On October 12, New York’s Museum of Modern Art announced that Cornelia Butler
had been hired as its new curator of drawings, after her nearly decade-long
stint as the most authentically intellectual curatorial voice at L.A.’s MOCA.
Butler trained as an art historian at Scripps College and Berkeley, then did
curatorial stints in Des Moines and at N.Y.’s Artists Space and Neuberger Museum
before joining MOCA. Here, she culled several unusually thoughtful exhibits
from the permanent collection and helmed surprising and provocative shows, including
1996’s “The Power of Suggestion: Narrative and Notation in Contemporary Drawing”
and 1999’s “Afterimage: Drawing Through Process.” She co-curated two of MOCA’s
best shows last year, retrospectives of loopy-video artist Rodney Graham and
land-art demigod Robert Smithson.
Having spent roughly half her career on each coast, Butler has unusually direct
insight into the N.Y./L.A. thing. “I’m not sure that the differences are as important
now as differences between centers of art-making everywhere,” she said in a recent
e-terview. “I’m interested in questions of what makes the local local and what
distinguishes particular artistic practices from the internationalist style that
we now see everywhere. In current art, I think that a certain strain of abstract
painting here is involved with formalism and decoration in ways that aren’t that
interesting. I think this gets exported as the dominant version of art in L.A.
and becomes a misrepresentation that is repeated over and over again.”
Although she is heading east in January to begin sorting out a Rothschild Foundation
gift to MoMA of more than 2,000 works on paper, Butler still has several major
MOCA jobs pending, including a project by inventive local provocateur Eric Wesley
and a milestone survey called “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” a project
scheduled for Spring 2007 that is close to Butler’s curatorial heart.
“ ‘WACK’ will be the first major museum exhibition to survey feminist art during
the period 1965–1970, from an international perspective, exploring simultaneous
feminisms. When I proposed doing a big survey show of one of the only postwar
‘movements’ that was
left to do, MOCA was incredibly supportive from the beginning. Leaving MOCA
and L.A. has been the hardest decision I’ve ever made. It’s a great time to
be in L.A. and I find being a curator here to be very liberating.”