The Nature of Curatorial Practice

While permanently altering the nature of curatorial practice in the US, Collins & Milazzo’s role as catalyst in the late-’80s neo-Conceptual takeover of the East Village was no less decisive. Even a cursory study of the former couple’s résumé is enough to make the current generation of peripatetic curators blush: in the course of a decade, from March 1984 to May 1993, a mind-boggling forty-four exhibitions, virtually all accompanied by catalogues, or at least a co-authored text. In many cases, the verbal pyrotechnics and occasional lapses into self-parody outweighed the work on view. Unsurprisingly, the pair’s most fertile period came early, with a series of groundbreaking minisurveys of new art, whose titles still read like postmodern primers: “Still Life with Transaction,” “The New Capital,” and “Paravision.” One of the taboos they punctured was the notion that serious curators don’t make exhibitions in galleries. Along with nonprofits like White Columns, a partial list of their local venues included International With Monument, Nature Morte, Postmasters, Tibor de Nagy, American Fine Arts, Massimo Audiello, John Gibson, Annina Nosei, Sidney Janis, and Tony Shafrazi. In the end, the reign of Collins & Milazzo fizzled for the same primal reason it came into being: Times changed, and the art that people wanted to see changed with them. One vainly scrutinizes the list of twenty artists in their 1993 swan song, “Elvis Has Left the Building (A Painting Show),” to find more than a couple of names that even register.  [Dan Cameron on Collins and Milazzo]

Peter Nagy The Super Strings 1986

With twenty-twenty hindsight, it’s easy to see how specious and fickle the outpourings of both attention and money were, and it’s easy now to point up the hubris of those who believed that the rules of the game were changing forever. Alan Belcher and I never imagined ourselves to be revolutionaries; rather, we naively found ourselves in the right place at the right time, a moment in which, as I still believe, true progress was being made in the visual arts (though this was happening mostly in SoHo). Belcher and I identified strongly with the Metro Pictures school of art: media-derived, critical, and ironic. Consequently, we loathed the initial definition of the East Village by way of Gracie Mansion’s kitsch (had seen it all before at Holly Solomon’s on West Broadway) and Civilian Warfare’s Urban Punk (now seemingly the most true-to-the-neighborhood aesthetic). We felt vindicated only by the arrival, and subsequent success, of International With Monument and Cash/ Newhouse, and were proud to be peers in the court of Collins and Milazzo. It was Collins and Milazzo—that cross between Deleuze and Guattari and Ozzie and Harriet—who deserve the most credit for creating the intellectual East Village. They not only brought together (over Tricia’s home cooking) the like-minded young artists and gallerists of the neighborhood, but virtually built the bridge connecting the Pictures generation with its spawn.
Personally, I learned volumes from my experience in the East Village, up to my eyeteeth in it as I was. The anxiety of making it into the history books was erased, as the history books themselves were democratized, opened up for seemingly anyone to write in. It’s surprising just how many “East Village” shows were mounted around the world, usually instigated by outside forces, but occasionally from within the neighborhood itself, for there certainly hasn’t been a glut of geographically inspired curating since (no shows anywhere, to my knowledge, on “The Marais” or “The Galleries of Bergamot Station”), which points to the fact that the audience outside saw the East Village scene as more cohesive and homogenized than did those of us within it. Just as the history books expanded to record more names, we became acutely aware, at an early age, of the rapid turnover of artists required to fuel the novelty-driven market (I’m often reminded of Robert Pincus-Witten’s essay “The Scene that Turned on a Dime” [1986]). Anyone involved in it can think of dozens of artists and dealers who seem to have disappeared from the art world completely—far more, in fact, than those whom we know to still be active. [Peter Nagy on the East Village]

Allan McCollum Plaster Surrogates (Substituts en plâtre) 1985

ALLAN McCOLLUM: It’s fascinating and touching that people work so hard to build an imminent meaning into things; that they pursue their desire to produce symbolic objects for themselves to keep, and to exchange with others. In our culture, an artwork is an object of this kind; and whatever specific meaning the artist works to put into it, it will always retain its promise as a gift, its destiny as a keepsake. This is the artwork I am interested in making: an object filled with the absence of certain meaning, and yet rich with the quality of meaningfulness in and of itself. What comes across in a lot of your work is an unabashed optimism for the potential of art. At the same time you have enthusiastically supported certain younger artists regarded by other critical thinkers of our generation to be devoutly cynical in their outlook. What is your view of those who see only cynicism in the work of today’s younger artists?
ALLAN McCOLLUM: Your writing has always been marked by an exaggerated attention to style. Recently, critical texts have been looked at from a literary model—with a view to the ideological implications of their rhetorical devices. Can you talk about how the way you write reflects your underlying concerns about art, how your writing style impacts on the issues you deem important to you?
COLLINS & MILAZZO: There is a pragmatic and a theoretical answer to your question. Pragmatically, when we started to write ‘art criticism’ (in 1982), if this is what it can be called, much of the art we sponsored or supported, either had no audience, or was unknown, unappreciated, or simply, ignored. We, on the contrary, were inspired by this ‘new’ work—and, quite frankly, allowed that work to un abashedly infect our “style” with new possibilities. While it is unfashionable in the art world to speak of new possibilities, inspiration, vision, creativity, and especially, originality, or basically a generative, or what Lucio Pozzi calls a ”regenerative,” approach, this was the case at the time—and still is, at least for us. Artists are constantly constructing new situations for themselves, trying to find a way out of certain discourses, or a way into others, even as they get trapped trying, ultimately, to find a way into their ‘own’ discourse. But no discourse is fully one’s own, nor is there any excuse for not trying to reinvent color or the alphabet. Convention and desire play into each other’s hands. Both win and both lose. The only thing you can be sure of is that you will be both brutalized by the process and inspired by it. But it is incumbent upon the critic to become engaged by the process, at the very least—either reflexively, which is usually the case, that is, where the art and the artist lead the way, or absurdly, and more unusually, where the critic, or rather, ”critical thinker,” dreams that he or she is helping to construct a dynamic ‘critical’ (in the sense of ‘crisis’) situation, where in art may thrive. The latter involves a form of willful, even violent, innocence—if it is to survive against the odds of the status quo, fashionability, ‘politics,’ and general cultural inertia. A theoretical, and far less ‘honest, ‘answer to your question is that we never believed in art criticism. It is too academic, too removed, too falsely objective and objectifying, too discreet and subsidiary and yet too self-deceivingly and passively opportunistic. It is a form of ‘graduate schoolism,’ especially as it is practiced by right-wing Marxists. But ultimately, it is simply too inconsequential in the greater scheme of things. It has even less of a chance to matter than art itself in the larger world of the Social. Perceptively, you have not referred to us as art critics, nor to our work as art criticism; instead you speak of ”critical thinkers,” and simply of “writing.” In the past, we have referred to ourselves as ‘advocates’ and to our critical work as ‘anti-criticism.’ This was partly due to a blatant rejection of the given (as described above) critical and art historical models, that is, the small-worldism [sic] of professional agendas, and, in part, to a personal fascination with setting a precedent for other, less legitimate and legitimizing, and more active modes of perception and criticality. A personal fascination that was steeped deeply, and, in part, generated by, the ‘impersonal’ or expansive beauty and innovation of the art we proudly advocated. Rather than comply with the ‘model ‘ for these things, for meaning and ethics, we have always chosen to test the limits of the rational, to try the de-stabilizing thresholds of meaning, rather than accept the lure of meaning per se and its reifications, and to adopt, when confronted by the conscience and consciousness of a moral code, an absurd ethic. And ultimately, to chance the actuality of closure over the rhetoric of correct positions. [Allan McCollum in conversation with Collins and Milazzo]

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