PRINT April 2003


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—it was a time to eat salad with your fingers. In 1981, INGRID SISCHY, ANTHONY KORNER, and AMY BAKER SANDBACK, the editor and publishers of Artforum, interviewed me for the job of managing editor. They hired another candidate, but we liked each other, and Ingrid soon invited me to dinner. The guests included the film critic David Denby and an apparently wasted Artforum writer who used his fingers to eat oil-and-vinegar-soaked lettuce that drooled down his chin. (“Isn’t he fabulous?” said Ingrid.) Outside afterward Denby huffed, “What is Ingrid coming to! The people she hangs out with!” A week or two later Ingrid’s new managing editor quit, and she offered me the job. I took it right away.

Artforum in the ’80s proved to be more complicated and intense than sedate talk allows—more demanding, challenging, infuriating, and comical, intellectually, professionally, personally. I stayed the decade, coming to value that messy eater enormously and getting an education for which I will always be grateful.

David Frankel

DAVID FRANKEL: Ingrid, you came to Artforum through Amy, as I recall—

INGRID SISCHY: Absolutely.

DF: This was before I got there. Tony and Amy had acquired the magazine, and Amy recommended that you two talk.

AMY BAKER SANDBACK: Ingrid and I had a shared history at Printed Matter, the artist’s-book project, which is still going strong. Ingrid had been the director and I the president, and somehow she seemed a perfect choice. Ingrid had never edited a magazine. Tony had never published one.

DF: And you had never produced one.

ABS: Right, we were an ideal team. We didn’t know any of the things we should have, so we were fearless. I think the artist’s-book background was positive in that we didn’t see the magazine in a conventional sense, as simply text illustrated with pictures.

ANTHONY KORNER: I remember discussing with you and Ingrid what the dream magazine might be: accessible, international, and with a spectrum of specific topics. It was very exciting.

DF: Coming from Printed Matter, Ingrid, did you feel that the ideas embedded in artist’s books in the ’70s—ideas of multiply reproduced, easily available, inexpensive art—influenced what you were doing?

IS: Actually, at the point we’re talking about I was at the Museum of Modern Art in the Department of Photography. John Szarkowski, the director of the department, had invited me to be that year’s NEA curatorial fellow. But, yes, the paradigm of artist’s books was an immediate route for the first issue we did together at Artforum [February 1980]. But there wasn’t some plodding über-plan. People perhaps take the first issue oversymbolically; after you’ve been in magazines for a while, you realize that the horror is there’s always another issue . . . [Laughter.] In this case we had ten days to do the whole thing. The old regime was not happy about us, so we were pretty much on our own.

DF: So the writers weren’t writing—

IS: The writers probably would have been writing, but we didn’t know the writers, or have time to get to know them. So the route through artist’s books was partly practical, but also it was intellectually the right gate to open. It was the fastest way to say, “A page can be as important a space as a canvas or as a wall in a museum or gallery.” We had witnessed the late ’60s and ’70s, when so many of the breakthroughs had come out of searches for alternatives to galleries, and we believed that a magazine not only could describe what was going on but could be a vehicle for new art.

The artists responded so positively to the idea of creating special projects, even though we could give them barely any time—

ABS: There was only one outright rejection, which was remarkable, since many of the positive responses were to cold calls made to very busy artists.

IS: Basically we said, “Well, who do we want?” And then, “Of them, who do you know?” Or “Who do I know?” Or “None of us knows so-and-so; who’ll make that call?” And then we got on the phone and did it.

AK: It was a reach—and the reach was international. That was a message from the start.

ABS: We all felt the art world had changed, and it was important to reflect a new focus: American artists showing in Europe, European artists showing in America, Japanese artists—everyone seemed to be traveling to or from some event. The art community had become the art world.

DF: One thing that interests me about your alternative-space, artist’s-books kickoff point is that I’ve found younger people today may view the ’80s not in terms of those politics but as a commercial period, when the gallery system recovered after a period of disfavor in the ’60s and ’70s.

IS: But the ’80s were many things: They were a moment of development for feminism, of photography escaping its ghetto, of figurative painting and sculpture vitally expressing all sorts of identities. I also see two ’80s: before and after aids. As for commerce, one reason new galleries were starting was that new art was starting. In publishing on the return of painting, which had been almost taboo, we were bringing down fences that had been put up. Artforum was no longer a place where only one kind of art was acceptable as avant-garde. We wanted to recognize that things had opened. That’s why we started columns, for the first time in the magazine’s history—columns on design, television, advertising, film, architecture, things that had so clearly been part of the look of modern life but had never been points of focus in an art magazine. We weren’t championing only one group of artists or writers; we never made an investment in one side. What we were championing was debate, the idea of different kinds of art and of different kinds of critical writing. Artforum wasn’t a kind of comfortable academia; it was a place for people with something to say.

DF: Yet it often struck me how monolithic it looked from the outside. People assumed we had an enormous staff, teams of researchers, strings of global correspondents . . . But inside it felt like a very fragile boat.

AK: I remember staying up late, cutting and pasting.

DF: The magazine lost money for much of the ’80s, isn’t that right, Tony?

AK: It wasn’t profitable until the later ’80s, but the losses were never huge. We did try to run it as a business—

ABS: It was important to be real, to pay our own way. We worked hard at making the magazine viable at all levels. If we were occasionally “nonprofit,” it wasn’t by choice but because of the high costs of big ambitions.

AK: And in time it succeeded; the issues got progressively heftier through the ’80s. Then the magazine went through a bad period in the early ’90s, when the recession hit, just before Jack Bankowsky took over as editor.

DF: As a community the magazine was high stress. Everyone was stretched to the limit, working punishing hours, and it did seem risky—

AK: It was risky. Our glossy exterior was misleading.

DF: Yes, and in that sense the magazine had a kind of authority that people reacted against.

IS: And also supported intensely. The strong feelings were a function of people reading the magazine and being excited by it—

ABS: Or made angry by it. At least they were paying attention and reacting. Of course, we didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission—to answer to some corporate hierarchy. All things were possible because the magazine was independent. We were responsible only to ourselves, and we took that very seriously.

AK: It was the improvisational nature of it that was stressful. There was often a sense of a balance being created at the last minute or, in the case of Tom McEvilley’s article on “Primitivism” [November 1984], at the last second.

IS: Tom couldn’t write until he’d seen the show [“‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” Museum of Modern Art], which had only just opened to enormous acclaim a couple nights before our deadline. Along came little Artforum, saying, “Wait a minute, this needs unraveling.” Tom’s article caused enough of a ruckus that both [the show’s curators] Bill Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe wanted to reply. We printed their letters because this debate mattered enormously, but we also answered them in the same issue. The debate went on for several months and had deep consequences. That was our high-stress system at its best: trusting a writer, letting him go, and helping put into the world an important debate that really broke down walls and changed perspectives.

AK: It was the first time I’d heard a discussion that presented “the other” not as antagonistic and difficult but as an equal.

IS: To go to another view of the so-called other: When we published a group of Mapplethorpe pictures in 1987, we had to have discussions about which ones we could print. Then I remember walking around an art fair only a few years later and noticing that so many galleries had homoerotic art dealing with the male body. It had become a trend.

DF: Amy and Tony, did you feel vulnerable publishing that material?

ABS: We were presenting strong imagery that crossed lines. There were dissenters, and there were times when I wasn’t altogether comfortable, but that tension was part of the punch of the work at the time. That punch may have been absorbed since, but back then it was a concern that the men on press would shut us down. I remember a particularly long impromptu “discussion” with hesitant printers about what the artwork was about, and why an image they objected to was not pornographic—and therefore fit to be printed at a union shop and mailed via the US Postal Service.

IS: Mapplethorpe’s photos of the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon appeared in Artforum [November 1980] because Lisa came to me at the office and said, “My work is my body. I sculpt with my body.” And I thought, “That’s interesting. That would make a great special project for our issue on the return of figurative art.” Which is what happened. Lyon was a performance artist, and I came from a slight performance background in that I belonged to the worst rock band in the history of American music—

DF: I remember wanting to come see you play once and you telling me you’d walk off stage if I did [laughter]—

IS: And I would have. I would also say that we tried never to be reckless at Artforum. When we did something new—and this is part of how we ended up working long hours—we would really analyze it. When we put Issey Miyake on the cover, for example [February 1982], it was after days of discussion.

DF: That too was controversial at the time.

ABS: Put a fashion image on an art magazine?

IS: In that issue we also invited Laurie Anderson to make a record, and she did. We bound it as a floppy disk inside the magazine. Had we had a switchboard it would have lit up.

DF: But we didn’t. [Laughter.]

IS: That was fortunate.

DF: Yes, there was a lot of conversation—a lot of argument, actually.

ABS: That was a given, and one of the reasons the magazine stayed so alive. It didn’t come easy, and decisions weren’t always unanimous. Making Artforum was never boring or routine.

IS: We also put a great deal of thought into design. The final issue of Artforum that I edited, for example, was the “Age” issue [February 1988], which was designed by Tibor Kalman, and I remember the debate about the type he wanted; the idea was that we would fit everything someone said by going tiny if the person said more, and the type would go large if the person said less. And we went for it. I don’t know how many magazines would have done that. [Laughter.]

DF: We also asked every writer to print their age, which must have made us popular.

AK: And the ages were put at the bottom of the page, where you’d expect the page number.

IS: With so many people dying so young because of aids, age, to me, had once again become a privilege.

DF: Then there was the issue of May 1983. It was designed by Keith Davis, and it’s the “Future” issue. It’s the one you have to turn upside-down and sideways, any number of times, as you read it—

AK: Well, that’s because you’re guiding an intergalactic spaceship, aren’t you? That was the general idea.

IS: Yes, it was as if you were steering the magazine. This issue was about changes in gravity and perspective.

ABS: Oh, and everything else! [Laughter.] Lisa Liebmann’s essay in that issue is a beautiful piece of writing.

IS: There’s also a brilliant piece by Edit deAk, on the graffiti artist Rammellzee. We say in our editorial, “For this issue we have let go our usual anchorage system in order to loosen our control on the point of arrival. We’ve tried to reflect the pervading stress and directional shifts, taking into consideration assumptions about frameworks of reading.”

DF: Before coming here today I looked through several years of issues and more or less randomly picked 1983–84 to give a sense of the magazine’s variety. Contributors include the art historian Thierry de Duve, the curator (and our contributing editor) Germano Celant, the collector Sam Wagstaff on photography. Greil Marcus has his music column. There’s a piece by Gilles Deleuze. There’s an idiosyncratic reading of Leonardo da Vinci by the gallerist Ronald Feldman. There’s a piece about Alice Neel, a painter from an earlier generation, and an interview by the English critic Stuart Morgan with filmmaker Peter Greenaway. There’s a project by the Canadian artists’ group General Idea, an essay by the Surrealist critic Nicolas Calas. There’s Allan Kaprow. There’s that wonderful project of correspondence between Pontus Hulten and Jean Tinguely, printed on a gatefold. There’s Max Kozloff, a former editor of the magazine, on the photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. There’s Julian Schnabel’s piece “The Patients and the Doctors,” which was controversial, because he talked about eating and liking it—about consumption, basically. A lot of people saw that as embodying what was wrong with the ’80s.

IS: Like they didn’t eat?

DF: Of course. There’s Duncan Smith, who wrote by an eccentric method of wordplay. There’s the English critic Jean Fisher on the American artist Jack Goldstein. There’s a project by Adrian Piper. The art historian Jack Flam reviews a reprint edition of a livre d’artiste by Matisse. There’s Kathy Acker, there’s Jean-François Lyotard. Kate Linker writes on Jean Baudrillard; earlier that year we had published Baudrillard himself. One issue has the African-American painter Robert Colescott on the cover. There’s Greil on William Eggleston’s photographs of Graceland. Finally there’s Edit’s piece “The Critic Sees Through the Cabbage Patch,” a kind of series of aphorisms—I don’t know of anything quite like it.

IS: I’ve never edited anything quite like it. I think we always had in the back of our minds the cliché about art writing, and about Artforum in particular, that it was like what Mark Twain said about the German language: You jump in the river, and you swim and swim, and if you’re lucky, when you come out, you’ve got the verb in your mouth. Art writing had this reputation for obtuseness, and Artforum, because of its history—

DF: Artforum had it in spades. It was very hard to overcome.

IS: I think what you and I were interested in was the possibility that writing about art could be exciting for a reader, and not like homework. But at the same time, we did not want a prejudice against certain kinds of writing. Some critics have an ability to see but not necessarily to be fluid writers, and we wanted to make room for them, too. So we focused intensely on the writing in the magazine, and published writers from Carter Ratcliff to Herbert Muschamp to Lyotard to poets like Rene Ricard.

DF: Tony, how did you feel about the writing in the magazine?

AK: I worried about some articles—I regretted what sometimes seemed to me a degree of obscurantism. I like specifics, clear analogies, not ambiguity. What I did enjoy was people taking a personal stance and putting themselves in the piece.

DF: Which writers like Rene excelled at.

IS: That personal point of view was intentional; we wanted to get away from the authoritarianism of a royal “we.”

DF: And from the claim of objectivity.

IS: Now it seems to have gone the other way—the art world seems more institutionalized. It seems to have fewer eccentrics.

DF: So many of the people who passed through Artforum in the ’80s were so . . . individual.

IS: Although, of course, many were art historians, many were also something more or other than simply “professionals.” I’m afraid the world has gotten more formulaic.

DF: Ingrid, is there a highlight of your Artforum run that you might name?

IS: This is going to sound sappy, but every day was a highlight. I think there are periods that are superexciting, and the ’80s qualify. It wasn’t just our pleasure in what we were doing that made them feel so alive, it was what was going on intellectually and artistically, and all of it simultaneously—we were lucky, we were working at an interesting time.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.