PRINT February 2001


THE EXHIBITION NOW titled “Public Offerings” has undergone a lengthy and complicated gestation. The idea of exploring the impact of art schools on the production of art in Southern California first came to LA MOCA curator Paul Schimmel when a series of ever more derisory articles looking at the phenomenon—Dennis Cooper’s “Too Cool for School” in Spin (July 1997), Andrew Hultkrans’s “Surf and Turf” in these pages (Summer 1998), and Deborah Solomon’s New York Times Magazine piece “How to Succeed in Art” (June 1999)—began to appear. To endow the proceedings with the requisite critical breadth, Schimmel brought an authority on board: Howard Singerman, author of Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University (University of California Press, 1999). However, as the curators increasingly discerned analogies between LA and a range of other “art centers,” the initially local (and largely sociological) focus started to blur, and the scope expanded: First there was London, then Tokyo, Berlin, Hamburg—and let’s not forget New York. As it stands now, “Public Offerings” will include some 100 works by 25 artists from these cities, all young, gifted, and internationally known, all enjoying careers that can be seen as following a very similar, very ’90s arc. Artists like Jason Rhoades, Laura Owens, Matthew Barney, Sarah Lucas, and Takashi Murakami “took off” during or right after school with their very first shows. Hence the cheeky Wall Street IPO conceit: Central to “Public Offerings” is the concept of “formative works,” which, as Schimmel puts it in the catalogue introduction, “offer insight into the making of the artist in its most fragile moment.” Many of these debut shows will be reproduced in their entirety when “Public Offerings” opens in April, offering us the first comprehensive overview of the decade just passed. Right before Christmas I sat down with Paul Schimmel in his MOCA office to discuss the show; Howard Singerman joined us by speakerphone from Virginia.

Jan Tumlir

Jan Tumlir: I just read Howard’s piece for the catalogue (“From My Institution to Yours”), and it occurred to me that citing Mike Kelley at the start of the essay serves to establish a link between “Public Offerings” and “Helter Skelter,” where Mike was clearly an artistic presence. Here he could be considered present in absentia, as a teacher perhaps—is this a fair reading?

HOWARD SINGERMAN: Well, I’ll let Paul talk more about the relationship between “Public Offerings” and “Helter Skelter,” but Mike was clearly one of the crucial members of a newly emergent art scene in Los Angeles. His decision to stay put rather than go off to New York like David Salle or Matt Mullican or Eric Fischl or other CalArts graduates marks a kind of shift. And then, you know, his appearance in my essay also had to do with the fact that he came up with the perfect title.

PAUL SCHIMMEL: I feel this exhibition has very little to do with “Helter Skelter” and a lot more to do with thinking that goes back to my more historical exhibitions, “The Interpretive Link: Abstract Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism” or “Hand-Painted Pop.” Both dealt with issues of formative work and work that occupies an in-between space, at the end of one thing but before the world has recognized the beginning of something else. That said, obviously I’m looking at art that was made at the same time as “Helter Skelter.” These artists were very much on the scene and aware of that exhibition.

HS: Unlike “Helter Skelter,” “Public Offerings” is not a survey of the present; it’s a historical survey, if you will, of the “just past.” It wants a certain kind of distance and, for Paul, that distance is historical and tied to his earlier historical exhibitions. For me, the distance is sociological, in that I want to look at what these works can tell us about the context in which artists produced work and became visible in the recent past.

JT: Paul, you emphasize the impact of Conceptual, performance, and process-based art on the generation of the early ’90s, which might have something to do with the art-school question. These various movements are being forwarded, obviously, by a certain generation of teachers.

PS: There is always a tendency for a generation to break with the preceding one, so it’s not surprising that much of the “impact” the painting of the first half of the ’80s had internationally is of little to no importance to the generation of the ’90s, and that, in fact, they would skip that generation and go back one more to the ’70s. And, of course, that’s partially in the hands of the teachers. But I also think there is a lot more left unsaid with Conceptualism, performance-based art, and Minimalism; there’s a lot more that you can pick up and work with.

HS: The other thing, I think, is that painters, particularly successful painters from the ’80s, didn’t necessarily have to find themselves back teaching at art schools. So it’s those other ways of working in the ’80s—photographic, Conceptual, or in that vein—that stay in school, if you will. As you know from the art schools in LA, there are three or four different generations wandering the halls. I mean, Baldessari is still there, and in England, Jon Thompson, who is I think an almost exact contemporary of Baldessari, was teaching at Goldsmiths along with Michael Craig-Martin when Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume were there.

JT: Considering all the shifts in focus “Public Offerings” has seen, just how much of the original art-school theme remains? And how exactly is it being addressed in the exhibition?

HS: Well, first, I’d like to think of it as a developing focus rather than a shifting one. When Paul asked me to work on the catalogue, the show had the working title “Global Academy,” and it took LA and London as its models. What emerged from our conversations with the catalogue’s writers and others was that while all the artists in the cities represented had, indeed, come young and quickly out of degree-granting art schools or university departments, the roles that the institutions played in each local scene were quite different. In LA and maybe London, the schools were, perhaps, determinant in the last instance (as Althusser might say). In New York or Tokyo or Berlin, the stories read somewhat differently, at least as the catalogue’s authors address them. There, youth culture or the gallery system and the recession of the early ’90s as they leaned together on the schools and their graduates worked to shape the moment.

JT: That goes back to the question of the economy.

PS: These things come in cycles. It seems at this moment that things are completely overheated with the auction houses, with the reckless abandonment of the ideas that underpin works of art and the absolute embrace of their monetary power. It makes many feel that we’re at the end of a ten-year cycle, and a lot of what came crashing down in the late ’80s is on the verge of crashing again. And you could say, well, that’s a terrible thing, this is the end of another great period, but it’s also the best of times; what the young artists in the early ’90s had before them was clear-cut.

HS: For many people certain artists in the exhibition—Damien Hirst or Matthew Barney—stand for precisely the excesses of the market. That is, they occupy the position of, say, Salle and Schnabel a decade ago. But in the same way that David and Julian didn’t arrive fully grown from the head of Zeus, they didn’t come into a very healthy market. In fact, there was a moment in their careers—the first moment of their careers in 1990 or ’91—when it wasn’t clear whether there was a market at all for their work.

PS: For me, the show is much more about a kind of idealism that could only happen after the elimination of the commercial construct that constituted the art world of the late ’80s. It was really an act of faith in their own image, in their beliefs, in their artistic ideals, that allowed them to go forward because, by every indication, it was over! I mean, this wasn’t like coming out of an art school in 1984 or ’85 when you felt it was better to be an artist than a rock star.

JT: Could you say that there’s almost a staged opposition between the curatorial thrust of the show and the catalogue essays that were contracted out to critics who might not be all that friendly to some of the works you’ve selected?

HS: I would say it was not that the catalogue and the exhibition were put in direct opposition but that the works are both exemplary and symptomatic. They are exemplary both of this period and of these phenomena that the catalogue wants to look at, and they’re symptomatic—that is, one can read through them the context, or contexts, out of which they come.

JT: Well, even the use of those two terms, exemplary and symptomatic, shies away from the question of value or quality with regard to the judgment of the works themselves.

PS: I was choosing works of art as much as I was choosing artists themselves. The works are all made in a very particular context: right after school, or within a couple of years. I felt my biggest responsibility was the task of being first up to take a historical look, a revisionist look, at this period that is now ten years old. And I do feel that my responsibility was to examine this period and try to make judgments about those artists and works that were really of lasting importance and merit. I mean, of course, names like Barney and Hirst are obvious, but I'm not sure that it’s the same for Toba Khedoori or Manfred Pernice or Tuyoshi Ozawa or Michael Joaquin Grey. I was interested in not just making the “Dream Team.”

HS: Along with “formative,” a word that comes up a lot in the exhibition’s literature is “breakthrough.” And in this last decade and a half or so, what the word has meant concerns not only the space within an individual artist’s oeuvre but also the space between the art school and the increasingly cosmopolitan and knit-together art world. So, there’s a geographical breaking as well. It’s formative within the artist’s own practice, but it also marks a number of territorial shifts, or category shifts, from the local to the global or international, from an essentially private or not-yet-named practice to a public practice. And, in our narrative, the art school is the crucial switching station for that. It is, to borrow a phrase from Renée Green, a kind of import/export site.

JT: Again, that sounds to me like an explicitly sociological take on the ’90s, and there are all kinds of sociological or economic reasons we could give for this acceleration of the cycling process of artists through art schools and the galleries. But, I’m wondering, how else can one define this quickening pace? If younger artists were more successful in the ’90s because they were making the most interesting works, statements, or whatever, how else would you go about explaining this phenomenon? You started to talk about globalization, which is of course related to the explosion of information technology, an area in which youth has a certain expertise.

HS: Well, because these artists are working in places like LA or London or Berlin or Tokyo, their purview is much more quickly international. I don’t even mean their career, I mean their interests. They travel more frequently; there is a broader exchange of images and language and discourse. And there’s a way in which they’ve seen more.

PS: And really, for many of these artists, the usual trajectory of two or three or four shows within your community of artists and then, in the case of Los Angeles, the next step of going to New York, and from there Europe—all that’s been thrown out the window. Now you go from LA to your next show in Berlin, and from Berlin back to London, and you wait five more years before your next show in LA. While you may call this your home, the art world itself is by no means confined to that home. In fact, for many of the artists of this generation, their entrance into the art world was frankly global from the get-go.

JT: How do these ideas about globalization and travel and exposure to more and more information square with the notion of “staying put” after art school that I think both of you were stressing?

HS: One of the things that the metaphor of the breakthrough allows for is a kind of doubly articulated work. What I find really attractive about, say, Sarah Lucas’s work is how British it seems, because the kinds of clichés she draws on are quite specific and local, even though where she plies them, if you will, is within an international or a cosmopolitan art world. The same is true with Murakami’s interest in manga and anime. Indeed, one of the ways popular culture gets taken up in this work is in the particular, even as the work itself becomes situated within the cosmopolitanized, globalized art world. As Lane Relyea says in his essay, to have called someone like Jay McCafferty an LA artist in 1976 is very different from calling Jason Rhoades an LA artist in 1992. In the mid-’70s, the term had a peculiar content to it that also kept it provincial, I would say, rather than local. Whereas for Rhoades, it’s both a kind of address and a link to a particular set of friends, a community, and an art world.

JT: Even in relation to a show like, again, “Helter Skelter,” you could bring up that theory of sweet neglect to explain some of that work. There was no existing infrastructure to accommodate an emergent artist generation. There were no venues for this type of work, so artists were left to pursue their own idiosyncratic interests, and from that, there might develop a kind of vernacular or regional style. But today it’s almost impossible, I think, to talk in these terms.

PS: The phrase “sweet neglect” is something Lari Pittman has used on a regular basis, and I rather agree that the situations that existed in the late ’70s and early ’80s that shaped his formative work are very different from those faced by the generation of Sharon Lockhart and Jason Rhoades. Locally, if there’s any sort of sweet neglect, it’s the sweet neglect of these artists toward the LA art scene that nurtured them, and in fact, most of them are more than happy to stick up their middle finger and walk away from it all, whereas for someone like Lari, being accepted here is still of vital importance.

HS: When I go out to LA now I don’t see it as being neglected at all. In fact, when I go to New York what I see is art from LA and London. So, like Paul was saying, that space is not available currently in Los Angeles, the space of being left alone. Now, having said that, one curiously precarious phenomenon that I’ve begun to notice and tab to younger artists about in Los Angeles is what it means to have a gallery in LA, a gallery in Berlin, and a gallery in New York and still be $75,000 in debt from student loans—art-school tuitions and their financing are the same as those of law or medical school. It’s professional training. It’s a very curious twist on the avarice of artists and the market.