The indefatigably venturesome curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who is currently director of the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy, has been named the winner of the 2019 Audrey Irmas Award for Curatorial Excellence, which is given annually by the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Christov-Bakargiev—or CCB, as she’s sometimes referred to—will receive the award, which comes with $25,000, at CCS’s gala on April 17, 2019 at the 666 Fifth Avenue in New York.
Even in the elite club of conceptually minded globetrotting curators to which she belongs, Christov-Bakargiev has a shown a singular penchant for putting together thrillingly oblique, free-thinking exhibitions that mine philosophy, science, and previously obscure portions of art history. Her 2015 edition of the Istanbul Biennial, for instance, took up—loosely speaking—themes as disparate as the “thought forms” of theosophist Annie Besant and salt. She also jettisoned the notion that she curated that show, instead saying that she “drafted” the exhibition.
“To draft is to draw—draughtsmanship,” Christov-Bakargiev told me in an interview that same year, with her characteristic mixture of candor and mysticism. “It comes from ‘to draw,’ so it has that double meaning. To draw is to make a drawing but it is also to draw the line. When enough is enough you draw the line. So I’m drawing a line. But at the same time it’s to draw out. To celebrate the energies, to make it flourish, and to draw in, to bring together.”
In 2012, Christov-Bakargiev organized the 13th edition of Documenta, a wildly ambitious, freewheeling affair that included programming not only in its traditional home base of Kassel, Germany, but also Banff, Canada; Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt; and Kabul, Afghanistan. I still think of its strange, poetic opening rooms in Kassel’s Fridericianum, which she left almost empty. A small vitrine held a letter from Kai Althoff lamenting that he was too busy to do the show, a breeze conjured by Ryan Gander from the building’s air conditioners blew through the space, and a Ceal Floyer sound piece looped in a small room. Elsewhere in the building, a room called “The Brain” contained a kind of coded key for the show, containing everything from ancient Bactrian Princesses to Morandi paintings.
Putting together Documenta, Christov-Bakargiev also drew no small amount of attention for intriguing gestures like releasing rather un-traditional press photos of herself (one shows her barefoot, reclining not far from what appears to be a mound of recycling bags) and quipping, while being interrogated by skeptical journalists at the show’s opening press conference, “I didn’t know there were sports journalists here with us.”
Christov-Bakargiev “is a singular force within the field of contemporary exhibition making,” Tom Eccles, CCS Bard’s executive director, said in a statement. “Her far-reaching ideas and bold commitment to artists making new and ambitious works is equally matched by her exploration of artistic histories and their re-presentations. Her remarkable Documenta 13 was undoubtedly one of the great exhibitions of our time.”
Her long curatorial résumé also includes organizing the 2008 Biennale of Sydney and solo exhibitions with Alberto Burri, Ed Atkins, Giovanni Anselmo, and many more. From 2002 to 2008, she was chief curator of Castello di Rivoli, and from 1999 to 2001 was senior curator at PS1 in New York.
Previous winners of the Irmas Award include Harald Szeemann (in 1998), Marcia Tucker (1999), Kynaston McShine (2003), Walter Hopps (2004), Alanna Heiss (2007), and Thelma Golden (2016).