Cover: New York Studio Conversations (Part II); Twenty-One Women Talk About Art Edited by Stephanie Buhmann. Published by The Green Box, Berlin (2018) ISBN 978-3-941644-03-8 Featuring: Mary Abbott, Ghada Amer, Petah Coyne, Louise Fishman, Judy Glantzman, Lorrie Goulet, Julie Heffernan, Alicia Henry, Virva Hinnemo, Sharon Horvath, Julie Mehretu, Keiko Narahashi, Shirin Neshat, Leslie Roberts, Carolee Schneemann, Shahzia Sikander, Rebecca Smith,
Pat Steir, Jessica Stockholder, Kim Uchiyama.
Interior page shown is of New York Studio Conversations (I), Featuring Ursula von Rydingsvard.
Studio Conversations with Stephanie Buhmann
by Deanna Sirlin
Stephanie Buhmann's book series Studio Conversations is a collection of interviews with contemporary female artists of different ages and international renown, who all live in the cities that give each Volume its title. Thus far, four books have been released: New York [Part I (2016) and Part II (2018)], Berlin (2017), and Los Angeles (2019). The Studio Conversations series is published by The Green Box, Berlin, which specializes in contemporary art and artist books, striving “to translate works of art into the medium of the book, so that the distinction between the works and their documentation becomes blurred." Buhmann writes these books from the perspective of an art historian who has been able to engage artists in intimate and personal dialogues, and brings the artists and their work into the discourse of contemporary art. These books have fascinated me as she and I have interviewed some of the same artists, on the same day on one occasion, yielding completely different kinds of conversations. In this interview, Buhmann responded to my queries about her process and her ongoing work to create a record of these significant artists. I hope she will continue this quest.
Cover and Interior Pages of: Berlin Studio Conversations; Twenty Women Talk About Art Edited by Stephanie Buhmann. Published by The Green Box, Berlin (2017) ISBN 978-3-941644-93-9 Featuring: Elvira Bach, Bettina Blohm, Birgit Brenner, Angela Bulloch, Svenja Deininger, Friederike Feldmann, Katharina Grosse, Monika Grzymala, annette hollywood, Franka Hörnschemeyer, Astrid Köppe, Alicja Kwade, Tara Mahapatra, Susan Philipsz, Cornelia Renz, Alona Rodeh, Cornelia Schleime, Su-Mei Tse, Jorinde Voigt
Deanna Sirlin: Why did you decide to compile a series of interviews?
Stephanie Buhmann: The concept for the Studio Conversations project goes back to 2012, at a time when I became increasingly disenchanted with the media’s fixation on the soaring art market. By then, it had been a decade since I graduated from Pratt Institute with a master’s degree in Art History and entered New York’s post-9/11 art world as an aspiring writer and curator. After years of meeting artists, writing for different magazines and newspapers, curating independent shows, all the while supporting my life in New York by working in galleries, I had become sensitive to the fact that many deserving artists remain overlooked while many less original oeuvres are singled out as major commodities. In fact, for each record price that was achieved at auction and which made for bold headlines and clickbait, I could have named many gifted and deserving artists in New York who were struggling to support themselves at all, due to the city’s ever-increasing rents. Compared to Germany, for example, where I’m originally from, there is very little government support for the arts and subsidized studios are rare. So in 2012, it seemed to me (and it still does today) that much of the printed conversation about art revolved around its investment value or how fashionable a particular artist was at the moment. I wanted to counterbalance that trend while supporting my community by creating a permanent record of something private and simple: conversations with artists in their studios about the works on their walls.
Left to right: Melissa Meyer, Jennifer Riley, Polly Apfelbaum, Leslie Wayne, Stephanie Buhmann, Michelle Jaffe, Kathleen Kucka, Jacqueline Gourevitch, Hermine Ford, Kate Shepherd (front) Book Launch of New York Studio Conversations I, April 6, 2016 Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
DS: Why do you think the notion of art has changed?
SB: It is not a recent development. In fact, I would argue that this “change” dates back to the 1980s when the first staggering auction numbers were achieved for paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso. Since then, the market has crashed, come back, dipped and experienced another resurgence. Now, much higher results are achieved rather frequently and they are being tracked on a wider scale. There is even a list of the most expensive artworks ever sold on Wikipedia. The question of how we value things is always fascinating, because it is so abstract. And yet, when an artwork’s incredible market value is proven in public through an auction, it is no longer just a personal assessment. You might not like it, but the fact that x amount was paid for “X” makes it a hard reference that can be looked up by anybody, including speculators, who then believe to know what good - aka - valuable art is. That narrows down the field, and suddenly everybody tends to look in the same direction and talk about (if not collect) the same stuff. It is the same lull of big brands and recognizable logos that you see with other consumer goods all over the world. There is probably not much we can do about it on a large scale, but for an individual, you can choose to buy locally, support vendors in your community, and write down conversations with people and things that inspire you, for example. [Laughs].
DS: How did you get started on this project?
SB: I have visited artists’ studios throughout my professional life, and the conversations that I have had while looking at the works shared with me in that context have always remained one of the greatest pleasures. Having written art criticism for years, I decided to shift my focus somewhat. Instead, I wanted to record these studio visits as something more private. I wanted to primarily let the artists share their individual perspectives. Meanwhile, it was my hope to make the reader feel as if they were standing there right with me, experiencing the artist’s studio as a place of ideas and experimentation. I was looking to honor all the work that goes into making art: the commitment it takes, the questions that need solving, the occasional doubt that needs overcoming, and the time, especially the time, that is required.
Cover and Interior Pages of: New York Studio Conversations (Part II); Twenty-One Women Talk About Art Edited by Stephanie Buhmann. Published by The Green Box, Berlin (2018) ISBN 978-3-941644-03-8 Featuring: Mary Abbott, Ghada Amer, Petah Coyne, Louise Fishman, Judy Glantzman, Lorrie Goulet, Julie Heffernan, Alicia Henry, Virva Hinnemo, Sharon Horvath, Julie Mehretu, Keiko Narahashi, Shirin Neshat, Leslie Roberts, Carolee Schneemann, Shahzia Sikander, Rebecca Smith, Pat Steir, Jessica Stockholder, Kim Uchiyama.
DS: Why did you end up focusing on women?
SB: After I had set up some rough parameters for this project in late 2012, I stumbled upon something that made me shift my focus exclusively to women. I was flying back from Germany in early January 2013 when I came across an interview with Georg Baselitz conducted by the German news magazine Der Spiegel [January 21, 2013]. In it, Baselitz stated that in his opinion, “women couldn’t paint as well as men”. While this notion is patently ridiculous, of course, it is nevertheless disturbing that such machismo prevails on such a prominent scale; uttered by one of the most celebrated living post-war German painters and widely publicized by a leading news magazine. So, it was Baselitz’s absurd prejudice that encouraged me to dig deeper into some statistics. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., for example, which regularly updates jarring statistics on their website, only 30% of artists represented by commercial galleries in the United States are women, compared to 25% in China and less than 20% in Germany. Furthermore, only 13.7% of the living artists represented by galleries in North America and Europe are women. These numbers become even more shocking when you consider that in the United States, women receive 70% of all Bachelors of Fine Arts and 65–75% of all Masters of Fine Arts degrees, but that they only make up 46% of the working artists (across all disciplines). Do all of these hopeful graduates simply vanish from public sight or does the lack of opportunity and support even cause them to pursue other professions? Shocked by these numbers, I decided to turn Studio Conversations into a feminist project and to offer a podium for a large variety of female artists of different ages. When I learned that I was pregnant with my first daughter only a few weeks after embarking on this project, I became just that much more determined. I feel that my mother’s generation did a lot of work for the Feminist cause, but that mine as the beneficiary of some improvements, stopped pushing the envelope. I’m glad to see that change again.
DS: How do you decide which artists to interview?
SB:Thus far, I have interviewed over 70 artists and there is a vast range of genres, mediums, aesthetics and philosophies represented. I will only visit someone if I feel a connection to the work and know that I can bring the right amount of respect to the table. Frequently, I have followed the work of the artist for years, but I have also visited studios that were recommended to me by other artists or writers without knowing much beforehand. I will always arrive informed, but I reject looking at a lot of digital footage up front. I don’t want to have a formed opinion or a certain expectation when stepping through the door for the first time.
DS: What are your criteria?
SB: I don’t follow any particular criteria. However, geography is a factor of course. All the artists that are being featured in one publication have chosen to work in the same city, such as New York, Berlin, or Los Angeles, at least during that particular moment in time; it’s a rough denominator. However, diversity is important to me and so there are a variety of backgrounds, age groups, and a wide spectrum of international renown represented in these books. While the youngest artists are usually in their late 30s, the oldest have been in their late 90s. A few of the artists work primarily in the countries where I visit them, but most have exhibited internationally for years. Several have been pioneers in their field, whereas others follow a long tradition. In general, it is my aim to highlight artists, who have shown their works publicly for at least a decade, who have had the chance of experiencing different stages in their careers and whose oeuvres entail a number of distinct bodies of work.
Interior Pages of: New York Studio Conversations (Part II); Twenty-One Women Talk About Art Edited by Stephanie Buhmann. Published by The Green Box, Berlin (2018) ISBN 978-3-941644-03-8 Featuring: Carolee Schneemann
DS: After New York, Berlin and Los Angeles, how will you decide on the next destination?
SB: Due to the nature of this project, I keep a running list of artists divided by cities. There are so many women I would like to meet and the list keeps growing. When I feel that I have assembled a large enough group for an interesting, eclectic and yet cohesive book, I start my outreach. I will set up visits, coordinate calendars and plan my travel. In the meantime, I always continue to visit artists in the city where I live and so there will be several volumes devoted to New York.
DS:Can you tell us about your interview process?
SB: A certain degree of surprise, an element of unpredictability, and general improvisation are important ingredients in my process. With all their differences in content and overall rhythm, all of these conversations develop spontaneously. I never show up with prepared questions in hand. In my experience, it is most important to listen to the rhythm of the interviewee and make them feel comfortable or the least self-conscious as possible. Some artists I meet have been interviewed dozens of times of course, but many have not. I don’t want to bore veterans with repetitive questions and I don’t want to stress out a person who only rarely discusses their work with someone they do not know. Occasionally, it takes some warming up before one can dive into deeper territory. I have visited studios filled with works from various periods, as well as conducted interviews before empty walls. Often, the focus is on current projects, but sometimes, personal history or famous bodies of work can take center stage. As the interviews embrace free association on both sides, they allow for a fluid exchange of ideas; questions spring from answers and vice versa. This process allows for a conversation that can lead to unexpected directions; it also adds a spur-of-the-moment quality that remains preserved in the final, edited, text. I guess, in a way, each conversation resembles a performative space, where interviewee and the interviewer meet and present their different viewpoints of the same subject.
DS: Does your perspective on an artist’s work change after you interviewed them?
SB: I believe that your perspective on something always changes when you learn more about it. A deeper understanding will always add another, more interesting layer. That’s why education is so important to everything we do or want to have a say in. In general, I will walk away with even more respect and admiration for the work I saw.
DS: Do you encounter any difficulties in interviewing the artists?
SB: Some people are certainly easier to talk to than others; some are very eloquent about their work and intent, others don’t like verbalizing much. However, I have not had a conversation I did not enjoy. I learned my lesson many years ago, when I got to visit one of my favorite painters. It turned out that he was rather shy, but at the time I thought that his brief responses to my questions meant that he found them somewhat silly. I became increasingly self-conscious and after thirty minutes, it seemed that we didn’t have anything left to talk about. I was crushed. Then, as I was putting on my coat to leave, I mentioned Novalis and Philipp Otto Runge, both of whom I had written about in my thesis. It turned out that those were some of his most important influences and after that we talked for another two hours and remained good friends until his passing. In other words, you have to search for this kind of opening and stick with it. In general, I believe that people who make interesting work are always interesting to talk to – the key is to find a point of entry into the conversation.
DS: Which interviews do you consider to be particularly successful and why?
SB: I think the most successful interviews are the ones that allow the reader to get a true sense of the work and process through what is being said. However, besides hoping that these conversations give the reader pleasure, I also regard them as art historical records. As the books bundle primary sources, I hope that they will be able to serve as a meaningful tool for any future scholar, who wishes to research any of the participating individuals.
Cover of: Berlin Studio Conversations; Twenty Women Talk About Art Edited by Stephanie Buhmann. Published by The Green Box, Berlin (2017) ISBN 978-3-941644-93-9 Featuring: Elvira Bach, Bettina Blohm, Birgit Brenner, Angela Bulloch, Svenja Deininger, Friederike Feldmann, Katharina Grosse, Monika Grzymala, annette hollywood, Franka Hörnschemeyer, Astrid Köppe, Alicja Kwade, Tara Mahapatra, Susan Philipsz, Cornelia Renz, Alona Rodeh, Cornelia Schleime, Su-Mei Tse, Jorinde Voigt
DS: Are there any particular insights you gained as an art historian from visiting these artists?
SB: I think the Socratic paradox always applies, or better, Aristotle’s take which states, “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.” I am just scratching the surface here, and yet there is certainly as much to gain in the exploration of the various ways of how and where we experience the world today, as there is in studying how differently this experience is being rendered visually in our time.
DS: What do you want your reader to take away from these interviews?
SB: Again, though the ideas and approaches that are being discussed in these books can merely reflect fractions of what is out there, it is my hope that they will inspire further discussions, research, and most importantly, the joy of looking at art in depth. I would encourage anyone to try to visit the studios of artists they admire.
DS: Will you extend this series of interviews of women artists to other geographical areas? If so, where?
SB: Absolutely. I would like to keep going as long as possible. In the near future, I have ideas for such obvious art centers as London and Paris, but also Vienna or The Rhineland in Germany. The beauty of this project is that it will never be complete.
DS: The importance of the work you are doing with these interviews is underscored by the recent passing of one of your subjects, Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019), the ground-breaking multimedia artist. Your interview provides an important documentary record of her work and thought.
New York Studio Conversations
Seventeen Women Talk About Art
The Green Box, Berlin 2016
Berlin Studio Conversations
Twenty Women Talk About Art
The Green Box, Berlin 2017
New York Studio Conversations (Part II)
Twenty-One Women Talk About Art
The Green Box, Berlin 2018
Los Angeles Studio Conversations
Sixteen Women Talk About Art
The Green Box, Berlin 2019
Stephanie Buhmann is an art critic, art historian, and curator. Born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, she is based in New York City. She attended Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia, PA and received a B.F.A. and Master in the History of Art, Architecture and Design from Pratt Institute, New York
Photographed by Marcin Muchalski
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.