Magazine article Artforum International

James Welling Talks to Jan Tumlir. ('80S Then)

Magazine article Artforum International

James Welling Talks to Jan Tumlir. ('80S Then)

Article excerpt

JAN TUMLIR: You locate the '80s between 1977 and 1984. Seventy-seven is year zero for punk rock, and for you the music scene was a large part of the collaborative and interdisciplinary network that made up the East Village at the time. It is interesting because a certain cliched idea of the '80s has developed in recent years that tends to overlook all this openness and experiment.

JAMES WELLING: I remember making periodic visits from LA to New York to see a lot of my CalArts friends who had already moved there. In 1978, I saw Paul McMahon's band play; they were called Daily Life and included Glenn Branca and Barbara Ess. Through Paul, I heard that Dan Graham was associated with a band called the Theoretical Girls, which just seemed hilarious. Dan, of all people, a band manager!

JT: But hasn't he always had this interest in pop? I remember reading an essay or his on Malcolm McLaren.

JW: I met Dan Graham at Paul McMahon's alternative space in Boston. This is when I was still a student at CalArts. Dan was really into Steve Reich at that point, and I remember he dragged me to a concert of Reich's out in Ojai. So Dan goes from Reich to McLaren to the Theoretical Girls to inviting Branca to perform in one of his mirror pieces at the Kunsthalle Bern in '83. There is all this interplay between the downtown music scene and the art world.

JT: Didn't you make the cover for a Sonic Youth album?

JW: B ad Moon Rising. I met Kim Gordon in LA in '78, before she moved to New York. And then later, we both worked at Annina Nosei Gallery. Kim was also collaborating with Vikky Alexander, whom I was married to at the time. They had this consulting office together, similar to Richard Prince and Peter Nadin's. They would do projects with artists, helping them with presentational strategies.

JT: These seem like attempts to move art into the space of general commerce, but they are not yet formulated as an explicit critique. And this is another cllche of the '80s, that it was all about critical theory.

JW: A number of art writers in the late-'70s became interested in art that was critical, or in art as critique-Craig Owens, Douglas Crimp, Hal Foster, Rosalyn Deutsche. Abigail Solomon-Godeau wrote an article about Barbara Kruger, Vikky Alexander, and me, and I remember being startled to see my work positioned as a critique of mainstream photography. Although I was working along similar lines somewhat more intuitively, it was strange to see my images described this way and positioned so clearly against photography. I didn't see it in such absolute terms. I felt it had other meanings as well.

JT: Still, some people believe that it was critical theory, not art, that was the primary product of the '80s. To what extent do you think that the art was covered, or covered over, by theory?

JW: Let's not forget that the art world didn't invent critical theory. It was already widespread throughout academia by the late '70s at least. My own introduction to theory was Jack Burnham's The Structure of Art, which used structuralist theory to read through a lot of Conceptual work. It came out in 1971, and that's when I latched on to structuralism and started reading Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Barthes.

JT: To what extent were those texts being disseminated already by your teachers at CalArts--Dan Graham, Michael Asher, and John Baldessari?

JW: Baldessari was probably into Barthes early on; Dan Graham not so much. My memory of Dan is that he came to French theory later. Dan was very interested in Minimalism and Positivism then. Actually, when I was a student, Wittgenstein was much more important. Graham Weinbren, a film maker, taught a Wittgenstein class at CalArts around 1973.

JT: In the catalogue for "A Forest of Signs," Anne Rorimer lays out this line of succession from Pop to Minimalism to Conceptualism to institutional critique to so-called '80s art, which, according to her, comprises aspects of all of the above. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.