Cindy Sherman talks to David Frankel – ’80s Then – Interview
ArtForum, March, 2003
DAVID FRANKEL: For many people, you seem to crystallize what was new In the art of the ’80s. Did you intend to make that kind of departure? Or did you feel connected to ’70s art?
CINDY SHERMAN: I didn’t set out to establish an alternative. No one really did–expectations were a lot lower than you see with people coming out of art schools today. I did want to do something different; I was bored by what was going on in art and particularly in painting, but I didn’t think I was actually going to make a difference. We all would have been happy just to have a show somewhere. In the late ’70s and into the ’80s I was aware that the painting and sculpture world looked down on people who used photography. At the same time, I felt that the photo world looked down on those who had one foot in the art world. So I was outside both worlds, and I thought of my work as art, but not “high” art. Which was fine, because I didn’t want to make anything too precious. I didn’t want to make “high” art, I had no interest in using paint, I wanted to find something that anyone could relate to without knowing about contemporary art. I wasn’t thinking in terms of precious prints or archival quality; I didn’t want the work to seem like a commodity (no one was buying it anyway). Around 1981 I started using color, and the printing was a little more expensive, so I couldn’t be quite as carefree. But the issue still wasn’t the quality of the print, it was about the idea.
DF: But at some point your career did take off.
CS: Things didn’t start happening for me until 1982, when I was in Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and around that time a Whitney Biennial also. A bunch of good things all happened at around the same time. I really didn’t make money, though, until 1990 or so–I was supporting myself, but nothing like the guy painters, as I refer to them. I always resented that actually; we were all getting the same amount of press, but they were going gangbusters with sales.
DF: Did you feel as if you and they were all part of the same world?
CS: I knew those people, but not terribly well. I knew Julian [Schnabel] the least. David Salle, I guess, I knew initially from when I was involved with Hallwalls in Buffalo and he was involved with Artists Space in New York. And then later a bunch of us all lived downtown around Fulton or Nassau–Jack Goldstein, Troy Brauntuch, Douglas Crimp, Nancy Dwyer…
DF: What about the people we now call appropriation artists, like Sherrie Levine?
CS: I didn’t think of it as appropriation, that idea hadn’t crystallized at the time. All those ideas that came down, and continue to come down–I never really gave a thought to them until I read them. In the later ’80s, when it seemed like everywhere you looked people were talking about appropriation–then it seemed like a thing, a real presence. But I wasn’t really aware of any group feeling. It was a pretty competitive time. It wasn’t just photographers or appropriation artists versus painters; there were so many different factions–the Mary Boone artists versus the Metro Pictures, the neo-geo…
I did feel I was working alongside the Metro artists: Robert Longo, Laurie Simmons, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Troy, Jack. And what probably did increase the feeling of community was when more women began to get recognized for their work, most of them in photography: Sherrie, Laurie, Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Ess. I felt there was more of a support system then among the women artists. It could also have been that many of us were doing this other kind of work–we were using photography–but people like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were in there too. There was a female solidarity. That feeling still exists; we have good friendships.
DF: What about women artists from the ’60s and ’70s? Did you form friendships with them?
CS: I was more in awe of those women. Jennifer Bartlett, Lynda Benglis–artists like that were very influential in terms of there being a female presence in the art world.
DF: Influential as presences, I can imagine, but your work is very different from theirs. Did you feel you had any aesthetic precedents to follow?
CS: I felt like I wasn’t following in any tradition. Maybe Diane Arbus, as a woman photographer who made some disturbing imagery, but she was really a straight photographer, a traditional photographer. I certainly respected artists like Eleanor Antin, who used their own selves in their work, but I felt somehow removed from them at the same time. So no, though Benglis and people like that were role models.
DF: You say that you didn’t think about ideas like appropriation until you read about them later, but along with the Image that some younger people seem to have of the ’80s–of a time when there was a lot of money in the art world, when artists were rich and famous and ate out a lot–the decade also produced a great deal of critical theory. Your own work generated a healthy body of that writing. That didn’t influence you at all?
CS: There were times when I would read something and I wouldn’t understand what the hell they were talking about or where they got that idea; there were times when I’d say, “Oh yeah, that’s right,” though I wasn’t thinking of it when I was doing it. I work without really pondering what I’m doing. The only time critical writing really affected my work was when it seemed like someone was trying to second-guess where I was going next: I would use that to go somewhere else.
DF: What about that other side of the ’80s, the glamorous side? How did you relate to that?
CS: I wasn’t hanging out at Mr. Chow’s; I had met Andy Warhol but never felt he was that friendly. It did seem like a headier party situation than it does now, but I felt removed from all that. I was jealous of all the guys who were working it and getting the publicity and using it to their advantage, but when I had that kind of opportunity I would turn it down.
DF: You say “the guys”–do you think you had to be a guy to get that visibility?
CS: Within the art world I was certainly visible, I never felt unrecognized there. But I was competitive when it came to the recognition outside the art world that these other artists got. I don’t think that had to do with male versus female, though, but with painting. People outside the art world thought artists like me who were using photography were quirky upstarts and that the real artists were these romanticized painters who happened to be guys. And the guys played up to that image:Julian in his pajamas…
DF: Are there aspects of the decade you remember more fondly?
CS: There were all those galleries in the East Village, which was kind of great. I liked how the East Village was this sort of outpost that seemed slightly more experimental. I never liked all the hype that was floating around in the ‘8os, but that still comes and goes.
DF: What other differences do you see between the ’80s and today–how else have things changed?
CS: Part of it is how successful the art world was then–it seemed like one of the first times when a lot of young artists were making money.
DF: What about the ’60s–Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, the Pop scene, Warhol’s Factory? Money flowed into the art world then, too, and artists were glamorous media figures.
CS: I actually think of the Factory scene as much more glamorous than the ‘8os, but that’s because I didn’t think the ‘8os were actually all that glamorous, being in them–you always see the previous thing, the thing you are not part of, as so much better. The Warhol/Chelsea Hotel scene I think of as much wilder. Maybe the early ’80s, when people were still doing coke but that sort of fizzled out. (A lot of my friends started having babies.) The ‘8os weren’t any less adventurous aesthetically than the ‘6os, but the power of the galleries made them more commercial. Artists were encouraged to have press agents, and so on–it was more like a business scene.
DF: Did you feel any commercial pressure?
CS: I felt free to do whatever I wanted. At some point I felt like I was the art world’s flavor of the month, and I didn’t like the idea that these nouveau collectors were going to be buying up my work because it was the thing to do, so in the mid-’80s I made the works that people call the “disgusting series”–photos with vomit in them, et cetera. “Put that over your sofa!” I thought. Much to my relief that work didn’t sell, at least nor at the time … I was glad it was difficult to buy.
DF: Do you see the ’80s as having any particular ideas associated with it, ideas that came into focus for artists during those years?
CS: Media … the idea of originality … those were the issues of the time. Politics, too–the Guerrilla Girls posters seemed like art to me. So feminist politics, but also race, AIDS–all those things were becoming content. And I think there was more sense then of art having serious content, as opposed to addressing formal issues or being decorative.
DF: There was a big reaction against that: You kept seeing the word “didactic” in art reviews in the papers, it was a virtual campaign. But I don’t think that content has vanished from art, which obviously doesn’t obey the changes of decades. There are shifts, but within the shifts there are continuities.
CS: I think in one sense the ’80s ended instantly in 1990, with the big market change. I remember my show of history portraits, in January 1990, was the one show where I felt I had finally made some decent money, like the big boys–and then, right after that, galleries began closing and artists were leaving their dealers or being dropped. I felt I had just squeaked by.
Another difference in the ’90s was that there was less of a divide between the guy painters and the people using photography and doing appropriative work–they mixed in more. Or maybe painting was less important: Video was creeping in, there was more technology, more computer stuff. People are always trying to find the next groovy thing, and it hasn’t gone back to painting … I’d like it to go back to painting! I’m sick of all this photography and video. There’s so much of it, it’s almost annoying.
DF: Do you feel yourself to be very different from the young artists coming up?
CS: I do feel there’s a generation gap–I’m part of the old guard. I’m not tempted by new technologies, though if I could think of what I could do with them, I would do it. I’m slowly getting a little more technologically literate, in terms of playfully experimenting with a digital camera, but I can’t see how to bring it into my work. I’m open to exploring. I am tempted to make another film, but this time I’d like to work on the script myself.
DF: What makes you feel old guard?
CS: My age! Nor that I feel old, but I meet young artists and they seem really young sometimes. Or I meet people who say they studied me in college–and they were studying some work of mine that was already old when they were studying it.
DF: Do you miss the ’80s? Do you feel nostalgic about them?
CS: I miss nothing about the ’80s, I’m glad they’re gone. Except for our youth … we were all so young.
A contributing editor of Artforum, where he served as an editor from 1981 to 1995, David Frankel is senior editor in the Department of Publications at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.