Originally published in Flash Art International no. 133, April 1987.
I met Helene Winer when she was still at Artists Space. I met her during one of my reconnaissance trips to New York in the late 1970s. At the time I was close friends with RoseLee Goldberg (she introduced me to Helene, and Jack Goldstein), and when I was in town I hung out with a group of critics, curators, and artists who frequented SoHo – most notably David Salle, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, and Sherry Levine, among others. On one of those trips I had also met Douglas Crimp, then managing editor of October and theorist of appropriation art and the “Pictures” generation artists who would soon conquer the American art scene and beyond. After his seminal exhibition “Pictures” in 1977 at Artists Space, Crimp published an essay, “About Pictures,” in Flash Art no. 88-89, March-April 1979, in which he reflected on the work of that generation of artists.
In New York things were changing at an enormous speed compared to Europe, and three of our correspondents from New York, Thomas Lawson, Valentin Tatransky, and Carrie Rickey, kept me constantly updated on what was happening.
When I returned to New York in 1980, Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring (formerly at Leo Castelli Gallery) were about to launch their new gallery, Metro Pictures. During that trip I visited the studios of all the artists featured in their inaugural show, which promised to be the most striking event of the New York season, especially since that artist cohort was getting a lot of attention from art insiders.
Flash Art was one of the first European magazines to critically nurture their efforts, which came in the wake of French poststructuralist theory and post- conceptualism.
At the opening, on November 14, all the most important people in the New York scene were there, including Mary Boone, who would open her gallery shortly thereafter. The show mapped out an entire generation of artists who literally transformed the way we see and understand representational art. This new way of making art that I witnessed that day, in which “original” images and the attempt to see art as an expression of originality were now outdated concepts, perfectly expressed the historical moment. We were entering a phase in which the image was multiplied in all systems and by all means, and this in turn modified both our vision and our sense of self within the world.
I thought all this deserved attention. At the time I didn’t think they would become stars of the art system (no one can ever really predict that with certainty), but their attitude toward the image and their distance from conceptual art and all other previous pictorial or representational methods struck a chord with me.
At a certain point Andy Warhol arrived, came to greet us and invited us to the Factory. It was somewhat like seeing a father confronting his children.
– Helena Kontova
To originate an innocent, expressive, personal one-shot statement is an anachronism. Expressionism embarrasses me.
– Helene Winer
Paul Taylor: How old is Metro Pictures now?
Janelle Reiring: We opened the gallery in November 1980, so it’s over six years old.
PT: Did you consider that you were opening with a program?
JR: Yes. At first all the artists were people who Helene had shown at Artists Space. Now there are about three or four new ones.
PT: Who makes the decisions about what gets shown?
Helene Winer: We both do, equally.
PT: What was the genesis of the gallery? For how long were you talking about it?
HW: Not very long before we opened. We’re good old friends, and we talked about a gallery, which really didn’t interest me at all, except that there were these artists who interested me and obviously they were all reaching a point where they were going to show separately or together or however. There were no galleries for them, so we just thought, “why don’t we do it?” and we thought about it for two weeks, and after a real boring vacation we came back and thought, “let’s do it.” Prior to opening Janelle started showing the artists at her loft in TriBeCa, not because it was a pseudogallery, but because more and more people were becoming interested in these artists’ work. Janelle and I were both working, and people would come over at night to look at some work. We financed our gallery that way.
PT: Which are the galleries you admire most?
JR: The older galleries are Leo Castelli and Sonnabend, and on the next level is Paula Cooper. I think it’s really important for a gallery to have an identity. The galleries I admire most are the ones that change and don’t just show third- and fourth- generation artists doing the same kind of work as the originals in the gallery.
PT: Was working at Leo Castelli’s your first job?
JR: It was my first full-time job in the art world. When I got out of school I was more involved in publishing and editing. When I first came to New York I worked for a newspaper for the United Nations.
PT: Is being a gallery director similar to being an editor or publisher?
JR: It’s more like being a literary agent.
PT: And are you the business partner of the gallery?
JR: Business is so naïve in the art world, compared to anything else. I certainly had more experience of the commercial aspects of art. I think it only took Helene about six months for her to know absolutely as much as I did.
PT: Around a year ago you started showing a whole slew of new artists. Is this a regurgitation of what you did first with your original group of unknowns?
JR: We’ve periodically shown new people, like the two German artists Werner Büttner and Martin Kippenberger, and René Daniëls from the Netherlands. Obviously if the art world hadn’t changed so much after 1980 we would have continued to do a lot more group shows of new young artists. Now suddenly there are hundreds of galleries in SoHo and the East Village showing new artists, so there wasn’t that need.
PT: Did you feel in 1980 that the art was part of some scene — a new wave scene or whatever?
PT: What happened to that scene?
HW: It dissipated, like most do. Happily many of the artists didn’t disappear. It wasn’t one of those phenomena that appear to be a movement and then the whole thing disintegrates. It did displace a weak, just prior activity. What came immediately before it wasn’t very secure anyway. Then there was the other thing — the pattern painting, and something called “pluralism.” That obviously wasn’t a very tough kind of thing to displace. Something much stronger, more articulated, had to happen, so that was the moment.
PT: You put on the “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space in 1977. Was that the first formulation of the Metro Pictures stable?
HW: In those days there were very few artists dealing with certain issues — surprisingly, when you look around now, everyone in the world is.
PT: What do you call those issues?
HW: A kind of real engagement of contemporary cultural information as generated through the images of our society. You see, not everyone was in that show. There would have been additional people, but we didn’t want to show anyone who had already shown at Artists Space. So therefore Matt Mullican and David Salle weren’t in it, although they would have been. Cindy too.
PT: And you hired Douglas Crimp, who at that time must have just joined the editors of the then-new magazine October?
HW: He wrote the text and selected the artists. We looked at work together and talked about what was going on and what kind of premise the show had. The text, obviously, has been enormously influential. But it was Sherrie Levine, as far as I know, who kept using the word “appropriation” to distinguish a certain kind of work. I actually came to find it boring that that little concept — not Sherrie’s use of it — could become a major art issue of the 1980s. I find that a little hard to accept. It was an omnipresent idea that almost all the artists who were interesting thinkers were touching on.
PT: Maybe the term was ultimately misappropriated. What happened to Troy Brauntuch, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince?
HW: Troy wanted to go to Mary Boone Gallery where he thought he’d have a better time. Sherrie was unhappy, but we’re friendly now and she’s in group shows here…
PT: Do you think that the recent group show you put on with younger artists reveals them to be as promising as the older group?
HW: Oh, really, very much so, the first time…
PT: Do you think Julie Wachtel might be the next Cindy Sherman?
HW: This is the first emergence of a wave of something that I’m sympathetic to and interested in. I think Peter Halley and Ashley Bickerton are both extremely interesting now, and there are also Haim Steinbeck and Gretchen Bender. I’m sympathetic to a certain type of work, and I’m happy to see it coming on strong in a new form again. I’m not a seer about what exactly can come out of that. I think there’s a moment when a lot of artists converge, and they appear to be peers working together. I basically like conceptually, theoretically based work that takes on a really sound physical presence, a really effective public presentation. All of these artists are smartly conscious of presenting art in a particular context to a particular audience and still making it operate on that formal conceptual level.
PT: You don’t think it’s tiresome to bring up these same old ideas again?
HW: Well I don’t think it’s the same old ideas again. I think it’s the next level of sophistication. Why we see all this abstraction going on, this minimalism, is not because I think these artists are in any way interested in abstract art; it’s because they don’t want to deal with all this packed cultural data that we all know. I like the combination in their work of complete self-consciousness and the innocent level of its execution.
PT: Do you feel strongly about women’s art?
JR: That was a different group show, they weren’t all new artists. Firstly, I think there shouldn’t be the need for women’s shows, but doing a women’s show is nowadays a strange thing, because there was so much of it in the 1970s and now there is none of it. It was sort of an amusing thing to do. It’s not supposed to be done anymore.
PT: Who sells best?
JR: In terms of popularity, it would be Cindy. She has an incredible audience, and we sell a lot of her work, but there is a lot of work to sell because it’s in editions.
PT: Yes, she’s a real cover-girl artist.
JR: She transcends the art world more than any other of our artists.
PT: Of course a Longo painting was used on the cover for the new record by the Replacements. Is he the gallery’s biggest money-spinner?
JR: His work is definitely the most expensive. But he does very little work — a few large pieces a year.
PT: Is German art selling the way it used to in New York?
JR: I don’t know.
PT: Why did you invite Albert Oehlen, Büttner, and Kippenberger to exhibit last year?
JR: I saw their three-person show in Essen two years ago. Helene and I had seen work here and there. I was really knocked out by their show. We were essentially very impressed with both them and their art.
PT: To American eyes they might appear expressionistic.
HW: They do appear it, yes, but I view them very much the same as our other artists. They are using a different language from that cooler language which is used here. But essentially it’s the same thing — a quotation of a painting style that’s so overused it has become neutral. Theirs is a Northern European art language that we don’t share.
PT: By comparison, is our vernacular a kind of pop?
HW: Yes, you know, hard-edge-craft-slickness is the American original. I think painting
would be all over with now if artists weren’t able to quote, because to originate an innocent, expressive, personal one-shot statement is an anachronism. Expressionism embarrasses me.