When Jane Dickson walked in to meet me at Blue State on York, the first thing she said was, “What is this? Matt & Kim, right?” I said yes; “Daylight” was playing. She nodded. “I know them.” Dickson, in her green hoodie and red shawl, radiated casual cool. And she should—as one of the most successful artists of her generation, she has works in the Met, MoMA, the Art Institute, and the Whitney Museum of American art. The Herald sat down with her to talk about public art, how to make it in her field, and the intent behind her work.
YH: How did you get started as an artist?
Dickson: I saw an ad in the New York Times for an artist who wanted to learn computers. This
was 1978 and there were no computer programs in schools. When I went to the interview they said that you couldn’t teach art to a computer person, so they were looking to teach computers to an artist. They asked me if I could type, and of course I said I could. The truth is, I never learned to type in college because I was like “I’m an artist!” My stepmom was a secretary, and she was always saying, “Forget all that art shit.” So I decided I never wanted to learn to type. After that interview, I went straight to the bookstore and bought a teach-yourself-to-type book and practiced until my hands were spazzing. So I got the job—I worked at the first computer light board in Times Square, called Spectacolor. It was the first digital sign in Times Square. I wanted to work the night shift on weekends so I could have my days free to make my art. When I worked there, some of my punk friends were working on videos, and I offered to run their titles when my boss wasn’t there.
YH: Were you a punk?
Dickson: I was of that moment, but I was never a serious punk. I was not a nihilist. I didn’t do enough drugs. I feel like true punks were truly nihilistic and really did as many substances as they could and a lot of them are dead. In my youth, between AIDS and the punk era, half of my friends and colleagues died within a few years. I don’t know why I’m just not attracted to substances. I tried everything because I thought I was a dweeb if I didn’t. Anyway, I’m not a true punk. I didn’t pierce anything. I felt like I had a lot to do that I wanted to get done. I was okay with the ripped t-shirts and the messy hair, but honestly, I preferred bathing.
YH: Do you feel like going to Harvard prepared you for a career in the arts?
Dickson: Well, actually there were two female professors who were artists. When I was coming up—I went to college in ’71—there were no woman artists. I was like, “Do I have to be a muse?” I have to say, Harvard hired these two women who were artists and have kids. I wanted to hang out with them and learn how they did it. I went to Harvard because I didn’t get into Yale, let’s be clear. Yale has had a good art department since the late 1700s. At Harvard, they were always like, we’re not sure you deserve Harvard credit for messing around in an art studio.
YH: Can you tell me a little bit about “Messages to the Public?”
Dickson: I was part of a group called collaborative projects, which was a bunch of young artists who were making our own cable TV and art projects. We decided to do a show called the Times Square show, and I talked my boss into letting me design an ad and run it every hour. I ended up being able to curate the billboard. I called it “Messages to the Public” because it was advertising, and because I was part of collaborative projects. We were all interested in content and issues, not art for art’s sake. I knew all these cool young artists who nobody had heard of. It was a fantastic lineup, and it continued for another six years, until it started being curated by a panel.
YH: What don’t you like about “art for art’s sake”?
Dickson: I’m interested in making art that comments on my time and my place. There’s
a discussion going on all the time in the press and among people, and what issues are being discussed are influenced by certain people. You, as a journalist, are doing your part to shape it, as am I as a visual artist. I want to comment on the world outside of my little studio. It’s important for my voice to be heard in the mix, so that I can throw down on the side that I think should win. And alot of times it doesn’t win, but if I just go, “I don’t care what happens in the world, I don’t care how many people get shot by the police or whatever, I’m just going to get the right color of red in the corner”—it’s okay for some people, but it doesn’t work for me. Not all of my work is radically political, but I’m trying to create a space where people consider issues that aren’t considered enough.
YH: Do you have a preference for public or private showings with that goal in mind?
Dickson: I want it all. Private settings, you make money but no one sees it. I’m very lucky: I did an installation of 70 figures for the MTA in Times Square, and they say they expect it’ll last 100 years. Thousands of people see that every day.
YH: How did you get out of your comfort zone?
Dickson: I started by painting what I know. But then I started working in the South Bronx—I’m not from the South Bronx. I’ve been working there for 35 years. Do I feel super comfortable all the time, like I’m at home there? No. But there are too many artists who stay home and paint their teapots. The scary edge is where the important stuff happens.
YH: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Dickson: If I had to give you advice, I would say just start. Seek out other young people you find exciting, and who has good energy. Look for your peers. A lot of times young artists are like, “Let
me talk to this famous person. Maybe they’ll help me.” But famous people are getting hit on so many times every day. I feel like a lot more happens laterally. Also, get out of your comfort zone. Don’t just work with your three best friends and your roommates. A lot of people graduate and get a studio with their best friends, and they all just tell each other all their work is great. We all need to be stroked, but we also need people to call you on your shit. Especially if you don’t even know where your shit is.
—Interview condensed by the Herald