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Prospect.3 “Notes for Now” opens this Saturday, October 25 in New Orleans. Franklin Sirmans is the Artistic Direct of the biennial which includes installations, projects, and exhibitions that look at a variety of themes: The New Orleans Experience, Seeing Oneself in the Other, The South, Crime and Punishment, Movie-going, The Carnivalesque, Abstraction, and Visual Sound. Prospect’s Executive Director Brooke Davis Anderson will welcome press, VIP, and specially invited guests tomorrow and Friday to preview the many site-specific works by artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Tavares Strachan, Gary Simmons, Lisa Sigal, Will Ryman, Shigeru Ban, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paul Gaugin, Theaster Gates, Camille Henrot, Pieter Hugo, Glenn Kaino, and Kerry James Marshall.
In anticipation of being in New Orleans this week to cover the biennial, Whitewall spoke with Sirmans for our fall 2014 Fashion Issue. Here’s what he had to say about “Notes for Now,” which will be on view through January 25, 2015.
Artistic Director for Prospect.3 New Orleans
Department Head and Curator of Contemporary art at LACMA
WHITEWALL: How do you think your background as a writer affected your approach to curating?
FRANKLIN SIRMANS: The influence of literature is always something that’s there. Music was that early entry point, because I was more interested in talking and writing about music than I was art when I first got out of school. I was writing music reviews, and I guess in some ways that segued into the first the first real museum exhibition I did—this was 10 years after graduating—which was “One Planet Under a Groove” in 2001.
It probably wasn’t as apparent to me until I saw it in action by leaving the publications department at Dia and going to Flash Art. At Flash Art, basically any article that was thematically drawn was essentially a curated exhibition. It’s so parallel.
WW: Speaking of literature as influence, as artistic director of Prospect.3, you took The Moviegoer by Walker Percy  as a starting point for the biennial. How did you come across the novel?
FS: I was in a studio visit with the artist Sophie Lvoff, who had just graduated from Tulane not too long ago. She had the book out and she was talking about it somewhat in reference to her work. And I had already thought her work, for me, very much visually speaks to the Southern condition, like William Christenberry, William Eggleston, even Walker Evans to some degree, in terms of her image-making. So this fact that she was mentioning this book that was also so much a part of that same landscape was so spot-on. And so I picked it up immediately, and I figured out that it had a very nice resonance to some of the things that I thought should happen in the exhibition.
WW: I imagine artists might relate strongly to the protagonist Binx Bolling’s anxiety about being “a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”
WW: And I guess that’s why we make art.
FS: Totally. Yeah, “somewhere not anywhere” is perfect in terms of that revolving conversation around location and around location not as a geographical thing, but locating ourselves.
WW: In terms of location of Prospect.3, how much do you make it about the city of New Orleans? What’s key this time around is that it’s not a post-Katrina show. It’s 10 years later.
FS: I wanted it to be there, and be absolutely integral, but I wanted it to recede in the background. I know it sounds kind of silly, but in the book, it can’t be talking about anywhere else, in a way, but yet the things you’re talking about are things that you could have a conversation about anywhere. On one end you pick out the sort of clichés, and things that the city is known for—the music, the art, the food. It could be overwhelmingly kitsch, right? And so it was always about how do you respect the city and its cultural history and yet try to expand upon it? By already having an exhibition that is set up as an international exhibition, and one that will involve artists from all over the place and some that don’t necessarily know so much about New Orleans, it opens things up in a way that allows for mystery and surprise, as opposed to getting artists who already fit into those things or categories that the city is already known for.
WW: The title of the show is “Notes for Now.” You’ve said you wanted Prospect.3 to focus on what artists are talking about right now. What sorts of things did you see come up again and again through your studio visits and putting together this biennial?
FS: Certain things did come up and were repeated, and it’s hard to say—was I looking for certain things, or was it just something else? The idea of carnival in this sense is something that you can’t get away from. Ideas around decoration, ideas around sartorial kind of things, there’s something that’s part and parcel of it. Fashion, especially in a music context and in an entertainment context, so there’s that. And then there is the South as a construct. There’s a significant presence of Vietnamese in New Orleans, so it’s an interesting conversation of the expanded notion of, “What is the South?”
Other things that kept coming up as focal points: abstraction I think right now is something that we grapple with. It’s obviously something everybody is grappling with, thinking of that Jerry Saltz article [“Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” in New York, June 2014]. How do we talk about all of this decorative abstraction that seems to be so prevalent? I’ve been fighting with that and thinking about that, and I’m actually working on a new abstraction show that opens up at LACMA in the fall [“Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting” on view through March 22, 2015], and, in my mind there are many deeper ways to look at abstraction, and so I tried to think about some of those in the context of New Orleans.
WW: You’ve described biennials as something where we’re trying to understand and locate ourselves within them.
FS: I have the contrast of being in an institution all the time, which is a very different form of curating. So then having thought about these kinds of exhibitions for a while, [a biennial] seems like an interesting platform to try and figure out what is our situation.
WW: Yes, I wanted to ask, what can you do in a biennial that you couldn’t do in a museum, or the other way around?
FS: I think you’re allowed to have a little bit more openness in this format. And I don’t know if I could get away with saying “Notes for Now” in a museum context [laughs].
The thing I love about here and working with my colleagues and Michael Govan, one thing he said to me when I first got here is that I want to be a big museum that can possibly function as a small museum. And so we’ve tried to be, not reactive, but we tried to be able to move a big ship sometimes and take some chances and highlight the collection and try to talk about conversations that are a part of everyday discussions of contemporary culture. We try to be somewhat flexible. The museum can be a place for discussion in a way that the gallery cannot.
This interview was previously published in Whitewall‘s fall 2014 Fashion Issue on newsstands now. “Notes for Now” will be on view through January 25, 2015.