Art & Design

Artist Julien Raffinot in Conversation with Lawrence Rinder

Art & Design

Artist Julien Raffinot in Conversation with Lawrence Rinder


I met Larry one very loud night at the Berkeley Art Museum– a duo from Brooklyn was jamming on the ground level, making a lot of noise, reverberating against the concrete walls of the museum.  The result is that  Larry and I basically had to shout at one another for half an hour in the guise of making polite conversation. Somehow it worked out though and actually made it for more a fun conversation even if I can’t really remember what we talked about.

A little while later I was at a barbecue talking to someone who mentioned to me how Larry had written this book which attracted the ire of numerous critics. She couldn’t remember the title of it so I looked it up when I got home, not knowing that Larry had an occupation in writing beyond his work as a curator. The book I discovered is a satirical novel about the New York art world, but not like the one Steve Martin wrote. Larry’s book apparently is more like Brett Easton Ellis.

Given the chance to learn more about Lawrence Rinder, I was pleased to accept. The following interview was conducted over email which if not exactly ideal is at least a good corollary to the shouting match we had at the BAM. Lately I’ve been fond of saying that professionalism is over-rated. Getting to know Larry a little bit, I’m inclined to take it back. Larry is not only a true professional he’s also not over-rated.

Julien Raffinot: The last time we talked you spoke to me about the balance between curating shows for the museum and doing the work it takes to support it. Fundraising, you told me is not always a fun job, but is there anything surprising to you about it? I mean have you discovered dimensions of it that are interesting, maybe even mysterious?

Lawrence Rinder: I think the mysterious thing is that when you find a match–someone who wants to give as much as you want to receive-it is all so simple. It’s a matter of matching goals. To do that requires that I let as many people as possible know about what we are doing. If they don’t know, they cant help.

Apart from being the Dean of CCA, and curator of Contemporary Art at The Whitney among other things, you’ve also taught at Berkeley, Columbia and Deep Springs. Can you tell me about the experience you had there? Did you wake up at dawn and drink cowboy coffee or was the staff on a regular collegiate schedule?

Deep Springs is in eastern California, near Death Valley, though the mailbox is in Nevada. It is extremely remote intentionally, so as the founder wanted the students to be free from distractions (i.e. women). The summer I taught there with my friend Matthew Stadler, we were the only faculty for the entire student body of about 20 young men. It was over 100 degrees almost everyday and there was no air conditioning. We’d read Baudelaire and Nietszche and listen to Wagner operas in the morning and swim in the irrigation reservoirs in the afternoon.

You received a B.A in Art from Reed college and an M.A in art history from Hunter college. That must have been in the boom years of the eighties right? Did you work at Studio 54 during or after you went to graduate school? What happened at Studio 54 can be looked at like a parable of the world then, what are your thoughts? That time must have been so exciting and also scary.

I was a busboy at Studio 54 in 1980 while I was a student at the School of Visual Arts. It was an incredible job, with 13 hour, no-break shifts starting around 7pm, setting up the place to the sounds of Chopin, going through a completely insane night, and ending at eight in the morning by exiting through the back door on 53rd Street to see the sign for the “GRACELAND” ball room stretching almost the full length of a city block. Of course I saw Andy and Mick and so on. It was really a lot of fun. Was it scary? A little bit in that there were times that I felt I could have been swept away by something kind of gross. But it didn’t happen.

Tell me about some of the artist you admire. Had you ever met Felix Gonzalez Torres? A book of essays and articles called Between Parentheses by one of my favorite writers, Roberto Bolano, was recently published and as I’m reading it I can’t help but think of him as someone I once knew or would want to talk to so badly I have to pretend like I know him. Does anyone have that effect on you living or dead? 

I did meet Felix. I worked with him on a show here at the Berkeley Art Museum when he was part of Group Material. He spent about a week here staying in a friend’s house in the Berkeley Hills, along with Julie Ault, Karen Ramspacher, and Doug Ashford. We had a great time, though they worked very, very hard. I later did a solo MATRIX show with Felix. He was wonderful. I remember that whenever he came to SF he wanted to go shopping for mid-century Modern furniture. I admire so many other artists. Right now, I think the artist I’d most like to time-travel to meet is Lee Mullican who made some fantastic paintings and drawings here in the Bay Area in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And one artist I did meet who I wish hadn’t died (this year, at age 100) so I could talk with her some more is Hedda Sterne.

In your 1992 interview with Charlie Rose on the occasion of the Whitney Biennial which you curated that year, you mention some of the history spanning way back of how critics have been singling it out like it was a bright, beautiful target propped up to be destroyed. In fact your inclusion of them spawned what seems to me like almost a movement in itself. I might be exaggerating but I know Jeffrey Deitch and others must have seen your show and got ideas. What I’m getting is it was influential. And isn’t that the point?

I think it was influential, though that influence would probably have occurred–directly from the art being made by Forcefield, Margaret Kilgallen, Ari Marcopoulos, etc–even if I hadn’t done the show that way. It might have taken longer, but those currents were very strong in the culture, just not foremost in the minds of New York’s art critics.

You wrote a Novel called “Revenge of The Decorated Pigs”, a supposedly thinly veiled “Roman A Clef” about the New York Art World, but you told me you much prefer the Novella you wrote with Colter Jacobsen called “Tuleyome”. What would you say to someone who had read them both and preferred the book people were all up in arms about, the book you describe yourself as a “fever dream”, the book of “Pigs”. Is it not a nightmare sometimes to have to explain yourself to people?

“Pigs” was fun to write, but it is a less elegant book than “Tuleyome.” “Pigs” took three years and “Tuleyome” took about two weeks. To me, “Pigs” feels a bit labored while “Tuleyome” has a feeling of flow and inevitability. I love to write and have been lately re-reading my favorite author, Sylvia Townsend Warner, who works was a very strong influence on “Pigs.”

In your collection of essays entitled Art Life: Selected writings, 1991-2005, is there an essay which stands out to you, or through which you learned important lessons? Could the title be interpreted as a reference to the ideas of someone like Beuys who in the sixties wanted to do away with distinctions between art and life?

No, I wasn’t referring to Beuys at all, though I admire him. What I was talking about was a life dedicated to art, not necessarily art that is indistinguishable from life. The essays in that book are quite diverse, it’s hard to choose a favorite. The last one, about the Dutch painter Avery Preesman, is nice and succinct.

Let’s go further back, say to your childhood. Where are you from, or where did you grow up? Who are your parents, brothers and sisters? More importantly, is there something about your upbringing or events in your youth that seems vital to who you are now and to what you do for a living? Was Art important to you early on?

That’s all rather complicated. Perhaps the subject of my next book! Suffice it to say that I grew up in the East Village of New York and then in suburban Connecticut. My parents were a tad eccentric but all in all my upbringing was fairly normal, middle-class, etc. One thing I will say is that my father did not believe in higher education and wanted me to live in Greenwich Village and write poetry instead of going to college. Meanwhile, I wanted to be a lawyer. So, becoming a museum director is sort of the inevitable result of that conflict I suppose.

The type of programming at BAM has changed since you got here and it’s generated excitement. There seems to be more emphasis on special events and promoting the work of emerging artists. The museum seems increasingly open nowadays. It seems both open to newness in art but also community building and even maybe in some other more elusive way. Who do we have to thank for that, I mean besides you? 

Well, I’m glad to hear that it feels that way. It is definitely intentional! I am completely committed to making BAM/PFA a radically open, exciting, and dynamic space. Our L@TE series has been the most visible manifestation of this, but we have a few other initiatives in the works. The people who have been the key L@TE visionaries are Lucinda Barnes, Sherry Goodman, and Ariane Bicho from Curatorial, Education, and Communications respectively. We decided from the start to make it a hybrid project that doesn’t belong to a single department. Sean Carson, the L@TE Coordinator, as well as many staff members who were up for trying something new deserve credit as well. And, of course, the L@TE guest programmers, including Sarah Cahill, Mark Allen, Franklin Melendez, Anne Colvin, and many others who have brought their great energy and ideas to BAM/PFA’s Friday nights. L@TE has been a completely unique museum experience. Very inspiring! You may also have noticed that the new spirit of the museum has recently extended to our cafe, where we have a new menu and a new atmosphere. Run by Temescal’s Remedy Cafe, it’s a place people want to be.

What’s your vision for the new “progressive” museum of tomorrow? 

I think the key here is that people want to be around other people. It’s critical to be in a social as well as an aesthetic space. Also, the definition of art has shifted rather dramatically in the past decades so that there is a tremendous amount more that can be done in an art museum. Of course BAM/PFA has been presenting the outer edge of art practice from the opening of our current building in 1970 when we had a nude dance performance by Anna Halprin and a concert of new music by Terry Riley, as well as many other ground-breaking performances. I studied with Simone Forti and Robert Whitman–and did my undergraduate thesis in performance art–so I think I have something of an ingrained passion for the “living” aspect of art.

What does the future hold? Do you have concrete plans to stay in Berkeley? What can we expect from you? 

I’m staying in Berkeley until I get the new museum built. It will be awesome. Great location (downtown Berkeley). Great designers (Diller Scofidio + Renfro). And of course our great program and collection, of both art and film. It will make Berkeley a uniquely art-centered community. I can’t wait til opening day!