Interview by Ilana Stanger
You studied art in Germany, France, and our own Philadelphia. Was your interest in art as a vehicle for social change/expression immediate, or did that develop over time and through your studies?
It had less to do with my studying art than with reading the newspapers. If you are studying in art school, which I did, the school–like other institutions–is infused with ideology. It’s a question of recognizing it and how to respond. We don’t live in a compartmentalized world. That means everything we’re exposed to—-no matter if we pick it up in the streets, in school, in conversations or general life experience—-contributes to our view of the world.
You’ve said that the political context in which you work is as significant as the site for which it’s created, or the materials it’s created with. What political issues speak to you? Do you feel that you find them or that they find you?
When I am offered a context to work in, like a gallery, a museum or a public building, that context has all sorts of social implications. Political events and the general social climate of the time may also enter the equation. I familiarize myself with the situation as much as possible. And then it’s a question of how to interpret and how to deal with it.
Has there ever been an issue that you haven’t been able to explore with art? I suppose I’m thinking particularly of September 11th…
Yes. There are situations that are extremely complex and therefore difficult to respond to. As far as September 11th is concerned, I don’t have a clear sense of it yet. Therefore I hold back. If I were asked to do a work relating to September 11th now, I’d say, ‘You’ve got to wait.’
Some artists label their work personal rather than political. Do you see a division between those terms?
I question whether it is possible to neatly separate the personal from the political. The insistence on what is assumed to be personal is itself a political decision. It disregards that the “personal” is affected by the political, and that all public articulations have the potential of affecting the social discourse.
I want to ask you about the development of your art career. Your cancelled 1971 Guggenheim exhibit has become something of an art history landmark. How did you get to the point where you were slotted for a solo show at the Guggenheim?
There was no particular step. I imagine this is true for the career of many artists. In the early 60s, while living in Germany, in France, and also in the US, I developed something that was a bit different from what others had done. I was fortunate, in 1965, to have had artist friends who helped me to get into the Howard Wise Gallery in New York. Exposure in a gallery makes your work known–not only to collectors but also to other artists, writers, and curators. Among those was a curator from the Guggenheim, Edward Fry. He took an interest in what I was doing and proposed an exhibition.
How did the Guggenheim’s decision not to show your work change your career?
Of course it was a blow. I had no experience in dealing with censorship and the toll it takes. I was fortunate that people in European institutions continued to be interested in my work. They offered me shows and I was also invited to major international exhibitions. In 1972, for example, I participated in Documenta [d5], and in the late 1970’s I was twice invited to show at the Venice Bienniale. This European exposure allowed me to stay alive, so to speak. In New York the shutter had come down. In the year of the Guggenheim debacle, the Howard Wise Gallery had closed. Two years later, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the John Weber Gallery where, over many years, I had about a dozen shows. But it took 15 years before another U.S. museum offered me a solo show. That was in 1986 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
How did you end up teaching at Cooper Union?
I applied. The Art School was in transition. A new dean had come in who wanted to put together a faculty of his own choice. That coincided with my application. I was lucky. He hired me as an adjunct and eventually I got a full-time job.
What do you try to teach your students?
To think on their own and to think in terms of the long haul. It’s not about getting a foot in the door, although that is not unimportant. More important is that they develop something that can sustain them for many years and that adds something significant to what we know.
How has the reception of your own work changed through the years?
There’ve been plenty of ups and downs.
What type of art interests you? What art attracts you?
I can’t answer that question. I respond spontaneously and rather intuitively to all sorts of things. I then try to analyze why I reacted to a work in a particular way. My appreciation of an artist’s work or, for that matter, an entire way of thinking, is not stable. It changes as time goes by.
You mentioned that you’d advise students to prepare for the “long haul”–how have you sustained your work through the years?
One rule I set for myself right early on was that I should not be dependent on the vagaries of the art market. It has given me a degree of independence. I wouldn’t have dared doing certain things without that. Teaching has given me the economic base one needs. But it’s not only for the money. I enjoy teaching. I learn a lot from students.