Sky Pape and I had a chance to sit down with independent curator and former Executive Director of the Drawing Center Catherine de Zegher on Monday. Gallerist Marian Goodman proposed last month that Ms. de Zegher curate the summer show at her 57th Street gallery. The result, Freeing the Line, “considers the departure of the line from the paper surface and its venture into space” (from the press release). Our enjoyable exchange in the gallery touched on curatorial practice, art vis Ã vis curating, art as political/social activity, and the importance of standing on principles.
Karel Malich, untied landscape II, 1973-74
SP: How does curating a show as an independent curator compare to being on staff in an institution? Do you have a preference? –And if I can keep adding questions to this question, it’s exciting that you’ve been focusing on drawing. To see drawing getting attention in the mainstream is a wonderful thing; so I wonder whether you feel that this will continute to be a special emphasis–focusing on curating drawing exhibitions?
CdZ: Well I have to say that because of my tenure at the Drawing Center I have become very focused on drawing. During all these years as a director, I was constantly confronted with the question: “How do you define drawing; how do you define the mission?” In a way people were asking me: “How do you work with the canon? How do you work with the definition?” In fact, I was always working very closely with artists and following their investigations. And then one understands that there are many, many, many interpretations of drawing–probably as many as there are artists. That’s why drawing has become more and more fascinating to me. Because what you do basically, all the time, is challenging that definition in ways that are not only aesthetic, but also ethical, social and political. I think drawing is a very explorative medium–maybe more than others, because it’s so accessible. But I wouldn’t put any heirarchy among disciplines, though I consider drawing as a center around which a lot of disciplines get activated. When you do choreography, when you make film, design architecture, every creative act turns around drawing. That’s very often at the core of any art practice. Obviously, it’s fascinating to see how drawing is considered as being at the margins, but in fact it’s the core. In reality, it’s fascinating to see how it’s been marginalized. Maybe because that’s where there is the most freedom, and that’s where an artist has an open space to work in. And that space, while being explorative can in a way be subversive. Drawing is seen as a very common medium–it looks nice and kind and sweet, because it’s never as aggressive as video or film, but I think that in a way it allows more possibilities for thinking critically about things. That’s why it continues to fascinate me.
PF: A lot of its position is historical, right? The fact that it was often study for the real product.
CdZ: Well often it was independent, but often it was defined as being subservient. And it’s really artists in the 60’s and 70’s who brought it to the attention that it deserves. It’s own department, but by doing that they were trying to put more attention to the medium.
Often it existed also independently, but drawing remained mostly defined as being subservient. And it’s really artists in the 60’s and 70’s who brought to it the attention that it deserves, for example, by promoting drawing such that it would get its own department in museums. These artists were trying to stress the importance of the medium.
As to curating, I’ve always been quite independent. I worked for the Kanaal Art Foundation in Belgium, but it was also a space I helped to create. I think that often, like both of you are doing, you have to create your own space, if it doesn’t exist! And then I was fortunate enough to work as a visiting curator at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art] in Boston, where I organized “Inside the Visible. An Elliptical Traverse of Twentieth-Century Art in, of and from the Feminine,” which toured to Washington, London, and Perth in Australia. Then little by little, I got more involved in New York, and then the Drawing Center. So for me, to be asked by Marian to do this exhibition is almost natural. If one space doesn’t exist any more, you go to another space. If a gallery decides to take up more the role of an alternative space, these facts are interesting to me, these shifts, where you see how alternative spaces are becoming more established, and galleries switch more easily than any other space. It’s interesting to be in those moves and shifts and to adapt, but always my main interest is to work as closely as possible with the artists.
SP: You said you were invited by the gallery to do this show, but do you ever come up with an idea and are in the position to try to make it happen–get the funding and get the venue? Or is it more likely that you’ll be approached?
CdZ: When you’re directing an alternative space, it’s always about conceiving of a project, coming up with the funding, and realizing it. So in fact, it doesn’t change so much from being independent. It’s just that you can do it on a larger scale, and with a staff, and that is wonderful, because they all feel together that they are trying to achieve this project. It’s like one large group of passionate people trying to realize something. When you’re independent, you do it more on your own; or you build your own scene; or you are fortunate to find a space like this one (who helped me to realize this). It’s about the collective efforts of a group of people. The act of creating together, the doing is important. Of course, there are also shows that you can take on from colleagues you respect.
SP: Coming from curating in an alternative space–and you’ve been curating a fantastic broad range of shows that present a balanced view age-wise, gender-wise, internationally, and ethnically–how do you see the biases of the commercial art market affecting what you can do outside of an alternative space. If the gallery space has become the new alternative space, they have their own…
SP: Right, I was going to say, agendas.
CdZ: Everything is so intermingled anyway. I think it would be wonderful if some galleries would look more at artists who are not in the mainstream. I would be very happy if I can achieve this! As to my program at The Drawing Center, it’s trueâ€”and I’m very pleased that you saw thisâ€”that I was continuously trying to balance many issues at the same time. I always had in mind to attempt to represent as many ages, cultures, ethnicities at a time as possible, as many countries as possible, for example, as much Native American as American, mainstream and margins, Asian and European. One continent I haven’t worked enough about is Africa. I am not familiar enough with the art from the different cultures, and I also know that drawing doesn’t seem to be a primary medium. But to balance, I have shown more women than menâ€¦
SP: That’s okay!
CdZ: I never counted them, but people have told meâ€¦it’s true. I am convinced that if you direct an institution, you cannot put your personal preferences first. You have to deal with certain parameters and criteria and have to accept that sometimes you show certain work that you personally wouldn’t be showing, but because you work with a group of people who have voices and interests, it’s important that you don’t push your own, let’s say, taste. You can push your own vision, but that’s different from showing only the artists you like. When you’re working with a group of curators and reviewing many slides together, you have arguments and discussions and you come to an exhibition program that is much more diverse. For example, Luis Camnitzer, who was a great partner as Viewing Program Curator during my tenure at The Drawing Center, saw personally 500 artists a year, an hour each for portfolio reviews. Together we developed the Viewing Program such that there would be more of a productive conversation with the artists and it’s because of that intense approach that you can understand what artists are actually creating and give feedback and sometimes show their work. You can’t judge from just a few slides, you have to talk to them. And Luis was very tough–questioning them about what was behind the work. So I respect him a lot and I owe him a lot for the Selections Exhibitions of emerging artists. We often had intense debates, but that was really fantastic. I think it’s these different angles that make a program.
PF: You have a reputation of being ‘courageous’ in your curating…
PF: Yes! And you’re someone who reviews work from artists. I wonder if you might say something encouraging artists, and curators for that matter, to be courageous about what they’re doing when they don’t necessarily think their work has the kind of hook that is popular.
CdZ: They should never think about that. (And I didn’t know I had that reputation at all!) I just go for art that transforms our perception of the world and improves our ability to change society, and thus I love working with artists who are very firm in putting their ideas forward. To cave or give in isâ€¦ you know, though, it must be one of the hardest things: to be an artist. I really think so. First of all, to make art! I have immense admiration. And then secondly, to just do what you think is the right thing to do is very difficult and very brave of artists to do this. But why would you then give up on something that is defined like that?! To be an artist, to work on something you really want to convey or that you think is creating new possibilities to look at life, to look at the world; to create those possibilities and for other people to see these possibilities. You can’t give in. You just have to followâ€¦, yeah! That’s the definition of art, and of being an artist.
PF: I guess a lot of more mature artists have come to that place, but I think a lot of younger artists wonder, ‘how do I start with this?’ and they’re trying to generate… weirdness or ’something.’
CdZ: Yes, I know. That’s obviously not how it works. You have to be very passionate about your ideas and your vision, and it always relates to an approach to society, politics, and aesthetics and ethics. Art is a wonderful mixture but a very indirect language. You take up all of this and then, patience [laughs], because, of course, it is so indirect. It’s not going to happen immediately. It takes time, and, needless to say, this doesn’t work with our society, with its speed, intent on immediate gratification, and all of that. So for an artist now it’s really, really difficult. And you live in the most expensive places, because you want to live in the capitals of countries, and that’s become so excessive on all levels, and that’s different from the past.
PF: Do you see the same thing everywhere?
CdZ: I have the impression that artists are moving out of the big cities, and that’s not any more where they find their inspiration. And as you know, it’s okay because with the internet and the web, you have access wherever you are. But work needs time. My philosopher friend, Alain Badiou, once said to me, in the future, the most expensive thing will be time.
PF: We’re already seeing it, right?
CdZ: We’re already seeing it. And artists are confronted with all of that: no time, no moneyâ€¦ no caving! These issues are behind everything!
SP: Those are all our challenges as artists. What as a curator comes to mind as the great challenges that the public/audiences are not aware of?
CdZ: I think that there are similar challenges: no time. Um. You can’t give inâ€¦ and no money. It’s the same! I mean, it’s very hard to find the funding, and exhibitions are more and more expensive. Why do we have to make so many of them? We could do with fewer, and with deeper, more profound ideasâ€¦ and then have more time to develop them. I hope at some point there is going to be some kind of a change. Some institutions are putting on 20 exhibitions per year! When I started at the Drawing Center, there were many exhibitions. I slowly reduced the number by two or three per yearâ€¦
SP: In some ways, it feels more comfortable. I can go see things then. I can’t get to that many exhibtions.
CdZ: Then you miss it!
SP: I really want to see something, but then it’s over in three weeks.
CdZ: Running an institution is very intense, programming and fundraising are difficult, costs are sky high (insurance, shipping, etcâ€¦), not to speak about all the efforts and strategic planning you put in building and relocating an institutionâ€¦ And time, for a director, there’s no time. And that’s what a curator needs to think and to be able to look around. (I’m not saying you need to be a tourist–it’s not in the number of miles you coverâ€¦) So you end up curating during your spare time. But what is most crucial is to keep spaces open: museums and institutions need to remain open and available–not being controlled and defined from outside by the market, by politics, etcâ€¦.
PF: I want to raise the idea of ‘curator as artist’ in creating exhibitions, and, while there have always been examples, we now see a lot of artists as curators. Do you have comments on both sides of that?
CdZ: Yeah, I don’t believe in the curator as artist. We share creative minds, but there is a difference between making an exhibition and making art. I think that it’s more difficult still to make art than to make an exhibition. The creativity is there, but that doesn’t mean that you are making art. And also, how could you make art out of the works of so many artists? That’s not the definition of art. So I don’t believe in this concept. I do believe in sharing imagination, vision, mission, as I said, creativity, and originality–all of that. But I don’t think that’s the definition of art.
PF: And the trend, certainly in museums, and more frequently now in galleries, too, towards exhibition design, where there’s a designer separate from the curator who definitely influences the interpretation of the work?
CdZ: I would have a very hard time with it. It’s like working with a book designer. I always work with the same book designer, probably because we get along well and he accepts some of my ideas. I think curators know really well, if they’ve been working for a long time on a project, know exactly how and when and where they want the art to be installed. Of course, you can be helped by a designer to discuss the ideas you have and make them have the best presentation possible. But I could never work with someone who said: “Let’s hang those here and this there and do this wall here” from a decorative point of viewâ€¦Impossible.
SP: More like lets have the graphics, and the didactics, and the postcard this way and the palette be this way…
CdZ: I actually like to approach all parts. And when you’re the director of a smaller space, you can do this. It’s much harder for the director of a large museum to continue to oversee the whole.
SP: Museums used to have in-house exhibition designers, like at MoMA. Those designers are really part of the whole team…
CdZ: Yes, if they’re part of the team that works together and they don’t impose their own design, then it’s fine.
SP: Fewer institutions can afford to have those in-house people, so they end up hiring outside designers. I think it’s a touchy collaboration.
But on the practical side of curation, what is the difference between working on a one-person show versus a group show; and what is the difference working with living artists as opposed to artists’ estates and collections?
CdZ: I love working with one artist and working four or five years on a show of their work. It’s very hard on the artist to retrieve everything and to go through this process. So you need to collaborate with artists who have an oeuvre. It’s not something you undertake with young artists. I like a lot working with living artists. Other curators prefer to work with dead artists.
PF: They talk back less!
CdZ: Yes! I used to work in archaeology before I became a director and chief curator in a contemporary institution, and I was always frustrated by the fact that I was left with solely traces and no voices, and thus no possibility of asking anything; then a lot seems like fantasy only based on hypothesis. I didn’t like that. I prefer when you can actually exchange ideas and discuss questions, agree or disagree with a living artist. Of course, sometimes that is simply not possible, like for example, with the exhibition I conceived of three women artists: “3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma of Klint, Emma Kunz and Agnes Martin”.
SP: Which got an award as the best show in an alternative space [from the International Association of Art Critics]. And well deserved, congratulations!
CdZ: That was a very difficult show to realize. I was fundraising for years…
PF: So are you usually working on multiple projects at once? If projects are taking five years…
CdZ: Oh yes, and it can only happen if you have a very dedicated staff of wonderful people like Katherine [Carl] who are passionate together with you and want to realize things. It’s really against all odds.
SP: I think that time frame–five years–is something that for anyone who’s not a curator would be a startling realization. I’m getting that that’s not an atypical timeframe.
CdZ: No, not at all. I’ve once worked seven years on a book and exhibition project. When you’re referring to young people who want to learn curating, I must say that the practice also has a very down to earth side. You sit there with lists and numbers, and one tends to forget that. It concerns a lot of organization and administration. And the most wonderful time is the time you spend with artists discussing their work, but that’s really a small amount of time. Because your task is to be the curator, the one who takes care–from “curare” to take care. You take care of the artist, of the workâ€¦ and then of the audience to make sure that the project gets transmitted, conveyed, so that all the work the artist has done gets into the world. And for me the most revelatory moments are when I learn a lot from the artist, but also when they learn from me, when the exchange is profound. It’s nice for me to hear you say that I am courageous, because I don’t know it, but for artists, very often they are not aware either of their art working, and to have readings from different people, from an attentive audience, helps them develop their own work: to refine it, to rethink it, even take a different direction. And those are great moments. For example, collaborating with Richard Tuttle is a real joy for the mind as it opens up to a whole new world. I’m very fortunate that I live with an artist, Craigie Horsfield, and the exchange of ideas we have is amazing. And I think that’s, in fact, what art is about: it’s the space between us, it’s the sharing of ideas; and it sometimes gets materialized in the work. It’s acting as a sort of medium to help us understand why we’re here.
SP: In the most ideal sense, it is, isn’t it?
CdZ: Exactly, I guess that’s why I’m still fascinated with the dematerialization of art as in this current show. [Laughs]
PF: Taking care of lists, practical matters, and ideas, too. So there’s an academic aspect, but it’s certainly much more than just the academic aspect–and it sounds like that’s the exciting thing: you have the basis of the academic part through a long career of working. So how do you walk that line, how do you choose which pieces go in this show. For instance, certain people who do similar work are not in this show.
CdZ: Sometimes people ask me: “Can you really teach curating?” I wonder. It’s a combination of so many ways of thinking and tasks. And you have this incredible amount of layers, and they have to communicate horizontally and vertically, and how do you teach something like that? Maybe it’s the same in medicine or in law that you actually learn a lot through doing. Like directing, curating is a very complex endeavor. It’s definitely not just putting things on the wall.
SP: It would seem to me there is a relationship to art. ‘Can you teach art?’ is a question we discuss all the time. There are certain tools that you can teach. You can teach a curator registrarial tools and things that make their job do-able, but you can’t really teach them…
PF: How to be a good curator.
CdZ: Right. Read philosophy, read poetry, read the newspaper.
PF: Be passionate about things.
CdZ: Yes, I think the input is in many ways the same, but I still don’t think that making exhibitions is the same as making art.
SP: That’s nice to hear. There is a lot of argument about that lately.
CdZ: Well you can always ask me. [Laughs]
SP: Your exhibitions don’t have that sensibility. And I don’t mean ‘curator as artist’ as in someone who is both a curator and an artist, like Robert Storr; I mean somebody seeing the exhibition and the installation as a work of art.
CdZ: There are curators who think like this but I consider it as disrespectful to the artist. I mean, you cannot lump a set of works together and say, “I’ve now created my own piece!” Also, some artists don’t want to be with that certain other artist. Consequently, you have to be very sensitive in the way that you put artists together in a show. It should make them say, “Okay, then I want to be in the show.” But for example, in photography, there are so many different ways of doing photography and so many different ideas are behind it. But when you lump all the photos together, making your own “work of art,” all of that gets lost. You have to make sure that the photography of this artist gets looked at this way, this one this way, and this one doesn’t have anything to do with that one. This photograph has more to do with drawing, this one with social projectsâ€¦ After all, it is not about the objects but about the space between us.
SP: In a lot of ways, criticism and art writing have declined since their heyday. There isn’t as much. A lot of criticism has become purely descriptive. If a curator writes an exhibition catalog or an accompanying piece it ends up filling this very important void.
CdZ: Are you speaking about me?
SP: Yes, I read your press release for this show. I think it gives a shape of how to look at this work. It’s something critics did at one point. It’s falling upon curators to wear another hat.
CdZ: When you’re a curator you should write. It’s weird, the writing process requires you to be precise in your thinking, and you have to clarify things constantly for yourself and your readers. So you come to understand much more of the work than when you speak about it or look at it. Someone who just describes and doesn’t go further doesn’t get to that level. My writing influences my curating and my curating influences my writing; and I go back and forth and often when I write I say, â€˜Ah yes, that’s whyâ€¦’ and when I continue to install I can tell. And then I check with the artist and he will say, â€˜Oh wow, yeah, I didn’t think of that.’ You see it’s the writing process that makes it captivating. It’s probably like drawing–but I don’t know, because I don’t draw. Like when you work and you go back to your table and you draw. I imagine it has the same excitement. You tell me!
SP: Even with drawing sometimes I find I need to write to help crystallize things.
CdZ: Yeah, it works. Maybe I should try to draw… [Laughs]
PF: We have two parts to our Now:Here:This exhibits. The first part is submitting a piece of work; the second is answering the question, ‘What is the most important thing on your mind right now?’
PF: So it provides a juxtaposition. Sometimes it’s about the work, sometimes about anything. So what is the most important thing on your mind right now? (You can do the drawing part later!)
CdZ: Oh, God, I’m so bad at answering this! I don’t know, I’m so with you trying to respond to questionsâ€¦ I was trying to think together with you how we can further art and make sure it remains art–and not design.
PF: That’s great. Hear hear. And I loved what you said earlier about art being political. It’s a theme that runs often in our website.
CdZ: Well that’s what is so wonderful about the artists in this show. Although it’s indirect, you can feel it deep in there; and I hope–I’m writing my essay–that it will be clear in the text, too. That freeing the line is what is behind it.
SP: Can you tell us a little more about this show.
CdZ: Well Marian invited me a few weeks ago, and I was thrilled. I was moved that she invited me to do her summer show. I said, I’m not sure that I can do it this summer. And she said, ‘Yes you can.’ [Laughter]
PF: That’s where you show your virtuosity, right?
CdZ: I’ve been thinking about this project for a long time. And well, I appreciate Marian enormously as a gallerist. She has shown how a gallerist should work with artists. There was a profile once in the New York Times, and it’s really true, she works with her artists.
SP: We hope to interview her as well.
CdZ: Oh you should. She’s an example for gallerists: supporting artists, going to their openings, making sure everything is going well. I admire her.
SP: There are different schools of dealers. Some of us are old-fashioned about the relationships between gallery and artists.
CdZ: And the young artists who worked here for the show said they had never worked in a gallery like this before: no pressure; they had access to anything they wanted. One artist told me how different it is with the new generation of galleries [e.g. paying expenses associated with the opening]. I would hope, I don’t know…there should be a course on how to be a gallerist.
I realized working here, it’s kind of a similar operation to the nonprofit. You do the same activities, but in the nonprofit you fundraise; in the gallery you have sales. But all the ‘profit’ needs to go back into the institution. It’s like I say to my kids, the goal of your work is the work, not to profit. I wonder if younger gallerists are trying to make money, whereas the money needs to go back into the gallery.
SP: In the same way that the artist is faithful to her work, the gallery has to be faithful to the gallery.
CdZ: Exactly, but in fact, everyone is so dispensible now.
PF: Any closing thought?
CdZ: You have to take the heroic stance. There is no other. I like the name of your group: Artists Unite. We have to unite.
We would like to thank Catherine de Zegher for her generosity with that most precious of commodities, time. And we congratulate her, Marian Goodman and the artists in the show on Freeing the Line. We are looking forward to many more examples of Ms. de Zegher’s ‘courageous curating’ in the future and wish her the best of luck in all her endeavors.
[editors note: revised July 7, 2006]