind of abstract gesture you could take on a subject like monotheism.

I think that one of the over-arcing notions of this "International" is the fact that the participating artists are tackling (not solving) these bigger issues.

RF: One thing I got out of the curator's statement is that there's an urgency that you feel about this issue and also a hopefulness. I don't know if that was just me reading my own self into it.

LH: No I think it is a hopeful show but its also one that takes on some pretty tough issues. To be organizing an international art exhibition at this moment, now, here, in the United States, is an interesting position to be in. And there's no doubt that this exhibition couldn't happen anywhere else. In fact, it would be wrong anywhere else.

You can't pretend that we are in a neutral place -- that is, the U.S., and that I'm an Emersonian all-seeing eyeball that can neutrally choose one object or another without prejudice.

No, I am in a country that's at war, number one, with a very particular president at a particular time less than a month before an election. How can a curator not react to this? The artists who are making new work certainly have taken our times into account.

That said, there's very little Realpolitik in this show, because, as I mentioned, it takes a macro view. Not very much belly button gazing here in terms of "I'm an American/Asian/European artist." There is almost no single-issue, geo-specific work in the show. This doesnt mean, though, that there isnt work that doesnt make reference to our time and place.

Theres one new piece by the artist Chiho Aoshima that is an interesting case in point. She is one of the youngest artists in the show. Her work uses an anime, manga vocabulary, and usually it reflects an anime world of young women who often comport themselves in manga and anime sorts or ways -- sometimes sexy, sometimes violent, but all in good fun. She makes these big, big murals and most of them -- all of them that I had seen -- are fantasy worlds. They're mostly these wonderful, sexy utopias with floating young girls in long dresses amid flowers. And they're really beautiful as only highly decorative contemporary Japanese work can be.

So we asked Chiho to make a new mural, and she said yes. And I gave her a 40-foot wall in front of the museum -- not the first thing you see but almost. And I thought, this is going to be great. This beautiful utopia and these bright colors are going to be great as the opener for my exhibition.

Anyway, about two weeks ago I got the pdf file of the mural that we're getting and -- it's an apocalypse! It's our war. It's unbelievable. It never occurred to me that an artist who is interested in zombies and lizards and cherry blossoms would directly engage with our moment in this way. Well, 40 feet in front of the museum is a pretty big venue for a battle scene, so I was hesitant to put this in Pittsburghs collective public face.

RF: What are you going to do?

LH: Of course I'm going to show it. In the same place. Heck, it's a young artist and she says its her Guernica. What, am I supposed to say, "Sorry my audience is a little too delicate for this?" Not that I wasnt tempted.

RF: I read you're having narrative groupings of work. What exactly is that?

LH: I hope that there's a kind of logic to the installation. Time and again we hear that these large international survey exhibitions are dinosaurs, all but extinct. We hear that people would much rather go to an art fair because it is a more efficient way to see lots of new art. And I don't agree with that at all.

The fact is that biennials and triennials are curated exhibitions and no art fair is going to take the place of a well-thought-out argument orchestrated by a person or a group of people who have something to say. I mean, good god, curating is more than gathering together all the best-known artists and vending them.

Clearly we curators have to stick our necks out a little bit more in our exhibitions and prove to our audiences that we are not just putting out an agglomeration of famous artists to be consumed. And one of the ways you do that is to have a logic to your show. At least you can try to have one.

The Carnegie is a funny museum. It has an old area and a new area and also has a permanent collection and an architecture museum that is smack dab in the middle of the series of galleries. As a result, you don't really have a connected group of galleries that contain the "International." So the most important thing for this show was this notion that there was a progression or a logic so that Robert Crumb wasnt plunked down next to Francis Als -- they don't go together at all, except that they're in the same show. But Robert Crumb's work will live near Kathy Butterly and Robert Breer because that makes more sense. Their worldviews make more sense with one another.

RF: Is there anything humorous in the show besides Robert Crumb?

LH: Robert Breer, a great, great film animator, almost 80 years old, he's the oldest artist in the show. I love Robert's work. He has this piece, a three-minute animation which is very, very beautiful and touching. I don't know if it's laugh out loud funny but it has a lightness to it.

Someone said to me at the opening of the Whitney Biennial (which was a lot of fun and great, by the way), somebody grabbed my arm and said, "Study this very carefully." And I turned and said, "I'm sorry. You're going to be very disappointed in the International. It's going to be a much bigger bummer than this!" But I hope it's not a complete bummer. I don't think it will be.

RF: Tell me about your idea that art should be useful.

LH: There's this experience that a viewer has with an artwork -- the feeling that you needed to see it. There's a sense of connection. . . . It's a big mystery but you've experienced it too, Im sure, so you know what I mean. It's an amazing thing when you're looking at something and you connect with it so completely. It's very important. It's enormously difficult to have that happen but that's the goal for a show like this -- for the largest number of people to have that kind of connection.

The 54th "Carnegie International," Oct. 9, 2004-Mar. 20, 2005, features more than 400 works by 38 artists from around the world. Artists in the show are Tomma Abts, Pawel Althamer, Francis Als, Mamma Andersson, Chiho Aoshima, Kaoru Arima, Kutlug Ataman, John Bock, Lee Bontecou, Robert Breer, Fernando Bryce, Kathy Butterfly, Maurizio Cattelan, Paul Chan, Anne Chu, Robert Crumb, Jeremy Deller, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Peter Doig, Trisha Donnelly, Harun Farocki, Saul Fletcher, Isa Genzken, Mark Grotjahn, Rachel Harrison, Carsten Hller, Katarzyna Kozra, Jim Lambie, Julie Mehretu, Senga Nengudi, Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Neo Rauch, Ugo Rondinone, Eva Rothschild and Yang Fudong.

ROBERTA FALLON is an artist who writes about art for Philadelphia Weekly and for the artblog she coauthors with Libby Rosof.