Robert Storr with Irving Sandler
Irving Sandler (Rail): Would you talk about your idea of the theme of the show?
Robert Storr: Having been teaching, writing columns, and thinking about a certain set of issues for a long time, the theme or the phrase that I have used as the theme came to me more quickly than I expected. Of course, I knew it meant something but I wasn’t sure if it was any good or not. In the meantime, I have been concerned that in the critical community, at least, there has been this insistence that art is about beauty versus politics, criticality versus sensuality, or all these absolutely ridiculous dichotomies. If you know the artists I’ve been attracted to and worked with, how do you take the criticality or sensuality out of these phenomena, and how do you deal with an art that is so bound up in the phenomenal experience side of life but is super-intelligent and about profound things? It’s the same for Gerhardt Richter as it is for Robert Ryman, for Louise Bourgoise, and many others. I’ve always been attracted to artists who confound these issues, and, I think that, in fact, is the function of all art. Naturally I wanted to make a show where the center of gravity was the meeting of various faculties and the different parts of our consciousness rather than their division.
Rail: But your show is different because it has no hard theme.
Storr: Again, rather than take one principle and organize things around it, I wanted to focus on the relationship among things—their correspondences, or (to use the right, but I’m afraid, abused word), dialectics. So the exhibition is about a coherent thread that weaves them together. For instance, there are just as many works about the dislocation of people in political, cultural, and economic terms as there are about death or references to war. So it was important for me that in the same exhibition as you found Richter or Ryman you would find a piece by Oscar Muñoz, who paints the faces of people who’ve disappeared in the drug wars in Colombia in water such that they evaporate fairly quickly one by one. It’s video, but he’s painting—painting on-screen, and painting in the most ephemeral of medias. Still it is his way of dealing with the dire situation in Latin America. Then you have Waltercio Caldas, who makes the most divine, abstract use of space, form and texture. Both of their works are included in the same context, and they should not be seen as belonging to categorically different realms.
Rail: Was it your idea to create a kind of discourse among the works in your show? I found myself making connections as I moved through the show.
Storr: Absolutely. But part of the discourse is also to make a simple statement, which is that our minds are able to encompass all these things, that we move in our minds from one kind of awareness to another all the time, and that’s as it should be. If Matisse’s armchair is one model for art, then Guernica is another. How do you—how can we—accept as a basic principle of art that they are both necessary and both connected?
Rail: Was your thinking influenced by your previous involvement with changing museum practices at the Museum of Modern Art?
Storr: Or trying to. [laughs]
Rail: Away from Alfred Bar’s linear modernist model. .
Storr: But Barr’s model was not that linear. It’s the Bill Rubin’s model that I’m trying to change. The Alfred Barr’s model is one I’ve learned a lot from. If there are things that I would do differently (with the greatest respect for what he had accomplished) it would be to proceed by paying equal attention to recent or relatively recent art.
Rail: But that condition reflects the state of art throughout the world, which is not only multicultural and multigeographic but also extremely pluralistic.
Storr: But I think it always has been. That is my working premise—with regard to historical modernism and with regard to contemporary art.
Rail: One of the issues that I’ve been raising among art critics is that if everything goes in art today, in that every style can get more or less a fair amount of art-world attention, then what counts?
Storr: Well, first of all, the integrity and the quality of the work. Anything is possible or permissible, but not anything is good. The debates about whether it’s good or not are interesting debates, and the fact that they are very seldom settled definitively means that you can delve deeper into the work to try and find out why you think it is or isn’t good or bad. But the old way of saying that whole categories of art are just not good or lagged behind the times or failed to predict the times: that I think is over, and should be over, anyway.
Rail: In your statements you call attention to the political dimension of this show. Would you say that this is more relevant than other kinds of content, or how would you deal with the issue of relevance in art today?
Storr: The need for the kind of experience that we associate with beauty—I don’t like that term much particularly now, since the ‘90s discussion about it in America—but the need that both artists and viewers have for that experience is undeniable. And it is, in some ways, intensified by the ugliness of the world, so conflict increases one’s desire for it rather than decreases it. But it’s not something one can afford to flee into; it certainly is not in difficult times. Therefore, beauty is not the consolation for ugliness; instead it is unactive, dialectical counter-term. For example, if you’re looking at Gabriele Basilico’s photographs of the slow, incremental destruction of the Beirut, and you see modernist buildings that were once spanking-new in the ‘50s and are now completely eroded by gunfire: that’s a terrible document, but it’s also a very beautiful photograph of very terrible things. If you look at Charles Gaines’ piece about an airplane crashing into a city that repeats itself over and over, that was made before 9/11. It obviously means something different now, after 9/11, but it’s a potent thing. Then opposite Gaines is Leòn Ferrari from Argentina, who makes an atomic bomb mushroom cloud out of Styrofoam, attaches a crucifixion onto an American airplane. These all inhabit the same world. You don’t choose between Ferrari and Gaines, or Gaines and Gabriele Basilico, or Gabriele Basilico and Robert Ryman. They’re all at a level of complexity and sophistication that one has to deal with them all.
Rail: What about pattern and decoration painting that just claims to be decorative or sensual?
Storr: Well. Decoration can be a quality of things, as entertainment can be a quality of things, but art is not entertainment, and art is rarely good when it is only decoration. Of course, if you look at the traditions of Islamic art, those are not just decorations. They’re structural ideas, and they use decorative motifs to accomplish more than decorative ends. Take Angelo Filomeno, this wonderful Italian artist, who has an exquisite sense of the Gothic. He makes highly decorative embroideries and appliqués and sewn pieces. They’re all kind of macabre jokes about death, but they’re gorgeous. Somebody asked me when I got this appointment, “Are you going to do another grotesque show?” The answer was no, I had no intention of doing it, but the grotesque is yet another of the qualities of mind or aesthetics that are out there, and Filomeno is a good case of an artist who takes the decorative side of the grotesque and makes a marvelous work of art out of that sensibility. But his work it isn’t just frivolous, it has an edge, it cuts to the quick.
Rail: Talk about your experience as a curator at MoMA, then as a professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and now as the Dean of the Yale School of Art.
Storr: I’ve always done several things at once and weighted myself more or less heavily in one area or another depending on the circumstances, but always in combinations. This was a stretch, frankly. It was extremely difficult; all along—until about a month ago—there was terrible political struggle and unpleasantness in the process, but in the end it’s worked out very well. In fact, I’m sure I would not have done it had I known what was coming. But I’m glad I did do it. And now onto the next project—which is Yale.
Rail: In my opinion, the dialogue you set up among work of art at the Biennale was truly provocative. It really makes you think.
Storr: Any exhibit like this is one possible take on out of a number of possible positions toward the art in it. It’s not my definitive statement; it cannot be a definitive statement about art in its time. And the great thing about doing show like Biennales is that there will inevitably be another one. And it’ll be done by somebody else. [laughs]
Rail: Now you’re about to turn to Yale. What problems do you foresee?
Storr: Well, I have to raise a lot of money for several purposes. One is to relieve students from the kinds of debt that they incur now when they get their education. (One of the reasons for doing that is to give them more freedom about deciding when or even if they want to play the market game.) The other is that I want to make Yale a much more international program in terms of the faculty and students. It is fairly international now, but altogether I think the American art world needs to take advantage of its ties to other art worlds. So if I can bring foreign artists in to lecture or teach or to make exhibitions that also engage the students and faculty, it will give Yale’s long run as a premiere art school a second, third or fourth wind.
Rail: I found that my graduate students at Hunter are very much on edge because of the market. They can’t help being tempted because dealers and collectors are coming right into their studios and offering them money the likes of which they’ve never seen before. And they are tempted to meet market expectations and hone a saleable style. But on the other hand they’re smart enough to know that if they do so their success will probably only be in the short run and they want to be in it for the long run.
Storr: Well, I think it’s a very difficult situation. When I was an art student there was no money, so that was fortunately a problem we didn’t have. I don’t know what to say exactly, except that I think as a responsible art school dean what I want to do is to make sure that I do nothing to exasperate those tensions. One can’t change the art world in its larger aspects, but one can be careful not to allow that to impinge too much on studio activity. I can also tell students—you know, when I got out of art school, I had no job prospects, Rosamund (my wife) and I had nothing going. I didn’t get a straight job until I was 40-years-old, and I paid for the rent and bills by doing a lot of unglamorous things. That’s something young artists should never forget. Do you know a movie called Hollywood Shuffle?
Storr: Robert Townsend, the black actor, is asked to play a series of demeaning roles in exploitation films. When he begins, he’s a postal official, then he has his Hollywood run but he quits. And the punch line of the movie says, “Well, you know, there’s always work at the post office.” I think anybody who goes into the art world and doesn’t know how to live productively on relatively little and in relative anonymity is in for big trouble.
Rail: It’s not enough—and I’ve found this again with my students—to rail against the market. One has to formulate another kind of way of thinking about a career in art today.
Storr: I think one of the things is not to think about a career at all. I think every artist, young or old, should think about work, period. You make work, you work to pay for making work, and it’s up to other people to add it up. All you have to do is keep doing it. That’s pretty much the way I go about it. People ask me about my “career” as a curator; I don’t have a “career” I just work constantly and very hard. Or if I had have one it was an accident, and continues to be one. You know, Kurt Varnedoe picked me out of the chorus line. I had no intentions of being a curator at all. So when I say ‘yes’ to him the second time he made the invitation to come to MoMA—there was a year long gap between them—I figured out how to do it on the job, and I did it. Then I stopped doing it, and now I’m doing it again. I just moved from one interesting project to the next interesting project. All of this, actually, is in support of the art career that I’ve never had, so one of these days I’ll just cash in my chips. [laughs] I’ll tell you by the way, there are two artists in this show who I identify with quite a lot. One is Raoul De Keyser and the other is Tom Nozkowski. Both of them worked for very long periods of time, Tom as a magazine layout designer, Raoul as the educational official in a small Flemish-speaking town in Belgium. They just kept making their work, so they’re here in part as my idea of how another way of being an artist turns out. Raoul is 76, Tom is 60; they are real artists and they have never had the kind of careers that kids think of now. For that matter, neither did alot of the others. Bruce Nauman had a moment in the ‘60s and early ’70s, and then it went away and it was rough until the early 1980s. Richter had a moment in the ‘60s and then he was not doing so well. A lot of artists like John Baldassari that young artists look up to actually had very checkered careers.
Rail: Yes they did.
Storr: And they should learn from that struggle rather than from their late successes—or from current flash in the pans.
IRVING SANDLER was an art critic, art historian, and writer. The second volume of his memoirs, Swept Up By Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era, was published by Rail Editions in 2015.