"Seth Siegelaub: Some remarks on so-called 'Conceptual Art'
- extracts from unpublished interviews
with Robert Horvitz (1987) and Claude Gintz (1989)"

Published in the catalogue of l'art conceptual, une perspective, an exhibition at le Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (22 November 1989 - 18 February 1990). Some exchanges between Gintz and Siegelaub are omitted here as they concern details of prior exhibitions of some of the works shown in Paris. Omitted passages are indicated by [...].

RH: So, did you start your gallery to show that type of art?

SS: No, not at all; that happened later. When I first had the gallery, in New York from 1964 to 1966, I showed a variety of artists, none of whom I worked with later, except for Lawrence Weiner, who had two exhibitions.

At the time, I thought a lot about what I was doing in this area of the 'cultural' world. The conclusions I reached then are still relevant, in large part, to my current publishing and research work. One of the problems with running a gallery is that you don't run it - it runs you. It becomes an alienated activity. You have fixed overheads and regular monthly schedules and obligations - a rhythm of work whereby you have to fill up the space. It became very clear to me very quickly that it really was not possible to fill up a space - or the pages of a book - with quality work - whatever that may mean! - with that kind of regular rhythm, under that kind of pressure.

This problem led me to think about other possible ways to show art without these kinds of fixed overheads and responsibilities and to rethink the question of exhibitions and galleries. All this, along with the kind of work being done by the artists with whom I was involved, led to the production of (irregular) exhibitions in catalogues, not catalogues to promote or sell work, but catalogues that were the work - or at least, that had a different kind of relationship to the work: exhibitions in outdoor public spaces, in temporarily rented spaces, in post office boxes; a whole series of situations and contexts outside of the traditional art structure - both mental and physical. I organized about 20 projects between February 1968 through July 1971.

However, I want to be clear: this was not just something that I made up myself, in the sense of being my original 'hot' idea. It grew out of my personal economic situation, which as - and still is - extremely modest, compared with other people's in the art world, and out of the nature of the work that was being produced by the artists with whom I was working. It was a symbiosis of these two elements. This type of collaborative and complementary relationship is still at the base of my work today, and I hope it always will be, especially without the constant pressure to produce something.

[...]

CG: But undoubtedly it was the January 5-31, 1969 exhibition which was the inaugural event, since it was a group exhibition.

SS: For me, it was one project among others, even if it brought together publicly for the first time Kosuth and Weiner, who were living in Manhattan, Barry, living in the Bronx, and Huebler, in Massachusetts. Like all the projects, its preparation and realization were collective: the number of works to figure in the exhibition space (two by each artist) and in the catalogue, which documented these works as well as others which were not included in the exhibition (in total, eight for each artist); and so on.

{...]

CG: ...in the sense that these works could only exist through the 'reproducibility' or the written word or a photographic document?

SS: Sometimes, in the sense that it was an art whose primary character did not reside in a unique or material object. Thus, the catalogue, which served to 'document' it, was not referring to an (art) object which existed outside of it, but could be simply another aspect of the work, or even the art work itself.

Behind this so-called 'dematerialization,' there was an attitude of general distrust towards the object, seen as a necessary finalization of the art work, and consequently towards its physical existence and market value. There was also the underlying desire and attempt to avoid this commercialization of artistic production, a resistance nourished, for the most part, by the historic context: the Vietnam war and subsequent questioning of the American way of life. This was certainly the most sustained attempt to date to avoid the fatality of the art object as commodity.

One might even view the work of Carl Andre during that period within this same perspective, even if he considers himself to be a 'materialist' having nothing whatsoever to do with this so-called 'conceptual' world. In the 'platitude' of his work, both in the literal and figurative sense, there is a symbolism which goes far in this direction. At the time, in his own way, Andre was more aware of this issue than many of the artists who were 'conceptual' or 'idea-oriented,' which is certainly one of the reasons why I have always been interested in his work, especially how he deals with the relation of theory/practice.

Similarly, the work of Robert Smithson. And even the work of John Chamberlain, with his foam-rubber pieces, in which no one was interested at the time.

But the aspiration to escape from capitalism while living within it has a romantic character, especially when seen in retrospect. But the romantic aspect of this attempt is also another facet of the current interest in 'conceptual art,' especially in light of the present, highly product-oriented art world.

CG: Couldn't one just as well imagine the phenomenon of conceptual art from an historical viewpoint, as a negation of the art which immediately preceded it, that is, Minimalism? Or, in other words, as a supplementary step to take, in a modernist perspective, towards the neutralization of the object, which the grey surfaces of the cubes of Robert Morris had only outlined?

SS: On the one hand, there was the desire to avoid the 'trap' of the object. But there was also undoubtedly, among certain artists, the desire to avoid a rapport with site, which was so characteristic of the so-called 'Minimal' art of Judd or Flavin, for example. But, at the same time, there was also the production of objects visually very spectacular and well-designed, based on a concept or idea, as with Kosuth, for example. Thus, for me, the situation seems much more difficult to characterize.

CG: This was the contradiction, already apparent, at the heart of conceptual art.

SS: It is certainly the aggravation between the role of the artist and the ruling capitalist values which is one of the essential rasons for the resurgence of interest in 'conceptual' art. Because in the meantime, the situation of art in the capitalist world has changed fundamentally. The dominant mode of production has passed from the stage of craft production to that of small business in 20 short years. The mentality, even the aspirations of the artist has changed. The artist no longer thinks of him-or-herself as a worker exploited by collectors (public or private) - even if sometimes he were as rich and famous as a successful businessman - but considers himself as an art professional, in the same way that a stock broker is a professional in the stock market. Art has become one way among others to earn a good living. The very idea of the artist as 'outsider,' 'contestataire,' etc., has become marginal, almost ridiculous in light of how securely art has been integrated into the center of capitalist life, alongside the rock music and fashion industries, which were its immediate 'creative' models.

[...]

CG: In 1971, you decided not to continue to play the role of organizer of conceptual art exhibitions in order to give your time to the preparation of a contract designed to protect the moral and economic rights of the artist, including a 15% share in all profits made by others involved in transactions concerning their works ('The Artist's Reserved Rights Transfer and Sales Agreement' - the French version, 'Contrat pour la préservation des droits de l'artiste sur toute oeuvre cédée', was edited by Michel Claura and published by Herman Daled in Brussels). Then you raised money through an auction of works by contemporary artists to benefit the United States Servicemen's Fund, an organization created to encourage freedom of expression within the American Army, which was opposed to the continuation of the war in Vietnam. Aside from the desire to be, in that period of intense ideological conflicts, politically more active, wasn't there also, in this return towards the real, the feeling that the radicality of Conceptual Art was nothing more than an appearance?

SS: No, not at all. On the contrary, especially in retrospect, the critical aspect of art could become, again, very important today as the art world has become more central to capitalist life, and the role of an international art exhibition, for example, is as much to promote tourism, fill up hotel rooms, shopping, real estate speculation, etc., as it is to show art. Or, at a time when the role of most museums is to serve as cultural space-for-rent for sponsorship by big business and its 'image' promotion. It has become virtually impossible for an important (capitalist) museum to do a major exhibition - or even just continue to exist, in some cases - without direct financing by big business (in addition to whatever dwindling funds come from the State). But my reasons for leaving the art world were personal, simply that my personal interest had evolved. I had no desire to make a career in the art world - nor in any other. If I had stayed in the art world, I would have had to become 'serious,' i.e. more business-like, etc. I always lose interest in a project when it becomes too 'serious.'

[...]

RH: Don't you perceive a conflict, though, between the kind of work you were showing and the idea of a contract to establish residual property rights for artists?

SS: If there is a conflict, it doesn't bother me. I wasn't concerned about protecting the interests of a particular type of art, but first, making explicit what these interests were, and secondly, proposing a practical solution to their protection, only one of which - and not by chance the most controversial - was the right to participate in the profits of resale, if any. Everyone has the right to live by the fruit of their work, and not have it mutilated and mis-used; it was in this optic that we drafted the contract. The concern was to define and protect artists' interest, moral as well as economic, in the work they produce. In producing the artist's contract, I was motivated more by broad social and political considerations than by the particular kind of art I was working with. In fact, the contract was written a short time after I was working with those artists, in part as a result of that experience.

It is very interesting that in 1987, there was a proposed US Senate bill introduced by Senator Kennedy to give artists residual rights. It's significant that it should be happening now, almost 20 years after our artist's rights contract. It's good they are considering this - maybe - but it is important also to recognize that the context giving rise to this interest is entirely different from that of 20 years ago: art has become a real business. Twenty years ago, the money was relatively small. Obviously, there were successful artists, but most artists, even well-known ones, were barely able to earn a living from their work. Now, some young 'neo-expressionist' painter makes 10 times as much in his or her first or second show. The question of artists' rights seems to have come to the forefront today because there is a lot more involved. It seems that successful artists are trying to get a cut of the pie, or protect their interests, just like a film director or actor protects his interests vis-à-vis the film producer or distributor. Like any other 'interest' group or lobby - not at all like the conflicting relations of force which existed earlier, which were closer in character to a workers/capitalist conflict.

[...]