Decoder Ring

The Sign Painter

Why isn’t this artist famous?


Episode Notes

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Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every episode, host Willa Paskin takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speaks with experts, historians, and obsessives to try and figure out where it comes from, what it means, and why it matters.

Ilona Granet was a New York art-scene fixture who won the praise of the art world when she put up anti-harassment street signs in lower Manhattan in the mid- 1980s. Her career seemed like a sure thing, but three decades on, and so much more art later, it still hasn’t materialized, even as her contemporaries are now hanging in museums.

This is the flip side of a story we all know: the story of making it. Of struggling, following your muse, finding your voice, and then: success. That story is the primary one we hear about artists, because if we’re hearing about them, chances are, they’ve succeeded—even if it’s after years of trying. This episode is not about the familiar myth of making it, but the mystery of not making it. What happens, to an artist—to anyone—when they’re good enough, but that’s not enough?

You can see some of Ilona’s signs online at the Whitney, and the Schwartz Collection, and you can watch some of her performances on YouTube.

Some of the voices in this episode include the artist Ilona Granet, art critic Jerry Saltz, artists Martha Wilson and Jenny Holzer, PPOW co-founder and curator Wendy Olsoff, and longtime friend Pamela Hort.


This episode was produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch.


About the Show

In each episode, host Willa Paskin takes a cultural question, object, or habit; examines its history; and tries to figure out what it means and why it matters.

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