Everything is Interrelated: a conversation with Roxana Marcoci

The following is an abridged transcript of a conversation between IFA alumna Roxana Marcoci, Curator of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, and the author, which took place at MoMA on 7 August 2012.

Roxana Marcoci, Curator of Photography at MoMA
I was born in Romania, in Bucharest, and I left when I was 18 as a political dissident. I became a political refugee in Paris while I studied for a year and a half at the Sorbonne, and then I immigrated to the United States. For my undergraduate studies I went to Hunter College, which is part of the City University of New York—it was an excellent program. I did a triple major: art history, theater and film criticism, and a colloquium in interdisciplinary studies, which was taught by two professors from two different humanities’ fields. So this sort of cross-disciplinary approach was from the very start the core of what I did. It was always an underlying current in my studies.

I applied to Columbia and the Institute and The Graduate Center and I was admitted to the three of them. In the end I was really interested in studying with Kirk Varnedoe, Robert Rosenblum, and Gert Schiff. The Institute was known at the time as being this beacon of serious art history, while places such as the Graduate Center—where Rosalind Krauss was teaching—were known for their strength in critical theory. Kirk Varnedoe, who became my sponsor in the PhD program, offered at the Institute one of the very first colloquia on the intellectual history of critical theory. I think that even Kirk was learning as we were. That colloquium was significant because it was overarching. It included everything from the Russian Formalists to Structuralist and post-Structuralist theory to postmodern theories. I mean, we covered the Shklovsky group and Barthes and Saussure and Derrida and Lyotard and a lot of the texts were just being published or translated at the time here in the States. It was a very important turning point for the Institute because there wasn’t anything like it.

Kirk taught a seminar on Minimalism, and we talked about a triumvirate of influences: Brancusi, Duchamp and the Russian Constructivists. I did a seminar report about Brancusi’s impact on the Minimalist generation and conducted a series of interviews with a number of artists such as Carl Andre. Also in 1995 there was a large-scale Brancusi retrospective [Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957] that was done by the Centre Georges Pompidou by Margit Rowell in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art when Ann Temkin was there. Ann and Margit collaborated on this retrospective, which was very interesting because there were two completely different shows. Margit decided to install the work based on morphological relationships: the series of The Newborns, Sleeping Muses, The Endless Columns, Mademoiselle Poganys, all together in the various materials and over time so you’d see the evolution of the body in space from something that was more naturalistic to something that looked like a propeller. Ann Temkin actually organized the exhibition very much like Brancusi himself installed the work in the studio, based on installation views and Brancusi’s photographs.

So my dissertation [“Site of Contestation: Constantin Brancusi’s World War I Memorial,” 1998] started as seminar report. Then I decided that I would go back to Romania to do some research in the archives. The archives were being held in Târgu Jiu, which is this peripheral town not far away from Brancusi’s birthplace where in 1937-1938 he was commissioned by a group of women to do a monument to WWI heroes. I did the research and uncovered a lot of unpublished source material which then was incorporated into the dissertation, but I realized that my interest was to talk about Brancusi as one of the very first public sculptors of modernism because he did this monumental work in Târgu Jiu which is very little known, but which contains the seeds of so much of his thinking. It’s a monument that is made out of four important sculptural works: the Endless Column, the Gate of Kiss, the Alley of Chairs, and the Table of Silence, spread on a one-mile long axis that traverses the city from one side to the other. I became very interested in the contested critical reception of this monument. Brancusi came to be seen as a decadent bourgeois artist by the new communist party, who criticized the fact that he was living in Paris, that he was aligned with the avant-garde, only to in 1958, after Brancusi’s death, recuperate him as one of the major national artists. A lot of the dissertation dealt with the work—with its significance in 20th century art within sculpture and public art—but also the history of its critical reception. Then a last chapter dealt with Brancusi’s impact in contemporary art practices, based on the interviews that I did with various artists.

After I finished the dissertation I spent a year writing and teaching. Then in 1999 there was an opening at MoMA for a curatorial assistant of Painting & Sculpture, and I was asked if I would like to apply for the job. My very first exhibition was a centennial retrospective of Alberto Giacometti. Anne Umland and Carolyn Lanchner were co-organizing that show with two curators from the Kunsthaus Zürich. It was the perfect way to start a curatorial career. Really, the best introduction to curatorial work is to do a major exhibition like this centennial retrospective which was a collaboration with a European institution—after that I thought that I could do any other show.

Teaching is a much more solitary endeavor; curatorial work is an infinitely more collaborative practice. I was an adjunct professor, and as I was finishing my studies I was going from a class with fifteen people to working in an institution with 750 employees, with thirty different departments. And exhibitions are comprehensive: from the conceptualization of a show, to its touring, to seeing the objects, to enlisting the scholars you would like to contribute, to displaying the work, to various panels and educational programs, symposia and all of that. It’s a very public process, an engagement with a much broader group of people—more diverse, more international.

At the same time that I was working on this exhibition I did two personal shows here at MoMA. In 2000 the Museum organized MoMA2000, looking to the new millennium. The Museum decided to put together exhibitions from the collections that would be cross-departmental. So my show was called Counter-Monuments and Memory [2000]. It was an exhibition that dealt with memorials to some degree but monuments that go against the conventional tenets, because monuments often seal the mnemonic process. I contributed an essay to Modern Contemporary: Art at MoMA since 1980, which was the accompanying anthology. I got my first reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere, so it was like this was my exhibition. And at the same time MoMA PS1 had an international program of artists in residence and curated their exhibition at the Clocktower downtown. The Clocktower had not been used for many years and it didn’t even have electricity—we certainly didn’t have a floor plan—yet it was one of the most absolutely engaging and rewarding shows. It was based around a series of installations, some of them new commissions. So in parallel with the Giacometti retrospective, which was my primary responsibility, I worked on these other shows during my weekends. I wouldn’t have dared to work on them during regular office hours but it was extremely important to do something of my own.

Four years later I was promoted to assistant curator, but I moved to photography. I never thought that I would move to photography; I was more trained in painting and sculpture but I was very curious about all mediums. I believe in the porousness of mediums and I believe that artists don’t think in terms of straight, ghettoizing, medium-specific disciplines. Since I joined the museum it’s just a different institution. Now there is a lot of collaboration between curators among various departments; back then it was a like a federation with different countries. I think that the reason why [Chief Curator of Photography] Peter Galassi enlisted me to join this department—he was interested in someone to focus on the postwar contemporary period and he wanted someone with a background that was broader than pure photography. I think he realized the direction that the museum was going at the time. So when I joined the department I proposed two exhibitions. One was a photography exhibition, a retrospective of Thomas Demand [2005], and one was Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making [2007], a thematic show about the notion of humor in abstraction which included everything but photography: painting and sculpture and video installation and even sound installation but no photography. From the very beginning I made sure that I could continue working in a trans-media mode.

Roxana Marcoci at the opening of Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today.

I think that The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today [2010] was, of my exhibitions, memorable on many accounts—it covered the entire history of photography but it basically dealt with how one medium interprets another medium. In fact, it started with the Institute, with Brancusi. What I did not mention is that although my focus was on Brancusi’s sculpture I really came to understand him through his photography. In the photographs, Brancusi calculates the angle of incidence so the flash really hits the polished bronze and explodes the gestalt. You think of Brancusi as this purist, Platonist sculptor, but he wasn’t. And this you see either by visiting the studio or by looking at the photographs; you rarely see it in looking at museum installations, unfortunately, which are more purist than Brancusi was. So for many years the photographs were considered flawed because they were superimposed, they had multiple exposures, they were blurred, but today they are considered a very important part of his work. For me that was the starting point for this exhibition, then it went back to the advent of the photographic medium, to 1839, and covered the whole history up to today.

Original Copy was a major show with extensive research and a substantial catalogue. It was a show that traveled to Kunsthaus Zürich, had a great critical reception. There are exhibitions like that, then there are exhibitions like the Olafur Eliasson show that I did here in collaboration with Klaus Biesenbach [Take your time: Olafur Eliasson, 2008] which was so challenging on so many other aspects: it had installations here and at MoMA PS1, and it provided a new set of issues to deal with. The recent Sanja Ivekovic retrospective was a page-turning moment for our institution because it’s not the kind of show that we normally do here: she is not a known factor, not a known artist and yet she is an artist who’s been in five Documentas—more than Joseph Beuys. Perhaps it’s also the right moment now to devote this exhibition to a Croatian artist who emerged in the 1970s. There is so much interest in recuperating this strong work, in looking into histories other than mainstream, western-centric histories. That was a difficult show to do not just institutionally but also working with her because she is a self-made person without galleries, very strong-willed, very smart and very tough. That’s the beauty of it: each show poses a really different set of questions and opens different perspectives.

I don’t think that you can rest on your laurels, not ever. If I could choose between being mortal and immortal in a literal sense I would choose immortal, although it must be terribly painful. But I am endlessly curious about what will happen to curatorial practice in the future. There are just so many changes that have occurred in the last ten years since I’ve been here. There is so much focus now on process and performance, on ephemeral modes of art practice that were before never being considered as being part of a history of art—certainly not a museological history, maybe they were part of the history of art because you could study them but you could not show them—they were background material. You didn’t know how to collect them and here we are collecting them and showing them. And I would just love to do more exhibitions and re-think the ways that we are doing what we are doing constantly. There is a much more interactive, social aspect that brings art more into life, more into politics, more into other disciplines and other fields than ever before. There is more contamination than ever. And I have always thought that everything is interrelated.

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