Art In Conversation
SIR NORMAN ROSENTHAL with David Carrier and Joachim Pissarro
When recently we interviewed Philippe de Montebello, it happened that Sir Norman Rosenthal was in town, and so he participated in that discussion. He had much to say which was of great interest and so we thought it natural to continue the discussion with an interview devoted entirely to him. The son of Jewish refugees from Germany and Slovakia, Norman Rosenthal has played a major role as a London-based curator, working first at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (1974 – 76) and then at the Royal Academy (1977 – 2008). Most famous for organizing two exhibitions of contemporary art, A New Spirit in Painting (1981) and Sensation: Young British Artists (1997), he has also been involved with countless other exhibitions, many devoted to a variety of old masters—Frans Hals, Mantegna, and Murillo to name just three. Thanks to his loving persistence and astonishing energy, our vision of present day art has become more complex, and our view of traditional art has been revised, to great effect.
David Carrier: Sir Norman, what is your earliest memory of the art world?
Sir Norman Rosenthal: My earliest memory takes me to the first paintings I ever loved. And how I discovered art—how it all began. My mother was a refugee from Germany, you know, because of Uncle Adolf, as I sometimes call him, ironically. She would take me from where we lived in London on the number 187 bus to Hampstead Heath in the summer where we would walk across the Heath and come to Kenwood House. The first painting I saw there and I really loved and remember totally—I dreamt about it—was the “Pink Lady” by Gainsborough, known as the Countess Howe. It used to be hung not as it is now, not very well, but high up at the end of the Orangery overlooking the park. If you can, imagine a little boy looking up into her beautifully laced skirts. That was the first painting that impressed me. It is still for me an unforgettable painting, with incredible pink tones, and this amazing landscape behind. It is the Gainsborough of all Gainsboroughs in my opinion. He painted nothing better.
Joachim Pissarro: The story parallels exactly an artist we were discussing a few days ago as well: Bob Rauschenberg, who had a very similar epiphany. Suddenly in front of a Gainsborough, not the “Pink Lady” but the “Blue Boy” which he discovered in the Huntington Library, north of Los Angeles his life was changed.
Rosenthal: I didn’t know that he grew up in California.
Pissarro: No, he grew up in Port Arthur, Texas—he grew up without ever seeing any kind of art, as he later recalled.
Rosenthal: The “Blue Boy” is also a kind of mythic painting that I’ve only seen once. I think if I had to choose between the two I would choose the “Pink Lady,” though the “Blue Boy” is a nice one too.
Pissarro: Certainly an unusual way to begin: you, and Bob Rauschenberg—
Carrier: A terrific way to begin!
Rosenthal: In Kenwood there is also the very beautiful Rembrandt self-portrait—
Carrier: Oh the Rembrandt with the circles!
Rosenthal: It is the grandest of all Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Of course, I remember that, and also their beautiful Vermeer. There are lots of other beautiful paintings. If there was a pistol to my head and I had to choose either the Frick Rembrandt or the Kenwood Rembrandt, I think I would take the Kenwood Rembrandt. It is the absolute! The whole philosophy of painting is buried in it in some extraordinary way. It made a huge impact on me too, probably a little bit later. And it’s rather interesting because all the paintings at Kenwood House—all of them, you know the Vermeer, the van Dycks, the endless Reynolds—were bought over a period of about two and a half years, by the first Earl of Iveagh, who was one of the Guinnesses; they were 19th-century Irish Victorian nouveau aristocrats, who had acquired Kenwood House. All the art was bought from Agnews, the great firm of art dealers, and you know that is also a kind of beautiful sort of John Cagean anecdote, if you may put it like that, a sort of premonition, because I started my career in art, years later, as a librarian at Agnews. I came down from a provincial English University, Leicester where I got my degree, a reasonably good degree—not the greatest degree—in history. I was waiting to see if I could get a funded state studentship to do a Ph.D. I wanted a job selling gramophone records, as they were called in those days. I think they call them CDs now. Or they’re more mod-ish now. What do they call them now?
Darren Jones: Downloads.
Rosenthal: Downloads, exactly! But they were called gramophone records in those days. Vinyl, vinyl. People now collect vinyl. So a friend of mine who I had been in high school with was selling gramophone records of classical music. And he said, “come get a job here.” I went there to find a personnel manager. I call this my falling into the world of art, like Alice in Wonderland, down the rabbit hole. I had an hour to kill. So I said, “I’ll see you for lunch, we’ll have a beer or a sandwich.” I walked down Bond Street and into Sotheby’s just to kill time—I’d never been there in my life before—watched a sale, I carried on down the road, and I walked into Agnews. You may not believe me but I was an incredibly shy youth and probably quite uptight, you know what I mean? I don’t know what came over me, there was a nice-looking lady at the desk, who turned out to be a working class woman from Norwich. Her name was Lorna. I looked at her and I asked, “Is there by any chance a job here?” As it happened the most wonderful person called Evelyn Joll, a director of the company, who was also working on the Turner catalogue raisonné passed by at that moment. He said, “There is a job here. Stop by on Monday. Ten pounds a week. You’ll help re-order our library and our photo library.” So I sat there at a little desk, below a painting, I can remember it very clearly, by an artist called Harold Gilman—a kind of minor Bloomsbury painter, from the Sickert world. It’s now in the Tate Gallery actually. Occasionally I see it, it doesn’t hang very often. My first task was to cut up reproductions of paintings from magazines, sale catalogues, etc. Do you know Cuyp?
Gaby Collins-Fernandez: Cows, right?
Rosenthal: Cows, exactly. Where did you go to school?
Gaby Collins-Fernandez: I’m a painter. So I spend a lot of time in museums.
Rosenthal: Two cows facing the right; three cows facing left. A 17th-century Dutch cow painter with a lot of Claudian light in his works: a very good painter, highly prized in England, so that there are more great Cuyps in England than there are in Holland. They were exported in the 18th century. So I would cut out pictures: you know, two cows facing the left, three cows facing us, and I put them in these folders—that’s how I began to learn proper art history. I remember Julian Agnew saying: “Just learn the National Gallery!” So I did my best to learn the National Gallery. Who needs to go to college?
Carrier: And what do you remember seeing in the National Gallery? What made the first impression on you?
Rosenthal: I’d been to the National Gallery many times before, also with my mother. In early 1950s we would go to the National Gallery in the winter. We would wander around the Italian pictures, the German pictures, obviously Rubens—I love Rubens. So it’s not that I didn’t know the National Gallery and, for example, its great paintings by Piero. I organized my first art exhibition at the Leicester University where I co-directed the arts festival one year. In the City Museum I did an exhibition called Artists in Cornwall. Everything from Hepworth, Nicholson—
Carrier: Alfred Wallis?
Rosenthal: Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, and then of course the later ones: Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, all of them. There was a printed catalogue, a very elegant, small catalogue. We had a concert led by the great British conductor Sir Adrian Boult, famous for his Elgar, who I later discovered had been a friend of Alban Berg and I remember having this conversation with Boult about Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. We sat and had either lunch or dinner—probably lunch—and when we spoke about Wozzeck he said: “Yes, it’s a wonderful piece of music, pity about the opera’s horrible characters.” [Laughter.] It’s kind of an amazing thing to have said at the time!
Pissarro: You’ve just seen a production of Wozzeck now in New York, haven’t you?
Rosenthal: Conducted by the wonderful James Levine. I thought it was a very beautiful production. Music in general is a huge thing in my life. The other thing that we had at the festival was the yet unperformed Play by Samuel Beckett. In it there are three people in pots, two women and a man in the middle—it’s a kind of circular, palindromic kind of text that goes on for about an hour. It goes around twice, as far as I recall. I was the man in the middle of the performance—it was the unofficial world premiere of Play!
Pissarro: How old were you then?
Rosenthal: I would have been about 20.
Pissarro: And already clearly interested in both music and art.
Rosenthal: I saw Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier on the stage in Titus Andronicus at the theater in London. When I was about 11, I went by myself, and also saw John Gielgud as Prospero at the Drury Lane Theatre—both were productions by Peter Brook, which I discovered looking at the programs. I have them in my attic at home. The Tempest was before the world premiere of My Fair Lady at Drury Lane. Does that date me? I saw Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. I saw Richard Burton long before he met Liz Taylor, they were doing all the plays of Shakespeare when I was at school at the Old Vic Theatre. I went to them all. I would go to the library, read the plays, and then go and see them. I remember Burton especially as Henry Vand as Othello, and also Iago.
Pissarro: Can we return to your days at Agnews, one of the oldest dealership in the world? Is it still open?
Rosenthal: It closed down just about a year ago, I gather. Did you tell me that it’s opening up again? It’s opening up because an American—I believe Cliff Schorer—has bought the name. They’ve risen from the dead thanks to America. [Laughter.]
I can remember Agnews’s purchase of “Garden at Sainte–Adresse” (1867) by Monet, now at the Metropolitan Museum. It had come from an American collection in Philadelphia. I remember it coming into the gallery, and before it went back to America, I was able to sit in one of the back rooms looking at it, all by myself, for about four hours. It was thrilling.
Pissarro: Do you all know which painting he is referring to? It is perhaps one of the most celebrated paintings at the Met, a monument—I had no idea it was bought by Agnews.
Rosenthal: They were acting for the Metropolitan in those days.
Pissarro: You once told me about this extraordinary, rather funny anecdote—I think it was Sir Geoffrey Agnew who told you—no matter how hard you would try, you would never become an Agnew yourself.
Rosenthal: It was an exclusively family firm. I learned amazing things, even selling actual art—but there is no substitute for touching a work of art. Looking at the front, looking at the back. Putting a little spit on the surface to give it a gentle clean, just to see what might be underneath. Spit acts as a kind of quick varnish for about a minute, before it evaporates.
Pissarro: Do you know about this as a painter yourself? Have you ever seen anybody do this in front of an old painting? It’s absolutely true. You sometimes discover lost signatures in dark corners this way.
Rosenthal: I would go to the auctions, and I would also go to the library. I did research on paintings, I wrote brochures on paintings, and catalogues. We did this amazing Turner exhibition at Agnews in 1965—something impossible for an art dealer to mount these days. We were able to borrow—can you believe it, in Agnews—“The Slave Ship,” which is the greatest of all Turners: it came to Agnews! I was able to sit in front of it every morning for six weeks. I remember the last day there was a queue around the block to see the exhibition. There was “Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps,” which belonged to the Art Institute in Chicago. These and other great works were all in the shop on Bond Street. It was kind of extraordinary. Evelyn wrote all the entries for the oil paintings, and I did all the watercolors, including that for the legendary “Blue Rigi.” It was kind of fun. We did a van Dyck exhibition the following year, but we had also astonishing paintings, you know, those “Two Boy,” you know the great “Two Boys” that belongs to the Spencer (Lady Di’s) family at Althorp. Do you know that painting?
Pissarro: What’s the title?
Rosenthal: I can’t remember at this moment. But it’s two very foppish 17th-century men by van Dyck. [The painting is titled “Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart.”] I did much of the catalogue for that show as well, together with Julian Agnew. So van Dyck became big in my life. Later there was a great show at the Royal Academy. Another big artist in my own life is Murillo, if only because I actually discovered one. Somebody brought in some big old wreck of a painting—it came in off the street. At first we thought it might be a school picture but it turned out to be an authentic picture by Murillo.
In some way this resulted in one of the earliest exhibitions I organized for the Royal Academy, called Murillo. We had almost every great work by this painter in it, a contemporary of van Dyck. That’s how I met my wife Manuela [Mena Marques]; she was, as it were, thrown at me as the co-curator. And 10 years later we married.
Pissarro: That was a discovery for me because Murillo had always been this rather mannered painter for me—your show was a complete revelation.
Rosenthal: In the 19th century he was regarded as God. He was especially famous for his representations of the Immaculate Conception. Anyway I have two children, I’m glad to say, as a result of the Murillo exhibition. [Laughter.] They’re about to graduate from university. more or less simultaneously. One is doing her B.A. and the other is finishing off her M.A.
Pissarro: So they lived in London, despite having a Spanish mother living in Madrid?
Rosenthal: They grew up in Madrid but as students they have been in Brighton and in London. Brighton is a kind of suburb—basically it’s London by the sea. It’s kind of the equivalent of Pompeii, I would say, in relation to Rome. I often think about this: if Pompeii was so magnificent, can you imagine what Rome must have been like? It beggars the imagination to think about “The Villa of the Mysteries,” can you imagine the art that must have been in Rome? It defies all imagination. So much has been lost from the ancient world. Except for Pompeii! There must have been painters who were as staggering as Raphael, Leonardo, or whoever you care to mention.
Pissarro: I’m sure all this will come as a surprise to the readers of the Rail who know you as a specialist of living artists—
Rosenthal: Contemporary art came much later for me. Basically I was still living at home with my mother, going to see more contemporary exhibitions in Cork Street and around there—you know David Hockney, for example, the golden boy— and I remember the moment when I went to see the exhibition by Patrick Procktor. At that time it was unclear who was the greater artist. Slowly I began to absorb that world, a little bit at a time, with all its often gay sexual innuendo. It began to be important to me.
Pissarro: Which years were these?
Rosenthal: This was already when I was at Agnews. There was a very important exhibition around then at the Tate Gallery, which I can date very clearly because it was called Painting and Sculpture of a Decade 54 – 64, so it must have taken place in 1964. It was co-organized by Sir Alan Bowness—later to be Director of the Tate and a great supporter of mine, to whom I am very grateful. That show, for the very first time, revealed to me what I might call contemporary painting: British, European, and above all American, including Pollock, Rothko, and all the rest of the Ab-Ex’s. That was an absolutely key exhibition for me in terms of realizing what painting could now be all about. Suddenly, I got a little bored of being at Agnews, and I didn’t see a professional future there so I applied for a state studentship again to write a Ph.D. on the subject of German peasant emancipation in Eastern Prussia in the 18th century!
Pissarro: We have so much in common. I’m very interested in Prussia in the 18th century. That was my world—but in philosophy.
Rosenthal: The subject was recommended to me by a wonderful professor called Francis Carsten—he was a great historian, also a refugee from Nazi Germany. I remember there was another little extra thing that happened while I was at Agnews. I met an old refugee painter called Fred Uhlman. Uhlman came to London and met this grand aristocratic lady called Diana Croft during the Spanish Civil War. She was the daughter of a very conservative Anglo-Irish Aristocrat; he was a very small man; she was quite large and round. Together they opened their Hampstead house in London during the Second World War to people like Kokoschka and Schwitters and all these refugee artists who were in London or passing through. I remember Uhlman telling me that he came to London with 10 paintings by Paul Klee in his pocket, and he could not sell any of them for five pounds each. He was a collector—not great—of African art. He painted in a faux primitif manner. He was a great friend of Josef Herman, a Polish refugee painter living in Wales. During the war they had been locked up in internment camps I think on the Isle of Man; there is a whole history that needs reconstruction. Fred and Diana were very much involved with the Artists’ International Association (A.I.A.) which was a left-wing 1930s organization, a kind of small reflection of the world that was going on in New York at that time, you know, what’s it called?
Pissarro: The Partisan Review?
Rosenthal: No, more the world of those left wing artists in America like the young Rothko, Pollock, and many others who were part of the W.P.A.
Carrier: Well exactly, the Eighth Street people.
Rosenthal: There was a kind of world like that going on in London too, in a smaller way, separated from Bloomsbury, but still connected nonetheless. The A.I.A. had a gallery that still survived in London’s Chinatown and it had run out of steam so I was asked to clear it out. This was after Agnews, I had started my thesis. My job was to return all these paintings that were in the basement to different artists, so I began to meet some of these artists. And then the guy who had been Director of the Museum in Leicester when I did the show there became director of the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. I was in touch with him and he asked me to do an exhibition which was to be called Follies and Fantasies. I organized a big exhibition, with something like 2,000 items in the catalogue in total, if you can believe it. Edward James came to the exhibition. Do you know who I’m talking about?
Pissarro: A great, strange collector of Surrealist art in Britain.
Rosenthal: He was a collector, impresario, a friend of the greatest Surrealist artists like Dali, Magritte, and all the rest, and, after he went to Mexico, artists like Leonora Carrington. And here comes another exposing story: he asked me to go to Mexico with him to help him write his memoirs. Before the war he had a big house in London, either in Wigmore or Wimpole Street, and he had artists like Dali and Tchelitchew under more or less exclusive contracts. He had major works by Magritte, Dali, all the Surrealists—a huge collection of art. There were at the time three major collectors in England. Had the Second World War not occurred, the great Museum of Modern Art might not have been in America, but in London. There was Douglas Cooper, Roland Penrose—both very close to Picasso, and the third was Edward James. They were a kind of trio. For example, “The Red Studio” by Matisse, now at MoMA, was on sale in London at the end of the 1930s. And I think that it may have passed through one of those three collections. I am just talking about that level of collecting that was in London then! Among other things, the two world wars destroyed Britain as a collecting nation and the presence of international contemporary art in Britain. When the First World War began Britain was beginning to participate in the dialogue with artists like Bomberg, Wyndham, Vorticism, and all of that. If the First World War destroyed modernism in England, after the Second World War the contemporary was very marginalized in Britain—somehow it just didn’t happen after World War Two. Later on when I worked for the Institute of Contemporary Arts (I.C.A.) I became friendly with Roland Penrose and he told me that in 1938 the I.C.A. was set up to become a museum. He wanted it to rival the ambitions of Alfred H. Barr.
Rosenthal: Yes, and that never, ever happened unfortunately. How I got to work at the I.C.A., that was another strange and mysterious happening—
Pissarro: How did you eventually get to the Royal Academy?
Rosenthal: I never studied art, nor did I study art history, but somehow, as I said earlier, I fell into a rabbit hole and I found the wonderland of art, and then of contemporary art. I had this rather extraordinary experience at Agnews where I began to learn in some depth, at least, Western art in a serious way. And then slowly I began, partly through meeting certain people, young people—I mean picking people up quite literally. You all know exactly what I’m talking about. [Laughter.] I picked up this wonderful, wonderful person one night—we were never anything other than friends—but I met this incredible American guy called Karl Bowen living in London and studying at the Slade School of Art, an unbelievably beautiful guy. He turned out to also be an unbelievably rich person, seriously rich, and he decided he was going to go to Venice the next morning to witness the funeral of Stravinsky, who was going to be buried next to Diaghilev. We exchanged addresses, and I thought I’d never see him again. We became best friends. He literally looked like a Greek god. I went everywhere with him. He was sexually complicated. He wanted to be a painter but his wealth demotivated him. He was the friend of a New York artist, once his boyfriend, called John Button.
Pissarro: Oh yes, he’s a—
Rosenthal: Do you know John Button?
Collins-Fernandez: I’ve seen some of the work. I don’t recall where exactly.
Rosenthal: He was a gay New York hyper-realist artist, and for some reason Karl became like his boyfriend. But then he left and came to London. He set himself up and I remember he gave an incredible party for me, to which Edward James also came. He had not been seen in London for many years. He introduced me to Derek Jarman, for example, and that whole milieu—it was a lowlife and a highlife world—all combined. You know Karl and Derek were connected to the Sainsburys for example.
Carrier: Oh, the supermarket people?
Rosenthal: Yes. So thanks to Karl I suddenly found myself, a nice Jewish boy from a modest background, taken into this glamorous world. One day I went to this wonderful, crazy party in London organized by Andrew Logan, called the Alternative Miss World. And I found myself sitting next to a wonderful woman who became a great friend of mine, Lindy, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, who was on the board of the I.C.A. She was married to Sheridan Dufferin, whose grandfather had been Viceroy of India. At the time Britain had just entered the European community, and someone had given the I.C.A. 10,000 pounds a year to do a festival of art from the various communities. The first one, inevitably, was France. Earlier I had worked for a time with a woman called Vera Russell, the ex-wife of John Russell, later the famous art critic at the New York Times, for something called the Artists’ Market in London. And this was all thanks to Karl. Through him I met all sorts of different people, for instance, a wonderful painter called Robert Medley, who, through his lover Rupert Doone, had been connected to the world of Diaghilev, and had, while at high school, been the first boyfriend of W.H. Auden. They all went to the same school called Gresham’s: Auden, Benjamin Britten, and Medley. Robert was a fantastic man of incredible culture, incredibly well read. They were the cultural elite of London and I suddenly found myself part of it, almost by some kind of magic.
Pissarro: We’re all on the edge of our seats to figure out when you got to Burlington House. [The London building in which the Royal Academy is housed.]
Rosenthal: I am still talking about my I.C.A years, and how I got there. In total I spent two years at the I.C.A, which were vital to me. First, meeting Lindy Dufferin. Then, I remember going into Harry Fisher’s gallery which was directly opposite Christie’s to see an exhibition, it could have been Schiele drawings, where I met Jonathan Benthall, who was married to my friend Zamira Menuhin, the daughter of Yehudi Menuhin, who had worked with me at the Artists’ Market. She is still a close friend of mine, a lovely woman, and Jonathan’s a wonderful person, now a very learned anthropologist. Jonathan was then a curator at the I.C.A. where he had just organized a month dedicated to French contemporary culture, which they wanted to follow with a German month. I had just met Lindy Dufferin, and she told him she had met this too charming young man—which perhaps I was in those days. And Jonathan Benthall discovered I could speak German. That’s my second language—I speak German pretty fluently. So I got this job at the I.C.A. and was asked to do a German month. I said I would only do it if they gave me a small amount of money in order to take a tour of Germany to see what was going on. It was not long after the student eruptions of 1968, which were still having a bit of an echo. My tour started in Hamburg, and went on to Berlin, Munich, and Cologne. I met two people who were absolutely crucial to me on that tour. In Hamburg I found an avant-garde filmmaker called Heinz Emigholz, and slept on his floor. In Berlin I met my friend Christos Joachimides: everybody warned me against him because he was this kind of tricky but interesting character—a larger than life Greek guy. He was maybe 15 years older than me. We had a rendezvous, which he almost didn’t come to, he later told me, but we got on famously. It was he who introduced me to the world of Joseph Beuys—whom I finally met in Düsseldorf—and that then led to one of the most important shows I ever did.
Carrier: The show at the I.C.A.?
Rosenthal: Yes. Joseph Beuys. Christos, an independent curator and critic, had just done this show in Hannover called Art in the Political Struggle. There were lots of German artists in the show, one of whom was Beuys; Hans Haacke was another crucial one. Cologne was then very much one of the big centers of the art world. Cologne and Düsseldorf were where it was all happening. In Cologne, at the end of my tour, I visited the Michael Werner Gallery. It was in a small space on the first floor of a courtyard, not far from the opera house. When I went there, the show that he happened to have on was not Baselitz, but Kiefer: I remember seeing the wonderful iron books by Kiefer. This would have been in 1973. They cost something like 500 Deutschmarks, or maybe less. I should have bought one, but I didn’t have any money. There, in this gallery, I also discovered the world of Baselitz, of Polke, and Richter, and Lüpertz, and Immendorff, etc. A whole world was revealed to me. The axial artist of the gallery then was Baselitz, who was senior among the others. When I saw his work I was completely transfixed by it, but there was no way I could do both the world of Beuys and the world of Baselitz! I was transfixed by Beuys but the question was whether I should do a show like Joachimides’s Hannover show for London. I had to make a choice. In the end I went for the “political” option and I did this big show in London at the I.C.A. called Art into Society; Society into Art, which included a very beautiful catalogue. In Berlin, Christos and I organized a conference for all the artists, to which we added the German emigree artist living in London, Gustav Metzger. He’s the man who invented the concept of Auto-Destructive Art. He had been a student of Bomberg’s and later, when I did a Frank Auerbach exhibition at the Royal Academy, Gustav came to the opening and sat next to Auerbach. It took place on 9/11—at lunchtime in London, and the big Auerbach retrospective was opening that night. We had to decide whether to go ahead with it or not. We did go ahead with it in the end, but it was a strangely muted evening.
Everything runs its course—that’s what I find fascinating about life. Life is run by accidental relationships and constellations: my “meeting” with Murillo leading to my wife, meeting Gustav Metzger leading to Frank Auerbach’s exhibition much later.
Pissarro: So, you met Beuys in ’72, and if memory serves me well, this was the time when he was fired from the Düsseldorf Academy and Picasso died in ’73. It was a humongous thing, wasn’t it?
Rosenthal: A humongous thing, but only in terms of news or media. Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chips—
Pissarro: Yes, I know what you mean. In Britain they served fish and chips in newspapers: fries were literally served to you wrapped in an old newsprint page. So yesterday’s news is today’s fish and chips. But Beuys was the news of the time—and he never became “fish and chips” material, did he?
Rosenthal: Not in Britain, but in Germany Beuys remains newsworthy, even today. I remember when we were doing the show in London, he said: “I must have three blackboards to engage in permanent discussion with the visitors.”
Pissarro: So, Beuys was featured in your show? Wasn’t this his first show in London? This was to become very important, no?
Rosenthal: He had done a small performance at the Museum of Modern Art at Oxford with Nicholas Serota, more or less at the same time, maybe a month or two earlier.
Pissarro: In fact, Richard De Marco, the Edinburgh gallerist, was the first British person who showed Beuys.
Rosenthal: He definitely was, but he was in Scotland and his field was Edinburgh and nowhere else. He was doing fantastic things, but for me, it was in another world because I didn’t have the money to go to Edinburgh so I never saw what Beuys did up there.
Carrier: What was the response of the London audience to Beuys at that time in your show?
Rosenthal: He had just begun to become a kind of cult figure in the international world of art. At first I didn’t know where we were going to get these blackboards, but I suddenly remembered the Inner London Education Authority, which ran education in London. I rang somebody up and went to a place with maybe three or four hundred blackboards, and took a hundred of them to the I.C.A. [Laughter].
I stored them in an office space. That’s how this piece called “Directive Forces,” which now belongs to the New National Gallery of Art in Berlin, came about. Beuys was present every single day during the run of the show, which was exactly a month. He talked to whoever was there, sometimes it was two people, sometimes it was five people, and sometimes it was a hundred. When he finished a particular dialogue with people he would lift the blackboard high up and then throw it down on the floor, making a huge, huge crash. By the end of the show the entire floor of the I.C.A. was covered with blackboards. He had a kind of fixative, you know, and then he said, “Norman, I’m going to need more fixative. Go out and get some latex spray.” So I would go out and buy his fixative.
Pissarro: So Beuys was obviously already concerned about preserving his work for the future.
Rosenthal: Every morning he came in the first thing he did was walk around to make sure the fixative was on all the boards. People would walk on them during the day but the chalk marks and drawings could not be erased. I also remember when the show ended, on the very last day, we had this incredible incident with James Lee Byars who came to the exhibition, shouting in the street with a loudspeaker and being chased by the London police across the roof of the I.C.A., which of course as you know is close to Buckingham Palace. Incidentally, I have been remembering James Lee’s life this week because he features very strongly in Matthew Barney’s The River of Fundament, his big new opera—and I am to do this talk about the memory of James Lee shortly, being from Detroit and having died in Cairo. Do you know James Lee Byars?
Pissarro: I think we all do. He’s also represented by Michael Werner, by the way.
Rosenthal: Yes. Well, he came to the I.C.A. at the end of this show in 1974. He came with his crazy outfit and a top hat and also a megaphone. And Beuys inside and James Lee suddenly started yelling, “Hello Joe! Hello Joe! Hello Joe!” Until, the police showed up and started chasing him all the way around. [Laughter.] It was Charlie Chaplinesque.
Carrier: Did Beuys respond in any way to this raucous interruption?
Rosenthal: Of course, yeah, they were friends!
Pissarro: How did you meet James Lee Byars?
Rosenthal: He showed up at the I.C.A. He came to London to meet Joseph. He was mad, he was slightly mad, in the best way. He was the best kind of madman. And, of course, his big concept was this idea of “the perfect.” So he thought the Royal Academy was the perfect place. He said, “Norman, I want to show at the Royal Academy.” So for years and years I would get these letters, these phone calls, and this kind of thing. “Hello! It’s James Lee Byars, I want you to do a show for me Norman!”
Pissarro: Did you eventually do a show of his at the R.A.?
Rosenthal: No, of course not! [Laughter]. I mean, for Christ’s sake, one of my dictums is “exhibitions are the art of the possible,” paraphrasing the Otto von Bismarck, who said “politics is the art of the possible.” There was no way you could do exhibitions of James Lee Byars in the 1970s or ’80s at the Royal Academy. There was a beautifully crazy show at the Guggenheim at some point, if you recall. But you can’t imagine Philippe de Montebello at the Met doing a show of James Lee Byars, can you? When you lead an institution like this you can push it only so far.
Pissarro: We still don’t know how on earth you eventually got to the Royal Academy and ran that institution for three decades! That was the most important, and longest phase of your career. But anyway, can you tell us briefly, what was your second show at the I.C.A. after such a portentous beginning?
Rosenthal: The exhibition, which I organized with Christos, was called Eight artists, Eight attitudes, Eight Greeks. It was the first time that Kounellis and Samaras came to London and it was when I got to know Alexander Iolas. Everything is connected, again: that’s my experience. It coincided with the Fall of the Greek colonels—that military dictatorship—and the show became a huge newspaper scandal in Greece because none of the artists in the show lived in Greece. I remember being flown to Athens with Lindy Dufferin to explain to the Greek minister of culture why this should be so. Equally, the German I.C.A. show was a huge scandal in Germany on account of the work of one of the artists, Klaus Staeck, currently president of the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, who was a very close friend of Beuys. He published all Beuys’s posters and postcards, and also did his own.
It was a huge scandal, there’s a whole book about it. Franz Josef Strauss, who came from Munich and was a very prominent German politician at the time, featured in a kind of photo-montage poster, like Heartfield. It showed him looking like a butcher with two knives and the words: “castrate all illegitimate children.” The head of the Goethe Institute, who was, in fact, the grandson of an artist called Theodor Heine—a publisher who before the First World War had produced an anti-establishment magazine in Germany called Simplicissimus—attended the opening. He was incredibly pro-establishment. We were standing on the platform at the opening when he came in with two German M.P.s from the opposition party and I remember him whispering in my ear, “Herr Rosenthal, you will never receive money from Germany again.” [Laughter.] Later I received the German Order of Merit!
Carrier: And now getting to the Academy—you were thrown out of the I.C.A.?
Rosenthal: The I.C.A. was suddenly taken over by a group of people that I didn’t really care for. They did an exhibition with Mary Kelly, who is now quite well-known, but I didn’t really appreciate her work at the time. I called it the dirty nappy affair. So the I.C.A. was over: I was only given this job for two years and I was going to leave in any case anyway. After I left the I.C.A. I kept applying for jobs and being rejected. My only paid job was to write a handful of articles for the Spectator. I became great friends with Bryan Robertson, who had been director of the Whitechapel, but by that time he was arts editor of the Spectator. I was allowed to write a couple of articles. And, in fact, I did write a small article about the Royal Academy.
Pissarro: What was the article?
Rosenthal: It was small but it left a mark. The President of the Royal Academy, Hugh Casson wrote to me and told me that the article was interesting enough for him to send it to all academicians. I was, of course, very flattered. I was just about to think that there was no future for me in the art world when I applied for this job at the Royal Academy: to be in charge of the exhibitions! At that point in 1977 people thought the Royal Academy was about to go bankrupt. It was a totally unsubsidised institution in a British landscape where all cultural institutions depended totally on government subsidy. The moment was ripe for the revival of the Royal Academy, and this was helped because we had this wonderful president. He was incredibly good. Actually, he had been responsible for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Do you know what that was? The great moment of socialism and culture in England, in the immediate post-war era. Hugh was best friends with the Queen, but he was also a man completely without attitude, able to communicate with anybody and everybody. He hired me, along with a group of the best Royal Academicians who offered me the job. The Royal Academy belongs to the academicians, so I was a servant of the academicians, formally. It’s a club that does exhibitions, and has been since the 18th century.
Carrier: What kinds of shows were there at the R.A. up to that point?
Rosenthal: They sometimes did good shows, sometimes bad. Basically it was a very inward looking institution with these fantastic galleries.
Pissarro: So you applied to the job of exhibitions secretary because the number one position there would allow you—
Rosenthal: No it was basically an organizational role. And I got it! There were only two candidates. There was one woman; she was married to a painter-critic called James Faure Walker, and there was me. And Hugh Casson who was the president of the Royal Academy made the decision. That small article in the Spectator about the potential of the Royal Academy as an exhibition venue helped me a great deal. Hugh basically wanted to appoint a woman on principle but somehow I managed to overcome that.
Pissarro: To translate for the American public, members of the Royal Academy means what? How many people?
Rosenthal: There are about 70. It is like the National Academy here, a kind of elite club for artists. You have to remember, though, that the great center of exhibitions in London at the time was not, like today, the great museums, because none of the big museums then did shows on a regular basis. The big exhibition place was the Hayward Gallery, [a Kunsthalle type of institution] which belonged to the Arts Council. But then, for all sorts of political reasons, the Hayward Gallery, which is next to the Festival Hall, was married to the Royal Festival Hall, the big concert hall of London. Well, you know music. The operation is just as big, if not bigger, than an art gallery. So you can imagine that the Hayward Gallery suddenly became a poor relation of the concert hall.
Pissarro: The line “A servant of the Royal Academy” is not going to follow you in history.
Rosenthal: I think it should. I always saw myself in that way. What’s the Hegelian essay about the slave and the master?
Pissarro: “The Phenomenology of Spirit”—the dialectic of the slave and master.
Rosenthal: That’s exactly what I was. That lasted for about 20 years, then it became more difficult, but during that long time I was able to do these amazing shows. And I came to the Royal Academy with two shows in my pocket.
Pissarro: What was the show?
Rosenthal: I had gotten to know a German collector as a result of the Art into Society show. He was involved with the Kassel Documenta at the time. Part of it was to do this exhibition about drawings, but they hadn’t gotten it together, and this guy rang me up and said, “Norman, will you go to New York and spend a month running around the galleries, and pick up drawings for a show on contemporary drawings?” I said I would do it with two conditions: I would accept no responsibility for the things I chose and they could not turn down anything that I chose. And they went for it.
Carrier: What did you choose then?
Rosenthal: I went for all the obvious things, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, anyone who was around, Barry Le Va. I went to John Weber. I rounded up the drawings. I met a nice woman here in New York, whom I know very well, Nancy Rosen, who was helping me a little bit. I would go to art galleries and say “Please send those drawings.” I went to studios too.
Pissarro: So what were the first shows at the R.A. that really drew big public attention?
Rosenthal: The first big show was called Post-Impressionism. I curated it with John House and Maryanne Stevens. Their idea was to do a show of very contemporary academic painting—artists like Henri Matin were more revelatory to them than Gauguin. They didn’t want too much Cézanne or Monet in the exhibition. But I somehow managed to swing that and get great pictures for the show, including the famous “Annah, the Javanese,”—I think the greatest of all Gauguin’s paintings. The exhibition was a mega success and later went to the National Gallery in Washington, which was looking for a show at the last minute after the Russians invaded Afghanistan and America broke off cultural relations with the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship with American museums. It is also when I became great friends with the legendary John Carter-Brown, director of the National Gallery in Washington.
Pissarro: This is when I discovered Volpedo [Giuseppe da Pellizza da Volpedo] and his huge depiction of “The Fourth Estate.” Was that the kind of work the curators, House and Stevens, wanted to focus on?
Rosenthal: No, I was interested in such works, too. In fact, I got that monumental picture for the show.
Pissarro: Did you?
Rosenthal: Yes, I went for key paintings. I think “The Fourth Estate”had never been shown in an exhibition before. I placed it opposite “Annah, the Javanese.”
Pissarro: Yes, yes, an absolutely amazing painting from the Niarchos collection.
Rosenthal: It belonged to a Swiss collection then, and when I saw it for the first time, it was hanging on a door in a closet in their house. I went to the house, I got the painting. They sold it off the walls of the R.A. for very little. It went to the London National Gallery and we tried to convince them to buy it: they rejected it because they said it wasn’t “typical enough.” It was a million Swiss francs.
Anyway, it was facing the Volpedo painting, which I went to Milan with a colleague to secure for the show. I remember knocking on the door of the town hall because it was closed; we made our way in there, found the person in charge, and persuaded him to let this vast painting come to London.
Pissarro: So Norman, as the newly arrived exhibitions secretary at the R.A.—a brand new, very young guy at the Royal Academy, a dormant institution—you hired these two people, John House and MaryAnne Stevens as curators of the Post-Impressionism show? Is this right?
Rosenthal: No, no. They were already doing their research on this show called Post-Impressionism, where all the emphasis was going to be on Henri Martin and his likes. Do you understand? And I decided to make the show richer, more exciting by bringing masterpieces into the mix—whether by Gauguin or Volpedo or Cézanne, you know.
Carrier: What was the result?
Rosenthal: A great success which, in some ways, even influenced the arrangement of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which had not yet opened. We certainly had very productive talks with them about content and what then was called “The New Art History.” Then came the second show that I came proudly to the Royal Academy with in my pocket. At the committee meeting I said: “Here’s my Rubens show.” While in Kassel I had made friends with the director of the museum there, one of the least known Old Master collections of Europe, full of amazing paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, and many others. To get this exhibition to come to London I remember thinking I was going to need some serious connections at the very top. I called the British ambassador in Bonn, and he was a rather nice man. And we drove from Bonn to Kassel, which is quite a long way. I remember arriving to sign the treaty so we could get it to this museum to move it to London.
Pissarro: Wilhelmshöhe Castle Museum.
Rosenthal: Yes. My argument was that it was the least known museum in Germany. Nobody goes there, it’s always completely empty. I remember arriving with the British ambassador just before we had driven up the hill through the park. They had put up the flag—the Union Jack. Then he got back and raised the British flag, the Union Jack, so that when we arrived at Wilhelmshöhe Castle Museum, it was very funny. We had a nice meeting, the people agreed to the exhibition and we signed the papers. And then six months went by and the exhibition was exactly a year away, or maybe less, and suddenly there was an article in a German newspaper signed by German restorers claiming that the show was a scandal, that these incredibly important, precious paintings should never be allowed to go to London. The show collapsed there and then. I didn’t know what to do. We had a counsel of war with Hugh Casson and Frederick Gore, chairman of the exhibitions committee, and Roger de Grey, the treasurer. They all said “Norman, go to New York. Go to see Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend and the rest, and organize a show of contemporary art.” I ran up the stairs, called my friend Christos, and said, “This is the great opportunity to do the show about Baselitz, Richter, and Polke in a wider context.”
Pissarro: Obviously you had an amazing ground before going. So you’re talking about A New Spirit in Painting? This is how it started?
Rosenthal: Yes. People often say: “Oh, you’re the guy who did the Sensation show!” To me, the most important show I ever did, and ever will do, is A New Spirit in Painting. For one, it is the only moment where I can honestly say I think it did change the agenda in the Anglo-Saxon world—just through that show in London. And, it opened the back door for a lot of other people, even if they weren’t in it.
I knew that I could not carry that show by myself. Christos and I, as curators, could not do this show single-handedly. We would have been murdered, we would have been slaughtered by the members of the Royal Academy. They would not allow it. I remember going, in the way one does when one curates a show, to consult friends. One of whom was Nick Serota who was the director of the Whitechapel at the time. Christos and I were on our way to have dinner with Nick and I said, “Christos, we have to ask Nick to be part of this operation. We cannot do this by ourselves and get away with it.”
Pissarro: Nick Serota is now legendary director of the Tate Gallery.
Rosenthal: He had been director of MoMA in Oxford, where he showed Beuys more or less parallel to our show at the I.C.A. We were of the same generation. Anyway I knew that unless I had ballast, there was no way I could do the show so I asked Nick to be a co-curator. He agreed and we travelled together and went to studios together. We did everything together from then on. We went to Venice together.
It was he who knew Julian Schnabel before we did. Where honor is due, the show owed him a lot. We stood shoulder to shoulder. And I’ll tell you the extent to which my anticipation of the danger was justified. We had included established British artists like David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, and Ron Kitaj, who was American, but lived in England, in the show as well as many American painters: de Kooning, Guston, Marden, Warhol, etc. And Balthus. Maybe three days before the opening, around midnight, we were hanging the show and suddenly, there was this huge knock at the door. Bang, bang, bang. There was David Hockney and Ron Kitaj, who became my greatest friends, who had come to take their paintings off the walls, because they had been persuaded by certain people that the show was an incredible corruption—the European artists, mostly German, but also Italian, were all fakes, and not worthy of inclusion. Then, there was this woman whom I mentioned before, Vera Russell; she had wound up David Hockney and others to destroy the show even before it opened. A meeting was hurriedly called with all the members of the Royal Academy the following day, and most of them showed up to vote on whether the show should even be allowed to open. There was a vote taken. All the conservative members of the Royal Academy allowed it to go forward, the so-called progressives felt threatened by the show, and all the “new” or unknown artists who were coming up didn’t want it to even be allowed to open.
Pissarro: The progressives didn’t want it?
Rosenthal: Well, that’s how it was! The conservatives were relaxed about it for the most part—there was no threat to their reputation. Fortunately somebody was with us at midnight in the Royal Academy: that was David Sylvester, the legendary critic and friend of Francis Bacon. David Sylvester himself persuaded David Hockney not to take the paintings away because if those paintings had been taken away, three days before the opening, it would have been an incredible London art scandal. The whole exhibition would have fallen into the Thames, and it would have been the end. However, the exhibition was not a critical success in the British press, indeed exactly the opposite. The critical success came a year later when we did Zeitgeist, the big show in Berlin. The art critic of the Sunday Times wrote: “the intentions were laudable, the results lamentable.” But then she loved the show in Berlin a year later which was, after all, a Baroque version of the same exhibition!
Pissarro: I remember I was a post-grad student in London at the Courtauld and it was an enormous scandal. Everybody was speaking about it: nobody could remain indifferent, pro or against it.
Carrier: And the scandal concerned the fact—
Pissarro: If I try to recreate the perspective of a graduate student in art history at the time, the show was essentially terminating a 15 year-tradition dominated by a generation of New York-centric Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Post-minimalism. Suddenly, the show revealed that painting was not dead—and it didn’t have to be flat and it didn’t come from New York either. This ruined all the nice and smooth modernist narratives that were going on.
Rosenthal: One thing it was turning down, much more than anything else, was the idea that the axis of New York and London was the only thing in art. The most significant thing about New Spirit, from my perspective, is that it was the beginning of an opening up. First Europe, then finally the whole world. Nobody at that point in history, even in Britain, thought that there was any art of significance being made in Germany, even less so in Paris, or in Italy. It just didn’t exist because nobody cared and nobody was really looking.
Pissarro: Through this show, not only were you bringing this New York-London axis into serious question, but suddenly, you also enabled the emergence of artists who were almost uncategorizable: new expressionists—they were called at the time—the new wild beasts (die neue Wilden). People just didn’t know what to make of them. They were people like Baselitz and Immendorff, whom nobody had heard of. It was a slap in the face for so many people.
Carrier: Yes, but I think certainly in New York the fall-out had a political reaction as well from Rosalind Krauss and the October people. They said it was a return to the past, a return to German expressionism, to fascism even.
Pissarro: If you want to read a violent response to his show, you read Benjamin Buchloch at the time: it’s almost funny now.
Rosenthal: That neo-dogmatic!
Pissarro: Neo-Adornian critics saw the show that Norman and his friends put together as the return of everything that was atrocious about Germany, as amazingly naive and monolithically simple as this may sound today. It was as if Baselitz, not to mention Kiefer, was re-enacting the spirit of the Nuremberg rallies.
Rosenthal: Basically reducing art to a kind of state of nothing. To me, art has many mansions. I didn’t love Sol LeWitt any less because of this show. When you do an exhibition, it is like reading a book: when you’re reading Dostoyevsky, you’re not reading Thomas Mann.
Pissarro: I am in complete agreement, Norman.
Rosenthal: It is as though you are reading a work of fiction—an exhibition is a fiction, even the work of the artist is inevitably a fiction. When you’re looking at a considered grouping of works of art under one roof, then you hopefully enter the fiction and for that moment you believe. That is what makes it interesting, and perhaps you get a little bit cathartically moved by it. Am I wrong or right?
Carrier: I think you’re right, but I think the people who believed in the Zeitgeist in the Hegelian world were shocked because it was all, to their pre-fabricated views, seemingly going back. But you really broke the ice, in terms of all the notions of the end of Zeitgeist theories and such. Isn’t this moment when we get towards the present art world?
Pissarro: Totally. Let’s begin perhaps with a point you make which is close to our hearts: You say that the art world has many mansions.
Rosenthal: Yes. Art is like a library of infinite possibilities. Except it’s slightly different for me: all art that we find interesting is both objectively and philosophically modern. Who knows whether in 100 years time Titian will be appreciated? If Poussin is good today, then he’s modern. Who knows whether Cézanne will be interesting in 200 years? Who can tell? It seems to me that if they’re good today, that’s all that matters.
Carrier: Your whole background prepared you for this moment, because you looked at a lot of different art from different periods—almost all your life. Everything was intuitive for you. You weren’t under the spell of dogmatic theories—some demonic vision of the culture of industry, or the terrible culture of the “spectacle.”
Rosenthal: In the old days, in the Courtauld Galleries, when they were on the top floor of the Warburg Institute, you could sit in these deep sofas and look forever at a row of beautiful Cézannes. For the exhibition Post-Impressionism I wanted to borrow the Seurat painting “La Poudreuse” from the Courtauld. Dennis Farr, the director at the time, said: “I will lend you the painting, but it can only travel to the Royal Academy with you, Norman, in the back of a taxi.” [Laughter.] This just shows you how times have changed. So there was Norman with a black London taxi cab and the director came down with the Seurat, covered it with a blanket, and we placed it in the back of the cab. I sat in the back of the taxi just like this, riding from Woburn Square, a 15-minute taxi ride, myself and the painting, nobody with me! [Laughter.] The world changes. It’s a great story though, isn’t it?
Rosenthal: Every time I see that painting I will remember that. The handlers who have steadier hands than me, I made sure that they would be waiting for me and you know Dennis Farr probably went upstairs and telephoned them and said Norman’s now on his way.
Pissarro: I must say, it would have been difficult to believe that story, if you told us that it was in the ’50s, but in 1979! So, your career was launched as a major exhibition curator, and museum “director.”
Rosenthal: I was never director; I always thought of myself as a servant of the Royal Academicians, and, above all, of art. We did exhibitions that covered aspects of the great Western tradition, but also world art, from Mexico to Turkey, from China, Japan, etc., but also different contemporary shows. The first show I brought to the R.A. was Robert Motherwell, whose works had been traveling around Europe, even before Post-Impressionism. We had Francesco Clemente at the R.A., the watercolor show from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We did an endless program.
Pissarro: How many exhibitions?
Rosenthal: No idea, but let’s assume of the significant ones, about five a year or so.
Pissarro: For 31 years, is that right? That’s about 175 shows, roughly.
Rosenthal: At least ones with some kind of ambition. Not every one was a huge success, but most were. I have a story about Philippe (de Montebello) that maybe I should tell you.
Pissarro: Well, we saw both of you yesterday.
Rosenthal: This concerns the unbelievable Mantegna exhibition on which the Met and the R.A. collaborated. There is this very special painting by Mantegna in Copenhagen, called “Christ as the Suffering Redeemer.” They kept refusing it for the exhibition so I decided I would go to Copenhagen. I bought the plane ticket and left the following day with one of my co-curators, David Ekserdjian, and met the people there. In the end I persuaded them to lend the painting—but the painting was promised “just to London.” Philippe was very upset the painting was not coming to New York but I knew that if all went well from a conservation point of view then in the end the painting would, indeed, go to New York. And so it did in the end. But for Philippe took some three years to forgive me for what he thought was un-collegial behavior.
Pissarro: Oh my God! So you’re saying yes to London but no to New York, behind Philippe’s back? We should have brought this up yesterday. [Laughs.]
Rosenthal: He thought I was going behind his back. But, on the other hand, we did have as a central piece for the R.A. version of the exhibition, the great cycle of paintings “The Triumphs of Caesar.” But the Met didn’t want them—they thought their condition was too bad. It’s true that these works are wrecks, but so is Leonardo’s “Last Supper”—more so. Arguably the “The Triumphs of Caesar” that live in Hampton Court in some hidden gallery that almost nobody visits are the greatest works of art in Great Britain, along with the Raphael cartoons at the V&A. We showed “The Triumphs of Caesar” in the proper order and did a beautiful installation with very careful lighting, but Philippe still didn’t want them. [Laughter.]
Pissarro: If I recall, yesterday you embraced each other like comrades.
Rosenthal: Yes of course, because we love and above all respect each other! But it was a difficult professional moment.
Pissarro: It was obviously the right move.
Carrier: All of this raises the question: Have you written this whole story out? I hope you’re going to. It’s a great story.
Rosenthal: I think they’ve got it in the Royal Academy archives. There’s this nice guy who has interviewed me a couple of times. Probably not in quite such a lively way, as today. I don’t mind doing interviews but I don’t really want to do a memoir. Even now I prefer to think of the present and the future.
Pissarro: Let me ask you something for the readership: If you had to choose one show for a close focus?
Rosenthal: There are too many to choose from. The current one is always the best. While it was wonderful to do the Mantegna show, it was also just as wonderful to do the show Africa: Art of a Continent. The Botticelli drawings were one of the most thrilling things of all—just think of the complete Dante drawings together! And that happened thanks to the Met! Most of the drawings were in West Berlin, some were in East Berlin in the Cold War days, some were in the Vatican and all the Berlin ones had originally been in a British collection in the 19th century. Even in the days of the East/West split, I was trying to do this show. I took a number of initiatives but it turned out to be politically impossible. Finally, after the reunification, the show was to take place in Berlin, Rome, and at the Metropolitan.
Pissarro: Pre or post German reunification?
Rosenthal: It was post-’89, and it’s the only time I have postponed an exhibition project to accommodate another. A wonderful man from Venice, who was the director of the Cini Foundation, Alessandro Bettagno, called me and asked “Can I come and see you?” “Where are you?” I asked. “Round the corner in Picadilly.” So we met and he asked: “Would you like to have this exhibition at the Royal Academy because the Met cannot proceed for complicated legal reasons.” The Met was going through some dispute with the Vatican. We had planned to do a Kirchner exhibition for the available slot: we moved the Kirchner without hesitation.
Jones: So it was going to be in 1992?
Rosenthal: It was one of the most beautiful things. The story proves that sometimes spontaneity is all in certain circumstances.
Carrier: But isn’t that the story of your whole career!
Pissarro: You are as busy as ever, if not busier than ever. What do you see for the art world, now here in 2014?
Rosenthal: It’s impossible to know—I’m not a philosopher [looking at Carrier]. People say to me, “Oh Norman, can you tell me what’s going to happen next?” But it’s difficult enough to know what’s going on now! Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the future. Who knows where we’re going to be in a year. Who would have guessed that the Twin Towers were going to collapse in the way they did? There is no moral imperative to be involved with art, but it is one very good way of coping with the existential craziness. Art in all its many forms is a very good way of living life, which is why I think more people than ever before are choosing to live with something that can vaguely be called art, however precisely or imprecisely. It’s funny, in the profound sense that it’s very weird.
Pissarro: Kierkegaard—credo quia absurdum (I believe it because it is just absurd.)
Rosenthal: Well alright. I believe!
Collins-Fernandez: I have a quick observation, if you don’t mind: it’s curious to me that we’re talking about art and existence in extremely abstract terms.
Rosenthal: I’m going say something incredibly incorrect: art is something—I don’t know precisely what it is, but I recognize it when I see it! It will give me pleasure, pleasure in the widest sense of the word. It can make me cry, but still, even if it makes me cry, it will send a shiver down my spine—it has to give me that. Whether it be Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, which I heard conducted so beautifully by James Levine at the Met, or Wagner, or Mozart, or Monteverdi, or last night, a beautiful piece by Christian Wolff, a friend of John Cage, whose music I heard last night in Brooklyn, whom I was thrilled to meet. Wolff said that in the old days, the people who supported serious contemporary music were other artists. Last night I took three younger artists to the concert with me. One of them was Ryan Sullivan, who you probably know. He is a very good painter. It was a three-hour long concert, including a work for string trio—a double bass, viola, and violin by a young Iranian composer, and a transparent tank of water which became a percussion instrument to make a beautiful sound. I was happy to hear the piece but thought that maybe my friends would want to leave before the second half, but they didn’t. That made me very satisfied.
Pissarro: Cage was very significant also for the world of art.
Rosenthal: Cage was a mythic person who had a special following. But nowadays if you can get 50 or 75 people in a room for serious contemporary music it is an achievement. It has become a minority subculture. Last night they performed this very difficult to play piece of music by Gyorgy Ligeti who died in 2006. There’s now a big art world and then there’s this other subculture, which is a genuine subculture, much like the old days in fact. I remember these days, when I was young, there were only two avant-garde galleries in London. If you weren’t at the opening, your absence would be noted, because there were only 50 or 60 people likely to go.
Pissarro: Norman, which were these two galleries: Waddington?
Rosenthal: No, no, Waddington wasn’t one of them. The only two genuine avant-garde galleries in London supporting the new art were the Lisson Gallery and the Nigel Greenwood Gallery.
Pissarro: You don’t count d’Offay?
Rosenthal: No, d’Offay came later. Until The New Spirit in Painting he just showed British art of the early 20th century. He was a small gallery with Lucien Pissarro, Bomberg, Wyndham Lewis, and Bloomsbury artists like Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant—that was his world.
Pissarro: But I remember the first show of paintings by Rainer Fetting. Who was showing Rainer Fetting?
Rosenthal: D’Offay took up Rainer Fetting straight after New Spirit. Both he and Prince Charles, who came to New Spirit, liked Fetting best of all out of that exhibition, not Baselitz or Kiefer or, for that matter, Richter or Polke. Fetting’s best paintings were of young men in the shower! Yes, he was a bit gay, and all this kind of stuff. Rainer Fetting was a good friend of mine. The center of that show was not Fetting, for all his natural talents as a painter. It was Georg Baselitz. It was for him that I did that show, in fact. The central room at the R.A. was hung with the work of three artists: Baselitz, de Kooning, and Balthus and an adjacent room, the so-called Central Hall, housed just four late paintings of Picasso: I like to think this was moment that started the reevaluation of late Picasso. Even Christian Gelhaar, then the director of the Basel Kunstmuseum, who a year or so later did the first exhibition of late Picasso, said as much in the catalogue of his exhibition. Believe it or not, I had to twist the hands of Christos and Nicholas to allow Picasso to be part of the exhibition. Don’t forget, he had died in 1973, seven years prior. To get them to agree to include late works by Picasso in The New Spirit in Painting was hard work. [Laughter.]
Pissarro: So, in 1981, less than 10 years after Picasso’s death, nobody had any idea what he had been up to for the past two decades of his life? What was the response to these four works?
Rosenthal: It was rather that the consensus was that had Picasso died 30 years earlier it would have been better for his reputation, but in the context of the New Painting, late Picasso suddenly started to look relevant. I remember someone at Wildenstein, shortly after this, saying to me, as if I began to create a market for these things over night, “We actually have one of his [Picasso’s] late works: would you like to buy one, Norman? It’s only $75,000, or something.” Of course I didn’t buy; I couldn’t have afforded it anyway. But we did borrow from them.
Collins-Fernandez: So, in The New Spirit of Painting, the paintings you decided to show all tended to move toward figuration and narrative.
Rosenthal: Yes, but we also included Brice Marden, for example.
Collins-Fernandez: I guess my question is gently leaning toward politics in general: I’m interested in your relationship to art and pleasure, on the one hand, and your experience with the art politics of that time.
Rosenthal: I am interested in what you are saying here. Even in the case of Brice Marden, who only does pure abstract painting, I’m interested in context as well. But it’s to square the formalist and the idea of content—that’s the trick. The context makes the meaning and implies the content. In America art had veered far too much toward the formalistic side, at least up to the 1970s.
Pissarro: That’s something that was true say up to the end of the Cold War. I think what she is thinking about is leading us to the situation today. [To Collins-Fernandez:] I think your question is really interesting because you are returning to the question of pleasure in art. Do you remember that great text by Barthes? The Pleasure of The Text.
Collins-Fernandez: I’m really interested, for instance, in the fact that you, Sir Norman, seem to be a polyglot of art—and you seem to be able to enjoy all of it, the historical and the new. So to be able to take, if not the same, then at least similar and visceral pleasure, both, in works of art that cover a vast spectrum and a wide gamut of contents, is interesting to me, to think how difficult it must be to confront all of this.
Rosenthal: Content is fantastically important but above all it’s about the level of discussion. This is very difficult to define as such. There is also consensus, which is equally important. I love working with someone else on group shows, with Christos, but more recently Alex Gartenfeld with whom I did an exhibition in Rome and Paris called Empire State about contemporary art in New York today. Back then Christos was the older one; now, I’m the older one and Alex is the young guy, there are 40 years between us. But we never disagree. We have a very good dialogue, we are able to laugh—about art’s beauty, about the folly of it all. And also, we are very serious about it. In the end it is about something very weird that is called the
level of discussion. You can’t put it into words. In the end art is a language, a huge dictionary of signals. Every artist has to appear to go somewhere that has not been visited before. My job is to try to recognize that new land, however small or large, to the best of my ability. But the spectrum is wide; the more open you are in your mind the better. An artist can naturally be as narrow and focused as they want. But if you’re an observer you need to be as open as possible.
Pissarro: Can I read a brief quote you just made me think about, as you were talking about that idea of collaboration which is so important to both of us—Carrier and I—with Darren here, as well. Listen to this quote: “How much, and how correctly, would we think, if we did not think in community with others to whom we communicate our thoughts and who communicate theirs to us?”—Immanuel Kant.
Rosenthal: On the one hand, I do things to please myself, but on the other, I hope that others might find what I put together interesting. It can be a tiny group of people, it can be a large group of people. Obviously at the R.A., I had an amazing platform in London. I make the shows for myself, somehow. It gives me unbelievable pleasure. Hanging a show is exhilarating. It is like sex: you forget who you are while doing it.
I’ll tell you a great story about Charles Saatchi. When we did Sensation I left him alone hanging the show for a few days. I was in Venice for a committee meeting for the Palazzo Grassi. It was the weekend Lady Di’s funeral took place. You would have thought that Charles, that super-media man, would be glued to his television, watching the spectacle. Well, do you know what he was doing? It was a Saturday and he ordered some people to show up at the Royal Academy—people without myself being there—and carried on with the hang of the exhibition. Now that speaks volumes! Doesn’t that speak volumes for a man who is so easily demonized? He was so crazy and thrilled with the idea of hanging this show that it was more important than anything for him to place a Chapman sculpture exactly to his liking, or to move a painting by Jenny Saville an inch or two up or down. He would take endless time. On the other hand I am rather quick and decisive about hanging.
Pissarro: Absolutely, I remember you hanging the Monet in the ’90s exhibition.
Rosenthal: You remember that fake in the show?
Pissarro: I remember that, yes!
Rosenthal: It just wouldn’t find its place, but as it had to be hung somehow, I put it on a return wall without a light so it couldn’t be seen properly. Then another expert came by and told us that it was one of the paintings done in Monet’s garden by one of those many American ladies who would come and imitate him.
Pissarro: I know almost all of our readers will know you for the Sensation show that came to Brooklyn in 1999. How do you feel about that show in retrospect?
Rosenthal: I am very bad with these dates, but it was the high moment of Y.B.A.-dom.
Pissarro: But that’s not how it was seen here. It was seen as—
Rosenthal: Then there was a Brooklyn obsession with the works of Chris Ofili that we were showing. In London we had this great problem with the Myra Hindley [the convicted “Moors” murderer whose portrait by the Young British Artist Marcus Harvey was judged scandalous; the painting was vandalized during the exhibition]. It meant a lot in England, but to my father-in-law who was Spanish, it was different. He saw the painting and thought it was a nice portrait of Lady Di!
Pissarro: It is interesting that the show brought up totally different scandals for each venue.
Rosenthal: There was no scandal at all in Berlin. The mega-scandal at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was caused by Mayor Giuliani because his attention was drawn to Chris Ofili’s paintings of an African Madonna with balls of elephant at her feet. He was making political capital.