PRINT February 1988

Peter Schjeldahl


IS: How do you feel about the use of certain words such as “post,” “late,” “neo”?

PS: They block thinking. They assume all sorts of stuff. I don’t use jargon like that. Which isn’t to say I’m not attentive to the ideas; I try to translate them into English. And either there’s something there or there isn’t. If it doesn’t survive the translation there’s nothing there. “Postness” is definitely a feeling we have. “Post-Modern” makes so many assumptions about what “Modern” means. Mainly it seems to me to translate into, We don’t have to know what we’re talking about because it’s over. Which is a very Modern tenet. It seems like everything about all of the functions of the term “post-Modern” in terms of thinking are very Modern, very Modernist. It’s just the same old thing.

LS: Is it the same old thing, or the same wonderful thing?

PS: Oh, the same wonderful thing. Sure, why not. Let’s love it, shall we?

There’s another thing in “post-Modern.” People who use the word are saying, That’s over, because we’re here. Hey, what you’ve been waiting for has arrived. The revolution is complete.

IS: Without turning Warhol’s death in any way into a transition point for our age—which I wouldn’t do for many reasons, including irritating you—I felt there was an amazing sense when he died that a certain kind of approach to the media and to publicity was over.

PS: It was a very affecting moment. I think everyone was surprised at how moved they were. I don’t know if I thought of this, maybe Eric Fischl said it to me—that Warhol was like the rich kid who lets you play in his yard. And you go there and you play in his yard every day, and you go there one morning and he’s moved away, the place is boarded up. The definite sense of a kind of social, centralized, bohemian playground was important, even if you didn’t use it. It’s just suddenly as if a lot of lights have gone out and the streets are getting a little darker and it gets colder, less noise from the second story. It kind of bleaks out.

IS: It’s not good for the nightclub business.

PS: The nightclub business could be in trouble. Actually one of my great sorrows of the ’80s was realizing that having finally gotten onto the A list in New York, I was too old to stay up that late anymore. It starts at 11 o’clock! I have a daughter to get to school. I made myself go to the Palladium a couple of times and I loved it.

IS: Did you ever go there. Lucas?

LS: No.

PS: It was wonderful.

IS: Were you sorry?

LS: No.

PS: No. Lucas lives on moonbeams and butterfly dust.

IS: And art in the ’80s?

PS: I imagine the ’80s are going to look very good in art history. There’s been a lot of terrific work. The ’80s were like a big surprise that we still had painting. How long are you going to be surprised? And well, maybe painting is going to be around anyway, so what is it, and maybe we can talk about what it is in a fairly abstract way that pays attention to detail—which was always the best part of formalism.

I would say that up until October 19th 1987 the ’80s were about the sex life of money. Or the art and the art life of money, and the protean, inexhaustible life of money. But money has used up its time, and any droning on about it is like fingernails scraping a blackboard. You know, it’s not going to be like that anymore—which isn’t to say it’ll be better. I mean, quite the contrary.

PS: Modernism means the culture of responses to modernization. To me that’s the only sane meaning. In fact modernization goes on rampantly as we sit here. And there is a culture of responses to it. It’s shifted gears, there’s different tones, but it’s the same thing, because modernization is the same thing. To me, what’s being filtered out by jargon is reality, which makes us so anxious we can’t even think. There was an earlier point in the 19th century, early 20th century, where there was a tremendous eagerness to get close to modernization because it was so wonderful and promised so much. In the last twenty-five years there’s been this eagerness to get away from it because it was horrendous in its effects. But that’s just mood. I mean that’s just emotion. And it can be argued that there are progressive effects in thinking that there’s such a thing as progress, and there is certainly no progressive effect in thinking there isn’t. Maybe we can never believe in it again, but I don’t think that’s a gain. Because the change is going to happen and we’ll be part of it and we’ll be affected by it.

You see the effects of Gorbachev, who’s the most poignant figure of the moment, and dig him while he lasts. I don’t think he’s going to last, because trying to sandwich fifty years of modernization that didn’t occur into the next five minutes is going to be very interesting to watch, and it’s absolutely not going to work. But you know, he would not be expected to be interested in post-Structuralism. It’s not on the agenda, as the Russians say. Where am I?

PS: The word “age”—the only timely and interesting association I could think of was failure. So that’s how I want to begin. It seems that we’re into a period where nothing works, including the idea that nothing works. And it’s so new we don’t know what it’s going to be like yet. And the idea of gassing around about a big abstract noun like the word “age” interests me because I can’t believe it won’t be a complete disaster. And so that’s very timely. And when I say the idea of “nothing works” won’t work, it’s that certain things will succeed but, except for the eventual cure for AIDS, nothing is going to help. I think it’s a time when ideology is dead and money is all fucked up—it’s the end of the decade when money has done a lot of interesting things, but it’s out of ideas and now it’s out of luck. I think of age as a synonym for failure in this culture. Even the phrase “age of” is a usage of despair. It means that everything is typical. If you’re a member of an age of something or other, then you’re typical of that age, which is a well-known bummer. And that’s the end of the thoughts I had on the subway.

LS: You’re welcome.

IS: When you first wanted to write about art, can you tell me about that?

PS: When I dropped out of college I worked my way east as a newspaper reporter, and I was a poet and became part of the New York poetry scene, and published a literary magazine called Mother. And that time, the mid ’60s, was the last high point for poetry. Poetry went into the toilet in the late ’60s. But you know at the time when poetry was dead, painting was dead too. Painting revived; poetry is still there. Same address, six feet straight down. And there are a lot of reasons for that, one reason being the rise of pop-song writing. The kids with poetic talent went into music.

But at that lime it was traditional for New York poets to write art criticism. I knew Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, and it was very Francophile, you know, Baudelaire and Apollinaire. Artnews at that time still reviewed every single show in New York. One sentence apiece. And so at three bucks a pop for the critic, I would review thirty shows a month, and I loved art and I was madly self-educating myself, and it was great discipline.

TME: And now?

PS: I’ve been trying to do it as well as I can. In a way I returned on the wings of the new situation. I was simply not going to get involved with anything institutional. I was not going to teach, I was not going to kowtow to theorists who didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about, and I was not going to be assigned some political loyalty, so that left me very cold and alone and I thought that was that. But the fault was this particular malaise of the ’70s. The ’70s was the tomorrow that wasn’t supposed to happen. With the atom bomb and so on, everyone had prudently planned to be dead before the ’70s. They had made no provision for this period. And then you were waking up in the morning. You were there and the sense was this limbo.

But then came the arrival of these fiery artists in the ’70s with Susan Rothenberg, Borofsky, Malcolm Morley, and others. And then here came the Europeans. The world opened up and it was possible for me to like not only financially to some extent—my wife’s still making most of the money, as she mostly has—but socially and culturally.

The ’80s at its best is like this sort of eruption, this catch-up, this joy at the fact that you’re still alive. And there’s a lot to be done in terms of neglected chores, and a lot of opportunity for jumping around and congratulating and hugging yourself. Even in neo-Expressionism—and I object to that term, too—but even in that art at its most vulgar Berlin and Lower East Side level, the idea that anxiety and angst and suffering are wonderful as unmistakable signs of life is like saying, The worse the pain, the more convincing the proof that you aren’t dead. And actually that style has continued in Berlin, because I think in that environment people will never quite get over the fact that they’re not dead.

Peter Schjeldahl, forty-five, is a poet whose books include Since 1964: New and Selected Poems. He is a former art critic for the Sunday New York Times and The Village Voice. His Eric Fischl will be published by Brant Publications.