Artforum’s New Editor-in-Chief David Velasco
Talking Partygoing, Portland teenhood, and Loving/Hating the Art World with Sarah Nicole Prickett
- Photography: Marcelo Gomes
On the day of his eighteenth birthday, October 23, 1996, David Velasco took up smoking. He had been bullied as a child—a nerdy, funny-eared, suspiciously articulate kid who felt neither “Mexican” nor “white.” His first job, at the age of twelve, was at home helping his grandmother, a proofreader for the Yellow Pages, with some extra work. He went to Franklin High in southeast Portland and became the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. When his mother was fifteen, she was having sex with his father—then the 26-year-old lead singer of Reedy & the Hellraisers—under the bleachers. When David was fifteen, he wrote an op-ed in favor of medically-assisted suicide. He went to Reed College and worked at the Reed College Library, where most nights he stayed until two o’clock in the morning, reading Claude Levi-Strauss. Cigarettes didn’t suit him, but buying Marlboros to look cooler and tougher, while waiting until the crack of legality to do so, practically defined him.
David is now, as of this past October, the editor-in-chief of Artforum International. His ascension from editorial assistant to editor of Artforum.com to one of the most coveted position in magazines is unusual for being so deserved. Even his hiring 12 years ago is a dreamy, midcentury story, involving a prize for young, unpublished writers (at a magazine called Art Papers) and, six months later, an application in response to a classified ad. Details of his personal life, like how he met his boyfriend Ryan (on the dance floor at The Cock) and how he met his other boyfriend Sam (on Craigslist), likewise suggest that good things come to true believers. David exhibits a reverence for work in the present that most people reserve for works in the past. He brought dance into the pages of Artforum and has nurtured, on the website, weird voices emoting on performance and the social. Last year he started a series of books for MoMa on modern, living choreographers, and authored the one on Sarah Michelson, whose work so moved him that he spent a decade thinking about it.
More to know: David is simply crazy about houseplants. He has three different gym memberships, although he claims to have cancelled one (“it just hasn’t gone through yet”). He is very attractive. At home, he drinks from oversized wine glasses he purchased, for $12.95 each at Crate & Barrel, because he saw them on the television show Scandal. At the office, he drinks from a mug that says “Bernie Sanders is Magical.” He has lived in the same rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment in South Williamsburg since 2009, and his boyfriends live in other one-bedroom apartments in the same building, three floors down and one floor down, respectively. When I come over, usually because I’m in trouble, he offers me wine, tequila, poppers, and Xanax, in that order. His only flaw is that he never has cigarettes, having quit 10 years ago. He did, however, recently bum one off Nan Goldin, and explains that he did so to look cool.
Obviously, we are friends.
Sarah Nicole Prickett
How has your life changed since becoming the editor-in-chief of Artforum International? Are you on any new medications?
No! Strangely, my generalized anxiety has decreased. I can’t be afraid of being afraid, or worried about something I might have forgotten to do, or some other abstraction. Fears are being realized at every moment. I prefer having fewer choices. It’s calming. There’s also more attention to what I’m doing.
Attention at parties, and probably at the office, too.
I can’t disappear anymore. I used to love disappearing. Now I have to walk through the whole office to get to my corner. It’s more of a display.
And does everybody really quickly, like, arrange their desks, put out copies of Eve Sedgwick books, water their newly acquired plants?
Exactly. They all turn their computers on and put on makeup when they hear the elevator ding. No, I don’t inspire terror, I think. I like the people I work with.
And I really like writers. More than I care about instituting a specific vision of art, I have a group of writers who I love and I think that whatever they want to say, as long as they say it interestingly, is what matters.
I would bet my rent that no living editor likes writers more than you do, or does more for writers—what you do for me alone is insane. You’re making me tea and ordering sushi while I slooooowly rearrange a piece [for the February 2017 issue] assigned at 3,000 words and running at 12,000. You’re the night nurse, like Ingrid Sischy in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist.”
I’d give anything to do what Sischy did. The first thing I thought when I took this job was, Well, what would Ingrid Sischy do? Then I opened her first issue, February 1980, and found out.
It was like Dylan going electric. People—I mean, people like Rosalind Krauss—hated what Sischy did.
I hope people hate something about my Artforum!
Wow. Inspiring. David Velasco struggles to be disliked by even one person.
Putting “incite backlash” at the top of my to-do list. No, but I want to feature art that really fucks with you, and then I want writers who will explain to you that it’s fucking with them, and sharing how and why it does so. And why that should matter to you.
Traditionally, we [at Artforum] like experts, people who have a specific body of knowledge that they bring to bear on a topic, and we like people who speak with authority. But I don’t find expertise necessarily interesting. Lots of writers can get up to speed on a topic well enough to write about it, and can offer to the reader something that a quote-unquote authority couldn’t. This is not to say I’m erasing art historians from the magazine. Molly Nesbit and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth write about Linda Nochlin in the first issue, and those are cases where someone is an expert, and the pieces are great. On the other hand, who wouldn’t want to hear what Rhonda Lieberman has to say about… anything?
What disturbs me in a magazine is an air of consensus. It’s so inappropriate to the times, and it’s the opposite of actually having taste. You write about loving Sarah Michelson because you found her before you were looking. There are artists you love before you knew what art is or is supposed to be, and maybe later you find out that you’re supposed to like that artist, but no one can take away from you the initial love, when it was unrequited in the sense of not yet validated.
One thing I find disheartening and that I want to figure out how to address is this cynicism about art and the role of art in the world today. Art or whatever I call art, exceeds any sort of like… it’s more important than my life. I could imagine actually sacrificing myself for a work of incredible art. I hold onto the idea that art exceeds ourselves and our material ambitions. I want to preserve this ability to be in awe of art, while not, at the same time, obfuscating the conditions and its potential ill effects.
But maybe that gets to something. My faith in greatness, in talent, in genius, which is yoked to a deeply stupid romanticism. I don’t mean stupid in that I’m stupid. But the romance is dumb. It’s feeling, and it spars with your rational brain, or simply smothers it. I think that a conviction in the affective powers of art to move, exhort, whatever, matched with a desire to articulate why that is, will be enough to keep us going.
The first thing I thought when I took this job was, “Well, what would Ingrid Sischy do?”
Does greatness require artists to be themselves?
I wonder what it means for artists to be themselves. Maybe what I like is artists who can project a strong version of themselves. I don’t even have to like that self. Like, what have you got? Can you give me a bright, signature picture of where you’re from? We all come from somewhere.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Well, I didn’t take it, but I had a gay “uncle” who said to me: “You’re the artist; you need to marry a banker.”
But you’re the gardener, and you’re surrounded by flowers. Some very delicate hothouse flowers, I might add.
I love flowers. Actually—when my mom was here for the holidays, I almost got—it’s weird, it intersects with stuff you write about—but I almost got us blue rose tattoos. I’ve always loved the idea of a blue rose, even when I was a teenager, and I didn’t know anything about Novalis or Romanticism. I must have caught something in the air.
Your favourite flower is literally unreal. Because when you see a blue rose, you say two things. How can this be? And: How can this be beautiful? What’s your favourite animal? Actually, I know this one. It’s an octopus.
It’s true, I love octopi. I love that they’re so smart, as smart as humans maybe, and they share almost no features with us. They’re a totally alien intelligence on this planet. They can squeeze themselves in and out of almost anything. I love all escape artists.
I also have a soft spot for penguins. The very first letter—the first of only two letters I’ve written to a political figure—was to Ronald Reagan, when I was eight or nine, asking him to consider the penguin when they were doing some terrible thing in the Arctic, or maybe it was the Antarctic.
Consider the penguin! What was the second letter?
It was a letter to Mayor Bloomberg when they were instituting the smoking ban, saying that nothing would destroy New York City’s nightlife faster than banning smoking, and that nothing was more important than New York City nightlife. I think I was 23.
So you’d been in New York for like, five minutes.
Perfect. What was the nightlife for you?
Everything. I would read Michael Musto’s column every week in the Village Voice. I would go through listings and just go to any queer-themed bar and dance until they turned the lights on, then take the subway back to Brooklyn. I couldn’t afford to drink, so I was never hungover.
On Monday nights I would go to The Cock for a silly party called Home Skool, where this guy Jon Jon Battles would DJ a random mix of pop hits—Britney Spears’s “Toxic” next to Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” and Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” When I met Ryan [one of Velasco’s boyfriends], I was dancing to the Beastie Boys. He told me he wanted me on every dance floor he was on for the rest of his life, and put me in his phone as “David Dancer.”
Going out became part of your job. I’ve always liked reading and writing the Scene & Herds, the notoriously unpredictable party reports at Artforum.com. I want you to take me… Behind the Scenes & Herd.
What do you want to know? It’s where I learned to love and hate the art world. My first week at Artforum, someone realized that I was the only person in the office who owned a digital camera. I don’t even know why I had one, except that I’ve always had trouble not buying things. Anyway, Jack Bankowsky sent me to take photos at this massive Mike Kelley opening at Gagosian. David Rimanelli, who was already one of my favorite writers, was kind enough to point out who I should photograph. I remember going up to Nate Lowman and Tara Subkoff, who Nate was dating at the time. I took their picture and asked for their names. Tara said something like, “You don’t know who I am?” And I was like, “If I don’t know who you are, then you’re not that famous.”
Irving Penn once scolded me for asking him if I could take his picture. He was like, “Don’t be an asshole. Just take the fucking photo.” I was terrible at it, but I liked holding the camera. I felt like I had more control over the action. I could turn it into a spectacle.
It was fun to be invited to this weird stuff for rich people. To make fun of them and their weird lives and also to enjoy them and make friends and see some of the surface mechanisms of the art world—which, maybe, weren’t really surface at all. At its best, the column is sly and funny and delicious and twists the old hierarchies from below. At its worst, it reifies those hierarchies. Often, I think it does both.
I love it when the answer is “both.” It’s so convenient.
A lot of art-world elites would like to identify as non-dogmatic. Which means that you can have your cake and eat it. You can herald the demise of capitalism even as you rake in money from the biggest capitalists in the world. That contradiction is kind of at the heart of people’s suspicions about art and about the art world. It allows for this weird bubble of privilege and, I don’t know, really strange and radical thinking.
Irving Penn once scolded me for asking him if I could take his picture. He was like, “Don’t be an asshole. Just take the fucking photo.”
Maybe this is a good time to talk about the darker possibilities of social exchange. I’m now turning to the imagined audience to exposit that, this past October, news broke of a lawsuit against Knight Landesman by a former employee, Amanda Schmitt, describing sexual inappropriateness, intimations bordering on intimidation, and so on. Most employees at the magazine learned of the lawsuit at the same time as the public, and the publishers released a statement that, um, obviously had not been edited. Which brings us back to you, David. There are some things you’ve already said, like in your editor’s letter, and other things you can’t say, because Landesman and Artforum are in litigation.
One thing to note is the difference between “Landesman” and “Artforum,” two entities that seem to get confused. Knight Landesman was one of four publishers. And yet to many people he looked like the only publisher, or like something more than a publisher, because he was so colorful and out there. One of the things I’ve been asking myself since he resigned is: How did a cult of personality distort the picture of how things actually operate here? Did people think that Knight could get them into the magazine? He was not an editor, and editors make those decisions.
Right. Like, Knight not only misused but misrepresented his power. Except that, outside the magazine, there was a lot he was able to influence. I can’t remember hearing anyone out there question his influence, or suggest that, like, maybe the face of an art magazine shouldn't be the guy who sells ads? It’s symptomatic, though. Jeff Koons identifies as a salesman. Larry Gagosian started out selling posters. For Knight to fall might be symbolic, like an indictment of a whole system of valueless, unfair exchange.
No, of course it’s symbolic. The art world is the only unregulated market that’s also legal. It’s a great place to hide money. It’s a great place to pretend you’re somebody without having any particular gifts, which means that for people with talent, it’s disheartening a lot of the time. Those who don’t have connections come in thinking they have to play all these games to participate.
I’ve often wondered what I’m doing in one of the world’s least meritocratic industries. I’m constantly running into people and wondering how they got where they are, and I’m almost never made happier by the answer.
Had you known what the art world would be like, would you have applied for the job when you did? Or would you have been too intimidated, too worried about a lack of family money, connections, credentials.
I would have been intimidated, and I would still have applied. I don’t know. Sometimes you have to be ignorant of the rules to not replicate them. The Portland, Oregon I grew up in was more like Tonya Harding’s Portland than, like, Portlandia, and when I started to glimpse the “art world” there, even when I would just go to coffee shops and see sad paintings or poetry on the walls, what I saw was a way to be progressive, to hang out with other queer people, or a way to dodge the ambient spiral of drugs and abuse, and whatever.
One of the first moments when I realized that wasn’t what was meant by the “art world” was at my first dinner, hosted by a gallery, in New York. I brought Ryan. We’re both vegetarians, and there wasn’t a vegetarian option. I was shocked because I assumed that most people in the art world would be vegetarians.
You assumed people in the art world would be vegetarians. Because it—what, because it was the only moral choice?
Right. [Laughs] I thought there would be vegetarianism!
Some of, uhh, your best friends are not vegetarians.
It’s true, and I don’t judge them for it. Although I do think it’s a moral choice. Faced with a cow, I don’t think I could kill it and eat it. But I’m not a vegan, because I do think I could milk a cow.
That’s just like a sex thing.
Maybe I’m a total hypocrite. I wear leather.
Also a sex thing.
Actually, yeah. I think the best part-time job I ever had was working behind the cash register at Spartacus Leathers, which was a high-end adult entertainment store, in Portland. They made world-famous nipple clamps.
Let’s end this with words. Like, what was the last new word you learned?
Kakistocracy. We learned it together! And it’s a very useful word.
What was the last word you suddenly forgot to spell?
Assassin. So embarrassing. I grew up being the best speller. It was how I made myself useful to my mother, who is dyslexic, basically, although she’s never admitted it. From a very young age I remember that every time my mom was writing something, like a letter, she’d yell across the room: How do you spell ______? There are few better motivating forces than a mother in need.
Which words would you like to ban from Artforum? An editor has to ban words!
Could we just ban all of them? Kidding. I’m tired. Abjection. A boring word for what it really describes. Resonates. A beautiful word that’s been made banal through overuse. Donnée. That ban only applies to me. I did a search for it on Artforum.com, and seven of the 11 instances of that word’s usage in the entire history of Artforum are mine. It was a Joan Didion word. She should have kept it. But I’ll probably use all these words in the next piece I write.
Like, “the donnée of abjection resonates through the iterative tensions negotiated and renegotiated in this fertile, hybrid, liminal, and itinerant space…”
Exactly. “The 22-year-old artist’s pursuit of abjection emerges fully formed in a pair of resonant, animated GIFS and a video of the artist herself lip-syncing to Fetty Wap, her pallid, irony-rich skin blithely inviting us to consider the perverse operations of postcolonial logic while holding us hostage, too, in the trappings of her libidinal donnée.”
Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer from Canada. She founded Adult Magazine.
- Interview: Sarah Nicole Prickett
- Photography: Marcelo Gomes