Interview with Robert Storr

Donna Dennis: Subway with Lighted Interior, 1974 Mixed media (wood, acrylic and enamel paint, masonite, incandescent light, fluorescent light fixture - unlit, cellulose compound, charcoal, graphite) 75" x 43" x 32" Collection of John and Thomas Solomon Photograph courtesy of Bevan Davies

On the occasion of That Is Then. This Is Now., Cameron Shaw spoke to Mr. Storr, who is the current Dean of the Yale University School of Art. He was curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1990 to 2002, where he organized exhibitions on Elizabeth Murray, Gerhard Richter, and Robert Ryman, among others. A distinguished professor, writer, and artist, here, he discusses issues of memory and change and “the truly strange and wonderful things that crop up all around us.” The show is on view through October 30th, 2010 at CUE Art Foundation located at 511 West 25th Street, NY, NY 10001.

Cameron Shaw: There seems to be a dialogue between this exhibition and the High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975 show that Katy Siegel curated a few years back. In some ways, That is Then. This Is Now. functions as a coda: what happened to some of those artists, or those working with some similar ideas, after 1975.

RS: I liked that show very much and for years have been interested in many of the artists that appeared in it. Now that you have an accelerated turnover of names and tendencies—I won’t call them movements—in the art world, people with memories serve a special function. Irving Sandler, Katy, I, and others, all have long memories, and we want to share them. The fact that you can be extremely prominent in the art world in one season and virtually invisible the next is something with which artists have to grapple. One of the ways that critics and curators can deal with this fact is to remind people, for no other reason than this stuff is truly worth seeing.

CS: I noticed that you were hesitant to use the word “movement.” It reminds me of something Holland Cotter wrote in a 2008 review regarding Pattern and Decoration. He suggested that it might be the last real art movement, that the market and its corporate mechanisms no longer allow for the necessary degree of true collectivism among artists.

RS: I respect Holland Cotter a great deal, but he’s dead wrong. Movements arise when there is a common sense of moment and purpose, and there is no telling when they will arise. How long they last, whether they are as coherent as they purport to be, that’s another story. I don’t think one looks at the market for these things. When you look at art history, Minimalism is an identifiable vector, Abstract Expressionism is an identifiable vector, the Pictures Generation is an identifiable vector, and there will doubtlessly be others.

The one thing that’s over is the idea of definitive histories. I think the period of pluralism in the 1970s that so many conservative critics lamented was in fact the first time in a very long time that people were thinking about the actual diversity of art making that always goes on. One of the things that Katy’s show did was to bring that awareness back to the forefront.

CS: Tackiness is an idea that some of these artists seem to be working with, those working with Pattern and Decoration obviously, but even Donna Dennis with her early hotel sculptures. I couldn’t help thinking about the Site Santa Fe Biennial you curated on the idea of the grotesque.

RS: They are definitely related, and of course, the foil for them is this very restrictive definition of modern art that was advanced by Clement Greenberg. If you go into the vaults of the Museum of Modern Art and really take stock of what is there, I defy you to write a streamlined history of modern art. I also defy you to say that what you see there is not modern art because it doesn’t fit into Greenberg’s or somebody else’s conception of modern art.

CS: So, in some ways you’re digging into those vaults with this show.

RS: Irving and I share an interest in a great many things and a high comfort level with our own contradictions, therefore a high comfort level with the disparities in the things that interest us. We are most interested in the energy and excitement of the things people make and much less interested in creating constructs to tidy up the mess. Pattern and Decoration, for instance, was a rebellion against the idea that art had to be excruciatingly severe and that the worst thing you could be, if you were an artist and you were serious, was decorative.

I’ve just written a text on Lari Pittman and he is in many ways a decorative painter and he owes a certain debt to Pattern and Decoration. That said, he sneaks into this decoration side of his work every possible challenge to the comfort zone of so-called “average” American viewers. He uses decoration to create an allegorical space of gay identity and a vessel for his thoughts about mortality—things you wouldn’t associate with the cheerier side of Pattern and Decoration. But then again there’s no reason to think of Pattern and Decoration work as inherently bright and sunny. These are the sweeping generalizations that people make because they are ignorant of alternatives, of exceptions, and of the truly strange and wonderful things that crop up all around us.

CS: Indeed there is something very dark in how disjointed Pattern and Decoration allowed these tropes that we associate with bright and sunny to become. You put so many flowers or patterns on a page and they become akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” They drive you crazy. This proximity to beauty can be maddening.

RS: That’s why people who speak in crude terms about things that have embellishment or ornament on them are not thinking very carefully nor are they looking very carefully. I understand why Adolf Loos, for example, condemned ornament. I understand the need he felt and the need that others have felt over the years to clear out the underbrush and start with fundamental forms that are strong and clear. Indeed one of the reasons that they desire this is that they find the confusion in the density of information too provocative. It is too exciting. It is too disturbing. What that they want is order.

CS: To get you to engage in a sweeping generalization for a moment, you’ve talked a bit about comfort zones. Do you think that the role of art is to get people out of their comfort zones?

RS: Very much so. That is not the same as saying art is there to make people uncomfortable. There are many kinds of pleasures that are not comfortable, but they are pleasures nonetheless. A Robert Ryman painting is not supposed to make you feel bad about the world or about yourself, but the kind of pleasure that it provides makes demands on you, demands that take you out of your comfort zone. It may produce a pleasure that exceeds comfort. Comfort is a maintenance level hedonism, but real pleasure is assertive and requires things of us.

CS: There was something that struck me about many of the artists in the exhibition. There seems to be a real engagement with the idea of place.

RS: I don’t think it was a conscious idea for Irving or me, but I do think you’re correct in identifying that thrust in much of the work. It is a certain kind of groundedness on the one hand, and on the other hand—I won’t call it a romantic sensibility—but a willingness to evoke rather than to state, a willingness to use the variable memories of an audience to infuse a given artist’s metaphor with content beyond its literal description.

Donna Dennis is one of those wonderful unsung artists. Here is this person who for as long as I have known her, that is to say for well over two decades, has been building an alternate vision of New York City in the heart of New York City. The city itself has changed so much but in her loft she has replicas of how it once was. Donna has been able, both in her drawing and installation practice, to create situations that make you feel as one might have felt entering the city for the first time–that it is vast and sublime. That is certainly an awareness of place.

CS: Each artist is represented by one work from the 1970s and one work from the present with nothing in between. Do you think that any of these artists have changed to such a degree that this juxtaposition tells us something specific about the possibilities of artistic practice and evolution within the individual?

RS: Yes, a good number of them have changed very dramatically. Most good artists do change. Some good artists, like Gerhard Richter for one, do things that seem to many people to be contradictory. The question might be: Why is there so much expectation that artists be consistent in their style? The counter examples are so numerous that we should focus less on if an artist changes than why.  If an artist works on alternating currents, then what are those currents? What is successful and what is not?

CS: Yes, we unduly place artists on a pedestal. We expect them to be consistent in a way that we would not expect a friend to be consistent in his actions over the years. The friend we might say has grown; for the artist, change often becomes a negative trait.

RS: It also has to do with the big tendencies in our culture. In the old myth, to have integrity meant not to change. To be an agent of history meant knowing the one direction that history was going to take. Now one likes the fact that people have many facets and that they show them at different moments. Also, if you look at the big historical dynamics, things are moving and changing because to grow and survive they must. People who make them change proceed out of a pressing need to respond to what’s out there. Good curators and critics have the same need.

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