My first involvement with international AICA was in September 1989. I had just returned from Soviet Czechoslovakia, where I had been invited to speak by a former student of mine and a Czech curator who had co-curated a daring exhibition of young L.A. and Czech artists. This was the summer before the Velvet Revolution: Vaclav Havel was in jail, Jan Urban was riding around on a bicycle in disguise, men in trench coats were threatening to shut down the exhibition. My first trip behind the Iron Curtain was surreal and fascinating. The American artists and I were abruptly told that our visas were revoked and we must leave. The anniversary of Jan Palach, student martyr, was approaching and those in power didn’t want foreigners to witness what could have become a massacre.
The AICA Congress of 1989 was scheduled to be held in Moscow. I returned to New York and flew to an already dysfunctional empire, bringing cartons of Marlboros as currency. Food there was so scarce that the Congress was relocated to Tblisi, Georgia. There I found that art critics from all over spoke the same language: we in the West talked postmodernism; Soviet critics defined a similar sensibility as post-catastrophism.
In 1991, as the new AICA-USA president, I invited Merle Schipper to help me organize the U.S. Congress in Santa Monica, which had been initiated by Phyllis Tuchman. Our theme, during that brief moment of euphoria after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was Beyond Walls and Wars. But during that Congress, Yugoslavia broke apart, to the distress of our speakers from Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia.
In 1996, a number of national AICA presidents urged me to run for international president, in an effort to expand the influence of AICA beyond Europe. To my surprise, I won, and immediately urged the General Assembly to vote for the other four presidential candidates as vice presidents. During my two three-year terms, congresses took place in Northern Ireland (shortly before the peace agreement; only two bombs exploded in Belfast that week), Poland, Japan, the U.K., and—a couple of weeks after 9/11—Croatia, where the theme was Images of Power/The Power of the Image.
In Egypt, I presented the AICA/UNESCO award to young artists at the Cairo Biennial in 1998, following a proposal I made to UNESCO to restructure the award jointly at newer biennials. In 1999, I met in Taiwan with 70 art critics, and we forged a new AICA section named Open Section (Taiwan)—because UNESCO had forbidden a national section, for fear of offending mainland China. Shortly after hostilities ceased in Sarajevo, I represented AICA twice at Ars Aevi, amid abandoned tanks, a modern museum with a missing roof, and a tall elevator shaft that was all that remained of the daily newspaper building.
Criticism is a lonely profession. My tenure as only the second American president of AICA during its 50-year existence (at a time when the U.S. had withdrawn from UNESCO) presented me with complex problems to solve and many extraordinary memories. It taught me the value of teamwork, enthusiasm, and inclusiveness. It taught me that sometimes several minds are better than one, so long as one person remains at the helm to take credit or blame. AICA, an organization that then had 4,000 members, taught me to be diplomatic, to raise funding for publications such as Art Planet, and to make speeches of thanks while sitting between the Lord Mayor of Belfast and the Mayor of Derry, who, on opposite sides of “the struggles,” had not yet spoken a word to each other. I was pleased to have initiated a conversation between them that evening.
Independent art critic and curator KIM LEVIN is the author of Beyond Modernism: Essays on Art from the ’70s and ’80s (Harper&Row); editor of Beyond Walls and Wars: Art, Politics, and Multiculturalism (Midmarch); and co-author of Trans Plant: Living Vegetation in Contemporary Art (Hatje Cantz). A regular contributor to the Village Voice from 1983 to 2006, her writing has been featured in ARTNews, the Irish periodical Printed Project, and other publications throughout the world. While the international president of AICA (1996 - 2002), she conceived and co-edited the journal Art Planet: A Global View of Art Criticism.
She was an advisor to the first Kwangju Biennial in 1995, was curator of the Nordic Biennial Borealis 8 in Copenhagen (1996 - 97), and has curated exhibitions for museums in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. She exhibited her own Notes and Itineraries at Feldman Gallery in New York in 2006, and was guest curator of the retrospective Arnold Mesches: A Life’s Work at Miami-Dade Museum in February 2013.