Forming My Foundations: Coming of Age in the Art World, part 1

This is the first part of a three-part series that traces my experience in the art world through my work for key artists and an art historian and critic, all of whom have had significant impacts both on contemporary art in New York and beyond, and on my own development as an artist. 

I have had the good luck to work for three important and vastly different people in the art world: Barbara Rose, Elizabeth Murray, and Martha Rosler.  All three have helped shape both my artistic production and my interaction with and outlook on the art world. That all three of these people are women-only struck me recently – and I felt gratitude that with so much and rightful attention to gender equality and fair credit that these have been my role models.

I did not start out as an artist.  I was more of a writer who wanted to be in a more visual field.  I found my way to architecture school partly by opportunity. I was looking for a way to fill a summer and happened upon Harvard’s Graduate School of Design summer architecture introductory program (Career Disco to those in the know).  I loved it and the community around it and I followed that to graduate school at Columbia. Ultimately, though, what I wanted to do was follow the process of making things and I moved to my final resting spot – in the art world. I was working for a gallery that was mounting a show curated by Barbara Rose, a name I knew from Art History reading.  I was at my desk one afternoon when Barbara, Fred, her boyfriend at the time, and the gallery owner were in the gallery discussing the show. Barbara, never one to shy away from confrontation, and Fred were arguing. I, as someone who does tend to shy away from confrontation, was somewhat astonished by Barbara’s directness and ease with confrontation (and the general volume in the gallery from all parties).  She declared the show hers, wresting control of curatorial decisions firmly into her hands, where, as the curator, they did rightly belong.

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Monochromes: From Malevich to the Present

We were an odd pair, Barbara and I.  I’m not entirely sure why she gravitated towards me, as someone so much quieter and less argumentative, but I’m very grateful that she did.  Actually, I think her motives were rooted in a desire to support me, to get me out of the role of gallery girl and into one of art maker with a real voice.  I began to work as her assistant, helping with various projects from receipt organization for taxes to catalogue editing and project researching.  

In her loft, where I lived for a time, I came across small treasures of vision and knowledge: notes jotted to her and intimate drawings made for her from past romances and friends including Frank Stella, Don Judd, and Jasper Johns.  I was smitten with the casual intimacy of these pieces hung over her bed, or sitting in a corner of the sitting area, and immediately coveted a life that looked something like this.

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Barbara’s loft

This was a form of education for me that I had not been given, and a model that I did not grow up with.  My childhood was polite, clean and somewhat formal; not intellectual or artistic. I grew with plenty to be thankful for – loving parents, a warm safe home, food to eat, an excellent education – but it was a completely different world from the one I entered into when I stepped into Barbara’s loft and life.  This was a different sort of parent and home education for me.

I followed Barbara, not knowing exactly where I was going or what I was getting into, to Italy. I wasn’t sure whether I was beginning an MFA program through American University (an acceptance letter magically materialized one day for me) or going to Barbara’s Todi home to work. Either way, I was game to go.

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A view from Todi

I learned a great deal about Barbara throughout this time and this process. Hers is a deeply held belief in art as a formal undertaking but one that cannot be separated from what goes on in the artist’s life and, perhaps more importantly, what goes on the world and consciousness surrounding the artist. She is deeply learned in art, history, politics, philosophy, and psychology. She went to pursue a Ph.D. in Art History at Columbia University in the 1950s. This was not a time when women were encouraged to intellectual or outside-the-home work. Her adviser asked her when she would be quitting the program to go and have children. But Barbara doggedly ignored that question and pushed on. I can imagine her going toe to toe with any other student, male (mostly) or female, and coming out with the most convincing and most informed argument. She did have children, with Frank Stella, but continued her career, and arguably helped make his. She wrote the seminal essay, ABC Art, for Artforum in 1965 that put Minimalism and him on the map of Art History.  That she has been somewhat subsumed by him is undoubtedly a consequence of her being a woman and a mother, but she has pushed on and is still remarkable in her presence and intellect.

My next project is an oral history of Barbara Rose. She has so much to share; she is a trove of knowledge that goes well beyond what has been written about.  Oral history provides an opportunity for this information to be shared.  This information would include histories and documents about her times overlapping with myriad artists who are common names in current art history texts and dialogue; critical trends and shifts over nearly 60 years; particular perspective on the role of and opportunities for women during this time; and, perhaps most uniquely, a social aspect to a half-decade in the art world.  Even after years of knowing Barbara, I am hungry to uncover all of this and more.

Written by: Katherine Keltner

Katherine Keltner is a Brooklyn-based artist whose body of work includes paintings; drawings; photo-based, mixed media collages; installations; and artist’s books. Her work has been exhibited at galleries and art fairs nationally and internationally. Keltner is a co-editor and a contributing writer for POV Arts.

www.katherinekeltner.com

Featured top image: Barbara Rose and Katherine Keltner

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