1.4 / Situations

There and Back Again

By Jarrett Earnest December 2, 2009

Interviews with Peter Selz and Lawrence Rinder on the Past and Future of the Berkeley Art Museum.

The full version of this article appears in Talking Cure Fall 2009. These interviews were conducted in August 2009.

Lawrence Rinder

Jarrett Earnest (JE): What’s happening with the building?

Lawrence Rinder (LR): Well I’m liberating it. The building has been constrained by the presence of a number of temporary exhibition walls in what we call “Gallery B” – the vast atrium space at the center of the building - and these walls have blocked the architecture from expressing itself fully. One cannot see through the building to the glass, or to the garden as was intended by the architect, and the main central space has been divided. So we’re getting rid of the walls, taking them out, and we have commissioned Thom Faulders, who is a Berkeley architect and designer, to design a sort of sculptural interactive seating element that will occupy the center of Gallery B, and serve as a space for conviviality, rest, observation, and what not.

JE: So it’s going to be a hang out space?

LR: Well, it will be a hang out space, at times; it will be a space for contemplation. We will have wireless Internet so that during the day, students, or anyone for that matter, can do their email or research.

We will be open Friday evenings starting November 6th. We will open until 9pm and Gallery B will be the focal point for performative, live things that will happen – so concerts. The first one will be Terry Riley on November 6th, programmed by Berkeley’s own exquisite Sarah Cahill, who will be programming a series of concerts on the first Friday of every month, with the exception of January. Then the other Fridays will be programmed by other local programmers: Franklin Melendez and Anne Colvin will each have a Friday and PFA will do the fourth Friday. On those nights the PFA screenings will be in Gallery B. People will sit on this Thom Faulders thing, so that in the evenings it will become a type of amphitheatre.

One of the strategies of this is to bring together the cultural things that are already happening out there, particularly in the East Bay, and give them a space to do their thing for a more expansive public. So that’s Gallery B, and I believe it will be a dramatic transformation of the museum – visually, programmatically, and dynamically. I think it will change the tone of the place considerably. In a way it will take it back to its roots, when the building was first made, in those first years, there was a lot of performance going on – Anna Halprin, Steve Reich – so what goes around comes around.

So then we have Omer Fast, who is a great, great artist who will be showing in our MATRIX program.

JE: Is there a relationship between the MATRIX programming and the new Gallery B programming?

LR: There is no relationship.

Liz Thomas is of course our MATRIX curator and she is continuing in the MATRIX legacy of brining in interesting and important emerging artists, so Omer Fast is certainly an interesting emerging artist who’s work has to do with filmic capacity, fiction and truth telling in film and video. He constructs narratives and there is interplay between fiction and documentary. He is doing a new piece for us.

JE: A two pronged question: this issue of Talking Cure is really about place, and I wonder about on your thoughts on what it means to be in the Bay Area or the East Bay in relationship to the “Art World”. Then the second part: what is the role of a museum, which happens to be part of a university.

LR: The East Bay is the art world. Really. Period.

JE: What do you mean by that?

LR: Well I can’t speak to the past, but in the present the East Bay is as much the center of the art world as any place on earth, and that may just be the way things are just now, that that may be true.

JE: And for you does that have to do with the ubiquity of Internet communication, the trans-national art world, etc?

LR: All of that, but not being facetious for a moment, the fact is that there are wonderful artists here in the East Bay: Desiree Holman, Laurie Reid, John Zurier, I could go on and on. There are a lot of great artists and musicians here, and on top of that there is all the intellectual activity of the university itself, the faculty and students and so on, and that is where culture is. I love San Francisco but believe me, the East Bay is nothing to sneeze at.

JE: What about the Bay Area in relationship to the larger world?

LR: My feeling is right now that I find it so much more satisfying to be engaged with what is happening in my metropolis, broadly speaking, then chasing some sort of notion of an abstract present or value of “nowness” that is somewhere in the world, be it Malaysia, London, Chelsea. Who the hell cares? I don’t know – its in Berkeley as far as I’m concerned. I mean I do travel and certainly there are interesting things happening, everywhere, not just in the art world.

Interior of UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo credit: Ben Blackwell.

JE: As a university art museum, how is that a different space for what is shown and how you approach things differently that other museums, like the Whitney?

LR: It is not just that it is a university museum; one has to really add other facets to understand what makes us who we are. It’s a university art museum in Berkeley, California with very different conditions because there are all sorts of other university art museums that have very different characters than ours. I think many university art museums tend to be more focused on a mission as a study collection so there is that sort of primary focus. We certainly serve the teaching needs of the University community – 30,000 works of art and film that are actively used by the art history and film studies programs.

The more profound core of our mission has to do with exploring the essence of art and provoking engagement with the idea of art and the exploration of its boundaries, based on a fundamental love for it, which pervades everything we do. There is a sort of irreverence, which brings me back to the fact that we are a university art museum in Berkeley, California at UC Berkeley, which comes with a certain willingness, always with certain seriousness and respect for our subject, but willing to go down the path not taken. And that has happened consistently throughout the history of the museum. We are traditionally untraditional. I think the museum has historically in its 40-year history exploited that effect primarily by identifying with contemporary art and contemporary culture. There is a niche for us, for bringing that same attitude as a lens for us to see historical material as well. Which is something the deYoung is not going to do, nor are many other institutions.

JE: More on who you would like to be, what did you see as your goal as curator, and how did that change when you became the director of the museum?

LR: Well, my role as curator was defined in the context of the institution, the curator has to support the mission of the institution – the role was very different at the Berkeley Museum, at what is now the Wattis, and the Whitney -- three very different institutions. As a curator, generically speaking, it is about bringing the best art within one’s purview to your audience and to present it in a way that servers the art. That allows the art to be itself as well as it can. That might mean simply putting it on the wall. That might mean writing something about it, or standing next to it talking about it. I mean there are all sorts of ways.

As a director my responsibilities are considerably broader than that. I have to raise money, a lot of money, to build the new building. I supervise various people who are responsible for various areas of the institution – so there is a management component, managing people, which is not really a nice word, “management.” Really, “encouragement” is what it should be called. Helping them to clarify their own goals and align their own work with the mission of the institution, supporting them, inspiring them. I mean all these things are what I do, which have nothing to do with art per se. 

JE: We haven’t talked at all about the new building.1 So right now November is the liberation of the current Berkeley Art Museum building, but what is its ultimate destination?

LR: Well the ultimate destination is the Toyo Ito designed building in downtown Berkeley, at Oxford and Center street, on the same block as the Downtown Berkeley BART station, at the western entrance to the university of California Berkeley. The first American building designed by Toyo Ito, the wonderful Japanese architect. It will be an extraordinary building unlike anything anyone has ever seen. Structurally speaking it is a completely new concept for building. It is made of ribbons of steel that are continuous vertically and horizontally. It is a little bit hard to describe. Imagine a torked honeycomb, that is sort of what it is like - an interesting balance between order and organic deformation.

JE: But how is it going to be to show art?

LR: Oh, Wonderful! It will be like a dream, like being in a dream. It is hard to imagine because none of us have been in such a space before, but I think it will be wonderful. We are hoping to break ground next spring and open in late 2013 or early 2014. So best case scenario we will stay in the current building all the way through, and we have four years left. I’m not just going to sit in this building and wait, I don’t have the time.

The building we have now can be a great building, if you work with it, accept it for what it is, and in a way live up to it. That is why I want to take down those temporary walls, and enjoy the space while we have it. Another thing is that there are certain characteristics of the Ito building  - for instance almost the entire first floor will be public galleries, space that you don’t have to pay admission and anyone can walk through. It will be an unusual kind of museum space because we will be programming it, but it can’t be programmed with the kind of art one typically finds in museum because of the issues of conservation and security, so there will be a lot of commissioned work, a lot of projections. So in a way what we are doing with the Thom Faulders’ project in Gallery B will be a test run for certain conditions we expect to have in the Ito building. The Faulders’ thing is a two-year project, we want to see how it works first and then we can play with it and see what happens.

JE: So the other part of who you are, that is less talked about, is you’re a fiction writer! Why do you write?

LR: Well, I love writing. It is almost the thing that comes most natural to me, certainly of any creative thing. It comes out of the place of the productive imagination, something that is more than just floating clouds. I don’t have a skill at any of the visual arts - I can’t carry a tune, I can’t dance, nothing. But I can write a story, thank god! Thank god I can do something, because I think it is important for me to do something where I can have empathy with artists. It would be ridiculous for me to be involved as a curator or museum director for that matter without having a sense of what if feels like to build something from your imagination. The struggle of that, just what that’s like. So I do it in a way as an exercise to keep that empathy going, but also because I wouldn’t know what else to do. You can only water your garden so much and then it becomes too much.

JE: is “Larry Rinder the writer” your true self more than “Larry Rinder the museum director”?

LR: I really am a museum director.

JE: For real.

LR: For real! I really am. But I really like writing fiction.

JE: What’s your favorite part?

LR: The moments where the things that have blocked up the flow are released and the solution becomes clear – what the thing is, and it reveals itself as if it was always there. That’s such an incredibly satisfying feeling.

JE: And what’s your favorite thing about being a curator?

LR: It’s the exactly the same feeling.

JE: The process?

LR: The process per se is not satisfying, because there are all sorts of things about the curating and writing process that are dispiriting and tiring and tedious that bring up feelings of self-loathing and insecurity. That is not fun. But in both processes of writing and curating there are moments where there is clarity and wonder and discovery and freshness and I don’t know where else one gets those particular feelings.

JE: To wrap this up nicely: What is the best thing about the future of art, and what is the worst?

LR: Well the best thing about the future of art is that there will be artists, and more than that I cannot say. Because only the artists are going to take us there, not museum directors. I have always thought that curators and directors prognosticate at their peril. AVOID IT, don’t do it. You have to be right there behind the artists. Which is hard, because they are moving forward, or wherever, and it is very dangerous to become fixed in ones assumptions about what things are. You have to be open enough to let yourself move and change with artists, and not so full of yourself that you think you can imagine where they are going to go.

The strange thing is that the “art thing” is this amorphous thing, it’s like the lights that used to dance around the masts of ships, St. Elmo’s fire, you can’t pin it down. So to say that a blockbuster show is a bad moment for art is a red herring. It was never art to begin with, so it’s not a bad moment for art because by definition art never has a bad moment. So wherever it is its art and it’s really about making oneself flexible enough to see where it is and not lose too much sleep about where it isn’t, because who cares. So being the director of an institution that has the mission to forward art and celebrate it, I do have a responsibility to nurture an environment where art can happen, whether it is on the wall, sound waves in the air, or some dynamic between people.

Anna Halprin. Performance still, UC Berkeley Art Museum, 1970. Courtesy of Peter Selz.

Peter Selz

Jarrett Earnest (JE): To begin, can we talk about the founding of the Berkeley Art Museum and your involvement with that?

Peter Selz (PS): I had a very good friend Walter Horn, a medievalist and a brilliant man, and we have been friends for many years. He suggested me and rather persuaded me. I spent about a year before I decided to take it. I was very happy with a great job as the chief curator of painting and sculpture at MOMA [but] in the seven or eight years I had been at MOMA, I had done most of the things I really wanted to do.

JE: What where those?

PS: Well first thing was The New Images of Man. I was very much into the roots of modern art and modern architecture, having done the German Expressionism book, so the second show I suggested was an Art Nouveau show. At that point Art Nouveau was totally on the periphery, nobody liked Art Nouveau. I thought this would be a wonderful thing to do. That was great show. The third one I suggested, we didn’t have a name for it, was assemblages. I saw these wonderful assemblages being done in Europe and America, which I called “collage and the object,” and for which we eventually coined the world “assemblage.” 

That was one reason, and there were all the other shows I did after that: the first American Futurists show, solo shows of Nolde, Beckmann, Dubuffet, Giacometti, and Rodin. There had never been a Rodin show, he was extremely famous but no one had ever done a solo show. So I had done all these things. Then the idea of going back to teaching appealed to me very much, because I enjoyed teaching when I did it before. And the idea of starting a museum of not only Modern Art but a more encyclopedic museum attracted me very much. But mostly the political situation in New York was pretty boring. But then I picked up the New York Times and there was all this stuff about the free speech movement and civil rights on the Berkeley campus. I was involved in civil rights in New York earlier, but in Berkeley it was really happening. All these things attracted me very much and I took the job.

One show I really wanted to do when I was still at MOMA, I was at that time doing the research, and I brought it all with me. So the first major international show I did here was the Kinetic Sculpture show. And there were 60,000 people in this temporary building. They loved to see this art move. And there I had Tinguely - I had done the Tinguely earlier at MOMA. I brought Tinguely together with people like George Rickey, Len Lye from New Zealand, Takis from Greece, a bunch of people from Germany. It was a marvelous and exciting exhibition in Berkeley, and it was so successful that I decided to go a group show of new things happening in the world. So a year after the kinetic sculpture show I did the Funk Show, which was in many ways the opposite, and has become much more talked about than the kinetic show at this point. The kinetic show I thought was really important and the funk show I did for fun, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

JE: When I was talking to Larry Rinder, we discussed the creation of the new building. You oversaw the construction of the current building. Could you talk about that?

PS: Well I came out here to be an advisor to the jury. It was an AIA project, which is the way it should be, so only AIA architects could vote. I think there were over 160 proposals that they looked at and they narrowed it down to six or seven. Many major architects in this country submitted proposals. I liked the Ciampi the best and was very excited when they decided to go with it. I loved the building from the very beginning. It took about two or three years to learn how to use this crazy building. The new design by Ito looks awfully good, but I like the one that is there now. And I understand that if there was a very bad earthquake the present building would be destroyed, but perhaps if it were bad enough the new building would be destroyed too.

JE: What was the talk about Noguchi with regards to the Ciampi building?

PS: Well there was supposed to be a sculpture garden. Ciampi and I used to have meetings once a week.  And one week Ciampi, like most architects who don’t know much about the other arts, said to me “I saw something about a sculpture garden in Jerusalem designed by a man named Noguchi and it looks good, what do you think about him?” so I said “I think that would be wonderful.” And we got in touch with Noguchi who had built things all over the world now but had never been commissioned to build anything in his native California, so he really was very happy about this. I picked him up at the airport and he carried a maquette for this new sculpture garden. He left it in Ciampi’s office. I looked at it and looked at it and I said “this is wonderful, with this sculpture garden the whole world will be interested in this museum.” At this point something went off in Ciampi’s head that the tail will wag the dog and overshadow his building. So the next time I saw him he said he checked it out and it was beyond the budget and he couldn’t do it. So I said “what are you going to do for a sculpture garden?” and he said he was going to design it himself. So a couple of weeks later he unveiled his design and I told him that if he built that sculpture garden Noguchi might well sue him for plagiarism and I will have to be Noguchi’s witness, because it looked just like it. So he put it away and as you see today, there is not a sculpture garden. But what Noguchi had done in this small space – he was a master – every foot of that space was carefully considered. But win a few and lose a few.

JE: One of the things that came up when talking to Larry Rinder is that they were trying to re-integrate performance and music in the space of the museum, which you had at the very beginning.

PS: Well you know about the dancers we had before we opened? Anna Halprin said she would like to bring her dancers to define the museum space before we hung any pictures, which I thought was a very good idea. About a week before someone said to me “you know I heard they will be dancing naked in the museum, you better do something about it or you are going to get into trouble before you even open the museum.” I said “if I would censor them I would be in more trouble with myself” so they did the performance of these beautiful young bodies going up and down the ramps and it was very beautiful. So actually we had performance in there before any paintings. And the acoustics were very bad, but we had Jazz and all kinds of things. One thing that really lasted was the Pacific Film Archive.

JE: How did the PFA come about?

PS: So MOMA was the only museum in the country to have a big film program; we were the second. I wanted to do the same thing here. In the downstairs part in the original plan there were art studios. I said we didn’t need them there, that we had the art department. I kept running against people in the administration who would say, “What do movies have to do with an art museum?” Especially because we didn’t charge. When I was at the museum we didn’t charge anything either for the museum or the film archive, and the film archive was fairly expensive, so we ran into budget problems even then. But I insisted we do it and we had very good directors running it, and it got better and better as time went one. We brought Henri Langlois who ran the cinematheque in Paris and he gave us all kinds of advice about how to organize it and program it. That has been the most successful thing.

JE: How do you feel about the “Galaxy” show that is up at the Berkley Art Museum now?

PS: AH! Well what Larry has done is not at all what I would have done. I would take the things I liked the best and put them in chronological order, which is a little boring. What he did was delightful, full of surprises. I mean I object basically to hanging an Ad Reinhardt next to an Andy Warhol, but then again why not. Ad Reinhardt would have torn his hair out, but I think it was so full of interesting juxtapositions. I liked it very much.

JE: Your career sort of grew up with Modern art. What do you feel your role is as a curator or historian?

PS: I was always interested in things that I thought were excellent but that other people didn’t really pay attention to. When I wrote my dissertation on German Expressionism, in about 1950, nobody paid any attention to German Expressionism. Not only in America, but also in Germany they didn’t. So then I went on from there looking at things that other people weren’t. My Fulbright in Paris was looking at post-war French art, it was 1949-50, it wasn’t long afterward, and was all new, which is why I looked at people like Dubuffet. The book that Cambridge University Press published of my essays was called Beyond the Mainstream, and I think my whole career really, including the things I am doing right now, are looking at art that I think is excellent, whether it was German Expressionism then or Morris Graves now, that deserves to be seen and is on the periphery.

Now this doesn’t mean that at times I wasn’t prompted to write about or do exhibitions of artists who were recognized, like for instance the Mark Rothko exhibition I organized, or the Sam Francis book I did, but most of the time I thought about doing things other people didn’t want.

JE: How did moving from MOMA to Berkeley change that? It seems like one of the most wonderful things you did was help contextualize what was happening in California within the larger art world.

PS: I enjoyed doing that…

One of the Major shows I did was in the large space downstairs of what they call the “Gallery B,” which I hear is going to be converted into a living room. When I saw this I thought, “We have these huge spaces we can show these huge paintings by Ferdinand Hodler.” That was a really important show to do, introducing this great symbolist painter of the turn of the century to America. It was a beautiful show. It went to the Guggenheim, where it didn’t look quite as good but they installed it very well and it ended up at Harvard. It was expensive but we managed to get the Swiss government to pay which nice.

We were doing a double European sculpture show and two weeks after it opened, it was the time of the Cambodian invasion, some students came who wanted to make posters in protest against the Vietnam war and that they would like to do it in the museum. They thought, “How are we going to convince Selz to let us use that space” so they made a petition. When they presented it to me I said “I think that is a great idea!” and we moved all these sculptures into the back and turned it over to the students to make posters. I was always involved with political things at the same time.

JE: What is your favorite thing about being a curator or historian?

PS: Well my favorite thing about being a curator is finding new things to show, and I love installing shows. At my first show I did at MOMA, I had never installed a show before, and the idea of the Museum of Modern Art was that instead of having professional designers install the show, the curator who knows the work best installs the show. So I had to do that. 

For being an art historian, basically, relating art to its historic, social, and political context. I did that at a time in my art historical writing when most of my colleagues were strictly involved in formalist art history.

JE: In a simple question towards closing: what do you think is the best and worst thing about contemporary art and its future.

PS: I don’t know what is best and worst; I think contemporary art has basically become totally global. I think that the Funk show, for example, was a regional thing that can’t really exist anymore, and doesn’t exist any more. At all the art fairs it all looks the same, no matter where it is being done. So I don’t know if it is the best or the worst but it is certainly what is going on. Basically I think a lot of what is going on is not very interesting. From way back when I first saw video art I felt that it’s mostly done by people who couldn’t make it as filmmakers. That is still true with some exceptions. The same is true about performance art -- people who couldn’t make it on a regular stage. On the other hand the Happenings were much more interesting then what later on became performance art. So what is going on in general? I don’t feel a great deal that is exciting, although I am still involved in doing shows. I think it is very rare that you find a major artist.

JE: You have worked with so many of the great artists of the twentieth century; who has remained for you the most important?

PS: Max Beckman.

JE: How has Beckman changed for you, having lived with his work for so long?

PS: Well for so many years Abstract Expressionism was king and it wasn’t so easy to look at somebody like Beckman. How he has changed for me? He has just become richer and richer. Every two years another book is published on different aspects of his work - it is just so enigmatic. I read these things and think “he has seen things in that triptych that never occurred to me.” Always new things, different things, in the detail of this or that triptych. The richness of his imagination, the fact that you never quite know in some of them what this or that figure means. And the quality of the painting - the sense of color too. I mean right after World War One he made a painting, The Night that has all the cruelty of the war. It ranks with Guernica and it was made fifteen years before.

The other one is Rothko, because I see more and more in him all the time. 


  1. In mid-November, the University of California announced its decision to cancel its plan to move forward with the Ito-designed building, citing the current difficult economic climate.  They state that they are still committed to constructing a new museum on the designated site.  For more information, please see the November 18, 2009 San Francisco Chronicle article.

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