In Oct. 2006, the Museum of Modern Art announced the creation of a new curatorial department to handle “media.” It concerns itself with all those visual and sound installations not intended for formal, theater-style viewing, like Doug Aitken’s new façade creeper, Sleepwalkers.
The man appointed as chief curator of this department is Klaus Biesenbach, 40, a German national, who has been a curator at the museum since 2004. He’d also worked at P.S. 1, the contemporary art center in Queens that is a MoMA affiliate, since the mid-90’s. Sleepwalkers, jointly commissioned by MoMA and Creative Time, is, in many respects, Mr. Biesenbach’s coming out.
It has many times been said—mostly by people outside the art world who favor ostentation, or those within it who do not—that curators are the new rock stars. Over the past decade, there has been a major infusion of capital, in all its precious metaphors, into the art world. Curators are often the brokers and handlers of this currency, moving among different worlds, drawing from one to complement the other.
“In the young, hip group, there are not so many people interested in having the, you know, Van Gogh scholar over to dinner,” said P.S. 1 executive director Alanna Heiss. “It’s very much related to this sense of tension and anxiety and drama, the sexiness of contemporary art in general.”
Mr. Biesenbach has always unashamedly invited celebrity personalities into his purview. He began his curatorial career in Berlin, immediately after the Wall fell. That’s when he and a group of young art enthusiasts occupied an old margarine factory on a street called Auguststrasse in the largely abandoned former eastern city center. They gave it the name Kunst-Werke (now called just KW), and bit by bit built it into a major center for contemporary art and theory. Then Mr. Biesenbach, looking around at what was still missing from the Berlin art scene, founded the Berlin Biennial in 1996.
The openings of exhibitions he curated at KW were often glamorous affairs. He even got someone to open a nightclub in the basement.
“Soon there was this mixture, which is now common to the art scene—this mixture of pop stars, cinema stars, the glam world and the art world,” said Niklas Maak, the chief art critic of the influential German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “But at that time in Berlin, it was shocking, because the art scene was something completely different from the pop and glam business. So, the moment I described in my little article, where Matthew Barney and Charlotte Rampling were dancing the tango in Auguststrasse, which now is the cliché of the merger of two scenes and, you know, the atmosphere of Auguststrasse—so, I mean, if someone would have told me that that was the first scene of a film of a fiction on Berlin, I would have said, ‘Please, take it out, this is too much!’ But the thing is: It happened.”
Mr. Biesenbach explains his immersion in celebrity culture simply: It’s a German thing; you wouldn’t understand. Some years ago, he wrote a controversial article, also published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which he posed the question “Why are there no global pop stars from Germany?” The answer is complicated, involving a messy batch of historical and psychosocial issues. But Mr. Biesenbach wasn’t waiting around for his countrymen to sort it all out.
“I could ask you,” he said, raising one finger, “who do you know, on a pop star/singer/film director/film actor level, who do you know in our generation that in the last 15 years—not a politician! Not like Mrs. [Merkel], our chancellor, or so—I’m thinking about people like Pedro Almodóvar, like Björk, like Hugh Grant—is there anybody from Germany who made it to a certain recognizability? There’s none. So that’s Germany: being against giving too much attention to one person. But if you play that game … it’s really true, there’s nobody.”
Mr. Biesenbach, who has silvery hair that he keeps almost shaved, does play the self-branding game like the best of them. Like Anna Wintour’s bob, Tom Ford’s hirsute sternum, Philip Johnson’s glasses, his trademark is snug-fitting Jil Sander suits and black-on-black shirt-and-tie combinations. This past July, Berlin was caught in a heat wave, and Mr. Biesenbach, who was passing through KW one morning to pick up a set of keys en route to a vacation on the Italian island of Stromboli, appeared in jeans, sandals and an open-necked sports shirt. It might have been less jarring to see him naked, said someone in the courtyard.
Like a faithful godfather, he shows up wherever German cultural producers of a certain edge—the fresh, the new, the prior-connected—are attempting to make their mark in New York. When the young art dealer Leo Koenig, who belongs to an art-world dynasty in Germany, opened his first gallery in Williamsburg in 1999, Mr. Biesenbach attended the inaugural exhibition. He ended up selecting one of the artists for inclusion in a group show at P.S. 1.
Just over a year ago, he went to the solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin Gallery for Juergen Teller, the photographer who shoots Marc Jacobs’ ad campaigns. Amid the throng of visitors on the street outside the gallery, he listened patiently to a youthful artist who looked like a big college jock imparting thoughts about his work. Then, during last September’s Fashion Week, he perched front-row at the As Four defector Kai Kühne’s show. The designer’s parents, distinguished-looking seniors, sat nearby. Mr. Biesenbach greeted them formally in German. In these moments, he prefers to step back from the searchlights and let those he’s come to support shine brightest. “Shall we not pay attention to the situation?” he rebuked a reporter interviewing him before the models hit the runway. “Like, it’s disrespectful to Kai. I feel like I’m monopolizing the situation.” Then, for equilibrium, he laughed. “I’m very close to fashion, to music, to film, to architecture, to design,” he said. “Like, we’re here now at a design show. And I know many designers and musicians, but they have to be really experimental and really contemporary and really innovative. That’s the only criteria.”
A few weeks later, on Halloween, he popped in at the launch party for a stylish architecture magazine, Pin-Up, founded by Felix Burrichter, a sociable twentysomething from Düsseldorf. “I can’t stay long,” Mr. Biesenbach said, bypassing the bar. “I have to pick up my costume. I’m going to Courtney Love’s party as a vampire.”
It seems less important to wonder whether Mr. Biesenbach wants to be a rock star and more pertinent to view him as a rolling rock. He belongs to an informal network of foreign-born and transnationally oriented curators with high visibility and mounting influence at American arts institutions. MoMA director Glenn Lowry said that “we had looked over the course of several months at several candidates” to head the new department, but Mr. Biesenbach won out for his “broad international practice.”
Curators similar to Mr. Biesenbach include Okwui Enwezor, of Nigerian origin, who rose from editing a periodical about African art published at Cornell to be selected in 2002 to curate Documenta, the Wimbledon of international art exhibitions, which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. In the wake of this honor, he was snapped up by the San Francisco Art Institute to serve as its dean of academic affairs and senior vice president. “Okwui is a headmaster now,” his longtime friend, Ike Ude, the publisher of the flashy style mag aRUDE, recently said. In turn, Mr. Enwezor deputized Hou Hanru, a noted curator from China who’d been residing in Paris since the early 90’s, as SFAI’s director of exhibitions and public programs. Mr. Hanru, it was reported on Friday, Jan. 19, will also be the man to direct China’s pavilion at the Venice Biennial this summer. And speaking of biennials, remember the kerfuffle last spring over the Whitney Museum of American Art’s appointment of two foreign-born curators—Brit Chrissie Iles and Frenchman Philippe Vergne—to handle its own biannual best-in-show? “How American Is It?” ran one headline. “Beats me!” came the critically engaged chorus.
At the moment, it’s rough going trying to force a collar of “local” or “national” on culture of any form. Artists are crisscrossing the globe, their works laced with worldwide references. The ubiquitous “lives and works” line on artists’ bios has, for many, become the thing that changes most often from one major exhibition to the next. And institutions are responding in turn, pulling in curators who are themselves as migratory in their lives—hence their outlooks. Case in point: the New Museum, the city’s only museum devoted exclusively to contemporary art, recently tapped the globetrotting Massimiliano Gioni to join its curatorial team. Mr. Gioni curated (along with another Italian national and one American) last year’s Berlin Biennial, Mr. Biesenbach’s brainchild.
“I actually think that there is a change of paradigms,” Mr. Biesenbach said not too long ago. “I think until the 60’s, the linearity of things—as in modernism, as in avant-garde—reflected an idea of time as linear, whereas after this, I think we are understanding more and more that things are happening simultaneously, and it’s not Paris giving modernity to New York and New York being the city where everything happens. We have Los Angeles, we have London, we have Glasgow, we have Warsaw, we have Rio, we have Mexico City, we have Berlin, as huge centers of artistic production. So it’s not New York as a single situation.”
The buzzwords for some time in the contemporary art world have been “transnational,” “transcultural” and “internationalism.” Uttering that hieroglyph of a term, “multicultural,” in contemporary art’s inner sanctum is akin to dropping “politically correct” in a conversation with hard-core activists: It belongs to the discourse of a bygone age. Even the word “curator” as a moniker is being reconsidered.
“I don’t think the title ‘curator’ would be that necessarily important to him,” said P.S. 1’s Ms. Heiss, of Mr. Biesenbach. “I think he could find another title. It’s a very overused word anyway. It goes up and down; it’s a little passé right now.”
Mr. Biesenbach is noticeably tight-lipped about his background, and even more so about his inner life. Like Faye Dunaway’s career-obsessed TV producer character in Network, who can talk about her feelings only in the language of ratings and audience appeal, Mr. Biesenbach responds to questions about his self-image by referring to the various exhibitions he organized.
One example: Is he a different person when in New York than in Berlin?
A long pause. “Not so much,” he says softly, “not so much”—followed by a lengthy disquisition on art installation.
“He doesn’t have his own family,” said the performance artist Marina Abramovic, who has known Mr. Biesenbach since he was 21 years old. “He sacrificed a very large part of his private life for the work. Basically, all his life is the work.”
In the early years of their acquaintance, the two experimented with a romantic relationship, despite the 20-year gap in their ages (she just turned 60 last November).
“It was a very short time, yah, yah, about three months,” she said in her sumptuous Slavic accent. “It was really a disaster. It was really funny. We devoted three months together, and we decided we can have like a ‘house life.’ He would make the apple pies, but they were always burning!”
Hermann Weizenegger, a Berlin-based industrial designer, remembers running into Mr. Biesenbach, whom he’s known for years, while on a trip to Rio de Janeiro. The two went to a nightclub, where at one point Mr. Weizenegger drew Mr. Biesenbach’s attention to a young man with an unusually striking appearance. “He went directly to the boy and he talked with him,” Mr. Weizenegger remembers with awe. “They talked for a long time.” About what, Mr. Weizenegger doesn’t recall, but that wasn’t the point. “Klaus doesn’t stop himself,” he said. “He will talk to anybody he pleases or pleases him.”
“I think that what he has an ability to do is, he sees things very specially, and he has almost a filmic understanding of how people move, the direction they’re going—as if situations could perhaps be described on storyboards,” said Ms. Heiss. “Because he knows a great deal about film, he knows a great deal about theater. So, it would be likely that he can be detached enough—it’s perhaps true or not—to see a social event very clearly, you know. He wants to talk to someone because that’s an interesting person, and that’s what he’ll do.”
“It’s a world of simultaneities,” said Mr. Biesenbach. “I do not feel disconnected; I do not see it so linear. I see it more like simultaneous plots that happen at the same time.”