Fillip 5 — Spring 2007

From (Starry Eyed) Vision to Nail
Christian L. Frock


Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are…


A star is a massive, luminous ball of plasma. Stars group together to form galaxies, and they dominate the visible universe. The nearest star to Earth is the Sun, which is the source of most of the energy on Earth, including daylight. Other stars are visible in the night sky, when they are not outshone by the Sun.


The HUO Drawings is a series of ink drawings on bristol board created by Brooklyn-based artist Charles Gute in 2003.1 The first drawing one might see includes a simple sans serif font, black text centered on white paper, spelling out “HANS ULRICH O’BRIST.” Next perhaps, might be a drawing of “HANSUM OOLRICH OBRIST” with the letters evenly spaced and heavily outlined. After that “HAN-SOLO RICHOBRIST” and so on leading to a total of twenty-five drawings of careless misspellings and humourous phonetic interpretations of the name Hans Ulrich Obrist, contemporary curator and art star.

I first showed The HUO Drawings on — a nonprofit “venue” online that I produce independently—and I have also shown other works by Gute in a one-off solo exhibition at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco where I am the associate director. I am interested in the ways that Gute’s work generates a dialogue-driven critique of contemporary art, the discourse surrounding it, and the art market bazaar that encircles it. Fair disclosure: the very nature of the Gute’s recent work is a conflict of interests, as is my background as a curator who works in a gallery.

By day, Charles Gute is a freelance professional proofreader for hire. He has worked as an editor on numerous contemporary art books for such art world notables as Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic, Gregor Schneider, Pat Steir, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, among others. Informed by this experience, his largely conceptual artistic practice increasingly explores his supporting role in the wider contemporary art scene and examines his sense of place as an artist and a “cultural worker,” to use his preferred term, within the hierarchy of the art world. Though Gute takes a certain pride in having contributed to the polishing of a project—for example, as proofreader of Obrist’s thousand page Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews—he insists that his role is small in the scheme of things. While the projects may be massive, Gute’s contributions offer him little social currency. Supporting professions are rarely credited for construction in a way that allows for some modicum of authorship. To offer a parallel example: it is rarely divulged that many of Anish Kapoor’s recent architecturally scaled public sculptures are fabricated in the San Francisco Bay Area, some five thousand miles removed from the artist’s studio in London. Execution by remote instruction, in and of itself, is a new model of collaboration—just as editorial intervention evolves into a kind of shared authorship.

Yet, in much the same way that a sculptor’s vision can now be shaped by fabricator colleagues from afar, an author’s voice can assume a different tone when other voices chime in. Though there is no disputing that the original vision is conceived by an extraordinary mind, more intriguing are the ways in which a concept shape shifts through the birthing process. The final product is attributed to the original author without dispute—the premium placed on creativity over the process of production is historically reiterated—it still goes to follow that it must retain imprints from the various hands that touched it along the way, literally and metaphorically. With regards to artistic creation this is nothing new—early modern painters famously had teams of assistants who executed the detail of their works. Of particular interest in contemporary art right now is how the model of a collaborative relationship between principal and production figures has been appropriated to create a powerful brand of curators or, rather, curators with powerful brands.

As a proofreader, Gute negotiates for cohesion between what is written and what is intended. This imperative, when met with his creative practice as an artist, has extended into drawings that embrace editorial abandon and yield the illustrated “typos” that comprise The HUO Drawings. Fully aware of Obrist’s influence in the art world and anxious to avoid letting errors slip by, Gute kept a list of incorrectly spelled versions of the author’s name while proofreading a recent Obrist project. There is, after all, an unusual amount of pressure on a proofreader-slash-artist who works to assist a famous curator. It was an organic process: as his list grew, Gute imbued his handwritten notations with stylistic character. He has said, “I was reminded of the sort of devotional ballpoint drawings kids make on notebook covers while not paying attention in class. In other words, ‘Hans Ulrich Obrist as Metallica logo’.”2

The series employs a sardonic humour evident in the work of many young contemporary artists. It also reveals an intensely close study of “success” in today’s art world. Likeminded works by Gute’s contemporaries offer similarly candid reflections on the business of the art business. Brooklyn-based William Powhida’s trompe l’oeil drawings frequently examine the social status of the artist in relation to the art world, notably dealers and critics. Hex Drawing: Zach Feuer (make me famous) (2006) attentively depicts the New Dealers Alliance creator and Chelsea dealer with a halo of neurotic text fanning his head. Like Gute’s compulsive reiteration of the Obrist typos, Powhida articulates a kind of genuflection in his work. Though the tone of each artist’s work is different, they both strive for a flawless representation of their subjects through a heightened sense of realism or correctness. It is also noteworthy that both artists hand-render their works—perhaps indicative of an immediate, personal response to their respective positions in the vast galaxy of the art market. Glasgow-based Phil Collins’ kitschy editioned dolls created in the likenesses of the Wrong Gallery curators Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick jocularly offer mock reverence for his advocates—the production of an action figure in one’s likeness being possibly the most sacred homage of commercialism. Considered as a group, these works offer a dialectic on a recent shift in the creative value system. More than overtly humourous, they reflect a pervasive preoccupation with notions of celebrity as capital and those who traffic this commodity, namely curators.

The expansive value of engaging the attention of a curator is duly noted. Increased esteem is afforded to independent curators with international mobility. In a profile of archly cool Klaus Biesenbach—newly appointed chief curator of media at the Museum of Modern Art— P.S.1 executive director Alanna Heiss was recently quoted as saying, “There are not so many people interested in having the, you know, Van Gogh scholar over to dinner. It’s very much related to this sense of tension and anxiety and drama, the sexiness of contemporary art in general.”3 The same article refers to the aging trend to consider curators as the new rock stars, an association also implicit in Charles Gute’s comparison of The HUO Drawings to rock star logos etched onto adolescent notebooks. By all appearances, the constant international travel, celebrity thigh grazing, and glittering events that come with the territory of being an international success certainly does look a lot like Mick Jagger’s lifestyle, jet lag, and the isolation of frequent travel—not withstanding one’s measure of glamourousness. Most important to this shifting definition of stardom within the art world is the curator’s predominant ability to manage a multinational enterprise: the sum of multiple projects facilitated through global communications.

The longtime use of astronomical analogies to discuss the art world, though cliché, is made all the more relevant now by international accessibility via current technological advancements. Today, the universe is wholly within reach, if you’ve got the right equipment: various support staff are directed remotely by Blackberry, paddles are raised as the result of cell phones, and artworks are assembled via email._Vanity Fair_’s December 2006 issue recently focussed on the internationally contemporary art world, just in time for the Miami bacchanalia of art fairs. The cover story was replete with diagrammatic illustrations of star formations in the current art market—converting trade innuendo to graphic language through populist analogies to the night sky. The terms were along these lines: A star is a massive, luminous curator. Stars group artists together to form exhibitions, and they dominate all manner of publications and great parties. The brightest shining star is Hans Ulrich Obrist.


Twinkle, twinkle, little star. So goes the melody learned from an early age, a singsong nursery rhyme that cultivates an abiding awe of the universe and the relative smallness of the individual. Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky. With the co-opting of astrological metaphors in this business, the words have poignant significance. The Houston-based publication ARTL!ES recently featured a series of essays on the role of the curator and the various angles from which is it considered. It included an outtake of Charles Gute’s The HUO Drawings and featured Erwin Wurm’s Feeding Harald Kunde with chocolate (Be nice to your curator) (2006) on the cover. The latter is from a series of photographs that depict Wurm “being nice” to various curators—one of which depicts the artist in an intense lip lock with Vienna Kunsthalle director Gerald Matt. Here, the figures of artist and curator have been captured in the powerful embrace of international dignitaries. Through the resigned admonition to be polite and “nice,” the title acknowledges the mutually dependent relationships of artists and curators. Within the works, physical intimacy illuminates the level of trust and advocacy inherent to the connections between artist and curator, co-conspirators whose personal successes are firmly interwoven. In some cases, such as with Wurm and Matt, the longstanding relationships and ongoing tendency towards collaboration between specific artists and curators extends the notion of branding, and, or, the “formation of galaxies by star groupings.”

It is regularly suggested that the curator has superceded that of the artist in contemporary practice and morphed into the “super-artist,” a term Daniel Buren used as a critique of Harald Szeemann, the original prototypical independent curator, “who used artworks like so many brushstrokes in a huge painting.”4 More recently, San Francisco-based curator Kate Fowle has written, “we are in an age when the curator is more aligned with a DJ, or any similar master of improvisation who ‘samples’ and combines works, actions, and ideas.”5 Though decidedly different in attitude, at their core these ideas are the same: the curator coaleces various creative perspectives to reflect his or her overview. Buren’s concern was prescient to what Fowle addresses in her writing—for certainly, where music is concerned, the spotlight is always on the mix master and individual tunes give sway to the overall mix. Neurotic concerns about who is of greater importance are ego driven—for certainly the DJ is at a loss without musicians and musicians have no context without the DJ. Artists and curators are equally co-dependent, as illustrated by Wurm’s recent photographs.


The HUO Drawings provoke questions about the structure of the current global art market and the elevated role of the curator as an arbiter of importance; salient points that arise from these questions, such as the noticeable lack of female art star curators and the role of the institution in the development of the independent curators, demand a more in-depth investigation than space permitted for this treatise. Though Obrist may be the most universally influential curator at the moment—if for no other reason than his ubiquitous global presence—_The HUO Drawings_ aren’t about Obrist specifically but rather his role as the iconic art star curator. Gute could just as easily have collected misspellings of “Biesenbach” or “Rugoff” or “Hoffmann.” These names all certainly lend themselves to typographic error. All of these figures are also prolific in their work and border on the magical in their respective abilities to balance copious projects simultaneously. In many ways, this new capacity amongst curators to produce multiple simultaneous endeavors—from biennials to books to video compilations to multiple esteemed positions in geographically remote institutions to speaking engagements and posing for über hip magazine spreads—begs comparison with the production capacity of creative studios, like Andy Warhol’s Factory. The scope of endeavors as envisioned by the artist or curator has been expanded by the idea of a group effort towards production. Like the studio principal, an art star curator works with a fleet of people on an astounding range of projects—and everything is stamped with a fashionable brand on the way out the door.

Harald Szeemann’s 1960s one-man enterprise as an independent curator, which he called Agentur fur Geistige Gastarbeit (Agency for Spiritual Guest-work), offered full service exhibition production—from conceptualizing exhibitions to the hanging of works; “From Vision to Nail,” as one of his slogans promised. Szeemann’s vision of the independent curator as a one-person institution was, at that time, a bold dismissal of bureaucratic limitation that planted the seed for the contemporary curatorial multi-tasking; to borrow from pop music powerhouses Jay-Z and Kanye West: “I am not a businessman. I am a business, man!” Whereas Szeemann initially envisioned independence and autonomy through singular responsibility and a personally “hands on” engagement with all aspects of his exhibitions, contemporary independent curators are supported by global technology and a fleet of staff with various technical skills in disparate locales. Through the appropriation of creative production techniques Szeemann’s early notion of curatorial autonomy has evolved into the version 2.0 concept of a one person curatorial cottage industry and the definition of “hands on” curating, as envisioned by the early patriarch of independent curatorial endeavors, has “expanded from the limitations of the individual through various new means of working collaboratively in an ever evolving art world which, as Obrist himself is fond of saying, the rules of the game are always changing.


h5. Notes

  1. Images of the complete suite of drawings can be viewed at
  2. Charles Gute, “Hans Ulrich Obrist,” ARTL!ES (Fall 2006): 44.
  3. Nicholas Boston, “MoMA Gets Biesenbached in Euro-Curator Stampede,” New York Observer (February 12, 2007), (accessed February 12, 2007).
  4. Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Mind over matter: Interview with Harald Szeemann,” Artforum (November 1996), (accessed February 12, 2007).
  5. Kate Fowle, Curating Now 05 (San Francisco: California. California College of the Arts, 2005), 4.
About the Author

Christian L. Frock is an independent curator and writer. Her independent curatorial endeavor, Invisible Venue, collaborates with artists to present art in unexpected settings in and around a 101-year-old flat in West Oakland.

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