PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

Ashley Bickerton

STEVE LAFRENIERE : In 1986 you were in the infamous neo-geo show at Sonnabend with Peter Halley, Meyer Vaisman, and Jeff Koons. It seemed as if the critics wanted to cast the four of you in total opposition to both neo-expressionism and the Pictures artists.

ASHLEY BICKERTON: That was probably all that united us. We were cool—or cold—and we were against “them.” The angry young men rebelling, and like all rebellions it was about taking control.

Ashley Bickerton and Roddy Bogawa in Bickerton’s studio, New York, 1988.

SL: Did the four of you have the idea of being shown together?

AB: No. It didn’t even have to be the four of us, it just turned out that way. That package was the result of quite a bit of maneuvering.

SL: What was your relationship with the others?

AB: I was probably the only one on speaking terms with all of them. Halley was looking at the situation from a much more ideological perspective. Vaisman was a great operator. And Jeff was always just Jeff, gone off and away into Jeffdom. To him we were all just a blur. [Laughs.]

SL: Would Haim Steinbach have made it into that group?

AB: Haim is actually a year older than Joseph Kosuth, who’d had his moment in art a full twenty years earlier. Haim is essentially a workhorse. He just went at it and went at it until he crossed the path of something that was erupting, and when that moment was over he didn’t adjust. Whereas someone like Jeff, and I hope myself too, we’re just making art.

SL: You make it sound as if that show were inevitable.

AB: Yes. What we were doing had fully crystallized in the adjunct fishbowl of the East Village, so it was just a question of how it was going to be transposed into the voracious and all-too-ready SoHo machinery. We’d all been in various group exhibitions, but the idea of putting on a whirligig–flashing lights–manifesto show was quite appealing to several big dealers: everyone from John Weber to Mary Boone to Ileana Sonnabend. At one point Mary was going to do it, but she was going to throw in Philip Taaffe and Ross Bleckner—the latter to contextualize him, with all his early East Village slummings.

SL: So who got the ball rolling?

AB: Meyer was an orchestrator of things at that point. He ran International With Monument and was pushing for the Sonnabend thing. His argument was somewhere on the side of angels and some kind of moral imperative. Which strikes me as really funny right now. But that’s how we saw it then. Ileana had essentially jumped a generation—she wasn’t mixed up with any of the neo-exers. So Sonnabend seemed like the right place.

SL: We hear so much about the gallerists during the ’80s. Did the critics wield much power at the time?

AB: Less so than before and after. It was really the collectors’ moment. The machine had been put in place by the neo-exers and was grinding along at full tilt by the time we got there in the late ’80s. But I have a problem with authority figures and never had the ease with critics that some artists did. Conversely, I never had a problem with dealers or collectors. I saw them as coconspirators.

SL: Why?

AB: Because the critical apparatus had become displaced by that machine, with the collectors waiting for us at one end and the dealers pushing us in at the other. As a critic, you could either get on the juggernaut or not, but there wasn’t much you could do to inflect things. The artists themselves were much less manipulative than the media gave them credit for, actually.

SL: How had criticism become so beside the point?

AB: The art wasn’t exactly inaccessible. It wasn’t nut jobs running around the Yucatán with mirrors and dirt, completely inexplicable to collectors, and dealers not knowing what to do with the work. Critics didn’t need to explain big things with four sides that fit onto an eight-foot-high wall. It wasn’t hard to understand. Especially with all the name-branding.

SL: Give me an example of the latter.

AB: Stella’s stripe paintings becoming logos for the corporation called Stella.

SL: But didn’t that begin to backfire pretty quickly?

AB: Yes, we got associated with and were made immobile by our own product.

Ashley Bickerton, Tormented Self-portrait (Susie at Arles), 1988, mixed media, 90 x 69 x 18".

SL: It’s interesting that collectors were wild over such theory-driven work. I can’t picture most of them poring avidly over October. Did you read it?

AB: We said we did. I carried around Foucault’s Power/Knowledge for years, and I did skim it. The words “power” and “knowledge” worked on my brain for sure, and then certain ideas were just in the air. We had access to them via osmosis. But I remember Sherrie Levine later telling me, “Whatever Douglas Crimp was saying, I couldn’t understand a word of it. But it seemed to work!”

SL: Your work was as interested in the “real” world as the mediated one, and didactic about things like ecology . . .

AB: I wasn’t so interested in ecology, really. I was just trying to make landscapes. But I thought, How the hell can you make landscapes now without asking the question of what’s happening to the earth now? So I looked into a lot of that radical Green shit, but a lot of other stuff too—geological time, plate tectonics. I was never trying to be some pontificating pulpit pounder. Unfortunately they thought I was. Peter Schjeldahl once wrote, “I no more want to hear Ashley Bickerton giving dissertations on industrial farming than I want to hear a bunch of farmers discussing Kiefer.”

SL: So to you it was a misreading.

AB: Well, if you look at the pieces now, none of them are at all didactic. I mean, there’s no doubt that I was reading tons and tons about farming techniques and wild gene pools and the mass production of chemicals—the whole infrastructure of our world was becoming kind of nightmarish. I was into all that, but it wasn’t what I was trying to get at as an artist. I was jabbering to Schjeldahl at the opening about all that stuff, and I should have been more careful using certain words. I think he interpreted it wrong, and it just snowballed.

SL: Or maybe he was just trying take you down a notch. Even in the very florid art world of the ’80s you were considered a bombastic figure.

AB: In Bali, where I now live, they think I’m nuts too. They look at my stuff and ask, “Is someone really going to buy this?”

Ashley Bickerton, Still Life (The Artist’s Studio After Braque), 1988, mixed media, 34 x 62 x 35 1/2".

SL: Well, the newer work is so grounded in personal symbolism. It’s a little mysterious.

AB: I don’t think the paintings are strange at all. When I saw the work from Matthew Barney’s first show in his studio I realized that it was incredibly logical, linear thinking to a point where it just went so far out. There was a clear line of thought behind it, yet it was so wonky. I took that to heart. In no way am I trying to shock.

SL: Did you take much notice of the generation that came up on your heels?

AB: There’s a lot of them I like and a lot of them I don’t. But that was quite a while ago. I don’t know who comes after them. John Currin’s work I love. He’s a good friend. We both love flesh. I really regret not buying a Lisa Yuskavage. I saw her work once at the Gramercy Art Fair, before she was at all visible. I didn’t have the cash. But I saw it right away; she was going to be known.

SL: You have a good eye like that?

AB: I’m all antennae. I remember early on Jeff was in a large show curated by Collins & Milazzo. Everyone was making an equal fuss over all these artists who’ve long since disappeared into the ether. And there was this Jeff Koons in the middle of the place, and I thought, Why doesn’t anybody see it? It was so vastly superior to everything around it that it was shocking.

SL: With twenty years’ perspective, what do you think your early work was about?

AB: My dad is an anthropological linguist, my mom is a behavioral psychologist. We grew up going all over, studying people and how they lived and spoke. Put it all together and there you have it. My work was culture.

SL: It was a complex amalgam of so many forms. I liked how personally felt it was.

AB: One of the things that probably hurt me in the end was overcomplexity. Oftentimes the work was too layered, a vomiting of concurrent ideas that came spewing out. The personal quality is probably because I’m just more self-involved than the next guy.

SL: Angrier, too.

AB: There’s always been that. When there isn’t, the work goes flat. When I returned to painting around 1994, I wanted to call the show “Back to the Wall.” It was one of the angriest shows I’ve done, and that’s when I work the best. I have to be cornered, cowering, and about to lose everything I have.

SL: In ’94 you’d been a bit off the radar for a while.

AB: Things changed during that time. I’d bought my apartment in the Village from a yuppie who was driven out by Black Monday. But it wasn’t until the Gulf War that I thought, “It’s over.” Sure enough, not a soul came into galleries after that. The ’80s had eaten too much, and too many people wanted to take them down. It was a purge, a catharsis in a way. I actually had shows in ’91 and ’93, but they were the least commented-on that I’d ever done. I think I got one photo in one magazine.

SL: Other than all the careening commerce, I remember the ’80s as a great time for the cross-fertilization of ideas. Or do you think that’s just another way to say “stealing”?

AB: When an artist steals from another artist—which artists should always do, of course—they shouldn’t take the look or the style. They should steal the motor. And one should always walk backward with a broom, sweeping up one’s footsteps.

SL: Whom did you steal from?

AB: I can’t remember. [Laughs.] Let’s put it this way—I never liked any artist who stole from me.

SL: Without exception?

AB: Well, no. God, he’ll kill me for saying it, but it’s kind of obvious: Damien Hirst. We’re good friends, so . . . But Damien took—very well, I think—from Jeff and me. He’s obviously a very talented guy, and I like talent. I like people who can just do stuff, and this guy can. Conjure out of the blue. We used to test each other—grab an orange and stick a flashlight in it, then turn it on. [Laughing.] It’s about seeing things upside down and backward and making something out of it quickly.

SL: He does have that fast-and-loose quality of your generation.

AB: He’s not like a specialist who’s just honed one thing over and over and over again. I mean, I can’t imagine that [Robert] Ryman is that talented. Maybe he is. But if so, I’d think he would get kind of bored.

SL: Do you think the big names of the ’80s would have thrived if they’d come of age in the ’70s?

AB: It would have been the same faces, just doing whatever was being done back then. In the ’70s, we would have all been running around the desert. It’s always the same force of will. You get around some of the really great artists, and you feel it. Talented people find ways to speak to their generation; willful people find ways to be heard.

SL: You’d been a surfer most of your life, then came to New York in your midtwenties to be an artist. Easy, right? [Laughs.]

AB: I moved to Hawaii when I was twelve. My brother and I never lost our English accents, yet we were speaking thick Hawaiian pidgin with the local boys. So I was used to different “languages.” But I’m not sure it hasn’t worked against me. The more stylish people out there tended to take the point of view, “Oh, a surfer. Dumb.” In actual fact there are two Nobel Prize–winning surfers, a space-walking surfer . . .

SL: Is surfing the reason you now live in Bali?

AB: It’s like Vail or Aspen or Telluride for surfing—one of the best places on earth to surf. Whereas in New York sport consisted of chain-smoking, Rolling Rocks, tequila shots, and a pool table. No thanks.

SL: I’ve always been curious about who Susie was. Her name appears in several of your pieces from the ’80s.

AB: That’s easy. We were all dealing with issues of product and consumption. Susie was just the “artist’s signature.” I chose a casual, female first name just because it wasn’t the name of the father—Picasso or Pollock.

Steve Lafreniere is a writer and independent curator based in New York.