Ask a Curator: Francesco Bonami on His Worst Studio Visit, Environmentalism and the Art World, and the Ghent Altarpiece Lamb

Ask a Curator: Francesco Bonami on His Worst Studio Visit, Environmentalism and the Art World, and the Ghent Altarpiece Lamb

Francesco Bonami, whose curatorial credits include the 2003 Venice Biennale and the 2010 Whitney Biennial, has returned for the fourth edition of his column, “Ask a Curator,” in which he addresses the problem with museum wall text, the worst studio visit he ever endured, and the craziest thing he saw on Instagram this month. He can be found on Instagram at @thebonamist. If you have queries for him for a future column, please write to —The Editors of ARTnews

What’s the most awkward or strange studio visit you ever experienced?

When we were doing studio visits for the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Gary Carrion Murayari and I arrived in the studio of a woman in Portland, Oregon, that was totally empty except for a small couch where a small piece of knitted wool was resting. We asked what her art was about, and if the couch and/or the knitted wool were artworks. The answer was no. We then asked what she was working on, and she answered, “Nothing in particular.” Any projects? “Not really,” she said. We stood there—there was nowhere to sit but the floor—in silence for maybe a minute that felt like it lasted an hour, and then we politely said goodbye. Both Gary and I are still figuring out who suggested to visit her. When we remember (and we will), we will send over a couple of friends from the Irish or Italian mob to deliver our studio critique.

What do you say to people who claim curators fly too much in a way that is bad for the environment?

Ask dealers and collectors. Between the people who flew to Art Basel to work at the booths of the three or four übergalleries there, you have a one- or two-degree Celsius increase in the atmosphere’s temperature. Curators are footnotes in the climate disaster—except for Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is contributing to the melting of a medium-size Arctic iceberg on his own. A curator with a minimal ecological footprint would be nice to find. But that person exists already—collector Erling Kagge Norvegian kind of curator-explorer who praises—and writes about—walking and silence. I envision him finishing a harrowing hike to the South Pole and upon arrival discovering Obrist, who landed with an helicopter, waiting to interview him about an unrealized walk.

The newly restored Ghent Altarpiece has become memed because of a bizarre-looking lamb in it. What are your thoughts on the humanoid animal?

Come on! You are joking! The Jan van Eyck altarpiece is a timeless masterpiece, and someone is wasting their time to point out that the lamb looks like Zoolander. It’s like saying at John Baldessari’s memorial that his resemblance to Star Wars’s Chewbacca was amazing.

A few years ago, the Museum of Modern Art did a Picasso sculpture show that did away with wall labels altogether. Visitors were expected to follow along using a small pamphlet. Some loved it; others were annoyed. What did you think? What are your feelings on wall labels?

Either you go with labels or you go without them entirely. Giving out a small pamphlet is an act of passive-aggressive educational sadism. The problem with labels in U.S. museums is that often are simply an idiotic description of what you have in front you, for fear that visitors will complain they did not understand the language. To be readable or understandable is one thing; to foster illiteracy is another. Another problem is the size of both the labels and the font. Sometimes, in an attempt to be elegant, the text is so small, you need a magnifying lens. Some museum write labels for two-year-olds—and some also make their labels as big as the painting they are describing. It’s a jihad by certain museum directors against the enemy of cultural populism.

When artists send images of their work to curators unsolicited, do these just go into a slush pile and get discarded? Have you ever discovered new talent through the slush pile?

I tend to look at everything both for sheer curiosity and for innate masochism. I find fascinating the fact that some people are able to create art of utter ugliness. Yet bad taste is way more diffuse than intellectual depth, which I think is reassuring. Intellectual depth can sometimes lead to a very sophisticated form of fascism. Instagram helps a lot in looking at art you will never consider. Once I discovered an artist, Ian Kiaer, totally by chance in a little piece of paper from some obscure British art school, and he proved himself to be a great artist. Yes, a couple of times I have deluded myself. I discovered someone once, only to find out, when I included their work in an exhibition, that there was a good reason it was in the slush pile. Unfortunately, most of the time, overlooked or forgotten artists have been overlooked and forgotten for a reason, not for some mysterious and illogical conspiracy.

What’s the craziest art-related thing you’ve seen on Instagram this month?

I don’t know if it’s crazy, but I saw some images and video of this performance La Vita Nuova by an Italian theatre director, Romeo Castelucci. I think it’s insane and fantastic—a sort of ritual with upside-down cars with their engine on, with some performers—I believe immigrants—who talk about how shitty art is while also praising arts and crafts. It has a kind of sheer intensity that you hardly see around the art world. Self-loathing versus self-praising. On a lighter note, I also found this Korean group Connect, BTS, which is quite nuts and, as people say, fresh, very fresh.


What are your thoughts?