What Happens Between What Seems Like All the Facts: On Interviewing Artists

Curator Michael Auping on the forty years he spent interviewing artists in their studios.

Jonny Auping| Longreads | February 2017 | 15 minutes (4,011 words)

Michael Auping recently retired after 25 years as the chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. His 40-year curatorial career, which focused on the international development of postwar art, has resulted in numerous, critically-acclaimed exhibitions featuring many of the 20th century’s most prominent visual artists.

Before becoming a curator, Auping spent his post-graduate years in mid-70s Southern California trying to figure out how to break into the art world. Around 1975, he came across the book Workingby Studs Terkel, in which the author interviews various working people — from parking valets and cab drivers to gravediggers and pharmacists — about the meaning they find in their jobs. Auping began going to the studios of Los Angeles-based artists like Robert Irwin, Tony Delap, and Craig Kauffman to record conversations about their work, their background, and most importantly, their process.

His new book, Forty Years: Just Talking About Art, is a compilation of interviews ranging from 1977 to 2017 featuring artists such as Frank Stella, Lucian Freud, Susan Rothenberg, Bruce Nauman. Anselm Kiefer, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, and many others.

Michael Auping is also my father. He has watched and encouraged me as I stumbled around a career in writing, where I’ve had to conduct many interviews of my own. Last December, I sat down with him in the Fort Worth house where I was raised and turned the recorder on. My dad wore a Saint Louis University sweatshirt (my alma mater), and the Army-Navy football game was on mute in the background as we talked about artists, the process of interviewing, and why it felt like his kids were the only ones he didn’t discuss art with.

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Jonny Auping: Why did you originally start conducting these interviews?

Michael Auping: When I was first in the art world, I didn’t know that much about art and I didn’t have any ideas about art. I thought the best way to get some ideas would be to interview artists.

I would just go to an artist’s studio and interview them, transcribing the tape on a typewriter — it wasn’t even an electric typewriter, it was a manual. Then I would Xerox it and send it to a few other artists. I got a very good response.

JA: Just because you thought they’d think it was interesting?

MA: Yeah, I was interviewing artists they knew about, but may not have known personally. At one point, I decided I couldn’t afford to do it because it cost $25. To Xerox it cost $15 and to mail them cost like $9. Let’s say I mailed out 70 of them.

The oral history program at UCLA had heard about my interviews and they were doing this project in which they were focusing on artists in Los Angeles. They needed some people to interview them. I was one of the people they hired. They paid me $7 an hour.

JA: How did you get artists to let you interview them?

MA: Just called them. They weren’t famous then — no one else was calling them — so they were flattered someone would come over and pay attention to them, ask questions, and look at their work.

JA: You said you had no original ideas about art when you started. What drew you to it in the first place?

MA:  For my generation in college — this was the very early seventies, during the Vietnam War — it was a very anti-business, anti-war time. What you wanted was to be in the humanities. Art was in the humanities.

I changed my major every semester. I found myself hanging out in the art department for a couple of reasons: It was the only building on campus that was open 24 hours so you could go anytime, you could drink beer there, and everybody was interested in talking about art. No one ever asked you what your major was. They didn’t care. They just wanted to sit and talk about life and talk about art.

JA: The book is organized by theme. It’s not in chronological order and it has an eclectic feel to it. The Anselm Kiefer interview reads like an intense college lecture on religion and art, while the Ed Ruscha feels more like a conversation at a bar. Did you have a vibe in mind for the reader when you were putting it together?

MA: One of the reasons I like doing interviews is because I prefer talking to people rather than reading about them.

When you’re an interviewer you have to decide why you’re doing the interview and who your audience is. I decided early on that my interest would be process. I wasn’t interested in judgment or art history per se — who’s the most important, or this or that — I was interested in how artists become artists.

With process, there are certain ideas that show up in an artist’s life. One of the themes is “beginnings.” How does an artist begin? Jess Collins was a recluse. He got into it through science and worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. After he helped develop the atom bomb, he freaked out and became an artist.

JA: I’ve heard you say you always thought of it as a privilege that an artist would let you into his or her studio.

MA: I was always fascinated by the artists’ studios; how the artist constructs their studio Almost all of these interviews took place in the studio. That was important to me.

JA: In the book, Japanese architect Tadao Ando talks to you about being self-taught. You have a masters degree in art history. Looking back, how much of your proclivity for getting along with artists would you attribute to these types of conversations, versus your formal education?

MA: Oh, this was more important than my formal education [pointing at book]. This was my formal education.

Which is why I’m the kind of curator I am. There are different types of curators, some are very art historical and very formal. A couple of artists have referred to me as an artist’s curator; in other words, I curate because I think my audience is artists. My audience isn’t the board of trustees. My audience isn’t another art historian. My audience is artists. If artists liked what I did, I always felt I was doing the right thing. I always felt, even in terms of making money, that artists are the power of the art world. It’s not the rich patrons. They buy the art, that’s true, they buy the product, but it’s the artist that makes the product. Without the product, there’s no reason to have a patron. There’s no reason to be a collector. There’s no art.

JA: It’s as if the things that you would try to accomplish or attain as a curator — whether that’s an audience, or a career, or achievements — those things are out of your control, so you just focused on the artist and trusted that process.

MA: Artists are the ones who do the most looking at things. If they like what you do, and their experienced eye says this is good, then what you’re doing is a good thing. The average person that comes in, they’re learning. You try to give them the best product you can give them. The way to do that is to hone your eye with other artists. Artists help you see better because that’s what they do. They look. They’re always looking. It’s like if you’re a writer you should be always writing.

My audience isn’t the board of trustees. My audience isn’t another art historian. My audience is artists.

JA: I graduated with a degree in English literature you and mom watched me bypass journalism school to just aimlessly write and wait tables, blindly assuming a career in writing would happen despite no evidence suggesting it would. This would have freaked out a lot of parents. Do you think your career path made you more relaxed about my choices?

MA: Yes. I do. I always told you this when you were growing up and I learned it in my process: If you do something long enough you will get better at it and someone will pay you for it.

The university environment today is a very expensive proposition. People don’t even understand why they’re going. They get confused about what they should be doing while they’re there. So what they’ve done is put the idea of an education with a capital ‘E’ upfront without thinking about what they really want to do or what they’re good at. Who do they want to hang out with? What department do you want to hang out in?I wanted to hang out in the art department.

Now, a lot of parents today don’t want their kids to study humanities because their first question is “What are you going to do with it?” Well, the answer is “I’ll figure it out.”

JA: You’ll work it backward.

MA: I’ll work it backward.

JA: I’ve heard successful people credit their parents saying, “They told me to follow my passion.” But my parents never told me that because they created an environment where doing anything else would seem odd.

MA: True.

JA: Just after college, I started reporting and writing stories before anyone would agree to publish them. I would interview people and instead of saying “I’m a writer with the New Yorker” or something, I would say, “I’m a freelance writer” and be vague about where it could end up.

MA: I did exactly the same thing.

JA: I never consciously thought of myself as emulating what you did.

MA: If I called Robert Irwin, I’d say “I’m thinking about writing an article for Art Week. Can I come over and see your work and do an interview with you?” Now, I hadn’t contacted Art Week.

JA: I would just name places the story possibly could end up. Obviously, it could end up anywhere.

MA: Anywhere! Or not.

JA: Do you have a favorite interview?

MA: No, because I learned something important from each of them. Some were more difficult than others. Some were more nerve-racking. Anselm Kiefer is so steeped in ancient mythology and the Kabbalah and German history and World War II. That’s intimidating, so the interview comes off as being more weighty. Whereas John Chamberlin has these really smart, casual ideas. His one great line that he always said to me was, “Art, gardening, and sex are the fundamentals. They’re all related because they can’t be taught. They’re natural things.”

Artists help you see better because that’s what they do. They look. They’re always looking.

JA: Do you remember one where you were really nervous going into it? The Kiefer interview?

MA: That would be one, but also Lucian Freud.

Lucian Freud is famous. He’s the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and he’s a recluse — he hardly ever sees anybody. The first time I went to interview him, I went to London. I was very nervous about seeing him because he can be very cranky. The interview was to be at noon, but I arrived at 10 in the morning because I was afraid I would get lost or be late. I walked around Kensington, and because it’s kind of a wealthy area, there are no public benches.

I walked around for close to two hours and my feet were killing me. Finally, it was like four minutes to noon and I said, “Screw it” and rang the doorbell. He opened the door immediately, stared me in the face, and said: “You’re four minutes early.” Fortunately, I have a good sense of humor and I said, “Well, Lucian, I was a premature baby, you’re lucky I didn’t come three weeks ago.” He laughed and he said, “Come on in.” After that, we got along well. But that’s the most nervous I’ve ever been going into an interview.

JA: Are artists difficult to interview? Their work is about interpretation so any leading question could undermine their intentions. Did you have to be cognizant that they might be touchy?

MA: Oh, definitely. Art is their language. So when you try to put it into words you’re putting it into a different language. They don’t like putting things into words. If they did, words would be their medium.

To be a good interviewer you have to accept that you’re not going to get something profound. I asked Frank Stella, “Why did you paint that painting blue?” He hummed and hawed and said, “Well, the truth is that I couldn’t get the lid off the red.” But then he said, “It was the type of paint I was after, it wasn’t necessarily the color.”

The direct angle, you can go to Google for that. But this isn’t basic stuff. This is what happens between what seems like all the facts.

JA: For my generation, it seems insane to think about anything that couldn’t be found on the internet. There will always be things you only learn about when you dive deep enough to seek out conversations like this, because they’re not factual. They’re free-flowing.

MA: That’s right. And I think you’re in the age of the podcast. The podcast is really what this is — just a printed version. If I entered the art world today the way I entered it 40 years ago I would be doing podcasts.

JA: Do you notice the difference in dialogue between artists you had personal relationships with, and the ones where you only had a relationship with their work? I noticed you told Richard Serra you weren’t “trying to blow sunshine up his ass.” That’s a different mood of the conversation than you would have with Freud.

I asked Frank Stella, ‘Why did you paint that painting blue?’ He hummed and hawed and said, ‘Well, the truth is that I couldn’t get the lid off the red.’

MA: You have to stick with the artist that you really believe in. A lot of these artists I’ve had relationships with over many, many years. So when you go to interview them the tone is going to be much different because you are talking to each other as friends.

JA: When I was born you were about a third of the way into your career. You and I almost never talked about art until I was in my early 20s. Not because we didn’t talk — we almost exclusively talked about sports, because I was obsessed with sports — but it wasn’t like you only catered to my interests. You would bring up old movies or music you pushed me to become interested in. We had family dinners most nights and art was never a conversation. Did you think that my sister, Alicia, and I wouldn’t be interested until a certain age? Or did you just want to leave work at work?

MA: I just wanted to leave work at work. Artists are intense. And art is intense. And there is a point where you just don’t want to spin it anymore. But it doesn’t leave you. Which is why if I were to talk to you about art it would be more fun for me to talk to you or Alicia about music, which is art, but it’s not the art I’m dealing with. Or sports, because I always felt that art and sports were not as unrelated as they might seem. They both have physical aspects to them. They both have hand-eye coordination aspects. They both have strategic aspects and they both have creative aspects.

JA: Almost all of these artists are older than you. They may still be making art, but the vast majority of their life’s work has already been produced…

MA: True, but artists never retire. They don’t retire. That’s the reason I put together a theme at the very end, “Getting Late.” It’s really about how we deal with our relevance.

JA: You’ve officially retired and I know, like them, you probably haven’t put together your last show. But having retired, and looking back at these artists through that lens, does it make you think that art is moving into a new era? An era beyond you and these artists?

MA: There are a couple of ways of looking at it. One is to take the easy route and be the grumpy old man who says, “Oh, boy, these artists were the best and these new artists, they don’t know what’s going on.” That isn’t true.

Having said that, I will say that not every era in art is a great era. You and I have talked about this in terms of music. Not every era is a great era. You can’t expect that every decade is a great decade. And I believe that the past couple of decades have not been very good decades for art. There is a lot more bad art. There’s still good art, but there isn’t as much as it, and it isn’t quite as radical and inventive. I’m not sure exactly why that is. Part of that has to do with there’s a lot more money involved. And when there’s more money involved, people are more cautious. Because they don’t want to lose any money. They think, if there’s money out there to be had, I want to do it the way the money wants me to do it.

JA: Do you think artists are thinking about money earlier in their careers?

MA: Totally.

JA: And some of these older artists didn’t start thinking about money until they started making it?

MA: Yeah, until they started making it. And then it was a pain in the ass. A happy pain in the ass. Most of these artists didn’t start making money until a third into their career.

Artists today make money straight out of graduate school. They get concerned if they change their approach, or if they get too inventive, then their market will suffer. These artists are thinking about the market and an audience. For most of the artists in this book, their audience was other artists.

JA: Even though you grew up in Southern California, you knew you’d have to leave and see what else was out there. It was almost like you knew California was unique, but if you’d never saw anywhere else, then literally anything else would be unique, too.

MA: That’s accurate. The other thing is, in the art world, the great thing about California, the way I started in this profession, is it was completely freestyle. I just called Robert Irwin. Nobody was around. Nobody cared. There was no structure.

New York was another story. New York in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s was the center of the art world. In order to really cut your teeth, you’d have to be in New York a lot. L.A. was good, but it didn’t have the structure. It didn’t have the philosophical dialogue. Artists were more verbal and tough in New York than they were in California. Though I don’t know what I would have done without those artists in California. I wouldn’t have learned.

You don’t develop a relationship with Anselm Kiefer by staying home.

Let’s put it this way: Art is an indoor sport. You look at it indoors. L.A. is an outdoor sport. It’s all about outdoors. Why would you go inside when it’s 80 degrees and it’s a beautiful day? Why go into a museum? Now, in New York, it’s intense. You go to a museum for refuge. That’s why it was able to become the center of the art world.

JA: The last 35 years of your career were spent in Sarasota, Buffalo, and Fort Worth. What does it say that you‘ve managed such a prominent career in art working from places that don’t have traditionally large cultural footprints?

MA: Artists have said to me over the years, “Why do you keep orbiting around us?” meaning New York. The simple reason to that was that I wanted to have a family. And you can’t have a family and be a curator in New York unless you’re independently wealthy.

What it says is that you can do it from anywhere if you’re willing to get on airplanes. It’s as simple as that. I went from a 50-minute drive from Long Beach to Venice to see Bob Irwin, to a 9-hour flight to Frankfurt to see Anselm Kiefer later in my career. You don’t develop a relationship with Anselm Kiefer by staying home. You go to his studio outside of Frankfurt or in the South of France and you meet with him or he doesn’t take you seriously.

It’s not where you’re coming from. It’s where you’re willing to go. Then you bring it back to the people who hopefully will appreciate it.

JA: This is a book about conversations more than it’s a book about art. Can art have the same effect without a conversation around it? Is it always the-more-the-better when it comes to context?

MA: I don’t think it’s necessary. The direct experience with the art is absolutely the most important thing. If you want to get a book, get a book, but have the direct experience.

Ideally, that experience is going to be an ongoing loop: Have a direct experience with the art. Retreat. Maybe do a little reading. Go back. Have another direct experience with the art. Do a little reading. But it should always be a direct experience with the art. Always consider the fact that you’re never going to resolve the meaning. The meaning is ongoing. If you’re looking for final redemption or some final solution, don’t look in art, because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the process.

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Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, VICE, New York Magazine, Slateand McSweeney’s.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

This interview was edited for length and clarity.