in other words

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Episode 3 transcript: uncovering the great art of the 2000s with David Salle and Alison Gingeras

Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to In Other Words, I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and this is the final episode in a two-part conversation about the art of the 2000s. I’m joined by the artist, David Salle, the curator, Alison Gingeras, and the art advisor, Allan Schwartzman. Together, we’re going to be discussing who the great artists of the 2000s are and why it’s so hard to identify them. If you missed the first episode, then please visit our website where you can download it.

David, you had mentioned earlier “When Attitude Becomes Form”, which is the name of the exhibition Harald Szeemann organized in Bern in 1969. Is that what we’re talking about here?

David Salle: Well, I think it’s a given that ideas are easy and form is hard. Everyone wants to know what the generational attitudes are, and it’s always really fun, for want of a better word, to come in contact with them. How do you know them? How do you recognize them when they have to have some sort of form? Harry’s legendary and groundbreaking show is unsurpassed in the succinctness with which it describes the basic job of art.

As Alison was saying, the attitude of certain generation of artists was to have that kind of a studio with assistants and that constant barrage of dealers dropping over, to see what was happening in the studio that week. That was an image of artists that some people just found irresistible and they went for it. But—and this is not formalism per se—ones that have even a connection to where the form originates, to have it go to the next level or simply the next year or next decade, anyway.

I think the struggle for form is, if anything, more acute than ever, notwithstanding the greater range of possibilities open to artists today. It’s true that painting is, by and large, what has survived, but it’s also true that institutionally all of the other kinds of art-making forms or art-making are avidly supported by institutions, I think that’s true. Curators are impresarios, who want to help birth or engender some awe-inspiring display.

The art world as a form of entertainment, I think, has also given rise to the will toward awe: awe is the goal for many people. Everyone likes to be awed. It doesn’t last, necessarily, is the problem.

Alison Gingeras: Well, spectacle and anti-spectacle are practical reality for institutions to compete for patronage-

David Salle: Fair point.

Alison Gingeras: Dollars, you know, column inches in the press. So, it’s too soon to tell, because those things … Again, it’s this challenge of longevity. Does Marina Abramović, who certainly brought the crowds to MoMA, and created a populism of performance art, is that something that’s going to survive the long-term test?

Certainly, she’s someone who is emblematic of a zeitgeist of museum politics and the challenges of generating the revenue to keep the doors open for this huge institution that is the expansion of art, which is something that the Guggenheim really originated, with its Krensian model of entertainment, shopping, dining, architecture, experience. It’s not about the rarefied elitism of connoisseurship of singular objects. It’s about this totalized experience.

David Salle: Right, but why does it have to be elitist? That’s your-

Alison Gingeras: No, I’m using it, a kind of-

David Salle: Yeah, but that’s the twinning that I think has been so problematic. Why does private experience have to be elitist?

Alison Gingeras: It doesn’t have to be, but I think there is a stigma to this, especially in this country because there is no administrative culture.

David Salle: Right.

Alison Gingeras: There is no systematic arts education. There’s no Ministry of Education. So, there’s no standardized curriculum from which we learn art appreciation. That’s already something that’s entwined with class. Therefore, it is elitist, just on a pure factual level, I think. Although, I agree with you that it doesn’t have to be, but it’s a challenge.

David Salle: Bodies through turnstiles is how one museum trustee put it to me, recently.

Charlotte Burns: I think this brings us to a couple of trends that have been happening in parallel in the art world over the last decade and a half. So, we have the expansion of museums and with that brings more encompassing of what we can look at, what we need to do, how you get bodies through the door, bums on the seats.

We also have the rise of the market. It’s much more prevalent now than it was, for example, in the 70s. What that means, what the market prizes and doesn’t, it makes or breaks entire movements quickly.

Another thing we haven’t discussed, though, is this idea of art criticism. As these things have been rising, art criticism has been waning, which is to do with the internet, the fact that many people can have voices at any one time so perhaps you lose dominance. It also has to do with the collapse of media, that people just aren’t paid to do those jobs very well.

What relationship is there between the decline of media and the lack of clarity we’re discussing, about the emergence of great artists? Who do you read to know about what’s happening? Did you used to read? Do you any more?

Allan Schwartzman: I think, certainly, in the 70s the critic played a far more central role in the dialog about art and the formation of art than he does today. In a sense, you could say that the 70s was a period in which the critic really held a great amount of power and presence. The 80s, it was the opposite. The critic disappeared as the market rose up. If you think of that as a period in which the artist really is the determinant—or the dealer—because so much of what came to us became organized around dealers and galleries. If you think of the 90s as a period in which collecting consolidated, and so much of what got defined got filtered through that lens, I think there are simply different periods.

I do believe that when you don’t make it possible for people to support themselves by doing something, you send a message that it is not valued, and if it is not valued then it naturally marginalizes itself.

Charlotte Burns: Alison, what are you thinking? Is criticism still as valuable today?

Alison Gingeras: I think it’s valuable, but I think it is impossible to make a living as a critic. You know, you get paid … again, this issue of class comes into play. You can only really afford to write if you’re independently well off or you have another gig, and it’s not the most glamorous or revered position. Internet journalism is so disposable, and I think those are used as pawns in a game of building consensus in a market or creating buzz, but there’s that sense of disposability in writing for online publication. So many magazines are shuttering.

Artforum is a magazine that I’ve written for but I don’t read it religiously like I would have in the 90s. I used to read October religiously, and October talks to itself now.

David Salle: Religiously is the word.

Alison Gingeras: Yeah. I think, also, discourse, theoretical discourse plays a much different role than it did in the 90s. French theory was, even if you didn’t really understand it, was so required as a signifier of being serious as an artist. I feel like, today, if you say Deleuze to a young artist, they don’t know what you’re talking about for the most part.

There are things that I value, but then on the flip-side I’ve never had the luxury to make scholarly books in the way that I’ve done in the last couple of years because there are these niches, especially when you’re working in a more historical frame and you’re contributing new scholarship, there’s been this mainstream support for creating scholarly publications.

Charlotte Burns: We’re talking about these changes in decades, we’re talking about form and attitudes, and it seems that we are in a moment where there is a lot of change. This expansive mode that’s characterized the art world’s attitude to itself internationally—this idea of lots of travel: biennials became a very important thing; people were traveling to art fairs.

That idea of having to go to X or Y biennale or international show, there seems to be some fatigue around that because there’s so much event-based art-looking in our world that people seem to be getting a little tired. I wonder if that’s an era that, in and of itself, is contained within the period we’re talking about.

Allan Schwartzman: There was a certain point where curators who were organizing biennales prided themselves on going further and further afield geographically to look for new work. Indeed, looking toward cultures that we had not looked to in the mainstream changed our frame of reference for what’s significant in art, in many ways. However, at a certain point it became clear the further that they went looking, the less new they brought back. A lot of what they sought was just reinforcing what was known. It was new in a novel sense, not in a substantive sense.

But I think back to the Documenta of 1982 that Rudi Fuchs did, and that was a paradigm changer. That shifted, at least in this country, our notion of what contemporary art was. We did truly have, almost an exclusively, an American-centric view.

There were several generations of German painters in particular that we became aware of. It was a show that sorted through contemporary art in a fundamentally different way. The same artists that Konrad Fischer was showing in his gallery in New York in the late 70s, that no one paid attention to, were now, all of a sudden, featured and seen alongside American counterparts that we were more familiar with. So, that was a show that had a capacity to shift what we looked at because it brought in new information.

David Salle: I remember that show pretty well. Rudi was one of the great curators. Rudi’s great theme was the family resemblances between different geographically-placed artists at different times. I remember that one of the rooms in the first part of the museum, when you first walked in, on the walls were black and white paintings by Penk, and on the floor in front of them were John Chamberlain floor pieces laid in front, which was a completely natural, I almost want to say pre-ordained connection, but it was one no one had made before.

Allan Schwartzman: There were also Warhol’s piss paintings and Anselm Kiefer’s landscapes.

David Salle: Exactly. Exactly. The show was as a rule full of those kinds of resonances and family resemblances, which as I said was one of Rudi’s great themes—that this formal language speaks across geography and time. I don’t know if anyone even believes that anymore, but I think, Allan, something you said a minute ago, speaks to that, that you can go wherever on the globe and find artists making the local variant of the style of the moment, and that’s to be expected. It’s not exactly the same thing as finding someone who’s invented something that changes that relationship to form, it’s just simply using the form and plugging in local content.

I want to get back to the idea about criticism, though, briefly. Don Judd said, back in the 60s, that the reason our criticism is so bad is because it doesn’t pay anything. If it paid a living wage, all of a sudden you’d see a tremendous improvement. I mean, Alison, you know much more than I do. I never went to college, but writing is not taught in graduate schools, is it?

Alison Gingeras: No, and most art historians are horrific writers.

David Salle: Yeah. So how would one learn to write a sentence? You don’t know how. I mean, it’s just never brought up.

Alison Gingeras: Well, I think it’s often the self-taught who are the most interesting and influential and have real voice, or people who come at art from a completely different discipline. I don’t know, I think that when you are speaking of Rudi Fuchs, I always saw that generation of curators, whether it’s Rudi Fuchs, these Europeans who … Jan Hoet’s another one, who really had confidence in their own authorship. They were auteurs. It was about the visual and formal and that kind of connoisseurship that drove the choices they made.

Then, you see a break in the 90s and 2000s where to be a curator of one of those prestigious exhibitions, like Documenta, was about discourse and it was about asserting a kind of socio-political thesis. So, it was Catherine David’s Documenta which was about the book, and it was about the number of important scholars she had enlisted and all of the talks she used her five years to do.

Okwui, similarly, I think he brought the important work of primary research of African art and other continents into his Documenta. But it’s interesting, I think, that there’s a crisis of authorship in terms of curating and at the same time, the pressure of the spectacle. How do you brand what you’re doing in terms of delivering this international show, on a circuit where there’s more competition than ever?

Allan Schwartzman: Maybe there’s an exhaustion of format? Maybe it’s a time for biennials to take a different form. Instead of looking to include 80 artists in an exhibition, maybe it’s an interesting moment to take that budget and do six major projects. I’m just making this up as-

Alison Gingeras: Yeah, or just 10 artists. I always thought it’s a suicide, kamikaze mission to do one of those as a curator and I always thought, if they ever ask me I’ll say, “No,” because I don’t think that that’s gratifying. I think, as a curator, the hardest thing to get an institution to do, whether it’s a museum or a biennial, is a show that looks critically and has a thesis. The augmented show is the hardest one to get on the calendar.

You can get a monograph, you can get a splashy, light, ‘painting now’ type show on the calendar, but something that has a real argument doesn’t present itself to a trustee or a museum director as something that’s going to bring the crowd, and it’s not something that’s going to necessarily … It’s a risk, because it really aligns one scholar’s ideas of something, but arguably those are the shows that make eras, that define eras.

David Salle: Alison, which was the last one that you remember?

Alison Gingeras: I mean, there was a show that tried to make this argument, that I think, again, was an interesting failure. I didn’t see the show, I’ve studied the book, Painting 2.0. I did a show at the Pompidou called Dear Painter, Paint Me. That was a real argument about a certain legacy of figurative painting as an antagonistic force. Of artists turning to figuration at times where it was wrong aesthetically or politically and they used that force.

It was extremely hard. It was a show in drag. I sold it to the director of the museum, I was, “Look, it’s going to be a bunch of hot new artists that no one’s seen in Paris,” but it had an argument. I think that painting now … At the same time there was a show at the Kunsthalle in Basel called Painting On The Move. The thesis-based shows are very difficult to push through. They really require a kind of commitment.

David Salle: Yeah. Much harder to do. I mean, you have to have a point of view, and even if it’s not the authorial show that Rudi might have made, you still have to believe your own taste.

Alison Gingeras: Yeah, and that’s really hard.

Allan Schwartzman: It nearly bankrupted Moca.

Alison Gingeras: Yes.

Allan Schwartzman: So this was a museum in this country that more consistently put on these shows.

Alison Gingeras: Yeah, for example Paul Schimmel shows, the show about, you know, the trajectory of performance art, or even the Trauma of Painting show, had a real thesis. It drew upon a slow rise of collectors turning to those artists from the Italian post-war, for example, and bringing them into a more mainstream acceptance.

Charlotte Burns: And, Alison… I’ll bring you to a show that you’ve just been organizing. You’re engaged, politically. You mentioned to me the other day a show that you’ve staged and you said it was a pragmatic exhibition, in the sense that you needed to see who was available and who could help. I thought that was an interesting idea. How do artists take that? Because I grew up very much with the idea that, and I think this is a part of the monographic thing, that there was perhaps a fatigue at this idea of overly curated things. There was a relief when you would go to the Tate and it wouldn’t be telling you what to think, and you could just look at a room and see an artist rather than it fitting into somebody’s argument about that artist.

How do you go to an artist and say, “I’m putting on a show and here are my reasons, and I want you to be in it.” Do certain artists enjoy that more than others, do others balk at the idea? How does it work?

Alison Gingeras: The show you’re referring to came out of the panic and disillusionment of the moment after the election. Before that happened, two things occurred. One was, I had been trying to do a public art project in collaboration with the center, the LGBTQ center in New York with the artists McDermott and McGough, which has actually been in the works for two years. We were discussing with them creating a secular temple that would honor Oscar Wilde and other LGBTQ martyrs.

We had a meeting scheduled the day after the election, and everyone couldn’t talk about anything but what we were anticipating was going to happen. I just said, “Let’s do a show at the center. I’m going to make a list of artists, I’m going to call them,” and it was phenomenal, because within three days I wrote this letter, I sent it out to about 40 artists and 28 replied immediately. I said, “There’s no budget, there’s no money for shipping, there’s no insurance, and it’s going to be in the hallways of a place that provides vital psychological and social services to a very diverse community.” And no one had a problem with it.

The response, in terms of the content of the work, was sometimes oblique, sometimes very direct in terms of what works they offered and this was an incredible thing. Simultaneous to that, I also initiated a political activist group that’s populated primarily by artists but also by psychoanalysts and critics and people who were involved with Occupy Wall Street. That group, too, came together very quickly and very organically, and that’s an interesting exercise, because the urgency was so great that the egos of even very big artists who participated in it completely disappeared in the service of, what are these actions that we’re going to initiate and how are we going to articulate an opposition. Specifically, how are we going to speak out about the normalization of the speech of this campaign?

I think it also signals, to me, that there’s a collective need to act together, and to not think about the market, not think about signature style, just really a pragmatic answer. But is it art? No, maybe not. It’s agitprop. But, it’s been wonderful to be part of that.

Allan Schwartzman: It’s interesting that you mention this, because I’m working on a project now where we are commissioning artists to do works for the new facility of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which is the leading facility in the world for rehabilitative medicine, therapy and research. They wanted the work of artists to be embedded within the facility, in certain locations so that it could participate in the healing process.

What we’ve found, in quite a number of instances with the artists we’ve approached, is that they got so excited and inspired by the project precisely because of the function of the environment in which the work would be placed. So, having a specific need to be filled, while not asking anyone to make anything other than what their work ordinarily is, has been a rallying point and a moment of inspiration for artists who are otherwise very productive and active, but maybe it brought out something more meaningful.

Alison Gingeras: There’s a kind of liberation, maybe, in terms of that collective need or that functionality. The use value of the work. You know, when you’re trying to conceive of an action that can resonate as political theater. That’s what we did with this Dear Ivanka initiative, which we organized as protest in drag, of a candlelight vigil in front of one of the buildings she and her husband own in Soho, which was traditionally an artist neighborhood. It brought out this incredible creativity, of how can we subvert the professional protestor? What are the optics that we can generate that are creating a plea to this person that we felt we had the right to speak to, because many of the artists in the group were collected by herself and her husband? We felt that since we shared a world and they were instrumentalizing the work of many artists to not only sell a Gesamtkunstwerk of her brand and her life and what she stood for, but also to sell her handbags and her shoes. It created a space for credible dialog and allowed us to unleash a collective creativity.

Charlotte Burns: That brings us to the question of whether this is a conversation taking place on the precipice of a new era, as the world turns more to its own nations. People have refuted globalization: in England with Brexit and in America with Trump. There are signs that people have elected to focus on nations, which then will have impact in terms of how you get work in and out of a country, the taxes, the imports, and how you can exchange things, who can come in and out of a country from other countries.

Perhaps this is a different era, anyway. If we had the opportunity in the 80s, 90s and 2000s to travel widely, see work and have a space for those discourses created by politics and economics … David, you spoke in your book about Polke, briefly, in parentheses, saying that the look towards the German market coincided with the rise of Germany as an economic powerhouse. It’s an interesting idea that the economics and the time and the politics of where you are shape where you are, and that what we’re discussing may already be behind us.

David Salle: I just don’t know if there’s such a one-to-one correspondence. Of course, everything affects everything. Just because a country is an economic powerhouse doesn’t mean that it’s an aesthetic one. It’s not so clear. There has to be a tradition. One has to stand in a relationship to that tradition, and that stance vis-a-vis that tradition has to be legible and recognized as such, and useful to others. It might sound glib, but those are three very huge hurdles that have to be crossed. It doesn’t follow economic rise directly. It might very well follow it later on. Do you know what I mean?

Charlotte Burns: I mean more the gaze. I don’t think it impacts the art happening there. More our discovery of it, our awareness.

David Salle: Yeah. That’s all going to shift, we don’t know how much or to what degree.

Allan Schwartzman: Well, if you look back at Gutai, this is arguably the first truly original contemporary avant garde movement that comes out of Japan. It’s after the war. Prior to that, most contemporary art was art that was in one way or another derivative of French painting of the time. There are certain Japanese scholars that would argue and point to certain developments pre-war that they believe were indeed original, but by and large Gutai is really the moment where you find a coalescence of a new generation of artists expressing the spirit of their times, with materials that are reflective of that moment, in a way that had the potential to have meaningful impact on the history of art.

It took us several decades internationally to recognize that, for a whole variety of reasons, but the art did not rise out of the economy that then developed in Japan. It was born from the opposite. It was born from the vestige of war, of the evidence of it, of the lack of access to materials. Part of the challenge of being in a post-war state, similarly to how painting in Italy emerged in the 50s, reflective of that. I mean, you could look at Burri and say that his work is directly connected to war, the wound, the refuse, the residue, while you could look at Fontana at the same time and say that, in a way he’s the opposite. That he’s a visionary looking into outer space, looking to think of space in a different way, that only space exploration could have made possible.

In both cases, you had a coalescence of the new generation of artists who had something to say. Perhaps, that was more about being freed, or being traumatized as a culture and being freed from certain kinds of constraints that neither encouraged nor allowed the space for the development of a thoughtful, new, challenging art.

David Salle: Which just happened to coincide with an available formal vocabulary, which they took advantage of in the moment when it was still malleable and fresh enough for one to put their individual stamp on. I think what we’re saying is that, not that anyone could quantify it, but there’s a recipe. Too much neglect is not good. Too much attention is not necessarily good either. There has to be some kind of reciprocity between neglect, attention and trauma or its opposite, that results in having something that’s worth saying.

Then, that has to coincide with a moment in which the formal givens are congenial to the force of that material.

Alison Gingeras: Or, oppression and censorship, and how that’s-

David Salle: Yeah. They’re opposites.

Alison Gingeras: If you look at the birth of CoBrA through Helhesten, which was formed under Nazi occupation of Denmark, in which the paradigms of Danish surrealism were marshaled into a political avant-garde, that was in direct defiance of the Nazi occupation and degenerate art that then gave birth to CoBrA as a radical, revolutionary movement based in communist ideals in the post-war period. Those conditions, arguably, might be happening here with the fact that this election has been understood as a backlash against identity politics, against progressive values.

I’m curious to see how the art world and artists, especially who work around ideas of identity politics, are re-vindicated within the institutional support they receive, within the market. Will those things matter more, when you’re faced with the kind of repressive ideas of official culture coming from government, and coming from a very divided nation? It’s something too that will probably play out more tellingly in the so-called flyover states, and in the museums of the middle of our country rather than in California and the East Coast. What kind of shows will they put on in museums in Texas, in museums in those red states?

Allan Schwartzman: One thing I wanted to add that’s a parenthetical thought, that may not be so relevant to this, but it was triggered by something that David said earlier, about German art and its tendency, or German artists’, towards seeking a hierarchy. That is, somebody had explained to me that a German critic or dealer had explained to them that the generation of artists who emerged after Polke and Richter, meaning Thomas Schütte, Rosemarie Trockel, Martin Kippenberger, these artists were hard to understand and identify in their early emergence because they worked in so many different formats.

\When they worked in the format of painting, as is the case with Kippenberger, it was often in a way that lampooned serious painting. This was the generation whose parents were active in the war, and this was the generation that lived with the heaviest amount of guilt about Germany’s role in World War II. The idea of a signature style or presence or authoritarian sense of the individual master was something that they both politically objected to and personally, psychologically, even if unconsciously, feared.

David Salle: But it changes as you get older.

Allan Schwartzman: Yes.

David Salle: I mean, it’s easy for young artists to say that. We all believed that when we were young.

Charlotte Burns: Well, thank you very much, thank you Alison Gingeras, thank you Allan Schwartzman and thank you David Salle.

Allan Schwartzman: Thank you.

David Salle: Thank you.

Charlotte Burns: Thank you for listening to In Other Words. Be sure to tune in next time as we discuss globalization and its discontents, with Tom Krens, the former director of the Guggenheim museum, and Eric Shiner, the former director of the Andy Warhol museum, who’s a senior vice president at Sotheby’s fine arts division.

If you liked what you heard, feel free to follow the show at iTunes, Stitcher, iHeartRadio or wherever it is that you find your podcasts. Do leave a rating or review at iTunes if you’re so inclined. That helps people find our show. If you’d like more information on the topics we discussed today, please visit our website where you can find a new Artoon by Pablo Helguera, related reading and some photos of today’s live record.




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