Richard Armstrong appointed director of the Guggenheim

Richard Armstrong, a specialist in American 20th century art and the former director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, was named the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Guggenheim Museum on Tuesday 23 September. On the eve of his appointment he gave an interview to The Art Newspaper outlining his vision for the New York museum and its overseas branches.

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Mr Armstrong will head a global network of museums in Venice, Bilbao and Berlin, and will direct the organisation’s flagship museum in New York, filling the posts long held by Thomas Krens who stepped down in February after two decades. Mr Armstrong, 59, had led the Carnegie since 1996, and in June announced that he would retire by the end of the year. He takes up his new post at the Guggenheim on 4 November.

He told The Art Newspaper that the vision he presented to the search committee consisted of adding intellectual heft to the Guggenheim, empowering the curators, and finding new ways to make the museum relevant, especially to younger audiences. “My concern was that all the museums, and New York maybe foremost, be seen as exemplars of great intellectual enterprise. The search committee felt the same way and responded.”

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While the board remains committed to enhancing the museum’s connection with Asia and Latin America, there does not seem to be “a big appetite at present to keep adding sites to the operation,” Mr Armstrong says. Getting a handle on Abu Dhabi, where a new Guggenheim branch is scheduled to open in 2013, will be a challenge, he says. There is, he adds, interest in improving the focus on the programme in New York, where most of the Guggenheim’s board members live.

Mr Armstrong says he intends to more fully integrate the branches and increase their ability to generate and share exhibitions. He also intends to develop partnerships with major museums outside the Guggenheim network. “To me, Tate looks like the most logical long-term partner,” he says, citing the current Louise Bourgeois retrospective co-organised with Tate and Pompidou (at the Guggenheim New York until 28 September). He will meet with Tate director Nicholas Serota in London in October.

Richard Armstrong joined the Carnegie as a curator in 1992 after 12 years at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York where he co-organised four of that museum’s influential biennials. Mild-mannered and known for his fiscal prudence, his appointment marks a return to more traditional museum leadership after Thomas Krens’s revolutionary and often controversial expansionism.

William Mack, chairman of the foundation board, says that “Richard Armstrong has the wisdom and demeanor—as well as the knowledge, stature, and status—we sought in a new leader for the Foundation.” President Jennifer Stockman, who co-chaired the search committee with Mr. Mack, says that his leadership is based on “artistic vision, diplomacy, and inspiration.”

Mr Krens transformed the Guggenheim from a “boutique institution” into one of the world’s most recognised museum brands, but attracted sharp criticism for the franchise-like partnerships he established around the world. He clashed with former chairman Peter Lewis, the largest donor in the Guggenheim’s history (he had given $77m), who left in 2005 after the board failed to heed his advice that the museum should shore up its finances and operations in New York rather than continue to expand overseas.

In 2005 Mr Krens announced that chief curator Lisa Dennison would be his successor as director of the New York museum, but she left after less than two years to become vice-president of Sotheby’s North and South America. The Guggenheim had difficulty recruiting a successor to serve under Mr Krens, who stepped down earlier this year as head of the foundation to act as the consultant overseeing development of the Guggenheim branch in Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry. Mr Armstrong says the trustees decided to recombine the positions of director and foundation head, “but getting a director at Fifth Avenue [in the future] is a possibility. That is not a closed proposition,” he adds.

The schedule of exhibitions now in place includes retrospectives of Catherine Opie, Kandinsky and Frank Lloyd Wright to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the newly-renovated landmark. (The announcement of Mr. Armstrong’s appointment came the day after the unveiling of the $26m renovation. Speaking at the ceremony, Mayor Michael Bloomberg quipped: “It’s one of the best facelifts I’ve seen on Fifth Avenue, but it’s probably not the most expensive.”)

Next, Mr Armstrong plans to find ways of exhibiting the little-seen permanent collection. He believes museums should show their treasures, and if a solution cannot be found within the restrictive Guggenheim, then he may seek other means of getting the works out of storage.

He says the museum has collected well in contemporary art, but the strategic plan calls for filling gaps in the early modern collection, such as Matisse, Malevich and others, and the museum also needs to improve its holdings of art from 1940 to 1975. Mr Armstrong notes that the only way to expand in these areas is by attracting gifts from patrons. The board also has identified Asian and Latin American art as areas to explore. But what distinguishes the Guggenheim from many other museums, he says, is its ties to early modern non-objective art. “That quest for utopia that so distinguishes the best political and aesthetic aspects of Europe from 1880 or 1890 onwards is really very deep in the psyche of the institution. And that has power today, as well,” he adds.

Most of all Mr Armstrong says he wants to add “gravitas of purpose” to the institution. He told the search committee that “through the curators, the institution will reassert itself as a place of high intellectual ambition, and they responded to that. That’s an intangible that is absolutely essential because that’s the credibility factor,” he says.

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Jim Rosenquist

Born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, 1933, He now lives and works in Aripeka, Florida, and New York City Jim Rosenquist had an itinerant childhood. An only child, he moved with his family frequently throughout the Midwest. His parents shared with him their interest in airplanes and things mechanical. In junior high school Rosenquist took art classes, and he won a scholarship to attend Saturday classes at the Minneapolis School of Art. After high school he enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s art program, studying with Cameron Booth. During the summer he worked for a contractor in Iowa, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, painting signs and bulk storage tanks.

“President Elect” (1960-61)

In 1954 Rosenquist painted his first billboard for General Outdoor Advertising in Minneapolis. A year later, on scholarship to the Art Students League in New York, Rosenquist studied with Edwin Dickinson, Will Barnet, Morris Kantor, George Grosz, and Vaclav Vytacil. In 1957 Rosenquist joined the sign painters union and in 1958 went to work for Art Kraft Strauss Company painting billboards. He also worked on window displays for Bonwit Teller and Tiffany & Company.

He married the textile designer Mary Lou Adams. During the election he produced the picture President Elect in which John F. Kennedy’s face is combined in a kind of collage with sex and automobile imagery. His first one-man exhibition in the Green Gallery, in 1962, was sold out. In 1963 he worked on several sculptures, had a number of exhibitions at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, showed his work at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, and taught at Yale University. In 1965 he began to work with lithographs.

In the same year he made the 26 meter-wide picture F-111, which was shown at the Jewish Museum, New York, at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and in other European cities. It is one of his most important works. The spatial organization of the composition into layers suggests the interrelationship of contemporary historical symbols and signs of affluence and military hardware, a vision of American culture expressing the proximity of euphoria and catastrophe. In 1967 he moved to East Hampton.

Untitled 2000

In 1968 he was given his first retrospective by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. In 1969 he turned his attention to experimenting with film techniques. In 1970 he went to Cologne for the opening of his exhibition at the Galerie Rolf Ricke. During the public protest against the Vietnam War he was briefly detained in Washington. During the same year he had comprehensive retrospectives at the Wallraf-Richards Museum, Cologne, and the Whitney Museum, New York.

In 1974 and 1975, he lobbied the U.S. Senate on the legal rights of artists. He became separated from his wife and designed his own house with an open-air studio at Indian Bay, Aripeka, Florida. In 1978 F-111 was exhibited in the International Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In his work of the late seventies and eighties, e.g. 4 “New Clear Women,” images of women are confronted with machine aesthetics, usually in large oblong compositions. The themes of these dynamic compositions also include fire, progress and war machinery which he shows in rotating pictorial narratives. Between 1985 and 1987 Rosenquist’s entire development as an artist was shown in a comprehensive retrospective at six American museums.

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The Stars and Stripes at the Speed of Light

By 1960 Rosenquist had set aside enough of his commercial earnings to allow him to spend a year painting in his studio. He moved to Coentles Slip, where he shared a loft with Charles Hinman.  Rosenquist had tentatively explored the use of commercial methods and materials in his studio work of the late 1950s, but after his move to the Slip, he left behind both the abstract expressionist and figurative modes he had employed in his early work.  He developed the montage like arrangement of deliberately fragmented images from popular culture inconsistently scaled and enigmatically juxtaposed; that characterized the monumental paintings of his mature style.

Rosenquist had his first one-man exhibition at the Green Gallery in New York in 1962, and every painting was sold. In 1963 he completed a mural for the New York World’s Fair, and Art in, America selected him as “Young Talent Painter” of the year. Two years later the artist finished painting the monumental, highly publicized F- I I 1, which toured Europe during the 1960s and has been considered an important expression of the anti Vietnam War movement. During the 1970s he became active in issues of artists’ rights legislation. In 1976 Rosenquist built his house and studio in Aripeka, Florida.

Since the early 1960s Rosenquist has worked extensively at numerous printmaking workshops in addition to Graphic studio, including Aeropress, Gemini G.E.L., Petersburg Press, Styria Studios, Tyler Graphics, Ltd., and Universal Limited Art Editions. Among Rosenquist’s honors is the World Print Award, which he received in 1983 from the World Print Council at the San Francisco Museum of Modem Art.

Brazil

In 2003 the Solomon R. Guggenbeim Museum in New York had a retrospective of Rosenquist works starting in 1950. In 2004 the exhibition goes to Spain’s Guggeheim Bilbao.

As art dealer Richard Feigen says, “James Rosenquist may be the world’s most important living artist.”