On the Record with Curator Andrea Gyorody


Photo courtesy of Andrea Gyorody

Andrea Gyorody was recently hired as the Ellen Johnson ‘33 assistant curator of modern and contemporary art.

Victoria Garber, Arts Editor

Andrea Gyorody was recently hired as the new Ellen Johnson ’33 assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. She graduated from Amherst College in 2007 and went on to receive a master’s degree in Art History from Williams College. Currently a Ph.D. candidate in art history at University of California, Los Angeles and a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and a German Academic Exchange Service Fellowship, Gyorody spent two years in Germany studying post-war and contemporary art and dove straight into her work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art upon her return. Gyorody is currently involved with planning an exhibit honoring the legacy of Ellen Johnson, OC ’33, a celebrated art historian and Oberlin professor of modern art from 1945 to 1977. Though she never held a curatorial position, Johnson worked tirelessly to build the Allen’s contemporary art collection as a member of the acquisition committee and commissioned 3-Way Plug, Claes Oldenburg’s first large sculpture, in 1970.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As a curator and art historian, what are some areas of particular interest to you?

In undergrad I worked almost exclusively on East Asian art, and I did a lot with contemporary Japanese [art]. I did my undergrad thesis … specifically on images of young girls in contemporary Japanese art, mostly from the ’90s and early 2000s. Then, when I went to Williams, I kind of rediscovered German history as both a part of my own heritage and as a source of interest that I’d been really into as a kid and had kind of forgotten about for 15 years. I started working with a professor there who is one of the experts on German art in the U.S., and [I] kind of switched focus. The one kind of tying thread between the Japanese stuff and the German stuff is the post-war condition and how societies deal with extensive trauma both as perpetrators and as victims.

At UCLA, I continued mainly doing stuff with European and American post-war and contemporary art, and I’ve worked on three projects related to African-American art specifically, from the ’50s and ’60s to today.

What brought you to this field and to Oberlin in particular?

The very first class I took at Amherst was … a first-year seminar. … I had seen one that was [about] Japanese art and literature, and I was like, “That sounds really interesting, and I know nothing about that, so I’ll try that,” and that class completely converted me to becoming an art historian. I think part of it was having an aptitude for formal analysis and for looking at things and being able to describe them and then an interest in interpreting works of art. I had been a high school debater; making arguments was something I wanted to do, so academia seemed like a good idea, and then I did a bunch of summer internships throughout college that really cemented … that this was the sphere … I wanted to be getting into and doing things [in].

What does your position at the Allen entail, and how have you found the work so far?

It’s very overwhelming — in a good way! I think part of the reason that I wanted to move on from my previous job is that my purview at LACMA was very, very narrow. I wasn’t necessarily looking [around] at the time when I got an email about this job, … but as soon as I saw the description in the email and looked at the Allen’s collection, it was just like, “This is exactly what I want to be doing.” The collection is amazing, Oberlin students are amazing — I went to two small colleges and I was excited about doing that again. I taught at UCLA for three years, so this is a nice way of dealing with students again.

As far as the work itself goes, obviously I’ve only been here for three weeks, but within three weeks there’s been already acquisitions to consider, future programming to consider. I’m right now putting together the centennial show celebrating Ellen Johnson’s legacy, [which] will get installed this summer, so that’s literally on my desk at the moment. She’s an important figure at the College and the museum. There are a lot of people still alive who took classes with her and really knew her as a person, and a lot of the works that we’re going to install for that show are [some of] the most exciting objects that we have in my field. Eva Hesse will come out, and Jackie Windsor, and Frank Stella, and a lot of Claus Oldenburg probably, Robert Morris, et cetera. It’s [a] dream body of work to deal with for a show, but it’s also very fast turnaround from my start here to the [installation] of that show.

Can you tell me more about the Ellen Johnson exhibit?

It’s going to be in the Ellen Johnson Gallery, as you might imagine, and we’re going to pull in different threads of her career here. She brought in a Monet, a Cézanne and a Picasso, all of which will be in the gallery alongside works by [other artists]. There’s [also] some more recent stuff that was given in her honor that takes us not quite to the present day, but a little further than [some of the artists I named].

In addition to that, which is already a lot, we’re hoping to do some programming around her legacy as a teacher and not just her legacy as a curator and collector or a librarian, which was what she was originally at the College. I don’t know what form that’s going to take yet, but I’d like to do something involving students, where we do — it doesn’t necessarily have to be performative lecturing; I don’t want someone to imitate Ellen Johnson — but we have recordings of her speaking and teaching. … I haven’t gotten to listen to all of them yet, but I feel like even if it’s just students essentially teaching other students about things … in the collection that mean something to them. That’s in the works, probably for later next year.

We’re also hopefully going to revamp our blog and make it a little bit more amenable to longer-form writing. A lot of those recordings are digitized, of her teaching and of really famous artists she brought in that gave talks here, like Oldenburg and Jim Dine, super famous people who came here … when they were just starting out or had just gotten to be known. I want to use the blog as a space to kind of think about all kinds of weird and interesting things that you can’t put in a show, which is a lot of stuff. We own an Alice Neel portrait of Ellen Johnson that apparently she had to sit for for quite a long time and it was super uncomfortable, and we actually own … the outfit that she’s wearing in the painting. It’s not something that makes sense alongside the works of art in the show, but it is something I think could make a really cool blog post.

What other changes are you hoping to bring to the Allen? What kind of a direction do you see it taking?

I can say one of the things I really want to do is — [that’s been] on the museum’s radar, but hasn’t really been a focus of either collecting or programming — is new media, film and video. That stuff is difficult to collect, because there are a lot of logistical issues involved, … and there’s been a lot of discussion lately in the art community about how best to preserve those things. I would really like to bring film and video to the collection, hopefully starting with a number of “historical” films from the ’70s and ’80s and then building up a contemporary collection.

Another thing I would like to do, in part because the Allen has only limited exhibition space, [is] to find spaces on campus or in town that could make sense for showing — not works in our collection because they can’t leave the building for security and climate purposes, but say we do acquire film and video. For all intents and purposes, the USB stick or the digital file doesn’t have the value, so you could put that on a screen, and it would be something that people would happen upon and have a different experience of than something they go to the museum with the intension of seeing. I think there are ways of activating the Oberlin space, broadly speaking, with works of art that we’re able to show outside of the space of the museum. It could be commissioning a sound piece that would be, say, under this tree or in the chapel. There are students, of course, who are installing work outside of the museum, but I think we could do that too.

I [also] really do want to acquire more works by artists of color [ from] 1950 onwards. There’s a lot being done now by contemporary artists of color, particularly African-American artists, that I think would absolutely make a contribution to our collection. The Allen already has some stuff, [ for example] these Fred Wilson pieces, … and [a number] photographs by artists of color. I’m not starting from scratch, but we can do a lot more.

You’re in charge of several works by some very well-known artists, including Monet, Picasso and Modigliani. What’s been your favorite lesser-known artist or work so far and why?

At the Allen, I will say this: There was a conference here recently, … and they pulled out three works on paper by Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and František Kupka, … and they’re just incredible. They’re really beautiful, and it shouldn’t be surprising that these things are in the collection of a museum at a small college, but I think most of the people who came through [had their] minds blown by the quality. The pastel by Kupka especially is just — it’s glowing. It has this yellow-gold, kind of thickly laid on pastel that is [practically] emanating light from within the work.

Is there anything I haven’t touched on that you’d like to add?

One thing I do want to add is that I’ve laid out all these things that I want to do, but one of the major contingencies is what do students want and what can faculty make really great use of in their teaching. As I get to know the College better, and the people who are frequently using the Allen’s collection, I think that will perhaps redirect what some of my priorities are. I’m … excited for what conversations may arise.

Interview by Victoria Garber,

Arts editor