PRINT March 1996


The Art/Fashion Thing

WHEN I VISITED Andy Warhol’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1989 and filed my first feature-length article for Artforum, what impressed me as much as the work itself was the great comic spectacle of his museumification as it played itself out in the commentary surrounding the show. In the face of the most contemporary of contemporary artists, both detractors and advocates suddenly turned into 19th-century connoisseurs quibbling over the relative “quality” of the early versus the late work, trying to sort out the “real art” from the dissipated spectacle. At its worst the discussion degenerated into sheer parody: the show’s curator likened the camouflage paintings to Monet’s water lilies and even praised the Maos for their “symphonic complexity.” This isn’t to say there is no “art” in the record the great white specter left of his passage through the last half of this century, but rather that it was precisely the Warhol his institutional apologists were so anxious to save him from—the Warhol of Interview and Studio 54, the Warhol who turned this passage through the interlocking worlds of commerce, advertising, social life, glamour, and, in the largest sense, fashion into one long, ever-so-slightly-mediated semblance of itself—that would come to matter most. It was this Warhol, as much as the one on view at MoMA, that would leave a perplexing void not only in my own life but in those of a whole generation of artists then coming of age. And it is this Warhol that Bruce Hainley sees in this month’s cover story, “All the Rage,” as the “avuncular” enabler for the dozen artists he tracks along the fashion seam.

Everyone with half an eye on contemporary culture knows that fashion has lately caught art’s fancy. But confusion reigns over the nature and depth of the infatuation. Bruce knows what art sees in fashion: as the primary way we mediate the culture in which we live, registering its modulations on our very bodies, fashion can speak to our condition with an immediacy sometimes absent in art’s high-minded machinations. But does the flirtation promise more than a one-night stand? While the artists Bruce discusses begin with the garment, their projects inevitably open onto the larger mechanisms of glamour and seduction. Taking fashion “apart at its seams and its seeming,” these artists “think it through as a system . . . to reveal the elegant havoc of a mind presenting the self through apparel.” Yet like Warhol (and Bruce), they are motivated by an enabling ambivalence: they speak to the fashion victim in everyone, in the sometimes breathless diction of their own inspired victimage.

There is nothing particularly new in finding fashion in Artforum. The impulse to open our pages to visual and popular culture in the early ’80s began in paying close attention to what artists eager to go beyond the end-of-the-line maneuvers of Minimalism and the cerebral art-about-art tautologies of Conceptualism were looking at and thinking about. Fashion made its first appearance in Artforum as an unprivileged yet vital component of a broader, less hierarchized visual culture. The point has never been to “dignify” a dress by turning it into a work of art, nor to second-guess what does and doesn’t qualify as art. Instead, we look at fashion to see what it has to tell us—in this issue, through the lens of intrepid chronicler of style Bill Cunningham (profiled by Guy Trebay), through fashion photographer David Sims’ collaboration with designer Yohji Yamomoto, or through Darryl Turner’s interview with Costume Institute curator Richard Martin—as well as to understand a new wave of artists who take fashion as the explicit focus of their work. Is Cunningham our Atget? One of Bruce’s inspired victims our next Warhol? Beside the point (at least for now). Let’s follow the ferment; the rest, as they say, is art history. And art history never repeats itself.

Jack Bankowsky