Paul Schimmel on Curating: ‘I’m Not Subtle’

At Bard, just before his break up with MOCA, the curator talked about bringing Nixon's resignation letter and the Dead Kennedys to the museum

Schimmel in 2011. (Courtesy Stefanie Keenan/WireImage)

With a whopping 130 artists and more than 500 artworks, “Under the Big Black Sun,” the exhibition about California art from 1974 to 1981 that former Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles chief curator Paul Schimmel organized last fall, seems likely to be remembered as his swan song at the museum. (He departed last week, though he is completing work on “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962,” which opens in September.)

Just a few days before splitting with MOCA, where he’d been a curator for 22 years, Mr. Schimmel was at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., to participate in one of many panel discussions held during a weekend conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the school’s Center for Curatorial Studies. The discussion in which Mr. Schimmel took part was titled “Case Studies,” and invited curator panelists to explain how they go about assembling shows. Listening to him talk about and show slides from “Under the Big Black Sun,” which opened last October as part of the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time” initiative and ran through Feb. 13, provided a window into his curating process.

Mr. Schimmel began by telling the audience at Bard that he began thinking about the show well before it was commissioned by the Getty for “PST.” “I’d been noodling around with this idea,” he said, “at one point trying to do it collaboratively with [the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art].” That idea was to look at California art during 1970s pluralism, or, as he explained it, “the foundations of postmodernism, a non-hierarchical approach to both materials and critical thinking coming out of the universities.”

But no exhibition ever conforms to the shape of the first thoughts that generate it. “I’m sure this is true of all curators,” he said. “You start with one idea, and it begins to evolve and move into something else.” Pluralism proved a tough topic to wrap his head around. “It was almost by the nature of what I was looking at that I went off in so many directions simultaneously,” he said. “Even as big and generous as the MOCA Geffen facility is, with close to 50,000 square feet, the show was getting very unwieldy.” And so it evolved. “It was maybe out of a sense of necessity, of starting to rein it in, that I got backed into doing a show that, at least for me, had far more political work than I’d imagined it would.” This political content, he said, started to cohere around “the sense that artists themselves [at the time]—not collectively, not as part of an organization or group, but as individuals—could make a difference. In political change, a kind of activist stance.”

Once he started to hone his idea, he was faced with a dilemma that inevitably confronts curators of big historical surveys: where to start, chronologically speaking, and where to end. “It was kind of a gift, being in California, that Nixon got thrown out of office in 1974 and Reagan, some six years later, became a new kind of monarchy,” he said. “Those seemed like good bookends.”

The show opened with the document in which Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon. “I’m not subtle,” Mr. Schimmel said, laughing. “It was the first thing you saw when you walked in.” Nixon’s getting thrown out, although it was “what everyone I knew was going for” was, he said, “remarkably unsatisfying, and not the least of that was due to this one extraordinary document….You read this document, and you go, ‘Whoa, free pass! You don’t have to be responsible!’ I think this infuriated people. We’ve done all this to end up with this moral and intellectual collapse? That became the foundation for the exhibition, with its title from the L.A. punk group X that represents that dystopia of California but also that sense of rage that constituted the punk generation of artists.”

It wasn’t the only historical document in Mr. Schimmel’s show. He called up the National Archives, and got Nixon’s resignation letter. “That is the great thing about museum work: if you ask the National Archives and you tell them exactly what it is you’re doing—and I was completely clear in terms of the context—there is someone there who will say, ‘This is interesting. This is what our historical documents are for. We’ll lend it to you.’” The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, reads, “I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States.” Mr. Kissinger wrote on it in blue pen, “11.35 AM HK.” “That short little document was the game changer,” Mr. Schimmel said. “That’s history.”

Mr. Schimmel spoke at some length about several of the artworks in his show—by Bruce Conner, Llyn Foulkes, Eleanor Antin, Bruce Nauman, Mike Kelley and Karen Finley—including a few that he managed to bring back to light. “Shows like this give you an opportunity to dig up things that people had long forgotten but that had an enormous impact,” he said, and showed a slide of Robert Arneson’s sculptural portrait of assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone.  (The famous “Twinkie Defense” is alluded to on the sculpture’s base.) It was acquired by SF MoMA in May, but when Mr. Schimmel put it on display at MOCA, it hadn’t been seen since it was shown part at the inauguration of the city’s Moscone Center in 1981.

He also spoke about an artwork from that show that, he said, “I’m sorry MOCA has not purchased.” Three Weeks in May (1977) by Suzanne Lacy depicts, with red dots overlaying a map of L.A., where rapes occurred during a three-week period in May 1977, showing which cases were pursued by the police and which were not. “It was a powerful statement from one of the leading feminist artists,” he said, “but it was really also a piece of information…that provided people with an opportunity to understand how direct and explicit art can be in a political context.”

Mr. Schimmel concluded his talk with some of the show’s works that related directly to the punk scene in L.A., like the zines that Raymond Pettibon was making at the time when he was better known as the brother of the guitarist for the hardcore punk band Black Flag. In conjunction with “Under the Big Black Sun,” Mr. Schimmel had the bands X, the Dead Kennedys and the Avengers perform. “The Getty sponsored a punk concert at MoCA,” he said. “I thought, my God, if John Paul Getty, with his fascination with Roman and Greek antiquities and European decorative arts, had only known that, even by putting itself on the hill, the Getty could not somehow remain unscathed, untouched by Los Angeles and its culture.”

Paul Schimmel on Curating: ‘I’m Not Subtle’