Last week, the Museum of Modern Art announced that its longtime Senior Curator, Laurence Kardish, would retire from his position in October. More than shouldering responsibility for MoMA's continuing reputation as one of New York's preeminent destinations for first-rate cinema both new and old, Kardish has been a fixture of the museum's film department since 1968. Over the course of his 44-year tenure, he has helped usher in a more profound appreciation for the broad scope of film history while also keeping an eye on the present.
Indiewire spoke to Kardish earlier this week and extracted the following reasons why his legacy has such profound ramifications for anyone who cares about cinema's lasting relevance.
He programmed some of the best retrospectives in the history of the profession.
"There are many, but one I really liked was conceiving and preparing the retrospective of Senegalese cinema, which was the first time that there was an exhibition of African cinema in the U.S. That was a tremendous experience for me because there were some spectacular films, particularly the films of Ousmane Sembene. I was able to travel to Dakar to ask the permission of the filmmakers if I could borrow the films from Paris because the prints were not in Dakar but France since many of them were sponsored by the Ministry of Cooperation. That was an important retrospective for me, as was the first retrospective of Shirley Clarke, which I also did. At that time, she was moving into video experimentation. It allowed us to also track a major change in the development of media art.
"The first retrospective I worked on was the Ernst Lubitsch retrospective in 1968. It was curated by Herman Weinberg, because he had written this book called 'The Lubitsch Touch.' I did the curating in the sense that we decided very early on that we would do complete retrospectives. It wasn't that someone would say, 'This is a weak Lubitsch; don't show it.' We felt we had to show all the work of this particular filmmaker. I was able to track the prints down.
"Then there were other, smaller shows. At the end of '69 we did a show called "Decade's End." We selected films we thought were important in cinematic language from the last 10 years. Then it was off to the races with other retrospectives.
"I did the first retrospective on John Cassavetes and Melvin Van Peebles. Those meant great deal to me and I think a fair amount to the artists as well."
Beyond discovering films of the past, he also helped deepen our understanding of contemporary cinema as a member of the New Directors/New Films selection committee.
"When I was looking at student films and there was a film called 'Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads' that just knocked me out. I brought it to my colleagues on the New Directors/New Films committee. So we were able to screen Spike Lee's first film during New Directors/New Films. He went out to Cannes within the next year or two with his first feature film, 'She's Gotta Have It.'"
He helped legitimize New York's underground filmmakers by getting his start with them.
"I was fortunate. I had two very good people to help me: Willard Van Dyke, the head of the department at the time, and Adrienne Mancia, who really wanted to establish a program for independent and avant garde filmmaking that would be steady. I was brought on because I was part of that community. When I came to New York in '66 to study at Columbia, I had a job waiting for me with the underground New American Cinema Group. Jonas Mekas was my first boss here. My job was to place films in theaters as opposed to just film societies and film clubs. Fortunately, that was the year that there was a deep awareness of the American avant garde cinema thanks to Andy Warhol's 'Chelsea Girls.' Working for the underground, I got to meet and interact with filmmakers like Andrew Noren, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, George and Mike Kuchar. They were all part of my community. I was hired in part because of the community of film artists that the museum wanted to bring to the fore. That hasn't changed. I guess I was part of the change from simply the study of film history into something more dynamic. But that continues to this day."
He continues to advocate for a mixture of programming that highlights cinema both new and old.
"There are very, very few places that show repertory programming. When I was studying at Columbia, the reason I liked living in New York was because there was so much repertory cinema. But now, in terms of true repertory programming, you basically have Bruce Goldstein's programming at Film Forum. That's kind of it, so you're really confined to watching classic films on digital platforms. What we do at the museum is not just repertory. We do show classic films, but we also show — because I think it's extraordinarily important — new films from around the world that would otherwise not be shown in this city. That's a major part of our programming here."
He's still committed to the task at hand. "Retirement" isn't the same thing as giving up.
"I'm stepping out of this institution that I love simply because after 44 years, I think it's time. It's basically been 90% of my professional career. I have other ideas I would like to pursue. I'm retiring from MoMA but not retiring from the field. I have various ideas and possibilities that I will work on — seeing more movies, spending more time with friends, stuff like that."