This May, the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive will mark Larry Rinder’s first decade as its leader at its spring gala, titled “There’s Something About Larry.” But Rinder’s deep connection with the museum predates this milestone by 20 years. Like a fickle lover who strays but ultimately reunites with his true soulmate, Rinder’s career has come full circle, from Berkeley to beyond and back again.
An East Coast native, Rinder joined BAMPFA in 1988 as curator of the MATRIX program — an ongoing series of solo exhibitions by contemporary artists — becoming curator of 20th-century art in 1991 as well. In those dual roles he organized dozens of exhibitions and oversaw the museum’s shows and public programs.
In 1998, he embarked on a series of prestigious art-world jobs: first as founding director and curator of what is now the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at CCA (California College of the Arts), then to New York City to tackle the highly visible post of curator of contemporary art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, then back to the Bay Area to serve as CCA’s dean of graduate studies and dean of the college.
Rinder became Director and Chief Curator of BAMPFA in 2008. He masterminded the fundraising and planning for the museum’s new Diller Scofidio and Renfro-designed building at 2155 Center St. in downtown Berkeley, and supervised its 2014 move from the iconic, but seismically hazardous, 1960s Mario Ciampi building on Bancroft Way.
Like a fickle lover who strays but ultimately reunites with his true soulmate, Rinder’s career has come full circle, from Berkeley to beyond and back again.
As chief curator, Rinder inaugurated the new building with his controversial exhibition, The Architecture of Life, which puzzled some viewers while exciting others. Like the museum’s current exhibition, Way Bay, that show was organized thematically, poetically and allusively rather than with a conventional chronological narrative. It was eclectic, non-hierarchical, full of surprises and unorthodox collisions, juxtaposing objects in different media from different disciplines (including science and architecture) across traditional genres and periods. While offering information on each piece, it gave viewers leeway to make their own observations, associations and connections rather than over-determine how things should be seen and interpreted.
That’s Rinder’s trademark curatorial style. Although informed by scholarship, it has more in common with the auteur theory of the director’s role in filmmaking than the supposedly art-historical “objectivity” of the traditional museum curator.
Way Bay takes that strategy even further. A dizzyingly diverse survey of works by Bay Area artists and/or relating to the Bay Area — all from the museum’s collections and those of other UC Berkeley collections including the Bancroft Library and the Hearst Museum of Anthropology — it brings together pieces dating from the late 19th century to yesterday.
Big names — such as David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay De Feo, Imogen Cunningham, David Ireland, Romare Bearden, Sargent Johnson and Catharine Opie — share equal space with artists you’ve likely never heard of. Some, stylistically, could be from anywhere; others display distinctive Bay Area scenes, styles or vibes. Digitized videos of films from the PFA’s collections are projected onto hanging screens in the middle of the galleries, enlivening the spaces with captivating moving images.
The works are grouped in constellations, each defined with a line of poetry by Bay Area poets chosen by Rinder. While possibly opaque to some, these gave Rinder the organizing framework and subliminal narrative for the show. There are no wall labels or texts. Instead, there’s a printed guide with wall diagrams and information about each piece, that can’t be removed from the gallery.
Bewildering at first, with no guiding signposts, this is an exhibition that repays repeated visits. The more you see it, the more you see. There are many wonderful works here, and the company they keep illuminates them further.
As a curator myself, I wanted to know more about Rinder’s curatorial process for Way Bay, and his plans for the museum’s future in the new building as he shepherds it into his next decade. These are lightly edited and condensed highlights of a conversation I had with him in February
Marcia Tanner: When I walked into ‘Way Bay,’ I thought “This is such a Larry Rinder show.” It’s conceived and organized poetically, impressionistically, by association, rather than chronologically or canonically. This seems to be how you like to work.
Larry Rinder: I enjoy working this way. It’s not the only way I work. I have done shows at times that are more monographic, chronological or conventional. But some lend themselves to this method.
[It’s] not something I invented. I learned it from Nayland Blake. When we were working on In a Different Light (1995), an exhibition at BAMPFA exploring the resonance of gay and lesbian experience on contemporary American culture, my first instinct as a young curator without a lot of experience was that I assumed the way you did a group show, a theme show, was that you come up with a thesis and then illustrate it, with works.
Nayland said, “No, let’s not do it that way. Let’s start with the art. Let’s pick art that we love, that resonates, that has some kind of intensity, and then assemble the art, and let the art organize itself. Let the works speak to each other, and listen in on their conversations, then draw circles around the groups that form out of those associations.”
It’s a much more emotional, intuitive way of organizing. You did that with other exhibitions, like ‘Searchlight: Consciousness at the Millennium’ (1999), at the Wattis Institute and ‘The American Effect’ (2003), an exploration of perceptions of America as seen in international contemporary art, at the Whitney Museum.
Yes. But I would say that another part of the work is to make some effort to figure out what is being said, what is the meaning of these groups.
In Way Bay, the way in which I brought some light onto the content of the groups was through the poetic fragments that I brought in as epigrams: not so much to title the different sections but to be bit of a clue or a gesture towards this poetic content.
The poetic fragments were all borrowed from poems that had been gathered by David Wilson, one of the co-curators. He sent out a call to dozens of Bay Area poets asking them to submit poems they had written about the Bay Area, as well as poems by deceased poets from the Bay Area about the Bay Area. They’re all [printed on postcards] in little boxes on the wall at the entry way. So people can just take the poems — they’re free — and make their own little book.
And then there is a kind of progression in the show, in terms of the order of the groups. It’s not quite as linear as In a Different Light was. In this case it begins with the Ohlone basket, which is the ground we all stand on, the heritage of the indigenous people. So it was very important to start with that, and that is the only group with just one thing in it — a beautiful object, a basket from one of the missions.
And then the group right after that, the sensibility in that room really has to do with form emerging from chaos. It’s kind of the Genesis chapter, if you will. And then it goes to — in my mind, anyway — a kind of crescendo when you get to the section that’s titled “My mother is a weather system. She eats villages whole.” That’s the climax, and then there’s a dénouement, and it ends with a section that’s about transcendence: “At the edge of the known world, we stand amazed . . .” a quotation from Jack Spicer. And the one about the smoke — it has a lot of images in that section that have to do with reflection, calm.
So there is a kind of thread to the show, if you choose to follow it. It has a narrative structure.
What’s also interesting is that you’re not telling people how to react or respond. You’re giving them a suggestive framework, not an instructive or didactic one.
In the gallery guide, I do give information on each piece. But I resisted telling people what the work meant or how they should feel about it. I stuck to facts: the kind of information that people wouldn’t necessarily be able to know from just looking at the work, but which adds some layer of interest.
One of the reasons that that was important: a secondary goal with this show was to daylight lesser known artists. So it’s really a kind of a moral responsibility to say something about them. I tried to do that in the guide.
‘Way Bay’ gives a diverse and unexpected group of artists an equal voice, and presents them together in non-hierarchical groups. Does this strategy reflect a larger trend in curating today?
A decade or so ago we all woke up and realized that the white male canon was immoral and unethical. It was based on white supremacy and patriarchy, and we had to do something else. Now we’re at a place where we’ve internalized diversity, where we’re just open. So all these great works and artists who had not been celebrated before can come forward. It’s a very exciting time to be a curator.
It seems like a very large percentage of works in ‘Way Bay’ were recently acquired.
About 40 works in the show are recent acquisitions that have not been shown before. Many of them are works by women, including women of color. It was a pleasure to add these works. I’m glad they’re here.
You also made this decision, which you’ve done before, to mix up all the disciplines, genres, media…
Yes, I feel that creating categories around medium or genre or period or whatever just constrains the potential resonance of the work. I feel that all art is contemporary and all art is meaningful at some level, all art has a job to do. It’s here in this world to give something, to say something. And it’s our job as curators to make [art’s] job as easy as possible, to give it the best chance of succeeding. Hopefully a show like this helps the work do its job.
It’s an interesting issue for curators, because you might say that this show is over-determining. It’s taking works that artists have made for all sorts of different reasons, and through juxtapositions, putting them in these groups, it’s maybe creating another category. It’s not a category of medium or time period or whatever, but it’s putting them into new categories.
“It’s our job as curators to make [art’s] job as easy as possible, to give it the best chance of succeeding.”
But the fact is there’s no neutral option. Putting an object in a white room by itself is not the answer either. You’re still putting the work in some kind of context. So my bet on this particular project is that creating these kinds of constellations is helping the work do its job. And one of the reasons I feel this was the appropriate approach for this show was that it’s not only about these particular works, it’s about a community, a culture, a place. Relationships are part of that story.
And not only relationships but also unexpected adjacencies. That’s what our lives are made out of.
It’s also showcasing the breadth and depth and spirit of the collection. What happy discoveries did you make? Were they any particular pieces or juxtapositions or passages that you were especially pleased with?
There are so many. I do love the first wall on the right where you come in. The Carina Baumann photographic self-portrait illuminated only by moonlight: you don’t even notice that there’s a face coming out of the darkness. It’s about the human forming out of chaos. And Kathy Geritz, the curator of films and video, found that wonderful video piece Riverbody (1970) by Alice Anne Parker [Severson], which is just one body flowing into another. And then the 1874 Carleton Watkins photograph of the UC Berkeley campus two years after it opened, so it’s the university itself coming into being out of nothingness. You see the plain of the city of Berkeley. There’s nothing there! From the campus down to the Bay, there was nothing there.
The fact that I’m still finding things in the collection is slightly embarrassing, but there are 17,000 works in the collection, so I wouldn’t necessarily know all of them. We’ve been collecting since 1872, from the very beginning of the institution. Henry Bacon, the museum’s founder, whom the first museum was named for, donated a Bierstadt painting in 1881 when the original museum opened. It would have been contemporary art then.
So there’s a lot in our collection that nobody has looked at for a very long time. They might just be a name on a database. I had a wonderful intern from Berkeley High who spent last summer going through the database and checking every name in the collection to see if they were from the Bay Area.
And then some of the recent acquisitions: things that we got for the show, like the Suzanne Perkins, it’s in one of the last sections, the oscillating color circles. It looks like a Kenneth Noland. It’s a beautiful painting, but it’s also interesting that Suzanne worked at the museum. She was Peter Selz’s assistant in the 60s and 70s, during the transition to the Bancroft Way building. She worked on some of the first avant garde film programs here. So that work has an interesting relationship to the [museum’s] institutional history.
What can we expect to experience in ‘Way Bay’ Part 2?
We’ve extended Way Bay — originally it was going to be just in the spring and now it’s through the summer. This current iteration closes June 3, and then the new one opens on June 13.
Works on paper are not supposed to be exhibited for more than three or four months. My intent is to rotate most if not all of the works on paper. There are a lot of them. In some cases I’ll switch the work for a similar work by the same artist: for example, Ruth Wall’s abstract expressionist prints. We have another dozen of them, so I’ll just put up a different one.
In other cases it’s an opportunity to foreground a different artist. In some cases I will switch out some paintings. To be honest, I haven’t figured it out yet. I’ve begun to keep a list. It’s exciting.
How do you balance your dual role as museum director and chief curator? How unusual, and difficult, is it for a museum of the size and scope of BAMPFA to combine these responsibilities, as it has traditionally?
We’re probably right at the limit of the scale of a museum where it’s possible to do both. Once you get much bigger than us, the responsibilities of fundraising and management become too much. But even Neal Benezra at SFMOMA and Adam Weinberg at the Whitney have curated shows since they’ve been directors. So it is possible to do.
I find that the two jobs reinforce each other. The more I am engaged with the collection, engaged with the curatorial energy of the place, the better I am as an advocate for the institution, and as a fundraiser.
How has the new building and its location in downtown Berkeley affected your exhibitions and programming? Your audiences? What does it make possible that the old building did not?
The programming has not changed much. The types of exhibitions we’re doing now are very much like the exhibitions we were doing before. But in the old building, it’s like we were an orchestra that was playing and no-one was listening. It was just empty. We would work on these exhibitions and then go out into the galleries and there’d be no-one there. It was just heartbreaking. It was hard, hard — just not good. Not good for anybody.
The move downtown has been completely transformative. Now it’s working! We do the shows and there are people looking at them! That’s how it’s supposed to be, and that was the nitty gritty ingredient. I feel so lucky and gratified.
Diller, Scofidio and Renfro did a wonderful job on the facade of the museum. It’s transparent and welcoming. You can look right in and see there’s art inside, and the Paul Discoe Crane Forum — so-called — offers you this place to chill out as soon as you come in. It provides an air of informality. There’s a lot about the building that I think we got right. We tried our hardest to get it right, but some of it is luck. I think it really works.
The things that are great about the museum are things we learned from the old building. We tried to carry things from the old building that were positive, and one of those things was that in the old building, standing anywhere you could see across to other parts of the space. It gave a sense of dynamism and vitality.
You’re not just seeing space, you’re seeing people. You can stand in one place and you can see people in the cafe, in the art lab, in the galleries. You can see people out on the street. So there’s more of a feeling of human engagement, which is gratifying. It’s exactly what we hoped for.
How do you conceive of the museum’s cultural mission as part of UC Berkeley as well as of the wider community? How does it — or should it — reflect its geographical and socio-cultural position? Or the larger political situation?
Something that museums have responded to this past year is the shifting political situation outside the museum. One of the most important roles for us to play now is as a refuge, a space for hope and solidarity, and for fostering conversation and community. I’m not sure museums have ever played that kind of role before in America. Through the vehicle of art, we should never lose sight of that — but it just so happens that art is a tremendous catalyst for precisely this kind of eye-opening, empathetic conversation.
The museum is now one of the few remaining places in our society where people from diverse backgrounds come together in a spirit of discovery. “I’m here because I want to see something that I’ve never seen before.” Where else is that happening? It’s so, so important.
“One of the most important roles for us to play now is as a refuge, a space for hope and solidarity, and for fostering conversation and community.”
Although we’re a museum of objects, ultimately this is about people. This is really about human beings. We’re all in this world together, in the present. We can’t help but be impacted by the environmental situation, the political situation. The museum’s programs are a manifestation of those anxieties, those hopes, and should somehow connect to them.
All art is contemporary. Even a show of Ming Dynasty art, like the Chen Hongshou exhibition, had a resonance in the present. That show, for example, was about the transition from the Ming to the Ching Dynasty, and about how a new political regime sent people into a massive depression. That’s basically what that show was about.
Chen Hongshou was a pretty depressed guy, and the reason was, there was a new political regime that overturned his world view and that of all of his friends. Many of his friends committed suicide. It was rough times in the 17th century. And yet here was this person who made some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen — as an expression of resilience and not hope, exactly, but of strength, endurance in tough times.
What is BAMPFA’s role in an area where so many other museums compete for attention and audiences?
We are the only encyclopedic, or quasi-encyclopedic, museum in the Bay Area accessible by BART. All the others are not. The De Young is out in Golden Gate Park. It doesn’t seem to impact their attendance at all. It has among the highest attendance of any museum in the country, so they’re doing something right. But it’s not that accessible. And the Cantor [at Stanford], is also not accessible.
Anyone in the Bay Area can get on BART and come here and see Old Master prints and drawings. They can go to our film library and see digitized films, or even celluloid films if they ask. They can see Ming Dynasty painting.
It’s an incredible resource, and an incredible responsibility for us. That’s one of the reasons why I have tried to shift the balance here away from a focus almost exclusively on modern and contemporary. Because we do in fact have collections that go back to 2000 B.C. We have Renaissance paintings. We have Old Master prints and drawings.
And we need to make that stuff more accessible. We’ve done that by creating the Works on Paper Study Center, which is a study storage space in the museum where all our works on paper are stored. It’s not open to the public on a drop-in basis but it’s accessible to scholars, and if you make an appointment.
What is your vision for how the museum should evolve over the next decade and beyond? How do you hope to realize that vision? What challenges does the institution face? How do you plan to meet those challenges?
Well, with this building — it’s like we were a classical violinist and now we have a Stradivarius, and we just have to learn how to play it better and better and better. It’s not going to change dramatically, it’s just hopefully going to get better and better as we learn how to make the most of the space.
And also there are these subtle things we’ve been talking about. How do you play the moment? Because responding to the world and what’s foremost in people’s minds is part of what a museum needs to do. And it’s tough, because you’re planning exhibitions sometimes two years in advance, and the world is so volatile. But you’ve got to have a feeling for what matters, what voice is appropriate at a certain time.
This is something that’s never entirely without conflict. Museums do things with the best intentions and find out that the voice was not right. Look what happened at the Whitney with the Emmett Till painting [by Dana Schutz] and the Walker Art Center with the Sam Durant [scaffold piece]. Museums are placing themselves right in the middle of these very complicated and sometimes difficult conversations, and they have to be up for that challenge.
What types of partnerships with local institutions and the community beyond the university do you have or envisage?
There are lots and lots of partnerships going on. Just some highlights: This past fall, we presented the final night of a sold-out run at Berkeley Rep of the The Temptations musical. [Ain’t Too Proud — the Life and Times of The Temptations]. We simulcast it free on our outdoor screen on Allston Way. Ultimately there were about 2,000 people sitting out there watching the simulcast from as far as two blocks away, down the street. So that was fantastic.
Since we opened, we’ve had guest programming for our “Full” series, from 7 to 9. Every full moon we have live performances in the evening whether we’re open or not. If the full moon happens to fall on a Monday or a Tuesday when we’re closed, we have to open, because we’re operating on a cosmic schedule. This is also the best and cheapest advertising campaign ever, because the moon, when it’s full, tells you: “Go to the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, for a great music or dance performance” or whatever.
We have coming up a collaboration with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. They’re doing three sessions this spring. They’ve commissioned young composers to compose new music based on works in our collection. These will be performed in the museum. Very exciting. So that’s fabulous.
Pianist Sarah Cahill comes back just about every year and does a group. She’s wonderful. We also work with Land and Sea, which is an art collective. They have a space down on San Pablo Avenue. We’re working now with a woman named Karen Seneferu.
What are some exhibitions and events on the horizon that people can look forward to?
A show that recently opened which is not to be missed is Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. It’s called Avant Dictée which means “Before Dictée”. Dictée is her best known work. It’s an artist’s book. It was commercially published, and for many people it’s all they know about Theresa Cha. But it was late in her career.
This show looks at all of her prior work — we own most of it — through the lens of Dictée. So the exhibition is organized according to the chapters in Dictée, which itself is organized according to the nine Greek Muses. Each chapter is one of the Muses. The show presents work that she made before Dictée, going back 10-15 years, that resonate with the themes in the different chapters. It’s a very rich and beautiful show, all from the collection. Stephanie Cannizzo, who is associate curator here, is the curator, and she did a great job.
Then we have coming this summer the fabulous Peter Hujar [photography] show [Peter Hujar: Speed of Life], that’s currently at the Morgan Library [in New York City]. It’s the only West Coast venue. There’s a Cecilia Vicuña show that was organized by the New Orleans Museum. It’s coming here also this summer.
In the Fall we have a major retrospective of Harvey Quaytman, who was a wonderful abstract painter. Apsara di Quinzio has put that together. That’ll be in the big space.
And then in the Spring we have the Hans Hoffman retrospective, curated by Lucinda Barnes. It will be the largest Hoffman show ever, which’ll be fantastic. It’s opening here and it may not go anywhere else. It may only be here.
There’s one other show I’ll mention, which opens in November and runs through March, I think, called Dimensionism: Modern Art in the Age of Einstein, organized by the Mead Museum of Art in Amherst [Massachusetts]. It’s looking at the relationship between art and science, basically in mid-20th Century art, from the 20s to the 50s, with great works by people like Calder, Miró, Duchamp — great modern masters. But looking at the work through the lens of science, particularly the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. That’ll be a great show for Berkeley.
Do you have a dream exhibition that you would love to realize in the future?
I have a couple. I would love to do a Rosie Lee Tompkins retrospective.
You introduced her jazzy abstract quilts to the world.
In a way. I did that solo show with her. Eli Leon really introduced her work to the world. He included a few pieces in a show he did at the Richmond Art Center. That’s where I saw the work first. But she’s now in a show at the National Gallery [in Washington. D.C.]. Rosie Lee Tompkins has two or three pieces there. It’s very gratifying. We have one (in the collection). I’d love to have more. There are a lot, and they’re beautiful. I’d like to do a big show but I don’t know if it’s going to happen.
I’m working on a Fred Hammersley show — a wonderful artist. Not very well known: abstract paintings, prints, drawings. We were just given a fairly significant body of work from the Fred Hammersley Foundation. He passed away in 2009.
Al Taylor is another artist I’m very excited about. I had three of his sculptures in The Architecture of Life, on the lower level. They were constructions that came out of the wall. I would be very interested in doing something with his work because I think he’s a vastly underrated artist. He passed away in 1999.
So there’s a lot I’d like to do.