Artists Fairs Books USA

Up close and personal

Clever questions make for illuminating interviews with very rich artists

Carole Bayer Sager is one of the relatively few women artists featured in the book. Photo: © TransGlobe Publishing

At 600 pages, this book could easily break a bone if dropped, yet the size is indicative of the trouble it has taken Hossein Amirsadeghi to compile—and I for one am grateful for the commitment. Interviewing artists is not an easy ride, and here Amirsadeghi set himself a challenge, as many of the 115 artists featured in Art Studio America are not known for their garrulous natures.

The premise of the book is simple; a Route 66 kind of journey across America’s multifarious landscapes, stopping on the way to chat to a wide range of the country’s artists and getting a good snoop around their studios in the process. Think World of Interiors meets Warhol’s Interview magazine, but with the weight (literally) of an overfed child. It is an entertaining read, with Amirsadeghi well-versed in getting seemingly extraneous information out of his subjects. Raymond Pettibon was born on Bloomsday, Hiroshi Sugimoto collects weirdness, Nate Lowman was supposed to have been a French horn player.

The historian Robert Storr sets the tone for the book in the first of three essays written by cultural heavyweights. He focuses on what it means to be an American artist today, drawing on the country’s dominance of the art world in the past 60 years, its polymorphous character and its culturally diverse citizens. To be an American artist is to come from anywhere, be it Nebraska or Thailand, and Storr discusses how this pluralist society has played its part in defining the art of the US.

In response, Amirsadeghi’s questions tend to focus on the artists’ backgrounds and the journeys, both personal and physical, that have led them to the studio they are photographed in. And what studios they are. From Theaster Gates’s rackety Chicago outhouses to Sterling Ruby’s 92,000 sq. ft barn in Vernon, California, the overriding impression is of space, lots and lots of space, the kind of space most European artists can only dream of. And, of course, money; there is plenty of that (those floor-to-ceiling bookcases do not come cheap). Granted, there are a few uncompromising SOBs such as Ed Moses, living on Venice Beach with his dogs, but for the most part, these artists are rich—and skilful at sidestepping awkward analysis of this condition.

Not that this stops Amirsadeghi from asking. He is good at keeping the questions short and, as much as possible, keeping his personality out of it. The young, like Dan Colen and JR, are media-savvy and adept at giving the kind of bland answers you expect from a Dazed & Confused interview. There is the long list of well-worn counter-cultural references: skateboarding, graffiti, squatting and middle-class rebellion, none of which inhibits Amirsadeghi from eliciting just how important money and success are to them. I have to mention Nathan Mabry here, simply for the fact that his mother worked in the wine industry as the director of Euphoria winery, which perhaps says more about this generation than anything.

The mid-career artists are slightly more circumspect, acerbic and quick to recognise a Wikipedia profile when it is disseminated. You can almost hear the eggshells cracking when Amirsadgehi asks Rita Akermann about her lingerie line.

Inevitably, it is the old-timers who give the best copy. These philosopher kings and queens have reached what the late Patrick Heron called his “anecdotage”, and, as a result, seem entirely comfortable discussing the past and current state of the art world. John Giorno talks candidly about his affair with Andy Warhol, while his SoHo loft has been left as a shrine to his ex-roommate William Burroughs. John Baldessari is, as always, provocatively stimulating. He has nightmares about making trinkets for rich people, and these were confirmed recently when he met a Russian oligarch who had bought Baldessari’s most expensive picture but could not remember its title or what it looked like. Artis Lane speaks lyrically about the aesthetics of race history and Kerry James Marshall’s embattled discourse on comics reinforcing “white power” structures are the beating heart of this book.

If I had one criticism, it would be that of the 115 artists interviewed, less than a third are women. Amirsadeghi asks Marilyn Minter why there are so few women artists compared with men, even on the American scene. She does not offer an explanation, but I will. They are out there; you just have to go the extra mile to find them, which was surely the premise of the book.

Robert Storr may talk big and compellingly about the diverse nature of art in the US, but Art Studio America is still dominated by pictures of white men staring moodily into the cavernous space of their studios.

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