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BETTY ANN BOWSER: Another opening, another show. Installation of new artworks in a museum gallery is the culminating moment of months of complex work, work the public rarely gets to see.
But over the next year curators from two sides of the country have allowed the NewsHour to follow them as they plan an important upcoming show. It’s a chance to see how their judgment shapes what we see when we go to an exhibit. Cathy Kimball is curator of the San Jose Museum of Art in Northern California. It has a typical problem for a young museum, a new beautiful, big building but not much art. Beth Venn works for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
She has the opposite problem – a huge, distinguished collection but only limited space in which to display it. Six years ago the two museums signed an unusual agreement to collaborate on a series of shows for the San Jose facility that have brought hundreds of the Whitney’s finest works to California audiences for the first time. Now, Kimball and Venn are working on the fourth and final show in the series, on American landscapes.
It began to take shape where most shows do, in the research library. There’s a long tradition of American landscape art. 19th century painters were known for their romantic views of America’s natural wonders, like the Rocky Mountains or Niagra Falls. Some 20th century artists dreamed about nature in ways that barely look like a landscape at all. Next stop, the slide library.
SPOKESPERSON: We seem to have like so many ways to organize this show. You know, we’ve got romanticism, we’ve got –
BETTY ANN BOWSER: With 12,000 works, the Whitney has enough landscapes to make up any kind of show imaginable. There are expressionist works like Thomas Hart Benton’s “Distorted Hillside,” or Charles Burchfield’s “Angry Rainstorm.” There’s the moody intensity of this Alex Katz painting of trees reflected in the water. Some works try to undermine the beautiful landscape tradition. This Roger Brown work features stuffed animals soaked in tar against a scene of an oil slick. Gradually, the curators began to look for connections.
FIRST CURATOR: This work by Chuck Close which is called “Sunflower” –
CURATOR: Oh, fantastic.
FIRST CURATOR: Which again – you know – it’s not unlike – a Georgia O’Keefe –
CURATOR: Right – juxtaposition –
FIRST CURATOR: — on an element as a way of talking about the elemental forms of the land.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: From the connections themes emerged, then lists, then revisions of those lists. Venn had her set off possible themes, Kimball had hers. They wondered whether to arrange the works chronologically, beginning with the turn of the century, winding up with contemporary pieces.
CURATOR: We need some different groupings, because it seemed like the themes that we kept going to – dictated a chronological approach.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Grant Wood is best known for his paintings of Midwestern farm life. Maybe he could be paired with contemporary artists like Dennis Oppenheim, who creates landscapes by actually plowing up the land itself. The curators also wanted to match “A Romantic Moonlit Mountain” by Rockwell Kent with a neon sculpture by Keith Sonnier that also suggested moonlight. In the end, both curators agreed they had to shape the sprawling diversity of American landscape art into some kind of a story. But they were less certain of its plot.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What is the story you’re going to tell here? You don’t really know yet, do you?
BETH VENN, Curator, Whitney Museum: Partly we do, partly we don’t. I mean, I don’t think we know the specifics, but I think in terms of a general story we want to talk in general about artists’ approach to nature in 20th century America.
CATHY KIMBALL, Curator, San Jose Museum: And their response to nature.
BETH VENN: And their response.
CATHY KIMBALL: But at the same time, pieces that people might not think of as a traditional landscape or might not even recognize as a landscape will be included to help change their perception.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What’s the hardest part about this whole process?
BETH VENN: This part right now.
CATHY KIMBALL: It is.
BETH VENN: Choosing – really getting down to choosing the themes and then the works that are going to go in to those themes.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How to choose? Everyone loves Edward Hopper, and the Whitney has more Hoppers than anyplace in the world. The public also loves the elegant simplicity of Milton Avery, or the stark realism of Andrew Wyatt. The show couldn’t do without these three, but it also couldn’t be dominated by them either.
BETH VENN: It isn’t just about greatest hits. You know, if you just go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, what are you really learning? You know, what are you really learning about then?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But what is it that gets most members of the general public in the front door of the Louvre?
BETH VENN: Absolutely. I agree.
CATHY KIMBALL: And that’s okay.
BETH VENN: And that’s okay. And the same thing is true at the Whitney. I mean, what gets people in the doors of the Whitney — Edward Hopper.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And there were visual problems. Art looks one way in reproduction but a black and white print of this Joan Mitchell painting can’t begin to convey the size and power of the real thing. And there were some practical problems.
BETH VENN: I don’t know if you’re familiar with this piece by Mary Lucier –
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The show had to work for other team members as well, like the education curator, Margy Maynard, who wanted to use it as a learning experience for the school groups who would inevitably visit. The art also had to fit the so-called “real estate,” the gallery space. San Jose has high ceilings that make it easier to show big pieces, but it also has columns and an inside staircase, not very appealing space for handling great artworks. The curators had to carefully coordinate their work with the exhibition designers – Kit Henrichs and David Asari of Pentagram Design in San Francisco. They’ll have to come up with an actual design for the show that will dictate where and how the art is displayed.
KIT HINRICHS, Pentagram Design: This wall is still a load-bearing wall. It has to be where it is. We can’t muck with that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They’ll also do the posters, the signs, and the brochures.
KIT HINRICHS: I’m not in a position to choose the artwork in it, but I try and make the experience special, and so I have those skills to be able to make the pacing of that exhibit interesting along the way, to help understand the paintings in some way. I actually can do something else that actually makes the viewing of the exhibition, itself, hopefully heightened and more entertaining and more interesting.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Two months later, Kimball and Venn took the freight elevator up in an old New York City warehouse. The list of artworks had been refined once again. There had been other changes too. Venn was expecting a baby. Kimball was about to look at some of the art for the first time. This is something the public never sees – literally thousands of masterpieces lying around casually amid packing cases under bare work lights.
BETH VENN: It doesn’t look anything – it looks so different really from the slides.
CATHY KIMBALL: Well, you have no idea, because it’s inlaid –
BETH VENN: Right. All of the little pills and leaves and –
CATHY KIMBALL: It’s incredible.
BETH VENN: You know, it is a kind of piece that reads well from far away but then people are also really inclined to come up close, but I definitely think we should use this –
CATHY KIMBALL: Oh, yeah, fantastic, absolutely.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It was time to make serious decisions. Earlier choices fell by the wayside under the sheer force of the reality of the artworks. For Kimball, there are moments when she couldn’t help seeming like a kid turned loose in a candy store.
CATHY KIMBALL: This is just spectacular. I just can’t believe how big it is.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Both Venn and Kimball loved this expressionistic piece by Oscar Blumner.
BETH VENN: Wow, this is a lot, it’s colorful!
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But where to put it.
BETH VENN: We have it the Fantastical section but I think if we do start to merge those central sections a little, while it does have these kind of swirling forms, it also has some cubist ideas like here.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So they tried pairing it with another expressionistic piece by Thomas Hart Benton. It didn’t work. So they tried a piece by William Zorak.
BETH VENN: Part of it is, quite frankly, the coloration of the pictures, and you have these kind of acidy yellow and green colors in the one, and then you have very natural nature colors, you know. The Benton is so much more true to natural colors.
CATHY KIMBALL: On the other hand, the Benton and the Hopper have the same kind of coloration and certain sensibility about them, but they’re not about the same thing, and the artist isn’t handling the landscape in the same way. So although they might look nice together, they really aren’t going to necessarily be in the same section because they’re very different in the handling of the landscape.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Then there was the Joan Mitchell painting that a few months ago looked like a few gray blobs in a small photo. Kimball was not prepared for its sheer size.
CATHY KIMBALL: It’s gorgeous, but you are talking about, you know, eliminating a lot of other – a lot of room –
BETH VENN: — of other pieces. But the other thing, Cathy, is, you know, we don’t have a lot of sort of really typical or classic abstract –
CATHY KIMBALL: Right.
BETH VENN: –expressionist paintings, and you know what, they were big –
CATHY KIMBALL: Yes.
BETH VENN: And there’s nothing – I think we need to show that. I don’t think we should edit it down –
CATHY KIMBALL: No, I agree.
BETH VENN: — to only the smaller pieces because –
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They postponed a decision on the Mitchell. Because of its size, keeping it in would mean ruling other important pieces out. By now, the show had the beginnings of a story line. It would open with traditional romantic landscapes. There would be a middle section where the artist used a more liberal interpretation of the landscape. Finally, it would confront viewers with some difficult and unpleasant works by artists who take a skeptical look at man’s impact on nature.
CATHY KIMBALL: There’s a lot of factors involved with those kinds of decision-making when you make up a checklist, but then it’s got to get simple, and for me, it’s really just this enduring tradition of landscape, that landscape has endured throughout the century. It’s that easy.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Easy for now, but would audiences be prepared to go where the curators wanted to lead them? That was the most crucial question of all, and it won’t be known until the show opens next June. If the curators do their job well, they’ll fade into the background, and the art lovers, who come as these do to the Whitney’s permanent collection in New York City, will see only the power and the beauty of the art, itself.