In Memoriam: Leigh MarkopoulosMarch 21, 2017
In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture in the Bay Area.
Today we honor the life and work of Leigh Markopoulos (1968–2017): art critic, curator, instructor, and friend and contributor to Art Practical and our sister publication Daily Serving. It is an understatement to say that Leigh was admired; she was loved in the way that only great mentors and friends are loved—fiercely, and without reservation. What follows are brief remembrances of a few of her former students and colleagues who are connected to our publications; without a doubt, this represents only a small sample of the many lives Leigh touched, but we hope it provides some sense of her enormous contributions to the community. We offer our sincere sympathies to all who mourn her loss.
Ashley Stull Meyers:
At the too-old age of twenty-two I cried after an exhibition planning meeting. This one had gone worse than most, which is saying something in a small, opinion-filled conference room with thirteen other curators. I exited barely containing hot tears of frustration, doubt, and insecurity. But I didn’t get ten steps without feeling a hand on my back, pushing me across the hall with a force that was equal parts gentle and comedic. “Don’t you DARE!” she said. Leigh’s voice always had the hypnotizing effect of someone a little older, a little cooler, a little closer to what I was floundering to become. I’d felt that way about her since my graduate school interview, and now I’ll feel that way about her forever.
All my life I’ve wanted to be a curator, but I can’t say I truly knew what that was before Leigh. Her grace and academic rigor have been the model for many, but more so were her strength, humor, and commanding presence. She made me laugh that day in her tiny office across the hall. From her keen observation of both my practice and my person, she reordered the way I would come to work. Every exhibition I construct will have her temper, and whatever small marks I make will be in her likeness.
The feeling of losing a mentor is unsettlingly close to that of being orphaned. Though I hadn’t seen Leigh Markopoulos in a few years, imagining the world without her feels strange. Her protective presence bolstered me for years after I left the Curatorial Practice program (CURP) at California College of the Arts. Beside the fact that I owe to her my introduction to at least two pivotal jobs, she was a constant presence, speaking truth while negotiating power, and keeping it real in her own impeccable way.
I entered CURP’s inaugural cohort with several years in the New York art world under my belt, having worked with a blue-chip artist on exhibitions at major museums. Leigh taught Professional Practices in our first year and was an immediate ally. At the Serpentine and subsequently the Wattis, she was a firefighter. Celebrity artists and curators could come and go, but Leigh dealt in facts, and she solved problems. She knew a lot about the trade-offs and sacrifices required to make a go of it in the arts, especially without status or money already conferred—but she had no illusions of purity in the art world. We bonded over that.
Leigh saw the best in her students and worked tirelessly to help them realize their fullest potential both in the program and afterwards. I hope that I can live up to her example.
It was in the summer of 2007—almost ten years ago—that I arrived in California to start my graduate studies. I thought my English was good, but reality was crueler and stranger; I could barely understand the class. Since I was the only foreign student among the nine and I thought that everyone spoke so fast, I was always nervous and self-conscious. But Leigh’s appearance would put me at ease, even just for a little bit. She was teaching us the practical side of exhibition making: budget, space, size, scale, et cetera, and on some occasions she would show up with a puppy that she was dog-sitting at the time. I felt I was not alone on those occasions.
Things did not improve much towards the end of the semester, but we had to pass an exam on planning out an exhibition on paper. I was completely stunned when I received the quiz in inches and feet, which I didn’t even have a basic sense of. Leigh saved me again and allowed me to use my cellphone and convert everything into metric. Little did she know that this small gesture rescued me from a total breakdown. And little did I know, in the years to come, she would save me many more times.
Leigh wore a jasmine perfume and the scent still lingers; she liked to play Candy Crush from time to time, and she hid her tissues in her sleeve…
In the fall of 2003, Matthew Higgs and Leigh Markopolous were planning an ambitious show of contemporary work called LIKENESS: Portraits of Artists by Other Artists for the Wattis Institute in San Francisco. Assigned to write the lead essay, I was buzzing away at it when felled by a heart attack at Thanksgiving. The meds they gave me had me slurring my words and my brain wasn’t working, I could begin sentences but then I’d forget what came at their ends, and I couldn’t remember simple words, like “green” or “square.” Would I be able to finish the essay? Leigh came and watched me as I tried to hold a conversation. She refrained from direct speech, but I understood, from her courteous bearing and the driving gloves clutched in one hand, that her visit was a sort of pleasant ultimatum. She didn’t need to say that the Wattis (and the ICA, which sponsored the show) was panicking about the catalog. That was apparent in the limpidity of her gaze, the crispness of her blouse, the way she could size up another’s character, or lack of it, in a single moment. After a while she smiled and spoke: “I’ve read your drafts of the essay. You’ll finish it this weekend?”
“Yes… [what was her name?] … Leigh.”
She tucked her beautiful hands into gloves. “Splendid.” Then she was out the door. With Dodie’s assistance, I finished the piece by Sunday. Happily, the join of “before” and “after” isn’t too apparent. Always I’ll remember Leigh’s acumen, assurance, and foresight, and the kindness which these qualities sometimes disguised as mere efficiency.
Angel Rafael Vázquez-Concepción:
Having faced the daunting task of writing about death and aesthetics under Leigh’s tutelage at CCA, it is painfully surreal to now write these lines to memorialize her life and her contributions to her curatorial students across her career.
Leigh dealt criticism with a velvet glove. She saw through your intentions with X-ray vision. She rearranged your chakras. But she did it so that you may get to the prize. When I say she criticized, I want to be clear: She did not seek to make her students insecure, she pushed upward and forward so that they could dispel self-imposed limitations and achieve excellence.
I will never forget her keen sense of humor about it all, too. Noticing how hard she worked, I always tried to be the comedian with her. I will hang on to the memory of those chuckles shared, which were many, and will hear her rational voice in my head whenever I make an exhibition. I always walked out of her office having much higher standards for my practice than I did when I entered. Leigh, you live in us.
Leigh, I have so many fond memories of you over the last ten or fifteen years since you made San Francisco your home. I remember how skilled and sexy you were as our last-minute auctioneer at New Langton Arts in the early aughts, surprising everyone with your unexpected talent at bid calling; your celebrated puddings and moussakas; our Meyer lemon curd competition; our love of Mill Valley, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marseille Noir, Paris, grandmother Rose’s Marina basement and the incomparable Leiber bros; your deftness as an editrix, your sharp irony and a tender childlike awe of nature and animals; your perfect birthday gifts of exhibition ephemera that would magically respond to my current art obsessions. We could weep together at the cinema, drink rare scotch, and then talk into the night about syllabi and students.
I am reminded of your elegant Creative Growth exhibition Love Is a Stranger, which brought together representations of longing and desire in a way that moved me so. You were sharing a secret with us through this quiet collection of works. Together, we had brainstormed the title with ideas such as “l’amour de loin” (love from afar) or “l’amour fou” (mad love). It is truly unimaginable that you are gone. Just like that. L’amour/la mort. Death is a stranger.
Leigh was fearless. She was whip-smart, and if you couldn’t keep up—well, you were simply left in the dust. She drove like she walked and talked; furiously, full of energy. She was an unstoppable force. She was at once enduringly kind and endlessly generous with her time, counsel and resources. I cannot conjure a more perfect mentor—a woman I respected enormously for her verve, her uncompromising resolve to live life on her own terms, her humor and prowess, and a committed passion for her work. She remained this way despite her unimaginable losses. It is difficult to understand that I will no longer be calling Leigh first for everything. I miss her deeply now, as I will for a very, very long time.
A. Will Brown:
Nestled amidst the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the Banff Centre is an enclave where esteemed creative practitioners and their students come to be immersed in art and the drama of the landscape. In the fall of 2011, Leigh Markopoulos led a charge of second-year Curatorial Practice students to Banff for a workshop with Kitty Scott and Nicolas Bourriaud. Leigh brought us to Banff to see beyond ourselves and our group, to expand our thinking with a series of rigorous and fruitful conversations in a remarkable setting. Between sessions we visited artists’ studios and listened to Ragnar Kjartansson read poetry with his students in a candlelit, whiskey-laced environment.
One morning, Leigh led us to a snow-covered tea house overlooking a mountain lake—a stunningly beautiful yet difficult journey. While walking behind Leigh, stumbling excitedly to talk with her, I realized that I would follow her anywhere. Leigh Markopoulos was everything that she taught us—complexity, elegance, self-determination, and perspective. Thank you for opening so many doors for us, Leigh, but most of all, for teaching us to walk through them on our own. You were the uncompromising leader we all deserve but so few ever get.
Kristina Lee Podesva:
Leigh’s life was not a matter of common knowledge, by design. Yet it punctured through in flashes of heartache and brilliance. A mysterious, generous light surrounded her and often radiated out, touching those who came into contact. It should be known that she exerted upon us a tricky and tremendous force that she exerted equally upon herself. She worked strenuously and elegantly, and almost always behind the scenes. It was as if she moved around us and in the world en pointe.
So many things accented her life that we may never know or be capable of knowing, which compounds our loss with the impossibility of learning and loving her more. With each new experience I had with her, she seemed to shape-shift. Given her flawless manners (I have not known anyone so fluent in pleases and thank-yous), I would never have imagined our many moments sitting together in her office, door shut, gossiping and chuckling. Neither would I have predicted seeing her tackling Smiths songs with ease at a Korean karaoke bar, or learning she loved twee British television mysteries as much as I do, or hearing her confess that she had popped pills with Genesis P-Orridge. Such details we must now leave in suspension. May they rest in peace along with our fearless leader, lovable shape-shifter, creatrix of mysterious, generous light.
Two weeks after, Amy Franchescini came to Banff. Following her artist talk, we spoke of an exhibition of artist books from the Steven Leiber Archive hosted in her home, curated by Ola El Khalidi, a mutual friend. I remember how much locally sourced cheese there was, and that L was there too. There was a nostalgia to what Amy spoke of; my education, thoughtfully crafted by L, who also was a transplant to San Francisco and who saw the importance to be both international and local in our thinking. As I sat on the carpeted floor of the gallery I now have the privilege to curate, I know that I am here in part because of L.
L fondly abbreviated those she knew best with the first letter of their name. She was nothing if not economical with her words. Me, I was P. Sue Ellen Stone, SE. David Kasprzak, DK. And so on. I, like others, have carried on this affectionate shortening ever since. I remember her telling me more than once how telemarketers would mispronounce her name: Lemur Kopolos, like a Madagascan tree-dweller.
The day after, Kristina Lee Podesva forwarded me L’s text in art agenda. Dore Ashton “Response to Crisis in American Art” (1969) was published in their “Rearviews” section, a series that reveals blind spots in contemporary art criticism by prefacing “found” documents in the present. L wrote that the American art historian Ashton was “an opponent of mediocrity in any form.” She also wrote about the present, and that in our contemporary moment, like Dore, we must continue to “voice our collective outrage” “as explicitly and loudly” as we can. I remembered one particularly awkward lunch, where L put a mediocre dissenter in their place, aptly finishing her sentence by pulling her sunglasses down from her curly head.
Banff was an important place for L. Kitty Scott first invited her here, and she returned several times to visit me (and the hot springs) over the years, and to visit the Banff Centre’s Paul D. Fleck Library and Archives—a Canadian collection to which her late husband Steven Leiber donated and sold important examples of Canadian conceptual art ephemera. After he passed, L ran the Steven Leiber Archive with the same gusto as Steven did, moving it from its long-term home on Toledo Way in the Marina, to the Mission, with the help of her dedicated archivist and friend Elisheva Biernoff. The most recent acquisition that L organized for us was 45 30’N-72 36’W +inventory, a 1971 publication from an exhibition that was organized by Gary Coward, Zoe Notkin, and friends in Montreal. In an Instagram post on October 21, 2016, L commented “on the right, Jerry Rubin’s ‘do it!’… predates HUO [Hans Ulrich Obrist] by 20 years.” That was L, sharp and quick to point out the “blind spots” of the present, to ground them in history, lucidly drawing connections that for her many students were impressive and aspirational—and not even HUO was safe.
Yesterday I spent time with 45 30’N-72 36’W +inventory. On one of the loose-leaf pages the word “energy” was written, followed by a list of all the individuals and artists who were involved, even in an ancillary way, in that project. People as “energy.” I thought this a beautiful way to think about L. Her energy exists in the exhibitions that we continue to make, the books we write, the studio visits we have, and the people we know and love, because she assembled them and they have radiated into our practice in some way. As she said of Dore Ashton and our present, we all must continue this energy “explicitly and loudly as [we] can.”
On my first day as a curatorial practice student, I sat in one of the sterile classrooms in the graduate center, listening to a perfectly poised, British-accented woman speak and click through slides. “Of course you are all familiar with this work…” she would begin, rattling through art-historical information and anecdotes about her own curatorial work at the Serpentine and other venues. I struggled to keep up, writing down the artists’ names phonetically, almost all of them unfamiliar to my neophyte ears.
Leigh opened a door into a different world—a world filled with poetry, humor, intensity, rigor, and friction. For her students, she could play the role of savior, stepping in (as she often did) in our most anxious moments to be the ever-gracious voice of reason. She could also take on the role of ally or adversary, depending on what was needed—Leigh did not roll over, and she was not afraid to push you when you needed it. But just as often, she was on your side, showing an unbelievable capacity for generosity, creativity, and compassion. She was funny and wry, blunt and matter-of-fact, yet exceedingly kind.
When I heard about Leigh’s death, one of the first images that came into my mind was a billboard project by the artist Felix Gonzalez Torres—one of the many artists Leigh introduced me to on that first day of school. The image on the billboard, familiar to many of us now, shows an unmade, unoccupied bed. The clean white sheets have been crumpled by departed bodies, and a pair of pillows host impressions of once-resting heads, laying side by side. In losing Leigh, it seems like we also lose Steven, her partner and our friend, over again; but the idea that they exist together again, somewhere—well, that’s not an uninteresting idea.
Editor's Note: This piece also published on Daily Serving.