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Conversation with Peter Benson Miller about “Encounters I”

December 6, 2019
Installation view of “Encounters I” with Philip Guston’s “Drawing No. 19 (Related to Zone),” 1954
John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing (Silence),” 1949, corrected transcript, 21.6 x 27.9 cm, Box 10 Folder 21, John Cage Papers, Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives. Courtesy of the John Cage Trust
Installation view of “Encounters I” with a display of works by Eugene Berman
Cover of the first edition of Eleanor Clark’s book “Rome and a Villa” (1952), from the AAR Library with an illustration by Eugene Berman
Installation view of “Encounters I” with a display of works by Al Held that partially re-creates a scene captured in a photograph of the artist in his Academy studio
James Timberlake (left) and Stephen Kieran stand next to their cut-paper collage “Reflected Ceiling Plan, Student Activity Center, Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, PA, 1986” at the opening reception
Installation view of “Encounters I” with works by the architects Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake
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The current exhibition at the American Academy in Rome, Encounters I, is part of a year-long series of programs and events conceived around the theme of “Encounters,” which celebrates the 125th anniversary of the founding of the American Academy in Rome. A second exhibition, Encounters II, will open in May 2020.

Claudia Trezza spoke with the exhibition’s curator, Peter Benson Miller, about his ideas for the show, which investigates the enduring impact of the city of Rome as a dynamic creative laboratory through a series of interdisciplinary exchanges. Miller was Andrew Heiskell Arts Director from 2013 to 2019 and, through next year, is Curator-at-Large of Exhibitions for AAR 125 Anniversary.

Every year the Academy has an overarching theme for its events, conferences, and exhibitions. This year’s theme is “Encounters.” How did you select the three encounters presented at the current show?

The basic criteria for all three was that they be encounters across disciplines. We wanted to capture something essential about the Academy’s mission, something that happens here every day, from casual conversations to studio visits, from the ideas that come out of Shoptalks to more formal collaborations occasioned by exhibitions, like Cinque Mostre.

There is a kind of ephemeral thing that happens at the Academy—people are always exchanging ideas. It’s an essential part of the Academy that gets lost when people return to the United States, back to their university jobs, back to their studios or their gallery shows. It is also overlooked in the finished works, whether that’s a musical composition, a gallery exhibition, or a book. The point of Encounters I is to recapture some of the magic that happens here, but working backward from those finished works that have gone out into the world and had their impact on American culture.

The connection between John Cage and Philip Guston is well known, but only rarely is it noted that they met here. Their friendship, their dialogue, the recognition of their affinities started at the Academy after a concert in which Cage performed the Sonatas and Interludes, which can be heard in the exhibition.

As for Eugene Berman and Eleanor Clark, the Academy’s Fototeca has a wonderful archive of Berman’s materials that is not yet catalogued. It consists mostly of photographic albums and albums in which he pasted facsimiles of works from throughout his career, almost like he was curating his own history. It’s a wonderful resource that is still unexplored. I knew that Berman had also done illustrations for Clark’s novel Rome and a Villa, which was the first book I read about Rome when I came here for the first time in 1992. The more I delved into the archive, the more I realized that Berman was one of those important figures that helped bring surrealism and European ideas to the United States in the ’30s that then informed the avant-garde there.

Do you know anything about Clark and Berman’s encounter?

They must have met at the Academy, because Berman was often in Rome in the late ’40s and early ’50s. I’m pretty sure it was someone at the Academy, perhaps Laurance Roberts, the director at the time, who facilitated the introduction. Berman was already a well-known artist by then. He was interpreting Rome in a modern style, in a metaphysical, surrealist way that is conveyed in the Clark’s prose.

Clark developed her special vision of Rome as part of the American Academy community. Her book came out of her immersion in Academy life. She explored Rome with the Academy Fellows, and with a Nolli map. The Nolli map, on view in the exhibition, gives this almost collagelike appearance to the layers of history of Rome, as if all these bits and pieces were cobbled together in the form of a map, allowing you to see interior spaces and exterior spaces, public and private, simultaneously.

The third encounter was more difficult. I wanted to have a modern, contemporary architectural component. I went through The Centennial Directory of the American Academy in Rome that was prepared for the institution’s one hundredth anniversary and discovered that the architect Stephen Kieran had been a Fellow at the same time (1981) that Al Held was a Resident. I then read an article cited in the book and found a quote by Kieran, who said that “all paths start from Rome,” and I thought “bingo!” I was introduced to Kieran and James Timberlake (1983 Fellow) through Corey Brennan, a 1998 Fellow and former Mellon Professor at the Academy. Kieran and Timberlake were thrilled with the idea of being paired with Held. Meanwhile, the Held Foundation sent me the photograph of the artist in his studio in 1981, so we knew exactly what he was working on, how he hung these works on his studio wall. We re-created that installation in the exhibition.

Can you talk more about this year’s theme “Encounters”? It’s impossible to document all the encounters that take place daily at the Academy. Are these encounters only possible to trace after long periods of time, looking backward?

A lot of what happens at the Academy is experimenting, trying out new things, taking risks. I was just talking to a Fellow who was here several years ago. She said that “the experience at the Academy is like gathering nuts. You are storing up nuts that you are going to take back with you, and they are going to reveal their secrets or come in handy at some point.”

What this show does is go from the finished work back to the nuts. It demonstrates how the Academy’s unique working environment has impacted American culture in a variety of fields. This influence is part of why the Academy is an essential institution for American culture and culture in general. It’s often hard to trace the path from the nut to the finished work—but that’s what we’re trying to do, in reverse.

What’s essential in the exhibition and what guided the installation is our effort to convey the contingencies, the uncertainties, the range of possibilities that are still available when people are working on projects in early phases of their development. We play excerpts from Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes in order to re-create the experience that Guston must have had listening to these innovative sounds for the first time, not expecting that music was going to open up a new path for him as he worked toward abstraction.

It’s the same reason why I put up the facsimiles of Clark’s notes. I wanted to not only convey the finished book but also capture her initial notes and impressions, when she was walking around the city, like the Fellows still do, going on walks on Friday mornings and learning something that they never expected to learn.

It’s the same reason why we include, in the third section of the exhibition, Kieran’s sketches on index cards and Timberlake’s drawings of Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, of the Pantheon, of the Pazzi Chapel in Florence. We want to show how the initial idea, the nut, began to germinate into the final work.

You describe Rome as “a dynamic, creative laboratory.” Not everyone describes the city in that way.

Some people come to Rome assuming that, if it’s not a dead city, it’s a city in a decadent period, made up of ruins, a few Renaissance paintings, and Baroque architecture; that it’s not a source for the contemporary, and that it’s somehow hostile to modern culture and creation.

I am more and more convinced that Rome has in its DNA the material for the contemporary. Recently, in a symposium organized to look critically at the Academy’s history, the architectural historian Antoine Picon, also a Resident this year, suggested that Rome’s “radical eclecticism” may have been part of the reason that the founders of the institution chose Rome over Paris as the site for the Academy in 1894. The city was the source of a modern vision with a contemporary spirit even right after World War II. Clark’s book conceives of Rome as a surrealist collage. The author talks about this “impossible compounding of time,” and that everywhere you look there are wild juxtapositions. I’m sure that’s why Berman was chosen to do the illustrations. He talks about “dissecting, choosing, studying, breaking down and putting things back together.” That is what modernity is all about.

There is a famous drawing of Füssli in the late eighteenth century of an artist in despair, weeping at the foot of Constantine, a fragment from the monumental statue of the Roman emperor, lamenting the fact that a contemporary artist could never hope to match the accomplishments of antiquity or the Renaissance. That’s a very Grand Tour–way of thinking.

But the logic of today’s city is completely different. People come here to unpack Rome and to make of it and of its vestiges something new. They are not giving up before they start. Yes, it’s true that it’s a struggle. It’s tough for an artist to come to Rome. They think, “How am I going to match that?” It’s daunting. That’s why the Academy is here. It’s here to help them realize they can pick and choose what they like, and that Rome, instead of overwhelming them, can give them courage to do something new and innovative.

As curator for the Academy’s 125th anniversary year, can you tell us what you have in store for us this year?

After serving as Andrew Heiskell Arts Director for six years, I have stayed on this year to shepherd this two-part exhibition, Encounters I, which opened in October, and Encounters II, which opens next spring. The latter will argue that much of the logic that is central to the current show is also central to more contemporary work by painters like Julie Mehretu and the architect J. Meejin Yoon, both of whom are Residents this year. This encounter is orchestrated, as the second show will come out of their encounter in the form of a public conversation in November moderated by Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, also a Resident at the Academy.

Encounters II will be very, very fresh. Mehretu is a painter who is using abstraction and drawing on architecture and ruins and modern violence in cities, but she’s also using an abstract method to convey urgent issues throughout cities and culture today. By the same token, Yoon has just designed The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which will be inaugurated in April 2020 at the University of Virginia. The memorial not only commemorates the slaves who helped build the University of Virginia, but also encourages people to reflect on the violence that took place in Charlottesville two years ago. The idea is to bring the logic of the current exhibition, Encounters I, up to the immediate present and show how lessons that are learned from a place like Rome are informing current work by visual artists and architects in America today.

Is this the first time you are putting together an exhibition based specifically on the Academy and its history?

This exhibition is firmly rooted in the Academy and its mission because of the occasion of the 125th anniversary. But every show that the Academy has done, at least since I’ve been here, came out of some aspect of the Academy, its history, or its mission. Last spring, for example, in The Academic Body, we focused on the transformation of the body in contemporary art from 1894, when the Academy was founded, to the present. The show demonstrated its evolution from a place where artists and architects would come to measure buildings so they could reproduce similar models in the United States, to one where people come and pursue their own interests with much more individual freedom.

How does it feel do to this show in its 125th anniversary?

I don’t think any single exhibition can sum up the complexity and the history of this institution, but the goal was to underline that the Academy, which looks like a fairly traditional place from the outside, is full of innovative ideas inside. It’s not so much the building that counts—although we provide a nice experience for people when they are here—but it’s the ricocheting of ideas that can come out of a casual conversation, an extended studio visit, or an actual collaboration. That’s why we instituted the annual Cinque Mostre exhibition series nearly seven years ago to serve as a catalyst for those kinds of collaborations. A public presentation just gives people a reason, a target, to actually do stuff together. The end result might be transitional, might not be the final work for either of the two or three collaborators, but the process triggers new ideas. That’s what the Academy is about—it’s about triggering new ideas and new ways of thinking. For scholars, it’s critical thinking about inherited ideas about art history and archeology. For artists, it’s an opportunity to take a step back from the day-to-day grind of studio practice and see the world differently.

That’s why Rome is so important and why I think Rome is, deep down, a contemporary city despite what the film director Paolo Sorrentino might lead cinema goers to believe. It’s a place that constantly forces people to look anew, to sort out the layers, just the way Clark described it, as “this impossible compounding of time.” “It’s a jumble at every turn,” she wrote.

One could say now is an era of transition and cultural change. What will its 126th year will bring to the Academy, and how do you see the Academy evolving?

No matter which discipline people come here to pursue, the one thing they all take away is the uniqueness of that opportunity to discuss and compare ideas with other people from vastly different fields, against this very suggestive, challenging, but ultimately inspirational backdrop of Rome, a city that won’t stand still, that continues to set a high standard, that continues to reveal its secrets.

What happens here is becoming increasingly essential with the way the world is going. We have people who are more and more specialized, less and less versed in general culture, and it’s the sparks from these encounters that will pave the way for innovation, toward new ways of thinking about the world and how we live together.

In the exhibition, I want to tease those things out. The collage aspect of Clark’s writing, the beautiful intricate cut-paper collage in Kieran and Timberlake’s initial plan for the ceiling of the student center at Chestnut Hill College—I want to draw connections between different disciplines and convey how those various abstract ideas in completely different ways. From Cage, alternating sound and silence. For Guston, trying to capture that same aesthetic through marks on a page, and for Clark doing it with language and sentences.