The Armory Show's newest exhibitor section, Perspectives, is devoted to recontextualizing 20th century artworks. Here, inaugural curator Nora Burnett Abrams reveals how her vision for Perspectives will present fresh viewpoints on the past. — Interview by Audrey Rose Smith
My hope is that visitors will experience this section as a fresh and unexpected look to the past
Your curatorial career has spanned both modern and contemporary art, having begun at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. How do you draw a distinction between the two in your curatorial approach and methodology?
I’m not sure that I draw a clear line between the two. Contemporary art is on a continuum shared with art of the past and what makes it so exciting and compelling, for me, is to see how the art of today iterates on those vexing ideas we’ve been wrestling with for decades. I’ve always believed that the art of today can come to life in an even more riveting and gripping way when put into conversation with historical works. My time at The Met, which dovetailed with my PhD program, was formative in so many ways, particularly in terms of learning best practices in the field. But, on the other hand, working at a non-collecting, contemporary organization affords tremendous opportunity to take risks and move or respond quickly to an idea or issue as it arises. Working at MCA Denver has allowed me to loosen some of the orthodoxy that comes with a larger, more complex encyclopedic organization.
As the inaugural curator for Perspectives, what is your vision for this new section and what do you hope to bring to the fair-context that perhaps has not been presented before?
I am excited to realize this same idea about the past being a catalyst for art of the present. I anticipate lots of exciting dialogues within a booth and amongst the different booths on view that will allow us to recognize this historical continuum of which all the art on view is a part. I am also excited to put The Armory Show’s own history into play, so to speak, using the early iterations’ sense of whimsy and unconventional presentations as inspiration for the booths in this section. My hope is that visitors will experience this section as a fresh and unexpected look to the past, and that this quirky, unpredictable encounter will inform how they move through the rest of the fair. I like the idea of this section being a kind of nexus from which the many currents of thought as represented in the other sections radiate.
Reconsidering and even reshaping the arc of an artist’s career or body of work is certainly one of the most fulfilling aspects of curatorial practice, and one of the most rigorous.
Your curatorial resume includes a number of exhibitions focused on bringing to light unknown or overlooked periods in an artist’s career. As a curator, do you feel your responsibility is in part to bring these lesser known aspects of an artist’s work to the public?
It is certainly a privilege to contribute a chapter or preface to an artist’s narrative. As a curator, what is most rewarding is the chance to explore the early seeds of an artist’s work, and see if they might anticipate later, more well-known examples. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they might just be strange, one-off experiments. Being willing to breach the taxonomy of an artist’s work (the notion that this leads to that, leads to the next) is the great joy of curatorial work. We like to build a narrative, and then we want to question every facet of it! I think it’s less about being definitive and more about being open to the many currents that generate an artist’s oeuvre. Reconsidering and even reshaping the arc of an artist’s career or body of work is certainly one of the most fulfilling aspects of curatorial practice, and one of the most rigorous. So yes, I do think it’s the responsibility of a curator to examine the narrative as it currently exists, see where it is porous, and open that up for the public.
The current political climate offers much to address, push against, and ultimately respond to with new art and ideas. Are there particular artists, institutions, or spaces you feel are leading the conversation here?
The political climate and a sense of urgency to address the challenges of the 21st century – be they income inequality, xenophobia and racism, climate change, to say nothing of the political chaos of the current administration in the US – remain top of mind for most artists and institutions working today. I enjoyed how the recent Whitney Biennial captured this range of issues in its presentation, rather than taking one strand as a more pointed focus. Instead, what it showed was how artists are leading the way, much as they’ve always done, to highlight both the effects of these challenges and also suggest paths forward.
Some museums, like the ICA LA for example, have baked their commitment to social justice and upending entrenched, societal hierarchies into their missions, while others are embodying those ideals in other ways, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art’s deaccessioning of works to support the diversification of their collections. I think we need myriad approaches to be successful, but first and foremost, institutions need to be responsive to their immediate contexts and turn their attentions to the issues that their communities and environments demand. This should look different at each museum, as each organization takes the complexities of its site into account and considers how best to serve the needs, interests, vision, and possibilities of that community. My point here is that there is no one-size-fits-all model that will successfully consider and respond to the exigencies of our times, and there shouldn’t be.
I think we need myriad approaches to be successful, but first and foremost, institutions need to be responsive to their immediate contexts and turn their attentions to the issues that their communities and environments demand.
Your point of departure for the inaugural Perspectives section gestures towards the fair’s earliest iterations in the 1990s, specifically the daring, gritty, even whimsical, presentations. What specifically about this moment in art history remains so relevant today?
I think the early years of the fair captured a spirit of dynamism, where artists and dealers thought imaginatively about how to get their work out in front of visitors and command the attention that it deserved. Much like today, artists were addressing the most pressing issues of the time whether that was the AIDS crisis, gentrification and urban development, questioning governmental authority, and so many other topics. At times the work was messy, unclear, chaotic—frankly, much like the subject matter they were grappling with. I’m interested in capturing some of that spirit again. I want things to be unclear and provocative and to make you stop and think and ponder and remain unresolved. I want visitors to feel jolted rather than fatigued, goaded rather than passive, and curious rather than dulled.