James Hyde: Your identity as an artist is very interesting, in part because it is so illusive. Though your production is very conceptual, there is often a seductive quality of hand and object at odds with the image of an icy conceptualism. Could you speak about your modes of working?
Buzz Spector: I think you'd have to characterize my art as the application of a sensibility rather than a set of signatory motifs. My work is abstract: it derives from things in nature or things in culture, but it's meant to be understood in terms of the excavation or displacement of its objects from their situations. I came of age, artistically, in the "Process Years" of the early 1970s and I still want the effects I employ in making my work to be identified with modes of experience or knowledge.
Hyde: How do you get from works that are frankly fetishistic, such as your "altered" books, to an installation like Cold Fashioned Room (1991-92)?
Spector: The relationship of experience to memory connects the bookworks to my Mattress Factory installation. The page-tearing by which I altered my books had less to do with a poststructuralist commentary on textuality than with interposing the evidence of a touch in a context where memory, specifically the memory of reading, would inform the viewer's understanding of the meaning of that gesture. Cold Fashioned Room was set in a turn-of-the-century building that had been renovated as an exhibition space. The Victorian furnishings I put into the room could be tied to a reading of the history of the space, but the effect of the Real in the room was its coldness, caused by the small freezer unit I had installed in the fireplace. The experience of cold informs any reading of the room, but it is precisely that physical circumstance which is missing from both the documentation of the work and the viewer's memory of being there. You addressed a similar matter in "The Fetish of Knowledge", the group exhibit you organized [at Real Art Ways in 1991 and AC Project Room in 1992], when you identified the "virtual space common to both reading and seeing [where] a text or an artifact 'takes place' as such."
Hyde: What you describe in the "reading" of Cold Fashioned Room was what I was trying to get at with this show. Reading is a physical act. As well as creating the Real within the space of text, the circumstances around a reading powerfully effect its meaning and color memory. Thus the coldness of the room tints its memory around its edges. The notion of "fetish" in the show's title was meant to signify this physicalness. We can speak of a "body of knowledge," but knowledge creates its own bodies; objects of access, power, healing and pain, but also contemplation, an erotic of knowledge. "Fetish" was intended to signify not a neurosis of knowledge but the vitality of its diverse bodies.
Spector: This reflection on the image of a body of knowledge connects our separate practices, don't you think?
Hyde: I think that's a most interesting way to view my work. Painting is a body of knowledge. It has such a long and complex history, with many conflicting meanings and practices, that it cannot be seen as an asocietal progression nor as a simple reflection of the artist or society which fashions it. To conceive of painting as a body of knowledge lets it exist in the fullness of its diverse histories and does not diminish its humanity. My works often involve materials and modes of making which are not traditionally of painting. What holds my work together, and I feel makes it painting, is the use of the signs of painting, whether these are literalized (made real) or really painted. But I am not interested in making art about art. What interests me is seeing through painting to how we look and how we see. Traditions of art are texts of identifications, definitions and associations. This is how we communicate, operate, and perceive our world. My paintings are less about making a statement than creating eyeglasses (or kaleidoscopes) for looking at the Real and operating the structures by which the Real is created.
Spector: Your eyeglass analogy relates to my own use of found eyeglasses as physiognomic vestiges. The men's, women's, and children's glasses I've used in installations evoke the social circumstances of seeing-through themselves. Just as the styles of eyeglass frames narrate the gender and status of wearers, their lenses are implicated in the viewer's reveries of things that might have been seen, or read, through them.
Hyde: Earlier, you spoke of your work as being abstract in terms of your process of extrication of objects from their original contexts. You've done a number of pieces which employ an image of a Malevich painting reconfigured into red books. These pieces raise havoc with categories of seeing and reading, art and object. Could you describe them?
Spector: Extricating an object, natural or artifactual, from its context is somewhat different than extricating a painted motif from its historical moment, but the structure of the conceptual movement involved is the same. The Malevich works, especially the books and wall comprising Malevich: Eight Red Rectangles (1991), literalize the historicizing of these icons of modernism in the form of collapsed motifs. After all, the books I made not only match the proportions, if not the size, of Malevich's Suprematist polygons but are further attached to them by the empty wall apertures from which they can be read as having fallen. These books not only suggest that what we know about the meaning of the original painting can be embodied, so to speak, in a volume, but that the process is the partial ruination of the immanence possessed by Malevich painting at the moment of its execution. My eight red books are blank, of course, but even emptiness is content in the context of Malevich's "Non-Objective World."
Hyde: There is another type of significance that motifs, as collapsed, take on in being reconstituted. Even retaining the image of collapse, they erect a new set of ideas. Ideas are generally seen as being disseminated through motifs, but I am more interested in how motifs pick up different ideas, in the way that your Malevich motif provides a point of criticism to its original state. Motif is not beholden to idea. In a work of art, motif is not the vehicle for idea but that vehicle in motion. This is the reason why motif is closely associated with music. One of my paintings, Toss (1989), deals with the pickup or acceleration of fallen motifs. Like much of my work, it is the image of an abstract painting made physical. A group of three objects is splayed from the wall to the floor; a collapse of the vertical screen of painting. Each object is strongly immanent and projects, by itself and in the grouping, a set of images or spaces — which I think of as painterly screens. The vertical marble block assumes a motif of classicism; the vision of the gravitational volume against empty space. The gridded glass can be seen as a modern totalizing view and the folded muslin as an emblem of the continuous hide-and-reveal of the Baroque. But the historic referent is less important than the possibility for the piece to simultaneously be viewed as indexes of transparency, hardness, or fragility — a "rock, paper, scissors" game with each interpretive vision of the painting wrapping, crushing, cutting, or tying the next view. Toss exists for the space of speculation and connotation. It is not about a strong idea but about the fluidity and dynamism of motif.
Spector: I remember seeing Toss in the 1990 "non-rePRESENTation" exhibit that Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe curated in LA. He described it as an "object [as] sign for a non-object," and I agree with that assessment. If your identity as a painter didn't partially inform the attitude of your material arrangement, neither those historicist formulations nor that phenomenological index would truly apply to the work.
Hyde: As an abstract painter, I acknowledge and play off the increasing "genre-ization" of this segment of visual discourse. Your work, it seems to me, involves a making and taking of genres that is as fluid as the images of process in your works.
Spector: You know my background as a so-called "book artist." I began using the book as subject and object in 1979, and quickly found myself absorbed into the community of artists' book makers, even though my alterations of found printed books are more connected to a way of engaging objects than to publishing art in paginated form. The problem with the book as an exemplar of a genre subject is that the sociopolitical agenda of the genre practitioners overshadows the dialectic of individual works. This is an important critical problem in current painting as well, when exclusionary criteria, such as, "this is not a painting because the wall supports take up too much real space," intervene against the presence of the Real in the work.
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