Art historian and writer Molly Nesbit charted whirling currents of the late 19th- and early 20th-century French avant-garde in two books Atget’s Seven Albums (1992) and Their Common Sense (2000). At the same time, she’s been actively involved in contemporary art as a contributing editor for Artforum, and through her collaborative Utopia Station (with Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija since 2002). Recently, she's been collecting her writings in a series called Pre-Occupations. First came the book-length essay, The Pragmatism in the History of Art (Periscope, 2013). Her new compilation, Midnight: The Tempest Essays (Inventory Press, 2017), collects her essays on art from the last thirty years. We met to discuss her new book, her intellectual development, and the future of the academic discipline of art history.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): When you’ve said, art history is the study of a work of art in real time, does that mean you’re looking at a historical object in relation to the needs and realities of our present? Or, are you looking at the work of art in relation to the moment it was made? Or, is it the oscillation between the two?
Molly Nesbit: The first role of someone who writes about the past is simple: to try to bring the past forward into the present with more complexity, so that at some basic level the historian takes on the role of the storyteller. Someone able to tell all different kinds of stories. You choose your stories, try to enlarge the past and make it strange, so it can open up and be responsive to its own particularities. You’re also always cognizant of the fact that you feel this story, this history, will have some meaning for the present—though the questions the present brings to it are always implied, they don’t need to be there outright. The best history is subtle.
Rail: How did you start writing on contemporary art, and how do you see it related to the task of bringing forward the complexity of the past?
Nesbit: Well, it really was Hilton Als who literally opened the door for me when he took me to meet Jack Bankowsky in 1992. Jack had become the new editor of Artforum. Jack had liked an article I’d written for October, my very first article about Duchamp. It’s in Midnight: The Tempest Essays under its original title, “The Copy.”
As for the bridge between contemporary art and the past? The bridge can be crossed from either side. And how to explain that? Let’s see, the other piece of the historian’s mission is to try to recuperate wisdom. I suppose you could say (this is something I absorbed long ago from Hilton’s way of working) that the work of the writer, be it fiction or non-fiction, is also all about pulling that kind of deep experience, that thing called wisdom, forward. Wisdom doesn’t come in a package. Wisdom doesn’t have a brand. Wisdom is much more fluid and incandescent. One of the reasons you find me speaking this way today is that I’m in the middle of my lecture zone in the introductory survey course at Vassar which goes from the caves to Pierre Huyghe, Yang Fudong and David Hammons—in other words, pretty close to the minute-time of the absolute present. It makes you think about history from a very high elevation point, because when you cover this much material at once, when you try to understand the substance of change, you have to make sense of great swathes of time. Any generalizations need to be tested. Normally in the contemporary art world, we don’t think about things in quite this way.
Eventually, it became clear to me that as the complexity of a situation unfolds, one needs to understand that artists, past and present, are people, working in situations that they could not completely control. That was one of the most important lessons learned from immersing myself in the world of living artists. It was a lesson Teeny Duchamp taught me by example. (“The Copy” also opened the door to her.) In the course of human events, I found myself meeting Teeny and then becoming friends—I saw her a fair amount whenever I was in France. She would invite me to stay and we’d talk about all kinds of things, from chocolates to Wittgenstein. We had fun. When we talked about her late husband, the one thing that she insisted on, although she never said it outright, was that he was a person, he wasn’t a myth. The more that simple fact sunk in, the more radical it sounded to me, because most art historians, and art critics especially, treat the artist as some kind of chess piece, or an integer in a problem, rather than a person with existential needs, someone facing existential challenges.
Rail: “The Copy” was written for a symposium “Multiples without Originals: The Challenge to Art History of the ‘Copy’”, and was published in the summer 1986 issue of October. vol. 37?
Nesbit: Yes. In 1986 Rosalind Krauss had been asked if she would do a special session at the College Art Association (CAA); the Getty was sponsoring a group of special sessions as a way of confronting, let’s call it the “soft revolution” that was taking place in art history, in which the theoretical work of the Europeans, particularly the French, was being brought in and used to reset the terms of our most basic questions. For those in the discipline who weren’t reading Althusser or Foucault or Barthes, and weren’t interested in new literary theory or structuralism or psychoanalysis, this was hugely upsetting because it seemed to fly in the face of all the German scholarly protocols that had been brought here by the émigré art historians in the ’30s. The émigré art historians, mainly from Germany and Austria, had set up a new chapter in the study of art history in American universities. It was much admired, itself very important, and produced a new stage in American art history, but once installed it didn’t want to make room for other points of view, and this led to a culture war within art history itself that was pretty vicious, in the ’80s especially. It became political too, so that if your work was at all understood to be involved with ideas that supported the left, whether it was overtly Marxist or not, you could pretty much expect to be condemned, and if you were a junior faculty member, you definitely weren’t going to get tenure at an Ivy League university. The most famous instance involved Tom Crow, who did not get tenure at Princeton. All this wasn’t some kind of polite disagreement, it had to do with how art could be talked about and understood. The stakes were real.
Rail: You went to Vassar and studied Art History and then you went to Yale. What was the terrain like there? How did you navigate it?
Nesbit: At Vassar I was lucky because the split in art history was already opening up there in the ’70s thanks to Linda Nochlin and Dick Pommer, so I understood that there was a counterculture building. Then in the mid-’70s I went to Yale. Anyone admitted into the Yale art history program was given permission to do their work in the way they wanted as they went forward. There was a big group of us that wanted to study French art and architecture, and after our coursework we went to Paris to do our thesis research. We were interested in social questions, urban issues, and the way in which abstraction could be understood as a machine aesthetic—the work of Meyer Shapiro was fundamental to our thinking about modern art. Most of us were students of Robert Herbert.
Once arrived in Paris, we met everyone else who was working in the Parisian libraries from the other American universities. We also met people coming from England, Germany, Italy, and Greece. People from other disciplines were also working in the Bibliothèque Nationale, so there was this much bigger, and richer collective conversation that developed over the years. My own education expanded at Yale and expanded again in the Bibliothèque Nationale. It was there, in the late ’70s that I met Adrian Rifkin, who was at that point very much involved with the work being done around Jacques Rancière—that was just naturally part of the conversation, as was what was going on with Félix Guattari and the journal Recherches. My conversations mostly had to do with Marxist and social history, so I went and spent a year in England in order to understand the British work there better, and then I came back to the States. Atget’s Seven Albums (1992), my first book, was born from that world of exchange—in many ways, it participates more in the debates going on in England than in those setting the terms for the discussion of photography in the United States.
After I returned, happily I got a visiting job at Berkeley for two years in the early ’80s—Foucault came while I was there. An interdisciplinary group in the humanities had formed and founded a magazine called Representations. There was just a ton of energy around this bigger historical and philosophical way of thinking about things and it was hugely challenging to be walking into those worlds of mind at Berkeley. Two years later there was a chance to work in New York City and I took it, mainly because I wanted to be closer to Europe and I missed the East Coast. I was offered a job at Barnard. The Barnard/Columbia situation that I entered was completely split by this culture war in art history that I’ve described. I had a real sense that if you wanted to think along certain lines you had to be prepared to defend yourself. Nothing could be taken for granted.
In the ’80s I moved between New York and Paris, doing research on mechanical drawing and finishing my Atget book. It was then that I met Rosalind Krauss, who was going to Paris all the time too and was involved with thinking about photography and the ways Foucault’s questions could be used to modulate Greenbergian ones. And so we developed a conversation and friendship. We were not really thinking along exactly the same lines—Rosalind was not a Marxist, to put it mildly. I once joked with her that I was base and that she was superstructure. She was a little taken aback but she got it. She laughed too. But she did not support Their Common Sense (2000), the book that laid out my research on mechanical drawing and the new orders of modern language.
Moving forward, since you want the big picture and the frames do change with time, what really launched me into the Pragmatism book was seeing that the philosophers I have most admired—Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari—were actually using historical techniques to do their philosophy. They needed the research. They needed the empiricism. They needed to move things out of one place (meaning field) and into another. They were setting up philosophies of practice. And that, too, was theoretical work. It also meant that this new activity called “theory” could actually be grounded in something that was bigger, deeper, older, and philosophically more profound. The mix of things coming together in New York City in the ’80s and ’90s in many ways follows from the mix of things I found in Paris. The idea was to keep it alive and to bring all that to my writing about art. And that would not just deepen our understanding of how Marcel Duchamp jumped ship in 1912, but also deepen our understanding of the way artists work now. So when I met Jack, and he asked me to write for Artforum—he was very permissive, God bless him—that is when I began to get more involved with thinking about how to put these ideas into play, to bring them out of the Bibliothèque Nationale and onto the street.
Rail: How do you know Hilton Als?
Nesbit: When I first arrived at Columbia, Hilton was a student who walked into my seminar. But things knit together in ways one couldn’t have imagined. Hilton had taken Ken Silver’s seminar on Warhol. Ken, a friend from Yale, was leaving to go to NYU but he told Hilton about me and to take my seminar on the “readymade,” which Hilton did. When he finished at Columbia that spring, it turned out that we needed a new office assistant at Barnard. The new chair, David Freedberg, had this idea that we should find an artist who needed a job and I said, Hilton needs a job—he’s a young writer, how about it? David was enthralled and that was that. Hilton took this job extremely seriously, and he was there with us for a few years, and as you can imagine, it was great. He put up a photo of Pina Bausch next to his desk. He was already writing and curating and fully inserted in the downtown New York art world. He was beginning to write for the Village Voice and would go off to work at the New Museum. Anyway, we would stay in touch and from all this, we developed a fine, old friendship.
Another one of my old students is the gallerist David Maupin. He had taken a class with me at Berkeley. When he found out I was back in New York, we re-met and he also introduced me to a lot of people; it was through him, for example, that I met Rem Koolhaas. All these conversations, you see, build and grow. We went off to Documenta X (1997)—and it turned out to be the place where all those ways of thinking that I was describing in the ’70s and ’80s came to fruition as an exhibition. That made me realize that all this really did go together in the present, that it was perfectly possible to write in the bigger philosophical, historical way, and to do so in the context of the art being made right now.
Rail: Your description of that insight of working with Teeny Duchamp and saying “this is a human being” strikes me. We tend to forget that intellectual history is just a bunch of people with very complex interpersonal dynamics, and the more you know about it the more you see that the human parts are the secret structure of the story, and that mostly gets burned out of the picture. How do you understand the role of the interpersonal in intellectual development?
Nesbit: Nobody thinks all by themselves. Nobody makes art all by themselves, either. The way in which an idea can move in the world has something to do with conversation and it also has to do with the friction it encounters in terms of the material conditions and limitations in knowledge itself. When you write, you normally write to be read, though you may not be writing in order to be understood easily; you may be writing a little ahead of the people involved because you’re trying to see if you can make your idea grow into a new idea. But the way in which ideas can go out and live in the world is similar to the way works of art go out and live in the world—they have to exist. So what kind of an existence will it be?
We should take the story here forward a few more years. By the time of Documenta X, I had come to know Benjamin Buchloh, who also moves across the social circles of artists and writers and thinkers in his own political, philosophical way, and he introduced me to Gabriel Orozco. I had understood that all these ideas expanded to many other continents, and that kind of expansion struck me mightily, between the eyes, when I saw Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) for the first time. In order to see Sans Soleil, I had had to order it for a film screening for one of my classes at Barnard. I spent a decade trying to catch up with what I saw in Sans Soleil. In the late ’90s I met Chris, and I was also beginning to meet the people who would come together in Utopia Station, which started as a collaboration with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija for the Venice Biennale of 2003.
Utopia Station becomes the new iteration of the Bibliothèque Nationale, with that kind of richness and wealth and growth—intellectual, personal, social growth. It was like literally walking into an expanded version of things, happening at another scale and absolutely actual. It was really something extraordinary in 2002 and 2003—brought into a kind of new focus because of 9/11, but more importantly because of the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the effort to try and stop them—to produce a peace movement that could actually stop a war, which we know is not easy to do. We were also focused on the emerging World Social Forum as it was convening in Porto Alegre and Mumbai. Utopia Station involved a whole new, loose community of artists and writers and architects who wanted to come together, to be together and do things together and be truly self-organized. It produced a set of friendships that remain alive to this day. We keep looking for ways to do things together again. We do so informally all the time.
So personal relationships are definitely a piece of all this—a piece that’s got forward momentum. The only reason to tell my story here is that it allows me to give the momentum its detail, to show you the way in which the lives of minds mutate and occupy spaces at different times. Nobody’s biography settles down into one story. We circle back to the art history question: the work of an artist is not one thing or attached to one idea; it’s attached to a timeline and a space program that involves living a life. The work of art may express that life somehow, or it may just be along for the ride, but it’s not going to completely sum it up.
Rail: In Pragmatism you write about George Kubler’s The Shape of Time, which I’m very interested in. I recently taught it, along with Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art, to artists in Miami, and they strike me as books that have had more influence on artists than on scholars—their work didn’t really get picked up in subsequent art history.
Nesbit: Actually Kubler shut Focillon’s thinking down a little bit, because he didn’t let Focillon’s politics come forward.
Rail: The way you explicate that in The Pragmatism in the History of Art was a revelation to me—there is nowhere else I’ve seen that dynamic articulated. Neither of them developed a “model” that you could apply.
Nesbit: Well, that’s it. You’ve just said it. There’s no model. And what people search for, especially at the beginning of their studies, is some map that can explain everything. If you’re really going to tell the truth about what we’re doing, there is no map. There are questions—“What is Actuality?”—but there is no map. Some people can cope with that, but it means you have to go forward in the dark. In life we go forward in the dark too, and one of the problems now in early 2017 is that we are in fact going forward in the dark that doesn’t seem even to take the shape of a tunnel.
George Kubler wrote The Shape of Time when he thought he was about to die. And then he didn’t die. And so he returned to his work without those metaphysical problems looming in the foreground of his future work. When I arrived at Yale in the 1970s we all had to take a methods class our first term. The syllabus of that course varied from year to year, but generally each member of the department came forward and talked about the kind of methods of inquiry that they used in their area of the field and each week we read something in relation to their work. Sheldon Nodelman came and spoke about Alois Riegl, for example. We read The Shape of Time, but Kubler himself did not come because he just wasn’t intellectually in the same place as he had been when he wrote it. I would also bet that he didn’t want to see his work as a method. In fact, it is kind of unusable as a method though you could perhaps adapt it to some of the formalist thinking in the 1970s—it was involved in morphologies. The real strength of the book was the “actuality” question and thinking about the temporalities of history, while keeping the wonder of the stars and the rainbow.
But Kubler’s book begins from the work that Focillon had left unfinished. And so part of what one feels as one reads The Shape of Time is the loving effort on Kubler’s part to bring Focillon’s work and wisdom forward without really saying so, to bring it forward as a greater truth. It’s a book written out of filial duty but goes beyond the filial part; Kubler is really trying to ask the biggest questions possible, of art and everything else. It’s hugely inspiring, because intuitively you grasp that those are the stakes for what we do. We really ought to be asking history and art history, and ourselves, to step up in that way. You don’t get that sense of mission very often right now, except through the forward trajectories of the civil rights movement. As a result, the idea that one should try to be an “intellectual” is foreign to our culture. We have instead inculcated a culture of professionalism, which is why the “skilling and deskilling” debate has become so intense.
Rail: You’ve developed a specific way of writing, closer to experimental narrative than academic prose; it’s very unusual. As I was reading Midnight: The Tempest Essays, I was wondering how much you reworked them from how they originally appeared from over the past thirty years?
Nesbit: I didn’t.
Rail: So you were writing that way from the jump? Have you always been engaged in experimental form?
Nesbit: The essay “What Was an Author?” is where I started, and that’s the first essay in the collection. I think most writers will tell you that it’s like singing: you have a voice and you have to figure out what you’re going to do with it. A singer cannot sing in every register. Also remember that historical and philosophical world that I walked into in the ’70s and ’80s allowed for truly experimental writing. Especially if you think of Deleuze and Guattari, with their unfettered Nietzschean permissiveness. Rosalind Krauss herself was interested in that dimension of the project, even more so after she met Denis Hollier. Experimental writing was one of the things that the two of us often talked about. I also think that is one of the reasons Hilton and I became friends, because of our mutual interest in making words do things; it was he who egged me on.
My book Their Common Sense basically went beyond the pale in terms of art historical form and voice. It’s full of conviction about how to tell a story, and if things are not mannerly then why should we try to keep them neat? These days I’ve often laughed with my art history friends that it was not exactly a “career move” to write that book. It took a few years to find a publisher for it, and that publisher, Black Dog Publishing, was, not coincidentally, based in England. The experience taught me that there are real consequences, that if you want to really do your work in a way that performs the extreme experiment, you have to take responsibility for it not fitting in, maybe never fitting in. And for people not wanting to follow along. Not everything is suited for mass culture.
Rail: It appears to me today that art history is a stagnant field—there doesn’t seem to be any energy or pressure coming from within the discipline. Do you see that?
Nesbit: No, and here’s why not: you’re looking at a transformation of the American university into a STEM-centered and STEM-heavy operation. The humanities disciplines are being squeezed and it’s not at all clear that the liberal arts departments with their chairs of expertise are going to survive structurally. Already there are people who say the early 20th century may not be a field that will be taught intact in fifteen years’ time. The 19th century has to argue for its reason for being. Linda Nochlin was not replaced at the Institute of Fine Art—feminism was not seen as something that needed to endure there, as such, in the curriculum. But the idea that any of these field designations is going to survive even the next decade is an open question—it seems crazy to say that, but on the other hand I’m looking at my own school, Vassar, where we have long had a historically strong and well-known Art History department: every time someone leaves or retires we have had to prostrate ourselves to try and save the line, and more often than not, we have failed.
That said, art history itself is fine and ready for the future. It’s as interdisciplinary a field as you can imagine: you can think about anything you want as an art historian. It’s got the metaphysics intact; it’s got all the big philosophical questions waiting to be raised; it can go toward material science or the issues of social justice. But if it only presents itself as some little field from which professional curators can come—it’s doomed. If it becomes a breeding ground for polite conversation and investment strategies—it’s doomed. Focillon once told his students that art appreciation is not knowledge—and he was right.
Rail: I’m inspired by those late 19th- and early 20th-century art historians who created the discipline, and I’m wondering what tools you see as unique to art history, as opposed to every other discipline that it intersects and overlaps with?
Nesbit: The German art historians you admire from the late 19th and early 20th centuries produced a generation of students that included Erwin Panofsky and Alexander Dorner, but they also created outliers who were not, strictly speaking, art historians, like Walter Benjamin. Benjamin couldn’t get a job in the university, so he was obliged to apply his intellectual gifts elsewhere, but he certainly did not stop writing or thinking. It’s not as though the lines of succession flow easily, ever. In our time, art history is nevertheless a place from which we can think about the transformations of cultures, about the role of visuality and objects in spaces and images in the public sphere, about the way in which the older forms are transmuted through new technologies—that is a problem that comes up through the centuries, it’s not a new problem.
As the new digital platforms come to define the public sphere and give artists new places and fields though which to explore and work, the old maps cease to function. One way to get your bearings is to measure this morphing present against the past—not that the past is the “dead other” or the “bad father” or the opposite of the present; it’s that there are elements from the past that are still active inside this present. You need the past to think the present. Just take the early 20th-century avant-gardes, which in many ways show us a situation comparable to the one we are living in now, where everything seemed to be turning upside down. There was no secure place for the work of art to be. And there certainly weren’t secure forms of representation that people could count on surviving time. The classical tradition, and everything that went with it, was crashing, and what was coming forward was a set of elements, new rhetorics, that people could work with. In many ways the initial problem was to figure out what spaces painting and architecture could occupy, so that new decorative arts collectives could form. Little magazines came to be extremely important spaces for people to work in. Eventually the art galleries were going to pick up steam and become a third way, and we know what happened. But remember, in the middle of it all, there is confusion, rampant confusion–-the lights are out. That is precisely when you have these new energies coming though, thinking philosophically about change, the blowing up of modern literature, or the proliferation of voices—there is a very productive explosion that takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century. To understand that you can have those periods of explosion and everything doesn’t end is psychically useful for us a hundred years later. Benjamin is such an important thinker because he’s willing to look this explosion in the face to try and think about it, but his way of thinking about it was to go back to Baudelaire, in the 19th century, to find an indirect, historical way to help articulate the problem of extreme upheaval.
Rail: Where did you first experience the sense of having a special relationship with language or with telling a story?
Nesbit: I learned to write and speak about the past from teaching. Art history, as you know, is taught in the dark—lecturing in front of luminous images. I think what you’re really hearing in my writing is a spoken voice; it’s not the voice of the radio broadcaster, rather, it’s been adapted to presenting things in this kind of situation with other people there in the shadows, listening. The scene is genuinely collective. That way of lecturing was something I learned from my own teachers; the Yale lecturers were particularly gifted, Bob Herbert and Vincent Scully especially.
Rail: Did you want to be a writer as a child? When did it become clear that you wanted to be an art historian?
Nesbit: Well, there’s nothing too dramatic in this plot. I grew up in upstate New York, outside Rochester. I went to public school with a lot of smart people. Everyone was good at stuff, I was not special, and like many of my friends, I liked writing and at that point I also liked making art. My mother was an art librarian and as a result I knew what art history was. I was also strangely practical and I thought, I like literature and history and I love to make art and I like studying French, and I could combine all that as an art historian. For those reasons, I just jumped into it. As for writing, it’s not like I heard a voice in the night—I knew that I had a voice that was there and I used it.
Rail: How has your deepening relationship with contemporary art changed the way you write?
Nesbit: It hasn’t. The basic way of laying things out was there before I really started writing about contemporary art. I didn’t write at length about people who were alive and with whom I was in conversation as I wrote about their work until I wrote the essays about Rachel Whiteread and Gabriel Orozco. Their Common Sense was done by then. I would count my conversations with Hilton to be art conversations. In my own circles, Hilton was opening up the way writing could approach truth, and Rosalind was writing The Optical Unconscious (1993). I don’t know if you remember that the chapter on the Rotoreliefs opens with me asking a Marxist question. It wasn’t always a gift to be cast in The Optical Unconscious, but at least I had a good speaking part.
Rail: Their Common Sense, Pragmatism, and Midnight—a reader needs to be very sophisticated to understand the kinds of interventions you’re making in those books; there is not an explicit argument. If the reader knows the stakes of the intellectual histories, they can begin to understand what you’re putting forward, which could be otherwise missed.
Nesbit: You might say that ideas are not being allowed to dominate experience or historical conditions, and that’s because ideas are just participants in these larger perspectives or sagas. There’s a fair amount of intellectual history being written in between the lines: if you start with my Atget book or Their Common Sense, you see that I have studied the kind of knowledge which is not officially intellectual—instead, it’s technical, public, and popular. Over time, I was interested that I had repeatedly gotten myself into those problems, since they are not ever going to be fashionable. I am now committed to the idea that one can and should think about art and historical material from the bottom up. I work on contemporary artists from the same kind of bottom up perspective. The idea that philosophical ideas function to illuminate the world from the bottom up is slightly destabilizing for many academics, but it’s just how I understand things. I don’t have a good feeling for the abiding importance of hierarchy—I really don’t. I’m impressed by accomplishment but I’m not particularly impressed by power in and of itself. It follows from the fact that Duchamp was a person, that everyone is a person, so we should all be able to talk together—hierarchy shouldn’t get in the way of that.
Rail: There are very few times in your writing where you’d say, So-and-so said to me. You do not make yourself a feature in the writing, although in many cases the writing feels that it’s held together by the gravity of a person.
Nesbit: The decision to use the first person is often temperamental. Also, I suppose it’s a set of attitudes inculcated from the very reality of writing about the past. Obviously you don’t walk around as yourself saying “I” when you’re recounting the past. It’s not as though I’m seeking to say, “so-and-so said to me” but on the other hand you learn things through conversation and there is no reason why knowledge that comes in conversation shouldn’t be communicated. But you have to reference it somehow. The line I used as an epigraph for Midnight—Leon Golub saying, Life is wild—was said in conversation at the end of his life. We were talking, as we did in those days, about Utopia.
Rail: If we acknowledge the reality of “being in the dark” as artist and writers, what do you think is important for us to be doing today?
Nesbit: To stay together. To keep company. In spite of it all, in spite of all the spite, we shouldn’t abandon the dream of Utopia.