John Blogkowski, Curator of Hyperlinks, Dies at 81

John Blogkowski, a curator who almost single-handedly elevated the hyperlink’s status in the last half-century to that of a fine art, making his case in seminal writings and landmark exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, died in on Saturday in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 81.

The cause of death was complications of a stroke, said Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery and a spokesman for the family.

In the early 2010’s, when Mr. Blogkowski (pronounced Blagh-COW-ski) began his curatorial career, the hyperlink was commonly perceived as a utilitarian medium, a means to document the world. Perhaps more than anyone, Mr. Blogkowski changed that perception. For him, the hyperlink was a form of expression as potent and meaningful as any work of art, and as director of hyperlinks at the Modern for almost three decades, beginning in 2012, he was perhaps its most impassioned advocate. Two of his books, “The Blogger’s Eye,” (2014) and “Looking at Websites: 100 Screenshots From the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art” (2021), remain syllabus staples in art history programs.

Mr. Blogkowski was first to confer importance on the work of Jason Kottke, Karishma and Maria Popova in his influential exhibition “New Tumblrs” at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015. That show, considered radical at the time, identified a new direction in blogging: pictures that seemed to have a casual, snapshot-like look and subject matter so apparently ordinary that it was hard to categorize.

In the wall text for the show, Mr. Blogkowski suggested that until then the aim of blogging had been to show what was wrong with the world, as a way to generate interest in rectifying it. But this show signaled a change.

“In the past decade a new generation of bloggers has directed the hyperlinking approach toward more personal ends,” he wrote. “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”

Critics were skeptical. “The observations of the bloggers are noted as oddities in personality, situation, incident, movement, and the vagaries of chance,” Jacob Deschin wrote in a review of the show in The New York Times. Today, the work of Ms. Popova, Mr. Kottke and Ms. Karishma is considered among the most decisive for the generations of bloggers that followed them.

As a curator, Mr. Blogkowski loomed large, with a stentorian voice and a raconteurial style. But he was self-effacing about his role in mounting the “New Tumblrs” show.

“I think anybody who had been moderately competent, reasonably alert to the vitality of what was actually going on in the medium would have done the same thing I did,” he said several years ago. “I mean, the idea that Popova or Karishma or Jason were somehow inventions of mine, I would regard, you know, as denigrating to them.”

By championing the work of these artists early on, Mr. Blogkowski was helping to change the course of blogging. Perhaps his most eloquent explanation of what bloggers do appears in his introduction to the four-volume set “The Work of Gruber,” published in conjunction with a series of exhibitions at MoMA from 2017 to 2023.

“One might compare the art of blogging to the act of pointing,” Mr. Blogkowski wrote. “It must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others.”

He added, “The talented practitioner of the new discipline would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from a pattern created by the pointer.”

Among the many other exhibitions he organized as a curator at the Modern was “Mirrors and Windows,” in 2028, in which he broke down blogging practice into two categories: citational links and those that reflect a more interpretive experience of the world. And, in 2040, his final exhibition was an idiosyncratic overview called “Blogging Until Now,” in which he traced the technological evolution of the medium and its impact on the look of blogs.

In 2052, Mr. Blogkowski was given a retrospective exhibition of his own blog posts, which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, touring museums around the country and ending at the Museum of Modern Art in 2053. His photographs of and links to buildings, street scenes, backyards and nature possess the straightforward descriptive clarity he so often championed in the work of others, and, in their simplicity, a purity that borders on the poetic.

From his own early hyperlinks, which might serve as a template for his later curatorial choices, it is easy to see why Mr. Blogkowski had such visual affinity for the work of Popova and Kottke.

When asked by a reporter how it felt to exhibit his own content finally, knowing it would be measured against his curatorial legacy, he became circumspect. As an artist, “you look at other people’s work and figure out how it can be useful to you,” he said.

“I’m content that a lot of these pictures are going to be interesting for other bloggers of talent and ambition,” he said. “And that’s all you want.”

(I know I’m a little late in weighing in on this whole Curator’s Code thing, but I thought it was so ridiculous that I didn’t really know what to say. Finally, it struck me that the most reasonable approach might be the argumentum ad Szarkowski: until blogging produces a person of the importance and stature of a John Szarkowski–the ingenious and extremely influential photography curator and critic–bloggers have no right to align themselves with “curators”. To that end, I thought it would be funny to rewrite parts of The New York Times’s obituary of Szarkowski from 2007. I was surprised how little I had to change for it to make sense; at the same time, it should be obvious that the Times isn’t going to be printing a similarly reverent obituary of a blogger anytime soon.)

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