My Boston: Artist-on-the-brink Andrew Witkin

The up-and-coming 'situation' artist talks about life as curator and creator, Boston's art scene, and the city's artful landmarks

Not only has Andrew Witkin been curating shows at Barbara Krakow Gallery on Newbury Street for 15 years, he is quite the artist himself. Back in 2008, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston awarded him the prestigious Foster Prize, and his work is now in the permanent collections of that museum, as well as the deCordova. Through May 11, catch his show “Exploring the Currier Inside Out: Andrew Witkin, Among Others” at Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., less than an hour drive from Boston. We sat down with Witkin recently for a chat about his hometown and his favorite 'hood (Jamaica Plain), the art scene here in Boston, and what inspires him.

You've been at Barbara Krakow Gallery forever! What do you do there?

I’ve been there for 15 years, and for the longest time I have been the director, but I think my official title these days is partner and director. My job is to organize the exhibitions with collaborative help from the entire staff, and of course, primarily with Barbara.

How would you describe your own art?

People always come up to me and say, “Oh, what do you make? Do you make paintings, or drawings?” I like to say that I make situations, and I know that sounds ridiculous. Basically, I use documents, furniture, sculptures and arrange objects in space to create specific, open-ended interactions.

What artists inspire you?

Oh, there are so many. One of the things that has interested me for the longest time is the history of grave markers. That’s sort of outside art, more material culture, but that’s a big thing for me. There’s an artist name Marcel Broodthaers; he’s huge for me. Sol LeWitt. Bill T. Jones, who is a choreographer. Lots of musicians: John Cage, Alvin Lucier.

What’s up with your exhibition at the Currier?

The contemporary curator at the Currier invited me to come and do a project. She really wanted something that wasn’t in one room or gallery. She wasn’t looking for a discrete exhibition that took place in one location, and she also wanted somehow to highlight the archives and the library, and all these resources that the museum has that the public doesn’t know is there. It was a really exciting thing for me, because I love opening up things that otherwise may seem out of reach, whether through roadblocks or awareness. For me personally, it was interesting because [putting this show together] was somewhere between working as an artist, working as a curator and working as an educator, and that’s a really nice sweet spot for me. I have a Masters in art education. I spend my days talking to people about art and organizing exhibitions at Krakow. And having free range to do it as I thought appropriate is a very nice thing. [There are] seven sites around the museum with different things happening at each location. A lot of them are cross-referential. Each one takes you beyond the normal information that a museum would share, perhaps in some regard personifies or contextualizes the thing in simpler terms, sometimes illuminating things.

Witkin at Currier

Give us an example.

There is this beautiful clock from the late 1700s, and it’s listed as being made by this guy named Levi Hutchins. He’s actually the guy who invented the alarm clock, which is quite cool. So, this clock is this tall clock, like a grandfather clock, and it has a beautiful wood case and lots of inlay and things that are very impressive that very few people in our contemporary society know how to do. You read the wall label and it says Levi Hutchins [made it]. Well, the funny thing is Levi Hutchins didn’t make any of the wood; he literally made the gears. And I thought that was such a beautiful gesture, that the person behind it is the person you know as the maker. Usually, it is the front person that you learn about. It’s never the person who actually does the integral guts of something. So what I did is I created a piece that is all the documentation about the clock from the museum’s archives, but I arranged it in this way that it mirrors the image of the clock. Reading it, you learn a lot more about the clock; you learn about the inside and the history as opposed to the surface.

That’s interesting. If someone said to you, I don’t really like art because I don’t “get” art, how would you respond?

I would say, I totally agree and understand, but what don’t you get? And then you start from there. There’s a good portion of my life that I spend talking to people who have that response, and I totally understand it. There’s so much out there and there’s so much to learn. The thing that I always try to come back to is not whether you like or dislike something, but maybe trying to understand why somebody made something. If you can understand the intention behind it, then maybe you can gain some sort of appreciation or at least some sort of understanding of it. Whether you like it or not, that’s okay. We all have personal preferences. I don’t like chocolate ice cream, and I hope no one’s going to fight me to the grave to make me like it. But I understand that other people do, and I appreciate that. I think the conversation about contemporary art right now is so confrontational. It’s either, you’re in or you’re out, and it would be so much nicer if people were like, “Well, I’m out, can you help me get in?” Not “in” as in a member of the club, but as ‘I would like to learn; I would like to appreciate.’ If the people on the inside, instead of saying, ‘Oh, you don’t know?!” actually were like, “Oh yeah sure, I really like this because of X,” or “I learned this, do you want to know that?”

Tell me about the art scene in Boston. How are we different from other cities, like New York or Chicago?

Boston proper is what, a city of 650,000 people? New York is what, 8 million? Chicago is, I think, 3 million. I find [that to compare] those exact cities is so off base, because they’re different sized cities. I don’t know another city on the planet that has as many exhibition spaces as Boston does per capita. You might not like every single exhibition space, or what everyone does, but there’s so much to see, certainly considering the size of the city. You combine that with the fact of all the institutions and how many people come here to teach or guest lecture or whatever, there are so many events and so many opportunities to get closer and to learn a little more clearly and closely who and what these people are up to. It just takes a little bit of effort to figure out where these things are happening.

Favorite museum in Boston?

You can’t do that to me! I love them all.

Where can we see your work in Boston?

At the moment, I don’t know where. I have works in the collections of the ICA and deCordova, but it’s not up at the moment. And there’s the show at the Currier (Jan.11-May 11, 2014), and it’s only about 50 minutes north of the city.

What’s your favorite Boston neighborhood?

I’ve lived in JP for 15 years. I love Jamaica Plain. My wife and I live very close to Forest Hills Cemetery, which is a beautiful and historically significant cemetery with great markers in it and plenty of nature, and I get to say that ee cummings resides right nearby me, and everyone gets confused and thinks that ee cummings is still alive. There are plenty of great restaurants, from The Haven, which is that Scottish place, to Blue Nile, a wonderful Ethiopian place. How can I not mention Doyle’s? I grew up going to Doyle’s, so it’s a home away from home for me. Also, the Emerald Necklace begins there. JP is the greenest area of Boston.

Let’s play one of those word association games. I’ll name some place supposedly “artful” in Boston, and you comment on its artfulness.

Trinity Church …

Hallowed. Not hollowed.

Trinity Church

Acorn Street … 

Boston.

Acorn Street

Stata Center at MIT …

Three words. Diversity is good.

MIT Stata Center

Granary Burying Ground …

God. What do I want to say about such an amazing place. Full of reverent reminders of history and roots. Tremendous artistry. Unbelievable. It’s one of my favorite places.

Granary Burying Ground

Massachusetts State House …

Shiny!

Massachusetts State House

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