Joseph Nechvatal. Remaking the Past, 1979. Graphite on paper, 11 x 14" (27.94 x 35.56 cm). Courtesy of the artist.
In 1979, I was without a place to live for a period of time. I was staying briefly in Laurie Anderson's loft; but when she came back early from tour, I was caught without any place to live whatsoever. In the building where Laurie lived on Canal Street, there was a recently abandoned methadone clinic, and I just moved in. I had a knapsack and a few pieces of clothing. I made it my home for about five or six months. In that space I did my first exhibition in New York called Private Parts. It was work that doesn't look quite like the drawing from the Times Square Show. The Private Parts work was more medical journal illustrations that I painted over, leaving a few key elements to show through. So with that work I was already investigating the obstruction of the image, its masking, or failing, or the problematization of reading the image. Through Private Parts I met some of the early Colab people like Becky Howland, Alan Moore, Tom Otterness and some others. Through these connections I learned about the Times Square Show. Little by little I got to know those artists, and I participated in the TSS but perhaps more importantly in the long term I got involved with Collaborative Projects and specifically ABC No Rio. Gallery opportunities arrived in the mid 80s, so I also started to develop my solo career simultaneously.
My work in the Times Square Show was characteristic of what I was developing at that time. In a piece like Remaking the Past, the viewer is confronted with how problematic it is to make out what is going on in the image: it is rather murky and chaotic. This is one of the very earliest drawings that lead to a long series of works through the early to mid 80s that worked on this problem of complicating the logo, the image and representation in general. My process was concerned with saturating the image, and making it more complicated and more difficult than the immediate recognizability that we think of in terms of advertising or propaganda or logo. In Remaking the Past, in particular, it is pretty complicated to see what is going on… There is some architectural imagery in it. There are two figures: they are very ghostly male and female figures. The atmosphere is very dim and difficult to make out. The hardcore scene that was developing at that time influenced me. It had a kind of eff-you aesthetic. If you didn't like it that was fine; that was ok. The work was about not playing the game of representation, and almost destroying that game.
Of course the location of Times Square was the main thing. No one had ever thought of going to Times Square, and I don't know if you can imagine what it was like at the time. Really, no one would go there except to get drugs or to see X-rated movies. There was literally no other reason you would go to that area. To mount an art show of young people doing crazy — but politically motivated — things in Times Square was a confrontation of the power structure that controlled that space. The artists that gathered and showed their work at the Times Square Show, it seems to me, shared only one thing in common. We all involved ourselves in issues that ran parallel to, or fed into, epistemological questions of American wealth, sex, class and power.
At the Times Square Show, chaotic energy manifested a creative process that generated richly organized patterns that teetered on the complexly stable and the complexly unstable. My experience of Jack Smith's performance/slide show at the Times Square Show perhaps best exemplifies this trend. The first thing I remember about Jack Smith, and his performance at Times Square in particular, is that you never knew when his performances started or ended, so he deconstructed the standard narrative of beginning, middle, and end. There was a kind of rigidity to his speaking — maybe not rigidity — but a repetition and a kind of rigor to the rhythm of the slides and the rhythm of his rambling voice. He had a very strange voice. He was very interesting in that way. It was a little bit like there was no back stage, no front stage. You didn't know where to stand. You were kind of next to him and maybe also in the audience. I had seen other slideshow performances that he had done. The TSS performance was particularly complicated to know what was the performance and what was not. And I liked that because in that way, the frame dissipated. I really enjoyed that feeling of complexity and chaos coming together. It excited me. Afterwards I thought a lot about Jack's performance and how that ambiguity was a benefit not a detriment to the work, and it made me want to pursue ambiguity even more. It was very inspiring.
As told to Shawna Cooper, May 21, 2012
Joseph Nechvatal (b. 1951, Chicago, IL)
Joseph Nechvatal earned a BFA from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois in 1974. He attended Cornell University, Ithaca, NY and Columbia University, New York, NY. The artist graduated with a Ph.D. from the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, University of Wales, Newport, U.K. in 1999. In the 1970s and 1980s, he exhibited his drawings at New York City venues including ABC No Rio, Brooke Alexander Gallery, The Kitchen, Peizo Electric, P.S. 1, and White Columns. Nechvatal is a professor at The School of Visual Arts, New York, NY. Additional information is available online at http://www.nechvatal.net/.