On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with Sheena Wagstaff, who leads the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s program of modern and contemporary art. They spoke about the job of a museum curator, how a major exhibit comes into being, and why it’s important to see art in person. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: One of things that was on my to-do list right before all this unfolded was to go to see Painting After All, the Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Met Breuer. Could you tell me where that idea came from and how long an exhibition like that is in the works before it’s on the walls?
Sheena Wagstaff: I’ve known Gerhard Richter for a very long time, though not very well until this exhibition. He was in New York briefly for an exhibition at a commercial gallery, Marian Goodman. I had lunch with him, and I asked him whether he would consider working with me on a project at the Met. He was very clear and very straightforward, and he basically said, No, I’m not to going do it, because I have reached a certain point in my lifespan, and I don’t feel I need to do any more exhibitions. I need to spend the remaining years I have in the studio. And then a couple of years later, he contacted me and said, “I think I actually might be interested in doing something at the Met.”
So we started talking, and as a result of a conversation that I had with my co-curator Benjamin Buchloh, who is a professor of art history at Harvard and who is a very, very longtime friend and the principal interlocutor of Gerhard Richter, we sat down and started thinking about a different kind of exhibition.
There’ve been so many Richter exhibitions in the world. There’s no point in doing another one unless it contributes to thinking anew about the work. So we came up with the idea to take the cue for the show from a series that Gerhard did from 2014, which he called the Birkenau series. They are four large paintings that are based on four photographs that are the only extant photographs taken by prisoners during the time of their imprisonment in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The idea being that we didn’t want to fetishize this series, but at the same time, we wanted to demonstrate the fact that Richter has, throughout his entire life, borne the knowledge that he had both a personal connection, as well as a responsibility to represent—as most German artists of that generation do—a collective responsibility for what happened in the mid-20th century in Germany. From that point, we grew this exhibition that ended up having two parts to it. One was Birkenau, and one is the so-called Cage Series, which is his homage to John Cage.
Is it useful to you to have the artist at your disposal? Or is there ever a moment where that’s actually disruptive to the work of creating an exhibition? Where your idea is at odds with the artist’s agenda of preserving his or her own legacy?
It varies of course, from artist to artist. While some artists are very, very good self-filterers and self-editors, others are not. There is usually a propensity to perhaps forsake more of the earlier work in preference for the later work. There is also another propensity of artists to fit as much as they possibly can in an exhibition, at which time you end up as a visitor coming out on your hands and knees barely able to breathe.
When you work with someone like Gerhard Richter, who has over 60 years of work behind him, he is a lot more phlegmatic and practical about the ability of any exhibition to bear testament to his entire career. He’s also remarkable because he has an ongoing, critical doubt about the viability of his artistic practice.
So at the same time as having this incredible facility and inventor of his medium, he often doubts himself. To have come to a series like Birkenau and deal with that in the only way he knows how to, through painting, and to come to a moment when the possibility of rendering that in a pictorial way, in a recognizable way, as if it was a painting of a photograph, and to decide ultimately that although he’d set out to do that, he wasn’t able to do it, and therefore he moved to abstraction. That wasn’t a failure. That was an alternative route. That was the only route possible for him, he realized.
Is it important for you, for any curator, to love the work that you’re putting together?
It’s odd, because once you have gone through the very intense period of working together with an artist and making an exhibition, you never quite know how you’re going to end up. A few artists I’ve worked with, I’ve fallen out of love with the work at the end. Other artists, I feel I’ve done the best job that I could do, and that he or she had could do, and it was a good job done, and it went out into the world, and it was good all the way through.
And then there were some artists—and Gerhard Richter is one of them—where I end up having more questions about the practice than I did at the beginning. One spends so much time during the installation process looking at these paintings and working out what Richter was intending to create, how he was responding to photography, what those two very, very shadowy figures mean in the back of a façade of a building that was otherwise unremarkable.
All these questions remain not so much to do with his choice of the subject matter, but how he painted them. When you look at his abstract paintings, you cannot work out how he does them, and yet they have this extraordinary impact on you. And I may not like them all. I certainly would not want to live with many of them, but that’s not the point.
Because of the museum’s temporary closure, the only way I could see the exhibition is to look at the catalog—to look at a PDF of the catalog no less. There a funny intellectual resonance there, because the artist is rendering in paint something he might have seen in a photograph, or rethinking something, like his painting September from 2005, which is a painting of a news service photograph. Or it might even be a video still of a plane striking the World Trade Center. So I’m looking at a PDF on my computer screen of an image that a man painted on a canvas from having seen pixels on a screen reproduced in newsprint. There’s something apt about experiencing the work that way. What do you think about the imperative to see art inside of the museum versus in the pages of a book?
I think you answer your own question in highlighting that moment of 9/11. There was an absolute surge of visitorship to museums in that time. I’m not sure I can articulate this very fully, but there is something incredibly consoling about the fact of the object, the direct relationship one has with something that is as physical as your own body and the fact that we are now going through this period of not even being able to touch one another, where our relationship to one another is through a series of screens. Intellectually, that number of removes is an extraordinarily rich one to explore.
Ultimately, it is about painting. It is about the surface. It is about understanding that when you’re standing in front of one of those Birkenau paintings, and you see the crevices and extraordinarily distressed surface of layer on layer on layer of paint that he does, that he scratches back, you cannot get any of that experience or any of that sense, that visual tactile sense, by looking at an image on the screen. That is why painting is so vital, not just because it shares that visceral experience, but also because it becomes a metaphor for your own way of thinking, your own way of remembering things. The photographic image is always one that as soon as it is taken, it’s over, it’s always in the past. So, Richter is responding to those old photographs from 1945, and yet he’s making them fresh through painting. It is present. It’s absolutely relevant to now.
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