An interview with Donald Kuspit by Diane Thodos — New York City, April 29, 2009 — Parts 6 & 7


Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most important art critics. He is a Distinguished Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and has received fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the NEA, and the Guggenheim Foundation among others. He is a contributing editor to Artforum, Sculpture, the New Art Examiner, and Tema Celeste Magazines as well as editor of Art Criticism. He is author and editor of hundreds of articles and books including The End of Art published in 2004. He frequently writes for

Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic and was a student of Donald Kuspit at the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 1987 to 1992. She is also a former student of Stanley William Hayter and Sam Gilliam and received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2002. She has exhibited most recently at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago and is represent by the Paule Friedland/Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, The Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago. She will be exhibiting at the Kouros gallery in New York City in 2010.

Continued from Parts 4 & 5

Donald Kuspit: You know what has happened to art now? It is exactly like the way the magazines announce a movie that is opening. They say, “This movie is the best because it brought in 20 million dollars” and “this movie number two because the first weekend it brought in 18 million.” Now there’s no evaluation. What are these movies about? They give you some narrative line, but what about the cinematography? What about the acting?

Diane Thodos: It’s just the sheer power of money speaking for itself. The Rijk’s museum exhibit of Damien Hirst’s “Skull” is also an attempt to destroy the authentic art that was already there in the museum.

DK: Yes, he said explicitly that he has “no integrity” – that’s a direct quote.

DT: So he’s aware of it.

DK: Well it is the “hot” thing to say. He is saying, “See I have no integrity, I’m the new bandit, I’m the new hotshot gangster.”

DT: He wants to be the “bad boy.”

DK: He’s saying “I’m the bad boy and the godfather” and you know there’s always a role for this in a popular culture. Have you ever seen him? He looks like a sly gopher or something.

DT: I have never really taken much of any interest in him.

DK: The sociology of art is more important right now.

DT: Arnold Hauser’s book “The Sociology of Art?” [1974]

DK: What I mean is the sociology of the contemporary situation is in some ways more interesting than the art. Don’t kid yourself. It’s about what is the social role of art and how people are invested in art. This is why opening parties are such big events. Art is an occasion for socializing.

DT: Networking, climbing ladders…

DK: And art openings have an atmosphere a little different than if we met in a boardroom or a restaurant where we would eat, chat, or make our deal. It’s interesting that art is a status item; it’s all about what is your status?

DT: Everything is getting extremely distended and abstracted from any meaningfulness in terms of what is sold and what the art actually is.

DK: It’s getting abstracted from experiential meaning and from aesthetic meaning. It’s even getting separated from any kind of serious social commentative purpose. Who cares what you are transgressing? Nobody cares. Art has lost its way.

DT: Yes, it’s a completely lost situation. I recall reading an essay by Robert Hughes about Willem de Kooning. He made the observation that his kind of expressionism was rare in American art. Why is this so? It is rare in terms of established practice within the American art tradition. In other words de Kooning was pretty unusual. Compared to Pollock, de Kooning brought his work closer to what the German Expressionist tradition was about.

DK: I think he is more important than Pollock.

DT: Yes he is more important, I agree.

DK: Well he was European. Gorky was European. Hans Hoffman was European: it goes back to Europe. If you look at the history of 20th century art the largest amount of art produced, the most continuous stream of art – for better or worse – was Expressionism, whether it was figurative expressionism or Abstract Expressionism. Now in America the art may have to do with some sense of Puritanism – a sense of shame about “letting it all hang out” unless of course you got a TV camera in front of you.

DT: It’s an anti-figural attitude unless it’s about spectacle?

DK: Unless it’s about spectacle. Also I think it’s very hard to sustain genuine Expressionism. It’s really a kind of intuitive painting. You have to be with it. When you look at a Kirchner painting full of dashed lines and marks you got to be totally focused, totally absorbed. Saul Bellow once said we live in a distraction society. That’s why it’s hard to sustain focus. There is also a strong figurative tradition in American art.

DT: Artists like Edward Hopper, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer…

DK: Let me put it this way. Warhol is another social realist in a certain sense – a social realist who is dealing with things like Hollywood stars, celebrity, whatever. That is a strong American tradition. Forget about any stylistic considerations – it’s about observing the society. Warhol said, and I think he’s right, that his best works were about death. A lot of them deal with social violence. That’s social observation: social realism. In a certain sense he’s a kind of Hollywood and New York regionalist. So there is a lot of art like this and that’s an art that comes from the outside. Some of it gets inside but it starts from the outside. I think there is actually a need now for what I call a new objective art. It starts from the outside and pays attention to observation. I think this is happening, but this is more of an American tradition than Expressionism, which comes from the inside out.

DT: When internalized feelings coming out.

DK: It is the externalization of the internal through this mode. When you look at the paintings of Kirchner you can sort of follow the lines. But if you look at de Kooning, particularly some of those black and white pieces from 1948 – 49 it gets very hard to follow what’s going on. You have to sort have to of immerse yourself in the image and do this unconscious scanning. It’s a difficult thing. It’s much easier to stay with an object – be it a landscape or a movie poster.

DT: Knowable human content is easier to grasp that the sort of attenuation of abstraction into, if you will, more and more of a conceptual mode?

DK: Yes I think so. The problem with the conceptual mode is that it signals a certain end of observation – of looking at the object out there –and then it gets filtered through the media and gets lost. But then there are people like Philip Pearlstein: artists still looking at the human body.

DT: There are also R. B. Kitaj, Jim Valerio, and Vincent Desiderio…

DK: There are people like that – people who get a balance of inside and outside. That’s the heart of it. They are looking at whole objects, not fragments; some resonance comes through. I think the conceptual mode has kind of run away with itself. If you look around you can see other things but certainly the conceptual mode seems to be market dominated or given pride of place.

DT: Well, what I meant was there is a leap of concept that occurs between, let’s say de Kooning’s “Women” paintings of the early 1950’s and the more abstracted landscapes he did in the 1970’s: there’s a subtle shift of concept.

DK: De Kooning had something else: he had a hand, he had touch, and he had skill.

DT: He had draughtsmanship, he loved Soutine, and you could see the lushness of the color. He liked Matisse. He was integrating a lot of traditions plus the influence of Arshile Gorky. Gorky really turned him into a poet of paint. Without Gorky he couldn’t have done the transition. Gorky brought this great soul to his art that you don’t see in de Kooning’s work from the time before he met him.

DK: De Kooning was a very accomplished abstract artist. That’s all gone now. Today you don’t need skill in the arts.

DT: But on the other hand I think that you do – if you are going to engage that inwardness you need to have the linguistic means of transposing it outwardly. I think of the great discovery of automatism that comes from Surrealism. On this point I don’t think it is well known that a former teacher of mine – Stanley William Hayter – had a big impact on the American Abstract Expressionists. Originally he had set up his print shop Studio 17 in Paris where a lot of the avant-garde artists there came to print. He fled France because of the invading German army during World War II. He had been producing pamphlets in his print shop on how to blow up German tanks.

DK: Really, I did not know that.

DT: He was extremely anti-Nazi and Hitler had placed a bounty on his head. Hayter was a pretty tough individual. When he fled France he experienced a month long trip across the Atlantic on a boat that was dodging submarines. He finally arrived in New York City around 1940 where he set up his Studio 17 print shop anew. This was an important meeting place where all the expatriated European artists would come to do art and interact. Printmaking is fortunately an art of praxis – artists have to come together to use the same press and equipment. Technical necessities bring printmakers together; with that comes an experimental chemistry of exchange. The American Abstract Expressionists knew all these famous artists like Andre Masson and Max Ernst who came to do work at Studio 17: the artists they had read about were suddenly here in the USA. Many came to Studio 17 to have contact with members of the European avant-garde who they revered. From what I understand Hayter had artists do preliminary exercises on test printing plates: exercises in automatism. This was the exercise he had me do in 1984 when he was my teacher and it was the same one that Jackson Pollock had done in 1944 – 45. It is very interesting to see the transformation of Pollock’s work compared to what he had done previously. He was painting abstract work based on American Indian symbols and iconography; these had some movement but were not completely open and gestural. After he did the experimental plates with Hayter the subconscious gestural element started coming out and began his launch into the drip paintings.

DK: How long did you work with Hayter?

DT: For about 4 months in the fall of 1984 in Paris. This experience at Studio 17 transformed me completely because the discovery of automatism – the subconscious and spontaneous flow of gestural line – made me understand the mystery and meaning of the abstract plane in a completely new way than had previously existed. It liberated a potential that I could not have perceived before. This same abstraction was a mystery I had seen in de Kooning’s work that I could not have solved until I had done this exercise. de Kooning had worked in Studio 17 too. After Pollock practiced automatism and it entered his painting the idea caught fire with de Kooning. Even then de Kooning transferred these ideas to his friend Franz Klein. So there was this ascendancy that was happening.

DK: Through Hayter.

DT: Through the exercise of automatism. Hayter’s work in automatism actually had a fairly dry biomorphic quality to it, but the important thing was that he created an environment of serious and open experimentation which allowed the transmission of some important Surrealist ideas. The use of automatism to delve into abstraction and the subconscious was essential to Abstract Expressionism.

DK: It sounds like it was a very good experience. How did you get access?

DT: It was by chance really. I had a printmaking teacher at Carnegie Mellon University named Joanne Maier and I told her I was going to study at the Alliance Francais in Paris for a semester. She noticed I was a complete fanatic about printmaking – I couldn’t keep the ink off my hands. She knew Studio 17 in Paris and wrote me a letter of introduction to Bill Hayter. I believe anyone could study there as long as you were a serious printmaker and you followed his instruction making the experimental test plate. At the time Hayter did not have a high profile status the way de Kooning and Pollock did.

DK: Yet his name has always been there.

DT: It has always been there and Studio 17 is important as a junction of exchange between Europe and the US. Much teaching about printmaking was brought to this country and spread by his students, like Mauricio Lasansky. Many printmaking departments were created in art schools because of Bill Hayter’s influence. It was a wonderful gift to this country and what I learned was a wonderful gift to me. If I hadn’t tripped upon the circumstance of studying with Hayter I don’t think I could understand art the way I do today.

DK: That’s interesting. That‘s quite a compliment.

DT: I am also grateful to have had you as my teacher for five years. You were the person at the right time and the right place to answer critical questions I had about the art world and to give me the perceptual distance I needed from what was happening in the New York art world. I needed to unravel the history even as it was happening around me. Your teaching gave me the perception and tools I needed as a way out of the puzzlement I was feeling about the art world. I was very confused about how it operated – what was its modus operandi. By that time in the late 1980’s anti-art already had a very strong hold within the art world.

DK: Right, the anti-aesthetic.

DT: By that time it was very strongly entrenched. I needed someone who could give me some real answers. I recall you had once criticized certain art of the 1980’s as being the equivalent of junk bonds. In today’s art world do you see the work of Jeff Koons and those like him being similar to toxic assets – both financially and spiritually – to use a current terminology?

DK: Yes – a simple yes. They represent the spiritual bankruptcy of art. Art is no longer spiritual: I use the German word Giest. They are anti-Giest. The word “corrupt” is too generous. They don’t know what it would be to not be corrupt. The word corruption does not figure in their way of thinking.

DT: It is more supremely nihilistic?

DK: I would say it is ultimately nihilistic. I think it is not only anti-art – it is anti-life. Let’s just think for a moment of what Koons did with Chicholina – I’m referring to his sculptures of her. She was his Italian wife, also once a member of the Italian Parliament, and some say a prostitute or call girl or model as well as a celebrity of sorts. They’re now divorced. The sculptures were on view at the Sonnabend Gallery. In one work she looks like a glamorized not to say whorish belle femme sans merci–the eternal feminine downgraded/degraded to a media slut — anti-life indeed.

DT: Pornographic stuff.

DK: Yes, but pornography does not have to do with the spectator, it has to do with Eros.

DT: The objectification of the human body?

DK: Exactly.

DT: I remember very clearly the day in class you described the difference between the erotic and the pornographic.

DK: There has been a lot written about this by Robert J. Stoller. [Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred 1975]

DT: And also about how the Christian religion downgraded the body and split the body from the spirit, demonizing Eros.

DK: Yes, absolutely.

DT: This distinction struck me because I have something of a Greek ancestral background, not that the modern Greeks are just like the ancient, but I had some exposure to the pre- Christian Greek art of antiquity. I had a different perception growing up. That didn’t always have to do with the current society, which is shaped by different forces.

DK: Yes, I think so. It’s interesting to me that contemporary artists appeal to very rich people. It’s very important to have a high price. There is a kind of saying in the art market – you may have heard it– that if you put a work out there with a low price on it people will say it can’t be worth very much.

DT: Right.

DK: They perceive low quality because the price is low. I remember a dealer who once said that people were questioning him about piece of art because it was for $200,000.

DT: As if to say “The price is too low – what’s the matter with the art?”

DK: Yes – It is as though if it were priced for $300,000 they would consider it. They look at art with the dollar sign.

DT: Very bizarre. It didn’t used to be that way 50 years ago.

DK: You know this piece I wrote called Art Values or Money Values [ March 6, 2007].

DT: Yes. It’s one of my favorite essays.

DK: That’s what it is all about. You remember there was this dealer who started an operation in Miami with artists whose prices were $2000 or $5000 a work? Now they have changed their prices to $10,000 to $20,000 a work and somehow that is supposed to give it value. You know $10,000 is a lot of buckaroos, at least to some people.

DT: There are also covert relationships to fix the art market between dealers and collectors.

DK: There have been some cases which you may know about that have been printed in the newspapers. A work sold at auction for a certain amount – then it turned out there was some sort of kickback. It was not really the stated price but less. The gallery was partly financing the auction bid and this act of manipulation was reported in the news. There was a wonderful piece in the Financial Times, which covers the art market very extensively because art is big business. They had a piece on one of the last auctions around a year ago about an Ellsworth Kelly. They showed a picture of the art and said, “Is this blob work worth one and a half million dollars?”

DT: Brilliant.

DK: They talked about how there was uncertainty that was entering the art auctions. What’s the relationship between this blob and one and a half million dollars?

Continued in Parts 8 & 9