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Live Free or Die

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Christophe Cherix
An Introduction (p. 7-9)

Over the years, Bob Nickas's writing has appeared in – but has not always been meant for – various art magazines and catalogues. Quite surprisingly, only two of the texts he chose for this book – Private Collection and “C” – have been made in relation to the numerous exhibitions he has curated in his career. Even though I had encountered some of these texts at the time they were published, I never thought of him as a writer independent of his more well-known – at least to me – activity as a curator. Nonetheless, after having read these essays one after the next, and in their given chronological order, I have to admit that I still don't see him as a writer on one side and as a curator on the other. There is (fortunately) an overlap between the two. Not only do both activities seem to be done with the same intention – to understand through its contextualization a work of art – they appear to challenge and blur the accepted notions of exhibitions and writing.

The texts which I am invited to introduce are not so much directed towards a global theory on art as they are fragments and investigations of thoughts written along the way. They take different forms: interviews (real or contrived), essays (sometimes found and altered), an index (to an non-existent book), and letters to friends. They have different statuses: usually commissioned, sometimes unpublished or even rejected. They share different concerns: commenting on the work of an artist, reacting to a particular moment, testing an idea. They play different roles: the “hard to get” (Olivier Mosset), the “endlessly quoted” (Haim Steinbach), the “almost last” (Andy Warhol). Strangely, what they don't have in common is a lot easier to define than what they do. However, one thing which pervades these writings is the belief that there are bridges between different generations of artists, that each generation cannot be correctly understood without the knowledge of its immediate past.

Take an essay like The Sublime Was Then (Search for Tomorrow). In this piece, Nickas has excerpted reviews and subsequent letters related to Barnett Newman's first show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. Through this use of quotations, he not only gives us an understanding of the critical context at that time but redirects it toward our own, as if art history could only make sense – and be fun – if grounded in the present. (In the texts that follow, we come to realize that for Nickas the beginning of the '80s was not really “a life of complete dissolution. Because [he] was also going to the Museum of Modern Art Library at least twice a week […] mainly poring over books and catalogues from the '60s to the mid-'70s”.)

This collection has its roots in the art and music scenes of late '70s/early '80s New York, in galleries and clubs in the East Village and below Canal Street – most of which have long since disappeared. Artists Space, Nature Morte, International with Monument, the Mudd Club, the Pyramid, and Tier 3 were a few of the places where artists and critics interacted by day and by night. Some of these artists were soon to be associated with Neo Geo and become well-known beyond the New York art world. But Nickas wasn't only interested in what was “new.” His first texts are an attempt to link the scene he was in with the generation from the '60s that he had come to know in his research. For instance, his interview with Andy Warhol seems to yield as much information about the artist's methods as Warhol himself gets in return – about younger painters working at the time, as well about his own Rorschach Test series. From these first essays, little by little, text after text, Nickas is consciously piling up the artists he is attracted to. Over fifteen years, we are able to follow through on his discoveries, and – what is always amazing to me – without having to give up the earliest encountered figures (as is often the case for many art critics). As we are brought to consider the works of Cady Noland or Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for example, artists such as Dan Graham and Robert Smithson are still central to his discourse. Thus, a collection of writings which at first appeared scattered gradually comes to resemble a construction which builds purposely upon itself. More and more, these texts seem selfexplanatory and less and less to have ever needed an introduction.

New York, Summer 2000


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