David Pagel speaks with Matthew Deleget
Whitney Biennial 2014 catalog
Whitney Museum of American Art
New York, NY, 2014
David Pagel: I love a bargain as much as the next the guy. And the bargains I love best are books that have been ridiculously discounted and sold for a fraction of what they originally went for. Their prices suggest an alternative economy—one linked to the dominant economy, but absurdly out of synch with its standard operating procedures. As an artist, what led you to choose discounted books as the main materials for Zero Sum [2011-ongoing], your piece in this year’s Whitney?
Matthew Deleget: Like much of the work I’ve been making lately, I didn’t really intend to make Zero Sum at all. The piece just kind of occurred to me in looking more closely at my own interests and habits—the things I do unconsciously when researching and making the things I make. I do love discount books. (I’ve got a bit of a problem, actually.) I especially like the rare, vintage, and out-of-print ones I find in used bookstores, which are sadly becoming increasingly rare in New York. Two of the remaining ones in my neighborhood in downtown Brooklyn just became nail salons. I don’t even want to think about what that implies about the state of intellectual discourse right now.
For the last two decades, I’ve been combing through bins at second-hand stores, galleries, and museums for cool finds. Around five years ago, it struck me, though, that most of the books I’m interested in, either intellectually or aesthetically, have been either discounted or discarded in various ways by institutions, galleries, schools, or individuals. I can remember the precise moment this occurred to me, in fact. I was giving a talk at a local art school, and I came across the landmark book (for me) Circle: An International Survey of Constructive Art, edited by J.L. Martin, Ben Nicholson, and Naum Gabo, being used as a doorstop. Of course, this book is resting safely at home with me now. It joined my collection of hundreds of monographs, artists’ writings, biographies, and art-history publications—my personal resource library and a latent work of art unto itself.
DP: And does your interest in cheap, discontinued publications tell us much about the way you think of—and run—the gallery MINUS SPACE?
MD: Yes, in many ways, Zero Sum and MINUS SPACE, which I cofounded in 2003 with my wife, artist Rossana Martínez, address the same basic issue. Both advocate for artists and ideas that I feel are extraordinary, but that are generally overlooked, unfashionable, unmarketable, or, worst, discounted altogether. As artists, we make unbelievable sacrifices to produce our work with the idea that we may, hopefully someday, be included in books like these. By thinking of these books as works of art, I’ve brought them back full circle into the realm of ideas and aesthetics. I wonder just how long it will be before I see this Whitney Biennial catalog in a discount bin somewhere . . .
DP: And, if we’re lucky, there’ll be some bargain-conscious, history-loving youngster ready to snatch it up and do something interesting with it? To rescue it from the dustbin of history? Is Zero Sum a kind of rescue operation? And doesn’t that idea collide with the work’s title, which implies a perfect balancing out of accounts? It seems to me that your work suggests that the accounts are not balanced, that there is a remainder, and that that is where the surplus value comes in. Is that where art enters the picture?
MD: It’s so much more provocative to think of Zero Sum as a kind of rescue operation! Yes, I do think advocacy is a big part of it, working to set at least one facet of the record straight. As you know, I have a background in both painting and art history—I really don’t see any distinction between the two. I’m terribly dissatisfied, however, with the history of contemporary art as it’s been told in the glossies, mega-galleries, art fairs, museums, and auction houses over the past two decades. It’s history as told by the “winners,” in a way, by the 1 percent at the top end of the market.
By contrast, I find the plodding investigation of new ideas and forms, which primarily takes place inside artists’ studios, to be much more compelling. It’s messy, irrational, unregulated, pluralistic, even contradictory. I prefer visiting a studio over seeing a formal exhibition of an artist’s work any day. For me, seeing work in the space in which it’s been conceived and labored over has just no comparison. My real interest lies not in the theatricality of a show, but in that massive part of the iceberg that sits below the surface of the water and generally doesn’t see the light of day. That’s the part that keeps the rest of the fray afloat.
DP: Could you say more about the ways your backgrounds in painting and art history have fed into each other? How does that double-layered approach influence the many roles you play today—painter, curator, dealer, archivist, and historian? And does this suggest that amateurism, after years of disparagement from paid professionals, is making a comeback?
MD: I think my studio work and the work I do at the gallery are one in the same. It’s honestly impossible for me to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. I’m an artist at the gallery and a historian in the studio. When I’m not physically at one place, I’m at the other. And I try to approach both with the same level of intensity and criticality.
I don’t think of it so much as amateurism, but rather as DIY. And much of the art world as it currently exists—the things we genuinely take for granted now—was started in this same DIY manner by artists. Look no further than the Whitney Museum itself. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an established sculptor, founded the Whitney Studio Club in 1918 to support the work of her artist friends and colleagues. She also collected their work intensively, and later on offered her enormous collection—something like five hundred works or more—to the Met in 1929. When the Met rejected it, the Whitney was born.
I think our discourse would be a lot less interesting if we left it up to the professionals. I think the pros would agree with me. Meaningful things can happen when people start to question the status quo, envision how things could be different, and take matters into their own hands. I’m an ally of anyone who does this.
David Pagel is an art critic who lives in Los Angeles. He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, and is a professor of art theory and history at Claremont Graduate University and an adjunct curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York.