After finishing and thinking about this week's interview with critic, writer, and curator Bob Nickas, I've been trying to pinpoint my trajectory with him and his work and I think he and it first came to my attention in 2004 with the JRP/Ringier publication of his Collection Diary. After that a lot is blurry of what I read by him when and who I talked to about him where, but for some reason a bunch of "I remember" moments kept popping into my head so I'm going to pull an unoriginal (but so satisfying) move and copy artist and writer Joe Brainard's famous "I remember" method of recollecting and sharing memories. I like to imagine that Bob knew Joe with the circles both traveled in before Joe's death in 1994 so this somehow just feels appropriate to do for this week's introduction. So here goes:
I remember when I first saw it and thought "Bob Nickas" is just a great name that is easy to remember, unable to be mispronounced, and looks and sounds good. I still do.
I remember seeing Bob in a photograph from a 2010 Vice interview (conducted coincidentally by OGR-er Jesse Pearson) where he was wearing black cowboy boots. I remember being impressed because I think cowboy boots are eternally cool and especially on someone who lives in New York City. I remember meeting him maybe seven or eight years later for the first time and he was wearing what looked to be the same black cowboy boots. I remember telling him I liked both occurrences.
I remember at the same meeting Bob giving me a copy of Lee Lozano: Lozano c. 1962, which he wrote text for, and also very generously offering me a copy of 69 / 96, a catalog he edited for a show he co-curated, but I already had it, along with one or two others offered as well. I now know giving copies of his books to friends and colleagues is a gesture Bob cherishes. I remember being touched by it. I also remember wishing he had had a copy of his The Wonderful and Frightening World of...The Fall as I wasn't able to get my hands on it, and still haven't to this day. One Fall-related book I can and will get is his brand new one about lead singer Mark E. Smith called Slang King: M.E.S. On Stage 1977-2013.
I remember Bob, still at same meeting, rolling his eyes when I brought up the name of my friend Kenny Goldsmith. I remember being very eager for the upcoming release of a book called The Anti-Museum: An Anthology which was going to include texts by both of them.
I remember also being very excited to finally get a copy when I found out there was going to be a second printing of Bob's Catalog of the Exhibition, a fantastic book which brings together new texts written to accompany 79 exhibitions organized by Bob between 1984 and 2011.
I remember the late Jim Walrod telling me Bob is the only art critic whose opinion matters.
I remember reading Index magazine in the early 2000s and not realizing until a few years later that Bob was its co-creator (along with Peter Halley). I remember as I looked at back issues from 1996-1999 (Bob's years there as editor) thinking of course that's why it was always so spot-on with who they featured.
I remember running into Bob in late 2019 on White Street and him telling me I had to go a few doors down to Ortuzar Projects to see the Suzanne Jackson show that was on at the time. The gallery and artist were new to me, both were excellent, and I've since then not wanted to miss whatever they present.
I remember also reading these books by or with text from Bob: Komplaint Dept., The Dept. of Corrections: Collected Writings 2007–2015, At Home/Not at Home: Works from the Collection of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg, Painting Abstraction, Tom Sandberg: Photographs 1989-2006, Theft Is Vision, Peter Hujar: Night, No Problem: Cologne/New York 1984-1989, and Paul Mogensen & Steven Parrino. I know I am forgetting some.
Once you know Bob and his work you don't forget either. - WDV
WDV: How often do you consult a specific book or magazine on your shelves when writing and do you always know where everything is?
BN: The room where I write is also my art library, where the monographs and catalogs are shelved A to Z. Unfortunately, I ran out of space not long after I had the shelves built, by a friend from my own design. They go almost to the ceiling and run between rooms. That was over ten years ago. Most of the books I've acquired since are stacked on the floor, impeding access to the lower shelves. If I need to locate anything between O and Z, considerable effort is involved. A to N, it's all right there. When I'm writing I often get up and turn from my desk to the wall of books. Much preferable to consult a book than go online. Sometimes when I have a book in hand, leafing through it, I imagine a prompt in the upper right corner that warns: Page won't load. That never happens. Obviously, I'm not a digital guy. I like to say, the hand is also digital. Running out of space took on a new and unhappy turn in recent years when I began storing books in the kitchen, and these are not cookbooks.
The books and catalogs that I've written are on shelves by the front door and were filled up long ago. I try to keep at minimum three to five copies of everything. As much as possible I give out books I've written or co-published. For one thing it's quite satisfying. But it's also practical because multiple copies take up, more and more, increasingly precious space. The shelves that continue into the bedroom are for records. The number of records I have is wildly disproportionate to the amount of shelf space for them, one of the reasons why I have lately been giving away and selling records from my collection. All non-art books are in the bedroom, since I read in bed and there's nowhere else to put them. Space—and weight—considerations come into play when I'm attracted to an oversize book in a store. Needless to say, hefty volumes never come home with me.
I want to focus on your own books where you’re contributor or sole author as you could theoretically stop bringing in any others—though of course that likely won’t happen. You’re showing no signs of slowing down writing and adding texts to books, so two questions:
1) How many titles are we talking about since the dedicated space was filled up long ago and you keep multiple copies of each?
2) I’ve always been curious if/how often prolific published writers/critics, like yourself, consult their own books or if they mostly remember everything they’ve written?
It's not possible to remember everything I've written, especially when you're asked about something from thirty years ago, which happened just last week. Someone writing a master's thesis on Felix Gonzalez-Torres got in touch, with questions related to a specific work, the go-go dance platform from 1991, as it was discussed in the conversation I'd done with Felix that year. It was published under the title "All the Time in the World," and has come to be considered an essential source on the artist. That interview and the one I did with Andy Warhol in '86 were my most requested for reprints and translations over the years.
In order to reply to his questions, I had to re-read parts of the conversation, and returning to an old text is not exactly my favorite thing to do. After something is published I usually only read it once and never again. I might go back to check a date or a quote; that's the extent of it. In the end, I wrote a long reply, almost as if I was making extended notes for a new essay on the artist. Quite a bit of effort on my part and it's not like I'm his thesis advisor.
As for the books and catalogs I've written or contributed to, they now total about 165.
Where would you like everything to end up when the time comes and are there specific desired places for specific items?
I would imagine that's going to be someone else's problem, not mine, and it won't bother me at all. A friend once asked what I planned to do with my papers, as if they were significant enough to need a future home, a university library or archive. I told him, and he thought I was joking, that I might get a shredder at some point. What should be left for posterity? Bags of confetti. The books and the art…some should be given away and some will be sold, little by little, until it's all gone. The apartment was almost empty, quietly monkish, when I settled in. There was a desk, a single chair, some books and a mattress on the floor. I love symmetry. I'd be happy if it went back to that in the end.
You’re browsing through your favorite bookstore. What’s your thought process like as you determine what you want to buy? Are the blurbs an influence, a review you read, something someone you trust told you, etc?
I don't know that I have a favorite bookstore. I go to all of them, the way you might at one time have had various partners, a sort of bookstore and record shop promiscuity. One of my preferred locations for browsing isn't a store at all, but the tables that Jen Fisher, also known as Vortexity Books, used to have, and hopefully will again in the spring, on Avenue A across from Tompkins Square Park. I'm a big walker and someone who makes the rounds, so to speak. On a nice day I would leave home, stopping first at the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street, then check out the window at Mercer Street Books, on to the East Village and Good Records on E. 5th Street (which later became Stranded, not as good, and pricey), Karma, further over on E. 3rd, Mast on Avenue A, Jen's tables, where I always found interesting things. After all that I'd need something to eat, and Superiority Burger, the best veggie burger in the city—maybe in the country?—is just around the corner. Last stop Academy Records on 12th street. If I had any energy left and my bag wasn't too heavy, I would check out the Rare Book Room at Strand, which lately has been closed.
In terms of what I'll buy, I can't say a blurb exerts any particular influence. I do read a lot of reviews. At times I've had the feeling to be reading more reviews of books than books. In addition to Bookforum and the book section in the Sunday Times, where I go first to the Letters column, I have to admit to having spent time with the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, which covers a lot. But reviews aren't that influential for the simple reason that, just as I primarily buy used records, I'm mostly looking at used books. This is where recommendations from friends come in.
Since you mention her twice, what is it about Jen and Vortexity Books, besides selling on the street, that means so much, especially when she’s so close to both Karma and Mast, making that small triangle arguably the premier NYC location for book lovers?
A lot of bookshops carry the same titles, or there are bound to be overlaps. Jen has books that no one else has, and in fact the owner of Mast buys from her on occasion. She only has used books, good ones, and at reasonable prices. There's also the person herself, who I really enjoy talking to and hanging out with. I genuinely like to buy books from Jen. Being out on the street all sorts of interesting characters come by. It's alive, if sometimes uncomfortably for Jen. There's an energy that's missing inside a store. I myself have a certain energy and sense of humor and I thrive on interacting within a situation. Some shops are friendly enough and some are uptight. In a place like that I may come across as some sort of crackpot. You know what I mean when I say there are times when you have to behave yourself, and times when you're free to be yourself.
I bet she is loaded with interesting character stories...
I’m interested that you read the letters in the Times Book Review first. Do you find them that revelatory and/or enjoyable? If you’ve always been a letters reader, which magazines or newspapers historically always had your favorites?
It's not just that the letters are right upfront in the section, but it's a follow-up to the book reviews of the week or two before. What I notice is when someone writes in to point out something that was wrong or overlooked, where there was a particular bias or a real sin of omission. The Times is supposed to be the paper of record. Well, sometimes the record skips. I have to say, the intelligence, the knowledge, of many who write in letters to the Book Review makes me wonder if they should have been the reviewers. Although the letters needn't constitute a complaint column from week to week, I've noticed that the Times publishes any number of letters, more and more it seems, that are absolutely congratulatory and praiseful. Here, the paper, at least in this section, really strokes itself. I'm not otherwise a letters reader, and I have never in my life written a letter to the editor.
Do you like giving books as gifts? How about receiving them as gifts?
Not only do I derive immense satisfaction from putting good books in the hands of friends, there are a few that I have given over and over again. Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories, her only collection of short stories. I can't tell you how many I've given out over the years. Same with César Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. The last person I gave it to was Mary Boone, for her birthday, when she was in jail. She and I share the same birthday. Cookie Mueller, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. That's a book I love giving to friends. Once I ducked into the New Museum bookstore in order to pick up a copy as a present and they didn't have any. I complained to the person at the register who said, "We don't have copies because you bought them all." One thing these three books have in common is they are small format. You want others to be turned on by them, and they are, but portability seems an important part of the equation.
Receiving books from friends, yes, one of the pleasures in life, even when they at first seem daunting or the subject is going to set you off. A friend gave me a huge history of the czars, The Romanovs: 1613-1918. History is one of my strongest areas of interest, but I was overwhelmed with this one until I got into it, and then a page-turner across three hundred years. All the while I felt as if I was learning as much about the palace intrigue of old Russia—the many poisonings—as the country today under Putin. In the same way, my plunge into books on the Civil War, especially its prelude, resonated with recent American history. My friend Noah Dillon gave me a copy of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber, best known for Debt: The First 5000 Years. Although I enjoyed the book, I took offense when he identified art curator as a bullshit job. Like a lot of people who may not be familiar with the art world and how it works, I had the feeling he may have mixed up art advisors with curators. A good curator can make all the difference with an exhibition, choosing the works, installing them well, writing an insightful text, and so on. His identifying art curator as a bullshit job, as I recall, accounted for the least investigation of any job in the book; possibly not more than a short paragraph. That made me think he didn't know enough about it to go into any detail. Still, I took it personally, and even if there are some b.s. curators out there, I did think that if we ever crossed paths that I would certainly disabuse him of the general misperception. Then, just last year, he unexpectedly and sadly passed away. He was only 59. The premature deaths of admired writers—Donald Barthelme, Octavia Butler, also under 60—is a topic for another day. Maybe the best present of a book I ever received was Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines, the brilliant, terse, darkly comic items contributed anonymously to the newspaper Le Matin in 1906. He was an art critic, art dealer and anarchist, making him a real hero of mine.
Back in the '80s a modest but incredible publication was given to me by Cady Noland, 100 Ways To Disappear and Live Free. Make of that what you will. It dates to 1972, from Eden Press of Fountain Valley, California. Mine is the revised and enlarged version from 1978. It's meant as a guide to "escape [the] past and secure a new future." Besides advice on adopting an assumed name, getting fake IDs, using a PO box for your mail, cutting ties with family, and minimizing contact with law enforcement, some of the tips include:
"Avoid having arguments or run-ins with neighbors. An old unresolved grudge might be just the spark that sends an investigator to your new location. 'Getting even' is a passion few people can resist."
"Be very careful about who comes to see you at your residence. If what you do or the people with whom you must deal are 'interesting,' it might be best to arrange get-togethers elsewhere. Keep your nest clean—good 'criminal' advice."
And this one's quaint, but remember we're back in the '70s:
"If you're planning to remain in the same general area, don't use your old library card anymore. Chuck it and apply for another at another branch, under another name, of course."
I can’t proceed without savoring this: “The last person I gave it to was Mary Boone, for her birthday, when she was in jail.” That’s an opening sentence of a short story.
And you’re right about Graeber probably mixing up advisor vs curator.
How important is reading non-art material to being a singular art curator?
Well, I don't believe she should have been in jail. It was Martha Stewart all over again. Successful women being publicly punished? That's justice? When so many men on Wall Street are caught with their hands in the cookie jar and get a little slap on the wrist. My sense is that when people like Mary are caught for tax evasion it's enough that they pay the taxes, plus the penalty and interest. That's what I see as paying your debt—if not to society then to the IRS.
I don't think of books that aren't about art as non-art material. And then there's a whole interzone of books that relate to art while being about other things, as the last three I've read. Adrian Dannatt's fantastic collection of obituaries, Doomed and Famous, a book you're not unhappy to have been left out of. Seth Price's Dedicated To Life. Yes, he's an artist, but the book is mostly written as verse, an extended deadpan comic-poetic hybrid that began as "an experimental Young Adult novel" whose central character is "a weirdly articulate ten-year old girl." The best piece in it, however, is written in diary form—his own. I know it's the best because I wanted it to go on when I came to the end. And then there's Michael Bracewell's Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music. This is decidedly not a rock bio—the band only coalesces in the last fifty pages, "becoming" is key to the story. The book is focused on the experiences of Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and Andy Mackay at art school in the mid- to late-'60s, when a decisive shift from a very moldy, staid situation opened up to something new—Mod culture, fashion especially, and American Pop art—aided and abetted by the influence of Richard Hamilton primarily. Interesting to consider how things turned out for Eno, who when he was at school was almost always on the verge of being expelled, and who some instructors would have voted "least likely to succeed." My one criticism is Bracewell's overuse of a word that's always bound to announce itself: sartorial.
I just tucked into Adrian’s new book recently as well and fully concur and your descriptions of the other two make both sound very appealing. I love that one criticism you mention.
Have you ever read any books about writing?
The simple answer to that would have to be: never. Isn't every great book about writing?
No disagreement here. Well then, what did you read that made such an impression that you wanted to start writing for others to read?
There really was no particular plan, and it wasn't something read but someone encountered. In school I was the TA for the art critic Gregory Battcock, a dandy/Marxist/bon vivant, known for his anthologies, particularly Minimal Art. I had switched from a boring journalism program to the art department, where all the odd, interesting people were. I wasn't studying art. Was I studying anything at all? Watching movies mostly. But he was my introduction to the New York art world. Through him I got to visit the Factory for the first time and meet Warhol. I still have a copy of Popism: The Warhol '60s, which is probably his best book. It had just come out and there was a stack of them on a table near the door. As people were leaving, he would sign a copy and hand it to them. Being junior to everyone else, I was last in line. When he was about to sign I said, "Oh, do you have to?" He looked confused, obviously. I "explained" by saying that I thought one day the valuable books would be the ones he hadn't signed. With that he drew a big dollar sign on the title page and signed his name. Everyone else got a signed book. Bratty as I was back then, I got a signed drawing.
And I’d guess worth multiple $ today.
Can you share your favorite used bookstore finds where you felt you were practically stealing because you found such unexpected gems for so cheap?
Like everyone else of a certain age, true bookstore finds, or steals, are really a matter of the pre-internet years. Living in New York, my best finds are books in the street, for free. It's not uncommon to come across a whole box of interesting things. It's true as well that you'll dig in and come up empty, as I did with a pile of guides to buying fine wine—a sure sign of the new yuppies here in Soho now. I remember once the sight of books that had been neatly arranged on a long window ledge. Among them was Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror: An Essay On Abjection. Opening the book I saw there was a signed dedication on the title page.
Fabulous. The few times that’s happened to me I always want the dedicatee to be someone notable as well. I once got a used book dedicated to David Remnick.
Anything else unexpected that you’ve come across in a book, from the street or say the Strand, that was pleasing?
I bought a used copy of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a must-read. It's his first book, from 1933, a memoir of scrappy and desperate times, in the second part living the hard-bitten life of a tramp on the road in England. In one instance, he gets himself arrested intentionally just to find out what it's like to spend Christmas Eve in jail. There was the stub of a movie ticket the previous reader had used as a bookmark, common enough to find. It was for a screening at Film Forum of Come and See, the most harrowing anti-war movie I have ever seen. I believe that its main characters, two young kids, were subjected to real bombs and ammunition. No exaggeration to say that after it's over you are almost as shell-shocked as they must have been. My friends Bruno and Ivana had taken me, and the ticket stub was from the very same day and time we had gone, so whoever had the book was in the theater when we were. That was also the last time, sadly, that I've gone to a movie.
Wow, that’s a great one. I wish we could know why the person sold it.
What’s one obscure book you have and love that almost no one knows about?
An Account of the Crimes of Peter Thiel and His Subsequent Arrest, Trial and Execution, published by the guitarist Bill Orcutt. It's a visual looping stutter across 72 pages that's based entirely on the title. This came with a limited edition record, of the same title, that Orcutt self-released in 2017. The book states: No rights reserved. This work is free of known copyright restrictions.
What are the two best books about any aspect of culture (American or abroad, doesn’t matter) from the years you were in your 20s and 30s?
I'm not sure I'm answering the question exactly, but since I aimed to be an art writer it was clear that the writers who I absorbed the most from in that period weren't critics but artists: Ad Reinhardt, Robert Smithson and Dan Graham. When I moved to New York in the fall of '84, I looked forward to the art reviews in the Village Voice every week, especially when Gary Indiana was the paper's art critic, between '85 and '88. All those columns were brought together in Vile Days, edited by Bruce Hainley. It was a pleasure to revisit them, even if his stylistic power combined with his considerable acumen left me feeling fairly inferior. Oddly enough, I don't recall it having that effect back then. Speaking of the Voice, the artist Aura Rosenberg, an old friend of mine, gave me a copy of Jill Johnston: the Disintegration of a Critic, which collects her writing for the paper from '60 to '74. Her early dance columns are, for me, the best. Once the book was past them, I lost interest, or I was somewhat floundering in her stream of consciousness. Despite a rather free relation to punctuation, she wasn't in any way unaware of the predicament. In full flight by 1971, she would observe: "I know now that I can only ever hope to be totally misunderstood." I recommend her book on Jasper Johns, Privileged Information, which was published in 1996, and is fairly, or is that unfairly?, unsung. Nowadays I'll read Hilton Als on any subject.
Yes, was so pleased to get to read those pieces by Gary in that collection. I find it fascinating and admire your honesty that it left you feeling inferior now, all these years later, when you didn’t then and now also have decades under your belt of writing about art. Can you tell me more?
That's just the way it is when you read something so beautifully put together, and it's not simply a matter of style. I'm admiring style and the mind converged on the alternating currents, in Gary's case, of high regard and outrage, love and disgust. It's possible as well that my image of him living a fairly dissolute life yet still able to craft a beautiful piece of writing, seemingly effortlessly, and under the demanding deadline of a weekly paper, is why I'm impressed to this day. He also wrote one of my favorite true crime books, Depraved Indifference, the story of mother-son killer grifters Sante and Kenneth Kimes. And his essay length book on Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, published by the British Film Institute, is excellent.
How many printed things you can read would you say come into your home in an average year and are you a good purger when/if the time comes?
I would have no idea. It's only newspapers and magazines that get tossed out—after I've clipped anything I might need at a later date. Even that clipping of articles and reviews has slowed down in recent years, for all the obvious reasons, not least the sense that you're already your own bursting-at-the-seams archivist.
Look at your books right now. What are three which are $15.00 or less and you wholeheartedly recommend them?
An unconventional, amusing dictionary is always useful, and Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary is the masterwork. His definition, for example, of Year: "A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments." For me, and I'm not alone, happiness arrives when something long out-of-print, and that can only be found on the Abebooks site at a ridiculously inflated price, is returned to print, once again affordable. An original copy of John Miller's Cinematic Moments, from 1977, would set you back $200 at least. Used copies of the reprint are a fraction of that. His observations, measured and cerebral, with hints of deadpan humor, suggest a meeting of Rainman and Proust, their repetitions hypnotic. One entry: "I am walking by a parking lot. I notice that the attendant has grouped all the red cars in one section, all the blue in another, and so on. To me this is pleasing." Another: "I'm rereading something I'd written a few days ago. It's a rough outline of what I had on my mind. Now I can't make sense of it. Without a coherent expression, does this idea exist?"
And I can darkheartedly recommend any of Alissa Bennett's 'zines in which she mines the tawdriness of bad behavior, inept criminality, and celebrity death, while also exploring a form of autobiographical confession—talk about identifying with your sad-sack subjects. Among them, Dead Is Better, Legalize Crime, and Pretend You're Actually Alive.
Hey Heinzfeller Nileisist, publisher of these fantastic zines by Alissa, it’s not too soon to anthologize them… Thanks Bob!
Bob Nickas, photographed by Jason Metcalf