To have Judith Tannenbaum sitting across a table from me, eating a sandwich, is a bit surreal. I had imagined her taller. With curly hair. And perhaps a pair of cat eye glasses. Having spent many hours leafing through the former ICA interim director’s papers, I’d had plenty of time to construct her in my imagination. To see her in the flesh, petite and sporting a red-streaked bob, is jarring—like remembering that your favorite character in a memoir isn’t merely fiction.
Some clarification is necessary; I have not been snooping through Judith Tannenbaum’s files illicitly. I am part of the Spiegel Contemporary Art Freshman Seminar at Penn, where our first semester was dedicated to studying artist Glenn Ligon, with a particular focus on his 1998 exhibition at ICA, Glenn Ligon: Unbecoming.
As part of my midterm paper first semester, I was assigned to research the Unbecoming archive housed in Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. I would ride the elevator to the fifth floor of Van Pelt Library, ring the bell to the sequestered room, and after stowing my belongings (save for a pencil), sit at a long wooden table and wait to be brought one of the four manila boxes in which the letters, faxes, press materials, images, and publications from that show are housed.
The most interesting file by far was the one dedicated to the ICA’s correspondence with Ligon. This thick folder consisted mainly of letters and faxes between Judith and the artist, detailing everything from potential installation configurations to party guest lists. Before taking this class, I had naively assumed curators conceived their exhibition concepts then organized the works and installed them—surely they didn’t have to worry about event invitations or hotel reservations. As I explored the archive, however, it became clear that a curator’s job was just as much about organizing people as it was the physical artwork, especially when working with a living artist. The archive served as an intimate guide to a curatorial process I hadn’t even known existed. The road map was a welcome one. This semester our class has been planning our own exhibition. Each One As She May, featuring works by Ligon, Steve Reich, and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The show, which references Unbecoming while exploring its own themes of language, movement, and understanding, opens in ICA’s Project Space on April 24.
The reason I’m sitting across from Judith on this Thursday afternoon is that she’s been generous enough to visit our class to speak about Unbecoming and to answer our questions about the exhibition and her experience with it. My four classmates, our two professors, Jennifer Burris and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Ingrid Schaffner, Senior Curator at ICA, and I have gathered in the ICA’s library, sitting around a table amidst trays of sandwiches and bowls of salad. Judith is warm and open about the process of organizing Unbecoming, often chuckling when we mention particular documents we’ve found in the archive. “Oh yes, I remember that!” she says, or, “I’m not quite sure I recall…”
First she tells us the basics: she was drawn to Ligon’s work after hearing him talk about it and being struck by his eloquence and intellect. We discuss the Ligon coal dust drawings we will be showing in our exhibition, in which a phrase from Gertrude Stein’s story “Melanctha” is repeated. “He uses media to mediate personal experience,” Judith says, referring to the artist’s use of appropriated language.
She explains that when she approached Ligon about a possible show in 1997, it was a time of transition for him—very different from now, when he’s just had a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York. “The show was an autobiographical one, but also guarded,” she says of Unbecoming, noting that in Ligon’s Feast of Scraps (a series of photo albums featuring pornographic photographs of men alongside family photos), Ligon doesn’t specify which family photos are his own. It’s shocking to see a photo of a family gathered around dinner share a page with a naked, well-oiled man, but this juxtaposition is not merely for shock value: it questions our reaction. Why are some of these images considered vulgar, some wholesome?
Not only does Judith tell us about the process of organizing Unbecoming, she also shares her views on the curatorial process generally, advising us, for example, to keep our written materials in the gallery concise. When the issue of wall labels comes up, Ingrid shares a story about unwieldy labels she once encountered. Judith laughs. “I hate wall labels that ask questions,” she says, throwing up her hands.
After the laughter dies down, we receive perhaps the most valuable lesson of the afternoon. Judith opens her hands toward us. “If you’re going to say something,” she says,“ stand by what you say.”
Post by Alina Grabowski.
Each One As She May is on view at ICA through July 28.
To stay up to date with all ICA’s curatorial lessons, email firstname.lastname@example.org.