PRINT September 2003


Jack Bankowsky on his tenure at Artforum

I SEE JEFF WALLS EVERYWHERE—in the seepage and spills on the garage floor, at the weedy edges of a parking lot, in the pill lodged in the casing of the medicine cabinet above my sink (for how long now?). Sometimes I think I dream up better Walls than Wall does . . . well, not really, but you know what I mean. Everyone who cares about art has experienced this sort of “seeing in the style of”—the sense of whole spheres of reality indelibly marked by a strong artist. I remember my earliest glimpse of Wall’s work: It was a black-and-white image of The Destroyed Room illustrating a review, circa early ’80s. The picture was mysterious—the poise of artifice and disarray. The aftermath of an Allan Kaprow—or just a ransacked home but structured like The Death of Sardanapalus? What, I wondered, was this artist after? Was what I thought I was seeing in this isolated image simply a serendipitous one-off or something like a perfect negotiation of what a picture would have to be today—the beginning of something new?

By the time I was named editor of Artforum a decade later, Wall was no longer an intuition about the future but a fact of artistic life. As a young editor, I was impatient to turn to newer artists, the work of my own generation, but I was also eager to add to the discussion around figures like Wall who loomed large for me. The artist’s first cover would come early on my watch—the occasion, a 1993 feature by art historian (and later contributing editor) Thomas Crow. By Wall’s second Artforum cover (just two years ago), he was no longer merely a well-established artist; he was a veritable old master, with museum shows following fast, one on another. To watch an artist one values insinuate himself into the cultural landscape as effectively as Wall has is to glimpse the perplexities of artistic priority up close, and, as such, it is one of the fascinations of the job I have had the privilege to hold for the past eleven years; to in some small way enable that progress is one of its rewards. And given Wall’s staying power, both generally, and for me personally, it seemed fitting to ask him, for my final issue as editor, to look back—but also to look forward. Wall’s retrospective glance is a kind of family romance, revisiting (and revisioning) the peers and precursors he engaged along the way. The forward look takes the form of a portfolio of new, never-before-published images.

The family romance, as Wall’s essay demonstrates, is inevitably complicated—but, as his story also shows, it can be happy. Penning this note for my final issue as editor of Artforum, a publication that honored me with the challenge and responsibility of my position before I had imagined such a post a possibility; that has coddled me through eleven enormously productive—and intense—years; and that has allowed me to move along on my own clock and (even more generously) on my own terms, I can say only: Thank you. The bittersweet moment of leaving a happy home (even if one knows the time is right) is tipped toward sweetness when the good-bye is not absolute: As I turn over the rigors of the monthly production cycle to our new editor in chief, I move upstairs (literally) to assume a position as editor at large. The chief editor’s role is that of impresario, and as challenging and satisfying as that role has been, I felt it was time to return to the source. For me the curating of each issue became all-consuming, and my own critical interests and curiosities receded. My position will allow me to pursue more writing and work more closely with artists (both outside and within Artforum) in doing so, and I will concentrate on producing an annual in-depth issue for Artforum, the first of which will appear in April. Among my greatest satisfactions as editor have been the special omnibus issues, particularly last spring’s two-part look at the art of the 1980s, which afford the kind of detail and depth difficult to achieve on a monthly calendar. These issues are the model for my new annual effort. Additionally, I will serve as an editorial adviser to our publishers, with a mandate to explore new initiatives under the Artforum banner. I will also work closely to support our new editor in focusing and expanding our international coverage.

Which brings me to my successor. Having advised our publishers in naming both a new editor and a new senior editor, I feel confident that the magazine is in extremely able editorial hands. If in this one respect only, I also feel I have repaid my three other great debts at Artforum: my debt to the readers, whose attention I have labored monthly to equal; to the writers (the list of those who now contribute regularly is the benchmark of my own pride of accomplishment); and to our exemplary staff, which is the strongest it has been at any point during my tenure—and, I suspect, in Artforum's history. Eleven years ago, I closed my first editor’s letter with the following words: “As a primary document, Artforum specializes in the first take: Our turf is the ferment that has yet to be canonized as a proper object of study.” When it came to handing over the magazine, we returned to those words—a sentiment that had guided the publishers in naming me to the post more than a decade back. Tim Griffin—his signature will be on the October issue—was already a part of the family. Tim came to Artforum a year ago as reviews editor. Shortly thereafter, we appointed him senior editor when my longtime deputy, Eric Banks (to whom I owe a singular debt of gratitude), was named editor of Bookforum. Scott Rothkopf, the critic and art historian, will fill Tim’s old post in January, joining fellow senior editor Don McMahon on our masthead. Tim and Scott both demonstrate an essential commitment to the contemporary in their contributions to the current issue, where they (with art historian Linda Nochlin and, in his “Entries” column, contributing editor David Rimanelli) provide our coverage of the 50th Venice Biennale.

A word in closing about my final cover—and about my first special issue in the role of editor at large. In their Venice reviews both Tim and Scott engage the work of Takashi Murakami. Our cover, like their essays, is intended as less a celebration of the artist’s work than as a prod to thought: The image is in fact not of the art exhibited in the show proper but of a street vendor hawking ersatz versions of the handbags Murakami produced for the fashion concern Louis Vuitton. As ubiquitous in Venice just now as in most big cities, the art bag with legs provided Scott with his essay’s conceit: that the super-effective circulation of the artist’s signature, not just through the arteries of this floating city but through the networks of global capitalism more generally, trumped both Murakami’s own contribution to the exhibition and the exhibition itself. The progress of the purse, he argues, is at the least a symptom more powerful than the murky global Babel served up by the Biennale’s curator. “Navigation rather than negation is the modus operandi” (Griffin). But does this gesture up the ante on the classic Warholian gambit—is it not simply “market infiltration, but rather penetration” (Rothkopf)? For both writers Murakami’s move calls into question the very possibility of “criticality” as such. Whether one celebrates the Vuitton collaboration as exemplary or dismisses it as impotent capitulation (or, alternatively, thinks that the collaborate/capitulate dichotomy is the wrong place to start the conversation), the gesture cuts to the heart of Warhol’s legacy in contemporary art and that of Pop art more generally. To embrace Warhol’s model (manifest in successive waves of neo-Pop) or to battle against it? My contention is that few artists today are able to avoid the confrontation. The legacy of Pop art—and its discontents: That is the topic my first special issue for Artforum will take up. Until April . . .

Jack Bankowsky