Coming Home to Liberace: Julie Ault’s Collection Returns

View of the exhibition "Macho Man, Tell It To My Heart: Collected by Julie Ault," 2013. Courtes Artists Space. Photo Daniel Pérez.



Turning one’s private art collection into a public exhibition is an uncommon feat, usually the province of the hyperwealthy collector or the feted dealer (see, for example, the upcoming Ileana Sonnabend show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art). “Macho Man, Tell It To My Heart” is the rare exception–an exhibition of works selected from (or closely connected to) the collection of Julie Ault: artist, curator, writer and founding member of New York artists’ collaborative Group Material (1976-1999).

Now taking over both of Artists Space’s locations (Greene Street and Walker Street) after appearing at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel, Switzerland, and Culturgest in Lisbon, Portugal, the show was put together by a group of curators including Ault, Martin Beck and Danh Vo. The exhibition features more than 40 artists, including Sadie Benning, Edward S. Curtis, Thomas Eggerer, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jenny Holzer, Roni Horn, Sister Corita Kent, Andres Serrano, Nancy Spero, Carrie Mae Weems and Martin Wong. With its accompanying catalogue, full of photographs of the works in their domestic contexts in Ault’s homes in New York and Joshua Tree and annotations detailing, among personal narrations and technical notes, Ault’s many artistic collaborations, the show provides both insight into the transition of the collection from a private entity to a public exhibition and a history of political, communally minded art-making in downtown New York of the ’80s and ’90s.

Ault spoke with A.i.A. at Artists Space’s Greene Street loft about Liberace, homecoming and her discomfort with the term “archive.”

MATTHEW SHEN GOODMAN I wasn’t expecting the show to start off with Liberace.

JULIE AULT In every venue that we’ve done the exhibition, the Liberace video is at the onset. It replaces a formal introduction to the show. Artists Space put up a written introduction here, but the curatorial team didn’t actually write anything. We didn’t contextualize it that way.

SHEN GOODMAN What’s the documentary of, exactly?

AULT It’s called The World of Liberace. He shows pianos, cars, furnishings–not so much artworks but things he liked and things he used in his performance and practice. I got it at the Liberace museum.

SHEN GOODMAN This is a homecoming of sorts for the works in the show, right?

AULT This is the last exhibition. We hadn’t originally thought of the show going to New York. When [Artists Space executive director] Stefan Kalmár saw the show in Basel he was so immediately enthused that he wanted us to come over and show here. Not all of the work comes from New York, but a fair amount does. It all has to come home anyway, so it can come home in a public context.


SHEN GOODMAN Do the constellations of works you’ve arranged here correspond to how they’re hung or placed in your own home?

AULT Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. We want to respond to the space we’re in, to the architecture of the place and the viewing narratives set up by the different venues. Basel had a totally different building, some natural light, but almost ’70s style. Lisbon had very formal, classic galleries. We also gave a lot of thought to the works’ provenance, pairing them based on their histories and so on. I think the principle at the beginning was no work would be hung alone–everything’s about exchanges and pairings and collaborations. That’s the core of the collection and the exhibition.

There are also pieces that aren’t necessarily from either of my homes. The collection proper, meaning things still in my possession, is the source, but it’s been extended to include works I don’t own. We even borrowed back some pieces that I’ve given away over the years.

SHEN GOODMAN More homecoming.

AULT I don’t like to use the word “reunion,” but it is a reuniting. Not only with works but also artists that I’ve had strong dialogues or relationships with over time. For example, Wolfgang Tillmans is someone I’ve had a strong dialogue with. I’ve written about his work, and I actually have a beautiful small photograph he gave me, but we wanted something else and invited Wolfgang to think about it. You’ll see it at the Walker Street space, it’s a beautiful print of a photograph that he took on a road trip with Martin Beck and me to Las Vegas.

Another work that wasn’t in my collection was Gold Field by Roni Horn. We really wanted a strong sculpture of Roni’s; she’s someone I’ve had a good dialogue with over the years. She said that when she made this piece she was just starting out as an artist–it’s from 1982–and she wanted to show it at Artists Space. When she proposed it to them, they turned it down, which makes this another kind of homecoming. You can’t actually see this piece anywhere now without stanchions surrounding it, which isn’t the way it’s supposed to be shown, so she lent us her own version. She said, You can use it as long as someone’s watching.

SHEN GOODMAN Looking at your preface in the catalogue, it seems like you resisted using the word “archive.” I was wondering your thoughts on that, as, while this all feels a lot more personable and alive than how many might view an archive, there is a lot of material from a very specific period in New York that shares a very political lineage from that time, which seems to call for some sort of archive.

AULT Collection and archive are terms that I wanted to avoid. I’d much rather use “collected by” to keep everything active. So that it’s not something finite. Of course, I’m very invested in archiving and I think that the archiving of art history and cultural history is something we can widen. The show is invested in those things, but I didn’t want to have to use the terminology. I was a bit resistant, but now I think I’m a little easier going about how it might be perceived.

As far as the history, when you really look at the checklist, there’s a lot from New York and artists who died during the AIDS crisis and soon thereafter, a lot of overlapping and intertwining of social histories and landscapes of the mid ’80s to the early’90s. But there’s also so much more; I don’t want to see that era dominate. I’m hoping it doesn’t become a melancholy lens to see the show through.