A Talk With: Ann Temkin

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Ann Temkin /MOMA

I caught up this morning with Ann Temkin, the newly appointed chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

LACAYO: What are your main goals going into the new job?

TEMKIN: The museum is such an outstanding place, the resources here are so inspiring -— what could be a greater pleasure than working with these to excite our audiences in new ways about modern and contemporary art?

LACAYO: What’s a new way?

TEMKIN: I’m thinking about the bridge between modern and contemporary right now. The span of decades that the museum covers is greater now than it’s ever been — about 120 years of art. The connections among those decades and the different cultures that produced the artists — all of that is so ripe for exploration. I think I’m typical of my generation when I say that historians today are much less concerned with presenting a single authoritative view and much more with telling many histories or opening doors to different ways of looking at one history. We want to leave a lot of the creative work of experiencing art up to the viewer and yet provide the viewer with the tools and connections for a really rich experience.

The integration of the points of view among the various departments here is another area. There are reasons why paintings are thought of in one category and prints in another and drawings in another. But there are reasons to think about those processes or works together, too, because it’s the same artists who are working in all those media, especially in contemporary art. You look at Picasso or Matisse– they worked in every medium imaginable and simultaneously. It’s even more the case today.

LACAYO: You’ve been talking about stepping up acquisitions of contemporary art. Do you envision integrating it within the permanent collection in a different way, or does that seem like premature canonization?

TEMKIN: That’s a question I’ve thought about a lot, because the way that we have the collection galleries set up now is that the permanent collection floors — four and five — pretty much end around 1970. The work of the last 40 years is mostly seen in rotating presentation on the second floor. I think a lot of us at the museum are talking about re-thinking that, because there are a lot of ways to present more recent art that puts it in historical perspective without canonizing it. That’s what a museum is here for — if you just want to see a bunch of contemporay art you can go to Chelsea. It’s at the museum where we can put it into context, juxtapose it with work from 20 or 40 or 60 years ago.

LACAYO: You and I were talking last year about the problem of stabilizing art history, producing a firm picture of the past, and whether that was ever possible or even desirable. I remember you said to me at the time that “We’re only now getting to a place where we firmly understand the 1960s.” What parts of the story need to be told differently?

TEMKIN: One thing that’s certainly true is that the way we understand the meaning of the word “international” today is very different from the way it was understood 40 years ago. Today we’re thinking about a much broader geographical territory. The geographical lens we have today ends up bringing to our attention works — perhaps even works already in our own collection —  beyond Europe or the U.S.

LACAYO: You’ve just become the first woman to hold the job of chief curator of painting and sculpture at your museum. Earlier this year MoMA brought in another woman, Kathy Halbreich, to hold another high position. Does it make a difference that you’re a woman in this job?

TEMKIN: What we’ve been talking about these last few minutes probably all has to do with a certain spirit of diversity — a diversity of history, a diversity of artists, a diversity of art making approaches. I see things in that context, that there is a place now for points of view — for a person — that half a century ago just would not have been there.