Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Life in Art: Beyond Belief and Nostalgia

The below was a first draft...finally posted by the CJM on its blog here:

    Beyond Belief makes me nostalgic. It is an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum right now. It is also the opening track on Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello - not the first record I owned, but maybe the first record I owned, and knew every word in a way where I thought I was the only one in the world who knew every word.

    It was the summer of 1982 I was 13. My Bar Mitzvah was that year, and I knew I'd be leaving public school that next year to begin a private high school. My performance in school had been less than sterling but my interests at home reflected a different kind of kid. I would steal away from the stiflingly humid Maryland summer heat into the one room that had air conditioning in the nineteenth century farmhouse in which I grew up. It was the guest room beside my parents’ bedroom. On the shelves were my mother's mystery books she had read, a complete Encyclopedia Britannica, dictionaries, a Physicians Desk Reference, and off in a corner a few MOMA catalogues from the few years my parents belonged, likely before my older brother was born. Oh, I remember those MOMA catalogs so vividly: the Giacometti (I have it now), and the Rothko catalog. I was learning to draw then, by then I drew pretty well, emulating the Marvel stylings my brother cultivated. But these men were shamans. They could reach the unattainable, conceive the unimaginable.

    Giacometti and Rothko were Modernist "masters," and there are two great works in the exhibition "Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art.". I was also learning art history in the process, but it was not until later that I would see them as what art critic and historian Suzi Gablik describes as "The only antitoxin generated within the body of our society to counteract the pernicious speed of secular, bureaucratic consciousness." Modernism as a saving grace.

    The exhibition makes me nostalgic for what I do now and the team of people here at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) who worked together on "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories.". According to SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra, it was at that time and in that spirit of collabortion that they conceived of the current SFMOMA on the Go campaign where the Museum has "temporarily moved...everywhere," during the in-between time transforming into the new Snøhetta-designed expansion.

    Beyond Belief makes me nostalgic for my life in art in New York in the 90s when I worked as a registrar and art handler at a gallery in SoHo that was dedicated to identity-based display, showing Faith Ringgold and giving Hung Liu her first solo New York exhibition. One of the best artists who showed at the gallery was Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, whose work can be seen in the Yerba Buena Gardens and in the recently reinstalled galleries of the Crocker. Jaune told me I has to read Suzi Gablik, author of Has Modernism Failed?, a deliciously nostalgic and ground-breaking book from 1984, revised in 2004, in which Gablik writes:
    ...politics and art became linked through the idea of social sculpture. Education should have the socially engaged personality as its goal...Trying to make meaningful art in a society that doesn't believe in anything requires breaking down the rigidity of specialization, the segregation of function and activities, both within the personality and within the community as a whole.

    The exhibition and all it's artists makes me feel nostalgic for a life in art. Here's to nostalgia - remembering your first Ross Bleckner exhibition in SoHo when he seemed like he was going to be the living end, before his Mary Boone spotlight faded; first hearing about Ana Mendieta's tragic, early, death; your first Felix Gonzalez Torres gallery or museum experience, rolling up the poster as you left or hearing the candy crinkle in your pocket; your first reading of Concerning the Spirtiual in Art, or any other modernist manifesto that felt as earnest and determined as anything you'd read before it; your first sighting of a Mona Hatoum work in-print or in-person; your earliest viewing of a Giacometti, and just how personal and classic it are these ties that bind? What are your Beyond Belief moments?

    On the exhibition Beyond Belief's opening night I had my picture taken with Peter Selz, someone I'd known long enough to call friend; and along the way, I realized he was the one who written that Rothko catalog in 1961 that I read as an adolescent. In fact, Selz gave Rothko his very first exhibition at New York's MOMA when Peter was a curator there. We were together in front of the Rothko at the CJM. For a lingering, happy moment I was home, thirteen years old laying in my PJ's in the carpet in the air conditioned dream and slowly placing the needle arm down to rest on the spinning black vinyl with the red Columbia record label.
    History repeats the old conceits The glib replies the same defeats Keep your finger on important issues With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues

    The very song itself now seems to be about nostalgia.

    James G. Leventhal is the CJM's Deputy Director for Development and has been with the Museum since March 2010. James has 24 years of experience in arts administration including appointments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Judah L. Magnes Museum, where he was the Director of Development and Marketing. Leventhal completed his undergraduate studies in Art History, Anthropology and Studio Art at NYU and did Master's work in Art History and Museology at the City College of New York before receiving his M.B.A. from John F. Kennedy University, with a specialization in Museum Studies. James has presented nationally on the use of technology for audience development and engagement in museums, and serves on the Board of the Western Museums Association. He draws almost every morning with his seven year-old son, hoping to create a life full of art and nostalgia.
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