PRINT October 2013


Artforum, January 1983

Cover of Artforum 21, no. 5 (January 1983). Barry Le Va, During (Between Imagination and Actuality) (detail), 1982.

In this new column, artists, critics, and curators single out past issues from Artforum’s archives and explore their resonance, then and now.

I RECENTLY CAME ACROSS a copy of the January 1983 issue of Artforum at New York’s Twenty-Fifth Street flea market. I didn’t immediately recognize the image on the cover, an oblique view of Barry Le Va’s 1982 installation During (Between Imagination and Actuality), depicting a sequence of stainless-steel balls resting on a wooden armature, but a number of the articles provoked a distinct sense of déjà vu: poet Carter Ratcliff’s “David Bowie’s Survival,” a seven-page paean to Bowie’s chameleonic genius; Kim Gordon’s “‘I’m Really Scared When I Kill in My Dreams,’” a freewheeling riff on the work of Glenn Branca and the spectacle of rock performance (sample quote: “In whatever hellhole a performance is given, no matter how bad the world outside seems, rock music has always offered a refuge from it”); and a lengthy report by Wolfgang Max Faust on Christos Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal’s era-defining, but now largely forgotten, 1982 West Berlin exhibition “Zeitgeist,” a somewhat self-important-sounding display of then-ascendant neo-expressionism. (John Russell’s New York Times review of “Zeitgeist” had saliently pointed out that Susan Rothenberg, the only female artist in the show, was also the only female artist to have been included in any exhibition organized by Joachimides and Rosenthal.)

At art school, I spent a great deal of time in the library reading old art magazines. (I’m fairly certain I’d never actually seen a copy of Artforum prior to entering college, age nineteen, in the fall of 1984.) The library’s stacks of back issues of Artforum, Studio International, and Flash Art, among other titles, effectively provided me with my (art) education. (This experience proved so illuminating, I’m convinced you could teach a class based solely on a careful analysis of a randomly chosen back issue of Artforum, for example.) Art’s recent past, as encountered in the pages of dusty magazines, seemed strangely present, even visceral. The essays, articles, reviews, and advertisements functioned like a trail of clues, evidence of the ideas and actions of literally hundreds of artists and writers shaping an era, most of whom were completely unknown to me at the time.

Artforum’s editor in January 1983 was Ingrid Sischy (who had taken the helm in 1980 at the age of twenty-seven); the masthead also included managing editor David Frankel and books editor Richard Flood. (The magazine’s slogan, printed on the back page, was the somewhat cringe-inducing “the square magazine for well rounded people.”) The departure of Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson from the magazine in 1975 was, I imagine, still relatively fresh in Artforum’s collective memory. The time frame of this intellectual and ideological schism, which might broadly be characterized as a generational shift from pre- to post-punk sensibilities, appeared to open an editorial window for Sischy.

Sischy had been a member of the all-female No Wave group DISBAND, so it is perhaps no surprise that during her tenure, Artforum became more attuned to the cross-disciplinary narratives of various downtown New York art scenes. (One notable example was the February 1982 issue, which featured clothing by designer Issey Miyake on the cover.) These fluid collisions between art, architecture, music, film, and fashion were already in play in venues such as Danceteria and the Mudd Club (which would close in 1983), and in the pages of independently minded art magazines such as New York’s Real Life and London’s ZG. Sischy not only appeared to have an insider’s understanding of this milieu, but also an intuitive grasp of how to frame such cultural intersections for a broader and more geographically dispersed readership. The January 1983 issue, which, in addition to Gordon, included contributions from such downtown luminaries as Barbara Kruger, Gary Indiana, Kathy Acker, and Edit deAk, consequently feels “local” but never parochial—a hard trick to pull off. DeAk and Lisa Liebmann’s coauthored review of Keith Haring’s exhibition at Tony Shafrazi Gallery alludes to the interconnectedness of New York’s art and club scenes when they describe Haring’s show as “a Sparta for the coming millennium, a society of youth impelled by continual action at peak adrenaline.”

Sischy’s time at the magazine—she would leave in 1988 and become the editor of Interview magazine in 1989—bracketed the decade and dovetailed with my developing interests in contemporary art and literature, and with my prevailing passion for music. (My first in-person experience of Acker was in March 1986, when she read as the supporting act to Hüsker Dü’s melodic hardcore at a packed Riverside club in Newcastle, UK.) By taking popular culture seriously, and eschewing the high-low barriers that had insulated so much artwork from the ebb and flow of daily life, Artforum during this period made art seem not just accessible but relevant.

This is nowhere more evident than in Ratcliff’s expansive and often thrilling analysis of Bowie’s mercurial oeuvre, which could be published today as is, without any real need for contemporary revisions. (Bowie’s decade-defining album Let’s Dance [EMI America] would be released in April 1983.) Discussing the “tattered, gaudy formats” of Bowie’s style of collage, Ratcliff mentions Kurt Schwitters, John Ashbery, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Stéphane Mallarmé—all twentieth-century vanguard figures who incorporated fragments of daily life into their work—ultimately naming Robert Smithson as the recent artist who most shares Bowie’s “respect for the debased forms of mass culture” (an observation that equally applies to Sischy’s editorial mission at the time).

Writing about cover artist Le Va, critic Klaus Kertess draws a convincing analogy between the artist’s process and that of the detective novelist (his article begins with a quote from Raymond Chandler’s Simple Art of Murder):

‘Clue’ is a very important word in Le Va’s vocabulary . . . The viewer of a Le Va sculpture is invited to become the narrator, and to retrace the artist’s actions from the work’s material back to the motivation for it. The conditions that facilitate the viewer’s participation are remarkably similar to the dictates of most mystery novels: a general structure simultaneously ambiguous and transparent; suppression of superfluous detail; plainness and clarity—any strong image or significant form hinders the progress of the investigation.

I love that idea: “ . . . to retrace the artist’s actions from the work’s material back to the motivation for it,” one that in many ways echoed my earlier experience in the library, piecing together an idiosyncratic art history for myself from magazine pages, making connections across both space and time, encountering strange synchronicities among articles of often very different subjects. One finds these surprising resonances everywhere in the January 1983 issue: Indiana talks about Rainer Werner Fassbinder using the “investigative reporter” device in his film Veronika Voss (1982), and asks, “How many people have actually encountered detectives in the course of their daily lives, and why do detectives always speak in voiceovers?” And on the facing page, Acker’s review of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Critical Essays discusses communication in terms of espionage: “The result for us of living with language that controls rather than communicates, for communication is life, is that we don’t know what we know and we don’t know if we know. The spy story is our literary representation.” Of course all three commentators were writing in a divisive and paranoid political landscape at the height of the Reagan and Thatcher era, the Cold War still a determining reality, and at a moment of technological transition (Time’s Person of the Year for 1982 was declared to be the computer).

Like the art world back in the early 1980s, Artforum was noticeably smaller than it is today. The January 1983 issue had just ninety-six pages and no spine (by comparison, the Summer 2013 issue ran to 394 pages). One of the main reasons for this discrepancy is obvious: There were significantly fewer pages of advertising in 1983. But the advertisements that were published tell their own story of the time. Few galleries outside the US advertised. There was only one ad for an art fair: the then-mighty Chicago International Art Exposition. There were no ads for biennials, triennials, or auction houses, nor any for luxury consumer goods, restaurants, or hotels. The lifestyle-ification of the art world clearly hadn’t happened yet. Significantly, of the New York galleries that did advertise in 1983 and that remain active some thirty years later, a large number were founded by women: Mary Boone, Paula Cooper, Barbara Gladstone, Marian Goodman, and Metro Pictures among them.

Another curious discovery was the short run of most exhibitions. Given that we are now accustomed to gallery shows lasting six to eight weeks, and museum shows running for an entire season, it’s a revelation to register that Metro Pictures’ (I can only imagine groundbreaking) exhibition of Eva Hesse’s paintings and reliefs from the mid-’60s was only on view from January 8 through 29, the exact same dates as Sperone Westwater’s concurrent Gerhard Richter exhibition. Of course, a gallery’s programming in the early ’80s wasn’t structured around the demands and schedules of the fairs, biennials, and auctions that are central to today’s art calendar. Without websites, Facebook, or Twitter, galleries had to experiment with alternative media platforms, as evidenced by an ad for White Columns Television, the not-for-profit’s Friday-night show on Manhattan Cable. One prominent ad was placed by the Professional andAdministrative Staff Association of the Museum of Modern Art in New York that sought to alert the “art-going public” to its attempts to “secure an acceptable wage scale that we feel is fair and realistic,” spookily echoing today’s nationwide debates concerning income inequality and the value of labor in the arts.

In the realm of the back issue, history appears to be simultaneously frozen (look how different things were then!) and elastic (look how this still relates today!). Many of the artists prominently featured in these pages have long since faded into something like obscurity, just as many of the influential galleries that took out ads have long since shuttered—such is the relentless entropy of the art world. As the first month of 1983 drew to a close, the January issue, its shelf life expired, would soon experience its own high-low afterlife, retreating to the sanctuary of the library, or beginning a slow and circuitous journey to the flea market, awaiting rediscovery.

Matthew Higgs is an artist; the Director and Chief Curator of White Columns, New York; and a regular contributor to Artforum.

Visit Artforum’s archive at to see the January 1983 issue, and to read a conversation between Ingrid Sischy and Michelle Kuo published in the September 2012 issue.