Last June two celebrated painters, David Salle and Carroll Dunham, sat down at Salle’s kitchen table to talk with Cornelius Tittle, editor of Blau Magazine (where this conversation appeared in German earlier this year), to discuss the challenges of writing about art, the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, and the weird place in which painting currently finds itself.
Cornelius Tittel (Rail): Am I right to say that both of you started to write about art when you were already quite mature as painters? That it wasn’t something you did very early on? Or is that only true for you, David?
David Salle: I did some reviewing early on, in the transition years from being a student to being a practicing artist, as a job to pay the rent. That was a long time ago. I started writing again more seriously about six or seven years ago.
Rail: Can you remember the moment that you thought you had to sit down and get your thoughts on paper?
Carroll Dunham: I didn’t really write—I always kept journals, but I didn’t write publicly at all. I wrote one essay when I was twenty-five, and it traumatized me. I thought, I’m not doing this anymore. The thing that really got me thinking more seriously about it was, I was asked to write an obituary for an artist friend who died—the painter Peter Cain—and I felt I couldn’t not do it because I felt some responsibility towards his work. I found the experience very… I mean it was sad, but it was also very striking to me how satisfying it was to get something into words about painting. That began the process of my thinking that this was something I should try to do more of, and I got some encouragement, so…
Rail: And David, for you?
Salle: Everyone has opinions. At dinner parties or after an opening, that point at which people give their opinions, I would give mine, and people would turn to me and say, “Wow, you should write that down.” I heard that enough times that I started to take it seriously. Also, I have a lot of writer friends, and I read a fair amount—so I wanted to participate in that world; I wanted to see if I could do that thing, too.
Dunham: A lot of what has been giving me energy to think about writing is what David mentions about the general state of art writing now—that a lot of art journalism I read has no real relationship to the things that I think artists really think about. It’s coming from a position that’s very different from the way an artist or particularly a painter would frame their own practice or ideas.
Rail: Actually, that’s what I love about both of your books, because as a reader you feel exactly that. And I just cannot read a normal Artforum essay by someone teaching whatever, wherever.
Salle: I’m not being ironic, or not only ironic. In a very literal way, those essays are actually not meant to be read, or not by you in any case. They are only meant to be read by other specialists, by academics, and they are written, for the most part, to advance an academic career. No one can read them, and no one does read them, and out of the let’s say 500 people you might see at an opening not one person will admit to reading anything in Artforum in its entirety. Maybe a paragraph or the first sentence. It’s like an anti-magazine, no one will admit to reading it. For me, the desire to write comes out of reading. We are now living in the golden age of the essay in the English-speaking world. There has been such a great flourishing of non-fiction prose writing that unfortunately has left the art world behind.
Rail: The confidence in your own writing on art comes partly from your practice; you know what you’re talking about.
Salle: Well I’ll give you an example. I like music. I feel like I have a sort of intuitive grasp of what the composer is trying to say. I respond to music deeply and I have a lot of feelings about it, but I am not a musician. I don’t read music, I don’t play music, and I can’t discuss music in terms of its structure. So for me to write about music would obviously be ridiculous. It’s not that much different from people who write about painting who have never considered what goes into making a painting on a physical level. It just seems like a kind of fundamental disconnect. Of course they can’t describe certain things that happen in a painting because they actually can’t see what those things are or how they are arrived at. And it’s not only a question of having the technical vocabulary, although even that, simple as it is, is not something you learn in art history class. Do you know what I mean?
Dunham: I do know what you mean. I don’t think I’ve ever quite thought about it that way, but I do think it’s a really interesting point. I have tended to think more about the fact that there is really interesting and very accessible long-form journalism about all kinds of fairly complex and nuanced subjects—everything from politics to neuroscience that you can read in serious magazines, and also things that lead more towards biography and profiles—yet there doesn’t seem to be any real equivalent in art journalism now among people, except with someone like Calvin Tomkins at The New Yorker. I actually love that kind of writing about art because it gives you something a bit more human.
Salle: Yes, he’s a really good writer.
Dunham: He’s a really good writer, and he likes artists, and he’s spent time around artists.
Rail: Even though David explained how unreadable Artforum is—supposedly the most important of the unread art magazines—you both publish there.
Dunham: Yes. That’s why I know David is right that people don’t read it because they certainly don’t read my things in Artforum. But I don’t want to talk ill of them because they have been very supportive of me and the idea that I should be writing. I think they actually wish there were more people writing in a way that was less academic and less dogmatic, but I don’t think they can find those people. I happen to be interested in painting and you and Cornelius are too. Painting is a particular subset of contemporary art that seems to be completely outside of academic thinking now. It feels to me like a huge loss, but whatever, there’s nothing I can do about what’s going on in academia, while there is something I can do about what’s going on in the writing about painting.
Salle: This is our version of “think global and act local.”
Dunham: Yes, and I’ve written about other things; I’ve written a couple of things about sculpture and film, but I’m mostly interested in writing about painting. You know the thing is for us—I mean David and I are basically the same age—we have very different formative experiences—David went to school in L.A. and the early years were framed differently than mine—but generationally I would say we have a lot in common, and we’ve lived through much the same set of experiences in the New York art world; details vary, but whatever. I think for myself, the fact that I began my serious interest in art in the pre-digital age meant that the art world was microscopic compared to what it is today, and it was still possible to think about a kind of historical through-line, which I don’t know how you even think about now. All those things affect the way I think about writing about art—like I don’t think like a person who tweets, nor do I think like an academic; I think like some other kind of thing. I was very aware when I was young of artists like [Donald] Judd and [Mel] Bochner who wrote a lot of criticism that was both tough and judgmental but also could be read by a human being. These were things I took note of even though when I was a young artist I didn’t want to do them myself, for some reason I had to get older in order to feel the itch.
Salle: Donald Judd notwithstanding, I think it takes a very long time to understand art at the level necessary to say something about it worth reading, and I think it’s no accident that we’re doing this in our sixties—I’m not sure I could have done it earlier.
Dunham: Yes, I don’t think I could have either. I think I knew that when I was young, I think that’s why I was so… I mean I had one experience writing for public consumption and I sort of noted it and thought, “This isn’t who I want to be now. I can’t be this person and also find my way in my work.” I mean you never really know but I was able to say to myself, “Well, your work is sort of moving on its own now.” I mean I was fifty, maybe older, when I first tried to write something real. And I knew who I was as an artist, at least well enough that I wasn’t worried about that anymore.
Salle: Right. And it also takes a long time to learn how to write a sentence, just as it takes a long time to be able to take what you know about your own work and extrapolate from that a set of working principles for criticism. Some people might get there earlier but something tells me it’s unlikely. This is one of those things where experience really does count for something.
Dunham: Well, I think that’s true, and I know from having thought about these earlier artist writers—Bochner is a good example. He was writing a lot when he was quite young, but the historical situation felt very clear to those people—you know, what they lacked in lived experience they sort of made up for in a kind of philosophical program. Now I don’t think there’s anything like that really available to us now. I mean I have my own philosophical program, as I’m sure David does, but there’s no clear armature to hang all of these thoughts on other than one’s own experience and one’s own—I mean I feel now as though I’m making up my own idea of art history, and it’s obvious in the people that I’ve chosen to write about.
Salle: And it takes time to get to that point.
Dunham: But do you know what I mean? In the late sixties it was sort of clear if you were…
Salle: Well, there was the party line, and there were the artists who were the standard bearers for that line, and the people who wrote about art mostly went for the exemplary cases.
Dunham: Yes, a person who was interested in Sol LeWitt and thought that was the most advanced position you can take wasn’t also going to be writing about Peter Saul, for example. Both of whom were doing very important things in the late sixties.
Salle: Nor were they going to write about a historical figure.
Dunham: Right, exactly. So, I think that the condition, back to what I was saying about pre-imposed digital art worlds, the condition now is utterly different.
Salle: Do you think it’s a digital thing?
Dunham: Well, I don’t know if it’s a symptom or a cause, but it’s co-symptomatic if nothing else, I think.
Rail: How could you compare the joys and also the frustrations in writing something if you compare it to painting? I mean does it sometimes get you the same kind of rush that you really think, “Oh my god the sentence is really great,” and you feel like maybe when you painted something you thought, “I really nailed it,” or is it completely different?
Dunham: I think it feels completely different, but it’s not something I’ve thought a lot about. I find writing to be very, very hard to do. Which is why I know, I mean I don’t consider myself a real writer. I have close friends who are real writers, and their relationship to it is completely different than mine—I don’t have to write, but there’s something enormously satisfying about turning something into words in a way that feels somewhat original and accurate to the feeling.
Salle: After I had been writing for a while, I started to take an unseemly amount of creative pleasure from it. I began to crave the sensation of crafting and molding language to rhyme with a visual sensation or an idea. I found that language melody and verbal images and syntactical rhythm—style, in a word—began to be deeply satisfying in itself. It started to swamp what I was doing in the studio, so much so that I actually had to stop. I could imagine myself writing full time, which is a scary thought. I’m interested in writing for its own sake, and like any writer, I’m writing about what I know.
Dunham: I think that really came through in that T Magazine piece you published recently about your trip home.
Rail: Was there a point where you really thought you had to stop?
Salle: Well, I have spent whole days and even weeks writing, and it was a terrible dilemma actually, I just had to cut it out. One problem is you don’t get paid for it. If one could be well paid for writing non-fiction pieces for magazines, but that’s never going to happen.
Dunham: Well, there are two reasons not to do it: one reason is money and the other is feedback. I mean neither of those things seems to be terribly prevalent. And I think one of the things that got me interested in it as a personal project was that, you know, nobody starts out as an artist because they think they’re going to have a career or whatever that is or because it’s going to become their job—but having had exhibitions and shown my work in public for however many years, I started to feel somewhat burdened by that. I mean again not to sound whiny because we should all have such problems—but the distance between where I was operating in the world and what my original motives had been for making paintings was very striking to me, and I thought that writing might be a really interesting way to bring something, for lack of a better word, more pure into my life. Because there really is no reason to do it other than for its own sake.
Salle: What you say, Tip, is very important—that writing is a way to reclaim or reconnect to the kinds of ideas that were part of the initial reason for wanting to make art in the first place. But no one’s asking for it, or waiting
Dunham: Right, if it’s not its own reward with a handful of people who might actually pay attention, then it’s nothing, and that was important for me.
Salle: When you first started out as a painter your audience was other painters, sometimes as few as two or three people. Writing is sort of the same. There are a few other painters who write, and a few serious critics who respond, and a few non-art world writers who care about art—and that’s enough. I mean, certain pieces I’ve done have gotten a bigger response, you know, emails of the, “Thank you—finally someone said that in print,” variety. It turns out there is a hunger now for writing that’s real, that’s “back-up-able,” if you know what I mean. It’s encouraging.
Dunham: Yes, I mean I like feedback from other artists, even from artists I’ve written about, when I feel as though they appreciate the point of view—that’s very meaningful to me.
Salle: You feel it was worth doing.
Rail: But if you guys become even better maybe you will have the same problem as Julian Schnabel doing movies—people often say, “He’s such a great movie director.”
Salle: It wouldn’t surprise me. Anything to demote someone.
Dunham: I’m sure people have said, “He writes better than he paints.”
Salle: Anyway, I would just say, “Thank you.”
Dunham: But that’s why I say, see I don’t have the same feeling that David does that writing could take over; it’s always painful for me. I don’t ever get really comfortable with it except when I’m right inside of writing something, and I’m kind of flowing with that, but afterwards I feel this weird mixture of deep satisfaction and trauma.
Salle: A relief that it’s over?
Dunham: Yes and, “Phew, I made it through that.” And so I kind of base my moves as a writer on whether I really feel like it’s important to put the energy into the record about something.
Rail: If you look at the names of the people you are writing about, do you feel it’s to a certain extent like a biography of ideas and influences about stuff that really mattered to you in becoming the artist that you are now?
Dunham: For me 100 percent.
Rail: Because I think that is a slight difference.
Dunham: I was going to say, I wonder how many subjects even overlap. We both wrote about Albert Oehlen, but I think otherwise it is very different.
Salle: I had certain themes, and the artists I wrote about are the ones whose work I think embodies those themes. Embodies, not illustrates—there’s a difference. Some things were suggested by editors, and that was interesting too, in a different way. But mostly I used writing as a way to really engage with someone else’s work. Sometimes I didn’t really know what I felt until I sat down to write about it. I also spent a lot of time writing about certain older artists who were important to my understanding of what an artist can be.
Rail: Like John Baldessari and Alex Katz.
Salle: Exactly. It’s kind of funny. They’re on the opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum, but they’re both very important to me and also very close friends. It’s natural for me to write about Alex’s work. I know him very well, and I’ve been to his studio a hundred times, and his work is like a master class in painting. If you’re going to deconstruct Alex’s work even a little bit, you will pretty much have the formal vocabulary you need to think about painting. Writing about John was more personal because my work doesn’t have a lot in common with his, certainly not in the last thirty-five years, although he was a kind of a starting point for me when I was very young. When John had the retrospective at the Met, I really had to confront the totality of John’s work and the personality behind it. Oddly, I realized I had never really thought deeply about it, about its subtext. I had just accepted it as part of the landscape. But now I started to really look at just what it is that John made, and then to think about the personality of the maker. It helps that I’ve known him such a long time—there’s our longevity theme again. Anyway, after the piece came out, John sent me a postcard, “David, I’ve never felt seen before now.”
Dunham: That’s a great comment.
Salle: I got off the subject—what was the original question?
Rail: The original question was, “Is this kind of biography of ideas and influences important to you? Because in a way you also have this strain in your writing where you write about some of the most famous names in the art world right now like Christopher Wool or Jeff Koons. Are you writing about them because you have been asked to do it, or because there is something that hasn’t been written about them yet?
Salle: I wasn’t asked to. I wanted to see if I could say something that hadn’t been said. I wanted to give an example of the kind of criticism that I think is useful: Okay, what is this thing in front of me? I’m not interested in what the market thinks; I’m not interested in what the theorists have to say—I’m interested in this thing in front of me.
Dunham: My writing resumé is more… I think it started out more as wanting to settle some personal debts or whatever you might call them—writing about someone like Barry Le Va who made a huge impact on me as an artist when I was young and who I felt was not being sufficiently appreciated and, then other people who I think have been sort of shoved out to the edges of the bell curve in a way that I don’t understand—interviews that I’ve done with someone like Jim Nutt or Peter Saul. Well those guys—there is a place for them in the conversation now more maybe than there was twenty years ago, but I’ve realized that my interest as an artist has always been in the direction of trying to find less traveled areas in the history of modern painting to influence my thinking. I think my interest in writing kind of picked up there. I mean David really does have something different to say about artists like Christopher Wool that’s not like other things you would read, and I don’t think I have much to contribute there. I’m kind of more interested in fleshing out my own taste. I think my taste or my interest in painting is what has allowed me to create a context for my own work and my own mental landscape and choosing subjects that can kind of amplify or clarify that; that’s of interest.
Rail: Can we talk about negative criticism? I wanted to ask you personally—have there ever been reviews out there in your career where someone wrote something about you that really hurt you or made you really angry? Some sentences where you thought…
Dunham: Sure, everybody who—I mean any artists who are putting themselves out in a real way is going to encounter that. I know that I make my work, and I put it out there, and people are free to have their opinion—I mean that’s just being a grown up. But no one likes being thought an idiot or being thought insincere or being thought incompetent.
Salle: There are different kinds of negative criticism.
Dunham: There is lack of sincerity, lack of competence, lack of seriousness…
Salle: There’s criticism about being on the wrong side of art history, and criticism on the level of bad values; there’s criticism on the level of bad craft and criticism on the level of just being a shit—you know being a bad person, which I guess is an extreme case of bad values; some criticism is made on the basis of a supposed alliance with a cultural tendency which the writer finds reprehensible—and that kind of criticism in my view is indefensible. This happens all the time. I used to get upset about it. I mean I could give you dozens of examples in my own career. This kind of thinking, which is purely political—that is to say, it’s about power—has really dragged the art word down. The worst offender has been Benjamin Buchloh, who critiques artists, both living and dead, based on what he thinks is their intersection with, or failure to respond to, a given historical situation. It’s mostly pure projection, and irrelevant in any case. Artists are held to a sort of avant-garde purity test based on a phony, or at least distorted utopianism, and it’s engendered completely unreal expectations about what artists actually do and about what motivates them. There are many such people running around issuing their summons to appear in court. Unfortunately, the art world tends to lionize bullies.
Rail: One critic you are reflecting on in your book is Robert Hughes, whose writing on some painters of your generation like Julian Schnabel was vicious.
Salle: Well, I don’t think I even mention him, but since you do, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether. Hughes was a few different things, but when he wrote about contemporary art, he was a sensationalist playing to the cheap seats.
Rail: But he was well read.
Salle: You mean he was read widely? It was Time Magazine. He had flair. He could write a sentence with a certain kind of punch to it. His strong opinions were taken as authoritative, but he was really an entertainer, a personality. And, I hasten to add, you can still learn something from people who are wrong most of the time. They help focus your own thinking if nothing else.
Rail: In his book, David writes about what a big influence Duchamp still has on the contemporary art world. He says if the ratio between originality and commentary tilts more to the commentary side, he loses interest. Have you, Carroll, ever thought about the legacy of Marcel Duchamp in such a way?
Dunham: Well, I’ve thought a lot about the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, and I agree with David’s basic point, but I might put a slightly different emphasis on it because I think a lot of his influence is based on profound misunderstandings of his own interest and position. I mean Duchamp loved painting and was very interested in art continuing. I’ve been very influenced in my own work by Duchamp’s last work in Philadelphia (Étant donnés, 1946-66), hidden behind the door. Unfortunately, the thing can’t be moved. I’ve made numerous visits to see it, I’ve written a lot about it in my notebooks, I have many, many thoughts about it—it is not the thing that most people focus on when they think about Duchamp. You know, we came of age as artists during the kind of golden age of Duchamp. I don’t know how many books about Marcel Duchamp came out in the ’70s… and he was perceived to be the sort of grandfather of conceptual art, and so on. I don’t see it that way. I think the idea that you extract an object from the so-called real world put it in a white room, and point at it and say, “This is a work of art” was an important philosophical statement to make—done and done—but that isn’t what really holds up about Duchamp over the years, thinking about his legacy. I think David is right that that’s how his legacy is understood and that he is the excuse for a lot of really poor artistic behavior.
Salle: The last interview that Calvin Tomkins did with him—it’s like something out of a novel. Calvin recorded the interview and then misplaced the tapes for forty years. They were rediscovered a few years ago and finally published as a book. Duchamp plainly and somewhat surprisingly says, and I’m paraphrasing, “These young people today think it’s easy—it’s not.” He was referring to conceptual art, more or less. He was disappointed with what had developed—you know, as the jargon of the time would have it, “privileging the gesture”—Duchamp was not interested in privileging the gesture at all.
Dunham: During the years he was allegedly not making art, he went every day to a little tiny room somewhere on 14th street and labored away at this insane project, which he documented extremely carefully. Just the notebooks and the photographs about how to put that thing together are like a Joseph Beuys project. They’re incredible. This is not the behavior of a person who isn’t interested in making things.
Salle: His sensitivity to the material, everything he made, the materiality of it is really sublime.
Dunham: The body of that thing is covered in pigskin… But some artists are brought forth to be the historical excuse for a lot of—I mean Warhol is like this—I don’t know what I think about Warhol as a kind of summary. I have all kinds of mixed feelings about the work and about his place in the culture but he certainly is the go-to excuse for a lot of awfully boring art, and I think Duchamp certainly was in the same position ten or twenty years ago, if he isn’t now.
Salle: Well, there are many ways in which the visual arts differ from the other arts, and one of the ways, maybe the primary way is precisely the need to locate and enshrine certain glorified precedents. You can have a career just by saying your work is Duchampian.
Dunham: I think the kind of writing about art that is rather inaccessible relies too extensively on this condition of historical reference. There’s a hall of mirrors aspect to a lot of art writing that’s self-validating if you have drunk that particular Kool-Aid, but it doesn’t get you to the place of actual lived experience where artists really wake up in the morning and do things for certain reasons. There are all these different levels on which you can unpack artwork, and the historical embeddedness is a very important one, but when it’s done with the exclusion of other things it becomes hollow. I think Duchamp is one of these artists who’ve been invoked for all kinds of bad reasons.
Salle: That’s very well put. An editor should simply say, “We’re not going to use the word ‘Duchampian’ anymore. It actually doesn’t mean anything.” It’s just bad writing and bad thinking.
Rail: As you mentioned, the one artist you have both written full essays on is Albert Oehlen. Personally, I am really interested in him as a painter, but funnily enough, every second curator who is peddling in post-internet art or time-based art or whatever is mostly non-painting seems to agree that he is a great artist.
Dunham: It’s obvious if you look at what he’s made that Albert is completely consumed with painting but because of the perversity of his approach, you can be an academic who, quote unquote, doesn’t like painting and thinks that Albert is the one painter who really hasn’t fallen for it, who’s sufficiently mistrustful of the medium.
Salle: And Richter’s too old.
Dunham: Speaking of Richter, it’s fascinating to me that an art historian like Benjamin Buchloh who has apparently very little interest in painting as a continuous train of thought could devote so much energy to Richter, who I know has his position in the German art landscape and the international art landscape, but arguably at least half of the project is basically decorative painting and somehow that’s given a free pass because of some alleged set of conceptual moves that are outside—I mean I suppose it is something that somehow gets to the painting and not-painting at the same time. Fine, good for him, but it’s interesting to think about Albert being in that position now, being the one painter in all of the contemporary painting landscape who isn’t really painting, but he is, and that’s why I wouldn’t have taken the trouble to write about him if I didn’t think he had a fascinating attitude about painting. It’s only interesting to me as painting, and I suspect David feels similarly.
Rail: Do you agree that painting is in a weird place?
Dunham: Yes, you know it all got strange right around when David and I were first appearing on the scene, I mean when the Museum of Modern Art does its surveys of the last forty years of art it doesn’t really show paintings that were first seen in the 1980s.
Salle: Have you been to the Tate Modern lately? There’s hardly a painting in sight.
Dunham: That’s kind of amazing I didn’t know that, but I do notice it in terms of the historical narrative curators are trying to pause it, and I think there is this whole perception of—I mean I don’t want to use the word ‘market’ but whatever the world of galleries, exhibitions, artists actually earning a living out of what they do, the kind of day-to-day reality of art—I think kind of flips these folks out.
Rail: The market is still driven by painting. Even painting of a younger generation than yours, if you think of Mark Grotjahn.
Salle: We think he’s a good painter despite the market.
Dunham: Yes, that’s where it gets so weird and tricky. Grotjahn is probably someone who suffers from his success—there’s never been a big museum show of his work, which there should be—he’s certainly ready for that. And I think artists really respect what he is doing.
Salle: Someone must be planning a show.
Dunham: I don’t know if they are; it wouldn’t surprise me if they were or if they weren’t. But I think that there’s a kind of backlash against artists who have that kind of success.
Rail: It keeps the people from really looking at it?
Dunham: I think it does.
Rail: What makes both of your books so enjoyable is exactly that: You are looking at things. Thank you for the conversation.