PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

John Armleder

BOB NICKAS: You’ve been coming to the Basel art fair since the early ’70s, using your little corner spot to promote artists you like. And you do this through Ecart, which is more of a publishing activity than a gallery. So it’s a certain philosophy that’s led you to participate in something so commercial?

JOHN ARMLEDER: When Ecart started back in the ’70s, we had a gallery space in Geneva and an offset print shop, and we would publish books, which we brought to the book fair in Frankfurt. One day I thought, “Maybe we should go to the art fair in Basel,” and I asked for a table to show our books. In the beginning, a booth was beyond our budget. But we were also slightly reluctant to be part of this kind of art-market event.

BN: As the ’70s passed into the ’80s, did you notice an increased buzz around the fair?

JA: Of course. The audience radically changed at some point in the early ’80s. That transformation corresponded to the explosion of interest in “wild” painting, maybe around 1983, and to a period of rapid economic expansion. Before, the audience had been art lovers, people who knew the artists and galleries. There was a club of people who followed what was happening on a daily basis. There were only five big shows a year, so it was easy to do. Then, the coverage of art changed completely. Art became available to more people because that kind of money was suddenly available to them. Art was not just in a few specialized magazines, but in fashion magazines, sports magazines—and the people who read them did whatever those magazines suggested. And they came to the fair to buy things.

BN: Around this time you began to get more attention as an artist, and although you didn’t hang your own work on the wall in Basel, it was all about your endorsement.

JA: People would pay attention just because, as you say, I was sitting there. It’s true, and we always ended up selling works even though I certainly made no effort to sell anything. What happened in the ’80s is that people presumed that if I had an eye on someone they would become the next hot artist.

BN: This is where people saw Sylvie Fleury for the first time.

JA: That’s probably right—at the Basel art fair certainly. (She was showing at Philomene Magers in Germany and Postmasters in New York around that time.) We showed Karen Kilimnik probably for the first time in Basel, Christian Marclay, Thom Merrick, John Tremblay, and Pipilotti Rist early on, and Herbert Hamak. Everything of his was sold before the opening.

BN: Even if you’re thought of as an ’80s artist, your history goes back to collaborative Fluxus-oriented events in the late ’60s and early ’70s and to completely noncommercial situations mostly in and around Switzerland. Then you enter people’s consciousness in the mid-’80s, showing in galleries in New York, London, Paris, Munich. You showed at Barbara Gladstone in ’86 alongside the painters Helmut Federle and Olivier Mosset, also Swiss, and Gerwald Rockenschaub from Vienna. Neo-geo seemed to be in all the galleries at the time, but I knew when I saw something at Gladstone that it was in fashion and had been confirmed. So what was it like to already be in the stream, so to speak, to have a history, but only then have people take notice?

JA: What happened in my case is that, of course, I had been working before my “discovery”—and would go on working. I’ve always made different types of work in different formats. But in the mid-’80s, because of this neo-geo thing, that aspect of my work was picked up as a label for the period. So it has very little to do with me. It has to do with the times. Also this side of my work—abstract paintings and furniture sculpture—entered the market at that moment.

BN: Did collectors change?

JA: A lot of collectors like to enter the artist’s private world, purchasing their notebooks and so on; they feel that much closer to something unique. To them, having that kind of work gives them entry into the private confessions of the artist. There are people who have this relationship, which is cute in a way. But in the ’80s there was a more “open door” situation where collectors would say, “Look, I bought the work of so-and-so, and I have the biggest, or the one from Documenta.” I’m not being critical about this attitude. It’s a very human way to react. It’s always the case that the earlier collectors think that whatever is coming up is trivial, while the new ones don’t have any idea what happened before, or they don’t care. Critics and curators aren’t so different.

BN: I imagine that having come out of Fluxus and been around a bit, you didn’t see this time as your big chance, but rather as a moment in which chance played a big part.

JA: Certainly I have a different perspective from artists who emerged as instant success stories, which in my time didn’t really exist, or not on the same scale. And I was never ambitious in the sense of caring about these things. In a way, whatever happened happened. Many people thought about career strategies in those days, but I didn’t try to get into major collections or shows—it just happened. On the other hand, I totally benefited from this exposure. It’s something you can’t invent. And it gave me another reading of my own work.

BN: How did you see things differently?

JA: Well, it’s always the case that something you make can be understood as something else, that it becomes part of a period understood in terms of a group of people doing different things within certain shared parameters. There’s a look-alike situation. You realize that one is always a collective as much as an individual person. Once the exposure comes, you have a better sense of this, but you can also find new mind-sets or ways of working.

BN: And within that your perverse side might come into play. If there’s a misreading of what you’re doing, you’re likely to accept and even embrace that. Riff on another artist’s work if only because it was linked to yours purely based on appearance. That look-alike situation. This tendency for playful reaction seems very much your spirit and applies more to you than to anyone else I can think of in this period.

JA: The differences can seem quite obvious if we look at some of my colleagues, like Haim Steinbach, who had been working for a long time as well, or Jeff Koons, who is even more emblematic. Of course you can say, “Well, Andy Warhol traced the whole pattern and it’s just happening again.” It’s true. But what wasn’t foreseeable was that the pattern of the ’60s as it played out in the ’80s had nothing to do with the pattern drafted.

BN: How so?

JA: The big difference is that we had worn down one of the great experiences of that century, which was modernism. Maybe the label “postmodern” is overrated and doesn’t mean much anymore, but nevertheless modernism was available to be consumed. You could extract its side effects and replay them however you wanted. In the ’80s you would do that consciously. You were dealing with the fact that things had been made before. The ’60s in a festive way—and the ’70s in a more moralistic way—were a time when everyone was trying to make signature pieces, perfect inventions. That was gone in the ’80s. You were just doing your thing and using what was available, but you were still quoting the sources. The difference today, when suddenly the ’80s seem so “period,” is that although younger people are still lifting and recycling, they just don’t care about the sources. They don’t even know about the sources. So they have another kind of freedom. But suddenly, for the those who try and twist it—and that’s few of them, I would say—the ’80s are as distant as the ’60s and ’70s.

BN: That leaves plenty of room for “interpretation.”

JA: One of the nice misunderstandings about my paintings in the ’80s was that when people saw dots they thought, “Oh, this is what he does.” I knew very well that dots had been done by other people—as well as by me—before. And now people sometimes ask if I’m quoting Damien Hirst. I think that’s wonderful. It’s somewhat true. If they see it like that, it’s right.

BN: Do you remember first seeing Sherrie Levine’s work?

JA: Yes, in the late ’70s. At that time I had done all those little Constructivist drawings but had never shown them. And when I did my first paintings they were really van Doesburg look-alikes, and I felt very timid about showing them.

BN: Why?

JA: Because you couldn’t show work that had been already done by others and was part of history.

BN: And after Sherrie you thought it was possible?

JA: Exactly. It probably started earlier—don’t forget Sturtevant—but I think that in the ’80s there was a kind of liberation, and it was exciting. Another thing was that I’d always had great respect for and fascination with Andy Warhol. In a way, although his work is so ’60s, I always thought of it as a prediction of what was to come. Many of the artists we’re talking about were, consciously or not, fascinated by the position of Warhol. They all wanted to be an Andy Warhol. I really thought the ’80s were just an unfolding of the Warhol map.

In the ’80s you also had the feeling you could take art in your hands and put it somewhere else, next to something else, whatever you wanted. The process art, Minimal art, and Conceptual art of the ’60s and ’70s gave so much respect to the object itself, to all the mystery around the piece, which was just a development of what came before. But in the ’80s there was a kind of freedom where you could do wrong with artworks without being blamed.

BN: I remember shows back then that were presented in such calculated ways, like neo-Surrealism or a new this or that. It was as if people were competing to see who could be most transparent.

JA: One of the good things about the ’80s was that you had those very cheap strategies, which you couldn’t afford before—and maybe you can’t afford to have now. You could come up with the stupidest, cheapest trick, and it meant something in those days. What was surprising is that it performed. And since it performed, it was exciting. It was not so different from other times. It just took a very obvious turn because of the change in scale of the audience. You wouldn’t trick people in such a blatant way in the ’70s, and there weren’t so many people to trick. The trick was part of the accepted game in the ’80s, and that was a new thing. So maybe people played with that, consciously or unconsciously. Then it got slightly more diffused in the ’90s because the economy changed and it was worn out.

BN: I had a feeling that as everything sped up artists were left behind and one had this appetite, not for what was new so much as for what was next.

JA: If you look back at neo-geo, you see that it only lasted two years, really. At that time people picked up on my work—on only one aspect of my work—but I didn’t commit myself to that alone. Of course, it’s difficult for artists who are more committed to a style—and then it’s suddenly out of fashion: You have to wait until it comes back. It’s like somebody who only made miniskirts and had to wait until the miniskirt came back. He has a tough time in between.

BN: The ’80s started out in one place and really ended up somewhere else.

JA: When this neo-geo thing picked up, a lot of my very good artist friends from Germany didn’t speak to me anymore because they thought I had invented neo-geo to push them out of the market. It was tough because they couldn’t sell a painting. But remember, when they came along all the Conceptual artists lost their place. And now look; You have young artists doing conceptual art that’s as good as before, as healthy as before—and as successful as before.

BN: And now we have a lot of what I think of as pretty or kitschy academic painting.

JA: But it doesn’t mean there isn’t other painting now. And you know, it’s my view that there’s no painting that isn’t somewhat bad.

BN: You’re responsible for some of it . . . some of my favorite work of yours, actually.

JA: Mine, too.

Bob Nickas is a New York–based critic and the curator of more than forty exhibitions since 1984.