How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Art World

Dr. Michael Corris, professor and chair of the Division of Art, Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. Photos by Dylan Hollingsworth.

Dr. Michael Corris

Last year, Creative Time, a respected New York City based non-profit arts organization, sent a team to Dallas on a three-day mission to talk with gallerists, museum staff and key arts advocates about the local arts scene. In return, they issued a comprehensive report outlining insightful recommendations for building a thriving artistic community in Dallas. That blueprint for the future has been discussed and debated in art halls and venues across North Texas ever since, including a public presentation this year at the Dallas Museum of Art, where North Texas arts leaders gathered to toss around ideas and explore the direction to take as a community. One of those panelists was Dr. Michael Corris, professor and chair of the Division of Art, Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University.

Corris received his baccalaureate and masters degrees in the United States, and his a PhD in the History of Art from University College London. Corris began working in late 1971 with the conceptual art group, Art & Language, in New York; his work was published in 1973 in the group’s journal, Art-Language. Corris lectures and publishes on the subject of late-modern and contemporary art. His art criticism has been widely published in journals and magazines devoted to modern and contemporary art, such as Art Monthly, Artforum, FlashArt, Art History, art+text and Mute. In 2010, Corris founded the Free Museum of Dallas, a project and exhibition space occupying his office at SMU.

A+C writer, Rachel Van Horn sat down with Corris to discuss revolutionary abstract painter Ad Reinhardt (whom is the topic of his 2008 book investigating the artist’s relationship to the American Communist movement), fundamentals of art practice, and thoughts on the future of the arts in Dallas.

A+C:  How did your work with Ad Reinhardt come about? Was he a mentor of yours?

Dr. Michael Corris:  Ad taught at Brooklyn College where I did my undergraduate work. I had every other member of the faculty as a professor during my career there, but never Reinhardt, which is quite funny. I was aware of his work by the time I started doing serious work as an artist in graduate school. My colleagues at Art & Language were interested in his work and his position, particularly his negative stance. In the sense, he was able to develop an entire polemic and practice around the notion of dis-affirmation as it relates to abstract expressionism and the structure of the art world.

In 1980, I found a cache of old issues of New Masses magazine from 1940. These were interesting for me because I was aware of their relationship to radical political practice in the US in the 1930s and 1940s. There were two illustrations by Ad which I had never seen before and had never read about anywhere. I began researching and this research spanned over the next 20 years.

A+C:  Why did this spark your interest? Did you get a sense that Reinhardt had a bigger political view than what was known?

Dr. Michael Corris:  People knew about his political background. He indicated it in his own chronology, but there were no specific detail. What people knew of in terms of work outside of his paintings were his art comix and art cartoons published in Art News, Transformation Magazine, and PM Newspaper in NY from late 1940s until around 1960.

The idea of propaganda and relationship of art to political ideals had to be mediated in terms of the appropriate forum of communication because the aim was to reach as many people as possible. He learned a lot from John Dewey’s ideas about aesthetics and pragmatics. This translated into his early thinking about how everyone has the capacity to be an artist if they understand the creative acts that they participate in everyday. He was trying to bridge the gap between the genius, this mythology of the artist who’s the suffering genius and then what does it actually mean to be creative in an industrial society.

A+C:  Did the book inspire others who came to similar conclusions found in the book?

Dr. Michael Corris:  In February, Prudence Peiffer published an article in Art Forum that is an extended review of the show at Pace Gallery which had non art drawings, done while in the Navy, collages and works from the 1940s which had not been seen before. There were other known works in reproduction and borrowing work from the Museum of Modern Art to fill out the chronology. Going back and showing in an exhibition what I had written about in terms of this complex inter relationship between the two different kinds of work he was doing in the 1940s and how one fed into another to help him solve some problems formally in terms of his art.

A+C:  Art & Language in the 1970s was key in bringing Conceptual Art forward. Talk to us about your experience with this collective.

Dr. Michael Corris:  The group was about carving out a cultural space for learning. We were a collective, which was different and the work that we put out was done collectively. We were interested in developing an educational setting for ourselves, reading different things and puzzling through ideas about art in relation to philosophy, linguistics, politics, etc. Also, philosophically, how languages are structured. The logic of language versus pictorial logic or pictorial languages. How language creates a support for the experience of looking at work and how work in our culture has to be buoyed or tethered to language. The experience that sparked this was minimal art; where something that is not very much to look at engendered a tremendous amount of writing. It wasn’t just projection either because the work itself didn’t allow you to make it into anything. It is really about taking the object and re-contextualizing it and working with that context. What was needed to work with that context were resources of expression that were not available in the art world. That was my initial engagement with Art & Language.

The project from the 1970s is now online, Blurting in Art & Language. It was transformed into an online project by the Center for Media Art in Karlsruhe in 2002.

A+C:  The practice of collaboration learned in Art & Language continues in the how you work now. Turning your idea over to the group is an act of vulnerability rarely seen in practice today.

Dr. Michael Corris:  Yes. It stuck with me. When I am working as an individual, there are situations where I try to create groups, commonalities and work together. I think working as a collective is a different experience that shouldn’t just disappear. Even in the context of the classroom there is a sense that at some point there is a collectivity there for that moment. The dynamics of dialogue are what I am most interested in. I’ll engage in a conversation with a colleague with the intention that we are going to publish or co-author something or do a project with a group of people. That kind of sociality we established is what is generating some very interesting ideas. The whole point is to get together to create a stable enclave.

I am thinking of moving the Free Museum of Dallas from an exhibition space to a talking shop to establish a permanent set of dialogues. This is similar to reading groups; you can get more out of reading a book and talking about it with people that have read the same book. That is all we were doing in Art & Language, reading the same things, discussing it and trying to map it to our experiences. I think that is a very good way forward without fetishizing this idea of the collective.

A+C:  That is interesting. How would this talking shop work?

Dr. Michael Corris:  I think art is an entry point, because I talk mostly with people who are involved in art in one or another. I am interested in talking to people outside of art which becomes increasingly difficult even though the idea of interdisciplinary is popular on every university campus in America. It’s such an old idea, but when you actually start to negotiate working across the disciplines, entering in someone’s silo on campus, you realize that there are real challenges. I am interested in seeing how those areas can be bridged. Bringing people together to think about a common problem and brainstorming. This has been around for ages and ages going back to the Socratic dialogues, the symposiums, this is the original site of learning. To be able to do that without a particular aim or outcome that has been imposed beforehand is very interesting. There’s a sense, if you could allow the dynamics of the group to suggest what an outcome would be then you get a sense of what its like to work in a collective.

A+C:  You were a panelist on the State of Arts talk in January, do you have any more thoughts on the subject you would like to share?

Dr. Michael Corris:  Like I said that night, artists have to take the reins. That is the first thing. There is this strange mix of insecurity and uncertainty about identity of Dallas in terms of arts and culture coupled with this profound pioneer spirit. The conversation begins with State of the Arts Dallas when in fact it is not a monolith. It is very important people see this. How it’s being expressed is “OK now we’re going to have a panel that’s more diverse.” Why do you look at this panel as THE panel? The whole idea of THE state of arts is guaranteed to create problems.

There has to be continuous conversations and not just in the blogosphere where people become nasty. Serious conversation, because I think people have to work out a lot of their superficial opinions and attitudes and have them looked at by other people through engagement. You can’t start a profound conversation and get something out in the first ten minutes. You have to carry on, the conversation starts taking on a life of its own and develops a structure. People’s habits have to change during the course. I have no advice for Dallas, I have models I am trying to initiate at the University which I hope people will look at seriously. A lot of people I have talked to say this conversation comes up and goes no where. I think that it’s coming up with increasing frequency and urgency because of the way the physical fabric of Dallas is changing, the way the economy is growing here, the way peoples attitudes are changing, and the addition of the Calatrava bridge.

A+C: We are not as familiar with what happens with over development and how that affects artistic communities. You have lived this firsthand while living for many years in New York.

Dr. Michael Corris: I got to see so much of that, I lived in these places, Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, Greenpoint, all over New York. Some of these initiatives were failed attempts to actually push this which nobody talks about like Rockaway and Queens. This is constantly going on to try to move gentrification forward. Artists have to understand they are being used in that way now more than ever as this sort of catalyst for the transformation of the city into some kind of place that would be very attractive to professionals and tourists. As my friend Laray Polk pointed out, they have these two flag poles now at either end of the bridge and they have the flag of the United States and the Texas flag. It’s like they created this post card photo-op.

There is another model and maybe that is happening in Oak Cliff with the Oil & Cotton gallery. This other model is a lot more hard work but it’s something I think bears looking at. To me, it is probably a more interesting future because if you can start with an integrated community then you are much stronger and it’s much more satisfying.

A+C:  Do you think there should be more educational institutions?

Dr. Michael Corris:  Yes, there should be more universities here. If we had more educational institutions, there would be more positions for people so that they could actually stay here. People are faced with this problem, graduates from MFA programs at SMU, UTD, UNT, where are they going? They have to leave if they can’t make a living in Dallas or if they don’t feel like they are going to have a future as an artist in Dallas.

A+C:  What programs are you involved with that will play a role in expanding educational opportunities here in Dallas?

Dr. Michael Corris:  I am trying to build our MFA program, make it bigger. We have accepted more people this year than we ever to see what happens. We have some studio spaces we are just starting and we have accepted eight or nine candidates. However, I am not sure we can give more than six full tuition scholarships.

Our Art and Urban engagement program supported an artist in residence at the West Dallas Community Center, Bernardo Diaz. We are hiring members of faculty that will work in this area. I want to develop a sustainable funding base for the West Dallas Community Center Artist in Residence program. I want to mention the tremendous generosity of Jeff West of Matthews Southwest. He has offered to donate a live/work space in South Lamar to our artists in residence. We will be involved in fundraising to get some stable funding possibly in conjunction with La Reunion working with Catherine Horsey. We are developing our Art and Social practice curriculum this Spring. Also, working across technologies, like digital and trying to find ways to expand that, because it’s a fantastic information network that could have some tremendous impact. There are a lot of initiatives SMU as a whole are involved with in engaged learning.

A+C:  Are there any upcoming shows at the FMOD? To clarify, FMOD is open to public right?

Dr. Michael Corris:  FMOD is open to the public. I have something that will open in April. It is a historical show about pamphlets that were made in the 1940s and 1950s dealing with racial prejudice. Also a couple of animated films I am doing in collaboration with art historian, Mary Ann Kinkle from the University of Washington Pullman. We will be doing a publication at FMOD which will include writings by Jeff Zilm; hopefully that will be at the end of the Spring. So there will be a publishing arm. Then, begin the series of conversations. Also, I have been invited to show work at the Dallas Biennial.

A+C:  What are your final thoughts on art and education in Dallas?

Dr. Michael Corris:  I hope all of this will work out in Dallas. I have never been in a place like this and I have been around the block. I think it is important that Dallas stop looking over its shoulder. If you are a young artist in Dallas, stop looking over your shoulder thinking maybe you should be somewhere else. If you can make something happen here I think it’s a good place to be. You can do things here a lot easier than elsewhere. Try to stick around. If you don’t stick around, people like me have nothing to work with and from, we are sort of in a vacuum. We might as well just close dome over Highland Park and University Park and just do what we are doing. We need that connection for the rest to work. Fortunately, it’s happening. I would hate to see art only being made by people that could afford to be artists. Where are the artists coming from is what I spend a lot of time thinking about. We are always doing recruitment and looking at high school students. Where we have been looking has changed. When we look in DISD is something else than looking at the private schools. We are learning that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to prepare students, not artistically, but academically to make the cut.

I started the Meadows Academy for young artists when I got here so we could have high school students come in and see what it is like to study art at University level. This has turned into an interesting diagnostic portfolio development experience. We are starting our third year this summer. We have a series of four week-long programs and we are taking in students younger and younger. The Guild Hall our campus in Plano has a video game development program in the summer for middle school kids. We are reaching back and widening, because these kids have to have an academic support structure.