You are here

Commencement Address: Thom Collins, 2015

Commencement Speaker Thom Collins
Thom Collins headshotAn innovative curator and educator, an accomplished art historian, author and administrator, Mr. Collins served for five years as Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Florida (PAMM) prior to joining the Barnes. At PAMM, Mr. Collins oversaw construction of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed building in downtown Miami, which opened to great acclaim in December 2013. During his tenure, the museum achieved an overwhelming increase in membership, annual giving, attendance, and major gifts; published important exhibition and collection catalogs; added significant works of art to the collection; and began in-house production of critical new digital education tools. In March, Collins joined the Barnes Foundation at an important time in its history. As Collins has said, “With its world-class collection, critically acclaimed new building, award-winning programs, growing membership and engaging array of courses in art and horticulture, the Barnes has become increasingly accessible to a more diverse audience than ever before.”

His previous positions include Director of the Neuberger Museum of Art on the campus of Purchase College, State University of New York; Director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore; Chief Curator at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati; Associate Curator at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle; and Newhall Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Mr. Collins earned his MA in Art History from Northwestern University and his BA with honors in Art History and the History of Religion from Swarthmore College. 

Thom Collins’ 2015 Commencement Address

I must confess that I haven’t spoken at a graduation since my own high school graduation nearly thirty years ago. Please forgive me if I’m not entirely in tune with millennial expectations. I do recall being told by my communications teacher that a competent graduation speech should begin with a quotation, so here goes: “You are going to die. Not today. Not tomorrow. But someday…” End quote.

I imagine you are asking yourself, is this Padma Sambhava, eighth century Buddhist sage writing in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. No, actually, it is comedian Margaret Cho from her 2000 standup special “I’m the One that I Want.” But Sambhava would have been a good guess; the message is essentially the same, Cho is just more concise.

Now, I don’t open reminding you of your mortality on this very happy, celebratory day to deflate you. Not at all. I hope you are proud and content, as you should be. I intend this opening exhortation to be liberating, to remind you of the ultimate futility of dwelling on either cares or fleeting pleasures, of attaching to either pain or joy, of a perspective turned in on itself rather than out to the world. Your regular artistic practice, if it is the right kind of practice, can lead you out of the habitual cycle of craving and disappointment, and outside of yourself in the most profound way.

I am not a visual artist; in fact, I am staggeringly untalented. But as an art historian, critic and curator, I have spent a great deal of time seeking out and promoting art that is made in this way, by artists who have left behind navel-gazing for catalytic engagements. And today, by way of encouraging you to consider this kind of practice, I’d like to talk about one artistic project I take to exemplify it, and at a deeper level to describe its fundamental dynamics and aims. That is Untitled of 1990 by Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

For his 1990 solo exhibition inaugurating the new Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York City, Gonzalez-Torres created “Untitled,” one of his now-signature sculptural “giveaways”, as a centerpiece. Resting on the floor in the middle of the pristine space, the work comprised two stacks of white, rectangular paper sheets, each in one pile printed with a single line of text reading “Somewhere better than this place.”; each in the other reading “Nowhere better than this place.” Situated not side-by-side or one above the other, but rather with their top edges adjacent and aligned, each physical stack of paper described the mirror image of the other. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to take away and keep sheet of paper from one or both stacks, which were regularly replenished to their original height of twenty-six inches throughout the month the work was on view.

In the absence of its companion, each one of these two texts could be read as a neat label for the exhibition, as a whole, the Andrea Rosen Gallery or several of the larger physical, social and ideological contexts in which it might be understood—New York City, the United States, the West, the Earth. It might be read as designating either a problematic (“somewhere better”) or a perfect (“nowhere better”) exhibition, exhibition venue, or communal life. Taken together, the texts seemed to contradict and thus neutralize one another. For one viewer, the imagined thing to which the texts referred—whether exhibition, gallery, city, nation, or modern world—could not be both the inevitably flawed real and the ideal, at least not at the same time. As Nancy Spector, curator of the Guggenheim’s Felix Gonzalez-Torres retrospective, writes: the pair of texts, taken together, can “induce a sensation of paralysis, a feeling of immobility.”

But then the two texts—“somewhere better than this place” and “nowhere better than this place”—can’t be “taken together,” in the sense that they cannot be read simultaneously.  Gonzalez-Torres devised a presentation for them that demands the viewer walk around the two stacks to read them. This physical movement, the viewer’s circling around (and, maybe, around and around and around) relates directly to and reinforces the cognitive, evaluative oscillation structured into the reception of the work and encouraged by a consideration of the significance of the paired texts. The viewer is invited to test her or his options, to weigh relevant contexts against one another and/or some imagined ideal, and—in choosing to take a sheet from one or both stacks, carry it back to some other place, some other space with its own coordinates and social and ideological contexts, and hang one or both—to decide the issue—“Is there somewhere better than this place I am or not?”—for her- or himself. The responsibility of participating in the work, Untitled, actively testing its critical implications and making and living with decisions informed by these activities is placed squarely on the viewer.

About the same time he created Untitled, Felix Gonzalez-Torres wrote: “Once we believe that there is no god, that there is no afterlife, then life becomes a very positive statement. It becomes a very political position because then we have no choice but to work harder to make this place the best ever.” This statement makes the artist’s critical perspective clear. An underemployed, HIV+, Cuban immigrant, living in New York City through the Reagan-Bush years, he was uniquely aware of and concerned about many troubling aspects of contemporary social life, he was deeply committed to the idea of the artistic product as a socially ameliorative one—the work of art as an agent of positive change—and, thus, to a critical rather than celebratory artistic posture. In an interview with the artist Tim Rollins regarding the 1990 exhibition in which the piece Untitled appeared, Gonzalez-Torres was explicit. He said, “I do have a very clear agenda and that is a desire to make this place a better place.” Having weighed the various contexts pertinent to his own life and work against imagined perfected models of themselves, he found them all wanting, they all fell short of the ideal, and Gonzalez-Torres invited viewers to do the same with the progressive goal in mind of creating change, of moving real life in the direction of the ideal.

What is simultaneously explicated and staged in Untitled, is the unique power of the work of art in which important and progressive ideas are expressed through novel and, therefore, uniquely compelling forms or formal languages to change the way individuals think, feel and behave; in this way to change social relationships, communities, nations, and the world we share. 

Untitled eschews traditional aesthetics and instead actively scripts an alternative relationship among individual audience members, art objects, the spaces that contain them, and the world of social relations beyond. By wedding participation to social-critical reflection and, potentially, positive social actions in and beyond the exhibition space, the work not only discourages but actually disallows the detachment and private reverie privileged in the most influential strains of modernist art practice. While Gonzaleaz-Torres’ Untitled stops short of identifying specific problematic aspects of contemporary social life and explicitly modeling alternatives to them, it serves as a clear introduction to the structure and central features of artworks designed to participate in catalyzing social change for the good. 

The pair of texts—“somewhere better than this place” and “nowhere better than this place”—are directly related to a suggestive aspect of the derivation of the term “utopia,” one that sheds further light on the piece itself and on the larger dynamic that it simultaneously describes and animates. The word was invented in 1516 by Thomas More as a proper noun in his classic Renaissance humanist treatise on moral philosophy titled Concerning the Best State of a Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia. He invented the word to label a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean, where the hero of his travelogue discovers a community that is perfect in its social, political and economic organization. Not surprisingly, given Thomas More’s role as a progressive English magistrate , the organization of the fictional island of Utopia in his treatise is perfect in such a way that it reads as a direct proposition for improving sixteenth century England, with its “monstrous inequality,” “hideous poverty,” and “vicious political corruption.” The imaginary Utopia was clearly Thomas More’s prescription for the improvement of a very real  and very troubled nation.

To name this exemplary but fictional place, More invented a word containing a telling paradox, one that sheds light on the entire project of social change and that, not coincidentally, animates Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled. The proper noun Utopia quickly passed into common usage as the noun utopia (lowercase “u”), a generic term to describe any place with a perfect social, political and economic organization and functioning. It was created by More who combined the Greek root “topos” meaning “place,” the adverb ou meaning “not,” and a Latin ending; thus a utopia is literally “no-place.” Contemporary audiences would also have realized that the name was a pun on another Greek compound word, “eutopia”—“e” “u” topia, as in “euphoria”—“eutopia” meaning “happy” or “fortunate” place. More played with this modification of the root topos or “place” precisely to indicate that a utopia is by definition a “good place” that is also, in its perfection, unrealizable—always “no place.” But the term has by now come to describe the imaginary space between the facts of the real world and the ideal models with reference to which it might be improved. 
“The no-place/good-place ambivalence contained in Thomas More’s original pun when he coined the term utopia, contains within it one of the definitive influences on modern uses of the idea of utopia, that is, the attempt to order space or particular spaces that were nowhere and produce the conditions of an ordered and stable society that is somewhere. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres mobilizes More’s paradox in Untitled in order both to describe and animate the potential of the work of art to catalyze positive social change. Activating Untitled by taking one or the other sheet of paper or both, considering their implications, and then moving out into the world beyond the exhibition space, the viewer is encouraged to become an engaged participant in the exploration of any number of possibilities for making her or his world the “best place ever.”

In Untitled, Felix Gonzalez-Torres offers a powerful formula for an indispensable kind of art. This is a unique art that makes individuals and subpopulations visible, regardless of their imagined or real marginality. It brings them together to represent themselves in traditional and nontraditional exhibition spaces, to one another and the world outside, in ways that encourage communicative and material exchanges about and across differences. These communicative exchanges involve investigation, critique and cooperative rethinking of the deep and often deeply flawed systems of thought and belief that structure all human interactions, and these material exchanges aim to correct social ills that such flawed systems promote. It is and always will be an ongoing process, because the specific goals of this art—associated with the eradication of prejudice, the alleviation of suffering, and the elevation of the human spirit—are necessarily shifting, changing all the time as the world changes. It is, in this sense, by definition, “alternative”. The larger goal of this art is, however, unchanging: to make this place—any place—the best place ever.

Let me end where I began: You are going to die. Resistance is futile. But embracing the kind of artistic social praxis Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled both describes and enacts, engaging in it every day, you can leave behind not just things, discrete “works of art,” you can leave behind someplace better than this place through the work of your art.

Now just as any decent graduation speech should begin with a quote, it should also end with one. So, I’d like to close with the final lines from Tony Kushner’s brilliant play Angels in America. Written in the same place and at the same time Felix Gonzalez-Torres created Untitled, against the same backdrop of pronounced social, political and economic ills, it grapples with many of the same big issues: self, other, and the world; personal responsibility, agency and social change; and, of course, mortality. In the final scene, Kushner’s protagonist, Prior Walter, who has been struggling with AIDS for five years, joins his closest friends at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park to celebrate the arrival of another spring he wasn’t sure he’d be around to enjoy. While they argue over politics in the background, he speaks a final monologue directly to the audience: “The world only spins forward,” he says, “We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now, you are fabulous, each and every one, and I bless you: more life! The great works begin.”

And to you I say the same: You are fabulous. More life. Let your great work begin!