Josiah McElheny & Lynne Cooke

LYNNE COOKE: I’d like to start this discussion by asking about a phrase I’ve often heard you use: “quixotic confluences”—which, I think, means things that, having come together in totally unforeseen ways, continue to resonate. You once told me that sometimes you begin a work by responding to a story or an event and that during the course of this pursuit, something else frequently comes up which overlays the piece. This was the case when your multi-part sculpture ISLAND UNIVERSE (2008) was installed in the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid. Siting the work in this historic building introduced a set of references to architectural traditions involving glass and its ideologies that had not been envisioned at the beginning of the project. 

JOSIAH McELHENY: This takes me back to my piece FROM AN HISTORICAL ANEDCOTE ABOUT FASHION (2000), which began with a simple discovery I made while walking through an exhibition. Reading a museum label for a 1950s or 1960s year, I was surprised that it said the form was ased on a design by the workers, who were inspired by the dresses worn by the factory owner’s wife. That was so striking and I set out to make something more out of the story—something that, in a nod to realism, would remain faithful to the factory’s design aesthetics as well as to the fashions (in general) of that era. But it became immediately apparent that I would have to choose among many strains of mid-century fashion. While researching the period I kept coming across the phrase, the “New Look,” which originally comes from the American editor of Vogue. In a phone call (or cable) from Paris in the spring of 1947 to her Manhattan office, she said about Christian Dior’s first collection” “It’s the New Look.” I then found out that Dior’s fashion, this “New Look,” resulted in actual protests throughout the United States against Dior and then, paradoxically, widespread acceptance! Finally the term became a kind of catch-all for the return to optimism after the war. This seems to me a rare historical moment when fashion had found itself at the center of the cultural dialogue. So I thought I should attempt to meld, ad hoc, all of these unrelated, somewhat accidental and circumstantial notions, with my observation about an ostensibly minor event, building these associations into something larger.

LC: Did it ever occur to you that the wall label might be false or that it might be a disingenuous fabrication? Would it have mattered if someone had been playing games with the truth?

JM: Well, actually, you caught me because what the label really said—I told the story in “my” way—is that the vase was designed by the owner’s wife.

LC: Oh.

JM: A friend who had worked in the factory in the fifties told me that the label was not true. I pressed him on it, and he told me the name of the worker who had actually designed and made the vase. It all boils down to very strict class distinctions, to the idea that it was impossible for any factory worker to design anything. So the owner’s wife had to take credit for the design, for recognizing it as something good enough for the factory to produce. Even more surprisingly though, he told me that this sort of thing happened all the time; workers would go and see the latest couture in shop windows—he mentioned that he was particularly interested in Courreges—and then go right back to the factory and make something inspired by that at lunchtime. So you’re right,; it doesn’t matter whether the label is true or not. What’s important is that it’s completely unpredictable how ideas will move through culture and end up being expressed, how ideas will twist and sometimes eventually become something else altogether.

LC: The protests against the “New Look” in both the United States and France had to do with the vast amount of cloth it took to make Dior’s particular version of a ballooning skirt. This happened shortly after the war when rationing had only recently ended. In addition, the French government had continued to offer economic support for the couture industry (because of the jobs and manufacturing it stimulated) whereas the British and American governments did not support their fashion industries financially. So the French had an advantage in the marketplace. There was thought to be an ethical basis to the protests on both these counts. Looking to these vases, which are extraordinary luxury objects, and thinking about the factory owner’s wife’s dresses, remind us that today Dior’s look has ironically become the hallmark of the early post-war era. It has a look designed exclusively for the upper classes—though of course, there were replicas and knock-offs—and in that, essentially, it was about excess. Does your installation of refined glass vases pertain to this same luxury culture? Or is there a degree of ironic self-reflexivity? As we consider not only the vases but the way that you have chosen to display them, it’s hard to ignore the status of their prototypes.

JM: I think it is relevant that they are self-reflective and perhaps ironic. I found out later that the owner’s wife’s daughter believed I had missed the central point, which was that the factory workers hated their employer’s wife. I had depicted them as lusting after her, but they were Communists and she was the owner. And so these ironies, too, become part of the piece. This little history says something about the amorality of ideas. Once absorbed into other fields, even ideas with an ethical basis can become disconnected from their original morality, and thereby hopefully more generative. The notion that all ideas should retain their original moral structure is, on some level, dangerous.

LC: We have been reviewing this artwork in terms of luxury artifacts that belong to a particular history of design. What happens when we flip our perspective and start to think of it as sculpture? Should we now talk about the vases as non-functional objects? Thinking of them in sculptural terms introduces notions that don’t connect with the sorts of epithets we relate to luxury goods and their display. This is due to the relationship between categories of design and fine art, and the conventional hierarchies that subtend those categories.

JM: In the past fifty years, there’s been a huge increase in the number of people visiting art museums. But feeling connected to fine art is still confined to a relatively narrow band of society, whereas design—as a set of aesthetics that gets copied and repeated—influences all kinds of activities throughout society. Since the twentieth century, luxury goods are no longer the province of just the wealthy. They maybe be invented with the financial backing of the wealthy, but they inevitably get dispersed within society till they reflect the broad spectrum of all that is happening at the time.

LC: Within modernist design history, some of the best known early works came from the Bauhaus and similar groups who advocated a socially utopian role for design: they intended, or at least hoped, to better living standards by making works that would be available to a wide range of people. Venini glass belongs to a different history. Perhaps it depends on what kind of history one is writing, but I would not be inclined to place Venini in the same history as the Bauhaus, Charles and Ray Eames, and like-minded designers.

JM: It’s not unlike the field of art in the sense that there are so many trajectories and circles of art practice.

LC: In the histories of modernist art we prioritize radicality and innovation—whereas in design, the value of an object generally relates not only to its aesthetic but to its potential to be inexpensively mass-produced. This underlies, for example, the way we look at Bauhaus objects, like Wagenfeld’s glass designs. By contrast, when we look at Venini, we are confronted with an extraordinary level of craftsmanship and a realm of tremendous privilege, almost an haute couture of objects. Don’t we ultimately look at these artifacts in somewhat different terms?

JM: I would argue that our apprehension of these objects is almost always factually wrong—the truth is often the flip side of what we think. Aside from Breuer’s tubular metal furniture, most of what was designed at the Bauhaus was only produced in small quantities and never achieved any kind of broad influence until much later with Herman Miller or Knoll, or maybe now, with something like Ikea. Take Josef Hoffmann, for instance, whose work was made in small workshops that were located in the same building where he was designing them. Or Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prove, who also produced their own designs in very small numbers. I would be curious to know how many of Le Corbusier’s furniture pieces were really made when they were initially designed. In Venini’s case where the production was definitely in relatively small numbers, it nonetheless involved a factory with multiple teams of five to eight people working in shifts. While there is an intense collaboration among skilled workers and a very high level of workmanship, the process still takes place inside a factory. Our typical assumptions and perceptions about these issues are quite mixed up and do not necessarily line up with the truth of how things are made, the truth of the circumstances of an object’s production.

LC: Would you agree that, at the current moment, there is a greater distance than usual between artists who have access to extraordinary resources for the production of objects (not only film and video or related technology-based works employing special effects) and more modest forms of production? Is there a wider spectrum now than there was, say, in the sixties? Compare the fabrication of Judd’s works in the sixties, which required a skilled set of people to produce, with an artist like Richard Tuttle, who was using the equivalent of cast-offs. And then consider the spectrum today. There seems to be an even wider division between, say, Matthew Barney and Olafur Eliasson, whose production costs are very high, and others like Francis Alys and Joelle Tuerlinckx who, perhaps partly for ideological reasons, deliberately choose to limit the resources they utilize in any particular piece.

JM: We are now seeing a wider spread because society has a wider division of wealth between the working class and the upper class. But, on the other hand, it may not be so different: there were always artists who ended up gravitating towards highly sophisticated production. As Judd, for example, started to have more involved relationships with the people making and installing his work, it appears that the work became closer to how he really intended it to be. This is partly because he began making decisions in direct collaboration with specific people who were extremely knowledgeable about craft. But in order to do this he had to essentially take over a small metal working company. Similarly, Jeff Koons claims that his work has evolved to be more the way he wants it to be, but this has required immense monetary resources. So perhaps the scale has changed, buy the idea of utilizing expensive skilled fabrication techniques has not changed so much. From the opposite point of view I would argue that Matthew Barney—even though there is so much money necessary for his films—is deeply involved with his own studio in the making of his hybrid sculptural objects, both props and sculptures, and has an intensive relationship to them. The significant difference now results from true outsourcing—of artists claiming not to care how the work looks. “Here is a drawing. Come back with the finished version; however it turns out is fine.” This is a different development from the idea of building a support structure that allows one to get closer to the utopian goal of making an artwork look exactly the way it does in the imagination.

LC: Where does this situation leave painting? Whether a Susan Rothenberg or a Caravaggio, doesn’t it still comprise, ore or less, a piece of cloth with some colored dirt applied to it? Not only are the materials similar, but so is what it takes to acquire those materials and to work on them. Painting therefore seems to be in a totally different place from other art forms in today’s spectrum.

JM: The system of painting has not changed much since the Renaissance, but at that time it was actually incredibly difficult to produce a painting—to get the pigments, the labor, the commission to, let’s say, do a fresco or to pay for all the assistants it took to create a large history painting. But we have so much more wealth now and, at least in the West, we can leverage so much more labor than they could in the days of Rubens. You can get so much more “productivity” now for the same amount of money. There is an infinitely greater amount of material abundance now—paint and canvas (and time) are so much cheaper for us in Western society than they were back then. Painting sits in an economic situation that has a different relationship to history. In that sense the question of how it relates to production is a very old one.

LC: If you consider a shorter time span, a modernist history, does this situation change? Beginning with Manet, or better, with the Impressionists, painting has remained relatively unchanged in terms of scale of production: Picasso and Amy Sillman need more or less the same resources and amounts of stuff to make their works. With sculpture it may be similar. Given the fact that Rodin didn’t actually carve or cast his bronzes—his stone carvings were done by specialized craftsmen, as were his bronze casts—the scale and composition of his workshop and studio were not so different from some of those we see today, whether that of Koons or your own somewhat different situation.

JM: I would return to the idea that the economic and labor issues are not always what they appear to be. I believe that these are important questions because so much of the information about production that is visible within the artwork ends up becoming part of its content. We make a lot of assumptions from that information. Take, for instance, a Luc Tuymans painting. Part of our response to it involves a consideration of its modesty—even if we are mistaken about the work’s actual economic, labor, or production values.

LC: Does that mean that a certain pathos surrounds painting today?

JM: Well, yes, because a lot of these questions have to do with the idea of what we as individuals can do. Compared to other times in history, we don’t do very much. We have become so specialized that, as a result, we are severely limited in terms of what any of us can do. Painting, however, still represents something that we intuitively feel can be done by the individual. And in terms of sculpture, this constant question of what can be made by an individual or small group remains paramount even as production in the twenty-first century evolves further way from people. A hundred years ago, in this very spot where we’re sitting in Brooklyn, virtually every single everyday item would have been made within at two-or three –hundred mile radius, if not down the street. And that would have been true, more or less, in any other urban environment, but it’s absolutely not rue now.

LC: This seems compounded by the fact that, in many instances today, most of us can’t tell how something has been made. Nor can we precisely identifu its materials, nor can we understand the processes by which—especially with electronic goods—it functions. Perhaps that’s partly why we often savor things made by hand—painting included.

Parkett 86 2009