Art is not visual; success is the devil

Gorney attending an opening

I spent the morning with AP Gorny last week at a small restaurant in Buffalo. He arrived in the pouring rain on his bicycle. He told me it puts a serious crimp in his ability to get places, but he’s committed to the environment and says he doesn’t want people walking around with oxygen tanks in two generations. Therefore he’s willing to get soaked pedaling around in December. He’s one of those people who looks at every aspect of his life and thinks about the actual outcome of what he does from day to day. We spent two hours together and the conversation wove itself through a variety of different subjects. We almost invariably disagreed and yet I started to find his suppositions thought-provoking and even enlightening.

On the Internet, you’ll have to search hard for any evidence that Gorny actually exists, though a search does yield a few hits, like this one:

Ap Gorny earned an MFA from Yale University. His work is in permanent collections at The Brooklyn Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Museo de Arte Costarricense, San Jose, Costa Rica; The Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; The Franklin Institute; and the National Gallery, Washington, D.C. He is a recipient of major fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, and the Pew Fellowships in the Arts.

Not bad for someone who has fled success his entire life. Which is what Gorny maintains he has been doing, both consciously and subconsciously, often by opening his mouth when he probably should have kept it closed. He believes this kind of behavior is instinctive, a path of spiritual survival of sorts. Or, he suggests, maybe what a psychologist would identify as misplaced anger. It’s no accident he isn’t much in evidence in cyberspace. He has tried covering his tracks and values his obscurity, because it’s an element of his entire view that success for an artist is more or less a Devil. That’s a little hyperbolic, intentionally, but not far from the mark.

He’s a reality check for anyone who thinks a painting ought to be an entirely visual form of communication—or that it can be simply a matter of visual sensation. He believes Art is “impurely visual”—more on that in the conversation below. I think of Dave Hickey as a vital critic who has tried to stand apart from 20th century art, to get a clear look at the beast, while calling the entire enterprise into question, yet when I mention his name Gorny dismisses some of Hickey’s views as naïve and wonders why anyone cares what he thinks. “Who cares in the least about a magazine writer? Not a scholar/thinker.” Gorny believes the art world and the “success” it can deliver, often deprives itself and artists of what’s really most essential – the “invisible mental working process of artists reified in their very practice.” So, in most ways, we have little in common in our approach to what art ought to be doing, but I found myself fascinated by and agreeing with much of what he said. And, even better, he kept me laughing.

Considered by some as a member of Fluxus movement, he modestly qualifies this honor by saying “only because it is historically not really any kind of formalized, closed group.” Fluxus comes from the Latin word for “to flow” and involves everyday objects and multiple media. It can rely on random elements, while attempting to involve the viewer actively in the work: Warhol’s room full of metallic balloons being blown about by a fan, where viewers can walk through the room and interact with the installation, strikes me as an example of Fluxus art.  Fluxus is an attitude rather than a discreet movement, is skeptical of any attempt to institutionalize art, and strives for simplicity and an element of fun.

Gorny managed a way to make a living doing nothing but his art back in the 80s—not teaching, simply ‘making’ art. He was no superstar, and in fact avoided paths that might have led to greater fame and money. Now teaching at Buffalo State, a SUNY college, he can say fascinating things for more than two hours at a stretch. I transcribed much of our talk and sent it to him, and he replied with some additional thoughts, expanding on what he’d said, so what follows is a combination of our conversation and his own elaboration on it via email:

Gorny: The other day I just happened to bring home from college my new edition of Prentice Hall’s History of Modern Art. In response to your emailed links regarding Fluxus, I turned right to the index and searched the entries. Just as most other of these texts, they’re very badly written. Students mostly just look at the pictures, if that. Looking back now I am pin-pricked that I’ve lived through most of it. Not back as far as Surrealism of course but…starting out in my college years I read a lot about Surrealism at the time. Today I realize students struggle to read. Forget talking about its pleasures or getting as far as interrogating the texts!

Reading is going away all right.

I have the students read in my classes. It’s pretty bad. I bring in articles. These are seniors. I can’t stand it. We try to read articles that are important. When they read I say, tell me what you think it says. They can read it phonetically, but they don’t understand what the words mean. They can recite the words, but they don’t comprehend what the words mean.

My stance has always been to see art as perceptual. I’m interested in what can be conveyed in a strictly visual way without conceptual content needing to be extracted. As if I need to fight against the tide of the written word! It’s comical, since words are being discarded in favor of visual stimulation, with the deluge of electronic media. Here I am advocating a visual approach to art just as everyone is losing the ability to read.

People see that decline in reading as the very sign of the growing importance of the visual. But this visual has been irredeemably corrupted. It started with Mallarme and Baudelaire. Capitalism putrefied visual experience. Everyone was interested in newly mass produced objects, which were garbage.

I show my students images of artworks that are problematic. My job is to problematizing what students think they know. I want to cast doubt on every assumption they hold.

You’re a Postmodernist.

Excuse me; it’s been around for fifty years!

I think Postmodernism applies in an epistemological sense. Truth exists, but you can’t access it reliably. The problem isn’t out there. It’s in here. (I point toward my head.) It’s been a problem since Plato.

Absolutely, there are many versions of truth. I’ve run into many scientists. The best have a serious appreciation of what art is. They know artists’ intuitions put the pieces together. I’ll give you an example. Last night I went to a concert. Some people are there to be entertained. Some are there for community. I go because it’s a phenomenon. People don’t pay attention, but I’m focused on…It’s not consciousness exactly…but the vibrations of everything. The environment, the architecture, it’s paying attention to everything holistically. I’ll give you another example.

I have a friend, Mary Griffin, who was the Director of The Kitchen NYC for ten years. What helped them survive every year was an annual gala. There were ‘heavy hitters’ on their board. One was Warhol of course. When you hear the stories of what he was like to be around, you realize he was always ‘paying attention’ and thinking. What happened? Of course, the Kitchen was artist-initiated with artists running everything. So it’s a sort of improvised, screwed up mess. Mary describes having worn her highest heels for this most important annual fundraising event. She ran with two slide carousals missing their locked retainer rings. Speeding across the lobby she trips and, literally, the carousals fly out of her hands, and hundreds of slides are on the floor. Who comes out from the restroom? It’s Warhol. The lobby’s empty. Of course he seems not engaged with this crisis, but he kneels down on the floor, and helps her pick them up. But as he picks the slides up, he’s looking at them. Staring at the images he’s starts saying: ‘This is interesting’. He’s committing experience to memory!  This is the connection to what I mentioned earlier regarding my students. They seem to not be able to absorb the value of their own experiences. They don’t commit things to memory.

Did you tell me earlier that you actually had a patron? Tell me about him back in the eighties. You said he took you under his wing, underwrote your art expenses, of often as much as $6,000 a month, and bought your work on top of that?

Mr. Robert A. Hauslohner, most kind and generous, was genuinely amazed by artist’s conversations and helped a number of other artists too. He made all of us promise not to tell anyone what he was doing. I found only one other artist I know he helped.

When I exhibited work at the Guggenheim in the 1980s with several additional artists, Exxon sponsored this biennial exhibition series for at least ten years. That is partly what people hated about it—that Exxon was underwriting it. Mr. Hauslohner got a deluxe bus filled with forty people from Philadelphia who came to see my work. It was a beautiful afternoon. We all got together for a banquet in a private dining room of the Algonquin Hotel. He toasted me. This was 1985 or ‘86.

Was the exhibit about Fluxus or various artists?

It was very assorted. The curator, Lisa Dennison, now a director at Sotheby is a truly wonderful person. She understood clearly how art and history get so easily twisted. Lisa Dennison had been searching for artists with interests regarding representations of identity reflected in their work. Just as Mr. Hauslohner toasted me, I simultaneously knew I was going to get critically thrashed. I disliked the Exxon connection…. as if I have ever driven up to a gas pump in my life! Hah. In my mind, being connected with Exxon, which was sponsoring the exhibit, was like going to the guillotine.

So what was the upshot of this exhibit?

It’s exactly what we were talking about! It was my self-awareness of a moment of living. I still recall the wainscoting, the color of the tablecloths, the beautiful window and the illumination streaming in. Those windows faced west. At the same time I felt total exhaustion and fear. I hadn’t slept in nearly 72 hours. It wasn’t really pleasant. I was $42,000 in debt on credit cards and $10,000 to my dealer, which took the next three years to pay off and prevented me from doing much new artwork. So the memory of that experience is still very mixed in my mind.

And this is a high point in a way?

It’s a difference between the myth and my reality. Between supposed, hypothetical success and what it means to actually be an artist. It is a memory that I possess though perhaps meaningless to anyone else  . . .

That’s interesting.

In the critical writing…there were many reviews. But in the newspapers, many important points were totally missing. Then on top of those absences, there were all kinds of factual mistakes. I learned that many things out there are compromised, but they become historical record anyway.

But now there’s the Internet. You control and put up what you see, what you believe. Here’s how it looks to me.

Look. I think it’s a bigger mess than ever out there and I have better things to do then worry about the Internet. If you ask me, it’s just a mess on a larger scale than traditional printed matter. I’ll give you an example. I composed a blog. It has some essays on it and so forth. I quoted what I thought was E.M Forster. It turned out it was from Constantine Cavafy. You want to go to my site ( [email protected]) and fix it? (Lots of mutual laughter during this conversation.)

I see why you despair of getting things on the record correctly. Arthur Danto said the Sixties made it clear anything can be art. Art is partly deciding what art is going to be. It’s philosophical.

He calls many of our assumptions into question. It isn’t the visual per se. It’s cultural connection. Perhaps let me paraphrase Derrida: What happens doesn’t matter; rather its what ‘what happens’ means that matters.

The individual artist has to find an inner necessity. It’s hard.

Harder than ever perhaps. We shy away from necessity. Art has become activity and attitudes. It’s high time to mention Pierre Bourdieu (he’s only been dead for twenty years or so!) and Relational Art! Art is community engagement, demonstration. Out of the pews and into the streets! If art school won’t engage with the contemporary then it’s time for a ‘1789’ if you catch my drift… historically, Fluxus, for example, fluctuation and flow (like blood in the body flows). Or the way liquid soldering flux finds its own level. Art finds interstices, like flowers that grow from inside of a crack in the pavement and no one pays any attention. How wonderful!  Instead of inner necessity, we have art school exercises; constant attention to awful routines of the same old thing over and over. That’s really what afflicts us in academia. Here’s an anecdote: Philip Glass came to the SFAI (San Francisco Art Institute) one spring while I was on the faculty, to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Arts Degree. He surprised more than a few folks when he announced that he didn’t believe any kind of degrees made people artists! It was truly inspiring to hear while stuck in the purgatory of college Art school teaching ‘2012 style’.

It’s a professionalized degree now, as if you’re going into investment banking.

You might as well go to law school. The students who go to major art schools are often coming from families with great advantage, with parents willing to encourage their study, whatever it is. A good current example might be Sara Sze. She’s having an exhibit currently, and received a MacArthur Grant a while ago.


Yes. She has her Masters from Yale University, all the ‘right’ credentials. As I was reading her NY Times review article I sat there thinking: What does that prove now? Listen, nobody’s going to turn down $500,000 but actually it’s virtually, sadly, become meaningless.

Yeah, well, I could live on one of those grants for quite awhile. I could produce a lot of work.

There you go again with production of more objects as if that offers some kind of certainty of value. Success is great good fortune. It’s working hard, and being in the right place, at the right time. But I’ve become so skeptical of the value of any of it. It ruins people. Indeed, there was a cartoon in The New Yorker the other day. It showed a couple ‘creative class’ guys, one lamenting: I want to be so successful it ruins my life!

Like getting the Nobel Prize.

Playwright GB Shaw had the good quote. He refused his Nobel saying: This is a life preserver cast to those who’ve already reached the other side. Similarly, with the MacArthur, they need to tag someone who’s going to float their balloon higher. Ruled by a board of bankers and professional curators. They have risen to become more devils. They want to consume you, and then shit you out at the other end. Curators are hunters, fishers and gatherers. The curator’s motto: After this show, I’m on to the next one! And the most bloody scary, mercenary ones seem to come from Williams College!

It’s what money’s done. Art has become a Fort Knox.

It’s now investment banking. Better than bonds! (In a later email, Gorny added to this thought: “With my best regards to DuChamp’s MonteCarloBonds.”) It’s all a grudgingly tacit admission by society that, in spite of all other recording technologies, artists’ cultural remains are the abiding proof of our history and existence. Thus, art has intrinsic, abiding cultural value. Good examples are, say – Alice Neal’s paintings. The people in those paintings, not really how they’re painted, make them so important. Dare I say valuable? And more so, day by day, as time intervenes and distances us from the people and events of decades past.

It’s an alternative to the stock market. The economy is in shambles but new highs at Sotheby’s.

It will have to be OK with me, I can’t change that…Though you may not know me very well, you very quickly have come to recognize I am ‘really into’ losses!

Tell me more about the limitations, as you see it, of the visual.

When I was in graduate school (true to his credo, he’s careful not to say at Yale), Al Held taught a drawing class. He was a truck driver before he studied on the G.I. Bill with Leger in Paris. By the late 1950s, early ‘60s and now in New York, he learned a lot, right? He has become a watershed of proto-Minimalist influences within the history of the New York School. In our class we were having similar discussion about visual aspects of Art. He used two artist examples. First, Malevich’s Black Square, or Red Square, then he compared those formally with a couple well-known DuChamp Readymades. I’ll never forget him screaming at the top of his lungs: It’s the Malevich, the Malevich, and the Malevich! As if by sheer volume he would convince us. He vilified the DuChamp works: Once you understood DuChamp’s ideas, there weren’t the necessary (to him at least) distinguished formal aspects to maintain our lasting attention and viability as a sustained artwork. But the thing is, art is impurely visual. So if you think visuality is the point, you’re mistaken . . . art is not about the visual, it is merely a means to communicate with our minds.

To finish, the Malevich paintings’ significance derives from their connections to Russian icon painting. The power of Malevich is his focus on powerful, primary meditative shapes of geometry also present in icons, but without the religious figures. The icons encoded a thousand years of still-fresh mathematical surprises from the Pythagorean-period Greeks.

You keep talking about…you told me about how the light came through the windows at the Algonquin Hotel, all the elements of a moment. Your entire world of that moment. That’s your focus. Not recognition, the honors, money, the signifiers of success. How you remember aligns with your view of how art works. It’s about conveying a world, a sense of the wholeness of life, but you can do that with simply the visual can’t you?

Slim chance but one might I suppose. But again, the visual is not the end in itself. Art is not ‘purely’ visual. It’s a path in this case, just as sight, taste, touch and smell all often play major parts in contemporary art, with aims of reaching communication about a topic with a human mind. The brain and the mind are two different things. (He holds up his little finger to show me this too is part of his body’s Mind.) The mind is everywhere in my body. Not merely in my brain.

Now you sound like a Buddhist.

No, I’m an artist. But if I’m not mistaken, I believe Bertrand Russell eventually got interested in that!

You’re an atheist though…

I’m not an atheist. I believe in the Iron Fist of Culture. (I laugh.) As Ludwig Wittgenstein said: We must not speak of that which we do not know! (Close enough: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent!”)

Whatever means necessary to engage with the Mind. Duchamp was often making a point about memory, in the footsteps of Mallarme and Baudelaire. That the merely visual part had become largely superfluous. There are certain words in our vocabulary that should not be used perhaps. Even as I say the word beauty I just want to pull out a metaphorical ‘gun’ on myself.

Hickey builds his whole . . .  

It’s just so jejune. It ignores the past hundred years of history. Pretty pictures are tantamount to sub-intellectual forms of pornographic-advertising now. I rest my case your honor…

It isn’t about pretty pictures. It’s about drawing in the viewer. You can hit them over the head, if you like, once you draw them in… That’s what Brueghel did…

Modern spectacles, just as 19th century circuses and executions did, can “draw in” in viewers! But do they understand the significance and guiding principles of what they are seeing?

You’ve never chased success.

Kathie Sachs–I realized only years later of Goldman-Sachs–bought my work. I came to her home with an Art dealer, Larry Becker. He did the framing and installation, a serious work of art in itself. I’ve never seen anything as good in my life! It certainly cost more than my modest little work they purchased. It was so magnificent. The work mounted within double-sided glass, in a moving wall, with incredible hydraulic wheels hidden inside, kept the thing balanced. You didn’t even sense the wall could be moved.

When Larry and I went to visit the house, in a special part of Philadelphia I had never ever seen before or since …Larry’s driving was the only way that could’ve ever got me there! A John Chamberlain sculpture at the top of an entrance staircase, larger than life-size, all white, cruciform, crushed car sculpture took my breath away. It wasn’t merely visual. The piece was unpleasantly, menacingly, breathtakingly looming. A world of our detritus and destruction. Evidence how we’ve failed . . .

As we passed time with iced tea, Kathie mentioned that Arnie Glimsher, the owner of Pace Gallery, would like to meet me. In retrospect I was stunned, speechless, dumbstruck, then in shock I think. I just may even have seemed rude, and ignored what she had just said. I continued conversation as if those words hadn’t happened. After we left that afternoon, I don’t understand why, but I never thought about it again until years later. And I think back on that perhaps now with more than a little remorse. What made me do that? It’s part of my self-preservation. I’m very afraid of dealers. But it’s not unlike quite a few other times I recall doing much worse it seems now!

Chamberlain’s sculpture is beautiful, though, isn’t it? I’ve seen it Dia Beacon, it’s captivating

That’s the falsification. People try to make the Chamberlain appealingly beautiful.

Hickey isn’t saying that. Beauty is the admission ticket. It isn’t necessarily what the work denotes.

I promise to give you a list of scholarly writers on the historical topic of ‘The beautiful…Please I beg you no more ‘hickies’!

On the subject of beauty. Take minimalism, though of historical interest to me. Donald Judd has a series of works that a friend has mounted in its seven or so sections down a long loft wall and they’re gorgeous. I’m lying a little about the way I feel about some things. The upshot of what minimalism promulgated were more healthy problems we have to live with. Albright-Knox, for example, still employs old flawed premises focused on the visual. It takes amnesia to hang a Bridget Riley next to a Lucio Fontana! I suppose you have vertical directionals with both. The insensitivity is enough to make me cry. What monkey hung this? Guaranteed they’re probably from Williams. (He laughs. He really has it in for Williams.) People have to come from certain socio-economic backgrounds for these jobs since they have to connect with raising money at all times of day and night. It’s professionalization. In the 1970s nobody in the world cared anything about art. The museum/mausoleum was always empty. You could hear pins drop. And then you know what happened. Now it’s Circus Maximus.

You know why. It’s the last safe haven. Forget about bonds.

The people on the board, they’re buying certain work the curators advise them to buy. Those are the people who will have the big retrospectives. A young artist is just another new horse in the race. Odds are seven to one.

I guess I think there’s a problem in the way I’m expressing my position. And mabye there’s a problem in yours.

I don’t see the problem in my position. (We both laugh.)

I talk to someone like you and I think, hm, maybe I’m wrong, at least about your position.

It’s not about wrong.

It’s dialectic.



2 Responses to “Art is not visual; success is the devil”

  1. Phil

    Just where is the facebook like link ?

  2. dave dorsey

    I just added the buttons. Should have done it when I started up. Thanks for the heads up.