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Helene Winer Class of 1966

Helene Winer Class of 1966

Curating Controversy

As the young director of Pomona College’s Museum of Art in the early 1970s, Helene Winer ’66 made tongues wag with her avant-garde curating. Work she introduced ranged from William Leavitt’s seminal installation California Patio - a replica of a mid-century patio complete with a sliding-glass door - to the performance art of Chris Burden, who launched bundles of lit matches at a nude woman across the gallery.

Controversial? Sure. But for Winer that wasn’t the point. “I was just looking for the best artists I could find. I may have caused a little trouble, but I don’t think I was ever challenging the establishment. It was just art, speaking its mind.”

Winer has spent the subsequent decades shaping contemporary art in Los Angeles and New York. The institution where she established her reputation recognized her in its recent exhibition, It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-1973. The show was part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, a multi-institution collaboration depicting Southern California’s emergence as a major force in the art world.

A native Angeleno, Winer began her trailblazing career by studying art history at USC in the early 1960s. “The thing to do at the time for a young woman was to teach art in high school, but I didn’t want to do that,” Winer recalls.

After graduation, she headed to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which had opened its doors on Wilshire Boulevard the previous year. “I said I would do anything, work for free,” she says. Her enthusiasm proved persuasive, and she was hired as a curatorial assistant. After two years at LACMA, Winer decided to bum around Europe. She ended up landing a job as assistant director of the renowned Whitechapel Gallery in London, where she immersed herself in contemporary European art.

In 1970, she returned to Southern California and landed her career-making position at Pomona. Even though she had built a solid résumé by then, Winer says of being hired, “It was pretty astonishing, especially since they had zero women on the full-time faculty at that time.”

Besides working with Burden and Leavitt while at Pomona, Winer cultivated the careers of John Baldessari, who pioneered conceptual art and recently had a major retrospective at LACMA, and William Wegman, the photographer well known for his works with Weimaraner dogs. After leaving Pomona, Winer decamped for New York City, where she became a leading figure in the downtown art scene that bred the work of up-and-coming - and often controversial - artists. She directed one of the movement’s leading galleries, Artists Space, before teaming with fellow curator Janelle Reiring in 1980 to start a new gallery, Metro Pictures, in SoHo.

At that time, there were few places where talented but relatively unknown artists could show their work. That quickly changed thanks to curators like Winer, who propelled the careers of artists such as Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and Troy Brauntuch, all of whom were featured prominently in a 2009 exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art called The Pictures Generation.

Still co-owner of Metro Pictures, Winer admits that since her days at Pomona she has evolved from being viewed as a rabble-rousing outsider to the ultimate insider. But those labels don’t concern her. Her focus today remains as clear as when she was making waves in the early 1970s: “I’m just looking for the very best artists I can find.”

NICK DIVITO

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