A Curator Unbound: First She Was Fired. Then She Found Freedom

Whether walking among outsize portraits of artists such as John Baldessari, Kara Walker and Lawrence Weiner, taken by the photographers Catherine Opie and Brigitte Lacombe, or sitting in darkness watching Tacita Dean’s mesmerizing film of David Hockney smoking in his studio, the curator Helen Molesworth looked the other day as if she were moving among friends.

And she was. The show she has organized at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan — “Face to Face: Portraits of Artists by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe and Catherine Opie” — which opens to the public on Friday, features artists Molesworth has been close to throughout her 25-year career.

“It’s my post-pandemic show — I really missed everybody,” she said. “The art world, we’re a funny group of people. We’re spread out. We do these weird hajes, where we all go to Venice or we all go to London. And we have our own idols. Most of the people in this show are symbolic. They mean something to people.”

Ever since she was abruptly fired as chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2018, which caused an outcry among her cohort, Molesworth, 56, has drawn strength, succor and purpose from artists. She has also more closely identified with what it’s like to be one of them, alone and unprotected.

“I love my life,” she said. “It’s hard and it’s scary, but it’s OK. It’s also more like being an artist than anything else. Everything you do goes out under your name, and it’s really attached to you.

“You’re very exposed. You don’t have the cloak of the institution to protect you and you don’t have a lot of things that the institution gives you — health insurance, a travel budget, a research assistant. I had to figure out all that stuff myself.”

Left wall: Portraits by Catherine Opie of Kara; John; Miranda, all 2013. Right wall, portraits by Brigitte Lacombe of Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio, 2000 (for “Gangs of New York”); Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, 2003 (“The Aviator”); Scorsese and DiCaprio, 2005 (“The Departed”); Scorsese and Joan Didion, 2013 (“The 50 Year Argument”); DiCaprio and Margot Robbie, 2012 (“The Wolf of Wall Street”); Scorsese and DiCaprio, 2008 (“Shutter Island”). Credit…Daniel Terna for The New York Times

The last five years have been liberating as well as fruitful — allowing Molesworth to cement her reputation as an independent thinker, interlocutor and public intellectual. She is sought after as a guest curator by galleries and museums. She is experimenting with new formats like podcasts and videos. She is speaking her mind.

“Whenever something cataclysmic like that happens in your life, where you don’t see it coming — whether it’s a firing or a death — it gives you an opportunity to rethink everything: what did I want, what was important to me, what was I good at, what was I not good at,” she said. “I feel lucky and grateful to be doing the work that I’m doing now with the kind of freedom I’ve just been offered, a kind of freedom I don’t think I could have gotten otherwise.”

Molesworth’s six-part podcast, “Death of an Artist,” delves into the accusations that have for 35 years swirled around the American minimalist sculptor Carl Andre regarding his wife, the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, who died in 1985 after falling from her Greenwich Village apartment window. Andre was acquitted of murder charges.

With more than a million downloads since it was released last fall, the series made at least seven “best of 2022” lists, including those of The Economist and The Atlantic.

“Molesworth is facing the industry’s shortcomings,” The Atlantic said, in arguing “that, so often, what the art world is actually promoting is silence.”

Molesworth has organized shows about the artists Noah Davis in 2020 and Ruth Asawa in 2021 at David Zwirner and a group show, “Feedback,” at Jack Shainman’s upstate gallery in 2021.

She has interviewed artists and thinkers for Zwirner’s “Dialogues” podcast and will host all of Season 7, which was released on Wednesday. And she leads art conversations as the host of Zwirner’s video series “Program”; the next episode, to be released Friday, focuses on the abstract painter Joan Mitchell and will be followed by an episode on Feb. 21 about Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose installation just opened at Zwirner.

Molesworth said she has come to recognize that her “secret sauce” is writing — or “translation” — which is what drew her to the podcast format. “I love writing for the ear,” she said. “I always imagined myself as the narrator.”

“Even my curating was basically a form of writing in my mind,” she added. “Each art object is a sentence, a room is a paragraph, six rooms is an essay.”

Installation view of “Face to Face” includes portraits of Thelma Golden (far left), Louise Bourgeois (center, right), Glenn Ligon and Edward Ruscha (far right).Credit…Daniel Terna for The New York Times

Jacob Weisberg, the chief executive and co-founder of the audio production company Pushkin, came up with the idea for the Mendieta podcast given his curiosity about the artist’s history. He asked Lucas Zwirner, son of the art dealer and the gallery’s head of content, for ideas about who should host; Zwirner suggested Molesworth.

“She has this omnivorous cultural quality paired with deep, rigorous study — the learning is worn very lightly,” Zwirner said. “It’s very easy for her to communicate things that I think other people would get very didactic about.”

Although Molesworth is prevented from talking about her firing in detail because of a nondisclosure agreement, it is no secret that she clashed with the museum’s director at the time, Philippe Vergne, who resigned two months after her departure.

Molesworth, who had made statements critical of MOCA prior to her exit, would now say only: “I found myself out of alignment with the director.”

Opie, who serves on MOCA’s board and is close to Molesworth, would not discuss the departure, but said “the world is still intimidated by very strong women,” adding that she appreciates Molesworth’s unvarnished, unfiltered fearlessness, “her ability to talk to an artist and ask them hard questions in relation to their own practice.

“Even though I know my work very well,” Opie added, “I feel as if Helen allowed me to know it a bit better.”

From left to right: portrait of Justin Bond, 1993; Jerome Caja, 1993; Angela Scheirl, 1993; Vaginal Davis, 1994 (Catherine Opie.)Credit…Daniel Terna for The New York Times

During her years as a museum curator, Molesworth brought L.G.B.T.Q. artists, and artists of color, into collections — Kara Walker and Lorna Simpson to the Baltimore Museum of Art; Kerry James Marshall and Barkley Hendricks to the Harvard University Art Museum; Deana Lawson and Nicole Eisenman to MOCA.

“Helen can like the work of an artist, even if it’s not validated,” said Shainman, the dealer. “She’ll still defend it and stand by it.”

She was a founding member of the now-defunct Underground Museum and helped bring overdue attention to the artist Noah Davis, who died in 2015, and to his widow, the artist Karon Davis.

“She is an artist’s curator. Always the artist first,” Davis said, adding that she learned from Molesworth “how to care for the work, how to let it breathe, how to tell a story,” and that Molesworth was often at Noah’s bedside before he succumbed to cancer at 32.

“He made her promise she would be his curator and look after the life of his work when he was gone,” Davis said. “And she has.”

A tall, deep-voiced woman who tells it like it is, Molesworth acknowledges that she can rub people the wrong way. “I’ve endeavored to be diplomatic,” she said, “and sometimes I have failed.”

Part of this brashness Molesworth attributes to her roots as a kid from Queens, New York. Raised in Flushing and Forest Hills by a textile artist mother, who worked in the men’s wear industry, and an English professor father, who taught at Queens College, she earned entry into Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s top public schools, but cut classes to seek out culture.

“I was a terrible high school student — I pretty much was a truant,” she said. “I went to museums and I went to repertory movie houses.”

After graduating from the State University of New York at Albany, Molesworth entered the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. And that changed everything.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I want to be in this room with artists and talk like this and think like this and have these experiences,’” she said. “It was clear that was going to require some intellectual commitment on my part.”

“The way she approaches curating is more refreshing than a lot of people,” Kerry James Marshall, the celebrated artist, said of Molesworth, shown here at ICP.Credit…Daniel Terna for The New York Times

She got a master’s and Ph.D. in art history at Cornell University, and worked as a curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Wexner Center for the Arts, Harvard Art Museum and Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, before landing at MOCA in 2014. Molesworth’s shows there included the acclaimed 2017 survey “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” which was co-organized with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The way she approaches curating is more refreshing than a lot of people,” Marshall said in a phone interview. “If you have a genuine love for a thing, you don’t see the lighthearted aspects as weak or feeble.”

That lightheartedness seemed to drain from Molesworth’s experience as MOCA’s chief curator, particularly when the museum decided to proceed with a Carl Andre retrospective despite her objections.

“Few people get a museum retrospective — it’s a very high honor, like playing at the NBA All-Star level,” she said. “And I didn’t think it was an honor that should go to Carl Andre.”

“I wish in retrospect that I had stepped down,” she added. “I wish I had made a stand. I wish I had been braver.”

To some extent, Molesworth got braver in her Pushkin podcast, wading into the questions about Mendieta’s death and how much of the art world looked the other way.

“Museums tend to be very risk averse and afraid of taking on hard topics,” Weisberg said. “Helen is the opposite; she says exactly what she thinks.”

While she has been leaning into her strengths, Molesworth has also emerged more clear-eyed about her weaknesses. “I’m not a good administrator and I’m kind of allergic to bureaucracy,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever really been good in a rules and regulations environment.”

“I don’t know why it took me until my 50s to admit that to myself,” she added. “But, girl, that is the God’s honest truth about me.”

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