A conversation with curator William Rudolph
William Rudolph has a thoughtful, aware, and absorbing presence; he is someone who seems to soak in details of people and places around him. When he speaks, there is a rush of enthusiasm and energy, particularly when describing his impassioned interest in art. He recently moved to Milwaukee and is settling into his new role as curator of American Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum. We sat down for an interview where he described his early aspirations as a novelist, first encounters with art, and his enduring fascination with portraits.
I thought that I was going to be a trash novelist, I really did. I grew up reading Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann…I went off to college thinking I would do English. I took an art history class; I’d never heard of it and everybody said it’s sort of easy. I went into the classroom and it was the classic 101…. The lights went off, the pictures came on, and I fell in love. I liked everything I saw, and even when I didn’t like things that much, I always wanted to see more. I fell in love with images.
But also, I really like museums. I liked going to them and we didn’t go frequently enough that I got bored. It was a treat. The first art museum I set foot in was the Art Institute of Chicago. I was six years old – it was the first one I remember. My father had a business trip to Chicago and we went. Museums were sort of magical, exciting places and I was like, ‘What could be better than to work in a museum?’ And I realized I was not that great of a trashy writer. Art took over more and more.
Rudolph received his M.A. from the University of Virginia and then lived in Philadelphia, working as a researcher at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He went on to earn his Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr. He has had a foot in academic circles of art history by teaching courses, but sees the presentation and interpretation of physical objects as paramount. He describes himself as “unrepentantly old school. I want you to come to the museum and have that engagement with the work of art.”
I asked his advice on a question which may sound pedantic (ok, even a bit boneheaded), but nonetheless, an important one. He responded with sage, and even soothing advice.
KM: We see hundreds of images everyday, but how do you look at art?
First and foremost, just take a minute and look. Just stop. You don’t have to look at everything. People enter a room and think they have to go around and see everything; just go into a gallery and see what grabs your eye. Spend some time and look at it. There may be things you don’t know, but that’s ok. Ideas will come to you. It’s sort of like meditation. It’s sort of maybe like hippy dippy yoga where you just give yourself some time to spend, and open yourself up to what that object might be telling you.
And it’s particularly important because we live in this fractured world where there’s information and stimuli coming at us all the time. When you come to the museum, we have so many things for you to do, from the reflective to the frenetic. But, that being said, give yourself some time just to hang out with the art. And that’s always the starting point. Don’t be afraid to just come in and spend some time with the art. Because it’s not “William’s Art Museum,” it’s the Milwaukee Art Museum. It’s for our visitors who come in the door.
Along with the pleasures of working with the museum’s collection, Rudolph is very excited about new projects coming up, including plans for additional information on objects and a “refreshing” of the American galleries. Plus, this summer will feature the unveiling of a new acquisition – a monumental group portrait with some amount of mystery surrounding it. The genre of portraiture is something near and dear to Rudolph’s heart.
KM: What is it about portraiture that captures you?
It’s all about humanity. It’s a very deeply human desire to have images of those who are close to you, or who fascinate you, or provoke you — or yourself — around you. We need those sort of images. We have them in everything from our Facebook profile to the photos we carry in our wallets, to the photos framed on the wall.
Rudolph notes that he still loves abstraction in art and paintings with a variety of color, but finds the intellectual fulfillment and nuances of portraiture special, particularly when it comes to his work in American art.
And how does he see American art? Like a combination curator and congenial host, he smiles and describes his vision of this broad field:
My idea of American art is not your dreary civics textbook from fourth grade shoved down your throat. American art is a lot wackier and weirder, and more beautiful and quirky and moving, and complicated and messy, than you may think it is. So it’s my job to bring that all to the fore.