June 2010, Opening a Time Capsule: An Interview with Todd Levin

Karen Kilimnik, Degas painting hair ornament accessories bag world, 2004
Water soluble oil color on canvas; 27.3 x 35.6 cm
Courtesy the Artist, 303 Gallery New York and Sprüth Magers Berlin London


Opening a Time Capsule: An Interview with Todd Levin
I.G.Y. and Joseph Cornell, Karen Kilimnik are two exhibitions curated by Todd Levin taking place this summer that recreate particular moments in time, while exploring the interwoven nature of Modern and Contemporary art. In New York, Marianne Boesky Gallery hosts I.G.Y. at its Upper East Side location and revives the invigorating, empirical atmosphere of the late 1950s. A selection of artists exhibited in the Guggenheim Inaugural contrasts with works from the MoMA Sixteen Americans exhibition. An additional sampling of first edition books by authors such as William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac appear in each viewing room while Pull My Daisy (1959) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) play on two separate televisions as jazz music from that era filters throughout the gallery space. London’s Sprüth Magers Gallery, however, presents Cornell and Kilimnik’s complementary fascination with 19th-century Romanticism that literally transports viewers into another realm. Todd Levin’s interview with Whitehot reveals his own inspirations for curating highly specific yet deeply thematic shows and also explains the significance of presenting an illustrative revisionism.

Jill Conner: I was wondering about the I.G.Y. exhibition. Why is it an acronym and why is it significant?

Todd Levin: It stands for International Geophysical Year. In 1954, scientists around the world were aware the sun and the earth were aligning in a manner where they would be in closest proximity to each other for a century. Scientists discussed the matter internationally, and thought it would be a good idea to create the International Geophysical Year, an 18-month time-period between 1 July 1957 and 31 December 1958, when this astronomical event would occur. The scientists agreed that for the first time in man’s history satellites would be created and launched during I.G.Y. in order to study the effect of the sun on the earth (given their unusually close proximity during that period). But when the satellites went up (the first being Sputnik) this scientific endeavor suddenly became a politicized situation that was the impetus for the space race and the Cold War.

Karen Kilimnik, Me, Corner of Haight & Ashbury, 1966, 1998
Water soluble oil color on canvas; 45.7 x 35.6 cm
Courtesy the Artist, 303 Gallery and Sprüth Magers Berlin London

Conner: Since this was around the time that Kerouac had returned from his cross-country trip, which culminated in On the Road, could one see this as an exhibition of Beat culture?

Levin: The Beats and their output are portion of the equation making up I.G.Y. When you look at the period between 1957 and 1959, it’s a very interesting inflection point in American arts, and American culture in general. The core impetus for the I.G.Y exhibition came from my earlier research on the Guggenheim’s inaugural exhibition in October 1959. At the time, I realized we were coming up on the half-century mark of that occasion. Upon further research, it amazed me that two short months later the Guggenheim’s cross-town rival the Museum of Modern Art simultaneously opened one of its most famous exhibitions of the century called Sixteen Americans. 

Opened up within 60 days of each other, the Guggenheim was a summation of a non-objective/abstract art style that had risen during the first half of the 20th Century. But around 1957 to 1960, real life suddenly injected itself back into the visual arts vernacular. It’s an interesting sliver of a period that revolved around Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who were featured in Sixteen Americans, because they both come out of the Abstract Expressionists in terms of their historical time frame. Just a few short years later, Pop would explode around 1961/62 and completely obliterate/alter the landscape of American art for the next half-century. The inflection point for this seems to be right around 1957 to 1959, when Johns was creating his flags and targets, and Rauschenberg was inserting detritus from real life into his Combines. 

I also have a background in music (Ph.D. studies in Music Composition at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Master of Music Composition from The Eastman School of Music) and I began to think about this time period in musical terms, because it’s more interesting for me to think about one idea in the context of a secondary idea. When I began to think about art in the context of music, there had been a very important book of music theory by George Russell at that time called the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization (1953). This book suggested that jazz musicians no longer had to use the classic style of jazz composition, which revolved around tonic/dominant harmonies which were controlled by the classic building block of jazz, the ii-V-I progression. In laymen’s terms that meant a change from the sound of root-based music that one hears in bop music from the period, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, to a different kind of “cooler” modal sound like that of Miles Davis and the free jazz experimentation of Ornette Coleman which can have little or no harmonic movement for long stretches, and which sounded very foreign at the time. 

I thought about the kind of people who were listening to this music, this new “cooler” and “free” jazz. Many visual artists looking beyond the abstract phase of visual art and moving towards new ideas and concepts were also aware of these changes concurrently taking place in jazz, as were the Beat authors. This new, “cooler” and “free” jazz was listened to assiduously by the Beats such as Kerouac, Burroughs, Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, Allan Ginsburg. They photographed these performers, they went to listen to them play live, and some of these artists even played jazz, or at least attempted to. With respect to literature outside of the Beats, one example would be Norman Miller, who wrote Advertisements for Myself (1959) which is a cross between documentary, biography, and fiction. Mailer described how he tried to play the saxophone and that he thought he could do it just ‘by feel.’ 

So the artists were aware of the musicians and writers; the writers were aware of the artists and the musicians; the musicians were aware of the artists and the writers. This was a group of people who were all intersecting with one another like a giant Venn diagram, and it became clear that this was a broad cultural phenomenon in the making. 

I became interested in putting together an exhibition that reflected this time, as opposed to a very specific show that would only include every artist from the Guggenheim Inaugural and the MoMA Sixteen Americans, since that would be very boring and obvious (as I felt the recent exhibition Robert & Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection at Acquavella Galleries was). What was interesting to me as a curator was this specific time-frame where all these ideas and sensibilities were colliding. I decided to broaden what the exhibition could be about rather than just stick to visual art alone.

Karen Kilimnik , Two Dancers on a stage, Paris, 2004
Water soluble oil color, glitter, archival glue on canvas ; 61 x 45.7 cm
Courtesy the Artist, 303 Gallery New York and Sprüth Magers Berlin London

Conner: I personally find it fascinating that I.G.Y. is profoundly interdisciplinary, because when we look at historical art the scope of discussion is usually very narrow. Viewers are not generally encouraged to identify cultural crossings.
Levin: But this is the way I tend to create exhibitions. The Cornell-Kilimnik exhibition in London is similarly layered. I’ve included all the Dance Index magazines from the 1940‘s that Cornell created his beautiful cover collages for. I also visited the Curator at the archives of the Royal National Ballet to get ephemera from their collection of 19th-century ballet memorabilia to include in my exhibition. Music will also play an important part in the installation as well, as it did in my I.G.Y. exhibition.

For me, a curatorial idea has to remain highly specific, but within that one can go very, very deep and present a great deal of various kinds of information. I happen to find this approach lively, and I hope other people will too. I know it’s not the most direct or practical way of organizing visual art exhibitions, but this methodology interests me. At the end of the day, the way the exhibition looks and feels reflects the way I think. The curator’s job is to share the way they think about things. 

Conner: What about Joseph Cornell, Karen Kilimnik? I think it’s very interesting that these two artists are going to be seen together, because she’s known to recreate life-size 19th-century interiors whereas he has assembled similar ideas on a miniature scale. 

Levin: What do you mean by referencing the two artist’s use of ‘different scales?’ I’m a little unclear....

Conner: I thought Kilimnik created art as an entire installation where she paints the room and then sets the paintings to create the impression of either a sitting room or a salon, completely transforming the gallery space into a room of another era.

Levin: Cornell did the same thing. For his exhibition in 1948-49 at the Egan Gallery (where De Kooning also showed) he built an aviary wall for all his Aviary and Dovecote boxes. When he did the installation Winter Night Skies, the entire gallery was painted deep midnight blue. Cornell did installation-based environments to compliment his artwork, and was well known for it - as is Karen. 

Conner: How will their work be installed together?

Levin: In terms of final installation, I don’t commit to anything until I’m physically in the space. Joseph and Karen have many common threads running through their work, which is what attracted me about pairing the two in an exhibition together. They both have a strong interest in 19th-century Romantic ballet. They both have an interest in “armchair traveling” – that was Joseph’s term – to earlier places and times. Both artists reference imaginary interiors from 18th-century drawing rooms in palazzos to modest hotel rooms of the 19th-century. Cornell and Kilimnik also portray animals as mysterious, ethereal beings imbued with a certain strange potency. Joseph created the Aviary boxes featuring birds. Karen has done many paintings of animals, particularly of birds, amongst others. Joseph did a series of boxes titled Soap Bubble Sets which relate to the heavens, sun, moon, planets, and constellations. Karen has also done a number of paintings of day and evening skies and constellations as well. Joseph did a number of boxes that are referred to as surrogate self-portraits, where he includes a white clay pipe traditionally used by people of Dutch descent (Cornell’s family had a strong Dutch lineage). Karen has done a number of self portraits that represent a persona acting as a stand-in for her at certain points of her life. Although not a direct self portrait of her, this depiction definitely acts as a surrogate self portrait. Both artists have been fascinated with movies and movie stars. So there are many similarities between these two artists, if one only takes a moment to examine their work and lives thoughtfully. 

As was I.G.Y., this will be a rather alternative installation. In the exhibition I have included a number of works by both artists in different media such as collages and boxes by Joseph and installation, paintings and works on paper by Karen. I have also included first edition books by Cyril Beaumont dealing with the 19th-century Romantic Ballet, which acted as the source material for many Cornell’s boxes and collages. The Joseph Cornell ☆ Karen Kilimnik exhibition will also feature a beautiful small pastel by Degas, due to the two featured artist’s common interest in 19th-century Romantic ballet. The entire interior of the space will be painted the color of the night sky, a very dark midnight blue, and music from the 19th-century Romantic ballet will play throughout the space. 

Joseph Cornell, Hotel Andromeda, 1954
Wood, acrylic, paper collage, metal hardware, shell and glass; 46.4 x 31.8 x 9 cm
Photo courtesy of Phillips de Pury & Company

Conner: When Abstract Expressionism flourished, it was the only kind of legitimate art. But at some point, multi-media art emerged in the late 1950s. Even though it was not recognized until the late 1960s, was I.G.Y. also a moment when people began to look at art in an interdisciplinary fashion?

Levin: I don’t think the general population realized it, but I think a few artists did. These artists knew they were fumbling towards something interesting, even though they couldn’t articulate it at the time. I think that is what one gets with most inflection points, in any sort of field – art, science, whatever – people don’t fully understand the ramifications of the moment, of what it is that they’re doing. They just simply have an nascent idea that they feel necessary to explore. 

Sometimes it’s couched afterwards in terms of “...well, they had great courage to do what they did...,” but I don’t think it’s about courage. I think they’re just working towards an idea, and are so driven that they just simply have to do it. In that sense it’s not seen as a risk except when reflected upon many years afterwards. At the time, regardless of the field, it was about simply having an idea, and following that idea to its logical extremes in order to see where the idea would take one. In very few fortunate cases, one takes an idea to its logical extreme and winds up in a new frontier. I.G.Y. is about the new frontiers that were established in literature, music, visual art, film, and science. 

It was really surprising to me that nobody had done a show about this significant inflection point. The I.G.Y. exhibition taking place at the Marianne Boesky Gallery is a gallery exhibition, not a museum exhibition, so it’s a very modest version of what one could do if given greater resources. This is an idea that could easily fill up the entire spiral ramp at the Guggenheim or all of MoMA’s collection galleries. It’s just limited by time, money, and space, so one does what one can with what one has.


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Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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