Skowhegan Interview Project
For the fifth edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Becky Sellinger (A '12) spoke with 2010 resident faculty member Martin Kersels outside a bowling alley in Yonkers, NY. This interview was coordinated and edited by Don Edler ('12).
Becky Sellinger: If you could just start by maybe introducing yourself and talking a little bit about your upbringing, I’d be curious to hear about how you arrived at making art.
Martin Kersels: Ok, yeah, I grew up in Los Angeles and had lived in Los Angeles continuously for fifty-two years. When I took the job at Yale, I spent a year going back and forth between Los Angeles and New Haven and since 2013 I have basically been living in the New Haven area. It is a very strange thing, given the kind of continuousness of Los Angeles and what Los Angeles sort of has to offer in terms of a landscape, a rhythm of a city, of literally a light in view, like how things are seen, vistas versus sort of the flatness I feel, at least around here. Mountains, real mountains, you know, twelve thousand foot mountains, which you sort of don’t see here. It’s been very interesting.
Early on I was interested in film and filmmaking and wanted to go to film school at UCLA, but I didn’t get in. So I wound up taking some sort of courses in video, with a woman named Shirley Clarke, who was a great independent, experimental filmmaker. She made Portrait of Jason, and she started working with video, working with Sam Shepard, and Joe Chaikin, and I was able to take a class with her, and she was not highly theoretical, but instead had this attitude of “you have this idea, well you should just go out, just go and do that. Don’t talk about it, just go ahead and do that.”
I had an interesting mix of influences and experiences, because I also knew a lot of dancers, and Rudy Perez, through a friend of mine who was part of the Judson Church back in the day. She performed there with Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, and so I had this sort of, you know, knowledge of dance, and experimental video. Visual Art wasn’t necessarily the thing I was most ground in. I was more interested in art that had dynamic motion to it.
BS: So did the making come later, was that––
MK: Making came – I went to art school, I eventually wound up, after not getting into film school, I started taking some art classes, and I started making things, and I thought it was great fun. Isn’t it fun making things?
BS: Yeah, yeah!
MK: When you can be in the kind of the groove of the project at hand, and the materials are working for you; and so as an undergrad I enjoyed making things. Painting wasn’t what I did, I always, when I took painting classes, I always turned paintings into projection screens or into sculpture or sculptural things, and I realized that sculpture was more interesting to me, but I didn’t really start making sculptures seriously until I went to grad school.
I was inspired by certain people like Tim Hawkinson, a close friend of mine, and I really loved his work, I would look in his studio and think ‘This is so good. I want to make work this good someday.’ So, that was an inspiration to me to really work, it sparked an interest in me to make sculpture. But that wasn’t until I was in grad school, which was, I was already in my thirties.
BS: So did you and Tim go to school together?
MK: No, Tim went to school with my wife Mary earlier, in the ‘80s, and I went to grad school in the ‘90s. I met Tim through Mary, and we were friends, Tim’s wife Patty and Mary and I and Tim would go out to dinner and we’d hang out, and that’s how I saw him.
I don’t know, it just was—I think for me, this sort of background of being involved with dance, and having worked in video and some film and taking photographs, these things all seemed like really interesting ways of approaching the making of an object; to be able to sort of try to use those different forms to, in order to infuse an object, a sculptural object, a three-dimensional object, with the qualities that I found interesting myself: movement, a great kind of graphic visuality, sometimes sound, sometimes, how shall I say, a sensibility of, an understanding of placement within space, and I’m not saying I had any kind of formula for this, but it just seemed like that these were the things that I wanted to incorporate into my sculpture.
MK: Does that make sense?
MK: I think, I hope.
BS: Yeah, no, it makes perfect sense; I think that the fusion of, or all of the – the dance thing is really interesting to me - I mean, one of my other questions is how that collaborative process works.
MK: You mean in dance?
BS: When you work with dancers, what does that --
MK: Well - have you collaborated?
BS: I have, but I find it to be kind of difficult, so I’m impressed with the amount of collaborations that you’ve done that are really successful.
MK: Mmhmm. Well, collaboration for me started in undergrad, when I collaborated with a couple of different people on a project. And those are my first collaborations. But when I graduated undergrad, I started doing performance with a collaborative group. And to me, it wasn’t that I want a collaboration because of X, Y, and Z. I was not so trained and knowledgeable, and I thought collaboration was an opportunity to work with people and continue learning. A collaboration’s a way for me to learn from others how something is done. Sort of like mentorship or what, what do they call it, internship or something like that, right? And as I got more confident within it, collaboration then changed from that feeling of learning to being open to having your own ideas questioned, or interrogated and also to let your ego go, give your ego a break, because someone may have something that works a little better for this aspect of it. Or to do the opposite and say ‘No, my experience tells me that this aspect will work better.’ And so it becomes an interesting interpersonal situation. It’s not just about art, it’s about this interpersonal situation. That can be highly emotional, and highly inflamed, potentially inflamed, people, I’ve seen so many collaborations blow up, because people are hurt, that, not because of the work, but because of just how you might go about approaching the work. I like having close, personal relationships with a few people, and working with a group of collaborators is a really close relationship. Not to say it was always easy. I usually collaborate with people that I know, I have collaborated with people I know less, and that’s harder.
BS: Have you ever taken dance classes?
MK: Yeah, yeah, I’ve taken dance classes.
BS: Oh, you have.
MK: But I never had the level of training dancers have. I was not committed enough, nor did I feel I ever had the body for that, or the desire. But I was interested in the pedestrian aspects of movement, and the everyday aspects of movement, and how you take that and turn that up a notch. And then you have these situations that point out our generosity or patheticness, or our heroism, or our failings, or our potential for failure. If I was going to be serious about dance, I think it would have been a different thing; I would have been more interested in my body as an instrument rather than my body just as this sort of carrier of these other emotional situations of being an every person.
On the other hand, I’ve worked with choreographers and I think now the situation is not so much about the movement for me, but about what I can do, or how I can work with the choreographer to make something to dance with, or against. So I make a space that’s activated, or something that is activated by their space of movement, and that’s interesting. I’m less interested in dancing.
BS: Yeah. Kind of like some of like what Allan Kaprow was talking about people walking around grocery stores pushing carts being modern dance.
MK: It’s funny, I mean, I think the grocery cart thing is an interesting analogy of the interaction of your body with an object, within a space, right? And how that thing is an extension of your body, and it’s there for ease, but it also blocks people, right, you block aisles and you hit other things, so it’s a cumbersome thing too.
BS: Like MarioKart. [laughter] Donkey Kong.
MK: Yeah, I think I’m interested in the sort of every day, because I don’t have that facility to be so focused to become an expert at one thing.
BS: Yeah. I think that that’s something that probably most people can relate to, and just talking about that in itself is interesting, equating the everyday to modern dance.
Speaking of the object and the body, I was really interested in the drawing, the flotsam drawings that you were doing and specifically the table, Table Skeleton
I just saw a talk by this philosopher Timothy Norton, and he was talking about anthropomorphizing, and he used this word called ‘tablepomorphizing,’ and I thought of that drawing that you did. Is there any part – because you’re always thinking about the body and the object, do you think that a table could tablepomorphize us [Kersels laughs] in the same way that we anthropomorphize a table?
MK: [laughs] Like have it work the other way around? Well, what I was interested in with furniture and the body is that furniture is sort of this index about the body. There are these books of standards for furniture, like what the height of a table should be, or within what range a coffee table would be. I’m not saying that all those standards are paid attention to by everybody, but when you see a table that is thirty-two inches high and thirty-eight inches long and twenty-four inches wide, you go ‘that’s a specific sort of table.’ These measurements often reflect where our bodies bend, and what the table would be used for, or what our expectations of the table would be, so it’s sort of this index.
Now, thinking about it back the other way, the furniture does – it’s made by us to do something, but it also makes us do something. Say a coffee table for example, you don’t pull up a bar stool to eat dinner at a coffee table. The table makes us do something specific, meaning sit low.
It’s something for me to think about in general, but I think the drawings were about the comparison of how something is made and what our bodies do with it. And in Western culture we eat at a dinner table while in Japan you might sit on tatami, you don’t sit in chairs. Why does that happen? And not that I have any answers for that, and not that I’m necessarily trying to answer to that, but I am sort of interested in my experience with furniture. Like being a big person, when I go and sit, I think about, is this chair sturdy enough? Right? Is this chair too low or too high for me to sit at a table? Is this position of this table within this room, is there enough room for people to walk around me if I sit here. I’m constantly negotiating these things when I enter a space. First thing when I went into this space, I looked ‘if I sit here, am I gonna be in the way of this person?’ So, there’s a little bit of that, too, this kind of anxiety around knocking things over, breakage, being too big to live in this world. [laughs]
BS: Yeah, that kind of sets up a pretty, I would say, acute awareness of those sorts of things that you’re dealing with.
MK: Yeah! Yeah, body boundaries! The boundary of the body with, its interaction with the world.
BS: I want to lead into questions about the body and the history of the use of the body in comic language, and your relationship to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin – are those people that you relate to at all?
MK: Oh yeah, Keaton over Chaplin for me, because I think Keaton seemed like a sadder sack. I related to that. His physicality was amazing to watch, some of the things that he did, and his timing and deadpan, you know, deadpan reactions really hold me to the screen. But certainly physical comedy, I mean even something like The Three Stooges. I remember, the first time I saw a Three Stooges I had strep throat and I was in bed, a friend came over, and he said, ‘Well, let’s watch TV,’ and The Three Stooges were on so he turned it on and I laughed so hard I think it set me back on my healing for a few days.
I haven’t figured it out completely for myself, but, there definitely is a connection for me between humor and not necessarily physical pain, but something psychological or emotional. It certainly is there for me and it certainly runs deep, and I think not just with myself.
BS: Yeah, no, totally.
MK: And I think that’s where, for me, when I think I’ve made my best work, it gets a response from people. I think that’s where it’s touching people.
BS: One thing I thought was interesting about Chaplin, I just recently heard this thing where he was quoted as having said that he was afraid of the cartoon because cartoons don’t need time to breathe, so they could do his tricks better than him? I sensed a kind of sadness in that, and now thinking about new technologies and how they’re kind of displacing our bodies [Kersels laughs] I’m wondering if maybe that’s part of a psychic sadness?
MK: Well, so it’s sort of a sense of loss. Like a loss or an inability to live up to something?
BS: Yeah, there’s like a lack or something, because we’re not, we’re being——
MK: We’re superseded by technology in some way——
MK: Or some aspect of our lives, say, the idea to create laughter——
MK: ——is now, is easier to usurp with a cartoon.
BS: Yeah, or with a meme. It is easier to create laughter with an Internet meme, than it is with your physical body.
MK: Well, I think that might be true, but I’ve realized what I want to do is to become more personal, rather than broader. A meme on the Internet can be enjoyed by fifteen million people, right? Well I’ve begun to realize I have no interest in competing with that. I want to be happy with a kind of slowing down, a narrowing, becoming one with what I do and be happy with the people that I do reach, and do effect. And not try to go, well, if I’m effecting this group of people, I could expand that if I do this, and if I can, then maybe get an Internet presence, then I can expand even further, and further. I’m not trying to salve the pain of the fact that a cartoon can do something I can’t do, it’s just then, what can I do that the cartoon can’t do?
BS: Yeah. So what is that?
MK: I think relate to people personally. And respond. And try to understand people as individuals, and not as demographics.
BS: Yeah, that --
MK: Sorry, that was a really long-winded way.
BS: No, I don’t even remember what the question is at this point [laughter] but your response was great! I was also sort of hoping that’s how you’d feel. Can you talk a little about the spectacle? Does that come up in your work? Do you ever feel what you’re doing is creating this spectacle around yourself?
MK: I think there was a moment when it kind of was heading that way, or the potential for it could have been that way. But I don’t think I ever—I was a neophyte compared to when others started to do that. In terms of creating a spectacle, I realized that that wasn’t something that I was interested in pursuing. And this was in a moment, when I was making big sculptures because I could, or making loud sculptures because I could. I’m not saying I’m not still interested in doing some of that, but not as a way of building, like that would be the thing I’d be known for, right? Building bigger and bigger things, and working my way up to fill the Park Avenue Armory or something, that’s not me. I reached a limit and realized; well, I didn’t realize what I wanted, I realized what I didn’t want. Now I realize what I want, and that is about having a more intimate relationship with an audience. As opposed to the audience of the spectacle.
MK: Because it’s two different things. And there’s nothing wrong with spectacle. I enjoy seeing spectacle sometimes. But a lot of times it doesn’t feed my personal interests. It’s ‘wowee zowee’—that’s a horrible thing to say—but it doesn’t always feed my interests.
BS: Yeah. I’m curious about that relationship, because there is something about your work where sometimes that content will come in, like the use of the clown imagery, or I don’t know, there’s something there that feels like it’s not part of the function, but it’s part of the content? Do you think about the idea of the spectacle, even if it’s in relationship to society?
MK: How do you define spectacle for yourself? What makes a spectacle?
BS: Something that you can’t take your eyes off, or maybe appeals to some kind of craze. Maybe this is a far reach or something, but I’m even just thinking about the older works—in the piece that you’re yelling at the water [Kersels laughs] or something. It just made me think about the kind of spectacle of - or how politics is often referred to as a circus or this kind of magic trick that could be used to gain power. So maybe that’s not a clear question. But then there’s also like this feeling of futility, or belief.
MK: I think that’s a nice way of putting it, of putting yourself out there with the idea that it’s maybe futile. [laughs] Like, the idea of yelling at the water is an example of that. I guess when I think of spectacle I think of so much going on that assaults the senses that it’s maybe considered ‘total art’ or something, or we can call spectacle total art, that it’s just everything hitting at you, you don’t know where to look, you don’t know where to respond to. One bit of information is sort of overriding and blending with another bit of information, is how I guess I was thinking about spectacle.
Maybe that is just me sticking to a more strict definition or something for myself or what I built. If in terms of talking about something that you can’t take your eyes off of, or that draws you in, I don’t know if I see that. I see that less as spectacular, but more seductive. But seduction doesn’t necessarily take the form of soft whispers. We are seduced by any number of kind of stimuli, and it can be light and it can be a good beat, it can be something shiny, it can be a good aroma. Maybe when you’re talking about when it draws you in, that it doesn’t necessarily lead you, it maybe frustrates you. Because it’s drawing you in, but making you think of futility. Or it’s drawing you in and making you think of something painful, as opposed to drawing you in and pleasing you in this way that soothes you. But it draws you and makes you in some way conflicted. Maybe that’s spectacle!
MK: I think for me, I’m sort of more interested in creating situations that are sort of almost like dynamic binaries, where something that is attractive in some way, whatever that is, leaves a sense of uncertainty within it. It’s not on the nose. It has no sense of closure. And therein lies the dynamic creates the tension in a work.
BS: Yeah, questioning a perception or something.
MK: Yeah, something like ‘this is so funny, but wait a minute, it also seems so sad!’ And I love that, because it just is such a reflection of, you know, so many of our experiences in life. An example is the happiness of seeing somebody you like and then, hearing them talk about something awful that’s happening to them, like when you find out their relationship is falling apart. It is ‘like oh, I was just happy a little while ago with you, not a care in the world – now, this is happening to you.’ And to be able to do that within an assemblage of materials that aren’t sentient and don’t have experience, if you can do that. That’s kind of amazing. But it maybe can only be amazing to .1% of the people who see it——
BS: Yeah, but that’s the most important audience. [laughs]
MK: Well, I mean, yes——
BS: [laughing] I was kidding.
MK: But yes, as an artist, right? As the maker of that. But as a person in the world, as the artist in the world, there are other things are important also, and so, I’m not trying to say ‘This is the only way to do it,’ because I know that there are these other pressures, and ideas, and issues, and that artists have to contend with, all the time. That’s what makes artists’ jobs hard. Because they have to contend with this idea of communication and usually in a kind of non-verbal, non-interactive, non-, usually, in an intimate way, but with their materials at hand. And they have to struggle and figure out how to do that; at the same time they have to struggle and figure out how to, you know, live. And——
BS: Do their laundry.
MK: And do their laundry; have relationships; and also probably how to do ok at work, because you probably have something else you gotta do. And all those things. For Artists, we pay for our pleasure. That’s for sure. In ways that aren’t just counted in denominations of ones, tens, twenties and fifties.
SKOWHEGAN INTERVIEW PROJECT
For the fourth edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Jamie Felton (A '14) spoke with 2006 participant Sarah Cain at her studio in Los Angeles. This interview was coordinated and edited by Don Edler ('12).
JF: Can you talk a little bit about your experience at Skowhegan in the class of 2006?
SC: Yeah, it’s weird, I haven’t thought about it in a while, but I’ve been thinking about it since you guys got in touch. I’m actually going to go see Andrea Zittel this weekend. Andrea Zittel and George Herms are two people that I became really good friends with and am still close with. It’s interesting to think, ten years later, who you’re still friends with.
And I didn’t know either of them before, so that was great, and I don’t know, I think I’d be much better now, as a faculty, than I was as a student. I would do it again, but it was really painful for me. I do not really thrive in communal settings without alone time. And it was kind of terrible. Take the room I had: I only had like a foot and a half between me and the other woman who I shared the room with. I only did two nights there, and I was like, fuck this, and I had brought a tent with me, so I slept in a tent for two months in the upper field.
I also slept in my studio a little, but I kind of had a nightmare time. My studio got infested with mites, and I fought really, really hard to have that studio, because it was the only private one that you could close yourself out. But mites overtook this bird’s nest outside of the studio and they were everywhere, and they eat paper! It was disgusting, there were hundreds of bugs crawling on my body, and I went to the dean. They were like, ok, city girl. And I grew up on a dirt road!
I felt like I was gonna lose my mind, and once they realized that I wasn’t crazy, I was able to switch studios, and then also I had my first really big commercial and museums showsright after, so I came from grad school into that——
JF: UC Berkeley?
SC: Yeah, and UC Berkeley paid for Skowhegan, too, which was nice. It was one of those things. But I had a tremendous amount of pressure on me that I had to produce, so I couldn’t–I mean, I’m not really a big partier anyway, but I couldn’t do that.
So, I mean, it was kind of brutal, but I did make some really great work. And I’m still friends with Donna Huanca and Gretchen Scherer.
Remembering my routine, I would wake up and drive to get breakfast at this diner where their WiFi code was NASCAR? [laughter] And that was my morning. Then there was a sports bar where I’d go and get iced tea in the afternoon, I would go to this health food store, and——
JF: Wow, you escaped a lot?
SC: I did, I was a total escapist.
JF: Oh my gosh, the way I handled that was I just picked the studio that was furthest away. I was just way up by the cow fields——
SC: I went up there.
JF: Yeah, and the cows would always eat up all my drawings. [laughs]
SC: Oh, oh, that cow field! Yeah, that’s where Gretchen was. Oh yeah, that was intense! I thought you meant up by the upper field.
JF: Oh yeah, no, I was just by the cows.
SC: Oh yeah. Yeah. [Felton laughs] That was cool up there, I liked it up there.
JF: Because I still got my alone time in. It’s hard.
SC:—being on a schedule to eat—at the same time——
JF: With like seventy people?
SC: It’s fucked up. I mean, it’s really good for people—because I went to school in San Francisco, mostly. It’s a really good way to meet more of the art world and stuff, but at the same time, like the bullshit of going to Columbia or Yale, it extends onto Skowhegan, and that kind of bums me out. The prestige around it—even though it is, it’s amazing, there’s really nothing else like it—although really, it’s really a crap shoot who gets in. I think I applied four times.
JF: Yeah, me too. Where are you from originally? You mentioned that you [laughing] grew up on a dirt road.
SC: Oh, upstate New York. I grew up in Columbia County. It’s by Hudson.
JF: Oh, ok. That area’s kind of booming.
SC: It’s crazy, people I know live there now, from my own world, cause I grew up poor there, and it’s really strange to see the art world there, and just——
JF: Yeah, a lot of my friends are moving there, if they can’t handle the city, it’s like, “well, I guess we’ll move to Hudson.”
SC: Well, I don’t know how long that’s gonna last, I mean, it’s beautiful, but the energy there is really dark, I think.
JF: Mmhmm. Does it influence your work at all, or do you think about that space?
SC: Probably but I honestly have lived much longer in California now. I left when I was fifteen, so I don’t know.
I was also thinking about the time at Skowhegan being about class, and it was the first time that the environment kind of helped me start to push through a class barrier that I think held me back a long time because of how I grew up. It makes me think of wealth and how much your economic class can influence your opportunities. The thing about the art world is there’s so many different ways that you’ll get in. You get in because you’re a great artist; you get in because you have great social skills; you get in because you have a shitload of money, or because your parents know someone, so when you move to New York they introduce you to someone.
JF: I feel like you come from a lineage of women, from Mary Heilmann to Isa Genzken to Dana DeGiulio to Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. Can you talk about where——
SC: I don’t know the third one. I looked her up once, and yeah, she made sense as a reference, but I didn’t know about her until someone mentioned her in an essay about my work.
JF: I didn’t think of Molly, either, until I read that, and I was like, “Oh, that makes so much sense!” because of the way Molly rips up everything and puts it together, uses collage, but you’re like a lot cleaner, and designed, or something, compared to her, or something.
SC: It’s funny, people say things about my design, and I think my work is formal, but there’s nothing to do with design in my work. I don’t think, at least. I always think people say “you are good at design” as an insult.
JF: Well, I guess design has been—because we think of like, maybe, like, Mondrian, like grids——
SC: Yeah, to me, that’s all about form.
JF: Yeah, and then design, I don’t know, design came in that——
SC: Design to me, means, I don’t know, Andrea Zittel’s someone I associate with art and design, and that’s a positive thing: she is reinventing and expanding it. The other thing with design is it’s so precise; like, you might look at my work and think there’s a geometric logic, but thererarely is. It’s this sort of visually faked sense of holding itself together.
SC: Yeah, I mean, I love Heilmann. She also went to Berkeley, and also almost got kicked out [Felton laughs] because of her attitude. I had a great—I’ve told this story too many times, but I had a great like sort of “oh, I get it” moment, where Amy Sillman invited me and Rebecca Morris, Mary all to have dinner with her, and it was like just seeing, ten years apart, seeing the possibilities. And I feel like Mary is permission, just in her, spunk and ‘fuck you-ness’ and same with Isa, it’s the total fuck you that I love in her earlier work.
Like the beach hut series? Or beach house? They’re these little shacks made out of paper and stuff. They weren’t in that show that just – where was it, was it MoMA? Whoever just did that show of her, they were missing. But I think it’s phenomenal.
But also – there’s definitely men in my lineage. I mean, but I’m hyper-aware of being a woman all the time, and also kicking harder, I feel like we have to kick harder.
JF: Yeah, I feel like we have to kick harder.
JF: Especially being a woman abstract painter, or something.
JF: Because we have, like, a long history of masculinity or something.
SC: Yeah. I just read – I don’t know who writes these, but somehow I read my bio, I think it’s on Artsy, and the last paragraph says that my mission is to overthrow the male lineage of AbEx, and I was just like [laughs], but it’s an even crazier sentence, I was like, whoa, that’s so nuts, I should maybe write to them, but also, eh, it’s true, so [laughs]. Why not?
JF: Yeah, it’s true, might as well own it!
SC: Yeah, and also, whose bio ends with that? So [laughs] it’s amusing. And if you actually read to the end of someone’s bio, you deserve a laugh, or something. [laughter]
JF: Yeah, when I think of LA women painters, I think of Laura Owens and Rebecca Morris and you.
SC: Yeah, they used to be my Google search images, and then when I started dating my boyfriend now, it’s – it’s all his ex wives! It’s him and his ex wives! It happened the day after he announced he was dating me. Which, if that’s not patriarchy at its fucking fullest. It’s like, how could a Google search of a fifteen year career be wiped out because someone says they’re dating me, you know? Yeah, but I mean, the good thing is, I’m madly in love, so it doesn’t bother me.
JF: That’s good.
SC: Yeah, and he’s a very – he’s actually the first supportive boyfriend I have ever had. He loves painting. He really believes in what I’m doing. I mean, it’s mind-blowing, I can’t believe I’ve had so many boyfriends and never had anybody who was supportive before.
JF: Yeah. I feel like I’m just always dating painters, and it’s more like a competitive relationship instead of like, “just go, go for it.”
SC: Yeah, even your own achievements, they’re like, “great, how can I get that?” It’s just such a toxic, weird—yeah. I never, I mean I hope I never date anyone else, but I’m never, ever dating an artist again. [laughter]
JF: Yeah, I’m like, I don’t really care what you have to say about my work. [laughter]
SC: That’s good. That was my whole attitude in grad school. It sort of still is my attitude; I feel like it’s just the way, in order to make great work, you have to be like, “Eh, I don’t care.” I don’t care what you think; I care about the work.
JF: Yeah, and I don’t think all my pieces are the best piece, either. I weed through it - it seems like you too just make a lot of work, and you just have to figure out which one – I don’t know how you work——
SC: No, I do, I edit.
JF:—I imagine you with tons of stretchers and you just have to go for it, and then you’re like, ok, now, how do I use this in an installation, or what’s the next step to the life of this painting, or does it just get re-stretched and cut up, or something?
SC: Yeah. Yeah, there’s a lot of recycling. I really love Ree Morton’s work, and she was one of the first artists that I saw early on that was like, “oh, she does that.” All her installations, you can see parts of it, and I like that there’s levels of the paintings. I’m actually consciously trying to make a little less work, I’m trying to do something that I don’t really know exactly how to say it, but I’m trying to hold, I’m trying to zone into the paintings so that they’re like a fuller punch or something, and then not show the ones that don’t fully arrive, which, I’m always very specific about what I show, but I make so much fucking work, and there’s really, I don’t know if there’s a need to make seventy-five paintings a year. You know?
JF: I don’t either. I actually just started this thing—I don’t want to make this about myself—but just making like five thirty-by-thirty stretchers, and then that is all I have for four months. And I am trying to research about what I want to paint more, and slow down the production. I usually just make a whole bunch of fast painting, and I’m not sure what I get out of that anymore.
SC: Do you research normally?
JF: No. This is a new thing where I think, because I need more, I’m putting source material in there, it’s not just like, what do I paint? or something, or where, like what do I do with abstraction? Do I need to go away from it? Do I need to paint things? Do I need to research someone else’s drawings to quote them, or——
SC: I don’t think so. I think that—I mean, you’ll find out——
JF: [laughs] Find out! [laughter] Keep going.
SC: Keep going, yeah—but also know that you can—well, know that you can break your own rules at any moment. I mean, that’s the best part.
SC: Because I do feel like people put too much emphasis on research. There’s a, I’m not even naming this person, but there’s a painter that people associate me with all the time, and I was just talking to the curator yesterday about how dumb it is, and they were saying, “Yeah, it makes no sense and they actually research and plan their paintings for months in advance,” and that, there’s no way it could be the same thing—I don’t believe in planning, and that’s——
JF: Is it more, like, intuitive when you just start going?
SC: Yeah, it’s all about quieting my mind. It’s about, editing out words and thought, too, and just emptying everything out, and painting it out. But I was thinking, too, because I listened to the podcast called The Conversation of Zak Smith, because someone asked me if I wanted to do one. And he was really smart and articulate, but said how he thought artists were the biggest podcast listeners, which I don’t think is true, but a lot of them do listen, and they get really obsessed with it. Painters and drawers, listening while they work, but I don’t understand that, I can’t, I listen to music obsessively, but it’s music that I know, and sometimes a new album will fuel a whole body of work, but it’s listening to the point where I know every single thing on it, and then it’s like the same thing as editing out my own thoughts. I couldn’t focus on someone’s conversation and make a painting and have the painting be present.
JF: Yeah, that feels like a different mind, or a different part of my mind——
JF:— that’s more like a critical, not like I’m being critical when I’m paint, but it feels more bodily when I paint, or something?
JF: And it just comes out naturally, or maybe like, rehearsed, choreographed moves.
SC: I think it comes out new or like that’s how you figure out shit you don’t know, cause you’re open to it. And I mean, there’s so many different ways of making art, but I feel like that’s important to how I make art, and then after the fact, the mind comes into it.
Even though I do work towards, ideas and themes. There usually is an overarching group of thoughts that’s happening within a body, but if I know too much then it’s like, ok, I don’t even need to do it.
JF: Or to figure out, what——
SC: What’s the point.
JF: That reminds me of Hal Foster’s The Expressive Fallacy, and about how expressionism is a sort of empty gesture, and I’ve been thinking about what a gesture means - does it still hold the weight of emotion or feelings or are these at this point, just marks, or——
SC: Well, that’s definitely not true for me. They hold emotions and feelings, but I think I’m outside of the large – I think I’m outside of, a couple of movements that are happening in contemporary art with abstraction, whatever that whole thing, zombie——
JF: Zombie abstraction?
SC: Yeah, it has nothing to do with me, and it actually probably is largely related to designers and the market. But that, to me, is people painting the aesthetic of abstract painting, and I don’t think there’s much talent needed to do that.
I used to do paintings that were a lot lighter but I moved through it. It’s not really easy to put me in a movement or categorize what I’m doing because I’m moving through shit really fast.
JF: I feel like you also hit so many other things, I couldn’t just place you in that genre because there is installation involved, and physicality and sculpture——
SC: Yeah. I think it was sort of a conscious decision but also it's necessary for me to feel satisfied. To me, if something’s already defined, then it’s defined and you don’t need to——
JF: You don’t have to add to it.
SC:—do it. Yeah, what’s the point.
JF: Art history, they’ve already added to it and they picked who’s doing it right now.
JF: What does your studio sound like when you work?
SC: It’s funny, I listen to a lot of hip-hop, but now that I’m here it’s quieter.
JF: It’s really quiet here! It’s like, I feel like we’re in the woods——
JF:—when I look out the window.
SC: I know, it feels like the country. It’s really great. The guy before me set the house up as a retreat, so it has this total retreat vibe. I like my neighbors a lot, and they are moving which is sad but I’m kind of excited because she’s very sensitive to noise, and she just told me that in passing, but I felt like it was telling me, so, so I’ve been better about——
JF: [laughing] Your rap music’s too loud!
Who are some of your influences?
SC: I fucking hate that question—
JF: Me too.
SC: For me it’s not other artists, and I think that’s kind of important to say. It’s not artists, it’s what I see, it’s plants, it’s what I’m listening to, what I’m reading, my relationships with people; it really has nothing to do with other art. I barely look at art magazines or it’s hard to get me to go see art, but I will for friends.
JF: How do you accumulate your sources? Do you draw a lot? Do you collect things?
SC: I collect things. I don’t draw. I mean, I don’t know, maybe the paintings on paper are like drawings, but I don’t think of them like drawings.
JF: They feel really physical.
SC: Yeah, they are, even in the surface. But to me they’re like painting in the vein of Indian miniaturism or illuminated manuscripts or something like that, where this is just bigger, bodily abstract painting, even though those are abstract too, but the difference between using a tiny brush and gold leaf and throwing, you know, acrylic latex paint is super different.
JF: Yeah. Do you just work with anything? Are you like, oil, acrylics, and anything that you find or collect, or do you have like a——
SC: All water base. I spray paint, but I don’t use spray paint. And the objects mixed in, a lot of them, I acquire. People give me shit a lot, which is a little bit of an annoyance, and I always say, “No, no, I don’t want it,” and they’re always like, “No, no, you should make a painting.” It’s this weird thing that happens, that I’m like, fuck, now I have more crap! For example, my father is so sweet, he sends me feathers, cause his friends have three Macaw parrots that shed——
SC:—every year, and they’re so beautiful, but I’m like, I do not want a thousand more feathers, but it’s also very sweet.
SC: And I have made some really cool paintings with them, but I would never buy feathers, you know?
JF: Mmhmm. You kind of just find things. They kind of just enter your life.
JF: Do you have any upcoming shows or big projects that you have in the works?
SC: I have a solo booth at a Dallas art fair with Honor Fraser in April which I’m almost done with, but then I’m working towards a September show with Galerie Lelong in New York. I’m gonna do a work on site, and paintings, and a small room of work on papers. I also just had my second book come out in conjunction with a huge recent work on site called The Imaginary Architecture of Love, it covers the past 3 years and 10 works on site, it’s being distributed by DAP.
JF: For your work on sites, do you draw, or do you have anything planned out, or you just know like, you have four walls and this painting’s going on one of these walls, or——
SC: Yeah, I don’t plan at all, ever, but this time I actually am thinking, because I want it to be fully a floor piece, and there’s a lot of things about having people walk on it, and sealing it, and the toxic nature of that, that I’ve considered making it in advance, though probably won’t.
It’s probably an extension to being a homeowner for the first time, cause I’ve been thinking about floors all the time [laughter] and I have complicated floors.
JF: Wow, a floor?
SC: Yeah, I think I’m gonna do it in pieces.
JF: That’s cool. So it’ll be floor and wall? Or just floor?
SC: Well, it’ll be floor and it will go up, a little bit up the wall, but then the paintings will be hung on top, so I like the idea that you’re just walking over the painting. And the thing with my works on site is you can’t walk on them, and it’s like, people always walk on them, and it drives me fucking crazy, and they never guard them correctly, so I want to just give in to it——
JF: Yeah, go walk on it.
SC: Do it! [laughs] Yeah.
JF: I’m wondering about your thoughts on the migration of New York to LA. Or like everyone is moving here.
SC: Yeah. It annoys the shit out of me. But, I don’t know, I mean I guess it’s good for LA; the galleries are probably good. I can’t even keep track of everybody that’s here. But I don’t like that downtown LA thing. It’s so douchey to me. And to me that’s like–when someone says design, I think of the designers in downtown LA, and I’m like, oh no! [laughs] It is so different!
JF: I think you like kind of walk this line, though, that’s like, it could be bad, but it’s not. It’s like a bad idea, but then it’s still, something makes it a good painting. But I can’t figure out what that is, or something.
SC: Yeah. Well, I strive to do that. I mean, I figured out, kind of about ten years ago, or rightafter Skowhegan, I figured out about not putting yourself in crazy turmoil to get to a conflict to make painting out of, and how to just start with an idea or something that’s so bad, and pull it through to be a good painting.
Yeah, but it’s also, it’s interesting, because I don’t know, I feel like people can’t dismiss my work that easily anymore, but in the beginning it was hard to get people to really see it as serious painting, because I am so fucking serious, [laughing] you know—
JF: Have you always done, installations, or did you start with just doing paintings, or how did it move off the wall into painting huge, crazy-big painting?
SC: Yeah. I’ve always done both. I actually did the works on site way before I ever did the canvases; I was against, like [points to wall], this size, I never would guess – sixty by forty-eight, I never would think I would do that, but then it became the challenge. To make a living room size painting and still have it be, you know, like a risk and a challenge and a fuck you and a celebration, all in one.
SC: But I mean, this is a long time ago, like fifteen years ago, after undergrad, I didn’t want to pay rent, or have a job——
JF: Me neither. [laughs]
SC: It’s really hard, so I had to figure out ways, so I found squats, or empty buildings, and I started making works on site in them.
SC: And that’s how I was doing it. And back then, you could fly with three bags, so I limited myself to that, and I would work, install at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, make nine hundred dollars, have enough to live—I mean, it’s like pathetic.
I was thinking about how little money I used to live off of, I mean, but also, there was times when I literally didn’t have food. [laughs] Or, we took, my undergrad boyfriend and me, we took a mattress out of a dumpster in Brooklyn. It’s disgusting.
JF: Yeah, that’s so disgusting. Was this like, because it was New York in the early 2000’s, like ’90——
SC: It was before Williamsburg was Williamsburg. It was still weird then. He found somebody—he’s a musician, and he found somebody who had keys to an old salsa club. So there was a speed freak in the back, but that was also like an extension of the 90’s, people did that. People probably still do that, but I don’t think they do that in Williamsburg. [laughs]
JF: Did you have any support during this time, like from a gallery or curator, or did you just go in and do it and document it all for yourself?
SC: No, I didn’t. I was really naïve. I had an older painter woman and her husband who let me live with them off and on when I’d run out of money. They had a big schoolhouse that they converted in upstate NY, and she went to Bard and stuff, so she knew about art, and she would show me art books, but my family doesn’t know much about art. I knew the art that I loved—and weirdly, I knew the gallery I wanted, and then I got that gallery in San Francisco, but like five or six years later, and even when that happened, it was amazing, because he had never worked with anybody that young.
I’ve always been super precocious, but the work’s always been like five years ahead. I’ll make it, and then five years later people catch up to it and they understand it, but right now, there’s not that lag time, people are actually getting the work in almost real time, which is very strange. I hope that’s not a bad thing [laughs] but it’s been, like the past two years have been anew transition, to see that happen.
JF: How’s that, like because there’s been so many shows, or so many——
SC: I’ve been doing a lot of shows for a while but now I just get so much press, and people actually understand it, and people—I mean, maybe because there’s more exposure, and because I’m in a major city, I’m just around people, so—but I think there is just more openness, or something. I don’t know, I don’t really understand why.
JF: Or maybe we, I don’t know, like are trying to push abstraction forward, in that dialogue, you’re, of course, asking those questions of how we do this.
SC: Yeah, timeliness.
JF: Where do we go with abstraction from here? What do we do with it?
SC: I don’t know.
JF: I don’t know.
SKOWHEGAN INTERVIEW PROJECT
For the third edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Don Edler (‘12) spoke with 1985 Resident Faculty Artist Betye Saar during her return to campus as visiting artist in 2014.
Don Edler: Do you want to start off?
Betye Saar: Yes—my name is Betye Saar I’m visiting Skowhegan from Los Angeles, I was a faculty member here in 1985.
It has been 29 years since I was last here, so I thought I would talk about memory. Like the ease of forgetting and the effort to recall, and how that’s working for me in this experience here at Skowhegan.
In the summer of 1985, probably late June, I might have been teaching at that time, when I finished up my obligations in Los Angeles, I took a plane from Los Angeles and flew to Boston and then from Boston, after a bit of a wait, I flew to Portland and then from Portland I took a very small plane to Bangor, the flight was very bumpy. It was a storm. It was a rather horrendous experience.
As I recall I got to Skowhegan late in the evening and at that time, I don’t know if they still do it now, but if you’re going to be a faculty or a student, you had to bring all your bedding as well as your clothing and so forth. So I had this big duffle bag of sheets and towels as well as my suitcase. The house that I was assigned was one of the things that made me think about how I wanted to talk about my experience. In 29 years, things change.
My effort to recall this experience was because my daughter Allison and I were walking along one of the roads down by the lake the other day and I recognized the back door. The back door was one of the few that opened to the yard. Most of them now have steps leading up to them, to enter or to exit. It was a small backyard and now there are trees, because in 29 years trees grow. What I remember about that yard was that it had strange wildflowers. There was a flower that was like a little Johnny Pop-Ups, dark color, really pretty. The other reason I recognized the backdoor is that it overlooked a house in the back that belonged to another faculty member. I think it was the person that taught fresco. There was a couple that lived there.
One of the things that I do when I can’t sleep at night, when I have insomnia, is try to think about the houses I’ve lived in, what the room placement was, where the windows were, and I go into more detail the less I can sleep. So I was trying to do that exercise. You enter the back door into a small kitchen and maybe there was a table. I remember the sink area and the cupboards. I remember one time we left something out and it attracted a mouse so I had to put a little trap out to catch the mouse and throw it away. Then there was a hall that you would go down and that was the bathroom. It had a tub with a shower attachment, then you would go to another very narrow bedroom which I kind of used for a studio. It had one window at the outside wall and a narrow cot so it could also serve as a bedroom. The hall ended in the front bedroom that was right on the shore of the lake. That’s the other thing I remember about it. It didn’t really hang out, because it was on land, but you couldn’t really walk around the house from that part. There were rocks around it, and water, and you could hear the lake lapping so that made a nice sound. Going back the other way, there was a small front yard of rugged grass and a small little step, not really a porch, not really a sitting porch but a platform to enter. You came into the living room and there were windows on the front and windows on the side. I thought it was a fireplace, it might have been a wood burning stove, but I like wood burning stoves or fireplaces so I remember that part. There were pillows and a couch and it was very comfortable. Behind that was another bedroom. And I slept in all of them. I would just move around. “Oh I need more air. I want to hear the lake” and then I had visitors, Alison and my other daughter Tracy came up and stayed a while. Alison had just gotten married, so she went back to New York to Tom, and Tracy stayed with me and we took a little trip to Bar Harbor just driving across Maine to see what it looked like. We were always hunting and gathering for materials.
There were some wonderful old dilapidated buildings that had been bookshops for a hundred years and there was always something in the basement, like handmade books, and things like that. I remember finding some wonderful books and old photographs and things, and there were good places to eat and so forth.
My job was to visit students. I didn’t like the schedule because it meant I had to see people early and I’m not an early morning person, but it was okay. I saw all the students, because you have to see every single one when you’re here as full-time faculty. I had a very nice faculty studio. I kind of remember that. You entered from the front and it had a nice wall that went around and there were windows on either side. I did an installation called, Wood and Object, I think. But it was all the wooden objects that I had found like picture frames and all the wooden things that people had made, because I’m attracted to naive art, handmade art, not uneducated but self-taught artists.
So that’s what I was looking for, and Maine, at least at that time, had a lot of that. In the other century at least, in the 1900s and so forth, women took sewing and cooking and men took mechanics and woodworking, so there were lots of things that guys in high school had made in wood shop and things like that, so that’s what I was looking for. Later on I did an installation at the Pennsylvania Academy called Strangers and Souvenirs about all the different things I had found in different places. But mostly handmade souvenirs.
DE: What do you think attracts you to those kinds of objects?
BS: I think because I’m a child of the depression, and back then many things were made rather than purchased. Like clothing: my mother was a seamstress so many of our clothes were handmade. And also as a kid I was attracted to strange kinds of architectural venues, like in the ‘30s, if a place sold ice cream they’d have an ice cream cone as a building or if it was a camera shop it would have been built in little camera. There’s a book about that.
DE: Yeah, Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi talks about that.
BS: Yeah. They were like secret fairy tale places. My grandmother lived in Watts so I saw the Simon Rodia building the Watts Towers and that was a really strong influence—not that I ever got up close enough to see it. But my grandmother’s house was on one street and we had to walk down the railroad tracks to go in the city and run her errands, and to see him building these strange structures, I don’t know it just touched something in me. Not that I dislike other kinds of paintings, but that’s just where that imprint came, witnessing that.
DE: I can relate to that - I feel that I make sculptures, if I were being really honest with myself, primarily because I enjoy making things. I like working with my hands. It’s something I learned from my dad growing up: he taught me how to build things in our garage, and that’s always stuck with me. I wonder about you, is it the building of the things and the tactile experience of making objects or is it the finding the things?
BS: It’s the collecting and the recycling. I didn’t know about assemblages until I saw Joseph Cornell’s work and that was the 70s. You know, I didn’t even know that existed as an art form.
DE: But you were already collecting before that?
BS: I was a printmaker and starting to do a kind of assemblage by putting prints in the windows.
DE: Were you collecting objects?
BS: Only the stuff in my house because we didn’t have a lot of money. I remember going to a really fantastic estate yard sale out in the valley, a man and his wife had had a photographic business in downtown Los Angeles and they never threw away anything. There were boxes of shirts they’d never worn and all sorts of things they collected and it was just stuff. So I bought a lot of that stuff. And Pasadena, California is my hometown so we were interested in going to the flea market there, and a flea market anywhere. There was one in West Hollywood where I lived. It was always about the hunt—sometimes it was about something personal that you find, like a scarf or jewelry or something but every once in a while you find something that somebody made. And I know that Maine had a lot of that. Places where it is kind of unpleasant in the wintertime, that’s one of the things you do. Women knit or guys make picture frames, you have to do something with your hands. Always looking and seeking, hunting and gathering, it’s one of our favorite occupations. Alison’s really good at it because she checks the paper every week and then we go out and find stuff. A lot of times we see nothing—not that it’s nothing, it’s just not something we collect—we don’t collect dishes or furniture. We collect collectables, whatnots, useless stuff, stuff that has a memory to it; that’s why I like the handmade things. I can feel the energy of the hands making the thing, even if I don’t know them.
DE: I think that’s a really important aspect of the art object, when it is handmade. It’s a quality that I look for and I enjoy. I’m not such a big fan of ultra-finished work that tries to remove the hand.
BS: Or some very popular artists today, they have like fifteen assistants. They make a sketch, they send it to their studio in China and they paint it. And it’s nothing. It’s sterile when you look at it. I like to see the brushstroke, even if it’s a smooth finish. Because you know the artists worked really hard to get that finish, and even if it’s a sloppy finish. It’s something that shows that there’s a human contact to the thing.
DE: Human contact. I like that.
BS: And then taking it from that, and building that energy, I recycle it to claim it. I combine it with something else or I paint it or I take the finish off and then that becomes the conversion or the manipulation.
BS: Yeah, the imagination, the imagination is first in the selection and the recycling of it, or the manipulation of the surface. Or combining, and the other part of the ritual, because I think about it as kind of a ritual, the hunting and gathering, the manipulation, or releasing it. Sometimes it’s for an exhibition or some gift or something else. And then you just kind of let go.
DE: Can you talk a little bit about the role of the imagination?
BS: I’ve always had a really strong imagination. I loved fairytales and when I learned how to read those were always the kinds of books that I liked. I don’t particularly like science fiction, but I do like things that twerk the imagination. Unfortunately now I don’t read many books but I like short stories, because that’s the only time I have, to read a short story. Because a book will seduce you and you can’t do anything until you finish it.
DE: It’s a funny problem.
BS: Yeah. But I love books. I have books displayed in my house, especially art books, where I just have them open to a page, and I’ll walk by and turn three or four pages or I’ll sit down.
I’ll talk a little bit about the books I have open. One is by an artist named Radcliffe Bailey. When I saw his work at the High Museum in Atlanta, I said “Oh my God, we speak the same language!” because he uses photographs, he uses memory, he uses ritual. So I got his catalog and I have it open so I can say “let me see what’s here.” That’s one of the artists who kind of influences me, just to see in a way that we’re kindred spirits. And then underneath him I have a really large sized book: old charts on astrology and the sky and old legends and nice big pictures of the sun and the sky and all the gods and goddesses that pertain to the sky.
DE: Yeah, you’ve used astrology a lot in your work.
BS: I started out when I was a printmaker. As a child I was always interested in the palmistry hand because during that time in the ’30s, gypsies roamed and they would always come to parks in South Pasadena and have their family conventions there. Of course in the last ten or fifteen years, the palmistry sign is everywhere and everyone is a psychic now, but during that time it, because they weren’t very well liked, or not trusted I guess, they had to keep moving, otherwise they would get run out of town or threatened or something. So I’ve always had that attraction for the palmistry chart. Where I live in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, and during that time, a lot of hippies were living there, and that was where we lived, and we went to love-ins at the park and dressed in long skirts and cannabis was growing in the back hill, and that was the life. And also in that life was an interest in metaphors, and an interest in palmistry and telling your fortune. “What’s your sign, man?” That still has a realm but it was really, really prevalent then.
So I started looking for books about that, and there were very few printed. There were some old, old books that had been reprinted but then I liked the idea of using them in my work, and using them graphically. With my piece "Black Girl’s Window" the top frame is about that, about the moon and the sun and the stars and how important they are with astrology and telling you what your destiny is like.
I never really got into it where I wanted to tell fortunes, other than just my own intuition about people and signs, because that’s always changing. But as you learn more about astronomy you learn that the stars are important, the moon is important, that the oceans’ tide really makes a difference to the planet and things like that. It’s not just some crazy cult like thing.
DE: It makes sense—we evolved to live on this planet and adapted to live in this environment and the moon is part of our environment. It affects us. I believe that, totally.
BS: Yeah. It does. Because when we haven’t had any rain, I get excited when it’s starting to rain. Of all the celestial bodies, I think the Moon is my favorite. When I haven’t seen the Moon, I’m like “What’s wrong? I haven’t seen the Moon in a week.” The Imagination is something that’s clicking all the time, just clicking all the time. Like for this talk, I was just walking around looking for the house I was in and I got the idea of talking about memory and how difficult it is. And how easy it is to forget. You have to do research. You have to look at papers. You have to look at old calendars, and just how much effort it is to recall something that you forgot just like that. (snaps)
DE: I think about that too but at the same time I think about how it can be really difficult to forget things if you want to forget them, something that you don’t want to remember.
BS: But then it gets into emotion. It’s an emotional kind of thing. You want to forget something bad, or something that you thought was stupid or something that somebody said to you that hurt your feelings. More than forgetting, it’s easy to forget, but then to forgive, you’re not really ready to forgive, so you keep remembering it. So you get the emotional complications of it.
DE: That’s a good point
BS: But back to my experience. So I had my little studio, and I was collecting these wooden things, hunting and gathering, and maybe I made some drawings and some paintings. Oh and I loved birch bark. I’d never been to a place where the woods were so plentiful so I kept collecting all this bark, and painting all this bark. At home in my studio I still have some bark from 1985.
DE: Wow, that’s old bark. (laughs)
BS: I know! It was just too good to throw away, to leave behind. The students that I remember, I remember more students than I can recall their names. Names are the easiest thing to forget.
DE: That happens. Yesterday you were talking about the work, your own work, that you keep around the house. You talked about I’ll Bend but I will not break.
BS: Oh yes, that came from the political series, which came before my visit to Skowhegan, because it really was hinged on the murder, or assassination, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The series started in the ‘60s, with my hunting and my gathering, I would come across these derogatory images, like postcards or salt and pepper shakers or cookie jars, so I just started collecting those. But then after Martin Luther King Jr., I just had this anger that was just overwhelming, and things were really bad in South Africa and it just seemed so horrible the way blacks were treated. And when I found this Aunt Jemima notepad, I was visiting a friend in Berkeley and we went to a flea market in Alameda, really big flea market, bigger than the one in the Rose Bowl I think, and I found this little metal figure of a mammy, an aunt Jemima, and there’s an indentation for a notepad and a place to hold the pencil, and people would hang these up in their kitchen. And I think I was talking about how Slavery had been abolished but still these derogatory images, slave-like images, were put in your kitchen, in your front yard to hold your horse, or to amuse you while doing something like cracking nuts or maybe functioning as a coin bank or something. And I said, I can change that. I can use Aunt Jemima. She’s going to be against the war of Racism. So I gave her a rifle, and in the pad in the center I put a postcard I found of a Mammy with a white baby. So I said, the baby’s skin is white but the features are negroid. So I said, this postcard is something else, this is about something else, it’s about the sexual victimization of the black woman. She belonged to the masters, so that’s the way that went, that piece is called The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.
That piece started off a series that recycled derogatory images. At the time I liked to make these little tabloids, something on the wall. For the piece you asked about, I found this wonderful wooden ironing board, and on it I superimposed a diagram of a slave ship, and an iron, it was like an old fashioned iron, not an electric iron, an old fashioned iron that you have to heat on the stove. I also used an image of a woman ironing. That piece is called I’ll bend but I will not break. So that was like my philosophy about coping with racism. You’re not going to surrender to it, you’re going to keep fighting against it.
DE: You gave that wonderful lecture the other day and you focused it around Black Girl’s Window and I was wondering if you could talk about how you decided to focus on that piece.
BS: I chose that piece because each panel has a story to tell, like my interest in metaphysic and palmistry and magic and there is a panel about my family. In this way I was able to talk about my family a little bit and show some art from them. I talked about death being in the center, and it wasn’t until I started thinking about that talk, and saying “Why is death in the middle?” that I thought, well, it reminded me of when my dad died. Death is always with us even when we’re alive, not that we have to think about it all the time, certainly when we’re children we don’t do that.
Even last night when I think about my costume for the costume ball, people asked, “What’s your title? what’s your name?” and I said “Madame Mort”. People probably think, “Man that chick talks about Death all the time.” I think about it maybe because I’m older, in the last few decades of my life, and it’s not that I anticipate it or dwell on it, I know i’m blessed because I’m in really good health, have good energy. So I guess that’s why death is in the center. Everything starts out from that. Or everything ends up at that. Maybe that’s more positive. Everything that surrounds it, ends up right there. Everything we love is gonna die. *Laughs*
DE: (laughs) That’s a little dark, that’s pretty dark I would say.
BS: But it’s true. And I don’t see it as darkness because that’s why it’s important to make something really beautiful, to do something really beautiful in your life. So you leave and you leave a beautiful memory. And that’s a positive thing.
BS: I think about my great aunt who was 94 when she died and I think of her vagueness. She was an adult, she wasn’t demented or anything, but I kept thinking there was a song that an old time singer sang, Peggy Lee, saying “Is that all there is?” and I think a lot of people end up like that when they’re in a hospital bed and they have a lucid moment and they say “Is this the way I’m gonna go out?” I always think of my life as a spiral, and some parts will overlap where the spiral overlaps, but it continues going around and around. It probably gets smaller and smaller instead of larger and larger. It causes me to think about, “Is this what I want to leave behind?” What is it that I want to do with my life?” and most people aren’t blessed with a gift, artists have the creative gift, they are really super blesses, whether music or words or art or whatever. The fact that you leave something behind, even if the viewer doesn’t know the artist, they still are inspired or impressed or enjoy what was left behind.
DE: I feel really grateful that I get to make art and one thing that is important to me about it is that it’s sort of a constant searching or learning process about myself. I’m learning about myself which is probably the biggest mystery in my life, understanding myself.
BS: Sometimes I do something, and I think this is another reason I chose Black Girl’s Window, because sometimes I reinterpret things. I look at my work, or someone else’s work and I think “Then why this? Why this picture here?” In that piece, I have the phrenology chart, which is I guess my interest in “other” in ”outside” in the unknown. and the more I thought about it, I thought “I’m gonna use that image for inspiration” for ideas, for thoughts- thought that you don’t know until they happen to you but it’s all in your head somewhere. So they start fitting but when I made this I didn’t think about that. The only thing I thought about, underneath the death pane is a tintype of a white woman. And for me that symbolizes part of my unknown personal history. My grandmother was Irish, but that history is cloudy.
DE: That’s what was so great about your lecture, that piece sort of encapsulates all different modes of working and interests and moments in your life also, because there’s an overlap. And I think it’s concise in that way and it’s also just a great piece.
BS: Thank you. So you had one more question?
DE: The last question, and you started touching on it a little bit, but what do you think about your legacy?
BS: We kind of touched on that. The legacy of maybe creating something, I mean, the phrase “unforgettably beautiful” is a pretty high goal. (laughs)
DE: Ok, We can use that. (laughs)
BS: But The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, because it also was timing too, because it was a piece that started out with anger and trying to gain power from pain that it kind of fit in with the civil rights movement, certainly with women’s rights and the feminist movement. That became one of the icons, every time there’s a feminist show that’s gonna be in it. Especially for black women. Maybe about 4, 5 years ago Angela Davis spoke at the museum of contemporary art in Los Angeles. And she stood up and she said, “The black women’s movement began with Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” Whoa was I high after that. But that’s what that image is about. But it’s also about all black people, or people of color, or anyone who’s been repressed. Because first there’s the civil rights movement for black people, and then it’s moved on to gay rights, and now it’s moved on to transgender rights, so, you know.
DE: Yeah it set a really important precedent.
BS: Because people really want freedom. I think that’s my legacy. I think my legacy is that piece, Black Girl’s window.
DE: Yeah I think it’s a good combination. Like I was saying yesterday. I think you were touching on this a little earlier but now I’m really curious: would you be able to, or willing to, talk a little bit about how you made The Liberation of Aunt Jemima? Or how it came together?
BS: I found the little plaque thing, the kitchen plaque, at a flea market in Alameda, and then I had also found the postcard of the mammy holding the mulatto baby not at the same time, but during that time, also, at the Olympics that year two of the black athletes I think they were runners, they held up the black fists, so that had to be at the center of it, because that symbolized black power. And further, she has a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other, and I’m not a violent person, I don’t love guns or anything like that, but that was a symbol of a weapon, to suggest a weapon for civil rights. And people understand guns. They don’t understand people talking and talking and talking. There’s no such thing as a peaceful transaction about getting your civil rights.
DE: So you had already been collecting at that point, right?
BS: Yeah, I probably had the postcard already. And then behind it, I made a collage of Aunt Jemima pancake flour, which is no longer an ugly black woman, but it is a brown woman, and it’s a commercial, the commercialization of the black woman, and the bottom references cotton fields, like rising up out of the cotton fields, because slaves were mostly used in outside work: cotton fields, working for labor, whatever. If you werea field person, you were the lowest one, or you worked in the house, which was a kind of step up from outside work. It’s interesting because that’s where black people found out how white people lived: about another way of cooking, another way of dressing, another kind of etiquette and of course other languages. That was really an educational process. A painful educational process, but still. Because those are the people who later on were able to go to college, were able to go to school, were able to learn how to write because it was illegal to write your name. Or to write anything. Or to read anything. It was illegal. So it’s all very interesting.
DE: You collect these things, and you make these narratives.
BS: And I make an object. Or a collage. But mixed media is my thing. Not just painting, not just sculpture. I like to mix it up. The holistic approach. I try to live my life that way. I try to accept the physical and the mental and the spiritual.
Skowhegan Interview Project
For the second edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Don Edler (‘12) spoke with Alumnus (‘96) and Resident Faculty (‘14) Jennie C. Jones just before she left for Maine in early June.
Don Edler: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me - It must be exciting to be going back to Skowhegan as resident faculty, how are you feeling as you prepare to leave for the summer?
Jennie C. Jones: I can’t wait to get out of here next week. I don’t think I’ve been up there since 2001.
DE: What were you doing up there that time?
JJ: Unfortunately, I was working at Creative Capital Foundation and they did their very first artist retreat at Skowhegan. I say “unfortunately” because I had only been in New York for five years and Skowhegan still felt like this fantasy experience— like a feather in my cap. At Creative Capital I was an arts administrator handing out memos to other artists who got huge grants and I’m there holding a clipboard and telling everyone where their room is.DE: I guess that must have been a bummer.
JJ: It was weird. Definitely weird.
DE: I might be going back this summer for the next edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project. I think that will be weird for me too, even though it’s only been two years.
JJ: There’s such a weight to the concept that “it’s a once in a lifetime experience.” You’re like “oh my god I can never go back unless I’m teaching or lecturing which means I have to get it together so that someday I can return.”
DE: I picked up a guy who at the time I didn’t know, Jean Jacques du Plessis, in Boston on my drive up. He was a participant also, and we spent the five-hour drive talking about all themyths that surrounded Skowhegan.
JJ: The mythology around Skowhegan; I’m curious.
DE: I guess the big thing is the idea that people go there and go nuts for nine weeks. That was the story I had always heard. Everyone told me they just drank a lot, and partied a lot and didn’t get any work done.
DE: Was that the same rumor or was it different in ‘96?
JJ: I think it was a little bit different. I have some mixed feelings about how Skowhegan lives in the world now, which is really just me being nostalgic. It used to feel like the Skull and Bones of the art world. I like that weirdness. It was somewhere in Maine. It was awesome if you could go, a privilege just to get in, and you didn’t have to pay for it if you had a matching institution. It also had such a heavy tie to legacy in a different way than MacDowell or Ox-Bow. It just felt more “New England”, which is why the Skull and Bones reference makes a little sense.
Though I did hear it was like sex camp. I didn’t hear much about partying, but maybe that was the assumption. I heard that crazy affairs happen with people sneaking out in the woods. If you have a partner before you go, they’re going to be worried about what’s going to happen when you’re out there. It was the most boring, non-sexy experience for me. I was so disappointed. Man, I didn’t even make out when I was there. That sucks.
DE: That sort of Skull and Bones mystique is really accurate.
I remember having this assumption that it was a ticket into the art world, in the same way they used to talk about Yale. Skowhegan was supposed to be even more so than that. I feel crazy ever believing that, but it still holds that mystique for people who have never been. Everyone has that story of someone who met the right person or did really well afterwards, but for most people it’s a great experience and it’s great for your practice but it’s not going to give you overnight success.
JJ: Right. Like you’re somehow going to share a ride with ten amazing rockstar painters that you just met, and you’re all going to move to New York and be picked up by major galleries.
I don’t know if there’s a big difference between ‘96 and now. There were definitely career-hungry types but most people tend to apply when someone they admire is going to be there, or be lecturing there. I feel like this aspect is still the same. There was a young artist there in ‘96 who specificallywanted to meet her idol. That person turned out to be a nightmare and broke her heart. It was part of the process of taking away the mythology behind an artist’s work and it happens to everyone. It happens in college when you worship someone, they come and give a talk, they’re an asshole, and you have to contend with the difference between the person and their work. Or the person and their legacy, or their cultural impact. That’s the biggest thing for me. Being there was a lot of harsh reality checks.
I met Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight there. Gwendolyn Knight wasn’t giving a talk. Bernarda Shahn, Ben Shahn’s wife, was still coming in the summer. She and Ben had a house on the property since 1966. She would still come and summer there sometimes. A bunch of women in my group got together and asked if we could invite Bernarda and Gwendolyn Knight to give a talk because it just felt like they were “only partners”. They were equally interesting, historically important artists who seemed to marry someone who stole the sunlight. Like Lee Krasner, the classic story.
And they decided to do the talk together. They spoke about the WPA, post-war abstract-expressionism, things they had seen from the ‘40s through the ‘60s in the New York art scene, and it was amazing. That happened because we were paying attention to the periphery. We were paying attention to other people engaged with or involved in Skowhegan that weren’t necessarily on the masthead. That was one thing that I’ll always cherish.
I’m one of those artists who, for better or worse, is kind of deeply obsessed with art history. For me Skowhegan remains this magical place where history IS. The opportunity to sit down one-on-one in a safe space out of the city and really engage and talk about your work with someone you admire and wanted to meet or bounce your ideas off of is there.
DE: Yeah, I think that’s really the great strength of Skowhegan. I actually didn’t know any of the professors or faculty that were going to be there my summer with one exception, and that person wound up being a big letdown like you described. What was really valuable to me at Skowhegan was meeting the other participants there: young artists that were really passionate and committed to what they were doing, They were really generous with their time and willing to talk about their work and my work in a one-on-one setting. I’m sure people can understand that as a concept but the reality of the experience is so much different than trying to talk about it abstractly.
JJ: I think grad school studio visits are so institutionalized and have so much to do with your surroundings. There is a lot of weird fucked up pressure when you’re in a program with the same 30 or 60 people building a thesis. I went to Skowhegan after Rutgers. I had more breakthroughs and more evolution at Skowhegan than I did during two years in grad school. Totally. 100%. Part of it was fresh eyes and different people, because MFA programs are can be a little incestuous nucleus and by the time you’re graduating you know everybody’s spiel. Nothing’s fresh.
DE: I did the reverse. I went to Skowhegan the summer before I started grad school. It was a blessing and a curse. It was great because Skowhegan was everything I hoped it would be in many ways. It set me off in a really good direction. But at the same time it created a bit of an unrealistic expectation of grad school, and grad school ended up being a bummer.
JJ: An expensive bummer.
DE: Yeah. I got away with not having to pay which is great and I am totally thankful for it. I got really lucky with that, but it was still a bummer, which is sad that I have to admit.
JJ: It’s fairly recent, maybe the last 25 years or so, that you have to get an MFA to be a studio artist. And part of that I think is a bit of a sham. It used to be “if I get a masters then I can always teach.” We’ve all seen the parallel universes of people who try to work while they try to make their art, or applying for grants like it’s their job, versus people that start teaching and never make work again. It’s heartbreaking how many people I know got sucked into institutional politics and their own work suffers. Those people are the teachers that have heart, and care, and are invested in their students. I had a professor at Rutgers that had no office hours and lived in New York: a pretty hot-shot artist. They would come in and do their 3-hour lecture class and they were out.
DE: Yeah, it’s unfortunate that it can be so tough to balance teaching with a personal practice, but both demand so much attention and effort. I can understand how many people struggle to do both equally.
Lets move on to your work. In one of your previous interviews, you said you have a sign in your studio that says “Don’t Overthink, Do.” Do you still have that?
JJ: Now there’s a sign up that just says “Relax.”
DE: Can you talk about these little reminders that you have?
JJ: I had that note up because I think a lot of conceptual artists fall into the trap of undoing their gesture before they make a mark. It’s very easy to fall into that place. I think it’s endemic of the time period in which I was educated and it’s probably still going on today. Theory and deconstruction is put upon your studio practice. The kind of artist I admire the most just makes and makes and makes and lets the world edit. The editing comes after. For me that note was just a reminder to not get paralyzed, and not deconstruct things before you even make the first move. Making minimalist work is hard. It’s very condensed. It’s very intense. It’s a lot about tension and space and negative space. Sometimes moving something a half an inch means having to really look at it and live with it for a couple of days. Things get really heady and really Buddhist in a way. You end up moving it back two inches the opposite way and that’s what works. It’s all about process. Process is a fascinating thing. I love speaking to artists about their processes because it’s just so crazy usually.
DE: I have a question along those lines. I got to see some of your acoustic sound panels at your show at The Kitchen. I remember enjoying them and not really understanding their relationship to music at all. I just saw them as abstract compositions. I understood you were using acoustic materials, but I didn’t contend with that conceptually. I was looking at them materially and formally. I don’t know anything about your relationship to music but I thought they were really enjoyable as formal works. I was curious to know how you feel about my reading because I know your conceptual relationship is something you speak about quite frequently.
JJ: Once they’re out in the world it’s up to the viewer. Most pieces of mine hopefully have a multitude of entry points. I think that that’s a strength in the work. I can lecture for an hour about black paintings and the legacy of Ad Reinhardt, but if you don’t see that when you walk in, and instead stick your ear up to one of the paintings because you think it’s a speaker, then that’s three times as exciting. That happened a lot at The Kitchen because the speakers were mounted on the ceiling; there was an acoustic moment where everything was a whirlwind and you didn’t really know where the sound was coming from. I hadn’t anticipated how many people would walk up and stick their ear next to it, but what’s lovely is that the reverse happens: the panels are actually acoustic absorbers so the closer you get to them the quieter it gets. I love having a formalist read on the work because that’s super important to me.
DE: You have an extremely sharp aesthetic sensibility while working in a minimal, formal aesthetic. It’s so easy to screw that up and make it boring or uninteresting. It seems almost effortless to you. Do you make mockups or do you go right into the materials? Do you have fabricators make the pieces? They’re so polished when they’re done and ready.
JJ: The acoustic panels are fabricated by a company that does soundproofing for recording studios. It’s a very old-school direct relationship with an industrial company. I’m just repurposing what they already put out in the world.
DE: I know you get the panels but do you have them attached to the backing and painted by them?
JJ: Oh, no, I do it myself and it’s torture. The Sikkema show that just came down was the first time a friend said “why don’t you just use a paint sprayer?” I have a lot of conversations about the easier way to get there. It’s probably because I’m a masochist (laughter). It’s probably because there’s a part of me that loves and hates painting at the same time —-I’m still really struggling with that.
In a million years I didn’t think I was going to go back to the rectangle on a wall. Those paintings are made old-school Kenneth Noland style with sponges and rollers, then dry brushed on top of the paint to get rid of any lines from the roller. When the acoustic panels arrive I treat them very much like collage material. I’ll basically make color field paintings, then the panels are hammered on top with finishing nails which go into the armature. That’s the “one inch to the left or right creating tension” aspect. I’m also using an industrial glue that you use for automotive purposes, because acoustic panels are made of fiberglass. It’s fiber and canvas. It’s like the inside of a car door. I had to do a lot of strange adhesive investigating.
DE: And you make them yourself in your studio?
JJ: Yes, which means my production is low. If something is nailed or hammered down crookedly the whole piece is shot. If you make a black painting and make a mark on it you have to sand the whole thing down and start the surface all over. It’s a love-hate relationship. It’s very labor intensive. In the last two bodies of work, my biggest point of concern, for my own mental health, is that when you put something machine made next to something hand made, there’s a contrast.
There’s a scrutiny to the hand-made part. When they’re on the same surface, that tension becomes more apparent, and the scrutiny gets even higher. A registrar receives a piece and calls me and asks me if there’s a tiny pencil mark on the side. That’s my hand. It might not look like it, but my hands are in this work. It’s kind of intense.
DE: Having made a bunch of ultra finished works, it drives me insane and I really hate doing it. I would be happy to move away from that as soon as possible. Sometimes it’s what you have to do I guess.
JJ: Absolutely, brother! And of course the pieces that I have literally had tears over did not move. They’re still at the gallery. Strangely, the ones that came more easily were the ones that people gravitated to. And it’s like “really?” The big black pieces were like six weeks of deep evolvement.
DE: It’s funny: you’d think working in black would be easy, but it really shows more marks than anything else. You’d think it’d be the opposite.
JJ: I know, and I don’t know how many more white paintings I have in me either.
DE: Same problems.
JJ: The first time I really went that light, I would say if you look at it twice, it gets dirty. Just putting your eyes upon the surface makes marks appear.
DE: It’s like the Heisenberg principle.
JJ: On a super morose tip, I was talking to a good friend of mine about the level of scrutiny that kind of work demands and I thought about all those artists that committed suicide. That’s horrible, but think about Mark Rothko or Fred Sandback or even Agnes Martin’s sort of self-banishment. I think that if you have the kind of personality that can feel satisfied and feel the grace of a single line, it gets pretty weighty. You have to confront the “it’s not enough” attitude of the world. It demands a level of criticism that is really opposed to the type of personality that makes that type of work. It’s fascinating.
DE: Sorry, can you sort of rephrase that? Your friends or people who make super minimal work - their personalities don’t reflect that?
JJ: There are the kind of people who can see the tenderness in a single line, and can feel satisfied with a simple gesture, whereas with minimalist works, with how they are read, are in a position where the simple gesture is not enough. The viewer can say, “that’s all?” Those two things are hard to reconcile. There’s a certain kind of person who walks up to an Agnes Martin and their jaw drops; they love it and they’re mesmerized. And there’s a certain type of person who just walks by it because it means nothing to them. It’s nothingness.
DE: Do you see a lot of that in people who aren’t trained in reading minimalist work? In my experience, it’s been difficult to find people that really get into or understand minimal work unless they have the extremely privileged education that helps frame that work within a specific context in history.
JJ: I agree, but there’s also the Buddhist, the tender-hearted, the type of person who doesn’t just walk by pictures at the Met, pop a selfie and keep going.
I spoke to an old security guard at the Met and he said “There’s more cameras that come to the Met than people now.” I would sit down in front of a painting and give it a little minute. This is when I start to feel very old.
DE: I’ve always been confused as to why museums don’t have more seating to look at paintings. I love looking at art as much as anyone I know, but if I’m at a museum for a couple hours, I get tired of standing in front of work. There’s not much I can do once my body’s telling me to leave.
JJ: I had a great moment a couple months ago. I went to Houston and I’d been to the Menil many times but I hadn’t been to the Cy Twombly gallery before. I went in, turned to the right and there’s just one single huge and sweeping piece. I really got a lump in my throat. As you turn the corner it just keeps going and engulfs you. I literally took two steps back and they put a bench right there. I couldn’t help thinking, “this happens all the time.” You come into this room and you get your breath taken away and take a step back right into a well-placed bench.
DE: Are you for that bench or against it?
JJ: I had a show at the Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta. I commissioned a friend of mine, Scott Ingrahm, who is an artist but also a really great builder of things, to copy a bench I had seen at Matthew Marks at an Ellsworth Kelly show. I was like “let’s make that bench.” Sometimes benches just work.
DE: Another thing that came to mind earlier when you mentioned the pursuit of perfection in minimal work, is that whenever people talk about the intense labor that goes into making a machined look I can’t help but think about Donald Judd’s work. I’ve seen a lot of it, but I feel like whenever I see it in person it’s not as perfect as I perceive it to be in my mind. I think he’s kind of the ultimate poster child for that kind of perfection in minimalism. I think it’s, again, more of a myth than a reality.
JJ: I also think it has to do with how things are documented. The very first time I saw Mondrian in person I was shocked because I thought “what is that?” The roundness of a brush edge means that there are no crisp black lines in a Mondrian. There just isn’t. The paint has usually done that alligator skin split at this point. It was before we stretched canvas all the way around the armature and there’s copper nails on the outside.
DE: It’s not even square.
JJ: Every single time it’s reproduced it just looks like this perfect thing.
DE: Like it was printed. I actually had that exact same experience. Have you seen the Italian Furturist Show at the Guggenheim yet?
DE: I kind of had the exact same experience there, where I never cared too much for that work learning about it in art history, but then I saw the paintings in real life. They’re painted so beautifully that I did a 180 on my position. I really enjoyed that show, which I wasn’t expecting at all. The quality of the paint and the texture of the work doesn’t translate in documentation. It changed my understanding of the work completely.
JJ: Do you think that’s true in other works you don’t gravitate to?
DE: Absolutely. I’ve always understood that you have to see painting, or really all art, in person, but I think that this was probably the most eye-opening experience. I’d love to see a lot of work in person but you can’t always do that.
JJ: It makes me concerned about how much reproduction is out there and how it’s just expanding. I always wonder what people are doing with thousands of photos of artworks on their phone. What do you do with those? I tend to not have my phone out a lot of times but there are a ton of moments, like the first time I saw a Van Gogh, the first time I saw a Rothko, where I thought about taking a picture. Because you’re just like “It’s breathing.” You never saw that in your art history book.
We are nerding out. We’re staying in the canon, really strict.
DE: I think that’s important though. In the NEA interview that you did, you talked about one of your works that specifically referenced John Cage’s 4’33”. I actually would love to hear how you feel about the importance of that work within the history of avant garde music or sound-based. You said this funny thing about how every sound artist has to get their 4’33” out of their system which I can totally sympathize with. I feel I’ve even done myself in the past as well. It is sort of this monumental, groundbreaking piece that is a turning point in a lot of ways. I’d love to hear your take on it since you’re well-placed in between sound and visual art.
JJ: There’s so much written about it and so much I haven’t actually read about it.
DE: What about for you? Why did you gravitate toward it?
JJ: In a way, it’s so punk rock. It’s so bebop. It’s such a gesture. It’s generous and withholding at the same time. It’s smart and spiritual at the same time. It’s a score for sitting and paying attention to the sound that’s already around you. That is why I think it’s a critical, spiritual piece that’s had the gravity and the historic impact that it has had. But in another sense, it’s hilarious. It’s light. It’s so much about the pause in between seriousness of composing music, and the seriousness and weight of history. Saying “this is the piece; just my presence sitting at the piano is the work.” That, you know, is when it circles back to me to be this radical gesture that punk was; that bebop and modern jazz started, before all of them crossed over; and how Cage echoed the way people thought about music and composition and silence; his relationship to Merce Cunningham; his relationship to the visual arts. All that came after that gesture, that moment before he seeped into the history books. It’s such a radical, simple, smart moment. I think that’s why it resonates.
I love that you can buy 4’33” on iTunes. And what I love even more is that I first saw it maybe six years ago and the comments—does iTunes still have comments?—were amazing because people did not know what it was. They knew John Cage but they didn’t know the piece. There were all these warnings like, “don’t buy this, it’s nothing.” “Oh what a rip off. 99 cents for four minutes and 33 seconds of nothing.”
DE: Was it recorded live? Did it have like, the coughs of the space and stuff?
JJ: That’s interesting, because there’s a couple of different versions. Some are like that, but most of them are nothing. It’s a brilliant scam, to just have an empty digital file.
DE: How do you feel about that? Is that still the piece?
JJ: I think the piece has to be live. I think it absolutely has to be live.
DE: Do you think an empty MP3 is the same work then? Or is that actually a scam?
JJ: I don’t know. Scam is kind of harsh. It does the same thing: if you’re sitting in a room with headphones and you just heard a siren go by, you become a mindful listener for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It’s still a successful piece. Hopefully.
DE: You’re right. So before this interview I asked you if you had any topics you wanted to talk about, something that has been on your mind or is pertinent right now?
JJ: I still feel like I’m on some weird planet by myself. I feel like I don’t have a lot of contemporaries which can be good and it can be bad. A) There’s not a lot of women making sound art. B) The abstract minimal aesthetic can definitely be challenging because there’s that question of whether or not you want the viewer to know who the maker is and how much weight and energy that has on the piece. So I think I’ve been a very slow-burn because it’s non-narrative, non-figurative work. Then I’ve had people tell me that the work is so much about the body to them and it’s so physical that of course in a way it has to do with the black body.
DE: You’ve mentioned that your work articulates this narrative or historical connection between black music of the era and the visual art that was being produced at that time. I’m not that well informed about it, but were those musicians looking at art?
JJ: That’s more the sound work. Where I’m getting my materials from really points the room, or points the installation in a specific direction. That’s where sound can come in as the signifier. The Hirschhorn show could be perceived as a really formalist nod to the Ellsworth Kelly room it was next to, and the Barnett Newman that was hanging down the hall. But then it sort of flips the read when you recognize Olly Wilson or Wendell Logan and some of the heavy hitting Jazz and Classical composers that I was pointing to in the sound work. Like I said in the beginning of the conversation,if you don’t get that and just come and enjoy a nice white room and look at a black painting, that’s great too. It’s my own justification because there’s a lot of guilt that comes with being an abstract artist.
DE: Why did you use the word guilt?
JJ: That’s my favorite word as a Catholic Midwesterner. Making non-figurative, non-narrative work, I occasionally feel like a unicorn.
DE: Do you feel like you’re not doing justice to your background in that sense?
JJ: No. I’m hopefully pointing to a lot of history and legacy of what a radical act that is, but also Martin Puryear and Alma Thomas. I feel like I constantly have to talk about how I didn’t fall out of the sky. How there’s some precedent to the work. And Valerie Cassel Oliver at CAMH—“Black in the Abstract” was a brilliant two part show that was way overdue. To see early Sam Gilliam paintings that were really hard-edge. There was Felrath Hines who was a guy I had never heard of. I think he was a registrar at the Smithsonian but he was a painter also. His work was amazing.
DE: I guess I’m kind of fascinated by this now. What would be a solution to the isolation that you feel?
JJ: Me not being neurotic. I think that’s a big part of it. I think that being born in 1968 and being educated at the peak of multicultural discourse in the ‘90s really put a circle around where I thought I should be in terms of the work and where I always desired to go with it. Now I’m 45 and for the last ten years—with or without being on the periphery, with or without being popular, not having a gallery for 18 years in New York, maybe because of the kind of work, maybe not, maybe I wasn’t ready—but once you make that decision to follow your own aesthetic, even if you’re a lone wolf, that’s the most satisfying choice.
DE: Sorry if I’m missing the point, but is that where the conflict is? Is the work not explicitly dealing with your identity? Is there some sort of discrepancy there that you’re thinking about right now or am I missing it entirely?
JJ: No, that’s an old vibe. That’s an old argument. It goes way back to “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” written in 1926 by Langston Hughs for The Nation. Am I an artist or a black artist? Am I a writer or am I a black writer? I think for me it’s definitely generational. I’m sure a lot of people I’m going to talk to at Skowhegan, artists of color, this isn’t even in their universe anymore. It’s kind of amazing and great. But I think that having a very specific mission and thesis, to put your shoulders back and stand strong and embrace a little strain of art history that is about non-narrative, nonfigurative work, even if I can only just keep pointing to Alma Thomas, then that’s been my mission. And that’s why I think it mostly is about my own neuroses because I don’t think everyone gets heavy all the time about where their art lineage is coming from. You do what you do.
DE: I think I can sympathize with you on that. It is quite the burden as a black artist, I think. It’s been described that way to me by my friends. It’s hard for me to understand as a straight white male and it’s hard to talk about too. I think our culture has made it difficult for someone to talk from a privileged position, as myself, to engage it and understand it fully. But I definitely understand that it’s a difficult thing, even for younger people, even though you just said you feel like it might not be as big of an issue anymore. Even if it’s not as apparent in the work, necessarily, the anxiety, not anxiety…
JJ: It is anxiety…
DE: The anxiety is there. In all art, I think most artists are trying to understand themselves through making and I think your identity is obviously central to that. So it comes up. And our culture still hasn’t quite gotten around racial disparities as much as we’d like to think.
JJ: There’s a big left-wing bloc that thinks “hey we voted for Obama, it’s all good” and it’s like “Wow, okay”. That’s it. It’s done. Black president. Check.
I am such an art nerd. I’ve cried two times in institutional settings: one was the first time I got a work in the permanent collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem, because that was just like family, lump in the throat, thinking about my mom and grand mom. And the second was showing next to Rauchenberg and Cage at the Menil. That was like “how the fuck?” The pieces I made at The Kitchen ended up next to Rauchenberg’s White Paintings at the Menil and they had 4’33” in the middle of the room under glass?! Child of hippies, black girl in Ohio in this moment? And The Studio Museum, what that meant. I’m just a “tenderoni” who’s obsessed with art history and my place in it.