The Irreplaceable Ingrid Sischy


Arts & Culture

Ingrid Sischy.

I’m thinking of a summer evening in Venice in 1982. The Biennale was on, and Ingrid and I were standing outside a palazzo where a loud party was in full swing. Ingrid was expected at the party, and so we walked over to the girls with the clipboards standing at the door. Slicked-back ponytails, pale and sleek in identical black dresses, they had perfected the “Do I know you?” look.

They were checking off the names on the guest list. Ingrid said: “Hi. I’m Ingrid Sischy, editor of Artforum.”

They raised their eyebrows. “Oh? And do you have ID?”

She did not, and since she looked approximately nine years old, it was hard to imagine she was an editor of an art magazine or that she even knew what an art magazine was. Ingrid said, “That’s okay.” Her eyes lit up, followed by a quick sideways glance and half smile. Her friends had seen this sequence many times—her eyes darting back and forth as if she were rapidly scanning the pros and cons of something she was about to say or do, running the alternatives and consequences. Laptop fast. We were familiar with this because Ingrid was one of the rare people who allowed you to see her think.

“Okay!” she said. “Let’s go around the back and climb in the window.” So we went around the back of the villa, pried open a first-story window, and jumped into the party we didn’t really even want to be at. Once inside, Ingrid did some brisk and intense networking. She stood right in front of the people she was talking to, leaning toward them and giving them her complete attention. We left by the front door, which was pretty much the way she did a whole lot of things—coming in the back way and leaving by the front. 

Ingrid was so many things: an editor, a critic, a writer who was interested in the political and cultural, and a sometime curator. Nothing Is Lost is a collection of essays and articles she wrote for a few books and publications such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Artforum, and The New York Times Magazine, and they are intimate, warm, funny, and brilliant, like Ingrid. From the late seventies to the midteens, she wrote about and defined some of the most colorful and pivotal moments in the worlds of art and fashion.

Ingrid was also an insightful social critic, and her portraits of people were detailed, full of life, and never predictable. Reading this collection is like taking a walk through many different scenes, eras, and places: the East Village, Paris, Milan; New York galleries, clubs, and bars; her days at Artforum, the AIDS crisis, and morphing cultural scenes. It’s also a portrait of New York City, her hometown, as it constantly transforms itself with new images, trends, and ideas. When she describes Grandmaster Flash getting new sounds from scratching vinyl, she writes, “The result was the sound of a different city, deep inside the old.”

She meets and talks with artists of all kinds—painters, photographers, designers, thinkers. We encounter her friends and subjects in new and intimate ways. And she talks about herself as well, telling us personal stories, quoting her favorite authors, voicing her opinions about trends and developments both social and political. Throughout, I feel her sense of morality, justice, empathy, and social conscience.

As I read her words now, her work seems especially relevant, and I’m struck by her prescient comments on America, conformity, consumerism, and the social contract. Writing about the photographer Garry Winogrand’s 1960 campaign pictures, she said he had “an ability to tap into our nation’s psyche and the changes that are in the air.” This could easily be said about Ingrid.

Or I think of her haunting words in 2001 in “Triumph of the Still”:

While the climate in recent years has never been better for art photography, fashion photography, and celebrity photography, socially concerned photojournalism has been marginalized. America by the end of the twentieth century had become like a country living in a bubble. It wanted to know very little about the injustices going on inside its borders and even less about those in the rest of the world.

Ingrid was a realist, a rebel, and a human-rights champion working and writing in the rarefied and often elitist worlds of culture and fashion. In 1989, describing the shifting social fabric, she noted, “It is about people being beaten down and psychologically bruised by the corporate machine.” She watched and described consumerism taking shape on many levels. Thinking about making the country great by buying things and looking at pictures of people who were high on the new is especially relevant now. How did we get this way?

Whether they were angels or “terrible jerks,” she wrote of the subjects in a photography exhibition, “most of them really seem to have believed that the work they were doing and the things they were buying were going to make their country great and their lives ‘happy.’ ” She continued, noting that Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, and their baby are also in the exhibition: “They do more than stand out; they remind us of a different dream.”

Her descriptions of the Americans in these pictures begin to give us a sense of who we are now. Sometimes she looks back to daily life in the fifties, and her descriptions are dead on. “A good number of the males in these photographs resemble Feds as they have been imagined in Hollywood—in boxy suits and fedoras … The women (except for the showgirls) look neat and uptight. The children look worried.” These people are on the go and in love with the new. “A rather handsome man holds a meeting in his Bel Air home, in a room that seems to be a combination of tree house, boardroom, and appliance store.” And they show us some of the origins of what our self-obsessed culture has since become. “Yes, there are photographs that bring out the snake-oil aspect of advertising, and photographs that display people at their most self-important. And there’s proof of how tight the door to the new Paradise was.”

Throughout her work, Ingrid was clear about her role as a critic: “The notion that art speaks for itself is appealing but unrealistic. To get into circulation and to achieve some kind of status, art needs believers, defenders, interpreters, dealers, collectors, and museums.” She herself was a deep believer, consummate defender, and brilliant interpreter.

I learned so many things from her insights and sometimes sidelong observations. She wrote that Bob Richardson’s photographs “conveyed some essential qualities of the sixties: the drugginess, the sexual freedom, the growing gulf between men and women.” Reading about this gulf was exhilarating, not something I saw very clearly, if at all, at the time.

Nothing Is Lost highlights Ingrid’s mix of savvy erudition and playful archaic slang like “hoi polloi,” “bombshell allure,” and “the big kahuna.” She had an ear for the expressions of her artist and designer subjects, and she always let them speak for themselves. She notes that the late painter James Rosenquist “still says, ‘You dig?’ ” and that when he’s listing his dead artist friends, he asks her, “Who do I go to for stuff like ‘How do you make rabbit-skin glue again?’ ” She doesn’t have an answer for him, but she does go on to explain to her readers that rabbit-skin glue was used in a traditional method of coating canvas to increase the sense of depth in a painting.

Ingrid often used comparisons that put unlikely artists together, such as the photographers Minor White and Robert Mapplethorpe. The link between their work is love, she says, and she writes damningly of White: “There’s very little warmth or humor in the bulk of White’s work … He makes all the discoveries, and the viewer’s job is to respond to what he found.” She also looked behind the images and used them to talk about things like doubt and honesty. “One way to avoid pedagogy is to be human, to show doubt by acknowledging that life brings more questions than answers. But to do that requires an honest look at oneself—exactly what White felt he couldn’t afford in his public pictures.”

Comparing Clementina, Lady Hawarden, and Cindy Sherman, she called them “soul sisters separated by more than a century.” We meet Hawarden, who played dress up with her daughters and then photographed them, photographs that were admired by Charles Dodgson. Seeing Lady Hawarden’s and Cindy Sherman’s work in the same article makes both women’s work even more vivid, intuitive, and inventive. Always expanding on her themes, Ingrid goes on to describe Marilyn Monroe as a person consumed by her own image, another mirror.

As a critic of photography, she would sometimes pose philosophical musings like, “What is a picture and how does it relate to our experience of reality?” or “Weiner’s photographs look more like images from TV and the movies than like photographs of real people doing real things.”

She was fascinated by the complicated relationship between stars and their fans, and wrote about it as “a form of cannibalism” amid the growing certainty during the last several decades that famous people’s lives are “our business.” For some writers, name-dropping validates their stories, but Ingrid did the opposite, dropping the names out of the story and focusing on the person behind it. As a writer, critic, and editor, she had been an essential part of every scene for decades in downtown Manhattan, and she knew hundreds of artists, many as close friends. When she describes having dinner at Da Silvano with Mapplethorpe or having Christmas dinner with Sam Wagstaff, she writes with the confidence that her readers won’t see this as name-dropping but as her own storytelling.

Ingrid takes us in. She puts herself in her pieces. She wrote about her childhood in South Africa in “A Picture of One’s Own,” when she described what it felt like not to have photographs of a man who worked for her family. One of the leitmotifs in the collection is a gray corduroy skirt she wore briefly in 1977. When Ingrid was told she had gotten a job in the public affairs office of an important New York cultural institution, and not to report to work wearing pants, she went to Bloomingdale’s and bought the gray corduroy skirt. Once freed from that job, she went to the banks along the West Side Highway and threw the skirt into the Hudson River; she would not need it for her next job, a photography fellowship at MoMA, which had no dress code. Her friend Versace loved the story. She bridged her interest in art and fashion with passion, styling her own liberation. Writing about Miuccia Prada’s clothes triggered an emotional response:

The clothes had an answer for problems that are rarely faced in fashion: “It’s okay if you’ve made mistakes, if you’re scared, if you’re aggressive, if you’re fat, if you’re beautiful, if you’re ugly, if you feel crazy, defensive, happy,” the collection seemed to say. “Come into my arms.” I watched it, entranced. Especially the dresses. It was the first time in twenty years that I’d been able to picture myself wearing one.

And talking about her own way of dressing, Ingrid cited her friend k. d. lang, who she said didn’t wear the clothes she did to be associated with men or because she wanted to come off as a man but because “it’s just that there were no other kinds of clothes that had to do with confidence and authority instead of vulnerability and stereotypical sexiness.” Until, that is, by chance k. d. tried on that Prada jacket. Once in a while, Ingrid enters the story as herself. By the way, she explains, “I bat on Gertrude Stein’s team, and love my partner.”

Ingrid was able to create touching pictures of artists, and these pictures become indelible. There’s Jeff Koons’s mother serving him milk and cookies, Calvin Klein’s mother sewing the labels into his first batch of clothes, and Keith Haring’s father dropping him off in New York City for school and just leaving him there. “Where was I?—dumping him in the middle of New York City, putting him on the sidewalk with his boxes of belongings. I couldn’t even go in with him.”

She slips in such details as that Francesco Clemente played the hypnotist in a Gus Van Sant movie and that his wife, Alba Clemente, and Helen Marden used to go to Bar Pitti. As Marden said: “We’ll bitch about Francesco and Brice for hours … When we’re finished with lunch we always say, ‘Well, they’re really wonderful.’ But we’ve spent the preceding hour and a half totally complaining about how they talk about themselves all the time.”

Ingrid wrote extensively about AIDS and its effects on the art world. She could write in a clear-eyed but passionate way about danger and loss. She wanted to know what people cared about, what drove them to work. She was persistent and talked to her subjects many times as she drew their portraits. In the middle of the interview process, Francesco Clemente said, “You have to remember that I am from a country where artists were once the equivalent of the prostitute or the drug dealer,” but she kept asking questions until she finally asked what was his “deepest reason” for becoming an artist. Clemente replied, “Because I am heartbroken.”

Throughout an interview, she often questions herself and makes the reader part of her process. She described how she had been writing about the explicit Mapplethorpe photographs and the Corcoran Gallery’s cancellation of the show and then suddenly found herself sitting in Jeff Koons’s studio looking at almost pornographic images of Koons and his wife, Cicciolina, engaged in various positions. She described her confusion and ambivalence about the lines she had drawn between sex, art, and pornography. She also notes her complicated reactions to Lee Friedlander’s nudes, asking and then unasking questions, asking herself why she’s asking questions, why he’s dressed and the subject’s nude. She talks about how her antennae go up, and then traces picturing the female nude through history.

Ingrid was a historian and traced the history of images. She identified the links between sign painting and art as she described the young Rosenquist out with the rest of the sign painters, many of whom were ex-cons, “whooping it up” across the Midwest, painting billboards, grain silos, and gasoline tanks. Suddenly, the connection between sign painting—Phillips 66 and Coca-Cola—and art comes into focus, and Jasper Johns makes a new kind of sense. She quotes Rosenquist: “How can I use this method to show the emptiness and numbness of all this?”

What comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing! Ingrid connects fashion to art in her writing about the famous Calvin Klein underwear images shot by Bruce Weber. She’s also interested in the mechanics, the nuts and bolts, of photography. She quotes Friedlander: “Flash renders everything. And everybody knows when you’ve taken the picture. It’s not a secret. It’s not a quiet moment.” Her observations about photography range from the technical to the cultural phenomenal and are often about how these are linked. “Cameras have become as available as candy, with millions of people trying to be their own Ansel Adams.”

She wrote of 9/11 that “the days immediately following the tragedy marked the first time that more people logged on to news sites than pornography,” and noted that photography became more accessible. During September 11 and its immediate aftermath, many Magnum photographers happened to be in New York and shot at the Trade Center site, but the Magnum interns were also there and ended up sharing space on the website with their famous members.

“I think of September 11 as the day photography got back one of its most important jobs, the day it regained its potential. Now let’s watch it go to work as we try to stop the world from blowing up,” she wrote, optimistically.

She was unafraid of covering controversy and took on issues relating to institutions navigating politics and art and government suppression of imagery, as in her story of the Smithsonian’s treatment of Subhankar Banerjee’s photos. The show opened at the time of a debate about the oil exploration bill in the Arctic, “so the timing couldn’t have been worse.” She continued, “The Smithsonian’s capitulation, whatever the reason, reminds me of another wasteland, the one T. S. Eliot spoke of in 1921 when he wrote this: The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract.

She often expressed her gratitude to people she worked with and people who helped her, especially to her mentor John Szarkowski, who, in turn, had championed Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. But she didn’t shy away from describing disagreements, such as the one with Szarkowski about how he occasionally missed in his analysis of the differences between photography and art. In a unique choice of dramatization, she describes this argument with him in third person and watches herself having a heated discussion with him in a restaurant.

Ingrid was passionate and empathetic and unafraid of emotion. Describing John Szarkowski’s feelings about another time in his book The Idea of Louis Sullivan, she quotes him: “I think Americans were more interesting then. It makes me want to cry to say it.”

“Looking at [Szarkowski’s] photographs created over the last fifty years,” she continues, “makes me want to weep myself. They are truly American pictures; one feels his desire to show not just what America was but what it still can be.” Ingrid’s words about Szarkowski’s reactions to Louis Sullivan take us on a journey back in time as she shows us chain reactions and how ideas and feelings are passed down.

Her empathetic profile of John Galliano, after his career-wrecking anti-Semitic comments went viral, was full of research about addiction and self-destructive behavior. She didn’t just speculate but talked to experts in psychology and addiction about how that could have happened. She brought herself into the story when she explained she hadn’t gone to the first Galliano show following his disgraceful departure because her brother, Mark, a brilliant judge who was also an alcoholic, had died, and she had to attend the stone setting in a cemetery in Edinburgh.

Ingrid was never afraid to mix her admiration for artists with acerbic, often hilarious comments. Jeff Koons reminds her of Darrin, the “very courteous husband in the sixties TV show Bewitched.” Of her friend Rene Ricard, she wrote, “Rene’s charisma was not lost on Andy, who cast him in Kitchen and Chelsea Girls, among other films. For my money, though, this poet, critic, painter, was born to play a thief and a priest.” Of pictures in her friend Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition, she says, “Even among the controversial photographs there are affected examples—such as Joe (1978), a man in head-to-toe rubber—that are just silly; the image is all outfit with nowhere to go.”

The pretentiousness of museums did not escape her notice, such as when the director of exhibitions at MoMA approached John Szarkowski, the man who eventually became her mentor, with the oblique: “It has occurred to us that you might like to talk with us about our future and perhaps yours.” It was an invitation “so courteous and so vague and so pregnant with the belief that the museum was the center of the universe, it really is a hoot.” And she was a sharp critic when controversy was involved. On the Corcoran Gallery’s cancellation of the Mapplethorpe show, she wrote, “Often, though, it is the people in charge of these museums who have the closed minds; and the audience, as Mapplethorpe’s crowds prove, is fully capable of dealing with the controversial material.”

She understood and appreciated fame and its pitfalls and pleasures. She lovingly described Catherine Opie photographing Elizabeth Taylor’s house. Using the decor in the elegant Parisian apartment of the mysterious Mr. H., she creates a portrait as she is hypnotized by listening to him talk about decorating as “ghost chasing,” and then she segues into how fantasies of dream places are created and how association works. Part of the pleasure of reading Ingrid’s writing is the way she relates ideas and art forms. She compares Mr. H. to Pip in Great Expectations. After Pip’s first sight of Miss Havisham’s, he was never the same. She quotes Dickens: “Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

For me, reading her words is also hearing her voice, hearing her laugh, feeling the pleasure of sharing secrets and in-jokes. She often addresses her readers. In an aside after telling an anecdote about Jean Pigozzi’s father cleaning himself all over with alcohol, even his penis, she leans in and says, “And you thought you were going to read about just another rich guy.”

She got to know her subjects and sometimes wrote about them using art or photography terms. Quoting the war photographer Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” She herself was always zooming in on facts, getting closer to her subjects. Of Lee Friedlander’s nudes, she wrote: “With the nudes you can almost feel the seconds passing. You can just about see these bodies breathing.”

When she was working on a piece, she was tenacious about getting the backstory. She had a great interest and compassion for people in trouble and knew how to put that into words, such as the English historian who tracked down the photographer Bob Richardson—one of the missing-in-action drug casualties—to an SRO hotel in California. For a Jeff Koons piece, she followed the trail of Koons’s missing wife Cicciolina to South America, where she was doing her porn shows.

Ingrid was always part of the scene and often got to watch artists working. She ran into Lee Friedlander taking photos on the street. She went to watch Karl Lagerfeld photograph. She knew so many people and introduced them without name-dropping, using them instead to make a bigger picture or cut to the heart. She quotes Elizabeth Taylor, who wrote in her biography: “I believe that people are like rocks, formed by the weather. We’re formed by experience, by heartache, by grief, by mistakes, by guilt, by shame. I’m glad that in my life I have never cut short my emotions. The most awful thing of all is to be numb.”

Talking with Ingrid was always exhilarating for me. She would remember the last conversation we had—what we were celebrating or worried about or making fun of. Our friendship was one long, animated conversation punctuated by the work and travel we both did. But she always knew how to make people feel like her best friend and talked wholeheartedly as if nothing else mattered.

My only regret in our friendship is that I didn’t see more of her. She was often lost in her work, “closing a story,” “holed up in the city writing,” but was always ready to help. “Give a yell if there is anything, and I mean anything, I can help with,” she wrote. Her selflessness and her determination were integral to most of her friendships, and she was always generous and specific in sharing all sorts of advice and information, making sure to note things like: “Oh and here’s her cell phone, and don’t forget she’s off on Tuesdays.” Her enthusiasm morphed seamlessly into hard work. Once, she decided to put one of my songs, “Let x = x,” into Artforum as a flexi disc. When she decided to do something, she got it done and then just went on.

Ingrid and my husband, Lou Reed, shared a birthday, March 2, and I think they felt that this bond, this twin number, magically linked them. The other things that linked them were their antennae and their absolute trust in their intuition. Ingrid had the greatest antennae for the real story, for the spin. Both of them deeply trusted and expressed their emotions.

Through the eighties until her death in 2015, we were often meeting by chance at art openings, shows, concerts, and events. She also invited us to operas, plays, and to join the group of her artist friends on the east end of Long Island. On special occasions, she and her partner, Sandy, often sent presents from Paris or Bilbao. On Lou’s seventieth birthday, seventy small and delicate vases, each with a flower, arrived.

In my house now, I keep Ingrid’s picture in my hallway next to one of Lou. I see her when I come in and go out. She inspires me every day with her radicalism, her truthfulness, her work ethic, and her love of life. I know you will love her ideas and her writing as much as I do.


Laurie Anderson is one of America’s most renowned and daring creative pioneers. Best known for her multimedia presentations, innovative use of technology, and first-person style, she is a writer, director, visual artist, and vocalist who has created groundbreaking works that span the worlds of art, theater, and experimental music.

Introduction Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Anderson, reprinted by permission of The Wylie Agency. Excerpted from Nothing Is Lost, by Ingrid Sischy. Copyright © 2018 by Ingrid Sischy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.