Books

Gary Indiana’s Helter-Skelter Prose Experiments

In the 1980s I religiously read Indiana’s weekly, polemical Voice dispatches in which he described the ills of US society from the point of view of an energetic, radical, gay critic absent art bona fides.

(photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

In 1985, with a flamboyant, gelid eye and taunting provocative shrugs of jaded contempt for new-money denizen art collectors, Gary Indiana (né Hoisington) strode forth onto the art scene as an insouciant enfant terrible art critic for The Village Voice. His collected art columns have been published by the esteemed Semiotext(e) (also the re-publisher of some of Indiana’s earlier novels and plays) as Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988.

Vile Days is a thick, 596-page hardback to be read first from the index, where the names rain down like manna. The contents list is obtuse, by design. But read it straight through, as I just have, and I think that you will find that he came to the ‘80s art scene late, as a black-sheep, puckish novice, five years after the transgressive epoch-defining Colab exhibitions, such as the Times Square Show and The Real Estate Show and the openings of ABC No Rio, Fashion 时装 Moda МОДА and Group Material — where art was being inseminated with the Dionysian, the social, the political, and the economic. So, in 1985, when Indiana began reviewing art exhibitions for The Voice he appeared as something of an art arriviste to me, coming, as he did, from a background in off-off-off Broadway theatre and radical underground film. Still, I religiously read his weekly, polemical Voice dispatches in which he often described the ills of US society from the point of view of an energetic, radical, gay critic absent art bona fides. To me he projected a vulnerable literary darling trying to turn his impish art criticism into a cultural inquisition based on holier-than-thou opinions sans convincing theoretical ties.

Indiana also sometimes seemed like an amiable anti-assimilationist bored by his own reckless bitchery, but I liked the rhythms of his cynical prose. It has an overcrowded, flirtatious affect that’s almost hypnotic to me. But even as I read him with pleasure, I didn’t care for his tossed-off, derisive provocations and devil-may-care insouciance concerning visual art. Indiana’s reviews swing wildly between incisive criticism, pastiche, and self-besotted, self-obsessed, auto narrative: something perfectly appropriate for his brilliant fiction, but practically useless for non-fan-boy theoretical application today.

When focusing on the art, he talks a good deal about artists investigating commodification, simulacrum, and mass media (of less relevancy to today’s digital world, where those things have become one) but almost always covered art shows at the high-roller galleries. In his time as art critic he covered 11 shows at Leo Castelli, nine at Barbara Gladstone, and four at Mary Boone. These were chic hot spots he sometimes mocked, even as his criticism acted as co-conspirator in the promotion of the art they sold, while ignoring the important not-for-profit spaces like White Columns, The Kitchen, New York Feminist Art Institute, ABC No Rio, A.I.R. Gallery, and Artists Space — all art spaces in his purview where socially conscious work was being shown. Furthermore, he proclaimed to be against the art star system, what he called the “endless recycling of 30 proper names.” Writing, “But one thing criticism unavoidably does: it organizes the Cult of the Name. The Cult of the Name produces a hierarchy of importance.” But he mentions his friend Barbara Kruger’s name 43 times in the three years of art writings compiled here.

Given his apparent flippant disregard for serious political-artistic debate outside the commercial gallery system, it can be difficult to tell how much he’s satirizing or covering up with his off-the-cuff opinions. One wonders: why did he assume the position of writing about gallery art if it was so vile to him?

Indiana answered that question in one of his bitchier columns in early 1987: “The only reason to write about art is that people have stopped making great movies. And bad movies aren’t bad in the grand manner anymore.” For him, alas, it was so, thus he tosses around morose superlatives as if they were garnish on a plate of cut throats.

So what worth are his art writings to us now outside of a bemusing curio? Indiana’s extra-art diatribes — on flower shows and ozone holes, sumo wrestling, banks collecting art — in his self-indulgent affectation in which all of the proper names had been excised — are hardly skim worthy. Interesting as historical cri de coeur is his list of names of a few shows then on view in the final paragraph of a piece discussing the suppression of the AIDS epidemic. But another turd clinker is Three Mile Island, the obsolete and obtuse description of time spent on the Greek island of Hydra, made no more interesting by flirting with its banality. These once helter-skelter prose experiments, that stray too far from art journalism into botulistic narcissism, now strike my eye as dead magic.

In the art-centric pieces, in general he preferred Barbara Kruger-style “insurrectionary” neo-Conceptualism, heavy with indirect social commentary, such as that of Hans Haacke and Jenny Holtzer. As he put it, instead of the onanism of macho Neo-Expressionism and silly, East Village infantilization of art, he preferred the “kind of work … called Conceptual, neo-Conceptual, deconstructive, photographic, media-conscious …” He wrote wonderfully on the Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo curatorial collaborations, Robert Mapplethorpe, Oskar Schlemmer, Ross Bleckner, Hanne Darboven, Richard Prince, Nancy Spero, Cindy Sherman, and, with some reservations, Sherrie Levine. But lacking any reproductions, his florid (often erudite) exegesis of lesser known artists makes the book often ineffectual — short of turning pages with one hand as the other gooses an internet connection.

Indiana is often ho-ho funny when rocking his flamboyant theatrics. Here is a zinger, apropos of nothing, in his review of the 1987 Whitney Biennial: “Bruce Weber should not be in the same room with Ross Bleckner and Annette Lemieux. He should have his own room. It should be in New Jersey.” Rim shot! And:

Although all museums are endowed by the very people who despoil the general quality of life outside the museum, the Met has an inflexible policy of accepting money from almost anywhere. Even certain bordellos in the Patpong district of Bangkok are more fastidious.

Burn! Reading such hilarity, you must be careful when tossing this hefty hardcover across the room in amused exasperation not to break the crockery.

Indiana’s magnificent moments in art criticism that stand the test of time include his predatory, masochistic take on the Gilbert and George collaboration. Also, seeking to overturn bigoted bourgeois self-preservation, Indiana is absolutely brilliant and essential on bifurcated Warhol (pre- and post-Valerie Solanas). His essay on the tainted Andy Warhol legacy, written shortly after the artist’s death, is a must read because it is increasingly significant in our age of celebrity worship. A sample is:

After turning his back on the zanies who’d been his inspiration, Warhol no longer bestowed celebrity, but instead sustained his own through increasingly ludicrous associations, chiefly through his magazine, Interview. The upscale Interview chewed its way through acres of glossy trash at Studio 54 before arriving among such “interesting” people as George Will, Nancy Reagan, Jerry Zipkin, and the Shah of Iran. Whatever Warhol was trying to do, it didn’t “read” as anything except venality.

Exactly. But his jaundiced piece on Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker profile of Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy (who would go on to edit Interview) is merely cynical and sarcastic and outrageous, thus not nearly as topically insightful.

Such a pity that this patchiness persists, because I strongly believe that if this collection were halved — forgoing completeness for a much slimmer critical anthology without the flamboyant theatrics — and made into a leaner, smaller, less expensive, more portable and accessible paperback book (like the ones that made Semiotext(e) rightly famous in the ‘80s) the inherent worth of Indiana’s cultural contribution to art history would be greatly enhanced. As it is, the pearls are mixed with the peas.

Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988, by Gary Indiana, edited by Bruce Hainley, is published by Semiotext(e) and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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