Eva Respini is an associate curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Most recently, she organized the Cindy Sherman retrospective, bringing together over 170 photographs from the artist’s 40-year career. The Herald sat down with Respini to discuss the challenges of curating, the growth of pop-up galleries, and the culture of Instagram.
YH: When planning your exhibitions, how do you choose whose work to show?
ER: I think it is important as a curator to stand behind your beliefs—to choose artists that you think are doing something interesting, that you believe in, not because they are doing something that is trendy or happens to feel hot right now. I think inevitably if you don’t stand behind your choices, you sort of fail as a curator. I have to have faith in my knowledge base, my eye, that all of the things I have seen before are informing what I’m seeing now, my knowledge of the history of photography and the history of art. [I need to have] confidence that if I see something that I think is fresh, original, interesting, asking new questions or asking questions in new ways, and if I feel that those things are compelling, I need to act on it.
YH: Once you’ve chosen a subject, what does the curatorial process look like? How does it change from one show to the next?
ER: Working with a living artist is great because you can talk to them. You owe it to them to really get their perspective and flesh out what they were intending.
With a group show [or a thematic show], it’s [more about finding] a fine balance between having the work speak for itself rather than stuffing it into a specific theme, but you want to make the theme salient, cogent. You want to really articulate certain ideas, but you want to make sure they are actually in the work itself. It is also about talking to the artist and doing the research, but maybe stepping back a little bit and thinking about creating and articulating a context in which to understand that work.
YH: Speaking of living artists, Cindy Sherman is a prominent, almost canonical photographer—what made you feel like 2012 was the year to do a retrospective of her work?
ER: Obviously she’s a well-known artist, and one that a lot of people are familiar with, but I felt it was time to look at her again. She hadn’t had a big show, a major career survey in the U.S. in about 15 years at the time the show opened last year at MoMA. And that’s a long time, that’s a generation if you think about it. So while many people have seen the show in reproduction, seeing it all together in person, gathered, is a completely different experience.
In many ways I wanted to do it last year because she feels more relevant than ever. There is something about the way she is talking about identity—the slippery nature of identity, the malleability of identity—that is very much of our time now, if you think about Facebook and Instagram and reality TV shows. These are issues that of course were salient in the ’70s and ’80s, but again, they talk so much to our daily experience and our visual culture now, which is so much about the sort of anxiety of the status of the self. So presenting her work, exposing all of her work to a younger generation, seems so on point.
YH: How do you feel that that this visual culture, and the consequent ubiquity of images in our everyday lives, affects the viewer’s experience of a photography exhibit?
ER: I think it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it breeds familiarity. For example, some people who maybe aren’t comfortable with abstract painting because they feel like they need to read something to understand it or they feel like they don’t know how to look at it because it’s not representational—with photography you don’t have that. Everyone knows how to look at pictures; everyone looks at pictures every day all day long. But the challenge is that people also take pictures every day, and so that very reductive line of “I could do that, my kid could do that, why is that so special” enters the conversation.
YH: Is there a direction in which you personally would like to take the department?
ER: I think photography is in a really interesting moment right now. It’s a moment of technological change.Photography has always been about technology, the next big thing being introduced, and that has resulted in artistic leaps. When the 35mm, handheld camera was introduced, a different kind of picture was being made. And I think we’re in that moment now as well. There are new tools, digital tools available to artists and they’re making different kinds of pictures, and they’re teaching curators different ways of seeing.
The other thing that’s exciting right now is photography is at the heart of what every artist is doing. Whatever their work ends up being, you go to someone’s studio and there’s a Google Image search, things printed out. Photography is at the very beginning of so many different artistic processes. In that sense, if you think about what photography is today, it’s a really expanded idea. Often I’m working with artists that work with more than just photography: they’re making paintings, videos, they’re doing performance. That goes back to my fundamental belief that the wonderful way that photography is so embedded in our lives really allows it to be this expansive medium. In the work that I’m doing at the museum, I really hope there is a kind of opening up of the understanding of what photography is. It’s not just a black- and-white rectangle on the wall, but it could be a projector, a wallpaper, a painting that mixes photographic images; it could be film or moving images that incorporate a
YH: What advice do you have for people interested in curating?
ER: Especially now, with the job market being the way it is, there is great value in making your own opportunities. Making your own shows even if it is in your apartment, or your kitchen, or a pop-up space, or online. Forging relationships with artists, even if you are not a curator at an institution, but just being out there looking, seeing, and doing—not waiting for those opportunities to come to you but really making your own opportunities.
I think the most interesting young curators that I’m seeing now are doing just that. They’re not at a space, but they are creating. They have interesting relationships with artists; they’re creating pop-up spaces that maybe are gone in three months; they’re writing interesting things online. Maybe they aren’t curating shows because they don’t have a space but they are writing interesting things. That also expands the idea of what curating is. You don’t have to be a curator at a museum to engage in ideas of art. You can do it in many different ways.
The younger people that I see coming up now that are doing those kinds of things—I think that is the future of where we are going in the art world. Yes, there [are] the established museums, and gallery and commercial worlds, but there is a whole other questioning of the very profession of what it means to be a curator. Maybe it’s in part because of how the job market is, that people have created their own opportunities, but I think it’s exciting.
—This interview was condensed by the author