Disclosure City: Bob Nickas was my boss at index magazine from 1999 to 2001. We’ve remained close friends since then. I thought about recusing myself from writing an intro here because this is basically a long interview with a friend.
Nov 1 2010, 12:00am
Interview by Jesse Pearson, Portraits by Slava Mogutin
Disclosure City: Bob Nickas was my boss at index magazine from 1999 to 2001. We’ve remained close friends since then. I thought about recusing myself from writing an intro here because this is basically a long interview with a friend. But oh, wait, Bob is also the most genuinely independent voice in the art world today. And he’s been a critic and curator since 1984, staging more than 70 exhibitions so far. In artland, where who one knows seems to matter as much as it does in the film industry, and where commerce is, to be a little dramatic about it, 100 percent metastasized in 99 percent of the body, and where shows and artists are increasingly promoted more because of a curator’s wily agenda than because of the art’s basic merit, Bob’s is one of very few dissenting voices. In fact, after being an integral part of New York art for more than two decades, he is about to retire from this city. After he opens the White Columns Annual in Chelsea next month, Bob vows to never curate a show in New York again. Escape velocity: attained.
Now, knowing Bob, I am a little wary of broad pronouncements, which he is fond of making. But this one seems real. The New York art world is losing the participation of one of its most vital figures, and I can’t say we don’t deserve it.
Bob has moved freely though various tenures and efforts—founding editor of index in 1996 (the issues that he oversaw are still regarded in hushed tones as some of the brightest alternative media ever); curatorial adviser at PS 1 Contemporary Art Center from 2004 to 2007 (where he put together shows like “Lee Lozano: Drawn From Life: 1961-1971,” “William Gedney—Christopher Wool: Into the Night,” “Stephen Shore: American Surfaces,” and “Wolfgang Tillmans: Freedom From the Known”); collaborator with the Garbo of art, Cady Noland, on her installation for Documenta IX in 1992; and service on the curatorial teams for the 2003 Biennale de Lyon and Greater New York 2005 at PS 1/MoMA.
Since it’s not always easy to get to the random and international cities where Bob will be doing stuff as time goes on, I suggest his books. Live Free or Die: Collected Writings 1985-1999, Collection Diary, and Theft Is Vision would benefit anyone who gives a shit about art, like for real. His most recent book, Painting Abstraction, was published by Phaidon in 2009. It’s a massive hardcover survey of recent abstract painting. It’s expensive but it’s worth it.
I recently visited Bob at his apartment in SoHo. As we began talking, he was showing me the mock-up for his upcoming book, Catalogue of the Exhibition, which will be published by 2nd Cannons Publications at the end of this year. It’s a retrospective of every show he’s curated—a fitting thing to release as he divorces New York and inaugurates a new era.
Bob Nickas: I’ve chosen one work from each show that I’ve done, from 1984 to now. All of them come together as sort of the ideal collection. The first piece in the book is by Vito Acconci. It’s a rocking chair, and the back is an A; then you have the seat, which you can see has this big circular cutout; and the rockers—it actually rocks back and forth—are made of these S’s. So it basically says, “Asshole.” It was in a show called “Hunger for Words,” which also had work by Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. The idea was to do a kind of artist’s book in which, for each show, we reproduce the announcement card and one work.
Vice: And there’s new text from you for each one?
Well, I wanted to write something for each show, and you know I’m a fast writer, so I wrote this in record time. I wrote 77 texts in about a month. At one point, I was writing between two and four a day. They just started coming. Some of them are a bit short, and others are long.
What was it like going through your past like this?
It was like writing a memoir. A lot of people, when they write their memoirs, it’s a kiss-and-tell book, or they settle all their old scores. But I didn’t need to say one bad thing about anybody. It didn’t seem right. I thought, “I’m really talking about my history, and my history is not going to be reduced to these petty little things.” And also, whatever and whoever bothered me 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago—I just don’t care about it anymore.
Well, geez, how many feuds and resentments had you been involved in?
Who gets through 30 years of doing anything without them?
“My People Were Fair and Had Cum in Their Hair (but Now They’re Content to Spray Stars From Your Boughs),” 2003.
I guess the art world is pretty contentious.
Wealthy and powerful people—and boring people, and famous people—use art and artists to legitimize themselves. Or they use culture to say, “Look how cultured I am. I gave all that money to the museum.” Or, “Look, I bought this painting for however many millions of dollars at that auction.” People in the art world, people around artists, they all do the same thing. They use art to advance themselves, to advance their careers, for fame, power, money, and all those things. The art world doesn’t function any differently from the business world, the banking world, the real estate world, the military, or politics. And all those people in banking and real estate? They’re all involved in art. And why are they involved in art? Because in banking and real estate, there are all these oversights. People can go to jail. People can pay fines. The art world is the only unregulated market of its kind. I mean, what are the other unregulated markets? Drugs, arms, and slavery? Prostitution and gambling? Art is the only white-collar, legitimized market that is completely unregulated. There are no penalties. The only thing that you’ll ever get caught for is tax evasion.
How do you fit into all of that?
If I go and talk at an art school, let’s say, they introduce me—and they’re very generous—they always say, “He’s been an independent voice for many years,” and so on. And I think, “You know what? I’m not independent at all. If anything, I’m even more dependent. I’m much more indentured.” The thing about being “independent” is that you’re basically not institutional, you’re not a team player. And the way that business, the military, real estate, all those things work—they’re all boys’ clubs, by the way—they hire each other, they invite each other, they give each other opportunities, and if you’re not a part of that, you’re not going to get anywhere. You could say that, after almost 30 years of doing this, I’m not much further along than I was when I first started out.
By what measure?
Well, for example, here you are. You’re not going to write this piece and say, “I came to SoHo and I sat in his art-filled loft, and there was the Jeff Koons…” Think of all the famous artists I worked with in the 80s and 90s. Do you see their works here? You can’t say you came to some fabulous loft filled with millions of dollars in art.
No. I came to a small one-bedroom apartment with lots of books, magazines, and records in it. So what could you have done, that you didn’t, to end up in an art-filled loft?
I could have sold out.
What does that mean, though?
Well, for a curator, if you want to become famous, you don’t work with young artists, and you don’t work with the underdogs, and you don’t work with the little galleries. If you want to be a famous curator, you work with famous artists. If you want to work in a museum, you become an institutional person, which means you sort of behave yourself. And it doesn’t hurt to have worked with famous artists and to have hitched your wagon to those stars. But I’m still working with 20-somethings, and everybody says, “He finds all these artists, and he discovers them, and he’s still going to studios.”
And that’s not where the money and fame are.
You can’t put any of that in the bank. And the other thing is, you might find those artists, but who profits from them? Galleries, collectors, and other curators five or ten years later. Look at all the people I worked with in the 80s and 90s. You see their work in collections and museums—you don’t see it hanging on the walls of my house.
You must get pieces from some of the young artists you work with.
I do, but I would rather buy works, and I can’t really afford to buy things anymore.
People are going to say I’m just disgruntled, and that as I’ve gotten older I’ve soured on the art world or I’m burned out. But there’s any number of people who’ll tell you, “Oh, I remember him in the 80s, and he was exactly the same.” I’ve always been like this.
“Melvins,” 2003. “From the Observatory,” 2002. “Hunger for Words,” 1984.
I can vouch for the fact that you’ve been like this at least since I met you 11 years ago.
Burned out and disgruntled and against the art world, against the commercial world, against the auctions, and against the big money? I’ve always been that way. Whenever an artist became too expensive, too famous, and too much in demand, I didn’t go on with them. I stopped.
When I was at a point where I could pick up the phone and talk directly to the artist and say, “This is what I’m working on and I’d like you to be involved,” that was great, and that’s how I’ve always worked. But when you have to write to someone at the gallery or to someone at the studio, and they pass it on to someone else, and they never tell the artist... I can’t deal with that.
If I’ve worked with a photographer for a while and then they’re suddenly telling me to talk to their agent, I’m done with them.
At the same time, I’ve learned that there’s a certain price the artist pays, which is that as you become more famous you really do become more cut off from the world that you emerged from.
They get insulated by handlers.
And it’s interesting how artists, after they’ve been gone for a long time, when they start to be asked again to be in real shows, especially with artists who are younger than they are...
What do you mean by “real” shows?
Any show that isn’t just a bunch of famous names strung together and isn’t another biennial with a hundred people in it.
It’s actually a show that has, let’s say…
You actually want to go over to the opening and meet the people and see your work there. An older artist who has been cut off by success and fame might think, “I’m in a real show again, and I’m excited to be in this show.” And it can take an artist a long time to get back to that feeling of being connected to other artists. And they didn’t “need” that show. They’ve been in a thousand shows.
So being a famous artist means that you’re disconnected from a whole sort of scene from which you emerged and which helped to contextualize your work. There are artists who go to Gagosian, and we never hear from them ever again. It’s as if they just disappeared.
What are they doing? Just selling works to heirs in Italy and France?
I don’t know what they’re doing. But they instantly start to become less visible and less relevant to a younger generation of artists and curators.
“The Art of the Real,” 1987.
Let’s get back to the book of your shows for a bit.
Here’s a show from when I briefly worked at a gallery in the East Village. It was all artworks by people who owned galleries or were art critics. It was a hilarious mix, because we had people from East Village galleries like Meyer Vaisman, but we also had Robert Smithson. His piece was incredible—King Kong Meets the Gem of Egypt, a photo-collage piece from ’72. We had Clement Greenberg, and we had a driftwood sculpture by Betty Parsons, the dealer of Jackson Pollock.
Right. I like that it went back to that generation.
They’re all odd shows, the early ones. This is the first “Red” show. Everything in the show was red. It had Philip Taaffe, Haim Steinbach, Donald Judd, Allan McCollum... When you see these announcement cards, for every artist you recognize there are three, four, or five where you wonder, “Who is that?”
But that’s the real art history. If you go to the Museum of Modern Art’s library and flip through the catalogs of the important shows from the 60s, it’s the same thing. “There’s Donald Judd, there’s Sol LeWitt.” But every other page, you don’t know the artist. “Who’s this? Who’s that? I never heard of this artist.” The history of art is all winners and losers. But we don’t talk about the losers.
Then let’s talk about the losers.
Well, for example, for this show, “When Attitudes Become Form,” I chose a painting by Steven Parrino called Blue Idiot. I could not sell that painting. It was probably $5,000, and it would have been sold for, you know, $4,500. Everybody wants 10 percent off. Although in this economy they want 20 to 30 percent off. The collectors try to dictate the discount.
So people should just make the original price 20 percent higher to account for that.
Well, I’m not an art dealer. Anyway, that painting I couldn’t sell.
And Parrino was great.
Steven Parrino was in many shows of mine, and I don’t know that we ever sold anything. But that painting, finally, after the show, was sold through the gallery, Nature Morte in the East Village, to the collectors Don and Mera Rubell. They lived here at the time. Now they live in Miami. They probably paid, I would say, $4,500. I had to work really hard to sell it, and I’m not a hard-sell person. But I thought it was important for Parrino to be in that collection. It’s a great painting. The convincing point, where it really tipped over to them agreeing to buy it, was when I said, “How about this? If a few years down the line you feel that it’s not right in your collection, I will buy it back from you, but at the price you’re paying today.”
Exactly. And they said, “Oh, no, we wouldn’t do that.” So I said, “Well, that’s my offer. You won’t get that from a gallery. I’ll buy the painting back from you.” So they bought the painting. That was 1986. And then they sold it a few years ago at auction at Phillips, and at the time it was a record price for Parrino. They sold the painting for something like $685,000.
After Steven Parrino died, I’m assuming?
After he died. $685,000 for a painting they paid $4,500 for. There’s no wizard on Wall Street who legally can make you $685,000 on a $4,500 investment. How often can I do that? Once or twice in a lifetime? But still, they sold the painting, and I was pissed. And now if a museum wants a major painting by Steven Parrino and they go to Gagosian, because that’s where the estate is, they’d need a minimum of a million dollars—a minimum—to even talk about getting something. And you know, Parrino basically starved most of his life as an artist. So there are winners and there are losers, and sometimes, not always, the collectors come out ahead.
“Every Revolution Is a Roll of the Dice,” 2007.
Of course this brings up the old chestnut—artists being worth more dead than alive.
An artist who wasn’t worth anything alive isn’t always worth anything when they’re gone. Markets go up and down. Andy Warhol, for example, since he died his market has been all over the place. It hasn’t gone down, down, down, but it didn’t just go up, up, up, and away. It’s a common misperception that art is worth more after an artist dies. It’s not true. The other thing is, there’s always a kind of revisionism. Sometimes when an artist dies, their late work isn’t considered very good and it takes a serious museum show and a big book and people paying good money to create a market for that later work. When Willem de Kooning died, paintings of his from the 50s were in all the museums, all the big collections. But his later paintings weren’t. People thought that he had Alzheimer’s at the end of his life, that he was half out of his mind. First of all, I don’t believe that was the case. It’s possible that he was suffering from alcohol dementia.
That’s a possibility, given his history.
I remember going to museums and seeing some of his classic 50s paintings and thinking that they looked sort of sad and tired and without energy and kind of dead.
My favorite work by de Kooning is the stuff he did at the end. Those are some of my favorite paintings by anyone.
His later paintings are really vibrant and animated, really alive and beautiful. And if you bought a late de Kooning at the time that he died, you probably got a bargain. If you bought it five or ten years later, you really paid for it.
So did it actually become, like, de rigueur or at least hip to think that later de Kooning was worthwhile?
Well, hip is not the right word. But when an artist is alive, there can always be new work. When the artist is dead, that’s it. So dealers have to create a greater value for whatever is left.
How often have you found yourself cajoling collectors to buy something because you really believed in it?
It’s rare. I spend very little time with collectors—less and less as the years go by. I’ve never told someone “You should get this” if I didn’t believe that they should—that it was the right thing for them. And you know why? Because a few years later, they’ll think, “I shouldn’t have bought that.” Why would you risk undermining your own credibility? So you can make some money in the short term? Because a few years later, if you say to a collector “Go see this show,” you might as well be crying wolf. Now, if I say to someone “You should see this show” or “Why don’t you go to this studio with me?” they’re much more likely to go. You shouldn’t be so eager to sell off your integrity and your credibility.
How much do collectors go with what they’re told, and how many collectors really have an eye?
There are collectors who are great, there are collectors who don’t know what they’re doing, and there’s everybody in between. And I think there are differences between American and European collectors, generally speaking. I spend a lot of time in Europe, and I know collectors who might have eight to ten works by a single artist. Often in American collections you’ll find only one or two works by the same artist. Sometimes you find only one. And in a lot of American collections you find the same artists because it’s all about consensus. Consensus is a big part of the art world for collectors, for curators, for dealers. They want to know what other people think. But if you’re asking what other people think, you’re not reflecting at all on what you think.
That’s the difference that makes it more of an investment market than a passion. Right?
There was a collector in Italy who’s dead now. His family has continued with his collection—it’s been built over 40 years. There’s one work that’s really wrong in that collection. It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s not a particularly good work, but it’s something he bought early on, right when he started collecting. Someone asked him, “Why do you keep that work? You don’t show it, and you know it’s wrong for the collection.” And he said, “I made a mistake, and I want to be reminded of that mistake.” That, to me, is amazing. Collectors make their mistakes in private. I mean, unless you’re always buying at auction and you sit there waving the paddle.
But for a curator, you did that show and it was up for three or four months, and all those people saw it. Curators make their mistakes in public. Artists make their mistakes in public too, because they often show something they’re not sure about. And when it really doesn’t work, there are people who say, “Oh, the artist got pushed into doing that show. He didn’t have enough time, it was too big of a space, there was a lot of pressure...” Whatever. That seems to be a lot of excuse making, if you ask me. But still, artists make their mistakes in public. And critics too. They have to sign their name to what they write. The dealers, they choose the artists, and maybe later they drop them because they’re not selling. They make their mistakes in public. But collectors don’t.
Don’t they get to have that privilege because they’re the ones supplying the money?
Didn’t the artist pay for the materials, pay their studio rent, and pay assistants if they can afford to have them?
Just playing devil’s advocate over here...
Didn’t the gallery pay their staff, their landlord, pay for the opening and the ad in Artforum, and maybe even help pay for the production of the work? Of course, with a writer, you can say, “But you don’t even have to buy paper anymore. Just sit down at your computer and type!” Well, you know, I pay my rent. I have to eat, I have to travel to see the shows, and I’m not only going to see shows in New York. And I don’t get a check every week because I’m someone’s employee, or get health insurance. So are the collectors supplying money? Well, they should. I did an interview once with the artists McDermott and McGough. It was really an interview with Peter McGough, about their time in the 80s. He said, “You know what? Collectors wanted to be around the artist and gain entry into the artist’s world and be at those parties and be in their studios. And they had to pay for the privilege!”
That’s an excellent attitude.
Do collectors show a profit or a loss at the end of the day? I think it’s a profit. And the other thing is that it’s not all monetary. Look at those evil, evil brothers who are supporting all the Tea Party candidates. You know, Charles and David Koch.
Right, there was that long article about them in the New Yorker.
They’re richer than Bloomberg. And big patrons of the arts. They give to museums and to the ballet. And everyone’s happy to take their money; they go to the dinner and thank them for being so generous. Meanwhile, they know what’s going on behind the scenes. It would make me so sick I couldn’t take the money. I couldn’t. They might as well be drug dealers, laundering their money at Lincoln Center or at the Metropolitan Museum. It’s disgusting.
The money they give to these institutions is both a donation and hush money at the same time.
You know how in the 80s we had the whole blown-up controversies around Andres Serrano and Mapplethorpe getting NEA funding? But do you know that the largest amounts of federal money for the NEA were given during the Nixon administration? Why? Because the Nixon administration knew, “We don’t want any dissent; we don’t want these people complaining about us. We’ll give them money and let them go off and play with their art, and they’ll leave us alone.” That was their strategy, and it worked for a while.
I guess that business has the potential to turn everything creative sour and awkward.
In the 80s, people thought that I was going to start a gallery. And I always said, “First, I hate business. And second, if I start a gallery I’m going to be the biggest motherfucker of all time. I’ll be making the artists sign contracts, and if they leave me I’m going sue them. If I have a gallery I’m going to be the biggest monster there ever was.” So I never opened a gallery.
How can you hate business and then want to be that way?
I think it just happens. Once you’re invested monetarily, it changes your decisions. I thought, “In the end, I’m going to end up not liking artists. And I don’t want to turn into that person.”
So you never seriously considered opening a gallery?
Of course I thought about it. Who doesn’t think about it if you’re around art? You see everyone else making money. Certain galleries work incredibly hard for their artists, they really do. But a lot of galleries are basically shops, and the people who run them, it’s awful to call them art dealers. They don’t deserve the title because they’re shopkeepers. They have a shopkeeper’s mentality. They just sell things. They can’t tell you what the art is about. Even their directors can’t. In fact, galleries now seem to be hiring directors from auction houses. That’s where they get their staff.
All this considered, why did you even choose to enter the art world and to make it your career?
I wanted to have a life of luxury and comfort. And in some ways—and I’m a totally spoiled brat—you can say that’s exactly what I’ve had. I haven’t had to work a nine-to-five job. I’ve had a lot of fun, and I’ve been able to travel, and I’ve met lots of incredible people. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s been great. I have plenty of opportunities—to publish books, to do shows. But certain things you’re offered are just trouble waiting to happen.
There’s an auction coming up at Phillips, organized by the dealer Philippe Segalot, for their new uptown auction rooms. He’s obviously being paid a lot of money, and he’s brought together some very expensive art, which is expected to do really well. This is something new—the auction as a so-called curated sale. Someone from Phillips approached me a while ago to organize a sale for them in London, and I just said no right away.
What does it mean to “curate an auction”? They want you to go out and find the works for sale. And in some cases they probably want you to go directly to the artists and see if they’ll give you something to put directly into the sale. So in other words—if a new work from the studio is meant for the primary market, the auction world is a secondary market. But now they’ve collapsed them. Now, if a work goes directly from a studio to an auction, what market is that? The secondary market has become the primary market? Anyway, if you’re a curator, you’re a curator. If you work for an auction house, you work for an auction house. I didn’t even ask them what they were going to pay. I didn’t want to know. I just said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Otherwise I’d be thinking about all that money and what I could have done with it.
Yeah, you don’t want to know.
Shortly after that, a woman from a gallery in Moscow approached me about doing something for them. I’ve seen pictures of the space, and it’s like a quadruple airplane hangar.
Where the oligarchs go to buy their art.
Right. And she kept asking me what kind of fee I would want. But I don’t like to talk about money. At first I thought, “Maybe I should do it. I’ll be paid a lot of money, and I’ll go to Moscow.” But really, I don’t want to set foot in Russia.
Because Russia has been flung back in time a half century. It’s Kafkaesque. Oh, here’s the guy that used to work for the KGB. He’s in London now. We’re going to slip him some plutonium and just kill him. Or that journalist who’s been writing all that terrible stuff about the government. We’re going to have someone ring her bell, and when she opens the door she gets shot three times, with a final bullet in the head. And then the police have no suspects...
But nobody’s going to poison you.
Nobody should go to Russia, as far as I’m concerned. At least not for art.
Art seems to get flipped a lot today, between collectors and auction houses.
It used to be that an artwork came up for auction for one of three reasons: someone died, someone got divorced, or someone’s business took a big nosedive. Today the person is alive, they’re still married, and people’s businesses aren’t so great but they’re not losing their shirts. And yet with art they buy and buy, and in a way they’re sort of playing with it.
Because they’re bored?
I don’t know if they’re bored, or why they should be any more bored than you or me. I think it’s always been easier to make money with art than almost any other way, and more quickly. Now, you could say that there are lots of reasons to buy art. You buy it because you’re really passionate about it, and some people are. But a lot of people buy art on a whim...
Rich people buy art on a whim.
If you look at auction catalogs from the 50s, 60s, and 70s—even into the 80s—the works are older. They’re not from just a few years before the auction. Today, auction catalogs are filled with artworks that are from the very same year the auction is taking place, or 18 months before. So if you go to an auction preview at Phillips in October, you walk through the galleries and think, “I’m not just getting a preview of the November auction at Phillips. I’m getting a preview of the New York art season. I’m seeing what all the galleries are going to be showing this fall, this winter, and next spring.”
“Hex Enduction Hour by the Fall,” 2000.
Again with the devil’s advocate here, but tell me, why is that bad?
Let’s cut to the chase. Anything you can ask me about, this will answer the question. A good friend of mine said this, so I’m not going to take the credit. He said, it used to be that we had something called culture. But we don’t have culture anymore. We got rid of it. We replaced it with something called the culture industry. And in the culture industry it’s really all about money; it’s not about this painting or that painting, it’s about how much it costs. And that’s the answer to every question. There used to be culture, but today there’s only a culture industry.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer said this a thousand years ago.
Some things just never change, and of course the money just got bigger.
Adorno also talked about the false perception of choices that people think they have in terms of culture. You know, this movie versus that movie, when it’s really all the same. It wasn’t so much about business.
You know, I can imagine any number of people I work with, if they could hear our conversation right now, saying to me, “You’re really not doing yourself any favors doing this interview. It’s really bad for business. In fact, have you ever done anything that’s good for business?” I was in Portland last week and I gave a talk at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The whole thing was along the lines of, you know, I’m done with New York, burned out on it. And it was during their TBA, their Time-Based Art Festival. They have ten days of performance and theater groups. And my whole thing, though nobody there realized it, was kind of a performance. It was scripted. I may have improvised a bit, but the whole thing was written on the flight out there. It was intentionally meant to be seen as a kind of train wreck... with me driving the train.
You could just say in retrospect, but go ahead.
There was somebody in the audience, maybe involved with the school, who later complained, “Why did we bring him here? Why did we pay him to give that talk? It was the most negative, anti-art talk in the history of the school, and this is what our students are exposed to? We flew him here and we put him up in a hotel and we paid him?” Meanwhile, a few days pass by. I’ve come back home and I get an email from someone at the school saying, “You know, for the last three days the only thing the students are talking about is your lecture.”
Of course. Let’s go into why you’re done with the New York art world.
I don’t know if I really want to talk about that.
That was the whole initial impetus for doing an interview for this issue!
Well, if you’re looking for the money shot, you’re going to have to help me a little bit.
Work with me, Jesse.
Put that in. Put that in your interview.
It’s going in. Now tell me what you said in your talk.
Well, I talked about how artists brand themselves, sell themselves, objectify themselves. And I knew that I was saying this during their performance festival and all that, so I decided that I would talk about Marina Abramovic´...
Whom I’ve interviewed for this issue also.
Well, I said more or less that she’s killed off performance. It’s come to an end with Marina. There were some people who were really surprised that I thought that. Even the next day, when I went to the studios to look at some of the students’ work, in their communal space where they have a kitchen and a sofa, there was a photo of Marina clipped from a magazine and tacked to the wall. She’s a pinup girl at art schools now.
Sure, we’ve got her naked in the issue, shot by Richard Kern.
Well, you know what? This is not…
How can I describe the look that you just gave me?
Why don’t you turn the tape recorder off for a second?
[Recording stops, discussion continues for a few minutes]
Can we go back on the record now?
But you’ve got her in the issue...
It doesn’t matter. She’d probably think it’s funny.
I still have to walk the streets of this small-minded little town.
I don’t want shit talk for the sake of shit talk, but what you’re saying is important. And I don’t care if it’s in the same issue as Marina. We don’t want some monolithic one-opinion issue.
Look, what I said is if she wanted to re-create a performance she should have re-created the last piece—he never finished it—the last piece of Bas Jan Ader, In Search of the Miraculous, where he got in his sailboat and he attempted to sail the Atlantic to England. He was never seen again. If she really wants to pioneer re-performance, then that’s what she should have tried to redo.
OK, that’s going in.
Little bits of a sailboat were found smashed on the western shore of Ireland, and he was never seen again.
Do you think you’re being too much of a purist?
I think that in this world you can’t be too much of a purist. It’s such an impure world.
One thing that’s been said is that there was an exclusivity to this stuff before, because a 21-year-old art student now couldn’t have been at a performance in 1974 in Europe. But they can see the re-creation today. Do you find any value in that?
I don’t see heavyweight prizefighters re-creating the fight of the century. “You can be Muhammad Ali, I’ll be Joe Frazier.”
Is there an artist who’s used marketing tactics in their art in a way that’s interesting to you?
Look at the figure from the 80s who was the exemplar of commercialization—Andy Warhol. I think that Andy Warhol, today, would be jealous of the artists who package themselves and sell themselves—Murakami and so on. Warhol’s Factory was nothing compared with the kind of megastudios you see today. The Factory, by comparison, was a mom-and-pop shop.
Elaborate on why you’re done with the New York art world. This is something you’ve said to me a bunch of times in the last six months, and I want to hear it explained in digestible terms.
When you look at artists’ bios, they always say, “Lives and works in New York.” I need to split that. I would like to just live here. I would like to work elsewhere. Obviously I can write here. Writing is a quiet, private activity; there’s no public face to writing, to the activity of writing. So it seems like the thing to do is live here and work elsewhere. All of this has been brewing for about six years, since the Greater New York show. I feel like that show kind of ruined my life.
Just for the sake of clarity, we’re talking about the Greater New York show at PS 1 that you were involved with in…
In 2005. For those who don’t know, it’s the big show they do every five years to try to get a lot of attention because the Whitney gets it every two years for their Biennial.
And that was when you were working at PS 1?
Right. And in retrospect I can see how that show made me more of a public person than I’ve ever been, and I don’t want to be a public person anymore in New York. Not doing shows will be a big step toward that. I don’t go to art events anymore. I don’t go to openings or dinners or parties. It’s going to be interesting to find out how productive I can be if I’m absent from all those things that are basically distracting and useless. So I actually think that although this is perceived by most people as negative, to me it’s really positive. Something good is going to come out of this.
It’s certainly a brave thing to do today.
Many years ago I was criticized by someone who was a close friend of mine at the time, the artist Cady Noland. She said, “What you do is you absent yourself.”
That’s funny coming from her.
This was a long time ago, back when she was still showing. It makes me realize how often it is that when you’re talking about someone else, you’re really talking about yourself. But there’s a difference between the strange case of Cady Noland and mine. For me, I think it’s going to be positive. I’ll be home and I’ll be working, reading and writing. I think it’s a good thing.
Will you be doing shows elsewhere?
“Every Revolution Is a Roll of the Dice,” 2007. “Red,” 1986. “The Art of the Real,” 1987.
OK, so the White Columns Annual that you’re working on is going to be your last show in New York. When does it open?
On December 11, and it’s up until the end of January. This show is really different from all the other shows that the big museums do. The White Columns Annual is really particular. First, it’s not a huge space. You have to choose. “What do I want? What are the pieces?” All the pieces are handpicked. In fact, I’d say it’s harder to get into the White Columns Annual than it is to get into a Whitney Biennial or a Greater New York. They have all that space that they have to fill, especially at PS 1. Thousands and thousands of square feet. They’re not very discriminating. For this most recent Greater New York show, they more or less asked artists to come and do what they wanted. They didn’t actually choose all the work. That’s the reason why some things were good, but overall the show was not very well received.
Are you the sole curator of the White Columns show?
I’m the sole curator. I think of the show as representing the best work that I’ve seen in the last year, in galleries mostly, but also in studios. It’s what you find in all of my shows. There are younger artists whose work you might not have seen before. There are historical figures, there are really interesting artists who are on the fringes and are being discovered or rediscovered. The 2010 Annual has the largest number of artists ever in the show. The first one had something like 16. The second show had 17. I think the most they’ve ever had is about 24. I have about 46 or 47 artists. We’ll see what people have to say about that. And there’s another reason why I’m not interested in doing more shows in New York. A lot of people who write reviews know what they think about a show before they’ve even seen it. So someone could say, “Bob’s doing the White Columns Annual, and he’s saying it’s his last show. Well, it’s my last chance to slam the guy and give him the spanking he really deserves.” There’s one critic, and I will not say his name, but he’s never, ever reviewed a show of mine, and yet he insists that he’s seen all of them. Which is not true. And he’ll probably get wind of this. I think it would be very interesting if my last show in New York turns out to be the first time he ever reviews a show of mine. And he will probably write a negative review because it’s his first and last chance to get his licks in.
Is it Jerry Saltz?
That’s a good guess, but we’ll see.
On a nuts-and-bolts level, what’s the process like for working on the White Columns show?
I think Matthew Higgs asked me last November or December, meaning that when January 1st rolled around I had already started a file for shows I knew were coming up. Throughout the year I kept a list of all the shows that I went to, noting which ones I thought were really good, and collecting images. I kept it like a diary, month by month, and it goes right up until today. I’m going to a couple of studios and galleries next week to look at things, and they’ll get recorded, too. And so from that list, I kept distilling it down. What were the memorable shows? Who were the artists? What were the pieces? And so in a way, one year in advance, I was already choosing works. The Annual is really a process of legwork and looking at art; you have to go around and write it all down. And when things you want get sold from shows, you have to know where they went. So all year long I’ve kept an eye on my favorite pieces. One painting that I had my heart set on was sold to a collector in San Francisco, and my first thought was “How can we keep it here for the show?” To me, the worst thing in the world would be if it went to San Francisco and we couldn’t afford to bring it back to New York.
You don’t have to tell me the amount, of course, but how and when do you get paid for something like this? Do you get a couple payments over time, or do you get just a lump sum at the start?
I haven’t even asked them. I don’t even know. That’s the truth. I haven’t asked.
What if they’re not going to pay you?
I will be very disappointed. But of course White Columns offers an honorarium. Anyway, after almost 30 years in art, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re paid or not, because at the end of the day the grocer will be paid, the landlord will be paid, and the pharmacist will be paid. That’s all that matters. And for anyone who’s overly concerned with my nonparticipation in the art world, I try to reassure them: I tell them that I’m putting the social back in antisocial.