PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Sherrie Levine

HOWARD SINGERMAN: There is a caricature of the ’80s: All you needed was a critic with a name to write about your work and cite some hot theorist, and you had a career. This strikes me as both historically and systemically wrong; it’s my recollection that the theory and criticism arrived earlier and in different spheres than the ’80s market did. Do you have any thoughts about a different sort of chronology of the decade?

SHERRIE LEVINE: I came to New York in the mid-’70s, at the same time as a lot of recent art school graduates from CalArts, RISD, Buffalo, and Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and a good number of other like-minded artists and writers. We didn’t make a big distinction between artmaking, writing, and curating. Many people were engaged in more than one of these activities, none of them very financially lucrative at this point. There were no commercial venues for the things we were interested in, which I now think made for, in many ways, a very wholesome atmosphere. However, at the time, I did my share of pissing and moaning. The economy was “recessed,” and most of us had crappy day jobs. We lent each other money and lived in dumps.

Dieter Schwarz, Sherrie Levine, and Rosemarie Schwarzwälder at Galerie Nächst St. Stephan, Vienna, 1988.

We believed we were the only audience for one another’s work. We were young, energetic, generous, and ambitious. I use the word “ambitious” in the best sense; we wanted to make a difference, to show some resistance to the status quo. With not much at stake yet, outside of group approbation, I experienced an exhilarating sense of community and purpose. We worked and partied hard. And I was fortunate enough to receive a good deal of very thoughtful critical attention.

Then, in 1980, several commercial galleries opened with the intention of exhibiting and marketing our work. By then, for me, the real party was over. Success is always crass. But so is failure. I still didn’t have any money. I did pink-collar work—waited tables, pasted up magazines, revolving-door teaching—and lived in offices and tenements until I was forty, i.e., until 1987. On the plus side, a lot of wonderfully intelligent and engaged writing was being published. Ideas that were still formative in the ’70s were being developed into very subtle and sophisticated arguments, even in the midst of the commercialism.

HS: Your comment that social and professional roles were fluid and often multiple at the end of the ’70s is interesting to me. Maybe that was what made the moment feel open. By the mid-’80s, people’s professional identities as artists or critics or curators had become increasingly set.

SL: I think it’s a matter of growing up and deciding to focus. In New York, the track is fast.

Left to right: Sherrie Levine, Broad Stripe #3, 1985, casein and wax on mahogany, 24 x 20". Cover of Real Life no. 1 (March 1979). Cover art: Sherrie Levine, President Profile, 1979.

HS: I’ve read about the work you did with Louise Lawler, A Picture Is No Substitute for Anything, in a few places, but with few details. What exactly was it, and where did the title come from?

SL: We had decided to work together, and Louise knew about a book that had recently been published by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. 12 Dialogues was a series of conversations between Hollis Frampton and Carl Andre that they had done in New York in 1962–63, when they were quite young. Louise and I found them extremely articulate and charming. At one point Frampton said, “A photograph is no substitute for anything.” So that inspired the name of our collaboration, and we continued it sporadically for a few years since this was a big concern of ours. Real life, that is. Our self-financed venture was a lot like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a show in the backyard. We made all the decisions—what to show, where, when, what the announcement should look like, who the invitees would be. We didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission.

We exhibited our own photographs in her loft and a friend’s empty loft. And we did performances. We invited people to the ballet; they had to purchase their own tickets. One Sunday afternoon we invited people to join us for a glass of Dubonnet at a tiny painting studio on Union Square that had been owned by a Russian émigré named Dmitri Merinoff. His widow had kept this fifty-square-foot room exactly as he left it the day he died. I remember that it was a sunny day and the light was beautiful with many pink Tachiste paintings around. Once we mailed out a card that said, “His gesture moved us to tears”—our ode to neo-expressionism.

HS: Your invocation of “real life” might surprise people who’ve come to think of the ’80s as all about textuality or theory. Real Life was the title, too, of Tom Lawson and Susan Morgan’s magazine. You were on the cover of the first issue in 1979, and there was a beautiful piece on your collages by Valentin Tatransky. Could you comment on what that term meant for you, and maybe for Tom and others, and why it carries the weight or emotion it does?

SL: I think it was a way of distancing ourselves from the art world. In those days I didn’t think the art world was the real world. Very naive, but attributable to our collective youth—a kind of Holden Caulfield hangover. Back then I often referred to Lawrence Weiner’s statement about making art that directed us back to the real world. I’m often accused of making art about art, which to me is not very interesting in itself. I like to think that the meaning of my work bleeds out toward the world and functions metaphorically.

Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine, announcement for A Picture Is No Substitute for Anything, 1982.

HS: When did you start to read criticism seriously? What is your sense of how it circulated among artists and critics at that moment?

SL: After the “Pictures” show in 1977, I began reading Continental theory, which the writers I knew were reading. I was never particularly interested in analytic philosophy, but this stuff really spoke to me, especially the psychoanalytic theory. The new feminists wanted to trouble the idea of the primacy of the visual over the other senses. They were interested in pleasure and humor. Reading them liberated me enough that I was able to paint again. And I was happy to have a way to talk about my work.

HS: You showed paintings in the East Village at Nature Morte in 1984. Did things stay fluid there longer? How would you fold the East Village into a history of the ’80s?

SL: It certainly was picturesque and entrepreneurial. An outpost. Like regional theater. Okay, maybe more like off Broadway than Omaha. And it did present an opportunity to do things that weren’t quite ready for prime time. Nature Morte sold my first “After Walker Evans” photograph four years after it was first exhibited at Metro Pictures.

HS: To go back to your picture of the early days—the ’80s before the ’80s—it sounds quite romantic, or maybe romanticized, but I recently heard a similar story of the openness and intensity of a not-quite-packaged early ’80s from Tim Rollins. How much is youth, do you think, and how much was the historical moment?

SL: Well, it was a pretty great time and place to be a young artist. Rents were very cheap, and large raw spaces were plentiful. I was able to support myself, though not lavishly, by waitressing a few nights a week. There were lots of artists and writers around, but not so many that you couldn’t know virtually everyone. Most of us lived in SoHo or TriBeCa, and very few other people lived there. It was kind of a parish in that sense. There was that small window of opportunity, after the pill and before we knew about AIDS. We felt extremely free, and everything seemed possible. So I think it was quite different from the situation young artists coming to New York face now. But having said that, I do think a good deal of my nostalgia is for my own youth. I’m glad I didn’t waste it.

By 1983, things had become grimmer. I started losing friends to AIDS. Rents had skyrocketed. I could no longer support myself by working very little. And I was fast approaching middle age without a permanent teaching job. For me, the lack of creature comforts, like heat and hot water, had become much more oppressive. Unfortunately, this period of my life was graphically documented in a 1986 New Yorker article. It was a long profile of Ingrid Sischy, and Ingrid suggested that the writer talk to some artists and gave her my name. When the fact checker called me to verify that I lived alone with my cat and that my bathtub was in my kitchen, I knew that the author wasn’t very impressed with my lifestyle.

By the mid-’80s, I sensed that greed and crassness were overly abundant, even given my narcissism. I understood that the art I made would be seen in a political context. You once told me that Carl Andre said, “Art is what we do, culture is what is done to us.” I think he was almost right. I don’t think it’s useful to see dominant culture as monolithic. I’d rather see it as polyphonic with unconscious voices that may be at odds with one another. If I am attentive to these voices, then maybe I can collaborate with some of them to create something almost new.

Howard Singerman is associate professor of art history at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.