JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Daniel Levine: You give yourself many options to work with, such as drawing, sculpture, projections, film, photography, painting, and installation. Within these options, your choice of themes is very singular and of a private world. You use popular ephemera and fictions under a big theme, the title, “Drawn From Life.”
Allen Ruppersberg: Well, I’ve always been quite restless in my interests. The “Drawn From Life” title is also one of many titles. You can say that there’s a repertoire of big theme titles that continually recur.
Levine: The word “drawn” … is it for you a matter of taking, creating, or “drawing”?
Ruppersberg: It’s meant to be a multiple reading, but in actuality it’s mostly about taking. The idea of creating initially doesn’t come in at all. At first, it’s simply a matter of selecting subject matter that fits the category. The presentation comes later and develops from research into a subject. The research can also provide different contexts for the same information – that’s why things keep recurring. The context of things is, ultimately, what is most interesting to me.
Levine: In regard to your work, when I use the term “creating,” I’m thinking of the choices. They’re yours. You’re not accepting the given – its inherent meaning. You do accept the potential and the particular value of the medium chosen, but you don’t let it limit you.
Ruppersberg: No. I’m primarily concerned that the idea and the particular medium I choose as a form of presentation might or might not correspond to the original subject matter. I’m now putting together a soundtrack for a novel/sculpture/film I’ve just completed.
The first international show of conceptual art and the first that I participated in was titled “When Attitudes Become Form”; its subtitle was “Live in Your Head.” I was pretty young then, but there couldn’t be a better description, then or now, as to how I proceed to make art. I’ve primarily been concerned with the idea of things and that every idea has its own form of presentation.
The traditional categories of art – painting, sculpture, etc. – are now definitely interchangeable. The confusion of categories, styles and genres is pervasive. But when I say one idea can only be expressed in one form, that form can be anything at all, artistic or not. It’s like an invention: the form is made up also. The idea that this can go with that is more theoretically evolved now than it was 20 years ago and the idea of modernist purity, one thing having a property or character that won’t accept something else or is defined through its own specific characteristics, doesn’t exist anymore at all. I like things that are more on the verge of definition.
Levine: In terms of the culture and its material, you seem to have always put emphasis on popular culture, low art, and its remnants – the stuff we usually throw away.
Ruppersberg: Part of that stems from my feeling that what always seems overlooked and neglected is more interesting than what’s right out in front. Baudelaire said something about modern art saving the ephemeral things that disappear without a trace. It is interesting that within the last 10 years these neglected areas of culture have now moved to the forefront.
Levine: Certain subcultures have. But you never depended on stylization.
Ruppersberg: I never stuck to one thing, that’s true. I failed at that.
Levine: There’s still a continuum, though.
Ruppersberg: There is, but it’s more difficult to see if you don’t pay close attention. One of my intentions is that there not be any identifiable style in the end, only a collection of ideas about art and the world.
Levine: The theme of the overlooked continues throughout but, in terms of material that you use, what is it that is still overlooked?
Ruppersberg: Well, I continue to see things that are overlooked because as I evolve so does the overlooked. But things and ideas do get used up. That’s true for any artist. In this case, however, it’s tied to a popular imagination, and sometimes you find your approach and the material that you’re using can somehow roll right along together.
Levine: Your work, even though it’s very specific in its sources, presentation, and narratives, doesn’t give all the answers. It’s a loaded and very complete form, but it doesn’t tell me everything that I need to know. I find myself trusting work like yours. I don’t have to become involved in what you want to say; I can have my own interpretations. There’s no right way to view it. Certain work tries to evoke an idea of trust – certain kinds of painting, Body Art, Scatter or Political Art – but it’s all so pre-determined, packaged. It demands that I believe in it but there’s no way that I can. Your work doesn’t ask that of the viewers. The viewers ask a lot of themselves.
Ruppersberg: The work is not didactic, and what is given is limited by nature. The public has come to believe that if they see the same thing over and over again, like the artist who refines an idea endlessly, then it is serious and they can believe it. It seems to me that it’s much harder to believe in work that I can’t say much about. My work requires the viewers to go inside the piece before reading it; and then the relationships will make sense. The relationships don’t connect from the outside or even necessarily from piece to piece.
Levine: Do you view yourself as a creator?
Ruppersberg: I don’t see myself as a creator in the traditional sense. If there’s one thing that’s constantly brought to me from people looking at my work, it’s that they never can tell where the artist is, which is exactly what I want. I don’t put myself in there as a specific author. Although there is always a voice to the work, viewers have to search for an author.
Levine: And they find themselves.
Ruppersberg: Yes, they find themselves. Exactly.
Levine: That’s why viewers can ultimately trust the work.
Ruppersberg: Yes. There’s no traditional presence of the artist/author in my work. Even though at times I use my hand, that hand is used in a common illustrational sense. I use all the techniques that I learned when I was studying to be a commercial artist. So even though there’s a very specific private notion of drawing, which was always supposed to be indicative of the artist at his most intimate, it really isn’t true here. The drawings confuse people. There isn’t the indication of privacy. That’s true of whatever medium I use or whatever kind of work I produce.
Levine: There are no real models that you use. They’ve all been rejected or you’ve gone beyond them. You still use a lot of ideas that you’ve continued to use for the last two decades or more, but they’ve become/are your own through the way the ideas have been transformed into your own voice.
Ruppersberg: The idea of discovering a voice was always a big concern since that would then become the connection between visually disparate works. This came mostly from studying literature. At first, you’re al-ways told of the role of the author’s voice. A writer writes what he knows, and that becomes his voice, but that is unteachable. So I took this very literary idea about voice and made it more about what it meant to find a voice than to actually use it.
Levine: I’m interested in the roles of the author and the reader. Both can give and take different things. There’s also the sense of responsibility: the reader is just as responsible as the author is. As a reader, do you project your own voice into novels?
Ruppersberg: I don’t view myself as an author. I’m definitely a reader and I project my voice into the works for others to read.
Levine: A lot of the books deal with the inside – the words, the transcription – but the covers, the outside, become a representation intended for the general public. There’s this split between two types of meaning: you have the words that have a very specific private narrative function for the reader, and then you have the complete presentation of the words, the book itself, in a more accessible, public form.
Ruppersberg: True. That kind of opposition is one of many that I like. There’s a variety of oppositional or contradictory ideas that are usually present in all the works in one way or another. I like all the elements in a work to oppose each other and then the work to oppose the aesthetic category that it’s placed in.
Levine: When you redid “The Picture of Dorian Gray” …
Ruppersberg: And Thoreau’s “Walden” …
Levine: Were they about the act of reading or writing? Where does your responsibility begin, and where does the audience’s responsibility come in?
Ruppersberg: My own voice is parallel to that of the author’s just as the audience’s responsibilities are parallel to mine. Some of these responsibilities are quite private and others are quite public. One aspect of copying “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was to teach myself how to write. The original premise was to conflate two forms of “reading” and “writing.” One involves narrative, and the other is a form of “visual” art that is read instantly. Its presence is read all at once. I’m a visual artist: I like the experience of seeing a work of art all at once. So my responsibility became: how was I to keep the book in its original form, retain its quality of how I originally read and experienced it, and how was I to translate it into a work that could be experienced all at once as a work of visual art for an audience outside the book. The work presents two parallel texts: one, a horizontal reading; the other, a vertical reading. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” provided the perfect vehicle for this project because it is a book about a painting that turns into an object with a life of its own.
Levine: You did a series of drawings where you wrote (drew) the time it took for you to read (draw) the book. Do you want viewers to have the same experience that you did?
Ruppersberg: Yes, but it has more to do with the comparison of the two texts – the reading and the looking and the confusion of the two. Reading time and drawing time are balanced half and half. It’s the same with “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Levine: There’s a real sense of normalcy here.
Ruppersberg: I hope so. The fascination with the passing of time could be said to be an overall theme of the work.
Levine: This interest in the passage of time: does it come from the idea of reading, the way a narrative functions in a book where time can slip (a second in real time can take up thirty pages of narrative time), or does it come out of Minimalist art?
Ruppersberg: Both. Slippage in anything fascinates me, but mostly it comes from reading and from film. The dual passage of real and narrative time enhanced by narrative devices is what hooks me. Although the aspect of Minimalism that presented the theatrical aspect of the viewer being there in time as an integral part of the work itself is incorporated also. I wanted a way to “stretch-out” a work of art so you can put more into it – like a novel.
Levine: You’re still using film and film stills but not as pictures.
Ruppersberg: They’re film stills.
Levine: What about time here?
Ruppersberg: I like the idea of the moment and the emotions and ideas that are read in that moment. Each moment is like an object and I tend to use it in that way. Film stills seem to be read more rapidly than most photography and the juxtaposition of the two gives me another element to use in the search for a use of time.
Levine: There are always different types of narrative available to you as an author, and the use of the role of an author is similar in some ways to an artist like Richard Prince – to his writing mostly. Although he is absorbed in original, pure qualities and forms – basic visual presentations – he has created a persona for himself as character and as author. You deal with similar ideas (one will probably come out of this interview). Your work is not as much of a self-reflective narrative – it’s more from the outside.
Ruppersberg: Again, I’m more absent. I really like the idea of being a cultural flaneur, if you will.
Ruppersberg: The act of wandering out and investigating the urban world. It’s redolent of the 19th century with its introduction of an urban landscape where people came out to stroll and observe each other. The dictionary defines it as an idler, dawdler, or loafer. I have always been more interested in culture than in the city itself. So I’m more of a cultural flaneur. There are no judgements or opinions, just observations.
Levine: Do you pick things for what they say or don’t say?
Ruppersberg: I think I pick them for what they don’t say. I have more room to move around. Richard and I are interested in different ends, but both present similar facts.
Levine: With different types of representation, your work does reflect certain values, overcomes limitations of form, and is able to resonate more deeply . This goes back to the idea of trust. Do you see your work as reflecting or representing real values or art values?
Ruppersberg: Real values. I don’t even know what art values are supposed to be. It should connect on psychological and emotional levels, and even, you could say, on spiritual levels. The art is to choose the meaningful from the not meaningful. The transient, the ephemeral, contingency and coincidence, are all used to form a structure to build the work on. I’m trying to translate why these things exist and are important and also to simultaneously push to the foreground the act of their translation into art. When I make something, what I try to do is make it look like nothing has happened. But in that process, of course, a lot has to happen. I try for a very complex structure to support a simple vernacular image. I also have to be very conscientious that it doesn’t go over into self-indulgence and simply become some kind of personal reverie or nostalgia.
I want distance from viewers thinking about me as the artist, but I want them to get as close to the piece as possible. In the end I don’t want them any closer to me. Personal art with a catch. There is a quality in all the pieces that comes down to distance in art. My distance and their distance.
Levine: You’re more the man behind the curtain?
Ruppersberg: Not quite behind the curtain (laughs). I always thought that if I were in a rock and roll band that I would rather be the drummer or rhythm guitarist than the lead singer, or something like that. The work always has a distance; it’s simultaneously hot and cold. Hot/cold, private/public, lost/found, past/present, The Sky Above/The Mud Below, fiction/nonfiction, art/nonart, life/death – all the contradictions I can find. I’ve always been quite restless, what can I say?
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.