In 1985 I published an article on the New Museum for the late, lamented New Art Examiner magazine. The museum was just nearing its tenth anniversary, and the article, titled “Can the New Museum Buck the ’80s,” attempted to assess its place in the New York art ecosystem. Looking back, I’m immediately struck by the emphasis that I and the people I interviewed all placed on the New Museum’s outlier status. Both sympathizers and detractors pointed to its focus—at a moment of relentless market ascendance—on polemics, intellectual rigor, and sociopolitical issues. The museum’s maverick founder, Marcia Tucker (1940–2006), wanted to rethink everything from the role of art in society to the organization of the institutions that support it. Ned Rifkin, a former New Museum curator, put the case succinctly: “Marcia’s disposition is to take an adversarial position. That spirit is what informs the avant-garde and also, I think, the museum itself.”¹
So it is fascinating to revisit Tucker’s thoughts and agenda as they are laid out in Out of Bounds, a recently published sampling of her essays dating from 1969 to 2004. One of the most striking aspects of the book is how unexceptional so many of Tucker’s positions now appear. She advocates ethnic, racial, and gender diversity; revision of the canon; and an acknowledgment of the role of class and ethnocentrism in cultural judgments. She calls for museums to become more accessible to general audiences and valorizes the participatory aspects of art. Once heretical, such ideas are now commonplace.
Readers who know only the New Museum’s current sleek incarnation on the Bowery may be surprised by the humble nature of its origins. In 1975 Tucker was fired from her position as curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, following what New York Times critic Hilton Kramer termed the “debacle” of her Richard Tuttle show. Kramer sniffed, “How anything so egregiously subordinate to the most minor of minor art could be misconstrued as ‘major’ is a problem I am content to leave to metaphysicians more gifted than I am at fathoming the ineffable.”² Not content to lick her wounds, Tucker gathered a tiny team in a rented office with donated furniture and started the New Museum. It was originally going to be organized along socialist lines, with equal pay, shared duties, and a focus on the challenging new art that all the other museums were ignoring. While the other notions proved impractical, the last became its raison d’être.
Out of Bounds contains the extended article that Tucker wrote for the catalogue that appeared after the Tuttle exhibition opened. Tucker notes that she held off writing the piece until the show was installed, because Tuttle’s work depends so much on context and because she was an active participant in the execution of the works. While today such a delay is not uncommon, especially for exhibition catalogues about installation art, in 1975 it drew the ire of critics and contributed to her dismissal.
The Tuttle essay is interesting for a number of reasons. Tucker uses it to explore ideas about art as a phenomenological experience and to stress the act of seeing over merely digesting information about an object. She also sets out her curatorial philosophy:
“I have always considered that there are two basic reasons for doing an exhibition: The first is to illustrate and share with the public something one has discovered, that is, something already known. The second is to discover or explore something which is unknown in order to find out for yourself what it is about.”
Tuttle and Tucker clearly shared the latter goal.
Out of Bounds is divided into three sections. The Tuttle piece appears in the first, comprising primarily museum catalogue essays dealing with single artists. The second section presents, with the exception of an article on the tattoo as art, catalogue texts for some of the most important exhibitions Tucker curated at the Whitney and the New Museum. The final section offers her thoughts on the institutions of art, including midcareer reflections as well as articles and lectures from the period after she stepped down from the directorship of the New Museum in 1999.
The middle section traces Tucker’s evolution as a curator. While still at the Whitney in 1969 she curated “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials,” the first large show of process art in an American museum. One sees her struggling to develop language for an art that defies all established aesthetic norms:
“The pieces shown cannot, therefore, be precisely understood in terms of our previous experience of ‘art.’ They are not attempts to use new materials to express old ideas or evoke old emotional associations, but to express a new content that is totally integrated with material.”
In 1978, early in the New Museum’s life, Tucker again drew the ire of conservative critics with her provocatively titled “Bad Painting” show. In what now feels like a foretaste of postmodernism, the works in this exhibition mixed art historical styles, popular genres, pseudo-naive techniques, and deliberate appeals to bad taste. While few of the show’s artists are household names today, the idea of “bad” painting has become a critical fixture, intermittently revived in discussions of artists ranging from Picabia and Guston to Dana Schutz, Martin Kippenberger, and Jim Shaw.
By the 1980s, Tucker was trading in references to phenomenology and Merleau-Ponty for more directly political themes. Under her direction, the New Museum was among the first institutions to champion art that explored gender identity and fluidity. Out of Bounds reprints Tucker’s 1987 essay for “The Other Man: Alternative Representations of Masculinity,” which flipped the then-current idea of femininity as a construct to explore masculinity as masquerade. But even more influential was the New Museum’s 1994 exhibition “Bad Girls.” In an essay for the catalogue titled “Attack of the Giant Ninja Mutant Barbies,” Tucker considers the histories of carnival, burlesque, parody, and minstrelsy as precursors to the (mostly) female artists’ use of humor to deflate patriarchy. Running as a constant through all these essays is a critique of the power and authority embedded in the art world’s conventional hierarchies of value and judgment.
The third section of Out of Bounds speaks most directly to today’s concerns. In these essays, a number of them never before published, Tucker returns again and again to questions of institutional inequality, to the underrepresentation of women and minorities in exhibitions and collections, to the corrosive effect of money on art inside and outside the museum, and to the need for systemic change. “Women in Museums,” a lecture from 1972, outlines the grossly unequal status of women administrators, curators, and artists, using talking points that would not be out of place today. “A [Re]Movable Feast” from 1997 mulls over questions of quality and taste and the distinctions between high and popular culture that dogged her curatorial career.
One of the most prescient pieces is “Close Encounters: Defensive Driving on the Digital Highway,” an unpublished lecture from 1994. Before the era of smart phones and social media, Tucker already sensed some of the dangers inherent in the nascent new technology. She foresees the virtual world’s capacity for control and surveillance, social life shrunk to the dimensions of a screen, and society—divided into entertainers and entertained—governed by an information elite. As always, her concern is with insidious hierarchies: “We seem to have bought the fiction that technology ‘empowers.’ But who does it empower? Why should we automatically equate technological developments with emancipatory social practices? Not everyone will have access, and access is the new power base.”
Out of Bounds concludes with a somewhat anomalous essay written for the 2004 compilation Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, edited by curators Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob. Tucker discusses the work of her “favorite artist,” Tehching Hsieh. This Taiwanese performance artist undertook—or, as such actions are now often described, “endured”—yearlong apparently pointless performances (such as punching a time clock every hour of every day) that exasperated many art commentators at the time. Tucker remarks, “One striking parallel between Buddhist practice and artistic practice is that both can jolt us out of our habitual ways of looking at and thinking about the world.” She extols the kind of concentrated attentiveness she finds common to both activities, coming full circle to the Tuttle show at the Whitney, where she once—with life-altering consequences—found herself defending just this kind of perceptive seeing.
Back in 1985 when I wrote my New Art Examiner article, I was new to the New York art scene. Reading these essays reminds me how much Marcia Tucker and the museum she founded shaped my thinking about art and its place in the world. And not just mine, it would seem. The concerns that emerge constantly throughout these essays continue to resonate in the world of #MeToo, “toxic donor” protests, decolonization, museum unionization, and other forms of social activism.
1 Quoted in Eleanor Heartney, “Can the New Museum Buck the 80’s?” New Art Examiner, December 1985, p. 24.
2 Hilton Kramer, “Tuttle’s Art on Display at Whitney,” New York Times, Sept. 12, 1975, nytimes.com.
This article appears under the title “New Again” in the April 2020 issue, pp. 30–32.