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Molesworth Speaks! Silenced at LA MOCA, She Vents (about Alice Neel) at Zwirner (with video)

Having been fired a year ago from the prestigious (but precarious) perch of chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Helen Molesworth resurfaced with a splash on Wednesday night at the David Zwirner gallery, New York. Feeling liberated, she flavored her well attended walkthrough of Alice Neel: Freedom (to Apr. 13) with a salty disquisition on “tits,” “cocks,” “pussies” and “asses” (with a pinch of explicit references to her own anatomy and sexual orientation, thrown in for good measure).

Helen Molesworth and David Zwirner
Lounging behind them: Alice Neel, “John Perreault,” 1972, Whitney Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Chatting with her briefly afterwards, I asked if her walkthroughs at MOCA had been as explicitly graphic as the one at Zwirner, during which she conveyed a cheeky confidence, despite repeatedly admitting to nervousness.

Her answer to me was an emphatic “Yes,” which emboldened me to observe that in my decades of covering exhibition tours, I’d never experienced anything quite like this one. “Neither have I,” Zwirner unexpectedly chimed in.

“I guess that could get me fired!” Molesworth quipped, having dodged my question, before her talk, as to why she thought she had been axed with no warning and “for no cause” (in her words) by MOCA’s subsequently also departed director, Philippe Vergne. (My somewhat prophetic post questioning Vergne’s MOCA appointment is here. Sarah Douglas, editor-in-chief of ARTnews, explored some of the underlying issues pertaining to Molesworth’s departure here.)

For now, Helen is the inaugural curator-in-residence of Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Snowmass Village, CO, and is also developing podcasts about postwar women artists under the auspices of the Getty Research Institute. (The deep-pocketed Getty seems to be something of a haven for distinguished museum professionals who suddenly find themselves at loose ends.)

Wednesday’s Zwirner head-turner was attended by several artworld luminaries, including: Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden; Museum of Modern Art director of editorial & content strategy (and former curator) Leah Dickerman; artist Joan Semmel, the provocative painter of nudes (male and female), who has lately received a lot more attention than when we both worked at the Art Workers News, decades ago. (Another AWN alumnus, Adam Weinberg, has shown Semmel’s work in his current capacity as the Whitney Museum’s director.)

Joan Semmel
Behind her: Alice Neel, “Pregnant Julie and Algis,” 1967, Neel Estate
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But back to Molesworth: Her hour-long talk, excerpted in my CultureGrrl Video, below, covered a lot of the same ground explored in her essay for the catalogue of the show, which was organized by the late artist’s daughter-in-law, Ginny Neel. On the cover of the catalogue (but not on the walls), is Neel’s 1980 “Self-Portrait,” owned (but not loaned) by the National Portrait Gallery, Washington. (Is the NPG, unlike certain other nonprofit museums, properly loath to loan to commercial entities?)

Come join me now as Molesworth expounds on two of the Neels that most intrigued her at Zwirner (which represents the artist’s estate):

—The sensuous 1972 portrait of the late art critic John Perreault (seen at the top of this post), who was also a poet and artist, and contributed the Artopia blog to ArtsJournal (which also hosts CultureGrrl, who has never been asked to pose nude). Seemingly lost in reverie, he was said to have posed 14 times for his lovingly rendered close-up.

—“Ruth Nude,” 1964, whose subject is as tense and confrontational as John is relaxed and dreamy. That difference is reflected as much in their surroundings as in their body language (her splayed hands!) and in the artist’s brush strokes (slathered on for her; delicately applied for him).

Alice Neel, “Ruth Nude,” 1964, Neel Estate
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That comparison of these two paintings is my reading, not Molesworth’s. Now let’s hear her take. Near the end of my video, you’ll hear her put Neel’s work in the context of her times (1900-84) and you’ll catch glimpses of Zwirner and Semmel (at 6:57) and Golden (at 7:55), listening attentively:

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