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Hans Namuth: Jackson Pollock; Judy Glantzman in her studio; Beverly Semmes: Prairie Dress
Peter Schuyff in his studio; Michael Klein on location; Enrique Chagoya in his studio
Interior at Microsoft, Redmond, WA; Charles Garabedian in his studio;

Film still from a Jean Renoir film of Pierre-Auguste Renoir with his dealer, Ambroise Vollard

An Interview with Michael Klein

by Deanna Sirlin

Michael Klein is a founding partner, with Matt Bertles, of Talking Point Films and, as Michael Klein Arts, is an artist’s agent and freelance consultant for arts organizations. He is a highly regarded writer, curator, and program director and has been the executive director of the International Sculpture Center based in New Jersey. Klein has been a regular contributor to Sculpture Magazine in addition to writing reviews and feature articles for Art in AmericaARTnews, and World Art, among others. Between 1983 and 1997 he was owner of Michael Klein Gallery, New York representing some 20 emerging and mid-career American and European artists. As an independent curator Klein has organized museum and gallery exhibitions specializing in contemporary and 20th century art for Independent Curators International; Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati; Contemporary Arts Museum, University of Southern Florida, Tampa; and Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans. He served as the first curator for the Microsoft Corp between 1999 and 2005, directing art acquisitions, commissions, collection management, and an education program for the company’s 50,000 employees.

Deanna Sirlin, The Art Section's Editor-in-Chief, interviewed Klein concerning his work with artists and his ideas about life in art.

When you encounter a work of art for the first time, what part of you comes into play --- is it a more intuitive or analytical experience? How do you judge or experience the quality or greatness of the work?

I think the experience of seeing something new or for the first time relies on intuition and can be somewhat physical. I generally have a visceral reaction to works and can tell pretty quickly if the work is for me. I sometimes feel that this is too personal a take on work but, then again, if my reaction to a work is not personal then it probably is not something I'm going to be all that interested in. Over the years, various friends, associates, and colleagues will call and say, “Oh, I know your taste, you will love so and so's work” and I get there and it is a huge disappointment…for me, and the artist, too. Once caught up in looking at something I am interested in I am full of questions, and if I am not interested I usually just start to pace and I get completely quiet.

There is no accounting for taste and there is no single rule that allows you to guess ahead of time what will or will not tantalize your eye and interest your mind. I'd like to say that I am open minded but I have seen a lot in the past three decades and now, from my middle-aged viewpoint, I am less interested in something brand new than in artists who have been working for years and have either been overlooked or forgotten. For example, it is nice to see Roger Brown with a show in New York more than 10 years since his death.

And as to the greatness question: I don't know if I can say I can judge that quality but I can discern something remarkable, something new or perhaps said in a new way. This, I must add, is different from novelty; new for the sake of being new. I think great works have a lasting quality so that you find yourself returning to look again and again even though you are familiar with their form or content or both. Some works just haunt you--Brancusi at MOMA; the Gertrude Stein portrait at the Met, or any number of the Hoppers at the Whitney. Other works you discover at different times of your life. Your eye is awake only to certain experiences at certain times of your life and you gain visual knowledge over time. As a college student, I had no idea what Matisse was about; then, one day, boom, it hit me--I saw it and now I look for Matisse works wherever I travel. On the other hand, I have always loved Caravaggio’s paintings and can't seem to read enough about him. Ironically, his reemergence as a significant painter only came about the year before I was born, so I am living in a time period when he is of interest to critics, historians, and the public. A hundred years from now that may not be the case. So greatness is relative; it depends on more than just what a critic or two may say today or how the market place reacts.

How did you develop your eye for art? What happened in your first encounters with contemporary art, when you first saw Dan Flavin or Robert Morris, for example?

It really started early in my life with being dragged to museums as a child. We lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and my folks took the Sunday, after breakfast walk from there to the east side. We would walk through the park, then hit the Met, and I would be walked through gallery after gallery of art. As a child, I just looked and was amazed by the sheer quantity of works on view and the excitement of people straining to see something, a painting or a sculpture. My mother had lived in Paris before the war, so she always wanted to look at the French Impressionists and my father had a passion for Chinese sculpture. By the time I was in college, visiting museums was part of my social life; it was a habit. I would ride up to the Met from the village on a Sunday afternoon—I was at NYU-- walk the galleries, and then stroll home for Chinese food, another Sunday habit!

My first exposure to contemporary art came in the form of a class trip to see the 1969 Whitney Annual. There, I was struck by installations by Dan Flavin and Robert Morris. I had no way of describing what I had seen and think that the experience of seeing the neon lights of the Flavin and the mirror glass of the Morris just stayed with me. That same summer, I went to Syracuse University for an art program where I studied photography and also made painted slides which I projected on to walls to try to emulate the Flavin experience. Only a few years later, when I was in the Whitney Independent Study Program, did the experience measure up to the experience of talking about art with artists.

I developed my eye over years of looking, and that looking never stops. I love bumping into museum directors and dealers at museums on a Sunday afternoon; they all know the drill.

In terms of contemporary art—that is, post-war painting and sculpture--a lot of what I have learned is self-taught. Remember that when I was a grad student in the mid 70s, contemporary art was not even mentioned as a possible course of study. (And most of the New York institutions that were to feature contemporary art and artists, such as Artists Space and PS 1, were just getting off the ground.) I gleaned a lot from spending hours in the library. This habit started young; my mother dragged us weekly to our local library to be exposed to books. I always took out the art books and, of course, the art magazines. Reading in a library and studying art became something very comforting for me. I haven't lost that desire and even today I'm always curious about collector's libraries. At grad school, I was offered the job of sorting through a large storage closet full of contemporary and modern books and catalogues. I sifted through literally hundreds of titles. Part of the deal with the librarian was that I could keep any duplicates. I looked through catalogues from Germany, Italy, and Spain and organized the monographs and histories in different boxes so that the important works could be catalogued. From this hands-on research, I was also able to recommend titles that were missing from the collection.

I never lost my interest in or excitement about art. I think I am naïve that way and, as some people have put it, very idealistic. But why not; why not hold onto some ideals, things, ideas, and beliefs that guide you in your life, art or not? The world will never be the way I wish it to be nor will it bend to my wishes or desires, but I can manifest my ideas in certain forms or directions and so I am happy to do just that for whatever time I have left.

In college, I learned from an amazing group of art historians: Horst W. Jansen, Dore Ashton, Robert Rosenblum, and Leo Steinberg. Then came the Whitney program and my exposure to more artists from different fields during afternoon lecture sessions—Tricia Brown and Philip Glass, for example. We were introduced to a variety of artists whose studios we would visit--Richard Artschwager, Malcolm Morley, and Alfred Leslie come to mind—and to the art world and colleagues like editor Edit DeAk; William Zimmer, a New York Times critic who just passed away; Barbara Flynn, who is a private dealer now in Australia but had a terrific gallery in the 80s on Crosby St; and Richard Armstrong, Director of the Carnegie Museum.

Guidance and knowledge came from Martin Friedman, with whom I worked in the mid 70s at the Walker Art Center. He taught by action and managed to instill in us the ideals of professionalism without giving up a sense of passion, excitement, and curiosity when it comes to working with artists. He made you think on your feet in the museum, speak from the heart. and write so that people will read it and grasp your ideas and understand your comments.

Ultimately, I gained a lot from time spent with painters, sculptors, architects and photographers, and other dealers and critics. Some, I would come to work with (James Casebere, Jackie Ferrara, Matt Mullican, and Pat Steir) while others became friends: Alice Aycock, Lynda Benglis, Ross Bleckner, Beverly Semmes, Elaine Reichek, Jene Highstein. Others now are among a long list of victims of the first years of AIDS epidemic: Gary Falk, Ken Goodman, William Garby, James Ford, Paul Thek, while still other dear friends we/I lost to suicide (Ralph Hilton and Burnett Miller).

The idea of the “eye,” which implies a kind of connoisseurship, seems to be unfashionable right now, as do such related concepts as taste and beauty in art. Why do you think this is? 

Well, the "eye," or connoisseurship, is, of course, a concept that has been expunged from use but still lingers. It really depends on who is speaking, about what they are speaking, and what criteria they are using to determine their conclusions. So can someone talk about abstract painting in a different culture or setting using Western values or American values? How do Western eyes look at non-western art and establish critical values?

Can we trust the speaker, the writer or their conclusions? Ultimately the voice of asking the question is as important as the question itself.

You have said that risk is important in art. What do you mean by risk? Why is it important? And how does one recognize it in a work? 

Life is certainly not linear, and so there are many starts and stops and, I won't say wrong steps, but change-of-mind steps. I called my talk “Art is Risk” because it seems to me that, in spite of a growing, buoyant art market, there is always a risk in putting yourself out for others to see and judge. I grew up at a time when the task of artists was to find new ways of defining their function and their place in society. Unfortunately, in this society artists still are not decision-makers nor do they have any political power. The New York Times recently reported the income for professional artists, which does include architects and designers, was 70 billion dollars in 2005; yet they still function more like consultants or advisors to programs and projects, indulged mostly, or, in the worst case, odd or unusual guests for dinner. At Microsoft, where I was the curator between 1999 and 2005, I was aware of the prejudice against artists, aware that the architects assigned to projects were given carte blanche (they were serious) while art was the suspicious and often times "fun" add-on to a project. I'm sure at various meetings where I would suggest we bring artists in to review a project, others thought, How could art be serious and why would we solicit the opinions of artists on solutions for social or technical problems? To this day, when I hear someone use the word “fun” when describing some exhibition, I see red.

Your TPF films present intimate portraits of artists, allowing their voice to be heard. Can you talk about it is important that such representations of artists be available?

The idea for making these films comes from many sources. First I am extremely alarmed at the overall lack of knowledge, or should I say information, about the visual arts. Among the numerous tours I did for Microsoft employees at the Seattle Art Museum was one of an exhibition of photographs by Annie Liebowitz. I spent some time talking about putting an image together, describing the differences between foreground, middle ground, and background. After the tour, one engineer came up to me to thank me and commented that no one had ever explained to him how a picture is put together before. I was astounded, because here was a very smart man, but his visual vocabulary was nil. And we are a full-on visual culture; you name it and we communicate it via images. Understanding how and why images are used is fundamental to understanding who we are, how we think, and how we try to communicate.

So watching a film about an artist working is like watching Julia Child in the kitchen. She demystified the art of French cooking and also opened us up to experience cooking as an art. It was a form of nourishment, yes, but it also had cultural and social overtones. Her efforts to explain the elements that make up a classic French dish allowed the American audience to become familiar with a new language, new tastes, and new cooking skills. From these weekly programs that were aired in the mid 60s, a revolution was born. As a result of her efforts, we are now a country now that is as comfortable eating any number of cuisines from Asia, Europe, or California. The same thing can happen, I think, with artists. Not that everyone will become an artist, but exposure to the experience of hearing AND seeing artists at work in their studios will demystify some of that activity. These films also document the life of that artist and that moment and they provide some of the vocabulary that many need in order to ask questions and learn about art. Here is where I am naïve again, but I see the web as one of the most extraordinary educational tools—reaching around the world in a matter of seconds and connecting millions of people to a shared experience.

I think it is important to create a portrait of the artist at work because our memory changes over time, and having this event recorded for future audiences is a key to creating the history of our time. As a student of art history, I was schooled in the idea of "original" documentation, the papers and records that could substantiate the historian’s claim or belief or observation. In the same way I think these films are original documents that will one day become part of the archive of the first decade of the 21st century. As a curator at Microsoft, I was inspired by the questions the employees had about artists and it was there that the idea was born that creating such documents for the collection's website would be a great service to both viewer and artist.

How do you think the Hans Namuth photos of Jackson Pollock making his drip paintings changed the way he was perceived as an artist? What kind of influence do you hope your films will have on the perception of artists?

I hadn't thought of the Hans Namuth photographs in terms of how they changed our view of what the Pollack paintings mean; I did see these photographs as a precursor, if you will, of what we have in mind at TPF. Obviously. they underscore a critical idea of the day: that the painter was engaged in the making of his or her painting as a physical act. In the arena of painting, the painting was a stage, the painter the actor, and the paint the language by which he or she expressed themselves. I think it literalized the philosophical position that painting is an act of being, something for the public to witness firsthand. The drama of these now classic portrayals of an artist at work also underscores the myth of the artist as hero, or at least the heroic Jackson Pollock, triumphant, active, and alive. You might imagine these black and white images as outtakes from an MGM production of the movie of Pollock's life, as the lyrics of the soundtrack sing out "painting with spirit and heart."

Our films are short documentary pieces, natural in their production style, and hopefully clear that the artist is the focus of the film, not the interviewer, Matt Bertles, my business partner, nor any other commentator such as a critic or historian.

I didn't anticipate the many different ways in which each artist interprets how such films will be made or used. For the most part, we have been successful at persuading artists to be filmed; some, however, don't want to be filmed working or in their studio because their work is neither painting nor sculpture and relies heavily on research or computer work or just writing. So, we look for solutions that will work for the artist and for us. In the end, I hope that the films will recognize the nature and spirit of art making and give the viewer a clear perception and understanding of what it is to be an artist and to make art.

In the films, we see the artists at work in their studios. Are we really seeing them at work or are they performing for the camera? Why is it important to create a portrait of “the artist at work”?

No, in the films the people are not pretending to work. This is important to understand--and I hadn't thought it would be considered a "set up" shot. The working is part of the dialogue, part of an introduction, if you will, to what the artist does, who he or she is, and how what they do and what they say come together. Because I imagine the audience for these films extends beyond the confines of the art world I think that there is a profound curiosity as to what goes on in the studio; how works are made; what decisions are part of the process; how does a work start and also when is it complete?

In the end, it is important to document artists because, for the most part, unless they have achieved prices of astonishing note or have created a significantly controversial work, the life and work of most artists, architects, designers, photographers, etc. goes unrecorded. Although we have traditional monographs and catalogues, there is nothing on video. To have such a library in the future will be important to students of art, culture, and history. How artists worked, lived, thought, and expressed themselves will always be of interest to future generations.

Imagine studying works of art in a lecture class and then later logging in to watch a film about that same artist: hear their voice, see their studio, and listen to their ideas in real time. 

In 2006, the Met hosted an exhibition of artists and works handled by the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Surrounded by Cezannes and Picassos, the crowds nevertheless collected in the gallery in which a short, three-minute silent film of Vollard sitting with Auguste Renoir as he painted was showing. It was a crude, silent, three-minute film but it told us much: we all wanted to know what they looked like; after all, they are people, like us, engaged with each other through art.

For more information, please visit and

Deanna Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section and an artist whose work can be seen at 

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