New York is not only a city for the very rich, wrote Joan Didion in 1967, it’s a city for the very young. While the collective romance with the rich has cooled mightily in the past year, youth remains: the paramount example being the New Museum’s messy, marvelous generational , Younger Than Jesus, featuring artists under 33, the age at which Jesus died.
True, the artists of the Jesus generation are beautiful in spirit and body (their body of work isn’t bad, either), but the geriatric set lingers eminently. Look no further than the recent show of Picasso’s late, late work at Gagosian, which has single-handedly repaired the reputation of the master’s painting from 1962–1967.
While not attempting to make such declarations as curator John Richardson did at Gagosian, British curator Adrian Dannatt does has a point to prove: that older artists, despite their infirmities, are still producing work that is vibrant and deserving of notice. Dannatt, along with co-curator Jan Frank, has put together a group show of still-working codgers—from the canonized (Louise Bourgeois, Robert Frank) to the totally obscure (John Fandel, anyone?)—at BLT gallery, across the Bowery from the New Museum. These artists are all at least 50 years older than the New Museum artists, their minimum age being 83, but their art keeps them young. Cheekily titled “Wiser Than God,” the show opened last night.
FAN ZHONG: So this show, “Wiser Than God,” is a reference to “Younger Than Jesus.”
ADRIAN DANNATT: I like to think of it as a complementary show, rather than a rival show. The emphasis on youth needed a counterbalance. I realized that the people who I find most interesting in the art world are the people who have been around the longest.
FZ: They’ve got the best stories to tell. How did you decide on 83 as the age of enlightenment?
AD: It seemed logical, 50 years older than the New Museum artists. We had a wonderful woman who’d heard about the show call us. She said to me [mimics old lady voice], “Oh, I’m very excited about the show. I’m 82, I’m hard at work.” And I had to say, “You are too young, Madam!” She replied, “Oh I love that! I haven’t been told I’m too young for such a long time.”
FZ: [Laughs] And what year were you born in, Adrian?
AD: Ah, now there’s a leap! I’d rather not say. I saw a Wikipedia entry on me, but it’s not quite accurate. I won’t say in which direction it’s not accurate.
FZ: What would you say the tone of the show will be?
AD: It’s going to be bold and beautiful. There is a lot of vibrant work. These people came to art from richer directions and backgrounds. Now, everybody is an art machine. The entire program of art schools and graduate programs is in a way fixed and formulated.
FZ: But this isn’t a show born out of surliness.
AD: No! I want it to be optimistic. It’s a fun show, a celebration of creative people who are still doing great work at advanced ages. These people have done so much in their lives. I was with John Chamberlain, and he was telling me he lied about his age when he was 16 so he could join the Navy and fly planes. He served all over the Pacific, got discharged on his 19th birthday, and became a women’s hairdresser to celebrities in New York.
FZ: Did he cut their hair to look like his sculpture?
AD: Well, I wonder. There is definitely a connection. [Laughs] When you hear stories like that, you realize there is such a richness of personal experience there, compared to someone who’s just graduated from an art program. I actually had to tell John he was too young to be in the show.
FZ: But it seems like that one of the surprises, or revelations, of the New Museum generational was that the references in the art weren’t contained to art history, but contained within the world today. It isn’t so hermetic.
AD: Yeah, that’s true. This new generation of artists does wonders for the museum. They realize there’s an amazing world out there with a lot of stuff happening. One of the artists I really liked from the triennial is Cyprien Gaillard.
FZ: Oh yeah, he’s amazing. We’ve got him in the magazine.
AD: Do you? I’ve got a beautiful little collage by him, actually. I think he is a really interesting artist; he has that interest in the world, like the artists in this Wiser Than God show. In a way, the show is about how these older artists are still working. In most cases, we try to get work from as recently as possible. I got a beautiful painting from Francoise Gillot, who you know was Picasso’s wife for many years, and who later married Jonas Salk. I think she is 86 or 87, and there she was bubble-wrapping the painting on the floor at the Café des Artistes, where she lives, in, you know, her Chanel suit.
FZ: There are also some very obscure artists in this show.
AD: I have some very obscure people I like, and there is a biographical element to the show. We have a one-page bio for each artist. Some of these artists have done incredible things. Luc Simon, who gave us an amazing suite of paintings, was a great actor who appeared in the 1974 [Robert] Bresson film, Lancelot du Lac. He knew everyone in Paris. We have one artist who was born in 1906, the Argentine photographer Horacio Coppola.
FZ: He takes pictures of Buenos Aires. I love those images. And obviously, Merce [Cunningham] is still going strong. I went to his 90th birthday performance at BAM.
AD: Did you? We’ve got the choreography notations from that performance!
FZ: Did you talk to Lauren [Cornell], Massimiliano [Gioni], or Laura [Hoptman], the curators of the Younger Than Jesus show?
AG: Yeah, I’ve invited them. I invited Lisa [Phillips, the Director of the New Museum], as well. I’ve known Massimiliano forever, since 1990 in Milan. He loved the idea of the show: [in Italian accent] “Oh, it’s a great idea! I love it!” About five or six years ago, I actually curated the world’s smallest art biennial, at the same time as the Whitney Biennial.
FZ: In New York?
AD: Yes, it was at the height of the biennial boom. I put on the 195 Hudson St, Apt 2A Biennial.
FZ: That sounds monumental.
AG: It was two artists, one work each. It was meant to be the smallest and easiest-to-visit biennial in the world. I enjoy occasionally tweaking the solemnities of the art world. But it doesn’t get one very far.
FZ: Well, it gets one a blog post on interviewmagazine.com. Which is all one needs.
AD: That is all one needs in life. [laughs] I’m actually thinking of doing a follow-up show, a kind of Alzheimer’s show. A lot of these artists don’t have Alzheimer’s, but some are a little mentally wobbly.
FZ: But in a way this is a celebration of youth.
AD: Yes, absolutely! Being an artist, you have to be open to the world and you have to be interested in what’s going on. You have to be receptive, so an artist is by nature a youthful person.
“Wiser Than God” is on view through July 31. BLT Gallery is located at 270 Bowery, 2nd Fl., New York.