F*ck Art (Let’s Dance):
A conversation with Sally Eckhoff
by bart plantenga
“I became an artist of lots of different things besides painting: an artist of ordering takeout, dancing all beered up in downtown bars, banging around my own head in the night, walking home without getting mugged, of wanting – sometimes begging and self-deceiving, too.”
• Sally Eckhoff
I must say I was worried when I began reading artist-writer-equestrian Sally Eckhoff’s exuberant ode-critique of New York from her decidedly engaged, joi de vivre, painter’s point of view as it portrays the NY “we” knew during its second-to-last gasps of affordable decadence, the mid-1980s. Since then – the exact date is unknown and debated – NYC has managed to descend into a state of tortured opulence, of clichéd bling, something like trannie makeup on a corpse – something like that.
This decline is much bickered and written about on social media. But that’s OK because, even if the breakfast joint sucked back then it sucked with a certain panache that makes it superior to sucking today. Or so goes the argument. NYC is now a playground-backdrop for the elite’s commercials, their bonuses, their exploitations. Sally articulated this well: “I always under-estimate rich people’s ability to transform their routines for the sake of amusement.” And make no mistake, it is their amusement park now.
That the book was like one thick, page-turning, mnemonic device means that each page pretty much recalled or continued the already driving, pumping, heated, babel-like soundtrack as brought to you by jazz legends from the 50s, acid jazz, Fugs, Borbetomagus, Don Cherry, Lou Reed, bad FM radio like WNEW-FM & PIX-FM, the Ramones the Clash when they became obsessed with NYC, the Paladium concerts, the Limelight nights, the general din that seemed to keep our souls vacuum-sealed and hooked on the IV drip that was adrenalin + loud, clangorous and jangly sounds – I think of the elegant, edgy beats at 99 Records – ESG, Liquid Liquid, Y Pants, Singers & Players – and that seemed to speak to us more than any visual or poetic works, that seemed to both criticize and lionize, both transcend and indulge in the tumultuous and frenetic out there where our the nerve endings of all of our extremities seemed to tingle day and night suspiciously until one day you just passed out. Each page in F*ck Art recalls a specific sound, each sound recalls a specific corner, each memory of that corner is a page in my/our diary.
SE: I’m like Dorothy Parker: I detest rich people even though I think I’d be darling at it. OK, I try not to hate rich people. But I really don’t know any except for a handful of friends who really made it, and all they talk about is their kitchen appliances. I know, I know – I have to be nice to these poor waifs. Who else will? About twenty years ago I saw a lot of upper-crusty Manhattan women leaving the Whitney Biennial wearing buttons that said, “I Can’t Imagine Wanting To Be White.” They lived such cushy lives that they could even afford the pretense that they rejected their social position. Phony self-loathing. It must have been fun.
bp: The ultimate dodge is this luxurious option to despise one’s upbringing and social position by showing mock solidarity with the underclass via Facebook or by wearing scuffed up hi-tops or ripped jeans – covering all the bases by wearing doubly ironic Gucci ripped-custom-faded jeans, drinking over-priced cans of Pabst, enabling them to kid themselves and project solidarity and haut distinction all multi-tasky simultaneously while renting the city as their movie set to cast themselves as naughty-disobedient denizens.
Sally’s book is that rare painter’s memoir [certainly rarer than rock star memoirs] that is so close to the bone you begin to hallucinate that marrow mixed with cheap ale is the essential ingredient of any good painting. In places it reads like a Bronte-ian or Byronian ode to cuckolded betrayal as sung by the Bush Tetras singing “a song about what a horrible place their own neighborhood had become.” Rhapsodic and yet a brutal reality check on the classic Sex in the City, Hollywood-sanitized-upscaled visions of NYC. The book commences in 1977 with the Blackout, the Summer of Son of Sam and ends with the Tompkins Square Park Riots and Reagan Youth, syphilis, Prince at Roseland [and me moving to Paris] in 1988. Her points of reference, her landmarks, her rites of passage, her pizza joints, so crisscross mine that it is amazing that we really only met after we both left NYC and discovered we were even at some of the same parties – and maybe discussed the world intensely on a tar roof on a humid summer night.
Anyway, most of the artists, musicians, messengers, florists, receptionists, streetsweepers, erotic dancers, lab technicians – the 99% – might say any place one cannot afford to survive in, let alone thrive in, cannot be painted a success and yet most visitors-tourists are outspoken fans of how NYC fully corroborates their NYC myths. They enthuse with particular consumerist zeal: a giant walk-through display window of consumable desires and mock adventures. Disney for the facial-hirsute generation? Just take the IRT 6 train to Cooper Square and head east. For Disney’s Hipster Kingdom just take the L Train to Bedford Ave.
However, Eckhoff, in this autobiographical urban exploration that describes her difficult on-off love affair with NYC, manages to take all of this urban dissonance in stride. The East Village was already being declared dead in as early as 1983 when Klaus Nomi died and Club 57 shut its doors. But for Eckhoff and her carousing compadres it is precisely this detail that made it all the more challenging to carve something authentic out of what remained.
Eckhoff, for her part, manages to insert her kinetic, enthusiastic, earnest and ambitious self into its midst with grace and humor – and lands mostly on her feet. She eats humble pie like it’s all part of the learning curve. Was all that jockeying between hip and real a worthy endeavor? Could we have been thriving elsewhere? What does a modern person have to offer herself and the city she adopts when she is a painter of paintings that go relatively unnoticed because they do not fit into the then-current, early-80s trends [which entailed many awkward style crunchings of academy and street, of acquired and instinct, of street but often with a Visa Card linked directly to daddy’s account].
bp: Do you see art as your metier, your future, your only thing you’re good at, your career?
SE: It’s my metier. I’m good at it but I don’t think I have what people call talent. There is no blazing spark. I just work at it. It is my career, but it doesn’t feel like that. I’m good at a lot of different things. I’m a decent guitar player and I love to play the uke. I’m still a crack ace equestrienne, something I brought with me from being a kid. I enjoy sailing. I can bake a cake and grow tomatoes. But painting is the only thing I know about that’s so complex in the way it brings out feelings. It just makes me shiver. I’m going to keep working so I can make it wrench my emotions the way Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes do. You know, with that dim light and stultifying calm so you think you’re dying or falling asleep, and something alien flutters in your heart.
bp: Does New York produce artists because of or despite its conditions? Is its biggest gift the ability of ordinary [and/or gifted] people to self-brand themselves as heroes who have managed to survive the inhospitable conditions they inevitably face? Earning their badges of courage for surviving the struggle in its gloriously entitled antipathy. Sally notes that “I knew that wanting things that weren’t coming true was already part of what I did every day.” But this survival strategy entailed losing oneself “in the creation of a thought-up world.”
SE: New York produces artists despite its conditions, not because of them. That was my experience. It’s hard to grow intellectually when you’re fighting so many battles on so many fronts. You can get addicted to the struggle – I did – but in the end it doesn’t have much to do with being an artist. At the same time, the prize is anonymity. I doubt there’s anywhere else I could have gone that would have disoriented me the way New York did.
bp: I agree. By the end of my stay, just about all my friends were embroiled in lawsuits or contemplating litigious or other forms of creative revenge. This constant embroilment in cantankerous relations with landlord, super, noisy neighbors, car alarms, dubious friends takes its toll: e.g., friend-poet Lydia Tomkiw of Algebra Suicide was a big fish, international press, successful European tour, radio airplay, canonized by WFMU, but then totally ignored with a vengeance in NYC as if prior accomplishment was an impairment to acceptance. She, no easy personality, refused to or could no longer play its game. Her soul got wrenched from her skull and she was left, if not homeless, then resumé-less. She underwent a spiritual death in NYC, totally caved in, only to die in Arizona a few years later.
SE: I didn’t know Lydia but now I wish I’d met her. And I can believe that someone could die of a broken heart when the prayers of that heart have gone unanswered. Or ignored, more like it. Me, I went on a number of little trips inside my own city-within-a-city, or the city within that, which was (of course) my own mind. When I say I got lost in thought I mean I got lost the way I once did in a windowless factory when the sun went down. The confusion helped me avoid becoming a certain kind of painter. To be in a state of continual exploration and development: that would be my choice. The flip side is that I couldn’t present a style anyone could identify. Art dealers looked at me like I had two heads, and I guess I did.
bp: You were an outsider painter of sorts but that only helps if you’re discovered by a David Byrne like Howard Finster was. Most of my women artist-friends are [still] super talented but believed that old saw-bunkum that talent cannot be ignored. That is the first myth to burn at the stake. Further disillusionment ensues as you finally realize you cannot fight the fact that your paradigm has been shot full of holes. There is no Greenpeace, no Amnesty International, no International Declaration of Artists Rights that can come to your assistance.
SE: To be white and middle class with college-educated parents is a privilege. Let’s start with that. So it makes things easier for sure, but your life is your life, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of starting out with ten arrows in your quiver instead of one or none. A lot of us went on to a state of wanting a medal for being urban pioneers. But New York was simply where I lived, and New Yorkers, in their infinite variety, were the people I loved. New York was thirty-five miles away from my parents’ house. Believe me, I would have done a lot better if I’d gone to grad school at Yale and painted in a cozy city like New Haven, but I got wait-listed at Yale twice and became a second-string polo pony. There was never any assurance that things were ever going to be OK although I could keep telling myself someday they would, just because I get my coffee in the morning and bop down the street feeling like I can change something, but then jump a mile because I hear footsteps behind me. That’s the thing: being nervous all the time is not a great life. A sheltered development, aided by some kind of brain trust, was never an option.
bp: That urban pioneer image is a distorting mirror that the affluent hold up to view themselves in to be able to satisfyingly project a Shakespearized version of themselves into posterity. The wealthy sitting in cafés and complain-bragging about their “poverty,” because this, they assumed, was part of their essential script. We lived it and they manufactured it placing themselves in the major roles of suffering artists. There is plenty of irony there.
SE: Don’t forget that New York was cheap until the 1990s, and that museums are more important to artists’ development than galleries. The Metropolitan Museum is simply one of the most entrancing in the world. To pursue a career in art without going to visit a great collection is like trying to be Catholic without ever going to Mass.
The pretense of living poor has a lot of annoying side effects. For instance, the curatorial process and the granting process both tend to reward art that’s deemed socially conscious: stuff about slavery and prison and war (and, by extension, murder and rape). So now we have artists pretending they understand jail, and making art about it. Whereas, really, what we understand is color and light and maybe flowers. I’m against socially-conscious art unless it’s Karen Finley stuffing sprouts in her underwear, and even that was a stretch at first. I’m always up for entertainment.
bp: And yet you remained upbeat. It’s this uncomfortable anonymity, this guise that you are part of something bigger by merely renting a closet here, a mirage that both sides perpetuate and that ultimately takes advantage of you. And yet, you found a kind of glory, nonetheless. How do you account for that? Are you genetically predisposed to smile in the face of adversity?
SE: I am totally genetically predisposed to smile in the face of adversity. I learned it from my dad. He invented everything he did, made his occupation from scratch. He was a great improviser, and I inherited some of that. He worked really hard, too. I don’t know that I’ve accepted the end of the story, that I’ve compiled a life lesson from all this.
Sometimes I feel like I’m walking in the twilight, like in a di Chirico painting where the street gives you nothing, it has no comforts, but the quiet is ethereal and otherworldly, and it’s just the quality of light that communicates with your brain. Everything is muffled. That’s the feeling of being very small. I am surprised by this. And I just join with it.
Yesterday, though, I was standing in a parking lot with Will DiBello, a painter in Philadelphia, and he said, “We’re not big, but we’re not that small either.” I appreciated that. It was like a cup of coffee after an urgently-needed meal.
bp: The refreshing personal manner in which you address NY really hit home: “City love affairs involve a third party: New York City itself.” Why and what was the process of writing a book where you treat NY as a character. You take NY personally: affronted, flattered, hanging on to its every sound and word, excitedly taking in all it can dish out. Like a complicated affair …
SE: The author Bernard Cooper told me I was more interested in buildings than in people. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. And he was right, of course. The kind of New Yorkers I was supposed to be trying to impress were tough and baffling. You couldn’t stand and examine them or look them in the eyes the way you can a horse or a cat. I think many of us were spooked by life and by one another. People were the real danger. At the same time, it was possible to become terribly spoiled.
bp: It was treacherous; I was sooo naive. I broke out crying at a friend’s show in 1981 because no one was even pretending to look at the work. I was from another world, totally alien to the rituals of the art world. You seemed to acknowledge that you were from another world but somehow managed to tightrope between the YOU you were and the YOU you became.
SE: Thank you. I could see they weren’t the same person. I knew the rituals of the art world before I moved there because they’re part of the advertisement for New York. There’s a song by Peter Blegvad “Meantime” that goes, “The meantime has that strange allure / It looks so good in the brochure…” What was supposed to happen was, you were supposed to name-drop, and ultimately you were supposed to drop your own name.
Your naiveté was refreshing, I think, even if the situation sucked. But listen, people have been going to openings to look at one another practically forever. I think Man Ray pointed that out when he did an opening in New York [actually, it was in Paris] with the Societé Anonyme and turned out all the lights. He handed out flashlights at the door. That sounds like fun, and only fun, except that by pointing the beam of a flashlight you can tell what people are looking at. And Man Ray said they went to openings to look at one another. [“Unnecessary to mention that the flashlights were pointed at the faces of the people rather than at the artworks themselves. As at every overcrowded vernissage, everyone wanted to know who else was around.”]
bp: I don’t buy into NY’s obsession with superlatives and best-ofs since we have no idea about what’s going on in Barcelona, Hong Kong, Paris, Rotterdam, Vietnam or Brazil. NYC is a great place among many other great places. It simply has this larger-than-life profligate self-enamorment machine that generates endless films, commercials, sit-coms and infomercials. Everything almost has to be the best so that the grossly overpaying residents can maintain the illusion that it is worth the price they daily pay for living there.
SE: Something I wrote that I still stand by: chaos always wins.
bp: Romance – and not cuckold – the chaos I guess is the lesson here.
SE: I did fall in love with the streets and the buildings, which were full of people that I couldn’t face. One day, I thought, they would deliver a life I understood.
bp: I’ve talked to writer-wanderer-poet Jose Padua about this absorption of chaos and annoyance and trying to resolve it by walking it off. I’d get up at 6 AM to beat my housemate to the shower – she liked taking 1-hour showers at 7 AM. Then I’d walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to Lower Manhattan to avoid the crowded subway – this disconnect made me realize I was living in a place where my thin-skinnedness was a total disadvantage – I saw injustice, inequality, impropriety and hypocrisy – and, yet, the humor of it all – everywhere.
SE: Ralph Hodgson’s poem says:
I saw in vision
The worm in the wheat
And in the shops nothing
For people to eat;
Nothing for sale in
But I saw life in New York, life abundant. Maybe that’s because my parents loved it so much.
bp: I remember going to Sharon Mesmer and her partner’s Pocono foothills country house. And heading west into NJ, you could physically feel anxiety, stress evaporating. I remember this sense of relief to be escaping NYC and somewhere in NJ the sky would open up and someone might gleefully declare: “I see a star!” This inevitably led to a zen koan I may have uttered: “The only way to survive NY is to leave it often,” says the Zen Buddhist student. “To actually enjoy life in NY one must leave it as often as possible,” the second student chimes in. “And what if you were to leave NYC altogether?” the Zen master asks with a mischievous smile. We chose to ignore the question because we were all in usurial-slave rental-mental agreements that bound us to working 60 hours per week or forgoing various “necessary” luxuries. It reminds me of your excursion upstate where you seemed to find a link with the great outdoors like something could have clicked …
SE: That’s why whenever people got out in nature they went crazy. I missed my horse the most. He connected me with the outdoors and once that was gone I was a city girl for real – embracing the whole plastic nature of the New Wave, but doing it badly. I was the world’s worst punk. Pink cheeks, fat chin, a love of shoveling manure. So I had to fake it. I don’t think anyone noticed.
My life in New York didn’t cost much, it’s true: I had a railroad flat in a shitty building in a part of town people normally wouldn’t go to on a bet. There was a good side to this, a side that is now unavailable: there were discoveries you could make on the poor side of town. Old things were new –at least to me. Now that’s impossible. Everyone knows everything. There are no more dark corners to hide in unless you build them in your psyche.
bp: There’s probably an app for knowing everything so don’t have to appear naively surprised by anything because you’ve seen a hundred photos of the joint, club, menu, or painting …
SE: Getting high when you’re on vacation at a beautiful lake in the Adirondacks, or anywhere else, is perverse. I think the taking of Ecstasy was a response to an intensity that arose from deprivation. When you stepped out of a car in the country and heard the insects buzzing it was like emerging into a jungle. So exaggerated. It’s amazing how much people can forget when they’re immersed in an urban environment.
I very seldom left New York. I wanted to. I just couldn’t do it often. Nowadays, people buy houses in Hudson, NY and ride the train for a couple of hours to spend weekends there. You have to be rich to do that.
I thought the work was a destination in itself. I had spent so much of my life being a student that I felt I owed the world a kind of servitude. I could learn to do something constructive. And I did – but my means of getting ahead got destroyed by those freaking MacIntosh computers.
The book didn’t mention an adventure I had around the time my mother died: I got hired by a magazine to go foxhunting on Long Island, near where I grew up. I had to drive out to Syosset and take riding lessons from a wily old woman whose family had owned a tiny slice of land that was being swallowed up by a huge housing development. But I really connected with her horses. She had this old jumper named Candyman. He was a big, tough horse who loved to run. When I rode him I felt like my old self again. You can smell the grass where the horse hooves bruised it.
I yearned for the trees and the smell of water. I was hypersensitive and itchy. That feeling lasted six years, until I left New York for good. Maybe not for good. But it’s been twenty years.
bp: Everything seemed to excite you: the contrast of bright colors, horsepower, the availability of “all” phenomena, with an earnest open-arm acceptance, so wide-eyed that it becomes almost like propaganda not always for NY but definitely for a life with wide eyes open to fill the emptiness with something to behold – life as a delightful cornucopeia of sensual details. And yet your profoundest statements deal with a certain betrayal. NYC: so charming, so untrustworthy, looking so frigging cool while stabbing you in the back. This was a fascinating aspect of the book, your ability to lug around a significant parcel of cognitive dissonance: calling NYC your hero and yet “the predominant character of my new home … impressed upon me by the daily rhythms of life … was humility.” The very place that offered so many glimmering and gleeful ops also led to this confession: “My life was now a story I never wanted to read.” In other words, the conditions forced you to behave in a manner you had not thought you were capable of: deception of self and others, and capable of justifying a certain level of venalty as part of the psycho-social territory.
SE: Shit. Shit, shit, shit. It’s absolutely true that New York forced me to behave in a way I otherwise never would have. I learned there was value in being two-faced and superficial. I mean that there was value in that for other people. I was a lousy liar. I know there are creeps and manipulators everywhere, yet now I live in a major city (Philadelphia) where they’re in short supply. Maybe I’ve just gotten better at avoiding them.
People acted most savagely in matters of love. They would do anything, say anything. Oh yes, and when people were trying to establish themselves in careers, they would also behave strangely. I think people become versions of themselves as they grow older. They institutionalize certain aspects of behavior. They’re bureaus of information about themselves. I have seen Terrence since and he has very carefully made himself into a man whose chief accomplishment is that he lives simultaneously with two different women.
If you wanted to live a full life, getting screwed by your contemporaries was part of the deal. You just hoped and prayed that they’d quit or go away before they destroyed you. So, there were a few people who got bored with me and left. I was bereft, of course, but they really did me a favor. The thing is, the loneliness that ensues after someone like that has left you is complete. It makes you feel like you deserve all the sorrow you get, which is not a lesson you need when you’re twenty-three.
Want to hear some dissonance? I had friends who claimed that they were the most sensitive people on the planet (because they were artists) while at the same time they couldn’t be shocked. You couldn’t be both of these characters at once.
bp: Towards the end of your story you say “I was becoming what I most despise”. I know what that means for me. But revelations of any profound nature came WAY after the fact because when you’re deep in the shit you don’t even realize that it’s sticking and stinking and no matter how much you try to insist its all perfume and flowers and such, it isn’t. The trick of mind is to make it all seem worthwhile by applying a very discerning ranking system of “Best ofs” of all essential products/services necessary to make survival look like you’re thriving: hippest writers, cafes, beers, dry cleaners, pizza, speakeasys, nude beaches. And the trick of the reverse brag: it sounds like a complaint, like you’re airing grievances but you’re actually just bragging about how heroically you are – against all odds – prevailing, overcoming, flourishing…
SE: The best cinema? We had that. The best food? Check. The best art? Arguably, but not always. The best access to art? Definitely. A lot of young artists nurtured a nonsensical worldview: that we were as sensitive as it was possible to be, more sensitive than anybody else, and at the same time, nothing bothered us because we were sophisticated. Sophisticated people didn’t get pale and sweaty watching Pasolini movies or standing by while their friends shoot heroin.
Argh. Living among image-conscious people, you lose so much. It’s that New York jiggety shit. “Oh, are you going there? Why aren’t you going here, it’s so much cooler?” Some of my friends from those days are so scarred by the experience. They actually care whether the two of you are looking good when you’re walking down the street together. Are you too tall? Too short? God help you, too fat? Maybe you just have the temerity to just not be beautiful, to be pleasant instead, or just sort of circumspect. Everybody has to have the right everything. Farm fresh eggs when you live in Williamsburg.
My favorite thing sometimes was to upset people by listening to music they didn’t think was cool, like the Four Seasons or Dion or Barry White doing some love theme with strings. People never did anything for sheer pleasure. It always had some element of show in it.
That’s not true of everyone, of course. My favorite hangers-on and hangers-out are now just scruffy beatniks beetling around in beat up clothes. You won’t notice them unless you love them. And they make great art. Amy Hill, Lorraine Forte, Dominick Guida, Judy Simonian, Vincent Ciniglio, Cindy Karasek, Fred Gutzeit…still in there pitching, and they’re visionary people who aren’t making money at it. I took a friend to the opening at Sideshow a couple of months ago and he said, “These are the people I’ve been trying to avoid all these years…they just look like a bunch of nasty old hippies.” And I told him, “Well, these are my peeps. Do you mean to tell me you don’t like them because they’re not cute and famous?” I pointed to the work on the wall. Hundreds of paintings, all with a high degree of skill and daring. Real quality stuff. That’s the group I want to be in. And there are lots of people in it. You get used to that.
New Yorkers are the most looksist people I’ve ever met. They’re so itchy and uptight. Is this OK? Is that OK? A friend of mine told me that he ran out of toilet paper when he had a new lover stay over for the night, and when he went out and came back with yellow toilet paper she had a fit! It had to be white. And you couldn’t have soap with the wrong logo in the bathroom. I’ve actually had New York men look at me recently and say, “You’re not gorgeous” as if I had embarrassed them somehow. And by having the temerity not to be famous I let them down.
Yeah, that reverse brag thing is true. But it’s also endemic in other places, I think. Maybe the best thing would be just not to complain.
bp: I love that yellow toilet paper story! It’s like a scene from a satire. Perfect. You said: “Some of those open/shut moments hinged on whether it was really OK to be a girl. Here’s what I think: No. It’s not.” Is this your version of John & Yoko’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World”? It is difficult to understand why it remains such a ballbusting, immoveable paradigm in the arts. The thing just doesn’t budge. How has your view/strategy changed since those early days regarding women and art?
SE: Yes, it is my Yoko statement, and I maintain that it was true and in many cases still is. That won’t change until you see a car commercial in America where the woman is driving and her husband is riding shotgun and just talking and laughing the way the women always do. It’s not happening. We’re just not as reliable, as bankable. Or that’s how we’re forced to live.
I haven’t changed my views on this. The discrimination is still there but so well hidden. You just aren’t going to see as many women having successful careers in art as men, and there are many more women artists than men. In my classrooms in art schools in Phialdelphia, there are maybe two or three young men in a room with fifteen people. The expectation for women artists is still that art is a kind of homemaking. And this is why I think that the art done by women is so rooted in the idea of being a women: body consciousness, bent sexuality, troubled issues with children and food.
I don’t think talent is rewarded. There’s no system in place to recognize it. Instead there are these little and big institutions running around trying to fill their own niches. They always think they know what they want, and they get so dulled by the experience (I think) that they’re almost sleepwalking through the experience of looking at art and of choosing it. Just yesterday at the art school in Philadelphia I ran into a female student who had done a drawing that’s among the best I’ve ever seen, and my assessment includes work by professionals that hangs in museums. And she’d been rejected from the Foundation show. The Foundation show! This is in a college where most of the people in every classroom won’t be artists in ten years. And they didn’t think she was good enough. It was an insane moment.
Not only is talent not rewarded, but the little people who get a little curatorial power squander it. They don’t want anything unusual. They don’t want anything they hadn’t planned for. And if art is really good it has an element of surprise. It won’t be on anyone’s agenda. So they walk away from it. That the faith we [must] have in the system is unwarranted and ludicrous is something no one actually discusses between top 10 cocktails and top 10 cinematic orgasms – this is really happening and not just Sally creating a backdrop to add relevance and weight to her big time in the big city.
bp: Once you’re convinced you need to live in NYC as a rite of passage or as career move because you are willing to be a co-conspirator and participant in its mediatization – any book, movie or song about NY will likely include you in it somewhere. You spot yourself in scenes as yet another movie pans its way through unrealistically romantic cityscapes [empty, rain-glazed, a smooth jazz riff in the background, every hair in place, 2500 square feet for a rent that is never mentioned, worried about or contested]. That is the NY people buy. During the movie you can yell out in the dark movie theatre: I used to go there! You can inhabit the media illusion of NY and your improved memory of it so as to enhance your part in its allure. Why not; it beats a mall, although current civic leaders are betting that only a NYC version of the mall can beat a mall.
SE: I became part of the mediazation because I worked for the Village Voice. It was a job, it was fun, and it put me in touch with the things I really wanted to be part of – and by that I don’t mean art world authorities, I mean writers. The people who wrote for that paper were the best. Most of them were explorers. They knew how to get out in the world and find stuff out. I learned so much from Guy Trebay. He just put himself out there. And just this morning I woke up laughing at a review I remembered, one by Richard Gehr. And there was the time Arthur Bell, the society columnist who preceded Michael Musto, wrote that Suzanne Somers showed up at a party in a dress that clung to her breasts the way Saran Wrap clings to bologna.
Working for the Voice was a disadvantage in my painting life, however. People wanted me to publicize them. They wanted column inches in the paper, not new inspiration from a young painter. But what a fantastic break for me in other ways: by writing about other people (in reviews, mostly), I could be in touch with the inner workings of a great paper. You could really touch it. I would make Photostats of the original cartoons and illustrations. But still, that damn paper would just go ahead and be itself even when I didn’t agree with it. The Voice had its flaws, but I think it had New York’s best interests at heart.
bp: If you arrive with less than Trustafarian means then you need to invest clever tricks, which means transforming poverty into something heroic [cinematic] because housing is generally anti-human or “flamboyantly neglected.”Everyone vultures in on the LES’s symbolic capital, gaining prestige, cred or property value: Christopher Mele in his astute Selling the Lower Eastside describes it this way: “In the East Village, real estate developers have translated the symbolic value of cultural difference into economic value attracting middle class renters, diners, and shoppers who find allure in this edgier version of ‘bohemian mix’…”
SE: Somehow, people still manage it. I see them in Williamsburg all the time. But I think that you can’t be poor and live in New York any more. The white kids just look like they’re broke.
bp: With what kind of expectations did you go to NYC with your art and talent?
SE: I expected to be able to make a tidy, middle-class living. Nothing big or flashy. Quiet. I also expected to work constantly, be with other artists, and have the respect of a small community.
bp: You make decidedly individual art that does not fit into reigning fashions, which, of course, should be valued. But, in the art world, where people deludely believe they are NOT guided by the most fickle fashion and style twitches in art, it is often ignored as not fitting the current [urban] narrative. Is this how you view reactions to your work?
SE: I never thought that art should have any fashion at all, but then I moved to New York and found out not only that it did, but that artists were participating in the formation of fashion. They were even decorating discos and fashion shows with their art. If your paintings didn’t look good in a disco, the outlook for your success was decidedly dimmed.
Artists liked my work. Dealers hated it. There was the woman from the Allan Stone gallery who said, “You know that old adage about how a well-dressed woman should put on all the jewelry she wants to wear and then remove one piece? That’s what you should do with your paintings.” And the man from Susan Caldwell who said my work wasn’t East Village-y enough. Other people said it wasn’t consistent. I didn’t argue with them, but what I was thinking was, “I’m twenty-three. I’m learning how to paint and to live in the world. If all my stuff looked alike at this stage I’ll be a hack in five years. And since I intend to paint until I’m dead, I’m not going to develop a schtick right now.” I’m sure there was contempt too but I experienced it as blankness.
bp: Some of your nature paintings seems Charles Burchfieldy.
SE: I love Burchfield. I am mad for Burchfield. Seems like these days I’m trying to be Florine Stettheimer, though, just painting people as public bodies doing weird stuff. Last night I made a little painting of an exhausted woman in a blue dress trying to do the Charleston, which was one of the craziest dances ever invented.
Word art just comes to me because sometimes I just want to go out there and make statements, and painting is not for making statements. So I take a statement and paint that.
Also, letterforms are great to paint or draw when there’s nothing else on your mind. They’re challenging. You have to modulate a lot, and measure a lot. So that’s good training for other images. Also, I love signs. I would like to collect them.
People would say that my art style didn’t match itself.
bp: The painting of your studio reminds me of Hopper – that feeling of contemplation with a hint of dread.
SE: I love Hopper and his ability to make you feel a deep longing for peace and melancholy. You’re just there and your breathing stops.
bp: Young artists like to believe the pioneer images they have drawn of themselves but’s it’s all recycled-secondhand. It’s just a question of what traditions will next be considered OK to cite that determines the artists who will become hot. I am a fan of political art but not as trend – too much irony or not enough and then all that fatuous declamatory politics [consciousness branding] …
SE: For the past 20 years, there’s been a requirement in place that any fundable art has to be sociopolitical, like about human trafficking or slavery or AIDS. Either that or you have to be doing something for kids. I don’t believe artists know what slavery is like and we shouldn’t have to pretend.
It’s fun to categorize art trends. It’s easiest in sculpture. There’s:
• Graduate student with a crane
• The Useless Piece of Furniture
• The Whatsit
• Light Hurts Your Eyes
• Suitcase Full of Doll Parts
• Plywood Fantasy
You can recycle these endlessly. There’s also Deer Antlers, which a friend reminded me about.
bp: I still like paintings because a still [nonvideo] can evoke movement; a still is actually a film in one frame once it begins to engage the viewer’s imagination. I don’t buy the video is dynamic vs painting is static divide. A painting can have an entire film embedded in it …
SE: A painting can be a stage set. Lovis Corinth did that. So did Henri Rousseau. You know, I bet Rousseau is going to come back into fashion big time, not that he was ever considered very cool. Kids love Rousseau, which I suppose is the reason adults don’t. I’m mad for Rousseau. Video can never nail your feet to the floor and make you feel like your life is either ending or beginning the way painting can.
bp: You have a VERY personal relationship to how you make art and its subject matter.
SE: I dream about it all the time. I want to be happy. That’s how the dancing comes about. I also want to be outdoors in nature, smell the fresh breezes and feel the air move. I also love to be melancholy, look into dark corners, simmer in dim green light. The old seal dreams of the deep ocean, flippering through the waves.
bp: The “uncoolest” thing to do in NYC is spend time in your own hovel, reading a book – how sick is that to feel inferior for staying in on a Friday night to read a book? All of NYC is singing “loser” outside your window. And suddenly you are outside on the streets unsure of how you got there.
SE: That last sentence pretty much says it all. But wasn’t the street sometimes a great place to be? I had a nodding friendship with this painter Marilla, a very pretty woman who I think is married to the singer from the Fleshtones. One day I was walking down the street and ran into her and I somehow mentioned that I’d seen a poem on the subway that I just loved. So I recited the first stanza: I found a weed / That had a mirror in it … And she recited the rest of it, about how “the mirror looked in on a mirror in me that had a weed in it.” Even though we were painters and not poets we thought that was just the coolest and greatest and funniest thing we ever heard. And you know what? I never forgot it. The poem is by Archie Ammons and it’s called “Reflective.” Poetry and songs explain so much. Maybe that’s how I stayed an uncooked egg: I read a lot of poetry. It keeps your mind in a kind of good unbalance.
bp: You were confronted on almost every level – with every sensory pore opened wide – with whatever NY could shove into your over-amped nerve cells. “Start out as an optimist or nothing at all” and yet you have to admit that you “stayed constitutionally scared” [seldom can you confide these natural fears to anyone lest they be used against you at a later date].
SE: Maybe that’s the picture of youth and not something New York exclusively does to people, although I have a hard time imagining that growing up in Cohoes, NY and marrying a guy from Kinderhook invokes the same existential terror. Why would it? (Why wouldn’t it?) I’m going to quote someone again, to explain better. Guy Trebay once wrote that “fright is a staple for children but fear is for adults.” At some point you move from the fright stage, from the enjoyment of it, into real dog-fear. Guy wrote about that so tormentingly when he told stories about AIDS. I was scared because I was a woman who lived alone in a bad neighborhood. AIDS was fatal; obscurity was not (yet).
Maybe it is New York’s gift that it makes you want to feel everything, to know how everything works, even when there is no safe way to explore. I used to lie in bed at night and pretend I was a cosmic octopus who could reach out her tentacles and touch any part of the City I wanted to touch. Or sometimes I’d be a flying invisible ghost woman. And I’d ask myself, if I could visit anyone, fly in and out without being seen, where would I go? I would find my lovers and kiss them as they slept, or watch them making out with other people. I would fly over Central Park in the dark (a woman could never, ever go there at night) and see what people did there.
The one place where I was never afraid at night was the financial district. When I had my little black motorcycle I’d ride down Broadway to Wall Street and zip around among the huge, huge buildings where the money people spent their time. Wall Street was empty like nothing else was empty. I could go anywhere there. And then I’d fly up FDR drive and go home to bed.
bp: I sought out these little bowers of emptiness, like a mantra designed by an urban planner… but also like a drop of whiskey in a Baptist church. People begin to live less in apartments than in the speed of transactions and interactions. Displacement becomes a permanent state. Flight, the movement between rental agreements, and PO boxes becomes a kind of tangible substitute, painted up to look like alternative lifestyle.
SE: Well, that’s been my life ever since. I’m a transitory person. I’m in flight right now. I don’t mind it.
bp: And we practice indignation with panache. The worst/best are the recent arrivals who after 6 months are the most loyal mercenarial NYers, with their unreal talent for sniffing out the fakes, the poseurs [not them] whom they can parlay their own [in]authenticity against.
SE: You do get to practice your own brand of inner censorship. The latest phenom just doesn’t mean a whole lot when you’ve seen about eighty of them, and most turn out to be just something the papers needed to put on the front of the Living section because someone has to go there. The one exception is music. There are no fakes in good music. They play what they can and you love it or you don’t. So even though I didn’t like Robert Christgau, the guy who called himself the Dean of American Rock Critics, he turned me on to the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and I owe him big.
bp: I found NYC my home, a total relief from the Midwest’s enforced normality where nothing [clothing-wise or else-wise] matters. People wear the same things to the gym, bed, dinner and to an execution. Aesthetics out there [I generalize] is for elitists or homos or arteests. So it’s all [NYC] or nothing [most of the rest of America].
SE: Like I always say, it’s cool to be important, but it’s more important to be cool. In New York, there was always someone at the party who was prettier or had better clothes or a better job or a prettier face or more money. I wonder now whether anybody who was that competitive actually got to enjoy anything or if they’re off somewhere wondering if they should buy Kohler accessories for their new bathroom or if the ones from Home Depot are OK…Maybe Restoration Hardware is good enough but then everybody will know where you got the stuff and that you were trying to be cool instead of just being cool. The lifestyle nonsense spreads out into other areas. You got yourself a schtick. Martha Stewart made a ton of money off people like that.
bp: You showed that the best revenge was to pretty much ignore those landmines known as poseurs. Yes, hyper-paranoic consciousness means that appearing to not know is the ultimate horror, not the actual not knowing but the appearance. There are Martha Stewarts of punk, of post-abstractionism, everyone is taking workshop/classes rather than just doing shit because there they will, if not learn, at least hook up with the right names and references. How did so many of my friends remain heroically resistant to these self-branding trends? That whole best felafel, best vinyl-only store, best Moldavian cocktails… it’s insane! People gaining social prestige via their purchasing habits…
SE: Listen, I’m not immune. I keep trying to create the perfect pair of Levis shrink to fit 501s because they’re the coolest. It takes five years to get them just right. I break them in and then I take them apart on my sewing machine so the legs don’t look too baggy. And it’s all so very casual and matter-of-fact. So I got the bullshit too. Part of it, for me, is that jeans are actually pretty uncomfortable unless they’re old, so I try to make them all nice and messed-up and soft, and then of course they’ve got the lovely paint spatters and they’re so, so wonderful.
bp: Straight leg is cool for the fifth time around. The midi-dress will be back soon and people absorb trends with a kind of arrogant impunity as if existence depends on how your self-esteem negotiates trends.
SE: Jayne Loader, a writer I really like, wrote that people would put on the most outrageous, deluxe article of clothing, like a monkey fur bellhop jacket or lizard skin jeans just so they could pretend they weren’t wearing it. Like their lives were so full and on the move that they couldn’t even pay attention to what was touching them, and of course it was the finest, most buttery soft material money could buy. You know: “oh, this old thing.” Melissa Pierson explored the same principle, only she was writing about how people display their own cruelty and pretend they don’t notice their own selves... I still have my tailcoat from Cheap Jack’s when it was on Fourth Avenue, and it was old when I got it in 1980. I love thrift shop clothes. When I was young, the stuff people were getting rid of came from the 1940s and early ‘50s, when there was a kind of frou-frou authority in women’s clothing: the sharp, padded shoulders that gave hippie girls an edge, and also the soft, soft cardigans with buttons down the front and beads on the shoulders. I’d kill for one of those now. You could try on a kind of femininity that wasn’t safe to live in all the time. The boys just loved it.
bp: In a short zen snapshot from my NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor about the revelation of when way back Kenny Scharf “appropriated” my artist gal’s total idea down to the aquarium gravel during a group show without an ounce of shame or credit where credit was due.
SE: That worked because Kenny Scharf did it, right? Painful. His kitsch didn’t work on me at all because there wasn’t enough distance. I’m not talking about ironic distance, I’m taking about unironic distance. And anyway, I don’t think talent is rewarded. Just last week at the art school in Philadelphia I ran into a female student who had done a drawing that’s among the best I’ve ever seen, and my assessment includes work by professionals that hangs in museums. And she’d been rejected from the Foundation show. The Foundation show! Foundation is a freshman curriculum that’s like boot camp. I guess they were going to teach her a lesson: We can cut you off right here, right now. This is in a college where most of the people in every classroom won’t be artists in ten years. It was an insane moment.
bp: Can you do something for her? Put in a good word? Petition? Do you think there is some need of women in power to prove they are not just going to fall for women helping women thing and get accused of favoritism? It is like Democrats who have to show they are as manly and warmongering as the Republicans to stave off arguments that they are wusses.
SE: She will love it that you asked that question. She’s worth it. What I can do for her is something I can’t do for myself: put her in a show with grown-up people where someone will see that drawing. Quite often, the little people who get a little curatorial power squander it. They don’t want anything they hadn’t planned for. And if art is really good it has an element of surprise. It won’t be on anyone’s agenda.
About your question about whether there’s a perceived need for women in power to not help other women: I really don’t know. It’s been so long since I’ve heard that a woman would help another woman because she’s a woman. It sounds so retro. And yet there’s a tremendous need for that in the art world. That this is still true is scandalous and also a shame. What year is it, anyway?
bp: How would you do it differently? I used to have no regrets but the more I think about it – I do have regrets. But if you were Sally 24 years old now moving to NYC what would you [be able] to do differently?
SE: I am full of regret. I would have left Terrence at that table next to the California dip. I would have tried harder with John McNulty, taken some kind of risk, maybe. He was a decent guy. I would also have learned more computer skills so I could have continued with my writing without going broke. I never should have sold that horse.
I would have stayed five years, moved to California, and started teaching then. I’d take the horse with me. And I would have started this book twenty years ago. I would have tried to find a way not to be so hard on my parents.
I’m tempted to say I would have married Pablo, or tried to talk him into it. What an excellent creature he was in every way. But I would have ruined things for him. I know it. I was far too immature to settle down, and to take someone like that for granted is obscene. Anyway, I know he’s happy now. I had a dream last night about his wife, Tia. She’s a good friend of mine.
bp: I find myself in discussions with art friends; we no longer discuss the beauty of a piece. We’re all busy critiquing the latest strategies of how to get the attention – Websites, LinkedIn, blogs, mixcloud radio, Pinterest, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, email – of our respective closed worlds of art.
SE: I do discuss the beauty of a piece. It’s all I discuss. In fact I find a lot of energy and value in minor stuff. I like publicizing stuff now. I think that if you have a Facebook site that has a thousand likes, then you have a thousand people who maybe are paying attention to what you’re doing, and this is good if you’re a writer. I know, I know, we’re still dying for the money. It’s great that a small publisher can bring out small works and that having a small readership is enough to keep a book in circulation.
bp: I found this a moving statement: “the experience of being periodically erased by a system unobliged to even acknowledge my existence put rogue ideas in my head.”
SE: I’m my own kind of incendiary. I’m one of those trick birthday candles, the kind you blow out and they light themselves up again.
[photos used with permission of the artist]