on American Fine Arts, Co., Tom Lloyd, the 1990s and more...
Henry: Hi Blake, welcome to the Impresario Project. You and I were first in touch (digitally) about a year ago after I came across some of your writing/research online. How have you been doing since we last got in touch? What kind of thoughts have been swimming around your head?
Blake: I am doing well, thank you for asking! Over the past few months I have been traveling a bit. This was unrelated to my dissertation, or work more generally, so it was a great time to relax and get ready for the coming year. Now that I am back in New York City I have been starting to prepare for my oral examinations and dissertation proposal, both of which will happen next spring.
Henry: I was wondering if you could tell me a little about your current research? How's the journey going? What kinds of questions are you trying to find answers to? What kind of topics, writers, and/or artists are you engaging with?
Blake: My dissertation, broadly speaking, will consider institutional critique in the 1990s. The precise angle at which I will approach this field of artists, galleries and historiography is what I hope to narrow down in the coming months. In any case, I am very intrigued by a gallery that emerged in the late 1980s in the East Village here in New York called American Fine Arts, Co. The gallery was run by Colin de Land, who has become—and probably always was—a cult-like figure for those interested in the downtown art scene at that time. Part of what I am interested in answering is the extent to which the gallery itself was an art project, a sort of parafictional institution through which de Land was able to critique, parody, or model an increasingly financialized art world. I am also interested in exploring the gallery artists' critical approach to identity politics and multiculturalism, which were of course ascendent in the 1990s art world.
Figure 1. Colin de Land wearing sunglasses, 198-?. Colin de Land collection, 1968-2008. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Henry: It sounds like there is an interesting study there in mapping the emergence of said identity politics and multiculturalism and comparing that against that conversation/activism in the present day.
Blake: Yes I think you're right. The present "identity paradigm" (if we want to call it that) is part of how I am hoping to justify the dissertation project. The present concern with evaluating artistic production through the prism of race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. deserves an historical anchoring, which would clearly extend far beyond the 1990s but was especially important at that time. Hopefully, this relationship to the contemporary scene makes the dissertation more topical.
Henry: Broadly speaking, my research and the Impresario Project look at modernism, the role of women within that, American art, and biography as a form of art history. I'm still figuring out how all these strands come together. I think there might be (correct me if I'm wrong) some overlap here with your research, particularly with the role or function of memory and identity in their private and public manifestations.
Blake: I am definitely interested in biography as a form of art history right now since I am beginning to embark on the interviews that will partially define my dissertation research. Particularly because American Fine Arts, Co. is often described as a social nexus as much as an art gallery, the sort of anecdotal stories and gossip that emerge through biographical accounts are very useful in constructing a general sense of the place and its particular energy. Your point about memory brings up another question I have been thinking a lot about recently. I am very curious about the 1990s and the re-embrace of minimalism that we see in the work of many artists responding to the AIDS epidemic, like Tom Burr, Robert Gober and Simon Leung, to name a few. I am currently writing a paper that offers one possible explanation as to why minimalism and its particular effects might have been a useful strategy for these artists.
Figure 2. Robert Gober, Untitled 1991, Pinault Collection, Installation view at Punta della Dogana, 2018, Copyright Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Matteo De Fina.
Henry: I think that's really interesting. As researchers and historians we face the task of making a past moment feel alive in the present. As a reader and writer I think those anecdotal stories and gossip can be very revealing about, and important to, history with a capital H. I think there's bias in writing history which often emphasises the "first", or in the history of the art market, the "most expensive" etc. Whereas, I think it is equally valid (not to mention, interesting) to incorporate other approaches, like the history of emotions, public spaces, etc. I'm always interested in where artists ate and drank and lived, as their art practice often built up around these unimportant "scaffolds" rather than the other way around.
Blake: Absolutely, those little tidbits often act as the first signaling mechanisms for relationships or gathering points that coalesce into meatier objects of inquiry. To your point about the traditional focus on firsts, the work of Hal Foster has been very helpful for me in how to justify an interest in neo-avant-gardes and work that initially appears derivative. Particularly in Return of the Real he quite effectively asks us to question why and to what ends styles are reconstituted. In the end, his writing has allowed me to have what feels like a more generous approach to minimalism in the 1960s since considering its subsequent use implies that its aesthetic and conceptual logics were not exhausted after its initial "outbreak" in the 1960s, that minimalism still had—and has to this day—something to offer.
Henry: I have to confess, I'm a little bit jealous (and I find the following interesting...) that your interest in art "history" gravitates to the 1990s. Without knowing how old you are (I'm 38) I find it surprising that the 90s is your milieu. It often seems (to me) that academics tend to study periods relatively distant to their lifetime, but the 1990s must feel very accessible in terms of resources and also the potential for collecting oral histories (as you've indicated). That must be nice. Do you think there are any drawbacks when it comes to tackling that period of recent history? Blake: My impression is that the 1990s are slowly becoming seen as properly historical. Huey Copeland's recent (and excellent) work Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness being one example of this recent turn to the end of the twentieth century. I was born in the mid 1990s so I don't feel that I have any claim to it personally but I sense that the decade is very much present as a historical reference point, haunting fashion in particular, and so I think there is a need for historians of various stripes to begin (and continue) analyzing its cultural milieux.
Henry: You also take on curatorial projects. Who are the artists, writers, artworks (etc.) you are thinking about at the moment? If I gave you a budget of $50k what would you do with it?
Blake: I would probably take that opportunity to work on an exhibition of an artist outside my dissertation. I am currently re-working a seminar paper on Tom Lloyd, a fantastic artist who was actually the subject of the first solo show at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Exhibiting his kinetic light sculptures would be dreamy. Other figures/works that I am always thinking about include: Renée Green's 1992 installation Import/Export Funk Office, the writing of Maurizio Lazzaratto, Jean Cocteau, and anything by W.G. Sebald.
Figure 3. Tom Lloyd and his apprentices in the artist’s studio in Jamaica, Queens, c. 1968, Copyright The Studio Museum in Harlem, courtesy of Google Art & Culture.
Henry: What is it about Sebald that draws you to his work?
Blake: I have always appreciated his intermingling of quasi-historical writing and prose. But there is also something lovely about his almost exhaustive description that leaves you feeling fully informed. I get the same sort of satisfaction out of reading lists or indices.
Blake Oetting is a PhD student at The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University where he studies modern and contemporary art. He is also the curatorial assistant for an exhibition of Jean Cocteau opening at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Spring 2024. His writing can be found in Artforum, Texte Zur Kunst and The Brooklyn Rail.