The Hammer Museum’s Llyn Foulkes retrospective has been up now for about a week but because of its magnitude I felt compelled to visit a few times before I could write about it here. You can read some great articles about the show itself and Foulkes’ intriguing background various places on the internet as well as on the museum’s web site, so here I would like to take the opportunity to discuss the curatorial process in mid-career or living-artist museum retrospectives. Now that I have had the chance to spend a bit more time with this comprehensive exhibition, and was able to walk through with the curator, Ali Subotnick, I am even more convinced that IF a museum is going to do a living retrospective, this show is a great model. Please, though, heed the IF in that last sentence, because when poorly curated, retrospectives can and do actually diminish the perception of an artist and their work!
Punctuating the entrance didactic with the Foulkes quote, “Music is my joy, painting is my angst,” prepares viewers to engage one of the enduring elements through the artist’s 50-some year career. The exhibition is mostly chronological, beginning with cartoons and some early art-school paintings, and divided into five large main galleries that represented roughly the five decades of his active work. Walking into the show, one is greeted by a wall-sized photograph of Foulkes’ 1960s home complete with taxidermied animals, road signs, shards of wood, and various other objects that seed his work. This entrance immediately places the viewer in contact with the man, the artist, we are greeted by his presence rather than his work, allowed to percolate in his early mind-set with cartoons and drawings, to see his humor and youthful passion for art. Subotnick’s choice to begin this way sets the tone for the show, bringing it together from the outset rather than forcing the viewer to make sense of it only in the end. The curator gives us a road map, not oppressively and not through dry text, but by allowing us into the life of the artist, to step in his shoes, and look at his work in three ways at once, through historical perspective, through the artist’s individual personality, and through our own eyes.
There are some different theories about the role of retrospectives for contemporary artists. Christopher Knight, in his LA Times review of the Foulkes exhibition, said, “Foulkes’ esteem has waxed and waned over the decades, and the job of a retrospective like this is to secure the artist’s reputation by making the strongest case. It needs editing by at least one-third.” Back in 1994, David Rimanelli wrote in an article for Frieze that covered a Mike Kelley living retrospective, “just what does it mean to have a ‘mid-career’ retrospective–isn’t that like jumping the gun on art history, pretending to write it when, at best, one can try to take the temperature of the zeitgeist, at worst slavishly serve the immediate interests of the art market.?” The curator does have to present a case for the artist, but that is the same for every exhibition, the WHY are we looking at this is just as important as WHAT we are viewing. On the other hand, though, a retrospective that makes the case by excluding a huge amount of the artist’s work, the unpopular or ineffectual series, the experiments and failures, can’t do justice to that aim either. Case in point is the Cindy Sherman retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year. This exhibition, sponsored by major collectors of Sherman’s work, skips the artists’ lesser known and unpopular works, focusing on what collectors and the public prefer, and, thereby, never letting us see the artist through the work.
In the case of Cindy Sherman this is an easy mistake to make given the seeming presence of the artist within her work. Curator Eva Respini didn’t allow herself to access Sherman the artist because she was so captivated by Sherman the muse. Llyn Foulkes’ use of himself as element of the work is only a part of the picture, the Foulkes retrospective allows space for the artist himself to emerge as a personality. Subotnick encourages the man and the image in her presentation, whereas Respini’s sole focus is on the image and because the image is of the creator, she neglects the personality behind the work. Roberta Smith pointed out in a review for the NY Times of the Sherman show, that “less familiar groups of Sherman-free works, all from the ’90s, are skipped altogether: her mask series, horror and Surrealism series, Civil War series and the gnarly, broken-doll series in which she suddenly reverted to working small and in black and white while going through a rough divorce. In an interview in the catalog she notes that collectors prefer works in which she appears; it is unfortunate that the Modern reinforces this view… Finally, the show plays down Ms. Sherman’s astounding artistic precociousness by including too few of her earliest works and then sprinkling them among other efforts in the first and last galleries.” Sadly, although I have been a Cindy Sherman fan from the first image of hers that I beheld, I left this exhibition at MoMA wondering if I was wrong in my assessment of her great artistry. The curators made Sherman look like a one-trick pony.
Rimanelli, in his Kelley article for Frieze, tells us of a friend’s reaction to the retrospective, the friend said, “it almost makes me think Mike Kelley isn’t as great an artist as I’d always though he was.” Rimanelli replied, “it is interesting that a fan of Kelley’s work would immediately take such a vehement exception to the Whitney’s installation on purely formal grounds.” Any knowledgeable art enthusiast will see Sherman’s artistry despite the exhibition, but what is more concerning is the reaction of the lay viewer, and the missed opportunity to portray this artist as a whole creative personality. Art is not a quirk or gimmick, real artists try and fail, they experiment and make missteps as well as giant leaps. Art without experimentation is decoration. The retrospective curator’s job is not just to increase the value of sale-able works, but to give us a view into the creative process, to the great known works, yes, but also to how artists get to those breakthroughs.
This artistic and historical mission is difficult to maintain when so much is on the line for museums presenting retrospectives of widely collected artists. This is especially so given the prominence of collectors on museum boards and the intermingling of gallerists and museum directors/curators. A response to the U.S. Copyright Office’s notice of inquiry regarding art resale royalty rights by Kimerly Rorschach asserts, “retrospectives of a living artist’s work can be instrumental in establishing his or her reputation and standing in the art world. All these can translate into significant economic benefits to an artist in the sale of the artist’s work.” Of course, this extends also to greatly increased benefits to early collectors of the artist’s work as well, so long as the retrospective makes the case for those popular works. In the case of the Tate’s 2012 retrospective of Damien Hirst, The Economist points out, “of the 67 pieces borrowed for the show, only three have come from public institutions, the rest are on loan from dealers and a range of private collectors… Luckily for them, works that have been anointed by the Tate, command more credibility and a premium upon resale.” Retrospectives often depend on the generosity of collectors, and collectors call for the presentation of their works in the best possible light.
About Llyn Foulkes, Holly Myers wrote in the LA Times, “what I like about Llyn is that on the verge of success, he almost always says the wrong thing, makes the wrong move. He is somebody who perennially zigs when he should zag, which I think, in some ways, has kept his art very pure.” Without seeing the foibles, without acknowledging the missteps and sidesteps, we could never get a picture of this artist’s creative process, of his pure and unadulterated talent and obsession. It is this full picture that makes the case of why exactly he should be in the annals of art history rather than a side-note like so many who create great works with no real substance. It is unfortunately the MoMA did not give Sherman the same treatment, allowing her process and personality to be a part of the exhibition, luckily, I’m sure this retrospective will not be Sherman’s last.