If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Buzz Spector’s obsession with lascivious double-meaning is perhaps best articulated in a letter he sent to Anne Rorimer in 1988. In it he describes a sexy recipe for preparing live mussels, in which the cruelty of abduction and the care of seduction come together, and the unsettling nature of bestiality is never far from more acceptable forms of teasing. Spector’s surreptitious instructions sketch a scenario in which the defenseless shellfish are lovingly scrubbed, bathed in warm saltwater, fed with flour (the most refined food they will ever eat), and then eaten, with pleasure, by their libertine caretakers. The flour, it turns out, purges the tiny creatures of every trace of excrement, plumping them up on an orgy of indulgences that is also purifying, if not transcendent.
David Pagel I thought it might be a good idea to start with your notions of nostalgia and the space between the desired object and the act of desiring.
Buzz Spector Well, that is the space of nostalgia. Nostalgia is always about estrangement. And it’s also always a rebellion. To be nostalgic is to rebel against the present. There’s always some lapse in the circumstances of one’s existence embodied in this protest. You know, nostalgia’s about how things used to be better, not from the dispassionate standpoint of the observer, but from the revolutionary concern of the partisan.
DP But doesn’t nostalgia sometimes get sappy?
BS Well, nostalgia traffics in kitsch because it privileges aesthetic experience over lived experience. I don’t want to sound too much like a charismatic fatalist here, but we profit from our experience in a heuristic fashion. Things don’t go our way, things go our way; either way, we learn something and we can use what we learn. The attitude in nostalgia is that somehow what we learned was bad and there was something else we might have learned instead. And there is no learning involved in that because it’s an idealization of things. Nostalgia proposes a model of the present unlike how we live.
DP But it seems to me that there are two different kinds of “presents” coming through in what you’re saying and in your work.
BS Well, my work is about presence and absence. I’d like to think that I invest the physical substance of the work with a kind of presence that resonates or reverberates as a structure before it begins to—
DP Resonate as a memory?
BS No, as a motif. As a representation.
DP What do you mean?
BS Well, for example, the red and blue ocean liner postcards in Red Sea/Red C, 1992, are stacked by the thousands in a grid, and the grid, as a formal structure, attracts the eye before you wonder about the “Love Boat” that you see printed on the fronts of the cards. Where’s the boat going? I deliberately chose a card to re-photograph showing the boat at sea with no visible horizon. Laying a card like that flat on the gallery floor makes the event horizon, so to speak, the edge of the structure. So, there’s a way in which your viewpoint of the motif in that context exactly reiterates your viewpoint of the structure itself. So there’s a doubling there. It just might as well be a small square ocean filled with an armada of cruise ships. The secondary transformation of the motif, the conversion of that ocean from blue to red, results from my having painted it with acrylic, or having juggled the order of the printer’s color separations. In either case, the original card is “read” in the sense of having been perused. It’s a used card, a card that was sent. Its message has been read. And when you pick up the cards off the floor, remove them from the stack, you find the two quotes, one from Susan Stewart’s On Longing, about nostalgic desire, and the other, deliberately unattributed, about how one is the space where one is. So in reading, authenticity, multiplicity—all figure into the total situation of the work.
DP What about blockages in this process? Does your work set up a desire…for desire, a desire for yearning, and then intervene to block its fulfillment?
BS Yeah, that’s true, especially in some of my postcard collages where motifs are painted over or partially erased…the postcard is a special category of representation because it’s always attached to an exchange between people. It’s the document that moves an expression of sentiment or information across space. Postcards give mail itself the quivering space of cupid’s arrow. Not everybody sends postcards to everybody else. Certain relationships favor them. They are an informal expression from members of a family to each other, and they’re a means of courtship.
DP Do you see them as functioning like your bookworks?
BS That’s why I first started using them. I saw them as an extension of the books I had been working with. I liked them precisely because they shortened up the text and made it less formal and yet the same sort of inferences could be built out of collecting and arranging them in rigid structures as I was getting from the books.
DP Old Glory, your piece configured like the American flag, seemed like a library of postcards.
BS As you know, the white stripes in that red, white, and blue piece are made by mounting those cards so the white backs are what show, the side with the writing. But every card that composes that piece—I think it’s 225 cards—shows some American scene or other. The messages written on the backs of the postcards are not exactly identical to the cheap sentiment printed on their fronts. There’s tales of birth and death and the ends of affairs and the problems of boredom and melancholy. There’s a plethora of teeming emotions. These emotional expressions are standardized in terms of length, by the card, and to some degree they are trivialized by the card, but they are always liable to recuperation. You can always read in someone else’s message the recollection of a message you’ve sent or received.
DP And so you’re interested in playing the cliched, greatest hits, souvenirs of seeing—
BS Exactly, that’s on the front. Every postcard cliché imaginable, down to and including vulgar cards of male and female relationships and even some racist material…
DP Off-color jokes…
BS Because those are a part of the image construction of America.
DP Your piece plays the sentiments that we usually think of as authentic against these more generic, debased ones.
BS Well, the people who send those postcards know that all that is unique to their circumstances are the facts they wish to record. One particular Bertha among all Berthas, one particular Fred among all Freds. So that the messages that people send are categorizable, just as the cards themselves are categorizable. This is not to lead a viewer to the conclusion that any construction of a culture is precisely mundane. I mean what interests me is all the pathos that escapes from the formalizing agency of the grid, how you recognize that the alternating light and dark patterns of human expression are analogous to the pattern of the flag, and that the work, in some sense, is a commentary on a nation, at least through the messages sent by its citizens.
DP There’s this kind of wonder or value in the common, mundane repeatability of the experience. Singularity or authenticity expands or leaks out or empties into another space. And this space is that of nostalgia?
BS Yeah, because the nostalgist wishes to rewrite the present. We object to nostalgia, therefore, because of its tendency to privilege aesthetic experience over meaning. This is what Roland Barthes talks about when he condemns kitsch. Nostalgia is the historicizing aspect of kitsch. So I would say, in a very important sense, that my work is anti-nostalgic…it’s about examining the lack of connection between these apparently well-coded images and the true worthwhile sentiment that is a fundamental part of human existence. I mean, sentimentality is a bad thing, but sentiment itself can’t be bad because it’s what connects us.
DP What is your connection to art history, specifically your work based on Malevich’s painting?
BS This is, Suprematism with Eight Red Rectangles, that he painted in 1915, a painting in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Malevich has figured in my work in the past, but never at this scale. I looked at the actual painting in L.A., in a traveling show at the Armand Hammer Museum, and saw in the arrangement of those rectangles, the problematic, emptied motif that characterizes so much of his suprematist painting. We look at that work and whatever it addressed in terms of a philosophical transcendence in 1915, it does not speak to anymore. We look at that work as a souvenir of a time when artists had utopian dreams. And utopia didn’t arrive through the agency of that painting. When we look at a Malevich, we see value and scarcity. All sorts of social, political and historical circumstances are interposed between us and the work. That’s why I treated the Malevich motif as so many empty spaces rather than as solids within a visual fields, and that’s why I built the wall which stands behind the books on the floor. The scale of the books is much larger than the scale of the rectangles in the painting. These books are huge; the largest is 45 inches on the spine.
DP Which is bigger than the painting.
BS Which is bigger than any dimension of the painting itself. But I wanted the books larger than that motif. The whole piece is about that motif, that painting as an architecture in and of itself, the void not only made solid, but made structural. The piece is about how we can’t put the ideal model of that painting back together again. We can’t go back and find that utopia and re-tool it for a transformed contemporary destiny.
DP And why books?
BS Because I think we don’t see Modernist abstract painting anymore than we see Mondrian or maybe any artist. We read about them. We look at the Malevich and recall what we read. All art absorbs language. This is not a bad thing, but it is an inevitability.
DP But language absorbs art.
BS Yeah, David, that’s a better way to put it. Language absorbs art. And it doesn’t matter that the books are blank. It only matters that they are books.
DP Did you intend them to be picked up and paged through?
BS Yeah, I did, I did. When you look at the books as texts, just identifying them as text already establishes the ground from which the object operates. You know, a blank book can be read just like a filled one can because you are searching for something in its pages which is quite unlike whatever it is you search for when your eye passes along the gradations of color in a painting, or as you orbit around a sculpture. There’s an entirely different kind of taking in that happens.
DP And do you think that fits back to some of the utopian aspect of the painting?
BS Ah, there’s the rub…(laughter)
DP Is it the pure white emptiness of the books that preserves this possibility?
BS Well, I don’t know. I think that we take reading more seriously than we take looking at art. Even a great work of art commands our attention for only minutes at a time, or maybe a half an hour. You can easily spend more time than that reading a bad book and not accuse it of anything.
DP So, in a sense you’ve put some of the ambitions of the Malevich painting back into the books that have spilled out of the painting.
BS Yeah, yeah, because Malevich’s ambitions persist in our remembrance of them. If there’s any continuing justification for that idea, it no longer resides in the paintings he made but in our ability to empathize or share his belief that cultural work can transform human social structures.
DP I sometimes look at works like that and think: what a fantastic solution…to do something so simple, with such confidence and belief. The present seems too complex for that, too far away. But that’s ridiculous. It wasn’t any easier for Malevich than it is for us.
BS Yeah, because our distance from its circumstances is part of the reason for its simplicity. It looks simple to us because we’re far away. It’s almost like that Charles Eames film about the powers of 10; you start out with the couple reclining on a blanket and in a few powers of 10, the earth itself is a tiny speck of light in the darkness of space. History seems to almost do that to the sensational experience of art through the operations of language. It seeps down into its discourse. Does the work ultimately dissolve beneath its discourse? This I think was Walter Benjamin’s claim, vis-a-vis the Mona Lisa.
DP That it dissolves?
BS The question of its smile is a literary question.
DP But what doesn’t dissolve is our ability to imagine the original shock that must have accompanied seeing a Malevich painting in 1915. It seems that your work is about the loss of that ability—to make it a singular, shocking work.
BS Yeah, we look to different places for shock these days. I mean, the shock of the Malevich must have been along the lines of: this isn’t art. Whereas, the art public now recognizes its art precisely through the presence of shock. If it’s shocking, it must be art, but only if it’s impotent. You’re also shocked by someone holding a gun to your head, but you know it’s art all right, if the gun is not loaded.
DP Were you shocked by anyone’s response to your piece in which you baked bread in bedpans?
BS That’s the other aspect of my practice. The attachment of an object with a great deal of content to the very simple, meaningful processes of the body, so that the historical intonations of the object transform the pleasant or disgusting processes of the body into the historical record, offer up a model, a rhetoric.
DP One that often relates to reading, and speaking—to taking things into your mouth and putting things out of your mouth.
BS Well, it is sort of like putting words in your mouth. There’s another funny line like that from Harpo Marx. He’s caught kissing a girl, and describes it as whispering words in her mouth.
DP I wonder what he was saying…(laughter)
BS When I worked with things like bedpans in the past, there’s been a tendency to read that use as an invocation of Duchamp and that’s really not correct. A urinal is one thing, a bedpan’s another. What separates them fundamentally is the social exchange of the hospital. You never use a bedpan alone, only when you’re too sick to get out of bed.
DP And someone brings it to you.
BS And someone brings it to you. That person is charged with your care. It’s fundamentally communal.
DP I get the sense that all your work is about the points of intersection in the exchanges of communication.
BS Yes, everything I do is about communication and about objects that embody systems of bringing people together. So my work is fundamentally against models of alienation even though the forms I often use could be turned around, could be made alienated, could be disconnected.
DP But a profound, unbridgeable distance almost always enters the picture.
BS Yeah, my work is allegorical in the sense that I choose things whose content has been emptied out. Not to fill the object and stop there, but rather to graft it onto larger structures in which the meanings of my practice contain within them the relic of another meaning system.
DP Partially broken down or almost completely collapsed.
BS Although if it were completely collapsed, it wouldn’t be an allegory.
DP So, partly collapsed.
DP Do you think that Malevich was attempting to do something like that with his paintings?
BS I think that Malevich thought that the whole history of art was subsumed within his practice. Why else a title like “Suprematism?” And clearly he meant it as far as I’m concerned he meant it, that the supreme achievement was at the base of a larger structure. That all of history is gathered…
DP …Has come down a gigantic funnel.
BS Exactly. It’s like the intersection of pyramidic structures and Newman’s Broken Obelisk. Where did Newman envision himself in the formula of that work? Clearly at the joint…
DP …With all of history focused on a single point. A point that opens onto the future. Do you think that while your work certainly doesn’t pretend to be at that point where all history culminates, it is about some kind of doorway, a past opening on to a present?
BS Exactly. I may not be so interested in the temple or the castle but I’m sure interested in the gate. And modernism is full of great entrances, right?
DP And great exits.
BS And great exits, yeah…(laughter)
DP So, would you see yourself as more of a tinkerer or a re-arranger or a re-modeler?
BS Yeah, I’m sort of in the artistic rehabbing business. I like rehabilitating motifs. We’re threatened by their loss all the time, especially now. Even communism, our loyal opposition, refuses to provide a break-up.
DP But I understand rehabilitation as an attempt to recover something that’s been lost—recovered as it was in its original state. In your case, it’s almost as if you’re putting a twist or a spin on this activity.
BS The twist is the meaning. We can’t get back the good old days by reaching into history and retrieving a moment of consciousness. There’s something fundamentally lacking in memory, and that is, try as we might to recall being in a place, we can’t bring the sensational aspects of that experience back to life. As I told you in relation to other work I’ve done, we can remember being cold but we can’t make ourselves shiver just by recalling it. And because the body is absent from memory, memory just reiterates that loss.
DP And intensifies it, resonating in the space between images and experiences.
BS Cold Fashioned Room at the Mattress Factory is precisely about that. The Mattress Factory is not only the factory building itself, but a couple of satellite spaces, including a 19th Century building that had been used as a saloon and as an apartment building in the past. So, Barbara Luderowski, the director, and Michael Olijnyk, the curator, gave me a room in the renovated building, and the piece consists of my un-renovating that room. I had them bring up the original molding from the basement. They took the acoustic tiling off the ceiling to expose the original drop-tin. We put the old fireplace mantelpiece back in. And in the old mantelpiece, I put a portable freezing unit. The walls of the room were lined with styrofoam under wallpaper and the floorboards were laying on top of more styrofoam. It was as fully insulated as we could make it. Once the door was closed, we could lower the temperature to about 10 degrees. I furnished the room as complete turn-of-the-century.
DP Bookshelves and books?
BS And sway-back chairs, a secretary, a tobacco stand. And it’s all utterly frozen. So people would walk in and look at this charming Victorian interior, and they’d notice quickly the ink frozen in the inkwell and how the mirror frosts over when the door opens. And all the time the cold is relentless and unbearable. Some people go into the room and refuse to close the door for fear they’d be trapped inside. The one corporeal residue in that room was the bouquet of roses that I stuck in a glass vase on the tobacco stand. They’re frozen. As the water in the vase froze, it did something wonderful and unexpected. It cracked the vase, and a side of it fell over while the ice stayed in place until it gradually evaporated. The roses still looked fresh but they were just standing up in mid-air.
DP So Cold-Fashioned Room preserved an inhospitable piece of history?
BS Yeah, I literalized a characteristic often assigned to photographers—the frozen moment. Here’s a space which is frozen in the same sense that a photograph might be. And the token of its abstraction from life is that cracked vase with its long—dead roses. So, where do you stand in relation to the history of the room? In a crucial way, in the phenomena of the experience, you are out of time. The more you want to reflect on the accuracy of the installation as a historical recreation, the more you want to reflect on an index of taste involved in its execution, the more the physical circumstances of the room threaten that reflectiveness until finally, the body must win. You’ve gotta get out.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.