All The Artist’s Children (full interviews, 2021)

The following are the full interview responses for the column “All the Artist’s Children”, published on May 13, 2021 as part of the weekly column Beautiful Eccentrics. The responses are by Andrew Ginzel, Hannah Higgins, and Clarinda Mac Low.

Questions for Hannah Higgins:

Pablo Helguera: There are several examples of children of famous artists who have had difficulty carving a path of their own, partially because of the expectations that are placed on them (eg. that they will become famous artists like them). I see you as an example of someone who not only had/has a wonderful relationship with your parents but also who found a career in harmony with their legacy as well as one that is very much yours. Can you tell me about how you thought about becoming, say, an art historian (did the thought of being an artist ever come to your mind?)

Hannah Higgins:

I’m not sure the issue is expectations and I don’t agree with the idea that I’ve been more successful than others. While it’s true that growing up in arts’ worlds (close to success) might raise the expectations of the children of artists (who might expect to move into a spot with similar accolades as a parent the way that the children of famous doctors and lawyers might), the fetishization of innovation in the arts means that if the works looks anything like the work of the parent, the child will find it difficult to be seen. I fundamentally disagree with that fetishization of newness as it comes too close to what the market wants (the latest style isn’t so far from the lates widget from a market perspective). Better to dig down into generalized creativity and community building. This is something intrinsic to Fluxus (I think) and explains why fame and fortune were of so little interest to its artists (original or not, first/second/third generation or not). In terms of what the art world could be, I favor the alternative written about in Gregory Sholette’s Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. By the measure of mutual support in arts’ worlds and drilling down into under explored dimensions of the parent’s works, there has been success, though not of the commercially favored, market-visible kind. I would also say that my parents, while widely recognized in dissertations and articles, have never been prized by the marketplace, so that kind of officially sanctioned success was never part of the picture of why we’d do this. When I was first writing on this stuff, I encountered a nasty review that described me as “Fluxier than Thou.” My feelings were bruised as I’d tried not to be that, so I withdrew for a time. I now rarely write on Fluxus in a general way, but I do write about interesting work and people that seem to be too far under the radar (Nye Ffarrabas, Jackson Mac Low, for example).

Relatedly, Dick died broke at 60. The Something Else Press was a fantastic enterprise, but he never recovered from it financially. He did a few residencies and painted for the last twenty years of his life and those works have never been shown or sold. There’s no interest and believe me we’ve tried! So his success was in no way commercial in nature. I think that matters a great deal, because I felt there was real need for better writing on Fluxus. I went to grad school expecting to write about Northern Baroque still life. That interest in the depicted everyday lead me to the historic avant-garde and I thought I’d write about Johannes Baader, the wonderful schizophrenic Dadaist. When the 30th anniversary of Fluxus approached in 1992, I changed tracks fast because I couldn’t stand what was out there in the academy.

Fortunately, despite dire warnings by some academics that it would kill my career to do so, I determined then that Fluxus could use some scholarly community building and my mentors at the University of Chicago (WJT Mitchell and Reinhold Heller) thought it was a fine idea. I tried to write honestly about what I thought was missing (which is why reception was so important in my first book) and what could yet be found-and-learned by attending to the experiential potential of Fluxus. You’ll notice that neither of my parents get much mention in Fluxus Experience. It felt like a conflict of interest and still does.

I made a decision (until this year) not to participate on Journal boards, because it was too clearly a conflict of interest should something good come in (the community of folks writing on Fluxus is small). I’ve also not allowed dissertations about Fluxus to be written under me. Same issue. But I’ll answer any email from an interested young scholar, even if it’s coming from a high school kid. I send people corrections (gentle I hope) when I have information that supports or doesn’t an argument. My success, if you want to call it that, lies in my very firm belief that we can be both rigorous and motivated by community building and kindness.

Despite the now-legendary arguments and infighting in Fluxus, this is what I learned from that community of artists by growing up among them. So maybe this success (feeling part of a community engaged in common cause however hotly debated) has to do with the subject matter and the conditioning of growing up among the community of Fluxus artists and particularly the fluxkids (the children of Geoff Hendricks & Nye Ffarrabas, Jackson Mac Low & Iris Lezak, Al Hansen, Peter & Barbara Moore, and the many others who passed through).

2. What do you think are the benefits/challenges of being the child of an artist?

I can’t speak to the experiences of other children of artists, even Fluxus artists. The main benefits and the challenge are two ways of looking at the same phenomenon. A committed artist lives in their ‘art head’ for the most part. That means we (my twin sister Jessica and I) had tremendous freedom to do pretty much whatever we wanted, wherever, whenever. There were art supplies around and lots and lots of super interesting books and records. Since these were part of the ‘art head’ mindspace, talking about interesting art, ideas and music was completely normal. By the time I was in high school, I was doing plenty of drugs and hanging out on the punk scene in NY, and also feverishly reading Gertrude Stein, Plato & Aristotle, Jill Johnston, Karl Marx and James Joyce and occasionally getting to museums and galleries on my own and talking about these experiences with my very enthusiastic father. The challenge, to be clear, lies in precisely that. The conversations were electric (it was thrilling to connect to Dick intellectually). But without going into detail, some pretty weird shit could also be going down in the ‘art head’ mental space and the lived life and we’d simply fold in around it. Kids are adaptable.

My sister is a wonderful intermedia artist. So is Clarinda Mac Low a wonderful dancer. The Fluxkids have some pretty beautiful, strange, and scary, and interesting tales to tell. I’m including an interview from Art Journal many years ago that has some stuff in it. Feel free to quote from any of this.

Andrew Ginzel

Pablo Helguera: Some psychologists argue that being a child of a famous artist is difficult because you feel that you might not live up to certain public expectations. Do you think this is true? What was the best part, and the most challenging part, for you to be the son of two artists?

Andrew Ginzel:
As a child several things stood out in my consciousness: Besides my friend Jimmy Wong who lived over the noodle factory that his parents owned I was quite aware that no one else had much sense of what their parents actually did for a living. My parents were always busy making things and I and my sister were in the midst of the activity. As newly minted MFA’s after WWII they had few obstacles and thrived. It was a great milieu yet parents are parents and at the time of adolescence I sought alternative social-economic models to aspire towards: the gallerists, the collectors, the liberal minded dilettantes of the late 1960’s. Of course, these are those who flocked to the artists so I never felt a spirit of resistance to the parental model. They were also very social so my sister and I were subject to benign neglect which meant we had a lot of freedom. One of the best parts was the extraordinary near-constant parade of visiting out of town artists, poets etc. (Claes Oldenburg, Allan Ginsberg), local personalities such as Studs Terkel and HC Westermann and Chicago eccentrics. A sense of competition did not arise with either parent perhaps because the mantra was to be unique. Nevertheless I feel both my sister and I early on sensed how facile both Ellen and Roland were creating the things they did and that we would never match what they could do so we would have to forge new creative trajectories for ourselves.

Pablo Helguera: Did you always want to be an artist? Was the fact that your parents were artists a factor in you deciding to follow in their steps?

Andrew Ginzel: I began in the family spirit of making by having a series of childhood occupations which morphed from chemistry (elaborate lab) to cuisine (a la Julia Child) to correspondence (Ray Johnson and his universe). The progression seemed and seems quite organic. Yet the parents were painters and I never painted. I bricolaged, built, collaged chemicals, food and then paper etc. By the time I was fourteen I was busy mailing and receiving yet it was not “art” so much as a new vein of being and making. The back story was that Ellen and Ray Johnson attended Oxbow (Summer School of Painting) together during the war and this must be how I first knew of him and by extension many others. By the time I was 28 and had put in nine years of NYC apprenticeship to other artists and begun to create the large “collaged” works in galleries , museums and public spaces it was all ever more remote from painting. So in a very real sense I am fully a parental product yet one who has taken a path made available on the account of the growth of the “art world” and its possibilities. Curiously, in the Covid lacuna I have begun to do something I never thought I would: make paintings !

The current Alice Neel show at the Met is a fascinating petrie dish in which to speculate upon parent as artist and children as de-facto participants in the epic.

Clarinda Mac Low

Pablo Helguera: What is it like to be a “professional child of an artist”?? I love the title you coined!

Clarinda Mac Low: That “job” description is obviously given with a wink and a nod, and I coined it just in writing to you, but I think I came up with the phrase because it is summarizes some of the effects of being the child of a semi-famous experimental poet/composer/performance artist (something of an oxymoron, but there it is). Growing up embedded in the avant-garde arts scene of the 1970s had a profound effect on my understanding of what I could do and be. It also gave me a life-long talent for performance–I started out performing on stage with my father at 4 years old, and basically haven’t stopped doing some form of performance since then. This allowed me to develop a nuanced understanding of performance presence, and the skill to be fully present onstage, which has served me well.

I was initially convinced (by my father and through my own observation) that I definitely didn’t want to be an artist and that led me to plan for a life as a biochemist. But then, when art-making (specifically dance and performance making) grabbed me by the throat in college, and I moved back to NYC to live that out, my background gave me a base to fly from. I already had some so-called social capital–the experimental dance world I entered was the same world that my father occupied, and people knew me, or knew of him. I stubbornly didn’t trade on it often, but every once in a while opportunities arose because I was part of a group of what the Village Voice called, in an article about a few of us, in 1994, the “second-generation avant-garde.” For example, I ended up performing Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A at Alice Tully Hall and then teaching and touring with it for 10 years after that because I was SGAG, and knew her from when I was a kid. But being a “professional child of an artist” often just means that people contact me to ask about him, or about what it was like to be his child, or if they can use some of his work (even though I don’t actually own the rights…), or if I can talk about his work from my own perspective. I always enjoy those opportunities. He and I are close enough in values and interests that it never feels like an imposition, but more like an opportunity to honor him, and to stay in dialogue with him now that he is no longer alive.

Pablo Helguera: Some psychologists argue that being a child of a famous artist is difficult because you feel that you might not live up to certain public expectations based on who you are. Do you think this is true? What was the best part, and the most challenging part, for you to be your father’s daughter?

Clarinda Mac Low: I don’t know about “public” expectations–I kind of don’t care about those. There are so many different publics, and honestly, most people have no idea who my father was. I feel like the field(s) of art I chose were different enough from the fields that he chose that it’s not an apples to apples comparison anyway. But even if it were–dwelling on expectations or fame always seems just like a way to drive yourself crazy. Every once in a while thoughts about not living up to the name drift through, but honestly what I do in the world, while so deeply informed by my experience as my parents’ child, is so different in so many ways that I let go of those anxieties long ago. My motivation for making or being involved in art has (luckily) never been about fame or “success” (because what the hell does that mean?), so being in someone’s shadow is immaterial.

I’d say the best part of being my parents’ daughter (my mother was also an artist–not as “famous” but no less skilled and brilliant) was being surrounded by people living through their imaginations, and thinking about the political world through the lens of art. Any creative endeavour I took up was encouraged, and I had a constant supply of art materials and total permission for my imagination. My father was always hungry for knowledge and we were surrounded by shelves and shelves of books–anything I wanted to know was right at my fingertips, and our dinnertime conversations were wide-ranging and always interesting. I also liked tagging along with my parents to readings, performances, art fairs, etc. I often hear artist parents worry about this, or sometimes artists’ kids complain about it, but I have to say I enjoyed it–it was just part of life. The worst parts were probably being in a chaotic life always on the brink of penury, and a fair amount of benign neglect. But the neglect and chaos were balanced by a lot of love and permissiveness. Yes, it all damaged me, possibly quite a lot, but it also allowed me a lot of time to develop a rich inner life, and the skills to save myself from difficult situations, to remain resilient in the face of challenge. So sometimes the worst things are also the best… .