Dec/Jan 2009

A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World

Martha Schwendener


You could quibble with a few things in Marcia Tucker’s posthumously published memoir, A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World. For instance, it takes a bit long to get to the art-world part; one travels first through Tucker’s early life, growing up in Brooklyn and New Jersey with a beautiful, critical mother and a withdrawn, workaholic father. Given the thin boundary between fiction and fact, we’ll never really know whether a twenty-four-year-old Tucker actually called up all of her “so-called friends” and told them “the relationship wasn’t working out,” or whether she indeed told her boss at moma to sharpen his pencils up his ass, or, when asked by Clare Boothe Luce, “What qualifies you to run a museum?” whether she in fact responded with the zinger “The same thing that qualifies you to think I can’t.” Nevertheless, this is a candid, entertaining, and illuminating account of the 1960s art world.

Tucker’s life included a number of milestones: As the first female curator at New York’s Whitney Museum of Art, she was a feminist in a position of power; after being fired, she founded, perhaps most astounding of all, the New Museum. Her personal life is also a dramatic chronicle of adventure and loss. Her first love, a Frenchman, was killed in the Algerian War; her second husband, whom she met at forty, was seventeen years younger. She drove across the country by motorcycle in the ’60s, hung out with the Band, chatted with Marcel Duchamp (for an afternoon), and gained a close supporter and confidante in Marga Barr, wife of moma legend Alfred Barr. And, of course, she knew a lot—a lot—of artists.

Her recollection of being a woman in the art world in the ’60s is sobering. A Whitney trustee could still ask in a job interview, “Are you married? Why not? Do you plan to have children? How can you be sure you won’t change your mind?” The fact of her unequal pay for equal work is as outrageous as her hazing by an installation-crew member who suggested moving a Marsden Hartley “a cunt’s hair to the left.” But Tucker’s description of how feminism changed her writing—from the “disembodied voice of authority” she learned while working toward a Ph.D. at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University to a less formal, more personal style—is fascinating, and her accounts of developing an eye, dealing with finicky artists and trustees, and subverting hierarchies at the New Museum (rotating jobs! decision making by consensus!) should be required reading for institutionally bound art professionals.

There are times when the writing stumbles into promotional, press-release language (“this diverse group of curators raised fresh questions and came up with exciting new ideas and approaches”) or career summary. This may or may not be due to the fact that the book was completed (“edited,” the cover says) by the artist Liza Lou, who worked with Tucker on the project before the author’s death in 2006 and spent a year afterward going through Tucker’s papers at the Getty Research Institute.

In many ways, this memoir is a perfect antidote to this bloated, spectacle-heavy moment. Although she retired from the New Museum nearly a decade before it moved to a shimmering new building on the Bowery, Tucker lived in the art world as it grew into a globalized, sometimes corporate, enterprise. “It would’ve been so much easier when the art world was smaller” is a refrain among young artists, curators, and writers. Tucker’s story is a hedge against such nostalgia. The art world may have been smaller, but for women in particular, it was never easy.

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