March 2- 8, 2006
Meet Carlos Basualdo, keeper of the PMA's Warhols and Rauschenbergs.
Carlos Basualdo has studied avant-garde literature, written for art journals and magazines and organized and co-curated dozens of exhibitions, including Documenta in 2002 and the 2003 Venice Biennale, and he teaches for part of the year in Universitá IVAV in Venice. His show "Tropicalia" a fusion of 1960s Brazilian arts and culture --is the buzz of London right now. A few months back, the Philadelphia Museum of Art appointed Basualdo as its new curator of Contemporary Art. I met with him recently and discovered his background, current projects and plans for his department.
City Paper: Tell me a little about your background and previous experience.
Carlos Basualdo: I studied literatureand my main interest at that time was the avant -garde in literaturethe early Modern transformation around the written word. I was myself very involved with writing and at the same time very interested in the birth of Modern lyric Guido Cavalcanti, early Dante. Those were my points of departure and I think that they translated into the visual arts for me because I'm still very interested in the Renaissance and in the connection between the Modern and the contemporary. I had the opportunity to start writing about art for a local newspaper. Coming from a literary background, I was really coming at art from outside the discipline. And that allowed me to see the discipline in its complexity and also in its weaknesses. I think I profited from that. I still believe I do. I worked in the Museum of Modern Art as a research assistant/intern in 1992 and then was part of the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1994, and at that time I was already working as a freelance curator. I curated my first show in Argentina around that time.
CP: Where do you come from, exactly, in Argentina?
CB: I was born in Rosario. See, I have a mapI love maps! It's a little west of Buenos Aires. It's the city where Lucio Fontanta was born. And Che Guevara as well. It's a city of mostly immigrants, especially Italian immigrants. Argentina is a nation of primarily immigrants, like the United States, but in the last 40 years Argentina became a diasporic nation because of the economic crises and dictatorships. Now you find many Argentineans all over the place and that's not very good for the country. But back then, Rosario was a great place to grow up. In many ways it's similar to Philadelphia. One and a half million people live in Rosario, so it's about the same size and it's a very livable city as Philadelphia is, so in a way it makes me feel very at home here. I lived for 10 years in New York and it's a different thing. Philadelphia has that quality of being at the same time cosmopolitan and graspable, hospitable, in a way that New York is not.
CP: What do you like most about Philadelphia?
CB: I sincerely like many things! I like my house. I like the museum. I like all of the other institutions, the ICA, the Fabric Workshop, PAFAthey're all doing great work, which is inspiring. And I like the architecture. I think Philadelphia's a very charming city. It almost feels exceptional in a way. The restaurants are great. It's a city of culture. In terms of contemporary art, I think it's becoming the most interesting place outside of New York. There's so much going on. Artists are moving here because it's more affordable. We're doing the rounds of the galleries and discovering what there is and I think there's a lot going on here nowand, of course, the history! I think it's a great time for Philadelphia and it's great to be sharing a part in it.
CP: Can you talk about what you're working on at the museum? And what is your role with your colleagues?
CB: I'm the curator of contemporary art and I share the department with Michael Taylor, who's the curator of modern art. Both of us are thinking about how to really reinvent the department and the position of contemporary art in the museum. Rob Storr will be a consulting curator, and I think that we will be a great team. We've been working on acquisitions and an exhibition program we call Notations. We have an amazing collection of modern artone of the best worldwide! And we think that the collection of contemporary art should be at that level. It's a huge task but I think the museum is very committed to contemporary art. We are building the foundation to get there.
CP: Do you think of the modern art collection and the contemporary art collection as being separate? Do you plan on exhibiting them together?
CB: Well, they are exhibited together now and they will continue to be exhibited together. You know, there is no clear division between modern and contemporary. There's no clear division between the 19th century and the 20th century. The museum's vision is a vision of dialogue between different times and different cultures. That's our interest. It's not to put everything together like a tossed salad, but rather to establish connections in the most precise and intelligent way I'm talking across boundaries and across generations.
CP: Do you have any favorite objects in this collection, in the contemporary or modern area?
CB: Yeah, many! Of course it would be almost a cliche to tell you that I'm very fond of the Large Glass! But it's true. The Brancusi collectionit's outstanding! There's a lot of energy in those pieces, energy that is erotic as well as constructive, and there's this wonderful sense of sacredness. I say sacred in a productive way, not as something remote and hidden, but as a wonderful life-generating impulse that helps you go on. But there are other pieces. I love the Canalettos in the collection. There's a beautiful Veronese. The Titian that we have is simply splendid! In the contemporary collection we have the most wonderful Josef Beuys and we bought a film by Gordon Matta-Clark that I'm very fond of. Bruce Nauman Robert Smithson I could go on and on.
CP: Tell me about the "Tropicalia" show.
CB: "Tropicalia" I'm very excited because it's going to London. It's an interdisciplinary exhibition about a discussiona momentin Brazilian culture at the end of the '60s, which really had tremendous effects on the country. I believe it's very current... The show opened in Chicago and now it's going to be presented at the Barbicon Centre. They're planning to have a wonderful cinema series and to bring in some of the musicians that were involved in the period like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil who were in exile in London in the 1970s. I'm very excited about this It was very liberating for me to work with Brazilian art. I don't do this because it's just a job, I do it like you do your artbecause it's my life! "Tropicalia" allowed me to think about art in the wider sense. Art isn't made in isolation, art has never been made in isolation. Artists are not only looking at art. Artists read the newspapers when they wake up and they're concerned with the price of bread. They're concerned with traffic. I think that if we just tell the history of art as a closed dialogue between artists, we're not giving the whole picture. My main interests were, of course, the artists, but the show allowed me to make explicit the dialogues that sustained their work. Those were dialogues across disciplines.
CP: What are the biggest challenges that you're facing here at the museum?
CP: Are you still in the honeymoon phase?
CB: I've been very lucky. Honestly. There hasn't been a curator working with contemporary art for the last few years, so there's a big gap to fill. So there's a challenge in filling that gap. And that's obviously so much a part of what the museum is embarking onthis process of rethinking the contemporary and expanding the contemporary. But, when you ask me about the challenges I cannot help but focus on the kind of responses that I've been getting so far. The reception has been extraordinary! This has put some very nice pressure on me to try to really step up to the plate.
CP: How do you keep track of it all in today's art world with so many things going on? You can't physically see or experience it all.
CB: I think a curator of contemporary art has to be alert and open. For me it's a combination of research, of focusing on certain areas and being systematic, and chance. There's wonderful work being produced in KazakhstanI swear, Kazakhstan!as well as in Detroit. So you have to be able to have a much more open attitude towards it all. In a way it's an impossible task. You can only wish for the best and work as much as you can As an Argentinean, I am wonderfully sympathetic to Borges. I think that the world is a labyrinth!
Next week: Susan Hagen reviews a show for which Carlos Basualdo served as consulting curator, "Artur Barrio: Actions After Actions," at Moore College of Art & Design.