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Madeleine Grynsztejn in her SFMoMA office

Chris Johanson
This Temple Called Earth
"2002 SECA Art Award Exhibition"

Sarah Sze
Things Fall Apart
"010101: Art in Technological Times"

Gordon Matta-Clark
Splitting: Four Corners
"Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMoMA"
Curating San Francisco
by Oriane Stender

Madeleine Grynsztejn became Elise S. Haas senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in September 2000. Prior to coming to San Francisco, Grynsztejn was curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (1997-2000), where she organized the 1999 Carnegie International Exhibition. Her shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was associate curator (1992-96) and acting department head (1996) for 20th-century painting and sculpture, included "Affinities: Chuck Close and Tom Friedman" (1996) and "About Place: Recent Art of the Americas" (1995). She also served as associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (1986-92).

Artist Oriane Stender talked with Grynsztejn (pronounced GRIN-shtayn) at her office at SFMOMA in late November 2003.

OS: You had something of a cosmopolitan upbringing. . . ?

MG: I was born in Peru and I grew up in Caracas and then also spent time in London before coming to the States for school. My parents left Europe as children shortly before the Second World War and, as with many immigrant families from Eastern Europe, they made their way to this hemisphere. My father's family ended up settling in Curacao, which is a Dutch colony off the coast of Venezuela, and my mother's family settled in Lima.

OS: You curated a show called "La Frontera/The Border" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. . . .

MG: Yes. It was part of a multiyear sequence of exhibitions and installations called "Two Cities/Dos Ciudades" and within it, the primary project was an exhibition called "La Frontera/The Border," which presented art made in the border regions of the U.S. and Mexico. It basically took in art from the entire 3,000-plus-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, but it was just one of the manifestations of this multiyear project. There were also billboards that we commissioned from artists like Alexis Smith and Daniel Martinez and there were smaller one-person shows by an artist from Texas, Celia Munoz, and we did a show of Jeff Wall's which included. . .

OS: Isn't he Canadian?

MG: He's Canadian, so he came from another border. We invited him to come to San Diego/Tijuana and we ended up facilitating a new commissioned photograph that he produced in Tijuana. It was uncanny, the similarities, economic, psychic and otherwise, between the Vancouver/U.S. border and the Mexican/U.S. border. Both have large immigrant communities and there are similar issues with production happening on the opposite side of the U.S. border. It makes for an interesting situation that has some real parallels.

OS: I want to ask you about your catalogue essay for "About Place" at the Art Institute of Chicago. You mentioned "deracination," a "worldwide experience of deracination, circulation and estrangement," as being a common factor among the artists.

MG: Without question.

OS: And I was thinking, isn't that the typical state of things in America right now? I mean, my grandparents were immigrants and I have no real sense of where they came from. All my history before we came here is completely lost to me, I didn't grow up with any of that culture, so isn't that sort of. . .

MG: I think we're maybe talking about two separate things. What you're bringing up (which is my familial background as well) is more about the culture of the "American dream" and the immigrant experience, which is certainly a very real 20th-century phenomenon. But what happened around the time of the "About Place" exhibition, and it reached a point of concentration in the mid-1990s, is that that rubric, or that line of thinking coincided with the maturation of the world wide web, and coincident with that, the maturation of a kind of society which is characterized by incredible uprooting. It's not a new phenomenon, but I think it reached a kind of culmination point in the 1990s. There was an awareness that on many levels, familial, but also at the level of the larger society, at the level of culture and at the level of technological developments, that we had reached an absolute saturation of nomadism. People were circulating as never before, from businessmen to artists, and remember this was also the height of the international exhibitions, which used to number only four and of which there are now at least 17. So there's an incredible circulation of real bodies, and there's also an incredible circulation of virtual information with the web. And that circulation of virtual information led to a proliferation of new virtual and deracinated communities, in the physical sense. So you were able to develop communities that weren't geographical, but were of another order. I was talking about that; I wasn't so much talking about the more traditional movement of one generation geographically to another spot, which then loses sight of its roots. This is of another order altogether.

OS: It also seemed that a lot of the artists in the "About Place" show were from countries that had experienced political upheavals and revolutions so it wasn't just immigration, it was "we've got to get out of here."

MG: Yes. When I was working on this show in Argentina and Chile, artists our age were telling me that an entire generation had been thrown off a plane.

OS: Literally?

MG: Yes. An entire generation was lost. So there's no connection. There is an omission, there is a gap. But the point of that show partly is that this sort of circulation of information allowed a kind of re-recognition of artists who lived in places that may have been considered marginal by the West and now, as long as there is access to a computer, there is increasing opportunity for parity.

OS: I know you've worked with William Kentridge and that reminds me of something he said. I heard him talk last year about how when he first came to New York in the late '70s and took his drawings around to galleries, he was concerned that he wasn't going to be taken seriously because he felt he had a couple of strikes against him; one, that his medium was drawing, which wasn't considered at that time as substantial as other media, and more important, that he was a white man from South Africa in the era of growing awareness of apartheid and demands for divestment. Those things didn't seem to be an issue, but the first thing everyone asked him was, "Do you live in New York?" No one wanted to show the work of someone from this "other" place, this backwater.

MG: Isn't that amazing, yes. That's changed, and not only has that changed, but what you bring up is the fact that the art world in a way has caught up with William. Because not only has that changed, in the sense that this internationalization of the art community that we've been talking about has allowed people to actually live where they grew up and not have to move to New York, but conversely, there has been an increasing awareness on the part of the art world that the talent is not necessarily exclusively in New York, by any stretch; that indeed New York does remain the center of the art market, but in no way does it remain the center of art production. There is incredible art production in Los Angeles that competes on a par with New York, at least within the U.S., and then beyond that, there are people living in Denmark, like Olafur Eliasson, there are people living in Colombia like the great Doris Salcedo. And then the other thing that the art world has caught up with, in terms of William's output, among others, is that there is a resurgence of drawing as an absolute primary means of expression right now, perhaps in reaction to the dependence on the hands-off quality of the web.

OS: Another way the art world caught up with him is that some of the very issues that he dealt with in his work which he was worried would make him unpopular, such as the political situation in South Africa and the fact that he was outside of the mainstream art world, became trendy subjects, to the point where they were certainly accepted, and maybe even sought out.

MG: I would agree with you, but what makes his work compelling, as well as the work of say, somebody like Doris Salcedo, or Marlene Dumas, another white South African, or Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is that their work is highly political but it is also fundamentally metaphorical. Its tenor, compared to the beginning of the last decade, in the early 90s, is far less strident, and less. . .

OS: Less didactic.

MG: Less didactic, exactly, and far more poetic and metaphorical and perhaps longer lasting and more powerful as a result. I guess you could say that the move in political art has gone from the autobiographical to the biographical. Biography still allows your biography as well as mine to enter the picture. It's a more open dialogue.

OS: When you're working on a show, do you get to know your artists? Is that part of. . .

MG: Oh, yes. That is the greatest pleasure.

OS: So you're not one of those purists who wants to get everything from the work and not have any personal interaction.

MG: No, no, no. I work very closely with the artist because the artist made the work and I need to know where that comes from. When I'm working on an exhibition, the very first thing I do (and if you call Richard Tuttle or Olafur Eliasson, they'll just sigh if you ask about this) is to go through an exceedingly thorough interview process and slide review process of absolutely everything that the artist has made. That sets the groundwork for everything else that we do.

OS: There has been a spate of recent one-person shows of women artists who were prominent in the '60s (Eva Hesse, Diane Arbus, Yoko Ono here at SFMOMA, Yayoi Kusama at LACMA a few years ago and the current Lee Bontecou retrospective at the UCLA Hammer). In my mind, these women share a certain mystique that I can't quite put my finger on, perhaps just that they evoke a nostalgia for a time in the not-so distant past. Do you see a trend here, other than long-overlooked artists finally getting their due?

MG: No, what you're pointing to, in my view, is a very natural characteristic of art history, which is that we are at the point right now where the 1960s is moving, from our vantage point, from a primary story to a secondary history. In other words, enough time has past that criticism becomes history, that primary experience is reexamined by a new generation that has more distance and is assessing and reassessing that period in a way that could not have happened any earlier.

OS: Is there maybe a Louise Bourgeois show in the works to complement that group?

MG: Not here, not now. Although she is a magnificent artist. We have a lot of her work, including some masterpieces.

OS: Do you make art yourself?

MG: I began as a painter and printmaker. And then in college realized that I was a really lousy painter and printmaker and luckily for me, as part of my BFA I needed to take art history classes and found my passion in a dark room looking at slides and realized that art history was the particular prism through which I wanted to see the world for the rest of my life.

OS: What other curators do you admire?

MG: Ann Goldstein at LA MOCA and Ann Temkin at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Those are my absolute favorites. I think the most influential living curator right now is Suzanne Ghez, who is at the Renaissance Society in Chicago (I'm just talking about American curators).

OS: What about writers?

MG: I very much enjoy the writing of Rob Storr, I really love the writing of Briony Fer. Mieke Bal, amazing writer. Thomas Crow, incredible. And I will miss Kirk Varnedoe's writings very much.

OS: Do you have a particular curatorial vision for the museum?

MG: Certainly. I'm fundamentally a contextualist, by which I mean that I take into account, on arrival, the history of the institution, its strength, its gaps, its points of concentration both in terms of its indisputable so-called masterpieces, in-depth holdings of artists, including in this case Paul Klee, Clyfford Still, Robert Ryman, Robert Rauschenberg and Ellsworth Kelly among others, and its points of concentration in terms of periods or movements of interest to the museum. We are increasingly strong in American and European post-Minimalism, which covers approximately 1965-1975. We not too long ago acquired Gordon Matta-Clark's work and Robert Smithson's work. We are also very strong in post-war German art and we continue to expand there. Along with our concentration of Gerhard Richter works we have added the work of the young German painter Thomas Scheibitz. And last, but not at all least, the work of our own region. It is critical for any museum that it differentiate itself in a strong, compelling and legitimate way from every other museum, and we do that through these foci. So coming in, I investigate, I carefully examine those concentrations that are in place, and I elect to expand on them, or tweak them slightly or add a new direction. Given my background and my predilections, you can guess that I'm very committed to expanding the work of artists from Latin America and I'm very interested in the work of my own generation. Those are personal biases that I in fact embrace, because as a curator, and as an institution, you need to be passionate and nakedly partisan about your loves, and have those be informed subsequently by information and discernment and knowledge. That's how you put together both a collection and a program.

OS: What are some of the important acquisitions that you've made, besides the people that you just mentioned.

MG: Well, the first work that I acquired here was Robert Smithson's Non-Site. For me it spoke worlds about my hopes for the museum in the sense that it's an undisputed masterpiece by a very significant artist of the 20th century and it increases the strength of our post-Minimalist holdings. So it does two things: it both enhances an already extant strength of the museum and it is unquestionably an important work in and of itself. The same holds true for Gordon Matta-Clark's Four Corners and for Felix Gonzalez-Torres's untitled self-portrait, which is the only self-portrait he made. It is a self-portrait in the form of words that run like a frieze at the point where the wall of the gallery meets the ceiling. It's an extraordinarily beautiful conceptual work that is absolutely paradigmatic and one of the most important works that this very important and influential artist made. The way that I like to work is to take those strengths of the collection that are already in place, both in the area of masterpieces and in the area of movements and bring them up to the present if you will, by buying artworks that are made today that speak to the legacy that's already in place at the museum. For example, we have one of the greatest Surrealist paintings ever made, Magritte's Personal Values. And I very much like it when an opportunity presents itself to acquire a work by a young or emerging artist that speaks to the legacy of Surrealism while bringing it up to the present, that speaks both to the history of surrealism and to its future. In that vein there is the recent acquisition of a Toba Khedoori drawing and from 1990 a torso drawing by Robert Gober which is, again, a very unique and extraordinarily important work by a necessary artist of the 1990's.

Another thing that we're very proud of, and that I think is really critical to the activities of the museum, is that the museum functions not only as a great caretaker for the best of human production, but as a kind of catalyst for the production of present-day work, as a kind of laboratory for the experimentation and production of new work. And in that capacity, we're extremely proud to have commissioned, and then acquired, a work by Janet Cardiff which is an audio/walk piece through the museum, and an installation by Sarah Sze made of a truck taken apart, a multi-part sculpture that graced the Haas atrium for close to a year. And we'll be commissioning a work from Bay Area artist Chris Johanson for one of the landings in the museum. This is what I love most of all, working in partnership with living artists and facilitating their creativity and then subsequently caring for that artwork for the duration of its life. That's when I think the museum is really doing its job well.

OS: The Sarah Sze piece, being an installation and ephemeral, at a certain point started to break down and was dismantled?

MG: Well, it's in storage, but, no, it's in storage the same way that all of our paintings and sculptures are. We've taken every one of those toothpicks and Bic pen tops. . .

OS: Wow. So it could be reinstalled.

MG: Yes. Sometimes it's not recognized the degree to which the museum, in acquiring a complicated work like that, whose materials are so unorthodox and fragile, commits itself -- fiscally, spatially and otherwise. I think it needs to be said that it's an extraordinary commitment on the museum's part to maintain a piece like that and then to store it and to reinstall it, just like one would a painting. It's extraordinary.

OS: It is. Are you involved with seeking out new artists yourself? Or at your level do you mainly deal with artists that already are established?

MG: I do both. I would like to think that I am still very much attuned and capable of identifying an important emerging artist, and at the same time I also recognize that, of necessity, I have a particularly keen insight into the work of my own generation. Because, you know, I listened to the same music and I ate the same pizza and I wore the same clothes. And historically speaking of course, I can certainly manage a knowledgeable pursuit of work that precedes my birth, because it's simply a matter of being professional and knowledgeable. Having said that, I do not work alone. I very much work in a team mode, and we have a fantastic department including my colleague the curator Janet Bishop and three curatorial associates. Janet is, I think, the preeminent curator in the area of Northern California art, more than anybody else in the United States. I've learned a great deal from her and I'm very happy that she takes the lead in that area. And I really welcome the insights and opinions of the associates because, being in their late 20's and early 30's, they have an entree into their generation that I couldn't possibly have.So we work very much as a team and all five of us together pursue works on behalf of the institution.

OS: San Francisco doesn't have the equivalent of the Carnegie International or the Whitney Biennial. Do you envision a large survey show along those lines for SFMOMA?

MG: Certainly SFMOMA is capable of undertaking such a show, but I think the larger question is whether or not another such show is necessary. I think one has to be very frank in assessing the need for yet another international exhibition.

OS: You and [SFMOMA director] Neal Benezra didn't come as a team, but you both came to SFMOMA within a year or so of each other. What is the dynamic between the director and the head curator? Are you involved with administrative aspects like fundraising, or do you get to stay on the curatorial side?

MG: Oh no, no, no, no, no. The image of a curator in his ivory tower dispensing advice from on high that is solely scholarly or curatorial is very much a thing of the past. On top of organizing exhibitions, writing scholarly catalogues, acquiring works of art and researching and presenting those works of art, we take exhibitions that are organized by other venues and bring them in and reinterpret them, we fundraise for all of those exhibitions as well as acquisitions, we teach and give lectures (I'm on the staff of CCA and will be teaching next year), we plan trips that we take patrons on and we are the primary staff liaison for all manner of support groups such as the Collectors' Forum. So, no, the curatorial job is very much a mix of administrative and artistic and scholarly tasks. In terms of my interactions with Neal, while we have never worked together, we have always known of each other. In fact when Neal left the Art Institute of Chicago in 1992 to go to the Hirshhorn Museum, I succeeded Neal at the AIC. And the beauty of is that we are very much in sync in terms of the artists that we feel strongly about, both in terms of acquisitions and exhibitions, so I predict a very smooth and productive golden era for SFMOMA.

OS: You and Neal Benezra both seem to have a quiet presence and make less of a public splash than, say, David Ross.

MG: Is that true? [laughing]

OS: Well, that's my perception from the outside. Is that a strategy, perhaps a reaction to excesses of the past, or just the way you both happen to work?

MG: I don't think we're quite that intelligently calculating [both laughing]. I think it's just our personalities. It's my personality, although I couldn't speak for Neal.

OS: Do you interact much with the smaller nonprofit visual arts institutions in the Bay area?

MG: I have to say that I could do a better job of that. My position at SFMOMA is so all-absorbing that it leaves me little time for other interaction. All of us in this community could probably do a better job of letting each other know, for example, what artists are in town on their behalf, what projects we are working on that could perhaps strike collaborations of some kind, if not in the exhibition galleries, then maybe programmatically in the area of education. There's certainly no animosity; on the contrary the relationships, on an interpersonal level, are very friendly and in fact therefore may indeed set the groundwork now for better communication. And I would like to improve my visibility in the community.

OS: What about with the commercial galleries? Do you have relationships there?

MG: We have acquired works from the commercial galleries and I do believe that we need to support the commercial arm of this city. A healthy art community in any city is, say, let's use the metaphor of a table. It takes four legs for a table to be stable. It needs first and foremost to have a strong community of working artists. To have that, you need, among other things, a strong community of art schools so that they can be gainfully employed and actually make a living. The third thing that these artists must have is a strong critical arm in the form of somebody like Kenneth Baker [who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle], and other voices too, like [freelance writer and founder] Glen Helfand. And the fourth part of the community is the commercial arm, which includes the galleries and their clients, the patrons and the museum. Those four legs constitute a very healthy community for art. And it all radiates out from the needs of the living artist.

OS: Well, it's nice to hear the artist placed centrally.

MG: Oh yes, that's our job. Our job is to follow the artist, period.

ORIANE STENDER is an artist based in San Francisco.