Episode 105

Helen Molesworth on Museums as Machines for Slowness

Interview by Spencer Bailey

To Helen Molesworth, curating is much more than carefully selecting and positioning noteworthy artworks and objects alongside one another within a space; it’s also about telling stories through them and about them, and in turn, communicating particular, often potent messages. Her probing writing takes a similar approach to her curatorial work, as can be seen in her new book, Open Questions: Thirty Years of Writing About Art (Phaidon), which culls together 24 of her essays written across three decades. For nearly 20 of those years, Molesworth served in various curatorial roles at museums and arts institutions including the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, and most recently, as the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA). During her time at MOCA, Molesworth was a catalytic force who co-organized, among five other shows, the blockbuster 2017 exhibition “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Molesworth’s time at MOCA came to an end in 2018, however, when she was abruptly fired, to significant public outcry, due to what the museum cited as “creative differences.”

Molesworth hasn’t let this high-profile situation, emotionally devastating as it was, impede her intrinsic drive to tell stories about art. In the five years since leaving MOCA, she has built a thriving practice as a writer, having just published Open Questions (another book is already in the works), and independent curator, organizing multiple exhibitions, including shows at David Zwirner about the artists Noah Davis in and Ruth Asawa, as well as “Face to Face: Portraits of Artists by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe and Catherine Opie” at the International Center of Photography in New York. She’s also turned to podcasting: In 2022, Molesworth hosted the six-part series Death of an Artist, about the death of the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, which was named a best podcast of the year by both The Economist and The Atlantic. She also serves as a host on Dialogues: The David Zwirner Podcast, and has previously hosted The Getty museum’s Recording Artists podcast. A true artist’s curator, Helen is a no-nonsense straight-shooter and someone who has time and again pushed boundaries and raised up marginalized voices through her work.

On this episode of Time Sensitive, Molesworth discusses her lifelong engagement with the work of Marcel Duchamp; the transformative power of a great conversation; and the personal and professional freedom she has found in recent years as a roving, independent voice in the art world.

CHAPTERS

Molesworth reflects on Marcel Duchamp as the “lodestar” of her intellectual life over the past three decades.

Molesworth discusses her essay “Doris Salcedo: Readymade Time,” digging into how the Colombian artist’s work masterfully probes the power structures of authoritarianism and capitalism.

Molesworth meditates on the concept of “museum time,” proposing that museums could be considered “machines for slowness” and underscoring the importance of arts institutions utilizing their storage more often instead of constantly adding to their collections.

Molesworth looks back at her life and career trajectory, from her upbringing in Queens, to earning her Ph.D. from Cornell, to her twenty-plus year tenure in the museum world, to her highly publicized departure from MOCA.

Molesworth talks about the professional freedom she has discovered in the five years since leaving MOCA, in particular through writing and hosting podcasts.

TRANSCRIPT

 

SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Helen. Welcome to Time Sensitive.

HELEN MOLESWORTH: Hi, Spencer. Thanks for having me.

SB: First I just wanted to say that the subject of time, which we tend to get into on this show, is a subject that is central to your work and your new book, Open Questions: Thirty Years of Writing About Art. There are so many directions we could go on time, but I thought we’d start today’s conversation with perhaps your greatest interest of all, Marcel Duchamp. Your Cornell Ph.D. thesis from 1997 was titled “At Home with Marcel Duchamp: The Readymade and Domesticity,” and issues of labor and work—and taste—have long been a primary focus of yours. I wanted to start there: How do you think about time in relation to Duchamp? 

HM: Thank you for that question. I feel like you’ve been digging in the crates, my friend, to know the title of my dissertation. I think Duchamp—for me, he’s been a lodestar of my intellectual life, and I think at different points in my thinking about him and working with that material, I would’ve answered this question differently. But right now, one of the things that Duchamp said was that basically no one should say anything about an art object, publicly, for fifty years.

He already has this idea that the viewer completes the work, so that the artwork is fundamentally a proposition on the part of the artist. It’s not an ontologically complete thing that exists—we, the viewer, are necessary. That’s already one idea about duration and time, that the thing isn’t done when he’s done with it; the thing actually has just started its life.

But this other idea that perhaps we do not know what we are looking at, that perhaps the present itself is a concept that is pretty tenuous, and by its very nature in continual flux. The famed Duchampian silence is a way of riding out the presentist nature of the everyday. He’s someone who was really interested in the everyday, but I think he’s someone who also understood that that shit comes around every day, and if you want to have a longer conversation, you might need to be quiet for a while. I think about that a lot at the moment.

SB: You’ve written [in Open Questions] about this idea, the nature of “commodity time” in relation to his work. Could you share a bit about commodity time?

HM: Sure. I think commodity time’s a really fast time. There are different versions of commodity time because there’s the time it takes to make that commodity. And now, I think we don’t think about that. We think about where commodities are made—Asia, the fact that our phones are made potentially by child slaves, things like that. 

But time and space are inextricable, so commodity time is interesting to think about. What does it mean that we all live our lives through that phone? Who makes that phone? Who gets paid for that phone? How long does it take that phone to get made, to last, to degrade? There’s that kind of commodity time. But I think when I talk about commodity time in art, it’s a way for me to distinguish the slowness of art and the speed of the commodity. I think that’s what I’m doing when I have a phrase like “commodity time.”

SB: How would you apply that to Duchamp?

HM: I think Duchamp’s readymades, one of the things that they’re doing, I think, is a resting commodity time. By interfering in the flow and removing an object out of the flow, you can actually see that there is a flow. You need to arrest it in order to see it. In that regard, the commodity is a bit like water. It’s always seeking its own level and it’s always changing. 

Because right now there’s all this stuff on this table in front of us, and I could say, “Oh, that coffee mug is going to make it. We’re not going to stop drinking coffee out of mugs that look like that.” But maybe in fifty years or a hundred years, that coffee mug would look very 2023 in a way that you and I can’t accept that it’s a 2023 time marker right now.

SB: [Laughs] I love that. Getting more personal, how do you think about the time you’ve spent yourself digging into studying, reading and writing about, and engaging in Duchamp’s work?

HM: Hmm. That’s a really interesting question that I do not know how to answer. I’ve been thinking about Duchamp since I was in my twenties. So part of what I hear in the question is, how does it feel to be 57?

[Laughter]

SB: Not my intent.

[Laughter]

HM: I know, but it’s really weird. I’m like, How does it feel to be 57? But the other thing I think that Duchamp—and I don’t know if he understood this about the readymade—but of course now the readymade is a historical artifact. We don’t use bottle racks anymore. We don’t dry our wine bottles on a bottle rack in the kitchen. So there’s also something now about the readymade as a kind of antiquated thing, and I don’t fully understand—or I’m not sure if Duchamp fully understood, is a better way to say it, I guess—that that was going to happen, that that bottle rack was going to look so antiquated.

There’s no way I could have understood, when I started thinking about Duchamp in my early twenties, that I’d think about him for this long and that I would be testing myself and my own thought against him for this long. I never could have known that. In my twenties, I just thought, That’s the dude who changed everything. And I’m riding that wave. I’m going to lean into that, because there’s so much value there that, if I want to think about value, if I want to think about how this art thing really works, that’s my guy. That’s the dude to be in dialogue with. It had a bit of bellicose or bravado in it. It had a bit of the arrogance of a 21-year-old.

SB: But there is something beautiful to this Duchamp-as-lens idea.

HM: Yeah. The thing is I only know that now. I did not know that that was what was going to happen in the beginning.

SB: You were hinting at duration earlier. I did want to bring up this notion of time in the public realm, what happens to an artwork over time as it enters that realm, the long-view reception of Duchamp’s work. In his essay “The Creative Act,” which you’ve quoted before, he writes about how you had to wait for the verdict of the spectator so that this realization would come true—or not. And in the introduction to your book Open Questions, you write, “Another way of thinking about art’s futurity is to wonder whether the object in question can withstand the pressure of time travel.” I was hoping maybe you’d elaborate a little bit on this time travel element and in the context of duration and maybe even Duchamp’s urinal as an example.

HM: I came up with the time travel idea when I was working in museums. That’s really my experience of curatorial work. And even more so, more specifically, my experience of making acquisitions of contemporary art for museums. That just was a total mindfuck for me because that’s—that’s the show. That’s primetime. That’s like the NBA All-Stars. You can’t mess around there, and the competition is fierce. What you buy, what you actually use money for, to buy, to enter into a museum, I just thought that was work of the highest order and it needed to be treated very, very seriously. 

And the reason it needed to be treated seriously was because the promise, executed or not, is that once you take that thing into the museum, you forever alter its status. It’s no longer a commodity. It’s a full-blown art object removed from the flow of the commodity. And it’s going to be there forever. The museum promises to take care of that forever. What the fuck does that mean?

SB: [Laughs]

HM: Time travel became interesting for me to think about because I thought, Oh, I’m not buying this for today, I’m actually buying this for a hundred years from now. When I ask, “Can it withstand the time travel?” one of the things I’m trying to figure out there, and this, of course, is all a thought experiment—it’s impossible to know—but can the thing I’m buying withstand not only the pressures of this moment, the pressures of the past as we understand this moment through the lens of the past? Does it give us a version of the past and the present that has some sense of looking forward? Does this object understand that who sees it today is going to think one thing, but who sees it a hundred years from now is going to think something else? Does it have enough stuff? Does it have enough mortar keeping the bricks together conceptually to move forward?

That became a game I would play with myself, not only when I was buying things for museums, but also when I would go to museums and look at the old stuff, when I was trying to figure out, why is this picture riveting, but that room of pictures I literally sleepwalked through? What is happening so that some of these pictures feel a little dead on arrival, and some of them are making me cry? They’re that present that they’re making me cry. And I just started to wonder, is there something about Manet’s project, for instance? Because the “Manet-Degas” show is up right now in New York. Why do those paintings feel so alive, but the [Jean-Baptiste-Camille] Corot picture of cows in the landscape, not so much?

And so that became a way also of thinking, What is a picture doing? What is it saying? What is the criteria for the viewer’s competency to look at that picture and understand, “Oh yeah, you’ve got legs, but you, you’re a picture of what it was like in 1890 to look out in a bucolic field”? It’s not bad. It’s just not maybe making your heart sing or making your synapses fire in your brain.

SB: Do you think Duchamp knew the endurance of the urinal, that it would be what it is today?

HM: I do, because I think that’s why he made it so many different times. I think he understood that, for himself as a concept, he’d probably figured out everything he needed to figure out about it in 1917. But I do think he understood that, if there wasn’t a thing, an actual object, that it wasn’t going to hold. So hence, he goes out and buys one in the fifties for the Sidney Janis show. And I think that’s one of the reasons he lets the readymades be remade by Arturo Schwarz in the sixties in an edition of ten or twelve or thirteen, depending on what literature you believe about the Arturo Schwarz edition.

SB: I’d like to transition to an essay you wrote twenty years ago for your “Work Ethic” exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. In it, you write that Duchamp “helped liberate artists from conventional modes of working, contributing to a climate that permitted and rewarded an increasingly porous idea of art’s possibilities.” And you go on to reference things like the rise of the M.F.A. artist, Frank Stella’s “executive model,” in which other people are making the work, John Baldessari’s presentation of himself as a “nine-to-five artist.” It seems like much of what interested you in this was this rise of clock time, industrialization, capitalism, and, of course, the professional class. Is that how you see it?

HM: It’s funny, listening to you talk about that essay from twenty years ago. One of the things that strikes me the most is, I wrote that essay at the moment when I was being inculcated as a member of a professional class. Like, that essay I think has so much to do with my own move from graduate school into a professional arena, the professionalization of the identity of curator, the professionalization of myself as a feminist in the workplace. These were all things that I was grappling with when I was writing that essay. I stand by that essay. I do think that Duchamp’s readymade really does crack open the carapace of what artistic labor is.

And I think the reception of the neo avant-garde in the states, which is really when, as Hal Foster says, “Duchamp becomes Duchampian,” in the fifties in his reception in the States. That is a moment of profound change in our labor arrangements in the United States, both for women’s labor, for a move from a manufacturing economy to a service economy to an information economy. And also, I think, and something I didn’t see then, but see more clearly now, the way in which the Civil Rights Movement also confronts us with issues of labor. Who does what labor?

It’s no mistake that one of the most important events of the Civil Rights Movement is on the one hand, the bus boycott. Like, “We refuse to ride this bus.” “We refuse to play our role as consumers.” There’s a boycott. But then also there’s the sanitation strike, when predominantly Black men make a poster that says, “I am a man,” just to establish their basic fundamental human existence in a culture that hadn’t afforded them that. They’re doing so in the context of a labor strike. The change in labor in the post-war period of the twentieth century in the States is profound. And I think Duchamp is an incredible way to…. As you said before, he’s a lens through which you can see some of that stuff more clearly.

SB: I want to totally flip this to the subject of idleness, which you write about in the book, and it’s beautiful—you get into the subject by writing, “Idleness is a utopic anti-capitalist state. What is idleness if not the only legitimate resistance to a system that literally forces you to sell your time?”

HM: Yeah, I’m obsessed with laziness and idleness and not working. And again, I think that those things are very personal. I have a hard time still knowing whether or not I’ve done enough work.

SB: When does it end?

HM: When does it end? What’s enough? What’s enough?

And I think now we live in this ridiculous culture of speed, where your self-worth is somehow bound up in how many emails you have or how many texts you’re getting. My self-worth is bound up in those things, and I’m like, “Really?” Because the best day is a day when there are no emails—

SB: [Laughs]

HM: —and yet, that’s the day I’m like, “Oh, snap.” Like, “Oh shit. Is it over? Is this it?” [Laughs] I think thinking about idleness and I think thinking about laziness are really powerful forms of resistance.

SB: I love the idea of being idle as a form of resistance.

HM: Yeah. There’s a great Paul Lafargue who marries…. He’s a nineteenth-century writer. He marries Karl Marx’s daughter, and he writes a tract on laziness in which he says—I hope I get this right—“Jehovah, the angry God, gives us the perfect model of idleness. He works for six days and rests for eternity.”

SB: There’s one more essay I wanted to bring up in the book that gets at time. Perhaps it’s the one that’s most explicitly about time. It’s “Doris Salcedo: Readymade Time,” and Salcedo’s work reckons with what you refer to as “postcolonial time.” I was hoping maybe you’d speak a bit about the temporal nature of Salcedo’s work, and you kind of contrast it in the essay with Duchamp.

HM: I think Salcedo’s sense of time, and I say this with, I hope, sensitivity and circumspection—since I have never experienced the kind of time I think Salcedo’s work is dealing with. And that is the time of cultural grief, political rupture, the kind of time that people have to confront whose loved ones have disappeared in the night. I don’t know about that kind of time, but I bet it’s really, really devastating. And I bet it’s a kind of obliteration of time. I bet it’s an agonizing sense of permanence.

I found that Salcedo’s use of plaster, of a material that literally, whenever…. You look at it and it starts to disintegrate, it starts to decay, it starts to literally pulverize into dust. And she knows this. Salcedo is, I think someone—I think she’s one of those artists who’s very in control. So she knows that one day someone’s going to say, “The plaster’s turning to dust,” and that, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is going to reverberate in the mind of an English-speaking person. I think she’s really quite masterful in that way.

And so I think she’s tried to show us the horror of how authoritarian regimes and capitalism in general decide that some people are not necessary. Some objects can become obsolescent. And she, I think really…. I never know how to pronounce this word. It’s a word I like on the page. Limes? Limns? L-I-M-N-S. How do you say that?

SB: Limns.

HM: Limns. It doesn’t make any sense when you say it out loud, but it’s so beautiful when you see it on the page. But I think her work rides slipstream, on the one hand, the way capitalism produces obsolescence, and then the way authoritative regimes map themselves onto that obsolescence and to decide that people can be obsolescent as well as objects and the terror of that.

SB: And for the listeners who don’t know Salcedo’s work, I feel like we should bring up her Turbine Hall installation at the Tate Modern, which is this extraordinarily simple, but actually incredibly complex installation—a crack, basically—running the length of the hall.

HM: On the floor, just a crack in the floor that on the one hand looks like a crack on the floor, until you look at it and you realize, “This actually doesn’t make any sense.” And then you learn slowly by looking, but also by reading that she makes a crack in the floor, digs out the crack in the floor, and then inserts a crack into the floor so that every aspect of how that thing looks is completely under her control. There’s no accidents in Salcedo, which is interesting to think about because of course, she’s someone who deals with the capriciousness of violence, like the way in which violence can happen at any time to anyone. And yet the work itself has no accident in it.

SB: And just the simple metaphor of this crack running through the middle of this institution.

HM: And that is the crack that…. The fissure that runs through that institution there, and the floor, is also doubled for me, because what do we want from an art object? We actually want an art object to crack us open. Why else go to a museum? You don’t go to a museum the way you go to a Marvel movie.

You go to a museum to be shattered, to be rendered asunder, to be transformed. Salcedo will do that to you.

SB: This is such a nice segue because I wanted to ask you about what we could maybe call “museum time” here. There are museums like The Met and the Art Institute of Chicago that have this linear timeline—or that’s what they would like to project anyway—but as you’ve pointed out, that’s not how time works. Like Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” time is this circular, cyclical thing. It curves, it constantly bends back on itself. You’ve looked to create, in the context of the museum, what you’ve called a “funky space of time,” which we could mean as feminist time, queer time, et cetera. So let’s unpack this notion of museum time, as you see it, and what do you think can be done to shake this up in the twenty-first century?

HM: The museum is an Enlightenment institution, and our Enlightenment siblings really believed in rational, linear time, in which, as the old saw goes, as we move forward in time, we get better—progress. We all know that that’s a story that runs aground. And one of the places it runs aground is in World War II. I do think there’s something about the dropping of the atom bomb that, on the one hand, obliterates a previous notion of progressive time, like, really? That’s progress? That’s hard to stomach.

And genocidal time, that all of that rationality could ultimately be brought to bear on the genocide and the elimination of one group of people, the Jews. So time and progress, it seems to me, they have a really hard…. You’re going to be hard-pressed to just believe in that in the wake of World War II. I think artists start to realize, like, “Ah, this is not something we can sign on to. We have to figure out a different relationship to time.”

Museums did not get the same memo that the artists got. Now, maybe that’s okay, because maybe the role of museums in our culture is to be slow. This is an idea I get from the artist Josiah McElheny, who, one day standing on Michigan Avenue waiting for a cab. It was bitter cold at night after an art world kind of dinner thing. We were both probably a little drunk. I think I still drank at the time. He flung his arms open and looked at the Art Institute of Chicago and said, “Look at it,” he said, “It’s a machine for slowness.” And I thought, “That is the most beautiful way of thinking about the museum,” that maybe that’s its role now, is in fact to be slow in a culture that has lost its mind on speed.

Now, I say that as someone who no longer works in a museum, so I don’t have to have my frustration at that slowness. Now I can be a little more romantic about that slowness. So one version of museum time is, I think, to be slow. It is to hold things in the public trust so that we can have them when we need them. We don’t need everything in the museum all the time. We need some things now

So it seems to me the problem with the museum is do we have the right folks working at the museums that help us know what we need from storage? I think one of the problems with my museum colleagues—and I think I fell prey to this as well—is that we were so busy adding that we stopped looking in storage. What do I need?

We stopped treating storage like we would treat a pantry in a kitchen. I’m hungry. What is there to eat? What do I need to make out of this pantry? Instead, we all take-out all the time. [Laughter]

SB: That is such a good metaphor. [Laughter]

HM: It’s really true. Yesterday I saw “Inheritance” by Rujeko Hockley at the Whitney. It’s a permanent collection show. And I thought, This is the path. Have an idea, have a concept, have a theme, have a problem, have a political position, have an agenda, and go to the fucking basement, and find out what’s in there that will help you think along those lines and take it out. Let’s use the stuff that’s in the basement. So that’s a different version of museum time. If we’re really saving that stuff for the public trust, we have to figure out a way to start using it, otherwise the jig is up.

SB: Let’s circle back to your life, your early upbringing in Queens. You were raised by a textile artist mother and an English professor father.

HM: I was.

SB: Sounds like an ideal parental situation in some ways.

HM: Uh…. There were parts. [Laughs] I was very lucky. I was raised by people who loved culture, so my access to culture was assured. I was also raised in Queens in G.I., postwar housing, and I went to public school. I’ve said this often, but I like to say it because I believe it. Every teacher I had, from the first grade to the sixth grade, let us know, in no uncertain terms, that the city of New York belonged to us, that the Metropolitan Museum of Art belonged to us, that Central Park belonged to us, that Lincoln Center belonged to us, that The New York Times belonged to us. It was an amazing experiment, and I encourage it.

SB: What are some of your earliest art memories? Something you saw, something you experienced?

HM: I’m really fortunate. I have a lot of them. I remember as a kid being taken to see an Al Hirschfeld cartoon show. And I don’t know if your listeners…. Some people might not know who Al Hirschfeld was, but he was a New Yorker cartoonist, and he had this trick. He had a daughter named Nina, and he would put her name into the drawing, and then when he signed his name in the drawing, there would be a number next to it. It’d be like “Al Hirschfeld, 6.”

And that meant there were six Ninas in the drawing. And as a kid, I just thought this was like the bee’s knees, man. First off, you had a dad who loved his daughter so much that he’s putting her name in the drawing. Second, there’s this game: find. So it was a way of looking very carefully, and I think it was partly training me to look very carefully. And then there’s this idea that there’s a secret, but there’s a clue. And in many ways, I think that this very early experience of looking actually shaped me.

SB: That sounds like an ideal way of learning how to look. [Laughs]

HM: Exactly, right. It’s infused with love, pleasure, and curiosity.

SB: You went on to study art at State University of New York at Albany, you entered the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, and as I mentioned earlier, got your Ph.D. from Cornell beginning this long twenty-plus year career in museums. Looking back, how do you think about those twenty years, that trajectory in the museum world?

HM: It’s a bittersweet question. I think that I really enjoyed working in museums.

I really loved being around all that art. And I loved the intimacy of it. I love storage. I love seeing a painting out of its frame. I love watching how a painting changes when you move it from wall to wall. I loved the physical access I got to works of art in the museum. That I don’t get anymore. It’s really profound. I know this sounds corny, but to be able to touch the stuff, it’s different. There’s a whole different kind of knowledge.

SB: To handle it, to hold it.

HM: To handle it. Yeah, to hold it. To actually care for it, which is at the root of the word curator. You’re actually caring for those objects and one doesn’t get to do that anymore, which is one of the reasons I don’t refer to myself as a curator anymore. I organize exhibitions, but I don’t have the role of curator. I’m not entrusted with the care of a collection of objects. 

And the museum changed a lot. The field changed a lot in the twenty years I was in it. And I watched it change, and I felt it change. Those changes were very difficult. And I think it’s still in a period of change. Yeah, it changed. When I started, the trustees were doctors and lawyers. When I ended, they were billionaires. There’s a really big difference between a doctor and a lawyer and a billionaire. Seven zeros worth.

SB: And I know the MOCA situation is not something we need to get into, nor can you speak much about it, because of an NDA, but I was curious just how you think about the end there, the year of 2018 in general, and this five-year period of time since, which has been very…. From the outside looking in, or at least doing research for this interview, I’m like, “Wow, how freeing, now she’s doing all these roving projects all over and making podcasts and organizing shows.” I’m curious how you think about that moment, and then the five years since.

Installation view of “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” (2017) at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. (Photo: Brian Forrest. Courtesy MOCA)

HM: 2018 was rough. I was surprised by the publicness of what happened to me.

I did not understand how public it was going to be, and I didn’t understand, speaking of time, that once something that public happens to you, it’s like gum on the bottom of your shoe. I have yet to have an interview where someone doesn’t want to talk about that moment. It’s really interesting to me that…. Like I wonder sometimes, Will I get an…. Will there ever…. What has to happen? What needs to happen for that not to be part of my, quote-unquote, “story”? 

And I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand the tenacity. And I feel extremely privileged to have the career I have right now, to have the work that I have right now. I think there were a handful of people who were brave enough to think they could take me on and weren’t scared by whatever it is that the museum world was clearly very…. The museum world has not welcomed me back. And then sometimes I wonder, how long will I have to bitch about that?

SB: You were very much what you could call an artist’s curator. And I think in a way, there was a power in that—this collective of artists who really loved you.

HM: Yeah. Thank you for saying that because of course, that was the ultimate…. I was only ever interested in the approbation of artists. If a museum director thought I was good or smart, great, but that…. My arrogance was bound up in artists.

I didn’t care what a lot of people thought, but I cared a great deal what artists thought about me.

SB: I found it interesting to learn that as you were leaving—actually after you had left—and in that moment you were organizing a show titled “One Day at a Time.”

HM: “One Day at a Time” was a show about Manny Farber and Termite Art. And “One Day at a Time” was supposed to be the show that would open on whatever that day was in October. And then in my mind, the next day I was going to quit. I was done. It was my “goodbye to all this” show. So I got to have my “goodbye to all this” show, which is really nice. I’ve always been someone who planned ahead. [Laughs] And it would’ve been a very different departure, obviously. I had hoped to slink away.

Everybody who knows me, knows [that when] I’m at a party, I am the queen of the Irish goodbye. I had hoped to slink away. I had not really desired my exit to be so public, but I was done. I was out of gas. I couldn’t do it anymore.

SB: And then you leave, and then literally, one day at a time, you rebuild and create this new existence for yourself.

HM: Yeah.

SB: Tell me about that, those years since.

HM: The years since have been really interesting. They allowed me to reconnect with my writing, which was super important for me. Not being attached to an institution was liberating for my intellectual life. I realized the degree to which I had been a public servant. I had been in service to public culture, and that I didn’t have to do that anymore. I could be truer to my own eccentric interests and pursuits, that I could figure out a way to write that…. I didn’t have to have any of those institutional players in my head. I didn’t have to think about things going out under an imprint that wasn’t just me. That was all very liberating.

I got a lot of my time back. And that meant that I could think about, what was I good at? What was I bad at? What should I not do? What wasn’t good for my ego? Things like that. So it was actually a period—I’m loath to use this phrase, but it is true—of great personal growth. [Laughter]

I decided in the wake of it to sit down and have a long, long talk with myself. It took about a year: What mattered to me, and to try and tack toward that and only that.

SB: What did that look like? Was that in the form of writing mostly? Was it long walks?

HM: Oh, I lost my job in mid-March, and by mid-April, I had a puppy. [Laughter] The walking was key. Always. Very, very key. Lots and lots of long walks by myself—and the dog.

SB: [Laughs] Do you think you’ll ever return to a museum if the right opportunity were to come up?

HM: The cliché is to never say never, but I’m also so pragmatic. I’m a very pragmatic person, and so I try not to want things from people who can’t give them to me. I take all the calls, but…. I don’t know. I don’t know. I also, I don’t know, am I what a museum needs right now? I don’t know. I had a great run. I made big-time shows.

SB: Kerry James Marshall.

HM: Kerry James Marshall, the eighties show, the Black Mountain College show. Those shows take three, four, five years of work. They take millions of dollars. They take the whole institution saying, “We are going to do this.” I don’t know. I don’t know. Do people get to do that anymore? I don’t know.

SB: [Laughs] Not to get all meta, but I want to talk about podcasts.

[Laughter]

HM: Sure. Let’s talk podcasts.

SB: Yeah, let’s talk podcasts. You’ve made a few.

HM: I have.

SB: And it’s this interesting medium. The one that’s you’ve done that’s gotten the most note is obviously Death of an Artist, which we’ll talk about. But you’ve also worked on David Zwirner’s Dialogues podcast, and a podcast with the Getty as well. 

HM: Right.

SB: What has this medium afforded you?

HM: Oh, my god, I love the podcast so much. One of the reasons I love the podcast is because when we talk about podcasts, we don’t have to talk about museums. It feels like an enormous space of freedom. I grew up listening to the radio. I was an AM radio kid. I loved the radio, and I am still a radio person. I wake up, I pad in to the kitchen, I turn on the radio, I make a pot of coffee. I’m a radio head. So in some ways, podcasting to me doesn’t feel like a new medium. I just feel like I’m doing radio. 

I love being read to; I love being told a story. And in turn, I like telling people stories, and I like reading to people. I like the intimacy of it. I also like the performance of it, because I’m a performative person, and I feel that the podcast is a performance. I have a podcast voice. I have a podcast speed. I have a podcast tempo. I have a podcast modality, so to speak.

SB: Cadence.

HM: Yeah, cadence. I think I’ve learned a lot about how to write for the ear rather than write for someone who’s just sitting and reading a book. All of that’s been wildly exciting to me. The other thing it let me do was, okay, so I’m a total believer in art, I’m an art missionary, and I done been kicked out of the church. Been kicked out of the church. There is no room for me in the big house. What am I going to do? I’m going to do the thing that costs the least amount of money that I can carry with me on my back, that I can do on my own.

Now obviously, I don’t do it on my own, as you know. There’s always a producer and an editor and a sound person and all that kind of stuff. But there was something about this, like, I got my questions, and my notebook that really…. [Laughter] The autonomy of it, after being a curator, after having to work with a big team and a lot of people, pull[ing] a lot of people over the finish line with you—you don’t have to do that in the podcast. You can be so much more nimble. You can go down some rabbit holes and tell people a story about art, tell people a story. Because if you tell people a story about art, you’re really telling them a story about what you believe in. You’re telling them a story about what you love and how you see the world. And I love that. I just love it.

SB: And with Death of an Artist, you manage to merge these two areas of podcasting. True crime.

HM: I know.

SB: And the kind of work you were doing on the Getty podcast, which is this art interview/deep dive in one.

HM: Yeah, the Getty podcast I really love because I really miss smart talk. What I want is an art talk show. I want to be Dick Cavett, you know what I mean? I’m very clear about my aspirations. I really think that there is a space in the culture where people want to listen to people have interesting dialogue so that they themselves can have an interesting dialogue. That’s what we’re doing. At the end of the day, a good conversation is worth a great, great deal—and is wildly transformative and powerful. And so that’s the space I’m trying to write myself into.

I feel like the true crime part of the Ana Mendieta podcast was a Trojan horse. Very early on, we realized we were not going to crack a cold case. Whatever, like, Ranger Rick fantasies me and my producer were having about how we were going to go out and do this, that got nullified really quickly. And so then it did become like, “Let’s do this, then. Let’s have a conversation about what happened to Ana Mendieta.”

SB: Yeah, listening to that podcast, to me, it was as much about what wasn’t said as what is said, and it’s that silence of the void that becomes this overpowering spectre in the story.

HM: Right. And I think just as when you read that section from the “Work Ethic” essay, and I could hear in it the struggle of myself becoming a professionalized subject, it’s no mistake that the Ana Mendieta podcast happened in the wake of that “I am someone with an NDA. I am someone who is not allowed to say what happened to me. I am someone who is not allowed to say what I think about what happened to me. And that is outrageous. That’s outrageous. That’s just wrong.” One of the things I’ve always done is, almost selfishly, use art and culture as a way to work through my shit, like, what’s going on for me.

SB: Not to get too off-track here, but the NDA is also something that was created by corporate America. So to go back to “Work Ethic,” that is a pretty profound….

HM: And in my experience and that of everyone who I’ve talked to who has one, an NDA almost always protects one white man. It doesn’t even protect the corporation. That’s what they do. So it’s corporate, but really for me, it is like—

SB: It’s personal.

HM: And it’s patriarchy. It’s a tool of patriarchy. I have yet to see an NDA protect anyone other than patriarchy’s privileged subject.

SB: And I think—and I don’t imagine you’re able to speak about this—but Carl Andre was of course a point of contention at MOCA, and of course is the subject of the podcast. That’s… worth saying, I’ll just put it that way.

Has the success of Death of an Artist and your other writing and curatorial work been, I don’t know if retribution is the right word, but how has it felt for you to rise up and see the success you’ve achieved over the past few years?

HM: It’s interesting….

SB: Flourishing, I would maybe say.

HM: Yeah. There’s that [Bob] Dylan line: “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” [Laughs] It’s an interesting thing to confront success and think about it. I don’t have a lot of language for it, and I don’t have a particularly high threshold of comfort in conversations like that. I’m learning to get better at that. Success feels nice. There’s no question, it’s better than failure.

Yesterday I went to the Whitney, and, in the elevator, a young person, a young man, Black, American, maybe in his late twenties, early thirties, turned to me and said, “You look really familiar. You’re that famous curator, aren’t you?” And I looked at him and I said, “I don’t know.” I said, “My name’s Helen. What’s your name?” And he told me his name.

And then we proceeded to keep encountering each other throughout the galleries, and we kept talking. And the degree of flattery I felt, that this young person who was going to see the Ruth Asawa and Henry Taylor shows, and had never seen the Ruth Asawa drawings in person…. If that’s success…. That was kind of awesome. I don’t know how else to say it other than I’ve done something that young person saw, noticed, wanted to be connected to. And what it meant was that I got to hear his sense of seeing Ruth Asawa’s drawings for the first time. 

That was kind of amazing. When it happens like that, it feels really so powerful, and the gratitude and bewilderment I have about it, they’re in equal measure. I don’t know how to process it.

SB: And it’s interesting to think that there’s some people who know your writing. There’s some people who know your curatorial work. There’s some people who know the MOCA fiasco. There’s some people who know Death of an Artist. So now you’re like the podcaster, the-—

HM: That is really true. And the podcasting…. The people who know the writing, I understand those people. And the people who know the shows, I understand those folks. But the podcast people, the people who know me through the podcasting, that’s a whole trip because they think we’re friends. I don’t know if you have that, but they think like, “Oh, I’ve just listened to you talking in my ear for a half an hour or six hours. We’re friends.” The intimacy of the medium.

SB: And even if your face isn’t a part of the podcast, people know.

HM: Yeah. And also, I always imagine myself when I’m doing the recordings, I imagine myself sitting in your ear. I don’t know what you do, but when I edit them, I listen to them on my— I almost said Walkman. I listen to them on my headphones. I listen to them in the car. I listen to them while I’m cooking. I’m trying to put myself in a state of distraction that mirrors what I assume to be the listener’s state, since I don’t sit and listen to them like I would read a book. You listen to a podcast while your life is happening.

SB: And the notion of earbuds being you’re in someone’s ear, it’s very different than organizing something that’s on a wall or writing something that’s in a book and held in someone’s hands.

HM: Yeah, there’s something very, very something-something about it. But again, I remember that, that’s the radio kid: “WBLS at the top of your FM dial, The Quiet Storm, 98.7.” My head is filled with that kind of radio language and radio, like ba-dam, when WBLS put on the quiet storm, mmm! Sunday nights, I was just a kid lying in my bed like, “What is this? This is magic.” It felt so grown-up, so adult. Yeah, I loved it.

SB: All right. I have one final question that I want to ask you, which is, you’ve been writing for thirty years. Well, longer than that, but really in earnest thirty years, and you have this beautiful new collection out that catalogs, looks at, postscripts, analyzes the work. What are you thinking about the next thirty, given that time is, as you’ve put it, “Our most precious thing,” and, “The thing that we come into the earth with”? How do you hope to harness the decades to come?

HM: I suppose everybody hits this point. Every human hits this point where you wake up and you realize there are fewer years ahead than there are behind. I am 57. When I say I’m middle-aged, people are like, “Oh, no, you’re not middle-aged.” I’m like, “Bitch, I’m middle-aged. I’m 57.” I figure I’ve got, like, thirteen really good years [left]. And if I keep it together, maybe twenty-three, maybe. 70 to 80. So I’ve got thirteen years. One of the things that means is that now when people ask me to write, I think, Do I want to write this? Not, Do I need the money? Do I want to be seen? Do I want my name attached to this? 

The question is way more basic at the moment: I know how much time that’s going to take, and do I want to spend that time doing this? But that’s really interesting. That’s new. My ego’s always been way more involved. “Oh, I’d love to do that. Oh, my God, they asked me.” All that kind of stuff, I’d get all jazzed because I want to be loved. I want to be in the conversation.

I feel like I have this…. I have a book in me. I know the title. I know some of the outlines and I don’t know a lot. The task will be to— Because I’m not a writer. I’m not going to get an advance. No one is going to say, “Here is this money. Go and write that book for the next five years. We got you.” [Laughs] That’s not going to happen. So I need to figure out how to write that book, which is, I think probably different than writing thirty years of essays and then you choose the best twenty-four for the project or for the moment. Books require, I think, a different kind of headspace. I gotta figure out how to do that.

SB: You’ve said you always wanted to be viewed as a writer first, and you’ve rearranged your life to do that, I think.

HM: Yeah, that’s the dream now, is that, yeah, I would be a writer first.

SB: Helen, thank you. This was a pleasure.

HM: Thank you so much, Spencer. Thank you for all those great questions and for reading so many of the essays.

This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on December 5, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Hazen Mayo, Emma Leigh Macdonald, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Brigitte Lacombe.