Andrew Russeth: Following 16 miles of string through the art world

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

 Andrew Russeth is a New York based art critic and co-executive editor of ARTnews. From 2011 to 2014, he edited The New York Observer's GalleristNY, a website he co-founded about the New York art world. His writing has appeared in W, New York, Bijutsu Techo,  Modern Painters, and other publications, as well as catalogues for shows at the Whitney Museum, the Studio Museum, and  other museums and galleries. In 2005 he started 16 Miles of String, a blog about contemporary art and art history in New York that was supported by the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program. In 2013, he was named Critic of the Year in the Rob Pruitt Awards.  

Andrew in front of Florine Stettheimer's Model (Nude Self-Portrait) (circa 1915) at the Portland Museum of Art. Photo credit: Lauretta Charlton.

Andrew in front of Florine Stettheimer's Model (Nude Self-Portrait) (circa 1915) at the Portland Museum of Art. Photo credit: Lauretta Charlton.

 Brett Wallace: What was your origin in art?

Andrew Russeth: Good question. My parents always took me to art museums. I grew up in Minneapolis and I remember going to the Walker early on and I was excited. And the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden across the street was fantastic. And Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s great “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” which I think is one of their best sculptures. I grew up with that and always loved that. So I have fond memories of going there, and then we moved to Jersey when I was pretty young. And so, as a kid, I was going to MoMA and there was a Bonnard show at MoMA in 1998 when I would have been 14 or so. I remember being, like, “Wow, this is pretty cool and heavy.”

And then, when I was a little bit older, I saw the Gerhard Richter show at MoMA in 2002. And he was, of course, the guy who did the covers for Sonic Youth albums, such as  ”Daydream Nation.” So he was extra cool in my book, and art seemed cool, and that’s how it started. 

Gerhard Richter, Kerze (Candle), 1983, 95 cm x 90 cm, Oil on Canvas for a Sonic Youth album cover.

Gerhard Richter, Kerze (Candle), 1983, 95 cm x 90 cm, Oil on Canvas for a Sonic Youth album cover.

BW: Were you into the punk-rock scene or skateboarding?

AR: I skateboarded when I was super young, like 5th, 6th, 7th grade, and was into alternative music. I wish I was cool enough to have been in the Jersey punk scene or something in the ‘90s, but yeah, I was into Noise and stuff like that.

BW: You went to Columbia for undergrad, then Pace for grad school. What did you focus on in school?

AR: I focused in art in undergrad — I did art and political science because I thought I would go to law school, but I wasn’t very good at the LSAT.   That was a good indication I should not go to law school. So I took art history at Columbia and had Rosalind Krauss as my first teacher, for a lecture class, who made art seem very exciting and sexy and a matter of great importance, and so yeah. That was really what made me want to be kind of an art professional; kind of seeing what she was able to do and the way she was able to talk about art through endless depths of knowledge and insane, and crazy and amazing theories.  And then, after, I did Teach for America. That’s when I got the MS in teaching in an early childhood education.

BW: Were there a series of odd jobs that you worked before ArtNews?

AR: After school, I did not know exactly what I was going to do. I messed up the LSAT twice, I think, because my problem was that I never really studied for it, because I hated it so much, and so I would go in, and then I would just be like, “This is not going well!” and I would cancel the score. So yeah, I did Teach for America because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but that felt like a meaningful, worthwhile thing to do. I ended up being near Colombia — I was in South Harlem, just for two years, and I taught second grade, and then fourth-fifth grades. I taught Special Ed.

 I was all set to do that for a third year, I loved it, and then got a job at BLOUIN ARTINFO as it’s now called. And yeah, that was a miracle and a stroke of luck. And I think about that all the time. I had been blogging a little bit, and that helped me — I was like, “Okay, like, I don’t have clips.”  hadn’t really written for the high school or for the college newspaper, but I blogged a lot. And so I was able to go to them and say, “Oh, I have opinions.” And so I’ve worked at ARTINFO for about a year and a half, and then worked at a gallery for a little bit, and then went to The Observer when they were starting an art blog, which we called “GalleristNY.” And was there for three years, and that was a ball. It was fun working for a weekly newspaper. And for the last year and a half, I was one of the weekly critics, and that was fun to do because you just had to go out and see a ton of shows and come up with an opinion, generate some thoughts and feelings about this. Then, ARTnews came under new ownership, and I went over to it with Sarah Douglas, who was the culture editor at the Observer.

 BW: I learned ARTnews has been around for over 100 years. And is one of the oldest, if not the oldest art publication.

 AR: We are supposedly the oldest in America. We were founded in 1902. And, weirdly, it started as a weekly, which is such a strange thing to think about, that in 1902 it was publishing once a week as, like, a broadsheet kind of tabloid thing covering shows, covering the market—“There’s going to be an auction of these works or there’ll be a retrospective there.” It’s really weird. So, when I moved to ARTnews they weren’t doing a ton online, and so the idea was to develop something like we had at “The Observer,” kind of like a regular chronicle of the art world.

BW: How would you describe your goals?

AR: The goal has been kind of to create a really kind of on-the-ground, daily chronicle of what it’s like to be in the art world, that’s how I always think of it. We want to be sophisticated enough that our friends that work at Chelsea galleries are reading the website. But we also wanted to be accessible enough that those people who go to a museum and maybe go to Chelsea once or twice a year can feel like they’re part of the action. And so all this week, for example, we’ve been covering the auctions and market reports that go out every night, around midnight; our market reporter, Nate Freeman, writes about what sold, but he also writes in a way that’s accessible and exciting, talking about who was there and the feeling in the room, and, of course, the art.

It has been fun moving from a weekly to a more established brand where you’re working at a few different paces. We want to break news, we want to do gossip and reviews, but we also want to do incisive interviews and profiles that are reported out over the course of a few weeks or months. And then we have the magazine, which is a quarterly, where we can kind of step back and take some deeper dives into issues and things that are going on. 

BW: What parts of the art world are you personally most interested in? 

AR: As cliché as it sounds, whatever feels new, whatever is not being mentioned about elsewhere, generally speaking. For me, the most exciting thing is when a new gallery opens up or I find out about a new artist, and to kind of have the first chance to take a crack at explaining it.

BW: Would an example be your recent article on Faith Ringgold? 

AR: Well, that’s an interesting example. On the one hand, I was thinking of, “There’s a 22-year-old artist and nobody knows about them.” That’s great, and you get to help launch them. But at the same time, it’s also about discovering great artists who have been in the game a long time and having the opportunity to share that with other people who may not know their work. And, Faith Ringgold was, of course, a legendary figure for ‘60s art and activism and her children’s books, but also someone whose early work was too little known by some.

BW: Did you visit her for the interview?

AR: Yeah, I visited her out in Jersey. That was fun because I knew about her work from growing up and my parents reading her books to me, like “Tar Beach”. When I was teaching, I would also use her books with the kids. She did one of Martin Luther King called, “My Dream of Martin Luther King,” which is pretty incredible. She does the illustrating and writes the texts sometimes in those books. When I was going around preparing, babbling to my friends about her, my people didn’t recognize her name or work.  

She was just such an incredibly pivotal, amazing figure, who was protesting the Whitney and MoMA about their lack of inclusion of people of color and women, and was part of so many struggles and made really amazing paintings that feel very aligned with what is happening now. And then, as if she was not marginalized enough already by the mainstream, white art world, she decided to quilt. A black woman doing paintings, in the ‘70s, decides to start quilting, and those are also amazing. But now, the tide has turned. I wrote that article just as the Crystal Bridges Museum had acquired a piece. And you are beginning to see her work in museum collections more, so it was fun to visit her as all that stuff was happening.

 BW: How do manage multiple brands from your personal site to ArtNews?

AR: They’re probably blurred. 16 Miles of String was the blog where I started writing about art, and I kept doing it for quite a while and got a Creative Capital Warhol Foundation grant to support that, which was kind of an amazing, life-saving thing. Those groups are incredible for what they do. I wish I had more time to keep doing that because 16 Miles is kind of the repository for things that are just, like, too weird or too personal for other venues.

 BW: I think the last post was about Richard Prince’s dilapidated house project, right? 

AR: Yes. Someone had given me the coordinates for his “Second House” installation in Upstate New York that had been struck by lightning. It was such a weird thing because the Guggenheim acquired that house in 2005. And around two years later year lightning struck and destroyed it. And with Richard Prince you kind of have to question everything that happens; he always is making stuff up in interviews. And so I was kind of like, “Is this for real?” I want to go look at it. It was all burnt to the ground. So yeah, that was the most recent thing I did on there.

BW: Could you talk about the reference to Duchamp in 16 Miles of String? 

AR: Yeah, André Breton organized a show in ’42 of Surrealism at a mansion in Midtown Manhattan, where he hung up a bunch of works. Duchamp’s contribution was taking boatloads of string and stringing it from the wall to the floor to the ceiling, all over, so you almost had to crawl around the gallery. But I called the blog “16 Miles of String” because you read the accounts of this show, and in various interviews people say it’s like a mile of string he purchased, in another it’s two, all sorts of numbers. For some reason, the story of the piece keeps growing and growing and become more tangled. And then  eventually it becomes in some accounts “He had 16 miles of string!” Which would be a psychotic amount of string. No scholars seem to think it was actually 16 miles of string. It could have been a mile. So the idea of the blog was to say, “Well, I'm going to try, on this blog, to go out and document these kinds of things—weird artist spaces, hole-in-the-wall things, performances, and try to take photos, talk to the people there, and try to get that on record, what happened, so there won’t be this confusion.

John D. Schiff, Installation view of First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, showing Marcel Duchamp’s His Twine 1942, Gelatin silver print. Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother Alexina Duchamp. Philadelphia Museum of Art

John D. Schiff, Installation view of First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, showing Marcel Duchamp’s His Twine 1942, Gelatin silver print. Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother Alexina Duchamp. Philadelphia Museum of Art

BW:  What is your working style like? For example, do you avoid openings? Christian Viveros-Fauné told me he’s a deadline writer.

AR: I like that line from Christian. Yeah, I'm definitely a deadline writer. I feel like I really need massive amounts of paranoid trauma. I need to be, honestly, like at the point of real, true disaster, oftentimes, before I can do good writing. I work best when my editor needs a piece in five hours. I’ll start when I have, like, five hours because I know it will take me exactly five hours. And then, of course, I can revise later. But I think it tends to be the best approach because otherwise work takes the time you set aside for it. I'm also a morning writer. I'm incapable of doing much work at night — actually, I was very proud of myself last night. I edited something at, like, 11 o’clock at night — because I can edit at night. But my own stuff, I can't look at it.

Normally, I wake up, have a coffee, maybe go for a run. Or sometimes, wake up, have a coffee, write, run, and then write more. But by, like, 11:00 a.m. or noon, I can't write. That’s when I edit other people. Writing has to be first thing because it’s just so laborious. 

BW:  What or who inspires you?

AR: A few writers, for sure. Peter SchjeldahI is one. I admire anyone who has just been able to stay in the game for a long time and continue cranking it out at a high quality. That’s astonishing to me and, I think, so rare and so hard to do. And I think he has obviously done it. Obviously, the “Times” critics, people like Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter. And then, you know, looking further back, I’ve loved David Bourdon for a long time. I love John Perreault, who was an amazing “Village Voice” critic, among other things. He was especially great because he was just very open in his criticism. And also, I like him because you have the feeling of a guy who’s really on the scene and talking to a lot of people. But Henry McBride, as well — do you know him?

 BW: I don’t.

AR: He’s amazing. He was an art critic for “The Sun,” and wrote for other weird things, like “The Dial.” His criticism is very open and generous. He’s trying to figure it out along with you, and it’s so fun to read because he admits he’s just taking a stab at it.

BW: At one point, you mentioned that one of the most exciting things right now is the Met Breuer. And, your post talks positively about how they’ve reimagined that building.

AR: I was amazed by how negative some people were about the “Unfinished” show. Everyone was nitpicking. But my thing was that building is just incredible — we all know that building is incredible, but the Met has just polished that thing to a shine, honing details. Then they brought crazy masterpieces from all over the world and installed them in these spaces for “Unfinished.” You know, those crazy old Turners and Titians, that amazing Leonardo drawing. That said, their approach to contemporary art is still deeply questionable, I think.

BW: Yeah. It’s early innings.

AR: Yeah, Sheena Wagstaff is obviously very smart, though not everything is working. I think the roof commissions have been hit or miss. But with “Unfinished,” my only complaint was that the contemporary section was so cornball. Its first floor really is really great, with unfinished masterpieces, with the [Turner] and so forth, but you get upstairs and it’s like, “Oh, it’s a half-blank Warhol — a color by number painting — so it’s unfinished.” The contemporary floor felt too academic in that way. Also they did that awful “Regarding Warhol” show a few years ago, which was too broad and obvious. Overall, though, loved the Met Breuer. And so excited for Kerry James Marshall coming up.

BW: Any other big highlights that you’re looking for, for this year?

AR: Yeah, that’s a good question. I'm excited for Kai Althoff at MoMA, and Louise Lawler there early next year, and the Carmen Herrera show at The Whitney — the amazing, now 101-year-old Cuban-American artist.

BW: How often do you get out to see shows?

AR: I probably should be more organized. I go to galleries three or four times a week, sometimes more, sometimes a little bit less. I don’t go to openings, unless I'm friends with one of the artists, like a very close friend, I’ll go. I try to go during the week, just because you’re less likely to run into people. You don’t want to be slowed down when you’re going to go see art. If there are 3 to 4 shows I really want to see in one neighborhood that’s where I head first, and then, if I have the energy, I go to another neighborhood.

BW: So I noticed an interview coming on Pierre Huyghe. Is that right?

AR:  Yeah.

BW: The show at LACMA was immersive and impressive. 

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled, LACMA, November 23, 2014-February 22, 2015.   

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled, LACMA, November 23, 2014-February 22, 2015. 

 

AR: I did not see that show, which is painful to say, although I profiled him for ARTnews. We spoke after he had done the Paris and Cologne sections of that show. He’s such a deep thinker, always revising his thoughts. And he recently did an Istanbul project, which we talked about for a Q&A in the great Japanese magazine “Bijutsu Techo.” Have you heard about this, at all?

BW: No, I’ve not heard about it.

AR: It was supposed to be, in the Mediterranean, near the Bosporus; it was supposed to be this underwater work for the jellyfish. But it wasn’t finished in time, apparently. I didn’t go, but you could take a boat to the area in the water where it was going to be, though there was nothing to see. And so some people were saying, “I think Pierre Huyghe’s just making up this whole thing!” So it was funny because I mentioned that, and he was very emphatic, saying, “No, no, no, no, no. It’s not a lie, I am working on this, but it’s very difficult to drop gigantic cement blocks, artifacts that I’ve created, into the water, and there are environmental issues.” And there are the political issues there, of course. He said he hopes that in a few years you’ll be able to scuba dive down to the artwork. He’s working in all sorts of interesting ways. He also did work recently in Fukushima, in Japan, including a piece with a monkey that dresses as a waiter in a restaurant and clears tables.

BW: I did see that one. It was a video, “Human Mask.

AR: Yeah, it’s amazing. And he has worked with honeybees for the piece that was at MoMA and at Documenta. Now he’s talking about getting some sort of castle or other private space to experiment and make work away from public view.

BW: I think he’s a good example of an artist who really thinks about a broad narrative and works through an expanded framework.

AR: Exactly. One of the braver artists out there; he’s willing to kind of venture off and do things that clearly will have no discernible monetary value. He has ventured in so many different, weird directions. He got grouped with relational aesthetics early on, but he’s completely unclassifiable now, to his credit. He has a work I really like that is someone infected with the flu, and so you’re just supposed to have someone with the flu in the show—a piece about networks and communicability and so forth.

BW: Rauschenberg wanted to work in the gap between art and life. Huyghe is working directly with life; in that way he embraces the relational, but you’re right, his concerns go even broader.

AR: Things that are living, whether they’re human or not—living organisms literally in the work.

BW:   Last question: what’s one thing we wouldn’t know about you? 

AR: Oh, that’s tough. I'm a pretty big sports guy, I guess. Not so much, like, watching sports, though a little bit, but playing lacrosse and baseball growing up. And now I run a crazy amount.

BW:  I love to run. My run is usually Cobble Hill over the Brooklyn Bridge and back. Thanks, Andrew – great speaking with you.