An Interview with William Pym
Interview by ANTHONY SMYRSKI and DAN MURPHY
How did you end up where you are now, what was the trajectory?
Will: A month before I finished college—2006—I had a show at Harvard University. When I was doing my thesis show for painting, I had a gallery show in New York at Rivington Arms. I thought I was going to be in New York or Boston. I thought I had a handle on it. I thought I was going to find a way to live and work and party and stay fabulous. I went home after I graduated, came back and went to see my friends in Philly for one last time. At the pub we got so drunk, I just got done watching England in the World Cup with my best friend… I fell asleep on the couch with my neck over the edge. I woke up, and that drunk sweat just poured out of the back of my neck and soaked this couch. I watched Wild At Heart, the David Lynch film, I passed out in the middle of the afternoon, soaked this horrible, filthy couch—and I decided then, that it wasn’t going to work out for me in New York because I was obviously too much of a disaster. I clearly saw from that day, I didn’t have what it took to hack it on the Lower East Side and to make ends meet and make work and be seen five, six, seven days a week, and to keep up with the society pages—which was what I thought being “successful” was.
I thought it was the easiest thing in the world: Know people. Know people with influence. Know people with money. Know people who want to see you—I mean, it’s visibility and fabulousness, the society pages of W magazine and Vice magazine or Harper’s Bazaar. I was fascinated with the fact that I could look good, fresh gear, throw money around. But none of that stuff I have the ability to sustain.
Was art doing anything for you?
Will: I was only just getting started. I saw the potential of what it could be—it could be easy. I thought: me. I’m foreign. Which, I’m not even legitimately foreign. I’m half-American.
Will: So, I came to Philadelphia and gave up all that.
Is it something you still want?
Will: Being an artist, painting, sitting with your passport when you’re at customs and you write where your profession is: “artist.” That’s definitely a liberating feeling.
Dan: I’ve put “artist” at different times, depending on my mental state on the airplane.
Will: I’m jealous of people who have never even thought of putting anything else.
What defines being an artist for you?
Will: Someone who doesn’t feel themselves in any way accountable for their actions, because what they do is in some sort of parallel state. You’re involved in the world of art, which is totally unpractical, or you’re involved in the world of the world, which is a very practical place. If you write down “artist” on the customs form that means you don’t have to deal with the reality of the world around you, ‘cause you’ve got a higher cause. My position now as a dealer, which is bizarre, is to encourage [artists] and to enable them to live in this parallel universe.
Because it’s conducive to their creative process?
Will: Yeah, they’ll make better work.
Dan: What about these people who are very competent and well spoken about their work, and are integrated and are very successful. They’re not even really good artists, but they sustain themselves on looking good and being seen, doing everything right—writing grants well. They’re fully sustainable.
They’re working the system.
Will: It’s a job.
I think you have a perspective on a certain kind of art that I don’t have the same knowledge of. I think we’re at this weird spot right now where that kind of art doesn’t know where it belongs, culturally.
Dan: You’re saying that since art doesn’t function in the real world, since everything that’s happening now is so immediate, with the Internet and the media in general—I feel that a lot of art reflects that.
Yea. It is created from what’s happening right now. So, where are these artists drawing their inspiration from? A lot of what we do, comes from our environment, our observations of daily experience. That’s because we function in the real world. Then there’s the sort of people who push themselves farther and farther away from reality and accountability. Is their artwork relevant to anyone but themselves?
Will: Well, they’re putting themselves in a dangerous position. It’s a position that was created by the birth of the commercial art scene. They can commit to being looked after by somebody in the art world. This management is protecting artists from the real world.
The actual system of managing artists—it’s protecting them from the real world? It’s not just your method?
Will: No. I don’t even do that good a job of it. If I did a better job of protecting my artists from the real world, I would be a lot richer. My artists would be a lot richer.
Dan: Aren’t the most dark, most reclusive people making a lot of the most pop shit right now? It seems like the most pop, candy, crisp music and art is coming out of the people that are less integrated. They’re integrated in this new way, in this MySpace kind of way.
Will: Think about Daniel Johnston. His tapes went around to whichever stores he would go to. But today, if he had access to MySpace, sure—
So, does access to MySpace make art less genuine?
Will: There’s a rift. There are two different worlds: the world of complete, immediate availability to everyone, mostly 100 percent free. Then, there’s the gallery scene, [which is] clinging to this mold from the ‘60s. You can’t keep art from the world, and the world from art and artists.
How did you hook up with Fleischer Ollman after you decided to stay in Philly?
Will: I worked at Utrecht at Broad and Spruce, next to Philadelphia International Records.
This was after New York?
Will: Yes. I didn’t do anything for a couple of months. And then I was flat broke and working at Utrecht and still pretty destitute. I started hating it so much that I didn’t look after myself and I didn’t wash my Utrecht T-shirt. The manager was constantly hitting on me and I told him that I wanted a two-week vacation to London. And he would say stuff to me like, “Oh, I was thinking about going to London. We could go clubbing. You could show me around.” I said, “Listen, I want to go home and see my family and friends. I’m not sure I can show you around.” And, he goes, “Maybe you should take a bath.” And I turned around and said, “What the fuck did you say?” And he’s like, “Nothing.” So I went into the back room, took my shirt off, and I walked out of the store.
I did nothing for three months after that. Then I got a job painting the walls that summer at Fleisher Ollman. And the next day, he’s like, “Do you want to come in a couple days a week?” The next day I came in, and I didn’t take a day off after that. I started answering the phones, packing things. And when that final person left, the boss and I had lunch. We had turkey burgers. He says, “Do you want to be the director?”
How long had you been there?
Will: Two years. Parallel to this, is me, desperate to have a good girl and stability and stardom. I’ve been desperate since I was 20-years-old to have that.
How long have you been the director?
Will: One year. This show that’s coming up is a sort of testimonial show of everything that I’ve wanted to say in the past year.
When you say “director,” I’m curious as to what that means. You’re the curator as well?
Will: Yes. I decide month to month what every show is going to be and the cost. The program is a story. There’s a narrative. The story is closing the gap between art and life and normal peoples’ lives. Like what we were talking about. There’s a massive rift. Contemporary art is at a high level. It only serves itself and anyone who’s involved in that work. There’s that guy Martin Kippenberger. He said the act of living was his art, and a lot of people accused him of being a fake and charlatan. He just wanted to live. He didn’t want his art to take him away from his life.
I find that there are two extremes. There is either high-end conceptual art that’s dense and hard to understand from the outsider’s perspective. If you don’t know the codes to decipher it, then it’s inaccessible. Then, there’s the opposite extreme, which is, since it is accessible it has to be ugly and quick and doesn’t mean anything. Do you know what I mean?
Will: Absolutely. The fact that the terms used and the kind of arguments made to make it accessible—it’s no different from someone talking about a hip-hop producer. It’s gobbledygook to someone who hasn’t had the training in what is being talked about.
That training costs money.
Will: No. It doesn’t cost money. All training—all it costs is conversation.
I don’t know if that’s true because there’s a social realm that conversation exists in.
Will: My gallery is paying for me to go to Basel, Switzerland, which is just a horrendously dull place. It costs money and it costs fucking time. Then, I get the education that I need in order to keep up.
I don’t identify with it. There’s a part of me that is sick of the skateboard graffiti bullshit, because it’s not even the graffiti skateboarding that I knew, ever. I don’t see myself ever identifying with that higher art world, either.
Will: I’m trying to make a middle ground and Philadelphia is the right place to do it, because it’s not New York, where everyone needs to know which social game they’re playing at any given time.
Dan: The middle ground is interesting, though. Like what you said about Barry McGee. People in that scene think that they are at the top. People in that scene, it’s like, well Barry is the most famous student, Jeffrey Deitch is the biggest art dealer in our scene. But then you realize that’s not really what’s going on. This is also going on elsewhere—times millions of dollars.
Will: I’m trying to find out how to be comfortable with the idea of having that title, “producer,” and what it means.
It’s a strange title. You have to have a different perspective on things than the individuals you use to make the larger project.
Will: People are willing to collaborate with you much more quickly than if you were just two fellow artists. It feels like there’s less competition and less ego involved. Unfortunately, for me sometimes I feel like it’s been reduced so far that I have no identity in this producer role. No one ever asks me how I’m doing. It’s just kind of a given. As part of my 24 hour job description, that I’m always solid.
That’s your doing.
Will: Certainly. When you look good all the time, no one ever tells you that you look good. And that’s not fair.
That’s one thing you miss from when you were an individual artist?
Will: I do lament the idea that I am in any way different than the artists I’ve worked with. Temperamentally, I started off exactly the same as them. I slowly adopted a kind of persona or a mode of working day to day. I enjoy looking at the shows, but my name doesn’t get mentioned. I don’t want to be this kind of Guru, or super producer. I don’t want to be Timbaland. Maybe I should just bite the bullet and realize that it would be a good idea to have an ego as a producer.
Okay, here’s a question. Is knowing art an art in itself?
Will: It’s considered a different discipline because it’s considered threatening to the artist.
What is threatening?
Will: It’s ancient. [Artists] have some sort of mystic connection with, well, God. Now, they have a profound, tuned in connection with extremely wealthy people. There’s not really religious art any more.
Artists of a certain level are producing work strictly with these patrons in mind. Consciously or not, when they’re making artwork—the thing is marketability? Doesn’t that violate the pureness of the artistic act?
Will: Yea. The artistic act is thoroughly compromised at this point. And, yes, it’s pretty necessary to cling on to the sacredness of the artistic act. What we’ve got to do is let go of what we have here.
And then what? Get out of the gallery?
Will: I think that would be ok.
So where does the artwork get shown?
Will: Now we’re getting somewhere interesting. Music, something which was previously only able to be enjoyed live and in person, can now be beamed through the ether. A lot of art will be able to be reproduced from the pages of a magazine or a disc. There are no churches to put artwork in.
And museums are strange places, too.
Will: Any institution that’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable places for viewing art. I mean MOMA is loaded with compromise. It’s just the experience of museum going—it’s not the experience of art. You can’t see the work. It’s noisy and there’s never a chance to be there when it’s quiet.
So what’s your ideal?
Will: The reason I was interested in art as a kid, was simply because I loved the experience of being in museums and having this kind of communication with works of art. And, for various reasons, [these days], people don’t have time or space in their brain to commune. Everything is efficiency, expertise, specialization. The economy thrives on the fact that we’re constantly renewing—
Will: They’re speaking consumption. Just, pure consumption. Like a waste producing machine. I mean, art’s gotta stick? That’s my ultimate thesis as a dealer. Art’s got to be disposable. Made out of paper—or, it’s got to have the ability to last centuries. It’s one or the other.
Indulgences. The practices of indulgences. Like, buying a new car—it’s not an emotional or spiritual indulgence that’s being encouraged. I would encourage spiritual indulgence, ‘cause I would like to indulge in it myself. And I would like my surroundings to—
Will: Yea. That’s when I actually can think. In my house—it’s a world away from other environments.
That’s something that becomes more and more obvious to me as I get older—how much your mental environment is intruded upon by outside forces that you have no control over. Do you see art having some function in being counter to this?
Will: Art is an expression that will resonate in generations to come. Art is something that can educate and illuminate somebody who comes from completely different circumstances than you—someone whom you never met, and you never will meet.