In Out of the Cold

5.1 / Half-Century

In Out of the Cold

By Bill Berkson, René de Guzman, Arnold Kemp, Ari Salomon September 11, 2013

In Out of the Cold, whether we understood it at the time or not, was an exuberant experiment in interdisciplinary curatorial work.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) was the product of enormous political negotiations among developers, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, and community activists. It was a culmination of years of agitation by many artists—especially artists of color, gay and lesbian artists, and artists doing experimental work—for a downtown art center of the first quality that would be devoted to equity and excellence. I was hired to be the visual arts director about eighteen months before the opening of In Out of the Cold, which was on view from October 12 through December 5, 1993. The reality that those on the left did not believe that YBCA would truly be a progressive force, and that those on the right predicted a multicultural meltdown, added to my stress. I knew I had to deliver a rigorous, inclusive, timely, accessible, engaging, and diverse exhibition. After a great deal of thought and networking, In Out of the Cold was actualized. I decided to make the recent end of the cold war the theme of the show, and I made the argument that all the feminist, identity-based, and experimental art that was current should be seen not just in light of evolving international politics but as part of that change. With the hindsight of thirty years, I think the exhibition addressed a lot of those assignments; in particular it set the tone for what I and my staff would do for the next decade: juxtapose the newest contemporary art with community art, represent local and national artists equally, and include artifacts and popular culture alongside fine art. We strived for a roster that was 50 percent women and at least one-third artists of color. The curatorial team was composed of René de Guzman (a Filipino American), Arnold J. Kemp (an African American), and me. Their recent recollections follow, as does that of Ari Salomon, a former installation technician at YBCA, and a review of the exhibition by Bill Berkson, originally published in Art in America in 1994.—Renny Pritikin

Download "The Salon at Mission and Third," by Bill Berkson.

René de Guzman

This heady project threw history into a contemporary art environment and proposed a marriage between material culture and aesthetics.

In Out of the Cold was a remarkable exhibition that continues to inform my curatorial work. I currently work at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), a museum that, among other things, has a unique and significant multi- and interdisciplinary character. We have art, history, and natural sciences interests and knowledge under one roof, and our future relies on building an experience that draws these parts into a compelling whole.

As a curator with a contemporary art background, I initially found joining OMCA a challenge. I was confronted with the question of how to make myself useful in an institutional context that demanded an openness and facility to work across disciplines with objects that range anywhere from painting and sculpture to historical artifacts to animal and plant specimens to many wonderfully surprising things in between. There are many museums that have similarly diverse collections, but there are very few, in my estimation, that have the need and enthusiasm for cultivating an expert interdisciplinary practice. In short, there weren’t a lot of models for me to draw from, which shouldn’t be a surprise since mainstream museums are only recently seeing the value of breaking out of discipline-specific categories.

In Out of the Cold, whether we understood it at the time or not, was an exuberant experiment in interdisciplinary curatorial work. It included, among other things, nuclear missile parts, rubble and ash from the recent Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, conceptual art, and historical documents. This heady project, the inaugural show for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and its youthful staff, threw history into a contemporary art environment and proposed a marriage between material culture and aesthetics.  It dropped mundane objects into a mixer with the esoteric and grounded sophistication in the real.

With a few years of rigorous interpretation experience serving a collecting institution committed to engaging and informing a broad audience, I now see our attempts to connect the range of In Out of the Cold’s disparate parts left some things to be desired. Nonetheless this view doesn’t diminish the inspiration I get from that exhibition’s courageous, pioneering ambition to place art within a broad community of ideas, tied together by the dominant theme of creative activity.

In Out of the Cold exhibition catalog cover.

Arnold J. Kemp

The show reflected the art world’s discussion of multiculturalism and forecasted its present obsession with global concerns.

On some days it is more apparent that the ground is shifting below our feet. This realization makes it all the more interesting to begin to perceive the shape of something else on the horizon, something that will follow the convergence of new forms of expression that do not deny but include the provocative, the popular, the scientific, the ideological, the didactic, and the haunted. The day that In Out of the Cold opened at the YBCA was such a day. Renny Pritikin’s vision was startlingly and ambitiously embodied in an exhibition slated for an institution with no history, no collection, and, at the time, no audience. The show reflected the art world’s discussion of multiculturalism and forecasted its present obsession with global concerns. It was a significant show.

As the curatorial assistant, I was assigned to facilitate the works of certain artists featured in the exhibition. Jerome Caja, Michael Joo, and David Hammons were artists in whom I took special interest. On the dawn before the press preview, after working all day and all night, I fell asleep on the gallery floor while helping Joo realize his vision. I defended Caja’s work with its extreme, queer content against a director who was afraid to offend the corporate sponsors of the exhibition. And I spent much time with David Hammons.

Pritikin had invited Hammons to install Black Star Line, a monumental work with a sort of altar dedicated to the Black nationalist Marcus Garvey, whose shipping company was founded to return American blacks to Africa. I coordinated the transportation of Hammons’s work from New York City to San Francisco through many conversations with its lender, a New York collector named A.C. Hudgins. I was personally unfamiliar with Hudgins, but I was aware of the trickster nature of Hammons. My naiveté led me to believe that Hudgins was actually Hammons; it wasn’t until Hammons was standing in front of me while I had Hudgins on the phone that I realized my mistake. I had coordinated the shipping and insuring of Black Star Line through Hudgins, but when Hammons arrived at Yerba Buena he was not at all interested in installing or even having Black Star Line exhibited in the context of In Out of the Cold.

Hammons surprised us with his resistance to the curatorial direction of the show. He hated the idea of presenting an older work and said that it would be like installing furniture instead of art. As far as I could tell, Hammons would rather have shown his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as he hated YBCA’s postmodern galleries with their 25-foot-high walls, which dwarfed most works. If he were to do anything, he proposed doing something new, even though we had already gone through much expense and trouble to bring Black Star Line to San Francisco. Hammons wanted to mount a piece that would mourn the retirement of the great basketball player Michael Jordan. Hammons argued repeatedly for this and made a fairly compelling sketch of his idea: a basketball backboard that would be hung 25 feet above the floor and would be dramatically draped with an extremely long black veil. It sounded beautiful, but Pritikin would not give up his vision for Black Star Line in the show.

Hammons was quite angry and very critical of Pritikin. Hammons and I walked around the galleries together while he cooled off before deciding whether he would install Black Star Line or simply leave before the opening. Hammons seemed to like little of what he saw. He asked me why Bettye Saar was making work about slavery and not saying anything that was not already known. He seemed lukewarm toward Lyle Ashton Harris’s installation that evoked a memory of Billie Holiday. Hammons and I spoke of his own work; he said he wanted to make work that no one understood and that seemed like it came from outer space. I told him that he sounded like Sun Ra, and he replied with a single word: “Exactly!”

In the end, Hammons chose not to install Black Star Line, and I exchanged his airline ticket so that he could return to New York. After Hammons left, I was given the difficult task of installing his sculpture using Polaroids of an earlier installation of the piece to recreate the altar-like structure at the back of the monument. I have thanked David Hammons a few times for the conversation that we had back then. For me, it was the beginning of a conceptual shift that changed everything. 

Ari Salomon

My first anecdote is about gluing ten thousand matchsticks on ten thousand nickels [for Chris Burden's Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979]. That was the first thing I did on my first day of many days working at YBCA. I was ushered into a very somber room with grumpy people in it. They were not very happy that I was young and enthusiastic. But at least I had heard of Chris Burden.

My other memory is about a hammer from [Paul Kos’s] piece with the cuckoo clocks, hammers, and sickles [Only a Matter of Time, 1990]. I was put on the installation crew after being released from the nickel-glue-room-from-hell. I grabbed a hammer to nail some art to the wall. And of course it turned out that the hammer I grabbed was the part of the art on the wall.

Tom [the chief preparator] got mad at me, but it was all okay at the end. He kept me around so I could make many more mistakes over the years.

Comments ShowHide