As The Modern nears its 10th anniversary in its award-winning space, curator Michael Auping reflects on his unique vision of art and architecture
JEF TINGLEY | Contributing Writer
Walking through the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth with its chief curator, Michael Auping, is like being invited over for tea by a happy new homeowner. Although the Tadao Ando-designed building celebrates its 10th anniversary next month, Auping still moves through the space with a fresh eye, giddy about finding the perfect pieces to highlight every specific nook and cranny in this award-winning museum.
“One of the comments I get most is that my way of installing work is so minimal,” admits Auping — but he’s proud of that. “There are very few things in the building, but each is potent. Each piece is given more than ample space to sing its song or tell its story. There’s a tendency [for museums] to create entertainment centers with lots of glitz; we are trying to create a unique and contemplative experience.”
A seasoned veteran who has curated and written about art for more than 35 years, Auping is insightful about his varied career path that brought him to Fort Worth more than 17 years ago. He began as a freelance curator in Los Angeles before moving to Berkeley in 1977.
“San Francisco was an amazing place culturally and aesthetically at the time,” he says. “It was the beginning of the gay revolution, and as a straight man coming from Southern California it was an eye opener to see a city taken over by that. … [The city] was really a key point in my education as a contemporary art historian.”
Auping’s director at the San Francisco museum was gay and introduced him to many LGBT artists whom he befriended, including poet Robert Duncan and his longtime companion, the artist Jess. Since then, Auping has created exhibitions on Jess’ works and included stories about the couple’s relationship in his writings.
After stints with the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla, and Buffalo, N.Y, Auping found a lasting home in Fort Worth.
“It was a completely different place,” he says. “If I ever do get around to writing my memoir the title will have to be Wayward Muse, because I’ve gone to a lot of wayward places — all of which have been good, but Fort Worth is the best of all. I’ve never had this much support.”
Auping scored a major coup in 2012 with the Lucien Freud exhibit, which just closed. One of the most engaging exhibitions of art ever seen in North Texas, it received national acclaim for the museum.
Auping is quick to note that many curators would be envious of his tremendous opportunity. Not only did he get to work with a world-class architect to design and build the museum, but he was also given money to purchase art for the space. And that’s where his passion truly shines, in acquiring pieces that showcase both the art and the architecture.
“The thing that makes this [museum] special is that it not only honors the artists, it honors the building,” he says. “And as a curator, I try to do that; I try to honor both. Artists are my first priority, but the building is a high second. I don’t want to put art in rooms that makes the rooms look bad or choose rooms that make the art look bad.”
Examples of this intentional editing include Martin Puryear’s 432-foot-tall Ladder for Booker T. Washington which Auping knew was the perfect fit for a clear story, concrete-walled space. And there’s Anselm Keifer’s lead sculpture Book with Wings, placed in the ellipse gallery to marry together the curved walls and concrete. A recent acquisition is a fluorescent light sculpture Untitled by Dan Flavin, selected by
Auping to illuminate an otherwise non-descript corner of the museum and thereby pique the curiosity of the visitor to further explore the space.
But even with his discerning taste driving the aesthetics of the museum, Auping ensures that The Modern is a place art lovers of all levels can enjoy. And just like his curating style, his advice to would-be art enthusiasts is minimal yet effective:
“Don’t try too hard. Just walk around. Treat it as a nature walk and let art speak to you. Maybe later you’ll reflect on what jumped out at you and why.”
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth. To mark the 10th anniversary, the museum will unveil a series of new acquisitions culminating in a celebration gala and dinner on Dec. 6. 817-738-9215. TheModern.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 23, 2012.