I was supposed to start this “Diary” for Slate on Monday, and the reality is that I am just getting to it today. That is my life. One in which a kind of reflective space really doesn’t exist, and motion is my constant MO. I am a curator of contemporary art who has spent the past 15 years working at the center of contemporary art and culture. I currently am the deputy director at the Studio Museum in Harlem. I took this position two years ago at a moment when I was seriously considering if perhaps there might be a life beyond art for me. I didn’t get far. I ended up in Harlem.
I spent all of last week in Chicago installing and opening an exhibition of the work of Gary Simmons. Simmons is an amazing artist at the cusp of midcareer who I have been working with for the past 12 years. That is a secret truth of my curatorial practice. It is relationship and (perhaps more importantly) an ongoing conversation that creates an intellectual bond, that usually results in a project. I met Gary in a strange way. It is an apocryphal story in my curatorial legend, as young artists who somehow have heard it repeat it all the time to me. I went to an exhibition in 1991 and saw a sculpture on display. The sculpture was a real child-sized schoolroom coat rack. Hung on the rack were six child-size replicas of Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods. It was a horrific, haunting work. I was fascinated and repulsed by it. I left this exhibition, and the work would not leave my mind. I decided that I had to meet this artist, the owner of this vision, and I really wanted to work with this person. There were, however, a number of complicated issues such that, while my enthusiasm was real, I was not sure if it could be sustained. For example, I had no idea of the race, gender, and nationality of the artist. The intellectual dogma of the art world suggests that this shouldn’t matter, but as a curator formed in the fires of the multicultural dialogues of the late 1980s, I knew it did. What if the artist who made this work was white? What if the work was not the critique I assumed it to be, but an homage to the Klan? How could I—a young black woman curator—do a studio visit with a potential Klan sympathizer? This was no longer an issue of simply intellectual safety but also of personal safety.
Gary Simmons was and is an incredible young black man raised in New York City who was bringing some of the raw energy and intensity of hip-hop and the cool, precise intellectualism of minimal sculpture to an art world who had never heard this voice. Our first studio visit led to my asking him to make an exhibition at the Whitney Museum at Philip Morris, where I was curator at the time. This is the curatorial equivalent of love (and even marriage!) at first sight. This has only happened to me once. From that project in 1992, Gary has been central to most of my significant curatorial efforts. His work and ideas were central to the formation of an exhibition I organized at the Whitney Museum in 1994 called “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.” This current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is a survey that in some ways Gary and I have been talking about since we first met.
Gary is a conceptual artist. He works in all media, sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, and video. At the heart of his practice is drawing. Early in his career, he pioneered a form of drawing, which he called his erasure drawings. They involve painting on paper, wood, or directly on the wall with blackboard slate and then drawing on the surface with chalk. Gary then somewhat or partially or sometimes entirely erases the images with his hands, creating ghostly, ephemeral, beautiful drawings of incredible depth. This exhibition surveys his work from 1995 to the present. Installing the exhibition was a whirlwind filled with the challenge of figuring out how to make sense of the work in the space, as well as the obligatory lunches, dinners, and talks that are all part of an exhibition’s life.
Gary’s exhibition is emblematic of what I consider my best work, as it comes from a combination of deep engagement with an artist’s practice and a constant desire to be in dialogue. Gary and I talk about a lot of things all of the time. We talk about his obsessions—sports, music—and a few of mine. I have learned all sorts of popular cultural minutiae from Gary—the latest thing this past week was the video game “Grand Theft Auto.” The thing we don’t talk about a lot is art and that is because we don’t really have to.