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.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

11 replies on “Werner Herzog: Whitney Biennial Contributor, But Don’t Call Him an Artist”

  1. “I’m not an artist,” Herzog said. “I’m a soldier.”
    Really? Then again, with that voice, he can say just about anything.

    1. 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.

  2. 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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