Editor’s note: Leigh Markopoulos (1968-2017) was a San Francisco art critic, curator and educator. Among her many professional accomplishments, she served as chair of the graduate program in curatorial practice at California College of the Arts, where artist and curator David Kasprzak studied from 2009 to 2011.
It was the spring of 2010, and I had just spent the day walking along Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty with my seven curatorial practice classmates, Marina McDougall (director of the Exploratorium’s Center for Art & Inquiry), and Leigh. I remember being underwhelmed with the infamous work of land art. It may have been the result of the hundreds of aerial photos that present the piece as a magnificent triumph of human will, its full glory visible only from the heavens. More likely it was the nauseating ride over miles of boulders and unmaintained “roads.” Earlier that day there had been a lengthy debate about whether or not we could make it to the Jetty and back to our base at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah, in one day. Always the adventurer, Leigh decided that we would try.
What Leigh had not anticipated was the effects of two hours of spinal-contusing thrashing on the “road” of boulders leading to the Jetty, six hours of direct sun over the Great Salt Lake, and the stench of death from an unexpected low tide. By the time we made it back to Interstate 15 our van looked more like a John Chamberlain sculpture than a functioning automobile, and everyone was sleeping fitfully — except for myself and Leigh, our unbreakable pilot behind the wheel. After an hour of silence I heard Leigh whisper, “DK you have to keep me awake. Play some music.” Knowing her musical proclivities well, I plugged in and began playing a set of every ’80s British punk and metal album I could find. Somewhere between The Sex Pistols and Motörhead I looked at the dashboard and realized that we were traveling at a steady 95 mph!
For the next several hours I deejayed the soundtrack to Leigh’s rampage through northwestern Utah. I do not think a single word was exchanged, just the roar of our Ford Econoline and the growl of Lemmy’s whiskey and gravel vocals. I was in awe — this person of such intellect, poise and grace was barreling down the road, hands a steady as stone, belting out every lyric of “Ace of Spades.” Only a few hours earlier, she had been lecturing us on the nuances of Robert Smithson’s practice and the sociopolitical problems with land art in her flawless Queen’s English. That is the dichotomy of Leigh Markopoulos — the model of pedagogy, wit and class, and a passionate unwavering force of nature. She was at once a teacher, curator, writer and heavy metal vocalist.
Ask anyone who was fortunate enough to know Leigh, and they will most likely have a handful of similar narratives. Whether historically researched or experienced first-hand, narratives were important to Leigh. They taught us where we had come from, where we are now, and where we might be going. Over her 14 years as an educator, Leigh taught over one hundred students that are now curators, artists and writers working around the globe.
She taught us to be rigorous, honest, inventive, deliberate and passionate. She taught us to care about our craft but not take ourselves too seriously. She taught us to embrace reality but never lose our optimism. Most importantly she taught us to work with all of our humanity. That is the narrative she leaves behind. Whether it’s in the way we approach our practice or the way we conduct our personal relationships, Leigh affected us all.
Every time you view an exhibition or read a piece by one of her former pupils, look for Leigh Markopoulos in it — you will undoubtedly find her. And every time I hear Motörhead blaring from a bar or a car window, I’ll picture her fighting back a smile.