Jan van der Marck on Museums

by John Link

Jan van der Marck was a well trained, well disciplined scholar who, according to his obituary in The New York Times, "championed new art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts and other major museums - more than once at the cost of his job". Specifically, he lost his jobs at both museums mentioned above, plus the Center for the Fine Arts in Miami (now Miami Art Museum) and got himself in seriously hot water while director of Dartmouth College's art galleries. He died April 26, 2010 at his home in Huntington Woods, Michigan at the age of 80. Late in his life PBS did a 30 minute interview with him and the clip here is from that show.

Jef Bourgeau is not a household name. One of his projects has been to found a museum that did not discount the premiss that most people encounter art through reproduction, and that the influx of large sums of money had steered established museums in directions that did not serve art. He considered the museum he started - the Museum of New Art - to be one of his works of art. I could disagree, but so what? It's a technicality. MONA does maintain physical galleries where they mount physical exhibitions in the unlikely town of Pontiac, MI. Their offices are in a different city and so are some of their other exhibition spaces. But it also considers its presence on the web to be a valid modality for presenting art to the public. As van der Marck himself once said, why not? It's how most people experience most art. MONA is a worthwhile project.

I first met Jan in 1971. By that time he had given both Dan Flavin and Christo their first shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The setting was a panel discussion between him and Ed Ruscha in Carbondale, IL. Neither gentleman was very well known at the time and the panel was sparsely attended to say the least. In part that was explained by the fact an intense snow storm had descended on Carbondale and closed the university. But the better explanation lie in the as yet undeveloped reputations of both men. People then, as now, respond more to reputation than they do substance.

Ed had agreed to talk to grad students about their work and he and I played darts for several hours waiting for them, any of them, to show up. No one did. Again, the university was closed for the storm. But it caused me some grief with the school's director who demanded an explanation as to why I had invited "this guy from LA" in the first place. (The director liked van der Marck.) Nor was Jan particularly kind to Ed as he explained on the panel why Ed was not included in a show he organized of conceptualists who made words into art. Ed Ruscha, said Jan, was a surrealist who made traditional objects that used words as one of their means. The statement was based on solid scholarship, well organized, and stated in language any reasonably educated person could understand. Ed did not quibble.

What was clear in all this was Jan's excitement with the avant-garde as it had begun to emerge as the dominant force in world art. While Jan's difficulty in holding a position for very long illustrated that significant resistance remained in the big time museums, he "got by" with a lot which prefigured just how permissive museums would eventually become. One might expect that, as the museums gave in and institutionalized the avant-garde, Jan van der Mark would have been overjoyed. Instead, by 2000 his view was quite different. When he was interviewed by David Walsh at the World Socialist Web Site. I'll let his words speak for themselves.

On populism and museums: "It should be acceptable that museums are only for those who truly appreciate them. Plus some who come there out of curiosity or to seek enlightenment. Plus people who come because other people tell them, 'You must go.'"

On money and museums: "Yeah, and when art figures in there, it figures as investment, it figures as a status symbol, it figures as an element that invites manipulation and control. Many people gravitate to museums who know very little about art, but who realize that there is an attractive combination of art, money and power. It happens particularly in those museums where being on the board will give you an opportunity to associate with the right people and be introduced to circles to which normally you would not have access."

On the blockbuster Van Gogh exhibition at the DIA: "I saw it, it left me perfectly cold. I have seen a lot of Van Goghs over and over. This was a fine exhibition, but with a lot of explanations on the wall that seemed to interfere with the paintings. The cold chills that maybe at some point in life I've felt looking at Van Gogh were not running down my spine. Being pushed around by crowds is, of course, not a particular pleasure in itself. So that comes with surrendering to the sport of the blockbuster. Everything in the museum was put on hold so that this drama could unfold."

On the triumph of the avant-garde: "Compared to what I thought or what I think I thought 10 or 20 years ago, I'm less thrilled by what I see in the galleries. I'm certainly less thrilled by the latest art in the galleries. In contrast, I'm pleasantly surprised by how constant the pleasures of museum-going turn out to be.

"When it comes to very contemporary art, let's say, to the Turner Prize winners in England, to what you can see in Chelsea [in New York], much of it I find rather shallow, much of it I find forcé, being done for the sake of sensation. I can't quite empathize with the mind of the man or the woman who made it. I find - and this is maybe why I said it was generational - let's say, I have a gutsy understanding, a visceral identification with art that I saw in New York in the '60s and again in the '70s. I befriended the artists, I bought their work, I was a player on the scene. I was anxious to make other people understand it - that sort of thing, the desire to get involved, this kind of being sucked into it. I feel cold and distant and an observer when I go see the new art that is being exhibited in contemporary museums in Europe. There are many artists that I've never heard of, yet they're all working in a language that's become the lingua franca of avant-garde art, so it's not alien to me, but it's difficult to figure out and often very tiresome."

On censorship: "There's an unhealthy trend today to put sexual material in your face. It's not necessary always to be sexually explicit, or dwell on the subjects of violence. There is a bit of warping. I don't have any personal quarrel with it, I'm not a parent. It's strictly a matter of how it affects reasonable adults. I've rarely been shocked. I'm more shocked by someone who plays on human deformities like [Joel-Peter] Witkin than by the overtly sexual [Robert] Mapplethorpe, whom I always admired. So when that controversy arose in 1989 it was as much a surprise to me as it was to much of the country. One feeds on the other. The tendency of the political authorities to rein in the artist produces the opposite, the artist says, 'We'll stick it to you.' As a result of the censorship they have gone more overboard than they would have normally done. It's like a game of tag, who will dare the most. Some of this is pretty boring."

September 29, 2012

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