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Helen Molesworth is not afraid to say what’s on her mind. For the past three decades, she has used her voice—as an art historian, a writer, a curator, a critic, and a podcaster—to advocate for artists, especially those who fall outside the white-cis-het-male archetype that has historically ruled the art world. Molesworth loves artists, and they love her back.
Her advocacy has not been without consequence; in 2018 she was ousted from her job as the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, after four years in the position. A statement from the museum’s director cited “creative differences,” but to her many defenders, it looked like retaliation for Molesworth’s unabashed agitation against the status quo.
Since her firing, Molesworth has found immense creative freedom organizing shows at David Zwirner and the International Center for Photography, hosting podcasts such as Death of an Artist, and writing for exhibition catalogs and art publications like Frieze and Artforum.
“I’m not someone who had a plan,” Molesworth says. “I’m someone who kind of went along and saw what happened, and I did what felt right in the moment.”
Today, Molesworth’s book of collected essays, Open Questions: Thirty Years of Writing about Art, is published by Phaidon. Filled with rich commentary on artists including Kerry James Marshall, Catherine Opie, Noah Davis, Simone Leigh, Marcel Duchamp, and Ruth Asawa, Open Questions is the fierce culmination of a career forged on her own terms.
Ahead of the book’s release, Molesworth and I spoke about art and identity, how losing her museum job unleashed her writing, and the ice-cold waters of Cape Cod as a metaphor for vulnerability. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Vogue: How did this book come about? Why now, why 30 years’ worth?
Helen Molesworth: All the credit really goes to my editor of many years, Donna Wingate. She called sometime during the pandemic and said, “You should have a book. We’ve got to get your writings into a collected volume.” To be honest, I was a little like, Sure, whatever, but leave me out of it. Because I didn’t actually think anyone would be interested. And then she pitched the book to Phaidon and they were interested. I was really surprised.
I read a lot of my old stuff, which was really interesting. I tried to make a selection that made sense to me. And then it turned out that that was 30 years. For a long time, the working title of the book was 25 Years without us really doing the math, and then we realized it was actually 30. So that’s how it came about: It was a little accidental and someone else’s idea, which actually, in many ways, is a remarkably familiar refrain in my life. [Laughs.]
In revisiting some of these older essays, were there any that you wished you would have written differently, or could have edited for this anthology?
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do those little codas in the book, the postscripts. I was a good editor before I was a good writer. I still read my own work from the past with a red pen. So it’s not so much regret, but there’s definitely a sense of continual self-revision. But I also think that the essays are not meant to be right forever. They are as much a snapshot of a person thinking and writing in a specific place and time as anything else is. So while there are some essays that if I were going to write them today I’d maybe write it differently, I’m okay with some of the lacunae or the lapses in earlier texts because I think that’s how thought works, that’s how learning more works. I know more now in some ways than I did in the beginning—and perhaps in some ways I might know a little less, too. So I’m okay with the record as the record.
You write in the book that looking at older art can be like time travel. Did you feel like you were traveling back in time as you reread your own essays?
Rereading the texts, sometimes the time travel was really intense and I could literally remember where I wrote the essay, what was happening. And other times I’d read the essay and it would be like I hadn’t written it at all. I would just be like, Wow, I wrote that? Who is this? It sounds so…official! I think both pleasure and alienation can happen as you re-encounter yourself from the past, and you’re aware of what has changed in your own thinking, and what is also kind of intractable. You have to figure out how you feel about that: Is it good that that’s not changing? Is it bad? Is it neutral? Because change isn’t linear, as we know, and it certainly isn’t progressive. So how do you navigate the change in your field, the change in artistic style, the change in yourself, and how do all those things emerge as you are trying to be a critic, as you come to grips with culture, which is also always changing? The curious thing about getting older is that the past changes just as much as the present.
One theme I noticed throughout the book was this discussion of the public versus private. What does that look like for you in your work?
For quite some time, I’ve been interested in this move between public and private. I’ve been really aware, as someone who was welcomed into artists’ studios, that there is a big difference in how we talk about art in a studio versus what I was doing when I was hanging those works in the museum space. I was aware that it was a privilege to be in the studio space and carry some of that information forward. And I was also aware that I would never talk in public the way I talk in the studio. That’s almost, like, magic-hocus-pocus-sacred-talk. And in public I would behave so much differently. And I think it’s also a perennial feminist dilemma, right? Because women are coded private, and men are coded public, and that’s obviously wrong and boring and stupid and dangerous. And so being a feminist, that has really undergirded a lot of what I think as well.
Some of the earlier essays in the book have a more academic tone—which makes sense because you were working on your PhD—and the recent essays sound more conversational. A more personal voice breaks through. Is that something you were conscious of?
I think it’s true that the early essays have a little more academic armor around them. At the time, I was really trying to set the record straight. I was trying to let people know where it was at. And for me, the experience of being fired was just really profound. It shook me to my core. In the wake of that I decided to try and see if I could find a voice that was less institutional. And I think that ended up reading as less academic. I was trying to figure out why I loved this stuff as much as I did; why I was willing to love something so much as to let myself be so publicly humiliated like that. I was trying to see if I could talk as intelligently about art as my academic colleagues, and as my academic training would allow me to do, but in a register that just had a lot more vulnerability in it. I find the lack of vulnerability in writing in both the art world and the academy to be kind of tragic.
There’s a lot of vulnerability in the Lisa Yuskavage essay in the book, which was written while you were transitioning from being a full-time museum employee to an independent writer. I found that really striking, how losing the museum job led to the freedom for your voice to come through in this very queer, very honest text. And I think pieces with some personal emotional reaction in them are also just a lot more interesting to read…
It’s also what it’s kind of about, right? We’re trying to communicate with each other and, apparently, that’s incredibly difficult. And to suspend the register of feeling as part of our arsenal for communication, that just doesn’t make any sense to me anymore.
Is that hard? The vulnerability required to really go there?
I don’t know if I could say it’s the easiest part. But with Lisa’s text, once I decided I was just willing to say the thing I had always felt in front of those pictures, then it’s not unlike, well, Cape Cod: You jump in the water, it’s really fucking cold, and you think, Oh, my God, I can’t do this. Three seconds later, you’re like, Oh, my God, this is perfect. There’s a lot of fear and internal resistance at first, but then it’s like, Okay, I can do this.
You’ve been a curator, a podcast host, an academic, all these things. Writing seems to be a through line. How do you see yourself now? As a writer first and foremost?
Totally. I occasionally work with organizations and I love organizing shows, but I don’t fill the role of curator really anymore. Even though I know that’s how many people identify me. But yeah, I feel like a writer. That’s where I’m making my biggest contribution, is in the writing.
Another theme that struck me from the book was this question of labor, the paradigm of art versus work. How do you apply this to your own writing about art?
Well, I definitely see the writing as work. It’s labor to write an essay. I’m now at a point in my life where I can say I’m a writer, but I can’t say I’m an artist. I think sometimes I think like an artist. But that doesn’t make me an artist.
Your Ruth Asawa piece had me thinking about the topic of identity, which we know with Asawa can be fraught. How do you approach writing about an artist’s identity?
It’s like the perennial hard question because of course I was raised intellectually to keep the identity of the artist and the artwork strictly separate. And there’s a huge benefit in doing so because it does allow you to write about work in ways that’s very clear-eyed. But because I was someone who was going into art studios and becoming friendly with artists and knowing a lot about them, and also because I was a gay person, the idea of just completely holding off any discussion of identity just didn’t make any sense to me at all. So I’m always trying to deftly balance the two.
Sometimes the culture insists on talking about Asawa’s identity. So I almost felt like I had to frame her identity as part of the conversation about her work, in part because the way people talk about Asawa’s identity has been disturbing to me. I’m trying to get folks to think about her identity in a slightly more complex way other than, She’s Japanese, so it’s transparent. That kind of thing feels to be about cliché rather than about method or process or form. But it’s a really hard call. To be honest, even in my own work, if I’m writing about a white man, I often don’t write about his identity. I still think white men get this hall pass where their identity doesn’t get discussed, and everybody else’s does. Which…I haven’t done that because it’s perverse. Like, the world is filled with shit about them. It’s a perversion that I don’t know quite how to think my way out of. Whenever I’m talking about identity, what I’m trying to do is let it be as complex as possible. So that we can have the richest conversation about the work as possible—not the identity, but the work.
Who, do you imagine, is your audience? Who do you write for?
It’s artists first and foremost. When I do the podcast, I’m thinking about artists listening to me in their studios while they’re working. I sort of have a fantasy of a gen-pop audience through the writing, but I think art is still a little too, you know, too separate, rarified, and moneyed and all of that kind of stuff to really reach a large audience.
Is it a goal of yours, to make art more accessible to a wider audience? Or is that really not the point?
I think it has been the goal. I’ve tried in various ways with shows and writing and the podcast to make art more accessible to a larger audience because I find it to be the most extraordinary way to process information, to think about the world, to think about history and ideas. I feel like I’ve learned more American history from artists than I learned in school. Because artists so willfully follow their own interests, they are often the most interesting historians and storytellers. So I’m always trying to open it up. I’m aware that some of the words we need to talk to each other about art can seem so rarefied and so elitist, even though they’re not. I don’t think they’re elitist, but they are “expert,” right? The language of technical expertise. And, unfortunately, “expertise” and “elitist,” they’re conflated in our culture. And so if you write from the position of an expert, you will lose people. But I have a hard time laying down all my expertise. I like it. I’ve cultivated it. It serves me. And so that’s the kind of constant dilemma.
What’s your writing process like? Do you drop into a flow state, or are you plagued by writer’s block?
I feel pretty lucky. I don’t hate the process of writing. I get into a flow state, as you said. That’s such a good phrase for it. However, I cannot get into a flow state unless I have the first sentence of the essay. I can write descriptions of artwork all day long, but if I don’t have the first sentence, I got nothing. There can be days of When is this sentence gonna come? That can be agony. It’s like trying to cook in a dirty kitchen.
Do you always know when you’re done with a piece?
Let’s say this: I always know when I’ve landed the last line. That might not mean I’m done. That’s a different kind of writing. You’ve got the first line, you’re in the flow state, you nail the ending—but the middle is a mess. That can sometimes be like, Oh, bummer, I gotta just keep working on this sucker. And it’s only a bummer because I’ve figured it out for myself, I just haven’t made it good enough for you yet.
Open Questions: Thirty Years of Writing about Art