ANTOINE GUERRERO The Herculean Courtier of PS 1

Portrait of Antoine Guerrero. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Antoine Guerrero left his position as Director of Exhibitions and Operations at PS 1, MoMA’s satellite institution in Long Island City, on March 1, after 17 years at the helm. Known to his friends and colleagues as “Tony,” he served as a facilitator to realize and install artists’s large projects with modest budgets and means. Guerrero, who worked under the longtime direction of Alanna Heiss and more recently, Klaus Bisenbach, oversaw almost two decades of programming, including three Greater New York surveys and major retrospectives by Chen Zhen and Dieter Roth. With his singular understanding of the institution’s unique architecture and his long history with Alanna Heiss, he has long been an indispensable part of PS 1’s identity. Guerrero cited changing dynamics as key factors in his decision to leave.

Guerrero’s personal history reveals his free spirited character, with one opportunity seeming to lead seamlessly to the next; perhaps he inherited this constitution from his grandfather, a nomadic Andalusian Gypsy. At 18, he departed central France—its antipodes, the South Pacific, located at the exact opposite side of the globe as France: “as far as I could go,” he recalls. Guerrero spent the following 15 years opening hotels and restaurants for private investors and returned to France in 1991.

He met Chinese artist Chen Zhen upon his return to France, and worked for Chen for the next two years as his studio assistant. During this time, Guerrero, who describes himself as an autodidact, having never received a formal education, learned art history through Chen’s Asian eyes. “Chen Zhen was my mentor,” Guerrero recalls. “When people asked how long I knew him, I would answer, ‘I knew Chen before I knew Duchamp.’” At the same time, Guerrero learned about the production and processes of art making through working on Chen’s large installations.

When Chen was invited to do an installation project at the French cultural institution, Magasin de Grenoble in 1992, Guerrero joined him for the three-month preparation. Guerrero lived in the back of the institution, like a residency, and after the exhibition he was hired to run its curatorial school. While working at Magasin, Guerrero picked up Alanna Heiss and her husband from the train station for an opening. “In the 20 minute drive from the train station to the institution, she offered me to come to New York, and I did,” he remembers. In late 1993, he began working at PS 1 as a consultant and then as director of the now closed artists’s residency program.

“Tony was the guide, commando, and general leading troops through and orchestrating this large project,” Eleanor Heartney recalled when she visited PS 1 to write a feature story for Art in America for its reopening in 1998 as a MoMA affiliate. Lawrence Weiner recounted that during the installation of an outdoor piece fabricated from paper for the reopening, Guerrero saved the piece, from the elements by using the durable paper that FedEx envelopes are made out of. “Tony listens to artists and gained his identity from doing his job well. He has maintained his personality,” says Weiner. “When he is working, Tony is like Teflon.”

Artists exhibiting at PS 1 trusted Guerrero’s input and passion for “big idea, small budget” installations, and often the projects became collaborations between the artist and Guerrero. John Lurie, who worked with Guerrero to install a works on paper show in 2006 added that “the only agenda he had was to make the show look good—and he cared about it.” He shared the artist’s ambitions and determination, and empathized with artists during the often arduous process of mounting a large-scale project at PS 1. David Brooks acknowledged Guerrero’s role in helping realize his concrete rainforest installation in 2010’s Greater New York, “Tony is a force to reckon with. He stands next to the artist, fills you with energy and momentum while he is performing this Herculean effort. And when you’re done, he makes you feel it was your own doing. He works as both the institution and an extension of the artist.”

“Even if Tony didn’t know the art, he had an innate sensibility for the art,” MoMA Chief Curator of Drawing, Connie Butler reminisces. Butler first worked with Guerrero on the PS 1 installation of the WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition. Guerrero’s knowledge of PS 1’s unique, varied spaces and his experience with the architecture, which at first Butler tried to ignore or work against in installing the show, helped to bring order to WACK!’s New York presentation. “He is great with the artists. I’m not sure if it was because of his European charm and wisdom. It was nothing but pleasure to work with him the whole time.”

Like a courtier, Guerrero’s composure during high-pressure moments in an installation assuages the artist’s anxiety. Jon Kessler remembers his experience executing a large scale, site-specific sculpture: “Tony has this totally chill attitude, no matter how stressful—with his cigar and long hair and rock star ease. He takes a deep breath, listens to a problem, and says, ‘Let’s think it out.’” Kessler continues, “Tony’s office, with his birds and good wine always had the vibe of the south of France.”

When asked about the future, Guerrero relates an anecdote Lawrence Weiner told him, “You’re like this great first mate who can go in any seas in any weather with an old ship and always take it back home. It doesn’t matter how hard the weather and the seas out there. You will always take it back home.” Guerrero adds, “I think for now, though, I need a break.” Taking a hiatus between intense periods of work is nothing new for Guerrero—he would take a year off after working a year in the South Pacific. “I find myself today sitting on the beach. And it’s a blue sky, blue water, and there’s no bad weather, and there’s no ship,” Guerrero imagines.

Contributor

Greg Lindquist

GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.

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