The Thing Itself



Mira Schor is a painter and writer living in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts. She is the author of A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life (Duke University Press) and the blog A Year of Positive Thinking. She is an associate teaching professor in MFA Fine Arts at Parsons The New School for Design. She is represented by CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles and Marvelli Gallery in New York City where she will have a one-person exhibition in March 2012.

Bradley Rubenstein: You grew up in New York City. Your mother was an artist; your father was an artist; you were exposed to art at an early age, both at home and in the museums. Can you remember when you decided that you were going to be an artist?

Mira Schor: The precise moment was during a 19th-century art history class in college. I majored in art history at NYU. The professor was saying something like, "Monet wanted to..." and I thought, "How do you know what Monet wanted?" I realized then and there that I identified with the "wrong" side of the slide projector: the artist, not the art historian. So that career choice fell away, and the only one that was left was to be an artist. I had shown interest and talent for drawing, painting, and sculpture all through my childhood. I was always serious about it and worked rather like I do now, in series, in which I would work a subject, form, or style until I was bored with it. I did many very lively little clay figurines when I was about ten. I was influenced by the Ashanti weights and pre-Columbian art my parents had collected. For a while in my teens I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I filled sketchbooks with ink and wash designs, imitating the style of the New York Times "Women's Page" fashion reporting, which was all done with ink sketches in those days. I got pretty good at it, but when it came time to think of designing as a career, I realized I just liked to draw (and to own beautiful clothes!) but wasn't interested in learning how to actually make clothes.

I received encouragement from my parents and a lot of exposure to art through their work and their love of art. I was brought up in art and to some extent in the art world. I sensed then that there was a distinction, and I still operate under the terms of that distinction today. Making art and thinking about art, art ideas, art history -- that's one thing. The art world and career -- that's another.

On the door of my father and mother's small studio in our apartment in New York City is an antique metal shield on which my father had painted in oil the tools of the goldsmith's trade, a saw and hammer. The tale of the goldsmith's floor was one of the foundational metaphors of our family: In the workshop of a goldsmith, gold dust is husbanded carefully, but it sifts into cracks in the floorboards. When the goldsmith moves, the floor is burned to recover the accumulated gold mass. My parents, Ilya and Resia Schor, would often say, "We have gold on the floor, and we don't know how to pick it up." That can be understood as a metaphor for the precarious finances, career disappointments, and the frustrations of creating something fine and not being able to capitalize on it into material prosperity, which are all part of an artist's life and were certainly part of what I learned as the daughter of artists. But most importantly, this story speaks of artwork that is not concerned with commercial exploitation. My parents often did work on commissions, from private collectors or religious institutions, but they each pursued the truth of the work rather than its marketability; indeed, they could never figure out how to mass-produce or design for mass consumption, or how to market themselves and their biographies, even though necessity often indicated that they should try to do so.

On the other hand, we did live in a house filled with treasures. When my father would finish one of his Torah Crowns, for example, he would come out of the studio wearing the human-sized, bell-laden crown on his head, its bells tinkling. He had a remarkable face with high cheekbones and wildly upslanted eyes that would be alight with joy at his wondrous creation. I had seen the work made; the work had deep religious meaning, and it was an art object filled with joy and generous with visual and narrative pleasure that even a child could enjoy and appreciate. What a wonderful introduction to art and art making!

I think I was always going to be an artist, but I still had to make the decision to be an artist for myself and take the consequences.

BR: What was the most significant experience you had at CalArts? Looking back, do you think your experiences there really defined how you approached being an artist?

MS: CalArts was the most significant experience I had at CalArts! The total atmosphere of that school at that time in the L.A. of that time. There was a unique multiplicity and parity of avant-garde positions all freely available and in the air. I had a dual experience at CalArts, and both aspects of it are equally important and deeply formative. I was in the Feminist Art Program my first year, and that was certainly the single most important experience in terms of determining much of my political involvements and critical focus since. But I am also very influenced by the Fluxus movement and the conceptual art movement that, with their anti-object and anti-market orientation, were very strong at CalArts. People like Allan Kaprow, Emmett Williams, Alison Knowles, Simone Forti, and John Baldessari taught there. I also had a wonderful advisor, the sculptor Stephan Von Huene, whom I worked with after I left the program. He was then doing sound sculptures that were beautifully crafted wood music-making machines with piano roll type of movements. He was really supportive of the intimate personal revelation I was trying to put into my small gouaches. One didn’t necessarily have to work with each artist; they gave a “flavor” to the entire institution. You could pick up the Fluxus ethos on the way to lunch, passing Simone Forti doing something blindfolded in a hallway. Their conceptual yet playful and somehow whimsical attitude toward art made a great impact on my work.

There was a goofy spirit at CalArts then that is best expressed in Pee-Wee's Playhouse -- subversive but in a sweet, slightly anarchic rather than nihilistic manner. Paul Reubens, then Paul Reubenfeld, was at CalArts at the time I was there. Later the school became more earnest about conceptualism, more dogmatic about theory, and ever more savvy in terms of careerism, as the times changed in those directions and the history of the school was rewritten to make the success of some of my contemporaries, such as David Salle, seem like manifest destiny. And, surprise, surprise, the very existence of the Feminist Art Program was erased almost totally until, after the Northridge earthquake, a student was assigned to go over some books that were being junked. Lo and behold, she found copies of the catalogue for the Womanhouse project from 1972 about to be discarded. Students researched the existence of the program and organized a major conference. Now, the history is surely forgotten all over again.

BR: Your working method has changed a lot since then. You are concerned with issues such as the materials and craft of painting … also the idea of tradition and the history of art. What changed your direction or focus?

MS: I am not sure that my working method has changed as much as the way my work looks. If you look at one of my "story" paintings from CalArts and a recent painting of the word "trace," you might wonder if the same person did it. The first is a narrative painting in which a personal story is set out through self-figuration. The scene is set in a landscape whose forms are distillations of landscape and nature forms but whose forms are also related to the way the figure is drawn. I was skinny, and I liked to paint skinny cypress trees and pointy cacti. The second is of a word retraced a few times on a flat white ground, but basic characteristics of form and material are there in both: narrative, whether depicted or literally written; small scale; water-based media; and a certain way of using line. It is like the gloves are different, but the hand is the same.

There has always been a strong narrative and discursive impulse to the work. I first started using language as image in my work at CalArts. The language was more poetic then; I chose words I thought were beautiful. Later the language was autobiographical. Now the words are less personal and, in a sense, I let them choose me. I just wait for the right ones.

I was always interested in tradition and art history. I think that what has changed is only the illusion that I understand more than I did before. But I've thought that at every stage of the game. The biggest change is perhaps in what oil paint can do.

BR: The images of words or phrases that you paint seem perfectly logical to me. You write, you paint, you paint what you write. But your earlier works, which I also like, for example, "the penis paintings," are more image-oriented, figurative. Did writing and editing M/E/A/N/I/N/G have an impact on your painting?

MS: I'm glad that my painting of language seems logical to you! You know the typical conversation: "What do you do?" "I'm a painter." "Oh, what kind of paintings do you do?" (abstract or realist, figure or landscape?) "I paint language." "…"

I had used language as image before I ever wrote about art, and at the same time, the critical writing and editing had a great impact on the image paintings you’re talking about. The penis paintings were done at the same time as I was researching and writing "Representations of the Penis." At this same time, a book review piece I wrote called "Researching Visual Pleasure," in which I reviewed Barnett Newman's Collected Writings, was simultaneous with and instrumental in my beginning to simplify my painting surfaces toward a flatter surface. This is also the moment when I began to shift from representational images to handwriting as the image.

The biggest impact writing as a process had on the work is that I learned that writing must be edited. The need for editing is imbricated in the text itself and springs out at you even if you didn't intend to do it. All you need is to set a text aside for a week, and what needs to be done to it jumps off the page. The media I had painted in and worked with until that point were immediate and didn't allow for much reworking: gouache, dry pigment on paper. But finally by the early '80s, I was pushing gouache to its limits, doing very large gouaches on 36" x 72" rice paper sheets and painting it to the limits of its capacity for impasto. The fragility of paper and the various media I used were no longer a proper metaphor for self, so finally oil, which I had avoided up until that time, was the necessary medium. I made my way into it through about a year of pushing the sculptural aspects of the paper objects I had been working on. Then I started to paint in oil, and I had started writing and editing at the same time. I found that writing's organic necessity for editing gave me the patience and courage to use the capacity for alteration that is unique to oil. So just in the sense of process, my writing and doing M/E/A/N/I/N/G led to my ability to engage with oil.

The "penis" paintings were part of the last works that contained recognizable figural imagery. I sometimes miss having that kind of representation in my work, but I worked through those embodied representations over about seven years and moved on. The penis/ear/breast/language/punctuation mark paintings were part of a time when I was learning a lot about psychoanalytic theory and when the body was the arena for political discord, over abortion and AIDS. Gender was topic A. I am not convinced of any similar subject at the moment -- or any that would take the form of a figurational representation.

You can't imagine the shit I had to deal with, doing those penis paintings. People would read all their inner conflicts about masculinity and femininity into the paintings but never give the paintings or me credit for provoking such strong emotions. I experienced the downside of using controversial imagery; some people get famous, I just got told I was doing something wrong. The work would remind someone of how much they hated their father, and then they would tell me it wasn't well painted. And they were just looking at a slide! On the other hand, I really had fun seeing men roll their eyes back when I would talk about "my penis paintings." A woman saying "my penis," that really got people going, but actually I felt very happy and optimistic when I did that work, evidently characteristics that I ascribed quite positively to masculinity!

I see certain things in popular culture that I might want to interact with, things that relate to my "story" paintings -- the spiky forms of some of the strange dark cartoons on afternoon TV or something like that. It seems that every few years or so the art world produces another woman artist doing small autobiographical personal paintings with a surrealist touch. I moved on from that kind of work, so I tend to think of it as a stage. I don't feel the same need to put myself physically into a painting as I did then. My work doesn't serve the same purpose for me. Then it was necessary for me to use my art to tell people what was going on in my life. The work was a form of ventriloquism. Now the work is the work. It is not so personal, or, rather, what is personal has changed. I can't quite envision a way to represent myself as a figure in painting. And I don't really see myself doing that or going back to the tight painting techniques that calls for. Right now I want to move toward a looser, wilder, more entropic approach to painting.

BR: I view art making as an essentially social, not political, activity. As I see it, social is how you function in the world with other people, political is how you function in the world with other people to get them to do what you want.

MS: That does make political sound sinister. Actually I think all art has political content or valence, whether intentional or not. I think of my work as political not because I want people to do what I want, but because it is done in response to the political content of other art, and by that I include, for example, the political meaning of the pure aesthetics of modernism. I find it possible to get sustenance from art for its "purely" aesthetic qualities and at the same time to function in art with a political perspective.

BR: You published your second book with Susan Bee, M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology ofArtists' Writings, Theory, and Criticism. What else are you working on besides your painting?

MS: I'm working on the book I mentioned and on a whole group of paintings that are intimately related to the book, just as the book is intimately related to my painting. I've written about half, but the writing has been extremely difficult, very slow and tortuous. I'm trying to write differently than before, more personally, and with a much broader theme -- two themes really, painting and the role of the past in an ahistorical time. I've written one chapter essay called "Modest Painting," and I'm working on a really ambitious essay that examines the affectlessness chosen by much contemporary art and embodied in some familiar visual strategies, like blurring, by tracking these back to Gerhard Richter and then tracking the sources of his aesthetic decisions in the Holocaust and the Second World War. One of my works on paper related to this essay is a gray blurred text that "says," "Why does the Past always have to be grey and out of focus?"

BR: When I first moved to New York in the mid-'90s I thought it was a really great time and environment -- there was no style or movement to follow, the money was pretty much gone, and galleries opened and closed pretty quickly. The celebrity-ness of the '80s was kind of out of vogue for a while, and suddenly it seemed that you could try to do anything you wanted. You really anticipated that way of thinking in your career, allowing yourself to change style, developing other aspects such as teaching and writing. Was this something you set out to do from the beginning, or was it just the "zeitgeist," like it was for me?

MS: I never have had the belief in the art world that it demands. The art world I was brought up in had its careerists and even its youthful stars, but nothing like the 1980s commodity culture notion of career, professionalism, big money. Anyway, I had a run of beginner's luck in the early '80s with a couple of shows, and then all of a sudden I didn't have a gallery, and a friend of mine said, "Now you can do anything you want because no one is looking at you." The rhetoric of Western individualism is that the artist does what he wants, but often artists lose sight of that, or have their sight narrowly focused on what they think the art world wants. I thought that I already was doing what I liked, but it is true that my dealer had liked to think of me as someone doing quaint mystical landscapes, whereas I wanted to pursue the sculpture and was going back to the more feminist aspect of my work. So my friend's advice was very good, and I really did go through a lot of changes in the next few years. M/E/A/N/I/N/G was the biggest other thing I did, and that was both against the zeitgeist of the great big hype art world of the '80s and part of the zeitgeist of the interest and excitement around critical theory in the '80s. Susan and I could do it because we had nothing to lose; we weren't interested in wielding power or in commodifying our critique or in growing into an institution. We also had the tradition of small magazines and poetry journals behind us.

BR: This year has gotten off to a difficult start, and I understand that your older sister, Naomi Schor, died suddenly in December, but what are your plans for the coming months?

MS: I want to finish writing the expository text of the book and then develop the presentation of its visual content. I want it to have a high visual quotient. I'd like to produce it in several incarnations, from straight text with pictures, to an artist's book of the drawings of elements of the text, to a CD with enhanced visuals including video clips.

After September 11th, people wanted to know if it would affect my work, and I felt that my work was already about loss. But the death of my sister has made me question art making in a more profound way. At the moment, human relations seem more important. But I have begun to get back to work. She had wanted a painting of mine in which the word “joy” is painted with a very gritty, fleshy, and shitty-brown paint, but it was in fact the last painting of a larger multi-canvas installation, so I substituted another joy painting. Now I am painting the word joy in as dark and contingent a manner as possible. That is the only way I can think of to re-enter art making after the loss of such a primal figure in my life.