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As seen in the eye of the beholder

No way will Ralph Rugoff let viewers coast. They not only have to ask all the questions but answer them too.

February 12, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — RALPH RUGOFF has a message for all you lazy art viewers: Get to work.

Not that he would state it so rudely. The director of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, a forum for presentation and discussion of contemporary culture at the California College of the Arts, is a gentle persuader. He's a brainy, shy person who slips provocative ideas into exhibitions and catalog essays and lets them develop as they will.

His trademark group shows explore such themes as sight gags and slapstick, therapeutic values attributed to art and proposals for national monuments, but they always demand audience engagement.

"The main current in my curatorial work is putting a focus on the viewer's role," Rugoff said, walking up a metal staircase in CCA's industrial-style facility south of Market Street and into a gallery where his latest show, "A Brief History of Invisible Art," offers little to see but much to ponder. "It's your experience, but so much of it is what you bring to it."

Some visitors who bring nothing poke their heads through the door, see the nearly vacant gallery and assume that the show hasn't been installed. Those who are attuned to conceptual art -- and comfortable with the notion that art can be more than what meets the eye -- find the gallery quite full. There's a sculpture by Michael Asher made of a column of air propelled from a box on the ceiling and a ghost of Andy Warhol on a pedestal once occupied by the artist. Paintings by Bruno Jakob were rendered in water that has evaporated. A snapshot of a film crew is all that remains of a movie by Jay Chung, shot with no film in the camera.

"I want to get people to think of themselves as collaborators when they come to an exhibition," Rugoff said. "I love entertainment, but I don't think art should be treated as entertainment. Big museums are in a jam these days because they are trying to sell tickets. Sometimes they end up selling their shows as if they were entertainment, as if you could come as a passive spectator. This is a show where you have to come as a reader, as an interpreter. You have to think."

Rugoff has been shaking up apathetic viewers for 15 years, the last five at CCA, where he runs the exhibition program and works with visiting curators. Well known in contemporary art circles, he has gained increasing respect over the years, but a hefty monetary award recently catapulted him to a new level of fame. Rugoff is the inaugural winner of the Ordway Prize in the arts writer-curator category. Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo won in the artist category. They each received an unrestricted award of $100,000.

The biennial prize was established by the Penny McCall Foundation, which supports contemporary artists, arts writers and curators. Named for philanthropist Katharine Ordway, the new award recognizes creative individuals in midcareer who have made significant contributions to contemporary arts and letters. Rugoff was chosen by a panel of arts professionals appointed by McCall Foundation Director Jennifer McSweeney. He prevailed over two finalists from New York, Lynne Cooke of the Dia Art Foundation and David Rimanelli, an independent critic and curator.

"His curatorial practice has redefined the concept of thematic group shows," McSweeney wrote in an e-mail response to a query about Rugoff's selection. "Not only have his methods inspired others, but he has become a specialist in creating the unexpected. Ralph has staked out very independent territory by consistently exhibiting the work of international artists who are under the radar screen of the American art establishment and presenting their work in unorthodox ways. Additionally, he illuminates the work through witty and original essay. His curatorial work has developed its own particular vernacular."

Winning the award was "an incredible surprise," Rugoff said. "I think of it as being struck by lucky lightning. The odds are about the same. But it's fantastic. It will provide an opportunity to travel more than my budget allows. These days traveling is a big part of knowing what's going on."

A West Coast transplant who was born in New York City in 1957 and spent his youth there, Rugoff has been curious about what's going on in the arts for most of his life.

"I was always interested in art," he said, "but I was also very interested in literature and film and psychology. I went to Brown University and majored in semiotics. In the '80s, people thought that meant you must be able to write about anything. But I was primarily interested in film when I was in college. After that, I spent a couple of years making a documentary film about Laotian people called the Hmong who were resettled in Rhode Island after the Vietnam War. They had tribal customs from living in remote mountain villages, but they had been relocated in urban areas. The film is called 'The Best Place to Live' because they felt that where they had come from was the best place to live."

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