The Avant-Garde Lives
Former curator Mary Jane Jacob sells the board on a show by Magdalena Abakanowicz, an unknown artist whose name they couldn't pronounce.
When I came, I came with a couple of exhibitions, because I was in the midst of them, as happens. And, as a curator, you are or ought to be passionate about what you’re doing, so I didn’t leave those passions behind. And one was a show of Detroit artists called Kick Out the Jams, about Detroit’s Cass Corridor from the mid-sixties to latter seventies, which was, I was afraid, not going to be a popular reception, because it was fairly local and somebody else’s local.
And Detroit was not a hot place, as it is right now, to look and think about. But Lew Manilow, who was the chairman of the board, was totally receptive. And I would say it was on the point of passion, not because Detroit artists were his passion, but it’s like: This is your thing and I can see it’s your thing, and you should do your thing.
The other show that was in my back pocket was of an artist named Magdalena Abakanowicz. Also, not necessarily an easy sell, but something that came out of the discourses that I was in or living, not intellectually, maybe more emotionally, which was feminism and then also marginalized art. And in this case, this was a person living behind the iron curtain. Still. Because we’re in 1980. And who also worked, initially, with fiber, which then crossed that kind of art and craft line as it existed in the United States. Again, it had a really surprising reception, and therefore experience for me. And in the very tiny, cramped, low-ceilinged library that was squirreled back in the lower floor of the old MCA, which was where all the offices were—and even that kind of quasi-public facility, was crammed in an exhibitions committee meeting, which was comprised of board members, perhaps a few others, and somehow a screen stuck in there and slide projector and so forth. So it was pretty cramped, but it got more cramped because the beginning of the meeting was fairly contentious.
I can’t quite recall what all of the fight or controversy among those board members were, but the bottom line was basically: There’s no avant-garde. It’s over. It’s dead. And now you, brand new curator, this is your first meeting, so what is this you want to sell us? And I put up the work of this, to them, unknown artist whose name others couldn’t pronounce. And they just exclaimed the avant-garde lives. They loved it. And they took a risk. They took a risk to do this. They also took a bigger risk than they knew because I didn’t tell them that the work didn’t fit in the museum. That is, it physically was too big for the museum. It was too tall. So the next couple of years of organizing that show, which happened in ’82, became negotiating with the Cultural Center.
I mean, she was a very tough artist to work with. And I think part of that toughness was not just the demandingness of her art and what she wanted out of her art for herself and for history, but also because she lived under very tense and difficult times. So every time she left her country was quite a chore, and coming back. And just the daily life. So one can be a star at an opening, and you’re still standing [in] line to get bread or meat when you get back home.