An Interview with Carter E. Foster: the Curator Discusses Texas, Ellsworth Kelly and the Evolution of American Art
By Margie Fuchs
Carter E. Foster wears his passion for art on his sleeve. His right sleeve, specifically. Currently Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, Foster sports an Ellsworth Kelly-designed tattoo on his forearm, inked after the artist created a collage of rectangles specifically designed for Foster’s measurements. While the tattoo landed Foster in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, the curator’s contributions go far beyond his relationship with Kelly and his work has exposed audiences across the country to the works of well-known and overlooked American artists.
Foster specializes in the history of drawing. In his twenty-five plus year museum career, he has held curatorial positions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and, most recently, the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he first met Jonathan Boos. “I was working on the Whitney’s Real Surreal show in 2011 and reached out to Jonathan,” Foster said. “From the Whitney’s holdings, Carter pulled out some of the greatest mid-20th century art from the 1930s and 1940s, including a lot of pieces that are not shown very often,” added Boos. “He pulled Real Surreal out of nowhere to fill a slot, and the show had such depth to it. It was just one of the greatest exhibitions ever.”
We sat down with Foster to talk about his work at the Whitney, Edward Hopper’s drawings, his current position at the Blanton and how he sees American art evolving in the 21st century.
Could you tell us a little bit more about Real Surreal and your time at the Whitney?
I was working on Edward Hopper at the time, doing research for what later became the exhibition Hopper Drawing at the Whitney. I was fascinated by the painting Early Sunday Morning (1930) and the labeling of Hopper as a “realist” or “social realist.” I started thinking about the terms Realism and Surrealism. Eventually, I found photographs of the building that Hopper was looking at while he was painting Early Sunday Morning. I wanted to make that painting look surreal. That was the goal I had for that exhibition: to show the strangeness and eeriness of Hopper, which people talk about even though they call him a “realist.” That’s what gave me the idea for the exhibition, and all of the works were from the Whitney’s collection.
You are known to be a Hopper specialist. How did your passion for Hopper and Early Sunday Morning come about?
Funny enough, I rarely thought about Hopper before I became the Curator of Drawing at the Whitney. I became interested in drawings during my first job, which was an internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the prints, drawings and photographs department, and have worked with Old Master European drawings for a lot of my career. The reason many people, myself included, love drawings is that they show the nascence of the creative act, and they record the creative process in a very direct way that many other mediums do not.
Of course I knew Hopper’s famous works, such as Early Sunday Morning, when I joined the Whitney. But he wasn’t an artist that I thought about much, and I really didn’t know much about his drawings. When I got to the Whitney, I saw that there were thousands of drawings by Edward Hopper in the museum’s collection. Here was this huge figure in American art with this virtually unknown body of work, all owned by the Whitney. I think because Hopper was trained fairly traditionally, he used drawing the way that many European artists did: to extensively work out his ideas. That’s what I focused on for the Hopper Drawing exhibition in 2013. It was so rewarding to work on this; Hopper kept revealing himself in infinitely subtle ways during that show.
Are there drawings of Early Sunday Morning in the Whitney collection?
There’s one of a fire hydrant. That was what got me on this whole kick of studying photography of New York and trying figure out what kind of fire hydrant Hopper was looking at when he painted Early Sunday Morning. The type of fire hydrant in the drawing was different from the fire hydrant in the painting, so I tried to find out what fire hydrants in the 1920s and 1930s looked like – and I did! There’s extensive documentary photography of New York, and by sorting through the archives, I was able to figure out what he was probably looking at while he was working on that painting and other paintings from the period.
Hopper is such a central figure in American Art. In broader terms, how would you define American art over the last century, as well as the contemporary artists you work with at the Blanton Museum?
When I was at the Whitney, we spent several years working on the opening show, called America is Hard to See, and we talked a lot about what it meant for an artist to be American. A lot of artists who became prominent in the United States during the first part of the twentieth century were from other countries. America is famous as being a nation of immigrants, so the fact that these artists were often trained with traditional methods in Europe and then transferred those skills to their work here was interesting, and the fact that they weren’t born here but yet were considered American artists was something that we talked about. What about artists who spent time here but weren’t from the United States? Were they American artists? Was their art American? A modern example would be Yayoi Kusama, who is a Japanese artist, but spent 10 years in New York and has work in the Whitney. I don’t think anyone has definite answers; we used to joke that if you had a cup of coffee in LaGuardia you were an American artist.
What’s interesting in terms of American art is that it takes on America as a subject. When you think about the broad history of art from ancient Greece and Rome to now, America and American subjects are relatively new. American art, particularly modern art and Works Progress Administration (WPA) pieces from the 1930s, addresses America as a place and portrays the American landscape as unique unto itself.
One thing my colleagues and I think about a lot is changing the art historical canon. There are many great African American artists, female artists, artists of color who have historically been left out of the canon of American art. We have to change that. We have a responsibility. I was really happy to see the Detroit Institute of Arts had a room of 19th century African American artists – I’ve never seen that in any other museum. That is American art, and we need to think of its makers as important American artists. In the modern and contemporary world, it’s not as hard to find a diverse array of artists, thankfully, but there are still a lot of holes. One example is abstraction, in midcentury and beyond, and how African American artists have been largely left out of that canon. That’s starting to change, finally. In terms of modern American art, there’s such a diverse range of experiences in this country and the definition of American should evolve as the art evolves.
The Whitney Museum has a great drawing studio. Do you have a similar, dedicated facility at the Blanton?
Yes, we do, it’s called the Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings and it was designed by the curator Jonathan Bober. The Center is very geared to art historical and curatorial research but also makes our collections available to a larger audience. It’s one of the most visited study rooms of its type in the country. It’s connected to the print storage area and includes a study center that we use for teaching as well as for events. On campus, we’re known as the place that has a lot of Charles White’s works, and these works are used all the time in teaching classes at our Wilkinson Center.
Speaking of Charles White, the Blanton’s collection also includes works by Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and many artists the Gallery has handled in the past. Could you talk about modernism in your current collection and what’s on view right now?
Most of the paintings from the Blanton’s pre-war American collection came from the writer James A. Michener and his wife Mari, who were a very important people in our history. Michener was a prominent writer living in Austin who also collected art. He developed this collection with the New York gallerist Dick Bellamy. Bellamy seems to have had a strong interest in American modernism, particularly figurative art from the 1930s and 1940s and midcentury abstract paintings. We have two rooms devoted to that material now in the Blanton. One of the two is anchored by Reginald Marsh paintings, which are very much in the real-surreal mode, and the other is more abstract surrealism.
What’s coming up at the Blanton next season?
We’re excited about the Charles White show that’s opening at the end of the summer. We got this amazing group of works by White from a couple, Ted and Susan Gordon, who were friends with White and acquired work directly from him. The Gordons gave drawings and prints from throughout White’s career to the Blanton and the Division of Black Studies on campus. Our joint show with the Christian-Green Gallery, which is part of the Division of Black Studies here at the University, celebrates this Gordon gift. The show is going to have a catalogue that addresses White’s relationship with the Gordons and also includes contemporary artists reflecting on White’s legacy and the history of each of the pieces.
We’re also about to open this show called Mapping Memory: Space and Time in 16th Century Mexico. It’s unrelated to American art, but it brings together a collection of maps from a library on campus and presents them in an art context. They’re amazing maps, made to communicate to Spain the places in Mexico that were becoming part of the Spanish viceroyalty. And they’re incredibly rare – there are only a hundred or so in the world.
You joined the Blanton in 2016 and the museum has since inaugurated a major work by Ellsworth Kelly. What’s the story behind your Ellsworth Kelly tattoo? It seems like you moving to Texas was meant to be.
I got to know Ellsworth Kelly in the late 1990s when I acquired one of his works on behalf of the Cleveland Museum of Art. When I moved to New York to work at the Whitney, I got even closer with him and his husband, Jack Shear, and visited them regularly. I wasn’t really thinking I wanted a tattoo, but I thought “if I ever get a tattoo, what would it be?” and I decided that I’d get a great artist to design it. I thought Ellsworth’s work would be appropriate in a tattoo form, because it’s so bold and geometric. So, I asked him, and he said yes. I was visiting him one time and I asked him about my tattoo. He said, “let’s do it right now” and pulled out sheets of colored paper, some scissors and started cutting shapes. He arranged them on my arm and when he got it the way he wanted it to look, he took those cut out squares and pasted them on a Xerox of my arm. That’s what I took to tattoo artist Scott Campbell to execute. I didn’t know if Ellsworth would like the tattoo when it was done, but he liked it so much that he gave it an inventory number: EK1020.
While the whole tattoo thing was happening, I visited Ellsworth to talk about an essay I was working on for the Ellsworth Kelly: Back and White show at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. He told me about this chapel he designed, which had black and white works of art all around the perimeter. I was so fascinated by the project that I wrote an essay about it. I was invited to speak at a panel about the building, called Austin, at the Blanton. That’s how I got to meet the people here at the museum. And one thing led to another and they offered me a job. So, I did end up here partly because of Ellsworth Kelly.
Has the chapel changed the museum and visitors’ experiences? If so, how so?
It’s changed a lot. I think it’s become very well known in the art world, certainly. Texas is interesting in that we have multiple art pilgrimage sites: the Rothko chapel, Marfa, the Kimbell Art Museum. Now the building by Ellsworth Kelly in Austin has become one of these pilgrimage sites, and that’s helped the Blanton, because people come here and realize that there’s a whole museum here. It’s always wonderful to take people into the Ellsworth Kelly chapel for the first time and watch their reactions, because it’s a very spiritual, soothing, meditative, and aesthetically stunning space to be in. For these reasons, as well as word of mouth and social media, the work has increased the Blanton’s visibility. Austin has definitely changed our reputation in the art world, because we took on an ambitious project by a great artist and realized it in a way that was very successful.
Beyond Texas, what are you looking forward to for the rest of the summer or the fall?
This summer, I’m excited to go to Venice to see the Venice Biennale. And for the fall, I’m excited about the new MoMA. I will be so curious to see what MoMA does, especially what they do with American modernism. That part of the museum’s collection hasn’t received the attention it deserves; I hope they do something interesting and incorporate early 20th century American painting with their great collection of modernism in an interesting way.
Cover image: Carter E. Foster. By Warren Chang for Tribeza.