PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Haim Steinbach

TIM GRIFFIN: In that famous 1986 Flash Art roundtable, “From Criticism to Complicity,” you distinguished yourself from the “Pictures” generation with respect to your interest in “desire.” How did you mean that?

HAIM STEINBACH: First of all, that panel came out of nowhere. The Flash Art people picked a few artists and set up the symposium at Pat Hearn Gallery. Maybe a week before it happened, somebody at the magazine, or at the gallery, called me and said they were organizing this discussion and asked if I were interested. I said a lot of things that evening I still believe; but there are some things I didn’t say and should have. In that kind of situation, there’s always a moment when you end up leaning to one side or the other. You respond to the way things are framed.

TG: But did you feel some commonality with the other artists?

HS: Sherrie Levine has been a friend since 1983. I felt very connected to issues that she and other appropriation artists were involved with. But Ashley [Bickerton] and Jeff [Koons]? No. I had a bit more of a connection with Peter [Halley], since back in 1973 I was a teaching assistant for one of his classes at Yale—but we had lost touch. You know, in ’85, there was a phenomenal eruption. Overnight, people were lumped together without any serious consideration of their respective histories—especially when it came to work that employed already existing objects.

TG: Why did that happen?

HS: Appropriation art was totally backstage until that moment, and I think people were caught off guard by it and needed an immediate interpretation. Their reaction was to come up with a blanket definition with attributes such as consumerism, simulation, commodity—anything that seemed identifiable in terms of surface appearance—without really examining the structures underneath. I mean, “neo-geo” was a totally idiotic term that had nothing to do with anything, except that geometric imagery had a certain currency, and there were a few superficial similarities between painting and sculpture.

TG: Is this what you wish you had said at the roundtable?

HS: That would have been impossible, because no one was prepared for that interpretation! The label hadn’t yet been created, let alone achieved journalistic currency. I’ll give you an example: Around that time, Eleanor Heartney came knocking on the doors of a number of artists to interview them. She came to my studio, and I carefully went through my history. The next thing you know, there’s this big article, “Neo-Geo Storms New York,” in the New Art Examiner. It didn’t deal with the specifics of what I said, because it looked at all the work generally. I mean, it was a three-page article discussing something like twenty artists.

TG: Well, how did you describe what you were doing? How was “desire” working for you?

HS: I was talking about desire in terms of a collective social condition vis-à-vis the selection and arrangement of objects. My work dealt with structure, placement, position, contingency—an economy among objects. Desire translates into the things with which we ritualize our lives and into the way we communicate and portray ourselves through objects. In the late ’70s, my partner was Julia Wachtel, and her work dealt with imagery that she lifted from greeting cards. She took up these corny, sentimental cartoon images in her paintings, which had to do with group identity, possessiveness, or the projection of oneself onto the object. She and I had a dialogue about the way desires travel through objects and images in their presentation and representation.

TG: When did these ideas first show up publicly in your work?

HS: I was in some group shows in alternative spaces, and on the periphery of collaboratives like Group Material and Fashion Moda during the late ’70s and early ’80s. In 1979, Rags Watkins and Helene Winer gave me a show at Artists Space. That put me in what was, at that point, the ultimate context. Everyone was watching what was going on there. I built a closet-size “minimal” box against one wall and placed a chrome kettle on it. Across the room, I covered the walls with wallpaper and hung shelves with objects borrowed from friends. It was about cultural associations—namely, the space between the culture of the sparse and the culture of ethnic particularity, the way you inevitably define your identity by the wallpaper you choose. After that, Michael Klein wrote about my work in Arts Magazine, and there was a studio visit by Craig Owens, which went nowhere.

TG: Went nowhere?

HS: Craig was interested in the dynamic of the objects. But he said that the handmade shelves were celebrations of the object—that’s how he put it. My argument was that the shelf as furniture/sculpture put the object into question, positing it in relation to facture and underscoring it in terms of authorship and originality.

TG: Did this disagreement have anything to do with what distinguished you from the “Pictures” group?

HS: Well, I think it had something to do with it. Owens was an admirer of Sherrie and Barbara Kruger, who were dealing with photographs and representation. My work was not about representation; it was about presentation. Conceptually, that’s a very different approach.

TG: In what way?

HS: The shelf with objects is a nexus of social interaction. I tested the physical presence of an object—something loaded with the patina, the evocations, the markings of its history. People have strong feelings about objects, because they’re in their space. It’s not like a picture, which is essentially illusionistic, framed, removed and on the wall. In this regard, the shelf with objects is a display, a presentation. For example, in the work Craig saw at the studio, Shelf with Noodle Shoe (for Nancy Shaver) [1981], the shelf is not only minimalist, but also handmade, clumsy in its craftsmanship, deliberately bricolaged. And right on top of it sat a high-heeled shoe, which Nancy had given me, covered with elbow noodles, spray-painted gold. It had this kind of folklorish aura.

TG: Was there some origin for this idea of social interaction?

HS: Well sure. There was process art, meaning artistic activities that engage cultural and social awareness in a way that is more interactive than symbolic, that depends more on the contingencies among performers or artists and the work—what you might see in Yvonne Rainer or Joan Jonas. It started in the ’60s with performance, with Allan Kaprow’s Happenings; it has to do with the everyday, with the psychological and sociological dynamics that bring about self-definition. That precedent was very important to my work, in the sense that it was performative. Objects are three-dimensional and make the viewer want to touch or move them; whether viewers allow themselves to do that or not, the psychological dynamic is there. The work associates itself with the rituals of exhibition, and of the everyday—an important connection that has to do with productivity and the performative space of the gallery, home, store, street, and so on.

TG: Speaking of “the store,” what led you to the selection of a particular kind of object? You displayed Air Jordans in ’84.

HS: Buying objects from department stores and supermarkets—the Air Jordans, lava lamps, digital clocks, footballs, baskets—was a focus that evolved in the mid-’80s. I was in dialogue with a particular cultural context. Before that, I used mostly found objects or gifts, things from the flea market or borrowed from friends—that was the case with everything in the Artists Space show. But even in 1987, I was showing shelves with folk objects or antiques on them, though people did not seem to make that distinction. What captured their interest were the Air Jordans and lava lamps.

TG: Why do you think that was?

HS: There was a renewed interest in Pop and Minimal art, and this was visible in many artists’ work. Art audiences could not look at my artworks as shelves with objects. They could not distinguish between the picture in a magazine and the piece in front of them. Art discourse at that time was not focused on the everyday; viewers immediately slipped into conversations about simulation or neo-geo, which was the new kind of art-world identity production going on at the time. And yet, paradoxically, an average person walking into the gallery would sometimes lift a sneaker from a shelf and ask if it was for sale—engaging the everyday.

TG: As you moved into the mid- to late ’80s, who appreciated your work?

HS: I found myself interacting more with Europeans than Americans. The interest here was basically in the allure and appeal of the surface as a phenomenon—and a controversial phenomenon at that.

TG: And this had something to do with an American sensibility?

HS: By the end of the ’80s, a kind of humanism had resurfaced, with mostly handmade, object-related works—metaphoric work with meta-narratives or pointedly activated autobiographical narratives. It was no longer an issue of the socially and culturally systemic structure of objects; it was about subjectivity and telling a personal story. People latch onto that.

TG: How did your work in the ’80s operate, by contrast?

HS: I selected objects as vehicles to carry the narratives that they wanted to perform. There’s a work from 1984 called dramatic yet neutral. It’s a basket and two footballs, which I exhibited in my show at Cable Gallery in 1985. First, it’s the wrong kind of ball! Also, there were two footballs, which de-focuses the center. An important issue in my work is this idea of decentralizing, and this is part of what polarized people: The work’s conceptual directives were overwhelmed by the centralized nature of the viewer’s personal projection onto an object. And the work lacked a narrative. So when it was interpreted, it always ended up in the same place, part of the same discourse.

TG: Was there a discourse you did feel comfortable with in the ’80s?

HS: I see the ’80s as an archipelago, in which different things were going on, on different islands. They were going on concurrently but not always moving in the same direction. I was part of an island of artists who evolved out of the discourse of the late ’60s and ’70s, who dealt with anthropological, social, and conceptual issues.

In the mid-’80s, there was a sudden explosion. Things were changing, and there seemed to be a reevaluation happening. But the discourse did not really challenge participants to try to figure out what was going on—actually, there was no discourse. Anyway, the only symposium I ever participated in was the one put together by Flash Art. If artists were doing something that shook the world, or even if they just made noise, they became suspect. There were only discussions between critics and other critics, or within tightly knit art-world cliques. Things were pretty polarized.

TG: It’s very odd for me to hear about a lack of discourse in the ’80s, since that’s often said about the ’90s.

HS: I think that something went off-track by the beginning of the ’80s. It’s interesting to me that appropriation art, such an incredibly significant development, was neglected for the first five years of the decade, even though it had a phenomenal forum in Metro Pictures. Critics handpicked a few artists, but there was no sense of real dialogue or energy—even though, I think, there was the potential for an incredible collective dialogue between the appropriation artists and, say, the practice of Group Material. Their approaches, while different, were in many ways analogous. Can’t you see someone like Barbara Kruger getting into a conversation with Tim Rollins? Just asking, “What are we doing? What’s your practice? What’s my practice?”

TG: Was nothing like that going on in critical circles?

HS: I do think Brian Wallis, for example, might have been someone to come forward for his generation, bringing these artists together. I had such a great feeling when he put together “Damaged Goods” [1986] at the New Museum. But generally, it was strange. Look at all the Nature Morte people, who were young, enthusiastic, who recognized the work of the generation just preceding them. They were focused enough to show Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine. Yet none of the serious critics came in to start a discussion between these two generations. In fact the people at Nature Morte were dismissed because they opened a gallery—they were told they were commercial and were associated with Reagan even when they had no idea how to make money. They were just paying the rent. Some of those young artists had incredible potential. But they were vulnerable, and many of them were defeated. They just backed off. An engaging discourse would have helped to sustain them. But they were too enthusiastic and too fast-moving, and they dropped off before they were able to really grasp their own development. I see that as kind of unfortunate.

TG: Speaking of success, and to get back to your work, you once said you wished you could incorporate more valuable objects into your pieces.

HS: When my work began to be successful, each piece—the shelves with objects—was priced the way you price a work of art: Here’s a work of art, and this is what the price is. Of course, that becomes a problem, because if my work is going for $12,000, what happens when you have a group of objects worth $30,000? Do you still sell it at the value of the art? I devised a formula by which there would be a price for the work—plus the price of the objects. Let's say a shelf has three cornflakes boxes and six ceramic ghosts on it. If the ceramic ghosts are $10 apiece, that’s $60; the boxes, at $2 each, would make $6, bringing the total of the objects to $66. So if the price of a given work is $12,000, that’s $12,066.

But my approach to working with objects is nonhierarchical, meaning I just want to get my hands on any object that I desire to use, whether it’s found or bought, marketable or not. My budget is limited, however, so I can’t afford everything I want. I have done some works with museums and collectors in which I incorporate artworks, but I wish I could really get whatever I want and freely integrate it into a work of my choice. But I try! I try!

Tim Griffin is senior editor of Artforum.