The Modern’s Michael Auping is a man with vision. (Courtesy of The Modern Art Musuem of Fort Worth)
Frank Stella’s "Gobba, zoppa e collotorto," 1985 (Collection The Art Insitute of Chicago © 2015 Frank Stella / ARS, NYC)
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s chief curator, Michael Auping, has organized exhibitions for some of the titans of our time: Gorky, Baselitz, Guston, Serra, Agnes Martin, Anselm Kiefer and, in 2012, British artist Lucian Freud’s much-talked-about show of portraits that unflinchingly revealed his very physical tussle with pigment upon canvas. During his four decades in the museum biz, Auping has also co-curated a Whitney Biennial (2000) and organized Jenny Holzer’s U.S. Pavilion for the Venice Biennale (1990).
At the helm of his current post since 1993, he has weighed in on the design of one of the most serene and successful modernist museum buildings of the 21st century, Tadao Ando’s tour de force: The Modern, unveiled in 2002. On the eve of The Modern’s opening of his critically acclaimed retrospective for the mythic Frank Stella — a chameleon of an artist who went from pin-striped minimalism to the grand baroque in a half-century, a blockbuster organized for the Whitney Museum of American Art — there’s never been a better moment to be Auping. Arts writer Patricia Mora delves into what makes the most important contemporary curator in Texas tick. Edited by Catherine D. Anspon. Portrait by Dustin Van Orne.
TAKE US TO THE BEGINNING.
I first started getting involved with art the last year of high school, first year of college — when most people tell you it’s time to find a major, find out who you are, what you want to do, what you want to be. I wasn’t quite ready to focus. The people I found most interesting to talk to were all in the art department, and you could go [there] and talk about anything. You didn’t have to focus … Politics came into it, because this was in the late ’60s. I just found that all of my friends were artists — not art historians, but artists … I spent a fair amount of time in their studios when they were making things. This is Southern California. I went to Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State University and, briefly, UCLA.
INCLINATIONS TOWARD MAKING ART YOURSELF?
A couple of instructors said that I should be an art major, so for a brief period I was an art major. Then I took a painting and drawing class, and then I took some three-dimensional design classes, and what I discovered was I’m horrible with my hands. Horrible. My father couldn’t screw in a light bulb without cussing, and I must have inherited that from him. I didn’t really know about conceptual art then, so I didn’t realize you could have an idea and have someone else make it for you. I thought you had to make it. And, actually, to this day I think it’s important that artists make things, because if they don’t, there’s something of them missing in the object.
PRE-COLUMBIAN POTS TO SERRA AND STELLA.
I realized I couldn’t be an artist, but I really wanted to hang around with artists. I started taking art history classes. I took a circuitous route into contemporary art. My degrees are not in modern art in contemporary art; my degree is in ancient Mexican architecture. I went to Mexico, and as fascinated as I was by the architecture and the art of these people, they were all dead. I was spending a lot of time in the library, and I’m not that much of a library person — and you have to be, in a certain extent, to be an art historian. I really like being in studios with artists, so I got a little bored with making up what I thought this particular pot meant, or what I though this particular jewelry meant, or this architectural thing. I started gravitating more towards writing about contemporary artists and eventually got a job at a museum. They didn’t ask me if I had a degree in modern art. They just asked me if I had a master’s degree, and I said, “Yeah, I do.”
THREAD THAT RUNS THROUGHOUT.
If somebody were looking at the exhibitions that I have curated, they would not be able to find a thread. Because I’ve done everything from the figurative works of Lucian Freud to the abstract paintings of Barnett Newman, the sort of history paintings of Anselm Kiefer … But if there is one thing that attracts me to art, and that I think makes the best art, is that it’s visceral. I don’t just see it, and I don’t just think about, but it actually affects what I feel about my body. When I’m in the presence of really great art, it’s partly a body experience and a mind experience.
That goes back to what I was saying: Artists who just call in their art to a fabricator, who have never made something, there’s something missing in the art. And the something that’s missing is the visceral. Thinking isn’t enough; feeling has to be a part of it. And feeling is very abstract, unless you relate it to the body.
I have done so many shows over my 40-year career, it’s really hard to pick. I’m a pretty old guy now, so there are a lot of things I’ve probably forgotten. Early in my career, I was able to work with Richard Serra when he was just becoming known. Being a part of his becoming one of the great artists of the 20th century was really cool. Now, I’ve never done a big Richard Serra show. I’ve done a small Richard Serra show. And I’ve written about Richard’s work. And I’ve known Richard. Of course, I commissioned Richard to do this great piece we have in front of The Modern, entitled Vortex; it’s dedicated to him, and I’m very proud of that.
YOU AND THE OLD MASTERS.
The other thing is to work with artists that have had careers even longer than your own, like Lucian Freud and Frank Stella. Now, Lucian was in his mid-80s; Frank is almost 80. And I worked with Agnes Martin when she was in her mid-80s. What I like about these artists is that they know more than me. That’s exciting — to be around people that have seen more than you’ve seen and have done more than you’ve done. Lucian Freud was a great thing, and the recent Stella show reminds me a lot of my experience with Freud. These guys have seen it all. That’s very special.
ON TADAO ANDO AND THE MODERN.
One of the great artists I’ve had the opportunity to work with and to interview myself is Tadao Ando, who built this building. Tadao Ando did not have a formal education. He’s essentially self-taught, and he was a semi-professional boxer. Now, this semi-professional boxer, self-taught architect has won the Pritzker Prize. He was the chair of the architecture department at the University of Tokyo, arguably one of the hardest universities in the world to get into, and he’s self-taught. How did he do that? He went to see buildings and then he made models with his hands of buildings that he saw, to try to figure out what he liked about the way they looked and felt.
ON DISTILLING STELLA INTO A SINGLE BUILDING.
This is an artist who has had a 60-year career. His first shows were in 1957 and 1958. How do you present that to someone? Someone’s life work over that long of a period of time in a set of objects — and many of these objects are very large — set out as real estate in a museum. The only way you do that is to really immerse yourself in learning what the vocabulary of that artist is and distilling it into something that you can actually fit into a museum. It’s a problem of ideas and real estate: How many ideas can you give within a given real estate?
ON HOW TO “SEE” STELLA.
Because his career has been so long, four generations have entered his work at different places. They’re all invested in what they like or don’t like, depending on where they entered his work. My generation is completely invested in his early black paintings, copper and aluminum paintings. They are the Holy Grail of minimalism. But, you know, Frank is far more than that. What is fascinating is that this show, I’m very happy to say, has gotten rave reviews. There hasn’t been a magazine I’ve read that has been critical of Stella and his show. A lot of it has to do with the voice of younger people and seeing Stella and realizing they don’t have to be invested in a certain body of work. It’s about someone who hammers and struggles with his work throughout six decades. Now, that’s inspiring. What I think viewers take away from the show is the struggle Stella has had trying to extend the history of abstraction through cubism, through suprematism to minimalism to now. One young artist said to me, “I’m not sure what I think of the most recent work, but I hope when I’m 80, I can still piss people off.” That’s a particularly rare thing.
On placing an art institution on a pond.
A lot of people think the way you make art accessible to people is to write labels. There’s controversy within the museum field: Do wall texts help people appreciate art, or are they a distraction from it? I think you can argue both … The other thing that you can do to make art truly accessible to people is to hire a great architect, like Tadao Ando, to build a space that makes people feel so welcome and so comfortable within their own skin, within the museum. If you build big columns and big steps and make people feel that their walking up to some politically or socially important place, then you make them feel uncomfortable right off the bat.
Here at our museum, you walk into the lobby, and the first thing you see is a pond. Water. That was very important — to have water as part of this building — to me and our board and our director because, well, first of all Texas is so hot. But it also has a calming effect on people. If you look through our hallways, there are window cutaways to the water as you go, so nature and culture are continually in your mind, even if it’s unconscious.
Attributes of a keen curator.
I really am against mythologizing the curator. That’s a big mistake, and you see a lot of it today. I find it sort of uneducated and unknowing when people mythologize curators and when people aspire to be curators without really knowing what a curator does.
Auping in the NBA?
A few years ago, a museum asked Shaquille O’Neal to curate an exhibition. That’s like asking me to play for the NBA — it really is; that’s a fair analogy. And I bet I would last longer in the NBA than Shaquille O’Neal would, curating a show of really important art. I wouldn’t last long, but I would last longer than he would last working in a museum. This isn’t a knock on Shaquille O’Neal; my son is a sports writer — he’d hate me for that. But curating is a job. It involves learning about processing information, learning art history and learning what is innovative and what quality is through experience. It’s not some magical thing.
You have spoken of abstract art’s spiritual aspirations.
I don’t think art is spiritual in the religious sense of the word. I think it’s contemplative … A thing that art could share with true religion is that they could both be contemplative. And they’re both an understanding of your position — position is the wrong word, but your place in the world and the universe.
Art is a way of dealing with that, a way about finding out how you see, what you respond to, what pulls your triggers. It’s contemplative in that sense. It’s kind of a feedback loop; it’s a little bit of a mirror … what you like says something about you, what you don’t like says something about you. It’s a language. Like poetry, you just have to look at it a lot, and you begin to discover things about yourself. You begin to see certain universals. And a universal is something that is very hard to describe, but it’s something that’s so right when you see it.
About the artistic impulse.
I think it was Chuck Close who said — and it’s one of the great lines — “Artists can’t afford inspiration; they have to work.” Something like that. It’s a really great line … Inspiration comes while you’re working, not before. While Richard Serra is working a piece of steel, the inspiration comes. It isn’t to say he doesn’t set things up to create the conditions for inspirations, but it happens in a glimpse within a working process.
When you are thinking of a new show, where does that inspiration come from?
I’m not sure if I can answer that completely. It has to do with how you conceive art history, what you think is the important thing to do at a certain moment. There is a bit of a competition here, where curators need to be there first, particularly in this instantaneous age of Internet access. It is better to be there best than first, and sometimes waiting out is the smart thing to do … I mean, Frank Stella is not a spring chicken, and there are a lot of people who aren’t interested in his work. He’s not the newest artist out of UCLA or Cal Arts or Columbia or Yale. He’s 80 years old.
Where is the edge for The Modern? Your personal edge in making choices for the museum?
The museums don’t create the edge — artists create the edge. They’re the ones who push the boundaries. Museums, particularly contemporary museums, are here to document that edge for that moment — just for that moment. But time moves on and the edge is a constantly moving thing. That’s what makes art so interesting.
Art — particularly good art — is always a recognition of the past and a struggle to re-form it into something new, to push it in another direction. Museums, contemporary museums, do that by finding artists they feel are pushing at that edge. How do you do that as a curator? It’s not as intuitive a thing as a lot of people would make it out to be. It is far more rational, because it just comes with looking at a lot of art. The more art you look at and the more new art that you see, the easier it is to recognize the truly innovative thing. It’s hard for an artist to come in and recognize innovation, because they have no foundation of information by which to judge why something is innovative. But if you’ve done it a lot — and I’ve done this for 40 years — you really can recognize something that is truly new … I appreciate when people talk about these skills of the curator.
Is the best art ambiguous?
Maybe. Great artists tend to be people that can hold two contradictory thoughts in their mind at the same time. So if that’s the definition of ambiguous, then yes. Stylish artists have one idea or one thought, and they just carry it, and they let it be the narrative. But great artists hold two or more contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time, and the objects they produce tend to make you have two or more contradictory thoughts as you’re looking at it. That’s when the sparks fly; that’s when the synapsis goes off in the mind. Otherwise, it’s decor. It’s strictly decoration.
On the museum experience.
It is a fallacy that a museum should make you feel good … You should walk into a museum and see something, and that thing should make you feel good, bad and sometimes even evil at the same time. That’s when you really start having that loop from the work of art to the contemplation of yourself … What is the saying? “Life is an education. Expect to be tested.” That’s what museums should do. Just like universities, they should test you.