For the record: MoMA’s oral history project
James Rosenquist and Ed Ruscha are among the artists talking about their work for posterity
By Erica Cooke. Museums, Issue 230, December 2011
Published online: 08 December 2011
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) will reinstall James Rosenquist’s F-111, 1964-65, recreating the way it was first installed in Leo Castelli’s Upper East Side gallery in 1965. Due to be unveiled shortly (the exact date has not yet been confirmed), the event complements the New York museum’s oral history project. MoMA’s curators and archivists are interviewing artists alongside their work in the collection. In addition to recording Rosenquist alongside F-111, they plan to interview Ed Ruscha and Vito Acconci. Dan Graham, Yvonne Rainer and Vija Celmins have already been interviewed.
The museum has collected oral histories for more than 20 years, but the 90 interviews in its archive primarily document “the machinations of the institution”, says Michelle Elligott, MoMA’s senior archivist, who is leading the institution’s Artist Oral History Initiative. The new project aims “to increase our understanding of artists’ ideas, intentions, working methods and specifically the materials and any sort of history or context that goes along with these products,” says Elligott. The project, which has a year’s initial funding thanks to an anonymous donor, began in the spring. If further funding is secured, the museum hopes to interview more artists on its 30-strong shortlist.
MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, Ann Temkin, is using archival photographs and documents to precisely recreate the space for which F-111 was originally made. “Rosenquist created the work for his show at the [Leo] Castelli Gallery in 1965. He used the gallery’s dimensions to configure the size of the painting,” which is 10ft high and 86ft wide.
The museum acquired the mural-sized work, which is formed by 23 panels, in 1996. Previous installations have never shown how the painting wrapped around the Castelli gallery. To replicate the original space, Temkin is creating “a chamber within the gallery”, which will mean visitors will be “totally immersed in F-111”. Named after a US Air Force fighter-bomber, F-111 contains references to the Vietnam war, atomic explosions, US consumer culture and the military-industrial complex.
MoMA’s desire to interview artists such as Rosenquist and Ruscha is part of a larger trend that Elligott calls “archive fever”. “People are putting documents and audio interviews on the internet that in the past were only available to a scholarly audience,” she says. Excerpts from the artist interviews will be added to the museum’s website, guides and possibly screened on kiosks in the gallery.
The Menil Collection in Houston announced in October that its Artists Documentation Programme (ADP) would gain a new online presence. The programme was founded in 1990 by the collection’s former chief conservator, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro. Its archive consists of about 50 hours of footage from 29 artist interviews, including Rudolf Stingel, Tim Hawkinson and Jasper Johns. Since October, the Menil has been working in partnership with the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Harvard Art Museums’ Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art to continue the project.
The ADP received a one-year grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation in 2011 to consolidate documentation, establish criteria for the programme and make information available to the public through an online database. It just received another Mellon grant for 2012 to evaluate long-term goals and the possibility of establishing partnerships with further institutions.
Mancusi-Ungaro first recognised the need to interview artists for posterity when she led the restoration in 1986 of the murals inside the Menil’s Rothko Chapel. The murals had developed a mysterious white film following their installation in 1971. When she went looking for answers she found that there was no literature documenting the materials and technical processess used by Rothko. “Many times I wished that I had had the opportunity to ask [Rothko] technical questions,” says Mancusi-Ungaro, who began filming interviews with artists in front of their works at the Menil Collection when the museum opened in 1987.
Unlike MoMA’s artists’ interviews, which tend to be conducted by curators and geared towards making works more accessible, the Menil’s programme is focused on conservation issues and designed to improve the documentation of the collection. The museum owns numerous works from the 1950s and 60s when artists were trying new materials. Brad Epley, the Menil’s chief conservator since 2006, says that it is now time to interview this generation of artists as the time has elapsed for materials to age and the issues to emerge.
Mancusi-Ungaro says: “As we become more accustomed to art forms that may not be singular in nature,” she says referring to new media in particular, “it is even more important for the artist’s voice to be documented and understood by collectors, museums and scholars.” Because the interviews are so long, she says they will probably include information that may not seem important now, but which will be useful in the future. “When I started these interviews, it was clear that I was not going to ask the important questions for the future. The cleaning of the Sistine Chapel was all about colour [and yet] Michelangelo’s biographers never mentioned colour. Evidently, it was not something that was important at the time. The best we can do now is get a sense of how an artist thinks about his materials.” If an interview can convey that, future scholars will be able to use the information to answer “whatever question they may have”, she hopes.
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