Benjamin Moser’s new biography of Susan Sontag is filled with fascinating art-related stories, many of which involve her love interests: her brief liaison with artist Jasper Johns, her torrid relationship with dancer Lucinda Childs, her romance with photographer Annie Leibovitz. But then something unexpected occurs about 600 pages into the 832-page volume: an account of a late-night chat with curator Klaus Biesenbach that had major consequences for the future director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
According to Moser, Sontag and Biesenbach became close toward the end of the writer’s life. (She died in 2004, at the age of 71.) In the book, Biesenbach, who founded the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, recounts meeting Sontag in the German capital. The two went to get french fries at 4 a.m., and as often happened with Sontag, a small mistake exploded into something bigger. The problem: Biesenbach had misused a word.
Here’s Moser’s description of what the KW founder learned, according to Biesenbach:
The incident changed his whole approach to his work: “She made you aware that everything you do, every word you use, has an impact. Everything has a meaning. You have to be incredibly precise and focused.” He understood why she emphasized the meaning of words. “Klaus,” she said, “as a curator, as a critic, the only thing we have is our opinion. Never sell that, never give that away. That’s the only thing you have.”
The next time you’re eating french fries at 4 a.m. and putting off your art-world duties, maybe think of Sontag’s advice.
Anyway, here’s a picture of Biesenbach wearing a fiery red wig and news that he is planning to dress up as a pumpkin this Halloween.