Michael Cunningham (author of The Hours and A Home at the End of the World, among other books) is no stranger to art. His latest novel, By Nightfall (Picador, 2010) takes place in the New York art world. The main character, Peter Harris, is a moderately successful Chelsea dealer, who, skeptical about his own trade, is always waiting to be swept off his feet by some new artist.
So it makes sense that Cunningham is curating "Unframed," a selection of works whose sale benefits ACRIA, the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America. For 20 years, this annual auction has had many high-profile curators, including Vik Muniz last year, when works by the likes of Louise Lawler and John Waters were on offer.
BRIAN BOUCHER How did you come to be interested in the art world? Do you collect? Did you study art history?
MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM I don't have the funds to be a proper collector. I started out as an art major, hoping to be a visual artist. Midway through college at Stanford, though, something didn't feel right. I felt there was some urgent connection that an artist should feel with the work that I wasn't quite feeling. I would get frustrated, I would get bored, and I started writing fiction just to see what that would be like. I didn't feel like my true gift was suddenly revealed, because my early fiction was terrible, but I did feel a different sense of connection to the process itself. While my sense of my ability to do it felt uncertain, something about the challenge of creating something that feels like life using only ink and paper was endlessly fascinating to me. And that feeling is what anyone who creates in any form ought to bring to the table. I don't regret the choice I made, but in a parallel dimension I would be doing that instead of this. I identify with the urge to create something physical and visual.
BOUCHER How did you select the artists for the show? Were there studio visits?
CUNNINGHAM A side effect of asking me to curate this year is that as opposed to someone who is actually a practicing artist, the artists I know are not yet so widely recognized. I could certainly write letters soliciting every artist in town, but I had personal connections to some artists whose work I think is brilliant but who are not yet highly visible. I'd been to the studios, I know the work, I have some of the work. It would have been fun to have an excuse for an extra studio visit, but who has the time?
BOUCHER Once the artists are selected, does ACRIA set up any parameters or is it up to the artists what they donate?
CUNNINGHAM It's entirely up to the artists. It's a gesture of respect, even if it wasn't for charity, to allow the artists to give whatever they want.
BOUCHER So the roster developed from artists you know, but do any themes emerge now that you're looking at all the work together, or are the artists all over the map?
CUNNINGHAM They're kind of all over the map. But it makes sense that at least a couple of artists are doing work that involves language. Like Sal Randolph, who is doing a series based on Frank O'Hara's poetry. Cary Leibowitz/Candyass is doing a series of etched glasses with words on them.
BOUCHER By Nightfall depicted the goings-on in an art gallery, from e-mail negotiations with artists to dealing with collectors. How did you learn about daily life on the other side of the front desk?
CUNNINGHAM I went in knowing a certain amount, but I did research. Of incalculable value were Joe Sheftel, who has recently opened a Lower East Side gallery, and Jack Shainman, who has a gallery in Chelsea. I could go to Jack's gallery and hang out, call and ask questions. I couldn't have done it without them.
BOUCHER Despite having that kind of entrée into the art scene, though, you created a character with real doubts about the art world.
CUNNINGHAM Obviously the protagonist, Peter Harris, has some questions about the current state of art and the ways that it is sold. But I think—I hope—that in every era there have been people who question the nature of art and who is paying for it, even during, say, the Renaissance. What about patronage? What about the royal family commissioning works? The art world of the moment has its own particular qualities and some things that are uniquely fucked up about it. I don't feel like we are in some kind of massive decline from a Golden Age of Art, but I was of course particularly interested in what does seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon of art as mega-investment, international billion-dollar industry. Right now it's especially nutty: "Don't buy gold. Buy Rothko!"
BOUCHER All the same, the main collector in the book, Carole Potter, is hardly just an investor.
CUNNINGHAM I was conscious of not making her some cartoonish, grotesque, clueless collector who has hired an art advisor to tell her how to spend her money. They exist, but so do these other people, who are blessed with insane sums of money and know their shit.
BOUCHER Do the book and the show together augur a move into the art world? Will I be visiting Michael Cunningham Gallery in Chelsea next year?
CUNNINGHAM Oh, that seems very unlikely. I've already got a full-time job.
"Unframed" takes place Wednesday, June 6, 6-9 pm, at 400 Fifth Avenue, penthouse, at 36th Street. Tickets are $20, at the door only.
assume vivid astro focus
Paul Henry Ramirez
Mixed Media, 212 x 66 inches, Courtesy the artist.
Artist Kirstine Roepstorff was born and trained in Denmark, but lives and works in Berli