Interview with Tom Lawson, Dean of CalArts School of Art

This interview took place the glorious sunny afternoon of October 7, 2006, at the Spain Restaurant in Los Angeles, California, hours before the New York Mets swept the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the National League Division Series. The interview covers a wide range of questions: from Lawson’s artistic career, deanship at CalArts, and writing publications, to Lawson’s current thoughts on contemporary art, art pedagogy and the impact of market forces on artistic production.

Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento (SMS): Your own work as an artist, having spanned different social, political and economic moments, how has it changed or evolved, or what problems have you noticed?

Tom Lawson (TL): So you want the whole story? [laughter] It’s a long answer.

SMS: Yes, that’s alright [laughter]

TL: I started being a professional artist in the mid to late 70s in New York, meaning I started showing work then. The art context in that place and point of time was quite specific; progressive art was conceptual and post-minimal. So for many young artists like me, recently arrived in town, the thing to consider was painting because it was the bad thing, and also to think about representation because it had been put to one side. I went to New York in my mid-20s, and ran into other artists coming from all over the U.S. and parts beyond, who were talking about similar things. For me I’ve always liked painting, but there I learned how over it was, despite the fact that you could see some of the best work ever produced by giants like Philip Guston and Jasper Johns in those years. Some of the other young artists I met were from a new place called CalArts, and they tended to be very sure of their ideas, but there were other equally interesting people from Madison, Buffalo, Nantucket and other exotic places I’d mostly never heard of. We hung out into the night, talked a lot. In time this talking lead to Susan Morgan and me starting REALLIFE Magazine, and the idea of this magazine was that it would be a place to hear the artist’s voice, artists talking about each other’s work, within a new media context framed by TV and movies. So we started this magazine and featured artists like Sherrie Levine, David Salle, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince: newcomers to the city, not widely known at the time.

During this time in the 70s there wasn’t much of an art market; New York itself was a weirdly impoverished city, almost bankrupted. The Lower Manhattan area where artists were gathering, Soho and Tribeca and down below the World Trade Center, was an area that was deserted after the workday. The industries that built them had all gone, and the artists who lived there were the only ones that were there at night, so you very quickly knew your neighbors. It was a weird, small village feeling and atmosphere, very experimental — experimental living, experimental art, theater, and music, almost like an unstructured version of CalArts spread through the city. This was when I met some of the first generation of CalArts artists, people like James Welling, Matt Mullican, Jack Goldstein and David Salle, as well as Barbara Bloom, Susan Davis, and Ericka Beckman — there was a lot of interesting stuff going on.

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