Todd Levin interview continued…
Carey: And who were some of the initial artists that you collected?
Levin: Many of those names one would recognize today, and there are many one might not. Most were part of that eighties East Village scene, either centrally or tangentially. Basquiat, Bender, Bickerton, Condo, Haring, Halley, Holzer, Hujar, Koons, Kwong Chi, Noland, Prince, Steinbach, Taaffe, Thek, Wojnarowicz, and many, many, many more. Some names are all but forgotten, but they still have tremendous meaning to me because of the time and place I associate with those artists or their specific works. Separately, I also began a love affair with Surrealism at that time, particularly Joseph Cornell, and began buying his work which continues today.
Carey: Absolutely. You mentioned David Wojnarowicz . . .
Carey: Amazing artist.
Levin: It was clear when one encountered his art then that there was a tremendous amount of emotional power distilled into those works – but I only knew David in passing. We had met and talked a bit and I always thought that his work was incredibly powerful.
The eighties were a different time. There were many talented people – artists, critics, gallerists, curators, performers, musicians, writers – all crushed into a small geographic area together in the East Village, and interacting on a daily basis with one another. That sort of communal spirit has been lost today in favor of another model. There is a tendency for one to look backwards through halcyon rose-colored glasses as one advances with age. Some things are better now, and many things are worse, but it was certainly a different kind of a model specific to that time.
Carey: Yes, it’s hard to say that there’s a scene like that now. I don’t think the Lower East Side would be the equivalent of what was happening in the eighties, unless you see it differently. The idea of artists opening spaces and having conversations is something that was specific to an eighties East Village art scene that isn’t happening now, is that kind of what you’re saying, that kind of communal support?
Levin: Art and culture thrive best in a bifurcated economy. By that, I mean either a very strong or a very weak economy. Most recently we experienced a period that generated tremendous amounts of wealth for consumers of culture. That means there are lot of people with massive amounts of excess capital, and they have to find a place to put all that capital. They’re not going to put it in the bank at one percent. Those people have decided for the moment that one of the areas they feel is a wise place to put their money is art.
Equally powerful for art is when the economy is extremely weak. In that case, arts and culture are most creative when rents are depressed and gallery space is plentiful. Curators, critics, and artists are able to engage each other in the same place. Those sorts of conditions lead to what economists call low barriers of entry. It basically means that the only requirement to participate in a cultural economy at such a time is to be creative, because in a weak economy there are no cost-prohibitive factors. This meant that huge influxes of talented artists flooded New York starting in the late seventies, and that increased the chances of more creative and interesting things occurring in New York. And this all happened vividly during that East Village period of the eighties that we were discussing. The key point to grasp is that the economic downturn that began in the seventies, interestingly, was significantly positive for creativity in the long term.
And this is the reason that when you ask me if the current scene on the Lower East Side might turn in to an East Village model, my answer is ‘no.’ It can never be the East Village as it was, nor should it be – it’s an entirely different thing. The cultural world in the late seventies and early eighties was shifting from modernism to post-modernism. And that was a thumping, epic cultural sea change which only happens once or twice in a century. The previously strict adherence to art forms, and the definition of culture and cultural products were being completely reconstructed during that post-modern period in the East Village. In essence, it wasn’t the Duchampian modality that ‘anything was art’ anymore – but instead, anything had the potential to be an art form. As I discussed earlier, that meant all modes of production were in the same geographical space at the same time. And there was, for the first time, no longer a proscenium between creator and audience.
What’s interesting about all this is just a few years later, by the late eighties, the market translation of culture into a consumer product began with a vengeance – what we now term the commodification of culture. All this happened within a very short time – that incredibly fertile DNA existed within a very short span and birthed an unusually powerful confluence of ideas.
Carey: Would Detroit be an example? It’s very clear what you’re saying, but do you think Detroit might be having all that potential now?
Levin: Detroit is discussed as having potential for artists is because it’s cheap to live there. It’s great if an artist can buy a house for $5000, but the larger issue is that there is no centralized cultural apparatus in Detroit, and there never has been. I don’t think there ever will be. I should remind you that I am from Detroit, so this is not me talking badly about my city. I would say the same thing about any other American city if applicable. New York is unique. It is a place where certain kinds of things happen that wouldn’t happen in any other American city.
Carey: Also, as you were saying, there was a sea change from modernism to postmodernism that took place at this particular time in New York and was manifested in a certain way. Whereas, in Detroit or other cities you may have inexpensive rents but there’s also not this kind of sea change. I don’t know exactly how to put it, but perception of culture or artistic practice was happening as well, correct?
Levin: I think your observation is the crux of the issue. Furthermore, creativity is fundamentally about generating new ideas and new forms. And it’s that cycle that I discussed earlier of a very depressed and then a very thriving economy that makes New York a consistent entry point for the new, where people go to produce the new, and the marketplace where the new can be bought and sold. The art world is simply the apparatus through which the artist is threaded into general society.
Carey: Todd, it is exciting talking to you about all these aspects of the art world that you’ve experienced. And also about you as a collector, as someone who values and understands artists and looks into how this whole system is to some extent created and continues to grow. There are artists listening to this who are from a lot of different groups, most are students, mid-careers, older artists and they are from all over the world.
One of the questions artists have, of course, which a lot of people feel differently about, is how to enter into the market. And that doesn’t necessarily mean how to enter into major collections, although it could be that, but artists are in their studios wanting to sell more work, wanting not to think about selling more work, knowing that as you say that there are all these people out there that have income that they need to spend somewhere. Without going too much into the marketing, and you can really take this anywhere you want, but if there’s something you want to say to those artists about how they are managing their careers and thinking about sales, which they’ll understand is kind of a double-edged sword: not to think to0 much about money on the one hand, but it’s hard to ignore, especially in this economy—the market and its vastness as you’re talking about.
Levin: That is a very broad question. On one hand, one hears artists, critics, and cultural observers talk about art and money, and suggest that they should be completely separate things. This view espouses that the artist should be divorced from transactional methodologies of any kind. I don’t think artists need to be divorced from art market financial machinations. I think the actual problem is that it is impossible to interact with art in any meaningful way, aesthetically or monetarily, if the only discussions taking place are about its price. The meaning of art collapses under the brute weight of pure quantification of data without the requisite education and real world experience to qualify that data meaningfully. And if the meaning (one could also use the word ‘value’) of art collapses, so will its price, sooner or later. Art has offered me a way to better understand myself. If we only discuss art as a mythical asset class, and divorce it from why it was created in the first place, then art and money exchange roles. Money becomes divine by being translated into art, and art becomes commonplace by being translated into money.
Artists who have an interest in trying to enter the art market must be realistic. There are exceptions to every rule, but the reality artists have to understand is if they want to participate in a locally- or regionally-based art market, they can do that anywhere. They can do that in Detroit. They can do that in San Antonio, and they can do that in Portland. But if an artist wants to participate in the international contemporary art market as it exists on the level of important galleries, international art fairs, and major auctions – and it’s not for me to tell an artist that this is a worthwhile thing, that’s for the artist to decide for themselves – then they’re going to have to be willing to put themselves geographically in a place where they can participate directly. New York, Berlin, London, Los Angeles, etc. Those artists will also have to be willing to engage the financial realities of the art market – but again, that’s a decision for every artist to make for themselves.
It’s a real miscalculation, however, if an artist feels they can participate in a meaningful way in the international art market, yet simultaneously remain fully outside that system. Precious few artists are able to do that, and those that man age that rare balance usually have accomplished it by actively participating first when they were younger, and as they gain stature and independence are eventually able to set their own boundaries – artists such as Cornell, Johns, Martin, and Nauman come to mind in this regard.
Carey: Thank you Todd.