Herr Zeitgeist

Illustration by GluekitPhoto: Jeremy Kost/WireImage (with Sevigny); Gabriela Maj/Getty Images (with Wainwright); Andy Kropa/Getty Images (with Koh); Patrick McMullan (remaining)

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.”

Illustration by GluekitPhoto: Sherly Rabbani and Josephine Solimene (with Franco), Patrick McMullan (remaining)

Fame, after all, is part of  “contemporary practice.” “In the art world after Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, we know celebrity is a matter/quality/state that interests artists as a form and image of focused attention,” he e-mailed me. Of course, stars are part of the art world too these days: Biesenbach and Kylie Minogue were co-presenters at the Guggenheim’s inaugural art awards in October (in the midst of their onstage presentation, he dropped to one knee and kissed her hand.) Pharrell Williams, Naomi Campbell, and Val Kilmer were at Basel Miami this year.

At the same time, Biesenbach is a serious and innovative curator who has had far-reaching effects on the most important modern art institution in the world. He’s “catalytic,” in the words of his boss, Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director. Within two years of starting work at MoMA full-time, he got his own fiefdom, the department of media—the first new curatorial department since photography, in 1940. In 2009, he expanded the media department’s domain to include performance art, something the museum hadn’t paid much attention to before. Biesenbach persuaded MoMA to begin purchasing the rights to performance pieces (rather than just the documentation).

In other words, he’s put the home of blue-chip art-historical monuments like Monet’s Water Lilies and Cézanne’s The Bather into the business of collecting the ephemeral. “We try to put works in the museum that do not easily fit into a frame or onto a pedestal,” Biesenbach told me at the time. But there was also something pragmatic at work: At the height of the art bubble, “objects” were expensive, and he prides himself on being “anti-cyclical.” “When we started collecting performance art,” he says, “people were collecting big diamonds made out of steel that cost $20 million.”

Bisenbach has accomplished much by treating the museum as his (and his artists’) playground. For Doug Aitken’s “Sleepwalkers,” five short films, featuring actors like Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton, were projected at night onto the museum’s exterior walls. Pipilotti Rist’s installation, Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), consisted of multichannel videos—candy-colored close-ups of flowers and garden creatures—projected into the museum’s atrium.

The opening in March 2010 of the retrospective of performance artist Marina Abramovic will convert MoMA into a theater: Abramovic will perform all day, everyday, for the show’s three-month run, alongside a rotating cast of 35 other artists who will perform her past work. (Abramovic, 63, recently mused about wearing only “an enormous strap-on dildo” for one performance.)

Biesenbach’s shows have been popular with critics and audiences alike. Just as important, though, Biesenbach has helped the museum from ossifying inside its $858 million midtown temple. “He’s forcing them to humanize [MoMA],” says performance artist Laurie Anderson. “And that’s a really wonderful thing.” Moreover, as Guggenheim Museum chief curator Nancy Spector, who also worked with him on his Berlin Biennale, puts it, “He is a very inclusive person, and I think he brings an element of collaboration that maybe is not typically associated with MoMA.”

On the other hand, he’s also, for some at the institution, perhaps, a bit too much of a star. “I think Klaus has had a tremendous impact,” notes Lowry. However, “from my perspective, Klaus is just a key player among many in that new generation of curators at the museum.” When I mention his success in promoting performance art, Lowry replies, “I wouldn’t want to make as if he was the only person driving that train. Having said that, Klaus is an extraordinarily industrious, engaging, and in many ways brilliant curatorial mind that is wide open to new ideas, and has been grappling with how to deal with performance in an institutional environment, more so than many.”

Biesenbach was born in 1966 and grew up in a village near Cologne. As a teenager he was captivated by pop culture. “In the late eighties, I had the feeling that mass media would create one single huge world audience—everybody would listen to the same Madonna or Michael Jackson song, or Joy Division or the Cure records, depending on which group of adolescents or mentalities one felt close to,” he once told an interviewer. “The Gulf War of the early nineties brought the power of CNN to my attention. I clearly remember camera shots taken from the top of a missile before it hit its target. TV seemed the universal language of the new upcoming era.”

But the larger world could also be frightening. “When I turned 18, I left our small town and went to Amsterdam,” he wrote in an essay accompanying an exhibition called “Into Me/Out of Me.” “Wandering through the city center, the tattoo parlors, cafés where you could legally smoke pot, and the red-light district impressed me and then deeply scared me. The idea that blood or even sperm from one of the windows open in summer could be carried on the wind down the street and get into my eyes was, in the initial years of the AIDS crisis, a definitive one.”

Olafur Eliasson's Take Your Time, at P.S.1, in 2008.Photo: Matthew Septimus/Courtesy of MoMA

Eventually, he enrolled in medical school in Munich. When I meet him at his offices overlooking the courtyard at MoMA, he tells me that he was always interested in art, but he “felt that it was important to understand how art is computed in your brain” and “how perception functions.” In 1989, he visited New York with the idea that he might transfer schools, but world-historical events interfered: The Berlin Wall fell and he decided to move back. He found a ground-floor Berlin apartment that had previously been used for bicycle storage. It had no heat or hot water, but Biesenbach wasn’t fazed (“I’m not very demanding of these things”). Gerd Harry Lybke, now one of Berlin’s most influential gallerists, met Biesenbach in 1991. He remembers the city back then as “a white sheet of paper, where everyone could leave his signature. Everybody was able to define himself in the morning, make new propositions and then adjust them to reality the next day.”

Biesenbach describes himself in those days as “a mad scientist.” He and his friends ingratiated themselves with the local government, which offered them use of an abandoned margarine factory in the Mitte district for a cultural institution. After managing to secure some governmental support and soliciting in-kind donations, they opened the space as Kunst-Werke in 1990.

Biesenbach’s curation was loose and impulsive but also incredibly ambitious. He wanted KW to be “much more international than local” and to have “very open borders toward pop culture, music, architecture, design, literature, film, and other media.” The breakthrough show, in 1992, was “37 Rooms,” in which artists, including Yoko Ono and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, displayed work in spaces—an attic, apartments, a school, an outdoor toilet—along KW’s street. KW showed exhibitions by Robert Smithson and Vito Acconci, and would stage some of the earliest major exhibitions of artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jane and Louise Wilson, and Aitken.

Biesenbach, says his mentor, P.S.1 founder Alanna Heiss, is simultaneously “hedonistic and monastic.”

Not all of the attention Biesenbach received was positive: In 2003, he began organizing a show about the violent leftist Baader-Meinhof Gang, which killed more than 30 people in the seventies. The exhibition incited a furor by the victims’ families and others who felt it would be too sympathetic. Because $130,000 in federal aid had been allotted to help fund the show, Biesenbach was forced to defend it in front of Parliament. He eventually returned the money to avoid interference and financed the show through an eBay auction of work by artists like Andreas Gursky who were supportive of his endeavor.

Biesenbach soon came to the attention of P.S.1’s Alanna Heiss. In late 1995, she hired him part-time while allowing him to maintain his directorship in Berlin. For the next eight years, P.S.1 and KW essentially traded exhibitions back and forth.

He was not immediately accepted in New York. Early on, Heiss threw him a dinner party. “The premise was for people to meet the Sinister and Problematic Klaus Biesenbach,” Heiss recalls. “Klaus was a fairly mysterious figure,” she says. “I think it was a little bit about his austerity, his posture, but also because he didn’t come out of any known world. Not our art world, not a museum art world. It was hard for anybody to pin him down.”

Biesenbach took Heiss’s friends as his, like Susan Sontag (“One of my friends,” says Heiss, “and then he became her best friend”). Sontag had a residence at KW, and she and Biesenbach eventually worked together on “Into Me/Out of Me,” a P.S.1 show about bodily functions, which was “very influenced at the time by her being ill.”

After P.S.1 merged with MoMA in 2000, Biesenbach became a liaison between the two. Four years later, he moved to New York full-time, but to work at MoMA, not P.S.1. Heiss was bereft. “I couldn’t find anyone who I was as in love with as Klaus,” she says. But Biesenbach was ready for bigger things. “Once he hit the ground running at MoMA, he just did show after show after show,” Heiss says. “Klaus had gotten to know a lot of the insider workings, and respected it and liked those people, and was able to work with them to do things that he had dreamed of doing, which he could never have done at P.S.1.”

To this day, Biesenbach and Heiss call each other several times a day, and Heiss describes their relationship as “umbilical.” It took them seven months to design their business cards. Today, taped to a wall in Heiss’s office is an advertisement she tore from a magazine of a shirtless Nordic man reclining on a sofa and gazing lasciviously into the camera. The Post-it note stuck to the right-hand corner reads “Klaus?”

Doug Aitken's Sleepwalkers, on the MoMA façade, in 2007.Photo: Fred Charles/Courtesy of MoMA

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.

Biesenbach filled plastic cups and made introductions. Something—the opening, the alcohol, the excitement of the past few weeks, or the promise of the years to come—had made him giddy. “Look,” he said to me, gripping Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg around her tiny waist. “This is how curators fight.” He planted a noisy kiss on her cheek and she giggled. “Oh, Klaus.”

He ordered the music dimmed, and Goldberg launched into a speech about the past few weeks of Performa, but before long, Biesenbach commandeered the floor. His face was flushed and his forehead was sweating lightly under the harsh fluorescence.

“A few days ago, I saw Mike Kelley embarrassing himself in Judson Memorial Church,” says Biesenbach. A few people laughed: Kelley had presented three performance pieces based on found photographs of extracurricular activities from high-school yearbooks.

“And I think the space where you embarrass yourself …. ” He looked down at his drink, and then back up again. “That’s the space of P.S.1. That’s where we should be.”

From across the room, Goldberg murmured: “The school for scandal.” Biesenbach looked at her and nodded. “The school of embarrassment. That’s the right place.”

Herr Zeitgeist