Book Review: C is for Curator: Bice Curiger, A Life in Art by Dora Imhof

Cover, C is for Curator Bice Curiger, A Life in Art.

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, April 2022 

Through C is for Curator: Bice Curiger, A Life in Art—a snazzy two-covid-years-in-the-making hardbackart historian Dora Imhof traipses the mountainous terrain of a Swiss polyglot pop-loving female leftist student becoming art critic-journalist; co-founding editor-publisher of prestigious Parkett magazine; curator at Kunsthaus Zurich and 54th Venice Biennale; and current Artistic Director of the Foundation Vincent van Gogh in Arles: a foundation that now competes for eyeballs with a global flood of walk-in van Gogh-themed immersive light environments. All of Bice (née Beatrice) Curiger’s exhibitions—starting with Frauen sehen Frauen (Strauhof, Zurich, 1975)—her travels and friendships—for example with Sigmar Polke—are documented and elucidated by her contemporaries. This chronological bouquet brandishes her bona fide repute as an art world doyenne of distinction.

This easy-to-read, but overly detailed, biography expertly translated from the German version by Fiona Elliott, was initiated by Swiss art collector and publisher Cristina Bechtler, founder of the non-profit E.A.T. project along with ubiquitous Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist contributes to the biography and Curiger curates for E.A.T., so a tight clique figures here. 

In her introduction, Imhof acknowledges the dominance of economic interests in art, its trivialized contents and intentions, and the crisis of art criticism; but solutions go unsuggested. Imhof fails to avoid hagiography by name dropping the current expanded field of female curation and her subject’s devotion to equality—restating Curiger’s contention that artist, curator, and public are on equal footing. But contemporary art began as a small international network of artists, writers and composers who challenged accepted ideas about what art is. Equality in art is a pretty idea that considers the satisfaction of the public, but in reality, if you look through the historic holes in the Swiss cheese here, the ‘equal’ myth is unsustainable. Indeed, the book displays obscured insider power dynamics that merit the alternative scrutiny Curiger brought to Harald Szeemann’s male-dominated conceptual art world that she penetrated and transformed.  Such are the pitfalls brought by the successful institutionalized, mediated, popular-pleasing arenas that Curiger helped spawn, as, some might say, an alibi for art as entertainment.

Thus these 400pages, spanning fifty years with 209 images, is a mixture of a super-sized Curiger resume and a cliquish high school yearbook. The copious use of playful group photos certainly contributes to this perception; particularly the photo of the author with Bechtler and Curiger in London from fourteen years ago. 

Open pages of C is for Curator: Bice Curiger, A Life in Art.

The book beckons the question: what can a curator do after championing the collapse of formerly distinct types of culture into an all-devouring dumbed-down global monoculture of pop high visibility? The abuse of the word curator is itself indicative—people who select-organize things for a closet or meal now routinely assign it to themselves. The role is almost devoid of meaning within the pummel of mediocre memes and ‘like-me’ driven algorithms.  

Though not solely responsible for something that has destroyed many aspects of culture across the board, the sight of curators losing their grip on historical associations with connoisseurship and of art museums sliding into tourist theme parks must include Curiger as an unwilling protagonist. She seems like nice people, but reading her story recalls the cheeky quip that Joan Didion penned in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” 

Warhol-style Pop Art was intended to be part of a fine art–pop art continuum, not the metamorphoses of fine art into consumer culture. Today artistic deviance is defined against Pop Art and the shared symbolic criteria of a legitimacy that melds art with celebrity, investment hype, and 1% insular society. So, Curiger’s mannerist Pop Art pleasures pop in the air of their contradictions. But one thing that comes through the book is her love of painting. This is curious given the triumph of media spectacle within the cultural context and the loss of intimate stillness anti-elitist postures have rendered—making prolonged deep enjoyment of painting a challenge. The preference appears ironic, as painting itself would not have existed without the empty, elite, city art museum which gave it the necessary fine-grained institutional-intellectual framed patronage to view it as other than decoration.   

Open pages of C is for CuratorBice Curiger, A Life in Art.

So C is for Curator cannot help put the wine back into the bottle. Curiger’s career ran on the rails of egalitarianism and careened into connoisseurship throughout—something that for her evoked women-absent old-guard gatekeeping. Therefore, the elusive markers of art historical merit fade from fear of snobbery, professional mystification and racism. Mixing art with pop culture into general fun seemed the bright thing to do—along with dropping avowals of singular meaning and absolute standards of achievement. But with algorithmically-guided public satisfaction as guide and goal of a culture now stuck within the mellow halls of callow curtness without an outside (elite or deviant), the need of her style of curation becomes as obsolete as the white church-like contemplative space that once defined and protected art. The first modern museums were designed specifically to be unpopular and the principle of constructing infinite new becomings is inherent in avant-garde artistic tradition. Both define value in contemporary art today against the populism of pop culture. 

The painter does not paint on an empty canvas, and neither does the curator-writer write on a blank page. They both are steeped in pre-established clichés that anti-pop art must obscure with a chaos that can convey new visions. The wonderful work of Polke was exactly this. The chief feature of the post-60s art scene, from which Curiger spawned, is the visibility of eclectic pluralism, yet the book has her appear becoming blinded to the merits of underground obscurity. As we read of her ascension into a highly rated very important person in the art world, she seems to have lost focus on the valuable freedom that obscurity gives art. 

Reclaiming the merits of obscurity may be what is most vibrant to us from her laudable legacy. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest double LP has recently been released on Pentiments, and his new book of poetry Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by punctum books. He is currently exhibiting his Viral Venture animation at the Micro Mondes exhibition at the musée du quai Branly in Paris and will be exhibiting virus-modeled a-life paintings at Galerie Richard in Paris in an exhibition called Tournant de la tempête virale (Turning the Viral Tempest) in September and October.

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