Walking through the MCA Chicago’s summer photography show recently, I came across the David Robbins piece “Talent,” from 1986. To create it, Robbins had 18 young art stars of that moment, including himself, pose for the sort of glossy airbrushed headshots that actors send casting agents. Two decades later, some of those are names that even a Culture-section scanner would recognize, such as Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman. Others are around, if not quite stars. And some have moved far from the artworld spotlight. Robbins himself reportedly “became disenchanted with the New York scene and returned to his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, he began to pursue performance art and dot painting in the context of the small-town tradition of the ice-cream social. The first social was held at a local Baskin-Robbins.”
That some stars stay and others fade is not noteworthy. No, what struck me at the MCA was the (coincidentally) side-by-side presence of Peter Nagy and Ashley Bickerton in the matrix. A decade after the picture was taken, in 1996, both seemed to have essentially exited the mainstream artworld, making new lives an ocean away. As the NY Times wrote last year, the early-nineties “art-market dip left Mr. Bickerton’s career, among others, high and dry. He moved out of New York, first to Brazil then to Bali, where he still lives.” The international Herald Tribune in 2005 tracked Bickerton down doing a printmaking project in Singapore. “My career was basically in the toilet,” he recalled. “After the flash and success, there is another test that comes: longevity.” After a mid-nineties hiatus, Bickerton has come back strongly onto the international art market, most recently via Lehmann Maupin gallery. Painter and East Village gallerist Nagy, who had disappeared to Asia around the same time as Bickerton, has successfully recast himself as the leading gallerist working with India’s suddenly sought-after contemporary artists.
Looking across a much broader swath of art history, there was a long period when the influence of Marcel Duchamp was totally undervalued, and likewise the resurgent interest in Francis Picabia, circa 2002, caught many by surprise. We too often tend to view artists’ careers simplistically, as a progression from anonymity to fame and (almost always) back again. But that’s hardly the only model, especially in an artworld that’s growing ever more multifaceted. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but even art history is never written in stone.
My theory: At any given moment, the artworld’s core members are attracted to particular artists for subjective reasons – ranging from aesthetics and current affairs to pop culture and the society’s broader anxieties/obsessions. But we naturally want to feel like our attractions to those artists are grounded in art history; so we cast backwards for new “pivotal” figures in the past that position our current stars as part of a logical and well-grounded historical continuum, not the product of a more gossamer zeitgeist. (This is not limited to the artworld, of course; people mentally rewrite their life’s backstory all the time.)
Thus, those compiling Top 100 Artists, “Blue-Chip Painters” and other such lists may try to keep score of who’s on top and who’s disappeared forever from the artworld’s hierarchies – sometimes even deploying pseudo-quantitative analysis, as if the artworld was like pro sports or the stock market. But those are numbers-driven milieus with reliable data. Judging an artist’s long-term importance involves trickier variables and a more dynamically shifting landscape. And those who try to do so might well consider Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s reported response when Henry Kissinger asked for his take on the French Revolution’s historical impact: “It’s too early to say.”