Last March, before all the snow had melted, Eva Respini moved north to become the Institute of Contemporary Art’s chief curator. Respini, who grew up in Europe, had been a curator in the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
BOOKS: Did you grow up reading different books than an American would?
RESPINI: Yes. I have a young daughter, and I’ve been buying her all the books that I never read that are classics here, ones my husband read, such as the Dr. Seuss books, Curious George, and the Golden Books series. Even though I grew up in Europe, the predominant language at home was English. My parents had all the Agatha Christie novels, and as a kid I read all of them. I really have a love of mystery novels because of that. My favorites are “Murder on the Orient Express” and “And Then There Were None.” Growing up I loved Poirot, but now I’m more partial to Miss Marple. It’s interesting to see whom you identify with as you grow older. I do tend to gravitate toward female protagonists now.
BOOKS: Who are some of your favorite female protagonists?
RESPINI: It’s probably more female authors. I’ve read a lot by Siri Hustvedt, who also has a lot of female protagonists. I read “What I Loved,” and her recent novel “The Blazing World,” which is about an under-recognized female artist who takes on a male identity and becomes successful. I’ve read a lot by Joan Didion. Every few years I reread “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” I read her memoir “Blue Nights” on a flight to Japan. I sobbed. I don’t know what my seatmates thought of me. I like Annie Proulx. I recently reread “The Shipping News” a couple of weeks ago. It was great.
BOOKS: Do you read mostly fiction?
RESPINI: Honestly, most of my time is spent looking at and reading art books. And then, though I love fiction, I find myself reading memoirs for pleasure. When you do a show with artists, you get inside their heads; you get to know them in intimate ways. A memoir is a similar kind of process. I’ve read Cynthia Carr’s biography of the artist David Wojnarowicz, “Fire in the Belly,” and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.” I’m about to read “Girl in a Band,” a memoir by Kim Gordon, a founding member of Sonic Youth. I also read more fun things like Grace Coddington’s memoir about her life as a model and then as creative director at Vogue. My guilty pleasure is rock bios about bands like the Rolling Stones, Motley Crue, and the Cure. These are gossipy, fast reads. When they are well written they can be very moving.
BOOKS: Who do you have the most art books of and about?
RESPINI: I have a quite a few books about and by Robert Frank. “The Americans” is one of the most important photo books. I have quite a few by Walker Evans. I love post-war Japanese photographers Daido Moriyama and Shomei Tomatsu, and they were prolific book publishers, so I have some of those. Photography is interesting because it lends itself to the book form. I would say photos in book form is a medium unto itself.
BOOKS: Do you ever read how-to books?
RESPINI: The most I ever delved into that was some pregnancy books when I was pregnant. Trying to understand what labor was like by reading a book didn’t do it.
BOOKS: Who influenced you as a reader?
RESPINI: My mother, who is a voracious reader of all kinds of books. What struck me is that she would read 10 or 15 minutes at a time. She’d be cooking dinner and have her book nearby. She’d pick it up for 10 minutes and then read another 20 minutes after dinner. One always thinks, ‘Now I’m going to read for an hour,’ but she read throughout the day. She kept reading in her life, which I haven’t managed to do to that extent. I always think of her with a book.
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