PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Mike Kelley

DENNIS COOPER: The early ’80s were hugely formative for LA art. It was, for instance, the first time that CalArts graduates started to stay in the city, rather than moving to New York. Yet on the surface, the local art world was still pretty dull and provincial.

MIKE KELLEY: Most activities were taking place in alternative spaces like LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions] and LAICA [Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art] rather than in galleries. I don’t think LA was any more provincial than other art centers of the period. Artists here were mirroring the various international phenomena; for example, LA had its own version of neo-expressionism with painters like Andrew Wilf and Roger Herman and Gronk. Like everywhere else, there was a lot of attention on painting, which led to an odd assortment of artists bonding together.

DC: I credit you, as well as the video artists Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, with creating what was a very multidisciplinary art scene. You were both collaborating on projects with artists and writers and musicians. Artists would hang out at the literary center Beyond Baroque, and the writers would hang out at LACE. We all went to see pretty much the same punk and experimental music.

MK: I graduated from CalArts in 1978 and moved to LA. The first artists I met were Bruce Yonemoto and Jeffrey Vallance. Also, there were the artist/musicians, like John Duncan and Tom Recchion, who were associated with the LA Free Music Society. Through Benjamin Weissman and Tim Martin, who went to CalArts with me, I got to know the writers associated with Beyond Baroque, like you and Bob Flanagan and Jack Skelley and Amy Gerstler. I also got to know some LA artists of the previous generation: Chris Burden and Ed Ruscha and Alexis Smith and James Hayward were all extremely supportive early on.

DC: John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler were teaching at CalArts at the time, and they’re often cited by artists of your generation as key influences and mentors. Was that true for you as well?

MK: I was very close with David Askevold, who was also on the faculty. We did projects together very early on. Huebler, sure, though we didn’t really hang out much. Baldessari was a very central figure even though he was busy with his career; a lot of artist gatherings and parties took place at his studio in Santa Monica. I was definitely influenced by some of the visiting faculty at CalArts, especially Laurie Anderson, Jonathan Borofsky, and Judy Pfaff.

DC: When I first met you, I thought of you as a performance artist first and foremost.

MK: That’s what I was doing primarily, really because there was no gallery scene. There was no place to show my static works. The only gallery for young artists in the very early ’80s was Riko Mizuno’s in Little Tokyo. I had a show there in ’81. A lot of artists of my generation, like Jim Isermann and Jill Geigerich, showed there, as well as older artists like Chris Burden and Alexis Smith. When Mizuno closed her gallery, soon after, these artists moved to galleries like Rosamund Felsen and Richard Kuhlenschmidt and Fred Hoffman. I guess that was the beginning of my group of younger artists becoming known.

DC: Ulrike Kantor’s gallery on La Cienega was a funny place. It was a serious gallery, but it attracted a heavily punk-rock scene.

MK: All the neo-expressionists showed there, the locals as well as some Germans. Her gallery was very “East Village.” For a while it was right next door to Rosamund Felsen, where Chris Burden, Jeffrey Vallance, Alexis Smith, Lari Pittman, and I showed. A lot of the artists at Felsen had some kind of link to Conceptual art.

DC: When did you first show in New York, and how did that happen?

MK: My first New York solo show was in ’82 at Metro Pictures. Helene Winer brought me into the gallery. Before Metro Pictures she had run Artists Space and became familiar with my work through there, I believe. John Miller, Tony Oursler, and I all went to CalArts together, and we were very close. John and Tony moved to New York right after graduation, and through them and other CalArts connections I met artists on the East Coast like Erika Beckman, Matt Mullican, and Jim Welling. At that time I didn’t feel like there was a coastal separation. It wasn’t until the market boom of the mid-’80s that I started to feel the return of regionalist prejudices. Before that, I felt that my generation of artists, like the Conceptualists, was very much international in orientation. Allegiances were based on aesthetic connections, not regional ones. But by the mid-’80s, the rise of the huge art stars brought with it a rise of certain biases. However, I don’t think these regionalist biases were based on any true differences; they were the outcome of resentments related to economic competition.

DC: I remember your work being poorly received in New York throughout the ’80s.

MK: Very much so. There was a strong bias against West Coast art in general that was the result of the economic success of painters like David Salle. In 1983 LACE did an LA/New York swap show with Artists Space. Younger LA artists including Mitchell Syrop and Lari Pittman showed in New York, and LACE presented New York artists of the same generation, like Jeff Koons and Charles Clough. There already was by that point a strong back-and-forth connection between the coasts, but because of the New York artists’ financial success, the West Coast artists were suddenly viewed differently. It really adversely affected Mitchell Syrop’s career. People started saying he was emulating Barbara Kruger, when in actuality he had developed his own combination of photography and text independently.

DC: To me, Tim Ebner is a great or rather horrible example. In New York, his interest in systematic abstraction caused his work to be contextualized with neo-geo artists, but the romantic, “surf and sand” aspect of his art was never recognized. So when neo-geo became old news, his work went out of favor without ever having been understood in the first place.

MK: Artists like Jim Isermann and I had a hard time. Our work was too outside the kind of Pop and Minimalist references that were in favor in New York, too overt in its adoption of material referencing mass-cultural tropes. For similar reasons, it took forever for Jim Shaw to be shown in New York. He even had a hard time in LA; his work just didn’t look like “art” to people. The same with Paul McCarthy; he didn’t have any gallery affiliations at all until very late in the ’80s, when Rosamund Felsen started showing him. Raymond Pettibon was still considered a punk artist, a guy who did album covers, essentially. In LA, the punk/art scene was somewhat equivalent to the East Village scene in New York, but without the attendant commercial success. Raymond and Jim Shaw entered the “real” art world through that scene. They both had shows at the Zero One gallery, which was more of an after-hours club than a gallery. Even in LA it took a while for people to recognize that some of the artists showing in that context were sophisticated.

DC: When did you stop being seen as underground performance artist and start being seen as a serious visual artist?

MK: In LA, my work always received a good critical response. Luckily, there were some good critical writers on the West Coast at that time, writing for the LAICA Journal, for example. Howard Singerman, Christopher Knight, and Colin Gardner all wrote seriously on my work. I was being written about, but I didn’t have any gallery success until the stuffed-animal show in New York in 1990. Before that I was sometimes labeled a neo-expressionist or a funk artist because of the crudeness of my drawings. People in New York just didn’t know what to do with my work. I think the big change happened when I started showing in Europe in the late ’80s and became acquainted with artists like Martin Kippenberger, Georg Herold, Albert Oehlen, and Franz West. I felt a strong connection to the work they were doing; it struck me as similar to what I and other artists I respected in the United States were doing. In New York people had a hard time distinguishing between artists who used regional imagery in a nationalistic way, like the neo-expressionists, and artists, like the ones I just mentioned, who played with that a little more critically. I felt a real kinship with them, so I ended up bypassing New York and associating myself with the German artists. I had had a consistent presence in New York since the beginning of the ’80s. I’ve been in the Whitney Biennial six times, but I was still always depicted as an outsider. This struck me as funny, since I never thought of myself as a West Coast artist. I grew up in Detroit, and my early aesthetic training was rooted in East Coast art. West Coast art, except for “finish fetish”—some East Coast writers still can’t get past that cliché—is a relatively recent invention. “LAX” in Vienna and “Helter Skelter” initiated the idea. That’s when artists like me and Pettibon and McCarthy and Pittman became more commercially acceptable and defined as ’90s artists, which is funny because we had all been working seriously since the late ’70s.

DC: I think of the time before “Helter Skelter” in the early ’90s as a kind of grace period. After that, the work of a lot of LA artists had a name that was actually quite reductive.

MK: “Helter Skelter” fixed the idea that my generation of LA artists are all obsessed with negative aesthetics, and this image is only now starting to dissipate. One of the main things that drew this group of artists together initially was that our work was busier, more maximal than what was in fashion in ’80s New York. So an artist like Lari Pittman and I had a lot in common in that sense and because of the psychosexual aspects our work shared. But by the ’90s, as identity politics became a bigger part of art discourse, Pittman’s work was increasingly discussed in terms of gay identity, and we were no longer grouped together. In the early ’80s, we were all eccentrics and outsiders united by our mutual exclusion. There was no art market at that time. We weren’t thinking about sales. The ’80s changed that forever. That was the major shift in art practice in my lifetime.

DC: I remember when you had your retrospective at the Whitney in the early ’90s and you did a talk. A number of younger artists I knew in New York attended, and they were confused and kind of outraged that you characterized your work in terms of your blue-collar background. They had a very specific, “Helter Skelter”–derived idea about your work, and your bringing in issues of class completely threw them.

MK: Well, such issues were really out of fashion at that point. By the mid-’80s there were the inklings of what’s happening now, which is a kind of complete art-world embrace of popular art and mass culture, but with no critical intent. Anything that was too “intellectual” was looked down upon, and that’s even more the case now. That attitude has flowered into a dominant trend. I’m amazed that so much contemporary art in New York galleries at the moment could be said to have its roots in the “LA aesthetic.” Of course I think the similarities are only surface ones.

DC: To understand the work of LA artists of our generation, you’d really have to look at the visual art, literature, and music of that period in context.

MK: A lot of the writers associated with Beyond Baroque were exploring mass culture in a manner I found new and inspiring. I think the intermixture of writers and musicians and artists and video makers in LA then was remarkable. Really, the main damage resulting from the rise of the ’80s art world was that it reintroduced genre distinctions that had dissolved in the ’70s. Suddenly a sculpture was different from a painting, which was different from a book, and that was tragic. Ultimately, the most important thing for me about the ’80s was that for a short time in LA in the early part of that decade, those distinctions were nonexistent.

Artforum contributing editor Dennis Cooper is a Los Angeles—based curator and author of six novels, including My Loose Thread (Canongate, 2002).