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Laura Hoptman: At work on the 2004 Carnegie International                                 


"Art is a transcendent thing, but something we encounter every day."


"I'm most interested in art …that we can use in our life."


The Carnegie International is the oldest invitational survey of contemporary art in North America, and the 54th exhibition in the series is scheduled to open in October 2004.  Preparation for this great exhibition takes about three years, and despite the fact that Curator of Contemporary Art Laura J. Hoptman has not yet become a familiar name to Pittsburghers, she has been traveling on behalf of Carnegie Museum of Art since November 2001.


She talks about her role as emissary for the museum, and as curator for the 2004 International, with Robert J. Gangewere, the editor of CARNEGIE magazine.


Robert Gangewere: Your responsibility seems to be like that of an all-seeing eye--you have to know what the international art world knows, and what people in some parts of the world have not yet seen.


Laura Hoptman: It's impossible for me to see everything.  Andrew Carnegie's idea in 1896 was that you could see everything in the known art world, and then bring back the best to Pittsburgh.  I think you can’t say that now.


My strategy is to know a lot about some things; some things I think might be useful for people in Pittsburgh to have a look at.  "Useful" means a lot of things.  It is something that will make people happy, interest them, provoke them, something that will relate to their world, my world, our world….


I'm most interested in art that we can relate to, that we can use in our life.


Do you have an example of art that you found useful?


Sure.  There's a piece at the Panopticon show now that is up at eye level, a small still life by Chardin, an 18th-century artist.  He does still lifes, mostly small.  In history he has been thought of as a great painter of humanity, and at this time, in our country it is a wonderful thing for me to be able to look at that still life, which has a beaker of coffee, a few onions, and a glass of water, on the table.


Glass of Water and Coffeepot, Jeane-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, c. 1761


 It is in a late afternoon glow.  It speaks volumes to me about the values that are important to me at this moment.  That is a perfect example.


Is the terrorism of 9/11 and the current economic situation reflected in the art that you are seeing today?

The values of the art are not just restricted to the memory of 9/11 and the current economic situation.  It's what we live with every day.  I think that art is a transcendent thing, but it is something we encounter every day.  We can relate to it one on one.  Something that is wondrous, but not necessarily meant to confound.


And the other important thing is that each curator brings to this task his or her point of view.  So that what you get at the Carnegie International is not the best of the world, but rather the best of the world according to curator X or Y.  And that is what you are going to get from me.


It is very important to underline that, because there are no "inarguables" in art, particularly in contemporary art, where history is still vague and hasn't yet confirmed our choices.  I think if you look over the Internationals of the past, certainly since 1950, you see that a lot of the important artists who have made up the vocabulary we now use for contemporary and modern art have done a turn here.  That has been due to the perspicacity of the directors of  Carnegie Museum of Art, who chose the people who did the Internationals.  So certainly we hope to bring the very, very best that we can to Pittsburgh.


Is the International addressed to an elite world of contemporary art observers who have a sense of what was new a few years ago, and what is new this year, internationally?


Those people are there certainly.  We want that kind of patronage because we are playing with the big boys, and we have voice in the international art world.  But just as importantly, this is also an exhibition for Pittsburgh.  It really is.  The vast majority of people who come to this show are from the region.  They are not the art world denizens.


And frankly, if the show is good--and we have had some wonderful shows in the past decade--that is equally good for Pittsburghers, and people from this region, as well as for denizens of the art world.


So you know the previous Internationals?


Of course, and I know very well the 1999 International that Madeleine Grynsztejn curated.  I thought it was excellent…from soup to nuts.  Beautifully presented, with artists of the first water.  And the show was really fun in many moments.  The popularity of the steam fountain that Olafur Eliassan did [Your Natural Denudation Inverted, 1991] —is legion.  And that is a good example of something that really penetrated into the community, and became beloved by the community.  A great, great work.  One of the best that he ever made.


Louise Bourgeoise's Cell II was in Richard Armstrong's International in 1995, and now she is represented by those wonderful “eye” chairs in Katz Plaza in the cultural district downtown.


What are your duties as the curator of the next International?


As an emissary for Carnegie Museum of Art I have to do all kinds of things.   I go to conferences, I give talks, I attend meetings, I write catalogue essays for other people's exhibitions—all under the auspices as my role as curator for the International.


How will the Hoptman approach differ from the Armstrong and Grynsztejn approaches?


I can't tell.  It's a high bar.  Richard and Madeleine, and Lynne Cook and Mark Francis [1991] set a very high standard. But it's got to be different.  I'm also curating in a different time--that's the beauty of these sequential exhibitions. They are never the same because things change so quickly—and especially because we are now in a very interesting moment.


Where did you study as an undergraduate, and how did you evolve through the ranks as a curator?


I was born in Washington, DC, that great capitol of free museums, and my family went to museums all the time.  I knew from the time I was very young that I wanted to work in a museum.   I went to Williams College and studied Art History, and then I immediately went to the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU for my Ph.D. studies.  I worked at the Bronx Museum, in the South Bronx, during my studies—a great little place. It specialized in emerging art, contemporary art, and it was good for me, since very quickly I got a good vocabulary for the younger artists living in the New York area.  From there I was hired at MoMA in the Department of Drawings and spent seven years there.  I worked on their “Projects” Program, which is for the junior curatorial staff to experiment with young artists.  I did many projects with artists such as John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, Luc Tuymans, Maurizio Cattelan, John Bock, and my last show was with Ricci Albenda.  With my projects at MoMA I really made my name in the field.  The “Projects” series is like our “Forum” series—a small single artist exhibition for an emerging artist.  It's a great way to look at the work of younger artists in the museum context.


John Bock, Farmslave in Massachusitz (small stage), 1999. A recent acquisition that Curator Laura Hoptman brought into the collection in November.


What does the profession of curator, as you have practiced it, require of someone?  To be happy?  To be good?


I talked to a group of graduate students in curatorial studies from Bard College, last night, in fact, at MoMA.  I said,  "Don't try this at home."  It's a great profession, though.  You get to look at great art, and you get to hang out with great people.  I think artists are great people.  I married an artist.  So I really love artists.  But while it is totally great—it has its drawbacks.   It's a peripatetic life.  You travel a tremendous amount.  I'm an old school person—I have an Art History degree, not a Curatorial Studies degree.  So I had to learn my craft, the craft of hanging pictures by trial and error.  And I'm still learning.


I sincerely believe that you have to know your art history.  I went to the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU, which is like the Courtauld Institute in London. I have my degree in Modern Art, and my expertise starts in 1699.  That is what is considered Modern.  I'm very proud that I know my 18th century French from my 19th century French.  I believe that our culture is a kind of fabric—and you have to know what is in the cultural fabric. 


You can't just know what is happening now.  I can't just decide about what is interesting because "I like it."  Because I have a different taste than you do.  And I have to justify why I think the work I have chosen might be important to you.   It's not just because I say, "It's good." 


The Advisory Committee for the 2004 Carnegie International


On this prestigious committee are consultants and critics for the curator, selected for their global knowledge of contemporary art, and their demonstrated expertise at presenting and analyzing it.


Francesco Bonami, the Manilow Senior Curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, has served as curator for many notable exhibitions in Europe and the United States.  In April 2002 he was chosen to organize the 2003 Venice Biennale.


Gary Garrels, Chief Curator in the Department of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, brings to the International a deep knowledge of curatorial practices, having organized several important exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


Midori Matsui, a Tokyo-based art critic and scholar, has written extensively on Japanese and Western art and culture, thus combining a strong regional focus with an international outlook and reputation.


Cuauhtemoc Medina, a critic and art historian with an estimable academic reputation, teaches at the National University of Mexico and serves as a visiting professor at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies.


Rirkrit Tiravanija is a Thai artist who was born in Buenos Aires, studied in Canada and the United States, and now lives and works in both Berlin and New York, where he teaches at Columbia University.


Richard Armstrong, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art and curator of the 1995 Carnegie International, serves as a de facto committee member.





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