Curating Art or Curating Artists | The Thorny Question of an Artist’s Biography

Watch a recording of the live event here

How much should an artist’s life be used to frame our understanding and experience of their artwork? Critics have often been strict in their prescription that an art object must be separated from its sullied context, with a dose of sterile white space to allow visitors to reach an opinion of their own based on its formal qualities.

Many artists have been glad to have their work appreciated on its own terms, while others, like the abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, have been adamant that ‘my work is so autobiographical if anyone could take the trouble to read it’.

What is a curator to do?

When staging retrospectives, how can they engage with the cultural context in which their artist was working, without playing into the cult of personality that surrounds an artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work is increasingly hard to see amid the clutter of myths and merchandise?

What kind of strategy is appropriate for an artist whose political allegiances may not be considered acceptable to audiences today – like the German modernist Emil Nolde, whose anti-Semitism and Nazi party membership have often been obscured by his inclusion in the notorious 1937 exhibition of ‘degenerate art’?

Is there an over-reliance on biography when marketing an exhibition to a broader audience? Life stories are thought to be one powerful mechanism for selling exhibition tickets. And how is that desire exposed when a significant artist led an uneventful life – or a morally dubious life that cannot be brandished in the colour supplements?

In this discussion, we hear from curators, writers and artists about how they tackle the thorny question of biography when making and responding to exhibitions, before opening up to a conversation with audience members. This event will take place live and will also be recorded and made available afterwards.

Convened by Priyesh Mistry and Eleanor Nairne and organised by the Association for Art History’s Museums and Galleries Committee.


Priyesh Mistry is Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Projects at the National Gallery, London where he manages the artists’ residencies and contemporary commissions, including the current exhibition by Rosalind Nashashibi and upcoming projects with Ali Cherri and Nalini Malani. He was previously Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, where he meandered through questions of biography on projects such as Anni Albers (2018) and Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (2017).

Eleanor Nairne is Curator at Barbican Art Gallery, where she has staged a number of critically acclaimed monographic exhibitions, including Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty (2021), Lee Krasner: Living Colour (2019) and Basquiat: Boom for Real (2017). She is a writer for The Art Newspaper, frieze, the London Review of Books and the New York Times and has been thinking about authoring a memoir, in that annoying way that millennials sometimes do.

Aya Soika is Professor of Art History at Bard College Berlin. She is author of numerous books on German Expressionism, among others the catalogue raisonné of Max Pechstein’s oil paintings, and has curated several exhibitions in Germany.

Bernhard Fulda is a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University, and has published widely on the media, political and cultural history of the early twentieth century. In 2019, Aya and Bernhard co-curated the show on Emil Nolde at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, using innovative curatorial strategies to address the historic repression of Nolde’s connections to the Nazi regime.

Oscar Murillo is a Turner-Prize winning artist, known for his multi-media practice, rooted in painting, which probes at the cultural exchange of imagery and ideas. His work is currently on show at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo and he has a project with Artangel opening this summer. Having spent the pandemic period in his birth town of La Paila in Colombia, he is feeling particularly attuned to the question of how this ‘home’ sits in relation to his work.

Louisa Buck is an art writer and broadcaster who has been Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper since 1997. She is a regular reviewer for BBC Radio 4 Front Row and has written catalogue essays for Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, MCA Sydney and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, among others. Over the past year, she has been immersed in the interface between artists’ biographies, their career paths and their socio-economic circumstances while interviewing 40 artists of all generations to mark the 40th anniversary of a-n, The Artist’s Information Company.

The Association for Art History leads the collective effort in the UK to advance the study and practice of art history. The Museums and Galleries Committee was formed in 2019 to advise and assist the Association in its efforts to serve and support art collection and exhibition curators, be that through professional development opportunities, ideas and information sharing, advocacy or networking.

Image: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring at the opening of Julian Schnabel at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987. Photographed by George Hirose.





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