France Honors Klaus Ottmann and Mark Polizzotti

January 5, 2017 | By French Culture

On Tuesday, December 20th, 2016, Klaus Ottmann and Mark Polizzotti were honored with the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters at a ceremony at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montclaur conferred the insignia to the two accomplished leaders of the art world. 

Good evening! As Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, it is my honor to welcome you here tonight as we bestow the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters upon Klaus Ottmann and Mark Polizzotti, two accomplished leaders of the world of art.

In 1957, this award was established by the French government in order to recognize those who have made significant contributions to the arts, literature, and culture in France and throughout the world.

Klaus Ottmann and Mark Polizzotti, we are thrilled to honor you this evening. In your respective careers in art publishing, curating, and scholarship, your individual and collective contributions have been outstanding. You have also promoted and shared the work of many French artists and intellectuals. Here at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, we strive to create cultural dialogues between France and the rest of the world, and we believe that your work has been emblematic of our mission. We could not be more pleased to present you with these awards.

Klaus, let us begin with you.

Dear Klaus Ottmann:

For the past thirty years, you have had a remarkable career journey as an art curator, translator, and writer. While curating art expositions in France, and all over Europe and the United States, you have gained international renown as an expert in all that you do. Tonight, we wish to celebrate your achievements.

Currently, you are the Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. The museum is America’s first museum of modern art, and one of the world’s most distinguished art collections. It is currently the home of over four thousand pieces of artwork, ranging from the classic impressionist paintings of Van Gogh to more modern works by artists such as Mark Rothko and Georgia O’Keeffe. The museum is truly remarkable.

As you curate your exhibitions, you take the time to consider the philosophy behind the art. In the Phillips Collection blog, you once wrote, “What is it that makes the vision of artists applied to canvas able to connect our individual lives with the cosmos itself? Innate to any landscape are the emotions we feel in its presence.” Klaus, your careful consideration of your exhibitions demonstrates that you are a curator with passion and thoughtful dedication to your work.

In your projects, you also take the time to display the work of many French artists. Here at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, our mission is to promote French culture in the world, and we believe that the artwork at the Phillips Collection has done just that. At the museum, visitors can see the paintings of Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, and Renoir, among others, located in the capital city of the United States. You have an impressive collection, to say the least, and you have brought some of France’s best artwork to America.

Your art curation projects also branch off to other locations. Your exhibitions have taken place on an international scale, at museums such as the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain in Strasbourg, France, and the Schirn Kunsthalle Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Some of your most recent exhibitions include Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color and Hiroshi Sugimoto: Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Models. Both of these exhibits were shown at the Phillips Collection. Your other exhibitions have also been featured in cities such as Los Angeles, Dallas, Limerick, Philadelphia, and Munich, among others.

Your journey began when you studied art history, philosophy, and religious studies at the Freie Universität in Berlin, and you later received a PhD in philosophy from the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. You went on to work as the Curator of Exhibitions at both the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University, and the American Federation of Arts in New York. You also worked for some time as an independent curator, and later as the Robert Lehman Curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York. Your various art curation experiences have shaped you into the world-renowned expert that you are today.

In your career as a scholar, you have become a specialist on the works of French artist and writer Yves Klein, author of Le dépassement de la problématique de l’art et autres écrits, and Les fondements du Judo, which describes Judo, one of Klein’s passions. Klaus, you were the first to translate and publish an English translation of Klein’s works from the original French, which was entitled Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein. This compilation allowed Americans and English speakers to discover Klein’s writings. You have also contributed to publications written about Klein’s work, and you have written books about Klein, including Yves Klein By Himself: His Life and Thought and Yves Klein: Works, Writings.

Your work on Yves Klein has a long and personal history. In 1989, when you worked as a curator at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, you were able to meet Rotraut Klein-Moquay, who had been married to Klein before he died in 1962. You also met her current husband, Daniel Moquay, who is the director of the Yves Klein Archives in Paris. At the time, you were organizing an exhibition on Klein’s work, and it was one of your first major curatorial projects. You now recall that, at the last minute, you hadn’t realized just how valuable Klein’s artwork was, and you spent an entire day calling insurance agencies to get enough coverage in time for the multi-million dollar exhibition! Fortunately, the show went on, and you can now look back on that time as a demonstration of your dedication to your work. Since then, you and your wife, Leslie Tonkonow, went on to become close friends with Rotraut and Daniel Moquay. You spent two years living and studying between Paris and New York. While in Paris, you worked at the Yves Klein Archives with Daniel, and you even had the chance to live in Klein’s former apartment on the rue Campagne-Prèmiere in the 14th arrondissement, the street where Jean-Luc  Godard filmed the end of A bout de souffle. In your studies and experiences, you have paid a wonderful homage to Klein’s life and his artwork.

In addition to all of this, you are also a prolific writer and reviewer of art. You have written for many art publications and museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Tate Liverpool, the Museu Serralves in Valencia, and the Musée d’art moderne of Paris, among others. All this is not to mention that you are currently the Publisher and Editor in Chief of Spring Publications, which publishes books concerning subjects such as art, philosophy, and psychology. You are also the Publisher and Editor in Chief of The Journal of Contemporary Art, which discusses the projects of emerging and established contemporary artists from across the globe.

I should also mention that you have worked with the French Embassy in the past, when an event was hosted at the Phillips Collection in March 2015. You welcomed author Annie Cohen-Solal, the former Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy. At the event, she discussed her new biography, Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel. We would like to thank you for your collaboration.

Klaus, in your time as an art curator, scholar, and writer, you have shared the beauty and history of artwork with audiences everywhere. Countless museums and art publications have you to thank for their various exhibitions, writings, and successes. From Strasbourg to Washington D.C. and across the world, you have made a difference in the world of art, all the while promoting French artists and sharing their work in your exhibitions on an international scale. You have truly impressed the world with your passion and dedication to art. For all of these reasons, we are honored to present you with this award.

Klaus Ottmann, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Dear Mark Polizzotti:

We are thrilled to welcome you here as you join us from our neighboring institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is an honor to have the museum’s Publisher and Editor in Chief here with us tonight.

Throughout your career, you have worked as a translator, an author, and a publisher, contributing to the successes of many prestigious museums and publications.

Your education began in France, when you attended the University of Paris VII, as a student of literature and philosophy. You also attended Yale University, where you studied French and Comparative Literature. And finally, you received a Master’s Degree in French Literature from Columbia University. You went on to pursue a career in publishing, working as an Assistant Editor at Random House, a Senior Editor at Grove Weidenfeld, and the Editorial Director at David R. Godine, Publisher.

From 1999 to 2010, you were the Director of Intellectual Property and Publisher at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There, you worked in publications and digital image resources, and oversaw the publication of a dozen new titles each year. In Boston, you were able to make a significant impact to the world of publishing. You also worked at the Metropolitan Museum, where you translated art catalogues from French to English. Eventually, you obtained the position that you have today as the museum’s publisher, leading the premier art book publication of the United States. And not only is your publication program successful within this country, it is one of the largest and most prestigious publications in the entire world.

Let’s take a moment to think about the path that lead you to where you are today. When you were seventeen years old, you spent a year in Paris. You had heard from your uncle, and from an art teacher, that Paris was a lively city where cultural life flourished. Your teacher told you that Paris was a “city of smells,” and you made sure to breathe it in when you arrived. You now recall the time that you spent there, saying, and I quote, “When I was 17, living in Paris for the first time and haunting all the bookstores, I used to dream about a day when a book of mine would be on those shelves.” Since that time, you have written not just one, but eight books, with two soon to be published. Some of your books include Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited, Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, and Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, which became a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Best Nonfiction IN XXX. And just this year, you were the winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.  Back when your first book came out, you recall going to Paris and feeling thrilled to have achieved your goal. You said, quote, “Back in Paris again, walking around with the first copy under my arm, I felt on top of the world.”

Nowadays, audiences can read not only the books you have written, but also your articles, poems, and reviews, of which there are far too many to count. They have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, ARTnews, and The Nation.

In addition, you are a member of the jury for French Voices, a program of the Cultural Services and the FACE Foundation which awards prizes to American publishers and translators of contemporary French writing. The program was founded in 2006 in collaboration with the PEN American Center, and is now celebrating its 10th anniversary. Since joining the program, you have provided excellent input, and shared your knowledge of both publishing and translating. Your participation has been invaluable to the committee, and we are extremely grateful to have you working with us on this mission.  

And of course, you yourself are an accomplished translator of French texts. As a translator, you work to always find the mot juste and to maintain the true meaning of each text. You have translated over forty books from famous French authors such as Gustave Flaubert, Marguerite Duras, Raymond Roussel, and contemporary novelist Patrick Modiano, who in 2014 won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

And speaking of Modiano, in February 2015, we were thrilled to have you join us here at the Cultural Services to lead a discussion on the author’s works. We were grateful to have you with us as you shared your knowledge and deep insight. You have said that one of the things that draws you to Modiano’s writing is the way he is able to convey profound ideas in very few words. In an interview with the Jewish Book Counsel, you said, and I quote, “It is like a Monet—if you look too closely it’s just daubs of paint, but when you stand back, you can see a cathedral.” This idea says a lot about your approach toward translating, and the tremendous amount of care and thought that you put into your work.

Nowadays, you recall how your life as a translator began one day in Paris, as a teenager.. I’ll tell the story in your own words: in an interview with the online book newsletter Shelf Awareness you said, quote, “I found myself across a table from the experimental novelist Maurice Roche, whom I'd barely met, and the only ice-breaker I could think of on the spur of the moment was to offer to translate his book--which I'd barely understood. To my amazement, Maurice took me up on it, and inadvertently set me on my life of crime. That was 40 years ago and I still haven't reformed.” Mark, I think it’s safe to say that audiences everywhere are glad you haven’t reformed, and they can enjoy your translations today. That fateful day in Paris was the start of a wonderful journey.

Besides reading your translations and writings, audiences today can also listen to you speak about your experiences. Because of your accomplishments, you have been invited to deliver many lectures on publishing, translation, and literature. You have spoken at prestigious universities and organizations all over the world, including the Sorbonne, Harvard, Yale, the Association of Cultural Enterprises in the United Kingdom, the Korea Arts Management Service in Seoul, and many others. As this demonstrates, the world is fascinated by your work, and awed by your expertise.

Mark, in your career at the Metropolitan Museum and all of your experiences in translating, writing, and publishing, you have displayed dedication and passion for all that you do. You have also consistently translated and promoted the work of French artists and authors, therefore opening up the world of French culture to global audiences. For all of your achievements, we are honored to present you with this award.

Mark Polizzotti, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.