Interview with Charles Gaines by Leila Hamidi

Last month I sat down with artist Charles Gaines at his studio in Eagle Rock with the intent of conducting a light-hearted interview. A mutual friend connected us and suggested to me that we discuss tennis (an obsession for Charles) as a humorous way to divert conversation from his theory based practice and his measurable impact on contemporary art history – a lazy man’s conceptual interview for a conceptual artist, if you will. What came out of our almost two hour conversation was quite the opposite and left us both a bit art-fatigued. Here is a condensed transcript of my talk with this pioneering LA figure. His work is currently on view at the following Pacific Standard Time exhibitions:

Leila Hamidi: The reason that I was interested in talking to you was because I went to your exhibit at Susan Vielmetter and I was really moved by it. I had been coming across your work at the Hammer, MOCA, and OCMA. You’re in those 3 Pacific Standard Time exhibits. Have you seen many of the exhibits?

Charles Gaines: Of course I saw those three. The other two I want to see is the Asco show at LACMA and I want to see the Pomona show.

LH: Many of the Pacific Standard Time exhibits like the one at Pomona are at university museums. And you have been teaching art continuously throughout your career. Do you think that’s one method of building an art practice and an audience? How do you see the practice of teaching art related to your practice of making art?

CG: My relationship is probably similar to other people my age. I’m referred to as a conceptual artist and because the work is so heavily invested in ideas and critique, the classroom itself is a natural ally to that kind of investigation. So, it’s been said that for some people the classroom is an extension of the studio. It’s a kind of discursive space where people experiment, address and approach ideas. So the classroom really is a place of experimentation for me. And of course it’s the same with the students because one of the things they’re going to get is the idea of art as an experimental space. So teaching is very productive. It’s a place where artists can go and talk about their ideas as they’re forming. People don’t get together anymore to discuss the relationship between art and ideas. Modernist artists did — going out to the café, arguing, and writing manifestos. And now that doesn’t happen because everybody is talking about their careers. Nobody is talking about ideas. The university is just like other areas of scholarship. It becomes a space of research where you can talk about ideas until you’re exhausted. In that way, it’s an extension of the studio.

LH: What you bring up is an interesting point, which is that there is less discussion amongst peers than there was in earlier times in the arts because of the market place. So in a way, you’re having dialogue with your future peers, your students.

CG: Well, what you have to have is good students. And at CalArts, reliably, I get good students. There’s essentially little difference between talking with them and talking to what you would call artists of my generation. The entire discussion is experimental. Old artists don’t know any more on what we’re talking about than young artists because it’s not a situation of scholasticism where there’s a body of knowledge.

LH: I want to go back to something that you mentioned. You said that you’re known as a conceptual artist. Early in your career, were your peers other conceptual artists? Who were you communicating with then?

CG: I didn’t actually spend a lot of time with California artists like Al Ruppersberg, Baldessari or Terry Allen. They’re the generation before and were 10-15 years older than I am. So, in California there’s no natural home for me in terms of my practice with respect to other artists. In New York, the people that I identify the most with were a generation older than I. I knew them a lot better. I knew Sol Lewitt and Lawrence Weiner and Mel Bochner. I got to talk with and see them way more than anybody in California.

LH: Would you self identify as a conceptual artist? Do you embrace that term?

CG: I embrace it. There’s a group of artists that call themselves second generation Conceptualists and it’s usually the picture generation artists like Cindy Sherman and Lorna Simpson and so forth. But I was between the first generation conceptualists like Bochner and Andres and the pictures generation. I showed between those years. My work is in the conceptual art tradition.

LH: I feel like conceptual art is one of the most misunderstood types of art. If you had to give a brief definition of conceptual art, how would you define what it is?

CG: Well, it’s defined by the means by which you make images. Right now, there’s something called New Genres, which is anything outside of traditional practices like painting and sculpture. Art that relies on text, or photography, but is not necessarily made by a “photographer”. They’re dealing with ideas and not with formal strategies and practices that define the language of painting, the language of sculpture. That’s conceptual art. A lot of California conceptual art tends to be more highly narrative than East Coast conceptualism or even European conceptualism. It’s much more interested in poetry than concepts. They still use photography and text and so forth, but the New York conceptualists tend to be more empirically driven — that is that they tend to treat the object like an empirical document, not a diary.

LH: So now I want to dig a little bit deeper into your work. The piece I saw at the Hammer at Now Dig This! is of a tree, and I think that you graphed a pattern in which the leaves have fallen. How did you create your system for the graphing? Was it an arbitrary system?

CG: It’s not a graphing of — its pattern. What I did was I graphed the difference in the same tree over a period of days so that if you took a photograph of a tree one day and then come back two days later, leaves are missing. I’m recording the rate that the tree is losing its leaves. And the plotting system is simply to transfer the numbers from the crown of the tree to the bottom of the grass. So, if I compare two photographs, there might be leaves at the crown of the tree in one photograph but not in the other. So with this plotting, I can locate the missing numbers or the missing spaces.

Charles Gaines, Falling Leaves, 1978. Photograph, ink on paper. 25" x 57" x 2" framed size. Gallery Inventory #GAI208. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

LH: To me, there’s an inherent beauty and poetry in those pieces. But in the few things I’ve read about you, it seems like you very much distance yourself from whatever the viewer’s response might be. There’s this kind of arbitrariness to how you’ve executed the piece with the systems and rules you develop, and then how someone responds is not of concern — it’s almost like you’re saying, “I didn’t make you feel that way.”

CG: That situation is more pronounced in some works than others. But even in the example I just gave you, what happens is that you have to come to terms with a kind of difference that the work presents. When you look at the system of the build up of leaves, there seems to be a sense of total wholeness to it. It seems to make sense, but intellectually it’s clear to you that it’s just an arbitrary display of numbers. So I’m interested in creating this space of rupture between thinking and feeling. What I say is that I have no responsibilities. I’m not trying to get you to feel anything. So what happens is that the issue of feeling is not explainable in the piece because of this rupture. Like in the Manifestos piece, people find the music beautiful. You want to give reason for it to be beautiful. You want to say that this quality of music is intended for some purpose, maybe for the intention of being beautiful or that I would want to make a beautiful work of art. But then at the same time you’re aware of things in the work that belie confusion.

LH: Such as the arbitrariness of the system (which creates the musical pattern)?

CG: Right. Like with Manifestos for example, I didn’t know how the music was going to sound, so how could I have intended it to sound that way? So the question (is raised) of beauty being something that’s automatically linked with intention; that in a work of art, something is beautiful because it was intended to be beautiful, not because it’s accidentally beautiful. I know why Manifestos sounds beautiful. It’s because the instruments are beautiful sounding. They are beautifully sounding instruments and the notation is classical music notation, which is designed to be harmonious. But there’s nothing in the work that supports that intention, because it’s very clearly outlined in the work that all of the relationships are arbitrary.

LH: Do you think that piece would still work—this is not the perfect word to use, but would be “successful” as a work of art if that element of perceived beauty wasn’t available on the viewer’s side?

CG: Well, I don’t know the answer to that, but I can tell you why I’m interested in the issue of feeling and aesthetics. I think that (the perception of beauty) is socially learned. The history of art teaches you that beautiful things connect beyond our understanding and our ability to perceive and is a transcendentalism of some sort. I think that concept is a farce. I think that we are taught (what beauty is). It’s more than something sounding beautiful. You also have to develop the taste in order to judge the beauty. You have to get this name to the experience that you’re having and those things are completely a product of your education.

My critique is to reveal that these experiences have nothing to do with transcendentalism of one sort or another, but are part of the social, political framework that drives our language and our understanding. So for me, this becomes a way of addressing this whole issue about what’s necessary in terms of a work of art. I’ll give you an example; there’s still this issue of text work as being banal or boring. Like boredom is some horrible atrocity on a work of art. The way I feel about it is that this particular definition of the experience of art is a political one, not a natural one.

LH: What’s the next leaping off point if we understand that these things that we measure and identify as beautiful or not is politically learned behavior?

CG: I’m interested in a whole rethinking of what these ideas mean: the relationship of art to culture, the relationship of art to politics. But my work is essentially critical and philosophical. By investigating these political, philosophical and critical ideas, I’m giving license to certain kinds of practices that might not be political or philosophical, but suffer. You hear someone say he hates political art because it’s didactic. There’s nothing wrong with didactic art. I want to address and give license to that kind of art. But I’m approaching it in terms of these kinds of epistemological notions. That’s the nature of my own investigation.

Charles Gaines, Incomplete Text: Set 9, "H" Green Letters, 1978 – 1979. Mixed media on paper. Triptych, 17" x 22" paper size each; 26 1/2" x 57" overall framed size. Gallery Inventory #GAI160 Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; Photo Credit: Robert Wedemeyer

LH: Speaking of politics, one thing that I’ve been thinking about is this notion of who gets to determine our art history; what artists gets to be included in history on the first pass, and what artists are included when we take second look back as we’re doing now. Do you have any thoughts on that? What gets to come to the surface to be seen or to be accepted as art?

CG: Well, the first thing is that there are two issues. There’s the issue of an artist’s career and then there’s the issue of history. And sometimes those two things are sort of mixed up, undifferentiated. And they should be differentiated because history is where you discover what has been arrived at in terms of the knowledge of “what is art”. Art is one of the means in which knowledge about the world is produced, and history is the venue where this type of knowledge accumulates. There’s no timeframe in that. The development of historical knowledge is to me very important. But the art world as a place where artist’s careers play themselves out—it’s not that it’s not important. People shouldn’t worry about their careers because there isn’t anything they can do about it. I went through a period from 1975 to 1982 where I was getting a lot of attention and then from ’83 to 2005, nobody knew who I was. And suddenly it just switched again. Now I can’t explain it. But one thing that I feel is that when nobody was paying attention, it didn’t mean to me that I was a bad artist. And when people were paying attention, that didn’t mean that I was a good artist. So if I’m just an artist among artists who may not be getting attention, that’s one thing. You have no control over that. But if I’m among a group of artists who can’t even be a part of playing the game, then that’s something entirely different. And I think that’s something that you should get really pissed off about that.

LH: Was discrimination part of your experience?

CG: I can’t say. I know that when I started showing, the art world was still quite racist only because people kept telling me that I was black. I’d go to my own opening and people would say, “Oh, you’re black.” Nobody says that anymore, but the artists who were way more affected than I was about that were the artists a generation ahead of me. And those are the people you see in Pacific Standard Time.

LH: Like John Outterbridge and Betye Saar.

CG: They just weren’t allowed to be in the game. I was one of the first artists to show in, not in a New York gallery, but with the blue chip gallerists that sort of represent the most recent art. Nobody black showed with John Weber before, nobody showed at Leo Castelli before. Margo Leavin had not shown a black artist before. Daniel Weinberg had not shown a black artist before. No, I take that back. Daniel showed one guy in the late 60s. But that was also complicated by the fact that they thought I wasn’t doing work of a typical black artist.

LH: Was that a plus for you, that you weren’t doing assemblage or something to that effect?

CG: Well, it’s a complicated sort of question. A gallery would show a particular kind of art with a particular set of ideas in the 70s. It just so happened that the kind of work I was doing was the kind of work he was interested in. Now, he might have not have been–you know it’s hard to say because how could you be interested in Jasper Johns and not be interested in collage? But he was not interested in politically based collage or assemblage art. I didn’t do that kind of work. A similar kind of thing happened to Martin Puryear. He said that he was not clearly political and (his work) reflected a more current aesthetic sensibility. But some black artists, like Ed Clarke, who is an abstract painter whose work isn’t political either, he was left out. And I think he was left out because it was a generational thing. He was part of that generation of black artists that just wasn’t getting an equal chance even though he was doing abstract art. So I think part of it is being part of another generation. And also having a certain kind of sensibility that was part of that generation. That was also a win-lose situation too, because the artists who started showing in the 80s did so because of this interest in the feminist critique. There was a whole reconsideration of the position of political narrative in art, so representation became very important. The issue of representation of women and the representation of minorities became sort of mainstream. But I was still doing these numbers and grids, so I got none of the benefits of that generation. In fact, that was the time that my work sort of disappeared.

LH: Do you have any general opinions about Pacific Standard Time? I’ve heard people say it’s provincial, I’ve heard people say it’s great. Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing?

CG: I think the whole provincial thing is just unnerving. Anything that is not New York is provincial. I mean that is such an old, tired critique. I think the whole effort is tremendous. I’m so glad that the Getty put all that money up to produce this documentation for LA art. I think it’s something that LA needed to do for itself. What is and isn’t provincial is weird anyway because any experience is provincial compared to global location. The measure of the provincial nature of a site has to do with how much money it has. And New York has a lot of money. And so its impact has more to do with that than it has to do with the influence of the art on the rest of the world.

But in spite of all that, I think that what it did was to create a body of knowledge, and part of that knowledge is a whole reconsideration of certain practices that have now been given an extraordinary amount of attention. I enjoyed the show at MOCA just tremendously, because it allowed me to rethink and reconsider on a much more sort of fair way the history of California art than there was before. And now this body of information exists. Careers have been resurrected. Reconsiderations have been made and we’ll see where it goes from there. I think the most important thing was what Pacific Standard Time did for the area.

LH: That makes me think of an interview with Judy Chicago in Artinfo. They asked her something to the effect of, “What do you think of these exhibits which have the feminists in one museum, Chicano artists in their own shows and the black artists in these separate shows? Is it ghettoizing our history to do that?” And her response was that these artists were never included in history in the first pass, so if you put them in one big show with everyone mixed, there’s no context for it. So, it’s a necessary step to create that history.

CG: Well, the separation has already been done. That’s the whole issue. And it’s like saying if you did a show of early 19th century early modernist painting, would you make no differentiation between the French and the German painters? Of course you would. Nobody feels bad about that separation because somehow those differences aren’t accompanied by this type of historic injustice. I think Judy is right; the presence of that injustice played a large role in the work that was made. If black artists weren’t part of a history of oppression out of slavery, there wouldn’t have been this emphasis on political art in the 60s among black artists. When I was looking at the early work of David Hammons, John Outterbridge and Betye Saar, I remember hearing people complain that they were involved in some kind of black aesthetic—which, if you’re white, you have no connection with—and regarded the whole effort as anachronistic.

I’m comparing that with what I’m hearing now. I was talking to Olga Koumoundourous who is an assemblage artist, and she’s blown away. She’s like, “How come I didn’t know?” She’s heard of John Outterbridge, but she never paid much attention to the work. And she was completely blown away because Outterbridge is her legacy. And she’s Greek-American, but he’s her legacy. There’s a greater recognition of the expansiveness of the aesthetic now. That’s powerful, because you have to compare it to what happened before. So if you mix those people up, you would have changed the nature of the discourse. In other words, the assemblage of Betye Saar and Kienholz were really different from each other. Even though they’re all assemblage artists, one was thought to be anachronistic discourse and the other is thought to be modernism. If you mixed them up, there wouldn’t be any liberating property to Saar. You would say: Well, now I can reconsider Saar because of Kienholz.

LH: I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but I have one or two more questions. I’m really interested in this idea of creating a broader audience for art, but I feel like it’s a quagmire. I read a story about a cleaning woman in a German museum that scrubbed part of a Kippenberger sculpture thinking it was dirty and not knowing that it was art. On the one hand, I think it adds another conceptual layer of humor into the piece, but then when you read the comments on the article, that’s was the most telling part. The comments are from people that are just livid that this was considered art. What do you think about that? Should art continue to operate in this place that’s off to the side and in a niche where we’re exploring these specialized ideas, or is there a way to include a larger audience?

CG: The same kind of question can be raised in science. Even in science there’s no absolute. Should you be involved in research whose only benefit is known or should you be involved with experimental research even though you don’t know where it’s going to go or its benefit is not clear to you? You have got to have both. The problem is in trying to produce a single way of answering the question of the relationship of art to society or culture. I think it’s a complicated question and it has a complicated answer. You have to be thinking and conscious of the nature of culture. And I believe art has to be responsive to culture. It depends on how you define this responsiveness, because at a certain point, the most normative, interested culture can strain you as an artist. So to avoid that, you also have to create a really rich, fervent field just for experimental practices.

As far as I’m concerned, the social space is such that you can make these kinds of art and then you have curators, writers, and this whole world of people mediating between the art object and society. You may have to make an argument for experimental work or you may have to make an argument for culturally sensitive work and it depends upon what’s happening at the time. So there has to be this flowing field that makes it possible for there to be this more expanded notion of art to exist. Otherwise you get the worst of each. If you say we just have to have the experimentalists, what you wind up with is the same kind of lack of concern for the everyday that I think capitalism is guilty of right now. On the other hand if you say that the experimentalists are putting at risk this idea of social and cultural concern or connection, then you’re creating a space of the normative and the potential of the normative.

LH: What do you mean by the normative?

CG: A place where marginal thoughts aren’t permitted. One of the problems I had is that black political expressionism became a very dominant idea among black artists in the late 60s and early 70s and I did abstract work and there was no place for me. I was being seen not as a black artist. Isn’t that the worst thing that could happen?

LH: Marginalized within a margin?

CG: Right. You can’t predict the consequences or limits that any set of ideas might put into place.

LH: Well, I said I was going to do a light-hearted interview and it didn’t turn out that way.

CG: It didn’t turn out that way. My brain hurts.

LH: The irony of it all is that I intended this interview for a really short blog piece where I’d also ask you about your love of tennis. Well, I should ask you anyway, what’s the connection of tennis to any of this for you?

CG: Well, it’s just that tennis is a strange addiction that I have. But, tennis players tend to be that way. So there’s really no relationship between playing tennis and my art practice. It’s not an escape because it gives me the same grief as making art does. I mean it’s really hard, but it’s such a seductive sport. When you play it at a certain level, it’s incredibly beautiful and provoking at the same time. And tennis is not unique. There’s a lot of physical activities that you could do this way, but it gives you an understanding of your body that is remarkable. It forms a way more intimate relationship between yourself and your own body.

LH: How so, because you’re constantly aware of the limit and where it can go?

CG: You’re constantly aware of its limits and you’re constantly pushing it to its edge. That’s precisely right.

LH: Maybe we should end on that note. I’ll be right. Thank you so much. This was really great.

1 Comment

  1. Nice interview, really fun to read!

    I have to completely disagree that though that in principle beauty is fully or even mostly a construct of culture. That would be like saying sight, hearing, emotions are a construct of culture. I would say basic Gestault principles, the ones that allow systematically organize things and not be overwhelmed by data is and always has been the basis of beauty. Beauty is a specific recognition of that reality.

    I think what so called “conceptual” ( I hate that term) artists attempt to do, whether they know it or not, is not so much disassociating art with transcendentalism but introducing new forms of esthetic and more importantly maybe even thought to the world of beauty.

    This isn’t to say beauty is not influenced by culture but just to say that beauty, like emotions and our senses are on some level hard wired.

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