Cultured Magazine

June/July 2015

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As chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Ann Temkin may be the highest priestess of the most sacred temple in modern art. Ascending to the post from within the institution in 2008, Temkin became the first woman on an impressive short list of people in charge of making up the canon, including legends like Alfred Barr, William Rubin, Kirk Varnedoe and John Elderfield. From a study overlooking MoMA's sculpture garden on a magnificent spring evening in April, Temkin talked about the freshness and accessibility of Picasso's sculpture, how "unthinkable" it would have been a generation ago for a woman to hold her post, and the enormous challenge and responsibility of cultivating the museum's collections. Tracy Zwick: There hasn't been a major Picasso sculpture survey since the one held here at MoMA in 1967. How did this fall's "Picasso Sculpture" come about? Ann Temkin: Generally, we brainstorm five or so years out what exhibitions we think would be relevant in the coming seasons. It's a little bit of an instinct thing about what feels timely, and several of us thought that the part of Picasso's work that feels most fresh at this moment is the sculpture. It's not infinitely reproduced, and it's less visible because most of it remains in the Musée Picasso in Paris. They are a very accessible part of Picasso's work. The paintings can be difficult to decipher if you're not experienced in reading Cubism or internalizing his visual vocabulary. The sculptures are incredibly immediate, and they have a real charisma, almost like living creatures. And, of course, he was a figurative artist all his life; he never was an abstract artist. You get this very strong awareness through the sculpture of Picasso as a creator of beings. Many of the works in the show were retained by Picasso's heirs after his death and haven't been widely seen. Why did so much sculpture remain in the family? It's one of the most fascinating parts of this story. Picasso regularly sold his paintings, but the sculptures were different. He lived with them. When you see photographs of Picasso in his homes from the 1930s through the end of his life, he's surrounded by the sculptures—and not on display, but around the house like you'd have a houseplant or typewriter or lunch or the telephone. He very rarely parted with one. He'd hang his hat on one. His kids would climb on them. Can you tell us about collaborating with Picasso's granddaughter, Diana Widmaier-Picasso? She and several heirs have worked very generously with us in a way that we deeply appreciate. It's just one generation later, really, so we have benefited enormously from those conversations and also the insights of scholars who have worked on the subject before. When you come at a subject like this in 2015, there's already such a rich history. In fact, when you were an undergraduate at Harvard, you worked with Gary Tinterow, the longtime Metropolitan Museum of Art curator who is now director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, who was then a graduate student, on a show of Picasso's drawings. Does this exhibition feel like a return to your art historical beginnings? I think for anyone, Picasso is an infinite well. I'm also very much aware that the last Picasso sculpture show in New York was here at MoMA in 1967. A large part of MoMA's audience wasn't even born then. This is a chance to introduce people to a Picasso they don't know, and that's exciting for us. Drawings are often characterized as the clearest manifestations of an artist's thinking and the most intimate connection an artist makes with viewers. But with Picasso, is it the case that his sculpture provides a uniquely personal glimpse into his life and his thinking? I would characterize Picasso's sculptures as evidence not so much of his mind at work, though that is definitely there, but of his love of making, which is in full evidence. He had the advantage, you could say, of not being trained as a sculptor. In many of the sculptures you can see his fingerprints or palms at work. You realize the junk embedded in the assemblage is stuff that was on his kitchen table or something his dog dragged in. There's a sense of Picasso, the ordinary person, rather than Picasso, the untouchable genius. You've expressed a proclivity for eliminating rigid, medium-based distinctions. Will paintings, drawings or photographs be included in this show? This show is almost an exception to that attitude, partly because I have this conviction that sculpture is a little bit of a second-class citizen, compared with painting, in many museum presentations. We wanted to give the limelight to the sculpture. But there will be drawings and photographs at key moments. For example, there will be one gallery of Brassaï's photographs of Picasso's sculptures. That is the meeting of the minds between an extraordinary photographer and an extraordinary sculptor. Picasso basically had Brassaï as the photographer of his sculptures in the 1930s and '40s, and the photos are magnificent works of art in and of themselves. I'm going against the "It's always interesting to mix" philosophy that I generally have. And the show is going to occupy the museum's entire fourth floor? We need to devote a large amount of space to this exhibition, not because there are so many works, there are about 150, but because each one requires so much space. They are not large at all, but they take up a lot of psychological space. We're being sensitive to the way that sculpture ought to be installed, which is in the round; and we want people to be able to see the sculptures and not just see crowds. You began your career as a curatorial assistant at MoMA from 1984 until 1987, then returned in 2003 and became chief curator in 2008. How do you think things have changed for women over the years? How serious an issue is discrimination in the art world? It is not limited to the art world, though if one were to look back a generation it would've been quite unthinkable or nearly unthinkable for a woman to hold my job. It's this strange math. In art history graduate school, it's an overwhelmingly female student population. In junior positions in museums, it's an overwhelmingly female population. Then there's this magical transformation: When you get to the very top, all of these men appear. That's true in so many fields, but it is particularly pronounced in the art world because, in general, until that point of being in extremely senior spots such as directorships or chief curator, it's so vastly female. We have about 20 people in our department, but just two or three men. These are cultural issues that go far beyond the art world. When you began as chief curator you also said you hoped to take a "broader, more international view" than MoMA had in the past. How has that desire manifested itself? In the 20th century, international was largely defined as Europe and the Americas, for historical, political and cultural reasons. Now we can't call ourselves international without looking to a much broader range of locations. We've had to remap our research and collecting habits, and it's a work in progress. One thing that's very nice about MoMA is that there's such a strong research tradition. We are not kidding ourselves that we can fake it and become instant experts on all of these very rich traditions. Many programs have been put in place over the last decade for training and travel that give us the opportunity to learn; we're admitting that most of us were not schooled in a lot of this material. Has MoMA made strides in acquiring more international masterworks? It's happening. It will continue to happen, and it will increase. During the 20th century at certain periods, particularly at mid century, MoMA did a lot more acquiring from places you wouldn't expect: the Middle East, India, Japan. That's a part of our history that was somewhat hidden because there wasn't much interest in that at the end of the 20th century. We are rediscovering our own past. Just yesterday a colleague working in our storage rooms in Queens discovered a very important Japanese painting from 60 years ago that was totally uncatalogued. It's kind of great. CULTURED 119

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