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The house that Michael built: Interview with Michael Auping

An interview with one of the curators of this year’s Whitney Biennial as his sculpture exhibition moves south of the Texan border

Occasionally, in the course of curatorial events, single-venue shows, laboriously assembled, are given the chance to play to a fresh audience when another institution approaches the originating museum and asks if they can take on the well received offering. Such was the case with Michael Auping's enticingly titled “House of sculpture”, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth last year. It is currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey, Mexico, until mid-February. The original presentation brought together almost thirty works dating from the Fifties to the Nineties, by twenty-seven artists, including Georg Baselitz, Joseph Cornell, Robert Gober, Ann Hamilton, Joseph Havel, Donald Judd, Jeff Koons, Martin Puryear, Lucas Samaras, Kiki Smith, Rachel Whiteread and Bruce Nauman, whose “Left or standing, standing or left standing” (1971/1999) comprises its centrepiece.

Moving the exhibition to the more spacious Monterrey museum gave Mr Auping an opportunity to add new artists, such as Tony Oursler and Nam June Paik, whose video pieces elaborate on the influences of technology on sculpture. Carved works by James Surls and others address that ancient means of creating form. Works previously shown would take on a new aspect, Mr Auping added. The Twombly, which he described as a sort of “cream-coloured, abstract Giacometti, has more room to reach vertically. It was beautiful in Fort Worth but, in Monterrey, it sings.”

Also engaged as one of six regional curators for this year’s Whitney Biennial, Mr Auping talked to The Art Newspaper about contemporary sculpture and the ideas engendered by his exhibition.

Why are there so few group exhibitions of contemporary sculpture?

Michael Auping Sculpture is difficult and expensive to transport, and more complex to install in a museum. But there is also an historic prejudice against sculpture that still plays a subtle, maybe unconscious, role with curators and collectors. Leonardo described the painter as a well-dressed intellectual, working in a clean room, while the sculptor is more like a sweaty, dust-covered baker, hammering away at an unforgiving chunk of stone. And Baudelaire said sculpture should be left to “primitive peoples”—probably anyone not French—and, of course, that sculpture is something you fall over when you step back to look at a painting.

What did you want to say about sculpture with this exhibition?

I would argue that the most radical developments in art of the past twenty-five years have been in sculpture more than in painting. Sculpture has been remarkably aggressive in staking out new territories. That said, I think sculpture has learned a lot from painting in the 1940s and 1950s. Pollock made some aggressively spatial paintings. I think sculptors have been the most appreciative and exploitative of the expansiveness that Pollock’s work suggests. Sculpture is a remarkably fluid activity—more like a constellation than a narrative—that can adapt itself to any kind of thought process.

How did you define sculpture for this exhibition? How did that influence your choices of artists?

I had a definition but, through the selection process, it unravelled. I started with the idea that sculpture was anything that wasn’t painting or drawing, but that was too open. So I chose mostly things that are sculptural in the traditional sense—things that stand in space—ranging from a carved wooden bust by Georg Baselitz to an early prop piece by Richard Serra to an oversized stick of butter by Robert Gober.

What is the chronological span of the exhibition and what does that say about the evolution of contemporary sculpture?

In Fort Worth, the exhibition began with a David Smith “Cubi” from 1965. Smith is the umbilical cord from Abstract Expressionism into Minimalism. In the “Cubi” series, order and chaos, construction and deconstruction, seem to find a balanced meeting point. Its geometric forms led into Minimalism, which dissolves the figurative or representational armature that had been the soul of sculptural form. After Minimalism, sculpture rebuilt itself. Now we not only have representational sculpture, but sculpture that has climbed back on to the pedestal, as well as everything in between.

What are the challenges of installing a big sculpture show?

You have to think in a different way. Installing a painting show is about looking continually from one painting to another, one wall to another, and making fluid transitions. With sculpture, it’s more about walking and standing. You almost have to pretend to be the sculpture, to stand in its place and determine whether the space feels comfortable. If it does, it’s likely the sculpture will feel comfortable, too. And the transitions from room to room obviously are important.

What kinds of transitions have you established for this exhibition?

I wanted to fit the works to the space so that each sculpture would have a very individual presence, which resulted in some unexpected dialogues between works. In Fort Worth, for example, at one point you saw the Flavin, the Serra and the small room containing Robert Gober’s illuminated “Prison window” and his oversized stick of butter. There was a strange kinship between the light of the fake sky in the Gober and the light from the Flavin. There’s also a kind of surreal connection between Gober’s wax replication of butter and Serra’s thick lead sheets. And the early Nauman is lit with both yellow fluorescent lights and white gallery lights. When you see the light mix toward the ceiling, it creates an afterimage of violet, which makes his spaces seem even stranger. Unlike Serra’s work, where you measure your body against the weight and mass you’re confronting, the Nauman absorbs your body and works on your psychological condition.

Why did you call the exhibition “House of sculpture”?

The title attempts to suggest intimacy and fullness. A house—as opposed to the institutional museum—is a thoughtfully lived space. I think that is the kind of space sculpture inhabits today.