PIERO GOLIA When I arrived in LA, you were already “Sterling.” So you should tell me the beginning of the story, the piece that I’m missing, and then we can start the conversation.
STERLING RUBY Well, my family moved around a lot in my early childhood, but we finally wound up in Pennsylvania when I was about eight. By 1994, I had already done four years of art school there. It was a real “draw the bowls of fruit and the nude figure” kind of school, totally foundational and non-accredited. The program represented the “classics,” everything from the past: Gardner’s Art Through the Ages was our main textbook; the most recent person you would be someone like Philip Pearlstein. But in my last year, I started to look at contemporary art books. I don’t know why, but I remember our school, which had a very small library, acquiring Schimmel’s “Helter Skelter” book. It was so out of the ordinary. It didn’t look like anything I had seen or thought of or even been told existed. I had no knowledge of what was going on in New York at that point. I’d been to New York a few times, but to tell you the truth, the city intimidated me. After all, I grew up on a farm. So I finished up this four-year school, but it had no degree attached. A lot of the people I knew were starting to leave Pennsylvania, but as I said, I was still too intimidated to go to New York. Sarah Conaway, who lived in the same part of Pennsylvania, had moved to Chicago to do her graduate degree at UIC. So during that last year in Pennsylvania, I started going to Chicago fairly regularly, and eventually decided to move there.
PG What years are we talking here?
SR Mid-‘90s to late ‘90s. So I wound up going to Chicago for a number of years to finish up my undergraduate degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. That’s basically where I met all of my art friends. I tried to have a studio and exhibit in Chicago, but to be quite honest, it was a downhill battle for me. Around that time, I wound up buying a copy of that Schimmel book. That catalog made it seem like there was something pathological coming from California that made more sense for me. I had never been there, I really didn’t know what it was like, but I knew I did not want to go to New York. So I got into Art Center and moved out here blindly, not knowing what to expect. But once I got here, I started to meet everybody—Mike Kelley, Liz Larner, Richard Hawkins, Ann Goldstein, Chris Williams, Lawrence Rickles, Diana Thater, all of them. And then later on, I met Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins and Barbara Krueger. LA just made sense to me.
PG Do you think LA’s still that city?
SR Speaking specifically from a student’s perspective, I don’t think it is quite the same anymore. I think it’s much different than it was in the early 2000s, and I think it was much different then than it was in the 1990s. There was such a trajectory with the schools: at that time, mid-‘90s to 2000s, everybody was still teaching. Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins were at UCLA, Mike Kelley and Liz Larner were at Art Center. There were still people teaching at CalArts, and USC was just starting to get their program together. LA still had a very strong teacher-student ratio. Also, compared to anywhere else in America, LA had a generational history of working artists teaching, and the students would graduate, become working artists and then teach, then that generation of students would graduate and then teach. So you could look at this lineage between John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Mike Kelley, Jason Rhodes, Sharon Lockhart—I mean, all of those artists were students of someone at one point in time, and then they became teachers. But I don’t think it’s that way anymore.