RoseLee Goldberg and All Things Art

On the 27th of February, I had the honor of picking the brain of guru and curator of performance art RoseLee Goldberg, who assisted as curator for the Cape Town Art Fair at the V&A Waterfront, Avenue.  As I sat down and began to talk to her, I could not help but notice her sophisticated and confidently calm demeanor. “This is a woman who knows art”, I thought to myself, and here is what she had to say.

How did you get involved in the Cape Town Art Fair, and what elements drew you to it?

RLG: Well, I’m an Art Historian, critic, and writer. I run something in New York called Performa, It’s been around for 10 years and it’s become very well-known. Importantly, I’m originally South African, so it’s very exciting for me to be back here in a professional capacity. I come back once a year to see family, but it’s different when you’re actually out and about and looking at this particular confluence of affairs, like SMoCA, design guilds and design indabas and so on, so I think it’s a very pleasant time to be here.

I was invited here by the Cape Town Art Fair and actually at the instigation of Mark Coetzee, who I’ve known for a long time. He lives in New York and is a curator, and we’ve stayed in touch and we were jurors together on Spier Contemporary. So we’ve had a lot of time to think back and forth about what’s going on in South Africa, and what could be done to really alert the international community to the strength of the Art world here, and how it could be made more international, more sophisticated in a way with the presentation. I guess he introduced that to the Cape Town Art Fair people, and they went with it. So I’m here. The point too was that they’d asked me, quite late in the game, because this all happened very quickly, to come up with some projects, and I said “you know it’s really better that I come and look around this time, and let’s talk about something exciting for next year when I really have a lay of the land”. Because when you do something from a far, you’re just another outsider trying to tell people in Cape Town what to do and nobody needs that.

So it’s much more about getting close to the feel here, viewing some other people, I really like to work collaboratively, and to get an assessment of what other artists, and other writers are thinking about. You know, people who really live with this every day. In a sense, this is my research trip and hopefully next year we will do some interaction. I’m talking to a lot of people and keeping an eye for new Ideas for next year.

Well I can’t wait for next year then! Living in the US, do you see any influence coming through in South African art?

RLG: Well it’s a good question. I would say it’s inevitable, there’s an international outlaw that functions at a very high level. Certainly people in art schools in this country and elsewhere, whether you go to India, whether you go to South America, there is a lot of restless back and forth looking at work in New York, Paris, London, the kind of main Western capitals of the art market and the art world, so that’s inevitable.

However, South African art has always been very strong. It has its own character and I think what characterizes it is the very good art schools here that have been around for a very long time, the sophisticated, dedicated teachers, and there’s this real sense that, all of us who have grown up in South Africa have an obligation to a much larger society. I think that makes for some very strong work. As a South African, I still see that at work.

In this nation with so many different people and different levels of culture and different rituals and customs, there’s a lot of interest from one to the other as well. It’s special, there’s a lot of intrigue to go and discover more about the move between cultures, there’s a lot of interest from all of us and you see a very varied and beautiful world.

With comparison to exhibition art that you can buy and sell, what makes Performance Art so relevant?  

RLG: Well, I’m going to give two answers; Performance has really been around for a long time, people don’t realize that. Artists have always made live art. You can go back to Leonardo de Vinci… you’ll see that artists in renaissance were always invited to the festivities, to celebrate weddings, ceremonies, a new palace, whatever. Artists would be involved in creating extraordinary spectacles.

I’m re-writing the history to show the meaning of that, because I think most art historians find that difficult and don’t understand where to put it. With the 20th century, I had to begin somewhere in the early 19 hundreds. It’s to really show again that throughout the 20th century, we’ve seen a very multimedia century, I mean the data, people didn’t quite know how to explain that because so much of it was live performance. The futurists were doing so many actions. The tradition of art history was to look at the object and not explain these relationships that occurred or the experimentation that occurred in live performance.

So that’s been my job, I’m really an art historian, not simply a performance art historian. I look at the big picture of art history and at any point in time, whether it’s surrealism, or New York in the 60’s, I’m looking at, what was the visual artist doing, what were the music people doing, what were Phil Glass, and Steve Reich, or Laurie Anderson, and the avant-garde dance world doing, or filmmakers for that matter? So my point is, as an art historian, it is to look across horizontally at many different ways of making art and inspecting ideas.

The performance art part is in a sense to integrate it in art history it’s not to separate it. Rather to say, “this has been part of art history forever and we need to re-look at that”. In fact, in spring, another month we are doing a big conference in New York that’s about performance in the renaissance. It’s a big revelation to people, it’s very exciting, and it’s changing our history, because I’m now meeting tons of artists, and PhD students who are suddenly doing their thesis on work related to performance. So it’s opened up a world that says, to art historians, not performance art historians, to art historians to try to understand and grapple with that and understand, what does that mean for an artist.

Because a performer, which really we work with an artist for over a year, sometimes two or three years, there’s so much support and ideas that go into it, that by the time the piece comes it’s very social work. It’s created a new idea, it’s literally created a new idea about what performance can be.

There are performance pieces in the Art Fair, Is there anything that stands out to you? What work do you find yourself drawn to in the Fair?

RLG: There are, but I don’t know if it’s fair to point out specific artists right now. I think there’s strong work in many of the galleries. I can certainly talk about artists that I have worked with, or that I am working with like Nicholas Hlobo, or Robin Rhode. They do beautiful artwork, but they also work in many mediums, and that’s again the point about performance. Artist’s that do performance are artists who also make objects, sculptor and painting. So those are the two artists who we are working with, who will be in the next Performa Biennial.

The Naidoo twins are also two artists I’m very interested in, who we will probably work with at some time, the Goodman Gallery. Again, everybody is working hard I don’t want to sell one gallery over the other, but just specifically those are the three artists that I have been working with, or will be working with.

As a curator, author and critic does that affect your own work? Do you have a more outside perspective on your work?

RLG: Do you mean as a writer? It all informs it. In a sense, I’m a contemporary historian and I’m looking at everything all the time, politics and economics, and I’m trying to understand how new shifts occur.

The interesting thing about the contemporary world we live in is that it’s actually changing every single day, and equally so is art and the kind of comfort, the commentary, the aesthetics that artist are looking to comment about in the society that we live in. My job as a contemporary historian is to be watchful of everything that is going on.

I also teach at NYU, write, I educate as much as I can. It’s about trying to get people excited about what art can teach us about the world we live in and being nicer human beings, hopefully.

With anything that is creatively driven, there seems to be a soul theme; humanity and what it means to be human and how we treat others. Do you find that is a theme running through the Art Fair?

RLG: I think that is what artists do, it’s in the work. The Fair has a structure to show a lot of work, and a Fair is set up to sell work, so that has its own mission. Artists take big risks to step outside of society and outside of mainstream because they do have a need to comment on the society we live in, and try to expand on that. We don’t realise what it takes to be an artist, to say you’re going to be an artist and hope that people respond to what you have to say. It’s complex.

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