Bob Nickas, Theft is Vision: Collected Writings and Interviews (JRP Ringier & Les Presses du Réel, Zurich, 2008 ISBN 978-3-905770-36-0)
Some books prompt initial over enthusiasm, and this collection of essays by Bob Nickas is one of those. Reading it, I couldn't help wishing I'd had copies to hand at one of the many recent debates on art criticism: to distribute, to discuss, to turn to in solace, even to hurl. Gathering writings from 1995 to the present, it offers a valuable case study of many of the themes of those discussions: the production of new forms, the contexts of critical writing, the relation of criticism to the work it discusses and to the broader social reality. It offers a powerful example of how a writing based on the occasion - of an exhibition, a record, an artist - can be edited to form a novel like accumulation of themes, motifs, dialogues, plots and - perhaps - resolutions.
This notion of the essay collection as "novel" is central to the books organization and structure. Texts are arranged into four chapters, whose broadly chronological structure is also subject to the more non-linear time lines of personal memory and career, seeking a balance between the moment in itself and the moment as remembered. Each chapter then emerges as a careful chronology of moods and tones. Hence Chapter 2 is largely a chronicle of the work , monetary excess, and political context of the eighties New York art world. It captures the alienation, pleasure and ridiculousness of this by offering first hand testimony in articles and interviews written twenty years later, and also includes a piece on Laurie Parson, an artist much heralded by the art press and galleries who abandons both the art world and the term "artist" as a self-description. Chapter 3 builds a similar complex of tones and experiences, focussed more on performance art and music scenes, with pieces on Leigh Bowery, The Fall, Jamie Reid, and Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves.
In addition, there are several overarching themes which unfold over the books duration, principally the legacy of Warhol, both as a set of representational possibilities - appropriation, response to cultural phenomena, sense of death and disaster - and as a social phenomenon. Theft is Vision begins with a biographical piece that places On Kawara and Warhol as the foundations of Nickas' sense of artistic possibility. These two artists, both complementary and contradictory, unfold through the articles and decades that follow, although Warhol is by far the most prominent. The biographical, too, remains a viable writing strategy - particularly in several pieces of music journalism - but Nickas' strategy is to place works within a range of contexts, not solely the personal.
Working mostly by example rather than theory, the book articulates Nickas' particular sense of the critics role. Early on in his career he rejects the writing of straight forward reviews and the writing of well-paid catalogue essays for artists he doesn't respect, preferring a criticism that is:
more free-associative than analytic, more poetic than polemical, that moves almost promiscuously from one idea to another. At the same time (while you're having all this fun), I think you shouldn't lose sight of the fact that you want to have a serious engagement with the works themselves. (206)
Criticism emerges as a form of detective work, sometimes literally as when Nickas tracks down the elusive Laurie Parsons, but also, in one of the books most lucid pieces, in tracing the iconography of the American flag from Jasper Johns and Faith Ringold to Candy Noland and Tommy Hilfiger.
Other critical strategies include the listing of global events contemporary to a particular art work, or interviews that function as a form of social archaeology, keen to assuage artists assumptions about the world they live in, the decisions they make in relation to politics, and in the workings of the market. The collection also includes several image-text pieces, where Nickas provides found or original text to accompany artists and photographers. Throughout there is a contentedness to Nickas' writing, a clear sense of its purpose, its context and its limitations - he tells a critic who thinks they are more important than the art that they are deluded. Like any good detective - and in another connection to Warhol - Nickas is also chameleon like, to a degree emptying himself to be filled in regard to particular encounters. His own critical position is theorized in a conversation with Jeff Wall, whereas in an interview with Wolfgang Tillmans he articulates a social and political ambiguity present both in Nickas' writing and in Tillmans' photographs.
The latest in JRP Ringier's excellent Documents series, this is a beautifully produced and purposefully edited and designed book. Each piece is prefaced with the original circumstances of its production: Purple, Afterall, and Artforum are where Nickas' writing has most often found its home. A number of both essays and interviews are unpublished, suggesting the books paradigm only participates occasionally in the agendas of other publications. It also enables certain encounters, like the Tillmans' interview, to remain rough and draft-like, avoiding strategies of chronology and comprehensiveness that publication or commission might demand.
The use of the novel form evokes a certain expectation as one nears the end of Theft is Vision and encounters Nickas' most recent work. Here - in discussions of artists including Steven Parrino, Gregory Crewdson, Kelley Walker and Gardar Eide Einarsson - interests in appropriation, for example, that have been present throughout the book, are now part of "an art that is increasingly covert, rather than obvious or confrontational, in terms of its message; politically-charged subject matter is more of an undertow, pulling you in from beneath a calm or welcoming surface." (225)
Nickas never claims to have stumbled on some spirit of the age, but the strength of Theft is Vision is how it allows any conclusions to emerge out of an accumulation of individual case studies. More Henry Fielding than B.S.Johnson, if it's a novel about anything, its about freedom, its complex identity and machinations, be it in art, revolution, or the rambles of Central Park; the moment and its representation; the something made and the something participated in.