Book review of Gary Indiana’s Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988

Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988 by Gary Indiana, edited by Bruce Hainley, Semiotext(e) 2018, $29.95, 596 pages, hardcover

A shorter version of this review was published at Hyperallergic as Gary Indiana’s Helter-Skelter Prose Experiments here:

Vile cover

In the interests of partial disclosure: though I have not seen Gary Indiana (né Hoisington) for years, I have spent some intense and pleasurable hours with him, drinking and talking to excess late into the night. A piece of my art writing about proto-memes (Superfacts), and my tear-shaped floor sculpture, “Tear of a Clown” (1985), are mentioned in passing rather favorably in his new book of collected art columns Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988, the subject of this review.

Gary Indiana, Untitled photograph 8 x 10 inches JN collection

Gary Indiana, “Untitled” (undated) photograph, 8×10 inches

With a flamboyant gelid eye and taunting provocative shrugs of jaded contempt for the new-money denizen art collectors with liberal pieties, Gary strode forth onto the art scene as an insouciant enfant terrible. Even though he is known for being something of a holy terror of instant gratification in an age before trigger warnings, I dig and appreciate Gary, especially for his sarcastic stylish sordid novels, like Horse Crazy. And I relish a rare artwork he gave me of his: what I take to be an appropriated photographic image from a ‘40s (or New Wave or No Wave) noire detective film entitled “Untitled” (undated) that, if memory serves, he traded me in exchange for a drawing. The point of view on the armed confrontation is that of a small child or of the zazen position, the low-angle from which Yasujirō Ozu shot some of his superlative scenes. Like an Eric Mitchell Super8 film, “Untitled” succinctly captures the glazed hip, scuzzy, hard-guy, post-punk attitude of the late-1970s downtown.

But I have also have seen Gary appear indulgently pathetic: sloppy, belligerent and blaringly incoherent on a public panel at Lincoln Center and I have witnessed him exerting a wicked and abusive tongue when drunk. Gary reviewed none of my three solo New York shows that transpired during the three years he was reviewing the downtown art scene for The Village Voice, which never bothered me as I didn’t know him very well then — only eyeing his erudite Jean Genet-like talent for turning standard moral paradigms inside out from afar. Sorry to be so personal here, but everything about Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988, recently published by the esteemed Semiotext(e)—also the re-publisher of some of Gary’s earlier novels and plays—is personal-and-political. Which is both its Baudelairesque strength and its toxic weakness.

You could say that Gary leapt into the great trickle-down 80s art abyss for the money and titillation and found it only went up to his impish knees. He came to the 80s art scene late, as a puckish novice, five years after the transgressive epoch-defining Colab exhibitions The Times Square Show and The Real Estate Show and the openings of ABC No Rio, Fashion 时装Moda МОДА and Group Material— where art was being inseminated with the social, the political, and the economic. Some young juice in the ‘80s was already building off of Conceptual Art’s development of Duchamp’s emphasis on context by expanding ‘art world’ participation and the context for art, well before acerbic Gary began praising it. Already in 1980, myself and many other Colab artists were interested in the distributive capacity of art based in reproduction — inspired by a 1968 essay “The Dematerialization of Art” by John Chandler and Lucy R. Lippard, as it argued that Conceptualism had a politically transformative aspect to be delved into. The other inescapable text at the time was The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (or Reproducibility) by Walter Benjamin.

So in 1985, when Gary began reviewing art exhibits for The Voice (as we called it) he appeared as something of an art arriviste to me, coming, as he did, from a strongly appreciated background in off-off-off Broadway theatre (Mudd Club and Bill Rice’s building on East 3rd Street) and radical underground film. Still, I religiously read his Voice weekly polemical dispatches, as most of us did, in which he often described the ills of American society from the point of view of an energetic radical gay critic without art bona fides. As such, Gary sometimes seemed to me then like an amiable anti-assimilationist bored by his own reckless bitchery, but I liked the rhythms of his cynical prose. It has an overcrowded flirting affect that’s almost hypnotic to me. But his fine descriptions and ersatz criticisms could be little more than dreadfully superficial, but well worded, puffery (with important exceptions noted below).

Vile Days is a thick 596 page book to be read first from the Index, where the familiar names rain down like manna. The Contents list is obtuse, by design. But read it straight through, as I just have, and I think that you will find that Gary’s artistic opinions amount to a combination of venomous aggression, flamboyant social transgression, and political astuteness: traits typical of his idol Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s best films.

Though finely cultured in all of the European-based performing arts (except perhaps dance), and gifted at curmudgeon short form literature, Gary popped into pop prominence as the art critic for The Voice in 1985, but I couldn’t fathom why at the time. Even as I read them, I didn’t care very much for his tossed-off deriding provocations and devil-may-care insouciance concerning the visual arts. Still to this day I would rather hear Gary opine on Michelangelo Antonioni than Gordon Matta-Clark. As an art writer, basically Gary was a political hedonist at intellectual warfare with top-notch gallery conformity — a conformity that he made more interesting by flirting with its banality. But I often had the sense that this vulnerable literary darling was trying to turn his art criticism into a cultural inquisition based on holier-than-thou opinions without adequate theoretical tutorials. Given his apparent flippant disregard for serious political-artistic debate outside the gallery system, it can be difficult to tell how much he’s satirizing or covering up with his off-the-cuff opinions. To him it seemed, the sale of art reduced it to an object of desire within a hollow commodity exchange, empting it of all its urgent meanings. I do not agree with that. And if so, why bother writing about gallery art?

Gary answered my unassimilable question in one of his bitchier columns in early ‘87: “The only reason to write about art is that people have stopped making great movies. And bad movies aren’t bad in the grand manner anymore.” For him, alas, it was so.

So what worth are his art writings to us now outside of a bemusing curio?

Though in the 1980s’ the threat of apocalyptic nuclear annihilation hung heavy in the air, social prognosis was far from grim. Besides the devastating arrival of AIDS, in many ways it was the golden age for progressive artists of various sexes and sexual preferences in New York. Woman and homosexuals held a stronger than before position as artists and gallery owners and curators, the audio cassette scene was exploding, and we had Prince to dance to while clubbing on MDMA (aka ecstasy). Sex, until late into the 80s, was unhampered and plentiful, art was selling, and rent was cheap. Compared to the limitations young artists face today, Decadent Days would have been a more appropriate title for these writings than vile days. If those days of naïveté were vile – what are these days? – hades days?

Look how thinking about Gary’s writings slips me into superlatives and condemnations, rather than carefully parsing subtle differences into a spectrum of values. But such hyperbolic statement is typical of Gary’s black swan (or is it black sheep) art criticism. In it he tosses around morose superlatives as if they were garnish on a plate of cut throats. His columns swing wildly between incisive criticism, pastiche, and self-besotted, self-obsessed, auto-narrative: something perfectly appropriate for short stories, but practically useless for non-fan-boy theoretical usage today. The once helter-skelter prose experiments that stray too far from art journalism into botulism-narcissism now strike the eye as dead magic.

But he was often funny when rocking his flamboyant theatrics. Here is a zinger, apropos of nothing, in his review of the 1987 Whitney Biennial: “Bruce Weber should not be in the same room with Ross Bleckner and Annette Lemieux. He should have his own room. It should be in New Jersey.” (Rim shot!) And: “Although all museums are endowed by the very people who despoil the general quality of life outside the museum, the Met has an inflexible policy of accepting money from almost anywhere. Even certain bordellos in the Patpong district of Bangkok are more fastidious.” (Burn!) Reading such hilarity, you must be careful when tossing this hefty hardcover across the room not to break the crockery.

The problem is not that such sarcasm posing as musings are bad art criticism –— though they are — or that Indiana’s cultural commentary is often, to say the least, amusingly insulting. Nor is the problem the hypocrisy of putting forth such entertaining blather as a critique of the shallowness in art. The real problem, rather, is the intrusion of theatrical camp showmanship into the evaluation of serious art objects.

Another problem is that it strikes me that this compiled aestheticizing of Gary’s complete written performance as an art critic tries to turn him into a fashionable signifier from a vanished age. To me, Gary’s art writing is all about Gary’s poète maudit ambitions stranding him within a self-marginalization paradox. And he is still with us. Read his more recent work (but don’t expect David Foster Wallace). As he himself says in this book, “We all want to participate in the construction of reality instead of being raped by someone’s mastery or lobotomized by someone’s horseshit; there are many powerful things in our popular and intellectual culture that operate against this feeling, including certain kinds of art.”

Like many men coming of age in the shadow of the high French theory of the ‘80s, a kind of supposed Dionysian camp sensibility connected him to a lineage of French monstres sacrés (sacred monsters) whose Foucaultian fascinations include power and sex within the art and money carnival. In his reviews, Gary talks a good deal about artist’s investigating commodification, simulacrum, and mass media (of slight relevancy to today’s digital world, where those things have become one) but almost always covered art shows at the high-roller galleries: 11 shows at Leo Castelli, 9 at Barbara Gladstone, 4 at Mary Boone. These were chic places he sometimes mocked, even as his criticism acted as co-conspirator in the commodification of the art they sold, while ignoring the important not-for-profit spaces like White Columns, The Kitchen, New York Feminist Art Institute, ABC No Rio, A.I.R. Gallery, and Artists Space – all art spaces in his purview where socially conscious work was being shown. This is pretty rich on his part, as he proclaimed to be against the art star system: what he called the “endless recycling of 30 proper names.” Writing: “But one thing criticism unavoidably does: it organizes the Cult of the Name. The Cult of the Name produces a hierarchy of importance.” He would know, as he mentions his friend BarbaraKruger’s name 43 times in the three years of art writings compiled here. His incestuous but brilliant compiled writings on her, including a pointless interview, would make for a peppery pamphlet on radical feminist art called From Kruger to Krugerrands.

In fairness, Gary did write on four anti-Neo-Expressionist shows at Gallery Nature Morte in the East Village (where I also exhibited) and very frequently on women artists in general, including multiple times on Gretchen Bender, in particular. The interjection of Bender’s female-technological-social-political reality into the art world is the most generally pertinent application to today’s situation, which is not saying too much. In the formalist ‘70s, when most art was only about art, dragging such gendered political reality into art could be seen as really doing something. Less in the pluralistic ‘80s, and not at all now, when it is expected as the bare minimum.

To get to the substance: Gary’s extra-art diatribes — on flower shows and ozone holes, on sumo wrestling, on banks collecting art — in his pseudo-diary entries, and in the silly superficial column in which all of the proper names had been excised — and the one, from July 1985, where he pasted in a bunch of quotations in a row — are hardly skim worthy. Another turd clinker is the obsolete and obtuse description of time spent on the Greek island of Hydra. Spare us the raucous spleen.

In the advantageous art-centric pieces, in general he preferred Barbara Kruger-style ‘insurrectionary’ neo-conceptualism, heavy with indirect social commentary, such as that of Hans Haacke and Jenny Holtzer. As he put it, over the onanism of macho Neo-Expressionism and silly East Village infantalization, he preferred the “… kind of work (…) called Conceptual, neo-Conceptual, deconstructive, photographic, media-conscious, and other things, since it must be called something. I would call it symbolic, or even ecological, if such words weren’t the kiss of death, since it refers to its own condition as art but also refers outward to the world of things, mental actions, and sociopolitical processes in which it, as a specific thing and event, occurs.” Bravo. He wrote wonderfully on the Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo curatorial collaborations, Robert Mapplethorpe, Oskar Schlemmer, Ross Bleckner, Hanne Darboven, Richard Prince, Nancy Spero, Cindy Sherman, and, with some reservations, Sherrie Levine. But without a single reproduction in the book, his florid (if erudite) exegesis of lesser known artists is ineffectual short of turning his feral pages with one hand as the other gooses an internet connection.

Other magnificent moments in art criticism that stand the test of time include his predatory, leering, masochistic take on the Gilbert and George collaboration. Saying, “While Gilbert and George have been widely praised for their boldness of subject matter, the sensibility infusing its treatment is the most self-abnegating and destructive mode of homosexual dandyism, infatuated with religious ceremony as the spiritual equivalent of furtive seduction. Beautification is the necessary first step toward guilty orgasm.” (…) “All those icky urges must be filtered through the damp handkerchief of Art, ritualized into a pattern of deadly sameness” (…) “Its frank avowal of dandyism — the stylization of the self and others into aesthetically consistent objects — has always been read, and exonerated, as ironic, just like Andy Warhol’s obsequious portraits of fascist politicians and the superrich.”

Seeking to overturn bigoted bourgeois self-preservation, Indiana is absolutely brilliant and essential on bifurcated Warhol (pre and post Valerie Solanas). His essay on the tainted Andy Warhol legacy, written shortly after the artist’s death, is a must read as it is increasingly significant in our age of celebrity name worship. A sample: “After turning his back on the zanies who’d been his inspiration, Warhol no longer bestowed celebrity, but instead sustained his own through increasingly ludicrous associations, chiefly through his magazine, Interview. The upscale Interview chewed its way through acres of glossy trash at Studio 54 before arriving among such “interesting” people as George Will, Nancy Reagan, Jerry Zipkin, and the Shah of Iran. Whatever Warhol was trying to do, it didn’t “read” as anything except venality.” Exactly. But his jaundiced piece on Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker profile of Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy (who would go on to edit Interview) is merely cynical and sarcastic and outrageous. Thus not nearly as topically insightful. Additionally, most of his more outré experiments with art column expectations — like when he simply listed the names of a few shows that were on view in the last paragraph after discussing the suppression of the AIDS epidemic — now read as dated, if not as self-indulgent affectation. So I cannot say that this big burly book is worth the $30 price for anyone other than a public or school library. Semiotext(e) should release it as a cheaper e-book.

More the pity this patchiness, because I strongly believe that if this paper collection was halved — forgoing completeness for a much slimmer critical anthology — minus the flamboyant theatrics—made in to a leaner, smaller, less expensive, more portable and accessible paperback book, like those that made Semiotext(e) rightly famous in the 80s — the hidden inherent worth of Gary’s cultural contribution to art history would have been greatly enhanced. As it is, the pearls are mixed with the peas.

Joseph Nechvatal

About josephnechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American post-conceptual artist who creates virus-modeled artificial life computer-assisted paintings and animations. Themes he has addressed in his art include the apocalyptic, communication excess, the virus, and gender fluidity. In 1975, he moved from Chicago to the downtown Tribeca area of New York City. He began studying at Columbia University with the philosopher Arthur Danto while working for the Dia Art Foundation as archivist to the minimalist composer La Monte Young. In 1980, he moved from Tribeca to the sordid Lower East Side where he found artistic camaraderie and politically inspired creative energy. There he became closely associated with Collaborative Projects (Colab), the influential post-punk artists’ group that included Kiki Smith and Jenny Holzer, among others. Those were glory days for the famous Colab projects, such as Just Another Asshole, The Real Estate Show and The Times Square Show. He also helped establish the non-profit cultural space ABC No Rio, where exhibitions were animated by political purpose. In the early 1980s, his art consisted of dense post-minimalist gray graphite drawings (that were sometimes photo-mechanically enlarged), of sculpture, of photographs, and of musique concrète audio collages. In 1983, he co-founded the famous avant-garde art music project Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine. In 1984, he created an opera called XS: The Opera Opus (1984-6) with the no wave musical composer Rhys Chatham that was presented in Boston and New York. In 1986, Nechvatal began using computer-robotics to make conceptual paintings. Some were exhibited at Documenta VIII in 1987. In 1992, when he was artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier in Arbois and at the Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, he created computer virus codes that he used as an artistic tool. This work was a reflection on his personal experiences of risk and loss with the AIDS epidemic. In 1999, he earned his doctorat in the philosophy of aesthetics and technology in England and soon wrote two art theory books: Towards an Immersive Intelligence and Immersion Into Noise. In 2001, he extended his initial experimentations into the virus as an artistic painterly tool in a series of artificial life works. These works include various series of paintings, animations, and a lengthy audio composition entitled viral symphOny. He has created a series of virus-based themed exhibitions of artificial life paintings and animation projections that explore the fragility and fluidity of the human body. You can follow him on Twitter at @twinkletwink Homepage:
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