Werner Herzog: Whitney Biennial Contributor, But Don’t Call Him an Artist

by Jillian Steinhauer on March 1, 2012

Director Werner Herzog talking with Paul Holdengräber at the Feb 29 event at NYPL. (via NYPL's Flickstream)

Art lovers in attendance at last night’s conversation with Werner Herzog at the New York Public Library were fortunate enough to hear a little of the backstory behind Herzog’s participation in this year’s Whitney Biennial. The inclusion of the celebrated filmmaker in the exhibition took many art-worlders by surprise when the list of participants was announced in December.

Herzog spoke with “Live from the NYPL” Director Paul Holdengräber for two hours in a free-ranging conversation that, while it mainly covered Herzog’s new documentaries on capital punishment, also included video clips and dramatic readings and touched on peregrine falcons, deciphering Mycenaean linear B script, the importance of reading books and the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Herzog explained that “of course” he declined the Whitney’s invitation at first — “Museums frighten me,” he said at one point, to a big laugh from the audience — but his wife, Lena, convinced him to accept. He then launched into a discussion of the subject of his installation, 17th-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers. He came upon Segers’s fantastic landscapes, which he described as “a great inspiration, a boldness of vision,” later in life; the discovery was akin to finding a long-lost brother or a kindred spirit.

An installation view of Werner Herzog's "Hearsay of the Soul" (2012) at the 2012 Whitney Biennial (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

With the installation, “I wanted to point to the father of all modernity in art,” Herzog said. He then suggested that any interested parties in the audience should stick around after the talk and form a group to head uptown to the Whitney. “Maybe they will stay open for us,” he said, half seeming to mean it.

Herzog mentioned twice that, in the end, he was happy he decided to participate in the exhibition; however, he brought the Whitney portion of the evening to a close by recounting a telling exchange he had with the curators there: “I don’t go to museums because I do not like art,” he apparently told them, to which they responded, “Yes, but you are an artist.”

“I’m not an artist,” Herzog said. “I’m a soldier.”

Werney Herzog spoke on Wednesday, February 29 at the Celeste Bartos Forum of The New York Public Library (42nd Street at Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan)

The 2012 Whitney Biennial continues at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until May 27.

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  • Robert Cicetti

    “I’m not an artist,” Herzog said. “I’m a soldier.”

    • Hrag Vartanian

      I want to know what war he’s fighting.

      • Robert Cicetti

        Hrag Vartanian, Writer, Critic & Cultural Warrior

  • Don Edler

    Werner Herzog Transcends Art

  • Shalom Hayyim

    Soldiers fight and the kings are called heroes.
    To Werner: The soul of a good man is worth as much as all the earth.  :)

  • Michael Davidson

    I brought up my concerns over the advertising and substance of this article over on facebook, and found my comments there censored. Attempted to contact the editor on FB, but was quickly blocked. This seemed more than a bit extreme. So I’ll try it here, and see if there isn’t a better result.

    Over on facebook, this article was linked to a post with the tagline that reads,
    “He says he’s a soldier? What war is he fighting?”. After reading the brief article, I was critical of that tag, which defaults to that which is all too common in the blogosphere; snark vs. substance. I wondered why instead of going for some thin sarcastic line about the artist’s comment, there wasn’t more curiosity about its substance. I suspect that the reporter didn’t get a follow up during the event, but I did wonder if any attempt was made to follow up, or contact Herzog, or research the comment. As I found out, there are references to Herzog’s soldier comment out there, found with 10 seconds of google help. These I posted to the facebook dialog. And those too- were deleted. What’s more- in the midst of the facebook dialog between myself and Vrag, Vrag made a comment about Herzog’s work being weak in the Biennial. Curious. It wasn’t elaborated on, or justified. I haven’t seen the Biennial yet, so I can’t say. But I would be interested to hear why the editor made the judgement as there wasn’t any substance to the declaration. Along with some constructive criticism from this reader, interesting references to the “soldier” comment I easily found, the editor’s judgement on Herzog’s “weak” work in the Biennial was erased.

    • Hrag Vartanian

      You’re just as angry and bitter on the blogazine as you were on Facebook and the least you can do is spell my name right. I’m going to ban you here too. Hyperallergic is not designed for the humorless. There are academic journals for that. Go find one. Negativity attracts negativity.

  • Bennnyv

    For being a soldier and not an artist, his installation was my favorite of the entire biennial. 

    • Liza Eliano

      Agreed! I wandered in there right before the museum closed and didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with it, but it’s beauty was simple and poignant. Call it art, call it war, whatever, it works.

  • Lo Snöfall

     I believe Mr Herzog is one of the soldiers in search for our deepest essentials.
    (‘Soldier’ origin Latin literally ‘solid’) describes his war refugee childhood dream of shooting a crow to eat. on The Ecstatic Truth.

  • Claire Nguyen

    The Heart of a Chicken: Notes on Werner Herzog

  • guadelupe

    I was expecting him to say, “I’m not an artist, I’m a filmmaker” since of course filmmakers have been so drowned out by all the bad “films” (videos) being made by artists for a long time now, and so many actual filmmakers have stopped calling themselves that because there’s no money in it so they call themselves artists instead. But no, good old Herzog has to once again get on his high (cavalry?) horse instead of just being one among many (non-warrior) filmmakers. Sigh….

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