Nancy Radloff
interviewed by Talon Gustafson

Nancy Radloff looks a little like Patti Smith, very thin, with straight dark hair, bangs in her eyes, an old t-shirt, worn out jeans. She has a fragile, almost meek demeanor, soft-spoken but gregarious and friendly.

She studied with John Baldessari and Allan Kaprow at CalArts in the 70s where she was classmates and friends with Mike Kelley and Sue Williams. After briefly working at Hustler magazine, she endured a life threatening illness that stopped her from making art for 15 years. She now lives and works in her loft in DUMBO. Her space is bright and clean, a few cats dot the domestic interior. It houses her studio which is off to the side of her living room, where we sat down to talk.

Radloff's work brings together household objects to make minimalist sculptures or sometimes austere dioramas. Her work is often bright and colorful with subversive undertones. I found Radloff to be very candid and sincere while somehow maintaining a degree of charming allusiveness. For instance, she made a series of sculptures which are essentially toilet rugs with wheels. They look like carpeted scooters. I asked her why she titled them "Boys" and she quietly responded "Oh, because that's where boys stand when they pee. It's not too deep." Her work is playful, as if she's organizing her shelves or decorating parts of her room but it has dark tendencies that are much more cerebral–Poland Spring bottles half-filled with urine, a little plastic tree and a small toy desk set atop two books: As I Lay Dying and On Death and Dying.

She expressed that she had some reservations about meeting me, about letting a stranger into her apartment and she mentioned something about serial killers. I clumsily tried to comfort her "Yeah, that's understandable–I'm not a serial killer though…" to which she eventually responded, "Right, well, let's just not talk about it anymore" and we laughed it off.


What was it like growing up in LA?
Well, it was a great time to grow up externally. A lot of great things were going on like the Beatles and you know, the hippie movement. It was really exciting. My family was involved in culture, so my sister and brother and I had things going on. We'd go to museums and stuff. I remember being really affected by the show at the LA County Art Museum of Edward Kienholz and I think I'm really still affected by his work. I was a kid and you know, when you're a child you don't know what you're in for and there's some nasty stuff out there and he was one of my awakenings to that stuff. It's very depressing, very frightening and full of really dark things. His work really frightened me but I was very affected by it.

How old were you when you saw that show? I was 8.
So what time was this? When you were born? I was born in 1955. I was starting to learn about awful things as a kid. The external world fascinated me. Inside my family was really difficult–the way i was brought up. I had a hard time in my family. I did suffer a lot. I had obsessive compulsive disorder. I was doing a lot of rituals and touching things. I felt it might have kept me safe. I did not feel safe inside my house. A lot of unpredictable behaviors. I was different than my brother and sister. I acted out more. So my mother took a lot of things out on me.

You were the oldest?
I was in the middle

Were your parents artists?
No regular people. My dad was an accountant. He got bored with the whole numbers thing and quit his job. When the 60s and 70s came people got more introspective. He made a lot of money, he was vice president of this huge firm but he quit his job and went back to school and became a psychologist and practiced for like 25 years. And uh, my mom just was a bitch. She was a housewife. She did stuff to make herself not real bored. Now she's a volunteer at LACMA and so she's always talking about different things but she knows nothing. It's a culture for her it's not about the art.

What was your relationship like with Baldessari at CalArts? He was your mentor?
He was a good teacher. Very smart and interesting. Gentle. All these new ideas were just floating by. I don't know how affected I was by his mentoring. I was going off into making object-based work and his stuff was more post-studio art, video, performance. I'm totally shy I couldn't do that. I felt safe in my studio doing things my way.

But he was fine with your way of working?
Oh yeah.

Did he give assignments?
No assignments. No grades.We would just make things and share. Talk about culture. He took us on a field trip to see some show at LA County but then we went across the street to watch some porno movie, Behind the Green Door. I remember the movie but I don't remember the art show. It was fun. I was also in Allan Kaprow's happenings. He was a great teacher. I felt really special to be involved in that. Now I feel 100 years old.

You were art director at Hustler magazine? That was after school?
An assistant. A lot of CalArts people worked at this fashion newspaper and we learned layout. It was before computers. You had to wax the back and cut things out and make sure it's perfectly lined up which I love. I learned the fundamentals there and then I got this job at Hustler. Also Chic, magazines that Larry Flynt put out.

What was your job? Would you art direct the shoots?
No, more basic. I had one or two different responsibilities a month. I would just design the pages. I never saw a live naked woman once.

Did you take the job because you thought it was kind of a funny thing to do? Or it just paid well and you needed the money?
It paid really well. good salary. It was the art department and I needed money. Coincidentally that's where my dads accounting firm was. In the same building. I didn't get the job through him. The office was in a very conservative area called Century City. For some reason Hustler ended up there and I was constantly being harassed by Althea Flynt, Larry's wife, played by Courtney Love in the movie. She hated me because I dressed weirdly. She sent me home once to change my clothes. I was pushing it. I wasn't conforming to the look.

I read a statement of your work and you mentioned a life threatening illness. You stopped making work for how long?
Like 15 years. It was right after Hustler. I just started to get really depressed. I stopped socializing and went really inward to an extreme. I didn't have any friends left. I dug myself into this hole. I was anorexic and bulimic. It led me to this life where I could not do anything. I just watched soap operas and watched the Love Boat. No, I read a lot too. I was very physically ill, I weighed 64 pounds. I was going from hospital to hospital. It was really hard to get back into the world after being so withdrawn. It was really nerve-racking. I was riddled with anxiety and then trying to get out there and be with people again and feel good about myself again. I felt the stigma of the mental illness and the shame. I felt like a total depressed, loser, weirdo person. But it stems from depression and I was doing everything in my power to not be depressed. I was externalizing my depression by touching things and moving things around and controlling and not controlling what I was eating. If I don't focus on what's really bothering me and I keep doing these weird things I kinda keep everything at bay but I just end up being this weirdo doing strange things. I had to let all that go so I could lead my life.

Were you trying to make art at that time?
It really scared me, people would say "oh Nancy's an artist" and i would say "no". I was scared to try and make art again. It frightened me more than anything. When I got better, and when I got married, I felt really safe. My husband was very supportive. I started making art when I moved in with him. I really felt like his support and love made me want to do it. I was really questioning it. "Are you an artist or aren't you". But I started making art and things started taking off I had three shows in Europe and one here. It was weird because of my age.

What brought you to New York? How long have you lived here?
Since '89. I always wanted to live here. My friend Sue had invited me to Brooklyn to stay with her. She encouraged me to move.

Were you married at the time?
No, I saw Tom at a gallery. We went to CalArts together. We were friends for a long time. and we were married for 10 years. And he suddenly died four years ago. We were very close. We fell in love, he was a really kind person. I've had a lot crumby boyfriends and Tom was very nice.

How did you start to make art again?
I just started gathering things.

Some of your work is restrained and minimal but then some of it is more sprawling and excessive. What sort of methodology do you use when you make your work?
I try to do it all myself. I don't have an assistant. My budget is small. I like going out and finding things. When I was working with Poland Springs stuff i enjoyed seeing it around. A Poland Springs truck would pass I would think "oh hey, that's part of my world." I probably should ask for help more but I like doing it myself.

You often group things by color.
It's really not a brilliant idea. Everything green. Everything red. I like the way it looks.

Almost like decorating?
Yeah. It's not real deep or anything. I like to organize. The way I live is exactly the way I make work. You'll notice there's not a lot of difference between my apartment and my work space.

You find inspiration around your house?
Yeah. Definitely. When I was working with monochromatic pieces, I'd search around the house for the same color.

Your piece with the monogrammed towels that spells out LSD? Is there a backstory there?
I was just shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond and I saw monogrammed towels and I just thought "fuck you–LSD." I'm probably rebelling against the house I grew up in because externally, the house looked nice but it was hiding what was really going on inside. Sometimes I like to make fun of that lie.

But you're also very tidy.
Yes, i'm neat. But I'm not perfect and I'm not rich.

The print with the finger flipping off the pansies is your most overtly confrontational piece. Does your work have an aggressive undertone?
Yeah, well Tom was just taking the picture of the pansies and I was just being a jerk and flipped them off. I was being annoying. I was like "who wants to look at a picture of flowers?"

Do you watch TV?
I go on little jags where I can watch for five hours. I'm really moody. When I'm depressed I don't want to watch TV. When I'm happy i'll watch more.

Any favorite shows?
I enjoy HBO. I'm watching Madmen, I can always watch Seinfeld anytime. I'll watch Girls. I watched Enlightened with Laura Dern. It's really great. Curb Your Enthusiasm. My boyfriend was talking about this access cable New York station in the 70s. It was really cheap to get a show. People were doing goofy things on it. There was a pervy guy who would try to get women to expose themselves in doorways and stuff. That was the show.

Oh like a precursor to Girls Gone Wild?
Yeah but back then girls were already going wild.


2009 DISH SOAP, WOOD 120” X 10” X 6”