Every month, the Believer runs exclusive, long-form interviews with the world’s most interesting people (the November/ December Art Issue includes chats with artists Elizabeth Peyton and Chris Martin; January will feature a discussion between Girls’ Lena Dunham and author Judy Blume). We hope you’ll subscribe and collect them all. We hope that so much that today—and today only—we’re offering a complimentary Le Believer Tote Bag with all Believer subscriptions today (use the coupon code LETOTE when prompted). While you wait for your first issue to arrive, here’s an excerpt from a fantastic conversation between Believer editor Sheila Heti and artist Micah Lexier from our October issue.
Micah Lexier has had more than one hundred solo shows and participated in over two hundred group shows. He works often in series, uses industrial fabricators, and collaborates frequently with writers. His conceptual works tend to play with the passage of time, as in A work of art in the form of a quantity of coins equal to the number of months of the statistical life expectancy of a child born January 6, 1995 (1995), on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Every month, the museum moves one of 906 coins from a small wooden box of coins, neatly arranged in rows, to a sloppy pile of coins in an adjacent box.
Lexier turns fifty-three this year, and when I visited him, he was planning a major retrospective at the Power Plant in Toronto, One, and Two, and More Than Two, which will be exhibited this fall. In addition to old and recent works, it will feature a group show that Lexier curated. As we spoke, we looked down into a scale model of the exhibition, placed on his dining-room table.
EVERYTHING IS CONSIDERED AND DESIGNED
AND THOUGHT THROUGH
MICAH LEXIER: Another room in the gallery houses a piece that’s called Working as a Drawing. I spent all last summer working with an assistant every day on this. I’m a really organized guy. I have thirty-two years of files. Every time I work on a project, I keep every little piece of paper—
THE BELIEVER: You do? Why?
ML: I’m just a keeper. I’m a collector. I was born a collector. I came out of the womb a collector. I can trace it back to childhood—collecting used keys. And later, when I worked in a restaurant, every day I would come back and write down the number of customers I served and the area they put me in and the tips I made and how much I gave to the busboy—
BLVR: Really? It gives you a satisfying feeling?
ML: I never analyzed it. It’s just what I do.
BLVR: That sounds different from being a collector. How many people you served—that’s organizing.
ML: Part of it is that I have a really bad memory, so it’s a way of remembering. Some people write a diary. Anyway, all summer long I went through every piece of paper I ever generated for any work I’d ever made. I had probably tens of thousands of drawings. I chose my favorites—things that worked as stand-alone drawings. I’m a really bad drawer, so there’s lots of vulnerability there. There is a catalog that accompanies the exhibition and it starts off with every drawing in chronological order: sixteen per page. After that, you get to the coding system. Every drawing has a code number made up of the year it was made and the project, and whether it was from a specific project or if it was just general research or a mistake the laser printer made.
BLVR: So you had to come up with these categories?
ML: Oh my god, yes.
BLVR: That must have been so satisfying—to come up with the right ones.
ML: You know what? The word (satisfying)… it’s so frustrating. I wish I could get away from it, but it seems that when you collect stuff, you do need to categorize. I should have taken a library-science course.
BLVR: But when I see your apartment and when I look at your art, it gives me a feeling that anxiety can be tamed.
ML: I can guarantee you, ordering and classifying are very frustrating because there’s always exceptions and the exceptions drive you crazy! But I love thoroughness. I respect people that do a job well. When I make work, how I pack the thing up and send it—like, I want to impress the installer. It’s not like The Wizard of Oz—not “just as long as the front looks good.” The back has to look just as good.
BLVR: What did your parents do?
ML: My mom was an interior designer and my dad was an engineer. He was a structural engineer and he ran an architecture office. My sister is an engineer and my brother is an engineer. We lived in a really neat house. My parents designed their own home and they were always very interested in modernist design. My cereal bowl was Russel Wright. The cutlery was Georg Jensen. My underwear was Marimekko. We came from that sensibility where everything is considered and designed and thought through.
BLVR: One of the things I’m always wondering about is a person’s “deep style,” or the aesthetic that connects everything they do. How they feed themselves, dress…
ML: I don’t purport to know anything about literature, but I remember reading the first line of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and it had so much resonance for me, and I think it has resonance for any artist who makes things. It says, “I celebrate myself, And sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I think he’s saying there’s this sort of play between the specific and the general. And the more specific you can be about your reality, the more you can say something that might have meaning for someone else. Because otherwise how could we have this kind of artist and that kind of artist, but they all have this incredible resonance? To me, that’s the goal: to be incredibly true about yourself. Isn’t that what we like about a particular artist—their incredible authenticity and honesty? Warhol, he was so true to himself in being so, you know, interested in money and celebrity. You respect that about someone. For me, it’s my earnestness. I’ve got to own that. I know that’s not a great trait.
BLVR: Um, how do you shop for groceries?
ML: I don’t cook for myself. I eat every meal out. I’m fed by others. I think it’s a kind of social thing. I work collaboratively with others. A meal with a friend is my ultimate thing.
BLVR: How do you shop?
ML: I don’t shop. Do you want to look at my fridge?
BLVR: No, but how do you shop for clothes?
ML: Well, when I lived in New York, and when I go back to New York, I’d go to these consignment stores. I really like designer clothes. I did get a lot at consignment stores.
BLVR: Clothes that other people wore before.
ML: Yes. And I like well-made clothes, and I don’t mind spending a lot of money on something that looks super, super simple. I don’t like knockoffs. I like the authentic object, and I have no problem paying sixty dollars for a T-shirt if it fits me really well and it’s really well made. I like unassuming clothes.
BLVR: Do you have a lot of clothing, or is it more precise?
ML: You could look in my closet if you want, but I really did not straighten up. (We walk to the closet and look in—there are stacks of folded shirts, some in labeled bins.)
BLVR: It looks pretty organized.
ML: I definitely categorize.
BLVR: You have long-sleeved shirts with prints.
ML: Yes, so it’s like short-sleeved shirts, and then within short-sleeved shirts, it’s short-sleeved shirts with things printed on them, short-sleeved shirts without things printed on them, then long-sleeved shirts without things printed on them, then long-sleeved shirts with things printed on them.
ML: It’s again about collecting stuff and being able to retrieve it. There was a questionnaire that I filled out recently that asked, What is your favorite occupation? And my answer was: putting things in places so that I can find them later when I’m looking for them. I’m good at organizing things. (Opens an archival box) This is my cardboard-box collection.
BLVR: So when you’re going through the world, are you always aware of and looking for things?
ML: Yes. There’s that Jonathan Safran Foer book and the character is always picking things off the street and putting them in plastic bags. That’s me. I carry a knife with me so I can cut images out of cardboard boxes. I’m always cutting cardboard. Especially every Thursday, which is recycling day.
BLVR: And where would you put this (a piece of paper)?
ML: I’d put it in a little sleeve and then put it in a box.
BLVR: Wouldn’t it be hard to live with somebody else?
ML: I think someone would have a hard time living with me.
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