Monday, April 9, 2012

A Short Life of Trouble, Forty Years in the New York Art World by Marcia Tucker, edited by Liza Lou, University of California Press, 2008

There are times when it feels like things are colliding in alignment with each other and such a thing is happening with Marcia Tucker and myself, who has recently become a gravitational slingshot in my life. Up to a few weeks ago, I had only known about Marcia Tucker in a vague New York centric art historical way. I knew that she was the founder of the New Museum and that she was well admired by women in the art world. I learned about her “Bad Girls” show she organized in 1994 through artist Portia Munson, who is represented by a gallery I had worked for, and who was in that show. This exhibition then became an anchor point to an exhibition I am organizing which opens this coming Saturday whose title I have hemmed and hawed about but have ended up calling, “Bad Girls of 2012.” During a studio visit for this show, a painter named Gina Beavers, upon my mentioning my influence for the upcoming show, lent me Marcia Tucker’s autobiography, A Short Life of Trouble, Forty Years in the New York Art World. I had heard that she had a biography and it was something catalogued in my mind to look into but luckily cosmic alignments of chance and timing brought it to me.

The book is not the best sample of literature but Marcia Tucker never set out to be that sort of writer, so there is leniency given in this regard. It starts conventionally, at the beginning of her life, about her upbringing, her mother, her father and her brother. It focuses mostly on her relationship with her mother who was a beauty and about the fissures many mother daughter relationships face. It talks of her as a young adult and her tastes of freedom, travel and love in Paris, and the Semitism faced in post WWII Germany. This talks about heartaches and death of her mother from breast cancer and of her first love. This section gives a shorthand chronology of her formative years but with foreshadowing of things to come. Being a woman is the main subject and this remains at the foreground for the rest of the book.

After collage, Marcia is hired to be the secretary to William Lieberman, the head of the Department of Drawings and Prints at MoMA. He seemed like an old school arse. She gets fired from that job by responding to him power-tripping when he holds a cup of pencils in front of her and says, “I thought I told you to sharpen these. They are not sharpened! Why aren’t they sharpened?” she replied with a smile, “Because you’re not doing it the right way. You stick them up your ass and turn hard, that’s what does it.” Ah pure brilliance. Anyone who has been put down upon like that can revel in her moxy.

After this, she worked assisting well off socialites in New York, where she unknowingly brushed up against the intellectual elite like W.H Auden and many others. She was then referred to work for William and Noma Copley. Bill Copley, whose moniker is CPLY, makes paintings of cartoon like, bulbous, faceless men in bowler hats and well-endowed females of the same species. They are fun, highly erotic and more then mildly twisted. I came upon his work first hand while working at my very own first art world job with Phyllis Kind and to this day I have a pair of the thinnest Cognac glasses gifted to her from him and given to me during a move. Back to Marcia, Bill and Noma took her into their universe of highly cultured friends and she applied and strengthened her skill of cataloging their extensive collection. During this time she was also studying at the Institute at New York University and she was in a shaky marriage to a man, who by her accounts, barely seemed to work or have ambition. Soon she divorced and things started to progress into even greater things such as becoming a curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Whitney at the age of twenty nine.

A general constant in Tucker’s life is her great friendships. This is with people whose names are unknown as well as known but a few stand out because they are art world super stars. One such remarkable friendship was with Margaret Scolari Barr who was married to Alfred J. Barr, Jr. Yes the Alfred Barr, who was the first director of The Museum of Modern Art. Marcia’s generous re-telling of her friendship with Margaret (Marga) is revealing not only in the character of both women but also the fleshy tidbits of the art world as it once was. Marcia also worked on cataloging their collection. Those hours, I can only imagine were probably mind meltingly interesting to absorb.

Her tenure at the Whitney, which she started in January 1969, revealed much about what it must have been like to be one of the first female curators at a major arts institution. Her mentor and protector there was Jack Baur, who after this book you want to give a high five or a hug to. Needless to say, Marcia had to deal with a lot of crap and hurdles at the Whitney, being a young women, being a curator of contemporary art, which was just becoming recognized as “contemporary art,” of working with the masculine and sexist dynamics of workers and peers. It is utterly fascinating to read about. She highlights shows she organized like, “Anti-Illusion, Procedures/Materials” which focused on artists who were using materials that were not normally associated with sculpture. Clement Greenberg even swept trough and complimented her co-curator and was seemingly unable to grasp that she was an equal part in curating the show and was not just an assistant. With this show, and many others, Marcia reveals, without bitterness the bad press her shows received. Hilton Kramer said of it, “The exhibition [is designed to] give one much to think about but very little to see.” Throughout the book Marcia is constantly re-quoting some brutal review or another of her shows and there is something very generous about that. One of my favorite lines of the book was this, “I’ve had a substantial career based on really bad reviews of mostly everything I’ve ever done and I’ve also been turned down for every grant I’ve ever applied for personally…” It makes things seem less daunting when someone like her faced so many requests to be a failure.

During her time at the Whitney, she also shares interactions she had with various artists, those that were not as famous then but are now like Bruce Nauman and Richard Tuttle and with women artists like Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. I thought it fair and hilarious how honest she was about each artist’s personalities and didn’t couch her opinions about them on any position of power or gender. For example she flat out says, “Joan Mitchell was a really good artist and a really bad drunk.” It’s just very juicy stuff to read if you are a bit of an art nerd. Her thoughts on curating in general are great to read about as well. This passage reveals a lot about her method of curation, “There were two ways to curate exhibitions. One was didactic, the other investigative. The first was the gold standard: art historians organized exhibitions to share their expertise with the public, to show them what they were looking at and how to look at it. The investigative model was rarely used because it meant organizing a show in order to learn something, moving full tilt ahead without knowing what the result might be. It’s why artists, if they are not hacks, do all the time: they work without knowledge of the outcome. Why not take a cue from them.”

In 1974 Jack Baur announced his retirement and with that came the tick tock of the chopping block for Marcia. Tom Armstrong became the director and his conservative arts inclination was not going to create new fertile ground for the unconventional shows that Marcia had been putting on. The deal was done when Armstrong told Marcia that her title as Curator of Painting and Sculpture would be changed to Curator of Contemporary Art and then four months later he asked her to resign saying that the direction of the institution would now, “emphasize the permanent collection, and there’s no longer any need for a curator who specializes in contemporary art…” Brutal. If I were Tucker I would have crawled in a hole and waited to evaporate but heroically this is only the mid point of the book and her greatest feats are still yet to come.

Tucker’s telling of the creation and beginnings of the New Museum are like a manual for being a bad ass, dedicated and very lucky person. It seems on reflection that the time and place that was New York in which she lived was a mythic place in some ways but in others there is a familiarity and there is a pulse of the possible that still exists today. She talks of supporters like Henry Luce and Vera List whom she was friends with and whose support helped the organization go from a staff of seven in 1977 to the massive institution it is today. The details are specific and readable and they also talk about the shows, the mission and the hurdles there are at being the head of such an organization. Through it all Marcia is brutally honest about her own successes and failures.

Through all the work and travel and her career there is still an emphasis on love, family, friends and personal pursuits of happiness. She was in singing groups, theatre groups, conscious raising groups, and had an alter ego named Miss Mannerist. This to me confirms an idea that all great gallerists, dealers and curators are artists themselves in some way. She finds true love when she is forty and has a child when she is forty three and the joy she has with all of it is ecstatic not only for herself but also for someone reading about it who feels that life, career, love, and family are mismatched puzzle pieces in the art world. Marcia Tucker had an amazing life. She is wholly rebellious, totally unpretentious, and she seems to have been loved and respected in the most earned and deep ways. I am not one who ever seeks heroes, I find that impulse somehow demeaning to all involved but after reading about Marcia Tucker and her life, both personal and professional, it does have a strong effect. I had not known of her ideas, ways of doing things and all else prior to reading this book and it was oddly reassuring and oddly just odd that in many ways it mirrors some of my own thoughts and impulses. By no means am I measuring myself to the tower that is Marcia but it does make it all seem a bit more possible to become a small tower of ones own.

Marcia Tucker died in 2006.

(Thanks to Gina Beavers for lending me this book)