Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Donald Young Interview - 1991 - In Memoriam

In memory of Donald Young (1942-2012) who sadly passed last month, I dug up this old interview (Nov/Dec 91, Reflex v. 5, no. 6) from when he first moved to Seattle.  [Chicago Sun-times obit here. ]

High Art Blows in From the Windy City

The October 3rd opening of the Donald Young Gallery, relocated from Chicago, inaugurated what promises to become an important part of the Seattle art world. Representing internationally renowned artists as well as rising stars, Young hopes to mount seven to eight shows a year. His first season will include at least two group shows and four solo shows. The opening group includes an impressive array of older, more established artists: Artswanger, Baldessari, Federle, Flavin, Judd, Kounellis, LeWitt, Long, Mangold, Nauman, Ruckriem, Ryman, and Serra. The second will feature a younger, more diverse grouping, half-European and half American, including: Rosemary Trockel (Germany); Sophie Calle (France); Tony Cragg (UK); Cristina Iglasias and Susana Solano (Spain); Jana Sterback (Canada via Czechoslovakia); and Chris Burden, Gary Hill, Jeff Koons, Sherry Levine, Martin Puryear, Charles Ray, and Bill Viola (USA). The solo shows will feature: Sol LeWitt’s “New Structures” (opening November 21), German sculptor Ulrich Ruckriem, videographer Bill Viola – which is his first ever gallery show, and sculptor Charles Ray. On October 5th, I spoke with Donald Young about what activates him aesthetically and what role he hopes to play in Seattle’s art community. – RM

Robert Mittenthal: I was somewhat intrigued with your description in New Art Examiner [May 1991] of the kind of support system that might constitute a so-called “major” art community. What similarities and differences do you see in the artistic life of the cities of Chicago in 1976 (when you & Rhona Hoffman opened Young Hoffman Gallery) and Seattle in 1991?

Donald Young: I think it’s difficult to compare the two cities. You’re also talking about a 15-year time difference. When I moved to Chicago in 1976, there had not been any gallery dealing with those exciting ideas of the sixties which by then were already established, almost historical facts. So, it was a question of coming into a major city – with the Art Institute and the history of its collecting families and its other cultural institutions—which had a history of being a serious art city. There was a logical reason why it was worth coming to do something in Chicago.

Seattle today does not have that culture that Chicago had. It has a recent cultural history, and growing successes in different cultural areas and growing recognition in different areas. Chicago is by nature very urban-a gritty, rough city. Seattle is almost like the last frontier of the US, but without the rawness-much less urban. The scale is more human, the pace is slower. In terms of my own career, the mid-70s were really quite a time. Because major figures from the ‘60s had not had a great deal of success in America, it was a very open situation. Here was a new gallery in Chicago, being run by a guy who’d been in the art world for fifteen years by that time. So they were very happy to get involved. And the gallery grew. Fifteen years later, my situation is that of being in an established position working with those people and building on that base with younger artists. So, my situation from the outgo was different and Seattle is very different.

RM: To continue on the idea of city, in the NAE article, you talked about what’s essential to the artistic life of the city, specifically about a range of art galleries from non-profit spaces to museums. It seemed clear that you thought of yourself in the “more established” category, where your role was to “show some of the most important work of our time, work that has been the inspiration for many younger artists.”

DY: Right, I still consider that my role. I don’t intend to change my role here. Having a gallery like mine in Seattle is as valuable as it is in Chicago. I think the way it can help in terms of community is by encouraging interesting artists to come to the city. And once they’re here, working in conjunction with the museums or other institutions, so that these people: could have some contact with the community Beyond that, I don’t know. But the art will be here for anybody to walk in and look at, on a continuous basis.

RM: Aesthetically, there are a lot of things that are consistent with the work in this first show. But I was thinking that someone could easily walk in and ask: “So, what’s wrong with oil painting?” How do you answer that kind of question?  

DY: I think the answer is probably that the ‘60s and 70s were not as much about painting as they were about discovering other areas beyond or besides painting. I think the conceptual leaps are what’s exciting about ... that period. It’s the idea that an artist’s gesture or an artist’s activity is itself art. The idea of art as being something beyond the precious object - that is, put on a pedestal or up on the wall. The idea that art can be something that affects the total environment, that is a part of the environment, that changes it with light, with structure. Those are the exciting things. But there are three painters [Marden, Richter, Polke] who could have been in this first show. I just don’t have the same kind of long-term working relationship with them that enables me to get an important new work for this opening show. So, this show is about my activity. It’s not trying to be a museum show.

RM: In the NAE article, you draw a distinction between the terms “art” and “artistic.” You argue against decorative and/or narrative models from the past – against the sentimental and the nostalgic. This would imply to me a belief in “high” art or in an historical avant-garde, an avant-garde in front of, or some might say “above” the masses. What’s your view of the avant garde?

DY: I believe in the avant-garde, in ideas pushing frontiers, and I don’t mean that’s progress. It just means pushing the perception of things. Creating challenges, pushing us personally to think about things differently, see things differently, that’s what interests me. Storytelling doesn’t interest me. Which doesn’t mean that an artist can’t do interesting work in which there is a story.

RM: Does loyalty to your artists, particularly the Minimalists – Judd, Flavin and LeWitt – who some might say have been doing the same piece for 25 years, ever conflict with your interest in “ideas that challenge existing thinking”? How disruptive are these Minimalist ideas today?

DY: The idea of repetition. In a clear definition of what is original, probably it’s only original the first time you do it. I think an artist has a certain character and a certain personality that is reflected in what he does. I think it would show a lack of character and integrity for an artist to continually change every year. Originality is not change in itself. If an artist is working with an original idea, an interesting idea, repetition may, in fact, give depth to that idea.

RM: It’s been said that even the great composers had only one or two pieces, or things that they did. They used different repetitions and variations In that same kind of serial way.

DY: Right, and there are high points to an artist’s work, obviously. A certain moment of maturity. When you look at the body of an artist’s life-work, there’s always that small group of work which signifies an incredible burst of energy, at a certain moment of thinking. There’s an enormous value sometimes in the later, more mature work, too. For me, that’s not a contradiction. Look at some of the Russian Constructivists – that work in the 1920s is mind boggling. History has not made it less interesting.

RM: You can always argue that the Minimalist’s works are disruptive in different kinds of ways than they used to be. They can still be disruptive measured against contemporary culture by making those repetitions

DY: . But it’s not disrupting in the same way that it was. The effect it has is different today. No artist working today can work without being aware of what happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s such a fundamental part of our art language now, our way of seeing art. To see the actual work is important. It shouldn’t just be something in a book. But those are not the only things I’m involved with. Obviously, I’m interested in new ideas.

RM: That’s clear from the show in January. About Jeff Koons, I understand he’s supposed to be in that show. I’ve always thought of him as someone who wouldn’t be as interesting if work wasn’t successfully being sold. I think the money actually fuels a critique of the art economy. By representing him, do you ever think about this or are you ever self-conscious of the way you’re participating in how the art works its way into culture?

DY: Jeff Koons is an unusual case which really sets him apart from the other artists of his generation. It’s not that anything he does in itself is that original, but he takes an idea to an extreme which nobody could conceive of doing and even if they would conceive of doing it, they would never do it. It’s one idea to take a kitsch object and make it into a collectable. You can do it, you can take the object and put it on a stand and say now it’s art. In 20th century art, we’ve already dealt with that idea of changing the context of something, Duchamp etc. It becomes a work of art because the artist says it is, because it changes the context. But here he takes, a kitsch object, which may exist in plastic. He gives it to the finest craftsmen in woodcarving in the world; who normally make church ornaments... [Or] he goes to the finest porcelain makers in Europe and he gets them to make a pig!

RM: What do think of the situation where he’s in the lawsuit about using a postcard without getting permission from the photographer? 

DY: I think the whole thing is nonsense. The only reason this photographer is suing him is because he heard he made some money. As far as I’m concerned, if you do a postcard and publish it, it becomes public visual material. Everybody has access to it. What we see out there has got to be available for an artist to work with. It’s not like they went and took that photograph out of his file...  If you change something from a photograph into a three-dimensional object, it’s a completely different medium.

RM: There’s a blind lawyer who specializes in copyright law. I thought he would be perfect for representing Koons, since he can say:, this piece is completely different.

DY: When he did those images using liquor advertising, he went to the advertising companies and got the original color negatives. He used that as his original material, he didn’t change it.

RM: Going back to the Minimalists. Originally, their work was perceived as being political in the sense that it rejected abstract expressionism. How do you think commodification affects political content?

DY: The formal conceptual ideas of the ‘60s were not political. They were art-political. It did not come out of any social consciousness. But it was definitely a reaction. Abstract expressionism was out of Europe. It still is really the end of European art. Pop art and the formal conceptual ideas of the late ‘60s were really the first break in that tradition, that basically French tradition of painting.

RM: What theory and/or art history do you read?  

DY: I don’t think of myself as an art intellectual if that’s what you mean. I learn by looking and experiencing. I don’t spend a great deal of time reading art-theory, but obviously I do read a certain amount of it and I am aware of different currents – deconstruction or whatever. For me the most valuable thing is the continual experiencing of art and that, I feel, is my value as an art dealer – the fact that I do see a lot. I compare a lot.  

RM: Here’s a question I cringe at having to ask, but I think people are wondering what minorities and women you represent. I know that you represent Martin Puryear, Rosemary Trockel, and perhaps Susana Solano?

DY: Well, Martin Puryear is a black artist, but you see I’ve never chosen art based on having some sort of social-political mix. I don’t think art is about that. That’s not my job. My job is to find ,the most interesting ideas and present them. I really don’t give a shit about whether it’s made by a woman or by an Oriental or a Black or by a Caucasian or an Indian. That is completely irrelevant to me and it should be to everyone else. I’m not in the business of trading personalities or people.

The artists I represent, most of them in fact, are completely against any sort of public contact. They really want to get on with their work and do their work and they want their work to speak for them. Most of them are not good speakers. A lot of them avoid social contact. Socially, there is no question that it was more difficult, for certain of what we call today minorities, to be included in the art mainstream. But I really don’t believe that’s true anymore. I think what’s· really interesting is the difference between this first show which represents the ‘60’s and ‘70s and the next [group] show which represents the artists from the ‘70s on, is that the second show will have over a third women. But this is not a political gesture on my part to say, you have to have more women in the gallery or you have to include all the minorities.

RM: So, it’s just coincidental that there are women among those artists making the art you’re interested in.

DY: I think that society’s attitude towards women making art has changed also. So, there’s no question that it’s been easier. There are women who would have fit into this first show – Eva Hesse is certainly as interesting as many of the artists here, but she’s dead. And I never worked with her, so it’s not a possibility. Louise Bourgeois is an interesting artist but she doesn’t fit in with this context. She’s not from this context. Who are the other [female] artists of that generation? There weren’t very many.

RM: That scarcity has been used as an argument against the Minimalists, at least the original ones.

DY: But today, there’s art that has social and political content. You have a whole string of artists: Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman – she could be in the second show. A lot of the strongest social commentary is coming from women artists today. But they’ve been accepted, they cannot say they have not been accepted. I really don’t think there’s any prejudice on that level today.

RM: Do you represent buyers in any way that is similar to the way you represent artists?

DY: It’s a strange thing being a dealer with living artists because you represent the artist and you have a responsibility to the artist. But you also have responsibility towards the collectors because you’re presenting to them that this work has a validity. And I’m not talking about investment value. I’m talking about a purely artistic point. And so, there are two things: one – is the artist valid, secondly – is this particular work valid within the artist’s work. Not everything an artist does is great even by a great artist. So, that can be a conflict sometimes. And it’s something that’s not always easy to do. But the bottom line is if you believe in an artist, you have to support their work.

RM: I was actually thinking that it might be more like “placing” than selling.

DY: Yeah, but that’s the strange thing. We’ve talked about its value to the community and to other artists-its educational value. But on the other hand, I can only keep the business going by selling. I have no funding from the state, city or from any individuals or from an entry fee, so I have to sell, So, in a strange way it’s a service business which is funded by selling. Unlike other galleries whose only motive is really selling, to have an object that’s salable.

RM: But all galleries have a social function in the community.

DY: I’m not saying they don’t have social function but that their driving force, their motivation is to show artists that sell. And so they pick artists based on whether they think they can sell them. Which is very reasonable retail marketing.

RM: So if you weren’t able to sell the art that you like, that you’re interested in, you wouldn’t be in business?

DY: That’s true.

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