John Elderfield

This summer sees the end of John Elderfields time as chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For many art-world observers, it seems like he’s been a major figure at the museum, and on the global museums circuit, for as long as we can remember. In fact he came to MoMA in 1975, and since then he’s been at the heart of a string of memorable exhibitions, many of which he discusses here. Elderfield also has gifts that not many of his colleagues in the museum world share: the ability to write catalogs that are as readable as they are erudite, for example, and an eagerness to share his enthusiasms with everyone he comes into contact with.

Elderfield, who is British (though his accent has faded to almost nothing), studied at the University of Leeds and at London’s Courtauld Institute, where he completed his Ph.D. on Kurt Schwitters, before studying at Yale University on a Harkness Fellowship from 1970 to 1972. He received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973, was named a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government in 1989, and was promoted to Officier in 2006. He was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute in 2001 and an associate fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 2006. And in 2005, Time magazine named him one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People of the Year.

Last week, Elderfield spoke to ARTINFO in his office overlooking the sculpture garden at MoMA

John, I can’t believe you’re actually about to retire.

Well, at the end of July I’m going to step down from my job as chief curator, painting and sculpture. This is something that senior people at the museum have to do in their 65th year. But I’m not retiring; I’m still working on two more exhibitions. One is a collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago for spring 2010 on Matisse’s paintings between 1913 and 1917. And in the winter of '11 to '12, we’re doing a full de Kooning retrospective.

You’ve been at MoMA for more than 30 years. But you’ve had several different positions, haven’t you?

I think it’s really good to have chapters in your life. Which is partly why I’m so excited about this new chapter that’s coming up. I came here as a curator in painting and sculpture in 1975, and after five years I never thought I’d stay. But at that point I was offered the job as head of the drawings department, and that was what kept me here. I didn’t know much about drawings, but I did that for 10 years and then I had the [chief curator] “at large” position for ten years. Then the circle came around and I’ve done painting and sculpture for another five years.

What would you say are the most important exhibitions you’ve been involved in during the time you’ve been here?

In terms of large shows that define an artist, I’d say Schwitters in '85, Matisse in '92, and de Kooning, which is scheduled for winter 2011 to 2012. I’ve been involved in other exhibitions that have been as transformative as these, like the Mondrian [in 1994] and the Bonnard [in 1998], but they were done with other people. For the Schwitters and Matisse I obviously had an enormous amount of support, but they were more like solo efforts, and they’ve stayed with me.

I’ve always felt that the only justification for moving great works of art around the world is to increase knowledge—or perhaps knowledge, appreciation, and pleasure all mixed up together. The ideal museum show leaves the artist with a different identity from the one that he had before you did the show, not out of any wish to assert your own identity on the artist but in order to make a real shift in understanding.

I think that the literature on Schwitters and Matisse, and the kind of shows and writing that were done after those exhibitions, is very different than what came before. With Matisse it’s easy to plot: It’s amazing to think that in the '80s even very sophisticated people were still putting him down as some sort of bourgeois decorator, in a way which seems preposterous now. And before our Schwitters show, there was no real sense of who he was or the range of his work.

I’m hoping to do the same with de Kooning. He’s someone whose work I’ve loved forever. It was actually one of the things that brought me to the U.S. in the first place.

What about smaller-scale exhibitions?

There are the three shows I did in a row last year. First was “Manet and the Execution of Maximilian.” MoMA starts with Cezanne in 1885, and while it’s a convenient thing to say that modern art begins there, we know it doesn’t really. I think that the museum should do shows that deal with its “pre-history.” Second was the Armando Reverón show, where we were looking outside the normal canon. It’s important to show artists who may not be a Mondrian or a Miro, but who are really substantial people. Then there was Martin Puryear, a contemporary artist who is also somewhat outside the canon.

I like these shows not only for themselves, but for what they are examples of. I didn’t set out to do them as a three-part manifesto, but once I’d committed to them I realized that was what I’d done.

Who have been some of the artists that you’ve most enjoyed meeting during your time at MoMA?

When I first came to the United States I wrote a piece on Richard Diebenkorn. It was published in 1971, and to my amazement I got a letter from him saying, “I read your piece. It would be nice to have a drink if you’re ever in Southern California.” Well, I had a drink with him at least once a year between 1971 and 1993. It was a great friendship.

More recently, there’s Jasper [Johns]. I wouldn’t claim to be a close friend, and you can never get any information out of him, but he is an amazing person.

A final similar question: What would you say have been the most important acquisitions that you’ve been involved in during your years at MoMA?

That’s hard. In my first five years here I was a junior curator and didn’t have a lot to do with acquisitions. Then, when I was in the drawings department, there was a very geometric Matisse drawing from the ’30s [Reclining Nude (1938)] which I had a really hard time persuading them to buy because they said, “It doesn’t look like a Matisse.” It was eventually bought in 1985 for $35,000. It’s now worth around $2 or $3 million. Then there was a hiatus when I wasn’t in the collecting department, although I did propose some things and had them accepted: for example, a Braque studio painting [Studio V (1949–50)] that I think is really extraordinary. The last five years have been pretty hectic. There’s been Jasper Johns’s Diver (196263), Rauschenberg’s Rebus (1955), and the Matisse Plum Blossoms, Ochre Background (1948).

Even with the market soaring, it would seem that MoMA is still able to collect enthusiastically.

This is one of the extraordinary things about MoMA. I don’t know of anywhere else that has the same level of financial support for acquisitions. But it’s not always straightforward, in that certain things are easy to acquire because there’s a community of taste for them, while others are really hard to get. It isn’t a matter of the relative importance of the art; it’s just a matter of taste, really. In the last three years, we’ve acquired—either totally or as promised gifts—six Jasper Johns paintings. It’s because Jasper’s work has a kind of ethos here, because of the early purchases that the museum made. On the other hand, trying to get support for some other artists leaves you feeling like Sisyphus. These are the things that drive us crazy: How can we find the money to do the things that we want to do? Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.