Excerpts of an interview between Tim Maul and Rebekah Kim.
January 16, 2023. 4PM.
RK: You started your training as a painter at SVA. And then there was this moment where everyone thought painting was dead, right?
TM: Exactly. I was a painting student at SVA. But I was sort of lonely in New York, and I had roommates that weren’t there much. I could look at art by myself all the time, and I’d go to everything. And the things that really hold my attention were photographs, which I felt not a part of because cameras unnerved me. And they still do. And but when I saw, like John Baldessari and Jan Dibbets and Michael Snow. I thought, this is something real, you know? These are pictures of the world. What am I doing painting these blank canvases with, like, a dot pedal? You know? I mean, I can go out and be in the world, and that’s what an artist is suppose to be. And so there was a real connection between the wall and the page and like magazines and publications and editions. I mean, for me, looking at a magazine where an artist wrote something on a page or had one image was the same as a gallery, you know. And there was this idea that objects were bad news and painting was for another generation and that the future was sort of in this dispersed, vague space of performance and installation. And mail art and video and all that kind of stuff, which I totally loved, you know, because it was like something new. And by ‘79, ‘80, it really did coalesce into objects again. New York became populated with young people out of graduate school that had learned how to paint and New York was cheap and fun and they didn’t come in and make conceptual art. They came in and made paintings. And I’d go to openings and every third person I met wanted to be a dealer. It was really different because in 1973, no one wanted to be a dealer, dealers were Castelli and Paula Cooper and these people in their fifties and sixties. Young people didn’t do it, it wasn’t cool. Like, why be a dealer? You could just rent a space on Greene Street and have events, have your band do something, put things on walls. But by the late seventies, which is when I met Leslie (Tonkonow), people said I want to have a little gallery and I want to open a space or I want to do something and they wanted to be mercantile. They wanted to sell things. And artists were smart, gave them things to sell and that’s when everything changed. It really changed within a year.
RK: Wow. Within a year.
TM: Definitely. I was writing because I wanted to learn about the art world. And if you write, as you know, people are really nice to you in galleries. You walk in, and “oh, it’s Tim Maul. Hi, Tim.” And I was doing that for Flash Art in Italy and anyone that would pay me to do it. 20 bucks or something, I would write a review. I’ve written this review of this artist, a performance artist, and I was walking home after the performance and I walked by Prince Street and there was this mob. It was 1980, in front of this glass building, like they’re making a movie. There’s, like, limos and disco kids and punks and everything. And I thought, What is this? I poked my head inside and I’ve been living in New York 11 years. It was David Salle’s first show. And what’s on the walls? Paintings of naked girls with guns and explosions. I looked at them and I thought, something is changing. And they were all sold. What is this? And I knew that night that I’m not going to be a part of this for a long time. So I kept writing and learning about it, you know?
RK: A lot of your images are related to words as you’re often photographing books or pages of a book or even the sequence of one page to another.
TM: Well, I think coming out of painting, I was really interested in flat things and how photography flattened things. None of my work except for in the later eighties when I started traveling more, none of my work were like these kind of composed setups of people or scenery or landscape. I just thought it was, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t interested, but I was driven towards like flattening things. And I was also attracted to things that were already flat, like walls and, you know, wallpaper and stationery and books, which was kind of unique because not many people were photographing things like that. But I also thought it was kind of a little insular. And not everyone got it, you know? But I thought I would keep it because I really wasn’t...I mean, I made all these stupid rules for myself. Like you don’t go out of your house with the camera. You don’t photograph a person. You don’t photograph anyone you know. You don’t photograph....And I was really wrong (chuckles).
RK: Ha, where did that come from? That’s the first time I’m hearing that.
TM: I think it came like from SVA, like things you don’t do. You know, you don’t want to do this. You don’t want to do this. Like, post-minimalism was full of rules. You don’t paint a picture of a person. You don’t use color, you don’t make it big. You don’t do this.
TM: And and then in the eighties, when I started meeting more people and exhibiting a little bit more, I loosened up with it. I thought, there’s a liberating aspect to using the camera. You could really be anyone you want to be behind the camera. And so I started relaxing a bit on the subject matter and content. And by the late eighties when the eighties cracked in ‘88, I sort of cracked too. I had not been dealing with things well and too much fun and I really had to reassess what I was doing and if I wanted to stay in New York. If I wanted to keep doing this, and then I got really interested in the paranormal and following things, I thought, if people don’t want my work, I’ll do what I want. And if they aren’t interested in looking at this stuff, I’m just going to do what I want. And what I’m really interested is in the paranormal. I’ve always loved it, but it was always too wacky to talk about. But, there’s a great writer named Jean Fisher, who was a great critic and educator in the UK and she came to my studio in the mid eighties and I had been photographing in black and white, places that were haunted in New York. And I had hired this guy to go around with me and point stuff out. I printed them all in black and white, really badly and really cheaply. I have hundreds of them. And she said, this is your work, don’t marginalize this. I think this material is worth thinking about. This may be what you do.
RK: Is that the Traces and Presence work?
TM: Yeah. And it turned out to be the thing that was kind of my hit record. I did print them and I showed them at University of California at Berkeley and I showed them in a few shows and museums. And then a couple of years ago, the Pompidou Center bought them in their entirety.
RK: Wasn’t that also at the Met as well?
TM: Yeah, I printed them on cibachrome for the Pompidou Center, which is really hard because cibachrome is really toxic and people don’t like to work with it, the chemicals are really dangerous.
TM: And then the nineties I got a little more relaxed because I kind of got my head together and started again. I had this little audience in France and in Belgium and I would go over every year or two and do something. And that kind of sustained me. Then I was commissioned to photograph these books in Ireland, in this museum. I worked with this art dealer named Betsy Senior, who is retired, and she was really mercantile. And by that way, she is really, really aggressive in selling art and we had a real success with it. You know, people reviewed it. It was really well reviewed in Artforum and stuff. I’d get a check in the mail, every once in a while so I thought it was kind of my maturing moment. The eighties were a lot of fun, there were lots of galleries, lots of openings, lots of new names, lots of gossip, lots of nightclubs. And the nightlife and the gallery world merged and it became fun to buy art. That’s another thing, in the seventies, it wasn’t that much fun to buy art. You’d have to really hunt down the person in the gallery if they were in there or they weren’t like stoned sitting in the back. Then in the eighties, everyone was willing to please. They were like, come and meet the artist, come to the opening, there’s a party afterwards. And it kind of revived itself, I guess, about ten years ago. But I don’t know where it’s at now at all. I don’t get a sense of anything. It’s the art fair, I guess, the art fair dominates.
RK: I was just thinking of your title Between the Buttons, it’s coming off of the Rolling Stones album, is it? I think the story behind it was basically a euphemism of being undecided.
RK: I love the way you title your shows. The last show you did with Leslie (Tonkonow) was When Walls Become Pictures?
TM: Yeah. I’m good at it. I don’t know. I mean, I grew up with rock and roll and I always liked how the title of an album set the mood for the record. I often think of my exhibitions as albums. Let’s think a little idealistic, but when I do a show, I try to think of it as you have these really good songs and you have these songs that kind of connect the other two. But then you have these kind of B-sides that are not that great, but maybe hold the future. I always think of them like this. I’ve named a bunch of things. I was in a show Purple magazine did in Paris in the nineties and named it something. I named Tina Barney’s book. She called me up once and said that you’re really good at naming things, name my book. And I said, How about ‘The Theatre of Manners’? And she said, that’s really good. She used it and thanked me in her book. I was really happy and she gave me one for free.
RK: Tell me about your notebooks. This show feels particularily special, I’ve known your work for the last 15 years, but the notebooks are an entirely new realm that I didn’t expect during our studio visit. I was honored that you would show that to me and go even further to have it in this space. So I’m really excited to share it with people.
TM: Thank you. My notebooks in the early seventies were really drawings of installations with people in them, but they were really crude. And underneath that was this kind of doodling and obsessive sketching and random abstract tangles, you know. And in the late seventies, I really thought that I was holding myself back doing what I wanted to do. I really did like to draw and I thought, well, drawing is bad, but I thought I could repress it, kind of keep it in the notebooks, you know, don’t show it to anybody, but just do it for myself and organize it. And it became this little engine, this little obsessive engine where I’m drawing. Rebekah, I’m actually just drawing now as I’m talking to you, I really am. And so I kept doing them and then I would do one about every year and a quarter, one every 15 months. When I was writing or traveling, I did them less because I couldn’t. But the drawings themselves are completely unknown to me in terms of where they begin or not. I think a lot of them, looking at them with you, I thought a lot of them are very claustrophobic and really compressed and really anxious. I didn’t start being a therapist until I was 40. I began doing that for a number of reasons, but I always thought that this was sort of the flow of things. It was kind of this noise that was beneath my other work, that was part of it and was worth recording. You know, it was kind of like knitting or some other hobby.
TM: But and as I mentioned, even during terrible events like 911 or bad things that happened to me personally, the drawings don’t really reveal that. The drawings don’t display any anger or they’re not weird or they’re not like, you know, must destroy or something, they’re not that adolescent. And a lot of collage is really adolescent. It’s like kids lockers, notebooks and my stuff is sort of adolescent and sort of comes out of that. But it also not that, I mean, I’ve looked at a lot of paintings and I look at paintings more than I do photographs usually. I think a lot of the balance and rhythms of it come out of that, knowing when to stop. Sometimes I don’t do them, right now I’m doing them a lot because its winter and I’m thinking. They’re kind of like thinking notes or puzzles. Like they’re puzzles that I solve and then go to the next one. I just think since I’m older showing them might be interesting. I’m completely interested in what people may think.
TM: They’re not like too schizophrenic or too erotic or too, like I said, adolescent, angry. They’re something else. They’re kind of a dream world. And, photography is another dream world, you know? So I think they have some effect on me. I’m very interested in how people respond.
RK: You have a lot of rules that you set yourself up with before you draw or photograph, these limitations of what you can and can’t do.
TM: I know, I think I put those on myself and I don’t know why. I think maybe studying painting a bit. I like being a bit more rigorous than not being rigorous. In the eighties, I got more intuitive. I started walking around taking pictures of things. I once had this studio visit with this very important dealer, and she was very quiet, and after 10 minutes, she said “so you just walk around and take pictures and things?” And I said, yeah, I guess (ha), and that was my big studio visit with this person. I did like structures to things, and I did want to have certain bodies of work and affordability. I know books are useful because I can write down ideas and if they’re still good, I do them. An idea that I wrote down in ‘79 is as good as it is now. So I always liked referring to them. I’m excited with what people think of them. I’m not going to stop doing it.
RK: On the Absinthe series, as you were mentioning your interest in the paranormal, it connected back to these images for me. You’re interested in these situations that don’t exist anymore, but there are remnants, traces or even evidence of it left.
TM: Yeah. In the eighties, I would go to a lot of photography shows and I met more people doing what I do and I didn’t look at their pictures twice. I’d go to the gallery, scanned them, and I thought if there’s anything I’d inquire about and really stay with and stare at, it had some mystery in it. Something you don’t understand. And I was always really interested in material around the paranormal. Like a little boy, ghost stories, maybe the Irish Catholic thing and TV shows and stuff like that. I always was fascinated by the crummy video and the little snapshots of blurs. And I think with these crummy videos, I keep looking and waiting for something in them. And I started really thinking of what drives this and, it’s sort of obsessive, but the people who do it believe in it more than we artists do. You know we artists, we’re postmodern, we just go to the next thing. But, God, there’s this guy who lives by Loch Ness waiting for the monster with the camera. You know, he believes in it. And so I was really was interested in the belief, the systems of belief, there was a lot around this material that I found really persuasive and really intense. And I didn’t want to, mock it or burlesque it. And I thought, wait a minute. I live on West 10th Street in the middle of Greenwich Village. This place is going to be lousy with ghosts. It’s the oldest part of America, you know. And how do I do this? So I hired this guy. I put an ad in the paper in the Village Voice, and this guy was a psychic. He was, like, really old and pointed things out to me. And I’d pay him and I sat on these pictures for like three or four years because they looked like sort of abstract art school, printing workshop B pictures, you know. But there are also really quite holding to me, and I’ve got a few other related things that I haven’t shown anyone yet. I’ll show you at some point. But there are projects in Ireland and projects in Europe with paranormal things. A kind of really good one in Ireland and a few things in New England. But I didn’t want to be known as the ghost guy. I was in a lot of shows and was really written about stuff. But I also wanted to bare out this other side of my work of looking at single shot photography. Also, one thing, Rebekah, that’s important is the movies and structuralist film, because I have a very hard time showing just one picture. I’m almost semi-autistic and putting series of pictures together is like making these marriages. I have a really hard time putting one picture on the wall and supporting it, it needs to be married to someone else to be in a conversation. So I think being project oriented allows me to do that.
RK: What were some of the films that were important to you at the time?
TM: The biggest film for me is Blow-Up that I saw in high school, which kind of was about belief and truth. That this photograph in London, this park contains a murder that if you really squint your eyes and you really look at it, you can see there’s a life being taken. Right? And then in art school, you read Roland Barthes and you read that every picture is sort of a murder. If you kind of squint every picture has this kind of little bit of death on it. I mean, you even said yourself, that these photographs I showed you, it looks like a crime scene. I think every photograph is a crime scene, which could be the title of the next show.
RK: I love that.
TM: So Blow-Up is important and also, the structuralist films of Michael Snow which I saw when I was in SVA and changed my mind completely. So did Hollis Frampton.
RK: You introduced me to Derek Jarman. I remember it left such a mark on me when I was, I don’t know, 18 or 19. I can’t remember what gallery it was, but it was his Blue film.
TM: Yeah, he was amazing. I just read his book on color called Chroma last summer. Beautiful. This dying man writing about color. And so those things had a big effect on me and when I started making photographs in the late seventies, I was sort of mimicking structures and having these frames across rooms, tacking things up in these sequences. And it’s really hard to sell those things. Art dealers don’t get it. I mean, I would meet with these people that were really smart and really educated. They were like, wait, these three go together? And I go, Yup. And now this one is here, this one is here and this one is here. Can I sell them each personally? No. Can I, you know, whatever. And so that was a really big effect on me, the structuralist films. And also, John Baldessari films, which I saw at the Sonnabend Gallery in ‘73. Like, they’re so simple, but they had these big resonances, and I still think they’re the best. You know, all that stuff I really relate to.
RK: Throwing four balls in the air to create a square, is it?
TM: Yeah. To me, it’s like, funny, but it’s also really smart and the real world, you know? And politically, I thought you should be able to make art with four balls and a camera. Why not? I think the mid seventies was for me the most optimistic time because I was in my mid to late twenties. I thought it can be anything right now and I was actually quite busy. The alternative spaces would call me and I did one of the first series of performances at PS1. I did a performance at 3 Mercer Street store and people would just be on this list. Oh, Tim will do something, you know. So I thought that was a really exciting moment. But also, Rebekah, it was also very competitive. People wanted things. They really wanted to get a grant. They wanted to be the name on the top of the list. It was very chummy and very supportive, but underneath that. There was this kind of buzz of I hope it’s me and I think the art world is like that, but in a more moneyed way, you know?
RK: You’ve been referred to the Pictures Generation. Do you feel associated with that group or actually like a Pre-Pictures Generation?
TM: I was sort of the Pre-Pictures Generation. I was very close to narrative and conceptual art and people of the Pictures Generation type were really a tight, tight clique. They all studied with John Baldessari or come from Buffalo like Cindy Sherman or Robert Longo. And they were a very tight crowd.
RK: And very much about appropriation.
TM: Yeah, there was a real sense of it was really like high school, who they let in and who they let out. And I managed it a lot like high school where I liked them and they liked me, but I didn’t demand their presence. You know, I wasn’t going to gravel, but I’ve been really supported by them. Like Jim Welling is a good guy and I own his work and he’s supported me. And Barbara Bloom’s one of my closest friends, she just bought a picture from me recently, so I’m happy for the association. But I always told them that my SATs weren’t high enough to get in.
TM: I went to 12 Greene Street with Kiki Smith and a bunch of other people, and I felt that was sort of the top of the heap. But there it changed really quickly. And I think because of economics that in the late seventies art became cool to go to. It attracted all these weirdos and openings were packed, little nightclub headlines in front of them and on. Art galleries opened close by, like Leslie Tonkonow opened this little space Art City, and within four weeks she was flooded with slides, like package after package of slides and people coming in and saying look at my work. I was there, she was overwhelmed, I’d help her like shovel packages of slides out of the floor that were being pushed out to the door. It really boomed. And like a boom there was either you’re on this team or you’re on this team. I kind of stayed between the teams, you know. Kind of like high school. I like the cool kids, but I also really like the nerds, too. So it was a lot like that. You really had to choose sides that I never did. And people always bring that up. I’ll never forget when this guy in France interviewed me, he said, you never choose sides. And I said, I know, but here we are.
TM: I mean, I think I’m sort of more interesting for it, but I was very lucky I got to teach. And that was just through knowing Stephen Frailey. I showed with him, teaching was really great. It really was good for my head and when it was going well, nothing was better. I have I’ve had adventures all over the world, I’m very fortunate.
RK: Well, I guess we’re hitting exactly an hour.
TM: Oh, wow. Yeah, I need a glass of water.
RK: I’m excited to do this with you.
TM: Me too. For everyone I’ve worked with, it has been like that. It’s an attraction, I think it’s great. Everyone’s sort of like being in a band.
RK: Exactly, that’s what it feels like. Well, I’ll see you at the Met on Thursday.
TM: Okay. I got my haircut. Looks pretty good. I should be okay.