an interview with the directors of Nature Morte Gallery
Peter Nagy Wouldn’t it be great if Leo Castelli were like Burger King and you had a Leo Castelli in every town across America?1
Rex Reason Franchises ... well, it’s like that now with him.
Peter Nagy Yeah, and then we need a farm system. It could be so big! One in Indianapolis, one in Cape Cod. The farm system would be set up so that young artists could get experience in other parts of the country and then slowly feed into New York ...
Alan Belcher The only problem at this point is that there is a lot of work being shown, written about and sold that is very quickly appreciated; it’s either very graphic or aggressive or colorful or pleasing, illustrational, and it just pops off of the wall instantly and people say, “Oh, yeah, this is a really nice painting,” without thinking about it twice. But maybe this is just the first step.
Rex Reason Toward what: the grand democratization of art?
Alan Belcher Perhaps.
Peter Nagy Often the seed of art comes out of the lower class or middle class and an intellectual elite approves it. The elite fabricates the career. At this point, the New York Art World in 1983 is the ultimate cliché of the American dream. Keith Haring is the Henry Ford of the ’80s.
Jay Gorney of Jay Gorney Modern Art sights through hole at distant object. Letters around opening will appear blurred.
Rex Reason But that is evidence of a profound change, of what kind of success an artist wants to have or what kind of artist to be. All these middle-class kids going to art school and learning about art in universities are then shot out into a world in which they simply graft their art aspirations onto their middle-class aspirations. It’s the diminution of the adversarial culture. They reject nothing. This happened almost without art knowing it.
Peter Nagy Hopefully, the dogma of art will rise above the dogma of business.
Rex Reason I’m not sure it does. Art gains much of its meaning from the tension caused by its “otherness” and opposition to prevailing conditions.
Peter Nagy The need for opposition changes, and I’m not sure that’s art’s role anyway. I’ve always thought if there were a utopia it would be when everyone is an artist and everyone is looking at every aspect of life as art ... a total work of art, which many artists have done—Beuys, Warhol. Maybe the only really concrete way of achieving utopia is if everyone’s a Joseph Beuys!
Rex Reason Who’s going to clean the streets? The people who naturally love doing that?
Alan Belcher We have jobs during the day.
Peter Nagy Due to massive hype and exposure, the art world is on the verge of becoming something it’s never been before. More in the vein of popular culture, movies, television, fashion. It’s competing for that segment of Newsweek magazine, that four page color spread.
Light directed from the side through the closed lid of Oliver Wasow of Cash/Newhouse will cast a shadow of the retinal blood vessels that you can see with careful observation.
Rex Reason There’s a statement attributed to you guys, “In the ’50s everyone wanted to have a car, in the ’60s and ’70s everyone wanted to be a rock star and in the ’80s everyone wants to be an artist.”
Peter Nagy Yeah, or a gallery owner.
Alan Belcher A painter.
Peter Nagy In ’78 you open a nightclub, in ’82 you open a gallery, a day club. The whole change in atmosphere can be attributed to Mary Boone-ism and Julian Schnabelism. It’s the mass movement of popular youth culture from music into art. The whole music thing coalesced in the late ’70s, and now our stars aren’t Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone, they’re Keith Haring and Futura 2000. Music flopped into art. Mary Boone gave confidence to a lot of young artists. Artists were taken more seriously, getting more press, so at least it seemed like the market, the whole environment, was much more open to younger artists, to unknown people, because of the success of the biggies. The general excitement in the art world overall ...
Alan Belcher Of course you get a lot of schlocky work because you have more people looking at and thinking about art that had never previously done it. But it also means that soon in the future we’ll be able to have art everywhere.
Rex Reason How do you feel about trademark-ism in art: objects that are instantly recognizable as made by a certain artist?
Steady fixation on the X for a two minute inspection period by Lisa Spellman of 303 Gallery.
Peter Nagy It’s very important. It’s the way our whole society functions.
Alan Belcher I think it’s great. Especially now with such a large population.
Peter Nagy It’s certainly necessary for survival. We’re both artists and we have a gallery, but we tell every artist we handle, “Look, you’re going to have to be as much your own dealer as we’re going to be. You’ve got to hype your career just as much.”
Alan Belcher If not more.
Peter Nagy We don’t want you just sitting home making paintings.
Rex Reason Not to be gloomy, but what is that attitude’s effect on art? Trademark-ism indicates to me that an artist constrains creative development to the issues raised by the last series of pieces, conceptual serialism ... further variations on the last theme in order to support its place in the market.
Peter Nagy My background is in media and I’ve always seen that as a necessary part of it—so you could get that necessary feedback so you could go out and make more. It’s just economics.
Rex Reason The trademark is so you can sell it so you can make more. To say, “Oh, it’s just economics,” is to sweep it under the rug—and definitely relegate the content and quality of what is made to economic concerns, which I think is newish, certainly “after-Warhol.
Peter Nagy You’re advocating a quicker turnover of the product?
Rex Reason I‘m saying I’d rather make William Wegman’s drawings than Robert Longo’s: there’s an infinitely greater area of play that one gives oneself access to.
Peter Nagy You feel the artists’ desires should be the bottom line.
Rex Reason Yes, as far as the content and range of art is concerned.
Peter Nagy I don’t see trademark as being that limited. Beuys has a trademark, but it’s more of a material or an essence. There’s always been a lot of trademark in art: Duchamp, Man Ray had a lot of it.
Rex Reason No! They were completely not about that. The variation in the look and content of the object was for them much broader.
Peter Nagy I disagree. And Sherrie Levine introduced a further confusion, she took on this sort of martyr position: when you don’t have to worry about being original, you’re completely liberated. Copies of copies of copies is generative, and regenerative. And most of those artists who are strongly trademarked are doing other things that you never see, like Twombly’s 3-D collages.
Alan Belcher Warhol’s “Piss Paintings.”
Rex Reason Are people “expressing” themselves all over the map?
Peter Nagy People don’t have anything to express, except the trademark. The void is inside us. We hardly have original thoughts all the time. We’re fed information all the time.
Alan Belcher We’re filters.
Peter Nagy We’re hardly ourselves. You make an object to fill the void. You’re nothing inside so you make a concrete object to see yourself. It’s the concrete self.
Alan Belcher Especially if you die tomorrow. But you’re not just filling it, you’re saying something about it as well. And a gallerist just picks out of the atmosphere bits one relates to.
Peter Nagy You look for things that remind you of what you never remembered before.
Rex Reason You’re known as having a policy of no-policy, as far as aesthetics are concerned.
Clarissa Dalrymple of Cable Gallery watches white spots appear in room suddenly changed from almost darkness to very bright.
Peter Nagy That harmed us during our first year because the media didn’t have a label they could pin on us. We knew that we didn’t want to show what was being seen in most galleries, which was neo-expressionist figurative paintings. 90% of what you see is pretty useless. So from the beginning that was our only direction—we knew we weren’t showing neo-expressionism. We were going to concentrate on other media and other imagery and mix things up. Pluralism certainly didn’t die with the ’70s.
Alan Belcher Our policy of no-policy is one of survival: we feel that if we become known for a certain type of work, then people will only come to see us for a few months and then never come again. We want a long shelf life.
Peter Nagy But we are getting more focused—it takes a gallery a few years, especially when you’ve started out really fast like us, it takes a few years to coalesce into a style. We’re on our way to having a definite outlook.
Alan Belcher It’s becoming more apparent: we tend to go for either the primitive or the slick, the hard-edged.
Peter Nagy Serious, intelligent work: those are our artful requirements. We never wanted to show cliched East Village art—kitschy religious art or punky aggressive paintings. Even though 90% of our artists are working in the East Village, they’re certainly not making that kind of stuff.
Rex Reason How do you find your artists? Alan Belcher They find us, mostly. Friends of friends.
Peter Nagy We still look at slides and it’s getting a little out of hand, but we feel it’s something we have to do, to at least let people know there’s an outlet. FUN won’t look at anything. 2
Alan Belcher Our shows are planned through April, and we’ve got most of the people we want to work with, so even though we’re looking at slides, it’s a little futile.
Peter Nagy Even if we liked the work, we couldn’t deal with it for a year.
Rex Reason Do you see yourselves functioning as filters for the gallery system?
Alan Belcher That’s one of our motives: one of our principles is to show new people previously unshown, and then having them get shows in other galleries afterwards. Also having dealers, collectors, writers, coming here and knowing they’re going to be competing with each other.
Peter Nagy We don’t have a stable. We don’t sign people.
Alan Belcher Basically we always want to have fun showing work—if we had to keep showing the same people we’d just hire someone to run the place.
Peter Nagy We’re not threatened by people stealing our artists.
Alan Belcher We’re all for it—if they steal it just makes us valid, it proves we’re showing what people respond to.
Rex Reason But of course this completely plugs into the extant gallery system. It’s the food chain—artists are plankton, you guys are minnows and so on.
Alan Belcher But it’s working. Peter Nagy We didn’t feel revolt against that system. Basically that system has a lot of good in it and it takes care of a lot of artists.
To Colin de Land of American Fine Arts, the string appears single wherever it is fixated, double elsewhere.
Rex Reason In order to draw meaning from the incredible variety of objects, styles and aims that constitutes pluralism, doesn’t pluralism presuppose such an intense and constant involvement with the art world that it continues and accentuates the ghettoization of artists? Kosuth said the only people who pay attention to art are artists anyway, so let’s just admit it and make art for artists, and that spirals upward to esoterica.
Peter Nagy I live breathe think sleep art.
Alan Belcher There’s nothing else to do now.
Peter Nagy It’s been ghetto-ized but it’s self-preservation.
Alan Belcher Everybody has their ghetto.
Peter Nagy Golf, whatever. The only way in which pluralism works against us is with the collectors—they may see two things they like next to four things they don’t like. That doesn’t make them shell out the money too fast.
Alan Belcher The product really needs packaging and promotion to sell it. And if it’s not shown a lot and written about, then it’s not packaged.
Peter Nagy As far as ads go, the art world is the pits right now.
Alan Belcher It’s all just type.
Peter Nagy Mary Boone, Sperone Westwater ... it’s the same little format every month. We have lots of art magazines from the ’60s and the ads were art in themselves.
Rex Reason What’s the difference between art and any other product?
Peter Nagy In the marketplace, nothing. Art is something different when you’re making it and when you’re admiring it—the difference is in the quality of the consumption.
Rex Reason So in the marketplace the art object is without pretensions to meaning?
Peter Nagy Pretty much.
Rex Reason Maybe there’s not enough time anymore for the deep stuff—things keep moving faster and faster.
Peter Nagy That’s the natural flow of society—things get more and more complex, weirder and weirder, faster and faster. You have to learn to just groove on it.
Rex Reason Do you invest less and less of yourself with each micro-revolution?
Peter Nagy Yeah. The key to survival is staying on top of the wave.
Rex Reason Surfing.
Alan Belcher Stay on the board.
Rex Reason You guys are so modern. What do you look for in an object? What qualities?
Alan Belcher Right now we like either black, white and gray, or generic color.
Peter Nagy We’re pretty anti-color.
Rex Reason By generic you mean red as “red” rather than modulations of it?
Alan Belcher Yeah.
Peter Nagy So many people bring us slides that are just like Salle, Basquiat, or Roberto Juarez. These poor kids are out there going to the galleries and they say, “This is what I have to do to have a show.” So they run home and paint them. We don’t want that. We want stuff we’ve never seen in a gallery before.
Rex Reason And what do you think is the best art? What influenced the shaping of your taste?
Alan Belcher Right now, we like pretty classic late modern stuff: Pop art, Paolozzi, Indiana for logos, Duchamp, Manzoni, Beuys, Klein. Scarpitta is a favorite of mine.
Peter Nagy We think Op art is highly underrated. Bridget Riley. That’s corporate psychedelia, the orgasm of modernism.
Alan Belcher We started the gallery because we really just wanted to get our voices in.
Peter Nagy And chose the name “Nature Morte” for its ’50s-jazz, pseudo-continental appeal. Ersatz European. Franco-American Chef Boy-ar-dee.
Alan Belcher We wanted to be the Leper Gallery.
Peter Nagy But then I thought of the Wallet Gallery.
Rex Reason Great!
Alan Belcher We gotta get Mastercharge. I want to see stickers in the window.
Peter Nagy We’d love to build a sliver.
Alan Belcher Co-op Nature Morte, Café Nature Morte, Cinema Nature Morte Quad.
Peter Nagy Brie popcorn. See, that’s what I mean about trademarks: the image is succinct but the meaning can’t be battened down.
* Rex Reason was a pseudonym occasionally used by David Robbins early in his publication history. The name refers to an actor featured in This Island Earth, 1955, a B-grade science-fiction film.
1 Leo Castelli (1907–1999) was one of the most influential gallerlsts of the 20th century. The New York-based art dealer launched the careers of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and many others.
2 A reference to Fun Gallery, run by Patti Aster. It was the hottest, hippest East Village gallery at the time.