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Herr Zeitgeist

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Doug Aitken's Sleepwalkers, on the MoMA façade, in 2007.  

Biesenbach the curator strives to be a conspirator with his artists. “He tends to become very close to the artists with whom he has done exhibitions or books. Not every curator functions that way,” says the Guggenheim’s Spector.

“In an ideal scenario, a curator and an artist have an ongoing conversation,” Biesenbach says. “I know Doug Aitken is thinking about architecture as a projection surface, because I was with him in Vienna when he was trying this and we did a big project in Berlin before. So I think as a curator it’s a rewarding thing to be committed over a long time.”

“He removes the barriers,” explains Anne Pasternak, the president of Creative Time, who co-organized “Sleepwalkers” with Biesenbach. “Institutions normally have all of these barriers: ‘We do this, and we don’t do that.’ But he listens to the artist and wants to help the artist realize what’s best for their vision.”

For Olafur Eliasson’s “Take Your Time,” Biesenbach got the names of the donors removed from the gallery walls so as to not distract from the art. “For a museum with the history that MoMA has, removing those letters might not be very clear to everybody, and certainly might not be very clear to the person who gave all of that money,” says Eliasson. “Afterward, everyone thinks, ‘Well, of course we would take those down.’ But a huge house with thousands of people working with regulations and rules requires a bit of convincing.”

Much of how he gets this done is by being everywhere and knowing everyone. After meeting Sontag at a birthday party he attended with Biesenbach, Friend-of-Klaus Casey Spooner worked with her on a song. Friend-of-Klaus and former Dior Homme designer Hedi Slimane has shown his photographs at KW and P.S.1; Friend-of-Klaus Doug Aitken created an installation for a Dior Homme store in Tokyo. Friends-of-Klaus Marina Abramovic and Franco teamed up for a video that ran on the Wall Street Journal website, where they make and eat a lychee-ball dessert together.

Franco first met Biesenbach at a performance of FOK Matthew Barney’s in Los Angeles. “I thought it was incredible,” recalls Franco. “Then I saw Matthew later at one of Klaus’s parties, and [Klaus] said he didn’t like it at all.” A friendship was born. (“I get more text messages from Klaus than from anyone,” says Franco.) MoMA screened the art film Erased James Franco starring the eponymous actor last April. Franco says the two might collaborate on a film-based project.

Biesenbach says he doesn’t seek out the famous. “I’ve now been a curator for twenty years, and it’s perhaps only a given that some of these people you work with … will arrive at a certain state of recognizability,” he says. “I always try to bring these people together.” Ultimately, though, “I think it’s a given if you are interested in excellence.” In other words, don’t hate him for having good taste in people.

Artist and FOK Olafur Eliasson describes him as “a path, rather than a place.” “You always have the feeling that he is between two places when you talk to him,” he says. “There is that very strong sense of trajectory.”

The question is: Where is he going?

When Heiss’s retirement from P.S.1 was announced in 2007, Biesenbach was an obvious choice to replace her. Heiss, in fact, asked Biesenbach to take the directorship, but he demurred at first. “I said, ‘Alanna, I’m not a person who inherits anything, I’m more a person who starts something,’ ” he says. After Heiss had been out of office for several months, he reconsidered. The break, he says, helped him “think of it as starting something again.” MoMA went along.

Biesenbach speaks of his desire to strengthen the relationship between the institutions (“I think it’s important that you don’t think ‘us’ and ‘them.’ That should stop”), but he is also protective of P.S.1’s brand in the city-art marketplace. “The Guggenheim has an on-and-off contemporary profile. And the New Museum is now very elegant. But P.S.1 has vast spaces and can do things that completely fail on one floor and are stunning on another floor.”

He wants to bring back its program of artist-studio residencies, and he’d like to introduce fashion programming, in addition to the kinds P.S.1 already offers for music and architecture.

Lowry says P.S.1’s mission is to “be speculative.” “P.S.1’s value is its ability to be understood as a kind of testing ground for a lot of ideas.” It’s a testing ground for Biesenbach, too, for bigger museum jobs that might open up next.

On a crisp fall Sunday in mid-November, P.S.1 held an opening with Performa, the performance-art festival. Biesenbach was racing around making sure everything was going well. Around six, as things wound down, someone opened a few bottles of white wine and popped a green iPod into a speaker dock sitting on the windowsill of the director’s office.


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