Art: What's all the talk about? The Artist Talk on Art series, 40+ years young
Art is a language. Foreign to many and understood by few, her language is subtle, self-referential, sublime and mercurial. Most agree a picture is worth a thousand words but which thousand and does that tell the full story?
The Artists Talk on Art (ATOA) panel series is the longest on-going dialogue in the visual arts. Once upon a time it was a unique idea to have artists talk about their art. Today talks occur almost daily in NYC at Museums, galleries and on social media threads. To celebrate the legacy the ATOA has organized "Going Postal" a postcard style fundraiser to help with costs associated with running the non-profit and the work and cost to deliver over 40 years of historical dialogues to the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. I interviewed one of the three founders, Doug Sheer, who is the current board chairman, to get his thoughts on the legacy and work of the ATOA. As a current board member and friend, I felt comfortable asking a few silly questions as well.
Q: Since 1975 and in the 43 years since you were one of three founders of the ATOA that included Lori Antonacci and Bob Wiegand, what strikes you as highlights, critical events and memorable moments?
Doug:I think about highlights in several ways, personally in their impact on me and historically, in terms the impact on the art community and the art world at large.
From the time in the summer of 1974 that ATOA was conceived, we were influenced by many things, but significantly by a previous series: The Artists Club, of the Abstract Expressionists, which had run from 1949 until around the late 1960s. That series was heavily slanted to Abstraction and was almost exclusively male. We always were determined to be highly pluralistic and open to women and minorities. I think we have achieved that. As to highlights in the general ways that ATOA has seen I would rank that pluralism as a key legacy. I would also mention the diversity of themes and genres as another.
We also thought of the series as a service to the community and being originally always held on Fridays, it would start the weekend socially for many artists who lived within walking distance of the talks. The mailing pieces, the printed schedule, would be seen on everyone's refrigerator door. High points also included the big names and we had them all at one time or another as speakers. So, I think of appearances by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Larry Rivers, Louise Bourgeois, Larry Poons, Fred Wilson, Marisol and many other celebrated artists.
But, my personal interactions with many of those same artists were peak moments for me. Like subletting Herman Cherry's loft or picking up Alice Neel at her 103rd Street apartment or going to see Will Barnet at his apartment above the National Arts Club to wish him a happy 100th birthday.
Ultimately, however, conceiving, creating and saving the recordings, the archive, is a stellar achievement and preserves our legacy.
Q:What were the low points, challenging moments and tough times over the past and presently?
Doug: We were often low on money -- the curse of a small not-for-profit. And, along the way we needed to raise some bunches of money, especially to digitize the audio-video archive which is now at the Archives of American Art. We also have lost some board members who were very dear to us. The loss of Bob Wiegand at age 60 comes to mind.
Q:What is the core mission of the ATOA?
Doug: It always has been to act as a forum for the ideas artists have about their art and the art world.
Q: Are you a beer or a Bourbon man?
Doug: Practically a non-drinker these days, before that a wine drinker. Rarely beer and never bourbon. Years ago, single malts.
Q: How has the ATOA been an ocular to see the changing art world over the era from 1975 to now?
Doug: I grew up in the art world, my parents were both painters, both in the WPA and the Hofmann school in NYC and Provincetown, so I have been a witness to the changes for the entire postwar period. I think the late dealer Ivan Karp put it well at one of his dialogs with us when he described the art world of the late 1940s and early 50s. He said that every opening on 10th Street contained the entire art world, the six critics, the four collectors and the hundred or so artists and their spouses or significant others. The art world has grown from that intimate level to a massive, global stage, almost too large to even comprehend.
Q: How has your art work changed from being a part of the ATOA?
Doug: Not radically. I was both a painter and a video artist when I co-founded the series. I have remained a painter and an electronic artist. If anything, however, I have become more sophisticated about trends and movements...somewhat like a historian. In fact I am now writing a memoir.
Q: Raw fish or Sunday Times crossword puzzle?
Doug: I do the puzzle and then wrap fish with it.
Q: Has a fist fight ever performed impromptu at an ATOA talk?
Doug: A few times. Once someone was pushed through a gallery's sheetrock wall. Another time the inebriated painter Nick Krushenick threw a punch at a young artist over an argument. That was really hard edge of him! Then, there was the gun on the table during a graffiti panel.
Q: Eggs. poached, fried or scrambled? Range free or charge 'em?
Doug: Cannot stand eggs. I was attacked by a rooster as a child, when I tried entering the hen house. At least that's the story I tell about why I won't eat eggs.
Q: What two or three talks about art would you like to attend today?
Doug: 1) Hearing what assistants of famous artists have to say about their bosses. 2) Anytime experts gather to discuss Cezanne. 3) Museum curators tell the truth about the fakes in their collections.
Q: A train left Rome at 2pm. You were on a boat. Three fish jumped in. When does the train arrive and what was the change?
Doug: I rowed them to the next station.
Q: What are your other passions outside the art world?
Doug: My wife, progressive politics, reading and travel.
Q: Are writing and talks on art a derivative, a deformation of art at its source and thus, though often thought of as productive part of the larger art experience might it be destructive?
Doug: Not at all. It's all good and constructive. I think that talking about art, for artists is both ego gratifying and surprisingly helpful. Furthermore, since I think that all art is influenced by something else or earlier art, the more dialog the better.
Q: If you caught four fish would you cook me a dish and how would you spice it?
Doug: I would use the three fish that I rowed to the next station, filet them, catch a fourth, filet it, grill them in a pan, make a simple pasta with garlic, Italian herbs and bread crumbs, a dash of salt and pepper and a twist of lemon.
Q: Why Doug and art?
Doug: It is a lifetime calling and a tradition in my family and also an unbridled pleasure, to make, to see and to own.
No talk about the ATOA would be complete nor competent without the thoughts of the organizations current president, Lynne Mayocole. Lynne is a dynamo and along with Doug has lifted the heavy load necessary to keep a non-profit afloat and current in today's art world.
Q: How many years have you been with the organization and when did you become president?
Lynne: I've been President of ATOA some 12 years. But before that, there was being admitted to the Board. That was way back in Valerie Shakespeare's and Terry Fugate Wilcox's Soho gallery. It was a bigger deal than it seems to be now. I made a speech about how useful I'd be (and I'd already done a couple of panels) then went nervously out of the room, hoping I'd said the right things and thrilled when I was accepted.
Q:Would you share one or two memorable moments?
Lynne: Well, there was the night when Flash (for a long time our camera man) wasn't available. Doug was introducing Molly Barnes who was interviewing Mark Kostabi so that left me to run the camera which I'd never done and which seemed pretty complicated. It got more complex when three School of Visual Arts type students came rushing in, one (with pink hair I think) bearing a cake. The Important Artist immediately hid behind Molly. No no, the little darlings chorused, we admire you and made the cake specially. He peeked out and whap! got cake in the face. Me, I'm hanging on to the camera for dear life thinking "this is my initiation into technology?" A few weeks later I saw the same artist on the street and heavens knows why called over to him "Next time bring a fork."
So there are a few mementos from the past. Knowing us, we'll probably make even more in the future.
Art's language is not easily transcribable to words and any transformation from one language to another blurs content. However without the words much of the context, meaning and back story of a work of art is lost. For a fuller understanding of art we must include simple words but not forget artist are often striving for something beyond or between the words not expressible in written or spoken languages. Many Museums and galleries have become centers for artist to discuss art and have moved the attention away from critics, writers and historians and put artists words in the forefront. Who is better to tell their story?
The "Going Postal" postcard art show is open to all artists and all artists are encouraged to visit the website and be a part of the event at the Salmagundi Club on March 27th. Collectors are welcome to come for a chance to snap up some great buys as well. Just go to the ATOA website
As the brilliant writer and artist Anthony Haden-Guest points out, as much as it is a visual language, art world afficionados are ego to get the words out. Thank you AHG for the use of your great cartoons in this article. You can spy one of AHG's works in "Going Postal."