Haim Steinbach Talks to Tim Griffin. ('80S Then)
TIM GRIFFIN: In that famous 1986 Flash Art roundtable, "From Criticism to Complicity," you distinguished yourself from the "Pictures" generation with respect to your interest in "desire." How did you mean that?
HAIM STEINBACH: First of all, that panel came out of nowhere. The Flash Art people picked a few artists and set up the symposium at Pat Hearn Gallery. Maybe a week before it happened, somebody at the magazine, or at the gallery, called me and said they were organizing this discussion and asked if I were interested. I said a lot of things that evening I still believe; but there are some things I didn't say and should have. In that kind of situation, there's always a moment when you end up leaning to one side or the other. You respond to the way things are framed.
TG: But did you feel some commonality with the other artists?
HS: Sherrie Levine has been a friend since 1983. I felt very connected to issues that she and other appropriation artists were involved with. But Ashley [Bickerton] and Jeff [Koons]? No. I had a bit more of a connection with Peter [Halley], since back in 1973 I was a teaching assistant for one of his classes at Yale--but we had lost touch. You know, in '85, there was a phenomenal eruption. Overnight, people were lumped together without any serious consideration of their respective histories--especially when it came to work that employed already existing objects.
TG: Why did that happen?
HS: Appropriation art was totally backstage until that moment, and I think people were caught off guard by it and needed an immediate interpretation. Their reaction was to come up with a blanket definition with attributes such as consumerism, simulation, commodity--anything that seemed identifiable in terms of surface appearance--without really examining the structures underneath. I mean, "neo-geo" was a totally idiotic term that had nothing to do with anything, except that geometric imagery had a certain currency, and there were a few superficial similarities between painting and sculpture.
TG: Is this what you wish you had said at the roundtable?
HS: That would have been impossible, because no one was prepared for that interpretation! The label hadn't yet been created, let alone achieved journalistic currency. I'll give you an example: Around that time, Eleanor Heartney came knocking on the doors of a number of artists to interview them. She came to my studio, and I carefully went through my history. The next thing you know, there's this big article, "Neo-Geo Storms New York," in the New Art Examiner. It didn't deal with the specifics of what I said, because it looked at all the work generally. I mean, it was a three-page article discussing something like twenty artists.
TG: Well, how did you describe what you were doing? How was "desire" working for you?
HS: I was talking about desire in terms of a collective social condition vis-a-vis the selection and arrangement of objects. My work dealt with structure, placement, position, contingency--an economy among objects. Desire translates into the things with which we ritualize our lives and into the way we communicate and portray ourselves through objects. In the late '70s, my partner was Julia Wachtel, and her work dealt with imagery that she lifted from greeting cards. She took up these corny, sentimental cartoon images in her paintings, which had to do with group identity, possessiveness, or the projection of oneself onto the object. She and I had a dialogue about the way desires travel through objects and images in their presentation and representation.
TG: When did these ideas first show up publicly in your work?
HS: I was in some group shows in alternative spaces, and on the periphery of collaboratives like Group Material and Fashion Moda during the late '70s and early '80s. In 1979, Rags Watkins and Helene Winer gave me a show at Artists Space. That put me in what was, at that point, the ultimate context. …