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Q&A with Carter Foster, curator of "Real/Surreal" exhibition currently on view at the McNay Art Museum
Whitney Museum curator, Carter Foster, talks about his exhibition "Real/Surreal" at the McNay Art Museum with the museum's docents.

By: Celeste Wackenhut

SAN ANTONIO, TX.- How did this idea for an exhibition, with the combining of real and surreal works from across the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, come about?
It really came out of my interest in the work of Edward Hopper, specifically his great painting owned by the Whitney, “Early Sunday Morning.” Hopper is often called a realist, yet I understood, as do many, the uncanny and strange side of his work. It can be quite subtle. I wanted to bring out the unreal side of Hopper, to foreground the qualities in his work that seem more dreamlike and pulled from the imagination. So the show germinated from looking for work in the Whitney’s collection that teetered between the real and the surreal.

This exhibition involves a variety of mediums, specifically paintings and prints, however you are the Curator of Drawings for the Whitney. Tell us about the process of putting together an exhibition that crosses over different departments than your own.
Because the Whitney prides itself in being the ‘artist’s museums’ we often focus on artistic process and conceptualization of art across mediums—which is the way artists tend to work. So the Whitey curators are all used to working in multiple mediums. And with drawing, you really have to understand other mediums since almost all artists draw, whatever their primary medium might be. So it was very natural to look in multiple areas of the collection for works in the exhibition.

“Real/Surreal” originated as an in house exhibition, never intended to become a major traveling show. Obviously it was a great success and took on a life of its own. How was the Whitney approached and what was the reaction for you and your colleagues?
The tour came about because the Grand Rapids Art Museum and its director Dana Friis-Hansen, had an interest in the exhibition. We also share a trustee with them, a wonderful woman named Pamela Roland DeVos. So because they showed interest we looked into travelling the show there. Then, as word got out that it was available, and because it had a successful and well received run in New York, it was easy to put together a tour. It was wonderful to have the show appreciated and it’s always interesting to see how a show looks in different venues, how different curators put together the same works in new ways.

Art history and museum galleries tend to categorize objects into neat periods rather than blend works together in this fashion. Is this approach a step in a different or new direction for the Whitney, and for looking at art from the past in general?
The show was, in fact, a conscious attempt to challenge certain well-trod ‘isms’ and standard narratives in art history. It is actually part of a series all pulled from the permanent collection that all looked at tweaking and probing art history in new ways. The current show now up is called “Sinister Pop” and takes a look at the darker side of this movement. The series came about because we are planning for our big move downtown in to a new building, and we wanted to test out potentially new interpretive strategies for the permanent collection—so the answer to the question is yes!

There are references throughout the exhibition to the Renaissance, from the egg tempera used by Jared French and Paul Cadmus, to the uncanny effect of a deserted street or building, reminding me of “The Ideal City” of Piero della Francesca. Clearly the masters of the Renaissance were of great influence to the realists as well as the Surrealists. Was this period part of your research for the exhibition or do you see the potential for any further investigation?
It’s not something I focused on but was something of which I was very much aware. My background is in the study of old master drawings, so I really like and appreciate it when artists like Paul Cadmus, Jared French, or Andrew Wyeth use traditional techniques for modern subject matter and show an awareness of and, in fact, a fearlessness with, the traditional techniques of illusionistic representation.

There is no catalogue for this exhibition, do you see any revisits to this theme of “Real/Surreal” in the form of a publication in the future?
Well it’s certainly a rich vein to mine, art historically and culturally. I don’t know that we’ll do a publication on this topic per se, but I bet we will want to revisit some of the artists in the show for perhaps a future exhibition. I’d love to see a George Tooker, Paul Cadmus, Jared French show.

How do the works read and speak differently to you from the setting of the Whitney, to Grand Rapids Art Museum, and now the McNay Art Museum?
Well, in a sense, seeing the shows in multiple places supported the thesis of it, because each place mixed works in a very different way but the idea did hold well, I thought. I was especially interested in the additions of artists the McNay made from its own collection and that of local lenders—I particularly liked the inclusion of another Paul Cadmus, and of a piece by the wonderful artist Charles White.

If you wanted the viewer to take away one thing from this exhibition and this collection of artists, what would it be?
That though many of the artists work in a representational mode and were traditionally trained, there was a freedom they felt to be playful, experimental, and/or willfully manipulative in their imagery, a freedom that came about because of tremendously important new ideas that developed in Europe and then spread to the US during the 20s and 30s.


“Real/Surreal: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art” is on view at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, through May 19.





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