In the third week of July, Lawrence Rinder returned from vacation to find a full-size van in the Berkeley Art Museum galleries. “I have no idea how this happened,” says Rinder, the museum’s director and the co-curator of its upcoming show. Last he heard, no vehicle that big would fit through any of the museum doors. “But I’m glad it did,” he says.
The van will be installed to look as if it crashed over one of the museum’s parapets and landed on its nose in the main atrium gallery. Standing on the back of the overturned van will be a tower of four animatronic taggers—standing on each others’ shoulders to reach up and spray paint an upper balcony. There will also be a life-size replica of a bodega, some early prints and drawings, and a number of older and newer wall-hanging works, like McGee’s “radically colorful clusters of paintings that boil and bump, extruding from the wall like a life form,” Rinder describes. All this is part of the soon-to-open Barry McGee retrospective, for which Citizens of Humanity is a presenting sponsor.
Even though Rinder was working in the Bay Area in the 1980s, when McGee began making art in the streets of San Francisco, McGee didn’t grab his attention until years later. In 2001, Rinder had moved from the Bay Area to New York to work for the Whitney and was curating the museum’s 2002 biennial exhibition of new American art. He planned to include Margaret Kilgallen, a “Mission School” artist like McGee—McGee, Kilgallen and a few others acquired that name because they worked on walls and buildings on and around San Francisco’s Mission Street. Kilgallen had been McGee’s wife until her death from cancer just months earlier. So it was McGee who arrived to rebuild and install her work, which meant he and Rinder worked closely together. Seven years later, after Rinder returned to the museum world after a brief hiatus and become the director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, he began planning the McGee retrospective.
Rinder gravitates toward artists like McGee, artists who invalidate high-low, street-gallery divides so effectively that few, even among the snootiest of art connoisseurs, can discount them as “serious” regardless of where their art appears. Rinder has worked with plenty of artists the establishment loves, of course: Louise Bourgeois, Tim Hawkinson and Felix Gonzalez- Torres. But he also spent time in Papua New Guinea learning about the tapa painting of the Maisin tribe, championed little known, reclusive quilt artist Rosie Lee Tompkins and was the first Whitney curator to travel to Puerto Rico to visit an artist’s studio.
“Museums labor under tremendous institutional inertia,” Rinder wrote in an essay in his 2005 book, Art and Life. “For the viewer, however, change can be instantaneous, as swift as the opening of one’s eyes.” For this reason, it’s a curator’s job—Rinder’s job—to challenge those worn-out high versus low distinctions. Why can’t you go to a museum and see painted cloth from Papua New Guinea hanging next to a mural by a San Francisco street artist? Couldn’t such a juxtaposition, seemingly so simple, change the way a viewer thinks about geography, taste and themselves in relation to the rest of the world? And isn’t that the whole point?
Rinder came to this position through trial and error, much like he came to art in the first place. Growing up in the East Village in the 1970s, he had dreams of becoming a lawyer. His father thought otherwise, and when Rinder tells the story, it’s so counterintuitive you think he must be joking. He wanted to go to college but his father said no, and offered to helphim fund his education only if he wanted to live in Greenwich and apprentice informally with poets there. He rebelled at first, enrolling in Reed College in Oregon, but his father’s disapproval affected him so much he dropped out. He moved to New York and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA), a place more to his dad’s liking.
In his time at SVA, he overlapped with Jean-Michel Basquiat and studied with visceral artist-choreographer Simone Forti, performer Joan Jonas and film critic Amy Taubin. He saw the graffiti scene emerge on the Lower East Side. But none of these brushes with New York art-world greatness kept him from returning to Reed after two years, with no real plan other than a vague ambition to work in TV. He was struggling to find work acting or even waiting tables when a friend from college said, “Why don’t you talk to my mother?”
This friend’s mother happened to be Alexandra Anderson, editor of the magazine Art and Antiques. The day Rinder met with her, he had just told her he might want to work in museums when a call came in from Philip Yenawine. Yenawine ran the education department at the Museum of Modern Art. He was looking for someone to help him bring art to schools, and that’s how Rinder began traveling from one New York City school to another, with a collection slides in tow. “It was kind of like Mission Impossible,” he recalls. “I’d be told, ‘P.S. 29 wants to know about Futurism.’” At first, he approached his job solemnly, like a scholar. “I’d put up a slide of Cezanne, for example, and start to explain the brush strokes,” he says, “but it only took one or two classes to break me of this habit. What interests people is what matters to their lives.”
It’s been over 25 years, yet he clearly remembers the feeling he had when he presented art to youth so that they “got it.” He started wondering what could happen if he presented art to the public in museum galleries. He enrolled in Hunter College’s Art History department, received his Master’s degree from there, took a curatorial internship at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and then secured his first job as assistant curator of the Matrix Program at the Berkeley Art Museum, a program that features small exhibitions of new or experimental work. He stayed in Berkeley for a decade. That’s where he learned how to be brave, to let himself respond to art gutturally.
Rinder gives artist and writer Nayland Blake credit for teaching him the art of curatorial bravery. In 1994, when Rinder still worked in the Matrix Program, the two of them curated a show together, hoping to capture the lively energy of the San Francisco queer community. Rinder’s instinct was to lay out the important issues and then choose work that addressed these. “But Blake relied on the logic of seduction. He approached curating as a ‘surrealist game,’ assuming that through juxtaposing different artworks, we could reveal truths,” Rinder remembers. “I found a lot of power in that understanding.”
This instinct-driven approach baffled the New York art world when Rinder began curating the 2002 Biennial. So did the fact that he traveled all over the United States, visiting artists he’d heard about and looking for ones he hadn’t. “Why bother to go outside of Chelsea?” one New York art insider asked him in complete seriousness, and days before the Biennial opened, Newsweek critic Peter Plagens published a profile of Rinder that mused on the curator’s “unabashed enthusiasm for stuff that’s way outside the fine-arts box.” Plagens titled his article “This Man Will Decide What Art Is,” suggesting that Rinder hadn’t relied on institutional precedent at all and he had “decided” that artists who weren’t necessarily “museum artists” belonged in his show.
Rinder stayed at the Whitney until 2006, when he took a job as dean of California College of the Arts. He thought he might happily stay in academia, until the directorship at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive opened up four years ago. He already knew the museum’s collection and many of the board members. He also believed he would be able to champion the kind of smart, experimental, audience-aware shows he cared about.
Rinder doesn’t curate many of the shows at the museum—his role as director keeps him busy with fundraising, building and programming concerns—but the Barry McGee exhibition is different. It’s a project he’s dreamed of doing for years with an artist who, like Rinder, sees no clear division between art and daily life. McGee comes to the galleries nearly every day and, in the run-up to the show’s opening, Rinder and his co-curator Dena Beard, are keeping a careful balance between intervening and letting McGee be. It’s more like McGee is remaking himself for this exhibition than re-presenting past work.
When the Barry McGee retrospective opens on August 24, it will begin with intricate, careful drawings. McGee began his career making such drawings and prints, and his remarkable draftsmanship might surprise viewers who associate him with a “street” aesthetic but have never really looked at his handwork up-close. The first galleries will also include some cluster pieces. In these, McGee’s small paintings of elongated, cartoonish heads or loose lettering are framed and hung close together so that together they look like a single, awkward body. Then, in subsequent galleries, you will see McGee’s mid-career work, ambitious sculptures, like the bodega and tower of taggers.
But at the end, the show will come full circle. You will encounter McGee’s most recent renderings, gorgeous patterns and figures surprisingly similar to those he drafted decades ago. These will be installed alongside drawings by McGee’s own father on napkins, which the the artist kept all these years for inspiration, and you will likely leave thinking about how baffling yet beautiful it is that life can have so much continuity despite all the detours and discoveries that shape it.