Posted by Terri Thornton on March 9, 2017 - 2:32pm

The more important issue is, how do we create in our culture forms of chaos that are actually productive?  - Adam Lerner

Adam Lerner came to the Modern for this Tuesday Evenings presentation under the pretense of addressing the work of Fred Sandback in conjunction with the Modern’s recent acquisition of the artist’s Untitled (Sculptural Study, Two-part Standing Construction), 1978/2007. Or, sort of under the pretense. His intention to use the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver’s 2011 exhibition Fred Sandback as a means of presenting his unique approach as Director and Chief Animator of the MCA Denver was clear. After all, the title of his lecture was “Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Want to Be Ridiculous?,” in reference to Andrea Fraser’s important 2006 text Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Cry?, which Fraser read a few years back for the same Tuesday Evenings program.

Lerner began his lecture by sharing personal notes with pictures of his dogs, a bitmoji saying hello to the audience, his father (who he notes he never saw smile, along with an explanation of perhaps why), and the whole family in their matching square dancing costumes. The lecture, while laying out the trajectory of his career, illustrated Lerner’s philosophy concerning the need to counterbalance the serious with the absurd as it volleyed between what he referred to as the sacred and the ridiculous.

Lerner’s escape plan from what he described as an unsatisfying background was to become cultured. And he threw himself into that plan with the same fervor we later see in his efforts to shift the paradigm of the museum. After an extensive education, including a master's from Cambridge and PhD from Johns Hopkins University, he became a curator, which positioned him to meet the renowned independent curator Harald Szeemann. He later seized the opportunity to do something fundamentally different with The Lab at Belmar, located in a retail real estate development in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, and finally landing his current job as Director and Chief Animator of the MCA Denver. The Lab and the MCA merged, and Lerner described the unique programs and marketing efforts deployed under his leadership, such as Mixed Tastes, a lecture series that pairs experts from absurdly different fields of study. He’s even brought live animals, such as camels, to the MCA and given away free bags of rubble with a membership. The list goes on.

Fred Sandback was Lerner’s first exhibition at the MCA Denver and it was at this point in his talk that he explained his aspiration for the absurd as a counterbalance for the seriousness of art. As with Andrea Fraser, the experience of Sandback’s work was a revelation that Lerner struggles to explain. Ultimately, it seems that recognizing the risk taken by an artist like Fred Sandback brought Lerner to the realization that it is the obligation of the museum to match the artist’s risk. This part of the lecture is touching and enlightening. It is where it all comes together.

Lerner goes on in the Q&A to explain the Apollonian and Dionysian philosophies with the museum traditionally focusing on form (Apollonian), which Lerner feels is a failing. Quizzically closing the evening with, “What are the safe areas of chaos? A museum could be as safe place for chaos. . . . The more important issue is, how do we create in our culture forms of chaos that are actually productive? That’s it. Forget everything else I said.”

View the lecture here.

“Fred Sandback: The Making of Something Special,” by Adam Lerner