on hauser wirth & schimmel gallery, los angeles
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM and RITA ACKERMANN
photography and portrait by DANIEL TRESE
RITA ACKERMANN — What’s a “curator” now?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — When I started in the ’70s, people didn’t know what the word meant: “What’s a curator?” Now, it’s arguably the most professionally abused of all titles. There are curators in every commercial endeavor, including food, fashion, and real estate. I suppose there are curator pimps now. The meaning of the word “curator” has been expanded and to some degree convoluted. However, my sense of a curator is someone who comes from an academic background, who has a solid foundation in art history, who is a good speaker, and must be a good writer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Writing’s that important?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — It’s critical. There are good curators who are excellent writers, and there are excellent curators who are weaker writers. Because the book or catalogue they publish establishes the history — whether it’s a monographic show, a group show, a thematic exhibition, or an historical exhibition — the logic of the concept and of how it is developed remains as evidence in the book.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the visual side of an exhibition, what it looks like?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Well, that, too, can determine the difference between a bad curator, an average curator, and a really good curator.
RITA ACKERMANN — And a person with vision?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — You have to just see how things might look in your mind. This has been my greatest gift: to be able to envision what things look like together in a room. I could be sitting here and see something over there could go with that thing over in the corner, the two of which have never been together, and then, boom. Together, they make complete sense. The ability to understand in your head how it looks and what it means — those two things — going back and forth in a space, in relationship to other art. This is something people say is like an artist’s vision. But, actually, it’s not. Some artists are great curators, and some artists are really awful curators — even in terms of laying their work out. Just like some curators are great curators, and some are awful at it. Of course, I would never tell any artist I’ve ever worked with that he or she wasn’t a great curator. It’s a matter of trust. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — Has curating changed?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Well, maybe the best thing to come out of the last 40-some years — which I understood early on, and which made a huge difference in my life — is that curators from a previous generation didn’t understand the depth of commitment they had to make to artists. Not just the privilege and responsibility of working with artists, but in some ways the willingness for a curator to put their work and life on the line in the same way an artist does. The sense of being there, with the artist, was a huge change, certainly for me. In some ways, it was the most important, positive change in curating. And maybe that engagement opened up the possibility that the word “curator” could be associated with every other endeavor that required the kind of intimacy and connection needed in art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When or how did you figure out you wanted to be a curator?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — I already knew in high school. I was very fortunate, as a teenager, growing up here in New York. I also had a wonderful art teacher, Betty Tompkins, who, by the way, had an opening of her very provocative work just last night here in New York.
RITA ACKERMANN — She makes erotic paintings…
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Betty was my high school art teacher. I used to go to her studio and see her crotch-shot paintings, which were, like, a mix of Franz Kline, Chuck Close, and bizarre feminism. And she was hot but also very interesting. She knew I loved art and went to exhibitions, and she told my English teacher — who had us all study one American writer — and my English teacher said, “Well, Paul, I’ve got the perfect writer for you.” I was thinking he’d say Hemingway. But then he said, “Gertrude Stein.”
RITA ACKERMANN — Nice choice.
PAUL SCHIMMEL — I’d never heard of Gertrude Stein. Then he mentioned Alice B. Toklas. I knew about Alice B. Toklas. I mean, this is the ’60s, and Alice Toklas was a symbolic figure in the counterculture. All that got me involved, not just in Gertrude Stein’s writing. I was asked to do something on Stein as a writer and collector. So, I used the library at MoMA, which was a great library, and especially great when you’re a precocious 15 year old. I was given access to everything. I started looking at all the works from photographs on Rue de Fleurus and found that it wasn’t so hard to identify them. From that moment on, I understood that there’s something very special about the context of where things are first seen and how the artist sees it. Stein was a show person. At MoMA, they took me downstairs, where the librarian introduced me to an assistant curator, saying that I’d been working on Stein for months and had put together a pretty good list of her works. They were impressed that I’d figured so much of it out. They were organizing a Stein family collection show. It was a big show at MoMA in the late ’60s. They said they had a lot of material already in their collection, which they were grouping together. Downstairs they rolled out racks of works. It was such a privilege to be alone in a museum collection, seeing these amazing works of art. That kind of intimacy is why I like doing shows. I also love the intimacy of the night before.
RITA ACKERMANN — Total obsession since you were a teenager. That’s special.
OLIVIER ZAHM — As a young curator, was there someone you modeled yourself after?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — One person: James Harithas. I went to Syracuse University to study museum studies and art history, and Jim Harithas happened to be the newly hired director of the Everson Museum — the first museum built by I. M. Pei. It was beautiful but had no budget to speak of. Previously, he was at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., where he’d put on the first Nam June Paik exhibition. He opened up the first video department at the Everson Museum in Syracuse. Well, as soon as I got to Syracuse, I figured out that the Everson was where the action was. Harithas hired David Ross [later the director of MoMA] to be his curator. He gave Yoko Ono a show — this was in 1971 — which opened on John Lennon’s birthday. I’d helped a bit as an intern. Jim was teaching a graduate course, and I was very much involved. I got to know Joan Mitchell, Nam June Paik — I brought in plants, tons of them, for his “Global Groove” show in 1973. I worked on a Juan Downey exhibition. I finished college very quickly and followed Jim to Houston. I still had to do my last semester, but I wanted to work with Jim,
so I became a curator when I was 19.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t a public art institution more important than a gallery?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Well, I don’t think that’s true. And at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, I’m going to try and make the gallery world more important than it is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But don’t museums and curators now follow the market more than ever?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — No. There have always been listeners and followers, and there have always been leaders and visionaries. And I also actually think it’s probably the best crop out there now, in a full range, from serious art historians to over-the-top showmen to everything in between. But it’s a much more diverse group of people, and much more global, while also being much more responsive to artists. One might think it’s all going to hell in a hand basket, but I don’t. People might say there are too many kids feeling entitled after coming out of Bard or Yale or the Art Center, but I work with young people. Now I’m working on our opening exhibition at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, and I hired a serious art historian who’s never really curated a show. I can assure you, watching her process and pulling out works and imagining them tougher in the physical space, she’s going to be better trained than I ever could have been because I think the profession actually is much richer and much better — mind you, curating contemporary art was a real specialization in the ’70s. But the contemporary art world now supports a much wider array of people, including curators.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the ’70s, the art world was so much smaller. How do you explain the success of contemporary art today?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — It is truly remarkable… Two nights ago, we welcomed an astonishing number of people here in New York for an opening for Mike Kelley. When I met Mike, in 1981, he wasn’t well known. But never in his life could he have imagined that kind of crowd, like he was rock star. Back then, a hundred people at an opening was considered a really good turnout because mostly openings were for friends, colleagues, and, as you say, a very small art world. This art world has made a lot of things possible, especially for artists who were left out or overlooked. There’s also much broader interest from the youth culture, and that is where the art world has changed.
RITA ACKERMANN — With youth?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — It didn’t change with 60 year olds; it changed with 20 year olds. I wouldn’t say, looking at all the shows I’ve done, that they were oriented toward young people. But in certain shows, I was very conscious that first-time museum visitors could create magic, like a totally powerful drug. You get them the first time, and it’s something memorable — and I’ve tried to do memorable shows. People in their teens and 20s didn’t come out so much back then. That’s when it became something for us, but also because of travel, communication, the Internet, and maybe a feeling many of us had of wanting to be part of a community. I remember sitting around looking at Mike Kelley’s educational complex and his notion of a home.
Art — contemporary art — is an environment in which people, young people, can see themselves. It’s a kind of home.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think maybe the media sphere has become so vapid that young people need art to enrich their lives?
RITA ACKERMANN — Because this world is so different?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — You know, there’s art for people who are filled with cynicism, and there’s art for people who are filled with wonder and spiritual delight. If I’m sure of one thing — and I’ve said this for many years — I think it’s a golden age now because of the extraordinary surplus wealth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In all sectors of society?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Like any great cultural awakening, when you have enormous resources and surplus wealth, contemporary art of any period is supported and maintained. Think of 17th-century Holland. It wasn’t just wealth at the very top, but a wealthy middle, upper-middle, and upper-upper-middle class. It used to be that art collecting was for, like, two people from each of four cities. Now it’s global, so it’s more youth-oriented. All these things have changed art. Looking back, there was a lot of really good B art made in 17th-century Holland — and C art — and then an extraordinary group of really great artists. They’re not all great artists, but there are nevertheless a lot of things that go on at any given time when there is surplus wealth.
RITA ACKERMANN — So, how do you decide what you want to show?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — When you start thinking about shows, you don’t actually realize you’re thinking about them. But then, in a sense, opportunities arise. Most every historical show I’ve done, whether “Helter Skelter” or “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962,” looks very different, but I’ve come to understand certain things structurally… The last two shows I did
with Richard Hamilton, which I think I first thought about doing at MOCA in the early- to mid-’90s, and which didn’t happen — and we didn’t take the Ludwig show either — I thought of Jeffrey Deitch, that he’d like Richard Hamilton because he’s like Mister Pop. And I thought, “Well, this would be the thing I could fit into the schedule.” But then I did the Hamilton show at the Tate with Vicente Todolí, and it ended up being my last museum show.
RITA ACKERMANN — What do you mean?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — The Hamilton show absolutely came out of an earlier show I did, “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979.” And though I’m probably best known for “Helter Skelter,” “Out of Actions” is probably my one unified theory, if you can have one. It was my way of bringing everything together in a single exhibition. It was sweeping in a way that was really challenging in the best sense: taking a Pollock concept and putting it on the ground, and looking at Lucio Fontana next to Kazuhiko Shimamoto and jumping to Takashi Murakami and Yoko Ono.
OLIVIER ZAHM — By diversifying a single concept?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — I realized I’d been working on that show for my first 20 years as a curator. And while I’d done many shows here and there, at MOCA I brought it all together. I’m now probably taking chunks out of it. I’m a very contextual person. I think curators sometimes miss things that are in plain sight — as close to them as reaching out and touching it. It’s all right here. I understood that when I first started working in California. The first day
I went to work at the Newport Harbor Museum, I knew I wanted to do a Chris Burden show. Chris is a giant among artists. He went to school in Irvine and had shown at the Newport Harbor Art Museum when he was around 24 years old. I thought he was the most important artist to have ever come through those doors. I wanted to make Orange County — where it all happened — own this.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you start with the local history of Los Angeles?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — I felt that history insists on that. Chris was right there, in plain sight. I mean, of course I wanted to do a Rauschenberg Combine show, since we had nine Combines in the basement — and I could add Ileana Sonnabend’s to those nine. And we had paintings by Rothko in storage, which I wanted to show. But what about artists right here in the community? I’ve always loved mixing up international artists with interesting regional ones. It’s like looking at what’s in the basement.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Mixing two worlds, American and European.
RITA ACKERMANN — Many artists are that way now. I’m Hungarian. I’m American.
PAUL SCHIMMEL — And the art world is very consciously dealing with other cultures, with Asia and Latin America, and with Japan, which, perhaps far more than anywhere else, I would say, has a very extensive and still underappreciated history, one that intertwines East and West in a very fluid way. Of course, China’s just boomed, but I’m a little old. And, weirdly, I think the Japanese still don’t really value their artists.
RITA ACKERMANN — I can relate…
PAUL SCHIMMEL — LA hasn’t really been that appreciated, either. That’s all changed now. To use an LA metaphor: I rode the wave. I didn’t make the wave, but I picked it, I knew the one to catch, and I rode it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about your new project? What is it exactly?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is a public institution.
It truly is. It brings the public and the commercial together. As a guy who’s curated shows of late abstract Surrealism and early Abstract Expressionism, I’ve always been interested in the in-between. Hybrids are very interesting places for creativity: something is this, but it’s also that. Hybrids offer wonderful flexibility. For that reason, foundations are far more interesting, right now, in terms of contemporary art. I understand what you were saying about museums following the market. I am concerned that museums are, in a way, forced to be populist. But that allows foundations to take an intellectual, as well as moral, high ground. I think museums should always be thinking about how to bring the intellectual moral high ground closer to the artist. But it’s the foundations that occupy a space between individual collectors and museums, which is a very interesting space, as is the space between commercial galleries and public institutions, which work closely with artists.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there precedence for this mix of history and commerce?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — There is a formidable history of art within the commercial world, with serious scholarship and lasting impact. Sidney Janis did historical shows, such as of Mondrian. Pace Gallery does them. Gagosian does them even more frequently. What I’m doing is not the first venture in a public and commercial venue. However, we may be more systematically thought out from a conceptual standpoint, as well as how it’s realized in a space that is not a museum. But history was never built into the infrastructure of a facility, at least to such a degree as it is now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of building is the new space?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — It’s an old flour mill, composed of seven buildings, which date back to the 1890s. They came out of maybe the greatest American architecture: functionalist architecture. Trains rolled through this building, carrying heavy loads of flour. There were hundreds of employees. The building was built to suit a rationale that, unfortunately, most museum architecture loses. Annabelle Selldorf Architects are doing the renovations, laid out in a grid of different spaces…
RITA ACKERMANN — So it’s really big.
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Yes. And maybe it’s only in Los Angeles that you can find 116,000 square feet with four separate galleries, and a community dying to walk in and pass through it. Los Angeles is among the most street-oriented of urban communities. And, by LA standards, I have every reason to believe there will not be a single gallery in the history of LA that will come close to the visitation numbers we’ll have in our first year.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It seems that maybe you still have museum-like ambitions.
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Museums, whether they’re fixed-collection institutions or collecting institutions, are completely different animals. I’m a museum person, yes. I love the lodestone of a collection. I love holding the reigns of
a collection. That, in fact, is what I thought about for my opening exhibition.
I wanted to start with something very foundational, like in a collection, whose reins hold you in. But we’re not a museum.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you talk about the show?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — The only thing I can tell you is that it will be historical, covering a period from the late ’40s to the present. It’s formally very coherent and is fundamentally a kind of political show.
RITA ACKERMANN — Is it from one collection?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — No, not at all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s politically oriented.
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Well, all art is political in some ways. This is a truly formal exhibition, which will be evident from the nature of the works included.
RITA ACKERMANN — Yet not like a museum show?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — And not like a foundation, either, which operates like both a private collector and a public institution. A commercial gallery that offers extensive public exhibitions operates differently. I suspect, given the fact that I’ve been a curator for 40 years and know nothing else, it will look more like a museum in terms of multiple galleries, with a variety of things going on, along with a restaurant and a wonderful bookshop, along with the exhibitions themselves, which will last longer than gallery shows and include far more borrowed works, as well as issuing catalogues. The first two shows I’m working on are absolutely like museum shows. What’s interesting is that there are museums that want to be more cutting-edge in their programs. Likewise, as you know, gallery-like shows are increasingly showing up in museums. I’m not saying that everything is for sale, but studio-based exhibitions, one-off shows are being seen.
RITA ACKERMANN — By presenting a single concept or body of work?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Yes. Traditionally, that kind of thing happens in a gallery. For example, if I’m working with an artist on a typical gallery show, and a museum comes along and says they would like to take the exhibition, I’m not going to tell them what to do. But if it’s a good venue, I’ll tell them it would break my heart if I didn’t work with them. Museums should work with galleries. That said, large, complex, thematic, overreaching, or historically based exhibitions, or the gathering together of different ideas from different artists who come from different communities, can’t really be done in a gallery.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But isn’t that what you want to do?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Yes, because I feel there is a place for that within this kind of hybrid. In some ways, that’s been the domain of nonprofit organizations, but often, for one reason or another, foundations don’t have the resources to rigorously pursue such exhibitions. And that’s almost across the board.
OLIVIER ZAHM — As a commercial venue, will you have to sell work?
PAUL SCHIMMEL — Yes, but Hauser Wirth & Schimmel will also have exhibitions in which none of the works are for sale, as well as those in which all are for sale. And we’ll have some very beautiful things in our showrooms. You can be sure of that.
[Table of contents]
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