interview by ALEX GARTENFELD
photography by HEJI SHIN
Isabelle Graw is one of the most glamorous and radical international art critics. Some 20 years and 80 issues ago, she launched the art journal Texte Zur Kunst in Cologne, then the center of the German underground scene. Her ambition was clear: to re-establish the power of criticism, in opposition to the art market, which increasingly began to control artistic value. She recently published the English translation of High Price, a book which claims that “art and the market have to escape each other precisely because they are so deeply entangled.”
ALEX GARTENFELD — Your book, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture (Sternberg Press) discusses the overlap of art and the market, how each creates value for the other, and the effects of “boom” conditions. But your interpretation is that “boom” and “crisis” are not so different.
ISABELLE GRAW — I finished writing the German version of the text before the often-invoked “crisis” occurred. I rewrote it a bit for the English version. My main point was that art and the market are deeply entangled, without being reducible, one to another, whether the market value of art works is in crisis or not. What changes is the empirical data. While I was pointing to a time when price seemed to dictate the worth of an artwork, during a crisis many people realize that the market is not trustworthy; they worry more about symbolic value, and reactivate the myth of an intrinsic value.
ALEX GARTENFELD — What was the effect of the crisis on what you call a “knowledge-based” society, and on the way communities transform art into money?
ISABELLE GRAW — There were short-term and long-term effects. We had to acknowledge that we, as critics, are knowledge producers. We belong to what Franco Berardi termed the “cognitariat,” since we produce a currency that is highly in-demand in times of crisis. The shakier the value of an artwork, the more necessary the critic is, in order to provide symbolic meaning. But it would be too simple to state that critics were the winners of the “crisis.” The opposite is true, as well, since working conditions became much tougher,and one was asked to work harder for less money. The upper segment of the art market was less affected by the crisis, while the middle segment, where you often find the most interesting artists, suffered, because their work stopped selling.
ALEX GARTENFELD — I wanted to interview you in Purple because it’s oriented toward lifestyle, and because celebrity, as you define it, has been one the forces that has changed the evaluation of artworks. Has art changed to the way we think about celebrity?
ISABELLE GRAW — The laws of celebrity culture have always reigned in the art world. Since Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1558), the artist has been constructed like a celebrity, as someone who devotes his whole life to his practice and has to cultivate a convincing persona. This has increased in the last ten years. One could now say that the artist is a celebrity avant la lettre. But there is a way of looking at it structurally. Looking at the field of art, you could say that the art world in the ’60s was a small, overlooked world, and it became a huge cultural industry in the ’90s, one increasingly run by a celebrity principle and increasingly dominated by big corporations. Of course, this is only true for certain segments of the art world. I wouldn’t say it’s a good or bad thing. It’s a structural change that must be taken into account. Nonetheless, there are certain segments of the art world in which people would prefer not to talk to certain magazines, such as Purple, and they have good reasons to object to the personalization of all cultural production, which is typical of lifestyle magazines.
ALEX GARTENFELD — As a renowned art critic, do you see yourself as part of the celebrity culture?
ISABELLE GRAW — Since I consider myself a writer and a theorist, I prefer to talk about my work. I am, of course, aware of the fact that the way I look and dress matters. People and their products are not strictly separated, but this is even more of a reason to focus on the work. While Warhol’s insistence on lifestyle questions in his diary was directed against the consensus of the time — when artists were supposedly part of the underground and not worried about make-up or body shape — today we’re in a situation where life-related matters have come to the fore. I actually thought a lot about doing this interview. But I decided that if I’m working on celebrity culture — and this is my interest — then it would be paradoxical for me to say no to a magazine like Purple that is part of such a sphere.
ALEX GARTENFELD — How has art recently moved closer to fashion?
ISABELLE GRAW — The so-called “celebrity” artists — artists who primarily appear in fashion magazines — were not taken seriously up until the ’80s, but the dividing line between the serious art world and celebrity culture blurred at the end of the ’90s. At the beginning of the millennium gallerists, for instance, were seeking approval from the lifestyle press. It was no longer considered an endangerment to one’s reputation if one posed in Vogue or Amica. And if a true celebrity was present at an opening, this was immediately noticed — even in a serious review. There was a general shift that took place, and it mattered more than ever how you performed.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Is it the responsibility of the artist to deal with the terms of this performance?
ISABELLE GRAW — Artists have a choice. They don’t have to embrace the celebrity principle. The artists you see on the Artforum website are the artists who constantly show up at the big openings and who want to be photographed. There are other artists you’ll never see there. I’d say that they’re smart enough to know that selling their person in this way is not necessarily the most interesting route. Warhol paid a high price for it. He had no personal life, only a professional life, and no friends, other than those who turned into collaborators. When one uses every occasion for networking and making contacts, one attracts a lot of negative projections. It’s a very lonely and highly instrumentalized existence. Today it might be wiser to negotiate the relationship between your person and your product slightly differently. While nobody can afford to hide or disappear, one could, at times, at least, hide behind one’s product.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Are you discussing a changed condition in which artists must account for far more of their day-to-day existence?
ISABELLE GRAW — Yes, and ostensibly, it’s trying to think about what you could do instead of grinning into every camera, which is what Jeff Koons does — something I find very depressing. I think it’s really uninteresting to embrace every opportunity for public exposure, because we live in a bio-political scenario, where we’re asked to sell our lives. The question is, how do you deal with it? Times have changed, and circumstances are very different than they were in the ’60s, when it was necessary to challenge the notion of the underground artist.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Was there a moment when artists, those empowered either by the market or otherwise, gained access to celebrity and then succumbed to it?
ISABELLE GRAW — I would say it happened in the early ’90s. The emergence of YBA [Young British Artists] was for me a moment when you could really see how embracing celebrity culture lost its potential. Perhaps artists like Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin thought they used the media for their own sake. In fact, they were the ones used by the media, because they provided the illusion of an art authenticated by life, one that was so much in demand. Of course, it was also interesting, finally, that women artists became involved in this process. But in order to get the attention, they needed to produce and embrace a truly simplistic notion of authenticity. Since Damien Hirst delivered matters of life and death in a more abstract fashion, he was, symptomatically, the winner in terms of market position.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Much of your writing has had to do with the changing possibilities of critics. In High Price you seem to indicate that the critic enjoys a new freedom.
ISABELLE GRAW — In a way, criticism is less compromised. The artist lost his innocence a long time ago. The artist, even on the level of his production (size, materials, etc.), or on the level of his involvement with galleries, is by definition compromised by commercial pressures. Critics are, of course, not innocent, since they’re involved in the market, as well. But they don’t have the same potential for monetary gain as artists do, and this is what renders them more powerful, at least on a symbolic level. Yet criticism seems to be more in demand than ever. Think of all the academics from different fields hired by the art world to provide meaning to production. They write catalogue texts, participate in panel discussions, etc. So while the freelance critic has become an endangered species, intellectuals are hired and desperately needed in order to provide symbolic meaning.
ALEX GARTENFELD — You grew up in Hamburg during the time when an older generation of artists, including Albert Oehlen, were at university studying under Sigmar Polke. How were you introduced to art?
ISABELLE GRAW — I wasn’t particularly interested in art when I was a young woman, with a few exceptions. Even at the age of 17, there only were a couple of artists, like Albert Oehlen, and Werner Büttner, whom I was actually interested in. It was because they seemed to treat art in a disrespectful fashion, using it for political slogans. One could say that they functionalized art quite brutally, which is something I liked.
ALEX GARTENFELD — What traditions were they dismantling?
ISABELLE GRAW — It had to do with the heritages of Dada and Fluxus. Each of them started from a deep disrespect for art with a capital A, and I could really relate to that. They ignored its supposed laws, like the conventions of painting, and instrumentalized painting for their own purposes, in order to treat it like a message, to turn it into a speech-act.
ALEX GARTENFELD — You were younger than these artists. How did you learn about their work?
ISABELLE GRAW — I saw some of the catalogues they produced, and I saw them hanging out in bars when I was still in high school. There were, of course, the art schools, which at the time were not so important, compared to today. It was crucial that you left art school, in fact, and pursued friends and colleagues elsewhere. Generally, in the ’70s and ’80s, the professionalization of art hadn’t yet taken place. Büttner and Oehlen met at art school, but this was not typically where things happened.
ALEX GARTENFELD — As a woman, were you an outsider?
ISABELLE GRAW — It was a very male-dominated scene, and I soon realized that there was no place in it for me. I was an observer, a fan, and an admirer, particularly of Büttner — paradoxically, because he never would have included me or listened to what I had to say. There was no place in the scene for women artists except as an “other” or a “marginalized figure.”
ALEX GARTENFELD — Hamburg is not typically regarded as a fashion capital. What was your relation to fashion at the time?
ISABELLE GRAW — Hamburg couldn’t have been a more unfashionable city. In the early ’80s there was only one Fiorucci boutique, which I would frequent. In the early-to-mid ’80s Japanese designers became really present in the international fashion scene. Living in Paris, I was extremely interested in Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and, later, in Martin Margiela. This was a consumer interest in fashion. I would economize in order to buy a dress by Comme des Garçons — and starve myself in order to fit into it. I was not really reflecting the business of fashion, but I became familiar with the different looks, codes, and brands.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Were your parents interested in fashion? Did they facilitate your interest in it?
ISABELLE GRAW — My father had a very crucial role. He’s a luxury addict. He didn’t live with us, so he always represented a type of escape. I felt that if I had “luxury,” everything would be all right, which is, of course, a complete illusion. Hamburg is a very rich city. Where I lived there was a clique of what you’d call jeunesse dorée kids. I was part of that — even though I wasn’t, really. My father was wealthy, but my mother wasn’t. I was in-between. I remember a few women in this clique, a little older than myself, very elegant, and I was very fascinated by them. I remember once there was a party at the home of the Bismarck family. We all went, and this one woman, who was about five years older than I was — which felt like a huge difference at the time — was wearing a Halston dress. I was blown away.
ALEX GARTENFELD — How did growing up “in-between” affect your assessment of the way clothing affects class?
ISABELLE GRAW — I was always fascinated by the idea of controlling the way you look. How much can you do with clothes? You can see this type of transformative process with au pairs: those girls arrive in Paris and you can measure how they mimetically adapt to fashion ideals in just three months. I was very interested in observing the power of fashion to transform people’s habits, but I never systematically read or wrote about fashion. It was politics, and then it became art, mainly for social reasons.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Early on you observed these types of aspirations and trends, through your writing, although not necessarily through criticism. Is that correct?
ISABELLE GRAW — I wanted to be a cultural producer. I thought that I had something to say, which was, of course, slightly presumptuous. I was living in Paris, and I came into contact with the German art magazine, Wolkenkratzer Art Journal. I was asked to do an interview with Jean Paul Gaultier and to review an exhibition by Komar & Melamid. I just wanted to publish my ideas. Wolkenkratzer accepted my pieces and I became a writer, and very quickly — in the course of half-a-year or so — the magazine asked me to become an editor. In retrospect, this was unfortunate, because I was in the middle of my studies. But I decided it was much more important to have that job, so I left Paris after five years, without a diploma. I was so arrogant. I thought I didn’t need more academic education.
ALEX GARTENFELD — So you internalized the lessons of lifestyle, from the inside.
ISABELLE GRAW — It was a good lesson on how not to do a magazine. Wolkenkratzer was a lifestyle magazine based in Frankfurt, and it tried to combine architecture, design, art, and fashion — everything I was interested in — but it didn’t do it in an interesting way. I realized I couldn’t really change the structure of the magazine or hire the writers I liked. But, all of a sudden I was considered an art critic — which was outrageous, really, because I hadn’t studied art history. But I guess my texts sounded as if I was very knowledgeable. It worked at the time, somehow. It was also a time when a very confident New Wave writing style was in vogue, and maybe my texts corresponded to that. The art world is very open to new people and nobody seemed to realize how little I knew about 20th century art at the time. I tried to catch up, but I soon realized that I lacked, and desired, fundamental knowledge.
ALEX GARTENFELD — You remained an editor for a brief period, but then you went to New York to study with the people involved with October, people who are now considered the critical establishment. Correct?
ISABELLE GRAW — I moved to New York and continued to work as a correspondent for Wolkenkratzer, but I also began studying with Benjamin Buchloh, Linda Nochlin, and Rosalind Krauss, in an informal way, under the pretext that I would write about the American art education system for Wolkenkratzer.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Which seems unimaginable now, because universities seem so isolated, and because these figures were so celebrated.
ISABELLE GRAW — These were very different times. I remember that Benjamin Buchloh was rather surprised that anybody from Germany would be interested in his work. He couldn’t believe it. He was holding weekly classes at the School of Visual Arts. Rosalind Krauss had not yet published The Optical Unconscious, and she was teaching at the Graduate Center. I remember how terrified most students seemed of her. There was a very tough atmosphere in her class. I loved it, of course. Two years in New York and I read everything I could. I read all the literature and I worked a lot.
ALEX GARTENFELD — In ’87, the October group was discussing Warhol, which takes us full circle.
ISABELLE GRAW — Yes, in ’87 there was a big debate about Warhol — whether his work was critical or affirmative. There was a huge discussion at the Dia Art Foundation about it. People hadn’t yet realized that Warhol’s work does both things: it takes up the conditions of celebrity culture, and it opposes them, at the same time.
ALEX GARTENFELD — These reflections pushed you to found Texte Zur Kunst with the art historian Stefan Germer about two years later, right?
ISABELLE GRAW — I realized I wanted to start my own magazine, similar to October, but less disdainful to phenomena that related to popular culture. I imagined a magazine that could be rigorous and insist on complex theoretical discussion, while analyzing phenomena from popular culture.
ALEX GARTENFELD — At what point did you become involved with Jutta Koether and Diedrich Diederichsen, who would contribute to, and maintain a large presence in, Texte Zur Kunst?
ISABELLE GRAW — I had moved to Cologne, and it was there that I met Jutta Koether and Diedrich Diederichsen. In 1989 we were asked by a couple of gallerists to edit the catalogue for “The Köln Show” together. Of course, I knew their writing through Spex, the music magazine, which I read as a young girl in Hamburg. I had also commissioned texts by them for Wolkenkratzer Art Journal. We were friends, and they wrote texts for the first issue.
ALEX GARTENFELD — What was the influence of Spex on the early issues of your magazine?
ISABELLE GRAW — I read it religiously when I was living in Hamburg. I remember Jutta’s column, “Mrs Benway.” It encouraged me because she embraced a subjective voice while still making theoretical claims. She and Diedrich regularly published lists of what to read and I always read everything they recommended.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Why was it necessary to move to Cologne to found Texte Zur Kunst?
ISABELLE GRAW — It didn’t seem necessary to publish another magazine in New York. There was October and Artforum. I wanted to do something different. German criticism was very subjective and lacked methodological reflection. You have to remember that in 1990 texts by Clement Greenberg were not yet translated into German. German art criticism was cut off from Anglo-American discussions. I read Greenberg during my studies in New York, so I realized that in America discussions of the anti-aesthetic and discussions critical of modernism had taken on a very high degree of complexity. In 1990 in Germany, modernism hadn’t yet been imported. We were very far behind.
ALEX GARTENFELD — You did three fashion issues of Texte Zur Kunst. What were the structural similarities between fashion and art that kept you interested?
ISABELLE GRAW — I was interested in The Beautiful Fall, the book on Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. It describes the fashion scene in Paris from the late ’70s through the ’80s, how it was transformed, from a small scene run by designers into a corporate world run by investors. I was very taken with the structural analogies, as it stands 30 years later. We were always interested in the weird tension and attraction between the two milieus, and how there’s a longing in the fashion world vis-à-vis the art world: designers empathizing with the ideas of the artist as a creative genius — which is a very, very naive concept. And, vice-versa, how artists hope for the popularity that fashion can achieve.
ALEX GARTENFELD — What themes do you like to bring out when speaking about fashion in Texte Zur Kunst?
ISABELLE GRAW — When Jutta Koether interviewed Karl Lagerfeld, she made him talk about his way of working. What we try to avoid is lifestyle interviews. This is why Merlin insisted on talking very seriously about artistic procedures with YSL’s art director Stefano Pilati, to try and represent fashion as a very serious kind of work. Fashion has some overlaps with how an artist operates, but it’s not art. It’s exposed to very different pressures, which reach very deeply into what a designer does.
ALEX GARTENFELD — The book you’re writing now, The Love of Painting, will tackle the endurance of painting. What brought you to write about painting?
ISABELLE GRAW — The idea of my first book, The Better Half, was to talk about women artists. My second book was about the market. I again wanted to approach a too-large theme, which is painting. Of course, it’s an old fascination of mine. Maybe there’s one link to the market theme: value. For value to occur, labor must have been invested. Painting in particular seems to suggest that you can get a hold on the labor and life of the painter. I think it’s this strong suggestion that makes it valuable and so interesting now, when life is at the forefront, when we’re all supposed to sell our lives and our sensibilities. You could say that film and photography are much better equipped to capture life. Nonetheless, there’s something about the often-invoked materiality of paint that seems to suggest that we can get a hold on the creation of life.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Suddenly, many of the artists who have interested you — Martin Kippenberger, for example — have become the arch-painters of their respective generations.
ISABELLE GRAW — Exactly. I liked Kippenberger’s work precisely because it related to social conditions. It was saturated with them, and it tried to establish a kind of desperate distance from them. What is often forgotten is how incredibly unpopular his proposition was, especially in Germany, when he was alive. Like his painting Krieg Böse (War Bad), which poked fun at the commonplace. It was important that he showed the touching naïveté of such a concept, one that is true, in some ways. I appreciated the way he dealt with the reigning convictions and threw them back at you. But I’m skeptical when there’s a consensus around certain artistic practices.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Do you think that Kippenberger has become associated with painting because it raises the economic value of his work?
ISABELLE GRAW — I’m very suspicious about the way he’s been turned into a kind of painter-hero, especially since he also worked in other media. I’m also suspicious at this point, even though I’ve written about it myself, that his practice internalized the lessons of institutional critique. I still believe this is true, and that one could demonstrate it, but the problem is that it led to the license for very many young artists to incorporate empty gestures of institutional critique into their painting practice.
ALEX GARTENFELD — How does painting maintain its privilege, aside from being an expensive medium?
ISABELLE GRAW — Painting has survived all attempts to make it obsolete, and it’s managed to incorporate these attacks for its own good. But then, a medium can never become obsolete. The medium per se is never the problem. To say that it is, is to essentialize it. If a medium is problematic, it’s because of the way it’s used. After years of lost legitimacy, painting now seems to have no such problem. Now I’m interested in investigating why painting was able to defend its special status so successfully. I’m even more interested in those artists who problematized its status, while ensuring its survival. But I don’t know where this investigation will lead me. I’ve only just begun.
ALEX GARTENFELD — I wonder how you reconcile expressionism to a presumed authenticity, given today’s celebrity principle and the transparency of artists, as they live their lives increasingly in public.
ISABELLE GRAW — I consider authenticity a fiction. The idea that you can understand, or take in, authentically, anyone’s life, through any means, is, of course, an illusion. Artists like Oehlen and Kippenberger were interesting precisely because of the fact that, even though their work was often called “expressionist,” their paintings never expressed feelings. Instead, they treated the painterly sign as a sign and considered it as something that was non-transparent. They created seemingly expressive marks and a second order of expressionism, a “conceptual expressionism,” as I like to call it. The kind of second-order authenticity I’m interested in is the one espoused by Andrea Fraser when she cries during her performance, Official Welcome (2001). You don’t know if you’re watching her really crying or if it’s a performance. It’s both absolutely staged and absolutely authentic. Maybe this is true for crying, anyway, which always involves a certain degree of performance. That’s what I’m interested in. She confronts you with this second-order authenticity all the time. But you also realize that something real is going on.
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