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Kellein takes over Chinati director job

January 21st, 2011 under Arts


MARFA – As I entered Dr. Thomas Kellein’s light-filled office last Friday morning, a fat tuxedo cat brazenly followed me through the door. The new director at the Chinati Foundation watched it with dismay, explaining that he likes cats, in fact he has cats at home, but that, “This is still a museum.” The cat, obviously unimpressed by his viewpoint, had to be carried out.

Kellein (pronounced ke- as in kettle, and -lein as in line) arrived in Marfa barely two weeks ago and already he’s a familiar sight around town: a mop of tousled gray hair, a kind and serious face, usually riding a sleek black bike.

Born in Nuremberg, he received his doctorate in 1982 from the University of Hamburg. The directorship at Chinati is his third such post at a major contemporary art museum. From 1996 until just a few weeks ago Kellein directed and curated at Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Germany, where he organized shows by Donald Judd, Kasimir Malevich, Henri Laurens, Jeff Koons, Adam Fuss, Vanessa Beecroft, Ilya Kabakov, Alvar Aalto, Louise Bourgeois, and Yoko Ono to name a few.

In March Kellein will return to Bielefeld to install an exhibition called “The 80’s Revisited,” but he won’t fulfill the last of his obligations at the German museum until this September when he returns to put up a show of Pablo Picasso.

From 1988 to 1995 Kellein directed and curated at the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland, which was when he first met Judd. In 1990 Kellein invited the artist to design the façade of a postal station in Basel, but Judd died before the plans were realized.

“I can’t say this was truly through-the-very-end a Donald Judd, 100 percent authentic work of art,” Kellein said of the post office project, “because I think he would have made some changes in the end, but still you could call it an authentic Judd idea.”

Kellein first came to Marfa in 1991 at Judd’s invitation and has since been a frequent visitor, most recently at the 2010 Open House Weekend, which he attended with his family, who for the time being are still in Germanay.

He has three children: 18-year old Katherine,17-year old Leonie and 13-year old Valentin. The younger daughter plans to finish high school in the Fatherland while the elder one has her sights set on a Chinati internship. Valentin will be moving to Austin to attend boarding school and Kellein’s  wife, the Swiss painter Elizabeth Masé plans to join him in August when the current school year in Germany comes to a close.

Kellein reported that his son initially balked at the thought of moving to Texas and threatened to seek adoption from another family. Luckily, the willingness of a friend to go in his stead and offers from other families to take him up on this threat changed Valentin’s mind.

Since Kellein’s first visit in 1991, the museum has grown to include the now iconic installations by Dan Flavin and Ilya Kabakov. He succeeds the Director Emeritus Marianne Stockebrand, whose 16-year leadership took the museum from a fledgling institution that struggled to pay its bills to an international destination with a staff of 20 and an educational force within the local community. Kellein is sensitive to the evolving character of Chinati within the demanding context of Judd’s original vision.

“I’m considering inviting artists to the campus that have not been preselected by Judd. Although I’m also very conservative and I think the place has been totally defined by him and I just want to put it on the map even more than it is,” he said.

“My essential belief is that the Chinati Foundation is the world’s paradigm for a museum of contemporary art, meaning that we have many museums nowadays in all continents dedicated to contemporary art and they all, in a certain way, come from this place although many people aren’t even aware of it,” he explained and then added, “Judd entirely renewed the relation of the art object to the viewer by having it installed in an integral way with the surrounding space.”

As for the 2011 Open House, Kellein assured me, “There will be a members’ dinner, there will be music and there will be theatre.”

Though Kellein has never lived in a rural area before, he remarked on the uniqueness of Marfa.

“I’m truly impressed by the amount of wonderful institutions in Marfa. Whether it’s other art institutions or the public library or the restaurants. I find a really high culture here of passionate people.”

Tonight at 6PM Kellein will introduce art historian and professor at the Art Institute of Chicago David Raskin at the Marfa Book Company. Raskin recently authored a new book on Judd.

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