Last Talk: With John Elderfield

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Let’s conclude that conversation with the soon to retire chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

LACAYO: MoMA is always criticized for not staying hot on the trail of contemporary art. Recently your museum hired Kathy Halbreich, the former director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, to become MoMA’s first associate director, mostly to keep the museum current on new developments. Is this the presumed future management structure for MoMA, with a contemporary specialist in a high position, or even two heads of each department?

ELDERFIELD: This idea of having two heads of painting and sculpture had been voiced earlier. Clearly it’s coming up again. But I believe that there’s a strong feeling that it’s impossible to do, or would be inappropriate to do. The only way would be to create a department of contemporary art, but that would make all the heads of departments — painting and sculpture, prints, photography, etc. — it would make them all historical departments. The dialogue between the historical and contemporary has been thought over ever since MoMA started. It’s just built into the institution.

Perhaps things could be done better if all of the departments didn’t have a kind of split consciousness. But equally I think it’s good that people within each of the departments who are working on contemporary art have to justify what they are doing within departments whose mandate is broader. People here understand that when they propose acquisitions for the collection, those will go in among Cezanne and Matisse. Conversely, when they propose historical shows they have to face that these shows can’t just be archeological, they have to speak to us now. That’s healthy, but it’s difficult.

But having somebody like Kathy to coordinate activities in the contemporary area is a good idea. The Modern shouldn’t be a kunsthalle or a contemporary museum. But neither should it be a Frick of the Modern. It should be both. The exhibition work in areas of the past continues and needs to continue because each generation needs to be reminded of things. We’ve seen all of these things. But the kids in their twenties haven’t.

LACAYO: What were you proudest of doing here in the years since you were named chief curator of painting and sculpture in 2003.

ELDERFIELD: I know that [Elderfield’s predecessor] Kirk Varnedoe came to the the job wanting to do a series of three shows of relatively recent Americans, Pollock, Johns and Twombly, which he did do. I felt quite early on that I also wanted do three big exhibitions: Schwitters, which I did in the ’80s, Matisse in the ’90s and now de Kooning. But I’m also particularly proud of the three shows I did in the last year and a half. As they all came in I realized that they comprised a kind of manifesto.

The first one, “Manet and the Execution of Maximilian,” was really my way of saying, “Okay, the museum’s collections and programs traditionally start in 1880, but why does that have to be? If things from an earlier period are relevant to now, the museum should do them.

The second thing, and this is what the [Venezuelan painter] Armando Reveron show was all about, is that the Modern has really got to work outside the traditional canon. I particularly wanted to do a monographic show, because doing survey shows is the easy way out, particularly with Latin America. Who would do a show called “European Art”?

And the third was Martin Puryear, a really great mid-to-late career artist, but one who is not part of what you might call “the entertainment industry,” who doesn’t have the biggest dealers in the world. And in its contemporary programs I feel it’s really important that the museum asserts its independence [from that]. As we know, the same people are always being done all over the world. Everyone talks about how we’re in this new pluralistic era in art but we’re not. In some ways it’s more conformist now than ever. Whether this will change when the market bubble bursts I don’t know. But it’s really important that there should be a culture that encourages independent thinking.

LACAYO: Are there things that you feel still need to be done here?

ELDERFIELD: There’s a lot of things relating to the collection. Over the past few years I’ve been doing a big review of our holdings. With American artists in the ’60s the museum bought early work, with European artists they bought late work. There are some 60’s artists whose career weren’t followed and need to be. We don’t have late Flavin.

LACAYO: What is the acquisition budget for your department?

ELDERFIELD: We have dues paid by the committee members plus interest from the endowment. That produces about $2 million a year.

LACAYO: So for something as expensive as Jasper John’s Diver, do you go back to your trustees and ask for more money?

ELDERFIELD: Yes, and for works of historical importance we allow ourselves to deaccession. For Diver, [Robert Rauschenberg’s] Rebus, we did both things, going to the trustees and also deaccessioning. But I wouldn’t be comfortable selling something from the teens to buy something from the 1980s. If you look at Barr’s book Painting and Sculpture from the Museum of Modern Art, at the back there’s a list of works that were sold from the Lillie Bliss Collection — that’s the founding collection — and of works which were bought with the proceeds. You go through this and [see some of the purchases] and you think, Really? The conclusion you take away is that it’s extremely dangerous to sell historical work to buy newer ones. With contemporary things it’s better to wait, even if you have to pay higher prices, because you’re more likely to get things you’ll want to keep.