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Herr Zeitgeist

The rise of Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA’s Übersocial, very German curator at large—and the new head of P.S.1.


Illustration by Gluekit  

There’s a black man in a long wig singing atop the pool table in the Raleigh hotel. He’s belting out “If I Were Your Woman” and wearing a starburst-print Proenza Schouler leotard, a white rose tucked behind one ear. It’s midnight on December 4, the second to the last night of Art Basel Miami Beach, and the city is vibrating with parties, all striving toward a chic perversity, a sense of knowing insideriness, but none more so than this one. After all, the chanteuse on the table, Kalup Linzy, is no run-of-the-mill drag queen: He won a Guggenheim fellowship for his video and performance art. And the man he’s serenading is the Museum of Modern Art’s most chicly perverse curator, Klaus Biesenbach.

On January 1, Biesenbach, 43, takes over as the director of the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, which functions more or less as MoMA’s experimental wing and youth-outreach center. He’ll also become MoMA’s chief curator at large. His new gigs are the reason for the fête. But since he first arrived in New York from Berlin in 1996, Biesenbach’s never been far from this, or any other, art-world party. He’s always at a certain kind of everything, from Bushwick to Vienna, dressed in black and gray, white hair trimmed military-short, often tanner than you’d expect him to be, acting as the MoMA’s peripatetic, enthusiastic, sybaritic, unmistakably German ambassador at large to the art-fashion-music global caravan. He is also something of a mystery: His apartment (in the utilitarian Grand Street co-ops) is virtually empty, and most of the year he sleeps on its balcony. In the words of his mentor, P.S.1 founder Alanna Heiss, he is simultaneously “hedonistic and monastic.”

This evening’s events are hosted by Biesenbach’s near-constant companion Diana Picasso, the artist’s granddaughter. Among the 150 guests: the actor James Franco; electro-pop star Peaches; collector Peter Brant; art dealer Jay Jopling; artist Terence Koh; and Marc Jacobs’s hunky boyfriend, Lorenzo Martone.

When Linzy finishes, the sound system switches over to “Move On Up,” by Curtis Mayfield, and a wan, pretty boy named Ryan McNamara begins his tribute, thrashing about the crowd in a performative trance and knocking glasses from hands, until Koh, dressed in black, silently leads a procession out, past the hotel’s vast pool, onto the beach.

The group, drinking from 75 bottles of Moët & Chandon with plastic cups, wades into the moonlit surf. Biesenbach removes his black pin-striped jacket and sinks down into the sand, alongside Picasso in her leather minidress. Others make out furtively in the dark.

The next afternoon, after a droll lecture to promote his new book on the outsider artist and recluse Henry Darger—one that somehow manages to touch on “American innocence,” Michael Jackson, the forgotten eighties club hit “19,” and The Wizard of Oz—he’ll tell me he nearly missed his own talk because he was up late, forgot about the lecture, and almost got on a plane headed back to New York.

Biesenbach is interested in what he calls “contemporary practice,” which for him means much more than what hangs on the walls of a museum. It’s where different types of art—say, film, architecture, or music—bleed together. His curatorial enthusiasms have ranged from Darger’s decades-long creation of a fantasy world where little boys in dresses wage war against their oppressors to the Baader-Meinhof Gang, which terrorized Germany in the seventies, to Hollywood star James Franco’s decision to play an artist named Franco on General Hospital. He also makes little distinction between his personal and professional lives. He works all the time, with little regard for much else. Some years back, when Casey Spooner, of the art band Fischerspooner, stayed with him in Berlin, he found a mattress on the floor, no photographs or personal possessions of any kind, and not a single scrap of food (“We would end up at ungodly hours eating, like, ham at the gas station,” Spooner says). When W magazine photographed Biesenbach’s New York apartment last year, it was almost completely empty. Biesenbach’s most rigorously curated project is, by all accounts, himself.

In an editorial published in a German newspaper in 2004, he bemoaned what he saw as his country’s failure to produce international celebrities who weren’t models or athletes. “Is German society too peripheral, too democratic at its core, too egalitarian, to allow pop stars?” he asked. “Is post-reunification German society so self-reflexive and self-critical that it can’t accept being represented by someone who formulates a serious proposition, holds an attitude?” He went on to declare that “Germany feels poor and depressed, but it also doesn’t allow for upward mobility—that is the paradox of this country. The social network cripples the social anticlimax, the social mistrust in turn cripples the ascent to popularity.”

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