Interview with Larry Rinder

Anne Walsh

The upcoming publication of Larry Rinder’s Art Life: Selected Writings 1991-2005 (Gregory R. Miller & Co, 2005) will give Rinder’s fans and critics a view of the curious breadth of this curator’s sensibilities, and offer us a map of the territories that describe art made or shown in America in the last 15 years. Rinder’s map follows an appealingly eccentric logic, collapsing time and space, distribution and topography, opinion, anecdote, and fact.Trekking through the 16 essays, most reprinted from Rinder’s exhibition projects and catalog (he has curated nearly 100 exhibitions in the past 16 years), I sensed that if there are cardinal points on Rinder’s map, they might be roughly called: Oracles, Doubt, Utopia and Rawness.

Rinder is now Dean of Graduate Studies at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, where he oversees the college’s graduate programs in architecture, curatorial practice, design, fine arts, visual criticism, and writing. He continues work as adjunct curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Besides giving me the chance to read his manuscript, our conversation at his modest cottage apartment in San Francisco gave me the opportunity to query Rinder about his transition from the museum to the academy, and about his inspirations and his goals. —Anne Walsh


Walsh: Tell me about the dedications in your book. There’s a list of people, and some of them I know and some of them I don’t.

Rinder: Who are they?

Walsh:Well, there’s Guy Davenport.

Rinder: Mmmm! Guy Davenport. He died two weeks ago.

Guy Davenport was a novelist and an essayist and a teacher. He taught at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and when I was eighteen years old and left home in Connecticut and moved out to the West Coast, I stumbled across a short story of his in an issue of Conjunctions magazine at Cody’s Books in Berkeley. There was something about that story that awakened in me a sense of what art could be—in this case, what literary art, literature, could be—and the way that it could be simultaneously philosophical and erotic and beautiful. I really enjoyed that story and then, of course, read everything of his that I could get my hands on. In fact, now I’m rereading everything of his because since he died, he’s fresh in my mind.

I just think he was a brilliant person. It seems to me that the world that he’s describing seems inevitable somehow, or reasonable, or certain, and yet it’s totally impossible. It’s utopian in that sense. All the work is rooted in particularly pre-Socratic philosophy, so there’s a sense that the world that he’s describing is a potential outcome of a history that didn’t happen. And it’s a better outcome. Maybe I’m an escapist, but I like to dwell in that alternative reality.

The thing I read just before I read this Davenport book—in fact, I’m reading them simultaneously—is Bataille’s book Inner Experience, which is also about Eros. It’s interesting to look at these two writers simultaneously, because for Bataille, the conclusions of surrendering to Eros are fraught with all kinds of horror and darkness, and for Davenport it’s just an experience of joy and light. I believe both of them.

Walsh: Did you meet Davenport?

Rinder: I did.Yes.

Walsh: As a kind of fan?

Rinder:Yes. I was a kind of groupie, although I’m not sure there was anyone else in the group. I was a fan. I had been with my mother, visiting my grandparents in Florida, and somehow found out that he was giving a lecture at Washington and Lee University in Lexington,Virginia. When we were driving back to Connecticut, I made my mother drop me off there, and she continued on. I went to the lecture, and ended up going out to dinner with him. The next morning, I hitchhiked back to New York. I never saw him again.

Walsh: What about Charles Allcroft?

Rinder: Charles Allcroft, I’m sure—I hope—is still alive, although I haven’t communicated with him in many years. He was a professor of mine at the School of Visual Arts, where I studied art. I was a student there in ‘80 and ‘81. I met him when I went to what I thought was going to be my “Modern Art History” course with Carter Ratcliffe. I went into the wrong room and sat there, and there were one or two other students in the room. Twenty minutes late this guy who looked like a homeless person sort of shuffled in. He had a long stringy beard and stringy hair, and he threw his bag on the floor and started drawing on the blackboard and gesturing. Never looking at the class, never looking at anyone. With his back to the class the whole time he gave this completely mind-blowing lecture on some piece of blue plastic he found on the street on the way to school or something like that.

It turned out what the class was—what it was supposed to be—was a course called “Art and Symbols of India and the Himalayas.” Charles was deeply informed about the subject, but he chose to consider those traditions as kind of living things that he was going to catch on the fly in the moment. He would not refer to things as historical artifacts. To him it was just all alive and real. In a way, I guess he was a shaman.

I guess that the crux of what I found so challenging and energizing about it was simply the insight that one needn’t relate to works of art as dead things, but that they could be living things. I’m not trying to say that they’re actually alive, but engaged, resonant, relevant.

To Charles, Jack Smith was an embodiment of these same principles. He introduced me to Jack, and as a result of that I ended up working on the Jack Smith show. So it wasn’t about some kind of sentimental antiquity thing at all. At all. He was completely not into any kind of preciousness.

Walsh: What happens in your fantasy art world? What are its institutions? What are its units of measure and trade?

Rinder: In a Utopian vein—even though I’ve never been there—I imagine that what happens at Burning Man might be ideal in some way. Spontaneous, noncommercial, communal. Still, I’m a pretty realistic person and I know that the existing structures are not going away any time soon. And I think that a lot can happen within the existing system. In fact, playing against the status quo, or even employing it, can be creative and productive. This summer we’re running an interdisciplinary grad course up in Portland called “The Business of Utopia.” Matthew Stadler put it together.They’re going to look at various alternative infrastructures for creative production, performance, and distribution. It’s based in Portland but will involve travel to Seattle, Anacortes, and Vancouver, looking at various really dynamic examples of alternative practices including K records, the Oregon Department of Kick Ass, Red 76, Marriage Records, Peripheral Produce, 911 Media Arts,Wiggly World Film Studios, SOIL Gallery, Seattle Research Institute, and/or, Learning to Love You More,The Business, Clear Cut Press, Richard Hugo House, Department of Safety, What-the-Heck Fest, Artspeak, Kootenay School of Writing, Or Gallery, The Western Front, and others.

Walsh: As a curator you’ve approached and even brought to the public table some big themes—the idea of a queer sensibility, the notion of “consciousness art,” the idea of an “American effect,” are a few examples.1 I wonder if there are other themes distilling in your mind now—and what they are. How do you arrive at those themes?

Rinder: I’ve drawn my themes from art. Nayland Blake, with whom I organized In a Different Light, and who is an artist himself,was tremendously influential in this. I started working on the show because I had seen a strong emergence of a new generation of queer artists revolving especially around Gallery Kiki in San Francisco.

My initial instinct was to leap directly into a thematic description, a rationalization if you will, of the works I was seeing. In the museum field there are many pressures leading towards this kind of swift closure. First of all, you have to propose the idea of the show itself at a very early stage.Then, as things move along, there is pressure to define terms in order to raise funds, to promote the show and so on. But Nayland insisted on a different approach. He wanted to spend several months engaged in a kind of surrealist game of free association in which we allowed works of any kind to accrue around the central group, to form loose constellations. It was from these constellations that the key insights and organizing principles of the show emerged. I was lucky that the administration of the Berkeley Art Museum was open to such an unconventional approach.

In other shows I have tried as much as possible to use a similarly art-centered method. The themes of the 2002 [Whitney] Biennial, for example (Beings, Spaces, and Tribes) arose only in the final stages as I was thinking of ways to organize in the museum’s galleries the works I had already selected. BitStreams, The American Effect, and Searchlight all emerged from core groups of works that formed the basis of an art-centered research process.

I have to stress that I haven’t gone about putting together shows on topics just because they are of personal interest. In fact, as in BitStreams, which focused on the impact of digital technologies on contemporary art, I followed a powerful artistic tendency that initially meant little to me (I’m more of a sticks and leaves kind of guy) but which by the end I found to be quite compelling. Largely because the art was so strong.

Walsh: Since you came to CCA, SFAI announced that Okwui Enwezor would be their new Dean of Academic Affairs.Two migrations from curating to academia. What do you make of this migration? What does being at CCA offer you that curating did not?

Rinder: I had breakfast with Okwui not long ago. He has some very ambitious plans, not surprisingly. I shouldn’t speak for him but I think both of us share the feeling that museums, especially American museums, are losing their capacity to experiment and therefore to be engaged with the most challenging new practices.There is so much emphasis on market approbation. I would say that the biggest problem with museum work is not fundraising—I have to do that at CCA too—it’s the way that museum programming is edging more and more into a consensus approach. Rather than seeing themselves as playing a leadership role, by introducing new artists or tendencies or—god forbid—actually challenging the status quo, museums are under tremendous pressures, from critics, from trustees, and from career-minded curators and directors, to simply march along with the consensus view. To embody what one critic recently termed “the one real art world.” I’m not interested.

Walsh: What need is the new “Social Practices” grad program at CCA intended to fill? What criteria would you lay down for evaluating social practice as an aesthetic form?

Rinder:Well, for many years we’ve had artists at CCA whose work takes the social as its medium. These students have had to fit within host departments—sculpture or film and video, for example. Meanwhile, such practices have really exploded in the art world generally. Personally, I am very allergic to the form of this work that assumes that creating a “lounge” or handing out some pizza and beer constitutes a compelling work of art. CCA has been an important catalyst in a more thoughtful approach to this field. Suzanne Lacy—whose participatory performance works can be seen as an important precedent for much of what is happening now—was a long-standing faculty member and Chair. The impetus for the creation of this new department emerged from the grad faculty itself. They wisely saw that students working in social practices deserved to have the same opportunities for attention and focus as those working in other media.

Walsh: A number of the people you dedicated your book to were your teachers (and still are, I guess) and I’m wondering what sort of pedagogical model or models you’ve considered for CCA?

Rinder:Well, I have two roles at CCA. I’m the Dean of Graduate Studies, and I’m a teacher. I don’t have the title of professor but I teach. The curriculum is ultimately the responsibility of the program chairs, so in the broadest sense as far as pedagogy is concerned that is the prerogative of the program chairs at the school.

One of my responsibilities is to hire program chairs when there are vacancies and through that capacity I can select people who have a pedagogical model that I find sympathetic.Then, in my own teaching, of course, I can choose how to teach.

I’m very happy to tell you that we have just hired Brian Conley to be the new Chair of Grad Fine Art. Brian, as I’m sure you know, is one of the founding editors of Cabinet and an artist whose work has just the kind of vigorous intellectual and creative independence that I hope we can cultivate in our students.

Walsh: Bill Arning says in the introduction to your book that he doesn’t always agree with your readings. (And I think it’s really great that you have that in there!) I’m curious about your reading of Mark Lombardi’s work.You suggest that there is some “John Currin” in it, almost a repressed perversity, maybe. I was really curious about that. It strikes me that that’s not so different than this Davenport versus Bataille duality that you set up earlier.

Rinder: I wonder. It’s just archetypal in a way. The balance of the classical and the baroque, or similar dualities. I think that tracks through a lot of the things that have interested me. With Lombardi in particular, I think that conclusion was a result of looking closely at Lombardi’s work, thinking critically about the reception of the work, and having the experience of working with John Currin at the same time that that Lombardi show was on at the Drawing Center. So that I was really kind of steeped in the Currin-esque morass of disturbed mental space, or whatever that thing is, and then began to see that in Lombardi’s work as well.

Walsh: Almost as though the formal structure of his work is the only way to contain the excess of its content?

Rinder:Yeah. If you read Lombardi’s statements about his work, as I say in that essay, he wasn’t attempting to be some kind of accurate scientist about these things. And from a scientific point of view, as I point out in the essay, his system of notation is utterly inadequate. It expresses virtually nothing. It’s about a kind of drive to order in a chaotic world.

Walsh: Are you curating anything now?

Rinder:Well, the Tim Hawkinson show I organized for the Whitney will be traveling to LACMA this summer. I also recently did a project with Jim Drain and Ara Peterson at the Moore Space in Miami. It was an installation called Wiggin Village. As for things coming up in the future, there’s a good chance I’ll be working on a mini-retrospective of Hedda Sterne’s drawings. And I have some other things in the works but it’s too soon to talk about them.

Walsh:Was Wiggin Village part of the Miami Art Fair?

Rinder: It wasn’t part of the art fair. It was at a non-profit space in Miami. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of art fairs. I find them really terribly dispiriting. But the situation in Miami is a bit different, because of what happens in the city around the art fair. In fact, I spent all of two hours in the actual art fair in the five or six days that I was in Miami.Yet I was looking at art and thinking about art and talking about art the whole time I was there, because there is so much going on in the city. It’s not just a citywide but also a regional festival. It’s really exciting. And because of various reasons, you really felt that it wasn’t an insular art world thing, that it had some presence in the fabric of that community. I think for three days running, there were articles about the fair and its attendant projects and ancillary activities, on the cover of the Miami newspaper.

Walsh: Somewhere in your book you talk about amnesia and the value of remembering works of art, ideas, etc. I’m wondering what work you want to remember—what work needs a second look these days, or maybe more than a second look—a fresh evaluation, a celebration?

Rinder: As I said, I’m working on a show of drawings by Hedda Sterne. She’s the last living Irascible. The Irascibles were a group that formed when the Met mounted a show of contemporary American painting in 1950 that included no abstraction.They protested and Life magazine immortalized them in a photo that included Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline,William Baziotes,Willem de Kooning and Hedda Sterne. She was the only woman and now, the only one of them still alive. And working! She’s been doing really fantastic work, mostly in drawing. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s she was in like five or six Whitney Biennials, many Venice Biennales and Carnegie Internationals. Who knows about Hedda Sterne now? So I did some writing on her for a retrospective initiated by Josef Helfenstein, who led me to her work.

Walsh: So tell me who Josef Helfenstein is. He’s one of your dedicatees.

Rinder: Josef Helfenstein. Josef is currently the director of the Menil Collection in Houston. When I first met him I was a curator at Berkeley and he was curator of prints and drawings at the Kunstmuseum in Berne. He was doing a six-month sabbatical in Berkeley. I don’t know what he was doing there, but he was in the museum, he had an office, and so I got to know him. It’s more difficult to articulate what his influence has been. I’m so impressed with the fact that he has this tremendous depth of knowledge about art and culture and philosophy, and yet he is utterly independent in his thinking.

Josef also introduced me to some other great artists— Louise Bourgeois, Luc Tuymans—all at moments where they were not quite who they later became. Even Louise Bourgeois, when he introduced me to her,was not yet in the ascendancy that she subsequently rose to, and Tuymans was utterly unknown, at least in America. So what I’m so impressed with Josef is—I guess there’s no other word for it than his “connoisseurship.” He can look at something and just—he has an aesthetic sensitivity about things, and he can proceed—even in the most unlikely place. I mean Luc Tuymans’ drawings, those early drawings that Josef first showed me,were kind of scabby little nothings. Just some pencil sketch on a piece of cardboard. I was like, “God! Really? This is good?” And Josef said, “Yeah, really. This is good.” And I spent time with the work, and I came to realize that it was. But he knew it.

Walsh:You referred to your time at the Whitney as an “incarnation.” Do you picture another incarnation after CCA? Do you have fantasies of un-artish work? What are they?

Rinder: I’m here for now and loving it. Next incarnation? I wouldn’t mind moving to Iceland and being a trek guide. But really, I think I’d like to be a writer, a novelist. I’m working on something now.We’ll see how far I get.

Anne Walsh is an Angeleno artist currently living in San Francisco. She is Assistant Professor of Video and New Genres at U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice.

Further Reading