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.
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.