It would be easy to find RoseLee Goldberg intimidating. On paper, she is. She’s the O.G multi-hyphenate, the pioneering art critic-teacher-historian-curator who brought to light a whole genre of art that had been ignored for years. She filled in the gaps of our sometimes shaky education, revealing that live art (interchangeably referred to as performance art), is as integral to the creative lexicon of the 20th and 21st centuries as—say—sculpture or painting. She wrote a seminal book about it. Titled Performance Art: From Futurism to Present, it hasn’t been out of print since it first hit shelves in the ‘70s, and has become a major staple throughout the global collegiate system. This year marks the book’s 40th anniversary. A milestone birthday made all the more exciting by the fact that it’s just been translated into a 13th language—Chinese.
Here’s what else you should know about RoseLee: She’s the founder of interdisciplinary organization Performa, the first and only live visual art performance biennial in the United States. (You’ve probably seen its logo floating around—it looks kind of like Supreme.) She loves all forms of dance, which she practiced nonstop in South Africa as a kid. She collects Comme des Garçons, has an archive of Kenzo, hates shopping, and claims that downtown Manhattan in the ‘70s was every bit as good as legend makes out. “Even better, absolutely,” she tells CR. “There were three bars, one bodega, and no street lamps. We owned everything below 14th street.” The “we” here refers to a crew of “forever friends,” including fellow critic Lucy Lippard and artist Cindy Sherman.
The next Performa isn’t until November, but ahead of this weekend’s 2019 Venice Biennale, CR speaks to Goldberg about the unlikely way that Donald Trump is impacting the art industry, fashion, sexism, and much more.
How did growing up in South Africa shape your interest in art?
“It was an extraordinary place to live. I grew up during apartheid, and the horror of the politics forced a strong sense of consciousness from an early age, you couldn’t turn a blind eye to it. And then there was the good stuff, too: that special African light, waking up to Zulu songs playing on the radio, walking down the street and seeing traditional dress. There was multiculturalism in South Africa, before that word was even a thing. At school, our art history lessons started with bushman paintings.”
Why performance art, specifically?
“I studied dance from a very young age. I did tap, Spanish, traditional, and then Bharatanatyam, which was unheard of at the time. I danced professionally alongside my art history studies, until I moved to London to attend the Courtauld Institute and had to pick a side. I did my dissertation on Oskar Schlemmer and Bauhaus performance as a way to resolve my conflict. In his diaries, Schlemmer talks about his personal dilemma of choosing between dance and paint. I finally felt like I had found someone who understood me.”
Did you expect to write a book?
“I don’t think anyone ever expects to write a book, at least I didn’t. I didn’t think about it being a success, either. It was just what I desired to do and so I was doing it [writing]. By the time it came out in 1979, I was in New York and running The Kitchen, which was then in SoHo. I was giving Cindy Sherman her first solo show and we put all of her work up with thumb tacks. I invited everyone to come and buy a piece for . Then we did a party for the book, too. That downtown crowd, we were all very connected at the time, so everyone showed up.”
When you were researching Performance Art: From Futurism to Present, was it female performance artists in particular who were going undocumented?
“Being South African, I was aware from a very early age that prejudice of all kinds and racism of all kinds was unacceptable. It was always an urgent matter to think about. If anything, I was surprised by the lack of awareness when I first came to America. I went to these meetings at Lucy Lippard’s loft and met so many unbelievable female artists, but the narrative in the media and in the books being published was shockingly behind the times. Throughout the last 100 years, women were all the dancers—finding ways of entering the art world by other means, often very conceptually. It’s still a reference today: Artists chose performance as a medium, because it’s not as hard to break through and connect with people.”
Where do you stand on the label of ‘female artist’ now? Should it be retired if we’re aiming for non-gendered equality?
“I think that it can work all ways. Most people don’t give themselves labels, unless they are making them the topic of their work. In certain instances, applying terms can actually be very powerful. Bringing together a specific group can trigger people to think about things differently. It can move the conversation forward.”
Historically-speaking, great art has been galvanized by tough politics. Do you think that’s the case today?
“Yes. New York was bankrupt in the ‘70s, and there was a strong notion of activism around that time. We’re in trouble again politically, and artists want the conversation to be powerful. Things can get lulled when we’re in safe waters, but the knobs are being turned up to full volume right now.”
What decade have you found the least exciting, art-wise?
“The ‘80s were a little shocking to me. I wasn’t expecting a total swing of the pendulum. The ‘70s had been such a pure time. Our circle was about ethics and ideas, and we were against the marketplace. Then the ‘80s came and it was the beginning of the Reagan years—and that was unnerving. It was the rise of the money class, the beginnings of collectors, and the birth of the yuppie. It was the only time I felt a sense of loss. I was saddened by the community’s commercialism. Nobody likes to hear me say that, though, so I don’t talk about it much.”
Where do you draw the line between art and fashion?
“It feels like everyone is crossing over in one way or another, there is such a merged intersection now. I love Heron Preston and strong designers like Virgil Abloh and Wales Bonner. I think it’s extraordinary the performances these designers stage for 20 minutes. In my own life, I’m very much a uniform person. It was Kenzo in the early days and now its Comme des Garçons. Usually all dark colors. I did just see the Prada Resort show though, so maybe I should gear myself up for something oversized and in color.”
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