in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

Transcript #74 On the Ground in L.A.

Guest Jori Finkel. Photo by Charlotte Burns

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.

I’m your host, Charlotte Burns and today we’re live in Los Angeles with the journalist Jori Finkel, who writes for publications including The New York Times. For her new book, It Speaks to Me: Art that Inspires Artists, Jori asked 50 artists to tell her about their favorite work of art.

Jori, thanks for joining me today.

Jori Finkel: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Charlotte Burns: Before we begin today’s episode, here’s a reminder to subscribe to our weekly In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com. Now, onto today’s show. Great.

Jori, we’ve known each other for a long time. We’ve worked together in lots of different ways. So, it’s a real pleasure to have you in the studio. It’s one of the more relaxing podcasts I think I’ve ever recorded

Jori Finkel: And I would say you’re one of my better bosses, Charlotte, that we got to know each other because I write for The Art Newspaper as well as The New York Times and you were an editor there.

Charlotte Burns: I was always very aware of the fact that I was learning more from you, probably, than the other way around. So talking about beginnings, I was doing a little bit of research for this podcast and one thing I didn’t know about you was that you got into the art world because in the 1980s, you’d worked for the Columbia Bartending Agency and you happen to just do bartending gigs at the Mary Boone Gallery. The Mary Boone gallery in the 1980s sounds like a lot of fun.

Jori Finkel: For someone else, it would have been a lot of fun. For me, it was a really frightening experience. I was a very serious student. I loved literature and I loved art, and I loved bartending because you made tons of money and they’d send you home with cab fare too, so you wouldn’t have to take the subway home.

That was my introduction to the New York gallery scene of the late 1980s and it was nuts. I remember lots of champagne. I was popping open champagne bottles until my fingers were bloody.

Charlotte Burns: Oh my God.

Jori Finkel: I remember a lot of cocaine—that I had nothing to do with. For me, it was a sign of spectacle, decadence and I thought to myself, “I don’t want anything to do with this art world” and then, you know, flash forward 10 years and I’m an editor at Art+Auction magazine covering the ins and outs.

Charlotte Burns: So you were one of two senior editors at Art+Auction magazine in New York, beginning in 1998 up until 2004. That’s a really interesting period because it’s basically this period of time in which the art world changed drastically, and the art market specifically, which is what you were looking at. How do you think it changed in that time and since?

Jori Finkel: Amazing. Drastically. Dramatically. I remember my first year at Art+Auction in 1998. We published a map of the new Chelsea gallery neighborhood and I think there were five galleries—

Charlotte Burns: Oh my gosh.

Jori Finkel: —on that map. Matthew Marks being one of them, right? That was it. Then you know by the time I left New York you couldn’t get into the galleries in Chelsea. It was standing room only at some galleries.

Charlotte Burns: You’ve been less involved in the market in subsequent years. Was that a conscious decision?

Jori Finkel: No, I really think that’s a function of my moving to LA—that LA is not the market center, even though we have one, seems-to-be-successful-so-far fair here, Frieze LA. It is not the market center that New York is. It doesn’t have the auctions. It doesn’t have the high-end sales.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: Art advisers come and go through LA, but they don’t stay as much.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Jori Finkel: So, I think part of it was conscious that when I made the decision to leave New York and write from Los Angeles, I knew I was making the decision to write more about artists—

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: —to hang out more with the artists, to go into the studios more and do those kinds of stories.

Charlotte Burns: There’s lots of myths about LA and New York. The LA one is that there’s always been a chip on LA’s shoulder about being perceived as a second city to New York in terms of the market activity and collectors. But LA has always had the ace up its sleeve of being where the artists are. Is that still the case?

Jori Finkel: I don’t see a huge exodus of artists from LA. Maybe from LA proper and they’re moving further east or further south. There are more artists in Long Beach for example, but artists are not leaving LA. We have five major art schools where they’re teaching. A lot of our greatest artists in LA are also great teachers.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Jori Finkel: You interviewed Cathy Opie and she’s a great example of that, but before her, John Baldessari taught generations of artists starting with Jim Welling and Tony Oursler.

Charlotte Burns: It’s one of the things that’s really unique about Los Angeles.

Jori Finkel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charlotte Burns: It’s a generative place for artists. That lineage of really dynamic arts schools producing just generations of artists. Are those artists rising out? Are they finding representation?

Jori Finkel: Oh, yeah. You can see it. You can see sometimes the artists who are on faculty championing a particular artist to make sure they get gallery representation.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: Now, the downside is because the art schools are so prominent, it can feel a bit clique-ish in LA—

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: Where, where you went to school matters—and maybe matters more in LA than it would if you’re trying to break into the gallery scene in Chicago, for example.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: And that you have a network that’s based on where you went to school. If you didn’t go to school in LA, maybe you’re at a disadvantage.

Charlotte Burns: Oh, that’s really interesting. So, which of the schools are on the top right now?

Jori Finkel: Oh—

Charlotte Burns: You’d have to say that without offending people.

Jori Finkel: I just think they’re strong. The schools are strong in different things for different reasons. I taught at Otis seven or eight years ago and they have the best video game program you can possibly imagine.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that’s really interesting.

What was the course you taught there?

Jori Finkel: I taught a class that I designed called “Popular Art Writing”. So, I basically taught what it is that I do for a living, which is not academic writing. You don’t have to quote Walter Benjamin—and please don’t. Use your own voice.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: Would you advise people to become journalists today?

Jori Finkel: Ooh. I’d advise them to have a backup plan.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: I’ve always believed that if you do what you love and you work really hard at it, the world will make space for it and appreciate it.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: But it’s a small field. Journalism is a small field. Cultural journalism is a minuscule field.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Jori Finkel: How many of us are actually making a living? I’m really grateful that I’m able to.

Charlotte Burns: Well, when you think about it though, the rates have gone down in the last ten years. Freelance rates, for example, are less now than they were four years ago.

Jori Finkel: Or for me, they’ve been just stable, and cost of living goes up.

Charlotte Burns: Right. So, you’re effectively adding—

Jori Finkel: Yeah.

Charlotte Burns: Allan once told me the word rate that he had as a journalist in the 1970s and 1980s and I was like, “Wow, that’s like top dollar today.”

Jori Finkel: Right.

Charlotte Burns: And it’s like that’s kind of depressing.

[Laughter]

Jori Finkel: The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s even worse if you want to be an art critic and you’re not on staff somewhere. I had this kind of joke that the difference between being an art critic and an art journalist is 75 cents a word. That as a journalist, at least there are some outlets that still value original reporting and the work that it takes to get your sources on record, that kind of thing.

Charlotte Burns: You’re a news journalist. You sense the blood in the water in that way and you go for the story.

You were working at the LA Times from 2010 to 2013 and you were laid off and it was big news. Everybody was shocked. You were one of the best journalists working— still are—but you had made a name for yourself in LA to a New York audience who don’t always look that way. When this round of redundancies happened, museum directors in LA took the unusual step of creating a petition to keep you. Then you became the subject of a news story because then the Hollywood Reporter wrote about the fact that you are the subject of a news story with these museum directors lining up to keep your job and that seemed to me to be a really specifically LA thing. I don’t know that that would happen in New York—

Jori Finkel: No.

Charlotte Burns: —or London.

Jori Finkel: No, no. I think there were a couple dozen museum directors that signed this letter and three museum directors who organized it, and it was Annie Philbin, Jim Cuno and Michael Govan. So, I felt really honored and grateful and appreciated that, okay, so the LA Times is in free fall. They were in bankruptcy at the time. The bloodshed was on the wall from the number of losses of staff in the past, but I felt that at least I was being appreciated by the community that I wrote for. But even more than that, they weren’t just fighting for me. They were fighting for: this is their big local newspaper, there should be an arts reporter on staff. There were still six or seven people reporting on the entertainment industry, maybe six or seven people reporting on film alone—

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Jori Finkel: —on staff. How could they possibly cut the art reporter position? Yeah, the fact that the Getty, the Hammer, LACMA and then other museum directors. Jeffrey Deitch signed it at a time when he was on his way out of town and nobody knew where he was.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Jori Finkel: I think it’s great. To their credit, they got a lot of people, including people at the LA Times who hadn’t been paying attention to my arts coverage or the art scene, they got these people to pay attention. And sure enough, it was maybe a year later that they were able to hire Carolina Miranda and it wasn’t replacing me. It was replacing the reporter Reed Johnson, who had a specific Latin beat—

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: —but still, the fact that they were able to see they needed more arts coverage, I think.

Charlotte Burns: And she does a great job.

Jori Finkel: Amazing, and she unionized them.

Charlotte Burns: I know.

Jori Finkel: She led the efforts to unionize this newspaper.

Charlotte Burns: And fought for that so hard, for so long.

That’s pretty interesting though as well, this idea of Los Angeles: that the industry here is not the arts industry. It’s obviously Hollywood and film and music. The museum directors had to band together and having to sort of fight for that awareness. So that would be 2013. Do you think there was more awareness here with the art scene within the city?

Jori Finkel: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really hard to quantify it, but I think that’s one of the many effects of Pacific Standard Time, both additions.

I mean, it’s kind of amazing. When I moved here 15 years ago, I felt that there were an extraordinary number of educated people who did not go to the local museums here, who would go to museums if they were on a trip to New York or Paris, but they wouldn’t go to the local museums here. I feel like that’s changed and you can see the changes. If you look at LACMA visitorship for example, LACMA is still primarily a local visitorship but the numbers have more than doubled over the last decade.

Charlotte Burns: Tell me the kind of low down on all the museums. LACMA’s obviously going through this charged moment with the renovation and there’s been criticism.

LA MOCA has been through a time of turmoil and two different directors have come and gone: Jeffrey Deitch who you mentioned, Phillipe Vergne, now we have a recently appointed Klaus Biesenbach, also chief curator changes with Paul Schimmel, Helen Molesworth. So MOCA’s been through it.

The Getty’s been the Getty and just continuing do the amazing things that the Getty does, but also taking new directions. PST’s been happening, but also the Getty Research center has been doing really interesting stuff—

Jori Finkel: Since we’re talking about LA and the growth of LA, there’s something I’ll share with you that Stephanie Barron once told me. Stephanie Barron is a longtime, longtime curator of modern and contemporary art at LACMA and specializes in German art. She’s been there long enough that I think I asked her, “Oh my God, the changes you’ve seen at LACMA alone.” You think about what LACMA was before Michael Govan, but even before that—

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: —and she said that she thought one of the secret reasons for LA’s growth as an art community was the Getty Research Institute.

Charlotte Burns: Interesting.

Jori Finkel: Yeah. I thought it was really interesting and I’ve repeated it for that reason because the Getty Research Institute is a library, it’s a first-rate library including rare books and manuscripts and all the archives they’ve been acquiring, and they have fellowships. For that reason, they bring so many art historians to LA. You can’t be an art historian working today and not come to LA to use something at the GRI at one point or another.

Charlotte Burns: Interesting.

Jori Finkel: It actually brought me to LA in a way, because the last year that I was an editor at Art+Auction, the Getty Research Institute had the Getty fellows. They live in this bungalow with a little pool on Sunset.

Charlotte Burns: Sounds awful.

[Laughter]

Jori Finkel: Yeah, exactly. It’s really painful and I was not one of the fellows who are there for six months or a year, but they invited me. I was doing research on the history of the photography market at the time. I thought it was going to become a book. I thought it would be my first book. That the birth of the photography market took place essentially, in our lifetime, right?

Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.

Jori Finkel: That before 1970, photographs were sold like postcards in bookstores and then by the 1970s there was a community kind of invested in making photographs scarce, like paintings, and limiting the additions.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: I was just fascinated by it, so I was doing a lot of research on it and they invited me to come out and give a talk.

Charlotte Burns: Do you know, by the way, that one of the biggest collectors of real photo postcards, the two biggest collectors are Anthony d’Offay and Leonard Lauder.

Jori Finkel: That’s really interesting.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah. When I worked with Antony years ago, we staged an exhibition of real photo postcards called the “American Dream,”—

Jori Finkel: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Charlotte Burns: —and it was the history of America through these vitrines that were designed by the same German company that made the shark tank for Damian Hirst’s Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)— the formaldehyde work—these really hyper-specific glass vitrines that housed these postcards that dealt with all these issues that we still are talking about in America today: produce consumption and excess, race, the role of women. I remember this huge, like, marrow.

Jori Finkel: Uh-huh (affirmative) uh-huh (affirmative).

Charlotte Burns: This idea that America had this abundance, this cornucopia of everything—

Jori Finkel: Right.

Charlotte Burns: —which has to do with the promise of America, but also to do with capitalism. Also, these really, really tough violent images of lynchings, of gang violence in the streets of New York, the kind of Five Points thing.  “It’s so tough to look at this.”

Jori Finkel: Yeah, yeah. Then the Getty has this amazing photography collection. So, they brought me out to do a talk on the birth of the photography market and I got to stay at scholars housing for a week. I tore my Achilles tendon playing tennis. I played too much tennis and I went back to New York on crutches and then I’m like, “I’m moving to LA.”

Jori Finkel: I don’t think Stephanie Barron was making the point that other journalists or art historians or academics decide to move to LA after spending a year or a couple months at the Getty, but some have. Thomas Demand did. He came through the Getty as a visiting scholar, visiting fellow and he’s here now. He gave up his job in Berlin, which Sam Durant just took.

Charlotte Burns: It’s also interesting when you think about the fact that it’s always been… LA, you know the other institution I didn’t mention was the Hammer, which has been in really fantastic curatorial work. We were looking actually, at Los Angeles specifically when we did this big women data study with Julia Halperin at artnet News. We were talking a lot about the problems of a conversation that isn’t based in reality. The data really revealed the gap between reality and perception.

Jori Finkel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charlotte Burns: People believed there have been great and profound and lasting change—

Jori Finkel: Yeah.

Charlotte Burns: —and actually there has not been progress. The figures for museum acquisitions stalled in 2009.

Jori Finkel: And that was such an important point in the way you framed it, as you know, it’s been an illusion of progress. I thought was really important.

Charlotte Burns: Oh, thanks, Jori.

Jori Finkel: But one of the reasons I think there has been that illusion, and I don’t know if you… I read the package, but I’m not sure you guys talked about why is there that illusion?

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: I think one of the reasons there is that illusion is because a number of us, yourself included, myself included, are really committed to making sure we’re covering a lot of women artists.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: So, the conversation has moved.

Charlotte Burns: You mean within the media?

Jori Finkel: Yeah.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah. I agree with it.

Jori Finkel: When you look at The New York Times, look at what Roberta Smith… Do a count. Do a count of what Roberta Smith has covered, do a count of what Holland Cotter covers and how much space did he give Betye Saar this summer?

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: I had a kind of awakening about five years ago, I guess right around the time I had my second child and maybe that had something to do with it. But I had a period, a couple of months where I covered Jordan Wolfson—and I mean feature coverage for W magazine—back to back with a Mark Grotjahn piece for the New York Times. I said to myself, “I can’t do this anymore. I cannot cover these hot-young-thing male artists who I don’t believe in.” Mark Grotjahn’s not so young anymore, but you get the idea.

And I don’t want to diss these particular artists as much as I want to say that I had an awakening that as a feminist—

Charlotte Burns: They were getting outsized attention.

Jori Finkel: Well, outsized attention and they have the PR machinery behind it.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Jori Finkel: Those are the stories that are easy to place because it’s not just an artist coming to you saying, “Oh, I have this great show coming up.” It’s major museum directors, plus major publicists, plus they’re getting the ear of your editor, too.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Jori Finkel: So, it makes the story seem inevitable in a way.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: I decided at that moment, after those two stories back to back, it wasn’t inevitable for me, that I had to say, “No,” to those stories or just pass on them—

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: —and even if my work dried up.

Charlotte Burns: Did it dry up?

Jori Finkel: Not so much. I got really lucky because I think Pacific Standard Time, the second edition rolled into town and the explicit focus was Chicano and Latinx art, right?

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: But I think there was a real feminist… They were looking at more women artists. Then I ended up getting a Mary Kelly feature. I had never had the chance to interview Mary Kelly even though she lives in my backyard. And no, it didn’t dry up. So, I feel really grateful, but I feel like it’s because my editors and the publications and also the readers have some kind of shift as well, maybe not as—

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jori Finkel: —dramatic as mine or maybe not as easy to isolate as mine, but I think there’s been a real shift in the conversation that gave us that illusion that then you guys found out was just an illusion when it comes to museum acquisitions.

Charlotte Burns: I think it was actually in the DNA of the project, was this understanding that as a journalist, as an editor, as someone who’d written and reported and commissioned and pulled together lots of different articles over the years, I thought that it was… I thought it was great when I would be wandering around at art fairs writing articles about, is this a great time for women?

I thought that that was reflecting a reality that I thought was going on. It was also reflecting the time constraints of that kind of reporting where you’re running around a trade show and you have to treat it as if it’s a curated experience. So, you have to find trends. And so, you walk around, and you need at least three. Three’s a trend.

Jori Finkel: What you’re pointing out is really important too, is that women artists have become an important and also very popular issue for journalists, for the media. But does it mean we’re covering the artists individually and integrating them into our coverage? Because in some ways I want to do both.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah. What do you mean?

Jori Finkel: Discuss the issues, discuss the dynamics like I did with this documentary that I produced for KCT on artists who are mothers, and make motherhood a part of their work. And by the way, it’s really hard to document backlash against artists who are mothers. But I can tell you anecdotally, when I started making this documentary and I told people in the art world about it, I got this “ooh” reaction. They thought the art was going to be bad, because it was art that was shaped somehow by the experience of being a mother.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, it has become an issue that the media is really interested in, but what hadn’t occurred to me, when I was playing that role, was that maybe that was unhelpful, actually. Maybe that was feeding this perception gap—

Jori Finkel: I think it’s all part of the growing visibility. I just think it’s important to do both. It’s important to call attention to the issues but also call attention to individual artists.

I did a profile for the New York Times, a classic Sunday Arts and Leisure big profile with good photography, of the artist Analia Saban. She was in her early thirties and it was her first big story. But this was an artist who had already made inroads in L.A. Every major museum here has her work.

She told me afterwards that she had been covered before and because of her personality—because she’s sweet, because she’s girly in a certain way—she’d been covered before like “At Home With Analia”. She was never taken seriously in the coverage in a certain way.

Charlotte Burns: Interesting.

Jori Finkel: And she told me that she got basically what we would call the “Richard Serra treatment”, where you get the photos. It wasn’t just my story that did it, but the photos of her with heavy machinery in her studio, and how that positions an artist differently.

Charlotte Burns: So interesting.

Jori Finkel: And I didn’t put in the fact that she was a new mother in the story, even though she and I, as mothers, talked about it a lot. I saw that it really didn’t have that much to do with her work.

Charlotte Burns: Right. The other thing I was thinking about, too, and this is totally random: you know when you read a bunch of things that all sort of make a little link in your mind?

So, there were two instances of artists in your book talking about time. Do Ho Suh is talking about Jeong Seon and then Diana Thater talks about a work by Nam June Paik. And in it, both of them make this point about time and the way that we perceive time. So Do Ho Suh, the work he picks is this landscape painted on a fan and he talks about how it looks unreal because from a Western point of view we’re used to a single perspective. A fixed point of view, and that’s how we perceive the world. And that’s the point that we’ve perceived Western art history through, that single perspective.

Jori Finkel: David Hockney makes the point in this book as well, because he is talking about a Degas replica of Poussin‘s The Rape of the Sabine [Women] (1637-38) painting.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, he is.

Jori Finkel: And he makes the point—of course he’s really interested in the invention of perspective and the role that optics played in helping Western painters—but he also makes the point that in non-Western art you get this fluidity. Multiple viewpoints.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, so Do Ho Suh says specifically, “Instead of working from a single perspective point like in Western art, Jeong is showing the landscape as movement, reflecting the Asian philosophy that nothing is permanent and everything is in constant flux.” And then Diana Thater talks about the same thing essentially with Nam June Paik’s work.

Jori Finkel: That’s true. Yeah. She uses the word flux too, I think. That’s really interesting. I’d never made the connection between those two interviews.

Charlotte Burns: So, I was swotting for this and thinking about that. Meanwhile, over jetlagged cup of tea this morning, I was reading an article on Buzzfeed about the end of a decade, and during this decade time has collapsed. Basically, all of the social media has been invented, that our sense of time is no longer what it was. We used to get news at fixed points. Now we get news in push alerts. Our timelines are algorithmic, rather than chronologic and that things just repeat ad nauseum. And it’s influencing everything. It’s influencing our perception of politics.

So, this Buzzfeed article was really interesting, talking about how time had melted and we didn’t know where we were in it anymore. We’re looking forwards and backwards in this kaleidoscopic, completely confusing way.

And then I was thinking of another article I’d read by William James, I think his name is, he was the editor of Art in America. And he’d written about MoMA having this internal debate over several decades of whether the collection should have a spine. Whether it should be this linear progression, telling you what the key points in the vertebrae of art history were, or whether it should have a sponge-ish approach. And so, he’s got this article of structure between spine and sponge. And the new MoMA is more spongy. It’s this idea that there isn’t a linear vertebra throughout history. Actually, lots of things were happening at once that we didn’t really think about. There’s a simultaneity.

And I was thinking, “Oh that’s just the collapse of the Western perspective through social media, and through all of these things.” It’s really interesting to think of the way that’s playing out in the art that we see. So, MoMA at the end of this decade of time melting, or constant flux, or mixed perspectives is rehanging its collection in this way. And I was thinking, of course, artists knew this. These are the works that the artists have chosen in your book. So, your book made me think that that’s part of the reason we’re having these conversations about women, about nonwhite artists, about artists from different parts of the world, that we’d previously ignored because they weren’t market trade hubs.

Jori Finkel: Well I like to think that this book slows down time in a way, because it lets you stay with one artist’s voice for a while and the one object they’ve chosen. It’s an interview-facing page with the image that they’ve chosen of the artwork. What I hear from readers is that they’re reading it way out of order. It happens to be in alphabetical order, but they’re picking and choosing. And some people are starting with the text, and some people are starting with images, and some people start with artists they know, and some people start with artists they don’t know. And so, there are multiple points of entry, or access, in the book, which feels current to me, and it just maybe reflects the way people read today.

Charlotte Burns: The book basically makes the case for slowing down and looking at art. I think New York magazine called it an argument for art museums. This idea of-

Jori Finkel: An argument for why art museums matter, yeah.

I did not ask artists to choose their all-time favorite work of art, in part because I feel like that question is so—

Charlotte Burns: Paralyzing.

Jori Finkel: —paralyzing. Exactly. As a journalist, you know it. That you ask somebody to choose their favorite, well they have different favorites. Of course, they have more than one artwork that’s moved them over the years as an artist.

Charlotte Burns: It tends to send them into tailspin, I think.

Jori Finkel: So just for practical reasons, I narrowed the question for them. I asked them to choose a work of art that inspires or moves them, from a local museum.

I also did it because I liked the idea that we could use this book as a kind of travel guide. That if Do Ho Suh shows us something from the Kansong Art Museum in Seoul, if we have the chance to go to Seoul, we can seek out that fan painting and see it for ourselves. And that’s why I also tried for some geographic diversity.

Think about it. Lam is in this book, Picasso is not.

Charlotte Burns: And also, Andy Warhol’s in here, but painted by a woman.

Jori Finkel: Exactly. Alice Neel is in there, but Andy Warhol isn’t. Duchamp, Picasso, Matisse did not make it in. There is a Cézanne. Gary Hume talks about a Cézanne at the National Gallery. And even he—

Charlotte Burns: I loved the way he talked about that.

Jori Finkel: Yeah, he will say that it’s not even the best Cézanne, but it’s the one that made him think about being a painter.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, the woman.

It’s a woman who’s got these big hands. She’s bent over, there’s this swathe of dark blue over her back, and it is sort of the weight of her. She was a former nun, wasn’t she? It was sort of the collapsed spine of your faith leaving you and oppression of labor.

Jori Finkel: He was making movies for a life insurance company at the time. He was in his early twenties and he saw this painting and one of the things that he was really drawn to was this dark, dark blue swath of paint that seemed to weigh on her. And then he realized that grief, emotion could be expressed abstractly. And so, yeah, I mean it was such a pleasure for me to talk to these artists.

Charlotte Burns: True, true. And also, Luc Tuymans talks about this amazing Jan van Eyck work of the Virgin and Child [With Canon] (1434-36) in a museum in Bruges. And he talks about how he visited it when he was a kid and it was shocking to him, this precise exactitude of the painting. And then he ends it saying, “I’m thoroughly convinced that there is no better painter than Jan van Eyck in Western art. There is no real competition. When you come from this region and start as a painter, you are instantly traumatized by his heightened sense of perception. Also, perfection. After van Eyck, every painter is a dilettante.”

It’s like, Luc, you’re a really talented artist. You’re being so hard on yourself here. Luc Tuymans is—

Jori Finkel: One of the best, right.

Charlotte Burns: He’s one of the best. And here he is sort of feeling wildly inferior because of this painting that’s traumatized him since he was a child.

Jori Finkel: Isn’t that interesting? Well, that would be another through line. It could be interesting just to read through the book, and just read the interviews I did with artists where they picked works that impressed them from childhood. Because they have a different… It kind of loomed large over them. Mark Bradford picked a Mark Rothko that he grew up with because—

Charlotte Burns: I loved that story.

Jori Finkel: —he had a poster version of a MOCA painting in his bedroom when he went to Santa Monica High School. And that in some ways was also a really big touchstone for him. But then he outgrew his admiration for it at some point. By the time he went to CalArts—maybe art schools just beat it out of you, beat that pure unadulterated love out of you—but by the time he went to CalArts he said that he realized that Rothko’s milieu of the 1950s and 1960s in New York was it’s a community that he couldn’t participate in as a black, queer man. And so, he had some kind of disenchantment afterwards.

Charlotte Burns: After knowing who the artist was.

Jori Finkel: Yeah.

Charlotte Burns: But when he just saw it as a poster, in what he describes as a somewhat fancy frame. Like it had a white frame.

Jori Finkel: It was pure surface. It gave him the permission to think about surfaces and how important they can be for him.

Charlotte Burns: Yet, and even the fact that it became a surface thing. Like he had that in his room at some point and then he replaced it with—

Jori Finkel: That’s what he said. A poster of Grace Jones.

Charlotte Burns: A poster of Grace Jones.

Jori Finkel: Isn’t that funny?

Charlotte Burns: That’s so funny. Rothko being replaced by Grace Jones.

Jori Finkel: And then William Kentridge picks a sculpture from Johannesburg by Antoine Bourdelle, who was an assistant of Rodin‘s. That loomed large over his childhood in a different way, because it’s such a big, big bronze sculpture of Sappho. He was obsessed with this big toe.

Charlotte Burns: Oh, the eroticism of this toe. I was looking at the toe, and I was like, “Each to their own.” I don’t know that I see that eroticism in that toe.

Jori Finkel: Well for me the funny thing is, and this is just pure coincidence, but I love William Kentridge. I feel like he just lights up a room with his imagination visually, but also verbally, he’s such a talker. He’s such a good interview. And then I used to say that William Kentridge could talk about his pinky fingernail and it would interest me.

And then we did a phone interview for this and here he is talking about this big toe.

Charlotte Burns: And you’re like—

Jori Finkel: Pinky fingernail, big toe. He actually has just one line I’m going to read to you. He says, and I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on it, but there is some common language between this Bourdelle and the work that he’s doing now. He says, “I’m certain that one’s head is filled and formed by these early encounters with particular works of art.”

Charlotte Burns: I’m sure.

Jori Finkel: And so, he won’t see exactly how, and this book doesn’t try to say how these artists are influenced. Like, I don’t want to play the influence game. I’m not claiming that these artists are influenced directly by the artworks they’re choosing. But it’s in there somewhere.

Charlotte Burns: It shapes you in some way that you’re not sure.

Jori Finkel: Exactly.

Charlotte Burns: You did a documentary, and it was for working artists who are mothers split with commentary by art world insiders about this topic of motherhood and artists. And you said that it was one of the great last taboos in the art world.

Jori Finkel: Yeah, I do. I think motherhood is one of the last taboos in the art market, in the contemporary art world.

Yeah, where is motherhood in textbooks? Where is motherhood in museum shows? Sometimes it creeps in through the education department, is what I learned when I looked at this more closely. Like when Louise Bourgeois does a spider, the education department will create all of these materials with questions about family relations and family dynamics. But do the curators go into it to the same degree? One thing that was really fun about working on this film is that I got to write for these interludes where we talked to the experts. I got to write something like, “What would a history of motherhood in art look like?” And we started with the Madonnas.

We showed some Renaissance Madonnas and then we got up to the point where women are making the art about motherhood. What was really interesting to me is when you look at the great women artists who have made work that deals with motherhood directly or indirectly, they don’t get seen together. They get seen as eccentrics. Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, Ruth Asawa.

They don’t get contextualized properly. And I think MoMA did a great job of beginning to contextualize them with other artists, but not necessarily with other artists who are making work about motherhood because again, it would seem to trivialize them. When I say it’s the last taboo, I don’t mean really that it’s literally unspeakable, but that it’s devalued to the point where we don’t talk about it enough.

Charlotte Burns: We did a podcast recently called “Designing Motherhood” with these great creators, Amber Winnick and Michelle Miller Fisher, who are in the middle of putting together an exhibition and a book on the topic of designing motherhood and all its various facets, and their journey to get here has been long and difficult. And this concept was actually born from that frustration that when Michelle was working at MoMA on the items show, the idea that you would try and get in a breast pump as an object of design was just not seen as a thing you could do. And not just to single out MoMA—it’s a case anywhere that you would look at—

Jori Finkel: Every major museum. That would be the definition of being a major museum is that they don’t pay attention to these things. That’s something I’ve learned in the process of talking about the book. I did a talk with Judy Chicago in New Mexico. She made a point in the interview in the book about Agnes Pelton, the artist she chose, and how abstraction for Pelton; for O’Keeffe, her contemporary; for other artists like Hilma af Klint and Sonia Delaunay was a way for them to express themselves directly. A way for women to—

Charlotte Burns: That’s a really interesting point.

Jori Finkel: So, we took that one point and ran with it for an hour, we had a blast. In the conversation I did with Judy Chicago she said something to me, that was just shocking to me. She said that she’s not in any major museum collections in New York. Major meaning the Met, MoMA or the Whitney. And I fact-checked it and found that there’s one print, but totally unrecognizable as Judy Chicago, that MoMA owns, and they must have gotten as a big gift. They didn’t get it from her. And you can hardly even tell. It’s not an important Judy Chicago. Meanwhile, The Dinner Party (1974-79) is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, right?

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Jori Finkel: So it’s not like it doesn’t have visibility. But here we have the most central figure in feminist art—how can MoMA do a room on the origins of feminist art without Judy Chicago? They can’t, and they didn’t. You know, they had their room where they had Senga Nengudi and they had some great women artists included, but they’re really missing an opportunity there. And the Whitney, same thing.

Charlotte Burns: Your point, too, about the fact that there’s visibility in the display: sure, but what really you want to do if you’re an artist is get into the permanent collection because that’s where the canon comes from. We found that, with the women data study, exhibitions had actually doubled over the past ten years. There were 14% of the exhibitions over the past ten years that have been dedicated to either solo or group shows of women artists. But it’s still 14%, so great that that grew, but that’s still not where it needs to be. But our data didn’t require museums to tell us the size of the exhibition. So, is it a work in a foyer? Is it a major exhibition on the big floors? Is it the one that you open the fall season with that you have a big catalog for? We didn’t ask them to identify that and not all exhibitions are created equally.

Jori Finkel: I was thinking about that very point when I was reading your data and you had a little chart that listed the women artists who have had the most museum shows. Was it over the last five years or ten years? Right?

Charlotte Burns: Ten years.

Jori Finkel: And number one was Kusama. Number two is Louise Bourgeois. Number three was Shinique Smith who is in my book talking about Robert Rauschenberg‘s Canyon (1959), and I’ve gotten to know through this book. So Shinique Smith was part of a conversation with me and Rirkrit Tiravanija at the Hammer Museum, and it was my book launch, essentially. But I’d rather talk to them about their art and what it means to make socially minded, engaged art in museums. And I realized that their interviews in the book have something in common because they both chose combines, but their work has something in common in that it very rarely goes into the main galleries.

So Shinique Smith is number three on your list of all the women artists in this country getting museum shows. But what we showed at the Hammer in this talk is how often her work is in lobbies, just as you mentioned, courtyards. Rirkrit gets the steps because he’s cooking, and they don’t want to deal with the risk and the liability of having food in anywhere near precious objects. But Shinique’s works are sculptural. Her best-known works are fabric-based sculptures or installations. They’re not going to destroy anything by proximity. So, she gets shown in what I call museum adjacent spaces or—

Charlotte Burns: Education.

Jori Finkel: —Or she gets shown in children’s museums, which are also adjacent in some ways to the art world.

Charlotte Burns: Well, it’s also moving it from, like you were saying—

Jori Finkel: And she was one of our success stories. She was one of your success stories in women visibility, right?

I think one really important question to ask after your study, which I thought was so important is, which women artists deserve blockbuster shows who aren’t getting it? So, beyond the Kusama, there are very few women who can be associated with blockbuster shows, whatever that means. But is there some way we can begin to redefine the blockbuster? Because the museums will tell you that’s one of the reasons that they’re a little bit conservative or a lot conservative, depending on your point of view, that they have to go with the big male names for, one, the sponsorship that puts the show on in the first place and then, two, the ticket numbers.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, but all of this is based on everything that’s ever happened in the past, which is to say that it’s not based on what’s happening now or what the future might take us.

Jori Finkel: You know who’s doing a great job at that is Liz Ann MacGregor, the director of the MCA in Australia. I realized that she has bigger attendance numbers than any other contemporary museum and has, consistently for the last ten years, if you discount the Hirshhorn with their Kusama show one year. And yes, they’re free, and yes, it’s a beautiful location on the harbor front, but she’s also doing this really interesting program where she does blockbusters and a lot of them are women: Pipilotti Rist, Cornelia Parker.

I do think there are examples out there, and what Annie Philbin has done at the Hammer Museum is extraordinary and certainly a lot of women artists being shown there, and they’re preparing to do an interesting feminism show called “Witch Hunt”.

Charlotte Burns: Such a great name.

Jori Finkel: Yeah, mid-career artists. I’m really looking forward to that.

So, it’s still, you think about major museums and how market driven they are and how market complicit they are. But if you look apart from the market, look at something like Pacific Standard Time where they have the funding from the Getty to put on shows—almost a hundred museums in the LA area get funding from the Getty—they don’t have to follow the market. They research. And it was shocking to me how many of the last iteration were feminist in one way or another.

Charlotte Burns: It’s really interesting.

Jori Finkel: And female-centered. So that was one of the big revelations to me is that the curators here, when given free rein, did that. Because they don’t have free rein when they put on museum exhibitions normally because they have to find sponsorship for it, and they have to find an audience for it. So, to me, that does show that their interests are there.

Charlotte Burns: Do we know how those shows did in terms of audience?

Jori Finkel: I didn’t study it this time. When I was at the L.A. Times I spent a whole summer with an intern, Danielle Paquette, who since went on to become a reporter at the Washington Post gathering data to see that Pacific Standard Time, for all of its glories and all of its accomplishments, did not really boost attendance the first time around.

Charlotte Burns: But this comes back to the metrics of success. The late and formidable curator Okwui Enwezor in an interview with me talked about attendance figures as “voodoo economics”. Attendance is the measure that people cite and look to, but it’s actually really a bodge because there’s no actual even standard method for collecting attendance.

Jori Finkel: That’s another thing, right. Those numbers—

Charlotte Burns: So, we’re not even comparing—

Jori Finkel: Those numbers are bogus, right?

Charlotte Burns: As a statistical data set, that doesn’t make any sense. You’re only able to maybe gleam directionally, but everybody knows that attendance is the game. So, everyone’s working their ways of making their attendance sound better. And yeah, it’s just like—

Jori Finkel: Very true. But there aren’t very many metrics in this field.

Charlotte Burns: There aren’t very many metrics. But with the PST initiatives, I happened to be in London when the “Soul of a Nation” show opened there. I was talking to my old editor and she was saying, “Wow, I’d never seen so many of these artists.” I thought it was really interesting because loads of them were in Pacific Standard Time.

The thing that was so great about PST, which you wouldn’t see in the attendance, is the way that it made clear that the arc of history is actually quite slow. That we have these trends and fashions, these hot things that come in and out like seasons, but it actually, even though we think we’re in a global and international art world, it really took that gap of time to get from Los Angeles to New York to London. And these are major centers. But it took that time and now there’s artists—

Jori Finkel: I believe that. There are ripple effects and it’s really hard to measure.

Charlotte Burns: So, final question: are you going to do another book?

Jori Finkel: I would love to. People are suggesting topics for me, though, like “Why don’t you have artists pick their favorite songs?”, not as easy to illustrate. It’s not as good-looking a book. But I would love to—

Charlotte Burns: Be great on TikTok.

Jori Finkel: I would love to.

Because of what’s happened in the last couple of years. I was making the book over the last three years, and the book was an escape from what was going on with the rise of fascism in so many different countries. But the book also addresses that, in some ways, that you can see artists, you can see Annette Messager looking at the Massacre de Innocents  (c. 1660s) and seeing that art history has a history of looking at trauma, looking at tragedy, looking at massacres.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah. There’s that dead baby’s head. Oh.

Jori Finkel: I know. So, yeah. Right. You’re talking about what she originally thought was a circle.

Charlotte Burns: I thought it was a circle in a column.

Jori Finkel: Me too. It looks like a circle above an architectural column, and she points out that, no, it’s actually a dead baby’s head.

Charlotte Burns: Lolling. Well, on that note, I think we’ll call it time.

Jori Finkel: We’re going to end on dead babies after talking about art and motherhood. I’ll do that. I’ll go wherever you want, Charlotte.

Charlotte Burns: Do you think we should?

Jori Finkel: Yeah.

But to answer your question more succinctly, I would love to do another book of artists on art. We’ve also talked about architects on buildings or photographers on photographs doing some kind of spinoff.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting. Just do more. You know, that’s the capitalist model. That’s what I want you to do, Jori. Do more books. I want to read them all.

Jori Finkel: Okay. If you’ll buy them, I’ll do them.

Charlotte Burns: Jori, thank you so much. It’s been so lovely to spend this time talking with you again. Just was like one of our phone calls that we used to have from London to L.A.

Jori Finkel: Even better. We had more time this way. I love it.

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