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Six Questions for Curator Amy Galpin about “Behold, America!”

The exclamation point is well deserved. The title for “Behold, America!” -- a collaborative exhibition of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, The San Diego Museum of Art, and the Timken Museum of Art -- comes from the writings of Walt Whitman and is a fitting tag given Whitman’s praise of voices joining together for a united whole. And like democracy or anything reliant on compromises of individual entities, “Behold, America!” hasn’t been easy to achieve but is all the more spectacular as a result.

Amy Galpin, Ph.D., moved to San Diego in 2009 to curate this exhibition. She was tasked with assembling a survey of American art that would take advantage of each museum’s strengths and create a grander exhibition than any one institution could present. Working closely with other curators at all three museums, she took 175 selections by 144 artists and divided them into categories: forms, figures, and frontiers. The beautiful catalog includes nine essays and four artist interviews that discuss the approaches to this project and select works; Derrick Cartwright, Bob Pincus, and Ruben Ortiz-Torres are among the contributors.

It was a few days before the “Behold, America!” opening when I sat down with Galpin to gather her thoughts about the show. In many ways it felt like chatting with a bride before her wedding, everything nearly in place and a crowd eager and ready for the veil to be lifted.
 

Let’s start with figures, the category featured here at The San Diego Museum of Art. What do you hope people take away?

We see the national identity as it is transformed from the colonial to the 19th century to modern. How has our identity changed over time, how has it shifted? The show offers viewers the opportunity to ask that question. I think that it also offers opportunity for some reflection on self: how have our own identities shifted over time? How has being an American changed? I think that comes through with figures, looking at the portraits, the viewer-subject relationship, but it also comes through in frontiers at MCASD through works that you activate physically like the Paul Kos (you have to ring the bell) or the Ann Hamilton installation that’s a house and you go inside. How do these works relate to the history of the United States and how do they make us reconsider who we are, what we’re doing, where we’re going?

The Hobo

John Currin, The Hobo, 1999, oil on canvas. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum purchase, Contemporary Collectors Fund © John Currin 1999. On view at The San Diego Museum of Art.

I’ve heard about the videos featuring community voices. How are those incorporated into the exhibition?

We asked what it means to be an American. Interestingly enough, which we did not expect -- and we told people that it wasn’t propaganda and that they could speak freely -- but a lot of people spoke quite positively about what it means to be an American. Certainly I think that’s great but I think in the 21st century there are a lot of people who are not so sure how they feel about what it means to be an American. We had a diverse population but the responses could have been more different. The project will continue.

One of the things that intrigues me so much about this title and it comes from a Walt Whitman poem, Song of the Exposition, was: What if wasn’t an exclamation point? What if it was a period? What did it mean to behold America when Whitman wrote that and what does it mean today? I thought that was a powerful choice of words and fitting for the exhibition.

The Hobo

Robert Henri

1865–1929

Bernadita

Oil on canvas, 1922

24 1/8 x 20 1/8 inches

Gift of the San Diego Wednesday Club

1926:138

The San Diego Museum of Art
 

Is there anything about the location of this show that makes it special? Could it all just be moved and presented in New York and be the same show?

I was thinking about geography in a lot of different ways. There are four artist interviews in the book and I felt strongly that I didn’t want to interview four artists that lived in New York. One was conducted in Chicago, one in Montana, one in L.A. and one in New York. It’s important to emphasize that there are contemporary artists living and working throughout our country.

Secondly, I do think that the show is a product of three institutions in San Diego. These works were collected, in many cases, by people here in San Diego who donated them to the institutions or funds were raised by people in San Diego to buy these works. Not in all cases but in a lot of them. It speaks to what people have been interested in here and conversations people have had.

Plus the connection to Mexico is very strong in the show. You would not see the same connection in a museum in Kansas City or Boston. The presence of Ruben Ortiz Torres, Raul Guerrero, or Hugo Crosthwaite. Hugo was born in Tijuana, educated in the U.S. and has lived in Brooklyn. He identifies as a Mexican but living and working in the U.S., he has contributed to the visual culture in the United States. His piece deals with Abu Ghraib so I thought it was an important contribution to the exhibition.

And the show mostly features paintings, right?

I think we are putting a lot of painting out there but in actuality there are installations, sculptures, video works -- one by Christian Marclay, one by Joan Jonas -- and there are prints and pastels. There’s no doubt that there are many oil on canvas selections in the show but a lot of different media is represented.

I hope that one of the groundbreaking aspects of the show is continuing a line of thinking that American art doesn’t have to stop at 1950. It can go to the present. And that artists born in other countries that are working in the United States are contributing to the visual culture in this country, like Alfredo Jaar from Chile who has lived in New York for many years.

Outside of this show and the Charles Reiffel exhibition with the History Center, are there any other collaborations in the works?

For the 2015 Celebration, we’re looking to work with other people in the park on exhibitions and programs. Our executive director Roxana Velasquez has a lot of close ties internationally and I know she’s thinking about collaborations abroad but nothing as finite as “Behold, America!” and the Reiffel exhibition just yet.

How was it working with other curators?

Julia Marciari-Alexander is across the hall and she’s a constant mentor. In a great and supportive way she asks hard questions. Why are you including this work? Are you sure this is where this belongs? But it was also really exciting to install with Kathryn Kanjo (at MCASD) and with John Wilson at the Timken. There were some differences and it was educational to see how they both interpreted the show. That speaks to each institution’s visual scheme but it was exciting to have those conversations with other curators. John is the Timken’s Director but he’s also the Chief Curator so it was good to see how he envisions things.

Kathryn Kanjo suggested including Ann Hamilton’s piece “Linings.” It wasn’t on the checklist until she joined MCASD but I can’t imagine the show without it.

Tickets are $20 when purchased online and include admission to The San Diego Museum of Art and MCASD (“Behold, America!” is at the La Jolla location). Admission to the Timken is always free. Learn more at www.beholdamerica.org.

-- Maren Dougherty

Photos courtesy of The San Diego Museum of Art. Responses have been edited for length.