Interview with Ann Albritton

By Jennifer Nugent: On a dark and rainy late afternoon, Ann Albritton met me for coffee at a small downtown café. Dr. Albritton is an art historian who is currently teaching at Ringling College of Art and Design who focuses in modern and contemporary art. She is my former instructor and one of my academic heroes.

Interview conducted by Jennifer Nugent

On a dark and rainy late afternoon, Ann Albritton met me for coffee at a small downtown café. Dr. Albritton is an art historian who is currently teaching at Ringling College of Art and Design who focuses in modern and contemporary art. She is my former instructor and one of my academic heroes.

You have also taught in Romania, France, and Belgium. Is there any way to compare this experience to the one at Ringling College? Am I leaving anything out?

Romania, that was my first international teaching experience. I taught there for two years and I taught modern and contemporary art. I was a fellow with the Civic Education Project. This is a group that was largely funded by George Soros to take new teaching methods to former Soviet countries. They were rather European too in that it didn’t matter whether the students attended classes or not, they just had to pass a final examination. So I required that the students attend class and offered them trips to Budapest or Paris, and they attended. It wasn’t so much the tests, I didn’t ignore tests, but I had other projects with them. It was a very exciting time, Romanian students are interested in theory. They were very much intellectuals, very curious. The students I had were mostly in fine arts, some were in other areas like printmaking, sculpture, and painting, which were all separate areas, but it was a largely fine arts university.

In France I first taught in Paris for University of South Florida. I taught modern art. Then in Ponte Aven, the program was a school for contemporary art and I taught there several times.

In Antwerp, I did an exchange with the St. Lucas art school with which we have a relationship. Inge Van Reeth took my class, I took Inga’s class, which was interesting in that I taught one group of students Fine Art, and then I taught another group of illustrators Fine Art so they were divided into their majors.

Then I went to Helsinki where I gave a talk and also a critique with the graduate students in painting.

Can you recall a noteworthy or emotional experience that you’ve had with a work of art? Any negative reactions you care to share?

The first one I’m a little embarrassed about, but when I was a quite young mother, I was in Chicago at a conference. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago and that was the first major museum I had been to. This was in the late sixties and back then the rooms were bare, not like now, now they’re crowded but I went in and saw a Renoir painting of mother and child that just brought tears to my eyes. It was a terribly moving experience. Now looking at it I think, well, you know he painted beautiful pictures. I also try to look at him as a painter of the working class, which I think makes him more interesting. But it was a purely emotional response.

Recently I went into a Manet show twice in Paris, and that was also an emotional experience. You could really see the beginnings of modern art there. There are just certain things that I see that are just staggering sometimes.

Negatively… I can’t think of the name but it was a painter at Documenta 2007. Obscene… a good painter but no real idea behind them. When I say obscene, I don’t mean sex, it was just uninteresting, crude, and there are crude things that are exciting but these to me just didn’t make sense. (The painter’s name is Juan Davila, from Australia)

Are there any artists working right now that you are following closely?

Oh a lot. I have a lot of favorites now and saw some this weekend, Gabriel Orozco I think is just amazing.

I saw some at Miami Basel. I thought there were some good people there. One of my favorites is a young photographer and performance artist, Nandipha Mntambo from Swaziland. When I first saw her work she was 28. I think now she’s about 30. Really exciting work. When I was in Helsinki last year, I was showing her in my lecture, and I thought I was really going to surprise these people with a new exciting artist from Swaziland and I was talking about her and someone raised there hand and said “She’s in an exhibit here, right now!”

So that’s one, that, as soon as I saw her work I thought, “Wow, she’s going places.” It’s Fine Arts photography; it’s not anything traditional at all. One of her pieces is a self-portrait with horns. She has grey hair, which she doesn’t really have, and it just looks like the horns are literally growing out of her head. One of her performances was her, dressed in bull fighting clothes, in a real bullring with no bull, but she’s enacting it. Which upset bull-fighting aficionados terribly because bullfighters are men and she is a woman, and an African woman. She’s questioning tradition and gender, and she also works with cowhides, but instead of someone like Janine Antoni or Kiki Smith, she uses nasty smelly cowhides but still forming to the body and they keep that putrid smell. I guess she has to keep making them. She’s one of my favorite new artists.

Some of the subjects you research include ethnic issues in a global context, gender identity, and post-colonialism. Living and working in a city that is over 3 quarters “white” and where 30% of the population is over 65, do you see these studies relating to life here in Sarasota?

I think there is a lot of diversity here in Sarasota, I realize that there are the rich white (population) but at the same time, there is a strong African American community, and a strong African American middle class in Sarasota. And of course there is a large homeless and poor community. There are a lot of women and women’s issues. Sarasota is sort of a strange place, while you have these great philanthropists and the ballet and opera, we have black theater, we have black film, we have gay and lesbian film, and we have women’s film. So there are opportunities. Also I think, as with anybody who studies, you have to get out of town. You have to go to New York, and although I adore New York, there is also so much happening in Europe too where you really are confronted with those issues and with lively discussion that’s hard to come by. Intellectuals are respected in Europe, artists are respected in Europe. I do think in Sarasota, they are somewhat; artists of a certain kind are respected.

Intellectuals not as much?

In certain circles, and of course I try to go with those circles, but yeah, in The States in general. There are enclaves in New York, and everywhere… university towns have places where you can have some sort of intellectual discourse but for the most part, look at our political system, we don’t respect ideas. But I think we’ve always been this way, I think we’ve always had this big separation, if you look back to the beginning of the country even, historically, we’ve had these debates from the very beginning.

Are there any movements or manifestos that you feel particularly relate to the way you live your life?

That’s hard. Certainly feminism, although there isn’t really a manifesto, certainly those ideas, which I know were more radical thirty years ago than they are now, but I think they have changed our thinking. They have helped change thinking. You mentioned earlier, post-colonial critiques, these critiques also… and to go back earlier, Simone d’Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, these writers in feminism really changed the way we think today. Even when people don’t realize those things have changed, they have. Edward Said, with Orientalism, changed the way we think, and certainly dealt with colonialism. Then there are many contemporary writers… Judith Butler and Stewart Hall doing contemporary theory. But even Foucault, Lacan, and French intellectuals like Derrida… we don’t use their ideas directly so much anymore, but they changed the way we think and write… Bourriaud, certainly somewhat. I just read in Art Forum a critique by Hal Foster, who was really the major US writer on post-modernism and he has been sort of looking for a new “ism.” What do you name art that was made now? I can’t think of the artist, but his critique I thought was brilliant. I thought, I’m going to read this, and read it and read it. I’m going to let it influence my writing. It’s some of the best art criticism I’ve ever read and Hal Foster is not a critic. He’s an art historian and works so much in post-modern theory and he is very theoretical, but this is just brilliant.

Most of the criticism I write is for Sculpture Magazine, and it’s not true criticism… they don’t want true criticism because it’s not published for months after the fact. They want descriptive writing and there is a big difference between description and criticism. Foster’s writing incorporated description, but with also superb criticism. I would say that Hal Foster, though his earlier post-modern writing, I think is awfully obtuse at times, the criticism he’s writing right now is very good.

Going back to identifying with Feminist ideology, do you think that young artists are reluctant to embrace the influence of feminism?

Some young artists are, and I teach women artists and sometimes people in those classes don’t like the idea of feminist theory, and in fact, I’m teaching a class right now where I introduce some feminist works. At first they were appalled, but they started to understand how someone like Carolee Schneeman challenged the patriarchy and hierarchy of her time by doing something so outrageous that it grabbed their attention. In a way that’s, you know, rather disgusting, but at the same time, maybe it took something like that to gain the attention. The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago is another one that did that. There are many other pieces of art that just said, “Look at this, this is important!” That generation, they got the attention of the establishment.

I was around a group of male artists recently and I was shocked. Actually, when I was around them it didn’t register, and later I was shocked at how their attitudes were totally anti-feminist, and these are enlightened male artists. In private discussion, I was amazed at some of the comments… not wanting emotion… it was a cold formalism. It was totally surprising to me, so much in fact that it didn’t hit me until later. This is what was around in the ‘80s, this is supposed to be gone by now.

Well, maybe we still have a long way to go…

Well, the thing you can look at that isn’t arguable is that women make 75 cents to the dollar in comparison to men’s salaries. I don’t know that this is a backlash, but I know that it needs to keep changing now, most people think… even the people I’m saying were anti-feminists, would speak up for women and women’s issues, but in art they have formal ideas that they believe people should adhere to.

I was in Miami Basel with two other art historians who both teach contemporary art, they were two guys, both gay, and we were all in grad school together, but it was exciting to see that we were all on the same page; we were all looking at the same things and liking the same things and having the same reactions. So it made me think, “Okay, so I’m not the only person who sees things this way”

In the midst of global protests, where to you see western artists in comparison to non-western artists as far as embracing a political voice? How does this relate to the contemporary landscape?

Yes, for me the most political artists that I’m looking at today are in Latin America. Of course there are artists in the United States who do have and use a political voice, but, by and large, not nearly as much-so as Latin America, China, certain African countries, the Middle East, Arab artists… Shadi Ghadirian is political in a very cool way… Shirin Neshat has been political in her work for forty years… Egypt, Libya…

One of my students gave a brilliant presentation on Libyan photographers that have been killed. It was photojournalism, but it was art. I used to think that we needed time for photojournalism to become art, a passage of time, but these were recent and they were spectacular, very powerful. The work was so powerful and so political.

One of my favorite political artists is Afredo Jaar. I think his work is brilliant and very political. There are many, lots of Cuban artists, Australian artists, Chilean artists, Argentinean, Mexican… Interestingly enough, I don’t see as much of that in a place like Belgium, there are a lot of painters, more painting going on in Belgium than I see here. I think it’s the tradition there, and somebody like Luc Tuyman, Marlene Dumas, though she’s South African, she’s living in Amsterdam… some of the Brits are very political… Less so in the United States, it’s harder to think of them, there are some, but I think this goes back to the “intellectual kind of thing” people don’t want to be.

They want to look at things, observe… though this is a generality, you have African American artists who are very political, but in general, Latin American artists more so. They live in different societies too, they are challenging their political system on a daily basis, we’re doing it through protests like the Occupy movements and such and I know there are some artists who try to deal with Occupy and street art, but in general, in U.S. artists, I’m not seeing a lot.

Look at Ringling College; do you know any artists who are working with political art? We don’t really…you can find more in Tampa or Miami.

Was there ever a time in your life that you made art? If so, how does this relate to the way that you approach art as a historian?

I thought I was going to be an artist. I started out in Studio Art for a year or two. I kept thinking that I would go back to making art, and I did until I went to graduate school for art history and I haven’t made anything since.

I remember seeing an Annette Messager retrospective in Paris in ’95 and I thought, if this kind of art had been around when I first started college, I would’ve been an artist. But it wasn’t, it was formalist painting, and I didn’t really get it. I could paint and draw something decently but the ideas that came around in the mid to late 80s that women artists started exploring, at least that I became aware of at that time, it opened up a whole new door for me, and I could see making art. I think, though, that making art is not something you do as a hobby, if you’re serious.

I never wanted to make anything ordinary, I always wanted to do something really different, or to use ideas, and I think now you can. I think now art is so eclectic and global that you can do almost anything.

What do you read for fun?

I read all of the time. If you came in my house I’d be embarrassed because you’d see stacks of books everywhere. About a week ago I read a book called the Coffee Trader, about the beginning of coffee trade between Amsterdam and London, it was a novel about how coffee was brought to the market. Sort of the beginning of the stock exchange, it was fascinating. Just before that, by the same author David Liss, I read the Conspiracy of Paper. I love novels that deal with actually things that have happened in history. He’s a great author.

Right now I’m reading an Alexander Mcall Smith book about Isabel Dalhousie. I read some theory and art texts, I just read a James Elkins book on visual studies, I like some of what he does but not everything, I’m looking for more by Hal Foster that’s similar to what I just read because it was so good. But I read a lot of novels. I probably read two novels a week. If I have nothing else to read, I’ll read the phone book. I need to read. I have also read many books that really inform my teaching, Ross King, who spoke here last year, has books on Michelangelo and Manet that, for an art historian, are brilliant and the research is so good. I probably read too much though.

Ann H. Albritton, B.A., M.A., M.Phil, Ph.D.

Eckerd College (Humanities); University of South Florida (Art History); City University of New York (Art History); City University of New York (Modern and Contemporary Art History). Fellow, Civic Education Project, Bucharest, Romania, 1993-1995. Research: Sonia Delaunay; Contemporary Art, Latin American Art, Art of the African Diaspora, and Women Artists. Numerous catalogue essays and reviews. http://webspace.ringling.edu/~aalbritt/

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