I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.
Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt on the politics of art school admissions, knick-knacks, and linguistic gate-keeping in contemporary art.
New York Live Arts presents
Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt is a doggedly peripheral figure in an historic and cultural narrative in which he’s actually played a central role. He was out as gay before Stonewall (he’s one of the few surviving participants), he made “installations” before they were branded as such, and he has persisted in maintaining a relationship with the Catholic faith which was and is still highly suspect to the art world and activist liberal community.
I interviewed Tommy this past January in the Hell’s Kitchen apartment where he’s lived for four decades, to discuss his recent exhibit at MoMA PS1, Tender Love Among the Junk. The largest survey of his work to date, the show included work from the late-’60s to early-2000s that accreted into a radiant, cathedral-like environment comprised of hundreds of hand-wrought and jewel-like artworks, many made on the TV-dinner tray nested in the far edge of Tommy’s bedroom.
Ours was a long, meandering conversation held over the course of a weekend—an otherwise unassuming continuation of a conversation we’ve been having since I was 18 and I first met him in person.
Jessica Baran I’m wondering about the relationship between the time when you were assigned to decorate the school bulletin board in your Catholic elementary school in Linden, New Jersey and the story of how you got your first review in the Village Voice, which was by stenciling “Object Art” all over an East Village city block. The Object Art project seems very different from both that childhood bulletin board and the artwork you subsequently went on to make.
Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt Right—well, the Object Art piece connects to when I got rejected from the Cooper Union—which has everything to do with me being gay. I’m still very angry about that. It was around ’67, and I was about 20. I was at Pratt from ’65–’66, and then in May of ’66, I left home. I then took the Cooper Union test, got rejected and went to SVA for a semester. And after that I didn’t go to school anymore. That first Village Voice review appeared in ’68.
JB Was there anything notable about your experience at Pratt and SVA?
TLS At Pratt they recommended Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History. I had never read a book before that was about compositional principles and the flow of history. That book made an impression.
JB Were you making found object work then?
TLS The stuff I make, I’ve always made—like little churches and things. But when you’re young and go to college, you have more respect for mainstream culture than you should. So I got sidetracked during that period. The Object Art stencils had everything to do with making a quick study of what the art world was concerned with at that moment. Once I did that piece, I realized I mostly did it to get attention. And once I got that attention, within a year, I realized I didn’t want to work like that anymore—that that kind of work had nothing to do with me.
JB Did you see something that made you do the stencil piece?
TLS The Village Voice, which was a summary of what was going on at that time. In the gallery world, it was stuff like Donald Judd. There was this prevailing art-logic that if something was minimal then it had to be something. Art could just be a non-existent thing supported by some kind of conceptual apparatus. So that sounded good for a while.
TLS It sounded good at first because it sounded anti-materialistic, but it wasn’t.
JB It was hyper-materialistic.
TLS It falls within the same equation that owning real estate means owning a thing. Banks and investments are all things. So, they picked up on this thing called “art” because that allows them to seem anti-acquisitive. So totally horrible and stupid.
JB (laughter) So you applied to Cooper Union after you left home. I remember you talking about their entrance exam, how they had you write an essay in their Grand Hall.
TLS Yes, the essay was like a psychological exam. They said something about how they just want you to be you when you wrote it—that you should write about who you are. Which I believed. But then they didn’t want me for being me, which was a gay person. Which is good, in retrospect. My father ended up going into their office—maybe because they asked for a permanent address in my application materials—and knew about my rejection and why before I did.
JB That’s horrible.
TLS It’s very silly. But it was extra-horrible for him because he lived in a world where things like that (being gay) didn’t exist and were terrible. So he basically told me that he knew about my being gay and told me, “Never tell your mother or your sisters that you’re like that.”
JB Do you think he knew before that incident?
TLS He must have. When I was like five years old, we went swimming at Olympic Park—have you ever heard of Olympic Park? I love that whole amusement park aesthetic—that 19th-century look. It has a lot to do with my art—which has nothing to do with Modernism, ever. So, back then, boy’s bathing suits just had a little string to hold the suit up. And my dad didn’t show me how to tie a bow or anything, so I tied it on with a knot. Later, I was struggling to take the suit off in the bathroom, and my dad said, “Why are you taking off your bathing suit like that? It’s like a woman taking off a girdle!” And I remember thinking, Huh? He was pissed off that his son was acting queer. And I didn’t understand any of it at the time.
JB Right, you had no idea what you did was “wrong.”
TLS That was a big part of me leaving home. He didn’t want me going to Pratt, so he got me this ditch-digging job that was supposed to be a segue for me to get a union construction job. I left that moment and went straight to New York, which was a very different place, then. It wasn’t high-rent yet. By October, I was able to get my first apartment for $35 a month.
JB Where was your apartment?
TLS 4th Street, between B and C. There were roosters in people’s basements that you’d hear crow in the morning. Coal was still being used, so there were coal shoots and big barrels of coal ashes.
JB And you made your artwork in your apartment, like you do now?
TLS Yeah, I was making those little knick-knack things that are in the PS1 show, on shelves. That was the end of the ’60s.
JB No one was making work like that at the time, it seems really brave.
TLS I didn’t think about that. I just met who I met and made what I made because I liked it. You can see the connection between my artwork and Olympic Park: it’s all knick-knacks.
JB Did you think of those knick-knacks as being devotional at all?
TLS Not really—they were just supposed to be knick-knacks. It’s a very ethnic working class thing to place objects together and have them interact. Art world people want to separate things and say, “Isn’t that a fabulous object?” It doesn’t occur to them that these things come from an integrated living art form.
JB When did you become aware of that? It’s one thing when you’re young to be making work like that intuitively, because of the context you were raised in, but another to be able to articulate it as you do now.
TLS That has something to do with Heinrich Wölfflin, as well as the sculptural and metaphorical principles I learned from, say, Joseph Cornell. It never gets talked about that Joseph Cornell’s work is totally connected to a working-class aesthetic. They always call him Surrealist, which he isn’t. His work is all about knick-knack metaphor and making spaces of reverence.
JB I feel like all kids want to make work like Joseph Cornell when they’re first making art, but are told not to, because he’s a “bad” example.
TLS Way back when I was making those knick-knacks, and I was reading stuff that the Minimalists wrote—I would read something in Artforum, which had this heavy writing that was like theological writing …
JB Yes, it’s very coded.
TLS Well, I noticed right away that it wasn’t about the neutrality that it pretended to have. None of that writing was about neutrality. And also, I don’t know why, but back then they were very invested in this linear sense of history—that, like, Carl Andre and Donald Judd were fulfilling some kind of ultimate reality. At the same time I could see that they were just Johnny-Come-Lately’s to Russian Constructivism, which happened almost 50 years before.
JB (laughter) Right!
TLS Judd was making chic corporate art. It had very beautiful surfaces and everything—I mean, I liked it in a way because it’s very spatially beautiful. But, I never understood why it had to dominate taste.
JB So you went to those Minimalist shows and witnessed the shift in gallery and exhibition environments?
TLS The first galleries I went to were up on 57th Street. Pop Art. Robert Morris and that bunch. Leo Castelli I remember the most, because it was in a regular building. People had once lived there—I could tell—and in that sense it felt a bit like a tenement. There was a big stairway that would lead to upstairs living and dining rooms. And then there would be a Robert Morris I-beam—like, a brand-new I-beam—shoved into that room.
JB (laughter) It’s strange for me to think of those Minimalist pieces first existing in non-white-box galleries.
TLS You know that Michael Fried essay, about the theatricality of Minimalism?
TLS I remember Chris Scott, [curator] Henry Geldzhaler’s boyfriend, and I were talking “up” Donald Judd, and Henry liked that stuff, but he liked the stuff that, according to him, could stand on its own without additional space. Like the stacked Judd’s, which are very magical and confident. Henry proved his point by taking out a piece of Roman glass and showing it to us as an example of something that had an intrinsic something. That glass didn’t depend on the theatricality of how you showed it. It was a just greeny-blue glass vase with gold in it, and very small.
JB So, more like your art?
TLS Well, Henry was a very good teacher, because he taught by example. That Roman glass could be in a shoebox, and it would still look good.
JB (laughter) It’s true—those kind of objects make you want to be inside of them, but you can’t.
TLS Well, there’s a part of my art that exaggerates theatricality. That’s part of what the Plexiglas boxes—that cover the knick-knack sculptures in the PS1 show—are about. Without the boxes on them, they’re like aquariums without walls.
JB Did you always put Plexiglas boxes on your work?
TLS No, but it started pretty quick—around the same time that people start telling me I’m an installation artist. Holly Solomon opened around ’75, and so that happened a little before that. I’ll show you something—(Opens an old box of various items) Here’s a college transcript. I didn’t get very good grades. 1967—SVA.
JB You failed “Color”? That’s impossible!
TLS It’s very possible. 1974: Here’s the letter requesting that I show at Artists Space.
JB “Christo has chosen you to show at Artists Space, a nonprofit artist space … we know your art and love it. We’ll explain how exhibitions function at our space …”
TLS That gives you a time-frame. Holly Solomon opened in ’75; this show at Artist’s Space opened in ’74.
JB And prior to that you were showing your work in your apartment?
TLS Yeah. I met Christo through Holly. I met Holly in ’72. Artists Space was just starting.
JB How did you feel about Holly grouping you with the Pattern and Design movement?
TLS She didn’t do that. That’s retrospective craziness. That’s this kind of quick-think that happens after the fact, like, “That’s the gallery that showed P & D, so he’s P & D.”
JB Right, because I don’t see your work as being P & D.
TLS No, it’s not. And Judy Pfaff’s wasn’t either—and sometimes she gets bagged with that group, too. It’s just lazy art-history. Holly liked P & D because it was colorful and new and easy to categorize. And it fit with what was going on at the time, because it was disconnected from the stretcher—the work was often sort of draped—which was part of the conversation about “what a painting is.” It also naturally grew out of abstract work: If it’s all just a bunch of squiggly lines—why not make them a bunch of flowers? But I always thought that Warhol did it better. And if you look at that horrible movement that comes later—Neo-Expressionism.
JB “Bad painting?”
TLS I have an even lower opinion of it: it’s Marketing 101 combined with Art History 101. Warhol’s Marilyns were advanced expressionism. Neo-Expressionism seemed like an easy way for businessmen to find and purchase something that looked like “art” and could go with that ’80s feeling that went something like: we’re performing corporate greed as a way of being honest about what ravenous horrible creatures humans are. So, good for us that we’re saying it and doing it at the same time.
JB You supported yourself by being a messenger?
TLS That was easy back then. I did that for a while—then, at a certain point, I had a nervous break-down and went on food stamps.
JB When was that?
TLS It all mushes together. I tend to remember things in five-year clumps. Stonewall happened in ’69. It was before that. Everyone, then, was on food stamps.
If you can figure out how to make your art or writing like a conduit—a way of communicating what’s inside to the outside world—then you’re onto something big. You can, well, have your cake and eat it, too! (laughter) You can kind of be nuts, but be an artist. Otherwise, the resentments of people never end. They’ll even say stupid things, “So-and-so is an amateur, because they’ve never had a studio.”
JB That’s their way of creating hierarchies.
TLS The hierarchy is already there. They want to see it as, like, selling girl-scout cookies, and they’re supposed to get the award.
I was lucky—I met Henry, Chris, Charles Ludlam, Jack Smith—that was all between ‘66 and Stonewall. I never even knew at that point how really fucked up the art world was. I knew that that stuff in the Castelli gallery was literally and psychologically far away. Did you see the movie The Destruction of Atlantis?
JB Yes. Something I remembered about it was John Vaccarro’s claim to having “invented” the use of glitter. What did you think about that?
TLS That’s kind of like art-world hubris. They got it from street queens, who would put greasepaint on their eye. Glitter back then was glass and metal chunks. It wasn’t soft, mylar-y stuff like it is now. So, street queens are where glitter began.
JB That makes sense.
TLS Glitter already existed, of course, but Vaccarro and his friends put it in parentheses and made “art” with it. It’s like what Shakespeare did with the street language of his day. So, it’s valid what Vaccarro said, but in an age of quick communication and documentation, we should know that there are other histories attached to things like that.
JB When did you get the idea to start collecting materials like tin-foil and pipe cleaners?
TLS That goes way back to when I was an altar boy. Gold foil would be in the garbage can of the sacristy, which I’d find. It’s what the flower pots were wrapped in that decorated the altar. My father wouldn’t even buy aluminum foil, because he thought it was too expensive. We used wax paper. So, I’d never seen gold foil before—and at the church, they were just throwing it out.
JB Would you collect things that you liked in advance of making work, or did you find materials specifically for the pieces?
TLS It was more like our relatives, who saved everything. I just did the same thing. There’s a direct connection to that whole world we’re from and my art. Back to things like the origin of glitter—when I first saw Cubist collages, I thought, well, people have for a long time made scrapbooks. Maybe they’re not Cubist collages, but, they’re still cutouts of mass-produced imagery pasted onto paper. It may not be operating from the premise of “dislocating Renaissance space,” but it’s coming from the same cultural realm. What’s even more revolutionary about the scrapbook is that it’s indifferent to sources like “dislocating Renaissance space.” It’s totally in tune with the culture of mass production and knows what it likes about it, and knows how to particularize and personalize certain things, and not have anything to do with, like, Cézanne.
JB The art world seems to like translating its ideas into a kind of symbolic code as a way to validate its insights. Keeping ideas in a living, human context and vernacular doesn’t seem as intellectually rigorous or purposeful.
TLS What I think is something you can never say, which is that the wealthy art patrons don’t want to dignify all those below them with the ability to speak their language. They only want people of their economic rank in their midst.
JB That’s an interesting way of locating art world elitism: in language. It’s an effective way of gate-keeping: if you don’t put art in their terms, you won’t be admitted. When was your last performance in your apartment—when you dressed up in drag as “Ethel Dull”?
TLS Around 1971.
JB What made you stop?
TLS I liked my work to be more representational—and I really don’t like to be “on.” Then people start to expect that. If someone’s a born performer or actor, they love that moment when someone makes the face like, “Entertain me!” I don’t.
JB The idea that your work can now be branded as “installation” may be a residue from those performances.
TLS Oh, but that’s all neither here nor there, anymore. It’s all just art. My work has painting-type elements, and sculpture-type elements—it’s maximalist; it has all sorts of approaches. I realized this back in the ’60s—I mean, if someone can just plunk a girder down in the gallery, why be a one-trick pony? There’s gotta be more to it! The funny thing about early conceptual work—like early earth works, when they would fill the gallery with top-soil, or something—it’s just too easy to understand. It’s too reductive. And really, it’s all about real estate.
JB (laughter) That would make for a wonderful piece of wall text under an earth work: “It’s all about real estate.” Yes, that kind of work is very expensive to maintain.
TLS It has to be raked, and no one can live there any more. The thing that’s also crazy is that, when that art was talked about in Artforum, it needed all this information to mediate it, which I found really ridiculous.
JB Well, the ’60s were that moment when artists began to mediate themselves, such as Donald Judd writing art criticism.
TLS There’s kind of an equation that goes with that—the less accessible the work is to the general public, the more dependent it becomes on art language and that whole kind of sacramental world presenting it.
JB You did practice for a long time as a Catholic, correct?
TLS I more or less still am—but I don’t want any part of the clergy or anything like that. I’m a lay person, like those other lay-person-Catholics who don’t listen to priests.
JB Did you go to church throughout the ’60s?
TLS No, I hated it! It was ugly—I don’t like the Vatican II mass. When I say that, people always think I want the old Latin mass back. Well, no. What Vatican II did that I don’t like is produce those ugly, cement churches and create this crazy rationale for the church as being more from the priest’s perspective, which is actually really haughty and very preachy. It makes lay people feel stupid. The old mass and old churches were all about aesthetics.
JB Aesthetics have an important relationship to inspiring feelings of devotion.
TLS I hate the crazy pretention of indifference to aesthetics that so much of American life has, when American life is so hyper-aesthetic. Every ad is hyper-aesthetic. It might not be good aesthetics or great aesthetics, but its aesthetics.
JB I have a hard time with the common art world refrain about how “fucked up” religion and the church are. All the appalling things about the church, of course, I get and loathe, but, I also dislike the total dismissal of religion. I feel there is a great loss of depth there.
TLS OK, well, Catholics have to blame themselves for this. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Catholic art collector buy my art, which is a big deal. Catholics can’t complain about not having a neutral perspective if they’re not helping to construct one. The basic thing my art is about is the idea of native being their own anthropologist. It’s an ideal and a paradox, but it’s about knowing what your culture is and articulating it, rather than having the analysis come from the outside.
JB I see.
TLS It’s basically like what you said about artists who say they hate the church—see, I believe they have every right to say those things.
JB I see how they have a right. But then I still feel like there’s something missing, something deep and serious.
TLS (laughter) This is the genius of American propaganda. Art is about cultural articulations. Anyone can become an art collector. Anyone can open a gallery, as long as they have the money. And there are rich Catholics. And if they’re all going to give money to anti-abortionists, then, I mean—
JB You’re right. I’m not valorizing Catholics, I just feel that there’s a laziness to the mind-set of the young, atheist intellectual who’s a rampant “educated” consumer—
TLS Well, the problem is that they’re cynical. They do it because it’s part of their career track. They don’t believe in anything, but they think that they might as well emphasize that they don’t believe in anything because it will get them into chic parties and things.
JB Why did you become Russian Orthodox?
TLS I wanted to be part of a church that had something to do with Communism, and I always liked Russian Orthodox art. I went to the Red Church, which was up on 97th Street.
JB Converting can’t be easy. Did you have to learn Russian?
TLS No, no—(searches for documents) I love this—this kind of information alongside the Artist’s Space invitation. (Hands over a letter) This is what the priest gave me. This is a totally theological document. OK—so we have this conversion document, which coincided with me making the Iconostasis.
JB Does that mean you’re still, effectively, Russian Orthodox?
TLS Well, yes, because the Russian Orthodox Church looks down upon the Catholics and the Catholics look down upon the Russian Orthodox Church—so I could go to either one as long as I don’t tell the other.
JB Was the church aware of your artwork?
TLS Oh yeah, they came to see it and were okay about it. That’s a picture of the priest. He’s dead now.
JB But your work is very out about being gay—how did they handle that?
TLS They just didn’t mention it. Russian Orthodoxy just believes that being gay is something you do when you get drunk. It doesn’t believe it’s an orientation.
JB Your work seems to have a lot to do with the beauty of the figure.
TLS It has nothing to do with the figurative. It has more to do with Neo-Platonism. Did you ever read Plato’s Phaedrus?
JB Yes, in college.
TLS My work, as in Phaedrus, has to do with the idea of something being harmoniously beautiful. When something is harmoniously beautiful, it organizes a lot of intellectual and erotic emotions. If you’ve read Phaedrus, you know it’s all about composing. It’s beyond sex—even though it’s filtered through sex. Most figurative pictures don’t do that for me—it’s just bad kitsch. The ones that are harmonious do something more. People often miss this point. They think my work is about making figurative art with sexy faces. No, it’s not at all—it’s about all the feelings that come from looking at a harmoniously beautiful person.
JB Your use of sexually explicit imagery ultimately comes across as innocent-seeming, which I think is interesting. If you look at, say, someone like Nan Goldin’s photographs, for instance, they portray sexuality as dark and gritty. With your work, if you see a blow job, it actually seems joyful. The irony is that you came of an age when the way that you identified sexuality was a transgression against the cultural mainstream of the time—and yet your depiction of sexuality is celebratory.
TLS Well, when you’re from a working class ethnic background, it’s about a kind of rawness that knows its rawness. It’s not about slumming, which darker art often comes out of.
JB The interesting thing is that “gritty” work is often understood as being sexually truthful, whereas I find it indicting and more than a little conservative.
TLS That’s about that silly art world culture of going clubbing and such. It’s about white suburban people making art about gentrification. It’s not an integrated world in any real sense.
JB That’s a fashionable paradigm, which is crazy.
TLS Well, it’s even crazier than that—it becomes this thing where bourgeois people can visit this “gritty” club place and then go back to making their money—and reminisce later about when they went to stupid clubs.
JB I appreciate that your work is about the beautiful and the celebratory. Sure, there’s a lot of work of yours that’s deeply mournful, but it’s mournful in the kind of way that icons are, which often combine devastation and beauty.
TLS Well, in the world where we come from, people don’t discuss it in intellectual terms, but there’s a whole aesthetic that keeps them going. If you think about the attraction between your parents—your mother, the former nun and very proper, and your father, the wild sailor. That’s interesting stuff.
JB (laughter) The culture we come from is also surrounded by tragedy and pain. I’m falling short in what I’m trying to say …
TLS Well, that’s the key factor—the not-knowing. Knowing what you don’t know—knowing that the best things happen differently.
You can find more on Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt here.
Jessica Baran is a teacher, art writer, poet, and independent curator. She is the author of two books of poetry, Equivalents (Lost Roads Press, 2013) and Remains to Be Used (Apostrophe Books, 2010).
I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.