INCONVERSATION

KATY SIEGEL with Phong Bui

On the occasion of her new publication Since ’45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art (Reaktion Books), art historian and critic Katy Siegel sat down with Rail publisher Phong Bui before an audience of artists-in-residence at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation to discuss the book and more.

Portrait of the author and her son. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): I find it quite striking that from the very outset, in the preface of the book, you confess your knowledge of contemporary art more or less came from the experience of having taught studio art to both undergraduate and graduate students. One can say that it’s a self-taught process. Could you describe how that experience took place and whether there was a discrepancy between your doctoral dissertation on American art history from 1945 to 1968 and the work you did afterwards?

Katy Siegel: My thesis was a fairly theoretical study of how temporal discontinuity figured in the understanding of art during that period—tropes like the paradigm shift and the artistic breakthrough—and was essentially based on reading American art criticism and related writing in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. I suppose the way that it speaks to a larger historical trend was that I made the crucial and tragic error, like many in my generation, of studying texts instead of art objects as a way to get to art. Even though my thinking is different from that of historians who are the descendants of Rosalind Krauss, we made the same mistakes.

It’s been 15 years since I came out of grad school in 1995, and during that time the market for contemporary art has exploded and completely taken over academia. Academia has become a niche in the contemporary art market, with art historians setting up shop, basically, in a certain corner of art fairs to explain and promote the value of certain kinds of art. Like many others, I started out doing historical research into the postwar era, but ended up writing about contemporary art for Artforum and for museum catalogs. I just took a rather different route. I was in Memphis, Tennessee for a good three years, at the University of Memphis, and all of my students were studio majors who wanted to learn about art that was being made right at that moment. That was my entry point into the field; I didn’t know anyone in New York, except for an older generation of writers like Sidney Tillim and Leo Steinberg. In other words, I was clueless, as opposed to my peers or younger colleagues since then who went to the Whitney ISP or more sophisticated graduate programs; they would develop a vision of contemporary art as a corollary to the neo-avant-garde that they studied in the ’60s and ’70s. I remember being so surprised to see major contemporary art in New York, saying to myself when I first saw a David Reed painting, “That’s amazing, people are making really good art, real art, today!” [Laughter.]

But in retrospect, I was lucky: my cluelessness forced me to find out about contemporary art not as seen through ideology or against a historical referent to which I was trying to match it; I could see it more for what it was, rather than through the lens of the ’60s.

Rail: So it took you a longer time to digest.

Siegel: Yes, very slowly.

Rail: You also credit Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian known for the trilogy on the “long 19th century,” which covers the period from the French Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War, as an important source for your thinking. But with this particular book, you were more invested in his fourth volume, The Age of Extremes: The Short 20th Century, 1914 - 1991, which gave a critical account of what had occurred from WWI to the fall of the Soviet Union. Having read all your books, I have the feeling that Hobsbawm may have had an impact on your early formation.

Siegel: Hobsbawm is a great historian and if you’re trying to catch up with what’s going on in the world for the last 200-something years, his four books are the most concise, astute, yet accessible things you can read over the summer. But his work is inspirational to me especially because of the amazing way he synthesizes world events into a large and clear idea, without leaving out significant texture and detail from a huge pool of historical materials. I actually came to it only about eight years ago. The major early touchstone for me was an experience from grad school, a spring-break road trip I took to the Grand Canyon, making a pit stop at Los Alamos. The experience of being there in Los Alamos and seeing some physical manifestation of what 1945 meant was important; when I tried to think that through, Hobsbawm was a model for writing history in a very compact and lively way.

Rail: In the first chapter of your book, “Beginning and End,” which basically begins with the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended WWII, then moves to the AIDS crisis in the late ’80s and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, there arises this notion of an “unfinished” quality initiated by Abstract Expressionists. You give the two examples of de Kooning’s “Woman I” and Tony Smith’s experience of driving through the New Jersey turnpike at night. Both point to our understanding of “unfinished” as uncompleted, with a sense of unfinished as unframed, without any kind of spatial boundary as well as without a temporal end, which is then extended to a different sense of “unfinished,” reflected in the state of ruin and decline, through the works of Cady Noland and Robert Gober. How does that sense of “unfinished” fit in with the notion of “Beginning and End?”

Siegel: The book is essentially a series of five essays built around five paired terms, oppositions (borrowing Hobsbawm’s conceit of extremes). “Beginning and End” is the first pairing, and this is actually a kind of meta-extreme that structures the whole book as a way to understand the historical structure of this period. It’s both a very big idea and a very simple idea—and both qualities make it difficult to see. Basically, I am arguing that America tried to steal modern art (à la Guilbaut), but ended up inventing contemporary art. And I am arguing that certain American qualities have figured the nature of contemporary art. Too much of contemporary art has been understood through a European lens, regardless of where it was made, or even when. For example, the show that’s up at Gagosian now, Malevich and the American Legacy; Barnett Newman and many of the other artists in the show were not actually thinking about Malevich. In large part art historians have backgrounds in European art history, or at least have that model in mind; avant-garde structure is the default mode, and also a flattering one for intellectuals—it makes us feel like big revolutionaries or at least socially important characters who can expound on what is wrong with the world. So there’s a social investment in keeping the European lens alive, as it is understood, as well as the effects of sheer habit and entropy.

How would we rethink the art made since 1945 through the lens of American social and cultural history? I mostly focus on American art, but I think the implications are there for the rest of the world as well because America was dominant economically and artistically from the 1940s through the late 20th century, the way that Europe was at an earlier point of Modernism.

That’s beginning and end. “Unfinishedness,” which is a cliché for Ab Ex, of course (although just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true), is related to those terms in being suspended between them, and pointing in both directions. It goes back to a much earlier sense of American history, an Emersonian “all or nothing” mindset. That declaration itself is rooted in early Protestant rhetoric that proclaimed, “America is unformed and it holds all of this promise and it could be everything or it could just collapse—it could be the shining city on the hill or it could be Newark”—it could go either way. You can hear the same message in Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” speech, or in Obama’s inaugural speech—it comes from left and right. From the artist’s side, Cady Noland speaks brilliantly about America as an unfinished project, stressing not Romantic immediacy but the condition of the temporary. So it’s not just that Ab Ex cliché; it’s something that goes back very far into American history, as well as forward in American culture right up to the present moment, and certainly through Smithson in between. To him, everything is sort of half-built, which suggests either way: growing or rotting.

Rail: Then came this tension or romance between black and white; you refer to Edwin Denby’s poem, “The Silence at Night,” in which he describes how de Kooning pointed out certain designs on the sidewalk made by cracks, gum spots, bits of refuge under neon light. That reference recalls a beautiful story that Rudy Burckhardt once told me about how de Kooning became ecstatic when he discovered a grease spot that had been spilled by trucks parked during the day on the gutters; when it rained, the water would float and rush over the surface of the oil unexpectedly. One can see in that the power of de Kooning’s observation as well as his technical inventions. And to me, it’s a huge leap from there to the series of the black and white paintings of the late ’40s, and how you frame early Cindy Sherman, whose early black-and-white works came from late night television and watching black-and-white B movies. The same can be said of Robert Longo and David Salle’s obsession with film noir and French New Wave cinema.

Siegel: It’s black-and-white art by white people. [Laughter.]

Rail: But there’s also the other equation: artists like James Casebere and Laurie Simmons draw references directly from their middle class up-bringing. Yet quite the opposite, I mean in the case of Mike Kelley, for example, who grew up with a working-class background in Detroit. It seems to me that they each managed to work with materials that were parts of their early experiences and were able to reach their mature works differently.

Siegel: In the second chapter, the opposing terms “Black and White” refer to many things, including issues of race. Not that other nations don’t have a similar issue—though some, for example, Brazil, seem to embrace a wider spectrum—but the idea of blackness and whiteness as an absolute contrast is intrinsic to America and very complicated. When you unpack the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and even the ’70s, race is very strongly compacted and mixed together with the sense of “American Gothic” as Greenberg referred to it, which included Melville and Faulkner, who were completely obsessed with race. But also visually: seeing America in terms of black and white refers to the way in which the early settlers wrote about America as having a shockingly harsh climate, bleak and snowy. A whiteness that linked America to Antarctica and the North Pole became a symbolic image running from Melville to Saul Bellow, and on and on. There’s also the sense of black and white in the strong sun of the Southwest, blinding light and deep shadow, for a lot of artists and poets from Georgia O’Keeffe to Charles Olson in the 1940s to Amy Granat, a young artist who has just opened a show at Nicole Klagsbrun (April 14 - May 28, 2011). Something similar can be said of the cities, as far as the grittiness, filthiness, or sootiness in contrast to neon light that are all revealed in film noir; so it’s not only in de Kooning that we see black and white, but also the works of Oldenburg, Lee Bontecou, Christopher Wool, and many other artists from their generation to the present. That history, of the American city, is itself of course underwritten by race as well.

I think the work of the so-called appropriation artists—the artists of the suburbs—is also about race, here their middle class whiteness. And that’s really been largely invisible in the criticism and the writing around Cindy Sherman, even though she started her first work in blackface; nobody talks about that body of work. Laurie Simmons also—all of them, it’s all about being middle class and white, and nothing could be further from the model of the avant-garde—a bohemian, hipster, radical rebel—than “I’m white and I’m from Connecticut.” [Laughs.] But they all were from Connecticut and Long Island.

Kerry James Marshall, “The Portrait of the Artist as his Former Self,” 1980. Egg tempera on paper. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.

Rail: Maybe the uses of black and white in Mel Kendrick’s work as well as Carroll Dunham’s have their own roots in Connecticut.

Siegel: In any case, the issue of race also arises in the work of older African-American artists like Norman Lewis and continues through that made in the 1970s by Faith Ringgold, who stated that, “Black art must use its own color black to create its light,” to Kara Walker, whose art deliberately and clearly takes up the subject of “American Gothic.” And again, this is not something people talk about when they talk about her work, but she’s looking mostly at, not only history, but specifically American traditions of making. Walker is very interested in early American artists, like John Singleton Copley and also in commonplace art like silhouettes. The show that she put together at the Met a while ago was good evidence of that relationship. As a chapter, “Black and White” also follows the thread of the silhouette and the shadow and its necessary opposite, blinding light. I think this contrast broadly figures much art of the 1940s and ’50s, the light of revelation revived by the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. De Kooning mentions this at his talk at MoMA in the early ’50s; his reference to melting eyeballs comes right out of John Hersey’s famous August 1946 New Yorker essay “Hiroshima,” which was made into a book. They were all aware of it: Rauschenberg, Cage, Newman, and others talked about the flash of white light and black light as being ecstatic, a sort of apocalyptic light that linked to a tradition of Protestant Evangelical ecstasy. So I’m interested in the way that plays out, not only in terms of spiritual, historical, and political content, but also formally in the dominant use of shadows. In fact, I reproduced one of the photographs that everyone was looking at in ’45 and ’46 of the shadows of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki burned onto walls and sidewalks. There’s a very strong vein of that play with shadow and visibility, just formally in American art—Ad Reinhardt, Rauschenberg, Robert Ryman, Faith Ringgold, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, and so on. What is reproducible? What is visible? And what is perceivable?

Rail: What about the notions of “Success and Failure”? Given the fact that we know how it sadly applied to many examples of Abstract Expressionist artists. I mean their ambivalent feelings about success. Both Pollock’s and Smith’s death were caused by recklessness and excessive drinking. Kline and Newman also neglected their health due to alcoholism and died before their time. Of course, the most dramatic examples would be those of Gorky’s and Rothko’s suicides. But how does it, in its many permutations, manifest from then on in the immersion of Pop and Happenings and whatever “ism” came after?

Siegel: Again, while success and failure seem to be a part of very broad, global Modernism, it has a particular and intense relationship to America. The very idea that you sink or swim on your own merit, that you determine where you’re going and how high you go, is so different from Europe where everyone understands that if your father works in a garage you’re not going to become super-rich. Here in America all the pressure weighs on the “self” and this runs across the political left-right spectrum, the self-help manual mindset, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” But it’s also Emerson and Thoreau, and however you define success, that self-reliance and individualism is so American. As Franz Kline says, “Coming from a country where you eat shredded wheat and you’re supposed to grow up and become successful, it’s rather difficult to find out just where and what art is.” His generation was looking at the model of Picasso and Matisse, and the rest of the European avant-garde artists. They didn’t quite understand how it was going to work in America, where no one was paying attention to culture and wealthy people didn’t care for art. And then suddenly, the artists we know as Abstract Expressionists became super-successful, and it freaked them out. You get a hint of that shock when some of them drop out of the scene. Clyfford Still and Philip Guston both leave New York, for example, and the theme of “dropping out” also applies to artists like Bruce Conner, Peter Young, and Lee Lozano, who didn’t want to become part of the establishment of the art world, and so on. Gauguin stopped being a banker to be an artist—he dropped out of the rat race to become an artist. But now you have to drop out of the art world too; the art world is another rat race. [Laughter.]

In between you have Allan Kaprow’s essay, “Should the Artist become a Man of the World?” which refers to new artists of the Pop generation who have middle-class backgrounds. And it’s that story of the American middle class that runs consistently throughout the book. After I address Timothy Leary and the larger drop-out culture, I move on to the idea of the loser. You know, not quite a failure, but someone who is a loser and can’t fit in, someone like Jim Shaw, or Mike Kelly. I discuss this moment in relationship to the radical men’s movement in the early ’80s, which is also about men’s success and failure. Without being overly didactic, you can really see a lot of the artists directly relating to the historical and cultural models of what it means to be a success or failure through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and with Matthew Barney, who no one can stand to talk about anymore, but whose entire oeuvre is about his overcoming and his triumph at the pinnacle of the Guggenheim or the Chrysler building in reference to the New York art world.

Isamu Noguchi, “Sculpture to be Seen from Mars,” 1947. Model in sand (destroyed). Photo by Soichi Sunami, Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum, NY.

Rail: It’s true, but in that chapter, while looking at Bruce Conner’s campaign poster of himself in grade school (“Bruce Conner for Supervisor” [1967]) and Jeff Koons’s assertive, poised image, already conscious of his self-presentation as a young boy, I became interested in the notion of “Half a Man.” You just brought up Robert Bly’s Gathering of Men or Mythopoetic Men’s Movement in the early ’80s; we all probably remember the book Iron John and the whole Bill Moyer interview with Bly about his reference to all the combined fairy tales, mythology, all sorts of ritual and dance, plus confessional therapy in the form of poetry.

Siegel: I am interested in the problem of being “half a man” as a response to the culture of success and failure that’s quite different from that of the drop-out (in which it seemed possible to just remove oneself with dignity, to not participate and to look for some alternative). Beginning in 1979, with the Radical Faeries, and then also with Robert Bly, whom (like Jeff Koons) some of us may or may not like, there’s an attitude very much like the ’50s critique of the man in the gray flannel suit or the white collar worker, of American commercial capitalism as emasculating, right? In other words, I’m more interested in taking away those distinctions we see between good “resistant” and bad “complicit” culture, and seeing what larger ideas or historical currents are common to them. So in Robert Bly and Mike Kelley, and especially in Bruce Conner’s and Jeff Koons’s images of themselves as children, there is a common theme of emasculation, of youthfulness, a culture of perpetual adolescence that persists in the inability to be “a man.” If being a man means making a huge amount of money and taking care of your family, then how else can we define being a man? This is also an issue for gay artists like Lari Pittman and Mark Bradford, who share an interest in the figure of Pinocchio along with Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelly, Jim Shaw, and Koons: All of them have done work with Pinocchio as a metaphor for not being a real man, being a boy.

Rail: Another interesting discovery was how you framed WPA’s Federal Art Project (1935-1943), under the supervision of Edgar Holger Cahill, and the way in which he advocated his Index of American Design that mainly focus on mass-produced objects, what is referred to as “art for the millions.” Unlike, let’s say, the wider historical account, which includes the whole bohemian world that is inseparable from its political and social surroundings in Dore Ashton’s essential volume New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, or Irving Sandler’s landmark Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism, your observation that the beginning of pluralist taste in art begins with Cahill and continues onward to the works of Allen Ruppersberg and more recently, deliberately formed art collectives like Bernadette Corporation and the Bruce High Quality Foundation. Of course, it’s a far cry in its permutations from then until now, but can you comment on how you end the chapter by quoting the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki, “we are more intelligent together than any one of us alone”?

Siegel: “The One and the Many” is yet another pairing of extremes that is endemic to a larger history of capitalism or Modernism, whatever you want to call it. The idea of the individual and the crowd (or the many) we can obviously identify with European political movements, as well as with what’s going on now in Chinese art, in a much broader context. But again, I’m arguing that this duality takes a particular political and artistic form in the U.S., which I realized that I hadn’t learned very much about, and that I had to teach myself. The WPA is another good example, and certainly it was a well-funded one, of the American tradition of not having a tradition of fine arts. And this, I think, colors American contemporary art much more than people have been interested in seeing. I don’t mean just folk art, but an interest in ordinary objects, whether mass-produced or handmade. I guess I became sensitive to it for two reasons: one, I live in Brooklyn, where you can’t turn around without seeing someone making their own beer or pickles. Everything is handmade, everything is DIY. Second, I wrote an essay for the Barbican in London in 2001 called “Do It Yourself!” It seemed obvious to me then that there was a do-it-yourself culture in contemporary art and I began to see that thread which runs further back, not just through H.C. Westermann in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, but back eventually to the Index of American Design, which includes watercolors and drawings of Shaker baskets and ordinary objects. And then I started to look at the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which was designed not only to create art for ordinary public spaces but to disseminate reproductions of great art, and I started thinking about the connection to contemporary appropriation art’s reproduction of art-historical masterpieces. “Aristocracies,” as de Toqueville said, “produce a few great pictures, democracies a multitude of little ones. The one makes statues of bronze, the other of plaster.” So the idea was that the job in America was just to disseminate to us barbarians, you know, reproductions of great European art; at the same time there was a self-taught tradition of painting signs for buildings, like pub signs. And many artists of the ’50s had worked as sign painters or house painters, commercial artists in the ’60s, plumbers and carpenters in the ’70s, etc. When I interviewed artists for the show High Times Hard Times, they talked about saying, amongst themselves, “How’s your work going?” or, “What’s your work look like?” In this model of art as “work,” they’re not ashamed of their commercial background. Many of the great American artists of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, including the appropriation artists, were commercial artists. They just went from being house painters to draftspeople to being, in the ’80s, layout artists.

Those were all traditions that I see filtered through the lens of the WPA and the Index and the longer history of commercial and untrained art work; weirdly, contemporary artists are sensitive to this, and I think understand it deeply. Most contemporary art historians are less interested in this subject. And this is partly because the European avant-garde lens is firmly in place, so they can’t see with the American lens. It’s like Jasper Johns’s sculpture, “The Critic Sees” (1964), in which the critic sees with his mouth not his eyes.

Rail: Well, de Kooning was very proud; when someone asked about his work, he said, “Lately I feel like a very talented house painter.” Also, we tend to forget that Cahill was married to Dorothy Miller, the famed curator at MoMA.

Siegel: I have a graduate student writing a great thesis on Dorothy Miller, who started out her career at the Newark Museum with exhibitions of American folk art and also ordinary, mass-produced objects; she later brought that influence to MoMA, including to the Americans exhibitions. Miller has received less credit than she deserves, overshadowed by Barr. Even though MoMA deaccessioned many works from their American collection (after WWII they moved to focus on European Modernism and assimilating American art to it), in the ’30s they were ambivalent about the two, the European line and the American nativist art line. You probably remember the famous shoeshine stand they exhibited in the lobby. That work was moved to the Met, to private collections, to regional museums of Shaker objects.

Rail: Some even argued that the solo show Alfred H. Barr organized for Morris Hirshfield in 1943 may have cost him his job. At any rate, in regard to “First and Last,” you refer to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, which came after François-Réne de Chateaubriand’s and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s advocacy of the so-called “Noble Savage” as a being superior to his fellow Europeans. This reminds me of Barbara Novak’s great book, Voyages of the Self, which traces the similar self-made, all-or-nothing brand of pragmatism, from Jonathan Edwards and John Singleton Copley to Jackson Pollock and Charles Olson. As the subcategories in your book similarly suggest, given the rapid increase of globalization, do you think that our appetite for our visual culture will only be more amplified?

Siegel: Yes, as capitalism expands, the art can’t be far behind. Now the biggest parts of the art market are becoming Russia, China, and India, mostly because they are being opened to global capitalism. This is what Japan gets in the late 19th century—a concept of high art. I have to say that if the beginning of this book was a trip to Los Alamos, the end came from working with Takashi Murakami for the show Little Boy at the Japan Society, which really helped me to see more not only the social relation between America and the rest of the world, but how Japan and America are so much alike. Japan’s experience in shifting to a foreign model of high art threw into relief for me the same situation in the U.S.; it made me realize that America is not the exception, it’s Europe that’s the exception. Japan did not have a native high art tradition. It had no word for it, although they had paintings and scrolls and all kinds of intensely well-made objects, like the United States.

Today, America is still the number one economy in the world, but its dominance is gradually slipping. What will replace it? It’s not clear how it will change once China does as it promises to do (although the Chinese economy is perhaps a little less solid than it seems). What’s true now and what’s different from the moment of  ’45 or ’65 or ’85, is that the concentration and the distribution of wealth now is even more unequal than it was. There’s a huge percentage of the art market that’s concentrated in objects with completely insane prices. A Warhol costs more than a Titian. So it’s not so much any one economy dominating, but rather a very small group of super over-class criminals of many different nationalities. If I were in the business of predicting things, I would guess that phenomena like Miami Basel might begin to fade because they represent the sort of middle class of the art world—just regular rich people—who will be less able to participate in this developing market. But that’s not my business, and I don’t know.

Rail: In the end of my conversation with Philip Golub in the July/August 2010 issue of the Rail, about his book, Power, Profit & Prestige: A History of American Imperial Expansionism (Pluto Press, 2010), he said that what we’re going through right now may not be seen as the American decline, but certainly is the end of the American imperial model.

Siegel: As John Cage says in the epigraph to my book, “I dedicate this work to the U.S.A., that it may become just another part of the world, no more, no less.” I, like many of us, know that it’s actually happening as we speak.  


Katy Siegel is Associate Professor of Art History at Hunter College, New York, Editor-in-Chief of the Art Journal, and Contributing Editor at Artforum. She curated High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967 - 1975, and is the author of numerous essays on modern and contemporary art.

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Phong Bui

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