Chief Curator Nancy Spector on the Making of Artistic License

There is something magical about stepping into an attic that you know to be full of treasures. You can imagine, then, what it’s like to enter the space where the Guggenheim’s art collection is stored. Peer into the dim light, and there’s the unmistakable glow of a painting by Vasily Kandinsky, or Piet Mondrian, or Pablo Picasso; an art handler pulls out a rack, and suddenly you’re standing in front of a colorful and stunning work by Joan Mitchell.

Six artists—Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems—recently enjoyed that experience, and more. The Guggenheim invited them to look through the collection and choose works for the museum’s new exhibition, Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection. Guided by Artistic Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator Nancy Spector, they were able to see works that interested them, and in some cases they stumbled on works and artists they had never heard of. The artists all brought their own viewpoints and sensibilities to this process. Spector notes, “Those visits were really remarkable, because I had the occasion to look at our collection through their eyes.”

The works chosen by the “artist-curators” during those visits now grace the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda, with each artist-curator presenting her or his selections through the lens of a chosen theme on a single ramp. The result is delightful, surprising, and filled with moments of discovery for any lover of art. Here, Spector speaks about the making of this unusual, vibrant exhibition.

How did the concept for Artistic License come about?

I had the idea of inviting a number of contemporary artists to select from our holdings, to make their own exhibition in the building. I thought it important that we work with artists who had had shows at the Guggenheim before, so that they had [experience] navigating its complicated architecture. So we came up with a list that reflects gender parity—three women, three men—and has a sense of a global reach. Most importantly, these six artists represent a range of perspectives.

Has the Guggenheim ever invited artists to curate an exhibition before?

Artistic License is the first artist-curated exhibition at the Guggenheim. Interestingly, this is the 50th anniversary of maybe the first artist-curated exhibition, Raid the Icebox by Andy Warhol. In 1969 he was invited by the RISD Museum to look in their storage and exhibit anything that he found of interest. What he did was to take everything that was in storage and move it upstairs into the galleries, basically as he found it.

Other museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, have invited artists to organize exhibitions. But I think that this may be the largest such exhibition, as our rotunda is 30,000 square feet. It’s very exciting to have something of this magnitude at the museum.

How did the artist-curators choose the works for their presentations?

We invited each of the artists to look at our collection and provided very specific chronological parameters for them. They could start at the very beginning of our collection, which is the late 19th century, up to 1980. To some extent, this was a challenge, because these are all contemporary artists who are quite aware of what is being made today. We provided them with lists and access to our database. Then they all visited our storage to look at actual artworks once they began to articulate the kinds of ideas they were interested in exploring.

Can you talk about what it was like to go into the Guggenheim’s art storage with the six artists?

One could compare it to the experience of being in a library with open stacks: where you go with the goal of finding a particular book, but you get distracted along the way by other titles. Suddenly, your research can take a turn, or you discover something you didn’t know you were looking for. It was very much like that, especially because of the way our storage is set up—our paintings are all on racks that roll out, and they are not installed in any chronological or alphabetical order. So even though we were looking for a particular work, the artists and I would see the 15 other paintings that were on the same rack. I think, to some extent, for at least some of the artists, that really changed the theme that they started out with. For me, thinking I knew the collection, it just continued to add deeper layers of knowledge about what we actually own.

What I found through the process is that all of the artists, each in different ways, gravitated toward a really intimate, personal engagement with the collection. The [selected] works are ones that we don’t often exhibit. Many of these are works that have rarely been seen, or rarely been seen in this context.

What are some of those rarely seen works that the artist-curators discovered?

Jenny Holzer was very excited by the works by Chryssa. We have shown her monochrome white paintings before but have never exhibited her neon works, which are quite wonderful. On the occasion of this exhibition, our conservators brought them back to life, and they’re being seen for the first time. She also chose a beautiful painting by Joan Mitchell that has only been exhibited once in our galleries.

In Cai Guo-Qiang’s selection, there are numerous works on paper by artists whose work we know very well and who are identified with our collection—like Mondrian, Kandinsky, Miró, and Matisse. Cai was really interested in identifying atypical pieces by these artists, however, so you would not necessarily know that the works were by them if you encountered them without a label. These are works that I really hadn’t seen, or even known were in our collection, because they’re so atypical. Cai not only wanted to capture how artists who were on their way to developing their signature styles made work that didn’t look like that style, but also to try to somehow pinpoint their passion for innovation.

What are some of the other themes that the artist-curators examine in Artistic License?

Paul Chan wanted to explore the theme of “bathers” in our collection. This is not an unusual request because it’s a quite common theme in 20th-century art, but it is not really a typical theme in our collection, since the Guggenheim was founded [with a focus] on abstract painting. Interestingly enough, we were able to find a number of works that referenced water, bathing, and the sea, and they really run the gamut from early modern to contemporary. Carrie Mae Weems chose to work, almost exclusively, with a palette of black and white as a formal device to make visible what is essentially not in our collection with any depth: work by artists of color.

Richard Prince has been very interested in the history of 20th-century painting in his own practice, and when he came to work with our collection, he was particularly drawn to Abstract Expressionist painting—in particular, the second or third generation. Jenny Holzer knew from the beginning that she wanted to look solely at work by women artists. Her title, Good Artists, really encapsulates the work that she fell in love with when she was searching through storage. Julie Mehretu wanted to explore how artists responded to times of great cultural, political, and social conflict or upheaval, and we ended up looking quite specifically at work made after the close of World War II. In particular, she was interested in identifying artists who fell outside of the Western canon—from Latin America, from Asia.

What has it been like sharing the curatorial role with these six artists?

I feel like it’s been coauthorship in the most generous and respectful way. It’s been a wonderful learning experience for me. My role has been to try to really understand each of the artists’ interests, what they wanted to glean from the collection, and what they wanted to communicate to our audiences. And to help them hone the selection. Of course, since I understand the rotunda, having organized exhibitions in this space for years, and know, more or less, the numbers of works that could be included, I collaborated with each of them on their installations. But in the end, it’s their show, so they had the final say as to how the works appear on the ramps.

Are there threads that you see running through the artists’ presentations?

Yes, there are threads that weave throughout the entire exhibition. That happened [in part] because the themes are relevant and urgent. One of them is exclusion: What is not in our collection but should be? I would say, work by artists of color, by women. This [show features] the earlier part of our collection, and our curators have been trying very diligently over the past decade to correct that—and there’s still much work to be done. The other thread is attention to a period of trauma, postwar, in particular. Both Prince and Mehretu are looking at the ’40s and ’50s. That’s not random. The time we are in is so complex and troublesome, and [this focus] was a way to work with our collection to bring to light some of the issues that we are contemplating and facing around the world today. But as always, art serves as the lens to talk about those questions and concerns and issues.

What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?

I hope that our visitors would share the joy that we, as curators, have with mining the collection, thinking about it differently, making discoveries, bringing forward works that are rarely seen and often underappreciated. We see it as our mission to interrogate the canon, to ask why only certain artists’ works are seen, and valued, and reproduced in books, and sold, and exchanged, and shown. Hopefully this exhibition, because we’re being prompted by these six wonderful, accomplished contemporary artists, will uncover works that we will learn from, and show again and again.

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