I recently finished reading a memoir of Marcia Tucker, curator, critic, and founder of New Museum. The women’s art collective I’m in decided to choose this as the first book to read for our book club. I’ve been meaning to read this since it was published as I figured it would help put my life and aspirations in perspective but I didn’t expect it to be such an intense source of inspiration.
There is so much I relate to with this woman of all great things, from growing up with an unapproachable and distant mother leading to an insecure sense of self and lack in confidence full of constant self-doubts and skepticism, gearing towards men that show the slightest bit of attention and partaking in scandalous and useless relationships, searching for sympathetic mother figures to make up for our lack of the real. She has done everything I want to do jumping from art critic to curator to founder of a museum as a means to create something that didn’t exist, that of a space showing unconventional and critically engaging contemporary art shows. She was a vibrant feminist and divulged in activities outside of fine art such as joining a theater and acapella group.
A beautiful disciplinarian of a mother questioned and doubted everything she tried to accomplish making it difficult to approach her and be raised in a trusting confidence building environment, leaving her with that “sinking feeling that once again I had failed to place.” Growing up in Brooklyn and Jersey she learned to overcome familial restrictions and lower middle class lifestyles. As an artist “there was no such thing as time…family problems disappeared…self-consciousness flew out the window…” and juggled artmaking between studying art history and writing art reviews. She traveled to France and encountered anti-Semitic rebels and fell in love with a man who couldn’t return to the states and fell to his tragic death in war. His name was Henri, “an Edwardian-looking, for-real count whose only profession was to be gainfully unemployed” who was “sweet, attentive, indisputably romantic, and from time to time wore a monocle, which I found outrageously sexy.” On her mother’s deathbed Marcia realizes the coldness and distance from her mother was a means to lessen the pain of death, done “so that the final separation would be less painful for them both.” Sniff.
Growing up in the city she became a folk music groupie and witnessed Dylan when he was a nobody and picked up a job as secretary to William Lieberman of MoMA who was a stuck up temperamental boss who she swore off upon his demand to sharpen pencils. Why aren’t they sharpened? “Because you’re not doing it the right way. You stick them up your ass and turn hard, that’s what does it.” She was living in a dinky apt in the village with a stagehand named Michael who was rejected her hand in marriage. “My refusal added a bittersweet, doomed flavor to our affair-we could live together, but marriage wasn’t an option.” Her frequent visitors were a socially inept and suicidal brother and a suspicious father who had no idea. Sounds like a mess I’m more apt then not to participate in. Her and Michael ventured on a cross country road trip on a motorcycle and decided to get married in Mexico as an interfaith couple. At this point she had little time to paint studying at NYU and working for the artist Rene Bouche and wife Den-Den. Her father dies in the midst of it and with both parents now dead she wondered “who would be proud…What’s worse, I felt that I’d failed them both.” She tries to escape the suffering and get into a motorcycle accident on their way to Montauk breaking a leg in five places. She cried for her father to help but “Then I understood, with all the power of a single, devastating thought: my dad was dead. He was never going to come and get mel he was never going to be able to help. I was alone, and nothing would ever be the same again.” Sniff.
Cast in leg Michael and Marcia move to Spring Vallery upstate and commuted to school. They take a trip to Europe where she’s threatened to be pregnant but turns out to something else leaving her deaf in one ear. They return and she finds work with and artist Bill and wife Noma. It’s an adventure between the two with contemporaries Marcel and quirky jewelry designers in and out of the house. She decides she no longer cares to be an artist and would rather study art history and curate. At that time “most people thought a museum curator was someone who walked around with a feather duster in their hand, and there was certainly no such thing as a curatorial studies program in college.” She gets suicidal and lost and starts hallucinating with voices accosting her with phrases like “In an accident, there is money, money, money…Do you think you’re a unique case?” She became irritated with Michael who at one time called her a castrating bitch. “The conflicts between me and Michael are the result of the battle I’m waging with myself. When I’m really angry I take responsibility for everything and everyone instead of facing the anger. I am constantly aware of the image I present, even in moments of extraordinary stress.” Ditto.
At 24, she ends her marriage and decides no longer to do things she didn’t want to do, seeing paeople she didn’t want to see, “trying to please everyone all the time.” She quits her job for Bill and Noma and finds work cataloguing private collections. She “sat alone, virtually friendless, about to be jobless, and at peace for the first time in a long while.” Relief.
She felt a failure, overwhelmed with loneliness and despondence. She recalls her guru Herman Hesse who “wrote that suicides aren’t necessarily people who try to kill themselves, or succeed at it, but those who are always aware that it’s an option, who have a feeling that that’s how their lives will end, whether they ever actually do take action or not.” Marcia finds a teaching job and challenged her students to accomplish things that were completely foreign. She made their alter their appearance and pick up new identities. Seems to be a self-reflective gesture in hiding and recreating her self.
She befriends Alfred H Barr, Jr.’s wife Margaret Scolari Barr, an art historian turned surrogate mother figure, filling “the vast crater of my own mother’s absence.” She meets a dude at a loft party named Bob Fiore who sounds like a douchbag and they live together in a loft previously owned by Roy Lichtenstein. She’s by now a cataloguer and reviewer for Art News and an avid amateur theater group attendant. She was always up for challenging herself in new ways and “tried to do something really difficult” knowing “the mind would let go and open up, and vice versa.” She “found irresistible and additive the idea of making something out of nothing” which could be found in performance.
Performance art, “no matter how unconventional or informal, offered a new way of understanding art and art making.” It was a time of change, movement and challenging status quo and alternative spaces popped up all over the city. Here she is invited to apply for a job as curator of Whitney. She meets Jack Baur and lands the job as the first female curator, a landmark move. She hates then loves Bruce Nauman whose work was “upsetting because it didn’t fit any of the usual definitions of art…he was making art that didn’t look like art, and that was only part of what made it important.” When installing his show she “realized that the sensation I was having while installing was like my favorite fantasy come trye0 the feeling of being able to inhabit someone else’s body and vision without giving up my own autonomy. I was seeing what Bruce saw, but as myself.” Trippy.
Her first curated show is Anti-Form, a term Robert Morris used to “describe ideas and used unusual materials not normally associated with sculpture…looking as if it had no form.” The title was changed to Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials and was created with the intention of showing the world that “art was no longer what everyone thought it was and would never be the same again.”
Marcia clarifies two ways to curate exhibitions: “One was didactic, where art historians organized exhibitions to share their expertise with the public…the other was investigative which was rarely used because it meant organizing a show in order to learn something, moving full tilt ahead without really knowing what the result might be. It’s what artists, if they are not hacks, do all the time: they work without knowledge of the outcome. Why not take a cue from them?” The show doesn’t receive much acclaim and Clement Greenberg himself gives a nod to her efforts as an assistant to the co-curator, a misogynistic douchbag of a comment.
As an avid feminist she incorporated its beliefs into art and art history and her practice as curator and writer. “It provided possibilities for different reading of art history and a broad social context for individual interpretations.” Bob cheats on Marcia and she leaves, redoubling her commitment to the women’s movement. As the first woman curator, she was in a position of power and she had all intentions in using that power to disseminate positions to other women. She reflects that “today the landscape has changed so much that it’s easy to forget how hard we had to fight for the women and artists of color to receive their due.” Amen.
Marcia learns she is not receiving equal pay for equal work and fought hard for to amend such inequality. She was working frantically while formed a theater collective and led workshops. She finds a gentleman named Tim who moves in and “once again, I was in love.” A love’s fool. But this was an open relationship which was hip in the 70’s. She was working “blindly, compulsively, joyously…where everyting was done with the same urgency…when you wake up in the dark with long lists already in your head, when you sit straight up in a panic…and while being frantically busy is something many…pride themselves on, I now see it as a chance to make sure you never get to think about, experience or feel anything deeply at all.” Hmmm..
She shares stories working with James Rosenquist, an energetic and impatient artist with an impish grin who questioned her curatorial efforts and Less Krasner who was tough old bird and Joan Mitchell, a feisty “bitch on wheels.” At the time she wrote an essay describe new sculpture by the likes of Morris and Smithson, Tuttle and Nauman as an issues of “how sculpture occupies space compared with how space is used in everyday social interactions. In contrast to the permanent, representational three-dimensional objects that had defined sculpture in the past, the new sculpture was ephemeral and interactive.” She was drawn to Tuttle, its fragility and absolute irreducibility, the use of insubstantial and modest materials, emanating the “mysterious, poetic, unfathomable, and infinitely compelling.” The Tuttle show created such a riot and put her position on the line. She was asked to resign and planned on a paper napkin what would become the New Museum. Insert awe and inspiration here.
With a new museum she “wanted to redefine the concept of the museum altogether, to turn it upside down and do all the risky things…to get an audience so excited about what they were seeing that they would always want come back for more…to present exhibitions that showed work being done outside the artistic mainstream…multidisciplinary and community based projects and publication with original scholarship…involving artists in shaping the future of the museum. I wanted to have a direct relationship with living artists. I wanted that to be primary.” Exhibitions were handmade and operated on a shoestring budget. It was a DIY collaborative effort between administrators, artists and the public. It sounds exciting and free. Corporate and academic museum management systems were thrown out the door and authority and responsibilities were distributed on an alternative structure based on “collaboration, openness, mutual respect, and dialogue.” Hierarchy was replaced by rotating jobs and with new skills being shared and learned and everyone received equal pay, something that lasted only until the small staff was increased.
For a show titled Bad Paintings, Marcia was “intrigued by a new tendency in painting where notions of beauty and classical good taste were being thrown out the window. The figure, personal narrative, and an avoidance of the conventions of high art characterized this new work.” Her intentions were to “raise questions about the quality of works of art-to find a way to engage the public and encourage them to decide for themselves what was good or bad.” She wanted to encourage viewers to take the time to question an artwork rather than easily dismiss. The museum went on to build a collection based on the notion that “artistic value is not absolute, and a determination to make transparent the critical and historical judgments that created the collection…a collection as a constantly changing body of work, an anti-collection of sorts that continually renews its status as a resource of contemporary work, rather than a monument to the past.” How refreshing.
Amidst making something that didn’t exist she found an acapella group and concurred “NY is great, because all you have to do is want to make something happen and you can invariably find others to join you.” At this point her life turned into “one frantic, harried, blundering search for…love?” laden with one night stands. She took a dip into celibacy, a hopeless endeavor for fools like us. She then met Dean. “You never know when you’re going to run smack into the love of your life. It’s haphazard, a chance occurrence, a singly dumb moment that changes everything, forever. If you’d made a different decision-if you’d showed up a day earlier or an hour later, taken another route, or decided not to go at all-then the life you’re living now would be completely different. It’s so arbitrary, and so ordinary.”
My favorite paragraph: “April 11, 1983, was my birthday, so I took the day off from the museum. I went to the bank; to the bookstore to look for May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, which my reading group would be discussing and to the gym. I got two prescriptions filled, went grocery shopping, ran home to wait for the plumber, ate lunch, made supper ahead, wrote a catalogue preface, finalized the artists for a section of our opening show in the new space, wrote a letter and rewrote a proposal for the Venice Biennale, organized my slides for a lecture in Iowa the following week, typed up a program for that night’s Art mob performance, designed the flyer, and mimeographed everything on Eighth Street. (This was a relaxed day!) Then I rushed home to get dressed for the evening.”
She’s eventually pregnant with Dean’s child while the museum progresses into greater greatness and he stays at home while she supports the family. In terms of curatorial planning she suggests “Act first, think later-that way you might have something to think about.”
Later on Marcia takes a dip into stand up comedy, retires from the museum, content that she’s “rattled the institutional cage on a regular basis by asking questions that will make everyone else’s eyes roll up into their heads. How does the museum replicate and perpetuate class systems? Why walls?”
Conclusion: “What we need is more controversy and not less. More debate, more dialogue, more disagreement and discussion. Art, especially the work that doesn’t yield itself to quick analysis and understanding, can be a catalyst for change. It can undermine authority, challenge dogma, upset convention, and unmask hypocrisy. Art, at its best, can query cherished values, force us to acknowledge prejudices, and rethink our own and others’ habits and assumptions. Art can make us see the world differently, and if we begin to see differently, we begin to think and act differently as well.”
This memoir made me cry, its sent surges of energy and motivation up my spine, its encouraged me to continue to do what I’m doing, mostly blogging and cultivating my knowledge on art and life and the commingling between the two, and to never quit learning and questioning.