Jaime Davidovich (1936–2016)

Jaime Davidovich, 1976.

“AND ONE LAST THING: AVOID ASSHOLES,” Jaime Davidovich deadpanned, in a final piece of advice to my art students when, in the summer of 2015, we met him in his Bronx Museum retrospective, “Adventures of the Avant-Garde.” Coming from this singular Argentinean artist, who moved to New York in 1963 and participated in post-Minimalist and video-art experiments before becoming one of the pioneers of public-access cable in the late 1970s, this was no empty provocation or joke. It is a challenge to summarize the many twists and turns of Jaime’s career, but he was, above all, a profoundly ethical artist, across whose works and platforms one can glimpse an as-yet-unrealized more human art world.

Jaime and I first met five years ago, when we found ourselves on the same 1960s/1970s panel for the Brooklyn Museum exhibition “Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art.” In a sign of his typical humility, although he was not even included in the show, he still agreed to participate in the programming and represent his era. I curated his first exhibition in Chicago in January 2015, and this past year we completed a series of conversations that will be published in 2017 by the Cisneros Foundation with the help of the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art, both of whom were generous with their support and effort to make sure the text was completed, and read by him, before he passed away.

Jaime and I met and talked many times, almost always about his work. Toward the end, I had the feeling that these conversations served as a respite from his failing health. This was how I got to know him; he was the sort of artist whose self was utterly tied up in what he made and the networks, both human and nonhuman, that it generated. His adhesive-tape installations and early videos scanned the surfaces of various sites: his studio, the old Whitney Museum of American Art stairwell, downtown “alternative spaces,” a suburban street in Cleveland, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates in Queens, the SoHo neighborhood around his apartment at 154 Wooster Street. This neglected impulse in his work between the late ’60s and his television work represents—to me—an active curiosity about every inch of the world around him. Once he turned to television, as he told me many times, the goal was to take art out of the museum and literally deliver it into viewers’ living rooms. At the time, this curiosity was married to a deliciously dry sense of humor that could distract from the fact that his camera was still roving, still observing the details of his milieu—now that of the roving reporter, his alter ego Dr. Videovich. The segment The Best Artist, 1982, is a great example of this subtlety, one made for television. On the one hand, any viewer can appreciate the hilarity of Davidovich’s deadpan interview of René Moncada, a Colombian street artist, who earnestly explains why he painted a street mural reading “I Am the Best Artist.” Yet even amidst this absurdity, the SoHo environment is still being captured: public art, passersby, street noise—and the segment is quietly echoing the quite similar braggadocio of Alberto Greco, an Argentinean artist and friend of Davidovich who died in 1965. Accessible television layered with lessons from lost art histories; these were the possibilities Jaime wanted to use television for. To listen to him recite, in monotone, “Art mall, art mall, art mall . . . ” while wandering around a Los Angeles shopping center in The Gap, 1982–83, is to at once laugh with the everyday and to identify it as a potential site of transformation—at that time, who knew what was possible with public-access cable? I remember him encouraging me to install clips from his television show in a kitschy, comfortable living-room style environment in the gallery, to create the impression that one was watching at home. In the end, we went with wooden benches painted yellow to echo a reinstalled work, Yellow Wall, 1970, included in the show, but that possibility of a different installation stayed in my mind, as if haunting the existing version.

Still from Jaime Davidovich's The Live! Show, 1979–1984.

Two less discussed episodes in Jaime’s career emblematize, for me, who he was as an artist, and how this role naturally extended to pedagogy and politics. Between 1960 and 1962, before leaving Argentina for the United States, Jaime worked as an educator in Bahía Blanca, then a provincial town. He was twenty-four, an age at which most artists might think only of promoting their own careers and gaining exposure, and yet it was at this precise juncture that he accepted a position designed by the developmentalist regime of Arturo Frondizi to introduce advanced art to students living outside of Buenos Aires. Jaime did not see Bahía Blanca as a cultural backwater unworthy of cosmopolitan exchange. His view of art’s audiences and their potential was democratic and optimistic—and it certainly remained so throughout the rest of his career. For him, television’s promise similarly lay in the medium’s capacity for interconnection—to educate, to reach people, and to bring them together around a shared, autopoietic platform. In 1984, in the final year of his run on Manhattan Cable Television, Jaime ceded his regular slot for The Live! Show to programming for Artists Call, a component of a much larger, countrywide collaborative protest against US intervention in Central America. Not one to bang viewers over the head with a message, Jaime stayed behind the camera as producer, letting others (Traci Sampson, Lucy R. Lippard, Leon Golub, and Doug Ashford) speak about this urgent issue. In one of our final conversations, which took place during the primaries, he diagnosed the Trump phenomenon with his signature pith: “These other candidates are boxers; they play by the rules. Trump is wrestling—he just hits you over the head with a chair!” I like to think that if Jaime had lived to see our present moment of crisis, he would have known what to do: Start with a simple drawing, maybe, as he did of Reagan in 1984. Live on TV, an audience watching, this was Jaime’s political commitment: understated, collaborative, a break from our regularly scheduled programming.

Daniel Quiles is an art historian and critic based in Chicago.