Richard Torchia: In thinking about the question, “Who gets to be a contemporary artist?,” it occurred to me that one of the things that makes the contemporary ‘contemporary’ is the simple fact that it—an artist or an object—is previously unknown to us. And so, even though Pati Hill made her work in the 1970s and exhibited it in New York at the time, to encounter it in 2016 without any previous knowledge of it helps it feel contemporary, in part, simply by the way in which the “new” defines itself. Of course, knowing even just a little about Hill’s biography—that she had been a published writer whose encounter with the photocopier in her 50s had a catalytic impact on her creative life, which continued to include publishing as well as exhibitions, public readings, and running gallery spaces—suggests the kinds of cross-disciplinary practices with which we’re more familiar today.
Catherine Morris: Another thing I find fascinating about Hill’s relationship to the current contemporary art world is that she was so embedded in such an intellectually interesting contemporary art world of an earlier generation, but that history is largely unknown. The fact that she’s lost from that history is kind of phenomenal to me. She’s contemporary now, as you’re saying, because her work is new to us, but her history is firmly embedded in a significant avant-garde community of the post-World War II United States.
RT: Absolutely. At the time that Hill was making this work she was married to Paul Bianchini, who was among the first New York gallery dealers to sell Pop art. The intersections of her career with leaders in the literary world, such as George Plimpton, Truman Capote, Galway Kinnell, and James Merrill among others, is well documented. Prior to that, she had the experience of being a sought-after model, so she was familiar with the fashion industry and photographers. She became a close friend of Diane Arbus shortly after she moved to New York City in 1941 and circulated within that milieu as well. Despite all this, I believe she actually enjoyed, and perhaps preferred, being at the margins to some extent. I don’t think she wanted fame or attention as much as she wanted just to “show what she had made,” as she wrote, and to carve out an identity for herself that was singular and original.
She went to great lengths to distinguish herself from what else was being done at the time. One good example of this is Impossible Dreams, the illustrated novel she published in 1976 that remains remarkable for its innovative use of appropriated photographs. Comprised of 125 chapters, some only a single sentence long, this manuscript had been in the works for many years. In 1974, she published the first half without images in a literary journal called The Carolina Quarterly. It was around the same time, however, that Hill first started to experiment with the photocopier, whose graphic transformations of photographs she appreciated as much as the machine’s interpretations of objects. After the full manuscript had been accepted by Alice James Books—a nonprofit poetry press in Cambridge, MA whose mission was to give women access to publishing—Hill proposed illustrating the novel with 48 photographs, which she acquired with permission from about 20 different sources. She then photocopied these prints to give them a greater sense of visual continuity within the finished book. The editors at Alice James objected, insisting that if Hill wanted to include these images in the book, she would have to cover the costs of doing so herself. Thanks to the help of a fellowship from The National Endowment for the Arts, Hill found the $1,500 necessary, which in 1976 was a lot of money.
For Hill, I think, the risk of doing something that hadn’t been done before, even though it might not be financially or critically successful, was valuable as a way of sustaining her creative drive and identity. I also believe that her aspirations didn’t really match those that have become stereotypical now in the art world.