PRINT September 2009

International News

Jeffrey Kastner talks with curators Jack Bankowsky and Alison M. Gingeras about “Pop Life”

“MAKING MONEY IS ART and working is art and good business is the best art,” Andy Warhol famously wrote. Whether you read this as a revelatory bit of canny pragmatism or as a craven capitulation to the effects of capital on culture should indicate your response to “Pop Life: Art in a Material World,” a major exhibition curated by Jack Bankowsky, Alison M. Gingeras, and Catherine Wood that opens in October at Tate Modern in London. Designed to wade directly into debates about what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh once called an “aesthetic of ruthless affirmation,” “Pop Life” will, say its curators, make the case that to cross the line between commerce and culture is nothing less than to “engage with modern life on its own terms.”

Bankowsky, former editor of Artforum, and Gingeras, chief curator of the François Pinault Collection in Venice, joined forces for the show with Wood, the Tate’s curator of contemporary art and performance, after years of independent work on Pop art and its legacies. Their dovetailing approaches assert that contemporary artists’ cultivation of their own spectacularized marketing strategies and media identities is in fact a significant performative practice—one that should be understood not as a surrender to the power structures within which it operates, but instead as a conscious effort to penetrate and disturb them. Anchored by a reconsideration of Warhol’s late period, including works like the “Retrospectives and Reversal” series, 1978–80, and his forays into television and publishing, “Pop Life” will utilize novel installation strategies to consider the sprawling practices of such artists as Keith Haring, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince, as well as a number of London’s own headline-grabbing not-that-Y-anymore-BAs, including Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and Sarah Lucas.

Critic Jeffrey Kastner spoke with Bankowsky and Gingeras in New York City in July, as they were making final preparations for the show.

Christopher Makos, Dalí Kissing Andy, 1978, black-and-white photograph, 16 x 20".

JEFFREY KASTNER: When did you realize that you were both thinking along similar lines regarding Pop art?

JACK BANKOWSKY: I was editing a special issue of Artforum, “This Is Today: Pop After Pop” [October 2004], after I stepped down as editor. Alison wrote something on Martin Kippenberger for the issue, and in the process we realized we were on a similar wavelength. By the time I was done with the issue, we were friends and chatting back and forth. I was at a point where I wanted to try to put some of the ideas I had been working on into a show, and I went to Alison, and together we went to the Tate, where Catherine Wood joined the curatorial team.

ALISON M. GINGERAS: We also did a roundtable discussion for the issue, and there was an aspect of it that was focused on a more conventional discussion of Pop art and the various uses of pop culture by artists more recently. It was more about the appropriation of Pop materials and less about larger, outside-the-white-cube manifestations. Jack and I both seemed to be reading the Warholian legacy differently in artists who took up performative strategies rather than just making objects that resonated with or used pop culture.

JB: The 1980s represent a kind of sea change, and it’s interesting to think about this in the context of the “Pictures Generation” exhibition at the Met this past summer, which chronicled the half generation right before the moment that constitutes the core of our show. The Pictures artists brought back the image, the return to representation after Conceptual art and Minimalism, but they still had a rather hands-off relationship to pop culture. They were skeptically examining the media, playing with it, turning it over in their minds. But the generation we’re interested in—the generation that came of age in the East Village right after that—was suspicious of this critical distance, which is part and parcel of the whole modern way of thinking about artmaking. They wanted to step into the system and actually use the media, and their own media personae, as mediums in themselves. That—via a rereading of Andy Warhol’s late work—is where our story begins.

AMG: We’re really focusing on the so-called postlapsarian Warhol and on locating agency in his relationship with pop culture. This is the Warhol who’s getting his hands dirty, who is a protagonist. Whether he’s performing his celebrity, social climbing, or making Interview magazine, he’s valorizing those activities and developing a way of working that has functioned as an enabling model for so many artists since.

JK: This abandonment of critical distance is not something that’s necessarily understood as a positive development in Warhol’s work—hence the characterization you referenced, Alison, of his career as having phases before and after a kind of “fall.” In the writing you’ve both done on this period, I get the sense that you feel like you’re arguing against quite a body of conventional wisdom.

JB: There’s no doubt that for a long time everyone mistrusted Warhol, and it’s these late efforts of his that in a sense became our paradigm. In the late ’70s and ’80s, he was the subject of embarrassed apology, at best. There was, of course, the Pop master, but then there was also this gadfly who was showing up on Love Boat. Yet the more we’ve looked at that period and the amazing bodies of work he produced during it—and we highlight several of these in the show, such as the “Retrospectives and Reversal” paintings, where he revived his famous Pop icons in massive series and put them out into the marketplace, effectively just printing money, in the eyes of the skeptics—the whole enterprise starts to seem like a quite pointed sort of gesture. You know Andy’s famous remark about business being the next step after art? Well, if we read his late art and activity as a whole, then we can see these extragallery, theatrical maneuverings, within both the art system and the mass media, as precursors to the kinds of packaging of the artistic persona that we see in Jeff Koons’s “Made in Heaven” series [1989–91] or Keith Haring’s Pop Shop [1989–2005].

AMG: For me, the show implicitly calls into question the whole notion of criticality. It asks whether it’s possible to draw a model of criticality that’s based on affirmation instead of distance, denunciation, and familiar models of institutional critique. I think that one of the possible arguments of the show is that, in fact, the business-art model requires a redefinition of criticality, because it creates agency outside the very hermetic sphere of art. Given our current anomic, totalizing landscape of mass media, it’s increasingly difficult to define a critical, outside position. So when Takashi Murakami, for example, creates the apparatus of Kaikai Kiki [his self-described “art production company”] and sends out all those tentacles into the world, it’s not critical in the traditional sense—but it does destabilize our expectations of what an artist in society might be and turns the avant-garde model completely on its head. If you look closely at this desire to reach out into the mainstream, you see a lot of subtle disturbance built into it.

JK: Can you talk about what you see as the surplus—the difference or disturbance—in this work that distinguishes it from other forms of capitulation to the system of capital, toward which the avant-garde has, for more than a century, adopted a critical stance?

JB: At its best, it’s this incredibly nuanced theater that is part of the world we’re in but also separate from it. Of course, within this ecology, artworks are an important component, but they are only part of the whole. And some of the interest in coming to terms with this work and what it shows us about the way we live in the world is to think about how art objects perform within these broader theatrical networks.

AMG: For example, Murakami’s use of, and differentiation from, the Warholian business model has engendered a kind of identity politics, because every example of his oeuvre—whether instrumentalizing his relationship with Louis Vuitton or designing these accessible, mass-produced versions for the broader market based on his sculptural iconography—is about reversing a condition of Japanese culture after the war. It’s so easy to just collapse Murakami into the Japanese Warhol, but he pours all his fortune and fame into the creation of a kind of didactic enterprise in Japan. And I think that’s why our show gives a lot of focus to him at the end, because as bookends he and Warhol are maybe the most palpable examples of what we are exploring. Those two poles set a high bar for this question of criticality and effect in the real world. Other artists play on a different register: For example, I think that the work we’ve chosen of Pruitt & Early’s, from their “Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue” show, is about the art world but also about a very specific kind of American identity politics around race (the date of their exhibition was 1992). It uses tactics of sensationalism and pandering to the peanut gallery—hitting cultural hot spots—and there’s a wager in risking this that the yield will outweigh the danger. Then there’s the whole context of what’s happened in Britain, which has cultural specificity as well. One of the very important things that Catherine Wood has contributed to the show is a rereading of the early history of the YBAs, bringing to the fore someone like Cosey Fanni Tutti, who could be seen as a precursor for that group in the way she infiltrated the porn industry—not announcing it as art but really doing it and then later showing it as part of her practice. Her investigations of a mode of self-exploitation were picked up in a much more spectacular way by the generation that came after, with artists such as Tracey Emin.

JB: It’s interesting to consider the roots of the YBAs in our context because, as with all these tags, it’s a bit artificial in that it brings together artists who have little in common; of course, the way that scene was buoyed by the mass media was obviously very resonant in terms of the material we’re looking at. And it’s certainly continued with some of them: One thing we’re doing is to reprise, in part, Damien Hirst’s extraordinary 2008 auction. But what we’re “showing” is not simply a selection of objects by Hirst, although it is that, too; instead we are treating the auction itself as a work of art. This idea of a reconstituted, theatrical mise-en-scène—an installation (in this case based on the auction-preview galleries at Sotheby’s)—is important to the show. We’re also, for instance, putting together a large portion of “Made in Heaven,” which hasn’t been shown in one place for a long time.

AMG: Take Kippenberger, for instance. He’s like Warhol—you can curate him in a hundred different ways, you can massage the work to illustrate whatever agenda you want. But in the end, we came to this methodology of looking at artist-created moments, where artists are in a sense “curating” their own work within, as Jack said, theatrical mise-en-scènes. Kippenberger organized a show in 1993 at the Centre Pompidou—“Candidature à une Rétrospective” [Candidacy for a Retrospective]—which was almost a faux retrospective, or at least a mocking of the institution for that desire. He used the show as a vehicle to explore his own self-mythologizing. The first room started with a poster that he commissioned from Koons that says MARTIN KIPPENBERGER IS WONDERFUL, FABULOUS, EVERYTHING, and then inside you had an amalgamation of work—a portrait of him drunk, a painting of the Paris Bar, a wall hung salon style with different artifacts (either artworks he’d collected from his circle or his own paintings) and the whole portfolio of posters he’d made over the years or asked other artists to make. So this was a room that only he could have put together, because it’s not a conventional curation. We felt that it was essentially a readymade that could be restaged, which would be much more effective in representing Kippenberger than, say, curating a room of self-portraits.

JK: I imagine one of the biggest challenges in an exhibition like this is to put such material into a historicized, museum context and then try to make the case for its vitality and connection to living, breathing culture.

JB: Well, the idea that you have to participate to be effective is built into these artists’ practices. They are all highly cognizant of their relation to the gallery and to the institutions of art, so in a way it’s a problem, but it’s a problem that’s true to and very much a considered component of their work. I think it’s important that we don’t turn these auction-record holders into Fluxus artists—they’re a very different kind of beast, and that’s part of what we’re trying to show. The relationship between these performative activities and the iconic objects that master the conventions of the gallery and the museum is always a part of this ecology.

JK: Why do you think these “auction-record holders,” as you quite rightly call them, are also among the most derided of contemporary artists?

JB: These artists are going into the belly of the beast to speak to our condition. And you know, I think this comes through in so many of Koons’s early interviews, this idea that one does not want to be domesticated and bracketed as an artist who speaks politely from the sidelines. That’s being academic. And what an artist wants to do is to seduce, to speak and be heard—not to study. What Warhol, for example, does is he so fully internalizes the mechanisms of capital that he ends up offering us perhaps the most complete picture we have of our situation.

AMG: Whenever Murakami is asked about Warhol, he says what he finds enabling is his honesty. There’s a directness, and even if Warhol’s activities transgress our critical expectations of what an artist should be doing, he creates this space for himself, no longer protected behind our social or political expectations of what an artist is. I think all of these artists do that. They’re not hiding, and that’s why I think they continue to create such antagonism within certain sectors of the art world. So much of our discursive universe is still rooted in this other model of criticality, and it’s just so easy to write all this off as illegitimate.

JK: So this is not some crypto-neoliberal argument about how the market inevitably wins and that we should all just learn to play the game on its terms?

AMG: No. If anything, it’s a nihilistic argument! This show examines the failure of criticality in a traditional sense. So it’s not affirmation as celebration; there is always some kind of disturbance. That’s the point. You have to be in the system, you can’t deny it. You have to inhabit it fully, with all its complexities—and moral compromises.