In Conversation

AGNES GUND with Phong Bui

Despite her hectic schedule, the indefatigable Agnes Gund, in a rare one hour intermission, welcomed Publisher Phong Bui to her Upper East Side home to talk about her life, work, and recent curatorial effort Is White a Color? at the Fountain Gallery, which will be on view from September 25 to November 11, 2009.

Portrait of Agnes Gund. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): I read in a recent interview, where you said that ever since you got involved with the Modern (MoMA), first as a member of the International Council in 1967, then joined the board in 1976, which between 1991 to 2002 you were its President, you’ve learned how to appreciate works of art by throwing yourself into every aspect of the museum’s activities: from participating in different committees, having dialogues with the director and curators, watching the works of art get installed in gallery spaces, to getting involved with the museum’s education program or reading various materials in the archive, and so on. You really immersed yourself in the whole process of how an art institution functions. Do you think learning to trust the process may have been initiated in your early years when your mother took you to the classes at the Cleveland Museum?

Agnes Gund: Actually, when I went there as a child, they had children’s classes where you signed up and would be taken through different sections of the museum. The idea was that you were encouraged to talk about works of art right in front of them, then on some occasions you would go the room downstairs to draw or paint the object you had seen. I did, however, get so used to the entire museum when I was there in the 40s and 50s that I really knew where everything was in the whole place. And since I learned from my childhood that I didn’t have any talent in making objects or being any good at performance—I was always very bad at music, largely due to my being partially tone deaf, this is why I don’t speak foreign languages—I instead became sharply aware of things when they were out of place or off kilter. For example, if a painting was on a wall and it was disproportionate to the size of that wall, or what was next to it, it would bother me tremendously. In fact, once, during a Board meeting at Brown University, I got up in the middle of it to straighten the paintings on the main wall because they were not even. People thought that was strange and funny so they said: “I’ve never seen anyone do that,” and I said: “Well, it was driving me mad, because it was so uneven.” Anyway, I went on to add, “Those little paintings shouldn’t be hung on this wall because they are not proportioned in relation to the size of the wall. If they absolutely have to be on the same wall, then they should at least be hung side by side in a row.” You can imagine by that time, the whole committee was laughing and thought, “she obviously hasn’t been listening to the subject of the meeting” [laughs]. It is hard for me not to be absorbed by what is visual, especially when it is in regards to an object and its—

Rail: Spatial surrounding.

Paul Cézanne, “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1904-1906). Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 × 36 3/16”. Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.

Gund: Yes. It happened another time when Yoshio Taniguchi showed us, the Board of Directors, before the renovation got started, the model for the Modern’s new building, and I said, “why is the sidewalk not even to the street,” and Yoshio and his partners said, “I don’t think you are right.” Later they came up to me and they told me that it was one sixteenth of an inch higher on the one end and they were totally surprised.

Rail: Mondrian would have appreciated that minute precision.

Gund: I don’t know if it served me so well [laughs]. The thing that I always envied about artists is that they are able to express how they feel and make it into a tangible object. And since I can’t do what they do, I’ve transferred it to looking very carefully at objects. By being able to picture and keep the object in my mind, I’m able to get rid of some of my frustrations.

Rail: And the ability to detect minute differences in the process of looking is a result of learning how to look, which is similar to the act of drawing. It reminds me of what Wittgenstein had said: “One would only draw what one knows.” In other words, if you don’t know something, you can’t draw it. Most artists would disagree with that statement because, as Degas once said, “You do not know something until you’ve drawn it.”

Jasper Johns, “Map” (1963). Encaustic and collage on canvas, 60 × 93”. Private collection.

Gund: I do think that you can know something, in your head, or you can be affected by what you’re thinking. I think what Degas said is more open to different interpretations rather than relying on one system. Take Picasso and the theme of portraiture, for example, which was the subject of the incredible final exhibit that Bill [William] Rubin curated at the Modern in 1996; almost anyone could go through that show without much knowledge of Picasso and could see how the different portraits he had made of himself, of his many friends, and especially of the women in his life, reflected his feelings of that person.

Rail: I feel bad for Dora Maar [laughs].

Gund: And the opposite of her was Marie-Thérése, who seems to have had it all with the body image, and that certainly is shown in those sensual lines in “The Dream” or “The Mirror.”

Rail: Most definitely.

Gund: Whether Picasso was aware of it or not, whether he knows it or not, his pleasure and sadness, anxiety and guilt—he was able to express them all. And he painted nearly as quickly as he felt. So I could never really understand Wittgenstein well, although Daniel [Shapiro] thinks he’s the greatest.

Rail: So do many conceptual artists.

Matthias Grünewald Isenheim altarpiece. “St. Sebastian; The Crucifxion; St. Anthony Abbot” central panel - first view, (1512 -1516). Oil on panel, 9’9 1/2” x 10’9”. Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace.

Gund: Although I like many young artists whose work often ties into the desire for novelty and all sorts of appropriation, I always felt that artists from the older generation were able to express more of their perspectives that derive from their backgrounds, what they knew from life experience or what they’d been through in their struggles with their works. I just think it’s more difficult—yet rewarding—to create works that come out of anxiety than to make things that just please the untrained eye. I’m thinking of Jasper’s [Johns] way of relating to the world and to other artists before him, and his deep knowledge of literature, and obviously dance and music, because he had friends like John [Cage] and Merce [Cunningham] that participated in his world. Jasper’s world is so different from theirs and anyone else’s, yet it’s amazing how everything affects what he does. There’s a print that he’s doing now which uses sign language. And you can say sign language has to do with the hands making shapes and gestures in motions, but then in his work there has always been the presence of hands, so we ask where do the hands come from? Inevitably, there are so many layers to what he paints. It’s quite contrary to other artists who are more interested in how a work can be conceptualized before it gets made by a fabricator rather than going through the struggles and making the work themselves. Here I’m thinking of the Andy Warhol and Johnsian traditions; both stem from Duchamp, yet they are the opposite of one another.

Rail: One wanted to remove the hand from the making of the object while the other insists on the presence of the hands.

Gund: Yeah, that’s a big difference. Warhol is coming from advertising and the world outside, and Jasper is coming from his own biography, his inner world that has been distilled from what you saw from the outside world.

Rail: So in that order, Daniel [Shapiro] can side with Wittgenstein, and you and I can side with Degas. It’s quite okay.

Gund: It’s true and it’s okay [laughter].

Rail: You often spoke of one teacher at Miss Porter, the prep school you went to in Farmington, Connecticut, with such fondness. What was her name?

Martin Cohen, ”Untitled,” Oil and collage on paper, 20 × 26”. Courtesy of Fountain Gallery, NY.

Gund: Oh Sarah B. MacLennan was her name. She had studied art history at Yale and art history was in her bones and a part of her whole being. She was unlike some of the other teachers I studied with later in my life who always insisted on just dates and time, and how it should be read according to the specific period that artists lived in or belonged to. Most intelligent and sensitive people know that art always relates to earlier things as well as the reality of its time. It’s also true of architecture and design, literature and poetry, music and dance; it’s true of all art forms. That’s why I thought the exhibit Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was so great because, for the first time, I saw Cézanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire” in Jasper’s “Map” paintings.

Rail: It’s what Herder called Volksgeist, “people’s culture.” In any case, why did you major in history instead of art history in college?

Gund: It’s a long story, but I didn’t go to the college I should have gone to, which was Wellesley, but nevertheless I went to Connecticut College, which now has a very good art history program, but at that point had a limited number of art history courses, and that was all that the school offered. Anyway, the President Rosemary Park, who I so admired, said in one assembly, “If you’re in a major that isn’t challenging you, you should be in another one.” So I switched to history and that ended up being my major. But it was years later when I went back to Harvard—I went back to really get more of the same teaching that I got with Sarah B. MacLennan, and I got a wonderful education in drawings from Konrad Oberhuber. He really taught me how to look at drawing, which I still think is the most important and intimate activity related to how an artist really thinks. What was so great about Harvard was that they had drawings in their collection, which you were able look at while holding in your hands, so you could see how the heavy or light lines of different artists expressed their distinct touch and hand movement. You can see, for example, how Raphael really wanted to be like Michelangelo, to be more muscular and monumental, but he couldn’t because his temperament was of a softer and more inward kind.

Rail: That’s true. At any rate, most of us are aware of your vast contribution to various institutions as well as your relationship to both the older and younger generation, so it would be impossible to cover all of those aspects. I mean, there are at least 16 different museums that you have been involved with, but I’d like to pick a few for the sake of my own curiosity. First, could you talk briefly about your experience at the Modern?

Gund: As you mentioned at the beginning, I first came as a member of the International Council, in 1967, then I became a member of the painting and sculpture committee the following year. It was the time when Kynaston [McShine] and Bobby [Robert] Rosenblum were on the same committee, so you really learned a lot from what they said, especially with Bill Rubin, the way he could talk with such poetry about a painting, especially when he loved it; however, when he didn’t he could be quite blunt.

Rail: [Kirk] Varnedoe could talk just as eloquently.

Gund: Bill and Kirk were different in the way they could talk, but they were both nevertheless mesmerizing.

Rail: Most of us are aware of the continuity from Rubin to Varnedoe, that, while the former championed modernism the latter linked its late phase to the lively scene of contemporary art. And it’s incredible that before Varnedoe died, he planted seeds for several retrospectives of significant living and contemporary artists, which began with Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Elizabeth Murray, and then Martin Puryear.

Gund: Those were all his ideas, including the reinforced steel structure of the second floor space as part of Tanaguchi’s design so we could show those monumental Serras there. I thought Kirk really was someone who brought great changes to the Modern. And one of those changes was the hiring of Rob Storr, who probably spent more time with artists than most of us. I thought Kirk and Rob had amazing chemistry. Kirk did the Twombly retrospective (1994), Rob did Ryman’s (1994), Kirk did Pollock’s (1998), Rob did Tony Smith (2002), and on and on, and we all benefited from their energy and original insights.

Rail: I also think the ongoing Artist’s Choice Exhibition series is a great homage to Varnadoe.

Gund: I do too. I love that series. I was so touched when my four brothers, George, Gordon, Graham, and Geoff, and their four wives Iara Lee, Lulie, Ann, and Sarah all chose to support it in my honor when I retired in 2002. Why it truly meant so much to me was that it brought about yet another way for the public to look at works of art through the eyes of the artists as curators. Under Kirk there were terrific exhibits curated by Scott Burton, Ellsworth Kelly, John Baldessari, and Elizabeth Murray. Chuck Close also did an astounding one of portraits of all media. And recently various artists have done equally amazing jobs at collaborating with other MoMA curators, for example, Mona Hatoum, Herzog & de Meuron, and Vik Muniz.

Rail: Meanwhile, John Elderfield organized the brilliant Matisse, Mondrian, Bonnard, Martin Puryear shows, and I can’t wait till the forthcoming DeKooning retrospective.

Gund: Of course John also co-curated with Kirk that extraordinary Matisse and Picasso exhibit. And with Ann [Temkin], now she’s the chief curator of the Painting and Sculpture, who has a wonderful ability to see painting and sculpture inseparable from other mediums; we’re quite excited about her vision of how the Modern will interface with contemporary art.

Rail: I am aware of your involvement with the Barnes museum, especially with the future location at Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, which is right in the middle of the city’s center. It doesn’t surprise me at all, Aggie, that you would get involved with a unique, independent museum founded by a self-made, self-taught, eccentric person: Dr. Albert Barnes, who, in addition to having such a good eye for French paintings, had an unusual passion for educating the under-privileged. I wonder, when you became involved with the Barnes, were you aware of John Dewey’s progressive philosophy of education?

Gund: I knew of John Dewey’s ideas and Barnes’s relationship to him. Dewey was not only important to art education, but education in general. He was an easy mark, so to speak, but as for Barnes, he wanted to have something more concrete and less political. I think Barnes’s ideas should be made more known and up to date. The Barnes, like a few other small museums—Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Phillips, the Morgan, the Frick—were all collector- rather than curator-driven institutions, which are so essential to the breadth of our cultural life.

Rail: I agree. When will the Barnes be open to the public?

Gund: They will start to break ground in 2010, then hopefully it’ll be able to open at the end of 2012, or, at the latest, the beginning of 2013. I think Billie Tsien and Tod Williams are doing a terrific design job that is going to be simple and accessible while accommodating all the requirements the judge said were necessary. What’ll be exciting is that they’re going to move the large Matisses, “La Joie de vivre” and “Dance II,” so they can be more easily viewed by the handicapped and they’ll be given a monumentality that they didn’t have before.

Rail: I’d like to switch to a subject that really holds a special place in your heart, which is the Studio in a School program founded in 1977, right after you became a Board member at the Modern, at a time when the city budget cut art classes in public schools, including Elementary schools. Could you give us a brief chronology and description of the philosophy of that program?

Gund: Actually, I read about the cutting of art education in the NY Times when I lived in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1976, and I just was shocked. I went to Patricia Hewitt, who was the Director of the Board of Joint Foundation Support, and I said, instead of giving small amounts of money, I’d like to do something where I put a bigger amount in so I’m able to really affect some change. And I thought, possibly, if I did the Studio in a School program, I would be able to go back and persuade the people in the public school system to re-install the art classes. One day, when she and I were visiting and trying to monitor our program, we both realized that we really wanted to make it children-centric rather than artist-centric. And we wanted a director who could oversee the whole thing. That was when Tom [Thomas] Cahill came in, and he has been incredible from the very beginning. I think the program has really improved the attitudes of the teachers, parents, and education system in general about what art can do to enhance a child’s confidence, and improve their ability to be visual and verbal, allowing them to really see their surroundings. It’s been proven that many of the top leaders in various fields of business are creative people, or people who have had an art background. So even if only a small proportion of the children may be inspired to become visual artists when they grow up, the rest will gain a unique perception of the world, which otherwise they would not have.

Rail: What do you think are the challenges insofar as trying to find a worthy successor to the legendary Alanna Heiss, who just retired from P.S.1 last December? And what will become of the institution?

Gund: It’s a challenge, but I think it can be done. Of course, it will never be the same place without Alanna. We have to work really hard now to find somebody who has a real knowledge of why P.S.1 is so important, why we need to have P.S.1. One of the great things Alanna did during her long and productive tenure, was to show works of artists who have been overlooked for one or another reason by the art world’s constant changes of tastes. I thought that such exhibits of Lee Lozano, Ron Gorchov, Peter Young, Jack Whitten, and many others were great, in addition to the Young Architects Program and various exhibits of young and emerging artists such as Greater New York. I’m sure Alanna will bring the same vision and intensity to her new venture with Art International Radio.

Rail: Fountain House, which was founded in 1948—probably the first of its kind—is a professional self-help program operated by men and women recovering from mental illness. Ever since its founding days it has served more than 60,000 people, and it’s been adopted and modeled after, in part, by at least one thousand similar programs in the U.S. and abroad. It’s incredible, and we’re indeed quite grateful to Alex [Alexandra] Herzan, Kenneth Dudek, and those on the Board and their staff, especially Jason Bowman who runs the Fountain Gallery. The gallery is an extension of Fountain House, which provides a space where people who are recovering from mental illness can pursue their personal vision as artists while challenging the stigma that surrounds their illness. Could you talk about the exhibit Is White a Color?, which you curated for them?

Gund: The theme of the show came from the white lamb and Virgin Mary on opposite sides under the feet of Christ on the cross in the central panel of the “Isenheim Altar Piece” painted by Matthias Grünewald at the Uterlinden Museum of Colmar. I just felt that the way in which the white lamb was painted was so brilliant in that its color corresponded to the brilliant white on Mary’s vestment, Christ, the book, and the water pitcher. Similarly, I asked all the artists to make works that evoke what and how they would interpret their feelings for white as a color. I’m pleased at how inspired everybody was by it. Not only are the artists themselves benefiting, but the real viewing public gets something out of seeing that Fountain Gallery is a place where you can see fine works of art made by a group of excellent artists.

Rail: One last question: since you never collect art as a form of investment, and we all know that each year you give away two thirds of your annual assets. How do you adjust your philanthropy during this difficult economic crisis?

Gund: I’ve had to do what others have had to do, and that’s say no to a lot of places where I would formally have said yes. People are looking closely at where they give their money. And I think also they will do the same with buying art. This difficult time will open up not only a lot of eyes but it will also improve philanthropy.

Rail: Are you saying that because this is not a frivolous time, people won’t be so frivolous about their actions?

Gund: Yes, I think they will be less frivolous and I think they’ll think more about it. They’ll really concentrate more on how their support can be most effective in the things that they care for the most. That said, I think art and beauty will always survive.

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Phong Bui

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