Inside the International:
Interview with Curator Laura Hoptman
By Lorrie Flom
CM: In previous interviews, you’ve said
that much of the art in this show deals with
the “Ultimates”—the big questions
about the meaning of life. How does this year’s
International differ from previous Internationals
in this regard?
LH: All great art deals with
varying issues that touch our lives, large and
small. That’s one of the definitions of
what makes a work of art a wonderful and important
thing. That said, each Carnegie International
is different. 1999 was different from 1995…which
was different from 1991…and you can go
all the way back to 1896. They differ because
they emphasize different schools of art. The
Internationals from 1896 through the Second
World War concentrated mostly on figurative
painting. By 1950, abstraction had taken over.
This International, compared to the last International,
doesn’t have such a clean break. The work
in this exhibition is more involved with issues
that are philosophical and metaphoric as opposed
to concrete. The theme of the last International
had to do with the notion of the “real.”
This one really has to do with the notion of
CM: Were the
works in this exhibition selected specifically
because of how they relate to the concept of
the “Ultimates”—or is this
more a reflection of the kinds of work you were
encountering, especially since the events of
LH: The notion of the Ultimates
is an organizing principal of the show, but
it’s not that all the works have to do
with the notion of “God” or the
meaning of life. I think the world has changed,
and 9/11 is part of it. We’re also a country
at war, and we went through a pretty rough recession
recently, at least in some parts of the country.
I think that the boom years created a sort of
effervescence. I can’t speak for everybody,
but the temperament of the country has changed,
and I think some of the work in this International
represents that change.
artists historically dealt with these same issues
and questions? Why is this show different?
LH: Every Carnegie International
is different, but it would be foolish to think
that it is completely different than every exhibition
we have seen in the past decade. There are artists
here in their 70s who could very well have been
in the 1970 International. Lee Bontecou was
in the 1960 and 1964 Internationals and the
1970 International. As the tenor of the times
has changed, thus, the tenor of the exhibition
CM: What is the
significance of the three monographs (Lee Bontecou,
Robert Crumb, and Mangelos) within the International?
LH: The monographic shows give
us a chance to look at the entire careers of
very influential artists. They all might be
well-known and influential, but they’re
not as well-known as they should be. It’s
a chance to look at their entire oeuvre instead
of just their latest work.
Now that the show has come together, have any
of the works exceeded your expectations?
LH: All of the works
have exceeded my expectations. I was continually
at the work that was produced. And the galleries
are so beautiful—particularly for painting—that
it’s been great to be able to hang artwork
CM: What was
it like to put this show together over the past
three years? How does the scope of the International
compare to other exhibitions you’ve curated?
LH: It’s the largest exhibition
that I’ve ever curated and it’s
the most varied in terms of mediums. I began
my career in the early 1980s as a video person,
and for six years I worked in drawing. But it’s
been a very long time since I’ve had the
pleasure of working with so many different mediums,
including painting, sculpture, drawing, and
CM: Has it been
difficult to work with artists from so many
different countries and cultures?
LH: No. Most of these artists
are real pros and they’ve done it before.
A lot of artists today—even painters—prefer
to be very involved in the installation of their
works. They come and help hang their own pictures
or place their own sculptures. In many cases,
artists have made at least one visit to Pittsburgh
to scout out the space. Then, of course, we
correspond by email, and that’s been a
wonderful thing for us.
CM: What has
been the greatest challenge in assembling this
LH: The greatest challenge was
to reconcile the needs of the museum with the
vision of the artist. That’s what the
curator does. We’re go-betweens, and we
try to realize the artist’s vision but
we also need to create a user-friendly, safe,
CM: What has
been the greatest reward?
LH: Being able to work with
the artists, plus working with the team here
at the Museum of Art. There are people on the
crew who have been through 9 or 10 Carnegie
Internationals. They’re unflappable
and professional, and lovely to work with. It’s
CM: How does
this year’s International carry on the
tradition begun by Andrew Carnegie with the
LH: Carnegie wanted the International
to be a repository for the “old masters
of tomorrow.” We’ve done our best
to choose the most promising lights in contemporary
visual culture today.
CM: Does the
museum usually purchase works from the Carnegie
LH: Yes, typically we do. Over
the past three years we purchased a number of
works of the artists in this International.
Now that the exhibition is up, we might take
a look and see what else we need to purchase.
CM: Why is the
International important to Pittsburgh?
LH: The tradition of the exhibition
is enormously important to Pittsburgh. It’s
one of the things people know Pittsburgh for.
Pittsburgh’s famous for the steel industry,
for the PPG building, for the three rivers,
and Pittsburgh’s famous for the Carnegie
International. It’s one of the main
draws for this region, and it has been since
the 19th century.
CM: Who do you
expect to attend and appreciate the show?
LH: I hope the entire region
will attend. We had a huge attendance at the
1999-2000 International. Eighty-five percent
of the attendees—or more—were from
this region. It’s friends and neighbors.
It’s an exhibition for the world—and
the world certainly comes to see it—but
attendance is mostly from the region.
CM: What do you
hope people will take away from their visit
to the International?
LH: I hope that they’re
interested, surprised, intrigued, maybe provoked,
CM: A lot of
contemporary art is difficult to understand
for the average person. Why do you think it
is worthwhile for these people to come to the
International to explore these works?
LH: I really don’t believe
that contemporary art needs to be made more
comprehensible to people. I think that people
are smart enough and interested enough and engaged
enough to be able to understand contemporary
art. This exhibition won’t talk down to
non-art aficionados. Not every single work can
be explained, but in general, you should be
able to get something out of it no matter who
you are. If the exhibition is inexplicable,
then it is unsuccessful.
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