The alchemy of good curating amounts to this: sometimes placing one work of art near another makes one and one equal three. Two artworks arranged alchemically leave each intact, transform both and create a third thing. This third thing and the two original things then trigger cascades of thought and reaction; you know things you didn’t know you needed to know until you know them; then you can’t imagine ever not knowing them again. Then these things transform all the other things and thoughts you’ve had. This chain-reaction is thrilling and uncanny.
It’s also rare these days, partly because curating is becoming less of a dark art and more of a science or profession. Curators are curating shows to death. They’ve either been trained about what type of thing should go with what type of thing and they do that robotically or without insight; they make the same points that their teachers made two generations ago; they have a bad eye and whatever they do doesn’t matter; or they try to make everything make sense when one of the first rules of curating should be "Stop Making Sense."
Whatever torpor threatens the Tropic of Curating, the uncanny alchemy of good curating does and doesn’t occur to varying degrees in three leviathan mega-exhibitions. These are, of course, the Venice Biennale, Documenta XII and Sculpture Project Münster. As I wrote recently, I skipped the opening blow-outs; a famous woman artist I know calls these shindigs "proms where the rich, powerful and middle aged get to cop a feel from young artists who paint themselves up like Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver." While I like the energy of openings and regret missing the schmoozing, seeing the shows in peace created a wonderfully charged space for doubt, ambiguity and rumination. In Venice I had whole pavilions in the dreamy Giardini to myself; Documenta hummed but was low-key; Münster returned to being a small German city with tens-of-thousands of bicyclists.
What did I determine, other than that I need to drastically improve my left-turn etiquette on a bicycle? For one thing, Venice’s custom of divvying up pavilions by nation-state is a 19th-century relic. (Pavilions should be given to hip young curators or older alchemists from wherever, to do shows divorced from nationalism. That would make the biennale a font of information and a good old-fashioned caldron of chaos.) Also, there are now so many biennials that art is suffering from over-exposure, and we all do curators and art a huge disservice by only seeing these exhibitions at the opening, where nothing really gets seen at all. More than that, though, I found that each of the three exhibitions offers a snapshot of the strategies and styles of those erstwhile professionals who, despite the sexist connotation of the term, have been called "the men in black." I’m talking, of course, about the curators.
The organizer of the 52nd Venice Biennale is Robert Storr, who in his years in the art world has worn many hats. He has also achieved the alchemy of good curating in several of his monographic exhibitions. I’ve known him for decades; he used to let me sit in on his excellent lectures. From 1990 to 2002 he was a curator at MoMA; between 2002 and 2006 he was a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU; he’s always been an artist, and is currently the dean of the Yale School of Art, a consulting curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an advisor to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, and a regular contributor to several art magazines. Storr is a well-known supporter of artists like Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, Louise Bourgeois, Ellsworth Kelly, Susan Rothenberg, Sol LeWitt, Jenny Holzer, Giovanni Anselmo and Elizabeth Murray, as well as Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Thomas Nozkowski, Kim Jones and Nancy Spero, all of whom are in his show. Storr’s resume is impressive. In some ways his biennale is simply his resume writ large. This is not good.
Storr’s exhibition is titled, "Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense." The "Think – Feel" part of the title presupposes that a mind-body split exists in the art world. There may have been one a while back when theory and academicism were becoming monolithic. But this dualism feels like a false dichotomy now, like someone fighting the last war or tilting at de-fanged dragons. Most would agree with philosopher Mary Midgley who wrote, "All reasoning is powered by feeling and all serious feeling has some reasoning. Thought and feeling are not opposed." Yet the segregated way this show is installed recreates the bifurcation. Almost all of Storr’s A-listers, and much of the painting, is displayed in the airy Italian pavilion at the center of the fair grounds. Meanwhile most of the lesser-known conceptualists and photo-based artists are placed in the quarter-mile long Arsenale.
American critics have hailed "Think – Feel" as "miraculous," and "independent." In fact, as elegant and uncluttered as it is, and even though many of Storr’s regulars really shine, overall "Think – Feel" is a measured, decorous, highly controlled, somewhat antiseptic, strangely strait-jacketed affair. The Italian pavilion begins with Nancy Spero’s chilling Apocalypse Now-like maypole of cutout heads. Two rooms later comes the climax of the whole show, the gigantic quasi-abstract paintings by the old magician-artist, Sigmar Polke. Nothing that comes after reaches these heights. Adjacent to the Polke room are six new electrifying if familiar-looking Richters. These are followed a room of Nauman’s horrifying face-shaped fountains, then galleries devoted to Ryman, Kelly, Anselmo, LeWitt and Cheri Samba. Nearby are rooms with riveting videos by Kara Walker, Steve McQueen and newcomer Joshua Mosley.
Much of this work is compelling and poetic (Walker and McQueen come close to attaining Polke’s heights). Often, there’s an accumulation of thought (in Storr’s version of Shock-and-Awe) but little curatorial alchemy or skin-on-skin sensuousness between works. Indeed, Storr seems to have abstained altogether from mounting one of the ball-busting, conjectural, venturesome whales we call biennials. Instead he mustered his big guns, stayed faithful to his BFFs, showcased some new names, and presents something like a mainstream museum survey. Critics may have lauded "Think – Feel" as "anti-market," but the Italian pavilion is so packed with blue-chip artists that it often resembles the home of a very wealthy collector. This half of the show is like classic rock or power chords, a firing of the canon. Especially anti-alchemical is a room devoted to the dead, a cemetery of artists who can’t defend themselves, among them, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Martin Kippenberger, Chen Zhen and Fred Sandback.
Everyone agrees with Storr’s argument for the "present tense," of selecting artists regardless of age, reputation or hype. I love many of the artists Storr loves; they’re my peeps too. Even so, if I were in my 20s, 30s, or even, alas, my 40s, I can imagine being impressed with this triumphant march of art but I’d also be let down and oppressed by it. I’d wonder if this wasn’t history being told from the point of view of the victors -- a shoring-up rather than research into the mix and morphology of the moment. The Italian pavilion is a right show. It just may be in the wrong place. As Glenn O’Brien keenly observed about German painter Albert Oehlen, who would have added juice to this show, "There’s only one right way (to do something) but (Oehlen explores) a million brilliant errors." What’s missing in "Think – Feel" are the "brilliant errors."
In the Arsenale Storr adopts a dubious gambit I call "Curator as Anchorman," or "The Anderson Cooper Syndrome." Here, a curator in effect says, "Wherever there’s a problem in the world, I’ll be there." Thus, we get photos of border guards, cemeteries, soldiers, slums, prisons and refugees. Some of this work is okay. Most of it is overly literal. Several artists transcend the newsroom approach. Among them El Anatsui, Oscar Munoz, Nedko Solakov, Tatiana Trouvé, Sophie Whettnall and especially Yang Zhenzhong’s 10-screen video in which strangers look into his camera and say "I will die." This formally derivative but effective piece demonstrates that every type of certainty, be it curatorial, political, philosophical or religious, will be undone by life in the end.
For the apotheosis of certainly, there’s Documenta XII, in Kassel, Germany. Lambasted by English critics as "the worst art show ever" and "a disaster," this five-building, 150-artist, €19-million extravaganza is flawed, haughty, despotic and ego-tripping. Yet it does pose a polemic, which is one of the things these mad cattle calls are good for. And it does it without using the art as illustration (another common curatorial problem). It’s too bad then that the husband and wife organizers, Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, so relentlessly control their idea that their show turns arrogant and dogmatic.
Comprised mainly of conceptual, political, minimal and quasi-formal work, much of it unfamiliar art from the late-1960s and 1970s, Documenta XII is a manifesto of the good, the bad, the overlooked and the annoyingly academic. Like the two Documentas before it, the curators propose that history, if viewed from a non-mainstream angle, will look different and that "otherness" will become a relative term. This happens a fair amount in this show. For example, a small, almost throwaway gallery of two abstract paintings by semi-forgotten artist Lee Lozano and a blurry 1972 portrait by Richter shows that Lozano, while not as great as Richter, was investigating similarly charged terrain between photography and abstraction at the same time as he was.
Elsewhere looking good, there’s Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s all-black gallery with an all black truck that is part Ad Reinhardt and part paranoid fantasy, Peter Friedl’s stuffed giraffe that was killed in 2002 running from a West Bank bomb, Imogen Stidworthy’s multi-channel video of a dumb man being taught to say the words "I hate," Abdoulaye Konate’s flag paintings, Lu Hao’s update on Ed Ruscha, Guy Tillim’s Congolese election ballot with almost 300 political parties listed, Ai Weiwei’s antique Chinese chairs placed all over the exhibition, Harun Farocki’s great video deconstruction of a soccer match, Mary Kelly’s glass house monument to feminism, Sakarin Krue-On’s terraced rice fields and Hito Steyerl’s excellent video of a woman’s search for the photographer who took pictures of her in sexual bondage when she was a young girl.
All of this work almost saves this show from itself. As with Venice, critics have applauded Documenta XII for being an antidote to the market. The art world needs to stop demonizing artists and art dealers who sell art and remember this: Even art that purports to be anti-market, whatever the hell that means, is almost always for sale. Indeed, these days it often sells quite well. Regardless, Documenta made me look at work that I don’t like in new ways. For that I liked it, albeit with serious misgivings.
Venice and Documenta are doppelgangers of one another: Venice is a biennial peppered with interesting work that isn’t really a biennial; Documenta is a semi-interesting biennial-type show comprised of a lot of so-so work. Both are exercises in extreme organization. Sculpture Projects Münster, by contrast, is an exercise in organized chaos and is more like a late Fellini film. This once-every-decade outdoor exhibition is organized by Brigitte Franzen and the brilliant legendary German curator/medicine man Kasper König, who stir things up the old-fashioned way: They invite artists to Munster, give them a bicycle and a map, set them loose, tell them to pick a site and make a proposal. Then, they and their amazing staff allow things to unfold as they will.
The big problem with the Munster show isn’t that there isn’t good art among the 35 participants. It’s that nothing really holds this show together. There’s no real idea or polemic behind it -- no point of view about public art, the current moment, sculpture in general, Germany, Europe, or whatever. It’s just a bunch of artists who the curators like. This may sound like it should be enough for a big show. It isn’t. Worse, it threatens not only to undermine whatever good art is on view, it can undermine the whole concept of the show itself.
There are very good pieces to be seen (I highly recommend renting a bike here; also, be prepared not to find things where you think they’ll be, which, depending on your personality, is part of the fun; even if it isn’t fun it is certainly part of the loosey-goosey content of the entire exhibition). Among the standouts are Dominque Gonzalez-Foerster’s petting zoo-like installation of scaled-down works of other Münster artists, Mike Kelly’s actual petting zoo, Hans-Peter Feldman’s sprucing up of two public restrooms, Guy Ben-Ner’s reconstructed bicycle project, Susan Philipsz’s haunting recorded aria under a bridge and Pawel Althamer’s winding path through parks and fields. On this path to nowhere quiet moments vie with anxiety. This is the kind of friction and frisson these big shows can produce, and why they’re far from obsolete. If curators can embrace alchemy, uncertainty and chaos, and convert biennials from being super-slick mega-events, these behemoths can still be zones of aberration, maps of the present, theaters of doubt and palimpsests of perception. They can still produce pleasure, tension, surprise and revelation.
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where a version of this article first appeared. He can be reached at Jerry_Saltz@NewYorkmag.com