Sculpture is a very rich dialogue Carmen Giménez with Michael Brensonby Michael Brenson
During the last 25 years Carmen Giménez has built a reputation as the most important curator of modernist sculpture in the world. Her exhibitions at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where she has been Curator of Twentieth Century Art since 1989, include “Picasso and the Age of Iron” (1993), “Brancusi: The Essence of Things” (2004) and “David Smith: A Centennial” (2006), which received the award from AICA/USA (The International Association of Art Critics) as the best exhibition of the year. For the Guggenheim Bilbao she curated “Richard Serra: Sculpture” (1999) and “Calder: Gravity and Grace” (2003), as well as the celebrated installation, “Richard Serra: The Matter of Time” (2005). But her curatorial legacy can only be partially suggested by her contributions to the experience and knowledge of sculpture. During her years as Director of the National Center for Exhibitions for the Spanish Ministry of Culture (1984-1989), she was responsible for the transformation of Madrid’s former 18th century Hospital de San Carlos into the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which was instrumental in bringing modern and contemporary art into post-Franco Spain. For the Reina Sofía and other Spanish art spaces, she curated exhibitions of John Chamberlain, Frida Kahlo, Juan Gris, Carl Andre, Christian Boltanski, Richard Artschwager, Philip Guston and others. In 1997 she was put in charge of a second major architectural conversion, this one of the Palacio de Buenavista into the Museo Picasso Málaga, which opened under her directorship in 2004. During her most recent Guggenheim exhibition, “Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History,” Carmen spoke about her remarkable life and career.
Michael Brenson (Rail): Let’s begin with your exhibition at the Guggenheim, Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History. My sense is it is important to you on a personal level, that you have a feeling of pride in bringing this art, and this statement about Spanish art, to this country.
Carmen Giménez: Yes, I’m very happy. It was a show that was supposed to have been done before. In July of 2001 it was approved. Then 9/11 stopped the project because it was difficult for works to travel and the expense of lending during difficult times is very high. So the show was put aside. Then in 2004 the Spanish government changed. The new socialist government’s Minister of Culture, Carmen Calvo, who was essential in the creation of the Museo Picasso Málaga, immediately asked me to be their advisor for international shows. I proposed “From El Greco to Picasso” and after a long discussion between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Carmen Calvo and Carmen Cerdeira, the president of SEACEX (Sociedad Estatal para la Acción Cultural Exterior), the international organization that would, in the end, co-produce the project with the Guggenheim, we all agreed the show should be done and started talking about budget and how the show would be organized.
Rail: Would it have been very different if it had been done earlier?
Giménez: I think I would have managed better loans. Everyone is happy with my loans but, for example, we had the Velázquez show in London last fall, which hurt me very much. I thought I was going to have beautiful Velázquez’s. The Picasso and American Art show at the Whitney also hurt me; many of the loans I wanted were there and in other shows at the time. But I have been very fortunate to count on the total support of Miguel Zugaza, director of the Prado, and Ana Martínez de Aguilar, director of the Reina Sofía, who lent fifteen and ten paintings to the show, respectively. And I must say, the show is not only mine, it’s also Francisco Calvo Serraller’s. Many of the 15 chapters are his ideas.
Rail: Was he involved all along?
Giménez: From the beginning. When Tom Krens asked me to do a show about Spain, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I am a 20th century person. But here I am involved in the whole art history of my country. Then who is going to write? Paco Calvo is a person with whom I have had a long working relationship. We did our first shows together in 1987 in Paris, From El Greco to Picasso in the Petit Palais, and Le Siècle de Picasso in the Musé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. We often thought that if we had to do a show again, we would do it differently—not chronologically. This is the first time Paco and I, or for that matter anyone, did a non-chronological show including so many centuries. We had to see how we were going to make those artists speak together, and so the chapters were organized thematically. [The chapters include “Landscapes of Fire,” “Women in Public,” “Knights and Ghosts,” “Monks,” “Freaks,” “Crucifixions” and “The Fallen.”] For the selection, work by work, and the presentation, we shared responsibility. He trusts me and I trust him. Paco knew the show was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You do the exhibitions when you can do them, and now that it’s done, I am very happy, because even considering all the difficulties, the show is still fresh. You can see there is a strong connection from beginning to end, and there is something that is very Spanish.
Rail: When you curated this show, were you more aware of being Spanish, and of having a different responsibility to the art than if you had done a French or Italian show?
Giménez: No. To be very honest, I am Spanish but I am very French in my mind, and I have a vision of Spain sometimes through the French. There is in Spain something which is unique—the Spanish had the leadership of the Catholic Counter-Reformation amid the archaic socio-political structures. Spain became backward; we were not in control of our lives. Certainly the Counter-Reformation is not only Spanish, you have it too in France, and in Italy. But at the time Italy was not seen as one country. Some parts of it were part of Spain; as you know, Naples was Spanish. The only two countries that really had their own identity aside from Spain were England and France. Even Holland was part of Spain. I think the identity of Spain as a nation started around the 16th century. And I feel the Golden Age, the 17th century, was also very important to Spain’s formation. And then the idea of the Counter-Reformation was stronger perhaps in Spain, because of the peculiarity of the people. It’s a very hard country; it has always been a poor country, poorer than the others, mainly because it was badly administered, specially starting in the 19th century.
Rail: When you say hard you mean in terms of landscape and weather?
Giménez: Yes, the landscape and the weather. The weather is very hot in the summer. France is so green and so sweet in a way. Spain is very harsh, even today you can drive many hours and you have no houses or no villages. There are vast wide open spaces and nature preserves that no longer exist in Europe. But Spain is also hardened by the country’s inveterate isolation between the later half of the 16th century and the death of Franco in 1975.
Rail: Can we talk about your childhood, and where you spent your first years, and what they were like?
Giménez: I was born in Casablanca, in French Morocco. My father, Cándido, was a Republicano, so he was very much involved in politics. He couldn’t go to war because he had polio in one leg, so when the war started…
Rail: When you say “the war”?
Giménez: The Spanish Civil War. My father’s family is from Tarifa, the deep south of Spain. If you are in Tarifa you can see Morocco. It is the Spanish city where you see most clearly Morocco. My grandfather lived in Tarifa and worked in both Spain and Morocco. He was an architect, working for the Sultan; he was building palaces and houses. He spoke good Arabic. As a result, my father was very used to going back and forth to Morocco. But Spain was their place, and when the war started he left for Morocco and decided to be involved in the war from there.
Rail: An American audience might not know what a Republicano is.
Giménez: Before the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Spain was a republic, or, as it is now called, “La República.” During that time the democratically elected government was led by the leftist Popular Front. Very quickly after the elections, the Right, unhappy with the outcome of the elections, started to make problems, to kill people, to create an atmosphere of fear. The Republicans were not able to control that fear, so the fear grew. There was also a rebellion by the extreme right within the militia. General Franco was part of that right wing movement from the beginning. He was dismissed from the military by the Republic for being a traitor to his country. The rebellion ended in a terrible civil war which unhappily was won by the extreme right fascists, led by Franco. He won the war with help from the Germans and Mussolini in Italy. The Germans and Italians used Spain essentially as a training ground for World War II. They bombed and destroyed complete cities with their planes, most notably Guernica in northern Spain on April 26, 1937. Although we can’t forget the bombings and killings in Barcelona which were much more numerous. Meanwhile, the French, the English and the Americans never helped us. They decided not to interfere, to remain neutral. There were these really poetic situations, like the International Brigade, which was made up of writers like Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemingway, André Malraux and George Orwell. The Brigade was fantastic for the morale of the people because it represented the international fight of ‘The Republic’ of the people against fascism, a romantic fight of democratic ideas against tyranny. But, in the end, it did not make much of a difference. It would have been much better if the French had let arms come in. The English and Americans did nothing. They were really not very smart because that gave the opportunity to the Germans to do what they did a few years afterward. And I especially blame the French because they were horrible.
Rail: Was your mother Spanish, too?
Giménez: Yes. She, too, was from Andalusia, the deep south of Spain. My mother was born in La Linea de la Concepción, which is directly facing Gibraltar, but she was raised in Tangiers. She was not raised in Spain.
Rail: Did your parents meet in Morocco or Spain?
Giménez: In Casablanca, because my mother lived in Tangiers. She lost her parents very young, and she had a brother who lived in Casablanca, so she went to live with her brother and that’s where she met my father.
Rail: It sounds quite romantic.
Giménez: Yes, it is quite romantic.
Rail: How many years did you spend in Morocco?
Rail: Was your first language Spanish?
Rail: What did you speak in school?
Giménez: French, but I was sent to school late, at age 7. Before starting French school I had special classes in my house. I knew how to read and write in Spanish, the language we spoke at home. When I was sent to French school, I did not speak one word of French. It was a nightmare. The French were not nice, and were extremely difficult, and I knew how to write and read, but I didn’t speak French, and so they made fun of me. I couldn’t stand to be mocked so I made an effort to get rid of my Spanish accent. That’s why I speak Spanish with an unclassified accent. I became French in the process. At that time in my house, my mother never spoke French very well. In Morocco you lived in colonies, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, so most of my family didn’t speak one word of French.
Rail: Why did they send you to a French school?
Giménez: My father saw the low level of the Spanish school. Franco was in power, my father realized that, and we were not going to go back to Spain. My father was also always pro-French and in support of the allies and pro-Arab. He helped me fall in love with Morocco, and there was no question that I would be sent to a French school. Then when you saw what the French did to the Spanish Republicanos fleeing Franco, at the frontier (there’s actually a very thoughtful book about this by Carles Fontseré who recently died at the age of 90). Part of my father’s work at the time was to help the Republicanos forced into exile by the Civil War. Instead of finding freedom, those Spanish citizens were put into French camps, in Perpignan, Argeles, Barcares and Saint-Cyprien. They were tortured, persecuted and humiliated in the most horrible way. So my father, from Morocco, with help from a small minority of Republicano sympathizers in France, was part of a sort of ‘underground railroad’ that broke people out of the camps in France to Algiers, Morocco, and then onto boats sailing for Mexico where they would be safe and free. It was a very similar atmosphere to the movie Casablanca; no one was really safe, everyone trying to get the next way out. That time in history was called The Exile. It was an especially hurtful time because no free Spaniards living in exile and sympathetic to the cause, like Picasso, Companys, Negrin and Pablo Casals, did anything to expose the atrocities happening to these people. There was and still is a very thick cloud of silence about that time. I organized an exhibition in 1983 about that special moment called Mexico and the Republic: The Republican Exile.
Rail: Are your memories of your childhood in Casablanca positive or mixed?
Giménez: They are mixed. They are positive because it was a beautiful country. You have the Jewish people, you have the Arabs, French, Italians, Portuguese, Spanish. In my class all my friends were Jewish, I was Jewish myself in a way, thinking that I was like one of them. It was a huge Jewish community. Morocco was a French protectorate, not a colony, but even if it was a protectorate, it was a sad situation. It was a very unstable place; you couldn’t be in the street and feel safe. I saw a lot of violence against the Arabs; that has remained very much in my head.
Rail: What form did the violence take?
Giménez: Beatings. Seeing scenes in the street of people being beaten by the French. God knows what! You have those people who put their things on the street to sell them. Instead of saying “You are not allowed, please move,” they had to destroy all their things, they had to beat them. Very quickly my father and I became pro-independence and against colonialism, against protectorates. I saw a tremendous amount of terrorism, it didn’t make me feel very secure, but at the same time it gave me an important experience because today we live the same, in a way.
Rail: Did you speak Arabic?
Giménez: Yes. I spoke classical Arabic. My father spoke fluent dialect Arabic, like an Arab. I thought if you live in Morocco, how can you not speak Arabic? I went into their poetry, their art. I love Islamic architecture.
Rail: Where did the interest in art begin?
Giménez: I’m from a very artistic family. Every two years my father organized a trip. We couldn’t go to Spain, but we could go to France and the rest of Europe, so we went to all the museums. My father loved art. My father loved Picasso. As a Republicano Spaniard, you had in your house the Guernica. The image of Guernica, that’s like the symbol of liberty, something you live for. The first artist I had in my mind was Picasso. We went around to museums, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, everywhere except Spain. The first time I went to Spain I was 13 years old.
Rail: Tell me how your interest in art evolved, and how you became a curator.
Giménez: My younger brother and older brother were very artistic, they could draw very well, and I was in the middle. They had this sensibility to draw and I didn’t. That was my big frustration. I became engaged in the language of art. My older brother José Antonio was so brilliant he was encouraged to do a career in the fine arts; my younger brother Roberto was extraordinary in music, and he was encouraged to do a career in music. My father decided that we had to study so we could manage our lives; afterwards if we chose to pursue art we were free to do so, but we had to have a career. My older brother became an economist, and I studied political science with journalism—I wanted to write against Franco, to have a role in Spain becoming an independent country out of this horrible man –and my younger brother became a sound engineer. Very quickly I realized I was not going to be good for politics, because all my friends were telling me I was not a good politician. They said I was too direct and transparent, always saying what I thought. I found out that what I really loved was art.
I studied at the École du Louvre, with Suzanne Pagé, all my curatorial generation has done the École du Louvre. I had this vision that I would come back to Spain and do a museum in Spain, that was present in my mind from the time I was in the École du Louvre, because after five or six years living in France I realized I wanted to live in Spain.
Rail: What exhibitions did you see in Paris at the time?
Giménez: I saw the Picasso exhibition at the Grand Palais in 1964. I saw the Miró exhibition. All the exhibitions at the time were done at the Musée d’Art Moderne. That was the place. The artists of the time, like Herbin, Poliakoff, Soulages, Gromaire, Hartung, Jesús Soto, Cruz-Diez, Etienne-Martin, the Nouveau Réalistes—I knew most of them. I met my ex-husband very quickly because he was best friends with my brother, and his aunt was a big collector. She was essential in introducing me to the artists, collectors and galleries at the time. The art world was much smaller then, so I knew everyone.
Rail: What were your aunt’s and husband’s names?
Giménez: Liliane Pollak and John Peter Trafford. He was English but he was born in Chile.
Rail: Where did the desire to work in museums come from?
Giménez: From the artists, from Picasso, Miró, Saura and Tàpies, all the Spanish artists in Paris, to see that whenever they met anyone, they spoke about Spain, and they believed that something had to come up in Spain one day. Starting in 1957, Spain started to accept people like my father – to visit, not to stay. It was very difficult. We had to go through customs. If you would have been there, you would have passed immediately. I could not. And my younger brother who tried to study in Spain was thrown out; he couldn’t study in Spain. He had to leave. I came to live in Spain in 1967. If I would not have come to Spain in 1967, I would not have been able to understand the country and would not have been able to do what I’ve done. Because it allowed me to understand what it was to live in Spain with Franco. What it is to live in a country where you have no freedom. And, until the end, they were still killing people, in the universities there was still repression, and I think today my generation has been very much damaged. I think it will take some time. I think the mediocrity I find in Spain today comes from Franco. When I think about curating, what I had in mind was museums and collections, and I believed that artists like Picasso had to go back to Spain, had to have their share. We could feel that Spain was going to make a step. I started building exhibitions. I did an exhibition that went through American universities and some little museums, called Contemporary Spanish Prints: From Miró to 1978.
Rail: Was your introduction to American art during this time?
Giménez: Before the École du Louvre, I had spent almost a year studying journalism and political science at Northwestern University, so I was in Chicago and I went to the Art Institute and met collectors. I went all around America and I knew very well America, and I loved the artists. I loved American literature – Henry Miller, Hemingway, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and the Beat Generation.
Rail: Did you fall in love immediately with American Contemporary Art?
Rail: What in particular?
Giménez: I loved Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko, Newman and Rauschenberg. I loved Pop very much, Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. It was the beginning of Ryman, of the Minimalist artists coming onto the scene. I very quickly met Richard Serra. After my husband and I separated in 1976, I was advising for Wayne Anderson on the European art scene and Islamic art. I came to New York very often. I was very much involved. That’s why when in 1982 the Socialist Party came into power people came to me, because I was already well known internationally. I had done the exhibition Contemporary Spanish Prints: From Miró to 1978. and I had done a show with Juan Muñoz as my co-curator, Correspondences between Architecture and Sculpture, in which I had included Richard Serra and Frank Gehry. Then in 1983 I did Tendencies in New York, in the Palacio de Velázquez, Madrid. The show included artists like Donald Sultan, Susan Rothenberg, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Keith Haring, etc.
Rail: When did your involvement begin with the Reina Sofía?
Giménez: The Reina Sofía as an idea of a museum really started in 1983 when I was appointed Executive Advisor to the Minister of Culture, Javier Solana. It was the first socialist government in Spain since the Civil War and a very special, magical moment. They gave me this incredible job, I was very frightened, but I have always been a person of conviction. Everyone thought I was crazy to accept and I said, no, I’ve been preparing my whole life for this. So I’m not going to say no. If it doesn’t work, what do you lose? And then Solana was extraordinary. He had been educated like me outside of Spain and he understood me immediately and he said if people like you, or myself, we don’t help this country, how is it going to move? And he gave me the freedom and trust to explore what I thought Spain should be doing from an art perspective. I had been given something which no one could have anymore, certainly not in Spain. Manolo Fernández Miranda, General Director for Fine Arts, gave me an absolutely essential support at the time. Another fundamental person in my life was Alfonso Otazu. Alfonso started the same day I did and he was going to facilitate my work at the Ministry of Culture by bringing me money and creating a foundation for the help of culture, which would allow me to not go through the tremendous bureaucracy. I had to invent my job. My job did not exist in Spain. Otazu was also crucial in my life when I left the Ministry and joined the Guggenheim. Tom Krens was very interested in opening a Guggenheim in Salzburg at the time. I thought it was important for Spain to have a Guggenheim in Bilbao and I shared my ideas with Otazu. He made the important introductions with the Ministers of the Basque Government that led Tom to agree to the Bilbao Guggenheim project.
Rail: So you conceived the Reina Sofía, which opened under your direction in 1986.
Giménez: I conceived it. The Reina Sofía was an 18th century hospital called Hospital San Carlos which I’d heard of before, from Doctor Barrios, a doctor who was a best friend of Buñuel. He loved space, he knew I loved space, and he told me, you have to go and see it for yourself. I saw it before I joined the ministry so when I joined, I knew already the possibility of that place. The Ministry initially wanted to divide that space into a multi-purpose center for cine-art, dance, music, etc. I didn’t agree. I felt that it was perfect for a museum exclusively and for that, lots of space was essential. Not just the room for exhibitions but also for conservation, preparation—there is a lot of space needed for the behind-the-scenes portion of a museum. The first person I invited was Dominique Bozo to meet with Javier Solana, and Dominique came and told Solana, Carmen is totally right, you never have enough space, so he explained to him his experience as director of the Pompidou Center; he also created the Musée Picasso in Paris. And then we created something like a commission, with Nicholas Serota, he was the director at Whitechapel at the time, Edy de Wilde and Max Gordon. Max was very important because he immediately could impassion them about the possibility. Max created the Saatchi space in London. I have learned space from two essential people: Richard Serra and Max Gordon. Max was an animal of space, the same as Richard. They enter a space and immediately you can see they fill the space by the way they move. It’s something you cannot explain. Max knew he was going to die and so he spent a lot of time with me, and he gave me lessons that I have always kept in my mind. The Museo Picasso in Málaga, certainly it’s Richard Gluckman but, for me, it’s Max Gordon too. Because Max taught me to be radical when you enter into a space. I knew immediately when I entered Málaga’s Palacio de Buena Vista, all the Jewish quarter behind the Palacio was in ruin. You could not live in a beautiful house surrounded by a slum. Why was the Jewish quarter not restored, recuperated? And what better way to do it than the Picasso Museum, and we have to respect the houses around it. We have to respect the atmosphere, the situation, and we did.
Rail: Did you feel with the Reina Sofía that it was in some sense a political act, that in restoring that building and showing what you showed in it that you were making a statement about the entire culture and country?
Giménez: Yes. It was right in the city, it was in a very poor part of the city, even though it’s only five minutes away from the Prado. My idea was to create a contemporary arts center, and a museum, and I thought to start the museum with Guernica, with Picasso, and then with contemporary art. Because in Spain at the time, the idea of Picasso was still not very clear. I thought Picasso should have his own museum. And then I thought, he had to help the others. Picasso had to be in the Reina Sofía and start with Guernica, even though it belonged to the Prado. We needed to start our contemporary history there.
Rail: So Guernica was shown in the Reina Sofía pretty close to the time that it opened?
Giménez: Afterward. I wanted to prove that the Reina Sofía was a place for art. I demonstrated this through the opening exhibition of three Spanish artists: Tàpies, Saura, and Chillida, along with Cy Twombly, Baselitz and Richard Serra. They were all in their own space, they were not mixed at all, but they were in dialogue. [Richard Serra created, in situ, the famous Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi, which is now on view at the Serra retrospective at MoMA.] I wanted to show that it was not going to be just a Spanish museum for Spanish art. It had to be international.
Rail: You showed the Panza collection, right? And the Nasher collection?
Giménez: For me Panza was essential. I wanted to buy the Panza collection and certainly I thought that this was a perfect place for it, and I think that it will be always remembered as the perfect place for that collection. I did the Sonnabend collection, too. I did the Phillips collection, I did Matisse in the Russian collections, I did the Beyeler collection. I wanted to encourage public interest in modern and in contemporary art, to encourage Madrid to own a collection of modern art, which they didn’t have at the time.
Rail: Did your feeling for working with sculpture develop during your time at the Reina Sofía?
Giménez: Before, because I love space. I love Richard Serra’s work very, very much. And I like all those minimal artists, I like Judd, I like Carl Andre and Dan Flavin. I thought Picasso was an extraordinary sculptor. People didn’t know that at the time. And I loved Giacometti. For me sculpture corresponded more to the language of the time than painting. I still love painting, but…
Rail: Did you feel when you were working with those artists’ sculptures that it was different from working with painting?
Giménez: Yes. I learned much more.
Rail: Tell me about that
Giménez: I learned much more because they are involved in the space so they create their own situation into the space; they are their own curator, in a way. Your role is to facilitate their life somehow. Richard Serra doesn’t need a curator. Then, yes, you have to write about him, or you have to create his catalogue. But he creates his own catalogue. I think most sculptors are their own curators. But they need someone to help them. And, certainly, the way they dealt with space is what fascinates me the most, because I love architecture and space.
Rail: You have also worked with the sculptures of Brancusi, Giacometti, Smith and Calder.
Giménez: They have the same spirit, you know. The only thing is, the Minimalists and Post-Minimalists went further, they were more engaged into the space. The space of Brancusi was his atelier. Giacometti is a man who has dealt with space. David Smith had Bolton Landing. And Calder has created magical space, “gravity and grace.”
Rail: If you work with their sculptures and you feel that their work is really about this sensitivity in relationship to space, that also puts a certain amount of pressure on you as a curator to make sure that they’re installed in such a way as to communicate a spatial idea that’s related to what they had in mind.
Giménez: I think there is very little sensibility to sculpture. When sculpture is put in a museum against a wall, that is the first big mistake. When you build a museum, you have to think about sculpture. Sculpture needs space. You cannot put a sculpture against the wall. You have to have the possibility to go around the sculpture and to see all the perspectives.
Rail: Can we talk about your curatorial process? I know when you do a show that you live with it for a long time. You meticulously consider where everything will go and where everything will be in relation to everything else. I’d like to get a sense of how Picasso and the Age of Iron and the David Smith retrospective, both at the Guggenheim, evolved in your mind.
Giménez: The Guggenheim is a special place. I consider the Frank Lloyd Wright building a sculpture. If you don’t work with Frank Lloyd Wright, you’re dead.
Of course, it’s a very difficult building for sculpture. But if you follow a certain rule then you can give the space for the sculpture. What I can decide is the number of pieces there are going to be. I don’t go for more sculpture than can be seen. The work has to be able to breathe. You have to work with the space, in Frank Lloyd Wright more than anywhere. Frank Lloyd Wright gives you this possibility that I think is unique. I don’t know any other museum in the world that has this possibility for dialogue. You have dialogue between the different works, in the ramp, and from ramp to ramp, and even the whole museum becomes a situation. You enter into something that has an energy that makes the sculptures vibrate. It’s a fantastic museum for artists who have been working in the scale of the Guggenheim. Richard Serra cannot show sculpture in the Guggenheim NY, neither can Judd. It’s a building that opened in 1959, though it was a 1930’s idea of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a building of his time. So whenever the sculpture is of its time, it’s fantastic. Whenever it is out of his time, then it is impossible, and the show looks too crowded, and I have a problem on the ramp of weight and size.
Rail: Thinking about the Smith show, can you give a concrete example of how you used the perspectives of the ramps?
Giménez: Whenever I install I immediately go across the ramp to see if that works. You have to constantly see from all these positions. You have to see them in line, too. What I think is fantastic is when you look and they all have dialogue. You have to see what is going to be above and above and above. You have to have the total building.
Rail: As a curator, you must handle the work yourself?
Giménez: I try not to too much. There are some times I want to, and then I ask permission, but you know I am very respectful. Before, you could do that much more. When I started I touched the work, as part of my love. But today you cannot. Because every work of art today comes with a courier. So you don’t touch anything.
With Brancusi you ask permission, and you touch them. Especially those incredible forms, the Sculptures for the Blind. They have to be touched, no? Of course you have to put on special gloves because your hands leave traces on the sculpture and it’s not good. But you still have the feeling.
Rail: So as a curator, you have a relationship to those works that other people coming to the museum don’t have. I wonder what you learn from that relationship that is different from what I would learn, even just from moving the sculptures around on a base, or up and down the ramp.
Giménez: You have all what you are telling me, from the moment the sculpture arrives; you open the crate, the multiple vision. In a painting you have one vision. I don’t think if you see the Zurbarán, Saint Hugh in the Refectory (Saint Bruno and the Miracle of the Uneaten Meat) from the balcony you get a different perspective on the painting. Though if you see from the balcony the Birds of Brancusi, you have a different perspective. Sculpture is a very rich dialogue, and I like that.
Rail: You’re involved in a process where you’re unpacking them; you’re having them moved out onto the ramp; you’re having them moved around; and then in the end they get put back in the crates. A show has a different life for a curator.
Giménez: For me that moment is the most important, what is worth all the effort you have made. That’s the moment of truth. It’s a moment with what you’ve been thinking, what you’ve been seeing—because images are coming to reality. You understand the artist much more.
Rail: You mean the moment of installation?
Giménez: Yes. The moment it comes out of the crate, and then you have to decide if it is frontal, or a little bit moved here, a little bit moved there. Please, from the other side, from the other side. You see all the sides.
Rail: I think one feels in your exhibitions a weight of thought. That this is intended to be here, at this height and angle, for a particular reason. There’s something ethical in the care that one feels in your installations about everything being in the right place as much as you can possibly imagine doing it.
Giménez: I try, you know. It’s something very visual. Sometimes it’s very difficult to explain. I am extremely intuitive. And there are some things for which there are no words. It’s an act of love. I always work with artists I love. It’s very beautiful. It has happened with this exhibit of Spanish painting. I really had a tremendous happiness and joy to see the connections. What was interesting was to connect the Picasso with Zurbarán, to see Picasso with Pereda, Juan Gris with van der Hamen, Miró with Goya, and to see that there is a Spanish-ness.
Rail: I’m interested in what you might have learned in particular from curating individual sculptors, and sculptures. What did you learn about David Smith from putting his work in the Reina Sofía and the Guggenheim, or Brancusi in the Guggenheim, or Picasso in the Guggenheim?
Giménez: I met David Smith for the first time installing him when I did Picasso and the Age of Iron. I’d installed already Calder, Picasso, and certainly González, and Giacometti too. But David Smith was a first encounter. I work very much by selection. I went very much around to look at works, and that’s how I met the Smith family. Candida Smith, Rebecca Smith and Peter Stevens really helped me, taking me to Bolton Landing, and spending a lot of time showing me sculptures. Without them I would never have been able to understand. I think that’s how I came to do a show of David Smith afterwards. That’s when I really discovered David Smith and thought he was such a great artist.
Rail: So in your process of knowing an artist, there is some experience of them in relation to where they come from. With Brancusi is it essential to know the Impasse Ronsin or another place in Paris?
Giménez: I went to Romania. I went to see Tîrgu Jiu, that was essential, very important for me, and very important for my knowledge of sculpture, because Tîrgu Jiu is extraordinary, I was very impressed by the Endless Column: when you get close to it you feel it in your body. It is a pity that the Table of Silence is not in the same space, because you know the water is higher, they dammed the river, it rose, and now it does not have the same atmosphere. And of course to see the museums and to see the country and to see the monastery; the monastery close to Tîrgu Jiu was for me a discovery. It’s a very spiritual place with typical orthodox Catholic architecture and wells of light. And then in Craiova was a museum where he’d been living, and worked, and they keep his pieces.
Rail: What I’m asking you about is curatorial knowledge.
Rail: And curatorial knowledge is different from critic’s knowledge or artist’s knowledge.
Giménez: You have to have an eye, you have to have a vision, you have to love or to understand what you see, to have an intuition. And there is a point that’s unexplainable. It is like when you write well or you don’t write very well. I have a frustration with writing because of the problem of languages. And it’s a big frustration in my career, so I have developed this visual situation very much. And then we have to understand that something is the catalog and something is the exhibition. And an exhibition is not only your eyes, or your selection, it’s what you get to exhibit, because you don’t get everything you want, so first you have to work with a very big checklist, so if you don’t get this you have an alternative. You have to never, never lose the perspective of what you are aiming for and doing because if you do, you become a mediocrity. It’s a huge amount of work, and passion, you have to have passion for what you do. And they have to let you do it, too, you have to have the confidence. And I have been very lucky to really have people who have trusted me and I have been able to have these incredible exhibitions.
Rail: And the Guggenheim has given you the freedom to do the exhibitions the way you want to do them.
Giménez: I will always be thankful to Tom Krens to have been given this possibility. Tom has occupied an important place in my life, and beside that, he is a great friend of Spain.That’s why I have been working for him for 18 years. What I also deeply appreciate is that Tom has let me work from Spain. I can work 16, 18 hours a day from my own place with an incredible library around me, and that has been essential. I love to go to New York and go to an office because you get your structure and you get things done. But at the end of the day you have to have your own space. And in my house I have built my own space, I have a very good library, and I have tables, I can spread out my things, I can live with all my house in the exhibition, and day by day you have to be obsessed, it doesn’t come in one little meeting, you have to be obsessed, you have to get up at night, that’s the process I like, and the Guggenheim has allowed me to do that.