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Bianca Bova
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Kenny Schachter

Art World

B: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, Kenny. My favorite people in the art world to interview are the ones who have rather fluid careers, and you certainly fit the bill. You've been a dealer, a market reporter, a collector, a teacher.

K: And I've always been making art.

B: Right, and a practicing artist. Do you think of all of this as one practice with many facets?

K: 100%. I mean, 'fluid' may be giving me the benefit of the doubt. I didn't come from an art family whatsoever, and never took any art classes except for basic drawing and sculpture classes when I was in law school of all places. And---wait just a second, I'm being thrown out of parking lot by a security guard just now. Nothing unusual in that regard, I've been thrown out of every art fair, and also kicked out of artnet for a penalty period right now--but what I was saying was, I'm self-taught. Completely. I defined my career for the first ten years vaguely as just knowing what I didn't want to do.  I went to law school never with the intent of practicing, but with a philosophy degree, there was really no job on the table unless I wanted to work at an advertising agency. I looked into getting a joint degree in philosophy and law but it was just too complicated. So I took a series of part time jobs over the course of a few years, starting while I was in law school, telling my family I was in night school, but there was no night school. I did everything from freelance writing--I've been writing and teaching for thirty years, and making art the whole time--but various things took over out of economic necessity. I was curating exhibitions and doing these hit-and-run gallery shows before the term 'pop-up' even existed. I would take over temporary spaces and stage shows during the recession in the 1990's, and over the next fifteen years. What I'll be doing five years from now, I couldn't tell you. I know it won't be exactly the same as what I'm doing now. But there's been one consistent thread that goes through all of this, because I'm from outside the system. I analyze art once it leaves the studio and enters the stream of commerce, how it's disseminated. Not all the artwork I make has to do with the art world, per se, but that's definitely a major part that has a unique language and operates under its own unspoken rules, for better and for worse. I'm sort of an inside-outsider, which I'll always be. I'm always acutely observing the machinations of the art world, and it's always surprised me, from the very first time I entered a gallery, when I was twenty-six years old, and didn't even know art galleries existed--I thought art went directly from the artist's studio onto the wall of the museum, that's how naive I was--that the art world has its own brand of hypocrisy and it annoyed me.

B: That's a fair assessment.

K: I never started out with this idealistic, albeit cynical notion, to be the person who pulls the curtains back on the good the bad and the ugly that happens in the art world, but over the course of just expressing or reacting to what I experienced, I kept talking about in a way that wasn't very common. And because I have the insight, having participated in every facet of the business, it gives me a perspective that's quite unusual. Because I'm old and I've been doing this for so long, I've gained a lot of access to people and information, and that affords me the possibility to be revelatory to the extent that I am.

B: That's something that I wanted to ask you about, because I think a lot of people--myself included--first encounter you as a writer. And this sense of radical transparency you bring to your writing, and especially your market reporting, no one else does that. Partly out of a sense of unwillingness, I would guess, to engage with the conflicts that may consequently arise. The fact that you take on the journalistic responsibility of reporting only straight facts, regardless of who might be unhappy to hear them, or know that they've been brought to light--that's not as part of any agenda it seems, but just second nature to you?

K: It's really interesting the way you articulate it. In the beginning it was just sort of a knee-jerk response to what I was seeing. I used to write a lot for artnet in the very beginning, when Walter Robinson was my editor, before the iphone, before instagram, so I had no readership. I wouldn't even call myself a writer professionally, because no one ever read me. And really the iphone only came into existence in 2007, and instagram in 2010. And I always say instagram is the most revolutionary, democratising platform I've seen in thirty years in the business. It just opens up the world to a population that was never before able to participate, and now can do so. So when easier access to the articles I was writing came about, I started getting this affirmation when I was out and about in the street, at an art fair, at a gallery, and the feedback was so affirming, it led me to go out on a limb more, disclosing things. It egged me on to keep going further. I think I've reached an apotheosis over the last articles, because lawsuits and the threats are beginning to weigh on me, at my age. It's taken its toll. As you can imagine, people can get really annoyed. I get bullied, I get threatened, there are threats against my integrity, and it gets exhausting, to be honest with you.

B: That's perfectly understandable.

K: You know, people think I got fired from artnet because of a lawsuit from some flipper I have a history with, whose behavior is pretty questionable, but the fact is, they offered to dramatically increase my salary, but they want me to go behind a paywall. Which is the direction the company is moving in. That really contradicts the nature of my writing, which is that it can be read by people at the lowest economic strata to the highest--and it is--and that's very, very important to me. I need the money, still, because I do such disparate things, it's hard to make a consistent living, and the money is enticing, and the buffer of a company that defends me, which they've done a very good job of recently, with these last threats. I'm at a crossroads now, and so I've recently developed my own website that has my archives on it, I'm presenting some shows. I just have to figure out the next steps.

B: As financial concerns become even more pressing than they've been in the past, I imagine that's a choice a lot of writer's are now facing, whether or not to charge for access to their work. What do you think about having to make that kind of professional decision in the first place? Especially as someone who simultaneously makes prolific use of, as you called them, democratic platforms like instagram. Do you see those as becoming mutually exclusive?

K: My content will never change, otherwise I would just stop. I have no interest in being more commercial or kowtowing to any corporate interests, frankly I couldn't give a rat's ass. The thing is that, I've been doing this so long whatever stupid economic model I've developed for myself allows me to survive, which is to say all the things we've discussed contribute piecemeal to my living, but the only reason I can do what I do is because I have no vested interest, I'm not beholden to anyone. That and I have a large art collection--I used to say it was a day sale collection, but it's not even that, it's more like an online collection, except for a few pieces. The fact is, I write because I feel compelled by the feedback. I just did this podcast with Talk Art, and I was just sitting there, isolated in Spain with the family, and let loose. I never imagined the kind of feedback I would get from people, it's so inspiring, it touches me so much. When everything becomes so despairing or depressing, I'm able to feed off the affirmation I get from the people who listen or read. So I sell things from the collection piecemeal, I sell my own art, the teaching contributes. I would never be willing to change that, to change the way I write. I've taken a bit of a break because chasing art fairs and auctions is losing its interest to me, but I'll always have a critical voice. I've been making videos, I've been doing these podcasts, which is another dimension, also working on a documentary and film--the film is just selling a story--and I would be happy to make more money but with a paywall situation, I wouldn't be able to post my full stories on my instagram or elsewhere, if other people have to pay for it. If ever I was to develop a subscription-based platform of sorts, I would always say that if people couldn't afford to pay ten dollars a month or whatever it is, that I would give them the service for free. I don't want to exclude any readers. It's so important to me that people can read if they want to.

B: As a member of the lower strata of the art world, economically speaking, I can't tell you how much I appreciate that. It's so important to have access.

K: It's so important. I always say any single person who reaches out to me for feedback, or advice, or anything I can say that would be of help to anyone, I do it. I've never not returned an email or a DM from anyone, if it's a hater, or someone with conscientious comments to make, or advice they're seeking, I always try to do it. A friend of mine, who I used to be very close with, an artist, recently had an assistant call me, and say "this artist would like to schedule a time with you to catch up," and that annoys me so much. People who contact me, from age fifteen to a hundred and five, they're always so surprised when I answer them. I feel it's my responsibility to do so, it's an important part of what I do to be helpful to people. The art world can be off-putting to people, in its exclusivity and obnoxiousness, so I just appreciate when people care as much as I do and want to be a part of it. When I get to speak about art itself, and my passion for it, people are often surprised that I'm not just some asshole who's going from art fairs to auctions. I live with art, I make art, and it means more to me than anything other than my family, and it always has. That's the only reason I'm involved in it, is I care so much.

B: That's remarkably generous. I know I'm guilty of that myself, I've definitely contacted you in the past, asking for information, help with research, or even with requests like the one for this interview. You are a tremendous resource in the art world in that regard. This seems like it must bear some relationship to your long tenure teaching. In fact, I heard that since you've been back at the School of Visual Arts in New York, that you've gotten something of a reputation for these six hour long weekly seminar/studio classes. Would you tell me more about that?

K: It's actually a funny story. Like you say, the reason I teach--and I say this as I don't believe that pure altruism really exists philosophically, there's always some sort of quid pro quo--is that it stirs me to learn. I'm a workaholic but lately, this summer, it's like I've been hibernating, sleeping and reading so much. And teaching and writing, they make you look harder, think harder, and pay more attention. Which is crucial. Like medicine, like law, like any other profession, art is a continually evolving practice that requires constant attention to new information. Anyway--when I moved to New York last May, I desperately wanted to just get a teaching gig, and my son was graduating SVA, and I know David Ross, we used to lecture together when he was head of the Whitney, so I sent him a message and said I'd love to lecure. So I gave a two hour lecture at SVA, and I was really happy with it, and so I just said at the dinner afterwards that I'd like a teaching job. Like I said, I've been teaching for thirty years, and it was always seminars, normally graduate level, on art, usually art and economics or conceptual art. So I was accepted to teach, and I went to the school's HR department in February, and I was filling out the forms, and found out I was teaching a studio practice class. I've never taken a studio practice class in my life. So I said, oh ok, I'm teaching a studio class at one of the foremost art schools in the country. So I asked when it met and was told 9am-3pm every Tuesday, and I was completely taken aback. I thought, what on earth am I going to do. So I went running to my kid, Adrian, and said, "teachers teach for six hours? I don't understand." And he said, "Oh no one lasts six hours. The teachers go away for lunch, and they go on studio visits, or to galleries." So then a few days before my class, covid hit, and the school went online. I was petrified, at my age adjusting to radical change is never the most comfortable. I was literally going to bow out because I wasn't sure about zoom, I had never even heard of it before, and then there was a whole online system with the syllabus and going back and forth with assignments and everything. And they kind of sensed my insecurity and said they could replace me with a more tech savvy person. But then I thought I would be stupid to pass up an opportuity to move through this crisis in a way that adapted to new technologies and new approaches, so I decided to do it. And I always say, with a big family, no one ever listens to me in my own house. So anytime I have a captive audience, I seize the opportunity. My students all said not one of their teachers ever kept them for the full duration, and I don't think I ever let them loose from class early. I just thought it would be great. It was such an anchor. I spent three months in New York in my apartment, and it was such a great benchmark to manage my week around, and preparing it. I've taught classes I was less prepared for in the past, and after one in particular, I swore that would never happen again. The ritual of developing content for that duration kept me busy and kept me rooted in my work.

B: Did the six hour format make you dig your heels in in a different way? Did it yield a deeper or different connection with the students?

K: Well, for one thing there were a lot of international students who comprised the class, and not all of them were terribly comfortable with English language. So what made it productive, and a great experience for me, and I hope for all of them, was that I insisted everyone participated on a regular basis. Over lunch--I didn't even give them a lunch break, they had to watch documentaries over lunch--and after, everyone would have to take a turn speaking about their life, their experience, their views on the work, how they were coping with the covid crisis, how they were dealing personally with their work and their practice through it, and I think that aspect made it work. It was so refreshing and insightful to hear their thoughts on artists that I've known or been involved with since the very beginning, like Paul Thek or Vito Acconci.

B: That sounds so fascinating, I wish I could hear those lectures.

K: I'm going to be putting them online soon, actually, seven of them. I so rarely get to speak about art itself, because I'm professionally involved in the art world and nobody wants to talk about art, they want to talk about the market and everything else.

B: Can we go back and talk about your early years, when you were utilizing storefronts and doing, as you said, these proto-pop-up exhibitions. The storefront gallery model is one that's very familiar and very dear to me, and short-term temporary project spaces are something I utilize most often in my own practice. I know those formats come with their own challenges, even now. How did you arrive at that idea and make it work back then?

K: The storefront thing was a way of opening the doors and enticing people to come in, by not putting the word "gallery" on the door. And the work was always meant to be accessible in a way that would appeal to everyone from Roberta Smith to someone who walks in off the street. I remember one dealer said if they have fifty of the right people come to a show, that's enough. I'd rather have five thousand of the wrong people. The open door policy was really to draw people in off the street with color, with humour, by incorporating all kinds of technology early on. It was a grassroots means of broadening my audience. The upside is that you get to have this interface with people you would never ordinarily talk to, and the downside is you're also open to all sorts of things that might not happen to you in a more traditional gallery setting.

B: I heard a story once that you were robbed in one of these spaces?

K: In London, in 2000, I had a project space, and yes, I was thrown down a flight of stairs, threatened at knife point, and locked in a closet. I had to hand over all the video equipment I was using in the show, and was nearly killed for the sake of it.

B: That's everyone's worst fears about being in a storefront gallery confirmed.

K: It's the risk you run in a storefront, where you're basically a hood ornament on a car, you're terribly exposed.

B: I hope that was a one-time occurrence, in all the years you've been doing this?

K: The threats in the ensuing years were all through lawyers, or occasionally people throwing fists at me or just threatening physical harm, or more legal attacks.

B: Which is worse to you?

K: Well...I guess being thrown down the stairs and locked in the closet is. People say your life flashes before your eyes before you die, but all I could think about was, I was about to suffer a violent death, I was going to be murdered. That felt worse than the threat of ongoing legal entanglements. But then, I've never been sued, to this day. I'm always under the threat of lawsuits, but I always speak the truth, so there's never been anything but the threats. That's been a good defense against those kinds of actions against me.

B: I wanted to ask you about Vito Acconci, who you mentioned earlier. I know he was involved in some of these early site-specific projects you did. How did that relationship form and turn collaborative?

K: From his early work like Seedbed, where he's masturbating under the floor, to his beginnings as a writer--he studied in the famed writing program in Iowa--he was a poet. And I loved the fact that he was collected by institutions, there's not a single great art museum across the globe that's without a Vito Acconci in their collection, but because he was--earlier, you used the word fluid, which I think of as someone who does a pattern of similar things--he was changing a lot. The departures in his practice were so extreme going from poetry to performance to photographic work, ephemera, audio pieces, installations, and architecture and design. He sabotaged himself commercially with that, and died basically destitute. We did a book together, and I curated many shows of his work. He even designed a physical viewing space for me in the back of my house in the West Village in 2002. I was just drawn to him. I used to say he was like a brain with feet sticking out. I had never met anyone, to this day, that was so ascetic, in terms of what people take for granted, down to having a bathroom in his house. He lived with no possessions, and he wasn't even cognizant of say, Prada, or Nobu, these things that when you think now of a successful artist, you know, they have access to a private plane and are clad in cashmere head to toe while they're on it, and here's a guy who wore the same things every day to the point that when he would pick up the glasses he wore on a string, you could see an outline from the residue of ashes from all the cigarettes he had smoke while wearing that shirt. He was pure, pure thought incarnate. Like a monk, practically a religious figure, existing outside the societal norms that motivate so many people. To this day, I've never met anyone else like that. Even Zaha Hadid, who was one of my closest friends in the world, even though she had a successful company beyond measure, she lived very humbly. She never, ever took a lot of money from the company, though towards the end of her life she certainly traveled well and stayed in reasonably nice hotels and all, whereas Vito would never capitulate at all. He managed to carve out a career and never cave into other people's notions about how or what you should be doing.

B: It sounds like those are consistently the qualities you're drawn to in artists or their work. I know you're one of the foremost authorities on and collector's of the late artist Paul Thek, who seems to share in that sensibility.

K: Paul Thek, yes, even Rachel Harrison who I showed in curatorial projects for ten years without selling a single work, and then helped the Whitney with their show. I'm drawn to difficult people, but difficult people is such a misnomer. Like with Zaha, it was really more prejudice against women and arab practitioners in her profession. But if you stick by your beliefs and you don't compromise in a sense, then people label you as difficult. But it's really people who are intractable in their self belief and how they approach their work, a refusal to bend to the market or outside interest.

B: That seems to be the way you conduct yourself in your work, actually.

K: Sadly.

B: Where does this factor into your collecting habits? Do you tend to go for the artist first and then the art?

K: No....well, no. I mean, first and foremost the art is it. It is a difficult situation if you love the art and can't stand the artist, and vice versa. The problem is that I just love to be surrounded by art so much. During lockdown there wasn't a day that went by that I didn't rub my nose against a drawing or a painting or a sculpture. I used to joke that it was so difficult to work with emerging artists because they all act like they're all single handedly curing cancer, and suck the air right out of your mouth when you try to talk to them, while they're looking over your shoulder for a better opportunity.

B: I know what you mean.

K: You know, recently I did some volunteer work with a hospital in London near where I lived, Chelsea and Westminster, and they are actually accredited as a museum. They were doing studies about living with art, in the hospital context, where it actually resulted in shorter hospital stays, requiring less medication.

B: Really, that's fascinating.

K: Really. It's like having one of those therapy labrador retrievers or whatever, you know, it lowers your blood pressure and things. For me, I bought some work just before the lockdown, back in February, and given that my available liquidity didn't just constrict but evaporated, I'm still paying it off. So I just paid for this Paul Thek piece, and it was a lot of money for me right now--though they gave me some extended terms due to the crisis--but I just never sat on money well, because I'd rather surround myself with artworks that intrigue me than cash, much to the consternation of my wife, because that's not necessarily the most responsible way to function. That's art collecting though, once you start, it's a very difficult habit to control.

B: So I've heard.

K: But back to Paul Thek and Vito Acconci, who both basically died destitute. Paul Thek had one painting in an American museum at the time of his death. He had shown at Pace in '64 and then stopped showing the work that most people responded to, the meat pieces of which he only ever made thirty-four. And as I've said before, being ahead of the times is practically worse than being behind the times. There's no collective consensus about what you're doing, and people in the art world collect with a herd mentality, rather than looking to take a position and seek out things other than commercially. So my collection is just things that move me and touch me, which is, as I said, a little irresponsible.

B: Speaking of buying and collecting, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you what you think about the future of art fairs, especially with Basel Miami saying it'll be business as usual for December 2020.

K: Bullshit.

B: There we go.

K: Bullshit. Basel Miami is finished for this year. I'm telling you right now, no one is going to risk their life to go to an art fair and that's what it would entail at this juncture. The demographic that still fuels the art market--though things are changing--they're still older and they're part of what would be considered a vulnerable population. But people have a terribly short memory, and the art world is no different in that respect. Once there's a treatment or a vaccine that proves the least bit effective, things will, much quicker than people expect, go back to a status quo. Right now art fairs are finished, and in a way that's been an incredible repose for people to take stock and pull back, instead of being late every day, going on this hamster wheel. But ultimately I think the fairs will get back to normal. People also have to see art, it's a visceral thing. Nothing will replace the experience of standing before something, and we're social animals, and art isn't just an entertainment thing, it's not just something to flip through on a telephone, that's absurd, it's communicative. I always use as an example, that I never used to buy things online, until I moved and had to fill my apartment with practical things. So I bought a garbage can on amazon. I don't know what size a garbage can really is, nor did I think to look. And when the one I bought was delivered, it was like the size of a thimble, I literally couldn't fit more than one bottle in it. And that goes back to rubbing your nose against art. For me, it's drawings in particular, because of the immediacy of the form. It's an active means of communication, and that whole aspect of traveling together, talking about the art itself, it's not a shallow thing. It will return.

B: As someone who works for art fairs on an annual basis, I can't tell you how reassuring that is to hear from someone with your authority. And what you just said, the social side of it, I've been thinking a great deal about that lately. You know I work for Expo Chicago, my hometown fair, and I'm already missing that in September, the energy, and the people I only see at art fairs, only see maybe once or twice a year. Whatever reputation art fairs have aside, it really is its own community.

K: Exactly. And you know I used to hate galleries when I first started going to them. The early pop-up shows were a push back, but then I came to really appreciate, through the fairs, the people that I now associate with. They're typically just people who work for galleries. I really think gallerists are the unsung heroes of the art world, it's really a fairly hapless job, they don't get any of the credit, when and if the artist is always looking to be passed along to a better platform or a bigger gallery. It's a difficult existence. And there hasn't been a small or mid-level crisis in the past five years like it sometimes sounds like, when you hear the gossip and the rhetoric. It's never been an easy business model. To be a small-to-medium tier gallery, the only way to make money at it is to own the work. Artists are going to step out the minute they have a better opportunity presented to them. And now there really is a crisis. I think for the first time ever, galleries will be facing circumstances where they really have lost money from not being able to sell at fairs, and everyone is going to be crunched. I think you'll see a lot more closure and consolidation, like Gavin Brown going to Barbara Gladstone. I'm making a video right now about how I think this will become commonplace for galleries to merge together, and join forces and create alliances of convenience that have never really existed before.

B: Do you think those strategies will be sufficient to sustain galleries long term? Or do you think it's a quick-fix solution committed to under duress, a tactic to be used until things level out again?

K: I think something like Gavin going to Gladstone is long term. It's not a quick fix, he's well entrenched and she's well entrenched. I mean, he's not well entrenched enough to continue as an autonomous company, obviously, but he failed at that because he over-extended himself by not buying his space in Harlem, and he couldn't meet his overhead. So any gallery that owns its space--which is already a tiny percentage--is going to be in an obviously inherently better position. Otherwise, look, people complain about how difficult it's been, but there's twenty thousand galleries today, across the world. That has increased exponentially over the last twenty years. When people say, "oh, the crisis in 2008 was so difficult, so many galleries went out of business," it's actually a fraction of the percentage that closed in 1990. There's an article Roberta Smith wrote in 1991, that I incorporate into my lectures, that shows it was actually a much higher overall percentage of galleries that closed. Now it's a much broader, bigger business because of the popularity of art, and the use of platforms like instagram, where there's mass exposure and more unorthodox tactics are used.

B: Speaking of unorthodox tactics--I caught this morning on instagram that you're auctioning yourself off? Or at least a studio visit with you? The bidding opened at $0.99, I believe.

K: That's like a perfect example of everything we're talking about. Someone called me up and--I can't remember the exact context of the request--but I said they could auction off a visit with me. So the woman I spoke with sent me something, and anyone who knows me, can tell you, if I can't read something in one screen, I'm not very good with scrolling. It has my attention for the first three minutes and then it diminishes like a mosquito. So the woman who runs the program--it's for charity--contacted me again and said do you still want to do this, since I hadn't followed up. And I said sure, and she said how much should the bidding start at? And I said, $0.99, because, what do I care? I have no pride.

B: Care to hazard a guess as to how much you'll go for?

K: Well it's for charity. And anyone who would pay any amount of money to a charity, just to come and sit with me, I would welcome the opportunity. I'm sure I have just as much to learn from that as they do. And since I work by myself, and I live a very solitary professional life--which is why fairs were so important to me, by the way, because the sheer volume and quality of people, in terms of being professionally involved, is so high, you're inevitably exposed to so much information--I miss that. And since now I'm sitting alone in my home, doing whatever I do, I welcome things like instagram that broaden my contact with people, and I welcome opportunities like this auction.

B: While you are working under these conditions, what projects have your attention? I know I've heard you're working on a documentary and a film both related to the Inigo Philbrick situation.

K: Well, actually, two things. I was supposed to have a small show of my own work at Blum & Poe in March, in Tokyo, which of course was postponed. Now I'm trying to wrangle the space in New York, closer to home. Most galleries are not scheduling their triple-A programming, it's all been written off since March. And, like we said about Basel Miami, there's just no way it's going to happen this year, period. Which is the same prediction I had for all the other Basel's well before they were cancelled.

B: That's a shame, does it have a reschedule date in the works?

K: Let's just say, every opportunity commercially I've had has come through wrangling, hustling, finding temporary spaces, even trading art I acquired when I was a part time lawyer. So hopefully I'll still be able to have the Blum & Poe show in Tokyo--the work is all sitting there--or in New York, where my constituency kind of is. As for Inigo story, it's not something I want to be related to for the rest of my life. It was a young kid that went awry, who became delusional, but who was very knowledgeable about art. It speaks more of human nature, and the fact that the art world is an industry that embraces the seven deadly sins, that type of activity, while not the norm, certainly exists. He's symbolic of this sort of hypercommercial activity that's been going on in the art world for years now, he bookends it. So some offers came in from documentary companies looking to buy the rights to the story I wrote in New York Magazine, and one of them I'm working to make more into a documentary about everything we're talking about. Instead of a myopic thing about a conman who took advantage of people until he got carried away with his own disproportionate arrogance and self belief. I'd like that project to be more about the art world in the macro sense, and talk about these issues, and touch on why art has grown a significantly larger audience in recent years. It's grown more in the past twenty-five years than in the last two hundred and fifty, and yet it's still dwarfed by other media. Art can have such an immense positive impact, but people are so basically insecure about their personal response to things, which has been ground into them by the exclusivity of and the general mentality in the business--which sometimes ascribes value to things that look like crap. If I can turn that kind of project, instead of making it something bad about someone who stole a lot of money (including a lot of money from me), if I can shift that project to something more positive, that gets into all the issues we're talking about, it can show that with the bad in art world, there's also a hell of a lot of love and passion. I'm hopeful and continue to think it can reach more and more people in a positive way despite or in spite of all we've discussed.

Kenny and legendary Karsten Greve

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Interview with Photographer George Holz

George Holz, Heather Graham at the Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles, 1998

B: Thanks for making the time to talk with me today, George. You're known for your high-end advertising and fashion spreads, and your portraits of Hollywood stars, but you've also established a fine arts practice. Where do those intersect?

G: I always see them as going in tandem. Everything to me in my photography and my career

one often segues off the other. After graduating from college in the early 1980's out at the Art Center in Pasadena I started doing fashion, working in Europe, in Paris and then coming to New York. That continued until the 1990's, and then I was doing album covers, but I wasn't doing a lot of actresses and actors at that point. I guess it was the way the industry was going. People started using celebrities as supermodels then, for magazine covers, for fashion editorials. So I moved into that, with some early assignments with Brad Pitt, with Madonna, and then eventually one day I woke up, and most of what I was shooting was celebrities. Editorials based more on portraits than fashion, which was fine by me because I ultimately found that to be more interesting.

B: You also worked under Helmut Newton early on, didn't you?

G: Yes, and he obviously greatly inspired me. He realized he was shooting a tool catalog, and those were photos that could someday end up in a museum--and they have. He didn't draw a line down his practice, he approached everything as though it was his own work, as though some day it might have that fine art quality. That's something that always stuck with me. I always try to do my own photos. Even in recent shows, work I did for magazine and commercial clients does end up on gallery walls. It goes together. It gives you access. These assignments, whether they're editorial or advertising, they give you a unique access to subjects you wouldn't normally address.  

B: When you were starting out, did you see it that way? Were you just looking for a career, or did you always know you wanted a studio practice aspect in your work?

G: Originally when I went to school I wanted to be a photojournalist. I consider myself to be kind of one really. I love that aspect of photography. But when I went to school, I started learning more about lighting, and working in the studio, and then working with Helmut, I kind of unlearned everything I learned in school. I knew I liked fashion, I knew I liked working with celebrities, and I assisted him on those kinds of jobs. So I pursued that in Milan, and then Paris, and then New York. By the '90s, it all ran together. It was in the late 1980's I started doing my fine art nudes.

B: What made you start work on that series?

G: In the early 1980s there was a group of us in New York who lived downtown, all photographers, and we called ourselves the Cauldron. Most of us were friends from the Art Center and we got together because even though we were all commercial photographers--advertising, editorial, portraits, whatever--we realized we still wanted to pursue our art work. We started meeting every week, each doing personal work. It couldn't be something done on the job, or something old, it had to be new, specifically for this group. And we all started producing really interesting bodies of work from this. There was the great still life photographer James Wojcik, Charles Purvis, Mark Arbeit who assisted Helmut along with me. That's when I started shooting the nudes in earnest. In reality I had been shooting them since the late '70s, but I started to really produce a body of that work which started to move towards exhibitions. Now I've been doing them for forty years. I guess one of the beautiful things about this kind of thing, flying around the world to shoot in exotic locations, having these models with stylists and hair and makeup teams, was to take advantage of those circumstances, and if you had free time, to do some of your own work. Which is something Helmut did as well, he always would try to get the assignment, please the client, but then do something for himself on the side. Which is something I still do, since you know you're never going to be in these places again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's harder with the celebrities--you have people around, entourages, everyone watching the clock. And with social media, people are more cautious, everything is instantaneous. There's no shoot, develop, look, put it away. Things are transmitted instantly now.

B: Tell me more about the relationship between your work in fashion and your nudes. With fashion photography, it seems like you're almost using the body as armature, versus the nudes being about the body itself in space.

G: Well, in school, everything was about still lives at first. Very classic bootcamp style training. Everything was about the ball, the cube, and the cylinder; and how to light that. And really, the body is a combination of all of those. When you're shooting fashion, it's like a still life, you have to respond to how the light makes the body and the face look, but also the garment, how it shows, how it hangs. The model is obviously helping a lot, they move well, they know how to find the light, and they kind of take care of you in that way. Then comes your direction, getting them to emote, working in all lighting conditions--you can't always have studio light, or the magic light at the end of the day, sometimes you're shooting in the middle of the afternoon--to handle all the technicles. But I also like to direct a lot, I'm very aware of body language. I like to shoot everything as though I'm shooting a portrait. Nude or clothed, there's so much said by the way a model stands or sits. Just the body itself when shooting a nude, it becomes timeless. Hairstyle or makeup is the only thing that can potentially date it. If you're in the middle of the woods or the desert, with a body, that's pretty timeless. You can look back and say there were more rubenesque models at one period, and heroin chic was more popular in that period, but the first thing, the thing that informs my work, is that it's a portrait. The first thing I see is the face, then the body, then the clothes. That's my training, you want it to look good, but you want it to look interesting. And it goes first from the face. So in that regard, working with the nude informs working with fashion, it's like learning figure drawing, or like a doctor working on a cadaver, it's foundational knowledge. In turn that allows you to do well photographing not just someone who's a trained model, it teaches how to photograph someone who is maybe a little uncomfortable, or stiff, and how to use that. That's what makes photography so interesting, it's something different every time you shoot.

B: It seems that fluidity is key to photography in more than just practice. It's hard to think of a medium that's changed more in terms of process and format than photography has in the last generation.

G: Absolutely. When I started out it was completely analogue. People started to talk about digital, but no one really took it seriously at first. Then clients wanted to embrace the early digital technology, and it was difficult in the beginning, because everyone wanted to cover everything both ways. The workflow became very confusing. Then it switched fully to digital, and analogue shoots became a specialty. When I hear about young photographers discovering film, it's funny. When they label things as "shot on film" as a special designation, it's like, that's all there was. But I was an early adopter, I wasn't one of those photographers tha said, "I only shoot film, period." I saw the writing on the wall. People who did hand retouching, people who didn't embrace photoshop, airbrushers, they became dinosaurs, and I didn't want to be like that. I still shoot a lot of film, especially in my personal work, because I like the pace and the quality of it, but I'm equally proficient with digital.

B: What has the impact been on your commercial work?

G: When you're on a shoot, and there are all these people standing around, and you hear comments, or you hear complete silence as you shoot, it's like being in the kitchen and everyone is tasting the food as you cook it. It's not done yet, what they're experiencing isn't a finished product. In the old days, you took a polaroid, looked at it, stuck it in your pocket, and then you'd shoot. Then it would be processed, and it'd be like a birthday present every time, getting that yellow and red box back from Kodak full of contact sheets. Before social media, before everyone shot and posted selfies and everything else, you really had to work and form and sustain relationships to find the right models. You'd have trust, you'd share contact prints by mail or fedex. It wasn't like it is now, people shooting with their iphones over your shoulder while you shoot, things appearing online before you even see your own shots, before the work is finished. There was more intimacy, and more trust before. I miss that part of it.

B: There have been changes beyond just the workflow in recent years.

G: Of course, we've had things like the MeToo movement--necessary things--that make it such a different time now. And global events, 9/11, the pandemic, things like that change everything, in every industry. And social media was a revolution in photography. People are bombarded by visual culture, by movement. There's so much talent there too, and now everyone's a photographer in a way. But for me it's still about craft. I'm open to what's happening now, but it's slippery.

B: I know you also teach and have always worked with young photographers. What is it like to work with students who come in having these preconceived notions and personal relationships to photography by virtue of carrying around a camera in their pocket everyday?
Have standards in practice changed as well? Whereas in the past, you might have been taught that a classic fashion model has a certain look and a certain build, and you would focus on learning how to work with that, when now it's more common to see a diverse range of models? Is it different than when you were in school learning purely about the craft of photography?

George Holz, Joaquin Phoenix, New York, 1996

G: That's a great question. I've been teaching a long time, and in the last five years, I've been teaching my own workshops. In the beginning, it was analog, it was all about technical craft, for the most part. Some workshops are on the portrait, some on fashion and beauty, some on the business of photography. Often it's on the nude figure. The demographic changes from course to course. Early on, students were more concerned with learning technique and lighting, and we would just touch on things on the business end. As far as models go, I've always loved to photograph all different body shapes, I was never interested in just one kind of model. Of course, fashion models back in the 80s and 90s used to be taller and skinnier and then people like Kate Moss came in who was shorter, and things slowly began to change. Now it's very, very diverse in terms of body type and in terms of ethnicity, which is great! And in my workshops now, I often have a younger demographic. And students would ask me, "can I just bring my iphone to class?" and I always say, if that's all you haven that's fine. I'll teach everything from how to shoot with an 8x10 view camera to an iphone. They're all tools. It's really about your eye, how you understand light. But I wrestled with that at first, thinking, maybe they should at least shoot on a DSLR, but then I thought, why limit it like that? You can take really great photos with an iphone, it's an important tool now. You can go out and play tennis with the best tennis player in the world, and make them play with the cheapest racket, and they're still going to beat you. When you're talented, you're talented, and good tools can make you even better, but you'll make good work with whatever you have to work with.

B: How have the conversations in workshops changed with these developments?

G: There's a lot more discussion now, about what's fine art? What's pornography? Questions of society, and perception, and new moral standards. I think it's really good that it comes out in critique, that we talk about respect now, and you didn't see that ten or twenty years ago so much.

B: It seems like those are broad social changes felt across every industry, not just photographer.

G: Absolutely. I've worked a great deal in Europe and things are different there than in the states. And the criticism of work can be very different, based on social norms, based on the culture where the work is being shown.

B: Speaking of cultural reception, especially in the context of popular culture, I wanted to ask you about your book, Holz Hollywood: Thirty Years of Portraits. What led you to make this book? Why this subset of photographs?

G: Originally it was going to be Twenty-five Years of Portraits but then it took five years to make. I was shooting all the time still, so it became Thirty. There was a lot of discussion as to if I should make my first monograph a book of nudes, or celebrity portraits. I thought of doing a combination, but I decided this needed to be on its own. Enough time has passed, that looking back, you can take a look at things and say, "yes, that's an iconic portrait." People change, their careers shange, you need time to determine what has staying power. It's hard going through 500 different analog sessions, and making selections, and deciding what goes into a book. But the nudes will have their own book, coming out in probably 2022.

B: Will that cover a similar period in your career?

G: Yes, around forty years.

B: Companion volumes.

G: Yes, and potentially a second, updated edition of Holz Hollywood, might come out too. You know from curating shows or working on books what that involves, and it's always evolving.

George Holz, Kadijah in the shower at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 2002

B: A book with that kind of scope taking five years is no surprise, really.

G: Some people think that's a long time. My designer did, but it does take time. I don't think of them as retrospectives, though, I'm still doing so much work. I could go ahead with another book that covers that same period, really. I'm always having to go back into my archives. Your eye changes with time. You look at an image and say, "Why didn't I put this in the book? How could I pass over this?" but you didn't see it the same way five years ago. Sometimes the best things end up on the cutting room floor.

B: What else is on deck for you?

G: The book of nudes is slated for 2022, but the pandemic has delayed it some. I have a few exhibitions in their early stages in Europe, but again, with the galleries closed, it's not a certain thing. We're in quarantine-light now, so right now things are opening back up, but I still can't travel outside the states. So it's all a big question mark for now. Shows that have been booked years in advance, shows were extended or delayed, there's a lot of uncertainty. Even with production. People working on skeleton crews, thinking, how do we reopen and reopen safely. People went bankrupt, people closed, people were laid off. We're picking up the pieces, seeing where we're at. Hopefully the editorial and commercial assignments can safely resume.

B: I imagine there's no way for a team to be hands-off while doing a fashion shoot.

G: I'm fortunate I live on a farm in upstate New York with my family. We have a lot of area, and my office and studio are on site. I was able to still do a workshop in August, though we had to cancel June. It was difficult, we often have a lot of people from out of state. People had to quarantine when they arrived in the state. We lost our international students. We were able to do it all outside, all socially distant, following all covid protocols. Designers sent us their clothes, and we were able to do the rest all in-house. Local models, on site production. My son, a filmmaker, was able to help us work things out. We may not know when this thing will be over. People won't be packing into galleries in Tribeca on hot summer nights for along time.

B: It seems like everyone is at a point where they're past the point of just trying to get by, and they're committed to developing sustainable long term alternative models, since we really don't have any idea how long this will last.

G: I've developed some interesting ways to do remote shoots. A friend of mine in Antwerp was expecting a baby, and wanted me to shoot her out in the forest while she was still pregnant, and I was able to do that with the help of an on-site assistant. He was the cameraman. It was a cool experience. Not the same as being there, but pretty close. Like working with a DP as a director. People are shooting with drones, finding new ways. Photography, especially what I do, with portraits, whether actors or personal work, there's a safe way to do it. You can shoot 8-to-10 feet away from someone. And being able to be working outside in spring and summer is great. But people who live places like you and I live--we've been working outside, we've been at outside cafes, I'm sure you've been enjoying the lake there in Chicago, but once we're all inside again in the winter, it'll be a big change.

B: There's still a lot to navigate ahead of us. But it seems to be pushing us towards asking questions like, how do you do a remote shoot? It's providing an opportunity to advance new methods of working that otherwise may not have been explored.

G: A year ago I wouldn't have fathomed doing a remote shoot. But photography has always been about adaptability. It's the nature of the business. You always have to be ready to adapt.

George Holz, Tenley with peaches, Woodland Valley, 2010

Follow George Holz on Instagram and through his website.



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