Morning People: Jens Hoffmann’s Salon for Early Risers

Jens Hoffmann and Rachel Rose outside Think Coffee, where AM at the JM is held once a month. COURTESY THE JEWISH MUSEUM

Jens Hoffmann and Rachel Rose outside Think Coffee, where the curator’s morning discussion series AM at the JM is held once a month.


On a recent morning at 8:20 a.m., Jens Hoffmann and Rachel Rose were talking about David Foster Wallace. The two were at Think Coffee to discuss Rose’s video installation Everything and More, which is currently on view at the Whitney, and a crowd of 30 just-barely-awake New Yorkers of varying ages had gathered to hear them chat.

“The title comes from a book by David Foster Wallace, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity,” Hoffmann said to the young artist, glancing down at a folded Post-It note with a few bullet points scrawled on it. “How is the film related to the book? I haven’t read it.”

“It’s really hard to read, especially if you don’t know about math, because it’s really just hard math problems over and over again,” Rose answered.

“That’s fine,” Hoffmann, the deputy director at the Jewish Museum in New York, said, sipping a large coffee.

“Something that really struck me about the book is, he’s describing how we came to understand this completely sublime idea of infinity, but he was describing it through these really basic, finite, feeble, historical ideas that people have been working out through this abstract math to get there,” Rose responded. “And so, the title, Everything and More, is just using everyday words to describe [the] infinite, which is not an everyday thing to think about.” Hoffmann and a couple audience members nodded along.

The event with Rose was part of Hoffmann’s AM at the JM talks, a series of morning conversations with artists, curators, and writers who have a show currently on view in New York. Once a month at Think Coffee, at 8 a.m., Hoffmann hosts one of these discussions—the next will be with Liam Gillick, who will speak on February 17 about his upcoming show at Casey Kaplan. According to Hoffmann, about half of the attendees are regulars.

The day before, in his highly organized office at the Jewish Museum, Hoffmann told me that the timing of the series doesn’t bother him much. Seated in front of a bookshelf filled with monographs and catalogues, he said, “It originally started at 7, but I got a lot of criticism for that.”

That was pretty early, I told him. Most people don’t like discussing art first thing in the morning. “It was too early for certain people, but I would’ve preferred for it to be even earlier,” Hoffmann responded, despite adding that he enjoys sleeping in. “I like to talk about art and things that are related to art pretty much every hour of the day.” (Attendance tripled after the series moved to 8 a.m.)

One inspiration for the series came from Hoffmann’s longtime friend, the globe-trotting curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who often neglects sleep for the sake of art. For years, Obrist held his own series of early-morning salons in London, called the Brutally Early Club, which met at 6 a.m. The talks have since been renamed OM3am and are held at 3 a.m., making Hoffmann’s choice to have his at 8 a.m. seem reasonable by comparison. Mercifully, the coffee at the AM at the JM events is free. (Obrist aside, Hoffmann’s real origin story about how the talks began has a feeling of divine intervention. He said that when he first started working at the Jewish Museum in 2012, he was perusing a bookshelf when old flyer fell out of it. “I look at this thing,” he recalled, “and it says, ‘AM at the JM.’ That’s when I said, ‘Hmm, what could that be? Yeah, let’s do this series called AM at the JM.’ ”)

Hoffmann noticed that, because of these talks’ inopportune times, they brought only the most passionate visitors. He compared it to going to the gym in the morning. “The more extreme, the better,” he said. In 2013, in an homage to his friend’s talk series, Hoffmann invited Obrist to be the first speaker.

Since then, Hoffmann has hosted artists including Camille Henrot, Dara Birnbaum, Adam McEwen, Christian Boltanksi, and Michelle Grabner. The conversations sometimes grow from discussions Hoffmann has with his artist friends—for example, he and Rose meet at bars and coffee shops regularly to discuss science fiction and obscure Japanese cinema, but usually they do it without an audience.

When he invites artists to do an AM at the JM talk, they usually ask what they should prepare. Hoffmann tells them to do, more or less, nothing. “Of course, the question will come up: ‘Do we have to show slides? What do you want us to do?’ And it’s like, No, this is it. Just think about having coffee with me, and there just happen to be flies on the wall who listen to us.

“Ultimately,” he said, “it’s a very casual, very improvised kind of thing. And, you know, maybe that’s also why it’s fun. When everything is so bureaucratic, it’s kind of like an escape.”

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