Franklin Sirmans revels over place, play, and curating the city
text by Garrett Bradley
Twenty-two years after my first encounter with senior LACMA curator Franklin Sirmans, in this dialogue that centers around sense of place, around New Orleans, around Los Angeles — the double LA — I’m brought back to a beginning which we both share: our birthplace and love for New York City. This irreversible fact makes us both transplants and visitors to all places thereaf-ter. How does place affect artistic and curatorial practice? How do the demands of new cities, their unique forces of navigation, affect ways of seeing art, ways of making art? And how does the free-dom of travel, the exchange of geography begin (if at all) to inform the future, the next body of work, the next show?
Garrett Bradley: You’re a New Yorker, born and raised — tell me what you remember of your first visit to Los Angeles. What year was it? In what part of town did you stay? How did you feel? What did you think?
Franklin Sirmans: My first visit to Los Angeles was with my stepmother, Louise West, who’s an entertainment lawyer. At that time, she dealt primarily with musicians. It was absolutely surreal. My little sister and I were hanging out with her at Robert Guillaume’s place and then because of the music connection somehow we ended up at a Rick James concert. I was in 8th grade, 1983. That trip also included seeing Flashdance at the Grauman Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Need-less to say, the short trip left me thinking that LA was a surreal neverland type of place.
GB: One that I didn’t visit again for quite some time but one that remained in my imagination for its relationship to artifice, constructed reality, mov-ies, and of course music.
GB: And as for New Orleans, when was your first visit? The year, the season, the neighborhood? How did you feel? What did you think?
FS: The first time I went to New Orleans was during Mardi Gras in 1990 as a college junior doing a semester at Morehouse College in Atlanta. A bunch of us, including friends from high school, left late in the evening and arrived late at night. Petrified stopping for gas in Alabama and just petrified driving through Mississippi, period. Born in Queens, raised in Harlem — as well as the Upper West Side and Upper East Side, Albany and New Rochelle, New York — Morehouse was about hav-ing a different kind of experience than Wesleyan University. Although my family on my father’s side was from southern Georgia and we had trips there, driving from Atlanta to New Orleans heightened all of that experience of actually living in the South and how different it could be. New Orleans amplified that experience.
It seems a big part of being a curator requires an innate sense of adventure. I know for me, I’m always seeking to immerse myself in a place — making room for creative routine while also constantly moving in unknown territory to serve the work. It’s a funny balance but one that seems essential. How do you keep that feeling alive?
GB: Physically or spiritually? I agree that there are simi-larities… I try to maintain ties and conversations that are outside my physical space and I guess I also travel too much, probably. It’s a balance. It’s always tricky but between all the technological devices we have and as much as I find myself wasting time on social media, I also appreciate the distance that it so readily collapses in terms of communication. It may be simulated intimacy and information overload but it’s a viable channel.
FS: Working on Prospect.3 in New Orleans while working on a show of predominantly paintings in the permanent collection at Los Angeles County Museum of Art was the ideal balance. In one place, not knowing what the final product would even look like and in the latter knowing the work and its placement in the galleries really well. I also got to work on a show in Los Angeles with a lot of contemporary artists who share a passion for what we call the Beautiful Game, fútbol, or soccer. In that case, unlike the show of paintings that is on view now, Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting (co-curated with Nancy Meyer) we had a thematic that pretty much overshadowed all the players (artists, curator, museum). Kids came to interact with their heroes. I think they found some artistic heroes too in the process but I have no doubt as to why so many young people came to that show. The next show that I have been working on that will open at LACMA is Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, which focuses on an artist who is no longer living. Obviously, the process of working on that show, even with a won-derful co-curator, Yael Lipschutz and an incredible team of conservators, registrars, and others, is amazingly cerebral — no hashing things out on the phone with artists like yourself.
GB: Is your imagination still fed by the surreal nature of Los Angeles?
FS: It’s different now — less surreal at this age, though still, I’d have to say, yes, unequivocally.
GB: How do you stay fresh now that you’re familiar with these places?
FS: I just keep trying to find balance, an equilibrium that pretty much eludes me. It always feels one step away. But within this space I find myself trying to stretch it out. A studio visit in Hollywood one week, a studio visit in Santa Monica the next, and then Leimert Park. In fact, I can’t truly say that I am, in actuality, familiar with this place. Even after five years, I feel as though there’s so much that is still unfamiliar. I guess that keeps it exciting.
GB:In these first visits to both places in the 80s and 90s, where were you in your curatorial process? Do you remember how you were thinking about your work? How you were seeing things?
FS: Honestly, not really. Too early. It was all primary. The beautiful time, the not-knowing time, the instinctual time: knowing where to place oneself without knowing why.
GB: Even in this primary state of your life, would you say there’s a thread that connects your interests from then to now? Basquiat comes to mind — a quality in this work that speaks to something larger, maybe — something that resonated with you about life, about art? Something that’s concep-tually and continuously informing your process? Maybe without your realizing at first?
FS: I think as hard as it is to figure out while you’re in the middle of it, we are always trying to figure things out, to understand why something touch-es us in a way that we believe others should be touched by it as well. That is why I love working in an encyclopedic museum. There’s an urgency of message in the work of Basquiat that is told with humor, passion, and seductive beauty. I come from a writing background, the importance of words in poetry and prose is important to me.
GB: Yeah, with Basquiat there’s also an element of truth — an exploration of the world that is rooted in a kind of reality over nostalgia. And to approach reality, for instance, in that way while also making it beautiful, that quality, that balance, is something I see with all three of your shows up this year (Prospect.3, Variations, and Fútbol: The Beautiful Game). A way of addressing patterns, habits that are cultural or personal and proposing a new way of using our eyes, a new way of seeing what we believe as truth. Would you say you’re interested in that intersection between reality and revolution? Change or altering of what we recognize?
FS: Spot on. Although I find myself often tugging at the strings of nostalgia unwittingly, a less tinted reality is hard to escape. And we are in one of those moments when it is increasingly more difficult to escape. Yet art and the conver-sations around art hopefully point us toward wide-ranging conversations that potentially could encompass things like “reality and revolution.” Art, no matter how stubborn we are, forces us to consider things anew.
I keep returning again and again to Ways of Seeing by John Berger! It’s a foundational text. “How does art give us new ways of seeing?” has been very important from early on. It was instruc-tive to me to be able to make a show about hip hop and contemporary art at the turn of the past mil-lennium (One Planet Under A Groove: Contemporary Art and Hip Hop, Bronx Museum, 2001) and have the example of a show like Roots, Rhymes, and Rage (Brooklyn Museum, 2000) to look at as a corollary. That was the artifact, the things, the objects of personal possession. With that in mind, we (Lydia Yee and I) looked to artists to show us what the artifacts mean, not what they are. In order to get at those kinds of questions I, like many other cura-tors, have been particularly interested in the nexus between art and popular culture.
GB: Do you have a ritual or a certain way that you absorb a place for inspiration? When I lived in LA, I took the bus a lot and walked alone a lot. It was a way to stay engaged or in tune with the pulse of the city. Faces change depending on how you travel (which may be true in a lot of places but seemed especially the case in LA). Do you feel you navigate Los Angeles and New Orleans differently? How does that navigation inform your process, if at all?I have arrived in cities like New Orleans, Chicago, Toronto, São Paulo, Johannesburg, Seoul, or European cities and you just want to walk, or as it is always in New York, to rub up against it, to feel it on your body. Look briefly into the eyes of hun-dreds of strangers to get a sense of place. Smell the streets, hear the city breathe. That’s not my LA. I never felt I’d feel this way — I started driving only a month before I arrived here five years ago — but the best feeling to me after landing here — after the plane comes through the clouds and you are over the nearby desert and eventually that dense net-work of streets and lights and freeways becomes clear, and you see “downtown”’s tall buildings, then the Hollywood Hills to the right or maybe make out the ocean to the left — I don’t like to take a cab to the airport because there’s such a special feeling, especially when you arrive early, about getting in the car and driving…. The sun is invariably shining. I cross over to La Brea from La Cienega on Stocker and there’s a moment when you are in the little crevice (near Hahn Park) between little hills and you can see the oil pumps on the side of the road and the Hollywood sign in the distance… surreal. I love that. In that space, I always think with about how vast the distance is between Bald-win Hills and the Hollywood Hills, socially, eco-nomically, etc., but in terms of nature and being in the world, it’s a nice spot.
One quality that I think many people respond to when visiting New Orleans, is the city’s active en-gagement with history of the country, the history of America. Of course everyone chooses to what extent “the past” plays a role in their experience, even for those living in the city. This really struck me when I moved here in 2010, and it was in such contrast to Los Angeles, which, like many big cities, I felt was invested and geared mainly in this idea of “the future.” I guess I’m curious if this idea of “the past” and “the future” resonates with you as a curator working in both spaces. Do you think that contrast has affected your process or way of thinking about things lately?
FS: That’s part of the joyful balance of working be-tween these two spaces. LACMA has been at its location on Wilshire Boulevard since 1965. MOCA, only since 1983. I like dealing with short history and long history at the same time. And, recognize that it comes in degrees. Working on Purifoy via the current exhibition and having seen and discussed Kellie Jones’ incredible Now Dig This! exhibition at MoMa PS1 (2012) has allowed me to consider Los Angeles in many ways from the early 1960s onward, when Purifoy began making his sculptural assemblages. Not a long time, but it’s all degrees. So in the context of a show like Variations, then to be thinking about fifty years ago is quite an expanse. One puts you in the studio and the other puts you in the library — both places I love to be. The contrasts have affected me greatly.
Has being in New Orleans for such long periods of time affected your process or way of thinking now that you’re back in Los Angeles? Has it affect-ed your navigation or perspective on Los Angeles as a city?
GB: I think I am more moved by how the world has changed in the last year.