The Curator’s Curator

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Neville Wakefield goes up against the art market

photographs by Ben Fink Shapiro

Neville Wakefield is jet-lagged and sick when I meet him one afternoon last March at Red Bull Studios—a massive alternative art space in Chelsea sponsored by the energy drink, where Wakefield is curating the spring season. He’s just arrived in New York from Gstaad, the ski resort in Switzerland that caters to the ultra-wealthy. (Regular visitors have included Madonna, William F. Buckley Jr. and Prince Charles.) Wakefield, an art writer and curator, was not in Switzerland to navigate the slopes, however, but to begin planning an exhibition.

“It’s a strange place,” he says. “It’s this strange microcosm. All of Switzerland’s a weird microcosm, but Gstaad is a global village in a global village in”—he paused—“something else. You know, it has this huge confluence of wealth and affluence, and there are actually collectors who go there. So it’s a strange study in contrasts, because it’s actually still a little alpine village with farmers and cow shit and all the rest of it. And what was interesting was there’s this concentration of art there, but it’s all behind closed doors.” Wakefield’s show there, which will include 25 Swiss artists asked to create work responding to this environment, was to “do something that was available to the public.”

Wakefield, 53, is perhaps most recognized outside the art world for his appearances in various tabloids, being photographed alongside the artist and model Olympia Scarry, or with his current partner, actress Minnie Driver, whose public display of affection for Wakefield was the stuff of much gossip fodder last winter.But art dealers, museum directors and artists know Wakefield best as a kind of outsider’s curator par excellence. He has been an adviser for the Museum of Modern Art’s sister branch in Queens, MoMA PS1 and has done projects for the venerable Frieze art fair in London, as well putting together shows for revered galleries like Barbara Gladstone and Mary Boone. He’s written for Artforum and done catalogue essays about Ed Ruscha. He counts some of the most famous artists in the world—Matthew Barney, Christian Marclay, Christopher Wool—among his friends. But more and more lately, Wakefield has slid outside the mainstream, finding new ways of bringing art to the public as the art world becomes increasingly guided by money. However, his interests have remained more or less stable: “I’m drawn to work I don’t understand. I think if I don’t get it, it’s probably the sign of something good.”

Wakefield’s role has also changed dramatically in the last five years because of the expanded market for contemporary art. He cites the example of artist Dan Colen, an artist who was mostly unknown as recently as 2010, whose work sold at the time in the low five figures. He became something of an overnight sensation with the help of a few high-profile collectors, and was soon exhibiting at Gagosian, the most powerful gallery in the world. Colen’s work now sells in the millions. In an art market that mints a new celebrity artist about once a month, Colen’s story is not atypical.

“Fundamentally,” Wakefield says, “the market has become the curator. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, because it’s forced curating to kind of reinvent itself, and to take to spaces that either have an overt commercial connection—something like Red Bull—or take to spaces that are completely outside the market. But, yeah, the old idea of a curator as an arbiter of taste, that’s been superseded by the market.”

And so Wakefield has slowly moved out of galleries and museums and into increasingly unpredictable forums. Besides an exhibition space fronted by an energy drink company and the mountains of Gstaad, there’s also the Coachella Valley, where Wakefield will stage a large-scale exhibition running from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea. The Gstaad show and the one in Coachella will both open in February of 2017. “It’s either flatness or peaks,” he says, adding. “I would rather encounter my art as I step back into cow dung or something.”

Wakefield is no stranger to unusual environments. He grew up on the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago 50 miles off the southwest tip of England. “Oh God. My childhood is so humiliating,” he says when pressed on this. The island where he spent his childhood had a population of about 1,200, and everyone knew each other. His grandmother bought a house there in the late 1920s, and Wakefield’s mother and father went there to essentially retreat from society, not that long after the end of World War II. He described his parents as “proto-hippies.” His father was an archaeologist of some note—he was offered a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but around that time he developed an interest in making pottery, through his study of Greek culture. Faced with a professional life in Manhattan, or moving to a remote island to become an artisanal potter, “he chose the latter,” Wakefield says with a laugh.

Wakefield left at 16 for boarding school, and went on to study philosophy at the Royal College of Art in London. He came close enough to earning a PhD that his dissertation was published, in 1990, as a book, albeit by a nonacademic press. It was called Postmodernism: The Twilight of the Real. “I thought for some reason that would get me the degree,” Wakefield says, “but it didn’t.” Part of the problem was he never submitted the dissertation to his adviser.

Though his book received little fanfare, it had a lasting impact because it was through Wakefield’s formal study of philosophy that he became interested in visual art. His education coincided with the late ’80s after all, the peak in popularity of the so-called Pictures Generation, artists who came of age in the 1970s and whose work navigated the sameideas about the tenuous nature of authorship and representation that theoretical writers like Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard had explored in their writing.

In 1992, he moved to New York, basically on a whim, with the stylist Camilla Nickerson, with whom he has two children. Nickerson got a job with Vogue, Wakefield says, “and I doggishly followed her.” With no real prospects, he started writing about art: “It seemed like something you could do without a green card. And you got paid so badly, no one cared.”

In this way, he became friends with some of the most enduring artists of the 1990s—Matthew Barney, who was revolutionizing video art with his series called the Cremaster Cycle, and Richard Prince, a conceptual photographer who would appropriate the work of others in images that were like mini-essays on the artist’s authority. It was not long before Mary Boone, the legendary art dealer who made SoHo into a destination in the ’80s, asked him to curate a show at her gallery. “For whatever reason, she took the leap of faith that somehow there’dbe a translation between writing and curating,” Wakefield says. “I think there is. I think curating is writing by other means.” He adds, with characteristic self-effacement, “I think it’s a lot easier, as well.”

This set Wakefield on a path in which he would become a kind of figurehead for what a contemporary curator is today: not simply an organizer of exhibitions, but a kind of cultural ambassador for brands and institutions, leapfrogging from erudite explorations of, say, the Museum of Modern Art’s collection to collaborations with fashion designers like Adam Kimmel to commissioning original art for skateboards made by Supreme. The word “curator” is now ubiquitous enough to have been rendered meaningless, but it was Wakefield who helped put the term on the pop culture radar. “I still have a hard time thinking of myself as a curator,” he says. “It’s a difficult term. Everyone’s a curator now. People are curating their sock drawers.”

I ask him about a slightly more traditional platform, Greater New York, the survey of emerging artists held every five years at MoMA PS1. Wakefield helped organize the first Greater New York back in 2010, and I wondered what else he thinks has changed between then and the show’s most recent iteration, which opened in 2015 and was on view until March.

“Being an artist has become vocational,” Wakefield says. “You really can make a career and make money out of it. I’m of a generation that I wasn’t aware that was the case. I don’t know—maybe it’s a generational thing. As a kid, I probably wanted to be what every other kid wanted to be: a rock star, or a film star. My kids, who are now teenagers, want to be artists.” ✦


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