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Two Transcend:

Drawings by J.B. Murray & Melvin Edward Nelson January 24 – April 6, 2013

Vol. 1: J.B. Murray Cavin-Morris Gallery, NY


J. B. Murray G P S by Judith McWillie

In spring 1985, the trip to J. B. Murray’s place in east central Georgia was a fragrant cross-country drive through the Oconee National Forest into one of the most remote regions of the state where small subsistence farms coexisted tenuously with the pine grids of the pulpwood industry. It was less than an hour from Athens where I had been teaching painting at the Lamar Dodd School of Art for ten years. You drove south down Highway #15 across Hancock County to Sparta, then east into Glascock towards Shoals on the Ogeechee and Mitchell, finally arriving at a little strip of state road #123 and a turn-off where Murray lived at the end of a dirt road. I had heard about him from Andy Nasisse, a colleague in the School of Art who was a distinguished ceramic sculptor and collector of folk and outsider art. One of Nasisse’s students, Krista Lamar, was married to William Rawlings, a physician in Sandersville GA who befriended an elderly African American man who had been incarcerated in the Central State Mental Hospital for “acting religion.” In those days it was not unusual for Murray House. Glascock County, GA. elders with meager resources to find themselves in such places. But after the minimum observation period, Murray was deemed fit and released.1

Photo: Judith McWillie, 1985

The story of Murray’s visionary experiences prior to his incarceration has been told many times since his work first emerged in outsider art exhibitions in the early 1980’s. Briefly, around 1977, the sun descended into his yard and irradiated him. “And after that”, he said, “the eagle crossed my eye. Spiritual eagle. You know an eagle can see farther than any bird in the world and that’s why I can see things some more folks can’t see.” After the first vision opened his eyes, God approached him and listened: “He asked me if I had anything to ask him, and I asked him to see my mother. He brought her before me and two brothers. And the three come up as a shadow, a spiritual shadow; ain’t like us, ain’t like our body . . . “ Soon Murray began to write an asemic script – a script with no specific semantic content 2 - on wallboard, stationery, tissue paper, Styrofoam, and scrolls of adding machine tape. He took it to the hardware store in Mitchell and “read” aloud from it. His neighbors were familiar enough with Evangelical Christians passing out tracts and exhorting strangers in the cadences of scripture: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.” (Ecclesiastes 11:1) But an African American man in his 70s “acting religion” was out of order in a community accustomed to keeping its head down.

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J. B. Murray. Asemic script. “The language of the Holy Spirit direct from God.” Photo: Judith McWillie, 1986

Contiguous Hancock County is 77% African American,3 but around the turn of the twentieth century white tenant farmers drove African Americans out of Glascock because they worked for lower wages. This accounts for the comparatively small African American demographic there - less than 9%.4 Yet Murray lived within a constellation of counties in the coastal plains of South Carolina and Georgia where North America’s transnational identity was born. Draw a line due east from Mitchell and, in less than 200 miles, you arrive at the Atlantic Ocean just below Georgetown, SC where the first Africans to reach what would later become the United States of America disembarked with the Spanish in 1524.5 Go south into the Georgia tidewater country and you enter the sheltered marshes and estuaries around Jekyll Island where the enslaved, many of them Muslims, were smuggled directly from Africa

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into the US after the trans-Atlantic slave trade was banned in 1808. Illegal importation continued in Georgia until 1858 as African men and women were carried west and north into the cotton and rice plantations of the antebellum south. Speaking little English and bringing African spiritual systems with them, they transformed the landscape and language of the United States in ways yet to be fully appreciated. J. B. Murray’s spiritual script strongly suggests that his ancestors arrived during this period of direct importation, but more on that later. When Murray took his script to the Second Mineral Springs Baptist Church in Mitchell, some accused him of conjure, which Christianity strongly condemns, and he left the congregation for a time. “There’s a crowd,” he told me in 1986. “Hoodoo works by hands; don’t care who they go against. If it takes killing them, poisoning them to death, they’ll do it.” Prior to his first vision he had himself been threatened by a root doctor (herbalist) who knew how to constellate charms and seals for conjure and make poisons from insects. Now he believed that “Jesus is stronger than Hoodoo” so other members of the Second Mineral Springs Baptist Church thought that the spiritual script strengthened his Christianity and that it might, after all, be from the Holy Spirit as he claimed. “God told me to write these letters. . . It’s the language of the Holy Spirit, direct from God.” By the time I first visited Murray in 1985 he had been writing his spiritual script for about six years. After he left the hospital, instead of engaging his neighbors again, he made regular sixty-mile round trips to Sandersville GA, to deliver scrolls and tablets to William Rawlings who had become his physician and advisor. In the meantime, Rawlings had connected with Andy Nasisse who supplied Murray with high quality watercolors, brushes, and felt markers. Murray now expected Rawlings and Nasisse to bring the message of his “letters” to the world.

Spiritual script delivered to William Rawlings by Murray beginning in 1978. Photo: Fred Padgelek

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With his health and living conditions stabilized, Murray began making vivid, kinetic, individuated images that broadcast his message in a new way and, for the first time, he exhibited his work as art. The spiritual script was still the armature of everything he did but now he wrote on large sheets of rag paper interlaced with organic lines, crosses, and dots. Later he added abstract figures crowded into bundles that he said were “the dry tongued” that “don’t have the spirit of God.” He collected three-dimensional objects from a landfill (TV picture tubes, porcelain stove tops) and “signed” William Rawlings’ holding a Murray painting. Photo: Judith McWillie, 1986 (spiritually sealed) them with high velocity brushstrokes of yellow, red, and blue enamel. He signed scraps of wallboard and mounted them around the windows and doors of his house. He was prodigiously prolific and made thousands of images between 1979 and his death from prostate cancer in 1988. Initially my interest in Murray was personal. I wanted to meet someone who exposed the magnetic core of what gives art its authority in the world. It was easy to lose track of that in academe where a blinding aura of imposed competitiveness can substitute for real vision and where artists must walk a fine line between mutually demanding domains. I grew up in Memphis TN knowing Hawkins Bolden and Joe Light - Bolden lived a few blocks from the high school I attended and Light down the street from my aunt, Elizabeth Buck, who refused to leave her neighborhood after it became predominantly African American. She was rewarded with two artists living on her block, Light and Felix Virgos who transformed an alley across the street with lyrical paintings and festoons of beads, prisms, and repurposed objects. But, Murray is different from these artists. His work is holographic - the product of a religious encounter that he indexed repeatedly in everything he made. He exposes the false idea that abstraction is the consequence of theory rather than empirical experience, whereas archeological records indicate that it is the oldest form of image making and one of the first signs of collective identity.6 So visiting Murray was a return to origins but also a reminder to stay the course. At first we did nothing but sit silently and look at paintings: no interviews, no cameras, no questions. Murray was not embarrassed by silence and the quiet within and around him was palpable. Only the subtlest sounds got through: the buzz of an insect wing, wind moving a leaf of paper tacked to the house, a metal roof adjusting in the afternoon sun, breath. No distant chain saws. But his silence was of a different order than the muteness described by W.E.B. Du Bois when he traveled by train down the spine of Georgia around 1901: “. . . for now we approach the Black Belt, that strange land of shadows, at which even slaves paled in the past, and whence come now only faint and half-intelligible murmurs to the world beyond.” 7 No, Murray’s silence was the only fitting frame for the “language of the Holy Spirit.”

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J. B. Murray Photo: Judith McWillie, 1986

J. B. Murray, Enamel on TV set. Photo: Gerald Jones, 1986

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As this silence began to take effect I realized that, at its core, Murray’s art is ceremonial and that ceremonies build on the shared momentum of call and response. He offered his vision to anyone willing to stand inside of it with him. Once I understood this we were able to communicate verbally. “See, spirit will talk with spirit,” he said. In May 1986 he explained, “Everything I see is from the sun” . . . He came in a vision, and a likeness, and in a veil . . . It was then I began to write these letters.” This first vision may have initiated the writing and “pictures” but it was ongoing, not circumscribed by a single paranormal event. He reconnected with it daily by taking a bottle of water outside and holding it up to the sun, magnifying the light and thanking God for giving him his “spiritual work.” If asked a direct question he consulted the water: “This water will work as I speak . . . This water speaks truth . . .” If asked to interpret a specific painting he raised the bottle above it and watched the water move. In a few minutes he meditated out loud on what the Spirit gave him to say. These meditations were always new even if we looked at the same painting over again. As he went deeper, he sang autobiographical songs in the manner of lined out hymns and transfigured blues - “When I was going from place to place, you had me follow . . . They put me there until my sun get out . . . And I thank you for this, you, my oldest friend . . . I wish somebody would tell me what is the soul of man . . . “

“Lord! Is my mind right to say what’s on this paper now? If it is, Lord, give me a louder word up. I thank you for the knowledge you gave me to go by. You gave me a mind to ask you questions through the water.” J. B. Murray consulting water. May, 1986 video still: Judith McWillie, May 1986

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He allowed me to videotape him working. With the bottle of water in one hand and a sketchbook on his lap he drew a slow continuous line with a felt tip marker, letting the weight of the instrument define the quality of the mark. “God put the instrument in my hands and it rules and guides my hands to do this . . . “ After about ten minutes the line trailed off and came to a stop. “Ain’t nothing he start but what he don’t finish it. I’m gonna stand on his word and he will make a way. Alright, I’ll write some.” He rotated the paper and filled the open spaces with script, writing fast and adjusting for scale. He layered the image with crosses, changed hands and continued, back and forth. “The Lord changes the instrument on me and that is why you see different writing. Different writing represents different languages and folks.” The pace and cadence of the marks transformed again as he punched dots across the surface of the paper like periods at the end of sentences except that their percussive sound seemed more important to him than the way they looked. From a Western formalist perspective, these hyper-graphic images behave in unusual ways. For one thing, at least for those of us accustomed to an English alphabet, Murray’s script can appear “backwards” or upside down like a reflection in a mirror regardless of the paper’s orientation. (See illus.) It is coherent but unstable and I have crashed Photoshop more than once flipping and rotating photographs of it to see if it would resolve. But it refuses to “freeze”, either visually or ontologically. The late Thomas McEvilley’s observation that “both music and text reveal themselves through an unfolding in time rather than in space” 8 is a promising way of considering Murray’s work and it aligns well with the anthropologist, Johannes Fabian’s ideas about the controlling nature of systems of meaning in which language more appropriately used to describe space is imposed on the orders of time (“way back when”, “ahead of its time”, “up to date”, “advanced” or “backward”, “high”/”low”.) 9 Fabian’s irrevocable insight into the distancing effects of language means that we can experience Murray as “coeval,” not “distanced” from the affective experiences of other historically important

Three different orientations of a page of Murray’s script from the Cavin Morris collection. (1) Original, (2) Rotated 180’, (3) Flipped horizontally. Photo: Cavin-Morris Gallery, 2012

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artists. At the same time, the generative ambiguity of his art allows meaning to occur “translinguistically” as viewers “hover in a state between reading and looking.” 10 Marcel Duchamp, art’s patron saint of generative ambiguity, famously remarked that the viewer must complete the creative process because “art is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by space and time.” Duchamp was not the first but he may well have been the last early modernist to say such a thing and he was 70 years old when he reiterated it.11 Today only physicists get away with talking like that because we presume them to be in empirical contact with the real world. But I believe that Duchamp, like Murray, also spoke from empirical experience. We historicize him in the context of Dada and in the bloodletting politics of the early twentieth century but he continues to stand prophetically in the Now. The prophetic Now in J.B. Murray’s work is easier to apprehend because the historical threads and crossings embedded within it are still opaque to many westerners. This is not all bad since the mental chatter associated with cognition quiets down when we experience works of art at their deepest levels. But very few works are good enough for this to happen. Murray’s are and more. One last segue into the world of ideas: Rene Bravmann writes about West African Islamic practices in which God is “evoked elliptically through cryptic letters.” 12 and quotes Sori Sawaneh, an artist from Kamanda, near the border of Guinea, who showed him a form of asemic writing related to protection. “The writing, in fact, can only be read by angels and remains utterly confusing and incomprehensible to witches.” 13 J. B. Murray said it this way: “Only the pure at heart can read this writing.” In his experience, the religion brought by African Muslims to the plantations of the American South never survived the physical and economic devastations of the American Civil War. Fragments of it went underground into the hidden precincts of hoodoo where it disappeared into the global countryside along with the remnants of colonial Africa and the tides of the slave trade. In recent years, from having known J. B. Murray, I have grown interested in the ways that artists protect their gifts, how some are able to renew themselves at different times in their lives – how Alfred Steiglitz, for example, managed to produce at least three distinct bodies of work in a fifty year career, any one of which could have stood alone and secured a place in history; or how Bob Dylan has navigated the coarsening landscape of popular culture for over fifty years with undiminished powers. Both of these men drew on resources from the past, apparently without the distancing effects outed by Johannes Fabian. In periods of crisis they usually found new lovers and friends. But if one is alone, as was J. B. Murray, how does this happen? Perhaps Murray was brave enough to submit to something beyond his control and protected enough by his “oldest friend” to experience the buoyancy of inspiration. His massive achievement – thousands of works spanning no more than eleven years of practice – appropriated fear and turned it into bright glory. He may never have known the provenance of the historically inflected remnants in his art. He certainly had no idea of the modernist avant-gardist precedents that made the Language of the Holy Spirit plausible to a couple of white artists in Georgia in the 1980’s and, later, to the many thousands in Europe, Japan, and the Americas who have been introduced to his work during the last thirty years. They will bring it into their lives and traditions unmediated by our limitations. One day we will know what twenty-first century Africans have to say about it. Murray’s work is inter-relational and

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that is what keeps it alive. While he could never have imagined how it would later be received, he has attended eloquently to modernity’s unfinished business.

Seal on Grave Marker. Savannah GA Middle Passage Museum. PBS Hidden Objects. The Spiritual World of Slaves.

NOTES All quotes unless otherwise attributed are from John Bunion (J.B.) Murray, May, 29 – 31 1986. Video, Judith McWillie 1. Mary Padgelek. In the Hand of the Holy Spirit. Mercer University Press. 2000. p. 13. 2. See: http://www.asemic.net/. Retrieved March 13, 2013. 3. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved March 5, 2013. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/13/13141.html 4. Mary Padgelek. In the Hand of the Holy Spirit. Mercer University Press. 2000. p. 7 5. Charles Joyner. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Blacks in the New World ) University of Illinois Press 1985.p.4 6. Clive Gamble. Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory . Cambridge University Press 2007. Also: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3512470.stm 7. W. E. B. Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk. Arc Manner Classic Re-prints. 2008.

pp. 78, 79.

8. “Art and Cognition” a lecture delivered at the Slought Foundation, Philadelphia PA. Dec. 11, 2004. Retrievable MP3 at http://slought.org/content/11285/ 9. James Fabian. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. Columbia University Press, (2002). 10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asemic_writing This is the most comprehensive source to date on asemic writing.Updated in 2013. Retrieved on March 9, 2013. 11. Calvin Tomkins. Duchamp: A Biography. Henry Holt and company 1996. 12. Rene Bravmann. African Islam. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983. p. 22. 13. Bravman, p. 40

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Eagle and the Sun: New Contexts and the Drawings of J.B. Murray by Randall Morris God is Alive, Magic is Afoot Leonard Cohen- Beautiful Losers His vision was large. He was enveloped in the golden light of the sun in his garden, dazzled by the twinkling lights reflected in the rainbow arch of the water he sprayed on his potatoes. The light of the earth was refracted and broken up the way the surface of his well danced when sun hit it. His hands were golden in the honey sun. He knew he was suddenly in the presence of God. Up to this point it was a church vision. A calling. Akin to a conversion vision. But then it progressed. J.B. Murray saw family spirits; his J. B. Murray with one of his paintings. Photo: Andy Nasisse mother and sister pleading for his well-being, asking for him to be called and he was given the gift of sight in a vision of an eagle flying across the sun‌ The slaves and their descendants put together the lives they needed to live to survive under racist conditions. Using the ethical and spiritual worldview of African home ground they built an American homeground1 that utilized the ancient concept of moral neutrality based on a cyclical concept of time and space rather than a dichotomy of good vs. evil. Time moves in a circular fashion: we are born, we live, we die and continue to the realm of the ancestors for consultation and then we are reborn. Slavery interrupted this cycle and it had to be put together again in an adaptable way for survival in the Americas. The yard show or plantation complex was still a universe where magic and Holy Spirit guided the moral resonance of mankind. The Southern yard show is a metaphorical reference to this moral complex; a tribute to the power of ancestors past and remembrance. People of power moved through Southern culture continually and were recognized as such by others, often by whites as well as blacks. . To this extent then one could make an argument that, despite the fact that they are only partially Christian, J.B. Murray’s visions are traditional to the African Baptist and conjure folkways of the black

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South. What actually puts him on the edge of a tangible minority within or without that tradition is that he , with the aid of the Holy Spirit and with the commentary of the familiar of water and his spirit-given gift of far sight made marks in various materials while in trance. We called it art. His neighbor called it his ‘working’.2 Not everyone in the spirit did what J.B. Murray did. Not everyone creates a yardshow or is called to be a culture bearer. It was the way his art commented on his culture that makes him iconoclastic. Because of the visual power of these marks J.B. Murray is accepted as one of the masters of African American Art.

Back of J. B. Murray’s house. Photo: Judith McWillie

To fully appreciate some of the artists in the African-American South we need to understand the world they live in and how that world ultimately influences their art. To many black people born in the US before World War II the world was alive in different ways than we perceive it to be now. Morality wasn’t always a dichotomy between good and evil. Magic and life and religion were not separate. Conjure was everywhere. The concept of conjure dealt with the spirits and with both working for healing and working for harm or protection from harm. Its roots were creolized from African and European healing and magic.3 Conjure was not always oppositional to the Church either. The Church dealt with the grand spirit; God. But there are other spirits; ancestors on the top tier; trickster spirits and ghosts on lower tiers. The Bible did not summon those spirits though it could be used to control them. Conjure was not part of the Church yet the bible was a strong object of conjure in and of itself. “Jesus is stronger than hoodoo (conjure)”4 said J.B. Murray acknowledging recognition of the existence of both by those words. In essence: hoodoo and the Church are interconnected in the same existential landscape and both have their practical uses in regulating everyday life. There has been a tendency with many writers, with some notable exceptions, to make J.B. Murray such a scion of evangelical Baptist faith that the other real local factors of his life are ignored. In actuality he was a part of the African-American yard show complex. This phenomenon, still very prevalent, created a sacred landscape around a home that provided a symbolic marking off of territory for both fending off unwanted energies and for self-empowerment.

Back of J. B. Murray’s house. Photo: Judith McWillie

Minimal in size as it was, his yard was protected with stone constructions and seemingly random objects carefully placed in strategic places like hundreds of other

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African-American yards throughout the United States and Caribbean.5 On the outside and the inside of the walls were his sacred writings and drawings. What made him special; what made his life idiosyncratic and iconoclastic despite the post-slavery traditional niche he lived in was that he made art and continued and developed the yard show concept by making his home an nkisi,6 a powerprotected hub of spiritual energy that engaged alternate states of consciousness and reflected them back out on the world. And he drew. Unlike many other artists whose careers were vision-inspired there is no evidence that his vision told him to write or draw… His art came from his own need to manifest the huge energy of his ecstatic vision into a physical medium fueled by his message. It is well documented that those who have extreme experiences of altered states of mind come back with a tremendous inner pressure to communicate it to the rest of the world. His artworks were a result of his vision. The ‘callings’ converge. His non-Baptist encounter with spirits merged with his call into his faith, a phenomenon documented many times in the annals of black folk religion in the U.S. The sun enveloped him in glowing radiant golden colors and an eagle, the symbol of far ‘sight’ crossed the sun and became embedded in his cosmos. As stated above his vision revealed ancestors; his mother and sister spoke to God asking for a blessing for him. It also revealed the torment of the unsaved; the sinners, the unbaptized. The intensity of it stirred unease in those around him because of his personal zeal and unrelenting prayer. But after a time his message was accepted by his community again and he was even allowed to sermonize sometimes.7 The vision was accepted as his calling to the spirits and to the Holy Spirit. His art became a tool and support for his journey. Only by understanding the social context of a vision along with its formal excellence can one gain perspective on a vision like Murray’s. His culture propelled his art career and yet he was regarded with a certain sense of approbation at first by that very traditional black Church community. Murray had trouble with them but even more trouble with his son’s girlfriend resulting in his short lived incarceration in a hospital for observation, followed by the building of a separate living quarter on the land of his old house where his son now lived. It was this structure he enforced with painted wall panels and objects. Western culture separates Church and non-Church spirits. The yard show complex does not. It is important to return this perspective to how it is actually received by those within the world view who live it every day; an integrated world view that makes it a single religion. And within that context we can see J.B. Murray’s drawings from the most appreciative perspective. A calling may happen to many but the particular impact of J.B. Murrays’ vision was unusual in that it manifested shortly afterword in the huge and complex depth of his written glossolalia and drawings. Shortly after his vision Murray began to write what he felt were divinely inspired words of blessing meant to heal the tormented soul/spirits of the unsaved.. To some black people in the South the world was and is inhabited by spirits of both positive and negative forces. The same people are also members of a Church that has creolized and differentiated itself from the mainstream Church by combining an African ethical morality with a Christian one. Magic and religion. It is an Africanized church but not necessarily a church where you can easily pinpoint specific Africanisms. It is more participatory (dance, singing, ecstasy) than

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Top and Bottom: Murray’s workspace Photos: Judith McWillie

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Top left: Murray’s back yard and shed Top right: Well in Murray’s backyard Bottom left: Murray’s chopping block Bottom right: Murrays’ stone, commodes, and cement All photos: Courtesy of Judith McWillie

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Northern or white churches whose emphasis was on Scripture. In this more vernacular worldview magic and ethics have become integrated into the whole living organism. The study of the PanAfrican Diaspora is changing. It is probably best to pick a viewpoint that goes beyond retentions and total erasure of Africa and seeing it rather as a process of memory and reinvention. The South is not Africa. Western Society creates the ‘outsider’. It does everything it can to ensure that the iconoclast is locked out, or locked up or cast out. In particular I am speaking of visionaries and seers, mediators between worlds, people whom in indigenous societies would be given roles of importance even if they were feared or shunned. This in cludes people who are still seen as vital parts of the cultural life, arbiters of ‘moral neutrality’, able to perpetuate good or evil depending on the given situation. Other cultures do not create an ‘outside’ no matter how aberrant the behavior. The visionary is a valid and important role in the culture and becomes a moral arbiter. Our concern here is mainly with what happens within African-American Society when one of these charismatic beings steps beyond even the visionary role and puts materials together in such a way for those original visionary purposes that they engage our sensibilities as art. In those cultures these materials are rarely made from a purely aesthetic viewpoint. At the same time aesthetic choices are made every inch of the way. If there are any real links between the Western concept of ‘art brut’ or ‘outsider’ art and say, African-American yard show complex artists it is that the work is rarely if ever art for art’s sake ie. art about art. It is not about ‘art’ per se. Its original intentionality is always utilitarian (J.B. Murrays work being no different); it has been made to achieve something on some level ranging from solipsistic to amuletic and/or didactic. In researching or illuminating the work our job becomes the location of that utilitarian intentionality, to find the locus of its truest context. J.B. Murray made his work on several levels; all devoted to the spirits, whether amuletic or didactic. He sought to portray the unsaved spirits bless them in his calling as an agent tapped by God. He also wrote holy script and handed it out as healing and ‘workings’ to bring other people to salvation. It is interesting to think of how the art history of the West might have been changed had Jean Dubuffet been able to have real exposure to African-American works. In a way Dubuffet’s idea of Art Brut itself was disabled by the times he lived in. He had no context for culturally propelled work. Indeed his collecting method was to strip work of its context and bring it into a new context called Art Brut. It was thus his concept of Art Brut that was anti-cultural, not the work itself. His premises by sheer circumstance became solidly European because at the time of his attempts to formulate the rationale of his collecting proclivities this major aspect of the artworld was not to be examined or even ‘discovered’ in its full context until twenty to forty years later; namely the art brut and self-taught artists of the Americas. It was an art born out of a reinvention of culture in reaction to the brutal holocaust of slavery. The closest Dubuffet got to this was the temporary inclusion of the Haitian artist and Vodou priest Hector Hyppolite, whose presence was uniquely due to the activities of Compagnie de L’Art Brut member Andre Breton in the 40s who had met the artist in Haiti and who soon withdrew from the group when the collection was to be housed in the United States. Hyppolite’s work was excluded around the same time or shortly after.8

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But even then, even if his work had remained, the world had done little or nothing to understand or contextualize the work of this artist in the matrix of world art. Haitian art was treated as an anomaly, an exotic manifestation connected to tourists who wanted a savage Rousseau and indeed in Haiti Vodou subjects were often gently discouraged as non commercial . Anthropology was just beginning to examine the lives of the plantation culture in the new world and raise questions of post-African retentions and creolization. When Dubuffet carved his art brut mandates into the walls of the modernist cave the presence of African-American artists of the Western Hemisphere was not documented. What few examples there were mistakenly and wrongfully called ‘folk art’. There was only that superficial murmuring from Haiti, single-handedly perpetrated by Breton bringing back those six Hyppolite paintings in 1947-8. The central implicit truth of Dubuffet’s concept of art brut is that the maker is isolated in a marvelous vacuum touched not by the art canon’s needs of high culture or the folk roots of tradition. To maintain the Sisyphean impossibility of this concept he had to change it constantly eliminating and reshaping rules as he went along and at one point even further obfuscating sources by changing the brand; the work was no longer folk or spiritualist or by the mentally disabled it was now just art brut. Art Brut remained a European phenomenon and therein are the problems we are confronting today. The visionary work of J.B. Murray becomes a key to the discourse. What is decided about his place in world art and in regard to the canons of art brut will reflect on many African-American nonmainstream artists. At the center of this is a key question: if a group of people are considered nonmainstream politically and sociologically by a racist uberculture; forced into outsider status by birth, and still maintain a consistent howbeit traditional lifestyle, what happens to their art in regard to art brut’s demand for non-traditional status? Some would say the key determinant factor would be the word tradition but this carries its own baggage. The European art takes its own connection with its own traditions for granted; its religion, its mores, its materials. Even Dubuffet’s insistence that the work have a bias toward the ‘common man’ (footnote) is a social and political stance. It is an ancient one and is as much a part of tradition as is the religion and social standing of the black man in the new world. What is not traditional in either New World or European world is the picking up of a pen or brush or carving tool to express aspects of those worlds. It is an exceptional phenomenon despite its appearance throughout history. In this case it is a utilitarian act enforcing some degree of purpose that has little or nothing to do with the art world. But there was nothing in Dubuffet’s ruminations on art brut (through no fault of his own but more of a historical ignorance) to factor in the very complicated world view and moral universe of the African diaspora. So in essence if a white European engages the spirit world for matters of mediation between the dead (ancestors) and the living no one questions it in the art brut world. But if a non-white or non-Western artist receives a vision and confronts ancestors in a shamanistic way no matter how idiosyncratic or individualized the circumstance might be it is called folk or traditional and it is questioned and it is asked to please wait outside. It has come to the point where the arbiters of Art Brut’s gates must decide to expand to allow in the new world or it is in danger or perpetuating the very same evils Dubuffet fought by recognizing Art Brut in the first place. Tokenism is as bad as exclusion in the long run. 17


There is a line drawn in the sand here. Cramming the African-American work into a pre-existing conceptual form by cutting off limbs to make it fit in the bed of art brut is certainly not the answer. It is more important to continue in good faith the elemental work of Dubuffet and expand the borders of the enclosed country of art brut to include visionary art from non-Western or creolized cultures. Spiritualism and contact with Western spirits, ghosts, ancestors, and religious entities seems to be allowed if a Western artist makes the contact. Non-western artists are not. Catholic Priests are in. Shamans are out. It would be a shame if the legacy of a Master artist like J.B. Murray was dependent on our need for definitions rather than on its own deep creative merits.

NOTES 1. Grey Gundaker, Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American HomeGround (Charlottesville: University press of Virginia, 1998) Judith McWillie, “Art, Healing and Power in African American Yards”, in Keep Your Head to the Sky, ed. Gundaker; Grey Gundaker and Judith McWillie 2. Paraphrase from interview with Sara Murray Pinkston by Mary Padgelek in In The Hand of the Holy Spirit: the visionary art of j.b. murray (Mercer University Press: Macon, Georgia 2000) 3. Yvonne P. Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California 2003) 4. From transcript of interview with artist by Judith McWillie, Mitchell, GA, 31 May 1986. 5. Grey Gundaker, “Creolization, Nam, Absent Loved Ones, Watchers, and Toys” in Creolization as Cultural Creativity, ed Robert Baron and Ana C. Clara, (University of Mississippi, Jackson 2011) 6. Robert Farris Thompson “The Circle and the Branch: Renascent Kongo-American Art,” in Another Face of the Diamond, ed Judith McWillie and Inverna Lockpez(New York:INTAR Latin American Gallery, 1988) 7. Padgelek, 2000 8. Lucienne Peiry, Art Brut, The Origins of Outsider Art (Flammarion, Paris, 1997) All information on Dubuffet’s journey of structuring Art Brut stem from readings in this book.

18


Dancing with the Spirits: J.B. Murray’s Art

by Barbara Safarova

“[…] We were older than they in the sense of what it took to live in the world with others […]” Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man “A prophet has another mission.” John Bunyon Murray “Mestizo Planet” was the title of the exhibition held at the Museum of Quai Branly in 2008-2009.1 The introduction to the catalog - “To mix or not to mix?” – raised the issue of “mestizo” works, artistic productions at the crossroads of several cultures. These are in reality much broader questions than just the balance of influences in one work or another. “Pure culture,” a “pristine purity” prior to any “mixture” is a myth: “Not only does nothing like that pre-exist – even if such fantasy flatters our obsession with authenticity and origins – but instead it indicates that the word “culture” never covers a set with fixed and precise boundaries.” 2 The underlying question would then concern primarily the presupposed “model” – the “original” culture or primary object – and its “copy,” one of the fundamental presuppositions on which Western metaphysical categories are based;3 yet these works question precisely this presupposition, thwarting our illusions. Finally, there are the problems related to the dominant and dominated culture, barbarity, history of the vanquished: “Despite large differences as to the loans and their results, all these processes reveal a close relationship between political dominance and hybrid productions […], “mixed” behavior and productions are embedded in unequal social relations between victors and vanquished.” 4 How is it that people – or an artist – appropriates and transforms the signs of oppression? This question lies at the heart of a number of contemporary art works – Dokumenta 13 has recently presented the installation by the Algerian artist Kader Attia, The Repair from Occident to ExtraOccidental Cultures5 - but particularly concerns the African American artists of the South, uprooted by the aftermath of slavery. How to reclaim one’s body, one’s land? Repair, heal, protect: all these actions lie at the heart of works produced by John Bunyon (J.B.) Murray. Through their creolized production – result of syncretism between African, European and Indian cultures – the Afro-American artists thwart the categories of the sacred and the profane; they appropriate ancient symbols to renew their signification in a kind of visual prayer and spiritual regeneration. According to Robert Farris Thompson,6 it is particularly the religious and aesthetic values specific to Equatorial Africa – especially Congo -, the region of origin of most men and women sold in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century, that is to say before the Civil War.7 Writing in an “unknown” language has played an important role in this tradition.8 J. B. Murray, for example, called his writing “writing in the Spirit.” To renew the initial visionary state and trigger off his creative process, he used a very specific ritual: several times a day he would look at the sun through a bottle of clear water, thank God for giving him “work,” then start to draw and to write. J.B. Murray’s writing unfolds in all directions, often traced around human figures described by the artist as “bad people […] those who were dry tongued, that don’t have the spirit of God.” During an interview with the artist Judith McWillie in his house in 1985, Murray was willing to show her how he drew. He 19


began by drawing a continuous line with a felt-tip pen, turning the sheet around as he progressed with the drawing: “It’s the language of the Holy Spirit, direct from God.” Once the image was complete, he started to write the message. After about ten minutes, he finished by adding a few points in the network of lines. Murray accepted the curiosity concerning his sacred work with a lot of patience, preferring to respond directly by his ritual rather than a speech. In public he began by reciting a prayer, using a bottle of water as a lens: “Answer us, O God! Give me the word louder!” J. B. Murray could not reveal the exact signification of his message as its contents evolved and were specified only through transmission, through the exchange with others. He urged his visitors to read the message through water, convinced that it was accessible to all those who had “pure heart.” For him, it was not necessary to “draw what is outside” because God “gave direct knowledge” and water “did different things when you asked”. Before looking more closely at some African traditions, the underground source of Murray’s prophetic production, there are certain particularities that should be noted as to the way in which some AfroAmerican artists invest the evangelical faith to which they belong. The community identity of the slaves converted to evangelism was built on the analogy with the history of the enslavement of the Israelites and their exodus from Egypt – a story with similarities to the transatlantic voyage of Africans – to which was added an emphasis on salvation. The black Christians, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, were convinced that God could not tolerate slavery and that they would return to Africa to convert their country of origin. More importantly, in this imperative of salvation there is the idea that Christianity of the white has been corrupted and that the black Christians can reform it, transforming it into a true spirituality that would not only be preached but also practiced: “Let envoys come from Egypt, let Ethiopia stretch out its hands to God.” 9 The concept of practice is of particular significance: J. B. Murray interprets his belief ritually, he is devoted to it body and soul, convinced that the forces of good and evil fight at any moment on Earth and that God can be approached directly, with no mediator. This particular way of interpreting the Bible is of course also part of the heritage of worship in West Africa, placing the experience of “possession” in the center of religious practice. But divination operating in this part of Africa is primarily characterized by the fulfillment of the “coolness.”10 To be “cool,” this adjective belonging to the language of the street is much more than how we usually understand this word. According to Robert Farris Thompson, it has also a metaphorical value, indicating an aesthetic and moral accomplishment related to the need to control one’s own emotions – the “cooling,” spiritual balance, serenity – as well as social stability and order within a group. He also notes that this concept is often associated with the use of water as a sacred power which purifies. Water carries the divine presence.11 More specifically, the medicine men, these “specialists of the cool,” are initiated to the use of sacred water and plants; they also fix their eyes on the sun. Water may contain the spirits of the dead and bring them peace, which is the opposite of the annihilation by fire. We can recall the few phrases of J.B. Murray in which he associates the color red, fire and hell: “Red is the torment and these lines lead to torture and there is no escape […] The water obeys God more than anything else in the world, water is the most powerful thing in the world.” It is very interesting that J.B. Murray’s visionary production seems equally rooted in African divination rituals described by Thompson as well as in Pietism inspired by Christian mythology, in which the sun and water indicate the presence of Jesus – “Jesus walks on water,” noted J.B. Murray – and the possibility of salvation.12 20


What links J.B. Murray to other artists of Afro-American origin, is the fact that their works function as spiritual baffles, designed to protect the ones they “cover” against evil forces. Mary T. Smith’s yard show, for example, with the scarecrows overseeing the decoration, is undoubtedly one: “If you know where you are going and where you are coming from, you can embellish your road towards other worlds – the road towards ancestors and God; and your name will merge forever with their Glory.”13 J.B. Murray’s drawings seem to be charged with the same protective intention and we can suppose that the TV set and the stove which he painted over function as a kind of transmitter or window to communicate with the world beyond.14 It would be also interesting to associate visual expression with music, beginning for example with the ability to hear two different beats at the same time, an organizing principle of creation in equatorial and West Africa.15 If we look for rhythmical repetitions, we find them above all in the quilts created by Afro-American artists. The latter develop certain abstract motifs which repeat themselves, yet never in the same way. When we carefully observe J.B. Murray’s drawings, we can detect the repetition of certain signs – small crosses, red dots, certain underlined parts on each line – when it is not figurescolumns dividing the page -, in different arrangements, creating thus an impression of a strange score, a vibrating surface. Another stylistic effect would be that of “whooping”, practiced by blues musicians, which refers to octave jumping, recalling also glissando or slide effect with the help of the “bottleneck”, originally the neck of the bottle which the bluesmen used to slide on the guitar cords. Visually, we could find the whooping in the juxtaposition of two opposed colors, for example the blue and the orange next to green. “Whoop it down” means creating a break, for example between the blue and the yellow; that is a passage from a warm color to a cold one, or the contrary: “[…] breaks in the motif, for example the change of the white to the red then to the black can symbolize the passage between two worlds, the search for superior vision and ancestral power.”16 J. B. Murray too has a developed sense of contrast, sometimes even between the drawing and its support: red/blue, orange/ blue, red/black. Fairly often Murray changes the colors of the message itself, which might suggest that the specific colors most likely carry a particular signification.17 The division of the sheet by means of more or less regular lines also recalls music, a kind of repetitive percussion. The network of lines sometimes develops into a strange cartography, a puzzle with irregular clusters evoking a torn page or divinatory objects – similar to the images of entrails of sacrificed animals in ancient Mesopotamia. We could also think about the sparkles of light which J.B. Murray must have seen when he was looking through the bottle. The rhythmical play between various fragments is sometimes emphasized through the presence of two different colors in each part of the puzzle, which the artist uses to write down his message. The contrast between two colors is sometimes reinforced by the difference between the mediums used by the artist: while the message is often written with a thin ball-point pen, the abstract figures with globular eyes resemble thick agglutinations, impenetrable, mysterious “stop-gaps.” They sometimes multiply like cancer cells, followed by the small stains standing for their eyes, which can also be found in the rest of their bodies – recalling the “cellular” works of Eugene Gabritschevsky. J.B. Murray is not concerned with a realistic portrait of his figures; their androgynous character reminds us of the climbing “Vögeli” of Adolf Wölfli. For J.B. Murray, his primary goal was not to create a work of art: he considered himself as God’s instrument, with a message to be delivered. It is in this sense that we can link his production to the works of spiritualist artists included in the field of art brut. Moreover, the spiritual and protective dimension of his works brings him close to a number of others: the Czech Zdenek Kosek, the Brazilian Bispo do Rosario, the French Jeanne Triper or the Japanese Koumei Bekki. 21


J.B. Murray was aware of the contextual change that operated from the moment his works were exhibited in museums or galleries; in Mary Padgelek’s book William Rawlings notes that Murray, observing the reactions of the spectators, said: “They don’t understand, do they?”18 The preservation and recognition of these works has only been made possible through their inscription into the field of art; yet it is also necessary not to lose from sight the intentions of the artists who have created them. Notes

1. Planète métisse, from 18th March 2008 to 19th July 2009, Museum of Quai Branly. 2. Serge Gruzinski, “Planète métisse, ou comment parler du métissage,” in Planète métisse, Paris: Museum of Quai Branly and Actes Sud, 2008, p. 17. 3. Gilles Deleuze, “Simulacre et philosophie antique,” Logique du sens, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1969, p. 292-324. 4. Carmen Bernard, “Regard d’anthropologue sur l’ambiguïté des mélanges,” in Planète métisse, p. 33. 5. In his installation, Kader Attia creates analogies between the photographs of soldiers injured in the First World War with wooden sculptures created by Senegalese sculptors based on the photographs of the same “gueules cassées” (“broken faces”), “patched up” art works and objects from Africa, creating a heterogeneous “montage.” 6. Robert Farris Thompson and Joseph Cornet, The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds, Washington: The National Gallery of Art, 1981. 7. Despite the fact that the importation of new slaves became illegal in 1808, Africans continued to arrive clandestinely through the ports of South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama. 8. Judith McWillie, “Writing in an Unknown Tongue,” in Cultural Perspectives on the American South, vol. 5, New York, London, Tokyo, Melbourne: Gordon and Breach, 1991. 9. Psalms, LXVIII, 32. 10. Robert Farris Thompson, Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music, Pittsburgh and New York: Periscope Publishing, 2011. 11. It is for this reason that stones symbolizing the gods of Afro-Cuban religions are kept in water or other liquid in jars, ibid., p. 29. 12. We are thinking of the artist Achilles G. Rizzoli, whose visionary art is anchored in the context of catholicism; his first vision of Jesus was linked to the sparkle of light in a cathedral window. 13. Robert Farris Thompson, ibid., p. 36. 14. Farris mentions a tomb in a cemetery in Florida, with a radio fixed in concrete above the deceased to transmit messages that would come from another world, ibid., p. 74. 15. Ibid., p. 50-54. 16. Ibid., p. 54. 17. En dehors de la couleur rouge, William Arnett attribue une signification particulière à l’utilisation du bleu (le bien), du jaune (la présence divine) et du blanc (la pureté spirituelle liée à la mort) chez J. B. Murray. Voir William Arnett, « John B. Murray (1908-1988). The Handwriting on the Wall », dans Paul Arnett et William Arnett, éd., Souls Grown Deep. African American Vernacular Art, Atlanta : Tinwood Books, 2000, p. 474. 18. William Rawlings, “Forewords,” in Mary Padgelek, In the Hand of the Holy Spirit: The Visionary Art of J.B. Murray, Macon: Mercer University Press, 2000, p. x.

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Copyright Š 2012 Cavin-Morris Gallery Cavin-Morris Gallery 210 Eleventh Ave, Ste. 201 New York, NY 10001 t. 212 226 3768 www.cavinmorris.com Catalogue design: Mimi Kano & Marissa Levien Photography: Jurate Vicerate


Two transcend jbm catalog safarova essay (1)