PRINT September 1993

*ARTFORUM ’80 - ’93*

A Conversation

Ingrid Sischy is currently editor-in-chief of Interview and a photography critic for The New Yorker. She served as editor of Artforum from February 1980 to February 1988.

JACK BANKOWSKY: When you took over Artforum you were only 27. How were you received in the beginning?

INGRID SISCHY: I have no idea; I was too busy trying to do the job to worry about that kind of thing. When I was offered the position it felt like something hit me on the head. When fate knocks you on the head you go with it or you don’t. And I went with it. We had to move on the first issue so fast; by the time we finished it we were already late for the second one. So I didn’t have time to be influenced by how people were reacting to the first issue, to ask if they liked it or if they didn’t. I don’t think that way anyway.

JB: Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do with the magazine when you arrived?

IS: I had looked at Artforum and the other art magazines while I was in college and afterward; but only sporadically. So I had a certain sense of them. Sometimes you have a deeper overview of something when you don’t know it inside out. And when you’re thrown into something the way I was into Artforum, you get a sense of it really fast. I didn’t come in with any kind of program of “Artforum stood for this for the last ten years, so I’m going to stand for something else.” People would speak to me and say “I think this matters” or “I think that matters,” and basically I said yes or no based on how convincing they were and on intuition. I would ask, “What do you think should be written right now? What do you think matters? What do you think’s been forgotten right now that should be remembered or looked at in a new way?” And that’s how the work begins. You begin with one issue, and it grows to two, and then to three, and you start to build something.

From my first day there to my last, I considered it my job to have as many antennas up as possible, to be in touch enough to know what was out there—to receive the information and make the necessary decisions. I approach the editing of Interview, or my own writing, the same way. It’s about being as intelligently receptive as you can toward the moment that we’re living in, and that doesn’t necessarily mean only the stuff that’s going to last forever, The best way you can serve a magazine of the moment is to try and sort out the stuff that seems in some essential way to be significant and to represent the present.

JB: How did you start?

IS: I sat down with [Associate Publisher] Amy Baker, [Publisher] Anthony Korner, and [Contributing Editor] Germano Celant, who we’d just appointed, and we said, “Okay, what represents this moment?” It was late 1979. And we came up with the idea of art made especially for the reader, which came out of the background that Amy and I shared from Printed Matter. So we commissioned an entire issue of artists’ projects. That’s really where the whole artists’-project thing began. It felt in sync with what had been going on in the immediately preceding years, when so many great artists were involved with making things that reached out into the world, and not just for the galleries.

JB: Your tenure corresponded almost exactly to the ’80s—’80 to ’88. I remember an editorial that you cowrote with Germano Celant in February 1982, in which you remarked that “current development in visual thinking is more likely to be rooted in, let’s say, a mannered Pop, than in Expressionism.” I read that remark as a suggestion that the art that counted was going to be inflected by mass media. Yet at the time you were, I think, identified somewhat with neo-Expressionism.

IS: Not really; we were identified with the opening up of things generally—for instance the question of Europe. Because I’m an outsider—I’m not American, I’m from South Africa, and I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland—the question that arose immediately was: “Is it seriously possible to create a contemporary art magazine focused purely on America?” I just knew that was a ludicrous notion. The only way any of us were ever going to know anything more, rather than just staying in this tiny sphere, was to blast the thing open. The North American art magazines were not covering enough of what was happening in art.

Of course we immediately began to hear about neo-Expressionism from correspondents like Wolfgang Faust in Berlin and Bazon Brock in Wuppertal, and it sounded interesting. So of course we covered it, just as we covered Colab in New York and neo-Surrealism a year later, and the Italian artists, like Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, and the then-young American painters such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Eric Fischl. The timing was right for looking at Europe; the American audience hadn’t been ready for it until then, though some of the art that we ended up paying attention to should really have been covered in the ’60s. But I think we did just as much about other developments as about neo-Expressionism. Besides, as I remember it, in the editorial you referred to, Germano and I were making a point about the influence of Pop art on much of the so-called neo-Expressionism. We never championed any one thing. We championed paying attention to all these multiperspectives and multithings that were happening, because in some way they all seemed to represent what was unfolding as post-Modernism.

JB: Well, I agree that the mix was heterogeneous. And Carlo McCormick’s article “Poptometry,” a couple of years later, did deal with the non-Expressionist side of what was happening in New York art at the time. But you didn’t pick up much on the “pictures” artists, or rather on their progeny—the “infotainment” gang, “neo-geo,” the “photo-object” people. The casual observer flipping through your ten years at Artforum and the same years at, say, Flash Art might say “Oh, interesting, Ingrid passed a bit on this moment.” I’m curious whether that was intentional.

IS: Maybe we should go into “Neo-Geo” later since it’s a bit of a different subject. In terms of the “pictures” artists, we were paying attention to them in various ways. For instance, there was Thomas Lawson’s writing, which addressed the larger issue of representation and the media. A lot of the seeds of the ideas you’re talking about were covered during their very early years in his articles. Barbara Kruger, who I asked to do a television column every month, also went into these issues, which were central to her art. And we paid a good deal of attention to Sherrie Levine, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, etc.

JB: What about the second generation—Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe, Alan Belcher, Ashley Bickerton, Joel Otterness, Haim Steinbach, etc.?

IS: We did monographs on some of them and included others in larger group articles or covered them in reviews. As for the term “photo-object,” I do think one thing that was so interesting in the early ’80s was how we saw just how symbiotic the relationship between painting and photography had become. Whether it was by combining photography and painting, like Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, and Sigmar Polke (and of course Chuck Close, who, like all of these artists, had been working in this vein for some time), or whether one is talking about all of the then new work that focused on issues of representation, clearly the photographic was not to be limited in the same old way. It was a bit after I left Artforum that the idea of the “photo-object” really got heavy. I often have a problem with that idea. To me one of the great beauties of photography is that it isn’t a one-of-a-kind thing; and I think that often the whole idea of photography and “objecthood” has to do with marketing. Those early, very powerful gestures of appropriation by Levine are some of the most radical things I’ve ever seen and they were small, modest works. Among everything else that those reproductions addressed were critical questions that have precisely to do with these very same issues of marketing and labeling.

JB: Well, yes, Levine’s gesture was more decisive; the so-called “photo object” as I was referring to it was an odd little moment very local to New York at that time—a hybrid twist that played with the photograph’s double status as a singular print and as a multiple by turning the photo into an object in an almost slapstick manner—treating it as a component in an overproduced display or violating it by hammering nails into it, stretching it, etc. It did have a lot to do with the “market,” but I think, like the Levines, in a partly self-conscious way. But I didn’t want to privilege this one moment; let’s change gear for a minute. A lot of people seem to feel an enormous nostalgia for Artforum's “glory days” of the mid to late ’60s. The summer-of-’67 issue, for example, included Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” an installment of Robert Morris’ “Notes on Sculpture,” a piece by Sol LeWitt, and a piece by Robert Smithson. When you look back at your own tenure, do you remember one or a couple of issues that remain exemplary in your mind—an ideal issue?

IS: No, I was fully involved with each of them, they each had something they were doing. To answer your question, in general, the projects are something I’m very thrilled we created, and the same goes for the international reviews section. But it’s not my way to point to a single issue and go “My God, we got it there.” I do think many articles we did caught something monumental about the time.

JB: I was going to ask you if you could think of articles from your tenure that might, like “Art and Objecthood” from Phil Leider’s period, become part of the art-historical canon. I was thinking of a pair of pieces by Thierry de Duve.

IS: Sure, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?” was one of them.

JB: I think people are only just assimilating his remarks in those articles in the past few years.

IS: You brought up Peter Halley and “Neo-Geo” earlier. Well, one of the reasons we published “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?” was that it provided a context for this kind of work. I’m not an art historian, but I’ve always believed that each present decides for itself what matters about the past—and we returned to the past by bringing up stuff that seemed very relevant to us.

Other articles, off the top of my head: Edit deAk’s article on Francesco Clemente, “A Chameleon in a State of Grace”; Thomas McEvilley’s “‘Primitivism’” article, which I think opened up a whole debate on what we mean by that word; Rene Ricard’s “Pledge of Allegiance”; Carter Ratcliff’s series on the picturesque; Donald Kuspit’s article on Louise Bourgeois; Lisa Liebmann’s on the Rococo-ness of that moment; and Pierre Schneider on the Giacomettis. Germano’s Futurist and arte povera pieces were also high points. And Harald Szeemann’s article on Picabia came at a great moment, because Duchamp had been the major figure for the ’70s artists, and here was Harry showing how important Picabia was for ’80s painters. But I could go on and on.

JB: When people look back to those influential years of the ’60s, they seem to remember the magazine as the undisputed primary organ of art criticism at the time. It’s easy to define what the role of Artforum was at that juncture. When you think of your tenure, how would you characterize the role Artforum was playing in terms of the discussion around contemporary art and culture?

IS: First of all, I think it’s more appropriate for others to answer that question. Besides, it’s too soon for me to look back at my time there, because what we were talking about then is still what you’re talking about now. There isn’t that kind of distance yet. By the way, I think there was less consciousness in the ’60s about the options that were being missed; it was thought that to cover American art—and mostly by white males at that—was enough. Well, come on: let’s look at what wasn’t being covered in the ’60s.

JB: You also initiated the columns section, which had a sociological slant. In the ’60s the magazine was all about art criticism. There would never have been an article on break dancing in the old Artforum.

IS: A significant group of artists, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, came out of ’80s pop culture, and obviously felt strong affiliations with its music and its issues. We recognized that, and wanted to show a context. Break dancing, hip-hop, rap—they were vital to cover. But I don’t know if you’re being fair to the ’60s Artforum, which would certainly have run an article on Happenings, say.

JB: But the Happenings were initiated somewhat under the sign of art. They were an alternative activity, but an alternative “art” activity. These other phenomena are different. For me this shift is your signature, so I’m surprised you resist.

IS: I’m not resisting; I want to make it clear that all this had to do with art in some way. And what I would say about this interest in the larger culture is that it wasn’t new. I believed it is the job of an art magazine to publish not only serious art criticism but also the art criticism that is most in touch with the moment, not to mention writing and pieces that are about the visual culture at large. But that’s an old idea; that’s what the Futurists are about, that’s what the Dadaists were about. You could say maybe that Futurism soared under the rubric of art, but the knowledge that the Futurists had that made them pay attention to the movies or to cars, say, or that the Dadaists had to pay attention to club culture, is the knowledge of art, because artists don’t just sit in a studio.

JB: That’s true, but I suspect the old Artforum wouldn’t have absorbed this information until it was filtered through art—until, for example, the Dadaists borrowed from club culture. Whereas when you opened the Sischy Artforum to the column section, you would confront phenomena that weren’t filtered though fine art.

IS: This material mattered because these seemed to be things that artists cared a lot about and were looking at. I ran an advertising column not only because what was going on visually in advertising at the time was amazing, and because the way advertising uses art is amazing, but also because most of the young artists I knew were looking at ads. I mean now we see them in a retrospective of Richard Prince’s work—his works about Marlboro ads, right? The same went for Lisa Liebmann’s column on fashions and Barbara’s on TV. Think of how many artists have looked at television and how this has affected art at the end of the 20th century. We see the concentrated square—not to mention the sense of space and light that comes directly from television in so much contemporary painting. Surely we’re interested not only in paintings on a wall or sculptures on a pedestal, we’re interested in the contemporary world around us and how it feeds into art, and how art feeds into it. My clues always came from artists.

JB: Were there any built-in frustrations for you at Artforum? I’m thinking of the quote in Janet Malcolm’s profile of you in The New Yorker where you said “I’ve never in my life been a reader,” and “If I wasn’t forced to edit them I probably wouldn’t read some of the things we published.”

IS: That was part of a much larger conversation, to do with this reputation art criticism has of being unreadable. On the one hand I wasn’t going to go along with this entirely, on the other hand I wasn’t going to bullshit: many people who love reading and literature tell you and me that most art writing is unbearable. And I wouldn’t, to this day, say “Hey, it’s all a pleasure.” But many people who work and think visually are not necessarily extraordinary writers. I always think of Hegel as the model for this problem. A lot of people say Hegel is difficult to understand. Had Hegel written in pretty literary sentences, he couldn’t have achieved what he did. I was very honest with Janet about the fact that if it hadn’t been my job I probably wouldn’t have read some of those articles. I would probably have skimmed them in the same way that, when I was a student, I Zenned into Hegel; some art writing is not a pleasure, so you kind of Zen into the meanings if you’re not the editor and in part responsible for making sure that the meanings are evident.

JB: Hegel is your analogy for the kind of mandarin, specialized discourse that can certainly appear in art magazines. But there were also the more belletristic pieces you cited as a point of contrast. And then there’s another kind of writing altogether that you seem to have had a reputation for. A couple of descriptions of the Artforum of your time occur to me: Robert Pincus-Witten has said that Artforum stopped being the primary place for art criticism but became a kind of “artwork” in itself, and Carter Ratcliff has said that your ideal in art writing is “declamatory and gestural,” rather than the well-wrought essay. (This wasn’t, by the way, an unappreciative remark; he was trying to be descriptive.) Then Barbara Rose, interviewed in the same Janet Malcolm article, makes a remark about “some strange kind of writing but not art criticism.” You yourself acknowledged that the magazine was “uneasy inside itself” in terms of the writing styles it represented. You were pointing out that there were all kinds of writing inside the magazine at the same time. I suppose de Duve was of the Hegel model, in the loosest sense—

IS: And Carlo McCormick was something else altogether.

JB: Maybe Carlo was an example of the kind of writer they were trying to get at, or Ricard. But what were you looking for in terms of writing? What kind of art writing attracts you?

IS: People who can best express their subject, which means a lot of different styles. It’s like saying, What attracts you about painting? “Oh, I just like red paintings” wouldn’t be a great answer. An answer might be, “Paintings that have an identity, that can express themselves, that are about something.” Obviously to me Thierry’s dourness was perfect for his serious kind of art history. Rene Ricard’s intuitive, smart, Oscar Wilde-like, incredibly sophisticated use of language and his way of operating in the world were perfect for him too. Barbara Rose obviously has an “idea” of what art writing should be. They say the lucky ones are those who have the answer. But the question is complicated and fortunately there is more than one answer.

JB: Do you feel that Artforum or Interview is a more natural venue for your sensibility?

IS: I think they’re both natural. Artforum was right for then, and Interview feels right for now. In terms of art, the thing that was very exciting about the period when I was at Artforum was that the world got bigger. That sense of “we in America are the only ones” and that limited, cliquey sense of the avant-garde burst open. All those prohibitions against painting were thrown out the window at the same time that photography and representation started to emerge as a major subjects of art. And then there was the larger field of photography—Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Joel-Peter Witkin. . . . Suddenly, art was getting more attention in the larger world, and art and artists were suddenly valued. When people in the ’80s would say, “I think it’s terrible that a painting costs so much,” my answer was always, “I can’t think of a better idea for a culture to have than the idea that art is priceless,” That whole idea that artists are better when they’re starving in a garret is nonsense. All of those stigmas about how artists are supposed to be, and how much they’re supposed to earn, seem to me unfortunate because they’re about trying to control artists. When people are ambivalent about something, or don’t understand it, they put it down, and a lot of the media’s exultations about “Art Market Crashes” had to do with this. I mean, when the so-called art-market crash happened, everything else was going into recession as well.

Something else that was happening in a megaway in ’80s art, and that is missed when people only talk about that decade in that easy, clichéd, Wall Street way, was a major opening up of attitudes about the body and about sex and sexual politics. Think of Mapplethorpe again—or of Fischl, Jenny Holzer, or Sherman for that matter. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who felt most strongly about opening things up are now dead, because of AIDS, and the energy of a lot of the others was sapped in the decade’s second half. My own decision to leave Artforum, in ’88 (though I announced my departure the previous year), had a lot to do with the sense of loss that was all around me, and the sense of change I felt in the air. Ross Bleckner’s paintings of the time sum up what I mean. Look at the number of imaginative, visionary people we lost—let alone people in general—all that bang, gone. There was so much loss, and there has continued to be so much of it, that for my own personal work I wanted to set aside a time in which I could begin to see if I could somehow write something about that. I took a good eight or ten months for that before I threw myself back into magazines, as a writer for The New Yorker and as the editor of Interview.

When I look back at the ’80s, I don’t see “Oh, the inflation decade.” But Jack, as you know that’s become the opinion of the moment. Each decade reacts against the one before, so now everyone’s ’80s-bashing. But when I look at the period I see almost a renaissance decade in which horizons were opened, borders went down, a consciousness that a multiplicity of things could happen at the same time was born. And then I see a certain moment in this renaissance, a turning point.

I loved working for Artforum so much that it would have been easy to stay there the rest of my life, but I’ve always felt that my work was about building bridges, not staying on top of mountains. It was time to keep going. Because art and the world change, one’s sense of what is interesting and possible to do in that territory where they converge changes too.