Francesco Bonami, the curator of the 2010 Whitney Biennial, has offered to make me a painting. This is a dangerous proposition for him: “When artists find out I was a painter, they’re like Nazi hunters,” he says. “They say with accusation, with such anger, ‘You fucking bastard! But you were a painter! Like us!’ ”
The biennial, which artists have come to covet for its career-making potential, is opening later this month, and last-minute preparations are still being made. But it’s Sunday, and Bonami needs to unwind. So rather than trek uptown to show me the installation, he invites me over to his East 15th Street apartment, where I’m greeted at the door by Zola, a mischievous mutt belonging to his daughter (who’s away at college). I take a seat at the large dining-room table that serves as a watercolor station. Bonami wasn’t always a painter, much less an influential curator. He wasn’t great in school; he left his native Italy and bounced around Scandinavia without the slightest interest in the arts. He eventually studied stage design to appease his conservative parents, then decided to pursue painting instead.
“I was always behind the trends,” he says, scanning his overstuffed bookshelves. “I came to New York with my paintings at the same time Jeff Koons was showing his stainless-steel bunnies.” He extracts two slim volumes—catalogues from solo shows he had in the mid-eighties in New York and Milan. I skim through them as the artist-cum-curator readies his materials and takes a seat. The paintings are mostly representational and a little hokey, with funerary themes and titles like What You Didn’t Know Yesterday. “I’m going to make you a classic,” he says.
Bonami picks up a pencil and starts drafting a tree branch, using wavy strokes to delineate pieces of birch. He draws two swooping, interwoven lines over its midsection—laces, from which he dangles a pair of loaflike sneakers. Pleased, he carefully traces over his work in pen.
Bonami’s the first to admit that his art career never took off. “I was fighting a lost battle,” he says about his decision to stop painting professionally in the late eighties. Instead, he took a job writing about art, then transitioned into curating. He made his mark curating the emerging-artists wing of the 1993 Venice Biennale (where he worked with Jeffrey Deitch and included Damien Hirst). Ten years later, the entire event was his.
His curating career has been successful by any standard—he served nine years at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where he mounted a massive Koons retrospective in 2008—but it hasn’t been without its rough patches. “When I got Venice, one critic wrote, ‘I can’t believe they gave the Venice Biennale to a lousy painter,’ ” he says. Once the Biennale opened, the art press chided his lack of focus. “The president of the Biennale called me after the reviews came out and said, ‘Your career is finished,’ ” he recalls.
He shrugs his shoulders. “Some curators are very touchy, very much into the press,” he says, layering blue, black, and brown watercolor around the branch to build a night sky. “But I’m not affected by criticism. It’s part of the job.”
Bonami developed a thick skin, and great gigs kept rolling in, even post-Venice. He first worked with the Whitney in 2007, curating its well-received Rudolf Stingel retrospective. A year later, the museum tapped him for the 2010 biennial.
Bonami’s biennial, co-curated by Whitney senior curatorial assistant Gary Carrion- Murayari, will be substantially smaller than the museum’s sprawling 2008 edition, with only 55 artists, down from 81. There are more works by painters than there have been in a long time (and a majority are by women, for the first time ever). Like in Venice, Bonami has chosen not to tie himself too closely to any particular theme; instead he and Carrion-Murayari have selected art they believe represents the range of ideas and materials American artists are now working with.
Over the last year, Bonami himself has been making art again—mostly just to blow off steam. He’s not ashamed when artists find out he used to play for their team, but he thinks they have the wrong idea about how helpful he or any curator can be. “People think curators are very powerful—that if ‘Bonami’ puts an artist in a show, he’s going to bloom.” Dipping his brush in water, he thins the ink next to the sneakers, creating what looks like a full moon. “Well, I put one of my own paintings in a show with a fake name a few years ago—nobody gave a shit! People passed by with no interest whatsoever. It’s a myth that curators change the career of an artist. The work of an artist changes the career of an artist.”
I ask if he ever hopes to exhibit his own paintings again. “Nobody would want to show them,” he says. But he doesn’t look concerned. Bonami dabs some walnut ink near the edges of my painting, then signs and dates the back, making things official. “So if you want to use it to buy an apartment one day,” he jokes drily, “you won’t have an argument with my estate.”