In Conversation

James Harithas with Raphael Rubinstein

Portrait of the curator by Phong Bui. Pencil on paper.

It must have been around 1997 that I was having lunch with Jim Harithas and Norman Bluhm on Mercer Street in SoHo and I described to them an exhibition I’d just seen at the Drawing Center. It was a group show but the works that had really grabbed me were diagrammatic drawings of global conspiracies. They had an amazing visual complexity and a sense of reality that seemed to cut through so much of the pop-culture bullshit I’d been seeing around. It turned out that Jim knew the artist (Mark Lombardi) very well and a couple of weeks later he took Norman and me out to Mark’s bunkerlike Williamsburg studio for a memorable visit. The themes of that now long-gone lunch are emblematic of Harithas’s great passions: pursuing the legacy of abstract expressionism, supporting powerful political art and championing emerging artists. After walking away from a career as a prominent curator and museum director (the Corcoran, the Everson, the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston), Harithas spent some years in the wilderness (following paths that often led through war-torn Central America) before reemerging with two unique institutions, both in Houston: the Art Car Museum and the Station Museum. The first embodies Harithas’ dream of creating a working-class museum that celebrates a vernacular artform; the second is one of the most vital (and truly alternative) spaces in the country. It has hosted stellar solo exhibitions of major American artists such as Mel Chin, Salvatore Scarpitta and Norman Bluhm, and presented powerful group shows of new art by Palestinian, Colombian and Mexican artists that illuminate the tragic, violent circumstances of those nations. Thanks to Harithas, the Station Museum consistently mounts exhibitions that no other American art institution has the guts or vision to tackle. Among his next projects is a show of work by contemporary Iraqi artists. This interview was conducted at his Houston home on a Sunday afternoon in April. After we’d wrapped up, I joined Jim and Hermann Nitsch, who was visiting Houston and whom Jim had shown as far back at the early 1970s, for a night of great music at Mr. Gino’s—a legendary and gloriously funky Houston blues club.

Raphael Rubinstein (Rail): You set out to be a painter, didn’t you?

James Harithas: Yes, I wanted to be a painter from an early age. My mother was one. In those days, it was more than rare for a Greek woman to go to art school much less become an artist. I was always drawing and doodling and winning art prizes in high school and college. My father was U.S. military and wanted me to set my sights on an army career. We moved constantly. We lived in occupied Germany immediately after the war. The occupation was chaotic during the first years. In Munich alone, according to my father, there were over one hundred rapes a night perpetrated by American servicemen. I left Germany in 1952 and started college in Maine, the state where I was born in 1932, but I left in my third semester after seeing my first Abstract Expressionist show in Frankfurt, Germany in 1953 while I was back in Europe visiting my parents. It sent major tremors up my spine. Oh my God, here was pure spirit—so tangible and yet so mysterious. Within a month, I quit school and hitchhiked to New York.

Rail: Did you stay in New York?

Harithas: Yes, for almost a year. I caught some of the action at the Cedar Tavern, but mainly I went to MOMA to look at Matisse and I spent time at The Museum of Non-Objective Art when I wasn’t working as a dishwasher on 72nd St. or carrying up commercial trunks at the Hotel New Yorker. The Village was a real bohemia. My goal was to be an artist like Pollock, Kline, and De Kooning. But I received my draft notice in 1954 and I went into the Army for two years. I was stationed in France. The country was in the throes of the Algerian War. I sided with the Algerians because of the French use of torture. That’s another story. After I was discharged, I stayed on in France. I was admitted into the École National des Beaux-Arts in Nancy in 1957. I lived in the Algerian quarter. Because I was American, I got special treatment at the École. They kept moving me up until I got into a painting class—usually reserved for the most advanced students.

Rail: Then you came back to the States filled with the idea of making art.

Harithas: Not exactly, I decided to go back to school to finish my undergraduate degree at the University of Maine and immediately afterwards, I was accepted by the University of Pennsylvania where I received my M.F.A. degree. Afterwards, I set up my studio in Philadelphia and got a subsistence job cleaning sugar machines at the Quaker Sugar Refinery. The same year, 1962, by chance, I met a curator who was organizing a MOMA exhibition called “Young America Presents” that was going to Finland in 1962. He invited me to go along and I jumped at the opportunity. Interestingly, the exhibition was timed to open at precisely the moment of the first major Soviet Youth Festival outside of the Soviet Empire. I remember that the Russian poet Yevtushenko looked at the show and said, “you know, we did this kind of art years ago.” It took me a few minutes to realize that our seemingly apolitical exhibition had a thoroughly political objective. It was a “cold war” art show.

Rail: Probably with CIA backing.

Harithas: Yes, surely. When I came back I looked around for a museum position. I was married by that time with two children and needed a job. I landed a position in 1962 at the De Cordova Museum outside Boston. It is mainly a regional museum, but I was able to show some work by Andy Warhol and Hans Haacke. A year later I became a curator at the Phoenix Art Museum where I began organizing the Paolo Soleri exhibition that was later shown at the Corcoran and the Whitney. The Phoenix Art Museum wasn’t much of a museum, but I must say that I wasn’t that much of a curator either. The museum mainly had a collection of Renaissance fakes and a small number of modern works. I was interested in Mexico, a life-long interest. I grew up during the Depression. The Mexican revolutionary war and its ideals of democracy had more resonance to me than cowboys and Indians. I put together a Contemporary Mexican exhibition there that got some national attention. I traveled all over Mexico by car meeting artists. I spent some time with David Alfaro Siquieros who helped me to understand the Mexican influence on American painting, particularly on Pollock and on Social Realism.

Rail: So you were at the Phoenix Art Museum for a couple of years and you went to the Corcoran Gallery.

Harithas: Yes, after two years in Phoenix, I became curator of The Corcoran Gallery of Art and in 1968 I became director. Barnett Newman, whom I knew earlier, was someone I felt I could call on for advice. I told him that I had an interview at MOMA and at the Corcoran. It was 1965. He said “Forget about MOMA, they’ll bury you. On the other hand, there is nothing in Washington, but you could do something there.” A bit later, Washington was the center of civil rights and anti-war movements. My involvement with Nam June Paik and Juan Downey began in Washington, but I established the first video department at the Everson Museum two years later. I participated in many of the anti-war demonstrations in Washington, including the March on the Pentagon. A year later my relation with the Board of Trustees soured. I moved to New York and found teaching positions at Hunter and The School of Visual Arts. In 1972, I became director of the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York where I did some of my best work—one person shows of Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Joan Mitchell, Norman Bluhm, Hermann Nitsch, etc. and activist programs with such people as Daniel Berrigan and Leonard Crow Dog.

Rail: How did the Yoko Ono show come about?

Harithas: I ran into John and Yoko at Richard Bellamy’s gallery. After a little conversation, I said to Yoko that I would like very much to show her work. I thought they were two of the finest people in the world and that their commitment to peace was truly important. I also thought she was a terrific artist. The exhibition grew huge, requiring the whole museum. She invited 50 artists to exhibit with her. Thousands of people arrived from all over the world.

Rail: One of the things that strikes me about what you were doing at the Everson, but also later, is that you have a political vision of museums and art. You often work with innovative young artists, but you also have this connection with the abstract expressionists. At the Everson, for instance, you did an important exhibition of Joan Mitchell’s work from the late ’60s. I wonder how you see the relationship between these second generation abstract expressionists and some of the other work you support.

Harithas: I felt an obligation to that generation, particularly to Joan Mitchell and Norman Bluhm who had received very little museum attention at that time. Besides, I deeply admired their work. By the way, Salvatore Scarpitta is another artist of the same generation who has deserved major attention. Since then, Joan Mitchell has gotten her due, more or less, but the contribution of Norman Bluhm, to my mind, one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, is still virtually unknown and unsung. I remember his show at the Everson in 1973 stopped Clement Greenberg in his tracks. Our show of Bluhm’s late work at the Station Museum in 2006 was simply wonderful—up there with Matisse and Van Gogh.

Rail: I couldn’t agree more! The projects you were doing about the Attica revolt at the Everson seem to have a connection to a lot of other things you’re working on. Are you consciously making exhibitions that focus on conflict?

Harithas: The answer is yes, but I would want to qualify it. One kind of exhibition is more or less about conflict resolution; for example, the Attica program was about the human rights of prisoners, but the Auburn project, I think, was even more consequential. An example is the workshop that I taught one full day a week for two years at the maximum security facility at Auburn that resulted in a major exhibition that traveled around the country. It also resulted in ex-inmates from the program working in the museum. The other kind of conflict exhibition is an attempt to reach our audience with critical political and social information. It involves shows like the Nicaragua exhibition about Sandinista revolution, The Made in Palestine about the intifada and the occupation, Apertura Columbia about the ongoing war, Frontera 450+ about the mass murders of young women on the Texas border, Defending Democracy about the teacher’s strike and the democracy movement in Oaxaca. All these exhibitions are accompanied by films and lectures.

Rail: You see the curator as someone who goes out into the world, into places like Nicaragua, Colombia, or the Middle East. It’s a job description that is much more interactive and risky than visiting biennials and art fairs.

Harithas: I think some curators should take risks on a lot of levels. Personally, I like the adventure of it and dealing with my own fears. This approach is a critical part of my own activism. But I don’t think it is for everyone. I am against the elitism of many museums, the European bias of their collections. The Nicaragua exhibition at the Everson kind of set the pattern for all of my conflict-oriented shows. For example, in the ’70s I heard that the Sandinista rebels were making art and selling it in the villages. I flew down to Managua with video artist Juan Downey and we made our way south through government lines to one of the islands of Solentiname where poet and military Commandante Ernesto Cardenal was able to arrange a meeting with rebel artists. I purchased about twenty works of art for the show which took place at the Everson Museum later that year. The Palestine show at the Station Museum in ‘03 involved spending nearly a month in Gaza, the West Bank, the northern territories, Syria, and Jordan, meeting artists and solving the difficult problem of transporting the work to Houston. It was a large exhibition with over 70 works by 17 artists. After Houston, an enlightened group, Jews for Peace in Palestine, helped us find a venue in San Francisco, an Israeli landlord rented us a space in New York, and the Venezuelan Embassy let us use its gallery for the Washington presentation.

Rail: And how do you think art functions when you bring politically charged art from the West Bank to Texas, from Colombia to the U.S.?

Harithas: I believe that it’s a moral obligation to make this kind of artistic information available to a public that has been rendered somewhat clueless by constant commercial and government propaganda. There are over twenty-five thousand Palestinians living in Houston. The Palestine show was about letting the Houston public see what the Palestinian artists had to express—either directly or indirectly—about the occupation and generally about the terrible fate of their people. Surprisingly enough, it was not anti-Israeli. It’s always about the truth that one can get from artists. The Greek word for truth, alethia, means unhidden.

Our last show, Apertura Columbia, also at my present digs, The Station Museum, is the first large group show in an American museum from a country that is the third largest recipient of US military aid. I think it is a very beautiful show about a long, ugly “resource” war and its terrible human consequences.

Rail: There is explicitly political work in the show, but also contributions by artists like Miguel Angel Rojas that deal with the personal cost of the drug war.

Harithas: Our visitors were really moved by the show, because it is both beautiful and tragic. It expressed an emotional truth about the war there that you can’t get in newspapers. I took two trips to Columbia with my curator, Ryan Perry. I didn’t know at first what direction the exhibition would take. I only knew something about the war that had been going on since 1947. After visiting many artists, it became clear that the best of them were involved in keeping the memory of contemporary war-torn Columbia alive, so that people don’t forget the horror of it. Just think, over three thousand mass graves have been found in Colombia. There are four million internal refugees. Like Iraq, the civilian deaths due to this war keep mounting.

Rail: I think it is possible to read the shows you’ve been doing in the last few years about Colombia, Iraq, Palestine and now Oaxaca as an implicit critique of what American curators and the official museum world is doing. What is your opinion of what these museums are doing?

Harithas: In general, museums are as much involved in fashion and economics as they are art. But I must say I’m interested in artists not museums. I think museums have failed to reach most of the people. We need new kinds of museums. With my wife, Ann, I also founded and initially organized the Artcar Museum. It has a huge working class audience. It not only exhibits radically altered cars but it also mounts political shows.

I am often criticized for not having a style. But to me each show is different and the style of its presentation should relate to its content. Besides, Houston is a city of one hundred plus languages. The European or exclusive New York orientation works no better here than it does in New York. Curiously enough, Houston is more of an anti-government city. It is much easier for us to do an exhibition here against Bush administration policies than anywhere else. We have sponsored a number of exhibitions, lectures, and films against Bush’s wars since 9/11. For example, the week after 9/11, we opened an exhibition in the Artcar Museum against Washington’s and the Bush administration’s international policies with statements on the walls by Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, and Edward Said. The FBI and Secret Service tried to interfere or even close the show but Houston would have none of it. The Houston Chronicle in the lead editorial told the FBI to stay out of the art world and look for terrorists elsewhere. Much of the public was outraged and we received many
letters in solidarity.

Rail: Thinking about international politics, I’m reminded of an artist I met through you, Mark Lombardi. Mark is one of the many people you mentored over the years.

Harithas: Mark Lombardi was a student in a museum class that I taught at Syracuse University in 1973. When I came to Houston in 1974 as Director of The Contemporary Arts Museum, he followed me and I hired him. He had an extraordinary ability to research anything. At the same time, he was really fragmented, confused and suffering. By the end of his short life, he found what he really wanted to say and made some remarkable artworks that dealt with the political implications of bank failures like the BCCI that involved, among others, the Bush family, the Clintons, Margaret Thatcher, and the Mafia. I think of him as one of the first really important artists of the 21st century. I am really proud of our relationship but mainly I am deeply impressed by what he accomplished on his own.

Rail: As a curator, I think your relationship to the artists that you have been involved with has been so personal. You’re not relating through the medium of some institution, but it seems about friendship and sharing things.

Harithas: Connecting with an artist in his studio does result in friendships. Plus artists are always interesting to me even if they are reticent or difficult. I love seeing the work where it was made. It’s a privilege. But my core belief about the relation between artist and curator is a little different. It is very difficult to get into an artist’s work unless you enter his world, a world that exists between his studio, his politics, his metaphorical reach and spiritual ambitions. In one sense the curator is a servant of the artist but in another sense, he has to be a friend to recognize the human dimension of the work. And speaking of a human dimension, several months ago, I went to Syria and Jordan with a small group from Houston’s Artists Rescue Mission. One of us, Tish Stringer, was making a film about refugee Iraqi artists and the rest of us, Martha Clair Tompkins, Ryan Perry, Salam Al-Rawi and I were interviewing refugee Iraqi artists for an exhibition at the Station Museum. But the point is that their studios and much of their life’s work had been destroyed, the museums that had collected some of their best work had been looted and destroyed, the art galleries that handled their work destroyed. Finally, they were forced out of their country because their lives were threatened. I am thinking that the U.S. art world should collectively take some responsibility for Bush’s
crimes against art.

Rail: Many of the shows at the Station Museum take a concrete, explicit stand. The exhibition becomes a political act. One of the risks about making shows about dealing with specific political issues and situations in different parts of the world is finding the balance between the work, exploring and presenting these issues, and not letting the work become mere an illustration of a particular political issue.

Harithas: Amen! I think you have clarified the main problem that I have to deal with. If the work has real quality and if it is authentic it gets beyond illustration, that is, it becomes a window to a world where politics and the aesthetic dimension is unified.

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Raphael Rubinstein