In ‘What is Art?, Leo Tolstoi discusses the conditions in which (usually, bad) art was produced and legitimized, during his lifetime. He called the social group in charge of this sort of legitimization as ‘the bureaucracy of art’ which sole purpose seemed to be to perpetuate its privileges by making itself necessary.
In my hometown, Buenos Aires, a couple of weeks ago, I went to see an exhibition called ‘Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros: The pending exhibition and the Souther Connection’ (sic) co-curated by the Argentine National Museum of Fine Arts (Buenos Aires) and the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil (Mexico). The works included are, as expected, excellent to the point that allow the viewer understand the progression that these artists undertook from political satire and a sort of figuration that celebrates Mother Earth as the main character to their full artistic maturity as muralists. The show’s title, however, claimed a different kind of narrative which made itself evident at the end of the show and is linked to the fact that in 1973 Mexican curator Fernando Gamboa could not open this same show in Santiago (Chile) when scheduled because of the outburst of Pinochet’s Coup d’Etat and its subsequent Salvador Allende’s assesination.
The first rooms are an astonishing display of Mexican painting but the last room is dedicated to documents and footage that do not include the muralist but, surprisingly, Gamboa, the unfortunate curator who could not open the show. All of a sudden, Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros’ works were pushed aside of the main narrative in order to present another one (allegedly, more relevant) where a curator is canonised as a hero. In other words, in doing so, his successors and colleagues, Carlos Palacios and Cristina Rossi, transformed this show in an homage to their unfortunate forefather. One could not help but leave that show confused thinking that the curators were using the astonishing works by Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros as an excuse to monumentalize their own profession (curatorship) by deploying an archeology of sorts in which Gamboa appeared as both a hero and a victim. This is the point where curatorship as part of the industry of art becomes reflexive and looked for its own totems in order to create further identity and consolidate its status.
Yesterday, other members of the ‘curatorial corporation’ opened a new show. There, Stuart Comer, Rachel Federman, Rudolf Frieling, Garry Garreis and Laura Hoptman, do something analogous by transforming an artist that was reluctant to show into a modern archaeological object of fascination. I am referring to Bruce Conner who, while alive, managed to ‘sabotage, sometimes via direct interference but more often as a consequence of the unruly nature of his own protean output’ a series of shows offered to him in prime institutions.
During Conner’s long career, his corpus extended well beyond his better known assemblages and films to encompass drawing and printmaking, installation avant la lettre, live performance, and such impossible to classify countercultural gestures as running for political office in his adopted hometown of San Francisco (with campaign speeches including recitations of a list of desserts and of passages from the New Testament mentioning ‘light’) –none of which settle neatly into the staid confines of the museum. This might be the reason for his sabogating previous attempts to show him in those institutions. So why insisting? Well, maybe the difficulty of his case comes as a good opportunity for curators to justify their role.
‘It’s All True’ is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and co curated with NY MoMA. The show will be Conner’s first full retrospective and the first solo show in New York. There, the curators have used the physical fragility of much of Conner’s work as a prompt to place conservation issues front and center, with great care devoted to restoration and presentation of his landmark found-footage films. Many works that, during the artist’ lifetime, were virtually destroyed have been now recovered. But if the artist was not interested in showing them and/or even conserving them, why are curators so interested in this. Unless this is an opportunity for the ‘curating corporation’ to show what they can do even when the artist is absent, reluctant or unwilling. J A T