MASS MoCA curator discusses work

May 3, 2019

Denise Markonish, a curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) and a Brandeis alumna, visited campus to share her work. In her talk, she discussed both group and individual shows she’d curated, revealing the development process behind taking an idea or an artist and turning it into a fully-developed exhibition.

After graduating from Brandeis, Markonish received an M.A. from Bard, and then worked her way up as a curator. She spent a year in the San Antonio Artpace residential program and in 2007 she started at MASS MoCA.

The MoCA, a converted industrial space in North Adams, isn’t your standard contemporary art museum. Long-term art exhibitions are the focus. The museum’s Sol Lewitt space, for example, was installed in 2008 and will be on view until at least 2043. “It’s not your average museum,” Markonish said. “The idea around MASS MoCA was to have a place where artists or estates could deposit works for a long period of time.”

For group shows, she spends a lot of time exploring work that fits within her chosen theme.

“Oh, Canada,” a 2012 survey of Canadian art, sprang out of a joke—what was the art landscape like up there? After performing over 400 studio visits, one of which was only accessible by snowmobile, Markonish narrowed things down to 63 artists. “Whenever an artist tells me to visit another artist, I always say yes.” That meticulous time and attention seemed to be a hallmark of her approach to curation.  

One of her first shows at the MoCA, “These Days: Elegies for Modern Times,” collected a diverse group of artists questioning progress and the present. It was 2009, just after the Bush era ended, but Markonish still found herself skeptical about hope. Sam Taylor-Wood’s “A Little Death” chronicles a rotting still life; Pawel Wojtasik’s panoramic “Below Sea Level” immerses the viewer in a post-Katrina New Orleans; Chris Doyle’s “Apocalyptic Management” animation examines recovery immediately after disaster.

“Suffering From Realness,” which opened in April, is a 10-years-later companion piece of sorts. Inspired by a Kanye lyric, it’s a reckoning with representation politics in the Trump era. There’s a “Dadaist romp through the 2007 financial crisis;” trans-artist Cassil’s “Inextinguishable Fire”—a 14 minute slow-down self-immolation; Vincent Valdez’s “Metanoia,” a haunting large-scale oil portrait of a heavily-tattooed San Antonio man.

Investing time to develop relationships with artists is crucial to Markonish’s work. For solo shows at MASS MoCA, the curator might contact an artist about creating something five years in advance. In that first year, she typically doesn’t even contact the artist, instead giving them time to just let ideas generate.

For the artist Nick Cave, that also meant offering a challenge. Cave was famous for his Soundsuits, the wearable sculptures that became his calling card. But Markonish wanted to encourage the artist to try something new.

The result, Nick Cave’s “Until” filled the football field-sized space with vast “clouds” that you could step up into, a curtain of 16,000 wind spinners, industrial fans and more. “Something that is so unique and exciting about MASS MoCA is our commitment to commissioning new work,” she said. After “Until,” Markonish found herself thinking, “what other artists can I ask to step out of their comfort zone?”

Most recently, that’s meant enabling Texas artist Trenton Doyle Hancock to create “Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass,” a whimsical universe created entirely inside the museum’s massive Building 5. Hancock’s work looks like Candyland—inspired by an elaborate fictional comic-book world he’s been developing, and is something that he never would have been able to create on his own. MASS MoCA staff helped fabricate the giant wooden mounds that visitors can step inside of.

“It’s so surreal to be on this side of the lectern,” Markonish said at the beginning of her talk. Brandeis arts faculty and institutions are “the reason I am here today,” she continued.

Those connections remain. In 2017, she commissioned Associate Professor of Painting Joe Wardwell to create a “Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States,” a hundred foot wall drawing now on display at the museum.

Two current exhibitions curated by Markonish, “Mind of the Mound” and “Suffering From Realness” are on view at MASS MoCA now.

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