Times up for Sobel
From my own personal perspective, Dean Sobel’s five years as director of the Aspen Art Museum is far too short. In my quest to overcome a sometimes embarrassing lack of education in the visual arts and intelligently cover the museum, Sobel was the perfect ally. At exhibition after exhibition of challenging, high-concept work, Sobel would lead me through the art without condescension, without stooping down. This never seemed an effort to him. Sobel, while thoroughly educated in contemporary art and possessing keen insight into the work, seemed to approach each exhibit – most of which he curated – from the same perspective as mine. Each piece was a question, to be explored and not definitively answered. Most endearing was how Sobel would look studiously at the work before turning to me and asking what I thought. It wasn’t a quiz, but a genuine invitation for me to join in an assessment of the art and the issues it raised. With his evident passion, and his ability to talk intelligently about the art without resorting to art-speak, Sobel was a pleasure to interview. For the same reasons, he was well-regarded as a lecturer.After five years, my enjoyment of Sobel – which always included conversation about family and the pop-rock music he knew and loved – hasn’t faded at all. So when Sobel announced his resignation last June – on the verge of the museum’s 25th anniversary, which would be celebrated with an ambitious exhibit of site-specific installations around Aspen, and an equally weighty book about Aspen’s role in the contemporary art world – it felt too soon, too quick.Not to Sobel, however. Sobel, whose stint as interim director of the museum ended this week, believes he is leaving at the right time, for the museum and for himself. “I did feel I had done everything I had said I was going to do, and everything I set out to do,” said Sobel, who has been living with his wife and school-age daughter in Westminster in the Denver-metro area the past few months. Former curator at the University of California, Berkley, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson takes over the museum’s directorship this summer.Looking back, Sobel likewise thinks he came to the Aspen Art Museum at just the right moment. For much of the early ’90s the institution, created in 1979 out of Aspen’s old electricity plant, devoted its energies to digging itself out of a financial hole. Leading the way was Sobel’s predecessor Suzanne Farver, whose professional training was as a lawyer, not in the arts.”She slowly dug the museum out of some financial woes and built the museum back up,” said Sobel at the museum, where he was preparing for the final pair of exhibits installed under his direction. (Appropriately, they were both cutting-edge installations by young, emerging artists from far-flung places: Hung, Drawn and Quartered, by politically motivated South African-born Kendell Geers in the downstairs gallery, and “Self-Flagellation, Survival, Insubordination,” by Cuban Carlos Garaicoa.) “She had a job to do that, thankfully, I didn’t have to do. They didn’t need a hotshot curator in 1992; they needed someone to keep the institution alive. She did the hard work, and she brought it to a place where she could pass it off to someone else.”
That someone was a hotshot curator. Sobel arrived in Aspen in early 2000 after 13 years as curator of contemporary art at the Milwaukee Art Museum. His dual titles at the Aspen Art Museum – director and chief curator – indicated that Sobel wasn’t going to rely primarily on guest curators, as Farver had. Of the approximately 35 exhibitions at the museum overseen by Sobel, he curated some 16 himself.Setting his sightsHis credentials as a curator were not built solely on established names. His curatorial talents were evident in the quality of the all-local Aspen Valley Biennial; the latest Biennial, this past autumn, earned raves. Among the lesser-knowns Sobel landed for the museum was German photographer Thomas Demand, who had his first solo U.S. museum exhibit in Aspen, in 2001. This month, Demand became the first artist to show at the newly designed Museum of Modern Art in New York (apart from architect Yoshio Taniguchi, the man behind the renovation).”We did the first significant Demand show in a U.S. museum – and three years later he’s being honored at the most important art museum in the world,” said Sobel. Among Sobel’s other favorite Aspen exhibits: 2000’s De Kooning: In Process, for which Sobel curated a companion exhibit, De Kooning: In Context, featuring works by the abstract expressionist’s contemporaries, Rothko, Pollock and Kline; a 2003 show that placed side by side works by Warhol, Koons and Hurst (“three really important artists that we brought together to say something about the nature of the art world over the last 50 years,” said Sobel); and last summer’s light installation “I only see things when they move” by young Danish art star Olafur Eliasson (“It so transformed the museum. It wasn’t material; it was light. It was immaterial.”). Perhaps at the top of his list – or at least, the first one he mentions when asked – was by Tom Friedman, whose 2001 exhibit featured sculptures made out of spaghetti, toothpicks, gum and aspirin tablets. “That was such a hit with our school audience,” said Sobel, “that people could see you could make art out of anything. In my 18-year career, that’s one of my personal favorites.”On a missionWhile raising the standards for what went on the walls of the Aspen Art Museum, Sobel also shaped the institution itself and raised its standing in the museum world.One of his first pieces of business was to change the museum’s mission statement. Sobel inserted a specific focus on the art of the last 50 years, crystallizing the role as a contemporary art museum. It was a move that brought with it some turmoil.
“I definitely sharpened the focus – to the dismay of some audience members,” he said, noting that in the years prior to his appointment, the museum had mixed contemporary art with shows of Old Masters and Colonial America still lifes. “We rewrote the mission statement to focus on the art of roughly the last 50 years. I said let’s do fewer things, but do those few things really well. “It really has to be clear in the board’s mind what we’re doing. So we used the terminology, ‘the art of our time’ in the mission statement.” Still, Sobel wasn’t beyond straying from those constraints; witness the 2002 exhibit Bamboo Masterworks, a collection of Japanese bamboo baskets that spans more than a century.Under Sobel’s guidance, the museum earned accreditation last year from the American Association of Museums. Also last summer, Sobel helped the museum celebrate its 25th anniversary by writing “One Hour Ahead: The Avant-Garde in Aspen, 1945-2004,” a 136-page, image-filled book that posits Aspen as a central player in the rise of American art; and arranging for four installations in such unlikely but high-profile spots as a field at the Aspen Meadows and on the Rio Grande Trail, just outside Sobel’s former office window.Despite high satisfaction with the job he has done – Sobel says he was not remotely disappointed with a single exhibit under his directorship – there were two areas that left him less than fulfilled. He wishes he could have brought the museum’s physical expansion plan, a topic discussed at his interview six years ago, further along. And it rankles him that he could not dispel the notion that contemporary art is not for general consumption.”I’m disappointed that people consider what we’re doing here is edgy or not easily approachable,” said Sobel. “I hear that with some regularity, and it disappoints me that anyone would consider works of art unapproachable. A negative response is as valid as a positive one. I’m disappointed that more people won’t take the chance, risk their own beliefs about themselves.”More people flood into Paradise Bakery than this art museum.”Sobel and StillWhen he resigned, Sobel had no concrete plans for his post-Aspen life, but figured he would become a freelance curator. But just after he gave his notice, Sobel heard that the mysterious, legendary Clyfford Still project was going to land, just like Sobel himself, in Denver.
Still, an American artist who died in 1980, had stipulated in his will that his collection of some 2,000 objects would go to a city that agreed to build a free-standing museum dedicated solely to the work. For two-and-a-half decades, various cities negotiated deals, only to have the project come apart. Last year, Denver finalized an agreement for the Still Museum. Earlier this month Sobel, who pursued the job upon arriving in Denver, was appointed by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs to head the establishment of the museum.Not many people know of Still. After coming to some prominence in the post-World War II era, alongside fellow abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Still, like his contemporaries, grew disenchanted with the art world.”Pollock died young. Rothko killed himself because he wasn’t appreciated enough. Newman stopped showing because he felt misunderstood,” said Sobel. “And Still was the most aggressive in that belief, that they were so serious about what they did, they wanted to control it all.”After 1969, Still pulled himself out of the art world and hardly showed at all, stopped dealing with galleries. It was locked up and that was the end of it.”Though he has not seen the collection, which is stored in Maryland, Sobel is duly impressed with Still’s work. “He is absolutely one of the top four abstract expressionists,” said Sobel, who has studied photos and inventories. “And the movement itself was one of the greatest of the 20th century, especially for American art. It was the most original American art ever, a different way of seeing.”Even more intriguing about the project is how little Still is known. That should end within the next decade, the contractual time span for the museum to be completed.”It’s like Geraldo Rivera unlocking the vault,” said Sobel, who is currently looking at several prospective sites for the museum. “There’s no other instance like this, modern or ancient – other than the tombs locked up in Egypt. For the art world, this is a legendary story.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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