Issue 5 UK £13 US $18 CAN $25
Ho Ho Ho! The Winter Issue: Paul McCarthy in conversation with Tala Madani
The Cover Paul McCarthy and Tala Madani in conversation about the power of seditious art. p. 34
Conversation Elizabeth LeCompte, Kate Valk and Maura Tierney on the Wooster Group, still radical after all these years. p. 64
Portfolio The road taken: Cross sections of Rashid Johnson’s new film The Hikers. p. 84 Profile The subaquatic poetics of David Zink Yi. By Ben Lewis. p. 96
Essay The Great Migration and American art: A premise. By Sam Gordon. p. 48 Edifice The deceptively simple interventions of Mexican architect Rozana Montiel. By Thomas de Monchaux. p. 58
The Keepers Mario Diacono’s personal athenaeum of arcana. By Bob Nickas. p. 76
Portfolio Dipping into the river: Annie Leibovitz’s early years on the move. p. 104
Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College
MuseumsQuartier Museumsplatz 1, A-1070 Vienna www.mumok.at Eva Hesse, No Title, 1962, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, donation Helen Hesse Charash, © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
An Intimate Setting
Anxiety of Influence Georg Kremer and the quiet color revolution of 1980s painting. By Rebecca Bengal. p. 20
Editor’s Note p. 10 Letters Alina Szapocznikow writes to Hugh Hefner, Playboy headquarters, 1970. p. 12
Epitaph Jim Goldberg on learning from Robert Frank (1924–2019). p. 26
Unknown Pleasures Graveside with Scott Covert, painter of the dead. p. 14
Antiphony A new poem by Gerard Malanga in response to the paintings of Mike Kelley. p. 18
Books New and upcoming publications. Plus, Jarrett Earnest talks with Marcia B. Hall about color and Jean-Jacques Lebel talks about Marcel Duchamp. p. 29
Where contemporary style meets classic character.
Permaculture Nicole Stjernswärd’s laboratory of color and ecological commitment. p. 118
Late Capitalism The holiday gift guide, with goodies from Eduardo Chillida, Fabio Mauri, Geta Brătescu, Fornasetti and Anj Smith. p. 119 Non Finito Our farewell until next time: Jack Whitten in the studio with Ed Clark (1926–2019). p. 120 For reservations contact +44 (0)20 7499 7070 or email email@example.com the-connaught.co.uk
Paul McCarthy: Head Space, Drawings 1963–2019 February 2–May 10, 2020
Editor in Chief Randy Kennedy Managing Editor Catherine Davis Editorial Assistant Anna Shinbane Art Direction Common Name Production Christine Stricker Contributing Editors Andrea Schwan Michaela Unterdörfer Contributing Designer Erin Cave Hauser & Wirth, New York Editorial Offices: 548 West 22nd Street New York, NY 10011 Tel: +1 212-790-3900 Presidents Iwan and Manuela Wirth Partner and Vice President Marc Payot
R EB EC CA B EN G A L
S C OT T C OV ER T
B EN L E W I S
A fiction writer, essayist and journalist based in New York, Bengal has written for Topic, Aperture, The Guardian, Oxford American, Vogue, The Paris Review, Bookforum, Criterion Collection, and Guernica, among others. She is a MacDowell Colony fellow and will be the Mina Hohenberg Darden Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia in the spring of 2020.
Covert is an artist based in New York but found more often on the road. A collaborator with Off-Broadway theater companies in the late ’70s, he was a founding member of Playhouse 57 at the storied Club 57 in the East Village, alongside friends Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman and Andy Rees. Since the mid-1980s, his work has revolved around the Monument Paintings, a series based on memento mori rubbings of gravestones, the first of which was The Dead Supreme, after his love of Florence Ballard (1943–76), a founding member of the Supremes.
Lewis is an author, art historian and documentary filmmaker, whose works include the TV series Art Safari and feature documentaries Google and the World Brain and The Great Contemporary Art Bubble. He spent last year as a visiting fellow of the Warburg Institute, writing a book about the world’s most expensive painting, Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo, which sold in 2017 for $450 million. The Last Leonardo was published in 2018 by Harper Collins and Ballantine. (Photo: Mark Whitfield)
Printed in Germany Offsetdruckerei Karl Grammlich Prepress Prints Professional, Berlin International Distribution pineapple-media.com Vol. 2, No. 5: Ursula (ISSN 2639-376X) is published quarterly, in spring, summer, fall and winter, for $60 a year in the U.S. by Hauser & Wirth, 548 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011. Subscriptions: Visit hauserwirth.com/ursula. Single copies may be purchased for $18. Postmaster: Send address changes to address above, care of Ursula Subscriptions. On the front cover: Paul McCarthy, individual work from Tokyo Santa Trans Drawings, 2000, pencil and marker on paper, 23 parts, 11 × 14". © Paul McCarthy. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. On the back cover: Paul McCarthy, Tokyo Santa, 1996; performance, video, photos, drawings, installation; Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo. © Paul McCarthy.
JIM G O L D B ER G Goldberg’s innovative use of image and text have made him a widely influential artist and artist’s book maker. His projects include Rich and Poor (1977–85), Raised by Wolves (1985–95), Nursing Home (1986), Coming and Going (1996–present), Open See (2003–09), The Last Son (2016), Candy (2013–17), Darrell & Patricia (2018) and Gene (2018). His work is in the collections of MoMA, SFMOMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Getty, and LACMA. He is the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, and the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. Goldberg is professor emeritus at the California College of the Arts. (Photo: Alessandra Sanguinetti)
TA L A M A DA NI GER A R D M A L A N G A Malanga is a poet, photographer and filmmaker and was for many years one of Andy Warhol’s closest collaborators at the Factory. His most recent publications are Cool & Other Poems and Walt Whitman, hipster (a broadside two-color silkscreen poster commemorating the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth), both published in 2019 by Bottle of Smoke Press. He recently completed his autobiography, In Remembrance of Things Past. He lives with his cats, Sasha, Zazie and Xena, in the shadow of the Catskills in upstate New York. (Photo: Bill Roberts)
Madani, born in Tehran, raised in western Oregon and now living and working in Los Angeles, has been featured in exhibitions at the Hammer Museum, Portikus in Frankfurt, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the MIT List Visual Arts Center, among others. In shows on view through early 2020 at Secession in Vienna and Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, her work will also be the subject of a midcareer survey in 2020 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. (Photo: Jersey Walz. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, L.A.)
1 MUSEUM Los Angeles | hammer.ucla.edu | @hammer_musem PAUL MCCARTHY, SELF-PORTRAIT, 1963, INK ON PAPER, 11 X 8 ½ IN. (27.9 X 21.6 CM), COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND HAUSER & WIRTH
“If I have ever practiced alchemy, it was in the only way it can be done now, that is to say, without knowing it.” —Marcel Duchamp, to Robert Lebel, mid-1950s
Alchemy—the magic-realist quest that flourished from antiquity to the 18th century and laid the groundwork for modern chemistry—was inextricably tied to the subject of color and thus to art. It was alchemists’ experiments, for example, that led to the production of synthetic vermilion, the toxic tincture of sulfur and mercury used to burnish the pages of illuminated manuscripts. (In some alchemy treatises, red stands in for gold, the spiritual—and, not coincidentally, highly bankable—goal of all the lab work.) You could think of this as our alchemy and color issue, a blast of brightness to last through the winter. We follow Bob Nickas to Boston to visit his old friend Mario Diacono, one of the most intellectually adventurous dealers of his day, who put much of what he made in the art world into building a library of ancient volumes devoted to alchemy and occult philosophy, one of the best in private hands. (Diacono was able to afford one of his most prized books only by selling a group of Vito Acconci drawings—the kind of alchemical transubstantiation that would have made Vito proud.) We sit in as Jarrett Earnest talks to the trailblazing historian of color Marcia B. Hall, and we accompany Rebecca Bengal deep into the story of the eccentric pigment business built by the German chemist Georg Kremer, whose subtle but profound influence on New York painting beginning in the 1980s is only now beginning to be understood. (A big thanks to Jennifer Gross, executive director of the Hauser & Wirth Institute, for putting us on to these kinds of elusive histories.) Elsewhere, the cult artist Scott Covert takes us to the cemetery to show how he transposes the gravestones of the famous and infamous into history painting, and Sam Gordon gives us a transformative new lens—the Great Migration—through which to view work made by African-American artists operating outside the mainstream. The painter and teacher Hans Hofmann once said: “Art is magic.…But how is it magic? In its metaphysical development? Or does some final transformation culminate in a magic reality? In truth, the latter is impossible without the former. If creation is not magic, the outcome cannot be magic.” In a 21st century society in which mass corporate culture and social media tend to tamp down difference and enforce homogenous consent, the magic now might need to be the kind that troubles you and rattles your sense of order. For our cover story, Paul McCarthy sits down with fellow Los Angeles artist Tala Madani to talk about their shared interest in work that strives to burrow deeper into the marrow of meaning by straining, even bursting, the bounds of cultural norms—in Madani’s case, her ability to paint the female form only after giving it a startling fecal transformation. As McCarthy describes this process: “It’s maybe childlike, but with adult awareness—a place to transgress. You enter it.” But the ability to do so through art is precarious, and especially so now. “Does the outside art world care about such forms now, and or does this type of work even belong there?” McCarthy asks. “I once thought that was happening. I once felt that the gates were wide open. Artists like Duchamp, Kaprow, Lee Lozano, Dieter Roth—there’s a long list of artists who opened the doors. It might be that both channels within the two-sided art world system are redefining themselves. We’ll have to see where it goes.” —Randy Kennedy
“Natural products”illustration from MatthaeusP latearius‘’ Le Livre des Simples Medecines, c. late 15th– early 16th century, parchment, Salerno, Italy.Collection Russian National Library. Courtesy Art Resource, NY. P hoto: Erich Lessing.
Alina Szapocznikow (1926–73), a Holocaust survivor who endured three concentration camps and died tragically young of breast cancer at the age of 46, is best known for her sculptural explorations of the existential strangeness and fragility of the human body. But in 1969, she began exploring a quixotic idea about other kinds of bodies: the gaudy body politic of the American Dream—as Szapocznikow, a Polish Jew living then in Paris, saw it—and the body of a Rolls-Royce, an apotheosis of the wealth and power the United States represented for her. The conceptual project, to make a twice-lifesize sculpture of a Rolls-Royce from a massive slab of pink marble and exhibit it at Documenta V, never came to fruition. But a small-scale version of the project, My American Dream, and her efforts to raise money for the larger piece— by reaching out to the kinds of all-American hedonists the piece itself would lampoon (Hugh Hefner, for example)—ended up comprising a work in itself, caustic, comical and prophetic.
Sir, I send you, attached, the dossier regarding my Rolls Royce in Rosa Aurora marble. This idea, conceived in 1969 following an invitation to the exhibition “Art Concept from Europe,” was met with great artistic and critical success. In the month of July 1970 I sent this project to Mr. Harald Szeemann, director of Documenta, and asked him to find the financing to realize and exhibit this work. His response is attached. In the month of August I consulted the marble quarries of Henraux, in the Carrara region of Italy. The execution of this magnificent car is possible and I have attached the approximate estimate here. I believe that you may be interested in this car, unique in the world, and that the promotion of Documenta might equally interest you. I also hope that you have the means to afford this luxury yourself. In awaiting your response, I hope that you will accept, sir, the expression of my distinguished sentiments.
This page: Alina Szapocznikow, Rolls-Royce II, 1971, pink Portuguese marble, 8 ¼ × 25 ⅜ × 8 ⅛". Manuscript for the project “My American Dream,” 1970. Opposite: Letter from Alina Szapocznikow to Hugh Hefner, September 14, 1970, Paris. All images: © ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr Stanislawski/Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris.
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean Conversations with the dead By Scott Covert Photography by Christian Patterson My first funeral was my grandfather’s. I was eight. It was 1962. To get to the service, we had to drive more than a thousand miles, from suburban New Jersey to Michigan. There my grandfather lay, in a dark-brown wooden casket, dressed in his best navyblue suit. He was dead, but he looked good, handsome, like he was just sleeping. I wasn’t sad that I wasn’t going to see him again—he was in heaven. I had a little brown teddy bear that I loved, and I put it inside the coffin. They carried him away to the church for the hocus-pocus, Catholicstyle. They all spoke in Latin, the language God understood. Then the funeral procession drove to the cemetery—it was my first time in a limousine. At the grave site, a concrete vault lined the deep hole, and we lowered him into it and covered him with dirt. He would be there forever. He was safe in sacred ground. I don’t do cenotaphs.
how to dance, and I went dancing every night for the next 25 years—it was the best education in the world. I did a lot of other things during that time. I went to Indiana University for two semesters, taking only studio courses, where I learned how to stretch a canvas and to do something on it with paint. Studio classes were also great because there were no final exams, and they
Then I asked him if he thought making a grave drawing was a good idea and he said, “Maybe.”
never interfered with your evening activities. Next, I did almost a whole semester at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I decided that what I really wanted to be was a stage actor. I took a workshop with Jerzy Grotowski and became obsessed with the stage and everything that happened on it. When I came back to New York, I immediately got a job on Broadway—as an usher, the first male usher in Local B183. I worked Evita with Patti LuPone for a year and a half and watched every performance, more than 300 of them—I would do things like that. I saw Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou do Sweeney Todd 75 times, and I was in the audience for their very last performance, high on LSD, sitting in the seventh row right behind Allegra Kent, the famous ballerina. Rock Hudson was there, too. The night I worked Equus, Anthony Perkins took the night off. It was announced that his understudy would be Richard Burton. The audience roared.
• • • There I was: standing in the Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery in Warren, Michigan, 13 Mile Road. Florence had been married when she died, and the stone said “Florence Glenda Chapman, June 30, 1943–February 22, 1976.” A brass marker lay flat on the ground. I placed a sheet of paper on it, wiped my crayon across the paper to capture the name and dates. The paper shifted. I didn’t want it to become muddled so I took another crayon, a different color, to finish it. The second color made it pop, and when I looked at it, I heard that little bell that Gertrude Stein writes about. I’ve been doing it ever since. Covert (far left) with members of the band Youth Against Death, New York, 1977 (from left: Nancy Ferrara, Frank Holliday and Natalya Maystrenko). Courtesy Frank Holliday. Photo: Katherine Dumas.
• • •
In sixth grade, they took us to the cemetery to make grave rubbings as a class exercise, I guess because that was a thing back then, a continuation of a tradition that had started at least as far back as the Victorians, who were just obsessed with death. And when you used the French word to describe it— frottage—it all sounded so sophisticated and high-minded.
• • • Edison, New Jersey, is 30 miles—45 minutes—outside of Manhattan. It was a community created for the Eisenhower era, World War II veterans starting families. That’s where I come from, where Thomas invented the light bulb. It was a nightmare to grow up gay there. I was tortured. With a couple other misfits, I started taking the bus in to New York City. I was 15. I knew I could meet a boyfriend in the city, even before I left the Port Authority! I knew
Scott Covert in Cavalry Cemetery, Queens, New York.
• • •
Next came Club 57, in the basement of a church at 57 St. Marks, between First and Second avenues. A whole lot of dancing went on down there. We were the spoiled children of the Greatest Generation. It was so American and so much fun. I was in a fake post-punk band, Youth Against Death, along with Frank Holliday, Nancy Ferrara, Natalya Maystrenko and Kathy Dumas on camera—we did flyers and interviews, never picked up an instrument. At that time, Andy Rees was running the club, after Ann Magnuson had retired from management. For two years, I was on stage constantly— Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman’s musical Livin’ Dolls; Boing-Boing (a riff on the French farce Boeing-Boeing), dinner theater with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches served to the audience in airplane vomit bags; The Bad Seed, directed by Andy Rees, in which I played Rhoda Penmark, the pretty little girl with the best penmanship. For several months, I was doing three different plays four nights a week. I’d done it. I’d found out about performing on the stage, and then I never wanted to do it again. I learned something very important about myself: I hated working with other people.
attention. In 1985 I decided to do a rubbing of the gravestone of Florence Ballard, one of the founding members of the Supremes. She’s the dead Supreme—the tragic one, kicked out of the group in 1967, alcoholic, flat broke and gone by the age of 32. I had been in love with the Supremes since they sang “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” on Ed Sullivan. All those English boys were great, but I loved the girls from Detroit. I called up Michael Musto and asked him if he knew where Florence was buried. He said, “No.”
• • • Before the internet, before it was easy to Google where somebody is buried—or whether they are buried at all, not cremated or dumped in the ocean—the absolute best way to find out was to call funeral homes. I’d see the obituary for a well-known person. I’d find out where the service was, and I’d call up the funeral home. I used to do this from a friend’s house, because I didn’t really live anywhere. (I still don’t really live anywhere, except with friends, and on the road, in my car.) I used to make my friend laugh because I’d tell funeral homes that I was Liza Minnelli’s assistant—assistant
• • • I bought a baker’s dozen of human skulls from North Carolina Pharmaceuticals and painted and gold-leafed them. Patrick Fox put them in a group show at his Anderson Theater Gallery on Second Avenue in 1983 with George Condo, Greer Lankton and Robert Hawkins. My friend Cookie Mueller wrote about them, and I got a little
Screaming with Laughter #4, 2014–19, oil and wax crayon on canvas, 60 × 60". All artwork: © Scott Covert.
with a z. For graves where the death had taken place long ago, I would go to the library. I used to spend a lot of time in libraries. I enjoyed it. I still do. I love the whole process between brushstrokes.
• • • I brought the Ballard drawings back to New York and showed them to Cookie. She said, “Quit the acting, hon. This is what you should do.” Next I went to Billie Holiday’s grave, taking the subway up to Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. And on one of the drawings I decided to add Billie to Florence on the same piece of paper, to put them together, and I said to myself, “Oh. This is good. This is starting to go somewhere.” The third grave I went to see was Houdini’s, in a Jewish cemetery near Cypress Hills in Queens, and of course, not far away, in the Cypress Hills cemetery, lies Mae West herself. She was in a mausoleum that was locked at the time because people were smoking crack in there, but eventually I was able to get in and get her on a drawing. It just kept going from there, drawings and paintings, hundreds of them now.
Mellifluous Construction #1 (detail), 1996–present, oil and wax crayon on canvas, 90 × 90".
• • • The grave pieces were going pretty well when I got really into drugs. Everybody was into drugs. And everybody started dying of AIDS. I was going to die, too. Every morning I’d wake up and look at myself and wonder when I was going to see the purple sores. So what do you do? You do drugs because you’re going to die anyway. I moved into the Chelsea Hotel in the late ’80s, and that’s when I started working with canvas, doing paintings, because I had a place to keep all of them while they were underway. A studio for the first time! I keep canvases going for years, piled up now in the back of my car, adding names to them. The critic Edit DeAk used to call them my folded paintings because I kept them folded with the painted side facing out—a kind of filing system so that when I opened the trunk, I could find the one I needed. I never make rubbings to use as a template. Every name on every work is a direct rubbing from a stone. The gravestone functions like the plate for a printing press. The pieces are about being there, making the visit. Each mark of color on the canvas represents a lifetime. I had a friend in Paris who was selling the paintings there for a while. One time she sent me 70 grand—I make a few chunks like that from time to time, “big pieces of cake” I call them. I always use the money to
travel. I moved to Paris for a while, stayed in London. When I found out that I was still HIV-negative in 1996, I thought it was finally time to get sober. Stanley Bard, who owned the Chelsea, paid me to move out, and I went to L.A. for a while. There, with cemeteries chock full of movie stars and other notables, I was really able to develop my process—Rene Ricard had always told me, “It’s easy, Scott. Just make a painting so beautiful and entertaining that someone rich will want to buy it and hang it on their wall.” I usually have 12 or 14 pieces going at once, some of them underway for years. I have paintings in my car right now that I started back in 1996. The groupings have become more and more involved. Sometimes I do straightforward pieces that go into both the beautiful and the tragic: the major cast members from The Wizard of Oz; all six of the Three Stooges; great American composers; Negro Leagues baseball players; all the victims of the Manson family; the four students who were killed at Kent State; the victims of the murders from In Cold Blood; tragic blondes—Marilyn Monroe, Candy Darling, Edie Sedgwick,
Nancy Spungen of Sid and Nancy fame. Sometimes, it will be just a single name on the canvas, because they seem to want to be alone: Gore Vidal, Noel Coward, Andy Warhol, Frank Sinatra. Sometimes I layer things in strange ways, pieces that are not for everyone: I have paintings I call Screaming With Laughter, which pair famous comedians with famous murder victims, like Milton Berle and Nicole Brown Simpson, on the same canvas with lots and lots of others. I don’t keep written lists of the people I want or how I’m going to layer them. I just read and watch movies and TV and pay attention and keep it all in my head.
• • • I’ve been to some very remote graves, an insane journey just to reach a tombstone. Richard Burton, for example. He’s buried in Céligny, Switzerland, near Lake Geneva. It’s a tiny village. When you ask how to find the grave, it goes something like this: “Go to that corner. Make a right. When you come to a road, make a left. You’re going to pass
the cemetery. That’s the new cemetery. Keep on going down the graveled road, until you hear bees. When you see the beehives, there will be a path at your right. Go down that path. When you hear the brook, make a left. Then you’ll be there.” It has maybe only 20 graves. You stand there knowing that Elizabeth Taylor stood there, too. The furthest I’ve ever traveled was to get the Shah of Iran, in a mosque in Cairo. In America, some graves require epic drives. The composer Virgil Thomson, who lived in the Chelsea Hotel forever, is buried in Saline County, Missouri, near where he was raised. Google Maps put me through hell getting there. Helen Gurley Brown is in the northwest corner of Arkansas—can you imagine? The Cosmopolitan girl went back home. When I’m in my car and I’m in a location, I always know what is going to be in my periphery. Right now, for example, I want to do a quick run back to Cole Porter in Peru, Indiana. On the way, I want to get to Paul Lynde in Ohio because I have a painting I need him on again. I can make my way across Ohio to get him and then swing down to Columbus and get James Thurber. And maybe on the way, I'll stop in Dayton and
Jonestown Victims Going With the Egyptian Flow, oil and wax crayon on paper, 19 × 24".
get the great poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and at another cemetery there, I can also get Agnes Moorehead. Dayton is really a goldmine. The Wright Brothers are there, too. Or else, instead of heading east, I go south in Indiana and get John Dillinger and Frances Farmer in Indianapolis. I’m a great long-distance driver. I can go 14 hours straight, pull over at a rest stop for a few hours of sleep and keep going. You can’t believe how much of this country I’ve seen.
• • • Sometimes, people break your heart. Christine Jorgensen, for example, the first person widely known to have undergone a sex change, in the 1950s, was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Pacific. No grave to find. Paul Newman, my favorite movie star ever—cremated, no grave. Barbara Stanwyck, same thing—cremated with nothing to show for it. It’s funny— some famous people seem to decide that when they’re gone, they’re gone. There’s no use in having people go look at their name on a rock somewhere. And even when there’s a stone, you can’t be sure you’ll always be
able to get to it. I went back to Oscar Wilde’s grave in Père Lachaise in Paris a few years ago, and they’d put a glass barrier over it, apparently because too many people were kissing it. It felt as if he’d died all over again, for good this time. I was devastated.
• • • People wonder if I believe in life after death, in ghosts. But I don’t. I don’t really believe in a singular consciousness. I guess I’m more Jewish that way. But once, when I was doing Wyatt Earp’s grave south of San Francisco with a friend of mine, something strange happened. He was behind the grave holding the canvas for me, and I was doing Earp on the front. A couple of graves away, I saw someone out of the corner of my eye, standing there watching us. I wasn’t going to stop, because once I’m working on a piece, I don’t interrupt myself for anyone or anything. When I finished, I turned and no one was there. My friend saw him, too, this figure, who just disappeared when we looked for him. Who knows what it was? As for me, I’m not afraid of death. It makes life so much more interesting.
The second color made it pop, and when I looked at it, I heard that little bell that Gertrude Stein writes about. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Mike Kelley, 1954–2012 By Gerard Malanga
Opposite: Mike Kelley in his backyard, Los Angeles, 2000. Photo: © Gerard Malanga. This page: Mike Kelley, Ogop, 2008–09, acrylic on canvas with custom frame, 27 × 23 × 1 ¾". © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, all rights reserved/VAGA at ARS, NY. Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Photo: Jeff McLane.
It’s been said—who said it?—each of us in our time knows our time. But supposing a cognitive mistake slips a gear or two, like in predicting clear weather patterns, dark patches of cumulus breaking through. Those patchy clouds take a turn for the worst. We see things differently. Well, differently, can be a whole lot of things. For instance, Mike planned ahead a replica of home sweet home where he grew up—the real one long since gone—moved from God knows somewhere in Detroit or in his memory of a Detroit to the bowels of the Whitney, like some grayish, brutish tomb. That would’ve been unthinkable in the ’50s, when such dimensions slipped through the cracks. Take the eerie glow of the will-o’-the-wisp waiting for the slightest move; those disordered nights where friends greet you, you haven’t seen decades even. Then, they disappear without a sidewise glance or trace. In their place a train is whistling through a golden hue. What to make of it? A host of passing images piled up randomly as if on cue. What else is there to do or not to do, sticking out your thumb, hoping some shmock pulls up. Turns out it’s Howard Hughes. Still, lost winters lost horizons all askew with the sunshine trying trying to break through finally.
anxiety of influence
A brief history of Georg Kremer’s quiet revolution in color
By Rebecca Bengal
The Kremer Pigments storefront on Elizabeth Street, New York, c. 1997. Courtesy Kremer Pigments, New York.
It Resonates in My Soul
Harvey Quaytman, Dr. Kremer's Magic Powders, 1993, acrylic and crushed glass on canvas, 24 × 24". Courtesy Harvey Quaytman Trust, Van Doren Waxter, NY, Blum & Poe, LA.
On an early September afternoon, Jack Whitten’s studio in Woodside, Queens, is much as he left it just before his death in January 2018, at the age of 78—a place teeming with experiments, the place where he worked obsessively seven days a week. On his worktable, a dozen jars of brushes and pencils remain at the ready, overseen by a tall bulletin board densely collaged with a lifetime of photographs of loved ones, masks, postcards and ephemera. Framed photos of Whitten wearing an electric blue jacket and accepting a National Medal of the Arts from President Obama in 2016 still cause Con Ed workers to stop and stare when they come to make repairs. Whitten was known to embed unusual material in his paintings—hair, ash, copper, eggshells— or to layer acrylic paint on thickly, as in some of his most famous works, the Black Monolith paintings, dedicated to significant African-American figures. “There’s Frederick Douglass,” said Mirsini Amidon, Whitten’s daughter and studio manager, indicating one canvas. “There
were four more new ones he was planning…” She trailed off. Among the finished works in the studio is a series of eight abstract paintings in pearlescent metallic colors that appear practically liquid. Whitten called the series Elemental Matter. They resemble a mysterious, circular piece of mixed media, encased in plastic, that Whitten left on his worktable: a pliable three-dimensional material that looks like a cross between the shapes on the paintings and a rolledout pizza dough dipped in iridescent paint. Depending where you stand, the color of the object shifts from silvery green to pearl, with multiple variations in between. “We’re not sure what that one was going to be,” Amidon told me. “It was one of the many mysteries Dad left behind.” Especially in his later years, Whitten experimented assiduously with pigments he bought from a man named Georg Kremer, whose small storefront has been supplying painters with raw materials for almost 30 years, coming to function as a secret shaper of the ethos of significant
swaths of New York painting during that time. In Whitten’s Quantum Wall series, abstract shapes appear to ripple across the surface of a brick wall, an effect he ascribed to Kremer’s materials. “What’s unique about these pigments is that they are built to mimic what happens in nature with phosphorescence,” he told The Paris Review in 2017. “And that’s why, if you look from any direction—from any direction you look at—these paintings change. They change with the type of light.” At the Kremer Pigments shop in Chelsea, and before, in its earlier existence at 228 Elizabeth Street in SoHo, Whitten was among the regular customers, though the word customer seems inadequate to describe Kremer’s regulars. “Dad’s old students from SVA, working there, would call and give him a heads-up: ‘Hey, Professor Jack, we got some new stuff in,’” Amidon said. “They were his dealers.” One of those student-dealers, Roger Carmona, now the store’s manager, told me: “Jack was one of the artists who has probably tried the most of our products here. I spoke to him a week before he passed, and he asked me about this aluminum powder and these mica pigments he had been trying over the last five years; he was experimenting a lot with light. He’d always been interested in this idea of how you can capture light with expressionism, and he was essentially using these pearlescent pigments to achieve this mimicry of transition.” The walls behind Carmona were lined like a medieval apothecary’s shop, with bottles of the colored, crushed powders of hundreds of stones and singular bits of earth—a tantalizing display of rose madder, ratanhia root, ripe buckthorn berries, crushed diamonds, precious lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, green earth from Bavaria, ocher from Morocco—all of it an uncanny testament to the ways in which a chemist from a German village happened to make an unlikely impact on a devoted group of contemporary artists. In the early 1970s, Kremer, then a student at the University of Tübingen, was approached by a conservator friend who was restoring the ceiling of a church in England. The particular blue that his friend needed had been favored by 16th- and 17th-century painters to render skies and mountains; in some of his early
paintings, Vermeer used it for layering and to add tone. But the color had become unavailable by 1910. In Kremer’s quest to reproduce it for his friend, the young chemist created what would become the first Kremer pigment—smalt, a vivid blue made from glassy cobalt. “The availability of some pigments and the introduction of others has helped to shape the history of art,” Kassia St. Clair writes in her 2016 study The Secret History of Color. The earliest pigment palettes, such as those seen on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France, fell into the limited range of materials readiest at hand—charcoal from ash, brown from the earth. In 2011, archaeologists working in a South African cave discovered evidence of a 100,000-yearold pigment-making workshop whose artisans used stones to grind colorful dirt, to which they added charcoal and bone marrow as a binder. The result was ocher, one of the earliest pigments made by humans. Over time, varied pigments would enter the language of art via exotic minerals and earths, influenced by early alchemists and, in time, propelled by colormen who traveled the world, producing and trading rare pigments, a fantastically variegated marketplace. “After the world wars, the industry took over,” Kremer told me solemnly in a recent interview. “They promoted readymade paints in tubes.” They were colors painters could count on. But what of all the other colors that were disappearing, or the artists who wanted to manipulate and alter their own? Finding time away from his day job, Kremer moonlighted as a colorman, studying and experimenting, developing the idea of turning his love of rare colors into a business. By the early ’80s, he had made several pigments of his own, and had moved his growing enterprise to the tiny village of Aichstetten in southern Germany, where he converted the former flour mill in which his pigments are still produced today. The business might have remained in operation solely in the service of conservators and others in academic need of hues once used by long-gone artists. But in the 1980s, in New York and Europe, something surprising was beginning to happen in the world of living artists: painting, which Conceptualism and certain critics had pronounced historically dead, or at least terminally moribund, was rising from its shallow ashes and propelling a new generation of painters, along with those in previous generations
who had never abandoned it. It was a phenomenon, Kremer said, that brought him “into the streets,” primarily through a connection with one highly inventive Queens-born abstract painter, Harvey Quaytman (1937–2002). Quaytman, who would remain a Kremer customer until his death, called himself a “classical modernist.” In the ’80s, using the shaped canvases that had come to define his work, he began to focus on crucifix forms and to incorporate rust into his paintings, experimenting with other materials as well. In an era dominated by the sleek, recycled mass-culture imagery of the Pictures Generation, Quaytman became part of a small but significant wave of artists whose deep interest in materiality harkened back to the mid-’50s works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. At Quaytman’s suggestion, Brice Marden, a friend and studio neighbor, began to mix beeswax with pigment, much as Johns had incorporated beeswax into his own paintings. Meanwhile, Quaytman had taken to the road trying to find colors that he could imagine but could not find in New York City art-supply shops, embarking on a series of pigment sourcing trips to Italy in 1982 and 1984. Not long after one of these trips, a leaflet from a manufacturer in a small German village made its way to him. Kremer, using a reference book to look up galleries and museums, had amassed a list of addresses and sent out approximately 2,000 of these brochures, introducing the pigments to potential clients, conservators and artists. Quaytman responded, and arranged a trip to Germany. David Kremer, who now runs the day-to-day operations of the company his father founded, still remembers that first visit, in February 1986, by the enigmatic guest from the Bowery who obsessed over pigments with his father and puffed on an ever-present pipe. At Quaytman’s invitation, Georg Kremer flew to New York in October 1986 bearing a custom-made aluminum suitcase outfitted with compartments; it could hold about 300 pigments—the “magic box,” as he called it. Kremer carried the case through airport customs without incident and into a meeting with conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Getting in was no problem,” Kremer recalled. “There was no fear of bombs then. But getting out of the museum with this ‘magic box’ was very different.” It took about an hour to convince security that it contained nothing ancient from the museum itself. At the end of his stay with the
Quaytmans at their home on the Bowery, Kremer left the magic box with Quaytman, who held on to it for testing. “I have no favorite colors, but a color must mean something to me before I use it,” Quaytman said in 1987 in an interview with the art critic Kimmo Sarje in Helsinki. “I must love that color and it must strike me.…I just discovered this blue last year in Germany, and it resonates in my soul.” Meanwhile, Kremer’s own interest in raw materials was intensifying. On holidays, he took his young children not to beaches but to museums to see exhibits by the artists he worked with and the paintings whose colors he helped preserve. Or else he drove them through remote mountains in search of Bohemian green earth or the Verona green earth of Italy, itineraries dictated by art and dirt. The actual magic box has long since vanished, but by 1990 it metamorphosed into the first bricks-and-mortar Kremer store in New York. Located first in the East Village, and then at 228 Elizabeth Street, a short walk from the Quaytmans and a number of other artists’ studios, “it was like a candy store,” said the painter Rebecca Quaytman (R.H. Quaytman), Harvey’s daughter, who continues to make significant use of the pigments she was introduced to as a child. Mary Staikos Whitten, who was married to Jack for almost 50 years, told me recently: “It’s hard to think of Harvey Quaytman without thinking about Kremer.” Quaytman proselytized for the pigments, introducing fellow painters like Whitten to what Kremer had cooked up. A 1994 promotional film, The Colourman, shows Kremer strolling out of the store and down the Bowery in his hat and scarf, past the sign for the old Sunshine Hotel, next to where the New Museum now stands. In his studio, Quaytman smokes his pipe and lays out an experiment for Kremer, waiting to watch his pigment transform and turn gold. “He was interested in the hidden things behind the color, really,” Kremer told me. “He was interested in alchemy.” In the film, as the camera pans around the studio and out the windows over the skyline, Quaytman says, “My art is very architectural and architectonic, and it relates to buildings in a city, and I do also. But it’s funny with this business, with this semi-controllable or almost uncontrollable technique—you get effects that are very nature-like. All of a sudden, it doesn’t look so urban to me. It looks like the country. It makes me nervous.”
In the Elizabeth Street days, Kremer often traveled to New York from Aichstetten, making studio visits to find out what artists needed and how they were putting his materials to use. “At the time, I was doing paintings that were very conscious of Renaissance paintings,” Brice Marden said from his studio in Tivoli, New York, where he was preparing work for a new exhibition. Kremer once brought him a small bit of lapis lazuli in a jar, “which I still have,” he said. He gravitated to using Kremer inks, which he applies using wooden sticks in large-scale, calligraphic drawings. “Over the years, you become familiar with their ways,” he said of the inks. Several years ago, he even began crediting the Kremer materials in his titles, for the benefit of future conservators. For artists with such intense devotion to particular effects, the pigments offered an unmatched degree of freedom and malleability in the mixing. “It’s like being able to make a menu from scratch,” Kremer said. One of the first pigments that painters clamored for was green earth. “It’s not easily found in the ready-mades,” he said. “It doesn’t behave nicely in the tubes. It’s like a bad guy. But artists want it because it’s important in painting the skin of people, all people. For Caucasian skin, you want green earth, a little red on top, a little white. For brown skin, it’s important too. The green underneath gives it a depth. In Europe, artists were saying there was no green on the market, so I needed to find it myself.” Green earth pigments are essential for the artist Peter Nadin, whose studio sits on a hill above the farm he operates with his wife in the northern Catskills. “Essentially, when I paint a portrait, I am making skin,” he said recently in the garden behind the West Village house where he lives. “You’re creating an experience of a person, of that person transfigured by your experience of them, and you put them into paint. The point of pigments for me is not they become a fetish but a way to be able to get what you need.” Today, Kremer’s U.S. outpost operates on 29th Street near Eighth Avenue,
Still from The Colourman, 1995. Harvey Quaytman and Georg Kremer testing pigments in the artist’s studio. Courtesy Deutsche Welle Television.
having followed galleries and artists’ studios in their migration to Chelsea; 2020 will mark the store’s 30th anniversary. Its current inventory offers more than 700 pigments, both organic and synthetic, along with binders, brushes and dyes. Conservators and industrial clients continue to come in, along with fashion designers and unusual customers like violin makers (who swear that a certain gold-yellow pigment improves the resonant qualities of wood), but the bulk of the business, David Kremer said, remains artists. Carmona told me that as long as the company has a raw source for a pigment, it can continue to make it. But colors disappear for many reasons, some of them carcinogenic ones. Emerald green pigment was outlawed in the ’90s because it contained a significant amount of arsenic. Ultramarine green briefly appeared as a sort of fluke, a byproduct of ultramarine blue, and then disappeared. For a time, it was impossible to get mallow blossoms from Sudan, for instance, because of an embargo. Recently, because of the U.S.Chinese trade war, tariffs have become prohibitively high on certain products, like a particularly coveted strength of cowhide glue. In The Colourman, Harvey Quaytman says: “I learned more about history and geography from [Georg
Kremer] than I did from anyone else.” Over the years, artists have approached the Kremers with special requests and highly specific geographic needs. For her earthwork-inspired series Morning: Chapter 30, exhibited at MOCA in 2017, R.H. Quaytman sourced a large quantity of wild indigo from Kremer for 20 large panels. More recently, making new work for an upcoming show in Lodz, she wanted to paint with pigment from as close to Poland as possible; the Kremers were able to supply her with a yellow ocher from the Carpathian Mountains. “It’s just a very light, pale color, but I like that it comes from there,” she said. “It’s just another way of making a choice.” Kremer has made custom pigments out of Swiss francs and, recently, for Trevor Paglen—in one of the strangest requests the company has ever fielded—a highly accurate iPhone gray. “An iPhone 4, I think, or an iPhone 3,” said David Kremer. “It took probably two days just to crush one phone. We had to look for the plastic, look for the metal, to grind each part in different ways, to find the medium, but we did it.” (Paglen is working with the iPhone pigment as research for an upcoming project.) Sigmar Polke, who in his long, celebrated career worked wildly uncon-
At [Harvey] Quaytman’s invitation, Kremer flew to New York in October 1986 bearing a custom-made aluminum suitcase outfitted with compartments; it could hold about 300 pigments—the “magic box,” as he called it.
ventional materials like arsenic, lavender oil and meteor dust into his paintings, used Kremer pigments as well, buying them from a small local reseller, Tutti Paletti, in Cologne. Violet in particular, he believed, had mystical properties. In a rare 2007 interview with Carol Vogel in The New York Times, Polke demonstrated how he applied lacquer-soaked fabrics to his canvases, then layers of black transparent cloth. Painting with violet pigment over the top, the surfaces underwent an alchemical transformation, turning “gold as though they were drying against the sun.” The director Gus Van Sant, a longtime painter who exhibited a series of large-scale watercolors at Vito Schnabel Projects this fall, painted his drifting, impressionistic scenes with Kremer premade watercolor sets, which he applied directly onto linen canvas. “One thing Gus’ show exhibits is the materiality of the color rather than the image of the
color, how the watercolors have a certain texture, an idiosyncratic quality that’s unique to each color,” said Carmona, who advises Van Sant when he visits the shop. “I think that’s what makes those paintings interesting. They almost look like frescoes in that regard.” Helen Marden, who mixes Kremer pigment and resin for her paintings, some of which were shown last spring at Gagosian, goes for reds. She was initially attracted to the pigments primarily for the sheer saturated quality of their colors. “I always loved looking at the piles of paint I’d see in India and Morocco, but I like working with these,” she said. “They’re made with real thought.” Watching six paintings take on the light of the setting sun at her home in Tivoli recently, she added, “I think people look down on bright color. People are afraid to be serious. I don’t know if it’s leftover Puritanism or what. I was close with Bob
Jack Whitten’s New York studio, 2019. Photo: Genevieve Hanson.
Rauschenberg, and he would say, ‘We all know we’re serious by now, right? We don’t have to act like it.’ That’s how I feel about color.” I asked Kremer if he believed he has had a lasting impact on the work of painters in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He demurred, returning to the idea of the menu. “I can only give them what they need in order to make their work,” he said. “I can get into the studio and teach the customers how to make paint, but I can’t tell them what to do with the paint. I can only give them advice on how to cook it.” Back in Jack Whitten’s studio, dozens of jars of powdered Kremer pigments in bright pearlescent colors remain, lining his shelves just as he left them; in their midst now sit some of Whitten’s cremated ashes, in a plain brown box. “I put Dad with the pigments,” Amidon said. “I think he’d be happy there.”
Learning from Robert Frank (1924–2019) By Jim Goldberg 26
He might look at something of mine and say that he liked it or say, “Hmm, Jim, I don’t know, that might be shit.” But mostly we would just talk about being human and about family and losing family and being sick of goodbyes.
A Sense of Poetry
The First Time I Photographed Robert, New York, 2013, collage with hand-written note by Robert Frank. All images: © Jim Goldberg. Courtesy the artist and Pace/MacGill Gallery.
I knew Robert Frank for more than 40 years, which makes it strange to say that I cannot clearly remember the first time we met in person. But this is probably because we had gotten to know each other earlier entirely through correspondence, dozens of letters, a form of friendship and artistic exchange that now feels ancient and completely lost. It was the late ’70s and I was in my early 20s living in San Francisco, working on my first body of work, the pictures that were to become the book Rich and Poor—at that point, really, it was a project I was doing to try to get myself into graduate school. I’d been taking pictures of people living in transient hotels in the Mission District, putting them into a hotel guest register book and asking the subjects to write about themselves next to the pictures. (Photographing the wealthy and asking them to do the same thing came a bit later.) The great photography curator Philip Brookman, who was then at the Sesnon Art Gallery at UC Santa Cruz, put me in an exhibit there in 1979. He was close to Robert (Robert’s son, Pablo, who suffered from schizophrenia, had stayed with Philip in Santa Cruz when he was deeply troubled, obsessed with UFOs.) He put me in touch with Robert, and that’s how we started writing. I had no idea that what I was doing then—taking pictures of people, becoming involved in their lives, asking them to join in the work by writing about themselves, often on the image itself— would become a working methodology for my whole career. I was very nervous writing to him the first time. I wasn’t confident yet in what I was doing, and you have to remember that in those years The Americans, his masterwork, was finally finding the audience it deserved and being seen as a landmark. When it first came out in the states in 1959, it hit so close to the bone that America wasn’t ready to see itself
in the mirror that way yet, at least most people weren’t. It punched them right in the gut—what wasn’t being seen, even though it was right before their eyes. But Robert saw it all, saw his newly adopted country with crystal clarity. Then, in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the curtains were pulled apart and the light came in and it was finally possible to see how worn and dirty the fabric was. The Americans spoke directly to the heart of the way everyone was feeling then. I don’t know why he took the time to respond to my letters back then. It might have been because, looking at my work and reading the letters, he sensed that I had a kind of intuition and a curiosity about people that—if you’re lucky—can lead to a sense of poetry. And he had that poetry, in spades. Maybe he felt a sense of simpatico with a young kid who didn’t yet have much work to show. In a sense, I was embracing what was in the air at the time, and it was air he was breathing, too. In his letters, it was like he put his arm around me, at a time when I was getting some attention but also being hammered by traditional critics for despoiling photography by adding things to the image—having people write on it, bringing other things into it from the world, not allowing the viewer to keep pretending that it was so pure. Especially at the beginning, Robert would refer to me as being like a son, which troubled me, because I didn’t know how to deal with that kind of responsibility or understand how to play that imagined role in his life. After we met, I would see him every time I went to New York—every time. It became a ritual. Sometimes I’d see him for an hour, and sometimes I’d spend the whole afternoon or morning or night. Sometimes we’d meet in a café around the corner, but almost always it was at his house on Bleecker Street, where each floor had a different
purpose—Robert’s little office at the top, his wife June Leaf’s amazing studio below, the hallways piled with 16mm film reels, tchotchkes and homemade shrines, countless memories of lives lived. It was very affecting for me as a young artist to see that he truly lived as he believed, in an incredibly unmaterialistic way, to a degree that most other people—I include myself among them—would not have been able to sustain. Our visits were easy. We were comfortable around each other. We might talk about making work. He might look at something of mine and say that he liked it or say, “Hmm, Jim, I don’t know, that might be shit.” But mostly we would just talk about being human and about family and losing family and being sick of goodbyes. And I was very lucky in that way, because all of Robert’s friends knew how brusque and harsh he could be with people around him if he felt that he didn’t have enough time for himself. He could cut you off or cut you out. I think this came about in part because he became so famous, so intensely revered. Complete strangers knocked on his door and called him every day, just to get to get a peek of him or hear him speak. There were piles of books and portfolios that people had sent him stacked on the floor. I remember a Swedish couple who came by to visit him at Bleecker Street once when I was there. He left the room and one of them got up and followed him. Robert returned and yelled: “Why, goddamn it, do I have to be watched when I’m just taking a piss? I want to be on my own. Leave me alone!” He could be like that, and he knew that it was not his best quality. But then again, he had every right to feel that way. I think he feared being stuck in the role of sage and historical figure instead of living, breathing, working artist. June had a softening effect on him. It took me time
to understand how special their relationship was. He was kind in his own way, but she made him realize that he could be thoughtful, as she was thoughtful, and I appreciated that as a model for my own life. Robert certainly taught me things about how to live—one of them being not to complain about money, about not being able to make enough of it. He didn’t want to hear it. If I was seeing him, then I obviously had at least enough money to fly to New York, and I should shut the fuck up. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I was working on my project Raised by Wolves, during which I spent years following the lives of street kids in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, I would send Robert maquettes. They were little accordion-folded books made with cheap drugstore prints of what I was seeing and doing. He never really said much about them, but I was happy just knowing he was looking at them. At some point, we both also began to work in Polaroid—in part because Polaroid is so instantaneous, and you can give it to the person you’re taking a picture of, and you can experience it together as a physical object in the world. Robert was a highly trained craftsperson. He was Swiss, for god’s sake. He knew exactly
how to take a good, professional picture. I, on the other hand, was completely untrained, which I suppose gave me the opportunity (when I was lucky) to make mistakes or have accidents that would lead to something unexpected. I think Robert appreciated the appeal of accidents more and more, lines and chemical marks on the photo or overexposing it, the impermanence when things rip or break and that it’s okay. I think it gave him a way to play. Over the last 15 years or so, he stopped writing me as often. He was in his 80s, and I think he realized there wasn’t as much that he wanted to say. During our last visits, he’d sometimes let me take his picture, or we’d take a picture together. In the early days, we didn’t do that and I never asked him, because he was there with me, so why would I feel the need to make pictures? But as he got older, maybe he began to sense the time growing shorter so we would make a record of it. Or he would look through his own pictures and postcards and talk about people from his life. His mind would go ranging into the past, and sometimes I wouldn’t know where he was. I’ve never done anything with the pictures I’ve taken of him because I don’t know how to think
The first letter Robert Frank sent to Jim Goldberg, 1978. Original photo: Gary Hill.
about them. I’m still not sure if I see them as work or as pictures I can evaluate, because they seem more like just another way we talked. One of the great regrets in my life is that my correspondence with Robert is lost, gone for good. I’m somebody who keeps everything he’s ever written and everything ever written to him. At a certain point, it was adding up to boxes upon boxes, so a few years ago I put it all in a storage area in my apartment building in San Francisco, and one day the landlord threw it out. It was devastating. It’s still hard for me to put into words. It was like losing the lives of people I’ve been close with, Robert among them. So now I’m left trying to reconstruct so many of those letters in my head, wishing I could go back to them to hear our conversations from all of those years. The last time I saw Robert was in January, on Bleecker Street. I bought him some nice oranges and cookies. We didn’t talk much. At a certain point, I picked up my camera, and he took it from me and took my picture. Then I pointed it back at him. He just stared into the camera for a long time, without moving. When I was finished, he smiled at me and clapped.
New and forthcoming books
Great Leaps Forward (Beijing Silvermine) Beijing Silvermine, an archive of found negatives and photographs begun by the French collector and artist Thomas Sauvin in 2009, now comprises more than a million images, a vast vernacular record of Chinese life throughout the latter half of the 20th century. This book presents a particular series of photographs, purchased by Sauvin at a Beijing flea market in 2016, that offer an incredibly rare window into the period known as the Great Leap Forward (1958–62), an era marked by massive cultural upheaval and the devastating famine that preceded China’s decadelong Cultural Revolution. The images document literal leaps—specifically of young athletes engaged in various physical (and often airborne) feats, as photographed by an unidentified member of the Xi’an Physical Education University’s Department of Photography. The stunningly beautiful collection of portraits, taken in June 1960, gives human form to what is often represented as faceless political upheaval. —Eileen Cartter
Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats (Black Chalk & Co.) Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Nontsikelelo Mutiti started the interdisciplinary collective Black Chalk & Co. in 2015 to get “strong, radical and impactful work out into the world to challenge over-represented voices and ideals.” This collection of writings from almost 150 Zimbabwean writers, artists and academics—among them Dambudzo Marechera, NoViolet Bulawayo, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Charles Mungoshi—positions an enormous chorus of voices, old and new, on that world stage. A portrait of Zimbabwean literary culture, the book oscillates between historical documents and contemporary cultural reflections, breathing new life into the genre of writers on writing. Preston Thompson’s striking bright-yellow-andburnt-sienna design scheme unifies the book’s immense textual and photographic ambitions. —Anna Shinbane
Art-Rite (Primary Information/Printed Matter) The publication lasted only five years, from 1973 to 1978—21 occasional issues, give or take. (Issue No. 16 was never printed.) It billed itself sardonically as an “unpredictable art magazine with nonformidable criticism in a disposable format.” To say that it ran on a shoestring would give shoestrings too much credit. “It nearly killed us,” one of its founders, the artist Walter Robinson (along with Edit DeAk and Joshua Cohn), once said of the effort to get it onto the
streets, where it was given away at galleries. But with its newsprint street smarts and punk gusto, Art-Rite became an indelible record of its time, closer to working artists and their idea of a magazine than almost any other art magazine before or since. This long-awaited facsimile edition reproduces every page of every issue on the same cheap, flimsy paper as the originals, making it light enough for the artists of today to carry it around like the bible it is. —Randy Kennedy
Tacit Knowledge (Spector Books) Designed to resemble a magazine, this book gives a multi-perspective account of the first decade of the California Institute of the Arts. Centered on John Baldessari’s Post-Studio seminar (conducted according to the artist’s infamous mantra “I will not make any more boring art”) and Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s Feminist Art Program, Tacit Knowledge charts CalArts’ evolution, over just a decade, from the interdisciplinary training ground for working artists that its founder, Walt Disney, envisioned, into the radically experimental pedagogical playground it represented by 1971. A buoyant gathering of biographies, documents and case studies, interspersed with actual print advertisements from the era, the book is as idiosyncratic—and collectively minded— as the school itself. —E.C.
Turning the Color Wheel: Marcia B. Hall in conversation with Jarrett Earnest
Marcia B. Hall is an art historian with a cult following. Her landmark study Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting (1992) has become a bible for painters interested in materiality and techniques—how the art was actually made. A specialist in Renaissance Italy and the Counter-Reformation, she’s continued researching color, extending those initial insights across five centuries of art in her new book, The Power of Color, published in May by Yale University Press.
JARRETT EARNEST Without making too big a deal about it, your new book proposes a lot of ideas about what art history is and how it should be written. It’s called The Power of Color, but it’s as much a book about methods and materials. I’m interested in how you would describe your intentions as a historian. MARCIA B. HALL I understand there’s something called the “material turn” in art history—I was there before the turn. I began working on Color and Meaning in the mid-’70s. It was published in 1992, so that was a long gestation, thinking about color. As you know, there wasn’t much on color in art history. I believe that the making of art is a manual and mental process—interchanging, in conversation. I’m not very interested in “theory,” especially when it is abstracted from the making of art. My students know this new book as Color: Materials, Making, Marketing, Meanings—which says where I’m coming from. That materials determine the ground, that the artist really has to start with the materials in the process of making, then shapes those materials according to his concept or idea. And not, at least in the period I deal with, the other way around. JE When you were being trained as an art historian in the 1960s, how did conversations around color and materials play out? MBH I honestly don’t think there were any. I went to Harvard, and if there were to be such discussions, they’d have been there. We had that wonderful conservation
studio, which we visited occasionally, but really, we didn’t learn anything about conservation, nor were we expected to. My professor, Sydney J. Freedberg, was deeply interested in “style.” I think of my study of color as another component of style that was neglected by people like Freedberg, for very good reason, until we got the color reproductions we have today. JE So you’d say that one of the reasons art history traditionally dismissed color had to do with questions of reproduction? MBH I was brought up on black-and-white slides, and I remember that when a color slide came up, maybe once a week, we’d gasp. I remember when color slides came in, in the middle of the ’60s; the Clarks made a campaign to photograph everything in color in central Italy, and they made these things available. It was thrilling. When I first started teaching, I was able to use mostly color slides. The sad thing about that is they put it all on television film, and it all turned red after a certain amount of time. How can you talk about color in the classroom before that if you haven’t got color slides? Wölfflin was using engravings. When Color and Meaning came out, art historians didn’t know what to do with it. It was the artists who got it. JE How has the dialogue between conservators and historians evolved over your life doing this work? MBH Conservation has come a long way. The technology, what they can do now nondestructively, is extraordinary. When I started out, if you wanted to know what a pigment was, the answer you’d always get was “We can’t sample that because there’s no damage.” Because every sample they took created damage, there was a very strict limitation on what kinds of sampling they were willing to do. Also, most of the sampling they did was around the edges, where it gets unreliable. If you were lucky, there was an area of damage where they’d take a tiny flake. Now they can actually tell us what the pigments are just by using instrumentation—that’s fabulous. The
other thing I’ve noticed is that conservators are much more interested in communicating with art historians. Art historians are scared to death of the lab—it’s full of science things that they know nothing about. A conservator has to be trained in art history, but the art historian does not have to be trained in science. I’m always telling my students that they need to know what these techniques are and be able to talk to conservators. We’re beginning to realize that there is an important area of interface. JE One of my methodological problems with art history is that it’s almost always dealing with an “image,” a reproduction—for so many years, this was within the context of the slide lecture, and so the things that were legible within that specific situation became prioritized. Reading your work, you’re not dealing with the artworks as images but insisting upon them as physical objects. MBH I don’t like to talk about anything I haven’t seen. But that is not the way we learn the history of art. Painting is a material object. Its survival is dependent upon conditions no one can control. It does necessarily change over time. We need to appreciate the preciousness of that survival, and we need to be able to see through what we’re looking at to what was originally there, in so far as that’s possible, even reading through dirty varnish, which you can learn to do. I know what the Mona Lisa looks like despite the Louvre and the presentation of the picture. I don’t think I’ll be vastly surprised by what it will look like if it’s ever cleaned. JE Your book traces color from the Renaissance through the early 20th century, stopping with early Kandinsky, Matisse and Kirchner. What motivated you to cover such a sweep? MBH Conservators look at specific problems. They’ll take you in depth with van Eyck, but you don’t have a longer thread running through, so there is no history of the way these concepts develop over time in a practical, material sense. If someone was a museumgoer and they walk from the
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Prophet Daniel, Sistine Chapel (detail), 1512, fresco, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.
Renaissance galleries into the 19th century galleries, surely they’d wonder how on earth you can take the same materials and do such terrifically different things. I wanted to tell that story. I stopped where I did because I think abstraction takes you into a whole different mindset with color, which is necessarily different. And I didn’t want to take on acrylic. This is the story of oil painting. JE I don’t know if this was a framework first articulated somewhere else, but in Color and Meaning, you describe four “modes of coloring”—sfumato, unione, chiaroscuro, and cangiantismo. How did you discover those modes? MBH I sort of invented them, extrapolated from what we know. If you look at that first and second decade of artists in Rome, you have Leonardo coming from Florence to the Vatican, where Michelangelo, and Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo are at work. For the first time, I think ever, a visitor could come to Rome and ask: What coloring system shall I use? He’s never had that choice before. There are now options. JE One of the ways you anchor your argument is through information drawn from Renaissance artist’s manuals, like those by Cennino Cennini and then later Leon Battista Alberti, which you describe as representing two different approaches to color. MBH No one in my experience actually looked at what Cennini and Alberti were saying about how you model with color
and recognized there was a fundamental difference. Alberti says use black! This is world-shatteringly new. There is no black before that in the Cennini system. It’s really a new intention. Without black, or a dark monochrome, you can’t really model naturalistically, and with it you can. So if you want to model naturalistically, you have to follow Albertian variations on color. Lorenzo Monaco and Fra Angelico didn’t want naturalism in that sense, because they were trying to model the supernatural realm. JE You explain Fra Angelico as a transitional figure between the two, retaining a Cennini approach to color but adding new perspectival geometry coming from Alberti, and that combination is what makes those paintings so phenomenal: a plausible spatial representation with an unrealistic color world, without dark shadows—that was really clarifying for me. MBH To me too, when I figured it out. JE I have a conspiracy theory about the convent of Fra Angelico. The last time I was in San Marco, I was looking at the paintings upstairs in the cells and noticed that in the pigment for the blood of Christ, there was a kind of crystalline granularity that sparkled, like glitter. It seemed like a “special effect” that made both theological and narrative sense: with the changing light, it would become animated, flow—There is power in the blood. Or is that too tin-foil hat? MBH No, I think you’re right. I haven’t noticed
it in the blood, but I’ll tell you where I have noticed it, at exactly the same location: when you come up the stairs, there is that Annunciation in front of you. Well, one moment I happened to hit it at the right moment in terms of light, and all of a sudden, I’m seeing sparkles in the angel wings, totally invisible ordinarily. It’s not going to be the same time every day, it’s going to be different throughout the year, but if you’re a friar, you’re going to be able to catch it. Then, wow. And it’s obviously calculated. JE If you think of those paintings’ purpose, to be used as a devotional tool, it’s so beautiful that they would unfold within daily life like that. I thought: Why haven’t I heard anyone mention anything like this about these paintings before? MBH The same thing happens with altarpieces. I’m always telling the students to try to wait long enough for their fellow tourists to stop putting money into those electric boxes, because although you can see better, the light is completely different than the light that would have been experienced in the Renaissance. The artist knew he was working in a dark church. I think he calculated that some things would take months or years to find. It’s completely different than walking into a museum and giving a painting its 30 seconds, most of which is spent looking at the label. This brilliantly lit instant experience, which is probably going to happen once, is totally different from the situation in someone’s home or in a church, where someone is going to see it every day or every week, and see it over the course of a year as the light changes, and over the course of their lifetime as their perceptions change. The artists knew all that, and they planned for it. JE It seems like part of what you’re doing in Power of Color is not just reconstructing the color in the pictures and how artists used it, but reconstructing a frame of mind or set of attitudes toward art. MBH We’re not supposed to talk about intention, which is ridiculous, because of course we have to. If you look and study and pay attention, I think you can make some progress toward understanding intention, and you should. The painting had a meaning for the artist. That meaning is one thing worth discovering. It also has a meaning that changes over time, and that is worth understanding, too. And if it’s really great, it will grow and change and be appreciated in different ways as our needs for it change.
New books from Hauser & Wirth Publishers
Not Vital: SCARCH Swiss sculptural architect Not Vital has created immersive installations across the globe. This survey of the artist’s work, published on the occasion of an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, introduces his projects and typologies by geographical groupings. Edited and with texts by Olivier Renaud-Clément and Giorgia von Albertini, the book includes essays by Philip Jodidio and Tilla Theus, and also features prose and poems by Vital. (Release date: January 2020.)
Mike Kelley: Timeless Painting Published on the occasion of the 2019–20 exhibition at Hauser & Wirth New York, this catalog offers an examination of Mike Kelley’s approach to painting as a conceptual medium, reproducing 12 series of paintings from 1994 through 2009. Edited and with an introduction by the exhibition’s curator, Jenelle Porter, the publication features responses to Kelley’s painting by the artists Carroll Dunham, Daniel Guzmán, Richard Hawkins, Jay Heikes, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Christina Quarles, Mary Reid Kelley, Laurie Simmons, and Edgar Arceneaux with his collaborator Kurt Forman. In writing that ranges from personal anecdote to art historical analysis, cento poem to epistolary ode, these artists consider the enduring relevance of Kelley’s practice both as a painter and, more broadly, as an artist. (Release date: November 2019)
To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962–1972 This book traces a pivotal body of work in the Polish artist’s life and career. It considers her experimental approach to materials, including her groundbreaking use of polyester resin in the mid-1960s. Szapocznikow’s oeuvre maps her engagement with the human form, using body casting, focused through the lens of her own body as it transformed from healthy to ailing. Featuring new photography, the book renders the tactility and spatiality of the works in exquisite detail. (Release date: December 2019)
Charles Gaines: Palm Trees and Other Works Published to accompany Charles Gaines’ 2019–20 exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, this monograph charts the evolution of the palm tree in Gaines’ work from the 1980s to the present. In a new essay, David Platzker explores the cultural and art-historical contexts of the series, particularly the recent Numbers and Trees works, shown for the first time in L.A. The book documents other works from Gaines’ decades-long career, including the Manifestos series (2008–18), and features a conversation between Gaines and Cherise Smith on the complex conceptual underpinnings of the artist’s work. (Release date: December 2019)
Opposite: Marcel Duchamp and Jean-Jaques Lebel at the Festival of Free Expression in Paris, 1965. Courtesy Jean-Jacques Lebel Archive. This page: To Exalt the Ephemeral cover image: Alina Szapocznikow, Sans Titre (No Title), 1964-65. © ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr Stanislawski/Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris/Hauser & Wirth.
Network of Stoppages: After half a century, Marcel Duchamp (1959) reappears in English
In the spring of 1936, a young French art historian named Robert Lebel walked into the Madison Avenue gallery of Alfred Stieglitz in New York, not far from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and saw a fellow Frenchman he had been hoping to meet for years, Marcel Duchamp. “I was struck by his radiance and his capacity for contempt,” Lebel recalled later of their initial acquaintance, which grew into a deep friendship. “Every time someone would mention the name of a famous artist in front of him, he sadly whispered: ‘Poor man…’” Duchamp’s strategy for eluding this ignominious fate himself—falling pawn to a philistine public and a crass marketplace—was to disappear from the art world almost entirely, feigning retirement. By the 1950s, when he and Lebel began work on what was to become Duchamp’s first comprehensive monograph—Sur Marcel Duchamp, published first in French by Trianon Press—Duchamp’s work and reputation were little more than myth, and even the myth was hearsay. “It’s very hard to grasp now,” said the artist and curator Jean-Jacques Lebel, Robert’s son, in a recent interview, “but maybe 10 people in New York knew about him. In France, not many more. When he came to our Happenings in Paris in the 1960s, smoking
his cigar, nobody had any idea who he was. He wanted to have nothing to do with the narrow-minded superficial freaks of the art world, and they paid him back in kind by ignoring him completely.” But in 1954, his masterwork, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, known as The Large Glass, had been installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And in 1959, the monograph had appeared, beginning a gradual process of introduction to a new generation of artists and thinkers. Grove Press’ English edition of the book, for example, published that same year, led a young writer for Newsweek magazine, Calvin Tomkins, to an interview with Duchamp in the King Cole Bar in New York, a meeting that resulted many years later in Tomkins’ acclaimed biography. In 1966, two years before Duchamp’s death, the Tate organized his first retrospective. That the monograph materialized at all is something of a miracle, as recounted in The Artist and His Critic Stripped Bare: The Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp and Robert Lebel, published in 2016 by the Getty Research Institute. In the late 1950s in Paris, the publisher of Trianon, Arnold Fawcus, had little interest in Duchamp or the project and repeatedly postponed publication. Duchamp devoted himself to
the endeavor mostly because he was intellectually intrigued by Lebel. “Marcel was an extreme author of puns in conversation—double or triple entendre, many of them quite obscene, filthy in fact. And my father was also a maniac of puns. So that’s how they began to connect. The book corresponded to something very deep in their thinking together about the meaning of language and about gestures in art. It was really a collaborative work. I think Marcel was happy to share his thoughts with someone as long as they were listened to carefully and not misconstrued.” The book was conceived by Duchamp, as was virtually everything else in his life, as a work, an assemblage sculpture masquerading as a book. “He did the layout,” Lebel said, “and there was not one comma in it that was not overseen by him.” While the book has been reissued several times in French, the English edition has—unbelievably, almost as if Duchamp himself were impishly preventing it— never been republished. “I looked for an American or English publisher for more than a decade, and they all said it would be too expensive, not enough of a market,” Lebel said. “There are so many books on Duchamp, dozens and dozens in every language, and yet the most important one ever done, by the artist himself and his most perceptive interpreter, has been out of circulation in English for more than 50 years. But, you know, that’s the history of culture. It’s unjust like that, and often ridiculous. It happens all the time. You have to wait and watch and hope, and sometimes you get lucky.” —Randy Kennedy Hauser & Wirth Publishers’ two-volume reissue of the English-language edition of Marcel Duchamp—a faithful facsimile reprint of the Grove Press 1959 monograph, along with an extensive historical supplement edited by Jean-Jacques Lebel and Association Marcel Duchamp, featuring contributions by Michael R. Taylor and Harald Falckenberg—will be published in spring 2020. The book will also include the first publication in English of Robert Lebel’s essay “Last Evening With Marcel Duchamp.”
Paul McCarthy and Tala Madani in conversation about art, fascism, feces, motherhood and malignant father figures 34
BABIES AND BUFFOONS
Paul McCarthy (born 1945, Salt Lake City, Utah) is one of the most revered and fearless artists of his generation. For almost half a century, he has made work that, as he has said, “grinds into” the absurdity of everyday existence in postcapitalist society, through performance, film, sculpture, painting and drawing. A retrospective of his drawings and works on paper remains on view through May 10, 2020 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. This conversation, which has been edited and condensed, took place in October at McCarthy’s studio east of downtown Los Angeles.
Previous spread: NV, Night Vater, 2019; performance, video, photographs, installation. Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy. Photo: Alex Stevens. This page: Paul McCarthy, Santa With Butt Plug, 2007; vinyl-coated nylon, four fans, rigging. Installation at Open Air Museum for Sculpture Middelheim. All McCarthy images: © Paul McCarthy.
Tala Madani (born 1981, Tehran, Iran) is a painter and animator based in Los Angeles, whose work focuses most often on caricatured male figures and infants engaged in comical, perverse, sometimes disturbing dealings. An exhibition of rare female figures, “Shit Moms,” was held this fall at David Kordansky in Los Angeles and a mid-career survey opens in 2020 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Tala Madani I wanted to start out talking about all your alter egos, characters you have played and embodied as kind of scary father figures—Santa, pirates, sailors, Walt Disney, de Kooning, now Trump. When you’re in those characters, do you think of the way society thinks of them? Is it that you’re trying to find some humaneness in them? How do you think of their badness? Paul McCarthy In a limited way, I play with their identity, what society thinks of them or what I think of them. It’s a caricature—in some cases closer than others. I’m not concerned at all with an accurate portrayal. It’s an abstraction, and it’s all filtered through Paul. The other night I was talking to a friend, a psychologist; he was saying that, in group therapy, people take on rolls within the dynamic of the group. Someone becomes a leader; someone becomes the asshole or the bad guy, and someone the victim. But that bad guy is just part of who we all are. It turns out that it’s necessary in a group body, so they say. TM Yeah, I kind of get that. I’m always hoping that, broadly, that dynamic would be more understood and admitted—the social accountability for what we consider or label as Evil.
Tala Madani, Beards, 2015, oil on linen, 16 ⅛ × 14 ¼ × ⅞". Photo: Joshua White/ JWPictures. All Madani images: © Tala Madani. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.
PM I often explain my work by saying that my art is a mirror with a crack; that’s a simplification and maybe a cliché. It’s mirroring or regurgitating through Paul. Violence exists in the world in some countries and places more than others—genocide, real horror, real violence. My work is a reflection of that but also a reflection of mediated violence and the desire for violence. Since the mid-’60s, my work has involved images of sexuality, death, the male and female, the buffoon patriarch and often the mother, the daughter and the son. TM I think the “desire for violence” is interesting. Children are born with a natural ability to be aggressive, and then they learn empathy and how to express love. Acts of violence as a defensive mechanism are also interesting. PM The videos I made last year with my son, Damon, which we’re still editing—CSSC, which draws on the Western movie Stagecoach, and a piece called DADDA—are violent caricatures. In DADDA I play Donald Trump or Donald Duck, and I’m an
abusive buffoon, a drunken clown. In the video, people are being killed. There are no alliances—being killed, abused or beaten can happen to anyone by anyone. It’s absurdity, a caricature. But I don’t know how one tops the absurdity, buffoonery of Trump or what is happening now. TM Somebody will. There’s always somebody. PM When we did WS White Snow, I’m a character called Walt Paul. I’m not Walt Disney and I’m not Paul either. Maybe more Paul than Walt Disney. In DADDA, the Trump character is an amalgamation map of who we are, a combination of male characters—a fool. He changes as the piece goes along. The piece that we just worked on is loosely based on The Night Porter. It’s a film from 1974 by Liliana Cavani. In it, Max is a former SS officer who is hiding his identity in Vienna, where he reestablishes his sadomasochistic relationship with a former Holocaust victim, Lucia, played by Charlotte Rampling. We started the project with the idea of shooting in Vienna but ended up shooting in a set we built in our studio in L.A. and the piece changed. It became an abstraction of scenes where a female actress, Lucia, played by Lilith Stangenberg, flies from Germany to America to audition for a film produced by Max, who I play, who likes to dress as a Nazi officer. Max resembles a cliché of a Mafioso. I was thinking of global politics as organized crime. It is a mixture of global political mafia mentality and Hollywood. Max’s interest is not making films; it’s a form of direct manipulation, abuse and violence toward others. But ultimately, the narrative is a structure to let something from inside happen. TM Do you play the female characters in this as well, in parts of the shoot? PM In this one, no. But in other ones, yeah, I have. TM Does playing a character like that give you something that feels like a real experience of events and the traumatic elements of them, the psychological elements? Is it a trance-like experience of being there?
PM There are moments where things move, connect, and the experience feels real. Trance—that word trance—I’ve always thought that it’s something about focus, a form of intense focus where one seems to vanish.
“The studio is both a private process and a collective group process.…When we’re filming, recording, the crew can get large. The studio then resembles a sound stage—for me, it’s an appropriation of a Hollywood trope, but a bastardization, a fucked-up version.” —Paul McCarthy
TM Focus? Like, a way of making magic? PM I have always spun around, since I was kid. I still spin. In the Night Porter piece, Lilith and I, drunk, spun in the hall to produce a delirium. Repeating an action or a word over and over, repetition, can do it, too. Possibly trance could be a form of focus, but not a thinking focus. At times in performances you lose a part of yourself. You are in another place, in another reality. It’s one thing for me to do it alone. I can usually make it happen. But doing it with others, it’s really about connection. TM At this moment, is that more interesting for you, the group dynamic? PM It is. There’s the two-person thing or the three-person. And then there’s groups, 5, 10, 15 people, where it gets crazy, intense. TM Obviously, I haven’t been with you on the set, but I perceive you, Paul, as being fundamentally a nice, decent person. There are artists, we all know, who are very mean to work with. You’re not one of those people. So I always wonder how you control what you want. Not control, that’s the wrong word. But how do you
overcome, let’s say, your disappointment or frustration with the other parties? It’s not like a regular a film production, a Hollywood movie. You’re trying to make something happen that’s more like a sculpture. How do you deal with that? Do you just move on to the next day if you don’t feel it happening? PM I think the regrets happen later. TM In the editing room? PM In editing, you realize the mistakes. Before shooting, you try to figure it out in rehearsals. Rehearsals become a zone to find positions and how things might flow and what it might be; you experiment. All of this gives you more freedom to find things you didn’t expect; you gamble with improvisation. TM A lot of risk. PM You take risks, some people more than others. Sometimes you miss it and it doesn’t click, and other times something perfect happens, a moment happens, another reality. TM It makes me think about the director Nicholas Ray, when he got ousted from Hollywood and got a job in Vermont, teaching at a university. He made a film with all his students, and they all acted in it and produced it. It’s called We Can’t Go Home Again . Something about what you do here, as an enterprise and activity, reminds me a little bit of that. PM I think there’s a performance genre, the genre of pretend, coming out of art, out of artists. Andy Warhol films like Lonesome Cowboys  and Trash , the films of Jack Smith and Otto Muehl and my videos. It’s a genre where it’s evident that pretending is occurring. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be charged or traumatic. It’s maybe childlike, but with adult awareness—a place to transgress. You enter it. TM There’s a certain kind of usefulness in being childlike. Child’s play is serious business and you can lose that space of serious play when you get older.
PM There should be a film festival of these kind of works, a type of ugly pretend. The Festival of Ugly Pretend. There’s a film Dennis Hopper made in 1971 called The Last Movie. Hopper’s character is a stunt man in a film being made in a village in Peru. One of the actors is hurt. The film crew leaves. Hopper stays and ends up helping the villagers make a movie. The cameras are made of sticks, but the action, the violence, is real. The villagers don’t understand film fakery. It’s pretend as real and real as pretend but ultimately pretend. I like the film, but it’s often on lists of the worst films. TM A lot of works that artists like often are. Iranian cinema does this a little, using real people instead of actors, bringing a certain realism. A backdrop of realism highlights the pretend aspect. PM Orson Welles’ film The Other Side of the Wind is in this genre. It’s a film with layers of actual and pretend, twisted forms of actual and pretend, a film-in-a-film plot. Quite crazy. I think also the last films of Nicholas Ray. Both of these directors separated themselves from Hollywood; they rejected the business of the Hollywood industry to determine their films. These films, this genre of pretend, are all rooms of mirrors, reflections of reflections. TM On the subject of working together, I was touched when you accepted an honor from the Hammer once and your acceptance speech was dedicated to Mike Kelley. Not to go into this too much, but I was thinking, coming here today, about the artists you came up with, the people you trusted and who your ideas grew along with, and wondering if you feel that missing now. Is there enough of that kind of connection anymore? PM Well, the two people I collaborated with a lot, Jason Rhoades and Mike Kelley, are of course both gone now. I think that we exchanged ideas around the pieces we were working on, the collaboration. Did we talk about each other’s work, project pieces? Not a lot. I think the dialogue came out in the collaboration. Even with
Chris Burden, who I was close with, did we ever really talk about each other’s art? No. But with these three artists, we would talk about other artists’ work, the art world and society, culture; always jokes, humor. I think L.A. was interesting in the ’70s and ’80s because of the spread of the city. You were isolated more than now. I didn’t have any angry disagreements with artists. There were artists whose work was opposite in its objective from mine, but it never became a problem. I saw more heated disagreements beginning in the ’90s, artists who wouldn’t talk to each other. L.A. changed. TM I think of those kinds of fights in the ’70s as being different, not as much about competition or careers or money, but having to do more with differences in ideology, in a way that most artists I know now just don’t experience. There’s not the same kind of passion around ideas. PM That could also be related to the changes in the art world— the art world is now big business. That is a change; there’s more money, more galleries, more art fairs. There was a massive change in art in the ’80s—the end of the alternative art space, the resurgence of the art gallery and painting. Art and life became a dead issue. It seems to me that this commercialization began to ramp up 10 to 15 years ago. Right now, I feel a bit on the outside. It seems that something else is being defined. It’s controlled by the audience, the collector. With friends, we talk about Trump, what’s going on in the world, trying to map it, and then there’s the art world. TM I can understand that. This big business aspect of the galleries makes them take fewer risks with difficult work and narrows the possibilities of which kind of artists will have a platform to continue. With curators now attending the ever-increasing art fairs as spaces for research, the big business of art only narrows what kind of work we might encounter. PM Maybe there are two channels, there is art and artist and then there is the art world—the institutions, galleries,
museums, art fairs and auction houses. It’s a two-sided coin. The art world has become more and more corporate. It’s part of the spread of global capitalism. It’s an indicator of the future. Money is seductive. I’m interested in conversation, discussion, casual bullshitting, long sessions with friends. I have been doing this for quite some time. We sit down to do it, and it goes where it goes. It’s part of the process, the performance process, the art process. In most of the projects I’ve done with others—Mike Kelley, Jason Rhoades, Damon—ideas came from jokes while talking, and they evolve from there. TM Then you create a space for a more collective consciousness to sort of grow and for people to feed each other?
Previous spread: DADDA Donald and Daisy Duck Adventure, 2018; performance, video, photographs, installation. Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy. This page, from top: NV, Night Vater, 2019; performance, video, photographs, installation. Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy. CSSC Coach Stage Stage Coach, 2017; performance, video, photographs, installation Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy.
“I’m very interested in group dynamics, the melting of individuality into a mass and the exhilaration that comes with the possibility of loss of self. Then there are the men themselves. I’m interested in what I don’t have access to.” —Tala Madani
PM I hope so. In my case, there’s a migrating collective. The studio is both a private process and a collective group process. I have feet in two buckets. When we’re filming, recording, the crew can get large. The studio then resembles a sound stage—for me, it’s an appropriation of a Hollywood trope, but a bastardization, a fucked-up version. I’m interested in it as a sculptural form or as theater in its entirety. The question begins to be: Where does it end? And then, does the outside art world care about such forms now, and or does this type of work even belong there? I once thought that was happening. I once felt that the gates were wide open. Artists like Duchamp, Kaprow, Lee Lozano, Dieter Roth—there’s a long list of artists who opened the doors. It might be that both channels within the two-sided art world
system are redefining themselves. We’ll have to see where it goes. TM The gates are definitely not very open. The social isolation that has happened through the expansion of social media and its false sense of connectivity make the actual experience of anything sublime or aesthetic or remotely surprising, very difficult. It makes everyone hyper self-aware, afraid of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, etcetera. I love talking about and hearing about Kippenberger for this very reason. He was never afraid to push. PM In my case, there’s a problem. I built a machine. It was intentional. It was an idea. It was what I wanted to do—to appropriate a Hollywood studio, to make a B-movie studio that was dysfunctional, an ugly duckling so to speak, a form of freedom, a crazy idea, a black hole. Jason Rhoades said that he didn’t want to build a factory, a machine like mine. TM How funny, when you think about the immensity of his pieces. PM I think before he died he was looking for another form outside the art-world parameters. I think of his death as a loss on so many levels. Mike Kelley, just before he died, had very strong feelings about the direction art was going in, especially museums. TM Wow, that’s interesting. PM With Mike and Jason, there was a real concern with what they saw as the new direction of society and art. Mike felt that his work had changed because of the art industry. I think it had to do with production and fabrication. I think it was such a moment for him, so tangled, he couldn’t see his way out. He seemed to be in a state of dichotomy, of pure insights and blindness. TM There can be heartbreak in it because it doesn’t happen immediately. It can happen slowly if you don’t watch it. What you say about public sentiment for art being affected as part of this bigger shift is so key. If what you created was a space where
you could express yourself, and then, all of a sudden, you’re just feeding something that has this incredible power, a depression can come with that, a feeling like: “I worked so hard to believe in myself. How the fuck did it get out of my hand?” I like to think one can always backtrack, though. PM I can’t. TM You can’t? PM It’s a bit of a trap. I came here with the idea that there was a potential to make fucked-up things actually within the production machine of Hollywood. But that was literally killed. I really feel that Reaganomics killed everything; a fundamental cultural change began to happen in those years in which everything became about profit. The avant-garde culture in America died. The worlds of conceptualism, performance, alternative art spaces, independent European films being shown in so many theaters and public support and public sentiment for art—everything was affected, infected during Reagan. Reaganomics was the beginning of the downfall of where we are now, politically. I’m ranting! I want to talk about your work. I think there are connections, interest, between your work and mine. One is men and groups of men and another is shit. Maybe bearded men, too. TM Sure. Yes, I deal with men. In the animation Mr. Time, which I finished last year, I had this idea for a man to be like time, going up and down escalators, around and around. Then a group comes and starts to mess with him, trying to stop him. In animating them, the men started walking as though they’re blind, and I went with that, made them blind. I’m very interested in group dynamics, the melting of individuality into a mass and the exhilaration that comes with the possibility of loss of self. Then there are the men themselves. I’m interested in what I don’t have access to. I have a lot of access to groups of women— women gathering in a women’s-only bathroom or a locker room. But I can’t go to the men’s side, so I’m always fascinated. What does it look like? Does it have better stalls? [laughs] In fact, the only time I’ve been
able to paint women is in this new series that I’m doing that I call The Shit Moms. PM Why shit moms? TM If the mom is made out of shit, somehow, I’m able to paint her. I couldn’t really paint women unless they were changed dramatically. The form of the woman as it is has to give up being that form and be replaced with shit. The shit kind of takes it back into pre–Adam and Eve, or into some kind of post-future. I was reading an autobiography of Nabokov, and he said something quite interesting about perception and meaning in the work. He was a big chess player. He said that when he sets up a problem in chess, the problem isn’t between the pieces, but it’s between him and the other player. And in art works, I think, the work shouldn’t be read as having an internal problem to solve or suggest. The viewer needs to recognize that he or she is creating the meaning that’s perceived. This collision is interesting to me. PM Do you see yourself in that? Do you imagine what people say about the work?
Opposite: Tala Madani, Shit Mom (Sandcastles), 2019, oil on linen, 22 ⅞ × 15 ⅞ × 1". Photo: Lee Thompson This page: Paul McCarthy, The Garden, 1991-92; wood, fiberglass, steel, electric motors, latex rubber, foam rubber, wigs, clothing, artificial turf, leaves, pine needles, rocks and trees; 359 ⅞ × 240 ⅛ × 264 ⅛".
TM I do and I try not to be too reductive or mean or meager about it. I try to imagine different viewers that have different possibilities and experiences. Some of them might come from Iran, and that really becomes interesting. I have to be honest about things like: Where does the work travel, and who actually sees it? Who can even read something visual? I remember I showed one painting to my grandfather and he said, “What am I looking at?” It was a figurative little doodle. It made me think about the idea that looking at a painting, reading a painting, is not in everyone’s grasp—of their sense of themselves or what they care about doing. To read a painting, it’s a language in itself. You can have different levels of verses. I think about Henry Darger and all those amazingly beautiful scrolls of the girls with the penises, in battle. He didn’t show his work at all. It was purely for himself, with some kind of fantastical imagined audience. PM Yeah, his viewer. TM If there were no viewers, would I make anything? I imagine not. I think I need to
say things, that’s why I paint. But without an audience, I would find a different form, a loudspeaker maybe. PM I’m not sure how it works between me, the work and the viewer. I think it has more to do with restrictions and barriers. It’s about explanations. I have a friend, and she told me once that I was just doing it to shock myself. TM Are you? PM Well, yes and no. But it is what I need and want. TM But are you? Do you get shocked when you see something for the first time? PM There have been pieces I’ve made that I didn’t show for a while because I myself had to wrap my head around them. TM Wow. PM Trying something, experimenting with boundaries, wanting to alter something. It’s what you were saying about how you take the female form and you make her into shit. And there she is. TM Yeah, totally. That’s exactly her. [Referring to a sketch McCarthy drew on a piece of paper as they were talking.] PM She’s made from shit because you can give her a form as long as it’s something else. And she can live that way. Meanwhile, the males can all easily just live as buffoons. [laughs] Often the men I portray are buffoons. Then there’s the psychology between the male and the female. The male can be a monster or a baby. And when he’s a baby, he wants to be abused by the mother. When that happens, she can choose whether to abuse him or reject him. TM You know, there’s research in child psychology that says that while schizophrenia’s onset can come at a very early age, in infancy, psychopathology can have its roots in early childhood, when you’re four, five, six. So there’s a line of thinking in which you could say that it’s the
PM Concerning repetition, you could say that I’ve been making the same work for the last 40 years. TM I know some of your history, but when did you come here, to Los Angeles? PM I came in the early ’70s, from San Francisco. I came here for school at USC. I really liked it here—the smog was so thick then; the idea of Hollywood and so many pockets of different people and how fucked-up the whole place was. Very fucked-up and beautiful. When did you come here from Tehran? TM 1994, when I was 14 years old. My mother and I moved to western Oregon, to a very small town, a place that was pretty shocking to me. Everyone feels very American in Oregon. I guess that’s how I’d describe it there. I’m always interested in how Americans feel about themselves. What is it to be American, psychologically? I have two American children now, but I’m not American. Many times what saves me, psychologically, from everything, from the world in general and from the art world, is the sense that I’m Iranian. Bottom line, I always have that, psychologi-
Above: Exterior of a Western saloon set used by McCarthy for recent video projects relating to the movie Stagecoach; the set is based on one used by Fassbinder for the 1971 film Whity, borrowed from Sergio Leone. Photo: Frederik Nilsen. Opposite: DADDA Donald and Daisy Duck Adventure, 2018; performance, video, photographs, installation. Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy. Photo: Alex Stevens.
mother’s fault when adults turn out to be psychopaths. My husband Nathaniel [Mellors, a fellow artist and musician] says to me, “What are you saying, Tala? You’re saying it’s the mother’s fault that Hitler was Hitler?” He reminds me of the dangers of this line of thinking and its anti-feminist position. But I think that we should understand that mothering is so fucking important in helping not to create a generation of psycho people who want to hurt each other, and that as a society, we need to give more room for good mothering, to make a society in which you don’t tell a mother she has to go back to work right after she has a baby. As a society, there’s so little space for mothering, especially here in the United States. PM The buffoon Donald in DADDA and Adolf in a piece called A&E both want to be
babies and the women to be their mothers. They regress. In the ’90s at a swap meet in Vienna, I bought a German book from the ’30s on how to raise your children in the Third Reich, and the importance of the mother. The mother is the early primary indoctrinator of the child. But in Disney films, the mother is often dead, and in the pieces I made in the ’80s and early ’90s— Family Tyranny, The Garden and Cultural Gothic—the mother is absent, too. These pieces were about the indoctrination by the father figure. But wait, I wanted to ask you about your work and repetition. TM Repetition is very interesting to me as it relates to focus and maybe magic. Also, I’m trying to understand something myself by making it. There’s an intuition, and following the intuition by making the work, some level of understanding sets in.
cally, to go back to. Do you feel that where you’re from saves you? PM You mean being an American? TM Yes. PM I have a number of views of America; one is that it doesn’t look outside of itself. I made a piece, The Garden , with two animatronic men, an older one and a younger one, in a large fake garden, fornicating with nature. They’re self-consumed. They don’t look outside the garden. Prior to making the piece, I’d watched a program on television about Belize in Central America. There was a segment on the Chicago Cubs fans living in Belize. It seems that local Chicago TV is broadcast in Belize, and the segment of the program was about how it was affecting Belize. I was thinking then that Belize watches Chicago, but Chicago never thinks about Belize. As a body, the American population is self-absorbed. The populist TV news in America now is only about Trump. If there is anything about the outside, it’s only in relationship to Trump. TM I think a lot about the scale of your work, that it seems to be trying to get at something about an American sense of spectacle, big enough to invade the space where everyone lives now. PM My work isn’t really that big. At times it has a scale out of character to what the art world expects. TM Well, because of what it’s depicting! PM I make different sizes of work, but the art world wants to confine it, to limit art to household walls and room objects. What might be described as my large work is not large relative to the environments we live in. I think it’s often about responding to what I exist in. I’m inside of structures; I’m surrounded by buildings, inside of them, outside of them, and in nature. When I make a set to film in, it’s often immersive. You’re inside of it. It’s simulating the world I live in, the psychology of these spaces. In dreams I’m often in environments. It’s what I want to experience.
A consideration of work made in the wake of the Great Migration By Sam Gordon
Alvin Baltrop, Pier 52 (Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Day’s End” building cuts with two men), c. 1975–86, gelatin silver print, 6.25 × 9.25". Courtesy Alvin Baltrop Trust and Galerie Buchholz.
The Art of Other Suns
“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” —Zora Neale Hurston CBGB, New York City, 1996: It was the first time I had ever watched the life force that was Wesley Willis—the unclassifiable cult musician—perform, shouting, singing, rhapsodizing. After the show, I went next door and bought one of the remarkable pen-and-marker Chicago street drawings that had become his artistic calling card. In exchange, Willis offered me a head butt, his friendly salutation, making for an unforgettable transaction on the Bowery. Around that same time, as my eyes slowly opened to art thriving in unexpected places, I would often see striking pieces woven into the fabric of the street itself, along Astor Place—a series of bright orange, purple and green birds of paradise threaded through chain link fences, with red ribbon pulling together the geometry. This, as I came to learn, was the handiwork—frayed, weathered, flapping in the breeze—of Curtis Cuffie, who had developed a complex language of assemblage sculpture during many years of homelessness. In 2017, I co-founded the gallery Gordon Robichaux and started working directly with the AfricanAmerican “outsider” artists Frederick Weston and Otis Houston Jr. In our curatorial projects and exhibitions at the gallery, other little-known black artists began to come to our attention—designer Sara Penn, for example, and singer-artist Stephanie Crawford—sparking memories of Willis and Cuffie, those artists whose work had so radically reoriented my thinking in the ’90s. A year before opening the gallery, while working with the organization Visual AIDS on an exhibition, I’d met Raynes Birkbeck, whose fantastic drawings and sculptures also
made a lasting impression on me. In my research and work, I came upon other artists like him, who fell into a common racial-geographic grouping: Alvin Baltrop, whose mother, Dorothy Mae, gave birth to him in the Bronx in 1948 after moving there from Virginia; Joyce McDonald, whose parents Willie (High Yella) and Florence (Black Gal) McDonald, always known by their nicknames, came north from Alabama in 1945 after the war to Brooklyn’s Farragut Houses, where McDonald was raised with her six siblings and still lives; Bruce Davenport Jr., who changed his name to Dapper Bruce Lafitte in honor of the Lafitte Housing Project in the Sixth Ward of New Orleans, where he grew up. I came to perceive a larger historical context for all of these dynamic artists, a pattern that could be traced to the Great Migration—the movement of six million African Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970. The upcoming exhibition “Souls Grown Diaspora,” which will be on view at the nonprofit gallery apexart in New York from January 11 to March 7, 2020, is the culmination of my thinking about this phenomenon and all my looking over the years at its effects—a project that I hope will help bring into focus a generation of visionary contemporary African-American artists from throughout the United States and situate their work amid the broader cultural lineage of the Great Migration. The show’s title takes its inspiration from Atlanta’s Souls Grown Deep Foundation, whose founder, William S. Arnett, worked for decades to help to identify and establish a group of pioneering black artists from the South—among them Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Mary T. Smith, Hawkins Bolden and the women’s collective Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers (Arlonzia Pettway, Annie Mae Young and Mary Lee Bendolph)—as essential to the understanding of developments in the history of American art. The name “Souls Grown Deep” originates from the last line of Langston Hughes’ 1921 poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: “My soul
has grown deep like the rivers.” “Souls Grown Diaspora” follows a subsequent wave of artists—many self-taught; others of whom studied at Pratt, the School of Visual Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology; all of whom encountered racism and marginalization in their careers. The exhibition, the design of which is inspired by the traditions of yard art and quilting, will include a wide range of media: painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, textiles and jewelry, alongside a collection of archival ephemera and research materials. Because over half of the artists make and record music as part of their art practices, the exhibition will also include a soundtrack. “Souls Grown Diaspora” offers a structure for considering the work of a group of 10 disparate contemporary artists, some of them personally interconnected, all of whom explore vernacular traditions and engage actively with other contemporary artists of their day. Looking collectively at these diverse artists—some dearly departed, many still actively creating, some living with HIV, others sober and in recovery, variously identifying as straight, bisexual, gay and trans—a number of themes emerge. Baltrop’s and Weston’s championing of the use of vernacular photography naturally leads toward an embrace of social media, by Weston himself, and by Houston Jr., and McDonald, who create work across multiple platforms and accounts. Handwritten words and texts populate many of the artworks—conveying humor, urgency, abstraction and politics with everyday language. Other themes in the exhibition, such as the home as studio, the street as studio, public housing, SROs, homelessness and mental health issues, are especially important given the tremendous impact of these subjects on the lives and work of these artists. What follows are brief biographical and professional sketches of each participant, along with images of their work, presented as a kind of exhibition within the pages of a magazine—a nod to the unconventional forums within which many of these artists have worked.
Alvin Baltrop (1948–2004)
a taxi driver and became a self-employed mover.… In spite of the remarkable documentary and aesthetic value of what he accomplished, Baltrop was almost completely unsuccessful at getting his work exhibited during his lifetime.” But since his death, his work has increased dramatically in visibility— on the walls now in the permanent collection of the expanded Museum of Modern Art, for example, and in a critically celebrated retrospective at the Bronx Museum that remains on view through February 9, 2020.
Raynes Birkbeck (b. 1956)
Samuel Delany. Birkbeck’s idiosyncratic practice blends the supernatural and the everyday with the goal of revealing to the viewer, as he says, “the beauty, the power, the love and the need of nature or a higher power. [That] even in the most mundane and commonplace things, ‘the Force’ is always present. That the existence of nature and god are evident due to the fact that all things are made up of atoms and thus are created by, maintained, destroyed, resurrected and governed by nuclear forces, states, conditions and laws.” A mystic and chronicler of epic stories, Birkbeck, who was born in the Bronx with family roots in the Deep South, is a Henry Darger–like character, if Darger had been into bathhouses and the bear scene. This past fall, he debuted a solo exhibition at Situations on the Lower East Side; a documentary trailer on the artist will be screened during an evening program at apexart in January.
Stephanie Crawford (b. 1942)
Alvin Baltrop, Piers (open window), c. 1975–86, gelatin silver print, 7.5 × 9 .5". Courtesy Alvin Baltrop Trust and Galerie Buchholz.
A photography prodigy, Alvin Baltrop began shooting pictures of his friends and peers at a young age, moving on to famous subjects like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. He joined the Navy in 1969 and served in Vietnam, where he photographed fellow sailors. While a student at the School of Visual Arts in the early 1970s, Baltrop began to photograph life along the West Side Piers—sunbathers, the gay cruising scene, criminal activity, the crumbling contours of the historic piers themselves. “I soon grew determined to preserve the frightening, mad, unbelievable, violent and beautiful things that were going on at the time. To get certain shots, I hung from the ceilings of several warehouses utilizing a makeshift harness, watching and waiting for hours to record the lives that these people led…and the unfortunate ends that they sometimes met.” Baltrop shared an interest in the piers with other artists of the day: Gordon Matta-Clark, David Wojnarowicz and Joan Jonas all performed artistic interventions at the piers. Baltrop’s work, however, would not gain recognition until after he died. As the critic Douglas Crimp once noted, “He photographed constantly at the Hudson River piers from 1975 to 1986, and the thousands of negatives from that project constitute his chief photographic legacy. He risked much to work there. In order to spend more time at the piers, he gave up his job as 50
party scenes in Detroit, Chicago and New York for their innovative fashion and music. Crawford eventually moved to New York in the 1970s, and at 36, got a scholarship to pursue an MFA at Pratt, where she became close with the influential East Village trans artist Greer Lankton. She then turned her focus to jazz—the music of modernity and self-invention—becoming well known in the ’80s as a singer who bridged the world of blues and drag, performing at the Blue Note in the Village and the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. The artist Tabboo!, who performed regularly at the Pyramid as well, describes Crawford as “the Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington of the queer world.” From 1989 to 1996, she taught jazz vocals in Paris and received the prestigious award “Django D’Or” for Best International Jazz Vocalist in 1993. A practicing Buddhist, Crawford now lives in Oakland, where she continues to perform and teach. “Teaching was how I was able to survive,” she says.
Curtis Cuffie (1955–2002)
Raynes Birkbeck, 19, 2004, mixed media on paper, 8.5 × 11". Lester, Energy Field, 2010, ink and acrylic on paper, 17 × 20". Artworks: Courtesy the artist and Situations, NY.
Raynes Birkbeck lives and works on the Upper West Side in an intergalactic war zone of a bedroom, full of mazes and battleships, that serves as a staging ground for his science-fiction-inspired writing and artworks. His belief that there are four multilayered dimensions in time, all happening at once, features largely in his work, which falls into a tradition of black speculative fiction going back as far as W.E.B. Dubois’ short story “The Comet” and continuing through the work of Octavia Butler and
Stephanie Crawford, Still Life with Green Vase, 2016, watercolor on paper, 15 × 22". Courtesy the artist.
“At some point, I realized that I don’t want to paint a masterpiece. I want to be one,” Stephanie Crawford likes to say. Born in Detroit, with family in Tennessee and other parts of the South, Crawford became part of a group of friends—which include Frederick Weston, Shyvette Williams and the fashion designer Claude Payne―that made a splash in the house51
Curtis Cuffie, Barbie with Binoculars, c. 1999, mixed media and le balai citoyen, 14.75 × 2 × 4". Courtesy Carol Thompson Collection. Photo: Gregory Carideo.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Cuffie’s jerry-rigged in assemblages were a fixture on the Bowery and Cooper Square. He became known for the odd grace and mysterious humor of these impromptu sculptures and installations, built from pieces of fabric, loose wires, scavenged furniture and toys, old clothes and other found materials, and displayed on fences, outdoor walls and sidewalks.
Otis Houston Jr., The Chief, 2010, marker and tape on found framed print, 28 × 20". Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo: Gregory Carideo.
His sculptures were often removed by the city or destroyed by the elements, but he would quickly replace them, over the years building an audience of devotees. His work eventually found its way into the art world, included in group shows at American Primitive, Exit Art and Flamingo East, where it often sat beside that of other emerging artists such as Rachel Harrison, Lucky DeBellevue and Rob Pruitt. Cuffie—who was born in Hartsville, South Carolina, and came to Brooklyn at the age of 15—became friends with David Hammons, who was a fan. “When curators would come from Europe,” Hammons told The New York Times, “I would always take them to see Curtis’ work or introduce them to Curtis, just to frighten them.” His work was shown at the American Visionary Art Museum, in Baltimore, and was supported by the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which made him an artist in residence. He died of a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 47.
Otis Houston Jr. (b. 1954)
found-object assemblages that critique racism, poverty and addiction, and also celebrate health, education, happiness and freedom. As he says, “We not in the same boat, but we all in the water.” The works of Houston Jr., who calls himself “Black Cherokee,” are made primarily with discarded objects that he collects and then manipulates in his East Harlem apartment of 30 years, or in the basement of the office building where he works in Midtown Manhattan. The handwritten slogans on his placards, banners and found paintings are playful and pointed—epigrams, concrete poetry and activist exhortations like “educate yourself,” “he ain’t did nothing but being a negro.” They distill social issues into word forms that constantly shift in meaning, visual power and politics. His works made with found objects often stand in for the body, referring back to his own physicality in the highway performances. The sculptures also emphasize his democratic approach to art-making: his use of direct address, discarded objects, fruits and vegetables from his fridge, paperbacks from his personal library, flowers from the corner store, all flow from his insistence that the artist “use what he’s got.” Houston Jr. has performed at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens and has shown his work at Canada and Gordon Robichaux, where he is currently represented.
Dapper Bruce Lafitte (b. 1972)
Otis Houston Jr., Untitled (Portrait), c. 2004, c-print. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo: Ejlat Feuer.
Otis Houston Jr. can frequently be found creating art, performance and social commentary at his long-held spot at the entrance to the FDR Drive at 122nd Street. Over the years, he has come to occupy and claim this marginalized stretch of the FDR as gallery, studio and public forum. Since 1997, following his mother’s death and a period of incarceration, Houston Jr. has set up shop weekly at this self-anointed soapbox under the Triborough Bridge, where he stages impromptu performances and displays an arrangement of signage, drawings and 53
Dapper Bruce Lafitte, Let Me Talk to Your Art Students, 2017, archival ink on acid-free paper, 60 × 40". Courtesy Fierman.
Self-taught artist Dapper Bruce Lafitte bears the self-bestowed name of the housing project where he grew up in the Sixth Ward of New Orleans. Lafitte’s work reflects his connection and loyalty to the street, public art, community rebuilding and the sub- and folk cultures of the Sixth Ward. His vernacular drawings often capture flows of vast numbers of people—marching, dancing, playing football. In 2005, the Lafitte Housing Project was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina (it was later demolished), and Lafitte relocated to New York. To most of his drawings, he adds handwritten tags, in pen or marker, that comment on the images or on his state of mind: “im no saints fan,” “the game was changed,” “run and run fast,” “a blue throw down,” “need a lift folks.” In 2017, the art critic Jonathan Goodman wrote of the work: “Lafitte’s colorful drawings keep alive the awareness that the marginal matters, consisting as it does of real people whose suffering counts.” In recent years, he caught the attention of the writer and curator Diego Cortez, an early champion of Basquiat, and his work was included in the second Prospect New Orleans, a citywide contemporary art triennial, in 2012. Most recently, the work was exhibited at Fierman on the Lower East Side.
Reverend Joyce McDonald (b. 1951)
Reverend Joyce McDonald, Precious as a Pearl (after shingles), 2009; air-dry clay, wood, Mod Podge, costume pearls, Mother’s broken pearl necklace; 12 × 9.75 × 1". Courtesy the artist.
Sara Penn (b. 1927)
Sara Penn, Knobkerry vest (detail). Courtesy Ruth Marten Collection. Photo: Gregory Carideo.
My Dad Willie McDonald, 1998; air-dry clay, house paint, Mod Podge, Father’s fabric shirt and camera; 13 × 11.5 × 12". Courtesy the artist. Photos: Gregory Carideo.
The Reverend Joyce McDonald is a visionary artist and great-grandmother who performed as a teenager with a girl group at the Apollo Theater. Her revelatory artwork and activism have much in common with that of Sister Gertrude Morgan and Sister Mary Corita Kent, who also used art to convey a message of strength, hope and power. McDonald says that her sculpture, made from ceramics and found objects, tracks her “path from the shooting gallery to the art gallery.” Using humble materials like clay, tinfoil and dirt, she sculpts portraits of her loved ones: her father, mother and sister Janet McDonald—the author of Project Girl, her 1999 memoir about their time growing up in Brooklyn’s Farragut Houses—have all been subjects. McDonald’s portrait of her father, Willie McDonald (an amateur photographer, who would develop and print in her kitchen and who died of a heart attack at the age of 54, in 1977) is a large gold bust made of clay and his clothing. McDonald has been a coordinator and speaker for her church’s AIDS ministry and assistant director of its children’s choir. She is dedicated to street ministry and has told her story on television, radio, in print and online. Her artwork was featured on the front page of The New York Times Weekend Arts Section in 2016 in Holland Cotter’s feature article “Art From the Age of AIDS,” and in 2015 was projected onto the facade of the Guggenheim Museum for “Day With(out) Art.”
Sara Penn was born in Pittsburgh. Her grandmother’s family did missionary work in Alabama. “I realize,” Penn has said, “that I reflect my greatgrand aunt, Sadie Lee in Pleasant Valley, Alabama, who followed Booker T. Washington’s idea of skilled training for newly freed slaves. She taught quilting and sewing. She opened a training school that grew to have over 200 students.” Penn is best known for the Manhattan store she opened in the 1970s, Knobkerry, one of the first establishments in the U.S. to sell ethnographic art, objects and clothing from all over the world. The store, which migrated from the East Village to SoHo and then TriBeCa before closing in the ’90s, was a favorite among artists, musicians, writers and designers in the ’70s and ’80s. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ntozake Shange, Yves Saint Laurent (who would go on to imitate her custom designs in a major fashion show) were all regulars at various times. Mick Jagger is said to have bought pieces. David Hammons self-curated a 1995 show of his work, intermingled with store items, at the location on West Broadway. As an African-American female business owner, Penn did more than just break barriers with her influence and reach; with Knobkerry, she created a global context for a thriving scene of black and/or radical artists and thinkers, a legacy that remains largely unknown outside certain circles. “I do all the buying for the shop, and I will pass up a bargain or a bestseller in a minute to retain the originality of our display and our collection,” she once said. “I think black designers, like black musicians, should dig into their origins for [their] inspirations. It would help to ‘signpost’ our current quest for identity and bring something different to Western fashion.” 55
Frederick Weston (b. 1946)
Frederick Weston, Tommie’s Smile, 1979, mixed media on dot matrix print, 14 × 8.5”. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY and Collection Armyan and Christine Meleo Bernstein. Photo: Adam Kremer.
Frederick Weston, born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, hugs you twice when you meet him, a double-hug greeting he learned in his HIV support group and day program. Having trained in menswear design and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, he draws heavily from mood boards and patternmaking body maps as primary genres for his art. His elaborate collages are culled from binders full of pictures that he cuts out of magazines and has archived for years in his apartment. From a very young age, Weston began collecting and organizing a seemingly infinite variety of visual materials that he found to have both personal and cultural significance: images of money, food, skin, holiday and religious imagery; toiletry and pharmaceutical packaging; photographic prints; fabric swatches; duplicates of almost everything made with Xerox machines. He uses his idiosyncratic, encyclopedic system to process and cope with what he sees as an overly hierarchal, category-obsessed material world. He embraces collage for its immediacy, as a fluid form of tactile poetry. “I like using materials kids have access to, like when I saw Matisse’s Swimming Pool, I thought, ‘Oh, he just cut paper. I can do that.’” New York nightlife— dancing at Paradise Garage and the 10th Floor, working the coat check at Stella’s Bar in Times Square—has also fortified Weston with subjects, narratives and chosen family. He is represented by Gordon Robichaux, where he has had numerous shows and his work has been featured in panels, exhibitions and readings organized by Visual AIDS, the Whitney Museum, the Leslie-Lohman Museum, Artists Space and La Mama La Galleria.
Frederick Weston, Body Map 2, 2015, mixed media on paper, 65 × 32". Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo: Gregory Carideo.
Wesley Willis (1963–2003)
Cover of Wesley Willis’ LP Rush Hour (Alternative Tentacles Records), recorded 1993, released 2000.
During childhood, Willis developed an interest in art, and in 1988, he was featured in a Chicago public-access documentary titled Wesley Willis: Artist of the Streets. As a musician, he filled his albums with funny, profane, outlandish statements about topics ranging from crime and fast food to imagined battles with superheroes, along with praise for his idols in music and Hollywood. Willis produced hundreds of highly detailed ink-pen drawings of Chicago street scenes, which he sold on those same streets for small amounts, usually less than $100. He grew up in Chicago’s projects, one of ten children in a turbulent family with roots in Georgia. Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1989, he began his underground career in the outsider music tradition, with songs sung over the auto-accompaniment feature on his keyboard. Admired by well-known musicians like Henry Rollins, Mike D and Jello Biafra, he gained a cult following in the 1990s and fronted his own punk rock band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco. His work has been exhibited at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, alongside the work of Curtis Cuffie, and at Delmes & Zander in Cologne, Germany.
In 1994, I was in a mixed-media painting class at the Rhode Island School of Design with Kara Walker. I’ll never forget a comment she made about her journey as an artist, from Atlanta to RISD—“up North to freedom.” She was kidding, in the way her work often kids, but it marked the first time I had considered the historic phenomenon of that mass migration. Gathering the work of these 10 artists into an exhibition acknowledges their individual practices while also placing the artists within an important larger social context. By foregrounding the lasting effects of the Great Migration on the timeline of American contemporary art, I hope the exhibition helps piece together a collective narrative, one that serves as an entry point into the lives and practices of often overlooked visionary artists. Whether selftaught or trained, each artist has merged the urban environment and deep family histories from the American South into a new Pan-African identity and aesthetic. Effectively channeling their personal experiences and ideas into a dialogue with larger social issues, the artists of the Souls Grown Diaspora are deeply linked individual and conceptually. Having worked on the margins of the art world for most of their careers, some of these artists are now entering into contemporary dialogue through the attention of young curators and galleries, or their work has begun to reach a much greater level of attention posthumously. But as the exhibition will underscore, these artists have always been in conversation with the vanguard artists of the day and have never thought of their work as less vital or important because of its development outside the bounds of the mainstream. In the words of Stephanie Crawford: “I think it’s time for some kind of declaration here and to toss the dice of truth and everlasting beauty. I am an absolutely extraordinary 76-year-old African American post-op transgender vocal jazz musician. And I have lived long enough to tell it. Or rather sing it. I am no longer ashamed. Or afraid of you. My life story as a gay transgender person of color is at once painful, sublime, ridiculous, heart-stoppingly beautiful and ultimately victorious.” Additional contributions to this essay were made by Svetlana Kitto, Jacob Robichaux and Graham Bell.
From Space to Place Court, Rozana Montiel Estudio de Arquitectura project in collaboration with Alin V. Wallach. Photo: Sandra Pereznieto.
The in-between architecture of Rozana Montiel 58
By Thomas de Monchaux Photography by Juan Hdz
Rozana Montiel started to see the world through designer’s eyes at around the age of 12. Now the founder and director of an interdisciplinary Mexico City architecture studio known for its socially conscious and community-based vision of public space, she was then the young daughter of art collectors. “My father was obsessed with Mexican paintings,” she recalls. “Remedios Varo, Diego Rivera. He had a small gallery added to the house. Downstairs was the art, and upstairs was my room.” Through this high-culture home renovation, Montiel got her first notion of the possibilities of shaping an environment. “My parents let me design the room. First I wanted gray and white lines. After I studied architecture, it became like a Japanese room—wood, nothing on the floors, very simple with few elements.” This was in El Pedregal, a district of Mexico City with a noteworthy architectural history. Pioneering Mexican architect Luis Barragán developed the subdivision in the late 1940s with the idea of harmoniously integrating architecture and landscape—in this case, a rocky lava field. Modernists such as Max Cetto, Francisco Artigas, Mathias Goeritz, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez and, of course, Barragán designed private residences on the plots. In photos of some of the properties from that period, otherworldly volcanic rock formations create a stark contrast to the cool, rationalist houses. “As kids, so much of our play was creating shelters with what we had around—bicycles, 59
inflatable rafts from the neighborhood pool, and those volcanic rocks,” she says. In her designs for houses now, she uses such basalt stone where one might expect granite, marble or cast concrete. “It’s the materiality. It’s not only about where I grew up, but it’s about our past, these pre-Hispanic sites. A materiality has to be honest. It is what it is. It’s in the way you use it that you re-signify the materiality.” This idea of re-signification—shifting the associations we have with a material or a space, especially those that seem humble—is at the heart of Montiel’s work. An emblematic example is the Fresnillo Playground, a 2018 project in which she and frequent collaborator Alin V. Wallach transformed a desolate former sewage canal alongside the Manuel M. Ponce housing complex in Zacatecas, Mexico, into a community recreation and gathering place. The elements are simple but strategic: a perforated steel structure serves as a bridge, a shady canopy and a jungle gym; cast concrete blocks provide sculptural elements and stepping stones, turning the sloped sides of the paved canal into a miniature amphitheater. Inspired by children who would slide down the slopes on improvised sleds, Montiel set chutes alongside the blocks. “One of my earliest memories is going down slides—toboganes,” she says. “I would always think about Alice in Wonderland, and how, when I got to the bottom, it seemed like something had changed: size, scale, playing between fact and fiction. Now in our studio, we work with layers, with scales.” Two other case studies of Montiel’s approach to public space are the Common-unity and Court projects, both completed in 2016. For Common-unity, she removed the fences and barriers that divided an interior block of the San Pablo Xalpa housing complex in Azcapotzalco, a working-class neighborhood of Mexico City. In consultation with local residents, she arranged overlapping platforms, pergolas and pavilions to form a multipurpose common area. For Court, in the port city of Veracruz, she designed what she describes as an “agora-portico,” a hanger-like pitched-roof shelter over what had previously been an underused outdoor basketball court at a public housing complex. Weaved into the vast steel space-frame roof structure is a system of small classrooms and balconies, nooks and
Void Temple, Rozana Montiel in collaboration with Dellekamp Arquitectos. Photo: Iwan Baan.
“For me, the primary idea of architecture is building relations.…When you create place, you build relationships. Relationships activate a space. It’s the people who make the place.” 60
overlooks. “For me, the primary idea of architecture is building relations,” she says. “That’s the idea of place-making, the idea of transforming space into place. When you create place, you build relationships. Relationships activate a space. It’s the people who make the place. There’s this idea from the historian Aaron Betsky that it’s time to create architecture without buildings.” In 2008, Betsky, now dean of the School of Architecture at Taliesin in Arizona and Wisconsin, curated “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building,” at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale. “Architecture is not building,” he wrote at the time. “Buildings are objects, and the act of building leads to such objects, but architecture is something else.… Architecture is a way of representing, shaping, and perhaps even offering critical alternatives to the humanmade environment.” The headquarters of the advertising agency KTBO in Mexico City epitomizes Montiel’s thinking in this vein, in an alternative take on an office environment that involved more subtraction than addition. For the project, completed last January—a rare commercial office in her portfolio—she removed not only hung ceilings and partitions but also the exterior walls on some of the floors, revealing the cast concrete bones of the building and opening up floor plates as naturally ventilated, day-lit terraces. She also uses juxtaposition as a strategy to transform spaces. Unexpected assemblies of 61
elements create surprising one-plus-one-equalsthree gestalt effects of activated negative space. As an architecture of relations, it reads something like an art of assemblage, a practice of collecting. When we speak on the phone between Mexico City and New York, she texts me photos of walls and shelves in her sunny home studio in the Lomas neighborhood of Mexico City to illustrate her point. “It’s a little like something from André Malraux’s Imaginary Museum,” she says. On one shelf, two dozen beetles of astonishing variation, from piquant to sinister, are pinned on rectangular cards. On another shelf, insects, dandelions and dice, all cast in resin and acetate, are aligned with slide rules and other sleek devices. Another shelf displays an array of circles: a postcard of the moon, a sand dollar, a tiny basket, a compass—different, different, different, same, same, same.
Fresnillo Playground, Rozana Montiel Estudio
de Arquitectura. Photo: Sandra Pereznieto. Montiel’s first major project, built in 2011, was also a circle: Void Temple, one of a sequence of modern landmarks placed along the centuries-old 72-mile Ruta del Peregrino Catholic pilgrimage path in Jalisco, Mexico. It’s a finely textured pale concrete wall, 40 meters in diameter—except that
it’s not a wall, since as the forest terrain rises and falls, the wall stays level, sometimes embedded in the earth and sometimes bridging above it, creating shade and a sense of place below. “[Moving above and below] the horizon line of that circle, you feel contained,” she says. “But you feel open. It’s a way of changing barriers into open boundaries.”
Actively engaged with the places where her work is made, Montiel set out from the beginning to demonstrate the tangible effect of design on people’s lives. For a 2015 project in Miravalle, Iztapalapa, a Mexico City neighborhood with only weekly access to the metropolitan water supply, she collaborated with community members to construct a low-cost water system. With the addition of filters, they repurposed an existing domed canopy over a small plaza into a rainwater and condensation harvesting device, and they used a re-engineered bicycle as the mechanism to pump water from a collection cistern.
Sketch for Water Harvesting Dome, Rozana Montiel Estudio de Arquitectura.
Rozana Montiel at her studio offices, July 2019.
Void Temple also exemplifies her approach to materials. “It’s about using just one thing, one circle,” she says. “The word sustainability gets so misused, but there’s a common sense of it, of sustaining different abilities. Very simple forms. Not many materials. Often with very few resources. But my question is always: What can we do with what we have? We try to be congruous with the environment of every project.” For the Fresnillo Playground, for instance, a dramatic result was achieved with a significant economy of means. “The slopes were already there. The light was already there. The steps we added created these beautiful shadows. We are not only playing with the kids, but playing with the light. It’s time to think like that: In a world where resources are dwindling, what is worth designing?”
Montiel in a project meeting with collaborators.
Remedios Varo, Roulotte, 1955, oil on canvas. © 2019 Artists Rights Society, New York/VEGAP, Madrid.
In its simplicity, practicality and humility, the bicycle metamorphosis could function as a metaphor for all of Montiel’s work. It also brings to mind Spanish-Mexican surrealist painter Remedios Varo, whom Montiel had mentioned earlier as part of her parents’ art collection. Like Montiel, Varo liked to reinterpret the meanings we give objects. Her depictions of allegorical landscapes and alchemical interiors often included complex mechanisms with wheels. Varo’s 1955 painting Roulotte, for instance, is a fantastical depiction of a cycle rickshaw bearing a churchlike structure in which a woman sits at a piano. “I loved creating a bicycle machine [like Varo’s] that re-signified something into something else,” says Montiel. “These beautiful machines of hers for building dreams.”
Elizabeth LeCompte, Kate Valk and Maura Tierney outside the Performance Garage on Wooster Street in SoHo, June 2019.
Photography by Oresti Tsonopoulos
Getting Down to the Confrontation
The Wooster Group at theater’s edge: A conversation with Elizabeth LeCompte, Kate Valk and Maura Tierney
Founded in 1975 as the Performance Group, an avant-garde downtown Manhattan theater company, the Wooster Group has become one of the most revered—and polarizing—producers of radically experimental theater in the world and has helped launch the careers of actors like Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray. With roots as deep in performance art as in the stage, the group continues, well into its fifth decade, to tilt at the boundaries of theater, a creative restlessness that has meant constant financial—even existential—uncertainty. One afternoon last summer, at founding member Elizabeth LeCompte’s SoHo apartment, a block from the company’s home, the Performance Garage, she and her longtime collaborator, the actor and director Kate Valk, sat down with Maura Tierney, a company member for almost a decade, to talk about the rewards and the cost of artistic reinvention. These are edited excerpts of their conversation. Randy Kennedy Liz, what’s the first piece of theater you ever saw? You grew up in New Jersey, right? Elizabeth LeCompte I saw Peter Pan…with Mary Martin. Music Man, Show Boat, My Fair Lady. My parents would bring us in. I saw all of them in the ’50s. And then I didn’t see any other plays nearly as good. So I didn’t become interested in theater. I wanted to be an artist, a painter. I still think I’m going to be a painter someday. [laughs] Kennedy Was there something about the visceral nature of theater that drew you to it more than the solitary life of a painter? LeCompte Absolutely. I had a lot of trouble being in the studio by myself. I liked having people around to talk about things. Even when I was in school, I would get a bunch of people together to make a project. Kate Valk Once you start a project, I think you see it in everything. But I don’t think you decide how something’s going to go or what it’s going to mean until you get in the room with the people you’re working with. LeCompte In the early days when I was making pieces, I would do so much work outside the rehearsal room. I’d have ideas and draw and write, and then when I’d get in the rehearsal room I’d discover that I had to let a lot of it go. I had to start with who and what was actually there. Valk Maura, I was curious about you, because you have worked with other directors in film, TV,
theater. Would you say that most directors decide what they want from a text, and then bring you to that? Maura Tierney Any good director will, of course, take into account who the actor is, because that’s why they’re cast. But with the Wooster Group, Liz is hypervigilant about responding to who you are, specifically, as a performer and honoring that in a way that serves the piece. Valk I think Liz is also interested in behavior as much as she’s interested in acting. For instance, when we started working on The Town Hall Affair, there’s a scene that features a panel of writers at a table with a stack of books for each writer. I remember early on we were trying to figure out the intro, and Maura’s character wasn’t working, and Maura was a little frustrated. I spoke to Liz, and she said, “Maura doesn’t know she’s writing the piece by just being there, reading and going through whatever it is she’s going through.” It’s like, with that commitment to time and space, you’re already writing it. Kennedy When you started working on North Atlantic [in January 2010], how was it different from your other experiences working on the stage, Maura? Tierney In straight theater that I’ve done, you just show up for rehearsal. But at Wooster, you’re building your costume as Liz is building the piece. You come in every day dressed and ready, and the character starts to evolve. The sound people and the videographer are in the room—everyone’s in the room at the same time, which is why it’s so radically different. It’s not like Liz decides something and tells the actors to do it, and then the lighting guy comes in and then sound comes in—everybody’s there, creating the piece. Kennedy Were you prepared for what that was going to be like? Tierney I had read about it, but that’s not the same. It was a shock in terms of how excited I was, but also how scared I was that I didn’t have the chops. I had just been on a TV show for eight years, which was so different. The Wooster Group is scary, but in a good way. [laughs] When I walk into the Performing Garage, I still feel so lucky that I can watch rehearsal or be in rehearsal. I walk in and I feel great. LeCompte How about the time I made you cry? Tierney Which time? [Everybody laughs]
Ron Vawter and Kate Valk in Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Antony, 1988. Photo: © Louise Oligny. Vawter, Spalding Gray and Joan Jonas in Nayatt School, 1978. Photo: © Bob Van Dantzig.
“You’re almost pretending you’re a theater company. Then you become a theater company, and people’s expectations change.” —Liz LeCompte
LeCompte I can’t remember. But every once in awhile, somebody would cry. I’m not focused on how people feel when I’m working with them. They become objects, basically. I want to say, “No, do it like this,” and that’s really hard for performers. Tierney Or, “Do it like you did before.” LeCompte Isn’t that idiotic? I am a crummy director. I’m not a bad artist—I’m okay on that level—but traditional directing, well, I’m learning from Katie all the time about directing. That’s why I’m so much better. Don’t you sense that I’m having more fun? Tierney Of course you are. LeCompte It’s because I’m thinking, “I’m not really responsible for this; they are. If it’s bad, I don’t care.” Tierney And Kate will translate a lot for you. LeCompte But at the very beginning, when I was working with Ron [Vawter] and Spalding [Gray], I did care. Valk Well, because they were giving you so much meta-material. They weren’t normal actors. I was reading something about groups like us who start from a place of “This is DIY, and we’re going to work with you and you and you and that lamp, because this is us.” You’re just taking from what’s immediately around you. You’re almost pretending you’re a theater company. Then you become a theater company, and people’s expectations change. And then people are attracted to working with you because you have a certain reputation, and they come with skills. Tierney Well, a certain kind of skill. LeCompte And then you realize you’ve been doing it for a while and maybe you’re good at it. That puts you in a complicated place as an artist, I feel. Kennedy It was the conundrum of punk, too. Once you become skilled, then you’re in a pickle, in a weird way. LeCompte That’s precisely what I’m talking about. I think
we spent a couple of years in a pickle. Which could have been around Vieux Carré . Valk But we did some really good pieces with it— Vieux Carré and Hamlet . We found our way through it. Kennedy Was it also because your audience changed? I’d assume that in the early days it felt like you were, in essence, playing to your friends and your cohort, and then at some point that changes. There’s a great essay by the art critic Dave Hickey in which he talks about what he calls “looky-loos,” people who come to see something more as tourists once a thing becomes established. Valk That happens. There was a time when we could show a work in progress, and then go back and work and do another period of a work in progress, and then a third. And people would come back to see how the piece changed. It’s not like that anymore. People don’t have that kind of time. They see it once, decide what it is and never come back. Kennedy There was a story in The Guardian where you talked about how, the longer this goes on, the more difficult it becomes. You were talking about expectations. LeCompte Yeah, I went through that, but I lost that feeling about three, four years ago. The expectations got so huge. It was about how much money they were going to give us in grants, and when you were going to deliver—all of that kind of stuff. It was hard for me. I managed it, but just barely. Kennedy It seems like the maintenance of being non-establishment is difficult. Valk It’s hard to be a success, and it’s hard to be a failure. Both. Tierney Ain’t that the truth. Kennedy Kate, I wanted to ask you about you being Liz’s translator, as Maura described you. How does that work? Valk Well, we’ve been working together 41 years.
“We’ve been working together 41 years. Sometimes she will just look at me and go, ‘Help. Can you please tell everyone what I mean?’ And I do.” —Kate Valk
us to help her figure out what to keep in and what to throw out. In a certain way, you ask us all to be dramaturges and also editors. You like to figure out the structure of something with the whole group around you. We’re almost writing together what the whole piece will be—especially with something like The Town Hall Affair, where we were deciding what parts of the film [the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus] to reenact and what other material to comingle with the primary source text.
Liz LeCompte’s set drawing for Nayatt School, 1978. Beatrice Roth, LeCompte, James ‘J.J.’ Johnson and Kate Valk in rehearsal for Brace Up! 1992. Photo: © Mary Gearhart.
Sometimes she will just look at me and go, “Help! Can you please tell them what I mean?” And I do. [laughs] Tierney Kate has an ability to understand whatever is frustrating Liz and translate it a bit. Valk But sometimes I need Liz translated for me, too, and then Scott [Shepherd] and Ari [Fliakos] will do the same for me. Everybody wants to know the crux of what Liz is saying, for it to be delivered in a less confrontational way but for it still to get to the heart of the confrontation. [The director and pioneering acting teacher] Jerzy Grotowski said that the very essence of a theatrical production is the confrontation between the director and the actor. And that’s what you’re seeing. Of course, you don’t see it literally, but that’s at the heart of it. Tierney It’s also exciting and liberating and challenging… Valk Many times when I go to see theater, I don’t feel that they ever get down to that confrontation. It might be very well produced and interesting, and one performer might be very good, but it doesn’t seem like the director confronted everybody to get something that made a whole. Kennedy Do you see that as what you’ve done over the years?
LeCompte I don’t know. Valk But don’t you think you’re always trying to get a varied group of people to make sense in the same space together? You like to set people up so that they’re strong. LeCompte When it works for me, everybody has to be the best they could ever be—as themselves—in the piece. Sometimes I’ve done pieces where some people aren’t their best. I haven’t been able to get something from them that makes me I think, “Oh, that’s the best they’ll ever be.” Valk Or maybe you’ve seen it and you can’t get it back. But you never give up. Liz is at every performance, which is very rare. Kennedy Is that because the whole thing is a process and you can’t be away for any of it? LeCompte I have no idea. I think it’s because I’m not a real theater person. I like making things, and so it’s a constant making and remaking. I like to come in and kind of poke around and reorganize a bit so it’s new. And a lot of times, now that I’ve given up trying to control a bigger situation, I love to watch everyone else figure it out. Valk It’s not just Liz directing us as performers; it’s the openness of the room, where she’s asking
LeCompte For a piece like that, I used to have to go off alone to think about what I was going to do, and now I don’t have to. I would worry that in rehearsal we wouldn’t be able to do what was in my head. But now, I’m creating when they’re there, and outside of that, I’m just entertaining myself—reading things, writing things down, drawing things. But it doesn’t have to do with anything that I might actually do in the piece. Kennedy Liz, how did you first get involved in professional theater? LeCompte I actually came in as an assistant director to Richard Schechner [the founder, in 1967,
of the experimental theater company the Performance Group, which later became the Wooster Group]. He had only known me for a month or so. The reason I joined was because they offered me money. I had started a bookstore in Saratoga Springs, New York, and was traveling back and forth, living with Spalding in the city and going to my bookstore upstate. I wasn’t making any money at the bookstore, of course, and Richard offered me enough money to actually live on. Spalding had already joined the company, so I came in then. Kennedy How did you and Spalding start your own thing within the Performance Group? LeCompte We just kind of segued. By that time, we were doing two different things. I remember I was trying to find some other way of hearing an actor perform. Most of the time, when I would hear an actor on stage, I felt that the director was signaling what the actor was going to say. I was never surprised. So I was looking for some way of working that would surprise me. And Spalding was looking for some way to tell his own story. Tierney When you talk about looking for things to surprise you, I was reminded of North Atlantic, when we did the first show in L.A. at Redcat [in February 2010]. We hadn’t done a run-through, which I had never experienced before. Valk We’d like to have run-throughs, but it just never happens because we keep making changes. Tierney Before the show, we were all in the dressing room, and I was bugging out. I just wanted to do it right. Liz was sitting there and said, “This is my favorite part, right before we go on.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because everything could fall to pieces.” She was so excited by that prospect. Valk I have a story about that. We were doing the last performance of Vieux Carré in São Paulo [in March 2013]. Liz, on the last day, changed all of the video cues for this one scene. I knew that the technicians weren’t going to get any of the cues right, and right before the show, I said to her, “You know, it’s going to be a total mess tonight.” And she said, “I hope so.”
Tierney That’s seeing an actor in a different way. Like, you’re going to see something completely different when they’re in that moment. LeCompte Maura, I want to know about you, when you first came to the Garage. Come on, can you remember? Because we don’t have auditions for people in a traditional sense. Valk She contacted us out of the blue. Maura, what interested you in working with us? Tierney I don’t know. I knew about the work marginally. I wasn’t, like, a super fan. I had been living in L.A. for 10 years. Valk So it was a career move? [laughs] Tierney I mean, it wasn’t a career risk. LeCompte Some career move! Tierney I just wanted to meet Liz, because she fascinated me. LeCompte Somebody told me, “Oh yeah, she was on ER.” I’d never seen ER, but I was like, “Oh really? Somebody from ER?” Valk She wrote that she was a film and television actress who had just done a Neil LaBute play [Some Girl(s) in 2006]. Tierney That was a couple of years before, yeah. I hadn’t been to the Garage before. And so I thought I was going to sit in an office and talk to Liz, like some kind of artistic interview maybe leading to an audition. I walked in and they were like, “Liz, Maura’s here.” And then everybody in the whole company sits on the risers in the audience, and she puts a chair on stage, and I had to answer questions from Liz and everybody about what I was doing there. LeCompte What did we ask you? Tierney “Why are you here?” basically. It was goodnatured, but it was not what I expected. LeCompte Did we read something together that day? Tierney No, not until eight months later. LeCompte Don’t you remember we made a joke? You asked, “What should I do?” And we said, “Well, you’ll have to take all your clothes off.” Valk And she goes, “Okay.” And we all went, “Uhhh…”
Tierney I was game! LeCompte She was totally game, and that’s what I remember. You know, she was right there. Kennedy Have there been actors who’ve come to you and you’ve realized they don’t actually want to be here? Or they’re not a good fit? LeCompte They don’t get that far, I would say. Valk But it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen every day. I mean the other person is Frances McDormand. She knew Willem [Dafoe, a founding member of the Wooster Group and LeCompte’s romantic partner for 27 years]. But she had seen the work. She saw House/Lights and the first North Atlantic. And after seeing House/Lights, she wrote to Liz personally and said, “I want to work with the group.” LeCompte Right. But I had known Fran for years. Valk Yeah, you knew you her beforehand. Not like Maura; that was a total cold call. [laughs] LeCompte We’re always interested in people who are interested in us. The B-Side is a case in point. Eric Berryman [the play’s co-creator and principal performer] is not a famous person. He was someone who came to us and said, “I want to work with you.” And we were like, “Well, okay. Let’s go.” Tierney Can I say one other thing that is personal… LeCompte Oh, don’t say it. Tierney I know. Liz might not like it because it’s a little sentimental. LeCompte No, I’m kidding. I just wanted a good exit. I have to get a little more wine. Anybody else for more wine? Tierney I’ll have a little more. I’ll tell the story very quickly. After I first met them, like eight months later, they called me to audition. What they do is call in a bunch of actors to read the script, and then the next day some other actors will come in. It’s pretty informal. In those months since I’d met them, I had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone surgery. So when I went to audition for North Atlantic, I told Liz, “I don’t know if you know what’s happening to me.” At that time, it was unclear if I would have to get chemotherapy, so I said, “I may or may not have— LeCompte You might be dead.
Frances McDormand, Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk in To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre), 2002. Photo: © Mary Gearhart. Ari Fliakos, Maura Tierney and Scott Shepherd in The Town Hall-Affair, 2017. Photo: © Steve Gunther.
Tierney I might be dead! [laughs] No, I was in the clear that way. But I did, in fact, have to get chemotherapy. I finished my last treatment that December and we started rehearsals like January 10th. So I show up, and I am bald as a fucking cue ball. And I didn’t really have eyebrows. I looked like a weird space alien. But I was on stage, and Liz came in and was just like, “Okay, cool, you’re here.” It didn’t matter what I looked like; I was there. And what an incredible gift to be in a place where vanity did not matter. It was just about the work and getting the work done. It was just very special. But I won’t say anything else sentimental. Valk The production Since I Can Remember, which we did some early showings of last spring, includes a lot of the group’s history. In it, I introduce the archival material of Nayatt School, which was an early piece that Liz composed with Spalding Gray and the Wooster Group. The archival material is from ’78, ’79, and the sound is really bad. I do a monologue over top of Spalding’s
monologue. I tell you what he’s talking about, but I also tell you how I came to the Wooster Group. One of the things we had to address was how I would talk about Liz. She didn’t want to be mentioned at all. She always wants to frame the history of the company so that she’s hidden, or she’s the wry author behind the curtain. She doesn’t want anyone to speak earnestly about her: the director, the auteur. LeCompte I don’t like taking responsibility for things. Valk But I also think that’s the kind of writer you are. Some writers talk quite directly as themselves, in a very immediate voice. But you’re more like Nabokov, where you’re commenting on the narrator at the same time that you want desperately to tell this story, a history. LeCompte I have no idea why I want an incredible amount of attention and yet I also do not ever want to be seen. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman. Maybe I didn’t want to be responsible because I knew that people wouldn’t be as interested in me as the men fronting me. So I would hide behind the men, making it seem like they alone made the piece. Kennedy Would you resent that? LeCompte No, I never was resentful. I was totally thankful. It was a place of such freedom. It might have something to do with my mother being very English; you are never supposed to step forward and take credit. You could perform for people and be fabulous, but you don’t outwardly take credit for something. Kennedy Maura, has the work you’ve done with the Wooster Group had an effect on you as an actor? Tierney I try, but it’s very hard to duplicate. It’s so special and very unique. On a TV show, my job is to interpret the lines in the best way I can in terms of what the writer intended or what the director wants. It’s a completely different way of working. LeCompte But what you brought to us was huge—your ability to be present, as though the camera was always on you and to not be afraid to just be there. Valk Maura taught me a lot about thinking autonomously about my performance, that I was in control of a lot more than I knew. You know, I identify a lot with Liz, and I function very well next to her as an associate director. Even when I first started with the company, I was making
Through January 26, 2020, Carriage Trade gallery is presenting “The Wooster Group,” an exhibition featuring archives, props and performance documentation from the company. The group’s next New York performance will be A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique), opening in early 2020, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte.
things and helping her with the scripts. So I don’t totally identify as an actor. Certainly, I’m a performer, but when I ran into trouble in Town Hall, I would talk to Maura. She would never give me advice directly about acting, but the questions she asked me spurred me to think, “Oh, yeah, I’m in control of that.” That was a big thing. Kennedy In talking to you and Kate earlier, Liz, I know that even now, after almost 40 years, you still have to struggle sometimes to keep the doors open. I wanted to ask, how much do you think that has to do with your not playing by the rules that the theater world observes? Keeping critics at arm’s length, for example. LeCompte I think, early on, I didn’t understand why the critics came in the first time you showed something. To me, coming from the art world, that was weird. But now I realize how present and immediate and time-based theater is. If the critics miss what you’re doing, if you miss that moment, then you have to wait for another time for them to discover who you are and what you’re doing. And then they will only have a memory of the earlier work to connect with the present work. Visual art is different. You can see the same work over and over again. With theater, you see a work once
and it’s over. The presence of the audience is theater. Without that, it’s not theater. I didn’t understand how to work with critics early on. When I worked with Richard Schechner, he would say, “I’ve got to go meet with so and so from The Times, and I’m going to tell him what the piece means.” And I was like, “Are you allowed to do that!?” He must’ve thought I was out of my mind. Right from the beginning, I thought that such a system was corrupt. Then I got into this thing with Richard about the fact that critics didn’t have to pay to see a work, publications getting comp tickets and so on, and he actually went along with my thought on that. [laughs] So we wrote to The Times and said, “Critics are going to have to pay.” I think that was the beginning of the end for me—they did pay, but they were very reluctant. And then I think there were aspects, from my very first piece, that people just couldn’t understand. It’s a little bit like painting, where there are certain structures that some people just don’t relate to, and there are other structures that they do. There was a structure here that critics, the main critics, couldn’t seem to see. It looked like mush to them or something. Kennedy Even Times critics like Mel Gussow, who wrote a lot about avant-garde theater?
“Liz was sitting there and said, ‘This is my favorite part, right before we go on.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because everything could fall to pieces.’” —Maura Tierney
LeCompte Mel Gussow came to see several of our pieces and said something like, “Take away their funds immediately.” And they did! But it wasn’t so expensive to make theater at the time. We could actually exist on the box office that was coming in and tours. Valk Well, there was much more of an economy around small performance venues. The arts were more located in the East Village and SoHo. LeCompte It was located there because it was cheaper. In the ’80s, when the art market went way up, the art community moved away from performance, so I had to make some kind of a shift. I would say, “Let’s run for four weeks, and then ask the reviewers to come to the show the last few days.” Then if a review was bad, it wouldn’t affect our box office. We didn’t need their reviews for our reputation because Europe was supporting us at the time. After the Berlin Wall came down, we were really supported by a consortium of European producers who would invest in new work. Kennedy You had more support there than you had in New York? LeCompte Oh god, yes. After Rumstick Road, the Times gave us a good review. But The Village Voice— what’s his name? Michael Feingold. Valk We used to call him Michael Find Fault. [laughs] Kennedy Do you think part of the negative reaction was because what you were doing was closer to performance art, and that didn’t work for some critics? LeCompte I think that’s part of it. They didn’t see it, didn’t see my system. You know how you can look at an artwork and have a sense of what the system is? Like if it’s a Pollock, you get a sense of layers of design interacting with each other in space, right? But some people just see drips. Kennedy There was something in an interview with you in The Believer in which the writer said something about the ideal production for you being one in which there was no audience! LeCompte No, I need the audience. They are essential. I
have to admit, sometimes I have to sit in an audience that I sense has no idea what I’m doing. But that discomfort is what I work from. I face it every single night. It’s always a conversation between me and the audience. Kennedy At times in the company’s history, you’ve been criticized for things that people read as culturally insensitive, pushing things up to the point where tough questions had to be asked. Can you talk about that a little? Valk The experience we had with Cry, Trojans! in 2015 had a chilling effect on us. Our production, which was based on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, had a Native American motif. It had this imagined tribe; we worked with a Dutch artist on the costumes and the props. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get to do it again because of the viral shit storm about appropriation. LeCompte Folkert de Jong, who designed the costumes, imagined some kind of mythic tribe for us—“tribe” with quotes around it. Kennedy Cultural appropriation is such a highly sensitive topic now. That’s something that you’ve been around for a long time, but I’d think it’s probably more hard-core now. LeCompte It is harder core. The difference is that people used to have to come see the thing to get upset about it. Now they don’t see it; they see only a picture. Valk Or hear about somebody else’s reaction on Twitter—somebody who didn’t see it either. LeCompte Before, when we did Route 1 & 9 (The Last Act) , which had actors in blackface, we would talk about it with the audience afterward. It was a very painful dialogue because there were a lot of people who were very upset. It was not in any way a traditional blackface routine; it was based around [the black vaudeville comedian] “Pigmeat” Markham’s routines juxtaposed with the last act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town on the televisions. So it was blackface, but it was in that world of fantasy where you can’t quite touch it. The Pigmeat Markham routines were from an
album of his that I loved. At the time, I was into reproducing artifacts from the past. Kennedy I found a review of a revival of the play in which The Times used it as an occasion to describe the Wooster Group as a company that “unflinchingly contemplates psychic disintegration, chaos and violence” and “represents the darker vision of New York’s theatrical avant-garde.” Which I assume doesn’t make fundraising any fun. Could you tell me the story again about the prize you recently got—the one that essentially saved you? Valk That was amazing. We were all in the office. It was three years ago. And we had an almost $300,000 deficit. We were desperate. We were going to have to just lay everybody off. I said, “Come on, guys. Let’s just get on the phone.” LeCompte To beg for money. Valk And the phone rang, and Liz answered it… LeCompte I answer the phone and it’s a guy from Chase Bank. I start to yell at him, “You guys won’t even give us a loan, you fuckers!” He keeps going, “Hello, Liz LeCompte?” I can’t believe I did this. [laughs] Valk She’s yelling on the phone, and then she stops and says, “Really?” And we’re like, “Come on.” And then she starts crying. And we’re like, “Oh my god.” We thought she was faking. LeCompte It was $300,000 for winning the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize [awarded to artists who push boundaries and effect social change]. The foundation was wonderful to us; it was a very positive experience. Through them, we met people from the Booth Ferris Foundation, who helped us out with The B-Side. It didn’t send us off into the golden future for five years, or even one year, but it wiped out the deficit. It was a life-saver. Tierney Okay, next question: I want to hear Liz’s recollection of meeting Kate. LeCompte Can’t remember. Tierney When was the first time you worked with her as an actress? LeCompte I don’t remember that either. Tierney The story I heard is that Kate went to the Garage, and Liz was sitting outside reading the Enquirer. [laughs] Kennedy The National Enquirer?
Tierney Yes. LeCompte I don’t remember ever reading the Enquirer. I would have loved to have been there. It’s a good story. Valk She was! She was sitting on the sidewalk with Libby Howes, a woman who was in the Wooster Group at the time. LeCompte That was really what I was reading? Valk You were sitting on the sidewalk, flipping through the Enquirer. I came down because a friend of mine from NYU had been volunteering in some way, like pasting pages of a script or something. I had already met people from the company at NYU. We had made a little piece together, and I had a real connection with Ron Vawter. I was a little bit intimidated by Liz because she was so formidable as a woman who was an artist, and things revolved around her. I said to my friend, “I would like to volunteer for them, too.” And she said, “Well, come down with me and meet Liz.” Kennedy You were still an undergraduate at that point? Valk No, I had graduated. I was working as a seamstress at the time. So when I walked up to Liz, she looked up at me and said, “What can you do?” And I said, “I can sew.” And she said, “Oh, great. Come inside. Could you duplicate this gown?” It was a blue satin gown that had been in Rumstick Road. And so I duplicated that gown, and then after that she asked me to make a lampshade. I just started making things with her and assisting her on scripts and anything. LeCompte My favorite thing was going up and down Canal Street with you, hunting for props and things like that. And you would never say a word. Valk I wasn’t a performer yet. LeCompte I was not so socially inclined myself. So the two of us actually bonded on things we were working on. Valk And that’s why I’ve never left the company, because I have access to all of that. In film, I wouldn’t get to decide how the curtains look. That’s somebody else’s department. I can’t say, “Shouldn’t they be sitting over there? Why are they wearing that?” I’ve always had access to that with Liz. Like I said before, we all are involved in what we’re going to do together in all of the departments— it’s a wonderful amount of liberty.
Poet, essayist and gallerist Mario Diacono, on the cusp of his 90th year, has led one of the most unusual lives in postwar contemporary art, beginning with his first gallery in Bologna in 1978, where he showed Arte Povera artists like Jannis Kounellis and Pier Paolo Calzolari. In the 1980s in Rome, he became involved in the revival of painting, showing the work of many important Neo-Expressionist artists, and he later opened spaces in New York and Boston. In 2007, with the closing of his final gallery in Boston, he became more fully involved in the Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, the private museum opened that year by the family behind the Max Mara fashion company, a collection he has helped shape for more than 30 years. But throughout much of his life in contemporary art, Diacono has led an extraordinary parallel existence rooted in the distant past, as one of the world’s foremost collectors of books and manuscripts devoted to alchemy and occult philosophy. The following are edited excerpts of a recent conversation between Diacono and the curator Bob Nickas, conducted in Boston, where his library resides.
This page: “The Seven Days of Creation,” from Gregorius Anglus Sallwigt’s (Georg von Welling) Opus Mago-Cabalisticum et Theologicum (Frankfurt, Germany, 1719). Opposite: “The Rebis (Androgynous),” from Salomon Trismosin’s Aureum Vellus (Rorshach am Bodensee, Germany, 1598–99).
By Bob Nickas Photography by Oresti Tsonopoulos
Mario Diacono and the arts of alchemy
From top: Gian Enzo Sperone, Francesco Clemente and Mario Diacono, Rome, 1980. Diacono reading Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, a book that Vito Acconci told him was important for his work, 1972.
set foot on a boat before. In any case, first of all, I wanted to see the Venice Biennale, and I don’t know how, but I managed to get into the press preview. There, I heard about the exhibition of an avantgarde American painter, and I soon found myself in the Jackson Pollock show at the Museo Correr, I think: it was bouleversante, as the French would say. BN Overwhelming. MD Yes, and to this day it remains the most memorable exhibition I have ever seen. Anyway, having remained unmoored in Venice, I started to spend my mornings in the Marciana Library. At that time, before entering the main reading room, you would pass a row of vitrines in which were exhibited some of the library’s most spectacular possessions. Among them was a Greek manuscript from the 10th century, open at a double page with two highly enigmatic images, the Ouroboros and the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra. BN Not to be confused with the queen BOB NICKAS of Egypt, but Cleopatra the We’ve been friends for more than alchemist, one of the few women 30 years now, and I’ve known that involved in the practice, and of you collected books on alchemy course the Ouroboros is the snake and how foundational they’ve been eating its own tail. MD for your mind, but until you For some weeks, every morning I recently published a catalog of was stopping in front of these them, I didn’t realize the extent of images, interrogating their meanthis fantastic collection. Among 126 books, the earliest is from 1523, ing. When, in 1964, I found in the and there are many rare titles—one window of a Roman antiquarian bookseller a 1925 Italian book I recognized right away, Daniel titled On the Historical Sources of Defoe’s A System of Magick; or, a Chemistry and Alchemy in Italy, History of the Black Art—and and a short time later a friend, another with a particularly resonant provenance, Essais de Sciences Emilio Villa, pointed me to the Italian translation of Jung’s Maudites, by Stanislas de Guaita, Psychology and Alchemy, that which came from the library of André Breton, author of Surrealist Venetian interrogation kept coming back incessantly. Manifesto. How did your interest BN in alchemy come about? MARIO DIACONO And this obsession, if I can call it When I was 20 years old, in June that, led to your collecting these of 1950, I ran away from home, books? from Rome, and went to Venice MD with the romantic idea of embark- More than an obsession, it was an ing on a ship sailing for India. That unstoppable investigation. But I didn’t happen because, once at the didn’t start to buy original herport, I was asked if I had a card metic/alchemical early editions showing I was a member of the cum figuris until I had some real maritime union, but I had never money of my own.
BN Cum figuris—with illustrations? MD Yes. I began to buy these books with the money I had earned teaching 20th-century Italian literature at U.C. Berkeley from 1968 to 1970. BN You were there in a very heady time. The Free Speech Movement had spurred a real engagement with protest, particularly against the war in Vietnam. Reagan, who was then governor of California, was hell-bent on crushing the student movement. You told me once about a demonstration for People’s Park, when you and a young friend were warned by a National Guard to leave or else you’d end up being arrested. The Guard had been ordered to surround the demonstrators so the police could arrest everyone. MD Soon after we left, hundreds of students were arrested and had to spend the night lying on the ground of the parking lot of the police station. “The Fascist Gun in the West”: that’s what Reagan dressed as a cowboy was called on posters put up all over San Francisco. BN How do you remember your time at Berkeley—politically, socially? And who do you remember from there? MD I was aware of the Free Speech Movement before I went to Berkeley. Actually, that was the very reason why I chose this university over others. Politically, I was following from a distance the activity on campus of my favored groups, the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. Socially, I started doing what my students were doing, smoking pot in the evening and taking acid on Sunday morning. BN Mario! I didn’t know that. Going to high mass on Sunday! MD Art-wise, I met Ronald Kitaj a few times, who was teaching there and whom I interviewed for the Italian magazine Collage. I was impressed by the films of Bruce Conner, and I visited regularly the exhibitions of
Illustration from Charles W. Leadbeater’s Man Visible and Invisible (London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1907).
“The man in charge of scientific books at Quaritch, who had become friendly with me after I had bought other books from him, told me: ‘If you don’t buy it now, I will sell it to Umberto Eco.’” —Mario Diacono San Francisco’s galleries. Besides the time spent in the library for my graduate-student classes, I went to all the anti-Vietnam demonstrations—“U.S. out of South-East Asia! ROTC must go!”—and almost every week to a Fillmore West concert. The most unforgettable one was Jim Morrison. Every Sunday I visited one of the museums in San Francisco. Nothing is more rewarding than going through a museum on acid. The artworks, especially Chinese and Japanese scrolls, come alive, become fluid—you enter them and become part of the representation. It’s not exactly 3-D, but you may call it an LSD vision. Really, it was the entire social, political, musical environment that I soaked up for almost three years there that caused in me a sort of biosophical rebirth. Nothing has been the same for me after Berkeley.
BN I know you well as a wordbreaker/word-maker. Biosophical. You were thus equally and at the same time reborn biologically as well as philosophically. Back then, were you already wearing the many amulets that you always have strung about your neck? Anyone meeting you, even for the first time, can see that there is occult knowledge about your very person. MD I started wearing them when I was in Berkeley, probably influenced by the hippie syndrome, but “occult knowledge” is too strong a term. I am a son of the Enlightenment. At the time of the Enlightenment, having esoteric knowledge was not a contradiction. I have never been part of any occult practice. I’ve only been deeply interested in European esoteric iconography and thinking, just as I have been in prehistoric, tribal, Indian and Tibetan Tantric iconography—in the sacred/secret side of history. The amulets I am wearing are in gold, silver, bronze and iron. I carry them as symbols of the ages of Man. BN When did you go back to Rome from the U.S.? MD In the summer of 1970. As soon as I was back, I began to visit antiquarian booksellers and bought my first book of magic/alchemy. This was the first of the two volumes of the circa-1580 edition of Cornelius Agrippa’s complete works, published in Lyon, which contains his De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres, published in 1531, of which I have two copies, and also includes the first edition of the apocryphal fourth book titled De Caeremoniis Magicis. BN Who was collecting books like these at the time, and how expensive were they? Also, you once
told me that you only started a gallery to make money to build your library of rare books. I half believe you. MD That’s half, or even a quarter, of the truth. After Berkeley, I started to collect at the same time early editions of alchemical/hermetic books and first editions of 20th century avant-garde books. Of the latter, I mostly collected Futurist, Surrealist and Bauhaus first editions, buying more in depth the works of Marinetti, Antonin Artaud, Duchamp. This collection I sold in 2000 to Ars Libri, when I decided to close my gallery in Boston, concentrating afterward on the alchemy books, which were becoming rarer and rarer and more and more expensive. When I started buying them, I didn’t know anyone who was also collecting them, except my friends, the former gallerist Arturo Schwarz and the artist Claudio Parmiggiani. With Parmiggiani, we were running all over Italy in his car to check out as many antiquarian booksellers as we could find. Around 1990, I learned from a London bookseller that Umberto Eco was also collecting these books, but except for meeting him a few times, I can’t say we had a friendship. BN Your mention of Eco reminds me to ask, going back in your story for a moment, about your relationship with an important literary figure when you were younger, the poet, provocateur and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, although his movies came later. I believe he helped to publish your first poems. When was this? MD I was friendly with Pasolini from 1955 to 1958. In 1954 I had published a review of an anthology of contemporary Italian poetry, singling him out as the strongest
This page: Incantation bowl, Mesopotamia, sixth century. Opposite: Diacono in his Boston home, September 2019.
voice of the new generation. On the basis of this, I was introduced to him by another poet, Sandro Penna, to whom I had been close for quite some time. Penna and Pasolini used to scour the Roman suburbs together, and out of both curiosity and friendship, I followed them a few times. I began to visit Pasolini at his home to discuss his poetry, and in 1956 he proposed my poems to a magazine editor with whom he was very friendly. So he was instrumental in the publication of my early poems in the magazine Galleria. Our relation unfortunately ended when I wrote, in 1958, a review that was critical of the magazine Officina, of which he was co-editor. We simply stopped talking after that. At the same time, my literary interests were moving in a direction radically different from those of his circle, even if I had always recognized him as the preeminent poet of the 1950s, out of which I also came. BN This shift in literary interests was certainly clear—and maybe
foreshadows your interest in art—a decade later, in San Francisco, when you published the chapbook JCT, based on Mallarmé’s poem “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance).” You interpreted this as purely visual typography, the words having been completely dispensed with. Although the book is dated 1968, the precise date of printing is November 1969. This has such direct correspondence with Marcel Broodthaers’ visual interpretation of the same poem by Mallarmé, which he published that very same month and year in Cologne. What are the chances of that! These two books produced simultaneously a world apart. On your title page there’s a bit of wordplay I’ve never asked about: a METRICA n’aboo lira. The capital T in METRICA is printed in orange, while the rest of the letters are black, so there’s a play between metrics, or poetry, and America. Since you were in a radical environment, Berkeley, at a radical time, 1968, were you suggesting
that something has been abolished in America? I’m also reminded in this of the filmed interpretation of the poem by Straub and Huillet, “Every Revolution Is a Throw of the Dice.” MD 1968 was a year in which many things were abolished, or felt tempted to be abolished. Language was one of them, at least the traditional language of poetry, but also the language of “bourgeois/ capitalist” society. Berkeley is also present in the book through the reproduction of three frames from a cartoon in a local magazine, which functions as a kind of preface. The title alternates not only colors, black and orange, but also uppercase and lowercase letters. The wordplay in essence says: the absence of metrics, of language, will not abolish poetry. Neither will the American taboos. As for the gap between the year of composition and that of publication, it was due to the lack of funds. All my books of poetry have been self-financed, so I needed time to put together the money to publish
it, because I was also buying books. In 1968, with my first salary from U.C. Berkeley, I had bought in San Francisco one of the 110 copies of Robert Lebel’s Sur Marcel Duchamp. BN You say nothing was the same for you after Berkeley, and it’s clear that between 1958 and 1970, you were transformed, or to use an alchemical term, there was a transmutation. Back in Italy in 1976, after teaching for four years at Sarah Lawrence College and writing a book on Vito Acconci, you opened a gallery and more avidly continued collecting books on alchemy. With your first gallery in Bologna, who did you show? I ask because a number of the artists associated with Arte Povera, most of whom you knew early on, created works that some have seen in connection to alchemy. MD I opened the gallery in January 1978 with a single “painting” by Jannis Kounellis. In my second exhibition, there were two sculptures by Parmiggiani. The third
was a group show titled “Per una politica della forma” (For a Politics of Form), which included Pier Paolo Calzolari, Jannis Kounellis and Mario Merz, with a single work by each. In this show, Merz’s piece was Nove Verdure (Nine Vegetables), for which every week I had to go to a market and buy fresh vegetables to replace the ones that had begun to spoil. Of the Arte Povera artists, besides Parmiggiani, as far as I knew then, only Zorio was interested in alchemy, and I never had a chance to show him. BN Among the books you collected in the late ’70s, which are the most rare, and do you remember about what you paid for them? This, of course, is a lead-in to my asking, what’s the most expensive book you ever bought? MD The most important book I bought in the ’70s was Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae, from 1609, which I acquired in Rome in 1973 for 500,000 Lira—about 3,700 Euros
today. On this book, by the way, Umberto Eco published an excellent bio-bibliographical essay in 1989, “Lo strano caso della Hanau 1609,” which became widely known after its 1990 French translation, “L’énigme de la Hanau 1609.” The most expensive has been Salomon Trismosin’s Aureum Vellus, 1598-99, bought from Bernard Quaritch booksellers in London, I think in 1992, for 20,000 pounds, which I got by selling to Achille Maramotti, for exactly that amount, a group of Acconci drawings that Vito had given to me for having done his show in Bologna in June 1978. The man in charge of scientific books at Quaritch, who had become friendly with me after I had bought other books from him, told me: “If you don’t buy it now, I will sell it to Umberto Eco.” BN What is it about alchemy, esoteric knowledge and magic that fascinates you particularly? Do you see it relating to your interest in contemporary art, and how has it informed your writing on art?
“Nothing is more rewarding than going through a museum on acid. The artworks, especially Chinese and Japanese scrolls, come alive, become fluid—you enter them and become part of the representation.” —Diacono Among gallery owners, you are the only one I know who wrote an essay for every exhibition presented over 30 years. Of all you have absorbed from the books in your collection, and of course much of this information is visual, what have you brought to bear on the art from the ’70s until today? These books, which have been in the world for centuries, and are in your hands in the here and now, suggest to me nothing less than a form of time travel. MD Yes, it was for me a form of “possessing the past.” I consider alchemy—the alchemy practiced in Europe from the late Middle Ages to the late 18th century, the humanistic Europe—a post-Christian mystery religion that disappeared at the birth of the modern world, which we can date to the 1789 French Revolution. The transmutation of lead into gold was not that dissimilar, as a process of secrecy and meaning, from the rebirth of the acorn in the Eleusinian mysteries. We can never be totally sure if it happened or not. This mysteric element is fascinating. A process aiming at a “perfectioning” of matter, at a transmutation of one matter into another, implied a coupling of magical thinking with technical thinking, implied a vision of the world alien to any scientific explanation. Alchemy was an interrogation for which the manuscripts and books we are left with attempted an answer. The answer was different from book to book. The difference becomes immediately evident in the images present in all of my books. They are different from one another, just as works of art are. In a hermetic book, the author of the images is not materially the author of the text. The images are almost always not an illustration but an interpretation of the text. So, over about
500 years, you can see an evolution of the alchemical image that is coexistent with the evolution of art. The essence of the alchemical image is that it is most often symbolic. It’s this quality that is supremely intriguing to me. And it’s exhilarating when I find this quality implicit or explicit in artworks, both ancient and contemporary. BN With the return of figurative painting in the late ’70s, early ’80s, when you began to engage with artists through exhibitions, did these qualities at times appear in what you chose to show? The artist who comes immediately to mind, although I know you wrote about his work only in ’89, is Sigmar Polke. With your second gallery, in Rome in the early ’80s, who were you showing? And were you able to build your library more readily in this period? I ask this knowing that of the 126 books you assembled, only a dozen came from antiquarian shops in Rome. I assume you found many of the books in your travels, and I imagine some, on occasion, were bought at auction. MD To answer the first part of your question, I almost cringe every time I see the notion of alchemy associated with contemporary art. They are two incommensurable entities. Alchemy was a religious metallurgy, a philosophy-inspired technique, an investigation of matter, which cannot be related to any contemporary typology of chemical manipulations. In Polke’s paintings, for instance, there may be an enactment of chemical and technical procedures that involves more imagination than science, but there are no actual or factual connections to historical alchemy. I may have occasionally resorted in my writing on artists to the language and the concepts of
alchemy as mythical references, but I never intended to make a direct claim of comparable status. Alchemy in contemporary art can be referenced as a foundational myth but in no way appropriated as a model or even an archetype. I remain anchored to the conceptual distinction I made in the 1950s between the images of the codex Marcianus Graecus 299 in the Marciana Library and Pollock’s painting Alchemy in the Guggenheim collection. In my Bologna gallery [1978–79], I mostly showed Arte Povera artists, while in my Roman gallery [1980–84], I mostly showed Neo-Expressionist painters: Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Francesco Clemente, Mimmo Paladino, Nicola De Maria, Bruno Ceccobelli, Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Eric Fischl. I would say, however, that the strongest part of my collection was built while in the United States. As you mentioned, having an art gallery at a time when there were impassioned collectors did provide me with funds that I would not otherwise have been able to earn as a college professor at the time. BN Although there are only about 20 books in your collection published in, and just on the cusp of, the 20th century, there are a number of standouts, maybe because the authors are more recognizable to those of us who are not exactly initiates, but also because of the subject matter. Erik Satie’s Sonneries de la Rose + Croix ; two Charles Leadbeater books, one on clairvoyance, Man Visible and Invisible , and The Chakras ; Aleister Crowley’s The Equinox ; Jung’s Psychologie und Alchemie ; and, last but not least, P.B. Randolph’s Magia Sexualis
Diacono with Michael Maier’s Symbola aureae mensae duodecim nationum (Frankfurt: Lucae Iennis, 1617).
. Did you see your collection coming to a conclusion as the books approached our time? In a sense, in terms of your recoil from relating alchemy to contemporary art, maybe there can be no further evolution, as you mentioned a moment ago, of the alchemical image, because in our time, the books can be only studies of the studies of the subject. MD After the French Revolution, there were, at least as far as I know, practically no more alchemical books with engraved illustrations. That’s a sign that there were no longer the social, cultural, religious, spiritual and philosophical conditions for a meaningful practice of alchemy. The 19th and early 20th century books you mention are not about alchemy but about “occult philosophy.” Once the chance of an agency aimed at changing—at perfecting matter—vanished, there was a
cultural shift, a tension to change man. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence or reemergence of the magus, the individual who, through language, verbal or visual, and through action tries to change, perfect or degrade the life of other individuals. This culture of magic then vanished too, with the human devastations of World War I and the social upheavals that followed. With the exception possibly of the sexual magic of Maria de Naglowska and Aleister Crowley, there starts an epoch, initiated in the late 1920s by the two books of Fulcanelli and still going on, of studies—and, as you say, studies of the studies—of alchemy and magic. There is too much science and too little sacred, today. There is no sacred science. There is no longer a true belief in the power of the stars to influence human destinies. We are out of the territory of magical thinking.
BN Are you still looking for books for your collection? Is something especially missing? MD I am probably still looking. I recently found online, from a bookseller in Toronto, a book I had been in search of for decades. The digital script for my catalog was already at the printer but I was able to include it at the very last minute. At almost 90, I didn’t want to further defy the scythe of Saturn, the god of time and the planet/star under which I was born. I needed to publish the Bibliotheca as an indirect autobiography. BN There’s no holy grail that has eluded you until now? MD Actually, I know of a crudely assembled magical manuscript from the 16th or 17th century that, somewhere in Europe, is still insistently looking for me.
THE HIKERS (a ballet)
Opposite: Two Standing Broken Men, 2019; ceramic tile, mirror tile, spray enamel, bronze, oil stick, branded red oak flooring, black soap, wax; 95.75 Ă— 71.88 Ă— 3".
The idea for this film was born of time I spent in Aspen, a few visits there and some long hikes that I took. The ideas of escape and escapism have been in my work before, and being in the mountains, in the wilderness, brought those subjects back to mind. Being there also made me think about diversity and about access to basic human things like space, nature and beauty, which can come to seem like luxuries depending on who you are and where you live. Then another trip brought the narrative into focus, in an unexpected way. I was in Mexico on vacation with my family at a resort. Another black family sat down beside us, and I realized it was the sixth day we’d been there and the first time I was seeing other black faces besides those of my family. We sort of just looked at each other and smiled and said hello and talked for a bit and went our separate ways. It wasn’t an encounter so much about cultural familiarity as about literal familiarity. You don’t really know anything about another person, but you do know that they look like you—or more like you than all the other people around you—so you feel an inevitable connection. When I came up with the idea of two male hikers walking in opposite directions and passing each other on a trail, it was, in a way, a story of platonic love that I wanted to tell. I wanted a sense of two people falling in love with each other for a quick moment, unexpectedly, because they saw themselves reflected. It’s not a romantic love. It’s just about seeing something that gives you a deep feeling of recognition and joy. In the choreography, I wanted to focus on the two dancers reflecting each other in a way that almost suggests
Stills from The Hikers, 2019; 16mm film transferred to digital with sound; 7 minutes, 4 seconds; dimensions variable. All images and artwork: © Rashid Johnson. Courtesy the artist.
a mirror, the two men wondering at first whether they’re looking at a reflection. Dance has been present in my work for so many years, but not ballet specifically. There’s such a sophisticated set of narrative traditions through movement in ballet, and I wanted to experiment with that history. But an argument could be made—and I think the choreographer Claudia Schreier would probably agree—that this isn’t really a ballet at all. When I did the short performance film The New Black Yoga in 2011—five black men dancing on a deserted beach—that wasn’t really yoga either. It was about hijacking something and making it feel like something else in my own language. For The Hikers, I played around with editing and shooting techniques, slow fades and double exposures, that have a ’60s or ’70s feel, like something with a so-called avantgarde feel you might have come across on public television back then, late at night or early in the morning. It felt a little like steampunking, mixing in older processes to give it a sense of floating in time. I made this piece after finishing my feature film Native Son in 2018, and that really led me to catch a narrative bug. I didn’t have much of a storytelling interest prior to the movie, but I’m very involved now in thinking about the arc of a plot and about characters. I unabashedly felt a deep closeness to this film after I made it. I still feel very affected by watching it. It might seem strange for an artist to express affection in such a way about his own work, but this piece feels almost as if it exists outside of me, as if it sprang from my mind by unconscious powers. —Rashid Johnson
By Ben Lewis Photography by Wolfgang Stahr
David Zink Yi and the language of ceramic cephalopods 96
The glazed ceramic sculpture Untitled, 2019, in Zink Yi’s Berlin studio. All artwork: © David Zink Yi.
Full Fathom Five
About 20 years ago my friend Frank-Peter Lehmann, a director of photography who lives in Berlin and has filmed many of my documentaries, invited me to see the student show of one of his friends, a guy from Peru who was studying in Germany. As we wound our way through a series of exhibition rooms at the Universität der Künste, Berlin’s famous art school, the unlikely sound of salsa music grew gradually louder until we were confronted with a spartan room with three video projections at different heights, an installation by Frank’s friend David Zink Yi called De Adentro y Afuera (From the Inside and the Outside). At first it looked random. Each image was a different part of the body performing the music—a mouth singing, a pair of hands playing the clave, a pair of feet dancing the steps of salsa. Each screen was placed at the height of the relevant part of the body. It was such an odd pairing, Minimalism and salsa. There was a wry literalism to the installation, and an irony in the contrast between the coolness of the conceptual art setting and the heat of the music. As an art critic who had spent years trawling galleries, biennales and fairs, I was struck by how many strands of thought such a simple piece raised. In my mind the work kept evoking sets of binaries: eyes and ears, North and South, high culture and popular culture. I shared some of the enthusiasms of Zink Yi’s work: I have a long shelf of Latin jazz records at home, which I’ve collected from flea markets around the world. In the years since that show, David studied percussion in Cuba and fell in love with a dancer there, whom he married and with whom he now lives in Berlin with their two daughters. He formed his own Afro-Cuban jazz band, De Adentro y Afuera, and produced numerous videos and installations that deconstruct the polyrhythms of the Afro-Cuban music tradition. Frank worked with David in Cuba on some of the video projects, and upon his return, he’d tell me of the simplicity and perfectionism of his single-take shots. They were far different from the fast-cut interview-and-archive documentaries Frank made with me. In one of David’s pieces, Pneuma (2010), a trumpet player exhales a single note for as long as possible, the bell of his instrument covering his face so that you see only his hair surrounding it. To make another of his video installations, Why am I here and not somewhere else—Independencia II (2013), shown this year at the Liverpool Biennale, he isolated each musician in a different room of a hotel as they performed a single musical composition, hearing each other on headphones. “When you separate them, you suddenly realize how this is all put together,” he explains. David sees jazz and its variants as perfect symbols of the relationship between individualism and cooperation, between regulation and expression.
• • •
David was born in Lima, Peru in 1973. His parents were the children of immigrants—Chinese on his mother’s side, German on his father’s. One of his earliest memories is of visiting his paternal grand father, a barrel-maker, at his place of work. “I
remember walking around these huge wooden barrels, 20 of them lined up in a warehouse,” he says. “When I saw a Richard Serra for the first time, it reminded me of that, with the scale and curvy walls that you get lost amidst.” In the 1980s, his family moved to Kenya for his father’s job with the United Nations Development Programme. At 16 years old, he was sent to Germany to study culinary arts at a technical college in the small German town of Laubach. “I grew up on the Pacific Ocean, and then suddenly I was alone in Germany, surrounded by that really green, deep German forest,” he recalls. “I had a part-time job in this bourgeois German restaurant. It was a world of schnitzel, not octopus. I could hardly speak German. Life consisted of a daily encounter with something strange.” He soon abandoned the kitchen and began taking courses in math, theology and art. “I remember going to my first Documenta in Kassel with my art class, and thought, ‘What the fuck is this?’” he says. “I saw work by Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter, Johan Grimonprez and Lothar Baumgarten for the first time, but I was also reading Jack London’s White Fang and dreaming about wolves.” At Universität der Künste, he studied under Baumgarten, whose coolly documentarian photographs and politically engaged installations had a heavy influence on his artistic formation. “He was a very intense, intellectual artist,” says David. “He talked about art with greater sensitivity than anyone else I have ever met.” In 2003, even before he had finished his masters, David was invited to stage his first solo gallery show by Johann König in Berlin. Paul Schimmel, then the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, bought one of the works, and Artforum gave the show an admiring review. Institutions began opening their doors: his video installations were shown at Künstlerhaus Bremen in 2004; at Manifesta 5 in San Sebastián, Spain in 2004; Le Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse, France in 2006; and Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2006, by which time he was 33. But the austere framework of video could not contain David’s imagination for long. He began to assemble a small vocabulary of vivid personal icons, scaled up to monumental proportions. In the early 2000s, he started exploring cephalopod-inspired forms, casting large-scale ceramic octopus tentacles. In the mid-2000s, he designed Mexican fan palms cast in stainless steel, towering more than 10 feet high and crowned with sharp fronds. In 2010 he fired a ceramic sculpture of a giant dead squid in the huge kiln of the European Ceramic Workcenter in the Netherlands. The piece opened a new formal and literary avenue in his art. It was mimetic and mythological; to my mind, it alluded to the Kraken sea monster of Scandinavian folklore. David’s art has meant unexpected and poetically contradictory things for me—emotional and theoretical, playful but rigorous, minimal yet figurative, fantastical but material, eclectic but coherent. It folds into itself several current art trajectories, with its minimalist forms, conceptual presentation, process-based abstraction, postcolonial reflectivity and unashamed illusionistic spectacle, but in a way that is uncalculated.
This spread, clockwise from top left: Ceramic glaze samples; works on silk sheets; ceramic works in progress.
• • • I have seen David off and on over the years. Mostly we would talk about jazz. Then he seemed to go to ground. Frank told me he was busy setting up a new studio where he could make and cast his ceramics on an even bigger scale. Last October, I traveled to Berlin to visit him at the studio as he prepared for a solo show at Hauser & Wirth’s gallery in Zurich. Since we last met, David’s unkempt beard had acquired streaks of gray, like my own. The new space is large enough to contain a forklift truck, as well as a crane and belts for heavy lifting. On one wall is a grid of maybe a hundred slug-like forms, each with a different multicolored ceramic glaze. Two enormous octopus tentacles tower up, one still under construction, a warren of supporting interior walls exposed under a gray slab of skin and nodules, the other fired and glazed, gleaming as if it had just been hauled in from the sea. In the corner stands the engine room of David’s ship, an enormous industrial kiln, festooned with an intricate array of piping, dials, gauges and fuse boxes, like a set piece from a Jules Verne production. He bought it secondhand from a ceramic factory in Holland. Moments after I arrive, he launches into a breathless description of what he’s been up to since last I saw him—repurposing the tools, machines and processes of industrial ceramic production for art’s sake. Experimenting with new recipes for stoneware, glazes and firing temperatures, as well as new shapes for dies or molds, he wants to push the boundaries of ceramics, toward a Richard Serra–like monumentality. He presses a button on the side of the kiln and the door rises automatically with a buzzing noise, like the entrance to a spaceship. He is using the kiln to make what he sees as a magnum opus—nine ceramic octopus tentacles, each the size of a small car. Even with the help of several assistants, the project will take several more years to complete. “It takes three months to dry and one week to fire a single tentacle,” he explains. “The first time I did it, I couldn’t sleep.” David wants to show them all together in a single space. “The visitor will walk through these giant arabesques,” he says, “guided around the space, dwarfed by the scale of them.” The outlines of his exhibition planned for Switzerland were still in flux at the time of our meeting. He points to stoneware “line drawings” made from spaghetti-like tubes of ceramic extruded from an industrial die. They remind me of Hans Arp and the outlines of primitive aquatic life forms seen
in great magnification. A piece on the floor, a clay strand arranged in a loop the loop, looks like the jet trail of an acrobatic performance at an air show. “I work with one single tube of ceramic,” he says. “Then I work with seven or more assistants to twist and wrangle it into the shape. I try to be gestural in the moment of creation, and then let it be. The sculptures are performative.” In one corner sit a number of small towers of torn pieces of clay slabs, folded, bent and manipulated into vertical structures, splashed with different colored glazes, evoking de Kooning as much as formations of coral. “To me, they look like ghosts, and maybe that will be their title,” he says. Long geometric ceramic forms, sloping crescents and an inverted V about six feet long, glazed a bright white, lie in another part of the studio, looking like industrial minimalism except for the minor undulations in the surface that give the works an unmistakable organic quality. Large sheets of silk hang from an I-beam, with complex swirls of color printed on them, like oil floating on water. These are enlargements of one-centimeter-square sections of David’s glazes, photographed with a medium-format camera. “I’m thinking of maybe draping them over those white geometric pieces,” he says, gesturing toward the long ceramic forms. Trying to imagine how two such different works might be brought together, I picture printed silk flowing like water over barriers.
Why am I here and not somewhere else —Independencia II installed at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, 2013, 11-channel video installation, 108 minutes, dimensions variable.
“I grew up on the Pacific Ocean, and then suddenly I was alone in Germany, surrounded by that really green, deep German forest. I had a part-time job in this bourgeois German restaurant. It was a world of schnitzel, not octopus.” —David Zink Yi
From left: Neusilber (New Silver) installed at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2015, stainless steel, 139 × 39 ⅜ × 37 ⅜". Still from Pneuma, 2010, 16 mm film, 1:23 minute loop.
• • • David tells me of a childhood memory of eating octopus in Peru, where it is a national dish, and thinking how beautiful it appeared on the plate. “There is this ambiguity between something organic and something abstract, with all those knobs on it,” he says. But his original interest in the animal goes deeper than shapes and colors. “I was reading a lot about postcolonialism and poststructuralism,” he continues, “and it made me think about how we take forms and use them in art. Some people think this is an illustration of something, but it’s about appropriation. I chopped these pieces up myself, and then I let the tentacle just fall in different ways, to make the cast. It was beautiful.” As David researched the subject, familiarity with the mysterious creature gave way to unfamiliarity. In particular, he read Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (1987), Vilém Flusser’s hallucinatory, philosophical, semi-biological book about the vampire squid, in which Flusser speculated on how such a creature might think. Cephalopods are intelligent beings, able to solve all sorts of puzzles in lab conditions, but their brains are not in one place. They have billions of neurons in their arms,
each of which can operate independently. “The octopus is the creature that is furthest from us biologically,” David says. Most critics and curators like to talk about his work within discourses of the body and identity, but for David, the octopus hovers between something that is a symbol of his Latin American identity and something completely other. When I suggest to him that he seems to be attracted to things he doesn’t understand, he agrees. “I think this is the most important thing in art,” he says. “You go there, where things are new or things are different, and you try to understand why is it that you don’t feel comfortable, and you try to understand the other. That is what drives me.” The octopus is an operative metaphor for Zink Yi’s work—a hub from which different distinct, autonomous roads depart. David, however, isn’t interested in a theme to unite the work. “Many times curators have said to me, ‘I don’t get it. What does this have to do with an octopus or with a ceramic piece?’ Or, ‘Why are you doing photography now?’” he says. “It’s hard to explain to them how it all comes together, or why it can all be work from the same artist.” Late in the afternoon as our conversation winds down, he goes over to his laptop and shows me YouTube clips of performances by favorite Latin American jazz musicians. “There is this short but complex rhythmic structure that is repeated over and over again, and it keeps order,” he says about Julio Barreto’s drum solo in a live Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quartet set. “Within that, everybody’s trying to find his own expression in the intervals between the expressions of the others. Sometimes each player is doing different things at the same time. The drummer is doing this with the left foot”—he taps out the rhythm with his foot—“and this with the right hand, and then this between the left hand and the right foot. And then beside him, the piano player is dividing right and left in a way that makes you think there are two piano players.” Which inevitably brings to mind octopus tentacles, each with its own brain, operating independently but also together, together creating an unfathomable higher intelligence.
In the corner stands the engine room of Davidâ€™s ship, an enormous industrial kiln, festooned with an intricate array of piping, dials, gauges and fuse boxes, like a set piece from a Jules Verne production.
Selections from the nomadic early work of Annie Leibovitz
On the Road
Previous spread: Sly Stone, Highway 5, California, 1973, gelatin silver print. All images: © Annie Leibovitz.
Apollo 17, the Last Manned Mission to the Moon, Cape Kennedy, Florida, 1972, nine gelatin silver prints.
Work from “The Early Years, Archive Project No. 1.”
Works from “The Early Years, Archive Project No. 1.”
Work from â€œThe Early Years, Archive Project No. 1.â€?
Mustang Ranch, Reno, Nevada, 1972, nine gelatin silver prints.
Highway 101, California, 1973–1975, four gelatin silver prints.
Work from “The Early Years, Archive Project No. 1.”
Works from “The Early Years, Archive Project No. 1.”
Clockwise from top left: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, 1977; Half Moon Bay, California, 1968; Annie Leibovitz, Travis Air Base, Fairfield, California, 1969; Kibbutz Amir, Israel, 1969; four gelatin silver prints.
Although my mother took photographs all the time and then shot 8mm film, I didn’t really start looking at photographs or thinking about photography until I attended a night class on the subject at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I was a painting major. My oldest sister has said that she feels like my first camera was probably the window in our family car, and I think she’s right. Because my father was in the military, we ended up moving about every two years. We all piled in the car and drove from one place to the next. The view out the window, going down the road, framed how we all saw the world. My early work is marked deeply by the degree to which California is a car culture. I was young there, and it was exciting, and I imbibed it. For some people, it’s more important to have a cool car than to have a nice apartment. People lived in their cars. It’s very unlike the East Coast. Growing up in cars as I did, it just made sense for me to take pictures of people driving while I sat in the passenger seat, to make images on the move. The very first pictures I took were probably of my father driving. I’d be visiting from school, and he’d be driving me back from the airport. He’d say, “When are you going to get a good job?” That’s when we’d talk, in the car. He hardly talked to me any other time, but somehow, having his hands on the wheel, having something to do, looking straight ahead, must have freed his mind. It was a comfort for him to drive, and I’ve always loved it, too.
Looking back at this work, it’s very hard to pick out individual images. It feels more like a river. I had a camera with me incessantly back then. It was the way I thought. And I didn’t think about what I was doing, even at Rolling Stone, as journalism. It was always more personal than journalism. It was about what I was seeing. As a student, I was very influenced by CartierBresson; part of what appealed to me was how clear it was that he traveled extensively and saw the world. And of course, Robert Frank, another favorite, drove across the United States for The Americans. Those pictures are so much about the country as seen on the move. I view this work as black-andwhite sketching that leads into Rolling Stone and then the years at Condé Nast doing portraiture. It’s not like I’m looking any differently at the world now. I’m still compiling all the information that I once did, but now I’m making use of it in different ways, creating fewer images from the information, with more experience. In the work here, I was very young, and I was looking everywhere. Sometimes when I step away from it all, I ask myself, “Who is that person?” I try to reassure younger photographers by telling them, “Don’t worry. If you’re any good, you’re going to feel insane and obsessed for many years, but you’ll come out of it. You should persevere and be driven. It’s okay to be driven. See the world and be present in it.” —Annie Leibovitz
Nicole Stjernswärd’s colorful mission to make pigments good for the planet
Holiday Gift Guide 2019
At the threshold of winter, the Estate of Fabio Mauri introduces a satirical doormat that references the artist’s Zerbini (Doormats) series, first developed in 1994. In a nod to ideas explored in Mauri’s Schermo (Screen) series, the indelible cinematic phrase “THE END” is perforated into the center of the coconut fiber mat.
A translation of a 1991 Eduardo Chillida drawing from ink to yarn, this Geelong Lambswool blanket is the most recent result of the annual collaboration between Hauser & Wirth and Studio Roam, a bespoke knitwear atelier in Scotland that has worked to interpret the work of artists such as Arshile Gorky, Mary Heilmann and Eva Hesse. Produced in the historic textile town of Galashiels, Roam’s blankets are sumptuous in texture and design and made with natural fibers.
BARBARA SCOTT TOILETRIES
a more deliberate and sustainable use of products,” stressing the importance of preserving “human-scale speeds, honoring old practices, foods, traditions and biodiverse ways of life.” Ultimately, she hopes to collaborate with food industries and innovators in the field of biocomposites to create a waste-nothing-
use-everything-responsibly circular process for making pigments. “Being a creator in our current ecological crisis requires strong contextual knowledge and empathy,” she says. “We need to know not only who, what and why we are doing something, but also when, where and what impact it will create.” —Anna Shinbane
All images: Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
“I like to think of making colors like making wine,” says Nicole Stjernswärd, a London-based designer who has developed a new technology called Kaiku Living Color, an invention that uses plant waste to create powdered pigments. With degrees from Imperial College London and Royal College of Art in engineering and art, Stjernswärd has spent the past year collaborating with artists and scientists to develop sustainable alternatives to the toxic petrochemical pigments that dominate the industry, after becoming dismayed at the scarcity of modern scientific research about natural colors. “There is a huge knowledge gap between conventional industry and art practitioners who are trying to revive or use traditional practices, such as natural dying,” Stjernswärd says. “Many of the biological processes used in natural dying simply have never been industrialized.” By design, Kaiku—the Finnish term for echo—looks as sleek as a Scandinavian chair and as eccentric as an alchemist’s laboratory. The project’s industrially scalable technology can fit into a space as small as an artist’s studio or expand to a system as large as a factory; a network of oblong beakers and swirling coils vaporizes dyed water into dehydrated powder. In her research, Stjernswärd found that the genetic makeup of plants often produces unlikely transitions from flesh to dye: carrot tops produce faint yellows, avocado peels result in ruby reds, pomegranate skins surprise with lime greens. As with wine and other products shaped strongly by terroir, changes in climate and temperature also affect the final shades of the pigments. “You get these small batches of color that vary in their tone and intensity,” she says. “It’s quite fun to see what the outputs are.” The technology reflects a new occupational philosophy known as Slow Design, which prioritizes climate preservation over commercial uniformity. The movement’s mission, in Stjernswärd’s view, is to decelerate “the speed and metabolism of consumerism and promote
Photos: © Nicole Stjernswärd, 2019.
The aromatherapist Barbara Scott takes inspiration from the botanicals of the Scottish Highlands for her toiletry collection Albamhor, which takes its name from the new spa at the Fife Arms hotel in Cairngorms National Park. Steeping local herbs bell heather, myrtle, yarrow, juniper, thyme, valerian, rosemary and burdock in essential oils, Scott extracts a unique fragrance to season a vegan and chemicalfree formulation. The Albamhor line includes hand wash, lotion, body wash, shampoo and conditioner.
In collaboration with the legendary Italian design house Fornasetti, artist Anj Smith has released a special edition of plates adorned with the image of opera star and Belle Epoch icon Lina Cavalieri. Each plate in this set of three is decorated with an etching of Cavalieri—a hallmark of classic Fornasetti designs. The Irony and Pleasure plates depict the singer’s solitary eye, while the Ophelia plate reveals Cavalieri’s face in a swirl of platinum bubbles, a lighthearted allusion to the landmark John Everett Millais painting of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, subverting her drowning into a luxurious bath. The plates, made in an edition of 20, are signed by the artist.
BRĂTESCU PILLOW Embroidered and screen-printed, this vibrant linen pillowcase was designed by Romanian artist Geta Brătescu just before her death in 2018. Interpreting a collage from 2012, Brătescu created the textile in collaboration with the British charity Fine Cell Work, which trains prisoners in embroidery and quilting, providing a creative outlet as well as the development of professional skills and the opportunity to earn money.
Ed Clark (1926–2019)
JACK WHITTEN Ed, what’s your definition for art? ED CLARK I always wanted to be an artist. I always wanted to be the best. When I was in grammar school, I started with a lot of problems from the South. It was a black school. But by the time we got to the third grade, the nun asked, “Could you copy this and put it on the blackboard?” And that started it. I was the star of the school. Still to this day I’m wondering, what did that give me? JW So what are you trying to tell us about the meaning of your art? EC That I always felt I was the best. Even in Louisiana…at that point, I knew I was the best at copying. Other students were drawing bubbles for leaves when I was doing branches. I knew I could be the best. I’m not the only artist who thinks that way. JW What does that have to do with your meaning of art? EC I’m a painter and nothing else.
Photo: © Dawoud Bey.
Excerpted from a conversation between Clark and Whitten conducted in Clark's studio in November of 2011 as part of Bomb magazine’s Oral History Project, published in the magazine in 2014. Photograph of Ed Clark in his studio, c. 1981, by Dawoud Bey.
You could think of the winter 2019 issue of Ursula magazine—the first issue of our second year in publication—as our alchemy and color issue...