Q&A with Eric Shiner, Warhol Museum Director & Curator of “American Focus” at the 2013 Armory Show
As curator of the “American Focus” section at The Armory Show this month, Eric Shiner has been handed the nearly impossible task of capturing contemporary American art in a few thousand square feet. Just as calm and cheerful and insightful as he was when we interviewed him in December about his role as director of The Andy Warhol Museum, Eric kindly walked us through the four months leading up to his selection of the 30 artists and 17 galleries participating in “American Focus.”
XOJET: What was your reaction when you were offered the position of curator of American Focus?
Eric Shiner, Warhol Museum Director &
Curator of “American Focus” at the 2013 Armory Show
Photo courtesy of Ric Evans
ES: My initial reaction was not exactly trepidation but quizzical interest, in that I wondered what it would mean for a museum director who runs a non-profit museum to do something in the for-profit commercial world. Then I thought, Well, if anyone can do this, it would be me. Because Warhol himself saw no line between art and commerce. Also, I realized it would be something really fun and engaging to do.
XOJET: And what did “American Focus” first bring to mind?
ES: Right away, I started to think about the way that I could capture—or even remotely start to capture—what American contemporary art means today within a couple of thousand square feet. You’d need several city blocks to even start answering that question. So I thought, How can I look at American contemporary art from a number of viewpoints? Not only American artists, because what does America even mean? Because it’s one thing to be an American citizen, but different areas of the world view America in very different lights, and that’s what I thought would be my only entrée into this. So I started to think about how I could look at America through the lens of contemporary art: celebrate it; critique it; make fun of it; look at its history. That’s how I really framed my approach.
XOJET: So walk us through the process of choosing these artists.
ES: Having accepted the position, I started to think about what I could do, what artists I wanted to work with. Right out of the shoots, it wasn’t about securing trophy galleries, it was about securing trophy artists and going from there. I wanted to work with artists who were looking back at history and art history, so I started to reach out to them. I started to think about Warhol and my role at the museum; the fact that Andy was the embodiment in many ways of the American Dream. I wanted to make sure Andy was present in some way in the artwork in this show, being the ultimate American artist of the 20th Century. So we reached out to Gagosian Gallery and asked if they would do a booth of Warhol, and they said yes. It went from there, thinking about how I could incorporate laughter into this section, so there are several works that really bring smiles to people’s faces.
|Armory Show patrons crowd the fair to view its exhibits|
Beyond that, I wanted to think generally about how I could turn the mirror on the fair itself. To start to think about the environment, to think about the sales angle of it. Fortunately, the Armory Show was incredibly open to my ideas and allowed me to do anything I wanted to do. Then I started to think about the actual fair, and the physical passage of the fair, and the monotony that often happens when you reach the end of the pier, and you can’t even think anymore because it’s information overload. So we’ve created a few pauses and a few moments throughout the fair that will, hopefully, allow people to laugh or maybe think about the very commercial nature of what’s going on quite directly. Or both.
XOJET: We spoke with Armory Show Executive Director Noah Horowitz last week, and he said that, given that no one can possibly encapsulate America in one collection/series/book/show, your curating was very personal. Would you agree?
ES: Yes. I would say, first and foremost, that any curator always has to approach the project personally, because it’s what you’re interested in, what your experiences are, what artists you’ve worked with or wanted to work with. Of course you always want to make sure the artists you’re working with have something to say to the broader audience, but ultimately, all of us make choices based on our tastes, our opinions, our own experiences. So this really has become personal, and I think that’s the case across the board with any curator and any exhibition—I don’t think many would admit that, but it’s definitely the case.
XOJET: So what is the state of the art in America today?
|Aerial view of The Armory Show’s home, Piers 92 & 94|
ES: I think it’s important to say that it’s a completely amorphous concept that’s changing constantly and radically, and that artists are continually creating new voices, new visions, new images. That’s the beauty of the art world—that it’s constantly changing. And happily, doing this project reminds me that’s the case and has always been the case and will always be the case. I think that we, in the American art world specifically, are very lucky to be able to participate on a global scale with global artists. In many ways, America becomes an intriguing clearinghouse for what’s happening all over the world. New York, in particular, plays host to that as the capital of the contemporary art world. At the end of the day, there is no specific America, there is no specific contemporary American art, and I think that’s what we need to celebrate: that it is in chaos and in flux and changing. Because that’s what keeps art fresh and relevant and engaging.