Three Questions: Helen Molesworth Speaks with Taylor Davis

This conversation took place at the ICA Boston on April 28, 2010. Jill Medvedow, director of the ICA, asked the artist Taylor Davis to interview the then newly appointed chief curator Helen Molesworth. The ICA members magazine, New, ran a small portion of this larger conversation. A longer edit of their dialogue follows here.

Taylor Davis: I was looking at curate and “curate” came up, the archaic definition of a minister with pastoral responsibility. I was surprised because the stereotypes—a soft-handed, rosy-cheeked Anglican biking from cottage to cottage in some BBC version of the English countryside, and the slim-hipped, couture-wearing tastemaker jetting from one urban hotspot to another—couldn’t be farther apart.

Helen Molesworth: I am already very happy that you think I am slim-hipped. [laughter]

Davis: I’m glad that I made you happy so far. And I just finished the first paragraph. . . . They couldn’t seem farther apart, that was the point. Then I started thinking about artists you’ve worked with, and a few came to my mind immediately (Sharon Hayes, William Pope.L, Moyra Davey, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and so on), and exhibitions you’ve created so far (Work EthicACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987–1993, Part Object Part Sculpture, and many more), and the perceived distance between responsibility to a community and curating contemporary art collapsed. I like this collapse very much. My questions come from thinking about possible similarities between what seem to be two very different cultural leaders. Now, I can ask you the questions one at a time, or I can just give you all three of them, and we can have a mishmash.

Molesworth: Maybe we should try one at a time, because already the two paragraphs are so dense.

Davis: OK, do you want the hardest one first?

Molesworth: I’m going to leave that up to you.

Davis: OK, then I’m going to give you the hardest one first, because I think it’s all connected. So, my first question is, Where does love fit in?

Molesworth: Where does love fit in?

Davis: Can I interrupt you?

Molesworth: Yes, any stalling would be great here. [laughter]

Davis: I gave you my little introduction about the curator and the curate. Obviously, these questions are pulled right out of that, but I was thinking a lot about this idea of when one is in a position of really giving to a community. When I was thinking of the curate, I was thinking that that’s not an easy path to choose. And then when I thought of the curate and to curate, and the same root, “to care,” it just seems like, yes, of course love fits in, and in your projects it really seems that’s true—but how?

Molesworth: Well, love is something that I have been increasingly conscious of as a force or a motivation or a stake in my work. Let me drop back a little bit and say I feel like I fall in love with the art object; I am someone who is really moved by art objects. In the beginning, when I was a teenager and as a young person in college, I just loved them. I remember being at MoMA as a high school student and coming across Giacometti’s Woman with Her Throat Cut and feeling like I was tumbling over myself in my head. The same used to happen in the tapestry room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I grew up in New York, so I grew up in a very rich field of museums. Then, because my post-college and graduate-school training happened in the late 80s and early 90s—the heyday of what we now call theory or critical theory—love was replaced with criticism. I got angry at a lot of art objects and really cut my teeth on them. The art objects I didn’t like agitated me as much as the art objects I immediately fell in love with. I don’t think then I could have talked about love in my work. It took me a long time to realize that criticism is a form of love. To be critical of a thing, in the hard sense, to articulate what it is not doing, or doing that is problematic, means that you hold in your head a standard of the good, whatever the value is—the socially conscious, the pure, the beautiful—whatever it is, you hold the value in your head. I came to feel that criticism is born of love, because you have expectations or desires that are not being met. The criticism that interested me the most, which was feminist and Marxist criticism, held certain ideals like democracy and equality, above any other values, like profit and patriarchy. In this way, the idea of the critical was bound up with my expectations and love for the ideal of democracy and my intense desire to see it better enacted. But—this is retrospective, and there’s no way I could have articulated this at the time—then that part of my life ended. And that was simultaneous with me getting my first full-time curatorial job . . .

Davis: And that was?

Molesworth: At the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2000. I became a professionalized subject in the service of an institution. Even though I had worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the education department, and I had had a teaching job, there was something about a full-fledged entrance into the labor force, into work life, that was a very profound shift for me. One of the things I began to realize there was that I really, really loved museums; they were, for me, libidinal places, erotic places, they were places to flirt and fall in love (which actually happened to me, I fell in love with someone in the museum). Museums were filled with of objects born of other people’s love and desire. I was very aware of what a charged, psychic space it was. And I was also aware of how fucked up museums are, how badly they had behaved, and that a lot of the animosity that people had toward them was justified. I felt like one of the things I wanted to do was try and fight for what I loved about them. Again, that was nascent in 2000; now I feel much more conscious of what I’m doing when I’m working and when the artists that I work for—with—

Davis: I like that you almost said “the artists I work for.”

Molesworth: Yes, and we could get to that, because I do feel like I work for artists. I work for and with them; it’s an interesting dynamic.

Davis: I’m only interrupting you with that observation because it feels, from my experience of listening to you talk with the artists you invited to speak while you were at Harvard, that you were really with them. You were not taking some hierarchal position with them of “the great presenter.” Also, in your conversations with them, there was wonder, there was discovery.

Molesworth: That’s really nice to hear. One of the things that a curator does, or that I try and do in my work, is offer the opportunity to be with someone for a while, to actually think alongside someone else. Not to think like them, that’s a version of empathy that is narcissistic. I have never liked the image of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” If you put yourself in their shoes, then they don’t have shoes! There is the evidence of my kind of dumb, literal, Amelia Bedelia–quality of mind. What I want to do is stand next to them, to try and see what they see, and that, to me, goes back to love. Trying to understand and to value love is one of the primary motivations for what I do. That has meant that my work often arises out of a very personal problem, which I then try to make open and available to others, in essence a translation from the personal into the political or the public. For me this has feminist implications, and it has also meant that I have committed to a group of artists over time. I’m not known in the field for being the discoverer of new talent. That’s not me. I got my posse. I’m loyal. I try to hang with you. I feel like we’re going somewhere together, and I don’t know where it’s going to be.

Davis: If somebody didn’t know you and your work they could, upon hearing you say that, think that you chose your posse for reasons of aesthetic comfort. But to me it feels like you have chosen artists who at first confounded you. You often seem like you are thinking “I can’t believe I’m standing here right now saying I love this painting, because I didn’t know how to get my mind around it at first.” It seems to me that this is one of the qualities that allows you to open up the art for other people. You are open about the process of really trying to get your head around an artist’s work.

Molesworth: That’s so true! I think that comes from two places. I remember seeing a show of Robert Gober’s plaster sinks in, I don’t know, Andrea Rosen or Paula Cooper gallery, in the SoHo days, and I was incensed. I was the prototypical young, angry, Whitney Independent Study Curatorial Program student. I was furious, you know, what a rip-off! What about Duchamp! Now I’m an enormous admirer of Bob’s work, and his work has been so important to me over the years. But it was only through the process of understanding my antipathy to those objects that I came to find them as extraordinary and as moving as I do. I learned to trust the power of a negative reaction as much as a positive one—anything that can get you that riled up has aimed itself at both the intellectual and psychic arenas. We need better ways of accounting for the disturbances art produces in the psychic arena. I try to keep myself open and available to that disturbance and not see it as a way to be dismissive of work. The theoretical work that has helped me with this quality of art and the art experience is the work of Emmanuel Levinas. In particular, his notion of what is ethically at stake in our relationship with the other.

Davis: Can you elaborate?

Molesworth: I think Levinas has a very radical account of the other and of love. For Levinas, saying “I love you” is as ethical a statement as it is a libidinal one. According to him, one doesn’t fall in love with an other because they are like you, because the other is never like you, they are always different from you. Hence, you fall in love with an other because they are not like you. So, for Levinas, the ethical contract between the self and the other is not “I accept you because you are like me,” which is the condition of “community” or mainstream bourgeois liberal politics. Because this line of thinking leads to people “accepting” or “tolerating” other people. Rather, for Levinas love means something like: “I cannot know you, I will never be able to know you.” And all of our relationships, and particularly our most intimate relationships, start with that as their premise. This means that love does not emanate from a fantasy of knowing or being similar to the other, but rather love comes from an acknowledgment of your radical unknowableness to me. A relation built upon that is, for Levinas, the foundation of ethics. We know this in a pedestrian way: it is easy to help people or be nice to people we think we share a great deal with, people we think we know. But can we do that when we don’t know them, when we feel acutely different from them? For instance, this is a way of saying not that queers and straights who want to get married are “the same,” it would be a way of talking about how queer marriages might be different from straight ones, and fighting for them because they are different. Levinas’s ideas have become a very powerful way for me to think about art, my relationships with other people, my relationship with institutions, my work in the public sphere.

Davis: My second question is, Where does service fit in?

Molesworth: There are a couple of different versions of service. The other day Jill Medvedow, the director of the ICA, said something that we all know to be true, but she said it in a way that really crystallized things for me. She said the ICA is a 501(c)(3), meaning the government has granted us tax-exempt status. Why? Because we do something that the market cannot or will not do. Now, I know this. But somehow that she could say it in a budget meeting really made my chest open, and I had a kind of energy to move through the financial madness we are all living through. So when people donate to a 501(c)(3) they get a tax deduction because they are supporting a nonmarket function in their culture, and they support that nonmarket function because they understand—or we are trying to help them understand—that what museums do is work toward some idea of the public good, separate and distinct from the market’s logic of profit. So the idea of service comes up for me in a couple of ways. One is I feel very acutely aware of my service to the institution that I work for, my service to the artists, and my service to something like the general public. All of these things then have to get held in some relationship to my own personal psychic investment in what I do.

Service to the institution is something that has gotten really lost in the rise of the fancy curator—this couture-wearing, slim-hipped, frequent-flyer-miles accumulator (here I am guilty on all charges). The more the role of the curator has become impresariolike, or starlike the less the field at large has a discourse about how we serve our institutions. And by “serve those institutions” I mean what do we do in a daily way that goes toward making the institutions we work in more hospitable places to work, more hospitable places to view art, and more hospitable places for the production, distribution, and reception of culture. That’s not only making a great show, that’s actually developing a good system for writing labels, or picking up a piece of trash on the gallery floor, or mentoring junior colleagues, or fighting for raises for the support staff, in essence trying to approach all of the mundane, bureaucratic crap with the creative energy and joy that you bring to your intellectual work.

Davis: Right. You’re not saying, “You guys deal with this other stuff. I have my eye on the prize.”

Molesworth: Right. I think curatorial work is, and I hate this language, but it is a team activity. I think where a lot of institutions screw up is when they get Pollyanna-ish about the idea of teamwork. But teams are very hierarchical and regimented. Teams are units within which everyone has a different skill set. I’m a big Celtics fan. You don’t see Kevin Garnett in the back court, figuring out how to run the court . . . that’s Rajon Rondo’s job! That’s how things work on a team. People have different skills; there is a captain and a coach, and a general manager, and owners. Museums are similar. When teams work well it’s because everyone’s doing the job and knows how to do that job and understands that they share a common goal.

Davis: I work at MassArt, which is a publically funded art school, and I love bringing my students to the ICA. My students are your public. But you also have a public that is not young art students. You have a public that has strong ideas about what art is. Some of the shows that you’ve done are really tough for someone who expects to be looking at things that they consider beautiful. How do you think of them? I’m thinking about the ACT UP show. Can you do a show like that here? And if you do, how do you invite that public in? Or how do you serve that public?

Molesworth: You have to be as honest with the public as you are with the artist. I don’t take it as self-evident that the viewing public is as consumed with the hegemony of Minimalism as you or I are. I just don’t think that it’s their issue. But I do think that the viewing public has decided, on a Thursday night, or Saturday, or maybe even on a Tuesday afternoon, to come here to spend $15 to get in because they want something. I think they want an experience of otherness, pleasure, beauty, provocation, interest, and novelty that they can’t get in other sectors of the culture. Because they have plenty of leisure opportunities, and, for most of the public, we are a leisure opportunity. But my working assumption is that when they choose a museum as their leisure activity what they want is something that’s going to massage their brains. I think that’s really important to the general public, to try to be more transparent, and I think that’s about a lot of talking, and I’m not afraid of text in the galleries. It’s about assuming that the people who are here want to be here. We have a voluntary audience.

Davis: What about wall labels?

Molesworth: I like them. I like reading them when I go to museums. But I hate the wall labels at the Met. When I’m looking at some wacked-out picture from 1642, and thinking, “Wow, this is so cool,” then I see a label, I get excited, because I want to know what’s going on in the image. However, usually what I’m told is that in the conservation lab they found something underneath something else or, even worse, that some rich lady paid for it. This is not helpful to me.

Davis: I ask the question because I sometimes hear a tone in wall labels, like, “You’re kind of an idiot and I’m going to talk to you like a baby.”

Molesworth: Well, that’s a problem Wall labels are either written in a dense curatorial speak that is dumb, or they suffer from the idea that the general viewer is a ninth-grader.

Davis: I’m connecting it to your idea about being more transparent with the audience, and part of it would mean respecting that. If they come to the museum and know how to read and are curious about the thing that they are reading, they don’t need a cheerleader.

Molesworth: So true. But our country has completely abandoned the public education system, which is now in a state of crisis and massive disrepair. One ramification is that most people, by the time they get to college, have not had a significant art experience. Even though we live in the most visually saturated time in our culture, most people are what I would call functionally illiterate in the realm of the visual. They actually don’t understand what they’re looking at, even though they are looking right at it. If I do a rudimentary analysis of a picture, for instance, if I show a public audience how perspective works, by showing them the orthogonals and a vanishing point, they start to look orgasmic! Museums have been asked tacitly to fill in the gaps of the public education system: they are trying to compensate for this huge paucity in the educational sphere. Many of those ninth-grade labels are written from a space of earnest intentions. To my way of thinking, this is one of the major crises that arts institutions face right now—we are no longer being asked to supplement the public education system, we are being asked to fill in, wholesale, for what it is not doing.

Davis: Is that why there is a position now called the curator of education?

Molesworth: Yes. The curator of education started as a way so that the people who worked in the education department could have a voice at the table. I think the first curator of education was Connie Wolf at the Whitney Museum. Her title gained her access to curatorial meetings. It was a way of cutting across the institutional hierarchy and creating an interdisciplinary conversation.

Davis: Are you ready for your third question?

Molesworth: We didn’t do service to artists, which is huge.

Davis: That’s the biggest thing. No, it’s not! But it is! [laughter]

Molesworth: But it is. The rise of the star curator often put the curator above the artist. Service to the artist is huge, because you have to create the conditions and possibilities for artists to learn. You have to imagine that art students are your audience. You have to imagine that artists are your audience. You have to work to create an institution that is hospitable to artists when their work comes into it. We have to make sure that we don’t treat artists like service providers, but that we treat them as equal partners on the playing field. In addition, we have to ask the public to become—this is very difficult—to become more aware of what they want from their encounter with an art object. We need to ask them to be a little more aware of the category of person that we call “artist” and the extraordinary demands we place on them.

Davis: It’s funny that I forgot to ask you about the service-to-artists thing. I’m an artist, and I think it’s uncomfortable for me. I can ask you about the institutions and the students . . . but the artist part, that’s raw.

Molesworth: It’s really raw. We ask artists, and by “we” I mean the culture, to do things we don’t ask anyone else to do. No one else in the culture is asked to have a mid-career survey. Nobody else is asked to take everything they’ve made or done or thought, up until an arbitrary point in time, the time we’re ready to show it, and subject it to public review. If somebody asked me to do that, I’d be under the desk in a heartbeat. We ask you to go to your studio and work and then sell the stuff. We ask you to not make too much money, but not give the work away. We ask you to be the vehicle of expression that we cannot be.

Davis: You ask us to make things in a language we have partially invented and then be able to explain it in English or whatever language . . .

Molesworth: We demand constant self-explanation from you. The only other people we demand this of are our sports stars. But we also know that they will only speak to us—this is the greatness of Bull Durham—in sports talk.

Davis: Well, thank you for serving us. Alright, well, I want to move on to the third question, which is connected of course. How do you look for something when you don’t know what you’re looking for?

Molesworth: How do you look for something when you don’t know what you’re looking for?

Davis: You’re supposed to be finding stuff to put into those museum galleries. And you can’t possibly know ahead of time everything that you’re going to put in. You’re looking for something, you’re looking for an experience, you’re looking for love, you’re looking for some kind of exchange from or with an artist. But you’re also trying to bring things that I haven’t seen before. You said, “Oh, I’m not the person who’s sniffing out the newest one,” but you’re looking . . .

Molesworth: That’s a good question, I’m not sure I know the answer. A little book of advice to curators came out in the early aughts, a small volume of well-known, important curators giving words of wisdom to younger curators. I devoured this book early in my career. It was like a self-help book for curators! Andrea Miller-Keller, who’s a curator I have a great amount of respect for—she pretty much invented the project room at the Wadsworth Atheneum, where she gave many extraordinary people their first shows—and one of her aphorisms was, “Don’t pause in front of weak work.”

Davis: Scary.

Molesworth: Ouch! I first read that around the time I was starting to go to these big art fairs. And I got it: wow, don’t pause in front of weak work. Just keep moving, pause in front of strong work even if you don’t like it, even if you don’t understand it, even if it’s not to your taste, even if it’s not going to work in any of the rooms that you have to fill, stop in front of the strong stuff and walk by the weak stuff. And that is harsh. I don’t stop. Now, how I figure out what is weak and what is strong, that is a harder question. Because your question really goes to: What are the criteria, how do I ascribe value?

Davis: I guess so.

Molesworth: It’s a poetic and nice way of asking the hard question, which is, How do you end up making the choices to show what you show? I’ve certainly shown work that I didn’t personally support, but I thought it was good for the institution, that the work itself had integrity, that I could get behind the work’s integrity even if I could not get behind the work’s implications for me personally.

Davis: The other side of that question goes back to Levinas’s definition of the other. If you look at the question from another angle, it also has to do with how when you’re alone, you want to fall in love.

Molesworth: Yes, that’s a terrible way of saying it, but it’s true. When I’m at the fair or the biennial or the gallery, I am alone, and I want to fall in love. This is really interesting to me, because of course what our conversation presupposes is that looking at art is a solitary activity. This is largely true for me. I really like to look at art by myself, or I like to look at art with my partner. One of the things I notice about the public in a museum is that a lot of people come to look at art together, and they talk. Crazy! [laughter] I think that many artists and curators and critics imagine that the viewer is alone, and that’s an interesting thing to imagine, an interesting supposition about what can happen with the viewer and the object and the exchange between them.

Davis: From this artist’s perspective, I like thinking that if they’re looking at a certain sculpture that I’ve made, that I’ve got the balls to put out there, they’re in the company of that object, that sculpture. And I actually don’t mind if there’s two of them in the company of that sculpture. There is something to be said for the idea that the thing the artist has made supplies a kind of a presence that can make that viewer feel less alone.

Molesworth: I think that’s right. I think that that’s why people go to museums. They go to museums in part not to be alone, but not necessarily to be with others. They go to be in the company of objects that are animate. That’s what’s really spooky about museums—some of the objects are dead. When you go to the Met, some of the objects are dead. When you go to the Basel Art Fair, the objects aren’t quite dead in the same way, but they’re not animate. Maybe that’s a way of talking about what I’m looking for, even though I don’t know what it is. One of the central qualities of the things that I think I fall in love with is a kind of mystical interpolation that happens, where the object calls out, “Hey, you!” and I don’t know how that happens and what kind of conversation or dialogue or exchange or experience that “Hey, you!” elicits. I learned from one of my professors in graduate school, Hal Foster, that works of art offer us models of subjectivity. For instance, I found the Marina Abramovic show at MoMA very disturbing.

Davis: Oh my god, yeah.

Molesworth: And it was disturbing to me because the model of subjectivity on view was that history doesn’t exist, that memory doesn’t exist. The show acted as if everything is the same, always and forever throughout time, and that there is a truth. And I find it absolutely terrifying that we are not allowed to have the patina of age or the mis-recollection of what happened in those performances. Rather, we were offered a version of a stable and unchanging truth. I found it heartbreaking. And the only thing I want to do is mount an Eva Hesse show in response. It’s like claymation: Marina Abramovic vs. Eva Hesse . . . and Hesse wins! [laughter] Hesse’s model of subjectivity is so much more contingent and porous and permeable and fragile and ambiguous and melancholic, and all of the things that I value.

Recent and forthcoming exhibitions for Taylor Davis includes shows at the Horton Gallery, White Columns, Triple Candie, and Exit Art in New York; the Office Baroque Gallery, Antwerp; and Samson Projects and the ICA, Boston. In 2004 her work was included in the Whitney Biennial. She has received grants and awards from Anonymous Was a Woman, the Association of International Art Critics Award (2002 and 2007), the St. Botolph Foundation, the ICA, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She recently completed a Radcliffe Fellowship.