Michael Lee Nirenberg is an artist and filmmaker living in New York. His current documentary is BACK ISSUES: The Hustler Magazine Story.
Bradley Rubenstein: Your most recent action,
Redacted, involves overpainting your past works black, repeating this performance from canvas to canvas. Has the result of this performance series turned it into something like a trademark, a signature style based in old Suprematist methodology, a non-dialectical negation that might once have been witty but ultimately only guarantees its own recognition? A gimmick? Has it replaced your work as a filmmaker and documentarian?
Michael Lee Nirenberg: Originally the project began with the immodestly modest premise that, while my earlier paintings might not be worth preserving, the idea of my past history as an artist was. Therefore, by removing the imagery, as such, from the work, I was maintaining its conceptual integrity. In many ways I believe that this conceptual conceit keeps the paintings from becoming iconographic -- in fact denying to some extent the very idea of "recognition" in as far as what is recognizable is only the result of an extended painterly activity. With the exception of the audience who saw me perform the first
Redacted action at the Hamburger Kunstverein in 2010, and certain video and photographic documentations, like the performance I did last month in New York (2012), it is impossible to see the work as a totality. Philosophically, I think that Mikhail Bakunin's quote "the urge to destroy is also a creative urge" comes closest to summing up my approach to this project. Ideas can't become a gimmick, only artworks can. I use every means I can to make something that will last—that will speak for itself. Because I think that before I get the other kinds of recognition, like "hanging in a museum," I'd probably see the museum directors hanging in a museum. And I don't think that's gonna happen.
BR: The video reminds me of Joseph Beuys's statement "truth must be found in reality, not systems." I know that he has had a great influence on your work. Do you think that statement applies to this project?
MLN: Beuys, of course, is important, as is Andy Warhol, Carl Andre, Buckminster Fuller, and Yvonne Rainer, all of whom also influenced me very much. Kippenberger, too. Like Beuys, I think that any system ultimately contains the seeds of its own destruction. It is only when the inherent vice of the system, whether in art, science, politics, or philosophy, makes itself apparent do we find the truth.
BR: By obliterating the images, then, while retaining the historical weight of the artwork, do you see that as a way to reinvent yourself and the work? Is it a statement about personal history weighing an artist down?
MLN: This relates to the question about Beuys. There was probably no artist in the twentieth century who was more buried under the weight of his cultural and art historical history, to say nothing of his own past! Yes, getting rid of the imagery is a way of lightening that baggage. Just look at some of these journals and sketchbooks [shows documentation of past projects]. These are notes about paintings I was making, sketches, photographs I copied into artworks -- copies of German tourist postcards, newspaper photos from Paris Match, a sketch of a Thai girl from a massage parlor in Amsterdam, the lion monument at NY Public Library, a portrait of the Marquis de Sade, a baked Florentine, a picture of Helen Keller, a plate of German sausages, two "glowing cigarettes," designs for CD covers for my old punk band The Mohels, a coke mirror and razor blade on a table, my mother's fifty-seventh-year birthday cake, chopsticks and Chinese food, my old Ducati motorcycle, lightening bugs on a back porch…the list goes on and on [closes book]. Wouldn't you eventually want to "clean house"?
BR: The performative element owes something to Pollock, in particular his film with Hans Namuth. Was this something you intended?
MLN: Definitely Pollock -- in the Namuth film you have the collision of art and fashion. No artist before Pollock had so carefully stage-managed his career and image so well. Tom Savini (who did the costuming and makeup) was very influenced by this film. Pollock influenced a lot of artists this way -- happenings, Andy Warhol, a lot of performance art in the 1970s. Maybe Duchamp or Dalícame close. But it was really Pollock with that film that changed everything. There is also an element of Absurdist Theater and Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. This passage from Yarostan Vochek is applicable, I think.
"Then the strikes and demonstrations ended, when most workers realized the carnival was over and returned to work, our group continued to perform a show. We were still printing posters, gluing posters that read 'Factories to Workers' on recently cleaned walls, shouting about the worker's commonwealth. At that point we had become dangerous, because at that point people like us elsewhere saw that at least some had meant what they said and that the performance of a play had not been the only possibility. Only at that point did we begin to act on our own, but we weren't aware of this. We were so carried away with our performance that we failed to see that the curtain had fallen and the carnival had ended."
I mean, this is really what art should strive to do, right? And a performance that essentially is nihilistic in nature can become a metaphor for reality in a way that only art permits. There is an element of meta-appreciation that you can have in a situation like I am creating.
BR: Okay, beyond art historical influences, what about books? Music?
MLN: J.G. Ballard, Running Wild, definitely. Also Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Musil's Three Women, Huysmans's Against Nature and Là-Bas. Kafka, Amerika; Gogol, Taras Bulba; Goncharov, Oblomov; Baudelaire, Paris Spleen. Also Robert Caro, The Power Broker; Rigaut, Suicide; Vaché, War Letters; Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland; Vischer's Auch Einer; and de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons. Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time; Babel, Red Cavalry; Proust's Swan's Way; Diderot, Rameau's Nephew. Makarenko's The Road to Life, also. Music? The Misfits.
BR: You are also working on a follow-up project called
Index. You are basically redacting the work of other artists, à la Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning (1953). How much of that is homage? Is there an element of doing away with the competition?
MLN: [Laughter] There may be some element of truth to that, but that is for the psychiatrists to figure out! There is an apocryphal story about Picasso painting over a Modigliani when he ran short on canvas. Everyone claimed that he was out to get Modigliani or something and was destroying the work, eradicating it. But he said that he waspreserving it. The
Index-ed pictures are like an archive; the artists are freely giving me a work to overpaint, leveling the aesthetic value of the artwork. The only signifier left to determine those works' value or importance relative to each other is based on the aura of the artist. Their aura, not mine. Stephen Prina's projects have involved something of this. John Baldessari burning his early work…Sherrie Levine's art "replicants." Looking at these non-images is kind of like that old question, "If a tree falls in the woods and no one was there to hear it, would it still make a sound?"; except here there is no tree, no woods. - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.