Laura Hoptman

Installation view of Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017. Photo © Kai Althoff.

For some artists, a solo, survey, or retrospective exhibition at a major museum is cause for celebration. For others it’s torturous: a psychically painful exposure to a potentially judgmental, indifferent, or even hostile public. Or, maybe worse, a misrepresentation by the very institution that claims to honor them. Many artists who made their reputations through displays at commercial galleries shy away from exhibiting in museums—a phenomenon familiar enough that the art critic Martin Herbert titled his recent book after a phrase uttered by the notoriously exhibition-shy Trisha Donnelly: Tell Them I Said No.

When I returned to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010 as a curator in the department of painting and sculpture, I had four monographic projects on my wish list: retrospective surveys of the work of Isa Genzken and David Hammons, and solo exhibitions with Trisha Donnelly and Kai Althoff. I had worked with all of them before. Hammons I have known since 1988, when I was an assistant curator at the Bronx Museum. I asked him—actually, I remember haranguing him—about doing a show there. He said no, but as a ritual and matter of protocol, whenever I start a new curatorial job, on the first day I ask him to do a solo show.

This I did when I started my first job at MoMA in the drawing department in 1995. Hammons came up with a brilliant idea: an empty gallery with only the artist’s handprints, to create the effect of him banging on the walls to get out. Today MoMA would kill to do that show, but 1995-MoMA refused. In 2002 I asked Hammons to be in the 2004 Carnegie International. He said no but suggested I visit his friend, the artist Senga Nengudi. I included her work in the Carnegie, and this helped bring broader attention to this pivotal and brilliant artist. When I became a senior curator at the New Museum, I offered Hammons the entire museum as my first exhibition. He said no to that almost before I finished my sentence.

Then, on my return to MoMA, I offered him an exhibition that could take any form he wanted: any time, any space, anything. He’s given me every different answer: no, maybe, yes, absolutely not, yes but only in Japan, no again, and then silence, because I am still asking him. In 2012 he did create an installation on the second floor of MoMA that featured his work from our collection The Holy Bible: Old Testament (2002). It was installed on an altar in a low-lit gallery painted brown. Three disinfectant dispensers were placed around the room like Roman fountains. It was a terrifically strange installation that went virtually unnoticed by the art world.

I understand, to an extent, why Hammons might not want a retrospective. He doesn’t want any institution stamping their interpretation on his work, or more importantly, presenting it in their institutional context. Museums have respected him on this so far, but it hasn’t stopped galleries and private collections from displaying his works. As a result he has had at least two “retrospectives” in the last two years: one in Athens at the private museum of a collector, and the other at an Upper East Side gallery that holds some of his works in its inventory. For his part Hammons thinks galleries are more acceptable because the commercial context is more transparent, as some of his recent works have indicated.

I had better luck with Genzken and Donnelly. The former graciously accepted our invitation to present her first US retrospective at MoMA. It opened in 2012. She has been the subject of many retrospectives over the past fifteen years and has taken an active role in all of them, creating of them a kind of assemblage of assemblages. At MoMA, though, she gave the curatorial team carte blanche. Knowing that we were curating for an American audience who had probably never heard of her, we chose to exhibit her work in a rigorously chronological manner. This allowed us to tell the story of the development of this remarkable artist.

Donnelly I have worked with several times. She had been asked twice by colleagues to present her work at MoMA and/or MoMA PS1. She declined those offers, but agreed to do an “Artist’s Choice” exhibition, for which she selected more than one hundred works from our collection, installing them in three galleries in different parts of the museum. It opened in 2013 and was an otherworldly, magnificent show that gave new significance to rarely seen pieces: photographs of birds by Eliot Porter, diagrams of computer chips, a wheelchair, a huge Gino De Dominicis painting of a yellow head. The show imbued each object with a kind of electric jolt, and was paradoxically the clearest statement about Donnelly’s art to date, perhaps even clearer than if she had shown her own work.

Then there is Kai Althoff. I offered him a midcareer retrospective at MoMA almost four years ago. He politely declined, but then reconsidered and agreed. In our early meetings he suggested that he wanted for the first time to exhibit his paintings and drawings on their own, in a hyper-conventional chronological hang. He thought that MoMA was the perfect venue for this, and that I was the right curator for it. I eagerly agreed. Althoff has created an enormously diverse body of work over the last twenty-five years that includes paintings, drawings, collages, prints, photographs, sculptures, musical compositions, performances, sounds, and even scents. And just as he works in many mediums, he is adept in many stylistic languages, and adopts those appropriate to the narrative tableaux in which they appear. These works are then presented in titled, bespoke environments that offer contexts for individual works, but also function themselves as multilayered artworks.

The display format is among Althoff’s most powerful mediums, and it allows him to create narratives, and narratives-within-narratives, as intricate as any novel. But unlike most novels, Althoff’s stories are for the most part quite hermetic—floating allegories of belief systems and moral codes, fetishes and proclivities. Isolating his work by medium would have forced viewers to consider these peculiar narratives as formal compositions, first and foremost. It would have also thrilled the fans of his paintings and drawings, some of whom are unaware of their original role as objects within specific environments.

Excised from their context, though, it is nearly impossible to divine the hyper-specific narratives depicted in the paintings. Althoff often plays on this hermeticism or coded-ness. A decade ago, for example, he sold two “abstract” paintings that included prominently an obscure symbol of the neo-Nazi group Viking Youth—which some small sliver of the population might recognize, but likely not the purchasers. Other works feature exquisitely drawn figures in curious poses or situations that can’t be quite grasped without Althoff’s explanation of the violent, transgressive things they have just done or are about to do: murder, cannibalism, rape, torture, kidnapping, incest, self-harm.

Althoff was forthcoming about these narratives during the two years we prepared for the show. Like Scheherazade he would patiently unspool for hours the elaborate, multi-character fantasies that inspired each body of work. But by the end of this marathon, and maybe because of it, his idea for the exhibition changed. He rejected the plan for a curated exhibition of his best-known work organized in the manner of a classic retrospective, and decided instead to do what in a sense he had been doing for his entire career. That is, he would create an environment out of works from all periods that described a personal narrative: his own artistic life.

To do this in the most direct way possible, Althoff demanded that there be no interpretive screens or institutional intermediaries between his work and the audience. He asked that there be no explanatory signage outside or within the exhibition, and no curatorial explanation on the website, in a brochure, or in a catalogue. The sole means to navigate the exhibition was a checklist of works stipulating their dimensions, materials, dates, and owners.

Installation view of Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017. Photo © Kai Althoff.

It quickly became clear how radical Althoff’s idea was. He aimed to seize all powers of selection and interpretation from the museum and anyone who represented it. He would choose which works to show, and how to show them, entirely without curatorial input. Moreover, he wanted all information, visual and verbal, to be from the artist himself. This meant that he would write the press release and any other announcements, he would design the advertisements, he would document the show and disseminate images for press and study. He would choose what was in the catalogue, and design it himself.

Everything about this plan flew in the face of conventional museum exhibitions, which are educative. The purpose of a solo presentation is usually to clarify an artist’s work through scholarly explanation and by placing it in the context of the history of art. Althoff’s plan also turned the curator into an organizer and intermediary—and, most of all, an advocate for the artist’s vision over and above that of the museum as an institution. One of the challenges for artists exhibiting at MoMA is working with, or against, the authoritative voice of the museum and the power of its identity. Some artists embrace it, some play with it, some bathe in its glow. Althoff strove to annihilate it completely.

The resulting exhibition, Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts, was true to the artist’s desire to create an environment for viewers to experience and even empathize with the work directly, and perhaps without needing to parse his complicated (and at times disturbing) narratives. The show was an elaborate environment of the artist’s design: a vast white silk tent under which he arranged hundreds of artworks of all descriptions, made over the course of his entire life from childhood. The installation had no signage, and assumed no conventional chronological or thematic structure, and as such did not encourage a passive, step-by-step narrative. Arranged in a logic obscure to all but Althoff, it encouraged close, self-guided, and imaginative looking.

Installation view of Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017. Photo © Kai Althoff.

For this to have happened, though, everyone working on the show had to cede creative input and, in many cases, professional expertise. This was enormously difficult for many who worked on this show, from graphic designers and exhibition designers to conservation staff, art handlers, marketing and communications departments, and so on. Even the guards were tested. In addition to being tasked with overseeing hundreds of unconventionally displayed—and thus vulnerable—paintings, drawings, sculptures, and objects, they were subjected to an overwhelming scent of cologne, which made several of those working on the show physically ill. Those who loaned precious works were challenged as well. Rather than being handled, as is customary, by MoMA’s professional art handlers, Althoff insisted on touching each work himself—not as if to bless it, but to somehow reaffirm his connection to it.

I was Althoff’s accomplice. I facilitated these iconoclastic requests. I negotiated on his behalf with everyone drawn together by the show: marketers forbidden from marketing, designers whose designs were rejected, photographers banned from documenting the exhibition, catalogue contributors whose words went unpublished, lenders whose works were included in the exhibition wrapped in brown paper so they remained unseen. I came to see this exhibition as a challenge to create the most completely artist-driven show that MoMA had ever produced.

The biggest challenge for me was to allow Althoff to erase my words in the catalogue and on the walls. That hurt. And it also had serious professional implications. By not mediating or “interpreting” the exhibition in the catalogue or elsewhere, I could be understood to be abrogating the terms of my employment as a curator. This worry added to the stress of an already difficult process. But I continued because I thought the artist’s work was worthy of exhibition, because I was challenged and intrigued by the radicality of the experiment, and because I came to believe that following Althoff’s desire was the truest and most transparent way to “explain” his work. Despite the iconographic expertise I had gained over the course of our multiyear interview, I understood that detailed knowledge of Althoff’s obscure or personal references ultimately did little to illuminate his strange, ambitious work. The viewer instead had to see through his eyes, to the extent that that was possible.

What MoMA did for Althoff was, in a way, an act of love. It devoted its vast resources to creating the artist’s ideal conditions for experiencing his life’s work, unconditionally. For his part Althoff challenged the museum to live up to its goal of working with contemporary art on its own terms, in a way that is different than how we work with art from the past. Althoff’s show offered a strategy (or limit case) for exhibiting the work of a living artist, by emphasizing that the work on view was still the province of that artist, and therefore still independent of the meaning the museum might assign to it. The high price of this strategy for the museum was the abnegation of its institutional voice.

Installation view of Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017. Photo © Kai Althoff.

The price might be worth paying. The experience of helping birth the show was professionally and personally tough, but the intense responses, from artists especially, were enormously gratifying. Many artists said they spent hours in the show, visiting it multiple times. Others proclaimed that it was the best show they had ever seen at MoMA. This comment stung, but I understood it as necessary institutional critique. People reported being moved. Two artists told me they cried in the show.

I can understand why. And then leave me to the common swifts was an extreme self-portrait, one that exposed Althoff, and everything he’d ever created, to the scrutiny of the world. The very notion that a persona can somehow be articulated through a collection of images, objects, texts, and environments is brave. It exemplifies a desperate faith in art making as a means of expressing who one is, what one believes, and where one fits into the world. It also demands that the museum and audience meet the artist’s faith with faith of our own—that we will not only see something in the work but feel something as well. In this moment, when the emotional circuit between artist and viewer lights up, Althoff’s entire oeuvre becomes transparent and he achieves the sense of connection that he and every artist yearns for. And what every curator does as well.

Laura Hoptman  is curator of contemporary art in the department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art.