A Talk With: John Elderfield

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Last month the Museum of Modern Art in New York annouced that John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, would be stepping down later this year when he reaches 65, the museum’s compulsory retirement age. But in recognition of the fact that John is someone no museum wants or can afford to lose, he’ll remain with MoMA as “chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture”. Under that title he’ll contribute to two large shows in the coming years. The first, which will focus on Matisse from 1913 to 1917, he’ll co-curate with Stephanie d’Allesandro of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s scheduled to open there in March of 2010, then move to MoMA in July. The second, a full scale de Kooning retrospective that he’ll curate himself, has no firm date yet.

Last week I sat down with John for a long talk about his tenure at MoMA, museum practices generally and his plans for the future. As I usually do I’ll break this conversation into a few posts over several days.

LACAYO: Has anyone else had the title of curator emeritus at MoMA?

ELDERFIELD: Bill Rubin did. After he retired he curated the “Picasso and Portraiture” show.

LACAYO: When was the last big de Kooning show?

ELDERFIELD: In 1994. It was organized by the National Gallery in Washington and then came to the Met and the Tate. But it was a kind of fifty paintings show. I’ve hardly started working on mine. I’m still making lists in my head. But there’s a great de Kooning Foundation that has good documentation of about 6000 objects.

LACAYO: And what will the Matisse show be about? How will it be different from the big show you organized in 1992?

Bathers by a River, Matisse, 1909, 1913, 1916 / ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

ELDERFIELD: I had actually vowed after that never to be involved in a Matisse show again. I broke that resolution for “Matisse/Picasso”. However, the Art Institute invited me to Chicago to see conservation work they were doing on Bathers by a River. We thought it dated from 1913 to about 1916. But since the early ’70s it’s been known that a watercolor exists of this subject from 1909. It’s now known that it was originally one of three pictures that Matisse thought [the Russian collector] Shchukin had commissioned from him, the others being Music and Dance. In fact, Shchukin had just commissioned two. Nobody’s ever known whether Matisse actually started the painting in ’09 or ’10. Or whether, having done the watercolor, he decided, “Hey, I’m not getting to do this project”. But then, after he came back from Morocco in 1913, figured he wanted to do a big composition and started work on it then. But it’s become clear from conservation work on the picture that under that severe exterior is bright prismatic color.

LACAYO: So those could be remnants of his earlier fauviste palette?

ELDERFIELD: Yes, so it was started in 1909 or ’10. And they’ve been doing amazing work in Chicago trying to understand how the picture evolved. So I said, “This is so great; we have to work on our Matisse’s [at MoMA]. So we have already cleaned The Piano Lesson and are now starting to work on The Moroccans. And then the next thing, I said “We should do a show based on the teens, the great Matisse period, dealing with those five years from 1913 to 1917.” It will be small, just 40 paintings.

LACAYO: What about a date for the de Kooning show?

ELDERFIELD: De Kooning doesn’t have a firm date. The museum wants me to do it for the fall of 2010. I’m excited because de Kooning was one of he reasons I came to the United States in the first place. I was an art student in England and I had a friend who came back from New York with that Tom Hess book on de Kooning from the 60s. I saw it and said, “This stuff is so amazing; I’ve got to get to New York.” I eventually met him a few times.

LACAYO: And he was still lucid back then.

ELDERFIELD: He was. It’s so sad. He was an angel in the studio but he had no idea how to have a life. I recently re-read the [Mark Stevens/Annalyn Swan] biography and you realize that this poor guy was clueless.

LACAYO: I knew de Kooning was a heavy drinker but it wasn’t until I read their book that I realized that there were some nights when he was literally blacking out on the Bowery.

ELDERFIELD: And this at time when most people thought he was the greatest living American painter. And of course one of the challenges of the show will be the late work [Lacayo: work dating from the time after de Kooning’s Alzheimer’s had worsened] and what to do about that. I’ve been following de Kooning pretty much forever, and I’ve seen most of the shows, but I’ve yet to see everything in the estate, which I’ll probably be doing in the next couple of months.