Just when Klaus Biesenbach must have thought the critics’ response to his Björk retrospective couldn’t get worse, he became the butt of an unfunny April Fools joke today on the website of the Art Newspaper.
There’s admittedly much to debate about the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator-at-large, who undeniably has had a mixed track record of hits and misses. But the recent swarm of attacks seems to me both excessive and meanspirited—a function of our Internet Age, in which clicks are king.
The “Björking” that MoMA’s controversial show and its organizers have endured bears more than a phonic resemblance to “Borking” (for Robert Bork, whose Supreme Court nomination was blocked in the face of relentless attacks by the media and other critics).
Just as Bork became a lightning rod for anti-conservative sentiment, “Björk” has become the focal point for the many observers who (like me) are distressed by a MoMA that seems dispiritingly adrift as it haplessly struggles to stay au courant (something that seems to come naturally to nimbler institutions like the New Museum).
But it’s irrational for one critic to assert that MoMA has now “redeemed itself” from “the Björk debacle,” thanks to its surefire show (opening Friday) that sheds new scholarly light on Jacob Lawrence‘s much admired “Migration Series.”
Is there not already sufficient “redemption” in MoMA’s record of achievements, such as the sublime Matisse Cut-Outs of recent memory? For more historical shows of modern art (think Gauguin Metamorphoses), MoMA remains without equal.
One of the latest to join the growing list of Klaus-detractors is critic Richard Woodward, who complained in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that “the exhibition itself tells you nothing—and I mean nothing—about her [Björk’s] artistic process.”
But while veteran art writers have been piling on, young visitors (the demographic museums crave) have been piling in:
A couple of dissenting writers did swim against the critical tidal wave that’s threatening Biesenbach. I can’t weigh in on this show myself: I missed the Björk press preview four weeks ago and ran out of free time yesterday, after thoroughly enjoying the Jacob Lawrence preview (which garnered hearty applause from the scribe tribe after the illuminating remarks by curator Leah Dickerman and her team of consultants).
Although I might feel differently had I personally endured Klaus’ trial-by-misfire, it seems to me that calling for his termination (as one dyspeptic critic recently did), based largely on the shortcomings of one show, is over-the-top. The fact that board members “expressed their dismay at the exhibition by overwhelmingly staying away” could merely reflect the relatively conservative taste of monied patrons. Part of the job description of the contemporary art curator is to push the envelope.
Before the artworld’s prosecutors call for Klaus’ head, they should pause to consider that Kirk Varnedoe‘s and Adam Gopnik‘s 1991 “High & Low” exhibition at MoMA (which I greatly admired) was largely drubbed by the critics. With the benefit of hindsight, no one would dream of suggesting that this setback should have spelled the end of Varnedoe’s fabled MoMA career.
Admittedly, Biesenbach is no Varnedoe. But I suspect that Klaus will live to organize another MoMA show. Even Jeffrey Deitch (who recently compared his rocky tenure as LA MOCA’s deficient director to Biesenbach’s current plight) has begun writing his next chapter, having organized a lively, monumental exhibition that captivated me (but closed before I could find time to write about it)—Making Art Dance, devoted to the artist-created sets, costumes and props of choreographer Karole Armitage‘s company, shown at Mana Contemporary, a sprawling former tobacco warehouse-turned-art facility in Jersey City:
All of which is to say to the beleaguered Biesenbach: This too shall pass. There’s life after “debacles.”