When I was four years old, my parents took me to the Baltimore Museum of Art. They left me on a bench while they looked around. I recall staring at the floor and being so bored that I decided to look at what was on the walls. I saw a painting of a table with flowers on it and I thought: well, that’s stupid because the table is tilted and the flowers would fall off. Then I thought: but the person who painted the picture knew that... This was my first clue that some people think differently. The painting was a Matisse, Still Life, Bouquet of Dahlias and White Book (1923). I went back years later, and it looked exactly as I remembered it.
In my previous job, I worked on the Tribute in Light at the site of 9/11. We didn’t know how people would react to these two simple, vertical beams of light. On the day it went live, I saw a TV interview with a guy whose brother had died in one of the towers. He said, ‘That is the most painful thing I have ever seen, and I am so thankful that it exists.’ People were getting out of their cars on the New Jersey Turnpike to stand and look. I thought: ‘Wow, art really does matter, and it can be healing’.
I am interested in doing things that are historically important. I have seen how art can bring understanding in times of tragedy, and that has powerfully affected my view as a museum director.
The Brooklyn is an ‘encyclopaedic’ museum, to use the industry term, but one with uniquely progressive roots. Our founders were not showing off their wealth or their taste or generosity; they were creating an educational institution in a city full of immigrants. The idea was to expose new immigrants to each other’s cultures, and so become better neighbours, better citizens, and construct a better America. Encyclopaedias, though, are generally written with certain canons of history in mind. We want to expand those canons, to look at the histories that weren’t told, and bring them into dialogue with the present.
Much of the present collection was amassed at the start of the 20th century. There is extraordinary American and Native American work, and one of the largest collections of Egyptian artefacts outside Egypt and the British Museum. We have great African and Latin American collections. We represent more than 5,000 years of human creativity. Among our recent acquisitions is Xu Bing’s Square Word Calligraphy: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Walt Whitman (2018), where each English word is made to look like a Chinese pictogram. It’s particularly meaningful because Walt Whitman was a librarian here when he was in his teens. He wrote some of the earliest ‘chats’, which is what we call the descriptions of individual artworks.
My favourite piece in the collection is a little alabaster sculpture. It depicts an Egyptian queen, Ankhnes-meryre II, with her young son, Pepy II, who is sitting on her lap. The piece is 4,000 years old and it is gorgeous. Ankhnes-meryre was regent while Pepy was a child, and she commissioned the work to say: this is my son, and I will raise him to be king. Centuries later, when the Coptics were figuring out ways to tell the story of Jesus, this, supposedly, is the sculpture on which they modelled the image of the Madonna and Child. Every time I look at it I am overwhelmed.
There are many under-recognised artists and periods. For example, I’ve been thinking more and more about abstraction as an expression of social freedom. I have in mind figures such as Ed Clark, who used a push-broom to spread paint on the canvas, which was in itself a socially conscious act. The process reflected the underlying consciousness of the times they were in.
My favourite artist? Van Gogh rates high. The freedom, energy and emotion he put into every brushstroke — that just blows me away. But I could add many to the list. Richard Serra would be near the top. A Serra piece, whether a work on paper or a monumental sculpture, is a reflection on power, fear, beauty, spirituality and mortality. He gets it all in there, and I am in awe.
When you see young men and women of African descent looking at Kehinde Wiley’s incredible portraits of people who look like them, you realise his intention — to take history painting and disrupt it, to say that these people deserve to be celebrated too. In January, we are showing Kehinde’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) alongside the source painting by Jacques-Louis David. The show is a great way to spotlight whose histories are told and who is left out.
Pierre Cardin was inspired by both the optimism and scientific advancement of the Space Age and the idea of how the future would look. He explored unisex clothing and non-gendered fashion, which was radical at the time and is relevant now. (And, incidentally, he is the only civilian ever to have worn Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit.) Our current show is a survey of Pierre Cardin.
Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion is at the Brooklyn Museum until 5 January 2019. Jacques-Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley, 24 January-10 May 2019