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Interview: Stuart Horodner of the Contemporary on living “The Art Life,” his new book

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Horodner compiled the book as he compiles his scrapbooks, filled with things that excite him.

Atlanta Contemporary Art Center Artistic Director Stuart Horodner recently wrote a book called “The Art Life: On Creativity and Career.” It provides an interesting counterpoint to traditional “how to” books on being an artist, looking more at why people choose an artistic lifestyle, with quotations on the subject from more than 200 artists, architects, poets, chefs, filmmakers and musicians.

Halfway through the project, DAP, a major distributor, decided to take on the book and will send it to museum shops and bookstores around the country. A major launching was held in Los Angeles last month, and another is planned for New York. Atlantans will have a chance to celebrate with Horodner this Friday at Octane Westside from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Many of the artists included in the book will be present.

We spoke with Horodner about his book, the lives of artists and the upcoming book launching at Octane.

ArtsATL: How did you come up with the concept of the book?

Stuart Horodner: I met Jackie Battenfield, who had gotten money from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, [which] led to the publication of her book “The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love,” which is probably the best version of a handbook on how to do the career part. I realized there has not been conversation about why be an artist in the first place. How do you sustain it?

So I started to conceive of a book, and then I pitched the idea to the [Tremaine Foundation] in a really simple way. The phrase was, “You give yourself a creative life; other people give you a career.” There’s a lot of stuff that artists get to decide, and they often don’t talk about this with each other and there aren’t many books out there that really address the kind of motivations and influences and joys and difficulties that people struggle with.

We’ve been working on this for almost two years, from conception to execution. Now it’s out in the world and we’re really proud of it. I’ve felt very vulnerable writing it. There’s a great quote that opens up the book [from] Edward Dahlberg: “It is presumptuous to assume we can do anything to help another person and it is vulgar not to try.”

My experience as someone who went to art school, someone who owned a gallery, someone who has written criticism, who’s taught, who’s organized an art fair, I feel like I have a lot that I’ve wanted to say over the years to practitioners to either help them not beat their head against the wrong wall or to help clarify certain situations about the field.

The book has me being very confident about the fact that I have this background, that I think I can write something that would be helpful. But throughout the entire process I have been scared to death at the proposal of that. Like really, you’re going to write a book? Or, as David Humphrey said, curate a book as much as write one? It’s a little presumptuous to try to write a book that is going to tell people how to think about creativity and career. By the same token, I agree and think it is somewhat vulgar not to try. 

ArtsATL: You chose to include images from your own personal scrapbooks.

Horodner: [The book] itself is, in a way, a version of those books that I keep. They’re not really journals, they’re not really sketchbooks, they’re what used to be called in another era a “common book,” which is a sort of collection of things, just stuff that I think is exciting. Clearly “The Art Life” came out of the fact that I do this on one level or another.

Somewhere in the middle of composing this book it became very obvious to me that one of the books that really blew my mind when I first encountered it in college was Lucy Lippard’s “Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966-1972.” When I read that book at 16 years old, I didn’t understand it. It was just basically a list, a compilation of different quotes about minimalism and conceptual art, and by year it would [say] “Carl Andre did this, [Sol] LeWitt did that, Hanne Darboven did that.”

It was just facts, these are the things that are going on in this period — photographs, lists, announcements — and you were left to sort out the pluralism of all of that going on at the same time. In a sense, it was an index of the period. “The Art Life” is not an index of the period, but it is loosely structured in a way that uses that idea of accumulating.

ArtsATL: But unlike Lippard, there is no timeline or even a linear narrative in this book. You can open it up almost anywhere, read the quotes, chew on them for a bit, and start somewhere else the next time. I felt the design might be a nod to our new way of processing information in short clips or sound bites.

Horodner: That was certainly on my mind. It is a book you can read because it has been written and conceived to be multi-voiced, intergenerational, intermedia. They’re excerpts, fragments. That is a kind of conceit to the blog, to the sound bite, to the short anecdote. It’s not to say I don’t think the current generation can handle more thoughtfully lengthy texts, but it functions in an open-ended way.

You could be having a crappy day in your studio and open this book and go, “Wow, Agnes Martin and Lady Gaga and Gilbert and George also have crappy days.” Or you hear them talk about some little spark that gets them excited, motivated and connects them back to their reasons for being. It functions in a way that says, “Hey, I’m in touch with the whole history of creative people.” In a way, that was part of my thinking. The end line of the book, which I wanted to specifically be the last line, is John Baldessari quoting Sol LeWitt saying that his idea of a good work is something that he could show Giotto.

ArtsATL: The chapters are organized with unusual themes: “motivation,” “influence,” “process,” “criticism,” “audience.” What led to these categories?

Horodner: The book’s conception was to have an inside and outside aspect. I tried to think about chapter headings that could express the inside dimensions, the things you give yourself, like: What are you influenced by? What are you making your work about? What is your practice? Those are the things you get to decide. As it says in the introduction, do you want to make art in bronze or are you Richard Tuttle and you want to make work out of little bits of nothing? You can do that. Are you Cindy Sherman and do want to make work in your house, in your studio with your stuff by yourself? Or are you Damien Hirst and you want to have a hundred people running around painting little dots? You can dictate the terms of how you see your practice.

But the other chapter headings are things like “audience” and “success” and “community” and “criticism,” and those things are defined primarily by people outside of you. So what I say is you give yourself a creative life, other people give you a career. They are not the same thing. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they are not the same thing. So the chapters become places where I try and unpack each of those ideas.

ArtsATL: With rare exceptions like Ben Shahn and Robert Henri, you’ve taken very few quotes from historical art figures. For the most part, your quotes are from your contemporaries. Why?

Horodner: We are a contemporary art center. I felt that I wanted it to be 20th century and decidedly second half of the 20th century. But I also chose some people who are understood as legendary teachers. There are any number of people that I thought, these are artist-educators. In a pretty profound way, they are responsible for whole generations of ideas about pedagogy and training.

ArtsATL: In the index of contributors, you list each person and their profession. Almost everyone has more than one profession: artist and educator; musician and writer and producer; curator and writer. Do you think that says something about our society, or are you just more attracted to people who bring multiple perspectives to their work?

Horodner: I think both. I think some of it has to do with making a living. A lot of the people who I include love teaching, but I’m sure many of them teach because it is a livelihood. Many of them write. David Humphrey is an acclaimed painter. He teaches. He also started writing criticism and catalog essays and writing about art because he’s very good with language. He’s also very opinionated. He likes rolling ideas around and coming up with ways of understanding work by writing about it.

Mira Schor is another person in that mix, and there are any number of people who bring different aspects of themselves to those different paths. I think it’s a model for how to function. I like multi-taskers. I like people who have second lives. Devendra Banhart is a musician, as are Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett and Beck: these are all people who draw and paint, but are not known for that.

ArtsATL: One of the things I appreciate about the book is its relevance to those of us who may not actually make art. You supplied a great quote from Richard Wentworth: “By having things in the studio, and if there are enough of them, it raises the level to which they might tap me on the shoulder and go, ‘Psst. Did you notice that I’ve been sitting next to so and so?’” As a curator, this really caught my attention because it is how I prefer to curate: to place artwork in a room and explore the relationships that develop when you put different works next to each other. Did you intend for this book to cross over genres?

Horodner: If you look at the list, you’ll see that there are 200-plus contributors; almost a hundred of them are people who have done things with the art center in the last several years. That’s the bulk of the book. We have done all sorts of programming to accompany the exhibitions: talks, panels, symposia. And at those events, many of these people said very relevant things.

In email exchanges, or in previously published things by those people, they’ve said things that I thought were very profound. I knew I wanted to locate the artists and art thinkers whom we’ve worked with in a slightly wider pool of people.

I’m making the case that the art-making activity is not dissimilar to somebody trying to be a musician or a cook or an architect. If I believe that, why don’t I gather other content from those disciplines and see that they are indeed connected? That is how the book, in a sense, got its other half. And I love the fact that you are constantly reminded that those aspects of process, aspects of who you think your audience is — whether it’s people in the restaurant or people at a concert or people in a gallery — you are delivering a content to them.

ArtsATL: Does that have some impact on why you decided to have the book launching at Octane?

Horodner: We’re doing the launching at Octane coffee, which is our neighbor down the road, in part because Tony Riffel, the owner, is on our board and is very supportive. But also there is this idea of the coffee shop as the great focal point of being communal and in dialogue. Artists and creative people have always gravitated to the coffee shop or the bar as a place to be alone with their thoughts, to meet others, to be in discussion, so we like this combination.

The books will be for sale there. We’ll also have some of the Atlanta contributors reading from the book, like [architects] David Yocum and Brian Bell from bldgs, [artist] Craig Drennen, [photographer] Michael David Murphy, [artist] Shana Robbins, [artist] Fahamu Pecou or Michael Rooks, the curator at the High [Museum of Art]. Then we may just ask some other invited guests who are not necessarily contributors. We’ll show some of the images and we’ll try to unpack what this book is for to the Friday night Atlanta coffee-, wine-, beer-drinking crowd.

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