The “Action Critic”

Dita Rietuma

An Interview with Massimiliano Gioni, Associate Director at New York’s New Museum


Produced with the support of ABLV Charitable Foundation

Massimiliano Gioni (1973) is one of the most respected contemporary art curators out there, and his career has been nothing if not stellar – at the young age of forty, he was the curator of the Venice International Biennale in 2013, heading one of the largest and most prestigious global-level projects in contemporary art. Arterritory met up with the youthful and charming Gioni in New York at The New Museum, where he is head curator; born in Italy, Gioni has been living in New York for the last fifteen years. The New Museum is located in Manhattan's East Village, on Bowery Street in Soho. Its contemporary and extravagant shell – a surprisingly fragile-looking conglomeration of concrete and glass – is quite prominent, as is the long line of young people standing in line to get in its doors. On certain days and for specified hours admission is free, and hundreds of art enthusiasts are keen on taking advantage of this.

My conversation with Gioni takes place in an Italian bar next to the museum, its sombre interior a stark contrast to the lightness found inside The New Museum. Gioni does not suffer from that affectation of egotistical geocentricism that many “true-blooded” Americans have – he is acutely aware of issues going on in Europe and Eastern Europe, including the corresponding art scenes. How can this be? It turns out that he has had experience with this region – several years ago, Gioni curated the exhibition “Ostalgia” at The New Museum. The show featured works from about 50 artists hailing from Eastern Europe, including the Latvian artist Andris Grīnbergs. Along with his interest in Eastern European art, Gioni is working on figuring out how to make New York's The New Museum a unique institution in the art and business scene of this metropolis – through bringing to the forefront artists that are either emerging, or as yet unknown in the US.

This interview took place in May, and and that time Gioni was praising the current exhibition featuring the remarkable works of the Polish artist Pawel Althamer; Gionni had worked with Althamer at the Venice Biennale. When asked which exhibition one “must see” while in New York, Gioni named the retrospective of the unique German artist, Sigmar Polke (1941-2010), going on at MoMA through August 3.

Having been an art critic first and foremost, Gioni tells me how language is the critic's instrument, and how it tends to become limiting when one enters a new cultural environment. When Gioni came to New York from Italy at the end of the 90s, it was this “limitation” that pushed him to become an “action critic” – which is how he perceives the job of a curator. Gioni displays his skills not only at The New Museum, but also through his heading of the Trussardi Foundation in Milan, by serving as a consultant for the art collection of the Greek multi-millionaire Kadis Joannou, and by curating international biennales in Europe and Asia.

Massimiliano Gioni. Photo: Marco De Scalzi. Courtesy Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milano

You once described art as being conceptual gymnastics; what do you mean by that, and why is art important to you?

I stole that definition from Umberto Eco – from the famous essay that he wrote (I think in 1962) about what he called “open artwork” and the role of the viewer. What he said was: art is a place or activity in which you exercise your ability to come to terms with what you don’t know. I do not care about the definitions with which I can identify, and what I mean by that is that art, and contemporary art in general, is a place in which the very definitions of art are constantly renegotiated, and this is what attracts people – a place of freedom and participation.

What attracts and interests me about art is that it is a game in which the rules are constantly retracted, and this is a very important exercise. What also attracts me is that in our normal life – which is not art – we, fortunately and unfortunately, have to work within a certain set of rules that have been written and settled upon. Artists are constantly renegotiating and re-shifting.

What is the main task of the curator? What is more important nowadays – the artwork, or the art of the curator?

The artwork, the piece of art, is most important. My job ... there is a strict ontology of what a curator does. On the one hand, I do what every viewer does – I interpret the artwork. Perhaps I am the first interpretor and the first reader. I read it, interpret it, and display it for other readers and viewers to interpret it as an object in a space – and hopefully, the objects talk to each other and talk to the viewer. They do so by opening up different spaces of interpretation. This is the intellectual, or narrative, part. The curator is somebody who underlines some perspectives of the artworks, underlines some stories which can be found in the artwork; this is the conceptual, philosophical aspect. And the curator is also the person who has to deal with many of the practical issues: how big or small is the distance between two objects – both physically and metaphysically. The curator must also decide on the distance between the objects that will be talking to each other, and the distance between the objects and the viewer... Like in a conversation: if I stand in front of you and shout to you, you will have one experience; if I am here in the back and speak in a soft voice, you have another experience. The role of the curator is to let the objects speak, and to make them speak in what, I think, is their own voice; this is done by creating specific distances and/or proximities between two objects, and between the object and the viewer. In practical terms: if I put the object closer or further away, or if I choose to use or not use background music, the “conversation” changes.

But then there are issues that are even more practical – my role is to take care of budgets, to care about deadlines, and to oversee the production of the exhibition; the sum of the objects or artworks is bigger than the parts. But it is very important that the artists and the artworks have the opportunity to speak in what I think is their own voice. Of course, there are also the tasks of finding money, finding resources, finding exhibition spaces. These are some of the roles of the curator, but ultimately, I don’t think that there is an art to being a curator; perhaps there is a craft to being a curator, a craft that also requires talent, much like the artist requires talent... However, I don’t think it is an art; it is done in the service of the artworks. And the artworks themselves should not service anything.

You have a background in literature and philosophy – do you think this helps you in the way that you approach art and the curatorial process?

My background was mainly in two fields, or even three. I studied art history, literature and philosophy, and particularly, the theory of interpretation – semiotics. Literature, which has always been a passion of mine, was also important to me as a field in which one exercises the process of interpretation, and then understands what is the role of the viewer or the reader.

I think that in terms of influence, something particular happened to me when I came to New York. I had studied in Italy. The training there was more traditional – in the sense that criticism and art history had a lot to do with the language. When I came here, it became more complicated because I was not using my own language. In a way, I naturally drifted towards curating – which I didn't even know was a profession before the 90s, which is when I moved here.

When I was at university, I was studying to become an art historian and critic, but when I came here, I learned that there is also this possibility – which, I think, came more naturally to me because I didn’t have to use language as much as I did before. Maybe it also had to do with my character, which is more on the energetic side. Sometimes I say that a curator is an “action critic” because you're putting criticism into the making, but not into the judging. Yes; you clearly judge, but your judgment is about empowering the objects, and not about saying that this object is either good or bad. Your criticism or your linguistic abilities are engaged when you display objects and make them tell a story. That's how I understand it now – from afar... To use a metaphor from cinema: I was trained as a critic, but then I came to be something closer to a producer. (I am not sure if this is the right metaphor...) Maybe because my language was not good enough, I found it to be a more natural way of expressing myself. And along the way, I was helping other people make something happen.

When did you come to New York?

I came in 1999, as an editor and a critic for a magazine called “Flash Art” – as its American editor. And I increasingly became more involved in curating. The thing is, I was already working as an assistant for some curators, and I increasingly took it on as a profession because it was something that I liked; it was a way to be closer to the artist. The critic (also in terms of film criticism) as I imagined it, is someone who sees the finished product or object and then writes about it. The critic does not have any personal contact with the artist or the object before it has been finished. Due to my friendships with the artists, I got more and more interested in the process in which the artwork comes to life and how it is displayed; that interested me very much. It was a way to be closer both to the artist and to the artwork. I am not saying that I felt as though I was being part of the creative process, but I did feel like I had a part in the generation of it, and that I was not only on the receiving end. And that was exciting because it gave me the opportunity to be in a dialog with the artists.

View looking into the New Museum from the Bowery

At the age of 40 you had reached the highest point of a curator's career – you were curating the Venice Biennale. What’s next?

(Knocks on wood.) I  don’t know. On the one hand, I think that what comes next is the same that came before – which is, I don’t think about it. Well, obviously I think about my career, but I don’t think, or have never thought about, my career as being an accomplishment. After Venice, I kept on doing what I was doing before – which is doing shows. For me, it is very important that my attitude does not change. Perhaps my experience is different now – meaning that I can work on different scales and that I am now more expert at what I do. But that shouldn’t change how you do or what you do. I will use an example that is, perhaps, overused – everybody always mentions the famous curator, Harald Szeemann. After he did Documenta in 1972, he was 39 or 40, and the next show that he did was a very small show about his grandfather, who was a hairdresser. I always like to think that you do a big thing, and then you do a small thing, and they are both part of of the same expression – they are on different scales, but that doesn‘t matter. And, probably, this is how one's career grows ever longer – because you're not thinking about it as being a career… As a writer, you can write a long review or a short one; you can write a small essay or a book, and they are just different expressions of the same practice.

Is there any possibility of you curating the Venice Biennale again?

No. I don't think that anyone has ever done the Biennale and then again ten years later. But there are many shows in the world. I didn’t care about Venice in terms of power or status; I cared about Venice because it was an opportunity to do a show that is seen by very many people, and that it allowed me to work with artists with whom I hadn’t had an opportunity to work with before. And they gave more space to my ideas. There may not be many other occasions just like Venice, but there are other occasions. Before Venice, I curated the Gwangju Biennale (2010) in Asia, in South Korea. And if somebody had told me before that biennale in Asia that it would teach me a lot and would be a fantastic opportunity, I wouldn't have believed it; but in truth, I learned as much from this show as I did from the Venice Biennale and from other smaller shows that I had curated. You know, I don't believe that there is such a thing as a “dream job”, or “the top job”. There are all kinds of jobs, and each one teaches you something, and you teach something to each of the jobs. And after Venice, you have to expect that you will not be offered such big jobs anymore; but I do have the museum [The New Museum in New York] and the Trussardi Foundation in Milan. It was also very important to me to be honest in Venice, and to not think that “here comes the dream job”; it is only one of the dream jobs that are out there (laughs).

What do you miss most in today’s art world?

I think I miss time. There is so much competition – but not in the sense of coming from my colleagues; for example, in New York there are so many museums, and sometimes several museums are all looking for the same artist. And the speed in New York is very fast. I wish I had more time. You know, curating is very pragmatic, but it is also very important to study, to read, and to have your own space. And sometimes this is very hard to do if you are just running around.

I miss – and this will probably sound naïve from me – but I miss the time when money and prices were not the main attractions. I am not naïve, and I know that money does a lot and allows one to make great shows, but it also gets in the eyes of people. For example, many curators and shows all look for the same names at the same time, but how about we take a look at these other people? Yes, they are in a different position in the art market, but I think it is important to think about art, like I said before, as a place for opportunities and a place for opening these opportunities and possibilities – for relaxing the strict canon. So, I think that part of my work is to increase diversity, to keep things a little more open.

You mentioned the competition between the museums in New York.  How does the New Museum survive among this competition?

When I think about the Museum's program, I don’t think about the competition; I think about how to shape the identity of the institution. When I did the Biennale, I thought – how can I make it special and different from the one that came before, and from the one that will come after it? I do the same thing in running the Foundation in Milan. Each time and in each system, there is a different way of doing this, but in New York, I do it by showing artworks that have not been shown there before… This spring we had a show by Pawel Althamer [Poland], who I think is a great artist, an influential artist, and who is very respected in Europe, but who doesn’t even have a gallery representing him in New York. We thought it was a strong statement to show him here. And we did the same with the German artist Rosemarie Trockel, and with many artists who have not yet exhibited widely and deeply in the city. This is one of the ways in which we distinguish ourselves. We distinguish ourselves by being faster; not just in terms of getting there first, but because we are small, we try to do a lot and turn things around a lot. We try to be informal and open to the artists, particularly when we do solo shows; the artist is not just in charge of making a work, but also of rethinking, with me and the institution, what the institution can be. Another thing that we do is make the exhibitions, group shows or thematic shows touch upon issues that are bigger than just those of the art world…

Back to the first question. For me, the art world is a place where you constantly redefine what art is, but it also constantly redefines what is reality. These two have to be in a constant dialogue. It is important to make shows with issues that are bigger than the art world, and this is another way that defines what we do.

How do you discover these artists, the ones that are relatively unknown in New York?

New York is a peculiar place because there is so much art here, but also because for many years, the driving force in New York had been galleries in which usually just a certain type of art was shown. It leaves great gaps, and that is what is exciting! And there is this matter of time – there are great artists who are not overexposed here, but they are well-known elsewhere; but there are also artists who I believe should be seen here. I don’t believe in the myth of the curator as the discoverer; also, today there are just so many people to discover. It is all about the creation of a space in which the specific artist makes sense and is appreciated – it still is about having to open some doors. Sometimes they open gently, sometimes they do not.

Some years ago you made the exhibition “Ostalgia”, in New York. What was the motivation behind your interest in the post-soviet and Eastern European art scene?

There where multiple reasons to do the show. It took place in 2011, and it had many levels. When I make a show, particularly a group show, I think – what does New York need? What haven't the people seen? I try to make shows of the kind that I haven't seen around already. There was a crash in 2008, and the recession was still going on. I wanted to make a show with a certain dryness to it, a simplicity; I particularly thought about younger artists, and I wanted to show that you can make art with nothing – sometimes even only with the belief that you can. There were a lot of artworks in the former Soviet Bloc that were made with nothing, and without any recognition – or with the recognition of a very few people. I thought it would be an interesting approach for New York in that time of economic recession, which was also a time in which art was becoming more and more expensive, more and more shiny, and more and more market-driven. The economy was going down, but strangely enough, this certain type of art was being overproduced, and the prices for it were going up. I thought it was a good time and place to think about the kind of art that is basic, about the kind of artist who is so much of an outsider that even the government is worried – such as Andrey Monastmirsky, Andris Grīnbergs…

These people that were doing almost nothing – just strange things with their friends – and for that they were almost revolutionary – just by doing almost nothing. I was very intrigued as to why we don’t see that type of work in New York. Secondly, I was interested in this area for reasons of personal history. I was born in 1973, and I was a teenager when the [Berlin] wall came down; I actually took a trip by car, from Italy to Vilnius and Riga, in 1992. We stopped in Prague – which was already different because the regime had fallen earlier, but it was a very formative trip for me – to see very different cultures and countries changing; the Baltic countries had recently changed. Later, I came back many times; I went to Moscow, and to Vilnius a couple of times. When I curated Manifesta in 2004, I did some research in the former Eastern Bloc. What I observed – and I am generalizing now – was such strength and enthusiasm for the East to become more like the West, and the wish to forget as quickly as possible entire experiences; I thought that this sort of sudden amnesia was also very interesting. I was worried that making this show in New York – while not knowing particularly a lot about this Eastern European history – could result in a very stereotypical view being presented.

And then I was curious about how all of these European capitals were becoming more and more alike. There is Zara in Prague, Zara is in Riga, and the same goes for H&M… The same labels, the same companies. This is a type of “beautiful makeup” for cities. Prague now looks like Moscow…

Fictional memories were created – cities were going back to 19th-century models of themselves and simply skipping over the whole Soviet era. And I was very curious about this dialectic process of remembering and forgetting. What and why are we forgetting? Why are we sweeping all of this stuff under the carpet so quickly?

This story also explains why I wanted to show these multiple histories in The New Museum – because New York doesn’t know about them. I don’t know if I did a good job on this show or not. The show was also criticized: some people thought that it was too generalizing and that it put all of the Eastern Block into one framework, failing in the same way as the so-called Cold War logic had. Today there is less and less distinction and fewer differences between East and West. But we shouldn't think that we can just get rid of the past so easily; there is so much that we can learn about it, especially in New York.

Massimiliano Gioni. Photo: Marco De Scalzi. Courtesy Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milano

Does New York need Eastern European art right now?

I think that New York always needs the art that it doesn’t see. It is amazing because you really can see a lot here – there are about 500 galleries. I do not know how many museums there are, but I also feel that because it is an expensive city, a lot of products survive more than they would under other approaches. And so, ultimately, for me it is an expansion of the canon; every time that it is not just the most expensive artists' artworks being sold in the auctions, it is a win. New artists are being recognized in the books of American art history. I am not saying that I oppose, or am against, the system, but for The New Museum, it is important to bring in these different voices. And sometimes these voices gain recognition and they go on to have a life of their own. I am not an outsider, even though this idea does interest me; it is more about reminding people of the plurality of voices that are out there.

What catches your attention?

Good art and unusual shows. It sounds silly, but I believe that art has nothing to do with showing off one's status; rather, it is an opportunity for people to understand themselves, their place, and their relationship to one another.