By JOSEPH NECHVATALApril 2022
By C is for conservative: Bice Curiger, A life in art—a two-year-old snazzy-covid-ongoing bound—art historian Dora Imhof travels the mountainous terrain of a pop-loving polyglot Swiss leftist student who becomes an art critic-journalist; co-founding editor and publisher of the prestigious Parkett magazine; curator at the Kunsthaus in Zurich and at the 54th Venice Biennale; and current artistic director of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in Arles: a foundation that now vies for eyeballs with a worldwide flood of immersive van Gogh-themed light environments. All the exhibitions of Bice (née Béatrice) Curiger-starting with Frauen saw Frauen (Strauhof, Zurich, 1975)—his travels and his friendships—for example with Sigmar Polke—are documented and elucidated by his contemporaries. This chronological bouquet brandishes its true reputation as the doyenne of the art world of distinction.
This easy-to-read, but too detailed text, Biography expertly translated from the German version by Fiona Elliott, was initiated by Swiss art collector and publisher Cristina Bechtler, founder of the nonprofit EAT project with ubiquitous Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist contributes to the Biography and Curiger curated for EAT, so a tight clique features here.
In his introduction, Imhof recognizes the predominance of economic interests in art, its trivialized contents and intentions, and the crisis of art criticism; but solutions are not suggested. Imhof fails to avoid hagiography by name abandoning the current expanded realm of female curation and its subject’s dedication to equality – reaffirming Curiger’s assertion that artist, curator and audience are on an equal footing. But contemporary art began as a small international network of artists, writers and composers who challenged conventional wisdom about what art is. Equality in art is a nice idea that takes public satisfaction into account, but in reality, if you look through the historical holes in Swiss cheese here, the “equal” myth is untenable. Effectivelyit delivers poster obscures the insider power dynamics that merit the alternative scrutiny Curiger brought to Harald Szeemann’s male-dominated conceptual art world that she penetrated and transformed. SSuch are the pitfalls brought about by the institutionalized, publicized and grassroots arenas that Curiger helped bring about, as some might say, an alibi for art as entertainment.
So these 400 pages, covering fifty years with 209 images, is a mixture of a super format Curiger resume and a cliquish high school yearbook. The abundant use of playful group photos certainly contributes to this perception; including the photo of the author with Bechtler and Curiger in London fourteen years ago.
The book asks the question: what can a curator do after championing the collapse of once distinct types of culture into an all-consuming, mute global monoculture of high-visibility pop? The abuse of the word conservative is indicative itself – people who select-arrange things for a closet or a meal now consistently attribute it to themselves. The role is nearly meaningless in the hammering of mediocre memes and “like-me” driven algorithms.
Although they are not solely responsible for something that has destroyed many aspects of culture at all levels, the view of conservatives losing their grip on historical associations with connoisseurs and art museums creeping into tourist theme parks must include Curiger as an unwitting protagonist. She seem like nice people, but reading her story brings to mind the cheeky quip Joan Didion wrote in Advance to Bethlehem“I’ve already lost touch with a few people I was.”
Pop Art à la Warhol was destined to be part of a fine art-pop art continuum, not the metamorphoses of the fine arts into consumer culture. Today, artistic deviance is defined in relation to Pop Art and the shared symbolic criteria of a legitimacy that mixes art with celebrity, the investment hype and the island 1%. So, Curiger’s mannerist The pleasures of Pop Art burst into the air with their contradictions. But one thing that stands out from the book is his love of The painting. This is curious given the triumph of media spectacle in cultural context and the loss of intimate stillness that anti-elitist postures have returned, making the deep and prolonged enjoyment of painting a challenge. The preference seems ironic, as the painting itself would not have existed were it not for the city’s empty, elite art museum that gave it the fine-grained institutional and intellectual patronage necessary to view it as anything other than decoration. .
So C is for conservative can’t resist putting the wine back in the bottle. Curiger’s her career has been on the rails of egalitarianism and morphing into a geek throughout – something that, to her, conjured up the doorman of the absent old guard of women. From then on, the elusive markers of art’s historical merit fade for fear of snobbery, professional mystification, and racism. Blending art with pop culture into general enjoyment seemed like the brilliant thing to do, while dropping confessions of singular meaning and absolute standards of achievement. But with algorithmically guided audience satisfaction as the guide and goal of a culture now stuck in the mellow corridors of dryness with no outsider (elite or deviant), the need for its style of curation becomes as obsolete as the contemplative space. like a white church. that once defined and protected art. The first modern museums were designed specifically to be unpopular, and the principle of constructing infinite new becomings is inherent in the avant-garde artistic tradition. Both define the value of contemporary art today against the populism of pop culture.
The painter does not paint on an empty canvas, nor does the writer-curator write on a blank page. They are both impregnated with pre-established clichés that anti-pop art must conceal with a chaos that can convey new visions. Polke’s wonderful work was exactly that. The main characteristic of the post-60 art scene, of which Curiger engendered, is the visibility of eclectic pluralism, yet the book has it seem to go blind to the merits of the underground darkness. As we read about her rise as a very important person in the art world, she seems to have lost sight of the precious freedom that darkness gives to art.
Reclaiming the merits of darkness is perhaps what is most vibrant to us about his laudable legacy. WM