By JOSEPH NECHVATALApril 2022
Through C stands for curator: Bice Curiger, A Life in Art– a fancy two-covid-years-in-the-making bound—art historian Dora Imhof roams the mountainous terrain of a Swiss polyglot pop-loving leftist student-turned-art critic and journalist; Co-founder and publisher of the renowned parquet magazine; Curator at Kunsthaus Zurich and 54th Venice Biennale; and current Artistic Director of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in Arles: a foundation now vying for eyeballs with a global spate of Van Gogh-style walk-in immersive light environments. All exhibitions by Bice (née Beatrice) Curiger-start with women see women (Strauhof, Zurich, 1975)—her travels and friendships—for example with Sigmar Polke—are documented and explained by their contemporaries. This chronological bouquet boasts of her reputation as a doyenne of the art world the distinction.
This easy-to-read, but overly detailed, biography expertly translated from the German version by Fiona Elliott, was initiated by Swiss art collector and publisher Cristina Bechtler, founder of the non-profit EAT project, together with the ubiquitous Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist contributes to this biography and Curiger curates for EAT, so there’s a tight-knit clique here.
In her introduction, Imhof acknowledges the dominance of economic interests in art, their trivialized content and intentions, and the crisis of art criticism; but solutions are not suggested. Imhof fails to avoid hagiography by name and, to reiterate, drops the currently expanded field of female curation and her subject’s dedication to equality Curiger’s assertion that artist, curator and audience are equal. But contemporary art began as a small international network of artists, writers and composers challenging accepted notions of what art is. Equality in art is a neat idea that takes public satisfaction into account, but in reality, if you look through the historical holes in the Swiss cheese here, the myth of “equality” is untenable. Indeed, tThe book shows veiled insider power dynamics that merit the alternative view that Curiger brought to Harald Szeemann’s male-dominated conceptual art world, which penetrated and transformed her. SThese are the pitfalls inherent in the successful institutionalized, mediated, popular arenas that Curiger helped create, as some might say: an alibi for art as entertainment.
So these 400 pages, spanning fifty years with 209 images, are a hybrid of a super format Curiger Resume and high school yearbook. The abundant use of playful group photos certainly contributes to this perception; especially the photo of the author with Bechtler u Curiger in London fourteen years ago.
The book begs the question: what can a curator do after campaigning for the collapse of formerly disparate culture types into an all-consuming, dumbed down global monoculture with pop high visibility? The misuse of the word curator is self-descriptive — people selecting and organizing things for a closet or meal now routinely allocate them to themselves. The role is almost meaningless in the throng of mediocre memes and like-me-driven algorithms.
Although not solely responsible for something that has destroyed many aspects of culture across the board, the sight of curators losing historical associations with connoisseurship and art museums slipping into touristic theme parks must include Curiger as an involuntary protagonist. she seems like nice people, but reading their story reminds you of the cheeky joke Joan Didion wrote Slouching towards Bethlehem“I’ve already lost touch with a few people I used to be.”
Warhol style pop art should be part of a Art pop art continuum, not the metamorphoses of visual arts into consumer culture. Today, artistic deviation is defined against pop art and the common symbolic criteria of a legitimacy that combines art with celebrity, investment hype and 1% insular society. So, Curigers mannerist Pop art pleasures pop in the air of their contradictions. But one thing that comes through the book is her love to to paint. This is odd given the triumph of media spectacle in the cultural context and the loss of the intimate stillness left by anti-elitist attitudes – making the sustained deep joy of painting challenging. This preference seems ironic, since painting itself would not have existed without the empty, elitist urban art museum that gave it the necessary fine-grained institutional-intellectually framed patronage to view it as anything other than decoration.
So C stands for curator can’t help putting the wine back in the bottle. Curigers Her career has traversed the rails of egalitarianism and progressed toward connoisseurship—something that reminded her of the old guard without women. Hence, for fear of snobbery, professional mystification, and racism, the elusive hallmarks of art historical merit are fading. Blending art with pop culture for general fun seemed best—along with eschewing any commitments to unique meaning and absolute standards of performance. But with algorithmically driven public gratification as the guide and goal of a culture now stuck in the mellow halls of rugged ruggedness without an outside (elite or dissenter), the necessity of their style of curation becomes as obsolete as the white, church-like contemplative space that once was art defined and protected. The first modern museums were specifically designed to be unpopular, and the principle of constructing infinitely new things is inherent in the artistic tradition of the avant-garde. Both define values in contemporary art today against the populism of popular culture.
The painter does not paint on a blank canvas, nor does the curator-writer write on a blank page. Both are steeped in ready-made clichés that anti-pop art must cover up with a chaos capable of conveying new visions. Polke’s wonderful work was just that. The main feature of the art scene after the ’60s, from the Curiger produced, the visibility of eclectic pluralism is nonetheless The book has her seem to be blind to the merits of the underground Darkness. As we read of her rise to become a highly rated, very important person in the art world, she seems to have lost focus on the precious freedom that darkness gives to art.
Regaining the merits of darkness is perhaps what moves us most about her laudable legacy. WM