Artists on Writing: An Interview with Carroll Dunham by Matthew Weinstein

“I don’t consider anything about my writing to be natural.”

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing


Carroll Dunham. Photograph by Laurie Simmons.

On the occasion of the release of Into Words: The Selected Writings of Carroll Dunham, published by Badlands Unlimited, Dunham talks to artist and writer Matthew Weinstein.

Matthew Weinstein Do you think that an artist who can write and who feels the necessity to write—do you think there is something literary about their work?

Carroll Dunham I’m not sure. I certainly didn’t think so when I started thinking of myself as an artist and realizing I wanted to make paintings. I thought that it was, if not hostile, at least very different to language, or indifferent to language in some way. Then I realized later on that even looking at painting you have all this discourse in your mind to frame what you’re seeing. And then I think I did later on start to impose a kind of story on myself, which is reflected in the paintings as they’ve gone along. But I would have never used the term “literary” to describe anything about my program, you know. Because my program is all in hindsight anyway.

MW Well, I think all of our programs, we make sense of it after we’re done.

CD Yeah, that’s what I mean.

MW Which also brings me to the point that if you can express yourself through writing, it just seems to me that it would necessitate some different relationship to your work than if you don’t or can’t. Because the ability to come out and literally say something is so much different than an artist who doesn’t and is always going through their own medium only in terms of how they express their ideas about art.

CD That seems to make sense as a general idea. I mean I feel funny about all of it because one of the things I don’t like about art school is the way they make the kids talk all the time about what they’re doing and have to explain it. But I think you mean something different.

MW I mean that because we’re able to explain our ideas about art and therefore—and I think it’s impossible to separate our ideas from our ideas about our own art, because we’re artists and we see things through the lens of our art—that somehow we’re able to release this energy in a way that many don’t or can’t. If you have this natural ability to write, that has to make things different.

CD Do you feel like you are? Because I came to the realization quite—or relatively—late that I thought I could make something that passed as writing. I think you might have known earlier that that was something you could do.

MW For me it was a challenge, because I was very dyslexic, and for me reading and writing has been something I do an enormous amount of, but it’s not like it’s natural, it’s very hard-won. But I also write fictions for my pieces, my videos, and I write fiction. Which leads me to another point, which is that when we write, we’re always plugging into forms that are not our own. Like we write for Artforum, or we do an interview for BOMB. As artists, we’re very interested in breaking forms or bending forms to our will, in a sense. I feel that when I write about art, I’m being bound to the will of a form that already exists—which I don’t mind, but it certainly is different. It means that we’re available for that, which is interesting.

CD Well that may be something we frame differently for ourselves, you and I. Because I didn’t really get any traction in my artwork until I submitted to the idea of painting, and I think that its existence as a formal and historical category gave me a kind of freedom that I’d been looking for in the wrong places. And when I started to write more seriously I think I also was responsive to the idea that there was a certain formalism required within which I could say pretty much anything that came into my mind as long as it made some sort of sense.

MW Right.

CD That might be a bit different than the way you think about strictures.

MW Yeah, probably because in my work I don’t have any in terms of formats. But I do think that in your paintings, they’re far more conventional than the way you write. Because in terms of figurative painting, you’re a highly unconventional artist. So, if you were to write criticism like you make paintings it would be very different than what you write. Same with me, same with a lot of other artists that write. We all basically have different stylistic tics, but we’re all plugging into the same essay format that, basically, we all tried to do in high school or college. For me it’s sort of liberating to have a format. I like to sit down and do homework, that’s how I see writing.

CD I agree with you.

MW There can be a lot of pleasure in that way.

CD I have the same thing.

MW It’s like a finite task.

CD You know what you’re about when you accept, or when you give yourself, these assignments. Even if, I mean, what I find interesting is that I really have a hard time writing, it’s quite uncomfortable for me.

MW It’s dreadful.

CD And I really like having done it.

MW Right.

CD I know I’m not the first person to have made that observation. But what I like about having done it is that when I start I might have a kind of intuition about the direction of my thinking or a sense of what I feel about somebody’s work or whatever, but I don’t really know at all how it would come out as language. In much the same way, I don’t know what I’m thinking about until I make my art and have a chance to look at it. I don’t know what I really think about something until I write about it, and then once it works as writing, that becomes the thought.

MW How do you think it changes the way you actually look at art? Not just the art that you write about, but in general how you approach art?

CD I’m not sure it’s changed it too much in general, but it definitely changes when something specific is the subject, because you have to find—I mean it depends on, I suppose, how deep one is going, and how long one is working on a piece, and all—you have to find these sort of narrative points to connect in order for it to make any sense, other than as just impressionistic stuff. You have to create a kind of story about the art you’re writing about in order to make a coherent statement about it. And that is different from just submitting to the experience of looking at something.

MW Right.

CD I mean, I remember years ago going to Jasper John’s show at the Whitney Museum and being absolutely enraptured. I went to see his show probably five times. Basically, I was taking a bath in Jasper Johns. I didn’t feel any obligation to organize that into structured thoughts. It was just—I love this stuff. I’ve thought about it for years as it comes up. But, then, writing about his work is a completely different thing. Also because so many people have written about it.

MW Yeah, that’s a hard subject.

CD There becomes a need to find some sort of narrative to impose on this life’s work that’s not just what you’ve already read, but also that can be understood within art discourse in a sensible way. That’s very different from just immersion.

MW So you never went to art school right?

CD No.

MW I didn’t either. I think that there must be some kind of significance in that. I think that when you figure art out, kind of quote unquote “by yourself,” you construct narratives independently of being told them. I think that that makes our life in relation to art almost literary. Because we weren’t given a text. We made our own text.

CD Now, I really think I do agree with you. Because it’s for sure that I didn’t come to art through my awesome hand-eye coordination or that kind of thing.

MW Or your hero-artist professor.

CD No. I came to it through the realization that there was this history that fascinated me that continued into the present, and that by extension could continue into the future, and I started to have real thoughts about wanting to be part of that. That is, to use your term, an extremely literary formulation. It is the imposition of a narrative on basically random human chaos.

MW Yeah, and it has the narrative of a character in a novel, almost, because as a narrative it’s sort of romantic. I remember when I was a kid seeing the Joseph Beuys show at the Guggenheim, and all I knew was that—of course I didn’t understand it at all, because I was a kid—at that moment I wanted to be part of this kind of language, this kind of abstract language. But I did art history, so the first thing I did in the art world was writing for Artforum. It was available to me because that was my skill at that point, and I didn’t have any art skills because I didn’t have any art, basically. But it was a way in. Do you think it was a way in for you to another kind of place in the art world, or another position in it?

CD Well, I didn’t, I was afraid of … I always kept journals and things, but I never had a sense of myself as a person who could write publicly. I wrote one essay when I was twenty-five, and it traumatized me. And I never wanted that to be—

MW An art essay?

CD Yeah.

MW For what? What was it?

CD I wrote an essay about Mel Bochner for a show that he was in in St. Louis. He was someone whose work I was really interested in, but I didn’t have the confidence to really let my voice out. I don’t think I knew what my voice even was then. I needed years of becoming much more sure of my own taste and interests in order to feel confident that I even wanted to try to be seen as a person who wrote.

MW I think in a funny way that when artists write we almost get our point of view given to us for free. Because if people know our work and read our texts it’s impossible that they’re not going say, “Oh, there are these commonalities between their work and how they write.” Your Selected Writings starts with a piece on the Joan Miró retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art that we both wrote about.

CD When Jack Bankowsky was the editor at Artforum, he got a group of artists to write short things about the Miró exhibition, and you and I were both involved in that.

MW And in a funny way, for both of us, it might be the most subjective thing we were ever permitted to write for a very mainstream publication.

CD That’s why it’s the first piece in the book. It’s because that was really when some little light went off for me.

MW But it is also very rare to get the allowance to write about art so clearly through the lens of one’s own art.

CD Yeah, it was surprisingly easy to do and kind of smart of Jack to ask us. It was the first time it even dawned on me that I liked doing it, which surprised me—or I liked having done it, I should say. It felt like it meant something, and that took me back and got me really thinking.

MW You write like you’re a natural writer; your writing is extremely conscientious. It includes the viewer. It’s very generous, in a sense. It doesn’t get bogged down in jargon. The topics are approachable. I think you give people an entry into work in a way that I think a lot of things that are published don’t. I can’t not believe that it isn’t the result of being an artist and spending so long trying to get people to understand your work. Your writing feels to me like what an artist so wants.

CD To the extent that it is conscious on my part, it is an attempt to do what I wish people understood artists crave, which is a kind of hopefully sympathetic or emotionally connected response through looking that has the activity connecting up to things in the larger world, and not just always back to an inside-the-beltway kind of navel-gazing.

MW I think that kind of writing is easier for people to understand in relationship to art, because I think that it mirrors how they look at art. They are looking at it with a sort of freedom, and not through a field of ideas that gives them a rubric. It’s like how you described looking at the Johns show when you were younger, or my experience with Beuys. It’s how most open-minded viewers see art.

CD There’s a real problem with the disconnect between most discourse around contemporary art and any sort of reaching out to a general audience. I mean the way people write about contemporary art, if you compare that to the way people write about contemporary film or literature, it’s really different. Somewhere in some academic department I guess there are people writing about movies the way people write about art in a highly academicized manner, but it is certainly not a way to reach out to people who haven’t already drunk a lot of the Kool-Aid. I’m not flattering myself to think that there’s some big, general audience that’s reading my stuff either. But I know it’s something I’m reacting against. Artists love to be written about, and artists love to be paid attention to, but a lot of the way that’s done today is so obscure that I don’t think that’s very satisfying.

MW My father was a scientist, so I tried to go to his lectures sometimes. They were incomprehensible. The diagrams, the symbols, the words—I didn’t understand ninety-nine percent of it, so I would just leave. I think that there is that side of the art world, that side of art criticism, which I think should exist. Of course, neither of us are anti-academic on any level.

CD No, no. Again, I don’t stand apart from the art world—quite the opposite, my whole life is inside of it—but I am very aware that the way artists talk to each other about what they’re doing is very different from the way other people seem to talk about what we’re doing.

MW I think that the big difference for me is that when you read very high-end art criticism or that sort of hermetic academic criticism, it only references other art usually. And every artist I know is usually talking about television, or we’re usually talking about things.

CD That’s something I really like about what you’ve been writing. It’s the way that you crisscross those different things. I appreciate that, and I feel like those are really valid connections to make. And everyone I know is a TV junkie.

MW Everyone I know is more well-rounded, or maybe not well-rounded, but their interests are almost more kinky than this idea that all we do is think about where we are in art history all the time.

CD I agree that the real energy to make art, to get up every morning and keep doing it, is much livelier than it’s frequently represented to be. I wish more artists were writing more.

MW It’s funny because all these artists I know say, “Oh I can’t write, I can’t believe you write so well, you must be a natural writer.” Every artist I know is eloquent when they speak about work, and not just their own work. In a sense, I think it’s a tool that most of us have.

CD I don’t consider anything about my writing to be natural—it’s a real pain in the ass.

MW Writing’s the worst activity, you know.

CD It’s so much worse than being alone in my studio. But you can do it. It’s really a matter of putting words on a page, and then rereading it and fixing what’s wrong, and just letting it come out. I think a lot of people would be able to do that if they were to give themselves permission or even decide it was important.

MW And don’t forget editors. If you have the opportunity to write for a decent place, an editor won’t let you look like an idiot. I’ve always found that good editors make me sound much better and more clearheaded than I actually am. I’m always sort of amazed and think, “Wow, that sounds like real writing there.” I’m not saying that there’s some conflict between artists writing and artists not writing. I’m not saying that one is better than the other.

CD It’s a different category. If I’m reading a string of reviews in an art magazine, it’s an assumption of mine that most of those bylines are not artists.

MW Right.

CD If I know that one happens to be an artist, I pay a different kind of attention.

MW Yeah, I do, too.

CD And I don’t need to be interested in the art they make in order to be interested in what they have to say.

Carroll Dunham’s first collection of selected writings, Into Words: The Selected Writings of Carroll Dunham, is available now from Badlands Unlimited.

The official book launch will take place on October 26th, 6:30 pm, at the Whitney Museum and will feature a conversation between Dunham and Scott Rothkopf. And on November 2nd, The Metrograph Theater (7 Ludlow St, New York) will host a conversation between Carroll and his daughter, writer and filmmaker Lena Dunham, followed by a screening of one of the Dunhams’ favorite movies: the sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995) by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow.

Carroll Dunham’s work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, including a mid-career retrospective at the New Museum, New York, as well as group exhibitions at institutions in the United States and abroad. His writings have appeared in ArtforumBOMB,The Journal, and numerous artist catalogs.

Matthew Weinstein works in painting, sculpture, and, for fifteen years, he has been exploring the narrative and imaginative potentialities of 3D computer animation. Weinstein has shown in many national and international galleries and institutions. He has been writing, off and on, for Artforum for three decades.

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