Bringing a contemporary outlook to town

New BMA curator of today's art is well grounded in yesterday's.

February 13, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

As the Baltimore Museum of Art's first new curator of contemporary art in nearly a quarter-century, Helen Molesworth faces a number of challenges. She must contend with revamping the museum's new wing for contemporary art, strengthening ties with the regional arts community and developing education and outreach programs to expand the museum's audience.

Molesworth, 33, is a native New Yorker who earned a doctorate in art history from Cornell University after completing an undergraduate major in history at the State University of New York at Albany and a year as a curatorial student in the Whitney Museum's Independent Studies Program.

Before coming to Baltimore, she was assistant professor of art history and director of the Amelie Wallace Gallery at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, where she organized many exhibitions of contemporary art and photography.

She had hardly been on her BMA job a week when last month's snowstorm shut the museum's doors for two days. Once the museum reopened after digging itself out, we spoke to her about her new job and her approach to it.

What's the connection between all your training in history and what you're doing now?

I really believe that contemporary art is always in dialogue with the art of the past, whether it's the art of the recent past like Andy Warhol, or the less recent past, like abstract expressionism, or the still lifes of Picasso or even further back.

The best contemporary art, in my mind, is often art either rooted in a tradition, rebelling against a tradition or complicating a tradition. I don't think contemporary art ever just springs fully formed from the head of Zeus. It's really rooted in history and the more you know about art history the more exciting and enriching the experience with contemporary art can be.

How do you approach the problem of knowing what to present as the best work being done?

Well, it's clearly a very difficult problem.

The contemporary curator has several responsibilities. One is to try and give people a sense of what's happening in contemporary art, to put on shows that are indicative of global or international trends, if you will, so that the audience at the BMA can be as up to date about what's happening in contemporary art as they are about what's happening in music, in film, on TV.

When it comes to trying to pick and show "the best," one of the things that seems to have happened over the past 20 years is that the category of "the best" has become more open, has shifted. Now we ask, the best for who? As an abstract category, I don't think "the best" really exists anymore, which is something we're all struggling with now in the contemporary field.

Whatever happened to the concept of quality in art? Don't you still have to make judgments?

What's happened over the past 20 years, basically since the advent of the civil rights movement and the feminist movement, is that we now have to take more things into account. It used to be that curators just had this idea of "the best." Now, I think, we have to take into account social relevance and the impact of different traditions.

So all of a sudden the whole idea of quality is way open. We're very far away from critic Clement Greenberg's notion of quality [Greenberg (1909-1994) argued that quality in modern art was purely a function of its formal properties]. Social relevance, historical engagement, formal qualities -- all these are equally important. And that's a profound change.

So is, say, oil painting an obsolete technology now?

Oh, no. Painting is clearly a historical art form that emerged in a specific time and place and is deeply rooted to its historical conditions.

It just so happens that many artists today feel that photography, video, installation art and digital technologies offer them more possibilities than painting, perhaps because they feel those technologies are more connected to the everyday fabric of modern life.

For example, your newspaper is going to show my picture. But it'll be a photograph, not a sketch. That's just life. It doesn't mean painting is dead.

In fact, there are a lot of interesting painters now who are exploring the impact of photography on painting in really profound ways. Gerhard Richter is making very good paintings. So are Kerry James Marshall and Amy Silman.

What's the relevance of a painter like Richter, who does many of his paintings from photographs?

It's a dialogue between painting and photography, an attempt on the part of someone deeply engaged in the tradition of painting who also understands the tradition of photography and who is trying somehow to marry them.

But in Richter you see that sometimes that marriage is not a happy union. There's always a little nagging between the partners. And it's that nagging that, in a way, is the most interesting thing about his work.

How about an artist who uses photography, like Cindy Sherman?

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