Art Education: a conversation with Julia Klein of Soberscove Press

June 28, 2013 · Print This Article

Soberscove Press, the brainchild of sculptor Julia Klein (MFA Bard College, BFA University of Michigan), turns four years old this year. Since Klein founded the press, she has sought to publish “art-related material that is difficult to access and/or that fills a gap in the literature… material whose audience is primarily limited to specialists because it is in archives, not in translation, out-of-print, and/or whose readership is limited due to the demands of peer-review scholarly publishing.” Subjects of Soberscove books have included work by and about the Russian group Collective Actions, Nancy Shaver, and Kristin Lucas; another area of focus is in the writings of artists, such as early writing by Scott Burton.

But it’s the press’ focus on rereading histories of art we think we know, based on archival transcripts of conversations between artists, that seems to interest Klein the most. She has published books on the 1965 Waldorf Panels on Sculpture and the 1950 Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35, a closed three-day heated conversation about the contemporary art scene among artists who would later be called “Abstract Expressionists,” organized and recorded by Robert Goodnough, a then-graduate student in NYU’s MA Studio Program, which was located in the School of Education. The book is an impassioned, often surprising, time capsule– and one that often undermines our common understanding of the theoretical commitments of different camps of artists in the fifties and sixties.

This year Soberscove released another book of writings by Goodnough, who went on to be a fairly well-known abstract painter; Subject Matter of the Artist served as a thesis project for Goodnough and is comprised of interviews he undertook with many artists, from Rothko to Pollock, about abstraction. I talked with Klein about the book soon after its release at Alderman Exhibitions last month.

MW: I read Subject Matter of the Artist last night and was really surprised at Goodnough’s project– he was quite literally interviewing NY school artists to ask them about the attitudes toward their subject matter that they have in the absence of recognizable objects. It seems like such an obvious or naive question to ask right now given the art history we’ve inherited about this period, but the answers from the various artists are nuanced and enlightening. He also uses strange theoretical vocabulary like “intrasubjective” (no mention of abstract expressionism). To me, the book does a few things: it radically contextualizes art from the time and corrects some of our anachronistic mythology; it shows especially how radical at the time it was to do abstraction at the time (which I still can’t wrap my head around); and it gives a sense of the individualism of artists whom we lump together today. What do you think of this gloss? What seems most salient about Goodnough’s writing here to you?

JK: Yeah, “abstract expressionism” isn’t a term that came up until a little later and in Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 (1950), you “hear” the artists who became known as the Abstract Expressionists contesting not only their name, but whether they were/should be considered a group at all. The mythology around Abstract Expressionism is complicated and we’ve definitely received a flattened and manageable version of what was going on then, which was of course more complicated and not as neat. I’m glad you got this from the book. There’s an art historian writing about this now and I’m really into her stuff– Valerie Hellstein. From her 2010 dissertation: “While Abstract Expressionism has come to signify heroic individuality and Cold War patriarchy, I want to suggest that it signifies the very obverse—radical community that recognized separate-togetherness.”

Goodnough’s project is appealing to me for its curiosity and humbleness- he was involved in the problem of non-representational subject matter and he wanted to talk about it with the leading artists of his time in order to understand it better himself, as well as to help art students and non-artists understand it better; it was weird and off-putting to a lot of people then (probably still). As Helen Harrison’s introduction points out, it’s odd that this document isn’t wider known and that is especially interesting to me…. I am pleased to be able to make it available through the publication of the book. I’m also very pleased and proud to be able to publish Goodnough’s writings (though this isn’t all of them…there are others that weren’t in the purview of this book, which is focused on exactly what the title describes).

MW: Can you talk a little bit about how you came to this book, particularly its relationship to previous books you’ve published at Soberscove? I’d also love to hear some history of the press (I may have been Judith’s TA when you started it– if I remember correctly). It’s rare to see an artist start a press rather than open a gallery….

JK: I first learned about Goodnough when I was working for the publisher George Braziller in NYC from 2002-2004. Helen Harrison was organizing a show at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center about Goodnough and around this time she sent out a proposal to publish Goodnough’s writitings to a number of publishers, including Braziller. He declined, but through it I learned and got very excited about one of the texts in the proposal, Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 (1950), the 3-day series of meetings that Goodnough had suggested, organized and then edited. The transcript seemed liked essential reading to me — historically, as well as because of its accessible and clear discussion of art-making and related issues. I didn’t really pay attention to the other writings though, and when I tracked down Goodnough several years later to inquire about rights, he showed me the other writings but I still didn’t get it. I was lucky to meet him and his wife Miko (and recently their daughter Kathy) and to see his studio and interview him, and I’m sorry I didn’t realize the value in publishing ALL of the writings in the proposal at the time. I feel sad that he didn’t get to see his own writings published as a collection (instead of just the Studio 35 transcript, which he did see before he died), but this is the way it went…so now there are two books that came out of a proposal for a single book.

The press started because of Studio 35, as I described above. It felt important, and it was a good excuse to do  some research around a subject that interested me. It gave me a reason to go to archives. And it also allowed me to work on a project with a defined goal, which I needed at the time. In the process of looking for Studio 35 related material, I found the material for Waldorf Panels on Sculpture (1965). All of that points to some of the reasons why the press is important to me: it satisfies the part of me that likes scholarly work; learning about one thing leads to another; I like sharing material that excites me; I get to meet people that interest me through these projects. I like too the feeling of having a relationship with the past and having a role in pushing certain things into the future (often forgotten or difficult to share for whatever reason). Its a different position than that of an academic, with different responsibilities and also different pleasures. As an artist, publishing is also an area that allows me to share and trumpet material that is important to me, but it’s less personal than my art.

As for doing this instead of a gallery, that was never a choice for me. I think there are parts of running a gallery that could be fun, but I have no patience for all the details involved in exhibition-making (as a job anyway). Book-making has details too, for sure (and hopefully I’m getting better at them), but I can work on my own timetable and… I don’t know, it’s just different process. Books are also cheaper than most art, and easy to give away (though I need to get better at selling rather than just giving away!). They also travel easier. My family’s relationship with books is also important, now that I think about it, as is my respect for scholarly work. And also having watched and learned from Braziller and seen what it was for him (from my perspective anyway).

MW: Can you explain what Studio 35 is a little bit?

JK: In 1948, William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and David Hare, began a small cooperative school in New York City called “The Subjects of the Artist School”; it closed in less than a year, and three teachers from NYU (Robert Iglehart, Hale WÃ¥oodruff and Tony Smith), took over the space and continued the artist presentations that the school had been doing, but not as a formal school. This non-school was called “Studio 35” after the address, 35 East Eighth Street, and the Friday evening talks were continued until April of 1950. Robert Goodnough, who had been helping his instructors with the meetings of the second season, suggested that they try to sum up the meetings, and he organized, in discussion with his mentors, a closed, three-day series of meeting. Goodnough, who wrote his paper, “Subject Matter of the Artist,” in the same year, then substantially edited the transcripts for publication in Modern Artists in America, a book published by Wittenborn Schultz in 1951, edited by Ad Reinhardt and Robert Motherwell. Modern Artists in America was initially supposed to be an annual yearbook of avant-garde art, then a bi-annual; ultimately, only one volume was published.

MW: I love the Hellstein quote from the beginning of our conversation that you offered about “radical community that recognized separate-togetherness.” Do you see any of that impulse in other art scenes, especially contemporary ones? Or to put it another way, are there refractions of this atmosphere that you recognize?

I love that quote too and I’d be curious to hear what other people have to say about your question. I think that impulse is probably always around in some way, and I think the way communities are organized or cohere has a lot to do with timing and the fortuitous coming together of a lot of things. There are plenty of groups working together in different ways today, but I don’t know if historically the impulse is stronger now than at other times. I’m curious. As far as I’m concerned, who doesn’t want separate-togetherness? I have recently been thinking about this because I’m in France now (at the amazing Terra Foundation Summer Residency in Giverny), and the two French artists that I’ve gotten to know are both part of collectives. One of the collectives, W, shares a space just outside of Paris in which the artists’ working areas are distinct from one another, but not separated by walls–pretty intimate. There is a big open workshop/exhibition space on the first floor, below the studio. The collective space began as a way for the members to show work (their own and others) without being tied to/relying on any kind of institutional or mercantile organization. Central to the group is a shared sense of importance in discussion around the process of making work–discussion about the purpose and the goals of the work and the events, shows, books, articles, etc that factor into the work’s making—prior to finished or exhibited work. (http://w-atelier-w.fr/artistes/) The other group RADO, is made up of artists with distinct practices (sculpture, protography, video, etc) who are interested in the forms and conditions of a collective art practice. These artists came together during the seminar “Des Territoires” with art historian Jean-Francois Chevrier at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and they continue to work on projects around “specific territories” in a way that prioritizes working with non-artists in non-art spaces. (http://www.groupe-rado.org/) Come to think about it, the other American artist here is also involved in collective work as part of a group in LA, D3 (www.d-three.org), though this group is smaller and more focused in its approach. All of these groups were consciously organized and named (which is not true for the Ab Exers), but I’m struck by the fact that and the way in which each has created its own particular mode of separate-togetherness.

MW: Can you give a brief rundown of the Soberscove press books that have been published? What titles are in the future of the press? Do you have any hunches for future topics you’d like to explore?

JK: soberscove.com! I listed the three Ab Ex-related books already; the others are collections: Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art and Performance, 1965-1975, edited by David J Getsy; Collective Actions: Audience Recollections from the First Five Years, 1976-1981, edited + translated by Yelena Kalinsky; and also two artists books: Henry at Home, Nancy Shaver; Refresh, Kristin Lucas. There are five artists (actually six, one of the “artists” is actually a collaborative pair) currently working on artists’ books for a new Soberscove series of books for children (and grownups!) — these should be out by November, I hope. “The Place of Sculpture in Daily Life,” by British writer Edmund Gosse, includes a 1895 series of essays from the British Magazine of Art. This will be edited by Martina Droth, with a foreword by David Getsy and is due in early 2014. Also due in early 2014 is “Learning by Doing at the Farm: Craft, Science and Counterculture in Modern California,” which is being put together by Robert Kett and Anna Kryczka (from Chicago!), both of whom are currently at UC- Irvine.  Here’s some early info about this last book:

Beginning in 1968, the University of California, Irvine was host to an experiment in intercultural exchange and artistic and social scientific learning through practice. The experiment brought indigenous people from Guatemala, Mexico, and Samoa to an undeveloped plot on campus known as the Social Sciences Farm, a space for these visitors to demonstrate their crafts and a laboratory for new methods in education and research as well as a gathering site for members of the countercultural movement. An unlikely and often bizarre history, UCI’s “Farm” (literally, an out-of-use farm on university property) brought into intimate and unpredictable proximity key historical currents of the time – Cold War science and development, experimental social scientific research, youthful countercultural protest, and the silent centrality of various “others” to all of these projects.Through this collision, the Farm would become a site for interrogating the relation between living and learning more broadly. This volume offers an introductory essay that reflects upon the experiment at the Farm and offers rich documentation (photos, film stills, documents, etc) of the events that unfolded there.

 

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