PRINT September 1993

*ARTFORUM ’80 - ’93*

A Conversation

Ida Panicelli is currently the artistic director of the Centro per L'Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, in Prato, Italy, and a contributing editor to Artforum. She served as editor from March 1988 to June 1992.

ALESSANDRA MAMMÍ: Your arrival at Artforum, in 1988, coincided with a crisis in what people in Europe had been calling “the light ’80s.” At the end of the decade the idea of lightness, of decorative pleasure, of a free, sometimes unthinking use of the art of the past was called in question. It was just at this moment that you took over as the magazine’s editor. What did you find, and what did you decide to change?

IDA PANICELLI: I found a wonderful magazine, which had accurately borne witness to ’80s culture. My predecessor, Ingrid Sischy, had made an extraordinary turnabout in the magazine’s vision. She had opened it up to fields contiguous to art, such as film, television, and fashion—the latter well ahead of her time, back in ’82. She had probed the post-Modern to its core; there was little to add. But that, in any case, wasn’t my job: the times were changing, and artists were the first to see it.

That was why I decided, beginning with my first issue, that artists would be primary agents in the magazine’s dialogue. They are extraordinary vectors of the contemporary, and the only people really able to describe artmaking from within. My first issue, in March ’88, was entirely dedicated to artists’ projects, because I wanted to declare immediately that for me, Artforum belonged to artists.

AM: Yet you devoted the May ’88 issue to commemorating the 20th anniversary of the events of 1968. The birthday was much more important in Europe than in the U.S.: in Europe the press, the publishing industry, the entire culture mobilized to remember, reexamine, and rethink the meaning of that year, and of the historic changes it brought. What were you trying to do by remembering ’68 in an American magazine?

IP: It was an invitation to a comparison. I collaborated with Tom McEvilley on the project; together we chose ten works of art from 1968 from the magazine’s archives. We published them as remembrances of the real changes that 1968 had made, and that now, 20 years later, had come to be interpreted as history. The text that went with the project called for a sociocultural interpretation of 1968, but for me the issue did something more. It coincided in a deep way with my own story, my youth, my background. It was a sort of Proustian journey through my generation’s ideological and intellectual path, a mirror of all the failed utopias, the political goals not reached, the dreams crushed between the Russian tanks in Czechoslovakia and the Red Brigades in Italy.

AM: That commemoration of ’68 marked a change of course for Artforum. It was a declaration that from then on, history, politics, and art would be set side by side, in an increasingly close relationship.

IP: Yes, but not, I hope, dogmatically so. In October of the same year, for example, I ran a homage to Marcel Duchamp, a pivotal figure in the relationship between European and American art. But at the same time I knew that it was no longer enough to limit the exercise to a comparison between Europe and America. So in that issue, the Japanese artist Shinro Ohtake also paid tribute to Duchamp. After all, Duchamp’s influence on entire generations has been vast throughout the world. I would argue that his transformation of the politics of the object began a line of inquiry within Western art that only matured later—it subverted the Western view of history. As such, it’s part of the background for the contemporary understanding of the need to bear witness to the world’s many histories, which have their own demands and claims, their own legitimacy, their own need for recognition.

This was a thread through all my work at Artforum—and not just mine, for I owe a lot to the work I published. With his writings on globalism, for example, Tom McEvilley lucidly framed one of our culture’s most intricate problems. He understood that with the events symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, many different parts of the world had been brought closer—that we were all forced to come face to face with each other. There was an intellectual euphoria to this, reflected in significant exhibitions such as the Centre Pompidou’s “Magiciens de la terre,” in 1989. But there were also deep wounds, anxieties, and an extraordinary identity crisis, cutting across all of Western culture, and likewise reflected in exhibitions like “Magiciens de la terre.” Western thought has been seriously put to the test by the vital manifestations of third world cultures, which have until recently been utterly squeezed out of Eurocentric historiography. Texts like Tom’s, or like Homi Bhabha’s “Double Vision,” in January ’92, demonstrate the end of Modernism, and are milestones of post-Modernism: they advance a critical consciousness of a new relationship between the first world and the rest of the planet.

AM: These essays register social and historical changes in the Western world. But how were those changes reflected in the field of art, and how did Artforum address them?

IP: Three important lines of development emerged in the art of my years at Artforum. The first was the extraordinary production of women artists. The second was the emergence of artists of color and of artists working at the margins, far from the media and the market. Finally a rediscovery of political and social engagement cut across the avant-garde.

AM: Let’s start with the first point. What is different about the work of women artists of today compared to the feminist artists of the ’70s, who were fighting for equal opportunity?

IP: The struggle for equal opportunity has never lessened, from the ’70s through the ’90s, because it’s a struggle that isn’t over yet. But the artists I wanted to give the most attention to in Artforum seemed to me to be addressing issues that had previously received little notice within the international art structure. They spoke in the first person, sometimes noisily, telling their own stories, introducing their own biographies. They used bodies, including their own bodies, but they also went into territory that until then had been predominantly male. They offered new analyses of the system, of language, of art and museum structures. And they did all this outside the female or feminist ghetto, presenting themselves as full-blown individuals, citizens, artists. During my years as editor, women like Nancy Spero, Louise Bourgeois, and Barbara Kruger, for example, made fundamental contributions to Artforum, not only through pieces about their work but also through their own projects and writings.

AM: Did the same critical desire to register a new reality, a new awareness, inform your choices in terms of artists of color?

IP: The issues of women artists are one thing, those of complex cultures, encompassing both men and women, are another. We tried to give artists of color a platform—but in a humble spirit, minus the presumptions of the Western explorer or conqueror. We published the work of Cheri Samba well before he became an international phenomenon. We looked at other black artists too, both Americans and some from Africa, or Africans working in Europe. We tried to make space for people within what was once considered the center of cultural power. The number of artists who felt they needed to work ideologically and politically was growing noticeably during those years, from America to Europe, from Europe to the third world. And that brings me to the last cultural tendency of my years at Artforum: the concurrence of political and social upheaval with profound changes in the language of art. I was seeing the birth of a civic and social commitment, and I addressed these changes without burdening myself with any one preestablished ideology. In October ’91, we dedicated an issue to the homeless. This was only possible because enough artists were concerned with the problem to confront it in their work, to accept it as a social issue to which the art world had to respond.

AM: Europeans had a very different image of the American art of that period, and of America itself. In the ’80s, America seemed to be recovering its rather unsympathetic identity as a world power. In art, it successfully annulled the predominance of European painting in the early decade and reestablished its own leadership with a cold conceptualism. Yet while all this was happening, Artforum was looking at black and gay artists, and putting a censored self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe on the cover.

IP: I never paid attention to propaganda, I never just followed celebrities or the market. I tried to show reality. And in those years our reality was censorship, the National Endowment for the Arts’ withdrawal of funding for art dealing with political, social, or erotic subjects. Reality was the role of Senator Jesse Helms. It was the commitment to fight AIDS, and solidarity with people who had the virus. Reality was the misinformation about the Gulf War, and the works of the artists who bore witness to the horrors of all this demagogic propaganda. Artists needed a space in which to become spokespersons for the enormous social and political unease that spanned American society. Art is a field of free expression; how could we continue to write, to express ourselves, to put out a magazine, when that freedom was threatened, as it was in the U.S.? If artists’ freedom is in question, what else can there be to talk about? Between 1988 and 1992 I did all I could to put Artforum on the front lines along with the artists. I wanted the magazine not only to be made by artists but to be made for them.

Alessandra Mammí is a writer who lives in Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.