Getty Research Institute, 406 pp., $69.95
Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us
A restaurant near my apartment sells “curated salads”; a home goods store sells “carefully curated sheets”; a babysitting agency offers “curated care”; my inbox bulges with curated newsletters, curated dating apps, curated wine programs. Kanye West, the Trumpist rapper, calls himself a curator, as do Chris Anderson, who runs TED Talks, and Josh Ostrovsky, who under the name the Fat Jew spews plagiarized jokes and alcohol advertising to millions of followers on social media. It’s been well over a decade now since the figure of the curator—a once auxiliary player in the world of art—became vulgarized and generalized in consumer society, and still its demented currency endures; you can eat burgers at the Curator restaurant at Heathrow Airport. Actual curators, by which I mean the people who care for objects in museums and organize exhibitions and biennials, have had to start looking for new titles. (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, this year’s winner of a major prize for curators, prefers “draftsperson.” She says, “You curate pork to make prosciutto.”)
The curator, especially the curator of contemporary art, is a young figure in art history; we critics have thousands of years on them. Aristocrats, physicians, and clergymen proudly oversaw the connoisseurship and display of their own Wunderkammern in the early modern period, while at the Louvre, the first of the national museums established in the late eighteenth century, the décorateurs who hung paintings and installed sculptures were artists themselves. Audiences discovered new painting and sculpture at artist-juried exhibitions such as the Salon in Paris, and later at commercial art galleries; braver souls might first see the modernist avant-gardes in exhibitions artists organized on their own.
Only in the middle of the twentieth century did the curated exhibition take over from the salon, the dealership, and the independent show as the principal launch pad of contemporary art. In fits and starts, the professional curator arrogated responsibilities once held by the artist, the collector, the historian, or indeed the critic, becoming the figure who assigned meaning and importance to new art: someone the art historian Bruce Altshuler has called “the curator as creator.” Soon after, the curator stepped beyond the single museum or institution to become a roving organizer and analyst of contemporary art.
In the United States, the paragon of this authorial form of curating contemporary art was Walter Hopps, a Californian who in the 1960s offered the first museum retrospectives of Marcel Duchamp and other living artists. (He later became the first director of the Menil Collection in Houston.) In Europe, it was Harald Szeemann, a shaggy Swiss savant whose early career at a small, noncollecting institution prefigured nearly four decades of organizing…
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