Method Acting: The Artist-Interviewer Conversation

Article excerpt

Roughly five years ago, on my first day as art editor of Time Out New York, I was assigned to interview Jeff Koons, whose Puppy (1992) was being installed at Rockefeller Center-a significant reentry by the artist into the New York art world, from which he had been generally absent in the decade or so following his harshly criticized Made in Heaven exhibition.' Sensing a revealing moment, Time Out slated our conversation to appear as the magazine's hot Seat, a feature column regularly advertised on the cover and reserved almost exclusively for personalities from music, movies, and television.

The interview took place in the artist's studio, where I spoke with him for roughly two hours. Koons seemed exceptionally open and personable that day, and as we conversed I could immediately see the interview taking shape in my mind's eye. One by one, his comments met my series of mental checkpoints on how to compose a fine piece. I would easily be able to capture and convey a sense of his sensibility-his Reaganite, morning-iii-America personality, his Disneyesque charm, his vaguely lascivious savoring of libidinous designer culture. ("I love the sexuality of cereal boxes, the spilling of milk," he said at one juncture.) At the same time, I elicited from him any number of pithy yet telling phrases-diamonds in the rough-regarding his disappearance from the art world and about Puppy's changed social context since its first appearance years before as a counterpoint to Documenta.

The next morning, having distilled our two-hour conversation into a thousand words of succinct questions and answers, I believed I had a brilliantly turned interview. My editors were excited; the galleys passed through the magazine's higher echelons almost untouched. And we prepared to send the finished article to the printer, believing we had a real coup for the magazine's hitherto slim art coverage-when, just a day before we were to go to press, a piece by the writer Deborah Solomon appeared in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.2 It owas, uncannily, my interview. Almost to the word, Solomon's were the same questions, and Koons's the same answers. Here were his thoughts on Puppy, there was his sexual attraction to cereal boxes. And so any sense that I might have had of a unique exchange was undermined. Indeed, these virtually duplicate interviews suggested that Solomon, Koons, and I-in two separate live interactions-had adhered to a kind of model, in which we had merely been rehearsing parts. In other words, these were not dialogues: what the Times Magazine published and what Time Out New York subsequently pulled from its pages at the last minute were scripts, executed faithfully, with interviewers and artist keeping to their appropriate roles.

One might argue that this incident occurred simply because both the New York Times and Time Out target general audiences and therefore invite a quasiliterary introduction of simple but engaging artistic personas against which to read, and then identify with, artwork. Further, one might suggest that editorial considerations for general audiences prompt the isolation of specific types of details-personal, off-topic exchanges, or bold assertions revealing the thought processes behind a given work-that best create a sense of context around art. But the pertinence of the contemporary artist's persona or public character to any intellectual engagement with any oeuvre has repeatedly been suggested by critics and artists alike, even among art-specific publications and communities. To quote Harold Rosenberg in a 1964 Artforum, responding to questions about the nature of criticism, "To evaluate a modern painting one needs to carry it back to its creator. Taken by itself no single work can be adequately appraised. The connoisseurship which the public expects in its critics cannot be achieved in respect to contemporary works unless the artist is present in a continuum of ideas and practice."3 Or, as John Baldessari recently said to me more bluntly, "Robert Rauschenberg is very social, and so people see the work through that; Jasper Johns is private, and so people see the work through that. …