Sculptor Judith Shea, who I know from when we were Senior Critics at Penn together, gave the lecture here at VSC last night and I give mine tonight. The temperature on this sunny morning is –5 degrees, and since the kitchen is out of herbal tea, I’m drinking simply hot water, the way the Chinese do, and it’s an extremely effective warmer-upper. Tomorrow I begin five days of studio visits, every half hour or so, from 8:30 to noon.
Judith Shea, Icon, 2003-4, wood and bronze, 62 x 16 x 13". Photo by ruy sanchez blanco.
When, in 1976, John Coplans, then the editor of Artforum, asked me to come to New York and be his assistant, my Chicago artist friends acted as if I’d been invited to Oz by the Wizard himself. It was completely inadvertent. I met John at the CAA convention in Chicago, where I was representing The New Art Examiner, and said, “If you ever hear of a job in New York, let me know.” I’d never thought of moving, and even at that moment it didn’t occur to me as a possibility; the words came out of my mouth, true, but probably because I wanted to see what it felt like to say it, and to give the impression of someone who might actually do such a thing, someone much older and more worldly than me. So two weeks later when John called and offered me the job I was completely unprepared, but with my friends egging me on, I called Angels Ribe, an artist from Barcelona who had lived for a time in Chicago, and asked if she knew of a place where I could live. When she said she was looking for a roommate, it seemed ordained. Except that Angels lived on the Bowery. I vaguely remembered the Bowery from one of my few previous trips to New York and asked Barry Holden, who had just come back from visiting Angels, “Aren’t there like bums and stuff there?” “Oh no,” Barry said, “the Bowery’s been gentrified. There are galleries and boutiques all up and down.”
Needless to say it was a bit of a shock when I got out of the taxi from the airport and there were no galleries and boutiques to be seen, and for several months after I assumed they were on a part of the Bowery I hadn’t been to yet. But I adjusted the way humans can--even girls from the suburbs--to armies of cockroaches and stepping over drunken bodies in the foyer. Do I miss it? What? Do I miss the stench, the filth, the crime, and the pathetic display of humanity I saw every day? No. Would I want my kids to live that way? Hardly. However there was something exhilarating about living on that gritty frontier of Manhattan: we felt courageous, like pioneers, we were in it together, and it was home. That last fact was cinched for me only a few days after I moved, when I was walking down Bowery carrying my portfolio and passed two bums, one of whom nudged the other and said, “She’s an artist.” Hardly anyone in Chicago, employed or otherwise, knew what that was.
Photo is by Christopher Dawson, from the New Museum website
2007 was the year when certain key issues that had previously been on the fringes entered mass consciousness: when it became generally agreed that Bush & Co. are whack and the war in Iraq is a disaster, that universal health care is a necessity rather than a subversive idea, that the pharmaceutical companies don’t have our best interests at heart, and finally, and maybe too late, that what’s happening in the environment is something to be taken seriously. Mass market phenoms such as The Secret and The Da Vinci Code indicate a new hunger for spiritual meaning and a general mistrust of the status quo. 2007 marked the year the Internet became embedded in every area of modern life: corporate publishing now has to compete with blogs, and Radiohead’s much promulgated decision to release their new album on the Internet was no small event. With the demise of the music industry, music is better than ever—because the Internet has taken information and art out of the gatekeeper’s hands and now the audience is calling the shots.
Except in the world of visual art, which seems to have gone backwards, and where everything looks like a retread. 2007 marked the complete takeover of the money people, the year that auctions and art fairs prevailed over gallery exhibitions, the year after which you really can’t get in the door without an MFA. The gatekeepers are everywhere and more powerful than ever. There has to be something new out there, roiling beneath the surface, but what is it? And would we recognize it if we saw it?
Doing research for a catalog essay, I came across this interesting bit of art history from the days when you didn’t need thousands of dollars for an MFA to join the ranks of the art world:
I also learned that Flavin, who previously studied for the priesthood, began making sketches for sculptures incorporating lights during another stint as a guard at the American Museum of Natural History, and that Jackson Pollock once manned the turnstile at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which later became the Guggenheim.
Forget grad school, this guard thing sounds pretty hot--maybe all that's necessary to come up with ideas for great art is to be exposed to a bunch of it while having a lot of time on your hands.