Art does not belong to one side or the other. It serves a third: people.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is an Italian-American writer, art historian, and cultural figure. Following stints at various creative institutions, she now helms the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and the Galleria Civica D’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM), both in Turin. Christov-Bakargiev spent ten years as Senior Curator at MoMA PS1, subsequently becoming the Castello’s Chief Curator from 2001 to 2008 and its interim director in 2009. She was Artistic Director of Revolutions–Forms that Turn, the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, and Salt Water: A Theory on Thought Forms, the 2015 Istanbul Biennale (read a review here). Christov-Bakargiev also conceived the thirteenth edition of quinquennial arts festival dOCUMENTA, which took place in Kassel, Germany over summer 2012.
Like Hans Ulrich Obrist, Christov-Bakargiev has been number one on Art Review’s yearly Power 100 list, a ranking she received in 2012 for her status as “a significant taste-maker,” the first woman ever to achieve this honor. But what remains especially important about the nature of her work, beyond its warm international reception, is that she always marries aesthetic choreography with intellectual grounding. Born in the United States, she grew up in Washington D.C., graduated from the University of Pisa, and eventually moved to Rome. There she began reporting for several magazines on early 20th century avant-garde and contemporary art, even publishing a book about the Arte Povera movement that originated in Italy during the Sixties and Seventies. After moving back to America, she wrote the first monographs on oeuvres of artists like William Kentridge and Janet Cardiff. For dOCUMENTA (13) with its theme of Collapse and Recovery, Christov-Bakargiev authored other well-regarded exegetical tomes, including an extensive fair catalogue. Her persistent emphasis on critical engagement with art is not just textual, though it manifests quite differently in her exhibitions. One NY Times feature describes Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial process as starting “with visually striking combinations of unexpected things and then building [sic] webs of meaning around them.” This approach, characterized by fellow maestro Francesco Bonami as “very spiritual, almost Romantic,” is idiosyncratic, a departure from the usual method of adherence to a singular binding topic conceived prior to compiling pieces. While there are some who dislike the scattered quality of her practice—Bonami, for one, says collaborating with her (as he did on the 2005 Turin Triennale) is “completely nuts”—others appreciate the vitality she brings to the art world. Adrián Villar Rojas, one of the younger innovators Christov-Bakargiev has supported, says of his champion: “she’s a neverending hyper-connectivity machine.” Either way, whatever her professional quirks may be, I cannot help but admire Christov-Bakargiev’s resolute commitment to the arts and decades of accomplishments. Furthermore, she takes the time to pass on what she knows as Northwestern’s Edith Kreeger Wolfe Distinguished Adjunct Professor, also lecturing at MIT and Cooper Union.
At MoMA PS1, she pioneered the first iteration of Greater New York (2000), a much applauded survey of emerging and little-known artists across the state, now mounted there every five years. Christov-Bakargiev has organized additional group shows, e.g. The Moderns (2003), Faces in the Crowd (2004), Citta’ Natura (1997), and Molteplici Culture (1992). According to the aforementioned NY Times article, her most famous project was The Brain, a presentation at dOCUMENTA (13) comprising “a disparate collection of historical objects mounted in vitrines and on walls… As with the scatter of papers on someone’s desk, the logic behind the exhibit’s groupings was at first unclear: the actual vessels the artist Giorgio Morandi painted for his still lifes; Eva Braun’s final bottle of perfume, which the photographer Lee Miller found in Hitler’s bathroom; two Roman-era figurines so badly burnt from bombings in Beirut that they had fused into an abstract sculpture. Gradually, though, odd connections seemed to emerge: Fascism, war, resilience in a smallness of scale.” The Brain exemplifies Christov-Bakargiev’s core interest in fabricating grand marriages between assorted world phenomena. She likes to draw on nature, politics, and human emotions to construct these total unions. Her Salt Water show in Turkey, for example, had artists use the Bosphorus as a symbolic inspiration. Responding to its traits, they created dispersed installations infused with “other knowledges,” ideally eliminating the wooden overstimulation of gallery fairs. Allergic to “curatorial discourse,” she treats art as an interdisciplinary medium directly involving how people experience spaces. Christov-Bakargiev actually prefers the label “drafter” to convey how she’s a laborer just like everyone else. Perhaps it is this semblance of “opacity” that has led to her displays’ success.
Christov-Bakargiev is married to the Italian artist Cesare Pietroiusti and has two daughters. The NY Times once portrayed her “air of authority” as stemming from an acute “sartorial sense, which favors the long flowing robes and feathers of a priestess.”
In both her current Turin-based posts, Christov-Bakargiev has pushed Arte Povera “members,” revisited her ongoing inquiries into the relationship of “art nouveau to the Anthropocene” (Organisms at GAM) and hosted an Ed Atkins solo exhibition (Castello di Rivoli). She is keeping busy bringing “important” pieces by the likes of Olafur Eliasson and Ai WeiWei to Northern Italy’s public.
Christov-Bakargiev speaking about renewable energy, art and the biggest modern art exhibition of the world in 2012 during the buzz over dOCUMENTA (13)—