PRINT March 1992

Editor's Letter

Ida Panicelli

WE ALL SAW how inventively the art business of the ’80s fetishized the object as a commodity, taking a familiar process, and familiar prices, to ever more airy heights. We now are witnessing what may in part be a reaction: a new attention to the artist as subject, as the central agent in the activity of art, the driving force in the entire system. Yet how can we reclaim the artist as the art world’s key protagonist without falling into a regressive form of subjectivity, the artist-genius syndrome? And given this danger, should the artist accentuate his or her presence or practice a sort of invisibility, choose centrality or marginality, enter the discourse in the first person or efface the ego in anonymity? These questions obviously have more than one answer.

In this issue of Artforum we tackle the concept of identity. We know that the system is composed of subjects who practice, embody, theorize, or undergo different degrees of visibility. The case of Norman Lewis, for example, exemplifies an artist’s singular disappearance from the mainstream of art history; wondering why, Ann Gibson explores the artistic, social, and racial components of the 1940s New York moment in which Lewis was an acknowledged contender. And she suggests reasons—esthetic and otherwise—why his Abstract Expressionist peers went on to international success and he did not.

The practice of invisibility— adopted by some artists as a counterweight to the celebratory pomp of much of the ’80s—doesn’t necessarily presume neutrality. Take Jochen Gerz, who puts absence at the heart of his work, developing a strategy of elusiveness both in his art and in his persona. Yet Gerz also takes aim at concrete facts: social, historical, political. For Bojana Pejic, his work is marked by a minus sign. What remains for the observer is a trace, perhaps at the limits of visibility or even beyond them, that nevertheless speaks of the artist’s lucid, unsentimental journey.

Ethically and esthetically, Giulio Paolini takes a position of great tension: he presents the artist simultaneously inside and outside the scene. In this way he avoids self-referentiality, tying the artist’s mandate as an individual to a collective discourse. The founding principles of Paolini’s work deny the centrality of the artist, for he is paradoxically inclined toward his own progressive disappearance from the art system, which he thinks bankrupt.

To understand the formation of subjectivity—in this case female—Jana Sterbak examines what is constructed around the body. For Nancy Spector, Sterbak’s impossible dresses reveal a subterranean body in which the material and the cerebral are dialectically articulated, a body that becomes both sign and signified of a complex inner symbology. This issue also introduces a new column, “Secret Vices,” an opportunity for writers to discuss the often contentious meeting between inward desires and outward ideologies; the secret vice of the month is Manohla Dargis’ passion for motorcycle boots.

Finally, we are proud to publish an excerpt from the last chapter of David Wojnarowicz’s forthcoming book Memories That Smell like Gasoline. Wojnarowicz faces head-on the abandonment of the body, the sharpening of subjectivity, the attainment of the limits of the self. This is not an artistic strategy; the correlation of art and life is direct here. And we readers are drawn into the game as subjects, participants, confronted with the mysterious threshold from which the artist’s voice rises to reach us.

Ida Panicelli