A native of Romania who left Bucharest as a political dissident when she was 18 years old, Roxana Marcoci landed in New York City, via Paris, and began studying art history, taking the first steps along a path that would lead to the Museum of Modern Art, where she is currently the David Dechman Senior Curator and Acting Chief Curator of Photography. Her mother was an actress and her father was an architectural draftsman, and the visual and performing arts, she says, were always part of her life. As an undergraduate at Hunter, and then at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, she studied with some of the art world’s heavy-hitters: Craig Owens and Maurice Berger at Hunter, Kirk Varnedoe and Robert Rosenblum at the Institute, where her PhD thesis was on Constantin Brancusi. Though her studies focused on painting and sculpture, she ultimately found herself in MoMA’s photography department, where she has organized numerous exhibitions, including, most recently, Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, which closed on January 1, 2023, after a nearly four-month run. She’s now working on An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux Rivières, which opens this fall. Marcoci spoke to Jean Dykstra, photograph’s editor, last month.
Jean Dykstra: You came to MoMA as a curator in the Department of Sculpture and Painting; how did you become interested in photography and wind up in the photography department?
Roxana Marcoci: Well, for my undergraduate studies at Hunter College, I focused on three majors: one was art history, the others were theater and film criticism, and there was a special honors curriculum that had an interdisciplinary program taught by two professors from different fields. Among my first mentors was Craig Owens, who opened my views toward post-structuralism and gender studies; and the other was Maurice Berger, so I was interested early on in issues of race and class justice and the sociological underpinnings of photography.
Then I went to NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and focused on art history. My PhD thesis was on Brancusi, on his sculptures and the history and reception of his work during different political regimes. But what was critical at that time was that I came to understand Brancusi’s sculptures in their full complexity by looking at his photographs.
Then in 2010, I organized a large-scale exhibition, The Original Copy: Photographs of Sculpture, 1839 to Today, that was a critical examination of the intersection of photography and sculpture and explored how one medium is implicated of the interpretation of another.
JD: I was going to mention that exhibition, because it seems like quite a number of the exhibitions you’ve organized have been cross-departmental in that way – which seems natural considering your background in painting and sculpture, but also perhaps intentional on your part.
RM: When I first came to the museum, I worked for four years in painting and sculpture, and then I was invited to join the photography department, which I did, with the understanding that I will always be able to curate in a cross-disciplinary way. I was interested in that aspect before it became the de facto working methodology at the museum.
JD: Was the photography department where you expected to find yourself?
RM: To tell you the truth, I think every curator at a museum like MoMA should have the opportunity to work in every department for a few years. There’s just so much to learn from each other. Now we have cross-departmental convenings and collaborations, but when I joined, in the summer of 1999, the departments functioned like federations.
To look at the history of photography from the perspective of photographers but also artists working with the photographic medium – that was why Eva Respini [formerly a curator at MoMA and now the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston] and I decided to start the Forums on Photography. We realized that we would like to bring people together to the same table to have off-the-cuff debates, to agree to disagree, so to speak.
JD: Since the pandemic, those forums have been held over Zoom, which means many more people can participate, but also that people are no longer in a room together.
RM: For 10 years, we only met in person – the whole purpose was to create a sense of community, to have conversations with photographers, theorists, curators, artists working with still and moving images. At the advent of COVID, we didn’t want to stop, so everything was moved online. Then there was the realization than instead of having 100 people in one room we could have 2,000 on screen from across the globe. I see the benefits of both, so perhaps in the future, we’ll transition to a hybrid formula.
JD: As a curator, how do you grapple with the fact that people are looking at so much artwork online? How do you take advantage of what that technology offers and also encourage people to actually come to the museum to see work in person?
RM: The museum has different platforms – that’s true for all museums – and for constituents who aren’t able to visit in person, it’s a positive thing to have a wealth of visual material online. We’ve put the majority of the collection online, which is an extraordinary research tool. On the other hand, you can think about it as the difference between a relationship in person versus a virtual relationship; looking at artworks with other people in the same space is just something very special, it’s experiential learning.
JD: The Wolfgang Tillmans show drew big crowds. Can you speak a bit about Tillmans’s work and what it is that draws people to it, particularly when so many of his photographs are, on their surface, of such everyday scenes and objects?
RM: I still have a clear memory of when I first saw Wolfgang’s work. It was in 1994, he had his first show on Prince Street in SoHo, and the experience of seeing his unglazed, unframed photographs and the way that they were installed was so uniquely powerful, I promised myself that I would follow this artist. …. I think that he’s a true polymath. He’s touching every single aspect of photography – still life, architecture, abstraction, portraiture, observational studies. But also, given my interest in the porousness of photography, I appreciate his engagement with music, video, activism, and writing – his oeuvre transcends the bounds of a single artistic discipline, and that’s why I think he speaks to so many different people.
JD: Looking ahead, to the An-My Lê show: her approach to dealing with war and displacement, in documentary-like images that are often actually fictional, is so powerful. Can you talk about her work a bit and why it might resonate now?
RM: We are now one year after Russia invaded Ukraine, in an exacerbation of a long aggression that started in 2014, and I think that the significance of photographs that critically engage with the making of war is ever-more urgent. Additionally, it’s a time of heightened racial tensions within the U.S., emerging from the pandemic, an era of closed borders internationally, and the way her work invites viewers to see beyond insular national boundaries is profoundly revealing. The show will be quite complex and will touch on distinct aspects of the relationship between gender and labor and violence. It will be a new look at her work, even for those who are very familiar with it.
JD: What is it that you enjoy about the act of curating?
RM: There are different phases that I love about curatorial work, from the part where you begin to conceptualize an exhibition and think about how you’re going to present it differently from any other show that you’ve seen, and from there, putting together a group of colleagues across the museum that becomes your team, then seeing it go up and sharing it with audiences. To me that’s the most amazing feeling – being on the floor, in the galleries, and installing the works. After an exhibition goes up, it stays with me but right before I go to sleep I do this exercise where I deinstall and reinstall everything in my mind in a completely different way.
JD: Are there trends or movements in photography, or younger artists, who you’re particularly excited about at this moment?
RM: Yes, so many. I am curious about how artists are engaging with topics that are of consequence, such as race and social justice, indigeneity and decolonization, glitch feminisms, the conditions of hypervisibility and surveillance, the impact of images in the age of smart phones and social media platforms. What I am most excited about is MoMA’s own series, New Photography. This May, my colleague Oluremi C. Onabanjo will present the 2023 edition focusing on the photographic work of several artists who are united by their critical use of photographic forms and their ties to the artistic scene in the port city of Lagos (Èkó), Nigeria. But I am already thinking of New Photography 2025, which will mark the 40th anniversary of this celebrated exhibition program, and about the centrality images play in our interconnected world.