Coffee With…the Curator: Alexandra Schwartz of MAM

Alexandra SchwartzBeginning on February 8, Montclair Art Museum (MAM) will present Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s, the first major museum survey to examine the art of the ’90s in its historical context. The exhibition was curated by Alexandra Schwartz and showcases approximately 65 works by 45 artists born or practicing in the United States and will comprise installations, paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photography, video, and digital art. The artists in the exhibition came of age during the 90s and reflect the diverse nature of the art world during this time, as artists of color, women artists, and LGBT artists attained increased prominence.

Alexandra Schwartz was born and raised in Washington D.C. and currently lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She received a B.A. from Harvard University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She joined MAM in 2010 as its first curator of contemporary art. Previously she was on the curatorial staff of the Museum of Modern Art. She is a writer, editor and has taught at Columbia University, the University of Michigan, Montclair State University, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and MoMA.

Baristanet met with Schwartz to discuss the upcoming exhibit, her personal influences and learn a bit more about MAM’s curator of contemporary art:

Baristanet: Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s is the first major museum exhibit of the art of the 90s. How old were you during the decade and What inspired you to curate these works?
AS: I turned 18 in 1990 and was in college and grad school during that time. The art of that period was critical to my formation as an art historian and curator. I was assigned to visit the controversial 1993 Whitney Biennial for a college course, and it made a huge impact on me. I was particularly affected by how socially and politically engaged much of the work from those years was–a very astute mirror on the many dramatic changes that were then happening in American life. Now seems to be the perfect moment to look back at the decade, when a enough time has passed for us to have some distance on it, but the issues are still totally relevant.

Ginger Kittens, Diana Thater
Ginger Kittens, Diana Thater

B: What were your favorite music, movie, pop culture trends from the decade?
AS: I was into the alternative/indie rock of the period (Guided by Voices, Sleater Kinney), and it was a formative moment of American independent film, which I loved. I still think the minimalist fashion of that period looks very fresh.

B: The exhibit’s name is a nod to Nirvana’s second single from the band’s album Nevermind in 1992. Why did you choose it?
AS: “Come as You Are” speaks to the issues of identity that many of the artists in the show were addressing. Who are we and how do we present ourselves to the world? Also, Nirvana and Kurt Cobain were such iconic figures of that decade. I remember very well where I was when I found out Cobain had died.

Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s
Untitled “Fall ’95,” Alex Bag

B: There are 45 artists featured in the exhibit. What about them and their work made them choices for this exhibit?
AS: I tried to make the show as diverse as possible, in terms of the issues the artists were addressing (especially relating to the show’s three main themes: identities and difference, digital technologies, and globalization) and the mediums in which they were working (everything from installation, to video, to painting, to digital art). While the show includes many of the best known artists of the period (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Kara Walker, Shirin Neshat), it also includes some artists who are less known today, but who were doing groundbreaking work.

"Untitled," Kara Walker
“Untitled,” Kara Walker


B: What is your hope for this exhibit?
AS: I’m hoping that it presents a comprehensive, thoughtful history of this decade, and will help “write the book” on the art of this time. As the period when digital technologies and globalization really took off, the 90s led, I argue, to today’s accelerated, globalized culture, which we are still learning to navigate. Everything these artists were talking about then is still extremely relevant to our lives today.

"A Mis Adorables Hijas," Pepón Osorio
“A Mis Adorables Hijas,” Pepón Osorio

B: What are you working on next?
AS: Well, first of all, I am going on maternity leave in March, and will be out through the summer. Then I have two shows coming up in 2016 as part of our New Directions series of emerging to mid-career artists. A site-specific project by painter Dannielle Tegeder will open in February 2016, and a show of paintings, installations, and video by William Villalongo will open in September 2016.

B: Congratulations on the baby news! Okay, some fun questions: Your favorite artist?
AS: Very tough —not sure I can choose one! But I would have to say Louise Bourgeois, Sonia Delaunay, Ed Ruscha, and Édouard Manet.

B: Your favorite artwork?
AS: Las Meninas by Velázquez.

B: Your favorite place to visit in town?
AS: I loved Edge Mid-Century Designs, but they moved! Now I would say it’s Uncle Momo.


"Richard and Skeeter," Catherine Opie
“Richard and Skeeter,” Catherine Opie
Come as You Are will be accompanied by the definitive catalogue on the art of the 1990s to date and will include four overview essays by Schwartz and seven short, thematic essays by some of today’s foremost contemporary art historians. The exhibition will be on view at MAM February 8 – May 17, before embarking on national tour.

MAM will offer a wide variety of public and family programs for all ages in connection with the exhibition, including scholarly panel discussions, artist talks, and 1990s-themed events.

Highlights include:

  • February 11-April 15, 2015 – “Come as You Are: Films of the 90’s”: A series of six screenings of American independent films from the decade organized in collaboration with the Montclair Film Festival.
  • February 2015 – “The History and Future of Internet Art,”: An online panel discussion on the evolution of Internet art during the 1990s featuring artists participating in the exhibition and moderated by Alexandra Schwartz.
  • March 7, 2015 – 1990s-themed dance party
  • May 14, 2015 – “Identity Politics, Then and Now”: A scholarly symposium focused on the identity politics debates during the 1990s and beyond, moderated by Huey Copeland, Associate Professor of the History of Art at Northwestern University.


(Schwartz photo: Jennifer Weisbord)



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