Artist Interviews and the Literature of Self-Endorsement

The insights-per-acre yield of an artist interview collection may be discouragingly low compared with a book of focused criticism. Still, the presumed authority of the creator—“the horse’s mouth” of Joyce Cary’s great novel narrated by a painter—lends considerable rhetorical heft when artists are asked to describe their work, their influences, or their creative aims. Three new collections of interviews with artists sample the genre: The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look at Art, Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from The Brooklyn Rail, and Robert Storr’s Interviews on Art.

Inspired by Michael Kimmelman’s 1990s series for the New York Times, which featured prominent artists wandering with him through museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, The Artist Project is driven by the Met’s perpetual anxiety about not being seen as relevant to our culture’s increasingly exclusive love affair with contemporary art. The book’s interviews were made for an addictive online series conducted by the Met’s video producer Christopher Noey from spring 2015 to June 2016.

The museum enlisted 120 living artists to testify that it is not dead, asking each to choose a work or group of works in the collection to discuss for half an hour in response to the same several questions, beginning with Noey’s cringe-inducing “Why does this work of art rock your world?” and including the nakedly beseeching “How is this work contemporary?” Where the online presentations smartly weave together artists’ commentaries and still images, including telling details of artworks being discussed, the book freeze-dries the entire online series into standardized units, allowing one spread per artist, with each interview, edited to within an inch of its life, presented as a text block opposite a single page illustrating the work or works of art that the artist selected.

Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from The Brooklyn Rail brings together sixty interviews selected from more than six hundred that have appeared in the Rail over seventeen years. When first published, the interviews typically featured a handful of illustrations and a note explaining the occasion, like a new exhibition or book. In this collection, that context is stripped away—only the year is provided—and there are no illustrations of the subject’s work. In several cases, one is left in the dark about what is being discussed.

Veteran Rail interviewers, such as Phong Bui, the journal’s founder, Chris Martin, Robert Storr, and John Yau, have often known their subjects for years; their interviews eschew cleverness to probe personal issues and let the artist speak. The Rail’s less seasoned interviewers seem eager to show off their knowledge in overly long questions, several of which display an implausible level of erudition and specificity that suggests retrospective editing.

Of the three books, Storr’s Interviews on Art is the most editorially satisfying—it provides contexts for the interviews and includes brief but well-chosen portfolios reproducing artworks by each interview’s subject. And it has an index, which the Rail volume surprisingly lacks. Storr’s book begins with an extended, reverential interview with him by the volume’s editor, Francesca Pietropaolo, which provides the reader a nuanced sense of the relationship between Storr and the artists he is engaging. The attentive reader may observe as Storr develops and changes: the smart, ambitious young art writer of the 1980s becomes the high-flying MoMA curator of the 1990s, and then the prickly eminence of the 2000s, conducting high-profile interviews for avid audiences, including those attending the 92nd Street Y’s Artists’ Visions, Conversations Program, which he oversaw from 1995 to 2011.

What about the interview subjects? How do we understand them in historical and social contexts? Have artists’ attitudes changed over the years in response to the explosion of the market and development of a vast (if often superficial) audience for modern and contemporary art—to which The Artist Project implicitly addresses itself?

What artists say about their art is treacherous ground for the credulous reader. In a 1974 Artforum essay, Max Kozloff observed, “Because we admire great works on hand, we tend to take at face value the literature of self-endorsement given us by their authors.” His essay, “The Authoritarian Personality in Modern Art,” gathered quotations, some startling in their illiberal implications, to argue that “we often unconsciously discount or glaze with only a neutral assent, artistic statements that speak to us in [. . .] authoritarian and antisocial accents.”

To support his assertion, he assembled, under a half-dozen headings, eighty brief quotations from writings by modern and then-contemporary male artists (not a single woman is quoted), in which — greatly simplifying his argument — they portray themselves and their art as eternal, transcending social conditions. As he notes, the quotations, are, in aggregate, “startling in their belligerence.” Some examples:

“I think one’s art is just one’s effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union.” – Robert Motherwell, 1951

“You know who I am and what I stand for. I have no allegiance, but I stand and I know what the challenge is, and I challenge everything and everybody. […] We’re challenging the world.” – David Smith, 1964

“Art alone makes life possible—this is how radically I should like to formulate it. I would say that without art man is inconceivable in physiological terms.” – Joseph Beuys, 1969

Though there is plenty of posturing in the current collections, artists’ comments are far less incendiary than those in Kozloff’s crop. The decline of chest thumping is accompanied by an impressive representation of women and minorities in the subjects selected for the new books. The proportion increases as one approaches the present: percentages of white male interview subjects decline from about 70 percent in Interviews on Art, which reaches back 35 years, to less than 60 percent in Tell Me Something Good, spanning the past 17 years, to approximately 50 percent in The Artist Project, produced over two recent years. This change does not, of course, reflect the relative enlightenment of those producing the books, but rather a shift in social values, whether expressed by venerable art institutions or an upstart Brooklyn culture journal.

The crumbling of the cult of the artist-hero may partly be owed to the art world’s globalization. When artists arrived on the American scene who actually had experienced, suffered through, and survived totalitarian regimes—Ilya Kabakov, interviewed in Storr’s collection, or Ai Weiwei, in a conversation with Phong Bui that is a highlight of the Rail gathering—it became difficult to maintain a heroic vision of the American artist. As Ai puts it, “Heroes have to exist in other people’s minds.”

Nevertheless, Mike Kelley tells Storr, “I think New York has a huge investment in the heroic tradition, because of the New York School and because of the politicization of that kind of work as a standard bearer for American culture. There is also the fact that New York is the only city in America that has a good deal of its economic base in culture. All that really drives the idea that art is heroic or at least that it has to be presented as such. That’s why my work hasn’t been looked kindly upon by New Yorkers generally.”

Some claim they never bought into the heroic ideal, though they may still implicitly subscribe to an avant-garde narrative where strategic career moves prove decisive. “[T]hese cultural things come in waves,” says Alex Katz, who performs the hat trick of appearing in all three of these books. “You get on it or you miss it. […] These intellectuals tied it to a European past tense: they tied it into the Existentialist movement – the heroic man alone and stuff like that. The artists lived swell because they were getting great promotion. But I thought it was baloney – just something in the air.”

Maybe it only looked swell to a brash outer-borough insurgent like Katz; occasionally windows open into an earlier, more precarious existence for artists in New York. In a 1981 interview with Storr, Rudy Burckhardt recalls getting to know his next-door neighbor in the late 1930s, Bill de Kooning. “I could see he was a very interesting guy and a strong artist, but I didn’t know what he was after. I think he didn’t know himself. People don’t make decisions, they struggle. If you asked de Kooning, ‘How is your painting going?’ he’d say, ‘I’m struggling.’ He didn’t say, ‘I’m deciding to make an abstract painting.’”

The struggle continues. Raymond Pettibon, in The Artist Project, responding to a grand J. M. W. Turner view of Venice in the Met’s collection, recalls the story of Turner “having lashed himself to the mast of a ship to experience firsthand what it’s like to be in a storm at sea.” Pettibon continues, “I like art in which you can see the struggles of making the work: the hits or misses, the faith you have to have to work with a loaded brush, to make a mistake, cover it up, and make it into something else.”

The anti-bourgeois us-against-them ethos of many of Kozloff’s quotes gives way in the recent books to a nostalgia for the smaller, scrappier New York art world that de Kooning helped create. Chuck Close, for whom de Kooning was an artistic father figure, recalls his early days in New York in the late 1960s, “often sitting in the front of Max’s Kansas City with Robert Smithson, Dorothea Rockburne, Mel Bochner, and Richard Serra. At the same time, Warhol and all those people would be sitting in the back room. And maybe Brice [Marden] would be back with [Robert] Rauschenberg. You would move freely throughout the scene and sit for a while at one set of tables and then go somewhere else, and the dialog was very, very competitive, a competition of ideas.”

In the Rail volume, the late Klaus Kertess, interviewing Rockburne, whom he showed at the Bykert Gallery in the 1970s, recalls, “that was such a great time–the art scene was and still is tribal, but there are many more tribes now. Most of the people I saw then, that I dealt with, were my generation. We were all growing together. This scene was much friendlier. It was less about commerce. It was more playful. There was a kind of interactive community between the poets, dancers, and artists that I don’t think has happened since.”

Many artists who came of age in the 1960s famously tended to keep their art and their politics in different silos; Richard Serra tells Phong Bui, “I try to separate […] what I do politically from what I do in the studio.” Younger artists have recognized, productively, the ways in which their works are a part of their sociopolitical landscape. They understand the necessity of having platforms, whether in institutions and publications or on social media, and actively engaging the opposition. Ai Weiwei states, “It just doesn’t work when we talk about political gesture or protest amongst just our friends. It has to be in the public realm because that’s the real nature of freedom of expression. It’s no good to freely express yourself into a mirror by yourself.”

In an interview with Storr, Felix Gonzalez-Torres exemplifies the shift from an art based on individual expression to one focused on communication: “One thing that I want to emphasize as much as I can with my students is, ‘Who is your public? What are you making this for?’ That is better than trying to get some signature form or look or way of working. I think the tone is about not having anything extra, but only what’s necessary. I believe with all my heart in the economy of means.”

A different kind of economy, touched on in many interviews, has soured artists on the notion of “master artists,” as Roni Horn calls them in a Rail interview: “I’m alienated by the extreme level of commodification now. […] [T]he fact is money really is the sole driving force behind a large portion of artists today. Just because someone pays $10 million for something doesn’t give it value in an artistic sense. The making of the master artist is very much the function of an economy that demands a very high level of financial value, whether or not the work is masterful. They find these people, and they are all male, and they anoint them—I’ve seen this process throughout my life, and it’s become jaw-droppingly absurd.”

In such an environment, being ignored can seem like a blessing in disguise, as Louise Bourgeois insists in a 1986 interview with Storr:

LB I have not been successful sooner because my work did not sell. If the artist doesn’t sell, I would say that he is saved, which is what happened to me.

RS How do you mean saved?

LB Saved from proliferation, from being picked up and imitated by everybody. The art scene is a manufacturing scene. If you look at the history of the trends, the trend goes along with what has sold before. But if you are seriously interested in art as a mode of exploration and deep research, if you do not sell, you’re saved because nobody is going to bother you. This is what happened to me.

Responding to the question, “Do you have a definition of what success is for your work?” Rudy Burckhardt distinguished between success and achievement: “Success, you can tell what it is: people willing to pay money for what you’ve done. Then you think the work must be really good. But achievement is different. There is no such thing as achievement and resting on your laurels, feeling good about yourself for any length of time. There is no such thing as achieving something for good.”

In a 1997 lecture at the Guggenheim Museum, published as Encounters with Rauschenberg (2000), Leo Steinberg recalled being led astray decades earlier by a remark from the young Jasper Johns, who insisted on the impersonal objectivity of his work, where Steinberg instead saw deeply personal content—a view Johns later accepted. This experience, wrote Steinberg—with a wry twist on Joyce Cary’s title, which perhaps he had in mind—“confirmed me in a guiding principle of critical conduct: ‘If you want the truth about a work of art, be sure always to get your data from the horse’s mouth, bearing in mind that the artist is the one selling the horse.’”

The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look at Art (2017), edited by Christopher Noey, is published by The Met Museum/Phaidon and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from the Brooklyn Rail (2017), edited by Jarret Earnest and Lucas Zwirner, with an introduction by Phong Bui, is published by David Zwirner Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Interviews on Art (2017) by Robert Storr is published by HENI Publishing and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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