“What made giving up my academic position irresistible,” an eminent curator once told me, “was the chance to have everyday hands-on experience of great art.” Her observation fascinated me, for then I started wondering how curators and historians might see painting differently, and so write about it in diverse ways. There is a great tradition of such curator-historians, the tradition defined, in part, by Roger Fry, and, at The Museum of Modern Art, by John Elderfield’s precursor, Alfred H. Barr, and his colleague William Rubin. One interesting quality shared by these diverse figures is their refusal to make the conventional distinction between purely historical and journalistic art critical concerns. When Fry turned from old master connoisseurship to his championship of Cézanne and the post-Impressionists, he wanted to bridge the gap between art history and analysis of contemporary art, to the benefit of both disciplines. Writing as a critic, Fry gave art of his own time as much serious attention as Renaissance Italian works. Barr, Rubin, and Elderfield, similarly, bring to modernism the kind of scholarly seriousness which traditional art historians devote to museum art of earlier eras. Until contemporary art attracts this sort of writing, its place in history, remains, as yet uncertain.
Since I began writing art criticism in 1980, I thought about John’s work frequently, wrestling—off and on, on many occasions; usually with ambivalent fascination—with his accounts of Morris Louis. But it was not until I read his catalogue essay for the Modern’s Matisse retrospective in 1992 that I came to see how central were his particular concerns to theorizing about modernism. Almost no one doubts Matisse’s greatness, but nowadays very nearly everyone finds his ways of thinking, and—certainly—his way of life, highly problematic. In his review of that exhibition, Peter Schjeldhal nicely expressed this consensus: “I dislike him, still—but it is not so easy to be critical while joyfully quivering.” John’s great achievement, in that catalogue and also in forthcoming publications which include Pleasuring Painting, was to show how revisionist interpretation was needed if we were to adequately understand the value of Matisse’s art and understand his relationship with abstract painting. John’s other forthcoming publications are The Language of the Body: Drawing by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and a reissue of Hugo Ball’s Flight out of Time. What I admire in this writing, even—or especially—when I disagree with its claims, is John’s marvelous capacity to take up new points of view, and rethink fundamental issues.
And so, I thought it would be great fun for us to talk at length. No one with the position, Chief Curator-at-Large and Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs at The Museum of Modern Art could be called little known, but, oddly enough, there has as yet been little critical analysis of Elderfield’s work; and so, too little understanding of his achievement even though Elderfield has directed major exhibitions, including the recent Piet Mondrian, the Henri Matisse retrospective, Morris Louis, Kurt Schwitters, and the Masterworks of Edvard Munch. In part, I suspect, this is because curators stand a little outside the academic world. Exhibition catalogues, John writes in the Matisse catalogue, “are prepared under conditions much closer to those of a newspaper office than of a university library.” Judging by my experience, he overestimates the tranquility of university life. But when we got together last December, we had a full afternoon and evening of uninterrupted conversation. I wanted to learn more about his conception of the role of his museum; and about his perspective on these issues.
David Carrier The question of how the exhibition space works is something I’ve thought about a lot. People don’t write about this, they don’t talk about it. And yet, dealing with it is a big part of your job. The Mondrian show felt different in Washington than it did at your museum.
John Elderfield The differences in installations from one venue to the next are, for me, among the pleasures of looking at exhibitions. At The Hague, the Mondrian exhibition was seen under natural light and with a lot of space between the paintings, and looked wonderful for that reason. In Washington, the works were hung in a far more strictly chronological sequence than at The Hague, and one learned enormously from that installation. At The Museum of Modern Art, I and my colleague Beatrice Kernan had less space than either The Hague or Washington, but did have the luxury of being able to design the galleries to fit the paintings rather than having to rely on fixed, pre-built walls. This meant that we could pace the exhibition as virtually a sequence of individual exhibitions of particular periods of Mondrian’s work, within which, therefore, it was possible to depart from precise chronology in order to attempt to convey visually a sequence of pictorial thinking.
How this works is, I like to think, somewhat like a conductor interpreting a musical score. And it depends upon intuition as well as planning. For example, the octagonal gallery with the four black-and-white diamond paintings seemed good for those four works and good as a kind of “semi-public” space in the whole sequence. But I didn’t realize until after the exhibition had opened that at the back of my mind was the octagonal gallery with the four Allegory of Lovepaintings by Veronese at the National Gallery in London—which may be an interpretation, on my part, of these four Mondrians.
DC Does hanging a show involve a kind of lore that isn’t verbalized? Is it craft?
JE I fear that many people don’t fully realize the extent to which hanging paintings is interpretive, a form of rhetoric. Working on the installation for the Matisse retrospective in 1992, there were rooms with, say, eight paintings that took three days to get right. Putting a work next to another is as much a statement as putting words to a painting. Both narrate the pictures. I saw the wonderful Matisse exhibition that Lawrence Gowing did in London in 1969 and the huge, extraordinary Matisse show that Pierre Schneider did in Paris in 1970. Matisse was a revelation, and remains a mystery to me. Back then, he led me to aspects of American painting. He also led me to Clement Greenberg. And, whatever one’s reservations about Greenberg’s approach (now, I have very considerable reservations indeed), he was clearly the entry point for engagement with serious criticism.
DC When in London in 1974, I saw the Morris Louis show and I was knocked out. I was caught up in the writing about him. Now I find his art harder to evaluate. Today people speak of rediscovering him as if he had quite vanished. It is very strange. I don’t claim to understand that change in taste.
JE I certainly don’t. I had a marginal involvement in that 1974 exhibition and, through that, found that Louis was one of the artists I cared about. When I came to do the show for MoMA in 1986, I was delighted. And I will immodestly say that it is the best Louis exhibition that has been done. But, I’m not sure I was quite at a point fully to articulate why we should continue to be interested in him.
DC There is a generation gap. The American painters after the color-field painters don’t feel any connection back to Louis. The mid-career abstract painters my age don’t look back, they don’t look at that painting at all; they don’t have any connection with painters like Poons.
JE That’s true. I think that group of artists associated with Greenberg, both the important and he unimportant among them, have been neglected, mainly, because their work became so identified with “modernism” in the narrowest sense. One still reads characterizations of modernism as a whole as if it were Greenbergian modernism, which has become back-projected onto everything since the 1880s, even. This is ridiculous, of course, but the idea of modernism as mediumistic self-sufficiency continues to be trotted out, as you know.
DC I picked up this phrase from your discussion of Diebenkorn. You say: “The past is challenged by truly original art … because challenging it allows the artist to speak frankly and unconstrained.” I don’t know that artists would talk that way right now, because it is a notion of the past that I don’t think they would recognize.
JE I agree that many artists (and critics) are disconnected from that way of talking. I had a painting teacher whose own teacher was taught by Sickert who was taught by Degas who was taught by Ingres, and so it went on. Despite everything, I confess to clinging to the idea that it is all one art school. And I do believe that, as we come to the end of the 20th century, we will increasingly become aware not only of the difference between modern art (as it still is called) and the past, but also of the continuities between 20th-century art and what preceded it. Hence, for example, my recent project on Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, which we might come to later.
DC Every time I walk through The Museum of Modern Art, it’s obvious that at a certain point the narrative of the museum hasn’t been formed. When you get to Warhol and Rauschenberg, at this point you have to decide how to place this work; your story isn’t evident from what can be seen.
JE Part of this, clearly, is a problem of space, which we are trying to solve. But your point is taken. At the same time, I think that the earlier parts of the story of modern art need reexamination, and I know that my colleagues at the museum think the same. For me, though, part of the problem is the absence of narrative in modern pictures demanding a museum narrative; one that seems less than adequate.
DC I’m very interested in how you want to present that sort of narrative. One of the things that’s going on in our culture that affects the way such museum narratives are understood is the short term memory. I have the sense that nowadays five years feels like an enormous period.
JE This is one reason why MoMA, dealing with older modern and contemporary art, has such a crucial role to play. We, possibly uniquely, are in a position to look for other ways to tell the story.
DC Consider this other quote from your Artforum writing in the 1970s: “Modern art—unlike earlier art … cannot afford the duality of visible image and invisible text characteristic of earlier art.” In the 1980s and post-modernism, this was an idea that came from Craig Owens and all of the other people reading Walter Benjamin; what they wanted was precisely this kind of duality.
JE I was arguing, I suppose, for a modern (or modernist) symbolism as opposed to allegory, and I have come to realize that this does imply a somewhat nostalgic sense of identity rather than distance in relation to origins. Yet, since we do construct texts about modern pictures, we have to acknowledge the possibility that they do embody invisible texts. In this respect, too, Cézanne is an heir of Poussin.
DC But aren’t Poussin and modernists very different in this way? The text of Poussin is very specific. To me that’s what’s so interesting about your writing on Matisse, that you have to tease out the text. There’s no way even of pretending that his pictures around 1910 had any particular narrative, and so therefore in your commentary you have to construct it.
JE For a Matisse, the text being teased out has never previously been written. Conversation is a great example (and I’ve been puttering away on a book on this picture for a number of years) precisely because it forces one to acknowledge that these great works do combine multiple patterns of possible reading, multiple texts, in effect. Its density is what is impressive.
DC Isn’t part of the paradox there that this very private man shows this private scene, his domestic quarrel, in a big picture that he must have envisaged ultimately being visible to the public?
Your radical capacity to innovate has been in terms of new methodologies, to engage with Yve-Alain Bois, Norman Bryson, and other people who have added to the culture. In terms of your writing, maybe there are more conceptual additions than changes of taste. Is this a fair way to characterize 20 years of your work?
JE I think so. I feel continually dissatisfied with how I explain things, and want to keep finding new ways. With Yve-Alain, the dialogue began when his Matisse essay (for the catalogue of the version of my show in Paris) responded to my essay for the New York exhibition. My new Pleasuring Painting book from Thames and Hudson is, in part, a response to him. But it is also, in larger part, a result of my interests (beginning with my 1992 Matisse catalogue) in feminist and psychoanalytic issues, the latter affecting my Prud’hon project even more.
Typically, these changes attach to new projects. For example, when I began running MoMA’s Drawings Department in 1980 (which I ran for a decade), I determined to do a book about 100 works in its collection (The Modern Drawing). It was a very wearing exercise. But I found, to my surprise, that I had changed in the process. Doing it, dealing with such diverse works (not all central to my taste), I found that their diversity required that I deal with conceptual issues pertinent to each individual work.
DC I can see that problem, when you put Georgia O’Keeffe in, and Lovis Corinth. Did the variety of artists drive your narrative?
JE I know it did. Part of the result was a broadening not only (or not so much) of my taste, but of the seriousness with which I had to address such diverse things. (This is one of the results of working in a museum.) Similarly, the seriousness with which I have taken topics that would have surprised a younger me has often been project-driven. Of course, I know I must choose projects precisely for this purpose, as with the Prud’hon book, which I have just completed after some three years’ work.
DC It is interesting here how your concerns have converged with those of various academics, Whitney Davis and others, who are interested in that historical moment, French art in the era of Jacques-Louis David.
JE Quite frankly, when I took on the project (out of sheer, uninformed admiration for Prud’hon’s work), I simply had no idea of the amount of recent scholarly material on this period. I was fascinated with him, in part, because he qualifies as possibly the first “modern” artist to create a substantial oeuvre comprising images of the female nude, which intersected with my Matisse interests.
DC If you go way back in your career, this analysis starts to revise the Greenbergian cliché of Manet being the starting point of modernism. Now you’re saying that if we focus more on Matisse, then we naturally go back to the 18th century. If you pursue your questions about the relationship between text and picture, seeking pictures that aren’t controlled by texts, then you might go back to the 18th century, to Watteau … for what text do you have with his pictures? It’s very interesting how this origin of modernism gets pushed back.
JE In dealing with Prud’hon, one thing became apparent, the 18th-century interest in “unfinish” is not purely a matter of formal enjoyment. It involves asking the beholder to complete the picture in a textual way. A study drawing (for a painting) asks the beholder to complete the story it only adumbrates. But an académie (a drawing released totally storyless from the studio) asks the beholder to provide the story—or, rather, to remember a story suggested by the pose held by the model.
DC As a viewer, you’re not simply free to project when viewing a Prud’hon drawing?
JE The beauty of these works aside, one fascinating thing about them is how texts might be attached to the bodily postures they show.
DC Here you raise another issue. In Leo Steinberg’s work, bringing the spectator in opens up space for critical disagreements, in ways that maybe he originally wasn’t totally prepared to expect. It’s clear that this spectator can’t be neutral, that he or she must have an identity. And then there will be a battle between interpreters who identify that spectator in different ways.
JE The other day, I was talking to Peter Galassi about the group of Cindy Sherman photographs the museum has just acquired. They are what we call “postmodernist” works. Yet, the idea of a single figure assuming different roles is one that is crucial to Matisse’s Plumed Hat drawings, quintessentially “modernist” works. And photography, I would even want to argue, effectively takes over from académies like Prud’hon’s, what drawing, painting, and sculpture increasingly have muted in their own mediumistic emphases, namely, thematization of the act of looking as voyeurism. And voyeurism thematizes in the posed figure its own converse, which is exhibitionism, and which it attributes as intention to the posed figure. Looking at past art like Prud’hon’s can help us to an understanding of things such as this.
DC The conceptual worry that I have about bringing the spectator in is that we are on this terribly slippery slope. If each person looking at the picture sees it differently, then can there be any objective art writing? One way to deal with the problem is to talk about gender, but another way is to talk about what kind of visual culture the person brings to the paintings; seeing a Matisse through eyes formed by Louis and Frankenthaler, that work looks different than it did in 1910. I even think, paintings look different to me now than they did ten years ago. Once you bring the spectator in, I’m not sure how you’re going to control this person’s role. Endless proliferation starts …
JE You worry that the whole thing just degenerates into solipsism?
DC I do. I worry about how much overlap there is between the experience of different spectators.
JE But however much we properly acknowledge that all our experience is mediated, it is constantly possible to surprise oneself. (Working in a museum, seeing great works every day, convinces me of this.) This is, perhaps, to come back to your question: whether there are qualities integral to pictures? I am convinced, at least, that experiencing works of art alters, if we allow it to, what we know from other works of art and from the history of ideas.
DC There is something called actual seeing. In art history, the idea that there is this one-to-one unmediated relationship called “connoisseurship” is what is most under attack, most beleaguered. And yet there is a certain mood which for me is irresistible, of being in front of the picture and saying “I see this, I know it; nothing I might read at home could change my mind.”
JE Perhaps there is a middle path. In front of a picture, one preserves the fiction of a one-to-one relationship with the work, and then goes home and reads about it and is willing to be persuaded to go back to it and look at it differently. The difficulty (and danger, I think) is of being unable to shed the “mediation” while looking. I know it is impossible to do so (entirely), yet I cling to the idea that truly giving oneself to a picture can allow the mediated interpretations to slide, one by one, not out of view but to the side. And the great pictures seem to be those that force this on the informed viewer, evoking new interpretations. This is to suggest that works are brought into the “canon” to the extent that they allow this to happen. Think of the way that Monet now seems.
DC All of the change in the conceptual apparatus hasn’t produced too much change in his evaluation. No one is saying Monet is not a great painter.
JE But I think Monet has been diminished.
DC Why? Do people want a tougher, more resistant picture?
JE Part of it, certainly, is that they find him utterly unironical. But it is not just that. Matisse survives because he keeps opening inexhaustibly. I think that Louis (though not as great, of course) will continue to intrude himself because we haven’t exhausted him. I’m not saying that there is nothing left to say about Monet; only that his fit is tighter.
DC What I’ve often thought is spectacular about Louis—I don’t know if this has been written—is that after plodding and plodding, then he makes the great breakthrough. He had this stubbornness to keep going. This is very admirable. Looking back, the early things I’ve seen in reproduction don’t look so promising. They’re interesting because they’re by him.
JE Michael Fried’s book lays this out as a demonstration that modernism needs a long apprenticeship. Leaving aside the irony that it is Fried, a friend of Stella’s, who makes this claim, it is one that would find justification in the work of a Mondrian or a Matisse.
DC With Picasso, only Cubism marks a real jump; with Matisse, the early works are certainly interesting. But with Louis, there was nothing and then suddenly everything.
JE Like being reborn.
DC With Frankenthaler, the development was fast from the start. So it’s hard to know how to generalize.
JE Helen’s is a special case, but I do think that it becomes very difficult, under post-modernism as well as modernism, for those artists who do find themselves quickly. I think that, clearly, the business of being widely exhibited, of having mid-career retrospectives, and so on, can be a problem. But many interesting modern and post-modern artists have only a few years of truly vital work. I think of it as the Derain syndrome. But Derain’s example suggests that the few-year artists are, perhaps, not so vital after all in their few years.
DC You didn’t write anything about Mondrian for the show. It’s hard from what I know of your writing to imagine how you would grapple with him. Again, going back to your drawing catalogue, here’s the quote: “Mondrian saw … a cosmic dualism between the masculine and spiritual (vertical) and the feminine and material (horizontal) … ” Those are obviously the sorts of statements that people worry about. Matisse at least didn’t say anything like that. We’re lucky.
JE Matisse did make some problematical statements in this regard, but nothing quite like that. In any event, we need to separate the kind of anachronistically censorious worrying about such statements, and the art itself. As for Mondrian, I am beginning to write about him after having spent a long time with the paintings. Hanging the exhibition (to come back to where we started) helped a lot, and provoked a lot of questions that I am now trying to answer to my satisfaction. For example, it is clear to me that his stress on evolution is by no means some Darwinian survival of the fittest (things surviving because they are the fittest; things seeming the fittest because they survive). I don’t yet know where my Mondrian text will go, but I do know that questions of erotics are infiltrating it already.
DC Having this show in the same space as the Matisse show is revealing. You couldn’t have the same big show for Mondrian as you had for Matisse. They obviously led such different lives, in practical terms. But in both shows we start with Northern light, and then quickly everything brightens. In the second room of the Mondrian show, the jump in color is very dramatic.
JE One can argue that they ended at the same place in terms of their alliance of color and drawing, and that they both began in a similar place, in a kind of Northern naturalism. Also, Matisse does have a sudden jump into color at the turn-of-the-century.
DC You recently wrote that even if we cannot agree how to identify with Matisse’s depicted women, at least we can agree that “his paintings seem increasingly to afford the greatest of intellectual pleasure, as we continue to argue about what other kinds of pleasure they provide … ” At that point, we reach agreement. His art produces a kind of dialogue that lesser modernist works don’t.
JE This comes back to the idea that great works combine multiple patterns of significance to an extent that lesser works do not. They are denser.
DC Perhaps at some point discussion will close off. I have an article in a book coming out this year from Princeton University Press on Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, a volume with 13 essays about that one painting. When it appears someone somewhere writing her thesis may say, “Enough, I need to find another topic.”
JE The picture has now become too saturated with commentary?
DC Am I ancient? I remember seeing the Manet in the Courtauld Institute in the early 1970s. I sat before it because there was a sofa there, and drew diagrams of the perspective. But the situation has changed completely. Now after so much has been written about it, adding anything seems hopeless.
JE I agree that certain works may get so much attention that they seem exhausted by it. Whether this is temporary or permanent exhaustion is the question. On the one hand, we can can argue that important works get saturated by interpretation; on the other, that particular interpretive strategies exhaust themselves.
DC That’s certainly a dramatic worry for someone like Tim Clark, where his 1960s world of the Situationist International is almost unrecoverable now. In French politics, it’s not 1968 anymore. At some level, treating interpretation in terms of fashion is self-refuting because the culture runs through things so quickly.
The difference between a curator’s looking and an academic’s looking interests me a lot. My fantasy—correct me if I am wrong—is that, on the one hand, you have the privilege of being close to the objects; on the other hand, your disadvantage is that you have so much administrative work to do.
JE The difficulty for curators is keeping up with the art historical and critical literature on a broad front, and also simply finding the time to write. Access to objects is the pleasure. And I believe very strongly in object-based study. Whatever my other interests, I want the object foregrounded, and I believe very strongly that to do so keeps one specifically testing generalization. Looking at works of art is not an innate facility but has to be learned. (For example, what comprises a Mondrian painting requires knowing how to recognize repainting, relining, subsequently added varnishes, and so on.) I know that curators do have a way of going on about this; also that, in some cases, it brings with it disinterest in theory. It does bother me that some curators have taken this embattled stance because it cuts them off from a broader debate, just as some broader debates are cut off from the objects they ostensibly address.
DC For you, the interpretive theory is really something empirical; it’s the product of looking to be tested against looking. If the theorists don’t have enough access to the objects, their theory is going to exist in a kind of vacuum. In lots of art history there isn’t much theory testing.
JE There is a wonderful statement by Panofsky to the effect that if you want to make a point don’t illustrate it. Museums force illustration. Hanging is just one way that alternative histories, or questions about history, are being proposed. At the museum, we are currently thinking very deeply about different potential ways of showing the collections and, at the turn-of-the-century, will be devoting a year to doing something very different in order to experiment for the future. This comprises, I suppose, what you would call empirical interpretive theory.
DC I can imagine odd sorts of relationships you might present if, say, you put the Russian Revolutionary works next to Warhol, constructing narratives showing different ways of using popular media.
JE As we discussed earlier, hanging paintings is a form of rhetoric. We are interested in testing a variety of narratives.
DC All talk about post-modernism or the post-historical, insofar as it is empirical, is talk you can test. My intuition is you will find continuity and continuity.
JE I think that we will always find continuity, owing to our capacity for remembering. And I know that we will find that some narratives seem stronger than others.
DC Gombrich says somewhere that he doesn’t like to see a picture moved in a museum. That’s a different attitude.
JE The attitude of a pilgrim. There is certainly a part of me that feels that.
DC But once you open up these narratives, is that possible?
JE Have you seen Charlie Stuckey’s modern installation at the Art Institute of Chicago? It is not historical but chronological, really a sort of annal (“in a particular year, these things happened”). Histories are different. The third category is the chronicle, a story that breaks off in the chronicler’s own present. Perhaps that is what, in a modern museum, we are fated to provide.
DC In an ideal world, if there were no restrictions on loans and no budget limits, if you could borrow anything from anywhere (even works that don’t exist anymore), what would be your ideal show, your dream exhibition?
JE When I was dismantling the Matisse retrospective, it proved possible to show together some of Matisse’s greatest works with Picasso’s. Since then, I have wanted to do a carefully selected exhibition of works by these two greatest of modern artists. As it turned out, John Golding came to the same conclusion, so we, together with Elizabeth Cowling and Kirk Varnedoe, are planning such an exhibition. But I don’t have an ideal exhibition, only an intimation of certain artists and intellectual projects I want to examine.
DC How much attention do you devote to contemporary art?
JE I think that, apart from some exceptional people, the kind of contemporary art one is truly interested in is a generational thing. I do follow new contemporary art, but I find that there is a lot in modern, and pre-modern, art that continues to puzzle me more and more as I gain more and more familiarity with it.
DC For a critic, the question is how supple you can be, and how many changes you can go through.
JE For me, it is also that, looking at earlier art, new entry points are opened up into more recent art.
DC Comparing Picasso and Matisse, I think that part of the power of Picasso’s images of women is that they’re unaesthetic, and so very un-Matissean. In her Picasso: Art as Autobiography, Mary Matthews Gedo writes of how Picasso’s paintings of Olga show “his powers of empathy … they constitute vivid visual records of the sufferings and delusions which psychotics often experience.” That’s not anywhere in the world of Matisse at all.
JE No. But whether that is a particularly useful way to describe Picasso is something I doubt very much. I am becoming very interested in psychoanalytic approaches, but not in ones that reduce art to autobiography. In any event, whatever the approach, a principal question (at least, for a curator) is: What continues to so absorb your attention that you want to see it hanging on the wall?
DC It’s simply a brute empirical question, what remains of value. That’s fascinating because it gives the museum a kind of role to provide in effect the laboratory for that kind of testing.
JE Testing what remains of value is one of the fascinations of being in a museum. I remember when Pavel Tchelitchew’s Hide and Seek was one of The Modern’s most sought-after pictures.
DC It’s hard to imagine opinion being so far revised that this painting would come back.
JE But Christina’s World is still very popular. Yet, I agree: Is it possible that this picture would shift its place from popular admiration to be admired within the art world?
DC That’s the point where I just draw the limit.
JE And where we might end.