Excerpt from HELENE WINER INTERVIEWED BY REBECCA MCGREW, Metro Pictures Gallery, New York, New York, October 8, 2008
Rebecca McGrew Let’s begin with a discussion about your background and how you came to Pomona College. You were previously at Whitechapel Gallery in London; what brought you back to Los Angeles?
Helene Winer I was away from Los Angeles for about three years. Most of that time I was in London working at the Whitechapel Gallery as assistant director. I started at Pomona a few months after returning to Los Angeles in the fall of 1970. I grew up in Los Angeles, in Westchester, and I studied art history at USC [the University of Southern California]. After college, I landed what for me was a prize job at the L.A. County Museum of Art [LACMA]. Jim Elliott, chief curator, and curator of modern art, hired me as a part-time assistant. I think I told him that I would do anything, even empty ashtrays, if he would just hire me.
RM What did you do at LACMA?
HW I was an all-purpose, curatorial/exhibition assistant not assigned to any department until I was assigned to American art. For the prints and drawings department, I catalogued prints and assisted on Pablo Picasso’s eighty-fifth birthday print survey, for which I drove around Beverly Hills with a Polaroid camera documenting prints in collectors’ homes. I helped in the decorative arts/costume department, sometimes getting my photo taken in period costumes.
I quickly gravitated to contemporary art, as I became acquainted with artists and curators. Through them I discovered the galleries that were active in Los Angeles at that time, like Dwan Gallery, which had shows of Minimalists such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, and Irving Blum Gallery, where the Pop artists and Ferus artists showed. I remember seeing Warhol’s Mylar pillows [Silver Clouds, 1966] at Irving Blum.
At twenty-three, of course, I naturally became acquainted with all of the younger, and all male, artists. I got to know Ed Ruscha because he designed catalogues for LACMA and designed for Artforum. I was there when Ruscha unveiled his Los Angeles County Museum on Fire [1965–68, now owned by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.] on the museum patio. I posed for his famous Artforum ad/marriage announcement [“Ed Ruscha Says Goodbye to College Joys,” January 1967]. I was bartender for Jim Elliott’s parties for friends, like Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg, at his apartment above the merry-go-round on the Santa Monica Pier. These are some of my most vivid memories of that time, along with buying my first artwork—two paintings by Richard Pettibone for $15 at his annual studio sale.
RM Why did you leave Los Angeles and move to London?
HW My job at the museum was tremendously valuable, but it was also a very loosely defined, entry-level job. So when friends of mine went to Croatia (then Yugoslavia) to shoot a film, I joined them with no real purpose but to spend some time in Europe. It was certainly not a career move. After visiting Croatia, Greece, and Italy, and spending several months in Paris, I moved to London. Bryan Robertson, who had just retired as director of the Whitechapel, told me of the assistant director job there. It was very fortunate timing, and I stayed for two years. It was the peak of Conceptual art activity for both American and European artists, with London as a hub. My introduction to that work, and the often intense, serious talk around it, was in stunning contrast to the mute, wry stance adopted by the artists I had known in Los Angeles. But I left London, primarily because I was unable to adapt to the dark and damp weather, or survive on the impossibly low pay.
RM Tell me about what the Los Angeles art world was like in 1970, when you came back and started working at Pomona College.
HW Los Angeles had changed dramatically during the few years I was away. When I left, it was the late sixties, and the Finish Fetish artists were prominent in L.A. The counterpoint group was the "assemblage" or Topanga artists. I respected both groups of artists and admired what they did.
Los Angeles in the 1960s was still fairly isolated and had developed a kind of parallel universe where the main artists had careers that were serious and active locally, and included shows in New York and Europe. But I cannot think of one artist who was fully embraced outside of Los Angeles. I believe this problem for L.A. artists really did not change substantially until the 1980s.
When I returned in 1970, Chouinard, where I took painting classes as a teenager, was closed, the Finish Fetish artists were now firmly established, CalArts had opened and UCI [the University of California at Irvine] had an ambitious art program.
RM Was your position at Pomona College similar to Hal Glicksman’s before you?
HW I was hired as gallery director and assistant professor. Other than some secretarial and very part-time student help, the gallery had no staff. Director then meant curator, registrar, PR, transport, preparator, etc.