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Show tracks BAM’s ever-shifting edge

originally posted by the SF Gate
October 18, 2012

Interview with Kenneth Baker:

Few university museums in the United States could assemble a survey of two years’ collecting activity as full of variety and surprise as “At the Edge: Recent Acquisitions” at the Berkeley Art Museum.

It ranges from dazzlingly elaborate drawings by Jay Nelson and David Wilson to photographs by William Eggleston, Jim Goldberg and Miriam Böhm, a print by John Cage and a work in light by Kamau Amu Patton.

In the galleries, BAM Director Lawrence Rinder and I discussed the thinking behind the show.

Q: The “edge” in question is the leading edge of the permanent collection?

A: Yes … I’m still curatorially mining an insight that Nayland Blake offered me in 1994 when we were working on “In a Different Light.” When my first instinct in that show was to decide what the show was about and then choose works to put in it, he said “Oh, no, no, no. First you choose the work, then you decide what it’s about.”… The crux of it is that you start with the best possible works and let the art lead you where you might possibly not have known you could go or would go. … It’s difficult with a recent acquisitions show because there’s not a clear theme. It’s involved finding works to fulfill multiple collecting areas and priorities. On the one hand it is an uncontainable group but when I looked at it, I decided that there is a large number of works that do deal metaphorically with edges. That could be edges of experience, of palpability, edges of emotional affect, when you come to your psychological limit. Some of them deal with limits of scale and some of them are just edgy in the vernacular sense – pushing a button.

A: This is probably a quarter, but that’s skewed a bit because sometimes we’ll acquire a portfolio or something like that.

Q: And how many of these are you particularly responsible for?

A: Maybe half. But there’s actually a limit to the amount of money I can spend with unilateral authority. So most of these works were acquired by my recommendation to our collections committee, and then approved by the board of trustees. There were one or two things here that I might have acquired with director’s discretionary funds, which I usually only do if there’s a risk of the work not being available long enough to be presented to the committee.

Q: Do you incline to favor Bay Area artists?

A: I would say yes, but it’s not our exclusive focus, obviously. We have in the show works by William Eggleston and Louise Bourgeois and so forth. But I think there’s a lot of fantastic work being done in the Bay Area that’s undervalued by the market that other institutions are not collecting as aggressively, so we have an edge, as it were.

Q: Not after this goes into print.

A: I would like nothing more than for the Bay Area to have a competitive market for local artists’ work. That is my dream.

Q: Do you see the narrative emphasis of so much of this work as indicative of what’s happening on the wider art scene, or is it just what’s happening in this room?

A: I wouldn’t extrapolate too much. I think the scene is so diverse now that it’s just impossible to generalize. But clearly narrativity is something that preoccupies a number of interesting Bay Area artists, though I’ve obviously arranged narrative works into a cluster here.

Q: Do artists who had exhibitions here enjoy any kind of priority in your thinking about new acquisitions?

A: Not really, I’m looking for the best possible works I can get.

We do have a collecting priority: We try to acquire works by artists who’ve shown in the Matrix Program. David Wilson had a major show here last year, so his is an acquisition in that spirit.

This is the third large-scale drawing he’s done at the same site, Wildcat Canyon in the East Bay hills. … On top of its being beautiful, having this wonderfully liminal condition of being at the edge of a major metropolitan area, and yet being very wild, it happens to be where Wilson spent a year building a memorial to his father who passed away.

This drawing was done over many months. He went every day or so with a single sheet of paper and he would just draw that quadrant. Then when he went back, he’d try to connect the next piece of paper with the previous one, without having taken it with him. … He didn’t assemble the whole mosaic until the very end, after it was done. So it is remarkable. {sbox}

At the Edge: Recent Acquisitions: Through Dec. 23. $7-$10. 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. (510) 642-0808,

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