December 17, 2012  |  Behind the Scenes
Art/Work: MoMA’s Creative Minds: Harvey Tulcensky
Harvey Tulcensky. Untitled detail from Notebook Drawing. Ballpoint on paper.

Harvey Tulcensky. Untitled detail from Notebook Drawing. Ballpoint on paper

Sitting in MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, Harvey Tulcensky answered my queries, and as he did so, a dragonfly buzzed by and a butterfly landed on his shoulder. These were clearly good signs of the positive conversation to come.

Harvey has been a full-time art preparator at MoMA for 34 years. He is also an artist in MoMA’s collection, and exhibits with Edward Thorpe Gallery in Chelsea. What is amazing are all the things he has managed to fill his free time with, not just a wife and beautiful child, but well, I’ll let him tell you:

MoMA: When are you able to work on your artwork?  Nearly all the time. I created the Notebook Project eight years ago as a way of working outside of the confines of my studio. I can work on the Moleskin notebooks while on the subway, on buses to and from work, or while waiting for a curator to arrive on the floor, filling them obsessively. It is like an EKG of my minute-to-minute existence. I have used details from things seen each day in the Museum, in my notebooks, be it a drop cloth or a work in the collection.

Postcard, Atlantic City. Early 20th century

Postcard, Atlantic City. Early 20th century

Is it like On Kawara’s “I am still alive” series? I guess in a sense if I were not doing it I wouldn’t know if I were [alive]. This [the Notebook Project] is how I ended up in the Drawing Center exhibition Day Job. Despite the day job because that is what I came here [to New York from Detroit in 1972] to do.

What is the best and worst part of being an artist working at MoMA? The best part is being surrounded by the collection. Worst—it eats too much of one’s time away from everything. [You] have to fit your life around someone else’s schedule.

What is your favorite work in MoMA’s collection and why? I don’t have a favorite work. There are just too many, though there definitely are pieces I am drawn to. A work I feel particularly close to right now is Breton’s Poem-Object in the Surrealist vitrine. Every time I walk through that gallery I recite the poem in my head (Harvey recites it for me, translated into English):

“These Empty places
where I wander
overcome by the darkness
and the moon hung
on the house of my heart”

How has the Museum changed in 34 years? It has gotten much bigger; there was always something to do but not at the hectic pace there is now. When we worked overtime on an exhibition in the past, we used to all sit around on our dinner breaks, drinking, eating our dinner in the galleries, often talking about the work. Now there’s no time for sitting around and talking. The social aspect has disappeared.

I understand you have a postcard collection, how did you get interested in collecting postcards? I started collecting the postcards in order to use them in my artwork but I never did. I only collect “real photo” postcards as opposed to offset lithography. Actual silver photographs as opposed to reproductions. I spend so much time in Vermont that I discovered them in the antique stores when I was looking to create a history with the land and the home I have there. The postcards were shown in the exhibition Postmarked at K. S. Art, a gallery in Tribeca. After the exhibition, Princeton Architectural Press was interested in publishing a book of the collection, which it did, entitled Real Photo Postcards: Unbelievable Images from the Collection of Harvey Tulcensky.

Aymara Poncho. Early 20th century

Aymara Poncho. Early 20th century

I understand you also have a folk art collection and Aymara textiles from the Andes: I have always responded to the immediacy of folk, or outsider art. I used to go every year to K.S. Art on my birthday and purchase a piece of folk art (all works on paper and a few paintings). Both the Drawing Center and The Philadelphia Museum have borrowed James Castle drawings from me. I still collect, just not necessarily on my birthday.

Have you thought of doing a book of your folk art collection?  No. The folk art is a love, something I feel a kinship with, and like being surrounded and inspired by. The postcards, on the other hand, are an obsession through which I had wanted to tell a story. I am working on a second postcard book, this time of manipulated imagery.

As you can see, Harvey has much to share, thank you Harvey!