Art & Commodity in the '80s with Gianni Jetzer and Jeffrey Deitch
In the 1980s, huge shifts in politics, the economy, and new technologies inspired a generation of artists who revolutionized contemporary art as we know it today. On the heels of his latest exhibition, “Brand New: Art & Commodity in the 1980s”, the Hirshhorn Museum’s celebrated curator-at-large Gianni Jetzer joined us at the Chandelier penthouse for a fascinating look at art in the '80s and how it all came to be, in conversation with Jeffrey Deitch, renowned art advisor, critic, curator, and former director of L.A. MOCA.
What makes the 1980s such a remarkable decade for art?
Jeffrey Deitch: The New York art world was concentrated right here in this neighborhood. Almost every artist, writer, gallerist, and a number of the collectors all lived here or within walking distance. For the first twenty years in New York City, I almost never even needed to take a taxi. Something that can't be overemphasized is the social network. And the 1980s in New York, for better or worse, is probably the last time and place where one neighborhood, one city, was the capital of the international art world.
You didn't have to connect with people on the Internet. You didn't need to travel around like people do now in art, because the interesting artists and writers from different parts of the world came to New York. You saw them on the street.
What was the scene like?
JD: The hangout was a nondescript restaurant called Magoo’s which is now a pharmacy. It's a little triangle just below Canal Street where Church and West Broadway come together. The owner of Magoo’s, a very, very, nice man, he didn't know anything about art. He just saw a lot of the artists were nice people. And if he liked you, he would accept a painting in return for a restaurant tab. So everybody went there and ate for free. You just walked in and if you had something to do with art, you were pretty much embraced, pulled over to a table. And I would go there almost every night.
The [“Brand New”] exhibition is all about how artists were appropriating the tools and psychology of a growing consumer culture in the '80s. Not only were they using it in their work as a form of expression, but they were also using it to brand and market themselves. Can we talk about the idea of the decade itself as being a sort of brand?
Gianni Jetzer: I think it’s a very strong brand. It's interesting, when I invited artists to the exhibition, some of them, like the more critical, intellectual artists would question that brand and say, "Yeah, why the 1980s? Why not 1979 to 1983?" Some artists said, "Yeah, but you know there’s the good '80s and there’s the bad '80s. You should show the early '80s, but not the late '80s." I think we have certain ideas and, of course, it's not the decade itself. But in a certain sense, it’s a cultural revolution. And it looked completely different by the end of the decade.
JD: The early '80s is characterized by Neo-expressionism. The most notable artists are, of course, Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and European artists like Francesco Clemente, who moved to New York City. Whereas the late '80s artistically was more characterized by simulationism, like Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, and Ashley Bickerton.
Because of the way historians have shaped it, the Pictures Generation, which was not picked up by the art market and the social world as much then, has now become immensely important. The Pictures Generation also characterizes the early '80s, but at the time, it was more of a sub-group. It wasn't what was written about in New York Magazine that put Mary Boone on the cover as the queen of New York art.
GJ: The '80s is kind of a brand that recalls something that it didn't really cover in the beginning, because it was something else. Richard Prince is probably the most famous example that comes to mind when you think of appropriation of commercial imagery. But it's interesting to know that he wasn't even in this exhibition that took place in 1977 at Artist Space. Neither was Cindy Sherman. It was another set of artists, Sherrie Levine amongst them. It was other artists who weren't really so much in force with the appropriation of photography.
“The artistic side had to embrace commercial reality to be contemporary.” – Jeffrey Deitch.
Where were these artists coming from? What art schools were they attending?
GJ: There was a very strong influence from CalArts, which took over as the most important art school. And on the faculty was John Baldessari, who was openly promoting New York City. He was sending all those young artists and students back to the East Coast.
JD: John Baldessari famously gave a terse piece of advice to all his graduates who said, "John, what should we do?" He simply said, "Go to New York." And they all did.
That dialogue between L.A. and New York is still one of the most interesting phenomena in the art world today.
JD: The other power group came from the State University of New York in Buffalo, believe it or not. And that was Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, a number of other good artists too. Robert, while he was still there, was very entrepreneurial and brilliant. They had a little bit of money in the student activities fund. So he would use it to pay all his art heroes to come up to Buffalo to give a talk, like Vito Acconci, artists like that. When they graduated and got to New York a few years later, they knew all these famous artists. That group had a kind of merger with the CalArts group.
Then there were these people who were a little younger, like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Keith and Kenny were students at the School of Visual Arts. Jean-Michel wasn't a student, but he learned that he could roam the hallways there and get free art materials and pick up conversations and use the studios and nobody bothered him. Many of you have seen the Club 57 show that's at the Museum of Modern Art now. Kenny Scharf joked he's finally in the Museum of Modern Art, but in the basement.
How did the art market change in the 1980s?
JD: The '70s just wiped out the collecting field because it was about conceptual art, performance art, art that you couldn't buy. With the dawn of the '80s, with the artists we mentioned and fresh new galleries like Mary Boone, all of a sudden there was painting again for people to collect.
But it wasn’t spurred on by the collectors we know from history books, like the Sculls and the Tremaines...
JD: They did participate, but it was ladies from Great Neck who were advised by a new crop of art collectors. Very ironic. I remember David McDermott, of McDermott & McGough, he was so excited he was having his first show and he was talking about how the Rockefellers were going to buy his work, 'cause he was still thinking of and reading about the history of Blanchette Rockefeller. Of course, it wasn't Mrs. Rockefeller who was buying the work. It was Barbara Schwartz.
There was an amazing woman named Estelle Schwartz who got divorced because she found her husband was having an affair with the maid. Somehow she needed to do something, and she became an art consultant with a band of ladies who would drive in with their Cadillacs to SoHo and buy up a storm. When you go back in history, you think there's a giant phenomenon of the powerful '80s market, but it's actually very specific, even today. It's actual people. A few of the people who Estelle Schwartz brought in became really astute collectors like Emily Spiegel.
What role did gender have in shaping the direction of the decade, in terms of what was bought and sold and how the perspective was shaped?
JD: That's a very good question that needs deeper analysis. The most influential dealers in New York were Mary Boone and Ileana Sonnabend. They had tremendous influence. The key collectors were Emily Spiegel and others, and the key art consultants were Barbara Schwartz and Estelle Schwartz. And then also, the editor of Art Forum at this crucial time who put together analysis of popular culture and finer culture was Ingrid Sischy. So, super-influential women on the intellectual- and art-dealing side. It's really interesting because this time is thought of as overdone masculinity and all that, but in fact, when you really get into it, that's not a correct analysis.
How was art responding to the social climate at the time, with a growing consumer culture and fear of computers and technology?
GJ: For the longest time, it was the foil for the future. When people were referring to the future, they would speak of 1984 and the fear of computers. It was all about the dominance of computers and liberation from that. You had this 1984 Apple commercial that is completely packed — maybe overloaded — with references and symbolic value that represents a personal computer and the promises of this incredible tool that is about to be launched. And that is really the idea behind Brand New, that the value system completely shifts within postmodern times. It's not just about use value or exchange value, it’s about symbolic value on the commercial and artistic sides. The artistic side had to embrace commercial reality to be contemporary.
JD: To mention something commercial… at the beginning, there really weren't many collectors for Jeff Koon's work. His work with the circular vacuum cleaners, the one on top of another, was bought by a fellow artist, who at the time, was sort of parallel to him. Maybe even a little bit beyond in reputation. When Jeff got to be a real big shot at the end of the '80s, other artists were very, very upset that he had gone into this new realm of celebrity and the artists in peak wanted to sell the work.
During this time, in 1981, I didn't have any money. I was a salaried employee at a bank. I couldn't buy art like this. But the guy who bought that piece wanted to sell it and I was able to buy it. It’s very emotional. I think it's very interesting how artists didn't want it anymore because they couldn't deal with Jeff's super success.
Was there a moment during the decade when you realized the art world had changed?
JD: At a party I attended, there was an artist who I showed who was drinking himself under the table. Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art was there and looked at him with great disdain. I could see, this guy will never show in the Museum of Modern Art. And to think of the kind of drinking that took place in the '70s and early '80s... and now, the artists have to be professionals. It's really it's a shocking change how artists have to be just like young urban professionals. You have to play the game. And most do.
Words by Jeffrey Deitch, Gianni Jetzer, and The Editors. Photo portraits by Christos Katsiaouni.