ATOA Transcription Archive

I Have a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Any More

It was 1979. They thought New York was "impossible," but they were clear about why they made art here - or why not. Today, of course, New York is beyond impossible. But much of what they said about making art (and "it") in the city is still true.

"Why Make Art in New York?"

Moderator: Lori Antonacci, filmmaker

Panelists: Jack Sonenberg, sculptor; Martha Wilson, performance artist;
Diane Burko, painter; Loren Madsen, sculptor; Ted Thirlby, sculptor

Artists Talk on Art NYC; October 26, 1979

Panelists showed slides: Diano Burko paints places like the Grand Canyon and Colorado using photographs shot from an airplane. Ted Thirlby’s constructions incorporate found objects, "like a pipe left over from installing my toilet." Jack Sonenberg said his large outdoor sculptures, extending as much as 200 feet across a field, are "geometric constructs in nature." Loren Madsen’s sculpture of bricks suspended on wires could include 2000 bricks, "real tedious" to make. Martha Wilson showed slides of her performances and sang songs from the repertoire of her band, Disband. Lori Antonacci showed excerpts from her documentary film "Freedom to Know," but said she planned to do shorter works in future: This one cost $30,000 to make.

Introducing panelists, Antonacci noted that Ted arrived in 1974 from Travers City, Michigan, Loren in 1977 from Los Angeles, Jack right after World War II from Toronto, Martha from Canada in 1974. Diane is a native New Yorker who lives in Philadelphia.

Lori Antonacci: What were the myths that got you here - or the realities?

Ted Thirlby: I was drawn to New York because of the art galleries and the other artists. Even more, I was drawn by the mystique of the big city and the real life. So, here I am. I found it.

Loren Madsen: I came for about 50 very obvious reasons, and 50 less obvious ones, the obvious being that in L.A. there are 40 galleries and in New York there are 400. And the museums, and the publications, and the fact that it’s the financial capital and direct link to Europe. There are more artists here, too. . . . I was starting to do fairly well in L.A. It was a question of becoming comfortable or putting a little salt in the wounds. I wanted to put some salt in the wounds. New York is the perfect place to do that.

Also, if I was going to play at all, I wanted to play with the big kids. This is where the big kids are. Not just at 420 (West Broadway). I’m talking about going up to the Met and the Modern, and the Guggenheim and the Whitney, and contrasting my work - or your work, or whoever’s work – with what’s hanging there. And in this town, you have that opportunity as in no other town in the United States. This is where the energy is, and the excitement. And the rents are lower than in L.A., if you can believe that.

Antonacci: You say, "pouring salt on the wounds." Martha, you’ve said New York is purgatory for artists. . . .

Martha Wilson: I started by saying New York is Mecca. For a long time, I wasn’t an artist and New York didn’t mean anything. I was an English Lit major, so I could live in Montreal, or any place. Then, when I decided I was an artist, suddenly, I had to go to New York . . .

But my notion of New York was of a terribly bitter, horrible place, where other artists hate you and try to make you feel like shit. When I got here, I found that artists, especially women, were very supportive and thought I was great. It’s not purgatory after all, except for the rents, the crime, and all that stuff. In terms of art, it remains a mecca.

Jack Sonenberg: When I came here, there just wasn’t any place else to go. I was living in Toronto and had no one to talk to. So I really came here to escape having to talk to my own family. My major concern was escape.

If you realize that in Toronto, Canada, when I left, there was one art gallery, and it paid its rent by having wedding receptions on Sundays, you understand the appeal of New York.

Antonacci: What keeps you here?

Sonenberg: I’ve stayed, but it’s both attraction and repulsion at this point. I think all of us . . . hate the place as well as love it. But when I came to New York, you could rent a loft for $15 or $20 a month, and you could rent an apartment for $40 or $50.

Antonacci: Jack says it’s love-hate. Diane, are you not here because you hate it?

Diane Burko: I don’t hate New York. I love it. It’s ironic that on this panel about why we make art in New York, no one’s a New Yorker but me. I was born in Brooklyn, raised in Brooklyn, and you can tell by the way I speak I’m from Brooklyn; certainly everyone in Philadelphia can tell. What got me to Philly was graduate school. I made a conscious choice to stay and I’ve been there 13 years. I still consider myself a New Yorker - it’s only an hour and 40 minutes by train. And I appreciate what Loren said about the museums. I feel they’re mine, too. But being away from New York has allowed me to turn it on and off in terms of pressure and hustle.

I’m supposedly frenetic and full of energy - much too fast for Philadelphia in speaking or walking. I literally used to trip over people when I got off the trolley. When I taught the first year, I found out later there was a rumor I was on speed. My personality is so much the typical New York kind of hyper personality, that Philadelphia sort of balanced out my karma and made me much saner. And as far as rents go, they’re fantastic in Philadelphia. I’ve been very spoiled.

Antonacci: We should all move to Philadelphia?

Burko: Well, basically, it’s real-estate value. I’m somewhat middle-class and I have a family, and I teach. I can have a lot of comfortable things - a good studio assistant, a good day-care facility. I couldn’t afford to live in New York. My nice 11-room townhouse on 64th Street would cost more than half a million dollars.

Antonacci: I came here from Chicago in 1975, but I’m originally from a very small town in Illinois. I came basically to have an adventure. I was between jobs and doing nothing in particular in my life. I had majored in art history and film-making at college, but they didn’t teach anything beyond the beginning of contemporary art. Nothing about SoHo. Not even about the New York art community of the ‘50s. When I got here, I started reading about that and felt a bit nostalgic at having missed it. But there was still an artists’ support system. I began doing art again after a pause of several years.

Almost everyone on the panel has said something about the hustle of New York. The things that are prized in the midwest, a very straight way of doing business, don’t operate here, but there’s a particular energy that I’ve never found anywhere else. And it calls to parts of me I never used anywhere else.

Martha Wilson: New York looks like a very big, ominous place that can’t be cracked when you’re outside it. And then you get inside, and you live here for a year or two. And what I discovered was that there’s so much going on . . . it’s possible to carve out a job and a little place for yourself and not be noticed too much by the larger world.

Consequently, a few years into my life in New York I had a teaching job at Brooklyn College. And then the city nearly defaulted and all the teachers were fired, and I was fired. I thought, I can go back up there to work in a corporation, or I can start my own business. I chose, of course, to try to start my own business . . . a non-profit arts organization.

New York offers a large enough community that a little rickety place like mine can survive, because there are 5,000 people on the mailing list and a real community that supports the particular corner of art we care for, which is published works – artists’ books and pamphlets and magazines, cassettes, records and material like that. Many artists either live here or send their stuff here when they find out Franklin Furnace is down there to take care of it.

And the grapevine that [reaches] out of New York is much more efficient than the grapevine out of any other place. So the importance of New York is as a distribution center, not only for goods, but also for art ideas. When I came down here to live, my art changed radically. Everything about you changes just because of the influx of information and the life style that’s so different.

I think the sense of community is different, too; it’s actually very strong. If I had continued to live in New Town, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Ohio; or Halifax, Nova Scotia, I couldn’t have started an arts organization. And I couldn’t have done the kind of art I do with other people.

Madsen: I think there are basically two kinds of people in New York. People who were born or raised here and don’t know enough to get out. And people with ambition and aggression who came here. And that goes for wave after wave of immigrants, certainly for all the artists who have moved here. Because it’s not the kind of place you move into if you’re looking for a comfortable place to bring up the kids. I mean, you have to have something that you want to be doing for yourself and your life. That's the reason to move here.

Sonenberg: What we’re talking about is opportunities in New York for being an artist. But a lot of artists who have succeeded then move out. They still continue to be important artists, but prefer to do their work outside.

I don’t think I’d do that, if I had the option, because here there’s a sense of time that’s lacking anywhere else. The moment I go to the country I lose that sense of the immediacy of the moment and everything just seems to disappear in terms of confronting issues. So it’s absolutelv necessary for me as an artist to be here.

Thirlby: About your idea of time and New York’s particular time frame: I often feel, because I’m so busy and there are so many things I want to do or have to do, that I’m actually living a week or two ahead of right now . . . focused way ahead of where I am; and that has a strong effect on the way I work.

Another thing is the sort of entrepreneurial hustler scene. I came here without apparent skills, and have fashioned a money-making career to support myself. I made it all up as I went along, and convinced people I could do it, along with convincing myself. I think the town encourages that kind of thing.

Burko: I don’t think it’s the town. I think it’s the person. If New York is in your blood, you just have that energy. I don’t think it leaves you because you leave the place.

Antonacci: I didn’t have it before I came here. It was in me [but it] didn’t function in the midwest. Here you feel a sense of the people producing around you.

Wilson: New York offers something different from a place like, say, Aspen, Colorado. That’s the stamp of approval. There’s something about living in New York so strenuous that even if you’ve lived here juSt one year, you can get a teaching job in Ohio. You just say, "I lived in New York."

Madsen: I agree. Simply living here lends a certain cachet. Since I moved out of L.A., my reputation there really skyrocketed - and I haven’t done a thing in L.A. If you live in New York, you’re automatically considered (1) very adventurous and (2) a survivor.

Wilson: The people who live in New York are willing to uphold that myth. We're always patting each other on the back and saying, "Well, did you get a victory today?"

Sonenberg: But when you talk to most people, they don’t sound that way. Everybody’s pretty sour about New York. It’s becoming more and more impossible. It’s still the urban center that Paris was and maybe Berlin at one time. But there’s no guarantee that will continue.

I think when people talk about being driven out of SoHo or this place or that place, they’re really talking anxiously about the possibility of the demise of New York as an art center - an obvious possibility. I almost feel the hustle and bustle will finally be what destroys the place. Now we see so many artists hustling to be real estate operators, or dealers involved in real estate, not art.

Burko: Do you want to move to Philadelphia?

Sonenberg: I think it would be healthy for artists to have an option. I don't have an option.

Antonacci: OK. We've got problems. What are the big problems?

Madsen: I wonder if the problems Jack raised aren’t endemic to all large metropolitan centers. Certainly in L.A. a lot of artists have become real estate entrepreneurs. And in Chicago. It’s a great misfortune that we don’t have other centers. Wherever you go, any large city - Washington or Houston or L.A. or Chicago - tries to represent itself as the coming center, until you start talking to the artists. Then they all say, "Well, I'm going to move to New York as soon as I can get out of this damn place."

Antonacci: We’re talking about where the artists are and the art is, but doesn’t that [itself] bring pressures?

Thirlby: Well, the pressures are different. I’m talking about the internal pressures of working. I worked in the midwest for a month this summer. I see myself here as a rather conservative artist, rather conventional, and I feel a lot of pressure to try to innovate, as a way of perhaps drawing more attention to my work and myself. Back there, I was doing my same "conservative" work and showing it to people who were artists or who thought about art. And their response was, "It's interesting, but it's not sculpture."

So the pressure of New York’s more refined, more esoteric art scene may keep me moving forward. But it could be, if I were [in the midwest] and relaxed, other things would come out that would be better. Who knows?

Sonenberg: I just take it for granted that this place is such a focus for energy that people do their best work here. But everybody’s becoming very middle class, and the only kind of success that matters is commercial success. . . .

If artists 10 years ago had faced the kind of situation developing in SoHo right now [influx of non-artists; city’s attempt to grandfather in non-artists; rising rents, etc.], there probably would have been an enormous outburst. But now everybody’s just sitting around aud taking it.

Madsen: I don't mean to bad-mouth L.A. L.A. was very good to me, in the sense that when l was a student and a younger artist, there was a very flourishing art scene. Artforum was there, and the L.A County Museum, and the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art. The material was there you needed to look at.

At the same time, there was very little pressure. I was allowed to develop along my own lines without anybody saying, "Hey, let's see the work. When are you going to show it?" You could be fairly reclusive in the studio and still have the emotional support you needed from your friends.

My experience here, particularly amongst younger artists, is that they get enormous pressure: "When are you going to show?" "When will you have it together?" "Can I come and see your stuff?" And this in their early 20s, when they’re still trying to sort things out and find their way through styles and ideas.

Wilson: That kind of pressure is preferable to attitudes in, say, Halifax, Nova Scotia, when I was trying to invade men’s rooms. My teachers were telling me, "What you’re doing is not art. . . . You’re a terrible person for thinking up this kind of art." It took somebody from New York who came to Halifax and said, "You’re doing good work. Send me your stuff," to tell me there was another world out there with different rules. And the rules here are very flexible. You can walk down Fifth Avenue smoking a joint. Nobody cares. You go down Fifth Avenue in New Brunswick smoking a joint and you’re arrested.

So I think the pressure is one of absence. There isn’t any limit to art when you get here. You discover there’s so much going on that you have to create. You’re throwing things into a vacuum.

Antonacci: That’s part of New York in general - anything goes. Whatever you can hustle is yours.

Wilson: That doesn’t exist any other place. I can’t think of a burg in which there are no limits, except maybe L.A.

Burko: New York is the mecca and the marketplace, but being away from it and making it in that little pond [Philly], was very easy to do. . . . One of the reasons I stayed in Philly after I finished school [was that I could] keep working and developing. I was lucky enough to find a good dealer who was interested in me even before she was ready to sell me. If you’re from New York and you go to any small town, if you have talent you could be the artist. Then you can come back to New York, and have a bit more of an edge.

A friend of mine went to see a New York dealer, who will remain nameless, and she [the dealer] said, "I don’t care what your art looks like; if you don’t have a few collectors and a following, I can’t take you on." So if you develop in one of those burgs, you can come here and have a bit more going for you - except if you’re going into men’s rooms.

Antonacci: But there’s a difference between "little burgs" and L.A. or Philadelphia.

Burko: Anything’s little compared to New York.

Antonacci: Loren, you said earlier this is the one place in our society you feel respected as an artist.

Madsen: New York has a history, and New York is attached to and an extension of European history. All that European history came over on the boats with everybody else. And I have a sense here that art history continues - as well as other political and social histories. I feel part of a continuum here that I never felt part of in L.A. or any place on the west coast.

In L.A., history was last month’s Artforum. Here, you can go up to the Met and be very close to El Greco or Velasquez or whoever you happen to like - and feel part of that history. People brought up in this context have a respect for it I don’t find any place else.

When I first did a show in a museum here, I couldn’t believe how well they treated me. They thanked me for coming and doing this piece. Instead of, they’re doing me a favor, I was doing them a favor. I thought, "Give me a ticket to town."

Antonacci: Jack, when you moved here, there was a very small, close art community. Has it changed?

Sonenberg: While Martha was talking about charging into men’s bathrooms and getting away with that better here, I was thinking of years ago, going to St. Louis to study. It was the height of the McCarthy era, and we were put through an incredible inquisition at the university. At that time, just being an artist was pretty close to subversive. I always have the feeling that redneck America is out to get us, and at least New York offers some sort of refuge. I remember coming back to New York with an incredible sense of relief that I was safe home again.

Burko: I think there’s a sense of community in New York that

you can’t find anywhere else. I know artists from Philly, but I don’t feel as close to them.

Wilson: I think that’s critical mass. There are more artists here, so you can pick better. There are how many in Philadelphia?

Burko: Well, there are four art schools and about 40 galleries. There are a lot of artists, but they’re not as good as New York artists.

Audience: Was it easier to be an artist in New York in the ‘50s and to be successful?

Sonenberg: New York is about the only place you can expect to receive [major success]. People then did not deliberately take vows of poverty. They wanted some sort of material success. . . .

Audience: What about needing to keep your art pure but needing commercial success so you have more time to make art? Is that more difficult in New York than redneck America?

Thirlby: I’m able to make my living another way, independent of my art, and I like doing it. I don’t make money, or very little, from my art, although I devote most of my real energy to it. And that’s a conflict.

On the one hand, I feel like I’m beginning to understand what I’m doing and project it. On the other hand, I can’t resolve my lack of commercial success, and more importantly, my obscurity as an artist. If New York does exert a pressure, at least it offers the possibility of wider recognition - and money. If you don’t have that, it's hard to keep those tensions out of the work. The tensions are in my work - and in me too, a kind of anger.

Audience: You feel pressured?

Thirlby: I feel a pressure - and a confusion, because, although I feel I am successful as an artist in my work, I don’t have the trappings of recognition or money.

You always wonder, "Is this work really communicating? Am I really projecting myself?" Apparently other people do that and get money and recognition. And apparently I’m doing it, but not getting those things. So maybe I’m not doing it. It's an insecuriry - and difficult to resolve. You feel successful as an artist, but you don’t get the trappings.

Wilson: You make this work, but you don’t make it for money. You make it for art. And yet you want to sell this work when you’re done making it. And one way I got myself out of this problem was to make a kind of art that’s not commercially viable at all. It’s non-saleable. Poof!. It disappears. So I escape the need to produce a product which is then sold after I’ve done it for art.

Burko: A lot of my friends, who went to the same schools I did, are doing really shitty things with their lives and making a lot of money. I think I’m doing a fantastic thing with my life, and I see nothing wrong with getting paid for it, godammit. If you make so much money it stops you from making art, you’re that kind of person.

Sonenberg: Ted commented about knowing you’re successful on certain terms but not getting the rewards you think you deserve. I think all of us have been snowed by the notion that being an artist can be something like being a movie star. And that really was begun by the dealers, who created these great artists through an incredible manipulation. So every time Jackson Pollock sells for two million dollars, that makes him terrific, wherever he is, but it diminishes us.

We’re trying to reach a very small audience, and if we can do that successfully, that should be gratifying. But we’re all confused about this other thing - being like a movie star.

Audience [woman]: On the one hand, New York has an art community large enough to stimulate your art. On the other, is New York still the center from which art emanates, the center for art ideas? Are art ideas being processed here or emanating from here? Martha says she gets stuff from all over the country and she does whatever with it and it looks for a while like it’s coming from New York.

As I see it, the schools, the innovations, the people doing definitive new work are absolutely not in New York.

Audience [man]: I just got off the plane yesterday from San Franciso. This is my first experience here. [To woman] What you’re saying about geography is not true, except for Ansel Adams.

Madsen: I can’t see that great art is happening on the west coast.

Audience [man]: Let me give you an example about things back there. I was sitting in a French restaurant in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago with a group of about 12 artists. We were talking about portraits and I brought up something about space and the comment was - and everybody agreed -"let’s not get heavy." That's the antithesis of New York. This is the intellectual cutting edge of culture. [It's an] atmosphere that does require a certain amount of pressure. And it’s where I’m going.

Audience: But the impetus for art could in some circumstances be from a more isolated situation or environment. . . . A certain kind of discovery and powerful art can happen outside New York.

Antonacci: But another reason I think we came to this city is how making art in New York affects the art.

Madsen: [Before the panel] I asked Diane, given what you’re painting - mountains and canyons - why aren’t you in Arizona?

Burko: And I said, or should have said, "If I were in Arizona, I’d be painting New York skyscrapers." Going out there, not being from there, is what I need as stimulation.

Madsen: I would say art has less to do with materials or styles or forms or nature or geometry than [being] simply a cultural activity. And cultural activities happen in large metropolitan areas, no matter what they’re about.

Audience: I find too much emphasis on this man-made, "cultural" activity in New York. To me, it’s almost masturbation. When I finally got out of New York on a grant and looked at the earth, and the sky and those simple things, I couldn’t believe it. I had become a part of a world of careerist concerns and people talking, which is great, but this natural element was left out. I had seen only what was man-made.

Audience: You talk about New York as if it were empty, a place [just for] people to come who want to be aggressors.

Wilson: If you live in Wilmington, Ohio, you have to live with the mayor and the police chief and all of them. I think it’s great not to have to live with those people stabbing me in the back. I can choose the people I want to live with. There are lots of different kinds of people in New York.

(Edited from tape.)