THE KINGSBORO PRESS
ISSUE 5, 2009
ASHER PENN: Have you always been a writer/curator? Did you ever make art? Play in a band? Write poetry?
BOB NICKAS: I began to write about art and organize shows shortly after moving to New York at the end of '84. One of the first published pieces that anyone ever saw was in the East Village Eye, a review of the Arte Povera exhibition at PS1., and I was sort of ridiculed for it in the Village Voice — by Kim Levin, if I remember correctly. Some of the best work at PS1 was from the late '60s, and I acknowledged being only 12 or 13 when it was originally shown. I'm glad to have learned early on to avoid the first-person and one's own narrative. So funny you should ask about poetry, because of course the kind that I read was what I thought you were supposed to be reading as a teenager — confessional poets like Charles Bukowski and Anne Sexton, and then also Diane Wakoski. You know, lots of drinking and pills and you wake up on the beach and there's George Washington, with a hard-on. I mean, he is the father of our country. Did I ever make art, or play in a band? No to both. For whatever reason, and I'm thankful to this day, I knew that I was meant to be out in the audience — though not passively, as I think time has shown.
AP: I was looking over some of your earlier writings that were featured in Live Free or Die, and was really struck by the contrast between your writing then and now. I remember reading that first essay about Olivier Mosset. It was a concentrated piece of writing, something I had to read a couple of times to get a handle on. You were working on abstract themes — value, production, experience. The content was so important that there wasn't much room for a "voice." I found that as the book progressed the writing became increasingly more accessible.
BN: Your mention of that piece in particular is right on the mark, and unknowingly you've outed me. I was very attracted to appropriation in the early to mid-80s, and people know that I took for my own shows a number of titles of important exhibitions from the 60s — When Attitudes Become Form, Primary Structures, The Art of the Real. This was in a sense my way of participating in the moment, as well as drawing a parallel between certain gestures of the late 60s and those of the late 80s, between sensibilities that echoed twenty years after the fact. What's not known is that there are a number of early texts that are appropriated as well, things that I did not write but that were re-translated and given a new context, or in the case of Mosset, a new subject by which to consider ideas and questions posed in the original text. I love the character of Chauncy Gardner that Peter Sellers created in the movie Being There, and in many ways the text on Mosset is "narrated" by the simpleton/philosopher that is Chauncy Gardner. That book also includes a version of a piece by Oscar Wilde, and I have to say I'm surprised that over all these years no one has ever noticed. No one. And Wilde's is such a distinctive voice. I mean, I'm not a ventriloquist. How could anyone read that piece and for a minute think it was me "speaking." The book is arranged chronologically, so if the writing is increasingly accessible, if it sounds more like my voice as it goes on, it's simply because I had left that kind of writing experiment or prank behind as I became more sure of my speaking/writing voice. But that's probably true for a lot of writers. And actually I'm not sure if I was really writing back then, if it can be called that. There are texts and words and ideas but I can't be sure of the extent to which they were really mine.
AP: I'm still curious how you came to write the way you do today. Were there people you were reading that encouraged you? People you were working against? Were you trying to fill a niche? Were you trying to create one?
BN: There was absolutely no conscious thought about "how" to write, as if there was a plan, or a perceived problem to be solved or deficiency that had to be dealt with. The writing just evolved, and it makes sense to me now — only with hindsight — because I never really enjoyed reading art criticism or reviews. I still don't. It's very rare that I read about art unless I'm researching an artist I'm going to write about. I prefer to read interviews with artists, rather than essays on artists. Most critics are bad writers, academic, flat-footed, not stylists at all. If you're looking for pleasure in the text then art writing will almost always disappoint. The only art historian I enjoy reading is Svetlana Alpers, who is incredibly clear and direct and gives you a lot to think about. The authors I enjoy are so-called science fiction writers — Octavia Butler, J.G. Ballard, Samuel Delaney, and Philip K. Dick. My favorite short story writer is Donald Barthelme, who wrote one of the very best texts ever on Sherrie Levine. I remember many years ago, being at a dinner party given by an art critic who was quite active in the 80s and 90s, and she said that what she wrote was more important than the art she wrote about. I was stunned. I told her, in front of all her guests, that she was delusional, but she stood her ground. Today, if I mention her name you'd probably draw a complete blank. She's rarely published, has never written a book, and might as well have never committed a single word to paper. So much for criticism being more important than the art. But she is also a teacher, and if she still thinks that way she's dangerous. I'm glad to have had that experience. It must have had some effect on my sense of purpose.
AP: I think this is one of the reasons your writing is so appealing; while it is personal, it's surprisingly selfless. Do you think this relates to your practice as a curator? Have your experiences working with artists effected your attitude as a writer?
BN: Selfless? I think that everything I do is in some way selfish — it's what I want to see, what I want to have, who I want to interact with, where I want to go — and yet something is made available to others, to the artists and to a public. To be perfectly honest, and of course you can never really trust anyone who begins a thought with "to be perfectly honest," I never consider an audience. I'm thinking of myself, the artists who are directly involved in a show, and maybe a few people who can easily be counted on one hand. There's no such thing as an audience. It's a total myth — that is unless you're Stephen King or Takashi Murakami or Prince. But not Richard Prince. Life is an endless group show, and whether it takes the form of art works hung in a gallery or inviting a dozen people to your house for dinner. The only difference is that in more social situations there's never the expectation that anything will be bought and sold.
AP: You "dropped out" of the art world for five years to edit a magazine. Tell me, how did Index start?
BN: It was Peter Halley's idea to do a magazine. His thinking, if I remember correctly, was that the art world at the time, and this would have been in '95, wasn't very exciting. He wanted to connect with a larger cultural world — with movies and music and fashion, with architecture and design — and thought a magazine was the best way. He had, of course, the Warholian model of Interview magazine. Interview, at least in the beginning, was Warhol's way of getting close to celebrities and famous people who he could then talk into having their portraits painted, and at about $25,000 each. The Factory would have increased cash flow, and the paintings would also help fund the magazine. There wasn't going to be a similar pay-off for Peter because he didn't exactly paint portraits. He painted abstract cells and conduits. At one point when Index wasn't going well, he had to sell a Warhol painting he owned, a small Electric Chair. It must have been incredibly difficult for him to do, and heartbreaking, and in retrospect I wish he hadn't. The magazine wasn't worth it. So in starting the magazine, Peter very much wanted to move beyond the insular art scene, and after being in it for over ten years, and maybe getting as famous as was going to get, it didn't offer any real surprise or challenge. Peter must have seen Index as his conduit to other and more exciting scenes. He had wanted to call the magazine "Pop," which I really didn't care for. I mean, start an interview-format magazine based on Warhol's Interview and call it Pop? One day, I was at home writing, as usual on my typewriter — I didn't have a computer until after we started the magazine — and noticed that one of the keys said "Index." That's where the name came from.
AP: Other than coming up with a name, what was your contribution to the magazine?
BN: Well, the look of the magazine came from a really great designer — Laura Genninger, who was recommended to us by Mike Mills — and I'd like to think that the typewriter typography she chose had some relation to my typewritten texts. When I pick up the magazine today, it still looks odd to me. I mean, magazines don't look like this. It's such a hand-made, anti-magazine. It's oversized, not glossy, has this big typewriter type, and is full of interviews with lots of fringe or cult or unknown people, and so different from most magazines in that it was basically an anti-celebrity fanzine. That's what I brought to the magazine, a distaste for celebrities, most of whom don't inspire you or have anything to say, who are forced down your throat day after day. The magazine represented my love for the more cultish, underdog, overlooked or forgotten figures who do matter. Not exactly a formula for success. And actually I do think that index, while financially unsuccessful, had some influence. We saw that we were copied, that other people took notice of our going about a magazine in an unconventional but interesting way. I brought in a lot of fannish writers — Mary Clark and Christina Kelly, who had been at Sassy; Steve Lafreniere who is one of the greatest interviewers ever, recommended to me by Hudson from Feature gallery; Richard Wang, who had a great, hilarious online magazine, Blair; Amy Kellner, one of those absolutely natural voices with a great sense of humor, and who's now at Vice; and the filmmaker Bruce La Bruce, who could turn anything, absolutely anything, into the smartest, craziest adventure you ever got taken along to. Without my ever instructing them, they knew, as I do, that you must always tell a good story, not a true totally story, that you have a reader to entertain. These writers all had really original, offbeat ideas and the most amazing instincts. As an editor, I gave them very free rein. Most magazines have a list of "contributing editors," and it's basically a joke. The people listed never write a single word, let alone contribute any ideas. Our contributing editors were totally involved in the content. I was always interacting with them and primed the pump. The magazine, issue after issue, was very much a reflection of what interested them and what interested me.
AP: A lot of the anti-celebrities written about in Index went on to kind of become the institution. Do you think the magazine had a direct influence in that? Or was it just inevitable?
BN: The way I see it, many of the people we were really interested in did not become household names. Who was in the cover of the first issue:? The actress Allison Folland. Who's that? And on the second? The actor Udo Kier. Who you remember from what? A hundred Hollywood movies where he plays the bad Nazi submarine commander? And of course there's Royal Trux, an amazing band that doesn't exist anymore. The Danielson Family — Christian rock kids from southern Jersey who dressed like doctors and nurses. Casey Affleck, younger brother of movie star Ben. Porn star Shane. (After we covered her, Maurizio Cattelan would sternly wag his finger at me and yell: "Shane on You!") The actor Brendan Sexton, who we all loved and who we had such great pictures of thanks to Terry Richardson. And those were the "stars" we put on the cover! If we start talking about a lot of the people we had inside the magazine, you'd be very hard pressed to make a case for them being celebrities. Keep in mind that I can only take credit for, or fault for, as the case may be, the contents of the first five years of the magazine. After that, it may have become more normal, but not under my direction.
AP: Why did you end up leaving the magazine?
BN: I always cringe when I hear about people who've worked together and split up, and then cite "creative differences." Everyone knows how to translate that: messy and very unpleasant, with money paid out on the condition that dirty laundry won't be aired in public. So I'm tempted to say that we had creative differences, but it's true, and no translation necessary. Peter is used to getting things his way, and so am I — not the best recipe for a creative partnership. But we did work well together for the first three-four years, and I'm proud of what we did, and glad that he gave me the job in the first place. That said, there were two interviews, one that happened and one that didn't, that convinced me to leave. I had proposed that we interview Stereo Total and put them on the cover, a photo that would have been shot by Terry Richardson. He was doing our covers at the time, in '98/'99, and I knew it would have been a really good pairing of photographer and subject. Stereo Total was in town to play a show, everything was set up, and we went to see them. Peter thought they were ridiculous and amateurish; at least that's how I remember his response, so he cancelled the cover shoot. Then I cancelled the interview. I have to admit that they were ridiculous and amateurish, and fun — perfect for Index. It was as if he had completely forgotten who we were. He wanted the magazine to be taken more seriously by advertisers and, as the publisher, that makes sense. On the other hand, I'm well aware of just how many things start out and are amazing, then a few years go by and they lose it. I had the feeling that we were on the way to losing it so we could make it. The other interview I was dead set against: Tom Ford talking to Ann Hamilton. Ann Hamilton is such a pretentious artist, the kind of artist who should never, ever be in a magazine like Index. Peter, however, wanted to get ads from Gucci, and this was his ruse, because Gucci was a sponsor for Hamilton's exhibition at the Venice Biennale. And did Index ever get ads from Gucci? Not while I was there. Anyway, I always believe that things turn out the way they're supposed to. Leaving the magazine came at the right time for me, because after being more or less away from the art world for five years, I was ready to get my old life back and make it new again.
AP: How did you start working with P.S.1? How did that contrast your regular curating within the gallery system?
BN: It's not so many years ago, but I can't remember exactly how it happened. I think that I approached Alanna Heiss about doing a show with Art Chantry, who is one of the best graphic designers to come out of punk — he and Jamie Reid, who had a big hand in the look of the Sex Pistols' images. Chantry is little known outside of the design world, where he has been incredibly influential — and copied — recognized, and admired as a real iconoclast who never sold out. He's known to have turned down jobs from every major computer company, from Coca Cola and IBM. He wouldn't sell out, ever. So besides the fact that I love what he does, I love what he won't do. Art had never had a survey show in a New York museum. I wanted to be the one to give it to him, and did. As a result of that show, Alanna asked me to work as a curator at P.S.1, and despite the fact that I'm wary of institutions, I also knew that P.S.1, under Alanna's direction, was a place where a freak like myself would be welcome and given free rein. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Alanna is the only museum director in the whole country who would offer me a job. I'm not a "professional" in any sense of the term, or any kind of reliable team player. I don't like to sit around at endless meetings having my time wasted when I could be going to studios and shows, or writing at home. While I was at P.S.1 I did not have a desk or a computer or a phone. And keep in mind that I don't have a cell phone. Even so, or more correctly because of that, I was incredibly productive. Between the summer of 2003 and winter 07 I organized seventeen exhibitions, seven artist projects, worked instrumentally on the "Greater New York" show and catalog in '05, and published four catalogs that accompanied shows of mine — and in a museum that has neither a publication department nor an annual budget for catalogs. Has any curator in the entire history of P.S.1, even a chief curator with a big paycheck, accomplished that? I'd be very surprised. I am incredibly grateful to Alanna for giving me the job, but I made the most of it, as she knew I would. Her great talent, as you don't see in most museum people in this country, is to see what people are capable of and let them run. That era, sadly, will surely be coming to an end. It's fitting that I started there with the Art Chantry show, because he is, like I am, a total misfit.
AP: You've written about, and worked with a number of artists early in their careers. What has it been like afterwards, watching these artists as their career continues on? I'm especially curious about Cady Noland, Steven Parrino, and Ryan Mcginley.
BN: I really haven't worked much, or been identified with, Ryan McGinley, as I have with Cady Noland and Steven Parrino. Those are two artists who very much influenced how I look not only at art but at the art world. They are responsible for how I can be in it and not of it, how I can operate at a remove. Cady taught me how people in the art world are basically sociopaths, and the only difference between a sociopath and a psychopath is that sociopaths don't actually kill people. Of course in the art world you do have people who vindictively kill careers, which is tantamount to an act of murder, there's just no body to dispose of. It's a body of work that is quote/unquote buried. What I learned from Steven is not so psychological. He stood for a kind of stubborn insistence on how things should be. He was influenced by, and/or found a fellow resister, in Olivier Mosset, whose perverse relation to art and the market has been incredibly important to my position, which is ultimately a philosophy. The love/hate relationship one has, or better have, with the so-called art world, is a matter of negotiating one's moves that don't entail — emphasis on don't — either dropping out entirely or killing yourself, the ultimate drop-out. Cady stopped working and tries as best she can to police or interrupt the exhibition of her work, ironically a bathetic interaction with the idea of control over a situation she once addressed in an articulate and measured, rather than frenetic, emotional manner. Parrino stands for an obdurate position that is very close to my own unwillingness to give in to someone else's idea of what is expected of me, or of art for that matter. Both Noland and Parrino helped me to understand that many people involved with art don't have anything to do with it. To see that Parrino has ascended in death to a highly valued artist where, in life, he was all but ignored, and that Noland, who, in her absence, has only magnified her presence and importance, is in absolutely no way satisfying. Who can you be happy for? The dead or the living "dead"? Those who bought for almost nothing works they now sell for incredibly high prices, like the Rubells. The painting they bought for about $4,500 in 1986 was sold for $675,000 over twenty years later. And what did they do with the money? Buy some crappy paintings from Bulgaria or China that will never mean anything, not one fucking thing, to the history of art? They're like Pac-Mans that incessantly move forward, hungrily and with no sense of where they're been or where they're headed. To see that finally there are solid, high auction prices for works by Cady only underscores how she, like so many other artists, must witness the easy profits of those who parallel the creative act with a pathetic signature, authorship reduced to a name on a check: the name of the collector like a celebrity autograph. What a laugh, and in no way entertaining.
You do want to see the artists you care about, identify with, and defend, go forward and succeed, and there is real satisfaction in seeing them move ahead, but at the same time you know that the so-called art world is an ever-feeding machine, that artists will be subsumed to this larger field in which you are only one satellite, easily jettisoned. The way things used to be, galleries had a "stable" of artists represented — misrepresented — and you back away from the artist as "property," as something controlled and owned, and so you can't feel too violated by an artist's success, their being overtaken by other interested parties.
AP: Can you talk a little bit about the abstract painting book you're working on right now with Phaidon? It sounds like it's gonna be quite the tome.
BN: It is a tome, and had I known how overwhelmed I would be with just the prospect of getting it done, I might not have proposed it in the first place. But now that it's almost finished I am glad I took on the project. There are eighty artists in the book, and each has a text of about a thousand words, so factoring in the introduction, I will probably have written about 90,000 words when all is said and done. The book is called "painting abstraction." I wanted lower case to avoid Painting with a capital P and Abstraction with a capital A, but also to make it sound as active as possible. You ask: what are these artists doing? And the response is: painting abstraction. It's interesting to note how many artists don't think of their work as abstract. I came to realize that what most of them are after is an image, or something close to an image, and if there's an image then how can it be abstract? I had to arrive at my own conclusion/definition. What is an abstraction? Something that wasn't in the world until it was painted. Although the book covers the past five years, I've included a number of artists working since the 60s and 70s because they're important to a younger generation and, still painting today, remain engaged with their practice. It's what I do in most of my shows. The historical figures are present so that we can see how sensibilities correspond between generations. I think that my editor, Craig Garrett, having seen some of my shows, was interested to have one person choose the artists and write the entire book — to have a writer/curator, rather than a selection committee and numerous authors. And I didn't imagine the book as having eighty characters who tell a single story, but as a collection of eighty stories. I made many studio visits, here in New York, of course, but also in Berlin, Paris, London, and Los Angeles, and the book will be unique in the sense that as you read it you feel as if you are in the studio, the paintings are there, and the person speaking is the person who made them.
AP: You recently started From the Nursery records to release Orphan's debut LP, Aborted By Birth. Given the relationship between the titles, I was wondering if you had started the label just to release that one album. Is there more stuff coming out from the label? If so, what's it going to be like? Also, how's it going running a vinyl only record label in 2009?
BN: I started the label to put out a few records a year, and Orphan was the perfect one to start with. I recently asked the Melvins to do something — they're one of my very favorite bands — and they said yes, but we're still waiting to move forward. They're always busy, it seems, touring a good part of the year, putting out records regularly. I'm sure that mine will come along eventually. I also asked Trisha Donnelly to do a record of her sound pieces, and she agreed, although instead of pre-existing pieces, a number of which have been editioned and sold, and potentially poseing a problem, Trisha wants to do all new sound pieces now, so we're going to have to be patient. As for vinyl, I have always collected records and dislike CDs. I've been buying records since I was ten or eleven years old. Records sound way better than CDs. The object offers a larger field for artwork, and the art for the records is an important part of why I'm doing them. The Orphan record has original artwork by the LA-based painter, David Ratcliff, and he is someone very much into their music. My idea is to have the artwork for each record done by an artist who is also a fan. The record label is really just an extension of my activities in the art world, and one I hope will expand.