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Interview with Michael Auping: “Declaring Space”

I recently sat down with Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, to discuss (among other things) Declaring Space, his revelatory exhibition of four artists who attempted to modernize our very conception of space itself. Featuring Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, this exhibition marks the first time these artists have been brought
together in this way, and they’ve perhaps never looked better.

Titus O’Brien: Congratulations on a wonderful show. The Modern continues to be one of my favorite museums in the country. I have noticed since I’ve been in the area the last three years that the Modern seems to have a certain focus on sort of grand, almost heroic late modern masters; like Philip Guston, Anselm Kiefer, Sean Scully, and now the four artists in Declaring Space.

Michael Auping: Maybe that’s a reflection of my age, knowing at this point that I can’t do everything. When I was a young curator I thought I could do everything. I would do two shows a year. Now I do a show every three years. I tend to look at art harder now. I’m not as easily seduced by the next new thing. I take my time to engage more classic statements.

This and following images are installation views...of Declaring Space.

I also think that this show has a little something to do with the current context right now. The artists in this show were incredibly ambitious and boldly romantic. It’s harder to find that kind of art now. Maybe that’s for the better, maybe it’s for the worse, I don’t know. Some say it’s because of 9/11: people retrench, artists retreat a little bit—become more conservative. But this show has been on my mind since I was at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where they have one of the great collections of international abstraction from the 1950s. I’ve always wanted to do this show. To my mind, it represents a very intense moment in the metaphysics of abstraction. It could be thought of as the high renaissance of abstraction. Maybe we need to be reminded of a moment like that now.

TO: It does seem very timely. In the past couple decades, the "head-y," postmodern climate found these guys really sort of unfashionable. Their pronouncements and stated goals were so profoundly metaphysical, transpersonal, mystical even – seriously no-no territory for a long time.

But as you say, 9-11 has acted as some sort of watershed. We’ve seen a kind of burgeoning romanticism and longing for authenticity. It seems, though, almost like a pastiche, with all the mushrooms, fairies, deer, skulls, needlepoint, etc. It doesn’t feel very confident. Can you say more about what you think makes this show timely in this environment?

MA: It’s timely only in the sense that artists right now seem so caught up in their own minutiae, and in their own little products which can be sold at the growing number of art fairs to new collectors who seem to create an overwhelming demand in the market. That’s fine to a point, but artists also need time to think and reflect. Their role in society is not to produce product but to act as visual philosophers who ask big questions. Rothko, Newman, Fontana, and Klein are of a generation of artists that thought larger. I think they are good models for younger artists to look at today.

TO: I have to say that as I get older these works do start to look different. Their gravity (thinking especially of Rothko and Newman) is attractive. With that softly lit, chapel-like gallery, I’ve never seen so many Rothkos displayed so well. The bodies of the other artists’ work look great too, and create a fascinating dialog with each other. I wanted to ask you how intimately involved you are in the installation process.

MA: Probably more intimately involved than our installers would like (laughs). I work very hard on the installation of art. It tells more about the meaning behind the artist’s intentions than any essay or wall label. It’s a very practical thing. You simply have to make the effort to get to know the artist and their work – what it calls for, what it needs to exist on its own terms. I read a lot of letters by Rothko, for example, and I think he understood by the end that shining a lot of light on his paintings was the worst way to experience them.

TO: Yeah, I’d actually almost forgotten that a Rothko could work, they’re normally lit and hung so badly.

MA: Our initial thought is that to see more color we need to shine more light on something, and that’s not true. If an artist uses color properly, the color will to a certain extent burn under its own fuel. You don’t need to add a lot more gasoline to the fire. This is especially so with Rothko. I took all the lights down and looked at the art. With our minimal skylights, it wasn’t dark, but more like twilight. I aimed one light in the center of each picture. That’s not much considering how large some of these paintings are. Rothko was trying to create a situation where the color was vibrating in the room. So, by not lighting all the walls up it allows the edges of the paintings to blend with the space, and if you allow that to happen, the paintings and the space become one thing. Also, he was one of the first to allow paint to spill over on the edge of his canvas so if you look at the side you’ll see paint on the side. To my mind, that was an indication of his engagement with the wall.

TO: In terms of the lighting, I’m reminded of that Caravaggio in Kansas City which, if you’re sneaky, you can flip the lights off and see it much more as it was meant to be.

MA: Yes. Frescoes in many Italian churches were not lit by anything other than ambient light, sometimes a candle or two. The artists knew that was the way they would be seen, and they painted the light into the painting accordingly. With abstraction it’s also important how these paintings are lit and installed.

TO: Looking at work of this period (the 1950s), you notice there is this shift from the depicted romanticism of say, Caspar David Friedrich or the American landscape tradition to the works of these artists, where the viewer now becomes the figure in the landscape.

MA: Yes. Somehow that romantic impulse was inherited by abstraction, and the mystery of what Rothko called "an unknown space." And that unknown space remains a mystery after all this time. I was saying to someone the other night, its incredible that abstraction is almost 100 years old. When something is 100 years old it’s an antique. In some ways these paintings exist as modernist relics of an ancient religion. I really think that the middle fifties constitutes the high point of abstraction. Yet we still haven’t solved the mystery of that space.

TO: You compare this to our moment, where there is a toying with romanticism, but its almost embarrassed, or ironic. It’s a return to that earlier depiction or representation of it. There is a lot of overt referencing to it, to Friederich for instance; it’s all over the place.

MA: Well, it may not be the moment to be romantic. This may be a good time to remember a time when you could be. Anyway, great moments in art often occur around wartime situations; who knows what will occur.

Also, it’s not as if there is nothing left of this romantic transcendentalism. Rothko, Newman, Fontana, and Klein did leave a legacy that we can see today. Newman’s zips were magnificently transformed into Walter de Maria’s stainless steel poles which electrify his monumental Lightning Field. Can you imagine a Jim Turrell being created without the knowledge of Rothko or Yves Klein?

TO: The large Klein IKB monochrome on the wall starts to float just like a Turrell when you stand in front of it. I was noting recently that Olafur Eliasson seems like a natural heir to Donald Judd and that group.

MA: Yes. He is also in debt to the generation before Judd, whether he knows it or not. I assume he does.

TO: I like how the show ends with Klein, the youngest artist of the four, obviously pointing the way to the revolutions in art in the sixties and seventies. Op art, conceptual art, happenings, Fluxus, etc.

MA: You might say, pun intended, Klein makes the biggest leap of all four. In this show, he is the most radical.

TO: Do you find that there is any particular distinction between these artists culturally, with two Americans and two Europeans?

MA: Certainly this exhibition begs a question like that. Bringing this group of artists together is somewhat controversial because we think of European and American art as being very separate structures. It’s also viewed as a competitive situation. Of course, the typical historical take is that the US triumphed after the war and the European contribution was just a footnote. There is no question that abstract expressionism or the New York School, as it is also known, had an incredible international impact. But in terms of this idea of opening and expanding the space of abstraction, the Europeans were very much engaged as well. They made important contributions, Fontana and Klein in particular.

TO: The palettes of Newman and Rothko are more sober, saturnine – morose even. Klein and Fontana seem more whimsical in a way.

MA: Maybe not whimsical. Lighter maybe, with those starburst sorts of colors…and in terms of color, Klein’s love affair with blue is very French. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, there’s evidence of a sense of humor for a Frenchman to invent his own blue.

TO: Humor seems to be a part of Klein, in particular, and even in Fontana to some extent, where its nowhere near in Rothko or Newman.

MA: The Americans were "painters," and in many ways more conservative. They engaged the tradition and tools of painting, probably because they didn’t have a long tradition of their own. They were single-handedly, and soberly, creating a new American painting in the context of this grand spatial democracy. The Europeans were more skeptical and advanced conceptually, and in terms of their awareness of art history. Fontana, for example, was very conscious of the fact that Italians invented perspective in painting. That absolutely changed the nature of space in painting. By slicing through the surfaces of his canvases, he also created another dimension for painting.

Fontana was also intensely aware of space exploration in the 1950s. He felt that painting should be an intrinsic part of expanding our consciousness about space—how it is defined and perceived. Klein was also very futuristic in his approach. He believed that space was the ultimate medium and that in a perfect world gravity would not exist. People would float around the planet, completely unburdened by their past. His famous leap off a second-story ledge in Paris was a leap into a future, mystical concept of space.

TO: There is a curious dichotomy between the Ron Mueck show that just closed, after setting all kinds of attendance records for the Modern, and this one.

MA: The attendance has actually been quite good for Declaring Space, considering the fact that it is a fairly philosophical exhibition. This show won’t travel to any other museums—it’s too expensive to insure—so people are coming here from out of town. The coupling of two shows like these really highlights the fact that today’s contemporary museum is addressing many different communities. The Ron Mueck show had a "wow" factor that very few shows can match. People—many of whom have never been to a museum before—came to witness Ron’s technical skills. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, "How did he make those figures look so real?" Dazzling us with technical skill—and Ron is one of the best—is a form of entertainment, and many younger artists today understand that entertainment is a valid aspect of the art experience. Declaring Space is more esoteric and a little more difficult to deal with. It doesn’t provide a specific skill or image to hold on to. It creates a space that forces you back on yourself. That has always been an important aspect of art. One is like going to the movies. The other is like going to church.

TO: Do you think the general public really understands the issues brought up by
Declaring Space? How much does that matter to you?

MA: I don’t really think about the public when I’m planning a show. What is "the public"? There are communities with varying degrees of interest and education…I think mostly about artists when I’m putting a show together—what they will think. They are smarter than the public about art. They know how to understand subtle narratives. I’d like to think our job is to be smart rather than appeal to the lowest common denominator.

TO: Do you think about the kind of institution you’re wanting to create—like what kind of niche or brand the Modern has as opposed to other institutions around the country or world?

MA: I’m conscious of what they do, but I think it’s important for museums to be unique, and not try to be MoMA, or the Walker, even if it means doing things that are not "hip" or of the moment. You have to do things you think are unique. I think our exhibition program is unique, for better and worse. You can’t be unique and make everybody happy.

TO: You can’t talk about art today without money coming up. What are your observations about money and art today?

MA: We’re in a gluttonous time in the world. I think people should be nervous. I know I am. I was just in China, and I did dozens of studio visits. It’s like America in the twenties, in terms of trying to develop the concept of an avant-garde. In the twenties and thirties, Americans knew about the radical developments taking place in Europe, but we didn’t yet know how to find our own radical nature. We copied Picasso and Matisse. In China, all the artists are looking to the West, and doing quite good impressions of Nauman or Kiefer or Warhol; but it’s just a sort of mannerism. As was true in America, it is a country with a lot of money and a lot of contemporary art; unfortunately, not much of it is very good.

In the world in general there is simply more money, and certainly more artists than there have ever been. But it’s like a garden. If you give it lots and lots of water many things will grow, and among them, quite a few weeds. What we have here is a garden out of control. There needs to be more emphasis on quality, not quantity. The museum, like the critic, must be discriminating.

TO: What are you working on next?

MA: I’m not sure yet. I’m just enjoying this one for now. I’m a little nervous, anticipating the next idea. But I don’t need to know for another few months. The next show won’t be for another two years.

Titus O’Brien is an artist and writer living in Dallas. He is a regular contributor to Glasstire and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

Images courtesy the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

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