An appealing hybrid of autobiography and cultural history, this broad-strokes memoir describes the life of the New Museum’s founding director and the tumultuous art worlds in which it transpired. Born in Brooklyn in 1940 and raised in suburban Montclair, N.J., by middle-class Jewish parents—her father was a lawyer who expected his daughter to follow him in the profession—Marcia Tucker, who died in 2006, was a renegade from the start. Before she reached adolescence, she had recruited defiantly “misfit” friends into an Ugly Club; “after one blowout Ugly Club party, everybody started clamoring to get in,” she writes. Decades later, there would be exhibitions of “Bad Paintings” and “Bad Girls,” and gleefully anticipated bad reviews. Equally portentous was a childhood mishap with nondrying clay, which Tucker used for an art project that she put, disastrously, into the oven. “I would never, ever again create something thinking that I would be able to preserve it,” she recalls. To this, one sequel would be her novel idea of a semipermanent collection, which, though never really practicable, usefully unsettled established museum practice by offering a modified version of the collectionless European Kunsthalle, newly appealing to cash-strapped American museums. Another sequel would be her acceptance, perhaps only tacit, that the museum she established is not the one that exists today.
If Tucker’s inner compass seemed pointed to trouble (a college-year-abroad romance with a titled but impoverished Frenchman who died soon after she returned to the U.S., a casualty of the war in Algeria; a hastily acquired secondhand motorcycle that led to a cross-country trip and, soon after, a serious accident), there was also a steady and equally potent compulsion to engage productively with the culture of her time. While aspiring to be an artist, Tucker enrolled in the art history program at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, holding down a series of jobs at the same time. One of the first, in the early ’60s, was as secretary for the Museum of Modern Art’s William Rubin, a legendary curator and, in Tucker’s telling, an epic monster, mercurial and demeaning. On the day she quit, he asked why his pencils weren’t sharpened, and although pencil maintenance was, she says, part of her job, she replied, “That’s because you’re not doing it the right way. You stick them up your ass and turn hard, that’s what does it.”
Salty language served again when Tucker was protractedly dissed by the expatriate painter Joan Mitchell. After a showdown during an overseas studio visit (advantage Tucker), and a nasty comeback by the artist at her Whitney opening (advantage Mitchell), Tucker “gave her a kiss and told her she was a bitch on wheels.” By that time, the tyro art historian was a curator at the Whitney Museum, where she had landed her first substantial job in January 1969. The museum was, needless to say, vastly different from what it is now, and it is impossible not to regard the earlier version wistfully. Tucker’s brief was to scout fresh artists nationwide and give them opportunities to show, pronto. She mentions nothing about five-to-eight-year lead times in programming, nor does she seem to have been responsible for courting donors of art or money.
Among Tucker’s first exhibitions—like many she organized at the Whitney, it was a collaboration with fellow curator James Monte—was “Anti-Illusion.” It opened in May 1969, four months after she was hired, and featured work by 22 artists, including Carl Andre, Michael Asher, Eva Hesse (the only woman), Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Joel Shapiro and Michael Snow, as well as the musicians Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The show was to have been named “Anti-Form,” using Morris’s newly coined term, but the other artists objected and Tucker relented because, she recalls, she hadn’t yet learned that you can’t let them run the show. And though many of the artists whose work she presented in her eight-year tenure at the Whitney have since become superstars—Bruce Nauman, Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson among them—they, too, were relatively untested then. In fact, despite her rueful resolution to get tough, Tucker seems never to have relinquished the idea that artists can be trusted. Looking back, she says what she learned at the Whitney is that there are two ways to organize exhibitions: “didactic” (you demonstrate what you know) and “investigative” (you learn from what you’re doing). The second approach is “what artists, if they are not hacks, do all the time. They work without knowledge of the outcome. Why not take a cue from them?”
Not surprisingly, Tucker ruffled feathers at the Whitney, and much of what she showed was unpalatable to the old guard. An exhibition of modest-to-a-fault sculptures by Richard Tuttle (September-November 1975) was, famously, the coup de grâce. But just as damaging to Tucker’s prospects was the retirement, in 1974, of museum director John Baur, whose unflagging support had more than once saved her job. Baur’s successor, Tom Armstrong, introduced (or reverted to) a more conservative model of stewardship; in the fall of 1976, he asked for Tucker’s resignation. In a letter to the museum’s trustees on that occasion, she wrote, “[I]t has always been my conviction that it is the museum’s responsibility not only to reflect the consensus of educated opinion by which art history is made, but also to seek out the best work at its source, rather than only after it has achieved commercial exposure.” While laying out the terms of a conflict that only grows more troublesome by the year, the letter was also, characteristically, a reckless bridge-burner.
Reflecting on that turning point nearly 30 years later, Tucker writes: “The academic model on which museums were based was slowly being replaced by a corporate one. Budgets and fund-raising had become predominant in a nonprofit world that had hitherto been about connoisseurship and quality, often at the expense of the bottom line.” A rejection of the corporate model would be the guiding spirit of her new initiative. Hard to explain at the time, but especially in retrospect seeming more canny than idealistic, was her decision to create a museum rather than an “alternative” art space, of which that decade produced plenty. Tucker’s New Museum, established in January 1977—within a month of her departure from the Whitney—was founded with a mission statement that sounds decidedly alternative: it would welcome community-based projects, involve artists in programming and even provide a forum for the exchange of information about loft and studio space. At least one New Museum curator would spend half the year on the road, trolling for the unknown and unmarketable. More controversially, all staff members were initially paid the same amount, though Tucker’s compensation for her many speaking engagements violated the parity, and the policy was abandoned. Retained was an insistence on staff consensus for program decisions; Tucker was firmly committed to a nonhierarchical organization. The new venture’s most museumlike undertaking—the establishment of a collection in which art would be kept for no less than 10 years and no more than 20—was unsustainably equivocal.
But as its future would prove, the new institution was indeed to be a museum, with fixed exhibition spaces, a curatorial staff and (not least important, particularly when government support for venturesome visual art withered in the 1980s) an administrative structure familiar enough to attract and retain trustees and funding. The New Museum, with its irresistibly ingenuous name, had its first home (office space only) at 105 Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan; Artists Space and Printed Matter also opened shop in the same building at roughly the same time. In July 1977, Tucker’s museum moved to the New School, on 14th Street, where it had 2,500 square feet on the ground floor, divided between exhibition and office space. The opening show was a fairly tame affair, with work by Ron Gorchov, Elizabeth Murray, Dennis Oppenheim, Dorothea Rockburne and Joel Shapiro. The next year, there was the more contentious “Bad Painting” exhibition, which featured Joan Brown, Charles Garabedian, Earl Staley and Neil Jenney.
In 1983 the museum moved to 583 Broadway, in SoHo, and remained there for two decades. Among its most notable shows was “Bad Girls” (1994), a big, messy, two-installment assembly of work in which veteran feminists found themselves in mixed company, including more than a few men, and sober theory met ribald humor. (Among the artists included were Janine Antoni, Renee Cox, Cary Leibowitz, Yasumasa Morimura, Chuck Nanney and Sue Williams.) “Bad Girls” took shots from all sides: irreverent to a fault for some, it was too strident for others. It didn’t help that the show appeared right in the middle of the culture wars of the ’90s, which began with the presentation of work by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano in federally funded exhibitions. When the New Museum subsequently gave Serrano a show, it went off without controversy because, Tucker says, she’d done preparatory work with churches, educators, ACLU lawyers and so on.
If she is understandably proud of such moments of successful diplomacy, Tucker indulges in little triumphant reflection on the museum’s greatest hits, or even most newsworthy dustups; in fact, the decade between 1984 and 1993, during which the museum blossomed, goes by in a single chapter, though earlier and later periods are organized mostly in two- or three-year chunks. She does cite a favorite show, by Bob Flanagan, in which the sadomasochistic cystic-fibrosis sufferer staged acts of ritualized self-harm—with the help of his wife, Sheree Rose—that were difficult by any standard. The exhibition singled out by Roberta Smith, in a New York Times obituary for Tucker, as the museum’s “most notorious”—“Have You Attacked America Today?” (1989), which prompted garbage cans to be thrown through the museum’s windows—goes unmentioned.
By her own admission, Tucker was pretty thoroughly burnt out by the second half of the ’90s. “I was interested in the farthest reaches of museum practice, in art as a catalyst for new ideas and ways of thinking about the world. I had never thought of myself as a specialist in management and fund-raising. Or as a camp counselor or psychotherapist . . . . I had stopped having fun.” Tucker determined to retire by her 60th birthday; before she reached it she was diagnosed with cancer, with which she struggled off and on for the next seven years. Lisa Phillips, herself a longtime curator at the Whitney Museum, replaced Tucker in 1999.
A Short Life of Trouble is unapologetically unfinished. Tucker was a vivid writer, and the book’s lively narrative is fully coherent—presumably Liza Lou, the artist who edited the book, helped make it so. (She and Tucker became friends when Lou’s work was included in a 1996 New Museum exhibition.) But at the end there are abrupt jumps from topic to topic, which give the story the sadness that Tucker, whose last career was as a stand-up comic, was determined to keep at bay. The fact that much of the material seems to have been written in full sight of mortality may account for the (very) occasional bits of score-settling or otherwise intemperate reminiscence.
Far more often, Tucker celebrates collective action. Though one might assume that a book like this would lead to a reflection on personality-driven vanguard nonprofit arts organizations in their salad days, it offers instead a paean to the cooperative spirit. A Redstockings meeting that Tucker attended in 1968, the year the pioneering feminist organization was established, led her to found a consciousness-raising group that was still meeting nearly four decades later. Tucker was widely rumored to have been a Guerrilla Girl—collectivism in action par excellence. For 25 years, and despite an acknowledged handicap as a vocalist, she was a devoted member of an amateur singing ensemble called Art Mob. None of these groups were composed exclusively of well-known or powerful art-world players. “It’s probably more fun to hear untrained voices,” she writes, “just like it’s more fun to watch the Big Apple circus than Ringling Brothers . . . because at the Big Apple the acrobat might actually fall off the horse. Maybe that’s what gave the New Museum its edge in the early days, too,” she concludes. “We always bit off more than we could chew. . . . We were never altogether sure of what we were doing.”
Not that she was opposed to drawing boundaries and making value judgments. In the art world to which Tucker committed herself, there were actual barriers, or at least recognizable distinctions, between nonprofit and commercial art institutions, curators and collectors. Innovative art wasn’t understood as restricted to art by the young. “Younger than Jesus” (as the New Museum has titled the first in its new program of triennial survey shows) is an exhibition concept it’s hard to imagine Tucker supporting. Rather than some aimlessly provocative notion of the newest new, she championed art about hot-blooded ideas with real consequences—including sexism, racism, ageism and homophobia—but also, and no less important, about where art’s own physical and conceptual boundaries are staked. Witness her early support for Barry Le Va, or David Hammons—or the work of tattoo artists.
The etherized community to which the New Museum is now devoted, in which borderless networks replace considered affiliation (see its signature online project, Rhizome, or the “information-pooling” group of more than 200 individuals who will form the curatorial team for the new triennial), is reflected in its new physical identity. A 2007 building that looks, from the inside, not like an artist’s loft but a fluorescent-lit big-box store, it is, seen from the street, a tower of designer ice cubes casually stacked in a tall glass: the coolest place in town.