Welcome to the Club: Carter Ratcliff on John Elderfield. (Preview)
Ratcliff, Carter, Artforum International
IN MARCH JOHN ELDERFIELD was appointed chief curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He succeeds Kirk Varnedoe, who left the post (often called the most powerful in the art world) to join the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2001 [see Artforum, January 2002]. Elderfield has held various curatorial positions at the museum since 1975; his most recent, chief curator at large, will now be occupied by another long-time MOMA curator, Kynaston McShine. Fourth in a line of staunch modernists--Varnedoe's predecessors were William Rubin and Alfred H. Barr--Elderfield is likely to lead a smooth transition.
Before working with Varnedoe on the multivenue collaboration "Matisse Picasso," currently on view at MOMA QNS, Elderfield organized major exhibitions including "The Wild Beasts: Fauvism and Its Affinities" (1976), "Kurt Schwitters" (1985), "Henri Matisse" (1992), and "Bonnard" (1998). During the past quarter century, shows like these have done much to sustain the Modern's authority and prestige. Yet, in this same period, living artists have been chronically disgruntled with the museum's persistent neglect of contemporary art, as Elderfield doubtlessly well knows.
Emphasizing his intention to make the current scene "a regular beat," he seems to address the art world's expectation that the Varnedoe-Elderfield transition will be all too smooth--that the new regime at the Modern's flagship department will conduct business as usual: mending gaps in the collection, honoring establishment stars with retrospectives that double as blockbusters and exercises in canonization, and letting the Projects room take care of the contemporary side of things.
Though eminently tactful, Elderfield acknowledges a doubt or two about the Projects room's usual focus on installation works. "I think it's great for young curators to learn to cooperate with artists," he says. "But I would also like to see Projects being used for young curators to learn to curate exhibitions." Given his interests, he would be pleased if the Projects room were to offer "curated exhibitions of painting and sculpture." Nonetheless, he adds, "I do think that younger curators should be encouraged to do exhibitions in whatever medium or mixture of mediums."
Of all the Modern's high-profile curators, Elderfield is perhaps the most scholarly. Having received his Ph.D. from London's renowned and somewhat hidebound Courtauld Institute of Art, he places even the newest art in the grand perspectives of art history. As he sees it, there is no alternative. "We have been stuck with the art-historical model ever since Vasari invented it in the sixteenth century," he says. "It was the model for Barr and, before him, Vivant Denon, who organized the Louvre to lead up to Napoleonic classicism. …