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life savors

by Suzaan Boettger
  What role should an artist's biography play in the analysis of his or her art? The creative process is influenced by the specifics of a life, yet works of art are more than pictures from a life story. In the 1950s and '60s, artists and critics concentrated on the work itself--that is to say, on its visual or stylistic form. Since then, the purview has broadened dramatically, to include linguistic or philosophical concepts, political and social history, and racial, ethnic and gendered identity. Still, a psychoanalytic reading of an artist's private life remains alluring, especially in the context of "identity politics." Two recent panel discussions addressed the topic of the relationship of artists' lives to their work.

On Dec. 12, Art Table, the national organization of women art professionals, joined with New York's Drawing Center to present a discussion of "Artists' Lives: How Much Do We Need to Know?" The provocative title seemed to suggest that privacy had already been breached (and it called to mind this fall's high-profile biographical controversy, Jill Johnston's detailed biographical reading of Jasper Johns' iconography in her book, Jasper Johns: Privileged Information). Art Table and the Drawing Center mustered a prominent roster for this panel: Patricia Bosworth, who wrote the definitive biography of Diane Arbus; Gail Levin, author of Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography; John Richardson, whose second volume of A Life of Picasso had just come out; Mark Stevens, art critic for New York magazine and Annalyn Swan, editor of Savvy magazine, who are married and are collaborating on a biography of Willem de Kooning.

Critic and Art Table member Amei Wallach, whose biography of Ilya Kabakov was published earlier this year, served as moderator. She began by stating that the panel's biographical emphasis was contrary to the position, articulated by Donald Judd, that "what you see is what you see." A great many academics", Wallach claimed "believe that biography is irrelevant to the deconstruction of work." Her brash simplification was "deja vu all over again, " (as Yogi Berra might put it) since academics-bashing had polarized last spring's Art Table panel, which pitted critic and art historian Donald Kuspit against curator Robert Storr and critic Peter Plagens, and over which Wallach had also presided.

Moreover, Wallach's blunt assertion ignores all the work being done on identity as a cultural construct--biography in a larger picture. However, since she had to reach back to a formalist statement made 30 years ago (ARTnews, Sept. '66) and then mis-attribute it (the famous quip is by Frank Stella), her uninformed perspective was simply reaffirmed. In these initial remarks Wallach also established her own reticence about artists' private lives, stating in regard to her Kabakov bio that "she was not interested in who he slept with but in how he got through the day." Effectively, that foreclosed any discussion of sexuality, which did not come up again.

The tone changed with Bosworth's reflective observations on working on Arbus. "I wanted to explore her obsessions--if I can understand an artist's obsessions I can understand their work....Arbus was fascinated with myth, ritual, legend--if I know that about her, her work is deepened....I explored her world, of fashion photography, and of freaks and eccentrics. It was a strange journey--I learned about it." Implicitly, Bosworth indicated the importance of a biographer's intuition. Levin addressed this directly by objecting to the notion that biography makes one a "boring academic" and by asserting that she sought "to integrate imagination with historical research." She stated that a biography is particularly crucial to understand an artist like Hopper, who incorporates a lot of references to his personal life in his paintings, and that she "often imagined something regarding an artist then found it verified in research materials." Swan emphasized a biographer's struggle "not to bury the subject in an avalanche of details but to follow the main motifs throughout a life, " and Stevens advised would-be biographers to not "pretend to give a definitive understanding of a private life."

Richardson announced that he "had no preparatory remarks, " so Wallach asked the famous author a few obsequious questions about Picasso's life. She seemed to share his presumption that he was telling things "the way they happened, " because, as he put it, "one should 'open up' a painting, not close it down, with 'interpretation.'" Levin immediately disagreed, saying that "one should investigate a painting deeply and present an argument" and Bosworth had previously said "you are only creating 'a' version--I don't own Arbus, and there will be other versions." But Wallach didn't seem to realize this fundamental split between Richardson's hubris and others' contingencies, and didn't question his remarkable access to a Truth unaffected by the historical time, place and position (in his case, as "friend of Picasso") from which he wrote. Neither did this panel get to its more timely subject, the conflict between a biographer's need to know who a subject is "sleeping with" to fully comprehend subject matter, and an artist's or critic's denial that the self and the work are related.

No such delusions of detachment pertained to the six women artists on the panel at the Whitney Museum on Dec. 3, or to the sold-out crowd of mostly young adult women who came to hear them discuss their work on the occasion of the Nan Goldin retrospective. In what seems like a characteristic act of social generosity, when Goldin was offered a choice of critics with whom to publicly discuss her work, she preferred to share the dais with sister artists: Vivienne Dick, an Irish filmmaker based in London, and New Yorkers who professionally "came up" with her, Laurie Simmons, Kiki Smith and Sue Williams. Curator Elizabeth Sussman attempted to direct the discussion around "the representation of the body."

Perhaps the Goldin show upstairs set the mood of candidness, maybe it was just a matter of another gender and generation--all the speakers were remarkably frank. Kiki Smith, she of the sad figural husks and crystalline teardrops, carried on at girlish pitch a breezy stream-of-consciousness monologue that "when I was sick of making guitars, bodies seemed like a good landscape, " "art is one place where you can make a space that your life can fit into" and "you want enough space that you can explore all the stuff inside of it. For me, this has been a good space." She now makes animals--"I got sick of people."

Dick noted that she made her first film when her mother had a terminal motor-neuron disease that prevented her from speaking. Dick intended to speak to and for her through her films. Another influence was British film critic Laura Mulvey's writing on narrative and voyeurism--Dick explores female voyeurism and images of women. Simmons described her work as a catalyst of a "fierce" brand of feminism practiced on a commune in the '70s and the conceptual art dominant then in New York. Growing up with the "formative influence" of two sisters, Simmons said "it became clear to me that I should accept the subject matter of dolls, bathrooms, houses and [the work's] intimate connection to biography." The coolness with which she could identify these issues suggested that self-analysis was familiar terrain. "I keep constructing the ideal American family, " Simmons noted, "and dismantling it, then making it again."

Williams described her own trajectory as moving from didactic images with texts that spoke for her as surrogate selves to more of an opening up to her own unconscious. "The work is taking on a life of its own....Now the words would seem cumbersome." This story of an increasing confidence in one's own inner processes appeared as a subtext to all the women's remarks. For Goldin, it was first displayed as an "interest in human beings in every form, manifestation, bruised, scarred...and in a variety of genders, not just two or three." Strikingly articulate, Goldin also described her work as "about exploring choices, making homage to the death of the body and therefore the spiritual questions that come up." The openness--to self, others and whatever "comes up"--presented an inspiring model of self-confidence; as Smith put it, "I have as deep a connection to myself as I can--and see what happens."

Another link between them was what Goldin described, about herself, as a "fascination with female rage." The strong bond between them even allowed them to admit, as Smith did, that "we're all cannibals--we cannibalize our own work, we cannibalize each others' work." Toward the end, the intimacy created by these revelations prompted Goldin to state, "I feel deeply grateful to be with these women." The audience's rapt attention made it clear that they too were grateful for these demonstrations of creative synergies of art and life.

ArtNet's panelmaniac, art historian and critic SUZAAN BOETTGER, will herself appear behind the podium in the session, "Artists as Readers: Texts as Contexts, " at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 14, 1997, at the New York Hilton on a panel she organized for the 1997 College Art Association conference.