“Loving the margins is risky,” writes Marcia Tucker in the opening lines of her posthumous memoir, a short life of trouble: forty years in the new york art world, “”¦because you’re not only in unfamiliar territory, but often in hostile terrain as well.”It’s an ominous line, perhaps the only one throughout the entire prologue and book, that indicates what Tucker struggled deeply with, not only as the Whitney Museum’s first female curator, but as a woman who was very publicly fired from the Whitney and responded by opening her own museum. She was a woman who, like many others at the time (and unfortunately today), fought the trope of having “the career” or “the family” (recollecting on her experience with a Whitney museum trustee who during her interview for the curator position, asked, “Are you married? Why not? Do you plan to have children? How can you be sure you won’t change your mind?”), as well as a woman who took head on the oppressive nature of the New York art world and defined a space for what art and art institutions could be. By many of these acts, she ultimately defined herself.
Tucker died in 2006, at the age of 66. She had been living with cancer for several years and sensing her impending death (which she defines as the “last great adventure”) began writing her memoir as ample evidence that begged the question she had been asking all her life: What is art? It’s a grand question, actually, an enormous one that Tucker never actually answers (how could anyone really?), but instead allows to snowball into the thousand other questions that relate to the frame in which art finds itself, as well as the value placed upon certain works and why.
My job has been to rattle the institutional cage on a regular basis by asking questions that will make everyone’s eyes roll up into their head. How does the museum replicate and perpetuate class systems? Why do we do exhibitions anyhow? What are we saying when we install things chronologically? Or, why walls? What we need is more controversy and not less. More debate, more dialogue, more disagreement, and more discussion.
Hers is a life that is filled with numerous defining moments and Tucker describes everything from her early childhood, from the moment of seeing her grandmother’s masectomy scars, to losing her first love in the Algerian war, to learning to drive a motorcycle and the accident that would confine her to pain for months, to living the highs and lows that most twenty-somethings with very little money and crappy apartments in New York City experience. Only this was the sixties, and it’s her recollection of this time that really provides an eye-opening look at actually how far things have progressed, even in a time where we are seemingly going backwards. Her career is off to a dramatic start when she becomes the Whitney museum’s first female curator, a position she has to scratch and crawl upwards for, just to receive some basic recognition from many of her peers (while being wildly supported by others like then-Whitney director, John “Jack” Bauer and Marga Barr, wife of MOMA director Alfred Barr).
Not only is her position of authority as a woman questioned, (a position which she herself even questions, wondering aloud about the old adage of to give power, you must have power), but her interest in “intellectualized” art that strays from the normal preoccupations of the art world institution leads her into an even more marginalized position. The complaints come rolling in as she features conceptual artists, as well as many who have been historically ignored by larger art institutions (women, LGBT, POC). It’s only after she features artist Richard Tuttle’s wire pieces, that the metaphorical shit hits the fan. Tucker’s firing comes soon afterwards, but not without a comeback. Instead of looking for solace, Tucker decides the unimaginable: to open her own museum, one that will be a reflection of the questions she has asked herself for years. It’s a feat that many in the art world watch for the first sign of ultimate failure, playing back into the horrid hands of who actually gets to be an authority on what art is. Once, when Tucker is at a party, she’s bombarded by journalist and politician Clare Boothe Luce, who demands to know, “What qualifies you to run a museum?” Tucker wastes no opportunity and casually responds, “The same thing that qualifies you to think I can’t.” It’s a response that cements the fact that Tucker, whether you like her or not, potentially has the biggest and brassiest balls of them all.
The title is damningly accurate. The book, which stretches into grouped years spans from her welcome into the world at her birth in Brooklyn to her last days in 2004. It also strays away from the “strictly art” memo to which many involved in art will often latch to when recreating what an “artful life” looks like. Tucker wasn’t just a curator and a museum owner, but a writer whose commitment to feminism changed the entire accessibility of her writing, as well as a gorilla-masked provocateur in the feminist art world protest group, the Guerrilla Girls, a singer in the a cappella singing group the Art Mob, a standup comedian, the art world alter ego of “Miss Mannerist,” a mother, a wife, etc. As Tucker mentions numerous times in the book, “Act first, think later – that way you have something to think about.” It only breaks your heart that through all her accomplishments and struggles, she tragically leaves this earth way too soon.
What begs the question after finishing such a raw and unpolished, yet thoroughly inspiring and honest memoir, is the question of how the current New Museum, the one that slickly and often times arrogantly shines upon the still rough Bowery area in lower Manhattan, is one where Tucker would feel as much as home as she did in the environment that she was so dedicated to creating. While Tucker was one of many who really formed the New York art world, she was one who saw through many of its staid patterns, ultimately denouncing the businesslike aspect of how art was treated. One has to wonder how she would react to the current art world and the New Museum as they become larger and larger bubbles of mixed interest that embody corporate interest, quick turnover, the fetishization of youth and cool, and the overall sterilization that can be well hidden among what art critic Jerry Saltz once referred to as “clusterfuck esthetics.”
But one thing is for certain: Tucker and her memoir cannot be easily defined, just enjoyed for what it is, warts and all. Like her reference to Alan Watts mid-point in her book, “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.”