Phong Bui Talks Curating at Kasmin and His First Exhibition Since “Surviving Sandy”

Tonight, Paul Kasmin Gallery will open “Bloodflames Revisited,” a 25-artist summer group show that also happens to be Brooklyn Rail publisher Phong Bui’s first curatorial effort since his wildly successful “Surviving Sandy” show of last year. Bui conceptualized the Kasmin exhibition as an homage to the exhibition “Bloodflames,” which was staged under the directorship of Alexander Iolas at Hugo Gallery in 1947. While the original show disrupted the conventional white cube with curved walls and tilted canvasses, Bui took a slightly different approach. When I stopped by the gallery’s W 27th Steet location earlier this week, walls were painted mac-and-cheese yellow, a thick layer of hay covered the floor, and a raised catwalk-like ramp ran down the center of the space. The show includes works by Lynda Benglis, Roxy Paine, Dorothea Rockburne, among others, with just two Kasmin artists — Deborah Kass and Will Ryman — on the roster. In the midst of installation, Bui took a break to talk to us about working with Kasmin, Iolas’s fascinating life, and being inspired by the subway.

This is the first show you’ve curated since “Surviving Sandy,” right?

I hope so. That show nearly burned me and the Rail out because we did it in less than three months. We hung the whole thing in two weeks.

Why did you decide to do your next show with Paul Kasmin?

Three or four months ago, Paul asked me whether I would consider curating a summer show for him. When I came, I had a meeting with Paul and they were at the tail end of a great show that Kasmin had organized, co-curated by my friend Vincent Fremont and Adrian Dannatt. It was a show comprised of works that once belonged to Alexander Iolas, the legendary dealer. The way that I curate is always a spontaneous gesture — kind of a call-and-response. I don’t think ahead in advance and propose ideas. Everything I’ve done so far as a curator is when people asked me to do something and my feeling is always to respond to the immediacy of the space.

So when curating this show you were responding to the Iolas show that opened at Kasmin back in March. Why was that show such an inspiration?

He [Iolas] has fascinated me.  He was born in 1907 and went to Berlin in his early 20s to become a pianist. It was there that he became interested in dance. So he fled Germany during the rise of Hitler, came back to Paris, and became a dancer. He was a dancer until ’44 or so when he was injured and couldn’t dance so that’s when he became an art dealer. When he came to Paris, he knew all the artists already. He was friends with Cocteau, Braque, Magritte, and everyone else. He became a collector. When he came to New York, he worked for a gallery that lasted ten years — the gallery was called Hugo. It was created by Robert Rothschild, Elizabeth Arden, and Maria dei Principi Ruspoli Hugo. He was a director. What struck me the most was he believed that the visitors, when they came to the gallery, were actually dancers. The gallery is almost like a stage where the décor is made by artists.

What are the differences between the original “Bloodflames” show and yours?

The original “Bloodflames” show in 1947 was a [Frederick] Kiesler-esque surrealist vision. Nothing was going to be rectilinear. I’m a cubist. I organize things in my head with sensible spatial receptiveness. [The inspiration] shouldn’t be literal. I was on the N or the R train when I discovered the seat was red and orange and I liked the combination. So I’m using all kinds of contemporary sources as well.

The original show also didn’t have hay on the floor. Did you choose to cover the floor with hay because it matches the yellow wall?

Yes, I think it’s a nice contrast.

And are people meant to walk on the hay?

Yes! The idea is to have two different groundings, planes of perspective: soft/hard, high/low. The smell will be memorable. People who have allergies will remember. [laughs] We are also going to have dancers here rehearsing. We are going to commission a couple of dancers who are going to choreograph a dance and also four poets writing poems about their experience of the show. Why just do the visual? Let’s fuck things up a little bit.

— Ashton Cooper (ashton_cooper)

(Top Photo: Nicola Delorme; Bottom Photo: Jeff Nefsky; Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery)