On the American Artist Jeff Koon’s: Articles, Interviews and Texts

Jeff Koons retrospective is at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was supposed to debut at MoCA in Los Angeles, but was lost when Jeffrey Deitch left MoCA. It would seem that he took the exhibition with him. I believe I recently read that the exhibition wil not be coming to Los Angeles. MoCA also lost the Richard Hamilton retrospective, and the Jack Goldstein retrospective was dropped but fortunately picked up by the Orange County Museum of Art. I saw Koons survey show at MCA Chicago a few years ago. There is no other artist who is making objects that look like plastic, rubber, balloons that are actually digitally engineered metals.

Vincent Galen Johnson, Los Angeles.


London Review of Books

At the Whitney

Hal Foster

The child as an ideal of innocent vision is another old trope of modern art, and it too takes on a new twist with Koons, who aims to convey a youthful wonder at the object world around him. Here, however, innocence means less freedom from convention than delight in the commodity image, even identification with it, as he suggests in the account of a primal scene he gave in an interview with David Sylvester:

Childhood’s important to me, and it’s when I first came into contact with art. This happened when I was around four or five. One of the greatest pleasures I remember is looking at a cereal box. It’s a kind of sexual experience at that age because of the milk. You’ve been weaned off your mother, and you’re eating cereal with milk, and visually you can’t get tired of the box. I mean, you sit there, and you look at the front, and you look at the back. Then maybe the next day you pull out that box again, and you’re just still amazed by it; you never tire of the amazement. You know, all of life is like that or can be like that. It’s just about being able to find amazement in things.

This point of view – of the world seen by a boy precociously alert to the sexuality incited by consumerism – is one key to Koons, and it drives his refashioning of the readymade in terms of the child that commercial culture often takes us to be. As a result, his readymades have as much to do with display, advertising and publicity as with the commodity per se. (His father, Henry, was an interior decorator who owned a store in York, Pennsylvania, and even in his youth Koons was an avid salesman; he went on, briefly, to sell mutual funds and to trade commodities on Wall Street.)

Koons broke through in the early 1980s with a series titled ‘The New’ consisting of store-bought vacuum cleaners and other pristine appliances; set on or placed inside fluorescent light boxes, each immaculate product glows with a godly aura. Among the ‘New Hoover Convertibles’ is The New Jeff Koons (1980), a self-portrait which, enlarged from a family photo of the artist-to-be not long after his fateful encounter with the cereal box, also radiates a special wellbeing, here the wellbeing of a middle-class boy circa 1960. Shirt buttoned up, hair neatly combed, young Jeff sits at a desk with a colouring book, a crayon poised in his chubby fingers, and smiles up at the camera (adult Jeff, too, is almost always beaming in photos). In his lexicon ‘The New’ implies perfection in the sense of pure as well as packaged, and The New Jeff Koonsexudes both qualities. Although the family photo is obviously staged, so thoroughly does young Jeff inhabit the appointed role of budding artist that it seems absolutely authentic. Again, the mood is celebratory, and why not if your vision of life brooks neither death nor decay?

Koons is Panglossian in his artworks and statements alike, and – as with Warhol, who also ‘liked’ everything just as it is – this prompts the inevitable question: is he sincere or ironic or somehow both at once? It is difficult to call his bluff (again as with Warhol, you get stuck in his faux-naive language) or to catch him out (it’s been thirty years, and Koons is yet to step out of character). ‘I hope that my work has the truthfulness of Disney,’ he told Sylvester, and here as elsewhere it seems that Koons believes what he says and that his version of sincerity is the most sardonic thing ever. Yet when he adds, ‘I mean, in Disney you have complete optimism, but at the same time you have the Wicked Witch with the apple,’ you are given a useful insight into the workings of both impresarios.

This poisoned apple, this witchy charm, is what Koons offers in his best work, and when the ambiguity isn’t there, the performance falls flat. Thus his paintings are mostly a computer-assisted updating of Pop and Surrealism, equal parts James Rosenquist and Salvador Dalí (his first love), and the sculptures that mash up pop-cultural figures like Elvis and Hulk are also usually overdone. So, too, Koons often fails to inflect the three categories that are his bread and butter – kitsch, porn and classical statuary – with much edginess or even oddity; their tautological structures (‘I know porn when I see it’) appear to resist his attempts. Some of his objects cast a spell nonetheless, especially early ones such as his Hoovers presented as fetishes and his basketballs submerged in tanks of water, in a state of ‘equilibrium’ (the title of this 1985 series) that Koons likens to that of a foetus in a womb as well as to a state of grace (is there a pro-life message here?). He is also able to fascinate with objects that are not at all, physically, what they appear to be imagistically, such as Rabbit (1986), a bunny cast in stainless steel and finished to the point where it looks exactly like the cheap plastic of the inflatable toy that is its model. This is a talismanic piece for Koons, for it confirmed his shift from the relatively simple device of the readymade to the very painstaking one of the facsimile. Here he adapts the unusual genre, ambiguously positioned between art and craft, of the trompe-l’oeil object (the pictorial version of such illusionism is familiar enough), exactly reproducing a tacky curio (such as a Bob Hope statuette) or an ephemeral trifle (a balloon animal) in an unexpected material like stainless steel. Koons thus renders the thing (which is already a multiple) a weird simulation of itself, at once faithful and distorted; and, paradoxically, this illusionism reveals a basic truth about the ontological status of countless objects in our world, where the opposition between original and copy or model and replica is completely undone.

With this illusionism, as Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the retrospective, points out, Koons turns the readymade on its head, transforming cheap nick-nacks into ultra-expensive luxuries. His ‘Celebration’ series (1994-2006) includes twenty large sculptures of cracked-open eggs, balloon figures, hanging hearts and diamond rings; cast in high-chromium stainless steel, coated with transparent colour and polished to a mirror shine, they are inspired by the gifts we exchange on such occasions as birthdays, Valentine’s Day and weddings. These deluxe outsize decorations might strike even jaded viewers with the ‘amazement’ the young Koons felt in front of his cereal box; certainly they are fit for a king – or an oligarch.

What is the point of this art? Koons claims he wants to relieve us of our shame, which is why he focuses on two subjects where humiliation runs deep – sex and class. ‘I was just trying to say that whatever you respond to is perfect, that your history and your own cultural background are perfect,’ he remarks of the tschotskes (like the Bob Hope statuette) reworked in his ‘Banality’ series (1988), in language not unlike that of a cult therapist who has drunk his own Kool-Aid. Yet here too his work is more effective when our shame – or our ambivalence at least – is triggered, not wished away. When Koons desexualises sex, as in the images worked up with his ex-wife, the Hungarian porn star and Italian politician Ilona Staller (aka La Cicciolina), in the ‘Made in Heaven’ series (1989-91), there is little charge. Yet when he sexualises ‘things that are normally not sexualised’, as he puts it, such as children, flowers and animals, an edgy unease is sometimes the result.

Consider the porcelain boy and girl of Naked (1988). Rather than an Edenic purity, these pre-pubescent twins evoke a nasty prurience; they also gaze into an abundant flower that looks as though it might hold a dark Bataillean secret about the true nature of sexual organs. Koons makes his animals even more polymorphously perverse (based on toys and curios, they are creepily semi-human to begin with). Take Rabbit again. The bunny is an infantile thing, but it is also an adult symbol of rampant sex, and this one is erect in all its bulbous parts; Koons refers to it as ‘The Great Masturbator’ after a 1929 painting by Dalí. Or take Balloon Dog (1994-2000), which at first appears as innocent as its birthday-party inspiration. ‘But at the same time,’ as Koons says, ‘it’s a Trojan horse. There are other things here that are inside: maybe the sexuality of the piece.’ And after a while it does begin to look like a poupée by Hans Bellmer reworked for a super-rich kid. Edgier still is the sexuality suggested in Bear and Policeman (1988), a polychromed wood piece that shows a big cartoonish bear in a childish striped shirt looking down on a boyish bobby (whose whistle the bear is about to blow), and inMichael Jackson and Bubbles (also 1988), a well known porcelain piece that shows the King of Pop cuddling with his pet chimp (Koons predicts a whitened Jackson here). The two sculptures point to an illicit love that crosses not only generations but also species, and Bear and Policeman implies a further joke about English pop culture (the juvenile bobby) being schooled by the bigger, badder American version (the papa bear).

‘My work’ is meant to ‘liberate people from judgment’, Koons told Sylvester: ‘I’ve always been aware of art’s discriminative powers, and I’ve always been really opposed to it.’ And Rothkopf feels that Koons has indeed ‘achieved a kind of democratic levelling of culture’. Yet as with sex, so with class: his work is more effective when it sharpens our sense of social difference and tweaks our guilt about bad taste. Thus in the bar accessories that Koons made over in stainless steel in his ‘Luxury and Degradation’ series (1986), his ice pail, travel bar and the Baccarat crystal set register class distinctions rather precisely. And in the kitschy curios of the ‘Banality’ series we are not released from judgment so much as invited to entertain a campy distance from lowbrow desires or even a snobbish contempt for them.

In a telling moment Koons tells Sylvester that his work is ‘conceptual’ in that it uses aesthetics as a ‘psychological tool’. And at the end of the conversation he makes an extraordinary remark:

What I’ve always loved about the Pop vocabulary is its generosity to the viewer. And I say ‘generosity to the viewer’ because people, everyday, are confronted by images, and confronted by products that are packaged. And it puts the individual under great stress to feel packaged themselves … And so I always desire … to be able to give a viewer a sense of themselves being packaged, to whatever level they’re looking for. Just to instil a sense of self-confidence, self-worth. That’s my interest in Pop.

This credo fits in well with the therapy culture long dominant in American society (the only good ego is a strong ego, one that can beat back any unhappy neurosis), but it also suits a neoliberal ideology that seeks to promote our ‘self-confidence’ and ‘self-worth’ as human capital – that is, as skill-sets we are compelled to develop as we shift from one precarious job to another. When the perfectly presented boy in The New Jeff Koonslooks into the future, perhaps what he sees is us.




Jun. 20, 2014

From A.i.A.’s Koons Archive: Gary Indiana Reviews Koons’s Gallery Debut

Jeff Koons, Moses, 1985. Framed Nike poster; 45 1⁄2 x 31 1⁄2 inches. Edition 1/2. The Sonnabend Collection and the Sonnabend Estate. © Jeff Koons 




In the run-up to Jeff Koons’s first New York museum solo, opening this month at the Whitney Museum of American Art (June 27-Oct. 19), A.i.A. offers some of our writers’ observations on the artist from the archives. Here, a review by writer, filmmaker and artist Gary Indiana of Koon’s first gallery show, at New York’s International With Monument, from our November 1985 issue. This unusually poetic show of framed sportswear ads, bronze casts of sports and flotation equipment, and basketballs in water tanks possessed an internal coherence surprising for the diversity of the pieces, and carried a feeling of somber reverie quite at odds with the whimsical materials it used. As an ensemble, Koons’s show was unified by a preoccupation with physical gravity and metaphoric entropy. There were the ads, first of all, ranged along the gallery walls, each proposing some ideal states of being: blacks in tennis sneakers costumed as knights, as Moses, as Chairmen of the Board, balancing basketballs in their large hands or otherwise participating simultaneously in “the world of sports” and the real world of power relations, physical mastery and socioeconomic advantage paired in media fantasies. These pictures were extracted from a real series of Nike ads, beautifully contrived examples of mercantile allegory. Lifesaving and rescue were more specifically indexed by the bronze diving equipment and a small lifeboat, complete with useless bronze oars. The means of survival in the medium of water are rendered in these pieces as weighted, encumbering death traps, polished in places to shine and attract, but mainly crumpled looking, as if they’d been retrieved from the site of some disaster at sea, or hauled up from newly charted depths. Along with a bronze soccer ball and a bronze basketball, these works hint at perils hidden in our fondest assumptions—physical, social, whatever. Finally, the aquarium tanks situated throughout the gallery contained balls suspended illogically at fixed depths, neither floating nor sinking. These, conceivably, symbolize an unvarying actual state of things existing beneath the hyperactive surface of life—not death, exactly, which causes matter to continue doing things, nor what one would care to call life, but a state like narcolepsy, in which just enough energy accumulates and gets expended to maintain immobility. This (I think) is Koons’s metaphor for current conditions in the biosphere—in art, culture and the social world. Koons puts this all across with such finesse and amiability that I could be completely mistaken about it, but the show did invite interpretation.


When Jeff Koons painted Michel Jackson white
(Credit: Photo by Dalbéra, Jean-Pierre)

m porcelain to stainless steel.Jeff Koons, "Gazing Ball (Mailboxes)" (2013), plaster and glass, 58 1/2 x 130 3/16 x 24 1/2 inches (148.6 x 330.7 x 62.2 cm) (click to enlarge)

The Sculptor, Installation view Liebieghaus
Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988
Metallic Venus, 2010–12



Jeff Koons’s new sculptures

Sexy contemporary antiquities

Goddesses, hulks and cartoons inspire Jeff Koons












AMERICA’S most famous living artist, Jeff Koons, is an ambitious perfectionist. He experiments with digital technologies, pushing materials to their limits and testing craftsmen’s skills, while taking care to hide the evidence of these processes. A Koons piece is always partly about the exquisite appearance of the final product.

Six long-awaited new Koons sculptures are being unveiled this summer. “Balloon Swan” made its debut at the Beyeler Foundation in the Swiss town of Basel during the art fair. The 11.5-foot (3.5-metre), stainless-steel bird, with a shiny magenta finish, is the latest instalment in the artist’s bestselling “Celebration” series. The series was originally conceived as a way for Mr Koons to communicate with his estranged son after he and his Italian wife were divorced. An earlier work in the same range, “Hanging Heart”, briefly made Mr Koons the world’s most expensive living artist when it sold for $23.6m in 2007.

The series has always had a perverse side, but “Balloon Swan” is arguably the most sexually evocative so far. Mr Koons sees the sculpture as a “totem” that is “phallic from the front” but displays “sexual harmony on the side”. From the back, he points out, its buttocks look like breasts.

Sex has long been a Koons theme, so it is remarkable that he has waited until now to make classic full-bodied female nudes. In Frankfurt at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, as part of a 44-piece sculpture retrospective, he has unveiled two goddesses of love. “Balloon Venus” looks like a “Celebration” sculpture but is actually the first work in the artist’s new “Antiquity” series. Inspired by the Venus of Willendorf, a tiny fertility goddess discovered in Austria and dating from around 23,000BC, Mr Koons’s sculpture proposes a new kind of idol—a high-tech grande dame whose untouchable polished surfaces reflect the viewer. Where the goddess is corpulent, Mr Koons’s Venus is palpably pregnant. For Mr Koons creativity and procreativity stem from the same root; his current wife, Justine, is expecting his eighth child.

“Metallic Venus” (2010), a saucy gal, marks a more dramatic departure from Mr Koons’s earlier style. The glossy turquoise statue includes a planter of living white petunias. The flowers are an odd touch, suggesting a Pygmalionesque desire to bring her to life. Venus was the Roman goddess of prosperity and victory as well as love. More than any of Mr Koons’s other new works, “Metallic Venus” feels like a dazzling trophy made for the super-rich.

Thanks to improvements in three- dimensional-scanning technology, “Metallic Venus” was made in only 18 months, which is fast by Koons standards. By contrast, two of the other new works at the Liebieghaus—“Hulk (Friends)” and “Hulks (Bell)”—took eight years to make. (Collectors who paid in advance for the works may complain that they are still waiting, but it is fashionable to have a multimillion-dollar Koons on order.) The artist explains that initially the technology was not good enough to do what he wanted and the Hulks “got trapped” in a spiral of “reverse engineering, endless scanning and re-detailing”. Mr Koons strives hard to create convincing illusions. The “Hulks” are painted bronze depictions of the inflatable toys that stand in for the green macho man; they look as light as air and have a finish that resembles plastic.

Mr Koons sees the “Hulk” and “Popeye” (the subject of the summer’s sixth new sculpture) as self-portraits. It is intriguing that a slim intellectual known for his classy business suits likes to represent himself as a pumped-up muscleman. “Popeye” is a stainless-steel statue in an unusually large range of translucent colours. He holds a silver tin of emerald-green spinach that could also be a pot of money. The messianic figure’s show of physical power is absurd but real.

Mr Koons’s icons are spectacular—and unrivalled. His figures have rich associations, immaculate shapes and luxurious materials. They speak to a global elite that believes in the holy trinity of sex, art and money. Art collectors enjoy seeing themselves reflected in what they buy.




Lunch with the FT

August 21, 2009 2:38 pm

Lunch with the FT: Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons

This may be something of a first for Lunch with the FT. So improbably blue is the summer sky over central London, and so unusually warm the temperature, that Jeff Koons wants to eat al fresco. So we dispense with the troublesome business of restaurants altogether and order a picnic, which we will eat, by special arrangement, on the roof of the Serpentine gallery, in the heart of Hyde Park, where his latest show Popeye Series is on display.

We step outside the gallery’s first-floor offices, and a couple of staff enjoying a crafty cigarette come scuttling back in to give us our privacy. There are chairs, a table and a parasol already set up, as well as a sumptuous spread of healthy summer food, including roast aubergine, beef, grilled sea bass and a tomato salad. We have a personal waiter. I order a glass of white wine, Koons has Diet Coke. The scene is weirdly idyllic, hidden from public view, although we are able to observe the goings-on below.

Koons, as ever, is dressed immaculately, in a suit and tie, and perfectly manicured. He moves round the table, so that we can both shelter from the sun, and seems to want to play host. He is courteous and boyish, looking younger than his 54 years, and radiates a kind of innocent charm that makes me think of a Frank Capra movie.

Lunch with the FT

Koons’s life can’t get much more wonderful. He is one of contemporary art’s most renowned practitioners, with spectacular rewards to match. He vies, as auction records tumble, with Lucian Freud and Damien Hirst for the title of the world’s most expensive living artist. In recent years, his giant, highly polished sculptures of seemingly trivial subjects – balloons, dogs, dolphins, rabbits – have been among the most sought-after art works of the new century. Two years ago, one of his “Hanging Heart” series – a magenta heart, cast in stainless steel and weighing 1,600kg – sold at Sotheby’s for $23.6m.

Critical opinion is divided, to say the least, over Koons’s work. He is castigated for the slickness of his product, and the pretentious claims he makes for it; but he is also lauded for his cleverness in combining the monumental effect of high art with the cheap pleasures of the banal. He has, according to veteran critic Robert Hughes, “the slimy assurance … of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida”. But even this denigrator-in-chief admits: “The result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.”

In the gallery downstairs, spectators are sidling curiously around the new show. There are more creations on offer – aluminium sculptures of inflatable pool toys entangled in trash cans and plastic chairs – as well as the giant Popeye paintings: busy, brash canvasses surround their eponymous hero with a wealth of extraneous detail.

I notice that all the visitors have smiles on their faces, particularly when they stop to study the sculptures, in thrall to the optical illusion that makes their hard metal finish look like inflatable plastic. I ask a gallery attendant if people want to touch them. “I want to touch them,” she says with surprising passion. This doesn’t feel like a depraved culture at play; it is, rather, as if a spell has been cast that has turned us all into five-year-olds.

Up on the roof, picking at our starters, I recount my observation to Koons. “You know, I enjoy real inflatables,” he says earnestly. “A lobster pool toy: it’s a wonderful thing, it has such a great optimism to it. But it won’t last. A real toy, within three months, would become soft. Its shape would be distorted, it would eventually lose its air. So the only way it can maintain its optimism and power is to transform it into a different material.” He makes it sound like he is performing a public service.

I remark that the innocence of the image is belied by the way his “toys” are enmeshed with other objects such as fences or trash cans. What is that all about?

“I went through a custody situation some years back with my son Ludwig, and I wanted to make a body of work that featured objects going through things, but not becoming distorted. It is important in life, when you’re faced with a challenge, not to have that cause trauma or make you lose your path. I believe in being able to keep your life energy in a very optimistic direction, not allowing trauma to take place.

“I was in Rome and saw this tree growing through a chain link fence, and I looked closely. It was interesting, but I was a little turned off by the trauma and the distortion. So I thought I could make these things, and they would go through other objects but they would maintain their course, and remain optimistic.”

This is narrated deadpan, and with evident sincerity. The child-like candour of Koons’s remarks does indeed feel like he is casting a spell. I feel, after listening to his analysis, that there is no disjunction whatsoever between the world of inflatable pool toys and the symptoms of psychic well-being. A fake lobster has become a signifier of mental resilience, suddenly invested with the moral seriousness of a Crucifixion scene.

The custody battle, after all, was palpable enough. It came after the breakdown of Koons’s heavily publicised marriage in the early 1990s to Ilona Staller, better known as La Cicciolina, porn star and Italian politician, who absconded to Italy with their son, now aged 16.

That trauma must have been very real, I say. Did he ever feel like addressing it more directly in his art?

He admits that the experience made him lose faith in humanity. “When I felt there were injustices against myself and my son, the only way I could get through it was to turn to my art, reflecting my moral position to my audience, and taking my ability to communicate with people even more seriously. I came out of it a stronger person, a stronger artist, a stronger human being.”

The Serpentine show is not Koons’s only significant London presence this year. A forthcoming exhibition at Tate Modern, Pop Life: Art in a Material World, will feature the artist’s “Made in Heaven”, a series of sexually explicit photographs that he made with his ex-wife, which scandalised the Venice Biennale, and the rest of the world besides, in 1991.

Most of us would feel a little sheepish to have those intimacies recalled; but Koons doesn’t do sheepish. “I feel very proud of that work.” he says. “It was about the removal of guilt and shame. I saw Masaccio’s ‘Expulsion [from the Garden of Eden]’ in Florence and I immediately thought I would like to make a body of work that was situated after the Fall, but without the guilt and the shame.”

Which meant that he didn’t believe in a Fall at all?

No, he says. The lesson of “Made in Heaven” was self-acceptance. “If you can’t accept yourself, how can you go on to achieve any kind of transcendence? You are distancing yourself from the concept of life and how life functions.

“There is one work, ‘Ilona’s Asshole’, which I have always particularly enjoyed.” (The photograph is as described, and also features a penetration scene, in ruthless detail). “To have the confidence to reveal oneself so intimately, to be so at ease with one’s own body. It is quite beautiful,” Koons says.

His work, he insists, is designed to appeal to everyone. “I have seen how works of art can be used against people, how they can be demanding and intimidating, by the suggestion that you can’t enjoy or understand them unless you have read this piece of literature, or know that piece of mythology. It is total disempowerment. But art has the ability to achieve the absolute opposite of that.”

But his art also made coded references that wouldn’t be understood by everyone, I say: even the seemingly innocent “Popeye” paintings were full of references to Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly.

“But you don’t need any of that. That’s my fun and my interest, but it is not necessarily the viewer’s interest. The works are totally open to the viewer. They invite the viewer in. And whatever the viewer’s history is, it’s perfect. This is a subconscious dialogue that is taking place, and the art is happening inside them. Everything of value and importance is occurring inside them.”

We talk about Koons’s most famous work, his “Puppy”, a giant, 43ft sculpture composed of 60,000 plants and flowers that currently stands guard outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. He says he conceived the work in Germany. Louis XIV was on his mind, and he found himself wondering what the Sun King would be imagining as he looked out of the window. “And I thought, maybe he would want to see a sculpture of a giant puppy made out of flowers … ”

Whoa, slow down, I say. Why on earth would Louis XIV want to see a sculpture of a puppy made out of flowers? “Because the most profound question in art is, do you want to be the server or do you want to be served? When you come home to a puppy at night, do you look at it and say, ‘Go and get my paper’, or do you roll it over and say, ‘How are you doing, boy?’ ”

The stream of consciousness is bewildering, but we move swiftly on. Koons’s loquacity means that he is barely touching his lunch.

“It has been embraced by the people of Bilbao. There are lots of weddings there. It has brought a lot of happiness to the place. And another interesting thing about it, Peter, is that it can’t be planted incorrectly. There are 60,000 decisions to be made and none of them is wrong.”

But a puppy is a puppy. I ask how he feels to have his work labelled as kitsch, a description he famously resists.

“When you use words like that, it feels like people are throwing tomatoes at me. These words reflect segregation and judgment, and I don’t believe in judgment. These images and objects are things that I am curious about. A child is open to everything, and accepting of everything. The highest state of being is acceptance. When you segregate, you create a hierarchy. But everything has its own beauty.”

Seeing the beauty in everything has made a lot of money for Koons. His well-rehearsed reaction to his work fetching such staggering prices is that he is glad it will be looked after, “because people tend to protect what they pay a lot of money for”. Other than that, he says, economic values “are a reflection of how you serve your community. I take it as an honour. When there is a time when [my works] are not seen as significant, I am sure those values will change.”

He collects art himself, much of which is in his Manhattan home. “Poussin, Dali, Picasso, Magritte, Picabia. Some Egyptian antiquities. And Manet – I have the last significant nude that Manet did in 1879. These are the things that give meaning to me. When you believe something is a masterpiece, it can change your life and the way you view things.”

He talks eagerly of a future project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which a steam train engine will be suspended from a giant crane. He describes it for me: “It will do everything a train does – choo, choo! – and then it will get faster and faster, it will inhale and exhale and then a noise will come from its braking – hsssss – and then – whoo, whoo! – it will reach this orgasmic plateau … ”

It is a When Harry Met Sally moment. I order what Koons is having (coffee). I say the piece feels sad to me, because the train won’t actually be going anywhere.

“And it is also a technology that is already in the past,” he adds. “It is very much a symbol. Once you are born, you are already participating in time. You have to become aware of your own mortality.”

It is, before long, time to come off the roof. Is this a great time to be producing art? I ask. “It’s a great time to be alive.”



Q. & A. | Jeff Koons on His New Champagne-Filled Balloon Sculpture and the DNA of Art History

This fall, an incredibly rare, highly valuable object created by Jeff Koons will become available for purchase. Two, actually. It’s up to you to decide whether to spend tens of millions on “Balloon Dog (Orange),” the massive sculpture being sold by the collector Peter Brant in November at a Christie’s auction (where it is expected to fetch between $35 million and $55 million), or the somewhat more reasonable figure of $20,000 on “Balloon Venus for Dom Pérignon,” the artist’s limited-edition Champagne-filled collectible made for the luxury brand. T spoke with Koons about the project and his forthcoming 2014 career retrospective at the Whitney, which will be the museum’s final exhibition in the iconic Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue.


How did the collaboration come about?


I very rarely do anything with brands. I worked with BMW to do an art car, and the reason I did that was because of the artists who had participated before, so I would have a dialogue with their work. With Dom Pérignon, other artists had been involved in their program. I wanted to participate in that dialogue. Also, they stand for quality — the same kind of quality that I like to attribute to my work.

How did you go about interpreting Dom Pérignon as a physical object?
They asked me if I would make something to contain the bottle, but with a special serving ritual. So I thought that I’d like to place it inside the Venus. It represents, for me, the continuum of life energy. I think of Titian’s “Bacchanal” paintings with the satyrs and the nymphs. All of the celebrations and the ritual of celebrating life energy.

What has led you to be so interested in this Venus figure? It’s been recurring in your work for a couple of years now.
It plays with scale. And its ability to be both masculine and feminine. It’s a feminine object, but its density, and maybe the patina of it, has a masculine quality. … I have been interested in narrative. If we look at human history, the only narrative of human history that we have is our genes and our DNA. Every other narrative is developed by political motivations. So the true human history is our genes and DNA. There’s an aspect of consciousness — consciousness is making connections. The way art works is connections. The more connections something makes, the more it imitates life itself. So if I am making a reference to Manet and Manet is referencing Velazquez and Velazquez is making a reference to Ariadne, the whole way back through this type of linkage is really like a replication of the way genes and DNA connect. I like to believe you can manipulate and form your own genes. These connections and ties that we make, the sense of family and the warmth that we take from that, I don’t think it goes without effect biologically.

What chromosome have you contributed to the DNA of art history?
It’s more an aspect of affecting consciousness in a way, rather than any specific physical traits. I am really very interested in the exercising of freedom. The freedom of an artist to absolutely experience enlightenment and total consciousness. Absolute freedom. That is the desire. How close we allow ourselves to participate in freedom, that’s another matter. …

Last spring you presented exhibitions at two competing galleries simultaneously. Was that a statement of freedom or of power?
Pretty good that you picked up on that. I have always had the freedom to show with any gallery that I’ve wanted to. We hear about these galleries, and they’ve become so big and so global in their identities, so everybody starts to focus on the galleries instead of the art. I wanted to do a show that felt very much on a street level, that a young artist could interact with. Before galleries were so global, artists used to have relationships with different gallerists. You would have somebody represent you in London and you would have somebody represent you in Berlin. Another friend in Spain and another one in Chicago. When galleries became global, these types of friendships disappeared. Because the galleries have a competing commercial interest. So, you might as well show at multiple galleries in your hometown. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.

You are about to have the last exhibition at the Whitney Museum’s original home on Madison Avenue. Obviously, that is quite momentous, but there are two sides to it. One is that it feels significantly overdue for you to have a solo exhibition at a New York museum. But it also feels like a remarkable tribute that you are having the final exhibition at that space.
At first I was kind of mixed. When I was invited to be the closing show, I was like, “Do I really want to be the last show, or do I want to be the first show at the new museum?” Then I realized all of the incredible exhibitions that I had experienced at the Whitney and how it had changed my life. And the Breuer building is an incredible building, and I was absolutely thrilled they were able to make the whole building available for the exhibition. So I’m absolutely thrilled. It could not be in a more meaningful space.








I met Robert Plant maybe a year ago, and I told him, ‘You basically taught me how to feel.’ “—-Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons doesn’t necessarily look like an artist—and certainly not one who’s been slaving away in a garrison. In fact, he often looks more like he’s running for office, dressed in a suit and tie, his hair neatly cropped, an effervescent smile perpetually at the ready. But few artists truly embody their approach to making art as fully as Koons does. He is as All-American as it gets, a son of the Rust Belt (the industrial burg of York, Pennsylvania, to be specific) with an unbridled affinity for concepts that many artists actively try to disavow, like consumerism, accessibility, and populism.

In creating his work, Koons operates more like the self-made CEO of a small corporate enterprise, directing and project-managing it into being with the support of a staff of more than 100 artisans and assistants in his West Chelsea studio. But the fact that Koons’s life as an artist began as an off-hours endeavor supported by day jobs, working at the membership desk at the Museum of Modern Art and as a commodities broker on Wall Street, and eventually led to a robust retrospective in 2008 at the Château de Versailles—the same year Koons’s pieces reportedly sold for a cumulative $117.2 million at auction—tells you all you need to know about the kind of populist mythmaking that has frequently colored, and often fueled, his art. His work has drawn on the broad iconography of everything from Roman statues and classical busts to Michael Jackson, Popeye, balloon dogs, and household objects like basketballs and Hoover vacuum cleaners, playing with scale and context like some parallax fusion of Duchamp, Dalí, and Disney. Koons has also liberally inserted himself into is work, sometimes explicitly, as in his controversial Made in Heaven series, which was first exhibited in 1990, and more often through his runaway ambition and perfectionism, as in Celebration, a long-gestating cycle begun during a period when Koons was going through a divorce and faced near-bankruptcy.

Koons, of course, has not only rebounded over the last decade, but flourished, producing a prodigious amount of work, including his Popeye series, his bronze-and-wood Hulks (Bell), and his magenta Balloon Venus and turquoise Metallic Venus pieces. In 2012, he was the subject of two connected large-scale exhibitions in Frankfurt, Germany—one at the Schirn Kunsthalle, which focused primarily on his paintings, and another at the Liebieghaus featuring his sculptural work. The Whitney is also in the process of planning a major retrospective of his work set to open in 2014, and in September, it was announced that Koons would be consulting with New York State on designs for a new Tappan Zee Bridge.

Supermodel Naomi Campbell recently visited with Koons, 57, at his studio in New York City.

NAOMI CAMPBELL: You had an interesting exhibition titled “Popeye Series” in London [in 2009]. Why that Popeye image in particular?

JEFF KOONS: I think I was drawn to Popeye because it makes reference to our paternal generation, like the parents of people of my generation. I would think that to people like my father, and the people of his generation, Popeye is like a male priapist. So if you think in ancient terms, he would have a harem, a symbol of male energy. Popeye takes that spinach, and strength comes-art kind of brings that transcendence into our life, so I like these parallels. This enhancement of sensation. I think art teaches us how to feel, what our parameters can be, what sensations can be like; it makes you more engaged with life.

CAMPBELL: Some of your artwork has been sold for enormous prices. I know the Balloon Flower [Balloon Flower (Magenta)] sold for more than 12 million pounds. Do you see it as a mark of recognition, or is it completely academic to you?

KOONS: I think that it is some sign from society that at least some individuals find some worth in the piece and it is worth protecting and saving, that there is some cultural value. When things become more expensive, you would believe—or you would like to believe—that people want to protect them because they want to safeguard this storage, this kind of a value. But at the end of the day, the artistic experience is about finding your own parameters—for myself as an artist, having as intense and as vivid a life experience as possible-and then to trying to communicate that to others.

CAMPBELL: Your famous sculpture Puppy, in Bilbao, is about 40 feet high. What kind of challenges did it present to you?

KOONS: To make any artwork is always to be open to everything. I’d just had my “Made in Heaven” exhibition, and I’d really opened myself up for the baroque and the rococo. I became aware of those floral sculptures of Northern Italy and Bavaria. So I thought, Oh, it would be nice to make a living work, a work that shows the lifecycle just like an individual. There are also technical aspects of creating something like Puppy because you want to make it as economically viable as possible and also ensure that it functions and supports the lifecycle of these plants. Climates go to different extremes, so you want to make it flexible for different locations. When I first had the idea for Puppy, I thought, Oh, in the winter, Puppy could become this ice sculpture. But climates change so much today, that you are not allowed to do that.

CAMPBELL: So there is no right or wrong way of doing Puppy?


CAMPBELL: Michael Jackson and Bubbles is another famous piece of yours. There seems to be a lot of humor underlying your work. It this the key factor?

KOONS: You know, I met Bubbles, but I never got to meet Michael.

CAMPBELL: I met Michael, but not Bubbles.

KOONS: So it’s a kind of yin and yang. When I made that sculpture, Naomi, I was very much in awe of Michael’s talent. His breadth in so many different things . . . He was a live sensation, and I was always very intrigued by that. So I was really trying to communicate to people self-acceptance, and that whatever their history is, it has its purpose. I needed kind of spiritual, authoritative figures there to let people feel it’s okay, that you can go along with this self-acceptance of your own cultural history or the things that motivate you. So Michael was there as a contemporary Christ. If you look at the sculpture, it actually is like the Pietà. It has the same configuration, the triangular aspect, so it’s making reference to that. He is there like a contemporary Christ figure to assure people that it’s okay.

CAMPBELL: It’s nice to hear you speak about self-acceptance. You seem to care about people on a deeper level.

KOONS: People have always enjoyed looking at my work and presenting it for something else. My work is very anti-criticism, anti-judgment. Because of that, automatically there is some kind of energy. People who want to look at art on a very surface level, can go against the work in an easy manner. They will refer to it as kitsch.

CAMPBELL: I don’t like that word.

KOONS: I don’t like that word either because even using that word is making a judgment.

CAMPBELL: I think it’s a bullshit word—it’s a word people use just because they do not have a real understanding of what it means.

KOONS: You know, blaming the messenger always happens. I remember in 1986 when I made my Luxury & Degradation body of work. People would like to write this off as some blame-type thing. But it’s really about abstraction. It’s about awe and wonder. I’m from Pennsylvania, and when you go out for a drive in Pennsylvania, quite a few people in the community have a gazing ball in their front yard—like a glass reflective ball—on a stand. [To assistant] Lauran, can you bring up a gazing ball?

CAMPBELL: Do we have those in London?

KOONS: I don’t know. In Germany, in the 19th century, King Ludwig II of Bavaria helped bring back the gazing ball. I think in Victorian times there were a lot of gazing balls. It’s a way of people being generous to their neighbors. [Shifts attention to computer screen] Okay, this is one image of the gazing ball. You’ve seen them?

CAMPBELL: Yes, I have.

KOONS: That’s my Rabbit. If you think of the head of my Rabbit, the reason I made my Rabbit was to make reference to this type of generosity. The reason people would put [a reflective ball] out in the yard is, I think, for their neighbor to enjoy when they go by.

CAMPBELL: You started at the Art Institute in Chicago.

KOONS: I did my last year of school in Chicago, and ended up staying there for a year or so later. Originally, I went to Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, but I transferred to Chicago because of the artist collective the Hairy Who. As a young artist, I was able to learn personal iconography through artists like Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke. So it’s learning a vocabulary that helps you learn how to feel and how to make other people feel and experience.

CAMPBELL: Salvador Dalí is cited as one of your utmost influences, is that right? What in his work has particularly inspired you?

KOONS: I would have to say the surreal nature of it. You are young and you don’t know what art can be—you don’t know when you are older either—but the first part is the self-acceptance, this inward journey. Surrealism is very much about going inward. I always felt like that about Dalí. He was the first artist I got involved with after my parents got me a coffee-table book of his work. When I was 17, I called Dalí and asked him if he would meet me. And he told me, “Sure, just come to New York.” We met at the St. Regis hotel, and he asked me if I wanted to go see his exhibition at the gallery. I met him at the gallery and he posed for some photos. So his generosity was great.

CAMPBELL: Wow! So you came from Pennsylvania?

KOONS: No, from Baltimore then. It was very generous of him to take the time for some young artist. To answer your question, Dalí was very innovative. And there were many things he toyed with that really affected the art world. I think that pop art is very much based on and reflected on a lot of Dalí’s work. The idea of the Madonna . . . So the Pope was visiting New York, and Dalí saw his image in the newspaper, he zoomed into a photograph of the Pope’s ear and he painted a Madonna and child. It’s all Band-Aid dots. There was never anything like that before. It affected young artists. There were no Warhol silk screens. This is the ground floor.

CAMPBELL: I’ve read that sometimes you use a large number of assistants and you have a color-code system so they are able to paint a large volume of artwork in a short space of time. Do you think that masters like Van Gogh or Rembrandt would have been shocked or amused by this approach?


KOONS: Each painting takes from a year and a half to two years, so I wouldn’t be able to make between six and eight paintings a year. But because I am doing other activities—I want to make sculptures, I want to work on other projects—I can’t sit and paint all day. If I could, it would be wonderful. Then it would probably take me four years to make a painting, or maybe I’d change my technique and it would not be so realistic. But the reason for this is to be able to have this type of control that every gesture is the way I would do it, every color is controlled, the way the paint is applied is controlled. It’s not as if I have assistants and I’m like, “Okay, go and make something and I’ll come and sign it.” Everything is a system to control every gesture as if I did it.

CAMPBELL: I know that your wife [Justine Koons] is an artist. Do you work together sometimes, or do you create art independently?

KOONS: Our whole life is a collaboration. We have six children together. We just had our sixth child.

CAMPBELL: Oh, my god. Congratulations!

KOONS: Art in our family is the meaning of life. It’s an extension of our lives. Justine used to work at the studio, and I met her through a friend that worked at the studio—she is very artistic. We’ve been working on some jewelry projects together and she’s been very involved in—

CAMPBELL: Raising the family.

KOONS: Raising the family. She’s been a little distant from the studio itself. She makes her own drawings and paintings and jewelry.

CAMPBELL: Any signs in your kids that they might want to pick up a paintbrush? Obviously, kids do pick up paintbrushes . . .

KOONS: Our daughter is maybe picking up more signs from your line of work. She is very feminine. Her favorite book is Shoe-la-la! It’s about girls shopping for shoes.

CAMPBELL: I know this book.

KOONS: But all of our kids are bright, artistic, and talented.

CAMPBELL: Would you agree that art is everywhere in life: in advertising, TV commercials, album covers?

KOONS: I think that there are externalized things-the things that we come across—and art eventually becomes objectified as these external things. But real art experience has connections just like consciousness itself. The heart of this is the experience.

CAMPBELL: There are many people who describe your work as inspired by consumerism. Do you think that there are any parallels with the Warhol approach?

KOONS: Well, I think I am inspired by the world around me. I think everybody is. Ed Paschke told me as a young artist, “Everything is all here. You just have to look for it.” The only thing you can do in life is follow your interests. I try to kind of accept everything and have everything in play. No matter what it is, it’s okay—I can use it. So there are aspects of desire that I am interested in. There are also aspects of consumerism in my work, absolutely: heightened experience, display, and also dealing with class structure and trying to, in a way, level it. But my work has always been about acceptance and dismantling this hierarchy system of judgment where there is only one way to look at something and you must know something to be involved in. You don’t have to know anything. It’s about your own possibilities, our own insight.

CAMPBELL: What was the first piece you sold?


KOONS: Well, truly the first work I sold, my father would have sold it for me. My father was an interior decorator and he had a furniture store in Pennsylvania. He had a showroom window in our town of York. He was very, very supportive of my interest in art. I would make paintings and he would have them framed and put them in the showroom window. As a 9-year-old child, I would sell a painting for $900. Maybe it was not $900—maybe it was $300. I remember they sold one piece at $900. But after art school, my first artwork I sold was to Patrick Lannan. He is deceased now, but he headed the Lannan Foundation. He bought my first Hoover that I ever made. He came to my studio and he liked the work and said, “You know, Jeff, when I started off, I sold Hoovers door-to-door.”

CAMPBELL: No! He totally connected to it.

KOONS: He did. What’s interesting is that I used the vacuum cleaner in my work because I was making reference to that knock on the door that you would get in the ’50s from the Hoover salesmen.

CAMPBELL: Do you consider art a good commodity?

KOONS: I like to think of art more as an experience. Is it good or bad? It has information just like the library has information that helps us to stay alive. It has the ability to condense information to what’s really important and critical. It deals with archetypes. It has the essence of all human history in it, so it’s a shame that an economic aspect comes into it.

CAMPBELL: Does music play a big part in your life?

KOONS: When I was younger, I was very moved by Led Zeppelin. When I was about 16, I have a vivid memory of wanting life to be more interesting and listening to their music driving around in my car . . .

CAMPBELL: Blasting?

KOONS: Can be blasting, but really starting to get in contact with aspects of sociology and philosophy from the music. I met Robert Plant maybe a year ago, and I told him, “You basically taught me how to feel.”

CAMPBELL: You had a small part in Gus Van Sant’s film Milk [2008] as the character aptly named Art Agnos. Did you enjoy the experience?

KOONS: I did. Gus saw me on Today or some news program, and he told me that he thought, That’s my Art Agnos! And the experience was fantastic. Sean Penn was wonderful and very supportive of me not being an actor. James Franco was also very supportive. It was interesting, because the whole acting process about being in the moment—it was a philosophical experience for me, just as an artist, to try to be engaged with my life. At different moments, I kind of snapped myself into, “Wait a minute, I am here, this is it!”

CAMPBELL: You like spending money. It’s said the Celebration series almost bankrupted you. Apart from your projects, what is the biggest luxury in your life?

KOONS: Being able to make things. My family and I have a farm in Pennsylvania, and we love it there. Our children can run wild. I don’t have sports cars . . .

CAMPBELL: You have a truck.

KOONS: Yeah, I have a truck. As far as conspicuous kind of consumption, I am not really involved in that. I love art; I have artworks.

CAMPBELL: Do you collect?

KOONS: I collect. One of the most important reasons is I want to inform myself. I’ve acquired pieces that have changed my life. The Picassos I own had that effect on me. We got involved in collecting so we can educate our children that art is much bigger than their parents.

CAMPBELL: What’s left for Jeff Koons to do? What else do you want to do?

KOONS: Oh, man, I feel I have a lot to do. I feel like I have made certain things that, at times, consciously, I may not have been so aware of what I was doing—I was just doing it. You just do it. And now that I’ve gotten older, there is a certain consciousness that I have about art. I still really want to make something that is the highest state of experience for myself. I want higher states of experience, of excitement.

Naomi Campbell is a British supermodel.


Jeff Koons:

Jeff Koons: “Abstraction is a powerful weapon!”


Jeff Koons is without a doubt one of the best-known contemporary artists in the world. His sought after artwork, which is both innovative and expensive, explores current obsessions with sex and desire; race and gender; and celebrity, media, commerce, and fame. He’s been lauded by the art world, but his work has been deemed controversial and he has received criticism along the way for being kitschy! Despite any controversies, his sculptures are deep rooted in sensuality, sexuality and have a genuine concern for humanity. He is a true artist in every sense of the word!

Naomi Campbell recalls “I was fretting ahead of my meeting with Jeff Koons but this turned out to be all for nothing. Jeff looked so at ease with himself, and as a result, with all his surroundings as well. So much so that I felt that sitting across from him was a privilege and an invaluable opportunity, almost akin to a spiritual experience”. From his side, Koons did not begrudge the time necessary to explain in detail to our guest editor the idea behind his work and tell how he built his own personal “factory.”



NAOMI: Three years ago your “Popeye” exhibition was held in London. Why did you choose this cartoon hero?

KOONS: Popeye the Sailor Man was a hero of my parents’ generation. For my father and others of his age, he was something like Priapus – the symbol of manliness. He eats spinach and attains unprecedented power, and the art of this brings transcendence to our lives. I like this type of association. Art teaches us to feel, helps us realize our limits, forces us to be captivated with life.

NAOMI: Some of your works have jaw-dropping price tags. In 2008 “Balloon Flower” went for almost £13 million. Is this recognition? Does the sale price carry any significance for you?

KOONS: If the cost increases, one would like to believe that they want to preserve your work. It is a sign that people acknowledge the socio-cultural value of your creation. In this there is sense, but in the end a piece of art is an intense and vivid life experience, with which I try to share with others.

NAOMI: The height of your flower sculpture “Puppy” in Bilbao is 13 meters. Was that difficult to shape?

KOONS: I had just finished the exhibition “Made in Heaven,” so my mind was completely open to Baroque and Rococo. I learned about flower figures, which they create in northern Italy and in Bavaria in southern Germany, it wouldn’t be bad to create a living sculpture reflecting the Earth’s cycle. The “Puppy” is just this: the need to support plant life taking into account the temperature . . .

NAOMI: . . . and the passing of the seasons.

KOONS: Yes, the passing of the seasons. And this allows the sculpture to work in different climate zones. When this idea first came into my head, I thought it would be cool to do the “Puppy” as an ice sculpture. But the climate changes so quickly, and the idea didn’t take off.



NAOMI: Peter Brant (the owner of the house that publishes Interview, businessman and multimillionaire – Interview) ordered “Puppy” from you for his estate. Will you travel there to look after the sculpture?

KOONS: Right after he bought the work, I went to see him and with his whole family we discussed the nuances and wrote down instructions. I went to see him several times afterward with the changing of the seasons, but since then they have learned how to take care of the “Puppy” themselves. I would like to believe that no mishandling of the sculpture is occurring. If you give a picture of “Puppy” to a hundred children and ask them to draw it, all hundred drawings can be used for a new design. After seeing it, I, without having participated in the design of the sculpture, would almost certainly say “Wow!”

NAOMI: And here’s another work of yours, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” I love its humorous message. Before this I had only seen Jackson’s favorite monkey Bubbles in photos, even though I knew Michael.

KOONS: For me it was the other way around – I knew Bubbles but not Michael. But I think very highly of Michael’s talent. And in this sculpture I wanted to convey the idea of accepting oneself, that no matter what your story, it has its own special meaning. I did it in order to help people triumph over insecurity and poor self-esteem. So I choose a person with influence, whose example would show people that everything will turn out okay, that you are wonderful in your own way and just need to find motivation from within. Michael was a modern day Jesus. And if you look at the sculpture, you’ll notice a similarity with Michelangelo’s Pieta in a general sense, with a triangle at the base. This is a modern day Jesus, who tells people that all is well.

NAOMI: You seem to have such a deep sense of caring about people!

KOONS: Those that like my creations always perceive them as a symbol, as something more than just a shape. In all my work, I push back against criticism, against judgment and condemnation. And these features automatically generate a certain strength and energy. Those that see my work only in a bubble can easily judge it and call my art kitsch.

NAOMI: What an unpleasant word. Just rotten. People often say it when they don’t understand something.

KOONS: Exactly! But in using it, you start to judge. By the way, this is nothing new: They have always condemned the messenger, who simply bears bad news. Back in 1986 in the series “Luxury and Degradation” I told people that art intoxicates, that art and its abstractions are the most powerful form of communication, and that luxury actually humiliates the world. Then I started to work with reflective services. I took stainless steel – I like the proletarian aspect of this material. Some write off my methods as sinfulness and a feeling of guilt, but reality it can all be reduced to abstraction and a feeling of surprise. You know, I’m from Pennsylvania. In almost every yard there is a reflective ball. In the 19th century the King Ludwig II of Bavaria brought back the fashionability of such “magical” crystal balls. And it Victorian England this was completed. It’s simply a way to show your generosity toward your neighbors. (An assistant brings Koons a ball.) Are you familiar with this?


KOONS: This is my “Rabbit.” (In a catalog Koons shows his sculpture made of twisted balloons in the shape of a rabbit.) Look at it and you’ll get there here there is also a reference to that generosity. You see they set these balloons in the garden for the pleasure of passer-bys.

NAOMI: How cool is that! Jeff, I know that you graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago and likely spent a great deal of time in the Windy City. Have you met Barack Obama?

KOONS: Oh no. I only studied at the Art Institute in my final year. I began my education in Baltimore, at the Maryland Institute College of Art and transferred to Chicago because of a group of artists called Hairy Who, which included Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke and widely used personal iconography. It was from them that I hit the books on the dictionary of feelings and studied how to make others empathize with the work. (He shows the work of Ed Paschke with Mighty Mouse.) This is one of my favorite pictures. Look how Paschke uses color: Each detail is traced like the old masters, and then he adds color rays to give all this the glow of life… Jim Nutt’s work has all its roots in Dada and Surrealism: The group he imagined was developed in parallel with pop art, but in his work is more iconography, and in pop art objectivity.



NAOMI: They say that Dali had a strong influence on you. What inspired you in his work? Color? Form? Surreal images?

KOONS: Probably the latter. In youth you only vaguely know what is art. By the way, you don’t become smarter regarding this matter with age. It actually all begins with an internal journey, here’s Surrealism and Dada and that’s about it. Dali was the first artist whose works I met with – my parents bought be a book of his art. And at 17 I garnered up the courage to call Dali and ask if he needed me. He unexpectedly answered: “Of course, come to New York.” We met in the hotel St. Regis. He took me to his exhibition. I took a picture of him there, and he posed.

NAOMI: Amazing!

KOONS: No kidding. The fact that he found the time for a young artist was incredibly generous. By the way, here is standing in front of his hallucinogenic “Tiger.” (He shows a photo.) I have a sketch of this work hanging in my bedroom. In the picture is the image of a tiger, and if you pull away, you can see three heads of Lenin. Dali was a great innovator, he played with a lot of different things that had a major influence on the art world. Pop-art is in many ways a reflection of Dali’s ideas. Did you know that in ’58 he painted “Sistine Madonna?” The Pope came to New York, and Dali saw his picture in the paper and increased the size of the Pope’s ear. Then he drew an image of Madonna with a baby. Today this picture is located in the Vatican’s art collection. And the entire thing was done with dots. It inspired many young artists. You see before this no had created anything like it, there was no Warhol silkscreen printing, no Roy Lichtenstein comics. Dali is the ground floor, the base. He constantly experimented, read scientific journals, he was very interested in math…

NAOMI (to the side): And I will nevertheless ask you this question. (Turning to Koons.) I read that you have many assistants and that you’ve developed a special system of color codes so that they can quickly draw a large amount of work for you. Do you think masters such as Van Gogh or Rembrandt would be shocked by this approach?

KOONS: Every painting takes 1-2.5 years. This is very long and at this pace I wouldn’t be able to do 6-8 pictures in a year. And I still have other matters to attend to! I want to create sculptures, installations… I can’t sit and write all day. But I want to control everything, so I review the pictures daily. And every stroke, every gesture falls exactly where it would if I did it myself. I don’t say to an assistant: “Go draw something and then I’ll sign it.”

NAOMI: I know that your wife Justine is also an artist. Do you work together?

KOONS: Yes, our entire life is a complete collaboration. We have six children, the sixth was born 1.5 months ago.

NAOMI: Goodness! Congratulations!

KOONS: Thank you! Art is the meaning of life in our family. Earlier Justine constantly worked in the studio, she’s very artistic. We worked on jewelry projects together, but now she’s busy most of the time with…

NAOMI: … the family.

KOONS: Exactly. But she still draws pictures and creates jewelry.

NAOMI: And have the children tried to pick up a brush yet?

KOONS: No, but would believe that our young daughter Scarlett has already shown an interest in your profession? She’s very feminine, and her favorite book Shoe La La is about how girls buy shoes. In the evening she gives me a clothes catalog and says, “Read me a book Daddy!”

NAOMI: Just great! So, many critics say that your work is inspired by the ideology of consumerism. Do you think there’s any parallel with Andy Warhol and his famous Campell’s Soup design?

KOONS: Yes I was influenced by the world around me! When I was young, Ed Paschke said to me, “Everything has been created already, you just have to look around.” Follow your own interests, that’s what’s truly important in life. I try to take in everything, get involved in everything – it’s not important what. Of course there is a commercial component in this. Remember when you were a kid and thought, “This is what I want for Christmas!” It is still a question of desire, of genuine interest.

NAOMI: And did you have a lot of toys as a child? Popeye for example?

KOONS: Oh yes, I had a bunch of different stuff. Even though we lived modestly, my parents bought me everything I really wanted. But allow me to finish. In my art, I simply use these aspects of desire. Time passes. We passed from an agrarian culture through an entire era of industrialization and have become a service society. Therefore, the feeling of independence and axiom of a person who relies solely on their own strength has turned into an ideology of consumerism. By the way, I’m not as close to this ideology as many think. But I certainly use several manifestations of consumerism: A powerful and intense experience demonstrated in the face of a good. At the heart of my work lies inclusiveness. Our hierarchical system of reasoning offers only one path: You absolutely must know about the world of art. But I don’t like this view. I think that you really don’t need to know anything. Everything happens within yourself. Everything can be reduced to your own possibilities and your unique understand of the essence of things.

NAOMI: When did you sell your first work? What did it look like?

KOONS: My dad sold my first picture. He worked with interiors and we had a furniture store in Pennsylvania. And Dad displayed my work in the store window. I think I was nine years old when he sold one of these for $900.

NAOMI: Oh wow! You started early!

KOONS: Yes, yes, well, maybe it was only for $300. But I remember perfectly that somebody bought one of these for $900. I’m sure that Dad understood there were more interesting pictures than mine, but he gladly met me halfway. When I finished at the Institute, I sold right here in New York my first serious creation to the entrepreneur Patrick Lennon. He came to me in the studio one day, saw my work with a vacuum cleaner and said, “You know Jeff, I started out selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.”

NAOMI: He understood that art was all around him!

KOONS: Exactly. In that work I hinted at the fact that half a century ago sales were at the forefront of culture. If someone rang your doorbell in the 50s, it was a vacuum salesman. I worked in direct sales myself during my childhood. I sold wrapping paper.

NAOMI: At Christmas time?

KOONS: Yeah year-round. Tape and wrapping paper – they’re all now in my “Celebration” series. I also sold chocolate.

NAOMI: In the little boxes?

KOONS: In the little ones. We lived in the suburbs. My parents would sometimes drive me around to different cities in the area, and I would walk around the neighborhoods knocking on doors. I really enjoyed it because you never knew who would open the door, how this person would look, would they be unkempt or beautiful, would they invite you in, what smells would be coming from the kitchen. It’s a pleasant feeling of apprehension.

NAOMI: And maybe a feeling of independence! They’re probably incredible feelings to experience at such a tender age.

KOONS: All this is about confidence in yourself and your abilities. And also about how with the help of others, people can satisfy their needs.



NAOMI: In 2002 you, David Bowie and Paul McCartney became honorary knights of the French Legion of Honor. That’s good company. After saying these names the question arises: Is music of great importance for you? Do you know David?

KOONS: I met with David and think he’s one of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. If we draw parallels with Ancient Greece, Bowie is the god Apollo. When he played music, he became a woman.

NAOMI: I adore him. He doesn’t play now, but at the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, we entered the stadium to his music.

KOONS: And Paul McCartney? My God, as a kid I watched the Beetles performance on the Ed Sullivan Show! I was also very inspired by Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. At 16 I spent hours driving around in the car listening to their songs. I met Plant in person not too long ago and told him, “You taught me how to feel.”

NAOMI: And to dream?

KOONS: And to dream. Because music comes first. It enhances our senses, everything in it is about feelings.

NAOMI: You played the small role of Art Agnos in the film Harvey Milk in 2008. Was that an interesting experience?

KOONS: There aren’t words for it, fantastic! Director Gus Van Sant saw me on the Today Show and immediately thought, “There’s my Art Agnos!” Sean Pean was great to me even though I’m in no way an actor. And James Franco also supported me in every way.

NAOMI: Do you want to play another role somewhere?

KOONS: In the first place I’m very curious from the point of view of the essence of acting – it’s being in the moment. The drive to lead an engaging life, the feeling that it’s moving along and you’re sitting and waiting for your entrance to arena. For me this was a philosophical experience. I don’t think that all this helped me to act better, but as a person trying to life his life, it certainly helped. I felt moments clarify, and I said to myself, “Wait a second, I’m here, and this is it!”

NAOMI: It’s difficult when they say to you that you need to portray someone. But it’s pleasant when you can somehow erase yourself. That skill is always useful. Jeff, coming back to your immediate work, you told me at the beginning about the “Luxury and Degradation” series. It brings up the theme of alcohol and art. The collection featured some very interesting pieces of art inspired by Gordon’s, Jim Beam and Martell. Did you like the visual associations, or perhaps you were interested in the conceptuality of alcohol in society?

KOONS: I did “Luxury and Degradation” immediately after the “Equilibrium” series. I remember I was walking along 5th Avenue and at the corner of 22nd Street I saw a liquor store. In the window was a Jim Beam train with an engine, seven cars and rails. And I thought, “What a wonderful ready-made object!” But how to turn it into something connected with alcohol? That’s when I used stainless steel for the first time. The idea was that to create something visually intoxicating, you had to keep the spirit of alcohol. And then I understood that it would be a piece of art – you could cast the car that Jim Beam filled with alcohol and close its roof, and the work would keep its purity and honesty. They agreed. And that’s how the first object came to be.
Then I started observing one alcoholic. I saw how he started to mumble, followed his degradation, the chaos of his life. And I noticed how when you get on the subway in an affluent neighborhood, the advertising changes. It becomes more abstract. I recorded all this, filmed it and then painted it with oil. Depending on the level of affluence, society wants you to pull out your hair, make a lot of money, become successful. Then it beats you on the head with all of this and degradation begins.

NAOMI: It’s true, when you walk from Uptown to Midtown toward the Bronx, it really catches your attention. I noticed this when I was just 17 and had just arrived in New York.

KOONS: Abstraction is a powerful weapon!



NAOMI: Do you collect others’ art?

KOONS: I collect. The main reason for this is to stay informed. Several things that I acquired literally changed my life. For example, Picasso played a major role for me. Picasso has so many references to different things. He’s so pervasive! Such a high density of information, it’s breathtaking. And all his work was done in an intuitive manner. Picasso was able to repeat himself day after day. He had favorite themes and images that seemed similar but they still came out differently. My wife and I started to collect art so that our children understand that the world isn’t limited to the work of their parents.

NAOMI: Yes, Picasso blows my mind as well. Sadly it seems I’ve come to my last question, “What would the artist Jeff Koons like to do? What inspires him today?

KOONS: Boy, I want to do a lot. Some things I did on a whim. I just did, I just felt. A specific awareness of art only came to me over time. And now I want to do something that will be for me a high-level experience, feelings, excitement…

NAOMI: Do you want to challenge yourself?

KOONS: Why not? There are so many misunderstandings about me. People think that I have a real factory. They even compare me to Andy Warhol and his numerous assistants. But I actually just try to achieve a balance: On the one hand, I always have major projects that I dabble in for a long time. On the other, I try to make sure that all my work maintains its spontaneity. And directness.



Jeff Koons: interview


Best known for his marriage to La Cicciolina and his Jacko and Bubbles sculpture, Jeff Koons is one of the art world’s most divisive figures. We met him ahead of his first UK show


    Jeff Koons: interview

    Jeff Koons © MIchael Franke

  • Off and on, for almost two decades now, Jeff Koons has been the world’s most expensive living artist, selling work for upwards of $25 million, despite many of them, such as ‘Hanging Heart’ and ‘Balloon Dog’, not even being unique pieces. He’s also been married to an Italian porn-star-turned-politician, Illona Staller (better known as La Cicciolina), not to mention the messy divorce, custody and copyright suits. Yet he’s continually produced some of the most outrageous art of the last 40 years, creating giant puppies from pretty flowers and encasing vacuum cleaners in vitrines (long before Hirst’s shark). His first solo show in London focuses on his ‘Popeye’ series, based on the Depression-era cartoon character who thankfully is now out of copyright himself at the ripe old age of 80. Do I just call you Jeff?
    ‘My real name is Jeffrey Lynn Koons, but I’ve always liked the simplicity of Jeff.’Why is this your first public show in London? Is there something about you that we Brits just don’t get?
    ‘I have wonderful friends in England and have always participated in group shows here. I like to think of myself very much as an international artist, but I also know my own cultural history.’

    But your work still polarises people, like Marmite in the UK, or Dr Pepper in the US…

    ‘I’ve always dealt with my work in a very honest manner, and so whenever someone responds that they don’t get it, I feel like I lost that person.  Every time you do or make something you do it for that singular moment of communication. It happens one person at a time, but you want it to be effective. We all have the same pleasures and desires, I just think that some people are more protective and shelter themselves from their experiences, especially if it’s sexuality, the foundation of our life experience.’You talk about acceptance, but your work still has an edge, whether it’s a porcelain model of Michael Jackson with Bubbles or images of you having sex with your ex-wife.
    ‘All my work tries to embrace visual power, and acceptance does not have to be all warm and cushy, there’s also a violence to acceptance. I was a painter until I left art school, when I started to deal with things outside the self.’Was your recent exhibition at Versailles your crowning achievement?
    ‘It was a great experience. I had been thinking about Louis Quatorze and what he would want to create. Maybe he’d have woken up in the morning and wanted to see a piece like “Puppy” created out of 60,000 live flowers, and have it finished by the time he got home that night.’Although there was some grumbling from critics and tour guides there…
    ‘People’s attitudes can be amazing. I think if the guides were more open to that experience they would have seen the colour, the charge and the extravagance come back to Versailles. Not to mention the impracticality of it all, but showing at the Serpentine is just as special to me, it can have just as much power.’

    Let’s talk about the ‘Popeye’ series. Is it straight pop art?

    ‘I don’t think so, because pop is about an externalisation of the viewer. I like to believe that what I do is very much the activity of real art, where the artist has complete freedom to do what they want and show the connections with human potential.’

    What’s your spinach?

    ‘In my own life what gets me most excited are my children. They’re energising: to be able to share your life with them and to offer them opportunity is so enriching.’What’s your life-preserver?
    ‘That would be art and being involved in this whole process. You have to trust in yourself, it takes you to a very metaphysical place and that’s all an artist can do – make connections and be involved in something profound. Instead of creating anxiety, it should be a vehicle for removing it.’To quote another of your characters,  The Incredible Hulk, why wouldn’t I like you when you’re angry?
    ‘I tend to think that the glass is always half full, and I try to show that through my work, but what makes me angry is a failure of communication.’

    Talking of superheroes, one of your personal heroes was Salvador Dali.

    ‘I met him at the Saint Regis Hotel when I was a teenager. He took me to an exhibition of his and he posed for some photos in front of “The Hallucinogenic Toreador”. I now own the gouache study of that work and it hangs in my bedroom.’Do you buy anything else with your cash?
    ‘I have some Egyptian antiquities, but I’d much rather acquire a sculpture or a painting than a sports car. I’ve bought Picasso and Magritte and a very beautiful and vaginal [painting by French artist] Bougeureau.’You also employ 120 people in your studio, but you don’t like calling it a factory, is that correct?
    ‘I don’t feel very comfortable with that term. I make about eight paintings and 12 editions of sculptures a year. It’s not that we are involved in craft – I hate craft, craft is fetishism – but it’s just the time it takes to realise them.’Are you recession-proof?
    ‘I don’t really have a business model other than to make the work that I want to, and downtime is good because I’ve got a backlog. People get so caught up in the recession, but it’s like a roller coaster: in good times, everything else costs so much more, so it’s all relative. “Celebration”, one of my more successful series that includes “Balloon Dog” and “Hanging Heart”, took a long time to get finished in the ’90s because their ambition was great but the economic means really weren’t being addressed.’

    How do you feel about speculators flipping your work at auction? One even said that ‘Jeff Koons has performed better than oil’.
    ‘To a certain degree, I’m honoured, but I’m disappointed that they don’t enjoy the same connection to the power of art that I have as a collector. I love the responsibility of the maintenance or preservation of art. I want to protect it.’

    But you were on Wall Street once yourself, weren’t you?

    ‘I ended up becoming a broker, and it was really more like ad work, where you’re commissioned to do something except you don’t have the freedom of your own expression. But from childhood I was brought up to be very self-sufficient, so I would go door-to-door selling gift-wrapping paper and candies. I enjoyed the experience. It was my desire to communicate.’

    Is there any rivalry between you and artists like Damien Hirst or Takashi Murakami?
    ‘I consider Damien very much a friend; I don’t know Murakami that well. I enjoy showing with artists from my generation but I’m not involved in trying to create some branded type of product, because I believe you penetrate the consciousness through the idea more than with distribution. So I like to believe that I’m in that school, and only involved in the economic aspect of art through how good of an idea I’ve had.’

    Do you enjoy the attention of the art world?
    ‘I always wanted to be involved, I enjoy having the platform of success. I don’t enjoy it unless it’s about the work, so if I’m not in my studio for a couple of days I become quite nervous.’

    What would people be surprised to know about you, apart from your cameo in Sean Penn’s movie ‘Milk’?
    ‘I think there is a misunderstanding about my work that it’s about product and consumerism. Somebody recently came to me and asked if I could design a bookstore, but that’s not for me. I never did anything to create this other persona, even in the bodies of work that dealt with luxury and degradation where I warned people not to pursue luxury because it was like the alcoholic falling under the control of alcohol. It’s confusing the messenger with the message.’

    Jeff Koons shows at the Serpentine until Sept 13 2009.


jeff koonsNew York City, October 1986KlausOttmann: What is the theme of your new work?Jeff Koons: The basic story line is about art leaving the realm of the artist, when the artist loses control of the work. It’s defined basically by two ends. One would be Louis XIV — that if you put art in the hands of an aristocracy or monarch, art will become reflec-tive of ego and decorative — and on the other end of the scale would be Bob Hope — that if you give art to the masses, art will become reflective of mass ego and also decorative. The body of work is based around statuary representing different periods of Western European art. Each work in the show is coded to be more or less specific about art being used as a symbol or representation of a certain theme that takes place in art, such as Doctor’s Delight, a symbol of sexuality in art; Two Kids, of morality in art; Rabbit, of fantasy in art. Italian Woman would be a symbol of the artist going after beauty; Flowers would be art being used to show elegance and the strength of money; Louis XIV is power, a sym-bol of using art as an authoritarian means; Trolls, a symbol of mythology.Ottmann: What is your main interest as an artist?Koons: I’m interested in the morality of what it means to be an artist, with what art means to me, how it defines my life, etc. And my next concern is my actions, the responsibility of my own actions in art with regard to other artists, and then to a wider range of the art audience, such as critics, museum people, collectors, etc. Art to me is a humanitarian act, and I be-lieve that there is a responsibility that art should somehow be able to affectmankind, to make the word a better place (this is not acliche!).Ottmann: Where do you get the ideas for your work?Koons: It’s a natural process. Generally I walk around and I see one object and it affects me. I can’t just choose any object or any theme to work with. I can be confronted by an object and be interested in a specific thing about it, and the context develops simultane-ously. I never try to create a context artificially. I think about my work every minute of the day.Ottmann: How far are you involved in the actual production of your work?Koons: I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the neces-sary abilities, so I go to the top people, whether I’m working with my foundry — Tallix — or in physics. I’m always trying to maintain the integrity of the work. I recently worked with Nobel prize winner Richard P. Feynman. I also worked with Wasserman at Dupont and Green at MIT. I worked with many of the top physicists and chemists in the country.Ottmann: Could you elaborate the term “integrity”?Koons: To me, integrity means unaltered. When I’m working with an object I always have to give the great-est consideration not to alter the object physically or even psychologically. I try to reveal a certain as-pect of the object’s personality. To give you an example: if you place a shy person in a large crowd, his shyness will be revealed and enhanced. I work with the object in a very similar manner. I’m placing the object in a context or material that will enhance a specific personality trait within the object. The soul of the object must be maintained to have confidence in the arena.Ottmann: How do you see the development of your work?Koons: The early work is very important to my personal development, but I don’t feel that it has the same so-cial value as my work from the time of “The New.” I feel basically that the core of my work stays the same. I try to carry the best of my work with me through each body of work while enlarging its parameters.Ottmann: What are the differences between your work and say someone like Richard Prince who rephotographs advertisement and media images?Koons: Richard and I have been friends for many years. His work is more involved in the ap-propriation as-pect, the aspect of theft, while my work comes from the history of the ready-made, which for me is position of optimism. Whether I’m casting my Jim Beam de-canter or creating a painting from a liquor ad, I receive all the legal rights from everybody — a very optimistic situation.

Ottmann: How do you manage to get all the legal rights?

Koons: I come out of a background of, at one time, being the Senior Representative for the Mu-seum of Modern Art. I was also a commodity broker on Wall Street for six years, so I have experience in deal-ing with people on a professional level. I had only one company in my last project that turned me down. And in each company I have to deal first with them, then with their lawyers, and in some cas-es with their advertising firms and their printers.

Ottmann How do you see advertisement?

Koons: It’s basically the medium that defines people’s perceptions of the world, of life itself, how to interact with others. The media defines reality. Just yesterday we met some friends. We were celebrating and I said to them: “Here’s to good friends!” It was like living in an ad. It was wonderful, a wonderful moment. We were right there living in the reality of our media.

Ottmann: What do you think about the fact that the owner of one of the largest advertising firms in the world, Charles Saatchi, is buying your art?

Koons: It’s not negative toward advertisement. I believe in advertisement and media complete-ly. My art and my personal life are based in it. I think that the art world would probably be a tremendous reservoir for everybody involved in advertising.

Ottmann: What is the significance of the Nike ads?

Koons:The Nike ads were my great deceivers. The show was about equilibrium, and the ads defined person-al and social equilibrium. There is also the deception of people acting as if they have accomplished their goals and they haven’t: “Come on! Go for it! I have achieved equilibrium!” Equilibrium is unattainable, it can be sustained only for a mo-ment. And here are these people in the role of saying, “Come on! I’ve done it! I’m a star! I’m Moses!” It’s about artists using art for social mobility. Moses [Malone] is a symbol of the middle-class artist of our time who does the same act of deception, a front man: “I’ve done it! I’m a star!”

Ottmann: Would you be interested in doing an ad?

Koons: I would be extremely interested. I’m not interested in corporations having my work. Some corpora-tions collect my work, that’s fine. But let’s say I use a specific product, like a Spalding basketball. I don’t want Spalding to have my basketball. I don’t do it for that reason. But if Spalding came to me and asked if I would like to work on an ad cam-paign, I’d love to do that.

Ottmann: Do you get money from companies for using their products?

Koons: Absolutely not. I would never accept it. Now, somebody like Jim Beam who has been so gracious to work with, I’ve given them a work of art, but if they would want to buy one I may feel uncomfort-able because the work was not done for that reason. I’ve given them something out of apprecia-tion of their being so tremendous to work with.

Ottmann: Do you consider the gallery the ideal space for your work?

Koons: I love the gallery, the arena of representation. It’s a commercial world, and morality is based gener-ally around economics, and that’s taking place in the art gallery. I like the tension of accessibility and inaccessibility, and the morality in the art gallery. I believe that my art gets across the point that I’m in this morality theater trying to help the under-dog, and I’m speaking socially here, showing concern and making psychological and philosophical statements for the underdog.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.

Giancarlo Politi
GIANCARLO POLITI: I can’t imagine you in your studio, because many of your works are made in a foundry. How does your work come about?Jeff Koons: When I’m at home, where my studio is also located, the studio functions as an office and as a place where I pull away from the external world and reflect on it. I’m not actually in production there; the studio is a refuge — a place where I’m in a state of rest with respect tothe outside — and a place of contemplation.
GP: You speak of objects, and never of sculpture. Why?JK: First of all, I see myself as an artist, and not as a sculptor. Most of the time my work operates in a three-dimensional realm, possibly because it is more substantial than the two-dimensional realm of illusion. It defines a reality for me. In the system I was brought up in — the Western, capitalist system — one receives objects as rewards for labor and achievement. Everything one has sacrificed in life — personal goals or fantasies, for instance — in the effort to obtain these objects, has been sacrificed to a given labor situation. And once these objects have been accumulated, they work as support mechanisms for the individual: to define the personality of the self, to fulfil desires and express them, and so on…GP: What meaning does your work have for you?JK: In the past my work has always been about my personal, intellectual development. More recently it has involved the external world and how it functions socially. Whereas in the past I was more concerned with defining states of being that can be achieved by the individual, in more recent times I’ve extended my interest to social states of being that are more and more removed from what I could accomplish now, within my lifetime. Also, the work is being directed, since I have been defining a social state of being. I have also been redefining a personal state of being. On both the personal and the social level, though, my goals have been knowingly unachievable — biologically, psychologically and economically they just aren’t possible at this time.Lately, the work has taken on a dimension of alienation of the physical self. In the body of work I called “The New,” I was interested in an individual psychological state tied to newness and immortality: the Gestalt came directly from viewing an inanimate object — a vacuum cleaner — that was in a position to be immortal. Now the works, particularly the cast pieces, are maintaining the integrity of the object to such a degree that my hand, my own physical involvement, disappears. Nothing is done to alter the viewer’s confidence in (or the psychological perception of) the object. Any diminishment or increase of its imperfections would affect its ability to convince in the arena of display; and total confidence, total conviction, are essential if these works are to achieve their goal.GP: Is your work formed intuitively, or does it stem from market research?JK: My work is intuitive, but I also expose myself to as much information as I possible can, so I think it would be fifty-fifty. It involves directly seeing the manipulation that takes place within oneself and how one’s desires are directed, but then it also relies on the biological self, an intuitive self. In this sense my work differs from, say, Conceptual art; my work is more ‘ideal’ than conceptual. Conceptual art was always creating support mechanisms to hold itself together, to cover up any lies within its structure. The intuitive quality of my work precludes all need for deception. If a flaw is there, it is part of the system. That’s what I mean by functioning intuitively instead of trying to create an artificial support for the work.
Rabbit, 1986. Cast stainless steel, 104 x 48 x 30,5 cm.
GP: Does art have a social dimension?JK:Yes. I feel it’s the only valid way for art to exist, and the only way it can truly function. If art is not directed toward the social, it becomes purely self-indulgent, like sex without love. Whereas if art is functioning in the social sphere and helping to define social order, it’s working purely as a tool of philosophy, enhancing the quality of individual life and redirecting social and political attitudes. Art can define an individual’s aspirations and goals as other systems — for instance, economics — are defining them now. Art can define ultimate states of being in a more responsible way than economics can, because art is concerned with philosophy as well as with the marketplace.GP: Your work is very new. Do you think you are still in the field of art, or have you gone beyond?JK:My work, hopefully, is showing new possibilities of art. At the same time I am trying to look back, to see what attributes of art have been performing psychologically, and to work with those attributes in defining a new area, a situation in which the individual will have pure confidence in his position by virtue of the objects with which he surrounds himself. These objects will not be looked at in a contemplative way, but will only be there as a mechanism of security. And they will be accessible to all, for art can and should be used to stimulate social mobility. In fact I envisage the formation of a total society where every citizen will be of the blue blood. In such a society the individual will exist in a state of entropy, or rest, and will inhabit an environment decorated with object art that is beyond critical dialogue.Helena Kontova: Does that mean you’re working for the present or for the future?JK: The kind of transformation I’m talking about cannot be achieved overnight. Nevertheless, my work is being directed along these lines right now. My bust of Louis XIV (1986) is about the confidence that can be placed in a monarchic situation; it’s almost speaking about the ruins of Versailles. The stainless steel alludes to proletarian luxury, a necessary component of any political support system; and the light reflected in the shadows of the steel, which takes on a cerulean tone, reinforces a sense of intimacy and passiveness — the same kind of intimacy or passiveness one may feel, say, in a public square with a fountain or with a sculpture. Although the work is functioning in that area now, it needs time, just as the general economic situation needs time.HK: For whom does the work function in this idle way you are describing?JK: It functions for everyone. For the lower and middle class it will lead to an ultimate state of rest; for the upper class it will lead to an unprecedented state of confidence. So all members of society would benefit. There would be no losers.Gregorio Magnani: Can you explain what you mean by “proletarian luxury?”JK: The polished stainless steel has a reflective quality which is associated with a luxurious item. In my work the situation is set up so that the individual from the lower classes feels economic security in a fake situation. Polished objects have often been displayed by the church and by wealthy people to set a stage of both material security and enlightment of spiritual nature; the stainless steel is a fake reflection of that stage.
Flowers, 1986. Stainless steel, 32 x 45 x 31 cm;Louis XIV, 1986. Stainless steel, 117 x 68 x 38 cm. Photo: Fred Scruton.

GM: Don’t you think your bust of Louis XIV and many of the other works, as well, can be seen as enbodiments of the confidence that can be placed in a multinational situation?JK: The bust of Louis XIV is a symbol of the confidence that can be placed in an authoritarian regime but it is also a symbol of all labor exchange systems in history, including capitalism. What is being communicated is a decriticalized political situation. As Louis XIV is not performing as a monarch anymore, the lower class individual can feel comfortable that he can not be betrayed once he has gone into this state of entropy, and the upper class is able to partake in a false security and therefore can not betray the lower classes. Once the object has seduced the viewer into the acceptance of this political situation, there is no way for the lower class to revolt and there is no way for the aristocracy to betray again. If that were to occur, and it could not, the aristocracy would be biting its own tail.GP: Is there any connection between your work and the work of the past?JK: I’m deeply indebted to Marcel Duchamp, whose work, because it was directed outward from the artist and into the social arena, had a liberatory value for me. My work is connected with the past to the extent that it wishes to use the past psychologically, to reap the benefits inculcated in works of art by other artists — for example, the sense of entropy or equilibrium, devoid of critical dialogue, that ispresent in certain statuary.Giacinto Di Pietrantonio: A lot of people have been talking about the component of desire in objects. Are you acquainted with this philosophical debate, and do you see a relationship between your ideas and theirs? I’m thinking in particular of Jean Baudrillard.JK: My art has not been directed toward defining someone else’s philosophical point of view; it has often been admired for the way it has enhanced these points of view. Baudrillard envisages an end time when art will be purely nonfunctional, a term of economic exchange; I see the ultimate role of art as one of pure function. Where I see art going, its exchange value, its economic substructure, will be removed; it will function solely as a means of support and security. Seen from this point of view, my work has strong biological implications; the encasement of the vacuum cleaners, the idea of removal and protection, and especially the “Equilibrium Tanks,” where you have water sustaining a basketball, are all very womblike.Elio Grazioli: How is it possible for the immortality of the object to create a sense of security in the subject? Wouldn’t it have just the opposite effect?JK: Any insecurity it might create would be generated by the realization that one is not living in a state of entropy, or equilibrium, and by the consequent desire to return to the womb — which, of course, is an unachievable goal.EG: How do you go about choosing an object, if you want to eliminate its metaphorical quality? If you want to get away from a situation of critical evaluation where a vacuum cleaner is a breathing machine, or a basketball floating in a tank of water is a foetus?JK: I think my work still has that metaphorical value. The statuary body of work that I just used had it, and even the “Luxury and Degradation” show, the “Jim Beam” work, used the metaphors of luxury to define class structure, a pail being a symbol of the proletariat, and a Baccarat Crystal Set (1986) the edge of the upper-middle class. Now the work is functioning on metaphors of art. The bust of Louis XIV is a metaphor for art in the hands of a monarch; the vase of flowers (Flowers, 1986), art working to create a sense of economic stability; or the trolls, a metaphor for mythology. So I’m still dealing with metaphor, in order to produce a false front that will have substantiality to it. There has to be a false front under the present economic conditions, but it has to have stability to it, and confidence in itself.HK: How does your socio-political intention relate to, say, the American system as represented by Reagan and his following?JK: With Reaganism, social mobility is collapsing, and instead of a structure composed of low, middle, and high income levels, we’re down to low and high only. Reaganism has defined two ends, and these are the areas where insecurity is greatest. My work stands in opposition to this trend.

GP: Why do you work in series?

JK: In bodies of work like “The New,” the “Equilibrium” pieces, and the “Jim Beam”

work, I was working with the integrity of the artist, opening myself up to what art can be rather than getting locked into a particular aesthetic. The latter, for me, would be very boring. I prefer to look at my context from another angle continually, to enhance the core of my work and to define the parameters, to expand them. It also addresses a marketing issue, namely, that art has to continue to change. If I want to leave the door open to change, I also need the freedom to repeat myself.

GP: Two or three years ago you worked with images that came from advertisements. Can you explain why?

JK: My original concern was to clarify the content of my work, so that when a viewer came into contact with “The New,” or a doubledecker (New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker, 1981), he would understand what it was about. For instance, near the object I would place things like a cigarette ad that would say “New Philip Morris Ultralight 100s” or a car ad that would say “New Toyota Family Capri” as a guide to the context of the work. In the “Equilibrium” work I formed a triad based on the Nike ads, bronzes, and equilibrium tanks, which functioned together to define one context. In the “Jim Beam” work, where I worked with liquor advertisements, the purpose was not so much to direct the viewer as to define social class structure. The Aqui Baccardi ad (1986) is defining a mentality and the desirability of luxury on an income of $15,000 or less. It says, “let’s gamble with our lives, let’s throw all our chips up into the air, and wherever they fall we’ll accept it.” Whereas the Frangelico ads are defining a $45,000 and up income, which is more concerned with being lost in one’s own thought patterns. These two publics are being deceived on different levels of thought, because they’re educated in abstraction and luxury on different income levels. The upper class would love to pull an individual with ambition and gumption from a lower class to the verge of the upper class, because that’s where the big takings of power are. If they can have you move through social mobility up to the edge of the upper class, they can go in and in one killing get 250 chips; but you’ll never break through, because luxury and abstraction are the guard dogs of the upper class. And the pursuit of luxury is degradation.

EG: Isn’t this the old problem of the avantgarde, where the artist, from the height of his intelligence, dictates that which you must and must not do? He gives you power, but he takes it away at the same time.

JK: My new objects reflect desire, they don’t absorb desire. It’s entropy, it’s energy that’s not being lost, but is in a state of rest. It’s not an absorption.

GM: How can your art have such an important social effect if the circulation is controlled by a limited circle of people?

JK: The freedoms that are fought for by art are never fought in the streets. It is a dialogue among few people which may eventually be reflected in the streets but isn’t created there. However, the people who are collecting and supporting my work are the ones that are in the same political directions as I am. They are responding to a dissatisfaction in art, politics, in philosophy. I feel aligned to them. Hopefully the ideas in my work will be disseminated through them to a larger audience.

GP: You are making very new and aggressive art… how do you fit into the New York situation? Do you look at other artists, or talk with them, or do you work alone?

JK: I’ve been in New York since the end of ’76, but have been participating in an open dialogue with the community only since ’79. Until recently I have felt like an outsider, although I have always been directly connected with the center of the art community. I don’t feel like an outsider right now; if anything I have to impose an outside position. I live down in the Wall Street area only for exclusion, so that I don’t have to walk out on the street and be confronted with SoHo or run into a specific dealer, and so on.

GP: What do you think the future of the art market in America will be like? Do you think galleries should change their strategies over the next ten years, in the light of developments like the recent boom in corporate art buying?

JK: I believe the responsibility of art must be controlled by the artist. I don’t feel that the galleries truly care, or can be placed in a position to assume the responsibilities of carrying the flag, because most are purely controlled by economics. On the other  hand, I think that the New York market at this moment is functioning almost in a Reaganist term of a true marketplace. So far the market has been very positive, because there are so many opportunities for the artists.

GP: Don’t you think that the power of corporations is influencing taste?

JK: I haven’t had corporations directly involved in purchasing my work, other than Chase Bank. They seem to participate in the art world only as a market signal, an indicator of speculative value.

GP: Do you think speculation is still important in art, more than status, for instance? Because for investments the stock exchange is probably a better bet sometimes.

JK: People should be able to state their opinion in art, and help to direct the course of art. But there are greater profits to be made in other areas, and they can be made much more rapidly than in art.



Various contributors and members of the editorial staff participated in this interview, which took place on the premises of the magazine, December 10, 1986.

Giancarlo Politi is the editor and publisher of Flash Art.

Jeff Koons was born in York, USA, in 1955. He lives and works in New York.



Flash Art 41 Years – More info







Kara Walker’s Haunting American Sphinx “A Sublety” at the Domino Sugar Factory, Williamsburg, Brooklyn


May 9, 2014
_Gala Dinner

The Riddle of the Sugar Sphinx; Kara Walker at Creative Time


2014 CREATIVE TIME Spring Gala Honoring Kara Walker

The marvelous sugar baby. An homage to unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchen of the new world on the occasion of the demolition of the domino sugar refining plant. AKA: A Subtlety.

The title is apt, not just because it is a paragraph describing the intent, but because, in confectioners parlance, ‘a subtlety’ is a shaped sugar treat. A sugar baby is normally a woman, one who is kept by a sugar daddy. The arrangement is one of money for companionship. Let’s be less subtle. A sugar baby is a product of a patriarchal society that sees a beautiful woman as an object to be paid for; sugar babies use this to their advantage.

The centerpiece is a giant sugar sphinx with Mammy’s head. Aunt Jemima when the syrup has all been wrung from inside her. The show aims to explore the world of sugar, the triangle trade from Africa to America. Creative time calls it ‘a conversation’. We are talking about slavery, racism, sexism and exploitation; those are the topics of conversation, but feel free to discuss any socio-economic ramifications of sugar production.

Who are these overworked and unpaid artisans? The slaves of the Caribbean. Who are these overworked and unpaid artisans? They are the cooks. Who are the overworked and unpaid artisans? They are the workers? Who are the overworked and unpaid artisans? They are the previous residents of Williamsburg.

_Gala Dinner
Photography by Ryan Kobane, Courtesy of BMF Media

Raw sugar is brown, bleached sugar is white. Sugar has been industrialized in the last 132 years, factories popped up to process the once rare and expensive treat into a commodity. Walker speaks about ‘the desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming American’. Built on the backs of the working poor Dominos made white, American sugar in the building on the East River. Dominos didn’t pay their workers enough, ever, but it took until 2000 to have a strike, and a 20 month one at that. Dominos shut the factory down. Now it will become overpriced housing, setting aside 660 units for ‘affordable housing’. How far we have come.

Mammy’s bleached white head looks down at the factory floor with a blank stare. Mammy has been bleached and sanitized, just as the factory will be sanitized and turned into housing that no one in the current neighborhood can afford. In a word: ‘Gentrification’. Gentrification is racist. And to be clear, it is racism we are talking about.

Mammy has a vagina, no one wants to talk about it. The giant bleached sugar sphinx has a vagina and is probably paid about 30% less than other giant sphinx. The sphinx is unapologetically a woman. There should be more pictures of the vagina, photograph the sphinx from behind and see her 7 foot derriere and sugary vulva.

Some claim that the real war is the class war and the workers must unite against their common oppressor regardless of race, religion, or gender. This is a false metric and simply isn’t applicable in the United States. The struggle has to be viewed intersectionally. Mammy is a black working woman who will soon be removed from her home so that new apartments can be built – that’s intersectional.

2014 CREATIVE TIME Spring Gala Honoring Kara Walker
Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA

A Subtlety is beautiful. The Sphinx was resplendent in the under lighting,  terrifying, commanding, glowing, dominating her room. Walker created a piece that was much more than just aesthetically pleasing, but that should not discount from the beauty – it was really very good art on all levels.

The opening was attended by everyone in the art world. They dined as a conveyer belt served mixed drinks. Then none other than inventor of breakbeat, pioneer of hip-hop, the original, the legendary head of the Zulu Nation himself Dj Afrika Bambaataa took control of the dance party. Its difficult to express how cool that was.

_ DJ Afrika Bambaataa
Bambaataa creates a frantic situation.
Photography by Ryan Kobane, Courtesy of BMF Media
2014 CREATIVE TIME Spring Gala Honoring Kara Walker
Chuck Close.
Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA
2014 CREATIVE TIME Spring Gala Honoring Kara Walker
Anne Pasternak, Raquel Chevremont, Mickalene Thomas, Solange Knowles.
Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA
2014 CREATIVE TIME Spring Gala Honoring Kara Walker
Incredibly attractive Waris Ahluwalia and the lovely Jamie Tisch.
Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA
a Kim Gordon and Chloe Sevigny
Kim Gordon! (Body/Head was really great!) and Chole Sevigny
Photography by Christos Katsiaouni, Courtesy of Creative Time
2014 CREATIVE TIME Spring Gala Honoring Kara Walker
After dinner, the end of eating everything. : Wangechi Mutu

top photo credit The Artist; Kara Walker, and a subtlety of ‘A Subtlety’

Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA
You may also like:

Emma Hack: Undercover at Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery

Patricia Field Keynote at Museum of Art and Design

A review of Chelsea Art WalkMusee
Photographers Speak Out On The Digital Takeover

Photographers Speak Out On The Digital Takeover

Peter Kayafas “The Way West” at Sasha Wolf Gallery

Patrick Demarchelier: Part II. September 27 – November 30 2013Musee

Hello World


How Kara Walker Built A 75-Foot-Long Candy Sphinx In The Abandoned Domino Sugar Factory

Images: Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Photography by Jason Wyche and Tim Daly, Courtesy Creative Time.

On Saturday, May 10thWilliamsburg’s legendary Domino Sugar Factory will open its doors to the public for the first time since factory operations ceased in 2004. In a highly-anticipated public art collaboration between Creative Time and artist Kara Walker, the abandoned factory will house a massive, sugar-coated sculpture that resembles a combination between the mammy archetype and the sphinxResting at 75-feet-long and 35-feet-tall, the massive piece is fully titled, A Subtlety: The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World.

If Creative Time’s project with Nick Cave at Grand Central last year is any indication, it’s almost a guarantee that the installation will be enthralling (and busy). Additionally, visiting A Subtlety may be many New Yorkers’ last chances to tour the inside of the 132-year-old building (legally, anyway) before it finally makes way for a $1.5 billion reconstruction plan.

While the inspiration behind the sculpture is undeniably fascinating, The Creators Project was curious about how exactly Walker and her team built the boat-sized figure inside the mythological warehouse. Was it built in a studio and brought inside, Trojan Horse-style? Is it actually a colossal piece of candy, molded to look like an African-American archetype? And if so, how exactly does one go about sculpting a piece of sugar that big? For comparison, the Guinness World Record for the largest piece of marzipan was 53-feet-long and 40-feet-wide. 

To gain insight into the project, Creative Time connected us with several of the project’s collaborators, including artist Tim Daly of design company Dalymade Inc., casting expert Mike Perrotta of Sculpture House, lead modeler and milling guru Jon Lash of Digital Atelier, and artist Eric Hagan, the project’s “Director of Sugar” (“It’s probably the best job title I’ll ever have,” he told us).

The production team clarified several aspects of A Subtlety that could be easily misunderstood: first off, the sphinx is not a giant piece of candy; it’s a colossal foam sculpture that’s been encrusted in a layer of powdered sugar. Resting beside the sculpture, however, there are fifteen smaller statues that are, in essence, giant lollipops. All together, this might be the world’s largest creative experiment with sugar. 

Walker was approached about a year ago to collaborate on a project inside the factory. It was the space itself that caught her interest, and it inspired her to make a sketch of an iconic sphinx, modified to look like a stereotypical image of a female laborer:

“[My sketch] came to embody something I would never want to see, something that was about slavery and industry and sugar and fat and wastelessness. It was a kind of finger-wagging gloom-and-doom kind of sketch that embodied all of the themes about industrialization that the space contains: post-industrial America, the grandiose gesture of the industrialists, and sugar as the first kind of agro-business. 

For example, you can’t get sugar without heavy-duty processing; you don’t get refined sugar, you get other things. This desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming an American were fascinating to me. Sugar is loaded with meaning, with stories about meaning,she said in an interview with Brooklyn Rail.

After Walker shared her sketch with the production crew, Art Domantay (the project consultant and director of fabrication), Tim Daly, and the rest of the team made a physical mock-up and gave the copy to Digital Atelier. The laser scanning/CNC milling/coating technology experts were then able to manipulate the body on a computer using various 3D-analyses, in order to perfectly prepare the shaped foam blocks needed for the very-curvy design.

Digital Atelier laser-scanning the mock-up of the sphinx.

“They wanted us to hot wire [the foam blocks]” said Jon Lash of Digital Atelier. “We kept saying it wouldn’t work well because we needed the radius of each form. If you start having compound curves in all directions and you have to stack these blocks, you can’t see the composition and have to guess about the building process. The last thing you want to do is interpret the artist’s idea yourself.” Lash and engineer John Rannou instead milled the structure’s entire bottom instead of hot wiring it, which takes three times as much time. This process laid the entire foundation, and the team could work their way up from there. Eventually they milled 440 bricks at 3′ x 4′ x 8′ each.

“The good thing is that [the main sculpture] was made just like the real sphinx,” said Lash. “Instead of stone blocks it was foam blocks, but it really was the same kind of construction.” After two and a half months, the crew had a sphinx of their own in Brooklyn. Walker eventually dusted the entire statue in over 30 tons of sugar by spraying it with a hopper gun and using some good old fashioned shovels—yielding a goddess-like sculpture that’s bright white.

Off to the side of the sphinx, however, there are fifteen statues of little boys. Each is 60-inches-tall and weigh 300-500 pounds a piece. Five of them, called the Banana Boys, are made of solid sugar. They are, in essence, giant lollipops shaped to look like fruit-picking child slaves. The other ten—five that are boys holding banana-holding baskets in front of them, five with baskets on their backs—are made of resin and coated in molasses.

Tim Daly, the crew leader of the figurines, explained that they were made after Walker bought ten-inch-tall tchotchkes she found on Amazon. These figurines were laser-scanned by Jon Lash’s team at Digital Atelier, and then they were blown up so silicone molds could be made by Mike Perrotta at Sculpture House.

The team used white granulated sugar, light corn syrup, and water heated to 300 degrees with turkey fryers before getting poured into the molds. While the Banana Boys could stand on their own, the boys holding baskets were weak at the wrists and ankles, and would either break or melt due to a lack of structural integrity. “The first one melted into the pallet,” Daly told us. “It disintegrated after a week, and we realized the only way the [basket-holding sculptures] would last was if they sat in a refrigerator.” Thus, the ten basket-holding boys ended up getting made with polyester resin and coated in molasses, white sugar, light brown sugar, and dark brown sugar, which explains the color inconsistency among the children.

This might be the largest creative endeavor with candy in the modern age. Walker told Brooklyn Rail that in the 11th century, people in the East began making marzipan structures. Royal chefs in Northern Europe began following suit, and would present the sculptures, called “subtleties,” as gifts. According to Eric Hagan, the project’s director of sugar, there’s been few (if any) sugar sculpture pieces this century that rival the size of the Banana Boys or the 30 tons of sugar used to coat the sphinxHe did mention German artist Joseph Marr, who also makes granulated sugar works, but at a smaller scale than Walker’s children sculptures, and not inside an actual sugar factory.

“Sugar is a temperamental thing,” says Hagan. “It’s not uniform, it’s going to decay, and as a fine art piece you can’t say how long it will last or if it will change over time.” Walker echoed his statement in her Brooklyn Rail interview, but added the positive note that “[Sugar is] such a fragile and volatile substance that doesn’t like to take on too many forms, which is fine. I keep trying to tell everyone that I’m not a stickler for conformity, so if each piece is wildly different, then that’s an attempt at freedom I guess.” 

“A Subtlety” is on view at Domino Sugar from May 10th-July 6th, Fridays 4-8pm, Saturdays and Sundays 12-6pm. For more information, visit Creative Time. A special thanks to Tim Daly, Mike Perrotta, Jon Lash, Eric Hagan, and everyone at Creative Time for helping with this article. 




In Conversation

A Sonorous Subtlety: KARA WALKER with Kara Rooney

From her all-enveloping cycloramas and iconic wall-mounted silhouettes to her searing films, drawings, and prints, Kara Walker’s work has remained fearlessly stalwart in its condemnation of social and racial injustice. With her most recent project, executed in collaboration with Creative Time, Walker shifts her focus from the cotton plantation of America’s antebellum South to its sickly sweet cousin: the sugar trade. At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant opens to the public on May 10th, and, as its title suggests, avows to be anything but ordinary. Earlier this month, Walker took the time out of her schedule to speak with Rail Managing Art Editor Kara Rooney about her hopes for the installation as well as its complex socio-political implications.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Kara Rooney (Rail): The executionary details of this project were largely developed in secret, so that very few of us in the press are aware of what the final iteration will look like. Can you describe what viewers will encounter when they finally walk into the space on May 10th?

Kara Walker: I hate talking about it. The great thing about having a secret is that it just stays a secret.

Rail: In that case, let’s start with narrative, since that’s historically played such a significant role in your work. How did the story of the sugar trade influence your decisions on both a formal and intellectual level for this project?

Walker: It started with thinking about the space. I was approached by Creative Time a while back, maybe a year ago, about working with the Domino Sugar plant. One of the selling points for me was the plant itself, along with this amazing history of sugar and its attendant legacies of slavery. There are decades of molasses that cover the entire space; it’s coated—it’s an amazing relic or repository vessel that contains all of these histories, and so the venue is actually doing a good portion of the work. I began to think about how to arrive at a piece, given the work that I’ve done in the past, which has been primarily two-dimensional, and even with film and video thrown in, is large, but not this large. So I started with a lot of sketches; each sketch went from very minimal gestures to this maximal output with all kinds of moving parts. It came to embody something I would never want to see, something that was about slavery and industry and sugar and fat and wastelessness. It was a kind of finger-wagging gloom-and-doom kind of sketch that embodied all of the themes about industrialization that the space contains: post-industrial America, the grandiose gesture of the industrialists, and sugar as the first kind of agro-business.

For example, you can’t get sugar without heavy-duty processing; you don’t get refined sugar, you get other things. This desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming an American were fascinating to me. Sugar is loaded with meaning, with stories about meaning.

Rail: What were some of your resources in looking into the history of the sugar trade and Domino’s role in particular?

Walker: There is a passage in a book by Sidney Mintz called Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), where the author talks about the Middle Ages in Europe and England and how sugar there was a highly prized, expensive commodity.

Rail: It was for the aristocracy.

Walker: Yes. Sugar was rare, even considered medicinal. It was like gold, extremely precious. At a certain point coming from the East in the 11th century, there began an enormous effort, at the bequest of the sultans, to make these strange, grandiose marzipan structures. Once they were fashioned, they would present and give them to the poor on feast days. This tradition made its way to Northern Europe where the royal chefs began making similar sugar sculptures. The thing that really struck me about these sugar sculptures was what they were called—subtleties—there it is. [Laughs]. They were intended to represent the power of the king, not just in their being made of this prized commodity, but also in their representation of the signing of a treaty, or the hunt. So you had these sugar sculptures of the deer and the king, and there would be some kind of oratory or maybe a little poem that would be said, and then everybody would eat them. They would be presented between meals as this beautiful, edible trophy. It was after reading this that I realized I had to make a sugar sculpture and a large one. So that answers the first part of your question: the sugar sculpture. She is basically a New World sphinx. A New World thinking of the sugar plantations, the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that sort of Rolling Stones-y brown sugar dovetailing of sex and slavery as it reaches the American imagination.

Rail: Does this New World sphinx—what sounds like a veritable femme-fatale—relate in any way to the black feminist literature that emerged in the ’70s, initiated by Alice Walker, for example, or is it something more visceral and personal?

Walker: Something more personal, definitely. I think the scale of the piece will probably embrace and eclipse almost anything that you bring to it. [Laughs.] We have 80 tons of sugar in this structure, which measures approximately 80-feet long by 40-feet high, so it doesn’t occupy the entire space but it does occupy it in a very specific way. She also has some sugar candy attendants who are about a third of this in scale.

Rail: What is their origin?

Walker: They are actually taken from 10-inch tall tchotchkes that I bought on Amazon—little black slave boys carrying baskets and presenting different things. They’re very goofy.

Rail: How has working with sugar as a medium challenged the way you approach themes such as white fears of black potency, violence, shame, and resistance? Is the transmission of these ideas still as direct for you as it has been with the cut silhouettes, drawings, and films?

Walker: It’s so much better, honestly! No, I don’t know if it’s better. I like the cutting paper thing, but—maybe it’s simply because it’s something that I’m doing that it feels similar, because it’s my own body. There is a similarity in working with cheap materials. [Laughs.] The cheapest materials available. They’re both temporal, ethereal materials to work with, very finicky. It feels cathartic in the way that working with silhouettes was for me coming from painting. There is a similar kind of movement into another set of dimensionality and scale. I am moving my body around it in a way that’s very new and exciting. The sugar itself is really just a paste, just sugar and a liquid. Once these components are mixed you have something that you can model and play with. Then, depending on whether you’re using heat or not, you get different properties, wildly different properties.

Rail: So this sticky sweetness of the 18th-century silhouette, and the craft tradition that goes along with that, has translated for you in a very physical way.

Walker: I think so, and even in a literal way. We’re literally sugarcoating history. [Laughs.] There are two different things that I’m doing with the sugar and those are what I need to clarify. The main object, the sphinx, is sugarcoated; the smaller objects—these servant figures, or procession of servants—are basically just like big lollipops. Those have been very problematic to work with. We’ve got these molds and they’re solid but we’ll see if they hold up. The first one just collapsed. It was really terrible at the same time that it was kind of awesome to look at because it became this pile of beautiful, caramelized amber. It’s such a fragile and volatile substance that doesn’t like to take on too many forms, which is fine. I keep trying to tell everyone that I’m not a stickler for conformity, so if each one is wildly different, then that’s their attempt at freedom I guess.

Rail: What color are they exactly?

Walker: They’re different colors. At the moment the one that is standing is mostly brown. He burned. He went from caramelized to burnt so he’s a little marbleized, really dark. The first one came out a beautiful amber color. Like when you see caramelized sugar drizzled on your plate, he was that color, but like I said, too soft.

Rail: And the larger sculpture is amber as well?

Walker: The sphinx is white, bright white.

Rail: The element of color is something that I want to discuss. With the silhouettes, the color black is inherent to the 18th-century art form you employ, whereas with sugar there is a transfigurative chemical process that must take place in order for it to become the white powder with which we are all familiar. In a sense, the silhouettes require little conscious agency on your part in order to elicit the desired references. But with these pieces, an additional step is necessary in order to enact that same physical transformation. How did this reverse process of moving from dark to light, a natural to an artificial state, resonate with you? For example, why did you decide to make the sphinx this gleaming white as opposed to brown, or even black?

Kara Walker “Selfie,” 2014.

Walker: I had my options: brown and white. I was thinking about all the products of sugar—molasses, brown sugar, natural sugar, and refined white sugar. I was experimenting with these different kinds of sugar, cooking at home, making all types of different candies, testing different boiling points, then just dumping it out and seeing what would happen. The white against the molasses of the walls of the interior of the refinery will be visually striking. I was also thinking about the fact that I am in a black interior. The plant is not a white-box situation. The project presented an opportunity to invert this paradigm and maybe call into question the desire for the refined—to ask what is lost in the process of refining. This is a testament and monument to the quest for whiteness, the quest for whatever that means. Authority—even as it’s presenting itself on its last legs—this ideal of mastery over continents, people, bodies, ecology. Yes, the sphinx is inverted in multiple ways. But part of it was really part of a visual oooh-factor. The way the light comes in, what the sugar looks like when it has been crystalized in a certain way. It’s a little bit crazy actually. Crazier than you imagine it. [Laughs.]

Rail: With the silhouettes, you’ve said that the minimal formalism of the cartoon profiles resonated with your idea of racial stereotypes, functioning as reductionist versions of actual human beings. With three-dimensional sculptures, this flattening of identities is disrupted. How did you contend with this dimensional shift?

Walker: Physically, it is a shift, but there’s something that resonates between those works and this work. I would not have thought, “this is the same as the silhouette,” but it does feel like it kind of operates in a similar way—it sets up an expectation in the viewer and then starts to complicate that expectation over the course of the viewing. With the three-dimensional shape, and specifically this sphinx-like one, the work becomes iconic, hugely iconic; it does the same thing in the way that the silhouette stereotype figures do. It transcends humanity in the way these other forms reduce humanity. So it’s larger than life, a set of representations that can’t be fully embraced all at once.

One aspect of the process that is different, however, is that I can’t be as hands on. For example, I’m not there now. I was there yesterday working on it along with a team of people and fabricators. It’s a way of working that I’m not used to.

Rail: You typically fabricate all of your work by hand, correct?

Walker: Yes. After the fact there’s often fabrication that happens because of the archival needs of the paper works, but that’s usually after the work has already been created.

Rail: What has that letting go process been like for you?

Walker: It’s a little weird. I feel very contrite when I’m around the folks who are working. Contrite and thankful, they’re doing a wonderful job translating my sketches, notes, and drawings and such.

Rail: The significance of titles seems critical to your output, usually appearing as very long and narratively descriptive. The title for this particular installation is similarly lengthy. How does this mode of naming serve your work?

Walker: In this case it’s kind of funny because the whole thing is so theatrical. In the gallery setting I like to play with the idea that we’re not entering into a dialogue with modernism or even, necessarily, with art. Rather, we’re entering into my universe, whether you like it or not. It’s kind of a coercion into liking it. There have been a few moments where I try to be subtler with my titles for a show, but it has felt like a weird capitulation or some demand for an austere, protestant kind of approach to good art or taste. So, yes, my titles are theatrical or maybe a little overbearing or hyped up. The idea of the artist as a kind of truth-teller is sort of hilarious, so why not go with it?

Rail: So they’re meant to be simultaneously theatrical and a way for you to re-write history?

Walker: Or to claim it, along with my own agency within the gallery setting—to maybe, for a moment, wrest control away from the white box or something.

Rail: They do leave little room for interpretation on the part of the viewer. I’m wondering if this type of, for lack of a better word, heavy-handedness is something you feel is necessary if we are to redirect our gaze effectively?

Walker: You think they’re heavy-handed? I think they’re hilarious.

Rail: I think they can be both. That’s what is so brilliant about the way they inform the work. They don’t back down.

Walker: They are bombastic, yes. There is a little bit of voodoo attached to it, I guess. By assuming authority over my own work I might actually have some authority over my own work, and I might actually convince the viewer that that, in fact, is true! It seems to work [laughs], although even I don’t always buy it.

Rail: You’ve spoken about the influence Adrian Piper had on your work as a younger artist. In light of your emphasis on titling and the way you’ve used text overall, I’m particularly interested in how her relationship to language has affected yours.

Kara Walker, Studies, 2014.

Walker: I guess the influence would be in my thinking about addressing the “other,” the other being the viewer or the objectifier of my work or my body. Sometimes you forget that it’s not all in your head and that viewers of your body and viewers of your artwork are objectifying and limiting, creating alternate realities and alternate narratives for you to reject. Piper’s work has been important for me in trying to understand or recognize what the relationship is that I have with myself as a subject and object.

Rail: Censorship is still a very present issue for you. Even almost 15 years after having received the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the controversy that surrounded that award, as recently as 2012, a drawing of yours was temporarily banned from display at the Newark Public Library. It was shocking for me to think that in a community whose demographic is largely African American this imagery might be deemed too “racy” for the population. Since the Domino plant is also a public space that places you again in the position of addressing a non-artworld audience, was this something you had to consider as you developed the project?

Walker: Yes, this is a point of conversation we are having now. It may be an issue, and maybe it’s the representation of women that becomes the issue, maybe it’s the features on her face—her representation of blackness—is she iconic? Is she stereotypical? Is the figure strong? Is she debilitating? But as far as potential controversy, I don’t know what will happen with this piece. I’m not strategically thinking about these sorts of things when I work, but the imagery does come from my own sensibilities, my own ways of moving through the world. It has my own mixed-up sense of humor in it that is really present, the same type of humor that was embodied in the drawing displayed in New Jersey. I felt good about that work,  and then it disappeared to who knows where before it turned up in the library in Newark. At the same time, in the way the conversation and controversy surrounding that event evolved, it presented an opportunity for me to be an educator.

I’m not there to convert people into loving my art, but to explain that there is a process. Because sometimes for viewers—especially those who don’t have a lot of exposure to the arts—art just comes at them; it’s just there and there is no explanation. There is no understanding that along with this presentation comes a definite process, that there is an individual behind it. There are aspects of the museum and gallery world that are problematic for viewers, in that there isn’t an opportunity to answer back. Or you have to utilize these staid forms such as a panel discussion or an artist talk. In light of this, what should a viewer do if they’re upset or moved? Are you supposed to just hold it in, or do you react? There is something about the call and response of other aspects in the black community—in the black church, in music, in dance—where there is a way of activating the art so that it is alive and living and not this dead thing on a wall that you walk away from, that you feel or don’t feel or are terrorized by.

Rail: It reminds me, to a certain extent, of the controversy surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio in the early ’90s, and how the institutions that exhibited the work took the stance of aestheticized distance as a response—looking at the imagery and the idea of the other through a purely formal lens. Thankfully, you had art critics like Dave Hickey who rejected this viewpoint saying, “No, this is a cop-out. These images are supposed to be provocative, they’re meant to provoke. They’re meant to be dangerous and seductive and sexy.” So in that sense, I think that piece really did do something. There probably wouldn’t have been an occasion for discussion there otherwise. It means that your work has agency in the world.

Walker: I’d like to think so.

Rail: I want to return to the subject of the Domino Sugar Factory itself because it is such a loaded place; loaded with industrial history as well as a turbulent one of racial and class struggle. The original refinery was built in 1882. By the 1890s it was producing more than half of the sugar in the United States. So it is not only an iconic landmark in terms of its architectural façade, but served as a locus of activity and consumption in America for more than 100 years.

Even in the latter 19th century, after sugar was no longer grown and processed by a slave population, the plant continued to have an ongoing association with minimal wage earnings and extreme poverty. As recently as 2000, it functioned as the site of one of New York City’s longest labor strikes, with over 250 workers protesting wages and working conditions for 20 months.

Walker: Which didn’t turn out well.

Rail: Right. When you walk into a space like that, when you know this information, this factual history, how does that affect your vision for the space? How does the building itself influence the objects you create in response to it?

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (in process), 2014.

Walker: It messes with them. It messes with the space, or rather, it messes with the histories, which I always do too. [Pauses.] Imagine gathering all the sugar in the world in one location. This demands immense amounts of physical labor, from the Dominican Republic to Cuba and other sugar islands, that brought that product onto that site, and are still bringing that product onto the other site in Yonkers. Then there’s this insane amount of pressure, heat, centrifugal force, and manpower necessary to bleach the sugar. Not to bleach it, exactly, but to turn it from its natural brown to white state. There is all this knowledge that comes with that, the learned knowledge of the men and women who have worked on this site for years and years and years, not to mention of the families of these laborers. There is a living memory of the smell and the steam—this heavy molasses odor that’s still in the space.

Rail: It’s like the gooey, sticky manifestation of America’s original sin.

Walker: Yes. There’s this grassy, pungent, almost nauseating sugar smell that lives in the tissue of everyone who has worked in that plant. I wasn’t aiming to depict an accurate representation of labor, but to evoke the associated ideas of empire, of the past—their relics and ruins; you’re always cognizant of those mythical humans, for example, who built the Pyramids of Giza. There is this awe and wonder that goes hand-in-hand with these places but it’s without the thoughts of the sweat and labor behind it. I wanted to make something that would contain that sweat and labor in the histories of the totality of sugar production—the here and now and the past and present of it—but that would also elicit this terribly sad memory of all that’s lost. It’s colossal and at the same time temporary, made from something completely vulnerable to the elements and time. Hopefully that awesomeness will also be there.

Rail: My last question, which you just touched upon, circles back to this issue of class that’s raised in the setting of this work. Given the building’s future fate and the rampant gentrification currently taking place throughout New York, coupled with the fact that sections of the plant are already being dismantled for what is slated to be the largest residential construction on the Brooklyn waterfront, what are your thoughts on how this space’s identities as a historic site of racial and class warfare and its future trajectory as luxury condos coalesce or diverge from one another?  [It should be noted that 700 of these units have been slated for low-income housing, but that represents a mere 30 percent of the overall construction.]

Walker: I don’t know if I have a satisfying set of answers to that question. When I think about the space, and even before I was working in it, I recognized it as emblematic of the kind of shortsighted progress—the entrepreneurial, industrial, moneyed, ever forward, ever onward, no matter what, no matter who gets hurt—that has taken hold of the city.

I am an agent of tricksterism, and I knew I could use that. In order to bring myself to build something as heroic and herculean as this effort, I had to get into that mindset of industrial conquest. Now, whether or not the builders who are behind some of this project will get that, I can’t be sure. And I don’t know what that says to the people who are left high and dry by this constant moving, constant gentrification, constant building. I’m in a really tricky position because with this project, I wound up being both the beneficiary and the hand-biter. I have lived in the city for 12 years now and the work never seems to be done; the city is constantly pushing people out. I don’t know where everyone goes. Struggling, striving, there is a weird engine in the city that is constantly being fomented. The question that arises with the waterfront there is if we reach the pinnacle of condo building, when does it stop? When do we make space for everybody else?

Rail: And how do we make a stand against that? I imagine this project is one way of doing so.

Walker: I don’t know, do you think? I don’t know if this piece will do that. My feeling is—and this is a kind of pipe-dream poetic feeling—of the piece being present, and the piece disappearing. My greatest hope is that when all is said and done that the aftereffect is still there. That it’s not just another lost memory, like the lost memories and collective knowledge of the people who worked at the sugar factory. [Sighs.]



Culture Desk - Notes on arts and entertainment from the staff of The New Yorker.

May 8, 2014

The Sugar Sphinx

AP472881413685-580.jpgOver the past twenty-five years or so, ever since her spectacular New York début at the Drawing Center, in 1994, the now forty-four-year-old artist Kara Walker’s visual production—sculptures, cutouts, drawings, films—has beendiaristic in tone. But the diary Walker keeps is not explicitly personal; it’s a historical ledger filled with one-line descriptions about all those bodies and psyches that were bought and sold from the seventeenth century on, when slavery became the American way of life and its maiming shadows pressed down on black andwhitesouls alike.Walker knows that ghosts can hurt you because history does not go away. Americans live, still, in an atmosphere of phantasmagorical genocide—we kill each other with looks, judgments, the fantasies that white is better than black and that blackness is bestial while being somehow more “humane”—read mentally inferior—than whiteness. But what do those colors even mean? In Walker’s view, they are signifiers about power—the power separating those who have the language to make the world and map it, and those who work that claimed land for them with noremuneration, no hope, and then degradation and death.

In her silhouettes, Walker’s black characters are often fashioned out of black paper—the color of grief—while her white characters live in the white space of reflection. But, in recent years, this scheme has begun to change—radically, upping the ante on what Walker might “mean” in her gorgeously divisive work. Take, for instance, the success of Walker’s latest piece:


At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
A Subtlety
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant

The title says it all, and then not.

Located in Williamsburg, the Domino Sugar Factory was built in 1882; by the eighteen-nineties, it was producing half the sugar being consumed in the United States. As recently as 2000, it was the site of a long labor strike, in which two hundred and fifty workers protested wages and labor conditions for twenty months. (I saw the piece before the installation was complete and look forward to going back.) Now the factory is about to be torn down and its site developed, and its history will be eradicated by apartments and bodies that do not know the labor and history and death that came before its moneyed hope. The site is worth mentioning at length because Walker’s creation is not only redolent of its history, it’s of a piece with the sugar factory—and its imminent destruction.

Measuring approximately seventy-five and a half feet long and thirty-five and a half feet high, the sculpture is white—a mammy-as-sphinx made out of bleached sugar, which is a metaphor and reality. Remember, sugar is brown in its “raw” state. Walker, in a very informative interview with Kara Rooney, says that she read a book called “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.” There, she learned that sugar was such a commodity that, in the eleventh century, marzipan sculptures were created by the sultans in the East to give to the poor on feast days. This tradition made its way to Northern Europe, eventually, where royal chefs made sugar sculptures called subtleties. Walker was taken not only with those stories but with the history of the slave trade in America: Who cut the sugar cane? Who ground it down to syrup? Who bleached it? Who sacked it?

Operating from the assumption, always, that history can be found out and outed, Walker’s sphinx shows up our assumptions: She has “black” features but is white? Has she been bleached—and thus made more “beautiful”—or is she a spectre of history, the female embodiment of all the human labor that went into making her?

Walker’s radicalism has other routes, too: in European art history, which made Picasso and helped make Kara Walker. But instead of refashioning the European idea of coloredness—think about Brancusi and Giacometti’s love of the primitive and what they did with African and Oceanic art—Walker has snatched colored femaleness from the margins. She’s taken the black servant in Manet’s “Olympia”—exhibited the same year black American slaves were “emancipated”—and plunked her down from the art-historical skies into Brooklyn, where she finally gets to show her regal head and body as an alternative to Manet’s invention, which was based on a working girl living in the demimonde.

Walker’s sphinx is triumphant, rising from another kind of half world—the shadowy half world of slavery and degradation as she gives us a version of “the finger.” (The sphinx’s left hand is configured in such a way that it connotes good luck, or “fuck you,” or fertility. Take it any way you like.) Now she’s bigger than the rest of us. Still, she wears a kerchief to remind us where she comes from. She is Cleopatra as worker: unknown to you because you have rarely seen her as she raised your children, cleaned up your messes—emotional and otherwise. Walker has made this servant monumental not only because she wants us to see her but so the sphinx can show us—so she can get in our face with her brown sugar underneath all that whiteness. And, if that weren’t interesting enough, Walker has given her sphinx a rear—and a vulva. Standing by the sphinx, you may recall the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1995 essay “The Rear End Exists”:


Legend has it that when Josephine Baker hit Paris in the ’20s, she “just wiggled her fanny and all the French fell in love with her.” … [But] there was a hell of a lot behind that wiggling bottom. Check it: Baker was from America and left it; African-Americans are on the bottom of the heap in America; we are at the bottom on the bottom, practically the bottom itself, and Baker rose to the top by shaking her bottom.


The sphinx crouches in a position that’s regal and yet totemic of subjugation—she is “beat down” but standing. That’s part of her history, too.

And then, again, there’s art history. Over the years, we’ve seen the sphinx at the Pyramids, but have we ever wondered what was beyond that mystery? Walker shows us the mystery and reality of female genitalia while calling our attention, perhaps, to all those African women whose genitalia have been mutilated because they are “slaves” in blackness, too. When has the sphinx ever had a home? What is her real secret? The monumentality of her survival, the blood of her past now “refined,” made white, built to crumble.

Photograph by J Grassi/Patrickmcmullan.com/AP.




Kara Walker And Her Sugar Sphinx At The Old Domino Factory

Posted: 05/07/2014 9:30 am EDT Updated: 05/07/2014 9:59 am EDT

Print Article

Refining, as Creative Time’s Chief Curator Nato Thompson reminds us inside this 30,000 square foot former Domino Sugar facility, is a process whereby coarse cane is decolorized, and brown is turned powdery and crystalline white.

Armed with such loaded symbolism, internationally renowned artist Kara E. Walker unveils her Subtlety installation this week, completely commanding this steel girded chamber of the industrial north and jolting you from your sugar haze. Towering over our heads is the resolute and silent face of a kneeling nude polystyrene white woman with African features, posed to resemble a 35 foot sphinx encrusted with sugar and to receive your questions. Subtlety indeed.


Kara Walker. The artist portrait in profile with her sugary sphinx in the background. (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)

“I’m grateful to Creative Time for inviting me to create work in a place like this that is so loaded with histories and questions,” says Ms. Walker of the nonprofit organization that commissions and presents public arts projects like this one. She describes the turbulent process of creating her new mammoth piece, and all of them really. She says that her work often makes even her uncomfortable, which is somehow comforting.


Kara Walker (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)

The left hand gesture of the mysterious sugary Sphinx captures the eye of artist Mike Ming who asks Ms. Walker what it signifies. The artist fingers her necklace and displays the charm hanging from it – a forearm and a hand forming the same fist-like pose.

“It means many things, depending on the source,” she explains, and she lists fertility as one and a protective amulet as another. Our ears perk up when she says that in some cultures it is a signal akin to “fuck you” and she has also heard that it can mean a derogatory four-letter term for a part of the female anatomy. And what does this thumb protruding between the index and middle finger mean here? “You’ll have to ask her,” she says smiling and nodding her head upward to the bandana crowned silent one.


Kara Walker. Detail. (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)

Speaking of female anatomy, Ms. Walker deliberately and remarkably screams silently in the face of sexual stereotypes that prevailed and dehumanized women of African descent for the majority of North American history with this exaggerated caricature and her arching back quarters hoisted to the heavens. We only use past tense in that sentence to reassure ourselves that those stereotypes are distant and not at all connected to us today, but this may require a healthy helping of sunny denial to maintain the perception as we travel throughout the land.


Kara Walker. Detail. (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)

The spectacle here is pushed by the extended pelvis, the protruding nether regions, the amply plump breasts rather pressed together. The presentation may summon pleasant perturbations in some viewers, while setting off murderous riots of horror in others, but we’ll all keep our associations to ourselves, thank you.

This is the giant white sphinx in the living room, sparkling white and sweet. Congratulations to “Subtlety” for at least partially hushing a PC crowd of normally chatty New Yorkers who struggle to make cocktail talk in the shadows of our heritage, and for that matter, our present. We feel lucky that this sphinx does not speak, for she would likely slaughter much with her tongue.


Kara Walker. Detail. (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)

Accompanying the sphinx are more human scale children of molasses coloring, “Sugar Babies” standing before craggled industrial walls that are coated with the thick, dark brown syrup obtained from raw sugar during the refining process. She says the five foot tall figures are based on the trinkets of porcelain once sold widely, featuring adorably cherubic slaves carrying baskets into which you may place colorful hard candies for special guests of some refinement.

On a technical note, she offers special thanks to the fabricating sculptors who struggled with the amber candy material as it reacted to changes in temperature and humidity. The floor itself had to be power-washed to loosen and dispel an inch of thick goo, and as we spoke she pointed to the dripping of a molasses type of liquid from the ceiling onto the sculpture. Asked by the CT team if the sphinx should be whitened each time there was a drip, the artist decided that she likes the dripping effect so they will leave it as is and watch how the piece ages with the history of the building.


Kara Walker. Detail. (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)

For those who will be drawn like bees to honey to this unprecedented monument of site specificity in a place directly welded to Brooklyn’s maritime history, America’s industrialization and its slave economy, Ms. Walker now transforms into a stomping giant before our eyes. To those who prefer the truly subtle, this show will be overlooked as too obvious.

Kudos to Creative Time, its director Anne Pasternak, and Ms. Walker for putting our face in it, even as we bemoan the loss of this soon-to-be demolished building and its connection to our history.


Kara Walker. Detail. (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)


Kara Walker. Detail. (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)


Kara Walker. Detail. (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)

At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
Kara Walker – A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

The exhibition will be open on May 10 – July 6, 2014. Free and open to the public – check here for more details.





Saltz: Kara Walker Bursts Into Three Dimensions, and Flattens Me

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014.

Midway through my maiden visit to the derelict Domino Sugar refinery near the Williamsburg Bridge, while gaping in awe at Kara Walker’s great gaudy monstrosity, her towering naked sphinx with the head scarf and features of a black mammy, I had something like a vision. That’s the crazy comical power Walker’s best work can have. Particularly this work, elliptically and archaically titled A Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the ­demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. This behemoth, part Cecil B. ­DeMille parade float, part alien, is accompanied by a retinue of life-size deformed black figures, boys carrying bananas or baskets with parts of other boys, all made from molasses and brown sugar.

I imagined this mad theatrical 35-ton thing—more than 35 feet high and 75 feet long, fashioned in refined white sugar over blocks of Styrofoam—pulled across the United States by the crew of misshapen brown attendants. I saw its ambiguous anarchic meanings, its otherness, stunning all who saw it. I fancied this an American ghost ship, never coming to rest until … what? I don’t know. I saw a new American Pequod, some Melvillian symbol for the original sin of slavery and its disquieting contemporary connections to the kind of hubris that brought us Iraq and then Abu Ghraib. Things that make America lose its humanity. Walker, who called A Subtlety “a New World sphinx,” has said that her work “is about trying to get a grasp on history … it’s kind of a trap … the meaty, unresolved, mucky blood lust of talking about race where I always feel like the conversation is inconclusive.”

That trap looms in this incredible sculpture, impeccably presented in the decrepit Domino refinery by Creative Time. This dank building, where layers of history are caked on the walls with molasses, this place where brown sugar was turned white, multiplies the lurking meanings in Walker’s work. Especially as no one captures and portrays the implicit connections between sex and power like this gifted artist. Sex is simultaneously visible and implied in her work, the abject violations of slavery and its long aftermath always close to the surface. (Her other art runs amok with mammies, pickaninnies, and Sambos being raped, beaten, or wooed by slave masters and southern belles.) Whiffs of Goya’s depictions of evil come to mind.

Walker has been an artistic force since 1992, when she first got the idea of using the so-called “minor art” of paper silhouettes to render—in vast, wall-filling panoramas—horrific, violent, and sexualized scenes of the antebellum South. I first saw her work while she was still a risd student and hadn’t yet hit on this device, one that reduces the world to monochrome and that, she once said, “kind of saved me.” Still, I gleaned, in a large drawing of black girls, done in chocolate, what I perceived as a new barbaric yawp come into America. Since then, and after receiving a MacArthur Award in 1997 at the age of 27, Walker has only gotten better, more wicked and out-there.

A Subtlety depicts a black-featured woman with enormous hindquarters arched and exposed, her protruding vulva presented as if for sexual delectation. She crouches, her breasts visible, her left thumb thrust through split fingers in an ancient visceral symbol for sex called the fig. Walker has never worked in three dimensions like this. Maybe no one has. This massive sculptural juggernaut—all this white in the midst of this dead factory coated in congealed brown sugar—suggests hidden causes and effects, cosmic condemnations, menace, cruel pleasures, and inscrutable things. I imagined birds of prey circling over it. Vitriol, fatalism, and grandiosity merge. James Baldwin once wrote of the white American remembering slavery as “a kind of Eden in which he loved black people and they loved him … everything … is permitted him except the love he remembers and has never ceased to need.” Baldwin suggests that this is partly the malignant cause of the “hysteria” of racism. As Walker puts it more concisely, “This sugar has blood on its hands.”

As I considered this while pondering A Subtlety, allusions to the Pequod gave way. Something darker, universal, and more unknowable formed. The white sculpture morphs in the mind into a stand-in for Melville’s white whale itself. The psychic bottom falls out. I remembered D. H. Lawrence’s incredible analysis of Moby-Dick: “Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom! … Doom of our white day … And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.” Then my vision came to an end.

A Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. Kara Walker. Domino Sugar Refinery, Williamsburg.

*This article appears in the June 2, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.




Kara Walker in New York

Sour sweet

An artist sculpts America’s dark history


SUGAR is a cheap, seductive pleasure. But its sweetness belies a bitter history. For centuries it was a commodity harvested by slaves and refined into something white. Lately sugar has also become the villain of choice in the campaign to fight obesity. Leave it to Kara Walker, a provocative American artist, to turn the crystals into a work of art.

Last year Ms Walker was asked by Creative Time, a New York-based non-profit organisation that specialises in presenting art in public spaces, to create something for a cavernous disused sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Ms Walker was a clever choice. For more than 20 years, she has been making work that is visually compelling even as it condemns some of the darkest moments of America’s slave-owning past. Her best-known pieces use Victorian-looking silhouettes to depict brutal, racist scenes from the antebellum south. Surprisingly, these works don’t nag. Rather, they are repulsively titillating, as if she is seizing skeletons from the country’s closet and making them dance.

Ms Walker, now 44, has had her share of big museum shows, but she has never before filled a space as large or as freighted with history as the Domino sugar factory. More challenging still, she decided to confect her work out of the sweet stuff itself, in all its sticky grit.

The full name of the installation (capital letters included) says it all, and perhaps too much: “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”.

The work itself is more subtle, and more powerful. A procession of amber-coloured boy sculptures, five-feet high, sweet-faced and creepy, guide visitors to the main attraction. At the far end of dark factory, hunched and glowing, is a gigantic sugar-coated sphinx. With stereotypically black features, her hair wrapped in a bandanna, she crouches suggestively—perhaps submissively, despite being more than 35-feet high. Her powdery skin contrasts with the molasses-caked walls. A saccharine smell hangs in the air.

A monumental mammy sphinx hardly sounds nuanced. And yet the work is both surprising and complex, evoking not only the slaves of the sugar trade, but also the women who became sex toys, as disposable as lollipops. Like the sphinx in Egypt, this one presides over a site of ruins—after the show ends on July 6th, the factory is destined for the wrecking ball. A shiny new waterfront development will be raised in its place.

Working with sugar was a challenge. Sculptures either melted or broke into pieces. Some of the boy figures fell apart days before the show opened. “No one works with sugar,” says Nato Thompson, the curator. “Now we know why.” But for Ms Walker the real work involved transforming her ideas for the piece (which could sometimes be “finger-waggingly angry”) into a work of art. Her aim was to create something that would be “sweet on the eyes”, albeit a bit tough going down.



May 25, 2014 9:01 pm

Kara Walker, Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, New York – review

Kara Walker’s ‘A Subtlety’©Jason Wyche

Kara Walker’s ‘A Subtlety’

Just outside Natchez, Mississippi there’s a restaurant called Mammy’s Cupboard, set inside the ballooning skirt of a 28ft-tall black woman. Built in 1940, the eatery has cycled through spells of decay and restoration, but it – or rather she, with her recently bleached features and polka dot headscarf – still towers over the low landscape, a degraded stereotype radiating queasy charm. It’s impossible to tell whether Mammy’s keeps operating as a straightforward statement of tradition or as an ironic twist on a racist reverie. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Kara Walker may never have patronised that particular establishment, but she has built a sculpture in Brooklyn that draws on the same mortifying imagery and outlandish size, turning the mammy into a mythic creature. The title is a lyric artwork in itself:

A Subtlety

or the Marvellous Sugar Baby

an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined

our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World

on the Occasion of the Demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant

Walker has attached the head of a black house servant to the body of a giant sphinx, made out of refined white sugar over a polystyrene core. This agreeably menacing beast slouches towards Manhattan, its hour come round at last. Her slow thighs rest in the empty Domino Sugar warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront, where the smell of burnt caramel lingers in the air. Granulated tides once rose in this cavernous space, so deep and dense that for years nobody ever saw the floor.

Walker’s work transforms the industrial structure into a para-religious one. You enter the dim, rusting basilica at one end, and sense the sculpture’s presence in the distance before you quite get the measure of its size. To approach, you file down the nave to the bay where she crouches, three storeys tall, bathed in the pallor that flows from a skylight above her kerchief-crowned head. There is only one way to exit: past her mountainous, proffered behind.

The work’s title, “A Subtlety”, refers to a common furnishing of the medieval European banquet, a sugar sculpture moulded into curious and sometimes political form, such as an eagle, a battleship, a philosopher’s head, or a famous literary scene. But subtlety is an odd word for Walker, whose 1994 debut at the Drawing Center spotlit starchy silhouettes wallowing in crude sadism. Ever since, she has honed her rage on installations, films, drawings and paintings that adumbrate slavery’s shadow over American culture. Morbid, grotesque and funny, she shows how no one, black or white, remains unscarred by the destructive history of race.

Racist caricatures hold a strange appeal for her. In the same way that victimised groups adopt their persecutors’ slurs as a badge of pride, she heaps her work with pickaninnies, Sambos, mandingos and Uncle Toms, exorcising awfulness through brutal reiteration. “A Subtlety” unites two racist tropes in a single, succulent hybrid. The covered head and stoic face, with every feature a symmetrical ellipse, invokes the mythic maternal nursemaid who caters without complaint to the caprices of a white family. The bared breasts, cocked buttocks and swollen vulva suggest that whatever the female slave’s official job, she had other duties as well. Walker’s sphinx is all about nurturing and sex, loyalty and ruthless trade.

It is also weirdly adorable. Before reaching the big white mama, visitors pass a small army of molasses boys, balancing baskets filled with amber shards of crystallised sugar. Walker enlarged them from made-in-China tchotchkes discovered on Amazon. With their round limbs and big soft eyes, they are cute, in a Koonsian sort of way, producing Walker’s desired effect of “giddy discomfort”. They melt slowly in the spring heat, their dark bodies oozing on to the floor. Walker tempts us, then shames us for succumbing to her subversive wiles.

“A Subtlety” merges the literal and the metaphorical in a tour de force of subtext. To a great extent, New York was built on sugar, one of its earliest and most durable industrial products. The first refinery opened in 1730, and the business created many of the city’s most prominent families. The Havemeyers built the Domino refinery in 1856 and, by 1870, it was turning out 1,200 tons of lily-white powder a day – more than half of all the sugar in the US. When the plant shut down a decade ago, it ended the city’s 274-year tradition. The walls of the warehouse remain coated with a sticky residue, so that it looks as if they’re simply dissolving.

Soon, a new waterfront neighbourhood will rise on the site, a mixture of apartments, offices, stores, and open space – a microcosm of the post-industrial city that seems to have little room for working-class blacks. We keep hearing about the poisonous effects of sugar on our brains and waistlines; Walker delves deeper into the historical ravages: the field hands who grew and cut the cane and hauled it to ships sailing north; the workers in the refineries who “purified” the product until it was white enough to reimport for use on plantation tables. The ironies never cease: today, refined sugar has gone from being the gentry’s expensive consumer good to the scourge of poor black communities, where obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic proportions. Meanwhile, pricey organic food stores now dispense sugar in its rougher, browner, more putatively authentic forms.

Walker has a whole other repertoire of references, too. Sugar Hill was Harlem’s most comfortable neighbourhood in the 1920s, when it was named after the sweet life its residents enjoyed. Langston Hughes conflated the phrase with chocolate skin tones in his lascivious ode to women of various shades:

Brown sugar lassie,

Caramel treat,

Honey-gold baby,

Sweet enough to eat.

Walker responds to this male praise of dark skin and luscious flesh by creating a statuesque black woman who is whiter than white. She invokes the great marble colossi of the ancient world, Egyptian divinities, and fertility goddesses of yore – but she also brings up the less elevated history of skin-lightening, hair-straightening torments that blacks have regularly subjected themselves to in an effort to improve their status. Is that why we like this representation of a coffee-coloured woman, made artificially light and sweet? With this tangle of slippery meanings, Walker dares viewers to admire her creation, challenging each of us to ask why.

Until July 6; creativetime.org




Going to see Kara Walker’s ‘Subtlety?’ Read these first.

Artist Kara Walker's installation 'A Subtlety' is sugar-coated with an estimated 40 tons of sugar at the Domino Sugar factory in the Williamsburg section of the borough of Brooklyn in New York May 16, 2014. The sugar-coated sphinx-like figure measures 75.5 feet long, 35.5 feet high and 26 feet wide . REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Should you find yourself in New York this summer, one of the things that’s been heralded as a must-see (and must-smell) is the mammoth sphinx sculpture artist Kara Walker has created in the Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn. You’ll probably wait for about 20 minutes; Walker’s piece, free to view, is commanding lines that stretch around the block. But once inside, you’ll find not just Walker’s mammy sphinx but smaller, disintegrating sculptures crafted from resin and covered in molasses.

People cue up to see “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” by artist Kara Walker, on display inside the former Domino Sugar Refinery, located in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, Saturday, May 17, 2014. Four tons of sugar were used to create the 35-foot-high sphinx-like sculpture.The head of the large sculpture wears a kerchief and slightly exaggerated African features. Her breasts are exposed and her fists are thrust out, described by Walker as both submissive and domineering.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Walker’s installation is called “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” It’s 35 feet high, and it took four tons of sugar to create. The installation closes July 6. Afterward, the refining plant will be torn down. (Medieval sugar sculptures were known as “subtleties.”)

NPR’s Audie Cornish spent time with Walker in the factory, which resulted in a piece for All Things Considered:

She’s doing what she does best: drawing you in with something sweet, something almost charming, before you realize you’ve admired something disturbing. In this case, that’s the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade that helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries; a slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.

“Basically, it was blood sugar,” Walker says. “Like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands.”

She explains that to make the sugar, the cane had to be fed into large mills by hand. It was a dangerous process: Slaves lost hands, arms, limbs and lives.

“I’ve been kind of back and forth with my reverence for sugar,” Walker says. “Like, how we’re all kind of invested in its production without really realizing just what goes into it; how much chemistry goes into extracting whiteness from the sugar cane.”


Artist Kara Walker poses in front of her installation 'A Subtlety' sugar-coated with an estimated 40 tons of sugar at the Domino Sugar factory in the Williamsburg section of the borough of Brooklyn in New York May 16, 2014. The sugar-coated sphinx-like figure measures 75.5 feet long, 35.5 feet high and 26 feet wide . REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton  (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY)

Like Walker’s “Subtlety,” these novels were inspired by Caribbean slave trade and the way it affected the women of the West Indies. Though by no means a comprehensive list, here’s a jumping-off point:

The Book of Night Women,” by Marlon James

Significant parts of “The Book of Night Women” are, understandably, very difficult to read. Rape, torture, murder and other dehumanizing acts propel the narrative, never failing to shock in both their depravity and their humanness. It is this complex intertwining that makes James’s book so disturbing and so eloquent. Writing in the spirit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but in a style all his own, James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable — even the unthinkable. And the results of that experiment are an undeniable success.

Kaima Glover, the New York Times

“See Now Then,” by Jamaica Kincaid

As must be obvious by now, it is in Kincaid’s extraordinarily elegiac style, peppered with flashes of rage, that we see the artist at work. “See Now Then” is a novel written in high dudgeon. You are warned of this from the very start: The portrait she gives us of our heroine is bleak, unremitting. “Her legs were too long, her torso too short; her nostrils flatted out like a deflated tent and came to rest on her wide fat cheeks; her ears appeared just where ears should be but then disappeared unexpectedly and if an account of them had to be made for evidence of any kind, memory of ears known in one way or another would have to be brought forth; her lips were like a child’s drawing of the earth before creation, a symbol of chaos, the thing not yet knowing its true form.” In other words, Mrs. Sweet was an aging black female. The last thing her white, effete husband expected her to become.

— Marie Arana, The Washington Post

One of several small sculptures of young boys, covered in molasses, with fruit baskets holding unrefined sugar accompany "“A Subtlety"” by Kara Walker. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

“Wide Sargasso Sea,” by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea speaks of the history of cruelty and suffering that lies behind some of the West’s accumulated wealth, a history which in Jane Eyre is secret and mysterious, and only appears in brief glimpses. This is a book that gives voice to neglected, silenced and unacknowledged stories, exploring different inflections of marginality – gender, class, race and madness. Where historical events, recorded in written discourse, have shaped the opinions of many of the people of the former British colonies and education is exclusively from a Eurocentric perspective, the recovery of “lost” histories has a crucial role to play in allowing access to events and experiences which have not previously been recorded. This idea of “writing back” by breaking down explanations for events and favouring more localised narratives and perspectives has informed my own work, especially in the voices of the former slaves in my latest novel. Wide Sargasso Sea is an inspiration. Certainly, before the phrase was coined, Jean Rhys was a post-colonial writer whose work reminds us that “there is always another side, always.”

— Lara Fish, the Independent

“I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem” by Maryse Condé

History remembers Tituba as the West Indian slave who supposedly cast a spell on the young girls of Salem, Mass., and set off a tidal wave of paranoid accusations that left 19 “witches“ dead in its wake. But in the hands of novelist Maryse Conde, Tituba`s life becomes a marvelous canvas for exploring a particular dimension of the slave experience — how a young woman`s sexuality and skills as a healer ultimately made her an object of wonder and terror. …

Like Jean Rhys, Conde, who was born in Guadeloupe, is able to blend the fictional with the factual and imbue island scenes with remarkable lushness and enchantment. Author of five novels, five plays and a collection of Caribbean folk tales, she wrote this novel in 1986. Her husband, Richard Philcox, supplied the graceful translation from Conde`s native French. Just as Tituba`s voice should never have been silenced, Conde is too important a discovery for American audiences to ignore.

— Stephanie B. Goldberg, the Chicago Tribune

“Conquistadora,” by Esmerelda Santiago

If the American South had Scarlett O’Hara as its Civil War antiheroine, the English-speaking Caribbean of the 1800s had Annie Palmer. The real-life mistress of a Jamaican sugar estate during the final days of slavery, Palmer was the subject of legend and many lurid novels, most enduringly 1929’s “White Witch of Rosehall.” Lore says (most likely inaccurately) that Palmer practiced obeah, or sorcery; bedded slaves, then killed them; and murdered three husbands. She set the standard for cruelty and debauchery in a woman presiding over a plantation. …

But Santiago’s plantation mistress isn’t a shrew who derives sadistic pleasure from flogging her slaves. Nor is she their ministering angel, although she tends to the sick and oversees baptisms and prayers. Ana is something much more elusive and contradictory. She delegates the flogging, but flinches when the slaves scream.

— Gaiutra Bahadur, the New York Times

Art Basel Hong Kong 2014 reports, photographs, interviews



Highlights From Art Basel Hong Kong 2014

Highlights From Art Basel Hong Kong 2014Images via Holly Howe

Now in its second year, Art Basel Hong Kong follows hot on the heels of Frieze New York and a few weeks in advance of its namesake, Art Basel (in Switzerland). Next year, it moves to March in an attempt to space things out for art world jet-setters, but for now, we’ve rounded up some of the highlights from the fair’s 245 galleries.

The fair is split across two floors at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai. As well as hosting the usual suspects—David Zwirner, Hauser and Wirth, Gagosian, and Lehmann Maupin—there is a strong focus on galleries from Asia and the Asia Pacific region in the Insights section.

There’s a lot to see, but we’ve selected some works you definitely shouldn’t miss.


If you were in L.A., Houston, or New York last summer, you probably saw one of James Turrell’s exhibitions. The artist tends to make enormous installations in unusual spaces—most notably Roden Crater in Arizona—which is tricky if you want something for your home. Thankfully Pace Gallery has come to your rescue with its set of three ukiyo-e woodcut prints, available for $20,000.

Vik Muniz is up to his usual trick of assembling images from nontraditional materials (he has previously used diamond dust, honey, rubbish from Brazil, and cigarette butts, among other things). For Ben Brown Fine Arts, he has produced Hong Kong Postcard, assembled from an collage of postcards from around the world that reproduces the Hong Kong skyline.

Japanese artist Mariko Mori has been making deeply meditative works for a long time but has shifted away from mainly video art to producing Zen-like sculptures. Sean Kelly has a collection of her works for sale, including the magnificent Renew III. Ommmm.

New York gallery owner James Cohan is showing British artist Yinka Shonibare’sBallerina with Viola. The sculpture features a faceless figure, wearing an outfit made from material that is popular in Africa, but tends to be made in Holland and sold in England, all of which reflect issues of colonialism and multiculturalism.

Glenn Kaino’sRooftop Studies at Kavi Gupta Gallery are based on photos the artist took in Cairo when he was preparing works for the Cario Biennial (which was postponed as a result of instability in the region). The landscapes have no people in them, and yet people are referenced through the technologies they use, all of which have been covered in gold leaf. In one work, it’s the satellite dishes; in another, the air conditioning units reveal a human presence.

Local gallery 10 Chancery Lane is showing a number of early works by Huang Rui. These early pieces are very minimal. The work Four Purples references quotes from different periods of Chinese history.

Ever wondered what becomes of those abandoned toys you sometimes see lying on the side of the road? Well if Adeel uz Zafar is around, he will pick them up, take them home, bandage them, and use them as models for his art. His works at Gandhara-Art are created by painting the vinyl white, adding a layer of black over that, and then engraving these mummified characters into the surface. They may look creepy, but the gallery owner confided that children love them.

As you enter the third floor, you are greeted by Forever, one of Ai Weiwei’s now well-recognized bicycle sculptures at German gallery, neugerriemschneider. Although Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, the artist is still not allowed to travel there.

It’s always interesting to see what people love to photograph at fairs, and Taiwanese artist Hsi Shih-Pin’sSymbolic Steed of Memory at Soka Art seems to be one of the most popular works this year. The shiny surface is perfect for #artselfies.

One artist who really understands the selfie allure is Kyoung Tack Hong. The Korean artist’s large painting at Hakgojae Gallery is titled Reflection 1 and shows the artist posing with a camera phone in the various surfaces of the dazzling object.

Perennially hip Arndt Gallery has the perfect piece for the skater in your life. This pop art skateboard is titled Tempus Fugit (Latin for “time flies”) and was created by Indieguerillas, made up of Indonesian artist duo Santi Ariestyowanti and Dyatmiko “Miko” Bawono. The work sold early on to a European collector for $5,000.

More bright and shiny work is on view at Nanzuka Gallery, including The Uncrossable Upswept Bridge by Keiichi Tanaami. The 78-year-old Japanese artist is inspired by anime and pop culture. Although most of his early work is 2D, he made some sculptures in the 1980s and picked the medium up again in recent years.

Kaikai Kiki is showcasing works made by Takashi Murakami’s studio assistants. Mr. is one of their most well-known painters, having worked with Murakami for over 10 years. The artist champions “kawaii,” the Japanese style of work that’s “pretty” or “cute”. Also at the booth is Reminiscence by Ob, which was surrounded by real life Hong Kong school girls.

And this was a scene repeated at Galerie Perrotin, where more school children sat on the floor to sketch a large work by Mr. Perrotin. The Perrotin booth also has a number of Takashi Murakami works on view, including New Red Flowerball and DOB in Pure White Robe.

Lastly, an art fair wouldn’t be an art fair if it didn’t have a spot painting by Damien Hirst. Of course, White Cube obliged, but if you’re looking for something a little more interesting, check out Gilbert and George’sKillers, from their London Pictures series, based on newspaper headlines in a daily London newspaper.


Art Basel Sales: Fair Offers Shopping Spree for the Rich

‘Rem(a)inders’ by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto at Art Basel Hong Kong

European Pressphoto Agency

A massive shopping spree for art is underway in Hong Kong.

The annual Art Basel Hong Kong fair opened its doors to an invite-only VIP list on Wednesday, and wealthy collectors splurged quickly as they perused the booths of 245 galleries at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Adrian Cheng, executive director of property developers New World Development Company, said he bought 15 art works on the first day alone. The voracious 34-year-old collector is the grandson of Hong Kong jewelry and real-estate tycoon Cheng Yu-tung.

Among Mr. Cheng’s purchases were a $60,000 sculpture by Adrian Villar Rojas from Marian Goodman gallery and a $180,000 painting installation by Carol Bove from David Zwirner. He also bought works by Toy Ziegler and Valerie Snobeck from Simon Lee gallery.

Galleries reported strong sales on day one. According to a release from the fair’s organizers, Soka Art from Taipei sold a landscape called “Red” by Chinese contemporary oil painter Hong Ling for $600,000.

New York gallery Hauser & Wirth sold three paintings by Chinese artist Zhang Enli to different private collectors from mainland China, the gallery said. Prices for the works ranged from $180,000 to $240,000.

Western works are also proving popular at the fair. At White Cube gallery, an Antony Gormley cast-iron sculpture titled “Rest II” was sold. It had an asking price of almost $420,000. The gallery said it had “exceptionally strong sales” from Asian collectors.

Among the seven works Lisson Gallery sold on the first day were two works by Jason Martin and three pieces by Anish Kapoor. Prices for the works ranged from $67,000 to US$167,000.

Art Basel Hong Kong continues today and ends on Sunday.




0 Posted by – May 12, 2014 – FEATURED SHOWS



ArtBlitz LA had the opportunity to speak with Susanne Vielmetter, owner of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects prior to the gallery’s departure for Hong Kong Art Basel.  Though it is the fair’s second rendition in Hong Kong this will be Susanne Vielmetter’s first time participating.  We are eager to see how the LA gallery is received.  Watch for our follow-up post featuring the gallery’s booth.


Tell me about your program at Hong Kong Art Basel.  Who are you bringing?


We will have a focused presentation.  We are taking two artists, Yunhee Min and Tam Van Tram, who have Asian roots, they’re not from Hong Kong specifically though.  Yunhee Min is from Korea and Tam Van Tram is from Vietnam, although they both live and work in Los Angeles.  This is our first time doing the fair, so we don’t know that much yet.  It’s a little tricky to access how the audience will interpret our program, but we felt these artists offer a good point of entry.  They both focus on painting and we are bringing relatively small work.  Whenever we do a fair for the first time and don’t know the audience we bring smaller works because our artists might be completely new to the collectors and it’s always easier to make a first purchase of a smaller work.  We also know these artists well, we’ve worked with them for a long time, but their work is still in a good price range because they are both early/ mid-career artists.

We are also bringing two new Mickalene Thomas paintings with higher prices.  We feel confident that we will place these paintings, even if it’s here in LA, but we’d like to show them in Hong Kong to see if we can find new collectors and a new market for her work.  So even if they don’t sell there we will place them, they’ll just go on a little vacation.




Why do you feel it was important to have a presence at Hong Kong this year?


We do the other Art Basel fairs, we’re doing the big Art Basel for the first time this year, but have been to Miami for many years.  These fairs are very well run, the fair management goes out of their way to make it a good experience for the galleries and we felt it would be good for us to add this to our schedule and expand our client base.  We have a positive attitude about it.  It’s very difficult to gauge what the response will be, as I mentioned, and that response will determine whether we do it again, but Asia is an important market, I’m not sure it is for my gallery specifically, but we’re about to find out.




Is there anything you’re looking forward to either in, or outside the fair?
Food.  Everyone says it’s exceptional.  We don’t have enough time really to do other things.  Which isn’t true for just this fair, we go straight to set up and we’re there to work.  Not there for a vacation.














3 of 15

Art Basel Javanese Sculpture Catches On

Javanese Sculpture Catches On

One of the most energetic gallerists bringing the art of Indonesia to the world stage, Berlin-based Matthias Arndt plans a new gallery in Singapore.


Art Basel: Time Out International Picks

Posted: 14 May 2014

Time Out editors across the world give us their highlights of the global array of galleries gracing Art Basel this year…



Tolarno Galleries (1B19)
This 1967-founded gallery prides itself on unearthing and nurturing young Australian artists. Director Jan Minchin came from the more traditional background of the National Gallery of Victoria, at which she was curator of 20th century Australian art, but at Tolarno she has enjoyed working with rule breakers and subversive thinkers such as Bill Henson and Ben Quilty. Jenny Valentish, editor, Time Out Melbourne

Galleria Continua (1B26)
Galleria Continua, an Italian gallery with outposts in Italy, France and China, is a heavyweight among Beijing galleries. It has featured many high profile artists from China and abroad: Ai Weiwei, Qiu Zhijie and Anish Kapoor are just a few names from a very long list. Tom Baxter, art editor, Time Out Beijing

Yamamoto Gendai (1B30)
This contemporary gallery in Tokyo specifically chooses artists that ‘cross the border of existing art genres’, often hosting live and experimental exhibitions. Their collection of artists at Basel this year covers a wide range of media including the delicate etchings of Etsuko Fukaya, the lighter-than-air sculptures of Motohiko Odani and the puzzle-like paintings of Kei Imazu. Annemarie Luck, deputy editor, Time Out Tokyo

Scai the Bathhouse (1D14)
With a reputation for introducing avant-garde Japanese artists to the world and for helping international artists to establish a presence in Japan, Scai the Bathhouse wonderfully combines traditional and contemporary artworks and installations. They’ve curated a lineup of 10 artists for Art Basel, including renowned Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor and video/photographic artist Mariko Mori. Annemarie Luck, deputy editor, Time Out Tokyo

Rhona Hoffman Gallery (1B10)
This Chicago gallery celebrates Art Basel by featuring the work of Hong Kong-based artist Adrian Wong. The exhibition also includes historical artworks by Sol LeWitt, Gordon Matta-Clark and Fred Sandback. Laura Baginski, editor, Time Out Chicago

Lee Wen: Ping Pong Go-Round at Encounters

iPreciation (1C18)
This Singapore contemporary fine arts gallery represents a range of both prominent and promising artists around Asia, including multidisciplinary Singaporean artist Lee Wen, who is perhaps best known for his Yellow Man series. Works on show at the booth were created between 1992 and 2014, and include a good range of Wen’s performance pieces, installations, paintings and drawings. Gwen Pew, arts editor, Time Out Singapore

Kavi Gupta Gallery (1D18)
Specialising in the exhibition of emerging and mid-career artists, Kavi Gupta displays an exciting range of contemporary multimedia work. Highlights include Roxy Paine’s intriguing acrylic sculpture, Tavares Strachan’s encyclopaedic collage and Glenn Akiro Kaino’s photography adorned with gold leaf. Laura Baginski, editor, Time Out Chicago

Thaddaeus Ropac (1D27)
With two major white cubes in Paris and its suburbs, Thaddaeus Ropac is a reliable source of top-drawer high-profile stuff. The francophile Austrian gallery owner is bringing big fish to Hong Kong this year, including mammoth works by Yan Peiming and Georg Baselitz, some of Alex Katz’s paintings and hybrid organic sculptures by Not Vital. Tania Brimson, art editor, Time Out Paris

Balice Hertling (1D30)
Belleville, Paris’s East End, has become home to some of the city’s most exciting art galleries over the past few years and, among them, Balice Hertling is perhaps one of the most adventurous. This year at Art Basel, look out for fresh work from three young multimedia artists: Sam Falls, Isabelle Cornano and Eloise Hawser. Tania Brimson, art editor, Time Out Paris

Magician Space (1D33)
Magician Space is a tiny gallery in the middle of Beijing’s super-sized 798 Art District. It has a strong commitment to conceptual art and installations, as well as a penchant for radical usage of its two small exhibition rooms. Tom Baxter, art editor, Time Out Beijing

Michael Hoppen Gallery (1D32)
Michael Hoppen Gallery has operated out of its quaint Chelsea space for more than two decades, becoming an essential port of call for anyone in search of contemporary and classic 20th century photography. Hoppen brings historical work to Hong Kong with a display dedicated to the pre-eminent 20th-century British photographer Bill Brandt. Martin Coomer, visual arts editor, Time Out London


(View map)

Anna Schwartz Gallery (3C03)
The imposing Anna Schwartz opened her Melbourne gallery in 1986 and has represented some of Australia’s most respected contemporary artists, including Callum Morton, Shaun Gladwell and Mike Parr. Jenny Valentish, editor, Time Out Melbourne

Blum and Poe (3D04)
The massive two-storied Los Angeles space of Blum and Poe is almost museum-like in its curation of contemporary pieces from the likes of Yoshitomo Nara and Chiho Aoshima. They bring Takashi Murakami as their showcase artist this year. Ramona Saviss, managing editor, Time Out Los Angeles

Victoria Miro (3D05)
By the time you arrive at Victoria Miro’s stand at the fair, you will already have walked past work by gallery-represented artists Elmgreen & Dragset. This isn’t the first time the Scandinavian duo has shown their VIP door, titled But I’m on the Guest List Too! – it graced the lawn outside Frieze London 2013. But it’s a good art joke worth repeating. Miro will be showing work by her international roster of artists, including Chris Ofili’s stripped back, luminous new paintings. Martin Coomer, visual arts editor, Time Out London

OMR Gallery (3C11)
Founded in 1983 by couple Patricia Ortiz Monasterio and Jaime Riestra, OMR has become one of the most prestigious galleries in Mexico by promoting new trends in contemporary art, both Mexican and foreign artists, and also a variety of media and disciplines. Mariana Guillén, art editor, Time Out Mexico

Sun Xun: 鯨邦是人間樂土 – Jing Bang is a Heaven, 2013 (STPI)

STPI (3C15)
This 14-year-old Singapore institute hosts residencies and exhibitions to help develop and showcase works by some of the biggest names in the genre. At Art Basel this year, viewers are treated to works by Teppei Kaneuji, Haegue Yang and Han Sai Por. Be sure to keep your eye out for Sun Xun’s installation Jing Bang: A Country Based on Whale – he sets up a new country where visitors can purchase citizenship packs or visas. Gwen Pew, arts editor, Time Out Singapore

Poligrafa Obra Gràfica (3C21)
Barcelona’s Poligrafa Obra Gràfica opened its doors in 1960 as a workshop, soon becoming a place where artists such as Joan Miró, Josep Guinovart and Hernández Pijoan attended to develop their projects. At Art Basel, they show the disassembled and abstract furniture of Wang Huaiqing, pop projects by Nelson Leirner and the architectural work of Garth Weiser. Eugènia Sendra, editor, Time Out Barcelona


Art Basel satellite events

Posted: 14 May 2014


All the fun of the fair – but not at the fair. Make sure to venture outside Art Basel for these simultaneously occurring arts satellite events. By Laurel Chor

α (alpha) pulse by Carsten Nicolai

ICC (best viewed from Tamar Park, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park and the terrace on Podium 3 and 4 of the IFC mall); May 15-17; artbasel.com. 8.30pm-9.20pm. Free. 

German sound artist Carsten Nicolai certainly doesn’t lack ambition, what with his next installation taking up the entire façade of Hong Kong’s tallest tower. A commission by Art Basel and Davidoff, Nicolai’s installation, which is inspired by scientific research on neural responses to pulsing light sources, sends light up and down the ICC tower. A downloadable app provides audio to the installation. We hope  there won’t be any unintended consequences but a certain scene from Men in Black III, when the Empire State Building is revealed to be a giant memory-erasing neuralyser, comes to mind.

Asia Contemporary Art Show

40F-44/F, Conrad Hotel Hong Kong; May 15-18; asiacontemporaryart.com. $260-$180. 

This is the largest edition of the semi-annual Asia Contemporary Art Show yet, with over 3,000 paintings, sculptures, limited editions and photographs coming from 100 plus galleries representing 19 different countries. Emerging artists from places like Brazil, Vietnam and Russia are featured alongside art luminaries Andy Warhol, Banksy and Qiu Sheng Xian. If you can’t make this fair, do not despair – the next one is in October.

Asia Week Hong Kong 

Various venues; May 17-27; asiaweekhk.com. Free. 

Art Basel is a show of global proportions with artwork and collectors flying in left and right to our little corner of the world. But Asia Week makes sure that art from our own continent gets the showcasing it deserves with Asia-focused exhibitions, lectures, book launches and gallery tours scheduled over 10 days. With Asia Week collaborating with the International Antiques Fair, art is represented not only from all regions of Asia, but also from all epochs.

Chai Wan Mei 

Chai Wan; May 16-17; facebook.com/ChaiWanMei. Free. 

Chai Wan is marked by grit, heavy-duty machinery and large, non-descript buildings. But nestled in ex-industrial spaces across the area are creatives from all fields, and their close proximity to each other often facilitates unusual collaborations. To celebrate this, Chai Wan Mei shows off its vast pool of talent with art exhibitions, concerts, fashion and design showcases, workshops and pop-up installations. Don’t miss the V Art Project, which uses shipping containers as galleries for pop-up exhibitions with open-air screenings of videos as well. The Asia debut of a special dance performance by Ryan McNamara (for our interview with him, check

Conversations and Salon at Art Basel

HKCEC, 1 Expo Dr, Wan Chai; May 15-17; artbasel.com. Free. 

Art Basel offers not only the world’s best art for sale, but also hosts a series of events for visitors to further their artistic education and gain a wider understanding of the global arts landscape. The morning Conversation series is more academic, with art professionals like M+ curator Aric Chen and Sydney Biennale artistic director Juliana Engbergs offering an insider’s view on a variety of disciplines and topics. Meanwhile, the afternoon Salons are more informal, ranging from screenings of animation and short films to a panel discussion on Vietnamese art. 


Hong Kong Arts Centre Open House

2 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai; Sat May 17, 10am-10pm; hkac.org.hk. Free. 


The Hong Kong Arts Centre is the home to many major cultural institutions such as the Goethe-Institut, the Hong Kong Arts School and the Hong Kong Music Centre. All open their doors to the public on May 17 with exhibits, workshops and events that include the launch for William Lim’s book The No Colors, about his collection of Hong Kong art. A street music series of outdoor concerts and a film festival featuring the films of the late Cantonese opera singer Hung Sin-nui are also not to be missed, and Hong Kong singer-songwriter and pop sensation Chet Lam performs for five nights at the Shouson Theatre. There are also guided cultural and architectural tours in the building itself and in the surrounding Wan Chai neighbourhood, where many outdoor art pieces are installed for public appreciation. Make sure to hop on the Art Bus, a free shuttle bringing visitors from the Convention Centre to the less-visited art hubs of Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui, To Kwa Wan, Kwun Tong and North Point. A comprehensive guide is available. 



Around Blake Garden, Sheung Wan; Until May 19; hkwalls.org. Free.


Going against the gallery formula, new initiative HKWALL(s) aims to paint up the best canvasses available in Hong Kong: the walls. The paint is still drying at the project’s launch this May, perhaps a fitting metaphor for the nascent state of street art in Hong Kong. Artists paint on the large, usually neglected, exterior walls of galleries and businesses around Blake Garden in Sheung Wan such as Tai Ping Shan Street and Square Street. A neighbourhood block party with live music and drinks is in the pipeline for Sunday, but make sure you check the website for the latest info.

Intelligence Squared Debate:
“Asia Should House Its Poor Before It Houses Its Art”


Rm N101, HKCEC; Fri May 16, 6.30pm-8.00pm; intelligencesquared.asia. $300. 


It’s well known that Hong Kong’s cage homes are a deep shame to our otherwise glitzy city, and also a fact that negative comments about our dearth of highbrow culture are still rolling in. With Hong Kong’s ever-shrinking space, what the government decides to do with every spare square centimetre – whether it’s spent on public housing or an art museum – is everyone’s business. As always, Intelligence Squared chooses a timely topic for thought leaders to duke it out in the debating ring discussing whether ‘the funding of museums is best left to private patrons’. West Kowloon Cultural District CEO Michael Lynch moderates, with debaters including SCMP financial journalist Jake van der Kamp and Jessica Morgan, the daskalopoulos curator of international art at the Tate Modern.

Mapping Asia and Hong Kong Art Quiz by Asia Art Archive


AAA, 11/F, 233 Hollywood Rd, Sheung Wan and Rm N101B, HKCEC;
exhibition and talks: May 15-17; quiz: Sat May 17, 2pm-4pm; aaa.org.hk/HKArtQuiz. Free.


The tremendous Mapping Asia project launches at Asia Art Archive – the research uses a multidisciplinary approach to explore Asian geographical boundaries with academic, historical and artistic references. Meanwhile, at the Convention Centre, Asia Art Archive’s artists-in-residence pair C&G reveal their latest research in the form of an art quiz. Listen and learn – four teams comprising of artists, art professionals and students  compete in a live game show-style trivia game on Hong Kong art history. AAA also hosts an ‘Open Platform’ series at their Art Basel booth that brings together art professionals to discuss the art world at large as it stands today.

Market Forces Exhibition and Symposium
by Osage Art Foundation and CityU


Exhibit: 4/F, 20 Hing Yip St, Kwun Tong and 18/F, AC3 Bldg, City U, Kowloon Tong; May 16-Jun 30. Free. Symposium: Wong Cheung Lo Hui Yuet Hall, 5/F, AC3 Bldg, City U, Kowloon Tong; Sat May 17, 2pm-6pm; oaf.cc. Free. 


The city’s number of high-end galleries is growing every year, in tandem with the growth of the highly commercial nature of art in Hong Kong. Osage Gallery’s non-profit foundation and City University join forces to offer a non-commercial discourse to explore and break down this phenomenon. Visit an exhibition of concept and object-based art from Asian artists and an open symposium featuring arts professionals and academics like Leeza Ahmady, director of the Asian Contemporary Art Week at Asia Society, and Charles Merewether, former director of the Singapore Institute of Contemporary Arts, discussing the blurred lines between aesthetic and market values in Asian art production through various lenses.

Uli Sigg, ‘China’s Art Missionary’:
Short Film Premiere and Book Launch 


HKAC, 2 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai;
Fri May 16, 3pm-5pm; hkaconlineregistration.com. Free.


At first, Swiss media executive Uli Sigg may seem like an unlikely candidate to be a celebrated collector of Chinese art, but he actually has one of the largest and most important collections of Chinese art in the world. His collection, most of which he donated to our very own M+ last year, is currently housed in a 600-year-old Swiss castle. Independent arts writer and first-time filmmaker Patricia Chen is premiering a short film and launching her book, both about Sigg, at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Registration is mandatory.

Wong Chuk Hang Art Night 


Wong Chuk Hang; Thu May 15, 5pm-11pm; springworkshop.org. Free. 


Wong Chuk Hang, an area once dominated by industrial factories, but now a burgeoning arts hub, welcomes visitors  to discover the neighbourhood. Thirteen galleries and 12 eateries open their doors, and with a free shuttle bus available, there really is no excuse not to visit. Start at Spring Workshop, where the works of Christoduolos Panayiotou are shown.


Talking Art Basel with…

Posted: 14 May 2014

Magnus Renfrew, director Asia

On Art Basel Hong Kong 2014:

“One of the new developments for this year was the film sector, and we really felt that this was a very appropriate development for the Hong Kong and Asia audience, because of HK’s very established relationship with film. We made some first steps last year in terms of trying to bring art out of the halls and into the public domain, so this year we have Carsten Nicolai’s commissioned work [at ICC]. We’ve also been working with local partners, local galleries, the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association and non-profit institutions, and there’s over 150 different events during the week of the fair. So we’re really able to showcase the very best of what’s happening in Hong Kong both outside of the halls and inside of the halls. And I think that’s a big contribution that we can make and it’s a contribution that we’re keen to make. And that also has longevity beyond the time of the fair. There are many relationships that start in Hong Kong, and many discoveries that happen in Hong Kong that lead on to other things happening in other times of the year or in the future.”

Li Zhenhua, curator Film

On the Film sector:

“Showcasing the playful and the beautiful is the main concern of the Film sector. I have created six categories to group the selected works, and one highlight category is ‘action’, which incorporates issues of activism with a tinge of humour.

To make this new sector open and free is an important step for Art Basel Hong Kong, as art belongs to the people. It is for everyone instead of only a particular group of people, and this is especially true when art, film and video are combined – they should reach more people and go public.

I have always been very interested in the film industry and experience in Hong Kong, so the programme is thus dedicated to Hong Kong first, then to the art world interested in video art history and finally to the international audience.”

The Film sector is at… Hong Kong Arts Centre, May 15-17, various times.

Yuko Hasegawa, curator Encounters

On the Encounters sector:

“Material and social relationships are undergoing a process of complicated diversification due to the fluidity of globalisation and the formation of a new way of relating through social media. Change in the social landscape constitutes miscommunication and cultural breakdown.

Encounters comprises of works that critically reflect this situation, whether proposing to engage these fundamental shifts, or trying to resist them. This can be seen in Homeaway, a work by Tobias Rehberger, who recreates a favourite Frankfurt bar as an environmental installation. Michael Lin’s work Point converts a meeting place into a sculpture that visitors can climb, thus reversing the relationship between the viewer and the viewed.

The second means of thematic expression is to add multi-layered meaning to the memory of objects and the nature of material. For instance, in her work Thousand, Yeesookyung combines fragments of old, broken ceramics to create and regenerate entirely new and different objects. Alternatively, there are artists who discover strong messages within the material itself, as can be seen in Aiko Miyanaga’s naphthalene sculpture, Letter.”

The Encounters sector is at… E1-17, Halls 1 & 3.



Bloomberg News

Art Basel Beckons Billionaires With $10,000 Passports, Hirst (1)

May 14, 2014

Asia Society's Melissa Chiu and artist Takashi Murakami

Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, left, and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami who was honored at an Asia Society Gala in Hong Kong on May 12. Photographer: Frederik Balfour/Bloomberg

May 14, 2014

Inside Art Basel Hong Kong at the city’s convention center there’s a booth where guests can apply for instant citizenship to the Republic of Jing Bang.

For $10,000 you can obtain a passport, an aluminum “Citizenship Box” briefcase and national flag from Jing Bang, an ephemeral state created for the fair by Chinese artist Sun Xun, whose installation is a satirical comment on art, commerce and nationhood.

The art world elite including Indonesian collector Budi Tek, New World Group scion Adrian Cheng and Canyon Capital Advisors co-chairman Mitchell Julis didn’t need any fictional travel documents to converge on Hong Kong, where more than $1 billion worth of art is for sale, according to fair insurer AXA ART.

Wealthy collectors snapped up a everything from a $10,000 painting by emerging Chinese artist Yuan Yuan to an 800,000 pounds ($1.3 million) for a scalpel blade painting by Damien Hirst.

Art Week

Anchoring what is informally known as Hong Kong art week, Art Basel opens to the public tomorrow. VIPs got a chance to preview the 245 galleries from 39 countries exhibiting today, featuring primarily contemporary art.

Every year at this time Hong Kong’s social life goes into overdrive with a whirlwind of more than 25 gallery openings, charity art auctions, debates and champagne-fueled parties held on warehouse rooftops, at poolsides and parking garages.

“It’s like the Rugby Sevens for the Hong Kong arts and cultural set,” said Alice Mong, executive director of Asia Society Hong Kong, which hosted a gala dinner for 400 people on Monday night honoring Asian artists Zhang Xiaogang, Bharti Kher, Takashi Murakami and Liu Guosong.

Launched as Art HK in 2008, the fair was re-branded Art Basel Hong Kong last year after the owners of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach purchased a majority stake in 2012 and it is now a major stop on the international art circuit. About half the exhibitors have space in Asia and Asia-Pacific, a deliberate decision to keep the fair’s original regional flavor.

Buying Spree

Half-way through the VIP preview today New World’s Cheng, followed by a staff of four, had bought 12 works and was on the hunt for more. “The good thing about having a team is you buy something and they negotiate” he said while posing beside a Carol Bove painting he bought from David Zwirner.

Zwirner also brought oil-on-canvas works by 28-year-old Oscar Murillo, an emerging artist who catapulted from relative obscurity three years ago to New York’s latest wunderkind. The Colombia-born artist, best-known for his abstract works, has seen his auction prices surge as much as 5,600 percent in two years as a result of frenzied art flipping.

By mid-afternoon of the preview the gallery had sold three paintings ranging from $75,000 to $180,000 to collectors from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Overwhelming Response

“We knew there was interest and he’s newsworthy and they know about his auction prices,” senior partner Angela Choon said about Murillo. “But we didn’t expect the response to be this overwhelming.”

Returning to Hong Kong for the fifth year, New York-based Paul Kasmin gallery is featuring both Western and Asian works to take advantage of buyers’ increasing willingness to stray outside their comfort zones.

“Art Basel has brought more Europeans and Americans to Hong Kong and Asian collectors are becoming more interested in purchasing western art,” said gallery director Nicholas Olney.

Kasmin sold a newly commissioned work by Indonesia’s best-selling contemporary artist, I Nyoman Masriadi, for $350,000 at the VIP opening and is selling a polished bronze modernist bust by Constantin Brancusi and photographs by David LaChapelle.

Balinese Beauties

The works of Ashley Bickerton, who quit New York after 12 years to move to Bali in 1993, provide a contemporary twist on Gauguin’s exoticism. A painting of two topless women with silver bodies astride a scooter, garlands in their dreadlocks, is selling for $190,000 by Singapore-based Gajah Gallery. Another work by the artist sold for $160,000 at the preview.

First-time exhibitor Hannah Barry gallery from London is bringing the work of 27-year-old U.K. artist James Capper in a solo show featuring a hydraulic creature able to claw its way on giant steel talons. Measuring 2 meters (6.5 feet) long, one meter wide and 1.6 meters high, it costs 40,000 pounds.

Whale State

Citizenship to Sun’s “Jing Bang: A Country Based on Whale” is limited to 100 people, though visas can be purchased for $30 each at the fair.

Describing his one-party state (administered by the Magician’s Party), which has a planned life span of just six weeks, Sun writes “If history is a big lie, then the Republic of Jing Bang uses one lie to intercept another lie.” The project is jointly presented by the Singapore Tyler Print Institute and ShanghArt gallery. Fifty passports sold during the VIP preview, prompting Sun to increase the citizenship price to $13,000.

Collectors on more modest budgets can head over to the Conrad Hotel for the Asia Contemporary Art Show where five floors of guest rooms are transformed into temporary gallery spaces featuring emerging artists from 18 countries from May 16 to 18. VIPs get an advance preview tomorrow.

UBS AG (UBSN), which also sponsors Art Basel and Art Basel Miami, has added the Hong Kong fair for the first time this year. “Our private banking clients include people interested in fine art, so it’s a natural fit,” said Chi-Won Yoon, Chief Executive Officer of UBS Group Asia Pacific.

Marble Dust

Local galleries are taking advantage of the influx of deep-pocketed visitors this week to launch new shows. Blindspot Gallery, located in the burgeoning art district of Wong Chuk Hang overlooking the city’s Aberdeen harbor, is showing London-based photographer Nadav Kander’s latest works that feature nudes of sitters covered in marble dust that evoke Michelangelo and Lucien Freud.

Pace Gallery opens its Hong Kong space with oil-on-paper works by Zhang Xiaogang in the heart of downtown on the 15th floor of the Entertainment Building. Next door Antwerp, Belgium-based Axel Vervoordt Gallery is also having its inaugural show with Ghanian artist El Anatsui, who employs youths to weave work with discarded liquor caps and fastenings to create tapestries selling for $1 million a piece.

Blood Bags

Those looking for a break from the hustle of the fairs can seek refuge in another highrise. Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas has transformed vacant office space on the 17th floor of Soundwill Plaza II in Causeway Bay into a post-apocalyptic bunker-like bar complete with sandbags. In collaboration with Absolut Vodka it will feature themed concoctions including “2666: A Space Cocktail” and a beetroot drink served in a blood bag.

Art Basel is open to VIPs today by invitation and to the public May 15 through May 18. http://www.artbasel.com/en/Hong-Kong




Art Basel in Hong Kong 2014

unnamed 1 Art Basel in Hong Kong 2014

David Zwirner is pleased to participate in Art Basel in Hong Kong (Booth 1C02). 2014 marks the fourth consecutive year the gallery will be at this fair.

Highlights include works made especially for the fair by Oscar Murillo, who will be in attendance at the fair. A Mercantile Novel, the artist’s debut show at David Zwirner, re-creates a chocolate-making factory inside the gallery (519 West 19th Street, New York; on view through June 14).

Also exhibited will be a major work by Donald Judd, one of the most significant American artists of the postwar period. Untitled (Bernstein 90-01), 1990, exemplifies one of the artist’s favored configurations—the stack. Executed in black anodized aluminum with clear Plexiglas, this work is comprised of ten wall-mounted units that are evenly spaced from floor to ceiling. A plank sculpture by John McCracken, another leader of American Minimalism and whose estate the gallery represents, will also be shown.

Other highlights include paintings by Michaël Borremans, whose major retrospective is now on view at Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; Carol Bove, whose critically acclaimed presentation of seven new sculptures on New York’s High Line at the Rail Yards recently ended its year-long run; Neo Rauch who will have a show at David Zwirner, New York this fall; and a new painting by Yayoi Kusama, whose first exhibition at David Zwirner, New York in 2013 attracted tens of thousands of visitors.

Also featured will be works on paper by Marlene Dumas, whose museum survey, The Image as Burden, comprising over one hundred drawings and paintings from private and museum collections throughout the world, will open in September at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. The show will travel to Tate Modern, London and Fondation Beyeler, Basel in 2015.



Art Basel Hong Kong: A Portal to the Asian Market

On the heels of Frieze New York, the art world is not given a chance to breathe as Art Basel Hong Kong launches its second edition this week. As more and more art fairs pop up across the world, each attempts to steal the global art market’s focus with a signature splash. Art Basel Hong Kong already has a strong hold by being a new fair in the mega art capital, but it has also called attention to itself with two special projects that extend the fair well beyond its walls, and across Victoria Harbor. Famed British artist Tracey Emin and German artist Carsten Nicolai have created larger-than-life light installations that will occupy two soaring buildings in Kowloon – visible from not only the fair, but most parts of the city around the waterfront. Art Basel Hong Kong is also significant, in that it highlights the art from the continent, with over half of its 245 exhibiting galleries having a base in the Asia-Pacific region, and 24 galleries from Hong Kong proper. The fair will wow with their “Encounters” section, curated by Yuko Hasegawa, featuring 17 oversized sculptural experiences. Since Hong Kong has long-standing roots in the film industry, the fair has responded with a new section devoted to film that creates a relationship with locals, and was carefully curated by Asian digital art expert Li Zhenzhua . The 2014 Art Basel Hong Kong fair not only presents some of the world’s leading galleries and artists, but also serves as a portal to the sophisticated and thriving Asian art world.
Duane Hanson, Chinese Student, 1989. Courtesy of Van de Weghe.
Art Basel brought its brand to Hong Kong last year giving international galleries a platform in the growing economy and art collector base in the city known as being the gateway between the East and West. The cross-cultural exchange brings six sectors of exciting programming to the fair, including 170 international exhibitors in Galleries, site specific commissions from regional artists in Insights , emerging artists in Discoveries, large scale works in Encounters, important films about artists in Film and international publications in Magazines that includes a Salon series of lectures and discussions.
Tracey Emin, My Heart Is With You Always, 2014. Courtesy of The Peninsula Hotel Hong Kong.
But echoing beyond the pavilion and weaving the fair within the fabric of the city are the projects by Tracey Emin and Carsten Nicolai that light up the shores of the Kowloon district. Emin’s piece has already begun to light up the city, in a collaboration with the 30-story Peninsula Hotel, My Heart Is With You Always features her signature handwriting in neon on the side of the façade from 7pm to midnight each night for 10 days. With an opening that coincides with the opening of the fair, Nicolai’s piece will take over the tallest building in the city, the International Commerce Center. For Alpha Pulse, which was commissioned by Art Basel Hong Kong, Nicolai will reprogram the 118-story building’s existing lighting system to pulse rhythmically at a relaxing, low frequency for two hours over three nights. The light installation will be accompanied by a soundtrack that visitors can access using a smart phone app that will synchronize the soundtrack along with the light pulsations, activated through their phone’s camera.
Carsten Nicolai, a (alpha) pulse, 2014. Courtesy of Galerie EIGEN + ART and The Pace Gallery.
The fair is also attempting to engage the flavor of Hong Kong with the newly created film program, bringing in the founder and director of Beijing Art Lab, Li Zhenhua, as the expert curator. Li has chosen 49 works by 41 artists from a pool of 140 applicants, which he has organized into six themes – “Urban Life”, “Beautiful Visuals”, “Animation”, “Action”, “Performance” and “Fiction Mix.” In order to make the chosen films more accessible to the visiting audience, they are all under 20 minutes, and the roster includes 29 Asian-Pacific artists.
Marta Chilindron, Cube 48 Orange, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Cecilia de Torres.
Lee Wen, Ping Pong Go-Round, 2013. Courtesy of iPreciation Gallery.
The Encounters section, curated for the second year by Yuko Hasegawa, spreads over 60 square meters of exhibition space, and is meant to be truly experiential. Of the 17 oversized pieces, some are interactive, inviting visitors to unfold Marta Chilindron’s Cube 48 Orange, or play an infinite ping pong game on Lee Wen’s Ping Pong Go-Round. Sun Xun plays on the increasing role of globalization with an immigration office for the fictional country of Jing Bang, where fair goers can interact with performers and apply for citizenship. Visitors can become performers themselves for Yu Cheng-Ta’s The Letters (Live Performance). Cheng-Ta has taken something that anyone with an email account can relate to – the often ridiculous spam email. Visitors are invited to read out loud advance-fee fraud spam emails sent to Cheng-Ta while being videotaped. The videos will then be replayed between performances, turning the visitor into art. Rebecca Baumann’s mesmerizing Automated Color Field (Variation V) is like a breathing Pantone color chart, with a motorized grid of colors that flip from one to the next, calmly clicking through an ever changing mosaic of color.
Rebecca Baumann, Automated Color Field (Variation V), 2014. Courtesy of Starkwhite.
Galleries specifically from the Asia-Pacific region spanning from Turkey to New Zealand, and to the Middle East and India make up the Insights section, which also features art-historic, solo and two or three person shows by artists reigning from these areas. This section is meant to bring artists from these regions under the international nose. Jeddah-based Athr Gallery will present a solo booth of Ahmed Mater, Saudi Arabia’s most known artist, whose work is inspired by a fusion of his medical background with his view on modern urbanized society. Hong Kong’s Koru Contemporary Art will take the art-historic route, showcasing a beautiful collection of vintage photographs of Hong Kong by Brian Brake.
Ahmed Mater, Abraaj Al Bait Towers, 2012. Courtesy of Athr Gallery.
Brian Brake, The Great Wall, Chuyun Kuan, North Beijing, 1957. Courtesy of Koru Contemporary Art.
A small lecture program will focus on bridging the gap of the global art world and collecting internationally. Two out of the three talks are in English, literally showing the influence of globalization in the art world. The Salon series is more lax, bringing together several talks per day in English, Mandarin and Japanese, such as artist talks (including Carsten Nicolai), topics such as collecting cross culturally and others of interest to those local to Hong Kong.
Salon talk with Hans van Dijk: Dialogues in the Development of Contemporary Art in China. Courtesy of Thomas Fuesser.
Although the special programming may seem to trump the main fair, Art Basel Hong Kong invites the world’s best galleries to exhibit, including Lehmann Maupin, 303 Gallery, Marian Goodman, Van de Weghe, Zach Feuer and Kavi Gupta. Despite the popularization of the art fair as a selling tool around the world, Art Basel Hong Kong has shown that it has a strong investment in not only fueling the art market economy in Hong Kong, but also educating collectors and encouraging a cross-cultural conversation between the thriving Asian metropolis and the globalized market.
Doug Aitken, You/You, 2012. Courtesy of 303 Gallery.
Jennifer Steinkamp, Bouquet1, 2013. Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin.


Art Basel Hong Kong Opens with Increasing Asian Focus
   2014-05-14 21:19:26    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Guo

The booths of art magazines and institutions at Art Basel Hong Kong. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

The second Art Basel Hong Kong opens at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center on Wednsday May 14, which will open to public from May 15 to 18.

The show presents 245 pieces of the world’s leading galleries, and has attracted more than 3,000 artists, ranging from young emerging artists to the Modern masters from both Asia and across the world.

Art Basel Hong Kong��s debut last year attracted 60,000 visitors. The international art fair made Hong Kong its third location after its original show in Switzerland and Miami Beach in the US.

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong Government, delivers a speech Wednsday May 14, 2014, at the opening ceremony of Art Basel Hong Kong. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor communicates with Chinese artist Wu Jian��an about his works. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

Visitors view art exhibits at Art Basel Hong Kong. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

Art Basel Hong Kong is a grand fair for art lovers and art insiders. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com

An art piece of Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

An art piece on display at Art Basel Hong Kong. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

The art works by Chinese oil painting master Chen Yifei. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

Sculptures are on display at Art Basel Hong Kong. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

The clocks represent that Art Basel has been held in three places around the world annually. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]

Click to see the next picture

Brochures and books of art works displayed at Art Basel Hong Kong. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com]








NewsHong Kong

A bigger, better Basel: Art fair returns to Hong Kong with strong local focus

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 11:53am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 12:27pm

Art Basel Hong Kong will overwhelm the city with more than 100 art events starting on Thursday but its impact on the local art scene will go well beyond the four-day event, industry insiders say.

Aficionados from around the world are flocking to the city as preparations for dozens of Basel art events get underway.

“One of the things we’ve been most proud about the fair has been its ability to put the spotlight to what’s happening in Hong Kong,” says Magnus Renfrew, director of Art Basel Asia.

Andy Warhol’s Reigning Queen (Royal Edition) Queen Elizabeth 11 at the Asia Contemporary Art Show. The show is returning after last year’s debut that attracted 60,000 visitors. The international art fair made Hong Kong its third show location after its original in Switzerland and Miami Beach in the US when it acquired a 60 per cent ownership stake in Art HK in 2011.

Art Basel’s global director Marc Spiegler said, “There is a much stronger local scene to engage with in Hong Kong compared to Basel or Miami.”

Asia Contemporary Art Show presents works by Mikhal Molochnikov. Of the 245 galleries from 39 countries and territories participating in this year’s fair, 25 are based in or have an office in Hong Kong.

Renfrew said, “In comparison, in Basel we had five or six galleries from Basel and at Miami Beach only two from Miami Beach. That serves as a real testament to the strength of the local gallery scene in Hong Kong.”

“The Guggenheim curators are here, the Tate curators are here, and the Australian museums are coming,” said Katie de Tilly, co-president of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association. “Art Basel Hong Kong has benefited Hong Kong as a city by bringing more attention to arts and culture.” she said.

Opera Gallery presents CHAOS exhibition media tour which inlcudes The Feast of the Barbarians, as part of Art May.Fo Tan, home to one of the city’s largest cluster of artist studios known as the Fotanian Artist Village, is welcoming Art Basel Hong Kong’s VIPs with two special tours with shuttle service from Wan Chai.

Though the tour is a Fotanian initiative rather than an Art Basel invention, Fotanian artist Simone Boon said she had benefited from last year’s tour in collaboration with Art Basel, as her encounter with the owner of Ning Space in Beijing’s 798 art zone during the tour resulted in an exhibition there that just took place in April.

Wu Dayu’s Untitled no 7, from Tina Keng Gallery, is among the pieces on display at Art Basel 2014. Boon is in charge of designing the tour this year. The Dutch-native who has lived in Hong Kong for ten years remembers since the days of Art HK – running from 2008 to 2011, local artists and galleries have held their own events around the time of the fair, “but things have become more organised since Basel came.”A worker sets up artworks at a booth of the Art Basel venue in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Chow Chung-fai, local artist and chairman of the Fotanian Art Village, compared attending Art Basel and exploring the rest of the city’s art scene to “seeing the end products” versus “seeing where art actually happens”. He said it is a good thing that Hongkongers have a chance to appreciate top notch art from around the world in the three days during Art Basel, “But the development of our art scene is not dependent on the number of local artists that make it to the fair, but on a comprehensive blueprint supporting arts development on a policy level.”“Space Painting by Zhang Enli” with mainland artist Zhang Enli for Art Basel week, Cosco Tower, Grand Millennium Plaza, Sheung Wan. Photo: Dickson Lee

As a centerpiece of this year’s show, Berlin-based artist Carsten Nicolai will take over the city’s tallest building, the 484-metre International Commerce Centre in Kowloon, with his dazzling light installation for three nights. With that described by Renfrew as a visual impact of Art Basel on Hong Kong that is hard to miss, the long-term impact of the show will hopefully be just as remarkable.




High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email ftsales.support@ft.com to buy additional rights. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/73ae77e6-d5d3-11e3-83b2-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz31fEksyu3

May 9, 2014 6:41 pm

Highlights: art in Hong Kong this week

‘By the River Neva in St Petersburg’ (2014) by Wang Xingwei©Chris Kendall

‘By the River Neva in St Petersburg’ (2014) by Wang Xingwei, at Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne

The Art Basel Hong Kong fair seems to be having the same effect on the former British colony as Frieze has had on London: triggering a whole swathe of openings and art initiatives.

Just a few years ago the Pedder Building in Central, now the beating heart of the top-end art trade, housed one gallery, alongside cashmere shops and offices. Last year, the joint opening night for the six art dealers now installed in it was so mobbed that guests had to be corralled into a lengthy queue to get in.

This year’s “Art Basel Hong Kong week” kicks off on May 13 with, in Pedder, openings of the Rothko-esque Chinese painter Su Xiaobai at Pearl Lam; Miquel Barceló at Ben Brown; Toby Ziegler at Simon Lee; Hernan Bas at Lehmann Maupin; Giacometti at Gagosian; and Gu Wenda at Hanart TZ. In the nearby Entertainment Building, Pace is showing Zhang Xiaogang, and Axel Vervoordt unveils its new premises with El Anatsui. A hop, skip and jump away, White Cube offers Mark Bradford, while Perrotin, in its breathtaking gallery on an upper floor, shows Jean-Michel Othoniel and Ryan McGinley.

'Her permanent mark on him’ (2014) by Melora Kuhn©Chris Kendall

‘Her permanent mark on him’ (2014) by Melora Kuhn, at Galerie Eigen + Art

These are the heavyweight galleries, but smaller ones are popping up everywhere in grittier industrial districts (the rents in Central are sky-high) – and present a chance to see what’s happening on the ground in the territory. On May 15, the Wong Chuk Hang Art Night includes Blindspot and Pékin Fine Arts, and in the Foton area there are 200 artists’ studios to be visited. The Chai Wan Mei festival on May 16 and 17 brings together 60 artists and 40 studios for a weekend of exhibitions, performances, installations and workshops. And not to miss: the always excellent non-profit Para Site – with an intriguing Sex in Hong Kong show – and Asia Society’s exhibition of Xu Bing in its Admiralty building, a former explosives store. Bang!


7:01 am HKT
May 13, 2014

Arts & Culture

Where to See Art Outside Art Basel Hong Kong

‘Circus’ by American painter Mark Bradford, on show at White Cube in Hong Kong, was inspired by the city’s public housing.

White Cube

Consider it part of the halo effect of Art Basel, which kicks off Wednesday in Hong Kong: an explosion of gallery openings and art events around town, which Asian-culture watchers say is proof that the city’s art scene has come of age.

“It’s changed so much in just the past three to five years,” said Melissa Chiu, museum director at the Asia Society, which is showing works by Chinese multimedia artist Xu Bing in an exhibition that opened last week. Ms. Chiu is also leading a group of visitors for a tour of some of the city’s private galleries, most of which have opened in the past three years.

“There is so much quality art now in Hong Kong,” she said.

Here’s a taste of what to see this week when you’re not at Art Basel:


Join the legions of art gawkers in Hong Kong’s Central district as galleries unveil their most impressive shows, from boldface international artists to rising Asian stars. The latest entrant to the city’s scene is Pace, which opens its Hong Kong location today with a show of oil-on-paper paintings by Chinese auction favorite Zhang Xiaogang.

White Cube is showing American painter Mark Bradford’s dense, abstract paintings inspired by the floor plans of the city’s public housing, both in its main space and at its Art Basel booth. “Galleries are becoming more confident to show big international artists in Hong Kong, and artists are becoming more excited to show here too,” said Graham Steele, the gallery’s Hong Kong director, who describes Art Basel week as the busiest of the year.

In the nearby Pedder Building, blue-chip commercial galleries are highlighting contemporary Chinese ink painting. Increasingly popular among Asian collectors, the genre includes Beijing-based artist Sun Xun, who also works in sculpture and animation, at Edouard Malingue, and New York-based painter Gu Wenda, whose ink works are inspired by ancient Chinese calligraphy, at Hanart TZ.

Also in the building is Pearl Lam Galleries, where Chinese abstract painter Su Xiaobai is displaying his vibrant, lacquer-finished oil-on-wood works, and Ben Brown Fine Arts, which has a new show by Spanish painter Miquel Barcelo. Meanwhile, Gagosian Gallery is exhibiting lithographs and sculptures by famed Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti.

A stone’s throw away is Galerie Perrotin, which has a two-person show of Parisian artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, whose sculptures feature intertwining strings of outsize beads, and New York-based photographer Ryan McGinley, known for his surreal style of nude photography.

Eschewing contemporary art, de Sarthe Gallery is focusing on the first wave of 20th-century Chinese artists who lived and worked in Paris. The group includes Lin Fengmian, Sanyu and Wu Guanzhong, three artists whose works have risen exponentially in value at auction in recent years.


Don’t have a ticket to Art Basel’s vernissage? Take advantage of the down time to rest up – the weekend is when the crowds flock to the fair.


Galleries in Wong Chuk Hang, a former industrial district in Hong Kong Island’s south, are grouping together to promote their off-the-beaten-path location during Wong Chuk Hang Art Night. Shuttle buses will take visitors from the art fair at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and from the Central piers. Art spaces to check out include Spring Workshop, FEAST Projects and Gallery EXIT.

On the same day as Art Basel opens to the public, Carsten Nicolai will launch his fair-sponsored light installation “Alpha Pulse” starting from 8:30 p.m. Taking over the façade of the International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong’s tallest building, the work is best experienced with a downloadable app that has an audio track to go with the hypnotic lights.


Styling themselves as “affordable,” two satellite fairs are piggy-backing on the main Art Basel event: The Asia Contemporary Art Show is slated to take place at the Conrad Hotel, in Admiralty, while the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Fair will occupy the Excelsior Hotel in Causeway Bay. Both will last through the weekend. Meanwhile, the two-day Chai Wan Mei Festival, which starts Friday night, will feature 60 local artists and designers in the warehouse district of Chai Wan in the eastern part of Hong Kong Island. A 15-minute taxi ride from the fair, the festival promises everything from pop-up art installations to studio visits and all-night parties.


Art Basel Hong Kong
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai,, Hong Kong, China
May 14, 2014 – May 18, 2014

Art Basel | Hong Kong: User’s Guide

by Peter Augustus

Following a successful launch last year, Hong Kong’s edition of Art Basel is back with a larger schedule of events and even more art than one can see in a week. This year boasts more than 3,000 works of art from over 200 galleries.

Although a welcomed spotlight, Hong Kong was never lacking in the international art show circuit, or arts for that matter—we currently have several a year and even two fairs that proudly share the weekend with Basel (read on to find out who).

While Basel has prepared an impressive schedule of artist talks, public art displays, and exhibitions in addition to their main event held at the HK Convention Hall, local galleries and businesses have been peppering the week with their own celebrations of art, beginning on Monday the 12th.

With a slew of official, unofficial, and underground events happing across the S.A.R., here is our breakdown of how you can enjoy the much anticipated annual event whether you’re a local, a tourist, or an art connoisseur.


Kicking off on Monday, the week starts with the Asia Society’s annual Art Gala, celebrating artists who have contributed to contemporary art. This year the honorees are Bharti Kher, Lio Guosong, Zhang Xiaogang and Takashi Murakami. The evening includes an auction to benefit the many important initiatives the Society puts on throughout the world. If you can’t make it to the gala, start the art week whetting your appetite by attending the opening of The Scarlet Bauhinia in Full Bloom, at the always inspiring Amelia Johnson Contemporary. A group show featuring four local artists, the works speak to the sensitive but important issue of the relationship between China and Hong Kong (through May 31st, G/F 6-10 Shin Hing Street NoHo, Central).

Also of note on Monday is Beijing-based painter Song Yige’s recently opened exhibition Another Dimension at Sotheby’s gallery (10AM to 6PM, through May 18th, 5/F One Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Hong Kong) and the opening of Space Painting by Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Enli, his first solo exhibition, at the K11 Foundation Pop-up Space (11AM to 7PM, through July 13th, G/F, Cosco Tower, Grand Millennium Plaza, 183 Queen’s Road Central, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong).

Su Xiaobai, Painting and Being New Green, 2013; Courtesy Pear Lam Galleries



The headlining event on Tuesday is Art Gallery Night, sponsored by the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association. The free event includes thirty-six participating galleries staying open past your bedtime for exploration and discovery, while featuring cocktail parties and artist talks. It’s the perfect way to brush up on your art vocabulary for Basel later in the week (6PM to 10:30 PM). Be sure not to miss the impressive works by French sculptor Jean-Michel Othoniel at Galerie Perrotin (through June 21st, 50 Connaught Road, Central, 17th Floor), or local diva Pearl Lam’s eponymous gallery exhibiting the celebrated Chinese artist Su Xiaobai, featuring his labor intensive painting technique and unique final presentation (through July 15th, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, 6th floor).

Tuesday also plays host to the debut of Swarovksi’s new installation by Patrik Fredrikson and Ian Stallard of the British design duo, Fredrikson Stallard. Titled Prologue, a symbol of “life and rebirth,” the temporary display will be housed at the courtyard of a former police married quarters, repurposed as the recently opened PMQ, a new creative hotspot in Hong Kong housing design related businesses and shops. Featuring over 8,000 crystals and soaring 12 feet high, this will be a sculpture that Swarovski lovers won’t want to miss (35 Aberdeen St Central, Hong Kong).

And for something really different, check out the Paloma Powers boardroom. Hosted by Focus Media at The Centrium this event features a “corporate environment” designed by Shawn Maximo with a soundtrack by Justin Simon. There will be cocktails and various refreshments, but space is limited, so you’ll want to RSVP or they may turn you away empty handed (60 Wyndam Street, Central Hong Kong,  4 – 6 PM; RSVP to Paloma@palomapowers.com).


Officially, Art Basel kicks off Wednesday afternoon with the invitation only Private View followed by the Vernissage, a preview party complete with a cash bar and celebrity sightings (with tickets available for public purchase and a price to match the fancy name). If you haven’t got the connections to score an invite or the cash to shell out for the party, you can attend the public opening on Thursday, with tickets that start at a reasonable HK$250 from any Hong Kong Ticketing outlet.

Following Basel’s opening, it’s the after party everyone’s been waiting for. Each year, Absolut Vodka chooses one artist to create a theme and installation that will become the Absolut Art Bar. Hosting the opening night’s post-show festivities, it will remain open throughout the week to serve thirsty art lovers. This year Absolut picked Nadim Abbas, a lecturer at the Hong Kong Art School and one of most impressive artists on the local Hong Kong art scene (read our interview with Abbas here). Drawing inspiration from movies like A Clockwork Orange and Alien, Abbas dreamed up Apocalypse Postponed—a science fiction theme which entails a bunker styled setting complete with specially designed cocktails served out of blood bags and an impressive showcase of live music and DJs (Free, open to the public beginning Thursday, 5PM to 2AM, Stonewall Plaza II, Midtown POP, 1 & 29 Tang Lung Street, Causeway Bay).

If drinking and dancing with someone who you’re not sure is a real zombie or just brain dead from viewing too much art isn’t your cup of tea, head over to the Asia Society for Captured in Ink on Wednesday afternoon. Gala honoree Liu Guosong, along with Hong Kong artist Wucius Wong and American photographer Michael Cherney, will be on hand for an interesting discussion on traditional ink drawing and the blending of ancient art practices with modern interpretations. Moderated by M+ curator, Tina Yee-Wan Pang (12:15 PM to 2:15 PM, HK$490 Asia Society members; HK$650 non-members, 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty).

Carsten Nicolai, a (alpha) pulse



Finally, once Thursday rolls around Art Basel is officially open to the public. In addition to the show, launching today is the impressive list of daily side events, such as Basel’s morning scheduled Conversations (free!), special curated films and afternoon Salon (show ticket required, check website for details). But don’t think the famed art fair rules the day. Also launching today is the Asia Contemporary Art Show at the Conrad Hotel. Promoted as their largest event to date, the biannual fair offers a more intimate setting but equally as powerful a showing as Basel (through the 18th, tickets from HK$180).

Thursday is also the much anticipated launch of a (alpha) pulse, a commissioned audio-visual public installation by German sound artist Carsten Nicolai. Taking place on the outside of the International Commerce Centre building in West Kowloon, and visible from most of western Hong Kong Island, the nightly event will feature a pulsating light based on viewer interaction via a custom designed app which allows the pattern to be affected by the audience. The multi-sensory experience will include sight and sound (free App download: alpha pulse, showing each night from Thursday to Saturday, 8:30 PM to 9:20 PM).

For those saving the light show for another night, be sure to head over to Sin Sin Fine Art, for the opening of Exposure, an exhibition showcasing the works of four talented Indonesian artists. The night includes a special live art performance and wraps with an after party at Hong Kong’s exclusive KEE Club (6PM to 9PM, performance at 8PM, 52-54 Sai Street, Central, RSVP required).

Also on the calendar for Thursday is the Wong Chuk Hang Art Night, located on the south side of Hong Kong Island. A growing art gallery hood, the area features annexes of established galleries as well as the headquarters for local galleries housing some of the most provocative local art. Not to be missed is Gallery Exit’s group show The Bold Sopranos, a multimedia whirlwind of fiction and reality (7PM to 10PM, SOUTHSITE, 3/F, 25 Hing Wo Street, Tin Wan, Aberdeen).

If you’re down for something a bit off the cuff, and want to increase your knowledge by going back to school, head over to famed auction house Christie’s where they’re offering a two day course as an essential guide to post-war art. Taught by NYC based Program Director Robin Reisenfeld, the lectures are designed for those who want to learn more about important contemporary art and is suitable for all levels (HK$9,000, offered in English, May 15th to 16th, and Mandarin, 17th to 18th).

Pio Abad, The Bold Sopranos – Decoy II, 2014; Courtesy Gallery Exit



With Basel still in full swing, two more important events launch on Friday. Yet another fair, located in yet another hotel, opens today. The Hong Kong Contemporary Art Fair, housed in The Excelsior Hotel, focuses on more accessible modern art from around the world, and with tickets starting at HK$50, it’s worth a visit (May 16th to May 19th).

Following the art fair, head east to the Chai Wan Mei Open Studios. Located in the fast growing center of Hong Kong’s creative scene, the industrial area is home to a number of innovative galleries, artist studios, and secret shops, such as a vertical gallery space in a warehouse stairwell. Organizers are offering a round trip shuttle bus from the HKCEC (where Art Basel takes place), so we better see you there.


Saturday marks the last day for Basel’s Conversations and afternoon Salon panels, but have no fear, it’s actually when Hong Kong celebrates International Museum Day (who knew?). Take the Star Ferry across the harbor to the Hong Kong Museum of Art for an impressive display of 120 artworks by celebrated Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming. On show are works made of wood, bronze, stainless steel, and more (HK$20, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon).

If you want to stay island side, here are two great options: First, be sure to take some time to visit the Hong Kong Arts Centre Open House. The HKAC houses a theater, restaurants, several galleries, indie clothing shops, and a well-stocked book store to keep you busy for hours (Open from 10AM to 10PM, 2 Harbour Road, Wanchai). Second, the Asia Art Archive is hosting a live war of words, with no blood spilled (hopefully). Presented by artists-in-residence C&G (Clara and Gum), the event will be a parody of the local education system—in quiz show format—pitting different local artists and their teams against each other over knowledge (or lack thereof) of Hong Kong’s local contemporary art scene. An impressive list of contestants has been arranged, including Hong Kong artists Kacey Wong, Leung Mee Ping and Law Man Lok. Note: The Quiz will be in Cantonese, but will feature live commentary by sound and performance artist Samson Young. Live action sport sounds like a great way to finish off the week.

M Bar.



As the week comes to a close, it’s the perfect time to veg out and reflect on the action packed week you’ve had. Luckily, the Mandarin Oriental, Art Basel’s official host hotel, has a few things to help you relax. Of note are the Art Chocolates, on sale in The Mandarin Cake Shop, featuring edible art supplies in the form of brushes and palettes, as well as the Art Cocktails in the M Bar, featuring drinks inspired by Art Basel Hong Kong (5 Connaught Road, Central). Enjoy.


Peter Augustus 


(Image on top: View of Hong Kong Convention Centre, Art Basel in Hong Kong 2013, General Impressions MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG / Courtesy of the artist and Art Basel Hong Kong)

Ed Clark – An African American Artist in Paris Before New York was King

An exhibition of the work of Ed Clark will be at The Mistake Room, Los Angeles, in the fall of 2014.

An exhibition of the work of Jack Whitten will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, in the fall of 2014

An exhibition of the work of Archibald Motley will be at LACMA, Los Angeles, in the fall of 2014.

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles

Photo of Ed Clark Seated in Front of His Work




A History Waiting To Be Written: Ed Clark’s High-Spirited, Abstract Paintings

Clark, _Untitled_ (2005) - lava

David Hammons’ thoughtful curation of the exhibition, Ed Clark: Big Bang, currently at the Tilton Gallery (January 14–February 22, 2014) helps establish a much needed context for an important artist of the New York School, who, now in his late 80s, continues to make boldly exuberant paintings. By including single works by Clark’s friends and supporters — Yayoi Kusama, Joan Mitchell, and Donald Judd — Hammons reminds us that he had the respect of astute, tough-minded contemporaries, even as curators and critics have repeatedly neglected to acknowledge his contribution over the years.

Clark’s inclusion in the traveling exhibition, Blues for Smoke, curated by Bennet Simpson, which was at the Whitney Museum of American Art (February 7–April 28, 203), was certainly a step in the right direction. For, as Corinne Robins pointed out in a review from 1997, even the seemingly inclusive chronicler and art historian, Irving Sandler failed to mention “Ed Clark or any other artist of color” in his book, The New York School (1978). The history that Robins alludes to — which is occult and largely kept alive by artists and poets — needs to be brought further into the light, particularly in New York. I say this because when I first saw work by Clark at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum and, after that, a particularly memorable, shaped painting from 1957 at the Art Institute of Chicago, I wondered why I had never heard of him before, and what had happened to him. It was as if Clark had been present and active in the late ’50s and then mysteriously, he was gone. This, of course, wasn’t the case.

Clark, _New Orleans Series #5_ (2012)

Later, I learned that Nicholas Krushenick included Clark, along with Al Held, George Sugarman, Yayoi Kusama, Ronald Bladen, and himself, in the first 1957 Christmas show at the Brata Gallery. A few small pockets of the art world, it seems, were multicultural long before that word entered the discourse. In a 1972 Art News article, Lawrence Campbell described Clark’s shaped painting in the Brata exhibition as the first of its kind. In retrospect, it seems that with the rise of Minimalism, Pop Art, Painterly Realism and Color Field painting, and the far reaching influence of formalist criticism, Clark, whose roots are in Abstract Expressionism, got left out, both at the time and in every retelling of what has come to be known as the “Second Generation.” Here, it’s worth remembering that Donald Judd gave Clark a show in his loft in 1971.

The larger problem is that decades have gone by with few calling attention to Clark’s absence, as if everyone — including dealers, curators, collectors and critics — had gotten the history right the first time. Self-satisfaction is only one of the art world’s Achilles heels. While very few people in New York from the early 1960s on seemed to be paying much attention, particularly to painting that owes something to Abstract Expressionism, Clark continued making bold, innovative work.  More importantly — as I hope to make clear — his work subverts a number of commonplace assumptions about Abstract Expressionism, beginning with the long held charge that it is elitist. It also enlarges our understanding of what various artists did with this loosely defined approach to painting. Like his friend, Joan Mitchell, Clark never succumbed to the pressures of Minimalism and Pop Art to reject the materiality of paint and a human touch, as did another contemporary, Al Held.

Moreover, contrary to those who claimed Abstract Expressionism was a purely American development, Clark has openly acknowledged being influenced by Nicolas de Stael’s interlocking slabs of impasto paint, which he applied with a palette knife. However, instead of troweling cement-like, slow-drying oil paint, Clark paints on the floor, using a broom to push acrylic paint whose consistency ranges from a watery medium to a creamy paste, in colors that go from white to primaries and secondaries, often mixed with white. Against the unprimed, often slightly dirty canvas, Clark’s thick swaths of white paint evoke crème fraiche floating on vichyssoise. There is something innocent and indecent about their pillowy surfaces.

Clark, _Untitled_ (2009)

Utilizing an impure approach, which distinguishes him from his more stylistically narrow peers, Clark is likely to combine staining, splattering and drawing with a broom in a single work. In “Untitled” (2001) and “Untitled” (2005), he stacked wide swaths of thick, velvety paint that horizontally span the surface. Some of the swaths are made of two colors that have been poured together, with the broom mixing them further, while others are layered, one color on top of another. Although they evoke brushstrokes, we instinctively know that the swaths are too wide to have been made by a brush. By pushing them with a broom, Clark connects the history of menial labor and janitorial services with high art and abstract painting.

Clark, _Untitled_ (2005)

It is one thing to paint like a bricklayer, as an artist I know once said disparagingly of Milton Resnick, but it is quite another to transform a janitorial activity into a high-minded lyricism, which is exactly what Clark has done and more. Clark’s bonding of janitorial services and Abstract Expressionist painting challenges the widely received art historical view that it wasn’t until Minimalism (Frank Stella’s use of a house painter’s brushes) and Pop Art (Andy Warhol’s silk screens of movie stars and disasters) that artists mixed labor, commercial tools, the everyday and art. Clark’s paintings are performative, while his lush, hybrid forms are simultaneously sculptural and painterly, buoyant and even witty.

By drawing in paint with a broom — and really this should be considered an innovation — it is clear that Clark possesses a remarkable amount of control and possibility with an ungainly instrument. This is most apparent in “Paris” (2009), in which he stacked a series of distinct gestural forms on an unprimed canvas. The variously colored forms, which seem simultaneously solid and liquid, frozen and moving, manmade and lava-like, evoke an adagio act, stones precariously balanced on each other, an abstract totem and a veiled dancer in constant movement. In “Paris,” it is clear that Clark has absorbed as well as transformed the Surrealism of Max Ernst and Joan Miro into something all his own.

Clark, _Paris_ (2009)

Clark’s oeuvre is as distinctive and particular, and, in that regard, comparable to the work of other artists who belong to the so-called “Second Generation” — Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, and Norman Bluhm, for example. He is certainly due the close attention that Mitchell and Francis have received. Clark is an important figure in the history of postwar abstract art, a history that includes African American practitioners, whose work ranges across time and style — from Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas to Sam Gilliam, Howardena Pindell, Stanley Whitney and Jack Whitten. It is a rich, complex and little-known history that requires further research and scholarship, not to mention exhibitions and monographs.

Hammons selected eight large paintings that Clark did between 2001 and 2012. They were all done after the artist turned seventy-five. What an eye-popping revelation and joy to see them hung in three spacious rooms of an Upper East Side townhouse. Their enthusiasm is unrivaled and catching.

Ed Clark: Big Bang continues at Tilton Gallery (8 East 76 Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 22.




Ed Clark by Jack Whitten
Art : Oral History

Ed Clark

by Jack Whitten

BOMB’s Oral History Project documents the life stories of New York City’s African-American artists.

Self Portrait 1947-49, 11½ x 14½ inches

Jack Whitten Okay, we’re absolutely ready to go. My name is Jack Whitten and I’m here to interview Edward Clark. Today is Tuesday, 14th of November. And we’re in Ed Clark’s studio at 4 W 22nd Street, [New York, NY].

Edward Clark Say the year.

JW The year. 2011. Clark, I’ve known you a long time and I know that you are probably bored with people asking you when and where you were born (laughter), but—I want to know your family background, your place of birth, and the year.

EC Okay. Born New Orleans, Louisiana, May 6, 1926. And both sides are from Louisiana, my mother and my father.

JW What’s your mother’s name?

EC Merion. M-e-r-i-o-n. I just called her mother. My father was Edward Clark. I’m a junior.

JW Where was your mother born?

EC Madisonville, Louisiana, a little, small town [north] of New Orleans on Lake Pontchartrain.

JW And your father?

EC He was born somewhere near Alexandria, Louisiana. I’ll tell you this story now just to explain my name. First of all, he was illegitimate, okay? His mother had him when she was fourteen. His father, who she never married, was a white man, the sheriff. We lookin’ up on that now. So what happened when he was born out of wedlock and all that, she sent him up further to Baton Rouge to live with her aunt. His father [the sheriff] had a French name, but his aunt, she was married to a Mr. Clark—that’s no bloodline to me though. But that’s how we got the name “Clark.”

JW You had brothers and sisters?

EC One sister. Shirley. She died, six, seven years ago. I’m eighty-four now . . . let’s say she was seventy-four, seventy-five.

But back to Louisiana—my parents didn’t know each other [there]. My father did not meet my mother then. [Both of them] had gone up [to Chicago]. There was a Louisiana [neighborhood in Chicago]. Just like the Puerto Ricans hang together; they [all] knew each other, right? And both my parents were in that group. And they were almost as racist as white people, you know. She [my mother] met him in Chicago, but they were both from Louisiana, and they returned to Louisiana together after meeting.

JW Were they considered to be Creoles?

EC They were Creoles—

JW And what do you mean by that term?

EC Let’s say the first Creoles were white [of French extraction] and the other black ones were from Africa. But everybody knows who’s who in Louisiana . . . I don’t call myself a Creole, to you—we don’t talk about that, I don’t care. But down there you say you’re Creole with pride.

JW So they took pride in the fact of being Creole?

EC I’m not educated like that, [but] if you’re thinking like Creoles, then anything would be better than there being black roots from Africa [in your blood]. Which we have, right? I’ve never met a Creole who would tell you that they had a black father or that he had a Negro father or mother. We know they’re black, but they never say it.

JW Oh, they don’t own the fact that they have black blood?

EC Not everyone. To the ones who are most sophisticated it’s not a big deal, but it was when I was a boy many, many years ago, right? Like my aunt in Baton Rouge who raised my father, her name was Irene though I didn’t call her that. She was Creole too. She looked like a witch. She was old as hell, had straight hair, and so did Mr. Clark, who was no blood to me. And one time she told me, “Don’t go out and play with them porch heads.” She’s talking about the blacks in the house next to me.

JW Porch heads?

EC They would put their hair up so that when they put Vaseline on it, it would go [straight] back, right? You know. The point is—

JW They called them porch heads?

EC No, no, she did. No one else. “Don’t go over there with them porch heads!” (laughter) She was illiterate . . . and we didn’t have electricity; we had kerosene lamps and we had an outhouse. Now, you’re from the South.

JW Oh yeah, I remember outhouses. We had an outhouse.

EC Yeah and kerosene lamps. No electricity. But before we lived in Chicago, we had moved up to [Baton Rouge in 1932, from] New Orleans where I was born, so it gets into three different areas [New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Chicago]. But anyway, say if some Creoles [are] together—they’d rather not see a dark brown [person among them] even though they are of that race. Now it’s different, with the young people.

JW What’s the best memories you have of your mother?

EC My mother had a sad, sad life. And one of the reasons was because she was a Creole. She said there was a black doctor who was interested in maybe getting married to her, but instead she chose my father because he looked white. I’ll show you a photo; he looked exactly like he was white. And he was not the right kind of father. She told my sister once she never had a real whole day of being happy, and all her life was like that. Now this was the Great Depression, man—this is a joke what’s happening now—everybody was broke, even the whites. And I remember when I went to grammar school, it was a Catholic school, they didn’t have a lunch program. One time I took a sandwich that my mother made the night before and someone hollered, “Look at Edward! He’s got a grease sandwich!” She pushed the bread in the gravy and gave it to me, just like that. But everybody was in the boat together.

JW So, what’re your memories of your father?

EC My father, he could pass [for white]. But he didn’t want to pass. But he did pass when he moved up north one time and he was working for Western Electric. He had a good job. Somebody told on him after about six months. He lived in a black neighborhood and when the company realized he was black they fired him. But in those days you didn’t have to have a degree, if you were (snaps fingers) smart. He had wanted to be a pilot—before I was born. He was born in 1906, I’m [born in] ’26, so he was a very young father. But he gambled, and that’s why I won’t gamble. Someone asked me—somebody you might know, doesn’t matter—he wanted to gamble with me about something. I said, “Look, man. If I gamble and we’re playing poker or shooting craps—I don’t feel too cool, if I get all your money because you’re my friend, and I’d feel worse if you get my money!” Right? So I don’t gamble. And I don’t gamble because my father was a gambler and he was proud of it. My mother was a devout Catholic, but when she saw him . . .

When we were down in Baton Rouge maybe I’m a little boy, six or so. I’m sitting on the floor and he’s sanding these cards. Some of the B-decks he’d sand until the angles were marked—real fast—then he’d put them back into the deck, put the cellophane back on. Now he wouldn’t get away with it when they’d get a new deck during a game. One time his body got cut all over. Somebody probably caught him. So I never gamble because he never really made any money gambling.

JW But were you fond of him?

EC They say in the beginning I really was. But I can remember I’d wipe his kisses off of my sister because I heard him cursing and I couldn’t believe that anyone would say those words. When you’re six, to hear those curse words. But I adored my father before then. He couldn’t even go out without pretending to put his hat on like I’m gonna go [with him].

JW So you knew him a long time?

EC Yeah, well, in those days there was no such thing as divorce. And if you’re Catholic you don’t divorce anyway! That’s out! You get married; it’s for life. Sometimes we wouldn’t see him for a week, see, but then he would come in—this is the Great Depression—and maybe he’d won. He would be still high and my mother would have done what most women would have done in that day—you know, so drunk he’d fall on the bed—she’d go through his pockets, and all the money would be [there]. A ten dollar bill, man, you could live a month on that. But you don’t preach at him, because that day everything was fine.

JW So he provided for the family?

EC No, no, that was just sporadically. Most of the time—the worst experience of my life, it must have been for my mother even worse—we had moved up to Chicago from Louisiana into an apartment in an area called Woodlawn. Nice neighborhood for kind of high-class black people. And one Sunday morning, my father had spent the night [out]. All of a sudden, [from] the third floor, we looked out the window and here comes these guys to put us out on the street. She loved that apartment. And they put all of us, all of the furniture, right out on the street.

JW For not paying the rent?

EC For not paying the rent. And the landlord liked us, but my mother couldn’t come up with the rent. So he didn’t provide for that. And we were put out on the street.

JW Any memory of your grandmother? Grandfather?

EC No, my grandmother on my mother’s side died before I was born. She died in a rocking chair in the kitchen in Louisiana. I did meet his [my father’s] mother, because she was only fourteen when he was born. And she also contributed to me, so I could live in Paris, because when she died, my father went down to Louisiana and so did other relatives. They were all waiting [for her to die] because she was what we called “nigger rich.” She had a house that sold for $30,000. That’s a lot of money. And she had two houses. Anyway, she died suddenly, and my father went down there first. I was in Paris. There were holes in the wall everywhere [because] the moment she died, people started looking—they knew she must’ve had money somewhere. And she probably did but she also had money in the bank. And [my father] got it all. She had promised some of those other relatives that they would get it, but I think that I had something to do with it. These others, they moved up to Chicago, and they were doing better than us. When I was in grammar school, I was always in trouble and stuff like that, but the other family, they were doing everything right, but they had a child who was born like this, you know—

JW Retarded?

EC Yeah, but she heard through the grapevine that I was the same way. But when she saw me in Chicago, she kept looking back [at me], and she realized they had lied to her. They were saying: “Well, both families have something to hide. Edward and Merion had this other one.” So when she died she left everything to my father, and at that point I’m Paris-based. My sister told me I needed to come home so that my father could give me some of the money. And he did do that for me; when I returned to Paris I had money. But right away I knew he wasn’t gonna keep it too well. He was gambling on the phone; he was calling up Chicago to place bets all the time. We took a train, the Mason/Dixon line, the train from Alexandria. Because of segregation, he rented out the whole car. No one did that, you know, whatever that was.

JW He had inherited that kind of money, that he could do that?

EC Yeah, he had [inherited] that kind of money. And people were drinking. He took about sixteen of them up to Chicago like that; everybody was around him. I was a young man then. But I had an expensive suit in Paris, and whatnot. So we were rich. But within about a year he was broke.

JW What was your relationship with your sister?

EC My sister and I were very close; we were only eleven months apart. She told everybody she was younger than me, but we were the same age most of the year. My mother had another one named Claude who died before I was born, and that must have been tragic for her because Claude lived to be about three months old, so you feel worse about that than if he had died at birth.

JW So you and your sister Shirley were close?

EC Real close. We looked like twins, like dolls. My mother was a seamstress; she had a sewing machine. She couldn’t do nothing with men’s stuff, but Shirley Temple was [my sister’s age], and Shirley Temple was so famous they had patterns and whatnot [of the clothes she wore]. I remember one time we were in church on a Sunday and my sister looked like a doll. And the women would say, “I don’t know where they get the money.” But the reason is because she had been looking at patterns and she sewed. But she made some money like that.

JW What did you grow up eating?

EC As long as I remember, my mother, she had never been, ever in a restaurant. The nearest she’d come to that, when we were in New Orleans, she’d take us up to the five-and-dime and you could get a hot dog and a drink; a hot dog was ten cents. But she was never at a sit-down restaurant, nor did she care about it.

JW Did she cook?

EC Cook? Well yeah, it was the South. (laughter) She wasn’t a great cook, but she could cook gumbo. And my father said, “See how sloppy this place looks? When she cooks gumbo that kitchen is all fucked up.” But the gumbo would be real good; he liked it. But she’d say, “Don’t bring no chitlins around.”

JW She would draw the line with chitlins?

EC Well he liked chitlins, my father. But he never dared. We were living somewhere in Chicago where you could smell when they were cooking it, on another floor. To her that was like black people’s food. But anyway—

JW But you grew up eating soul food, am I correct?

EC Yeah, well, she cooked. Like when we moved up to Chicago—they had a fish from Lake Michigan that was delicious. But she did fish; she’d also go to the meat market, the butcher. In those days, even in Chicago, they’d get the chicken and cut the head off right there, just like in the South. A lot of times we didn’t have much food. Sometimes we did. I was always skinny, but I was healthy, I never got sick, ever.

JW What was the role of religion?

EC Big in her life!

JW In her life—

EC She was a devout Catholic. She made sure we went to Catholic school. When we were in Baton Rouge, that’s where I first started school; there were black nuns, and there was something happened there that changed my life. I had to memorize the primer they called it, the first book: (spoken with even rhythm) “Alice said, ‘Come cat, come to dinner.’ The cat said, ‘No, I’ll find my dinner.’” I’m memorizing that, see? But by the second page, I just couldn’t read. What do they call that nowadays?

JW Dyslexia.

EC Then they just called that dumb, right? (laughter) But all of a sudden, I could do something that stood out. I could draw better than everyone else. And one day this nun had a contest of who could draw a tree. We were in kindergarten. And so everyone started drawing a tree but I drew a tree with branches on it and whatnot. Whoever was going to draw the best was going to get a gold star on their head. She came to mine—she didn’t like me for whatever reason—and rather than give me the gold star, she just dismissed the class. That made me realize [that] I could be the best all my life and not get recognized. She didn’t like us because we said we were going up north, up to Chicago [to better ourselves]. Finally, my father went to see his mother in Alexandria, she must have given him $300—a fortune then!

JW I can imagine.

EC And we took the Greyhound bus up to Chicago. Now we got to Chicago and it was worse than Baton Rouge. We had a kitchenette apartment. That has a chic name, but there were bedbugs everywhere and my mother would get this can of something to kill them…but anyway, we were there, right like that, a change of air.

JW How old were you when you went to Chicago?

EC I was seven or eight. My best friend from then said, “I remember you. You grew up down South, barefooted.” (He used to run up and down South Park.) Because in Baton Rouge, just playing with the boys, I didn’t wear shoes. It don’t take long, [for] your feet [to get calluses so] that you can deal with that.

JW I was going to ask you about your early childhood in terms of friends. Do you remember them?

EC Yeah, we had friends all along the way. Jackie was my best friend, one of them. And the one who said he remembered me when he first saw me in Chicago—he was good at sports and his father worked at the post office and that was a gifted job. Because you know in those days there were some guys who had law degrees and they couldn’t get a job. They had to go work in the post office. It was very hard. And the women? You knew who had the money. All schoolteachers were women. In those days you never saw men [teaching] in grammar school. So women would have the school teaching jobs. And they would make more money than the husband who was going to be a lawyer or something.

JW So the neighborhood that you grew up in, were they all black people?

EC Oh yeah, Chicago, even today—one black moves to the neighborhood, the whites will not deal with him. There has to be exceptions in the Hyde Park area around the University of Chicago, you’ll see some of that.

JW So even in Louisiana, your neighborhood was all black?

EC Well in Louisiana, no. We lived on Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans and that was a beautiful area—before they built a super highway and concrete on top of everything. They had white people next to us. Louisiana could do that, depending on the—there was some white people in the house next to our house.

JW Any memory of race relations growing up, good or bad?

EC Well, I didn’t realize until I went into the military—but in New Orleans, I had never been in the French Quarter. She wouldn’t take us there because she didn’t want us to experience rejection. In other words, even though we might get past, she didn’t take a chance because she could see us trying to get an ice cream cone and they’d say, “Now you go around to the back.” First time I ever went to the French Quarter was when I was in the military, and we would go into New Orleans. I’d never seen the French Quarter before that.

JW So you don’t have any bad memories of race relations? Anything ever happen to you personally?

EC Yeah, the first thing happened back in Louisiana [when I was there for military service]. One time I was with this other guy, and we went to the bus station to go back to Biloxi, Mississippi where we were stationed. We realized that we couldn’t get any seats, there were so many people. We knew that they left the back seats for the blacks. This was the first time I experienced that. He was a really, really light-skinned guy and he said, “Look we’re Negroes”—that’s the word we used—“can we go back to the back?” And the driver said, “Make a way for two niggers coming back there!” So that’s Louisiana. That’s during the war, 1944.

JW Were you involved in sports at all?

EC I was so bad in Catholic grammar school that my mother took me out and put me in public school my last year. So I’m in the eighth grade. They were testing people in running—this was a 40-yard dash—and I got a 4.9. I didn’t have endurance but as a sprinter I was real, real fast. And that saved me from getting my ass beaten one time. We were in Chicago and I was like fourteen, fifteen, and with a friend trying to talk to some girls in another neighborhood. All of a sudden, we looked and all these guys from the neighborhood were all around us; they came in to beat our asses, and I took off, man. (laughter) To this day I feel guilty for it. I start running towards Washington Park. This was at night—there were cars parked and I went over them, jumping. And they said, “Look at that nigger run.” I was like a gazelle, and it saved my ass. I never felt good about that. I mean he stayed there to fight and they beat the shit out of him. But he got some revenge. He went back with his brother in the neighborhood and put the hurt on some of them. But nobody got cut. I never got in a fight with a knife. You?

JW I’ve never been in a fight with a knife, no. Only fist fights. So, you finished high school?

EC No, I was at Englewood high school and then Mosley but I didn’t finish. This is why I didn’t make it to pilot training, what I’m going to tell you now. [The war started and I enlisted.] I passed all the [military] tests, the oral, written, aptitude and all that, but then before the next step you had to see a psychiatrist. And he caught me lying. He said, “I see you didn’t finish high school.” And I said, “Er, I was helping my sister out.” That’s a lie, right. I was expelled from Englewood High School because I got caught making out with a girl in the auditorium. I barely even got to kiss the girl but her parents got me kicked out. So he’s still looking at me and he probably knew I’m lying, because I was lying. And he said, “What’s a Mustang?” I didn’t know what a Mustang was, but my friend who had gone in front of me, they asked him “Who makes the B-51 engine?” It was Pratt & Whitney, and he just happened to know that. He became famous as a cadet. My friend told me that the psychiatrist was going to ask me about that, so when he asked about the Mustang, I said “Pratt & Whitney.” So he knew I had talked to someone. Anyway, I didn’t know what a Mustang was. All I had to say was, “I don’t know it, man, but I can fly that motherfucker.” (laughter) That would have been better. So he rejected me, and I didn’t go beyond that.

JW So you didn’t finish high school—

EC I went to Mosley High School after getting kicked out from Englewood, and I left Mosley to enlist in the army. So no, I didn’t finish. But I’m a young man! I’m seventeen, in the military. After fifteen months, when I came out then I went right back to school, to The Art Institute [of Chicago]. So I got an education, but back then, on paper, I was a dropout!

JW You weren’t drafted?

EC Well, no. I enlisted because I wanted to be in the Air Force [Army Air Corps]. But you didn’t have to think twice about the war then. I was looking for action!

JW Wasn’t the Air Corps unusual for a black guy?

EC Well, yeah, but that’s why they invented Tuskegee. If you qualify and pass all the tests. I was underweight by two or three pounds, and this guy said, “Go eat some bananas,” which I did. And they put me back on the scale and I passed. But I didn’t get in because this guy caught me lying. So that stopped me.

JW So how long were you in the military?

EC I think two years. I’m not an air cadet; I’m a duty soldier. And I’m in trouble, not with my life, but, see, I’m bored after thinking of flying, and my aptitude was better than everybody’s— they put me in a wooden plane; they let me take some lessons, I was a natural. But you had to pass this man. And he caught me lying. That changed my life. All of a sudden, they’d say, “Your aptitude is engineering.” I didn’t want to do that, but you had to do what they told you. They just sent me to somebody’s garage, working on tractors. I refused to go after a while. After two days, I just wouldn’t do it. I would go shoot pool in this area where all the soldiers were. Now the First Sergeant over me happened to be gay—so he came in, he was looking for me. I could have been court-martialed, and he said, “PFC Clark, you don’t have to do that. I’m going to see to it that you be nice.” He said, “Meet me on base tonight somewhere.” And I knew what he was after—

JW (laughter) Yeah, you were hip.

EC But it wouldn’t have worked, because I would have killed him. (laughter) So now I’m in trouble. All of a sudden we are alerted to go overseas, and they don’t tell you where you are going in the war because you’d be telling people. All they say is that you’re going to Seattle. We got on the boat [in Seattle] and I’m in a black outfit, and all these brothers are talking about—not every brother, but the ones who didn’t want to go—“Oh, I’m sick.” And they want to go to the doctor before they get on the ship. When you get on the ship there’s a guy [medic] there, you know, “Open your mouth.” Boom. (laughter) You don’t want to hear that shit.

In high school, I was very good at physics and astronomy, an A, maybe A+ student. I knew where we were, more or less, the latitude anyway, not the longitude. I could tell the ship [was headed south]. When you’re at the equator; you can see the handle of the Dipper. So I knew, even on the boat, when we were below the equator.

JW Okay, you were in the army how long?

EC About twenty-six months [stationed in Guam].

JW After the army what happened?

EC We didn’t know about the GI Bill. That was all of a sudden that Roosevelt sent it [to Congress] before he died. So [after I found out about that], I went to The Art Institute [of Chicago], even though I hadn’t finished high school.

JW And how long were you there?

EC Like three years.

JW Did you get a degree from The Art Institute?

EC No, no, and didn’t want one. After that I was at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, this is one of the most prestigious places. I didn’t want a diploma. I was reading about Picasso’s life, and he’s a great artist, and he went to Madrid to get into this famous school, and after a while he stopped going to school. He didn’t finish. I’m not looking for no paper [degree]. I remember Beauford Delaney liked Piero della Francesca of northern Italy. I went there in the ‘90s see this chapel. There is no train to get to that part of Italy. You have to walk about three miles from the last place that the bus will take you. Just to see it. So that’s how interested I was. I studied art history at one of the greatest schools in the world, The Art Institute [of Chicago], Louis Ritman [1947-51] was my teacher, and I was interested in that.

JW Who else did you study with at The Art Institute?

EC Yeah, two instructors, Helen Gardner, Louis Ritman. He turned out to be an older man and he influenced me; the others I didn’t think much of anyway. I could draw better than them. But in his case, I never forget, one time he came up to me—he could see I was outstanding in some way—he said, “Look, let me show you something.” He took my brush and he put it in some white paint, oil, they didn’t have acrylic [then], and he tells another student to take their brush with white paint and go to the door. And I say, “It’s white.” And he says, “No. Look at this one and then look at that one. The one near me is white, the other one is taking on [the] surrounding colors; it’s no longer white.” Now he’s an Impressionist. Chicago has one of the greatest museums for Gauguin and the Impressionists. And I saw that that was right.

The next one [teacher] was when I finally got to Paris and I was [still] on the GI Bill. I had to [go to school to get the GI Bill stipend]. I had been in school too goddamn long but I went back, and they give you your art supplies and all that, and I met this guy, French, Goerg [Edouard Goerg]. And he said, “I see your work has a certain [knack] to it.” And then he began to get really interested in me. And then one day, he was hitting on a girl, and he must have been in his 60s or something, and I thought that was terrible.

JW I want to go back just a little bit; when you finished at The Art Institute, what happened then? Where did you go?

EC Well, I never finished. I just went to Europe. I got on the ship and I went to Europe. I mean fuck it, I just put the [past] behind me.

JW With what money?

EC Well my father’s mother died, right, and she left all that money. So he gave me some money and I [had time left on the GI Bill]. Now, I’m talking about a naïve guy. I’m on the ship right here in New York; it’s a French line, the Liberté. It used to be a German ship, a war trophy, because Germany lost the war. But I had never been on anything like this. They said, “Well, you sit anywhere.” So I’m sitting at this table where two other people are sitting and they had a bottle of red wine and whatnot, and I had never tasted wine that good, right? It was Beaujolais. At night I went back and to my pleasant surprise—I thought that one bottle was supposed to last the whole trip—the bottle was full again. And I thought, Oh shit. (laughter) This is something, man! I’m drinking that wine!

JW So I find this interesting. Your father actually funded your first trip?

EC Actually, no. I confused you a little bit. The first trip, I wrote to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and I was accepted. And the U.S. Veterans Administration had a place where you could get your money every month. So I just took the GI money and had saved up enough, about $300 together to go [to Paris]; I had about $500. But when my grandmother died a year later [in 1953], that’s when I got something from my sister saying, “Come on back before Daddy spends all the money.” And [for the trip back to Chicago] she sent about fifteen letters [to me] with ten- or twenty-dollar bills in them. And by the way, it’s illegal to send cash to France but nobody opened them. So I went and got an air ticket and flew back right away.

JW So you did a transatlantic flight from Paris?

EC That was the first flight that they had from Paris to Chicago. They already had something to New York. When my grandmother died, my father had money, temporarily. He gave my sister the money to send to me, so it was his money that reached me, and that’s how I got back.

JW Okay, When was the first time you went to Europe?

EC The first time, that must have been 1952.

JW Where’d the army send you?

EC To the South Pacific. In the war, I was in Guam and Saipan: you go wherever they send you to.

JW So your first trip out of America was to the South Pacific?

EC Absolutely. And when I got there, I was a duty soldier. I’m in trouble because in other words I’m a private—you’re automatically a Private First Class—and anybody can make me do what they wanted. And let me tell you what happened that first night. We landed in Guam and some of the guys were so frightened. They’d seen all these movies, and they thought that was combat. So they come with the PT boats, and we got our rifles, and one guy got up to the top of the ship and just plain fell down stiff—he wanted to get hurt. And I’m just bored. I knew that they didn’t have much action going on in Guam. So finally we got to shore. We had to do just like in the movies, pitch tents and all of that. And I’ll never forget, the first night is the nearest we ever come to [combat]; all of a sudden bullets start going through our tent. We got our guns and start shooting back. There was a blackout and some of the other black soldiers thought we were Japs and started shooting. See, nobody got hurt. But anyway, the great white father came the next day and took all the guns from all of us on the island. So we’re strutting around that island [with no guns] and some of those guys could kick ass. And I remember one time, we were doing just the normal thing and some white guys walk by and one of the black soldiers jumps down to confront the white solider, and the white soldier cocked his gun and said, “Get the fuck up there.” We didn’t have a gun. We were on the island without a goddamn gun. Not that I wanted to kill anybody, I didn’t. And I didn’t dislike the Japs! Even though we passed Pearl Harbor . . . that’s terrible what they did! But here’s the thing: Pearl Harbor had only happened two years before that, [but] the Japanese did not bomb Honolulu. It’s terrible what they did, but they tried to avoid hitting civilians. So I never liked Hiroshima, because they didn’t have to. And they let you know it was symbolic—[Little Boy fell on Hiroshima at 8:15a.m. on August 6, 1945]. There was no military there [in Hiroshima] and some people were vomiting purple, children were destroyed.

JW You never saw combat?

EC No.

November, 14, 2011

EC And then there was Paris. Which was, you know, especially after studying art . . . Paris! I remember when the boat got to Le Havre, and then you go to Paris from the railroad station. All I knew was to tell the cab driver to go to the Hotel M. It must have been about nine at night when I got out. I looked to my right and it was all lit up. Paris is like that. I just walked towards the light—Somebody who I had studied with was sitting at the Café Dôme. You could see anybody. Giacometti would be at the Café every night. I had never experienced that.

JW Did you have a contact in Paris?

EC No, but I was going to Académie de la Grande Chaumière—but see I got to Paris on a weekend. If I had gone to the school then, I would have met some Americans. But on that night, I was just out in Paris. And I was such a stupid square; I thought you had to pay the rent. I was trying to get some money. So I went to a bar—and it’s really festive—and this girl, she happened to be black, a foxy little thing, she was trying to tell me that she wasn’t flirting: “Don’t buy me no more drinks because I can’t go out with you.” Meanwhile, I’m getting drunk, real drunk. I stayed up all night because I couldn’t cash any money. I didn’t need to; all I had to do was go back to the hotel. But I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what a bidet was. I saw the bidet and I thought: they have a toilet down the hall, what’s the bidet for? Henry Miller had the same experience! (laughter) But the French women, they could squat on that thing and it would shoot up and clean their pussies. Americans used to say that on Monday morning you could smell the French people because they hadn’t had a shower, but one thing they had over American women was that every French woman’s pussy was kissing-clean.

JW What attracted you to Paris? Why Paris?

EC It was the most famous city for an artist in the 1950s. I mean New York in that moment was not considered the capital of the art world—it was Paris. They were all alive, man! Picasso, Braque, both of them. Everybody was there!

JW So, art attracted you.

EC Well, not only that, but the way of life. See, when the GI Bill ran out after about ten months, I didn’t have any money, but I stayed. I starved over there, almost! But I was determined to stay there.

JW How did you make a living?

EC I hardly did, but I saw others doing the same thing and one thing would lead to another. But as long as I could keep painting, and I kept painting . . . this teacher I had in France, who really liked me, said to me—he’s bragging about his country, right? He must have been part Jewish because during the war, he was in Austrialia. He said, “Go, go, go, and talk to them.” He meant go to the great museums and talk to the work. You hear about young Picasso, who liked to sketch people, and Cezanne liked to look at nature. That was a big thing. The history was second to none.

Ed Clark with father (Edward Clark)1952

JW You managed to live in Paris without employment? You didn’t have a job?

EC Well, the one thing I had was girls who liked me.

JW Aha.

EC Now, I was never a gigolo, but they’d be living with me. You can do a lot of things when you’ve got a woman hugging you at night, right? Women always have liked me. Pretty women.

JW So this is another issue. Art attracted you. French women attracted you.

EC All pretty women attract me.

JW Had you met Beauford Delaney before coming to France?

EC I came [to Paris] in 1952. Beauford came in 1953 with Gentry, but Herbert Gentry had been there before. I used to joke with Gentry. He said on the boat coming from New York to Paris that they’d look at the moonlight. I said, “Did you tongue kiss?” You know, Beauford is a little like that. Not that he ever hit on anybody we knew of. Anyway, what did you ask me?

JW What about [Haywood] Bill Rivers? Was Bill Rivers there?

EC Well Bill Rivers had left—I was to meet him though—he had just left. He went down to Spain.

JW Yes, I remember this.

EC And a lot of people thought I was him and would be calling me.

JW Now you’ve traveled quite a bit. You’ve been to the South Pacific with the Army.

EC This was in Guam, yeah. There I met a Gauguin-type woman—really short, but really nice, goddamn. But I didn’t do any art! I mean some of the soldiers wanted me to draw. A lot of them wanted me to make dirty drawings, but I wouldn’t do that. And then we went to Saipan too. But still, I’m not in the action. I mean, it was bloody. And I saw some Japanese slaughtered! I saw a guy with his head off, an officer too. Brand new, he must have just died. He was just laying there. Looked like he was alive, almost.

JW Now where else have you been in Europe?

EC Oh, everywhere. I’ve always traveled. It all started with me as a theory. When I had a rendezvous with you in Crete [in 1971], I knew I was going to be working on paper. It’s cheaper and whatnot. So when I went to Crete and we had that nice place, didn’t hardly cost five dollars a day. And it was better than we thought, because they had hot water. They had a big tank up on the roof that the sun would get to, so, we had everything! And you could even drink it! The water was rainwater. But I’ll never forget . . . I started working there, I’m doing my thing, and one thing I never would do is sun read, look at nature. I forgot about it, I did the work. When I got back here—people said, “Where’s the ones you did in Crete?” They had become the Crete series. And I realized, Wait, unconsciously I’m influenced by where I went [by the light, etc.]. Then I begin to experiment a little. I was one of the first to go to [Nigeria] . . . A lot of brothers had been to Africa, but they be talking about me like [I was] white. I went to [Ife, Nigeria] right, that’s where they do the realistic sculpture, and I almost got in a lot of trouble down there because they didn’t accept me, they didn’t like me down there.

JW How long were you in Africa?

EC I was there a month on that trip [1973]. I went all over Africa. I did a lot of work, a painting series, and, sure enough, it looked different than the others without me thinking about it. I went everywhere! [Later] I went to Martinique [1980-81] and did the Martinique series. And I went to Cuba with LeRoi Jones [Amira Baraka] when Castro was in the first revolution.

JW You went with LeRoi Jones [Amira Baraka] to Cuba?

EC I’ve got the book, Cuba Libre. He writes about it.

JW Okay. You went to South America?

EC Well Brazil, I had a whole Brazilian period [1988].

JW How long were you in Brazil?

EC On and off for months, yeah. I had a Brazilian girlfriend, and I went to Bahia. Baahiiaaaa. The north of Brazil, right. And all those murals, I sold them eventually.

JW You’ve really traveled a lot, all over the world.

EC All over the world, that’s right. I went to China! That’s how I met Liping [An], man.

JW That’s how you met your [current] wife?

EC This is a China one! The one over the bed is a China one!

JW Which brings us to marriage. How many times have you been married?

EC Four times.

JW Four times?

EC I was also “unofficially” married to Louise—real exotic looking sister.

JW What was her last name?

EC What was it? [Dockery] I don’t know, but anyway, she was going with this brother and, you know, she fell in love with me. I fell in love with her. We were together for like nine years.

JW Who was your first wife?

EC Muriel. I’ll show you a picture of her. Muriel Nelson was her name. She was from Chicago. Yeah. She looked like she was white. When she came to Paris, a lot of guys thought she was, but she wasn’t. (shows Jack a picture) That’s the first one.

JW Who was the second wife?

EC Lola. She was brown-skinned. Lola Owens was her name [they were married for about four years].

JW And who was your third wife?

EC Hedy, the mother of my daughter. [Hedy] Durham. Like Durham, North Carolina.

JW And you have one daughter with her?

EC One daughter [born in 1974]. Only child. No outsiders.

JW Yes, and what’s your daughter’s name?

EC Melanca. M-e-l-a-n-c-a.

JW Okay, and how long were you married to Hedy?

EC A long time. We didn’t even think about the baby [Ed didn’t think he could have children]. We didn’t realize that she was pregnant, and I couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe it either!

JW So how many years do you think you were married to Hedy?

EC Maybe seven or eight. I took her to Paris and that’s when we stayed with Joan Mitchell [he married Hedy in 1966,and they stayed with Mitchell in 1968-69]. That changed my life because she had a beautiful place right outside of Paris, less than an hour’s drive by car and I had a car.

JW We’re going to get to her, because I have some questions about Joan. And where was Hedy from?

EC Philadelphia.

JW And your fourth wife?

EC Liping [An].

JW And how did you meet Liping?

EC I went to China [in 2000]. See, I never wanted to go with groups, but I made a mistake. You should have a group when you go to China because—the people are okay, they’re not going to bother you—but it’s very hard to learn Chinese, and calligraphy. At the last minute I called George [R. N’Namdi] and I said that maybe I would need someone. So he calls a sister who lived in Shanghai and who was paying a lot of rent, General Motors was paying it for her, and by chance she called me back and said, “I do have somebody. Maybe it will work out for you.” She said, “She’s a female.” I couldn’t ask if she was good looking or not. (laughter) I got to Beijing and I didn’t see her. She had mixed something up. I was in China, I knew it was Communist—not that I care if you’re a Communist! As long as you don’t come over here and bother me! I got nothing against that. All of a sudden I saw this young girl, I mean she was twenty-three; I was seventy-three.

JW Twenty-three? Interesting.

EC Yeah, it was fifty years’ difference in age. So she’s going to be my guide. She apologized for being late and said that she’d be with me for a month, taking me anywhere I want to go.

JW Interpreter.

EC Yeah, an interpreter. You need it, man! I remember one night in Beijing, the first night—and I know she’s young! I mean not jailbait, but I thought, Oh shit, we’re going to Shanghai, and she’s got friends. But she just stayed with me that night. That’s when I knew she liked me a little bit. And it’s a good thing because look, man, if you’re in Shanghai, you’ve got [to have] a hell of an aptitude for a lot of things. The street signs were all in calligraphy! Don’t think you’re going to see an American . . . But that’s a hip city. I took her out to a restaurant and we hadn’t shaken the sheets yet, we were still just seeing each other. And we were walking around and the woman from the restaurant ran down and said that she had forgotten her umbrella. So Liping went back to get her umbrella and I’m alone. This guy comes up to me, and he must have used about four languages to try and make me understand. Finally, he said in English, “My house or yours?” (laughter) I thought, you know, this is a lot like New York.

JW (laughter) So you had a sexual encounter in Shanghai.

EC That’s a wild fucking city. But I’m with her all this time, right? And then she wrote me a letter once when we were on the train: “I’m twenty-three, I’m a virgin, and I know—without saying it—what you want, but that’s not going to happen.” So I kind of backed off. I don’t touch. And then, we were on a train to Shanghai, from Beijing—and the conductor said, “By the way, the air conditioner is not working. We want everyone to move up to another car where it is working.” And all of a sudden we realized that we’d be alone, and she realized that too.

JW So you were falling in love!

EC Yeah, I was falling in love.

JW Why did you go to China in the first place?

EC Because why not? I always thought about the Chinese. Who were these people who had Chinatowns everywhere and always maintained their Chinese heritage? They never wanted to integrate much. I mean, you see that China is so strong that they bring China with them! They were always that way. So I’d say, Who are these people? And then I began to realize that their history is something else! And I always liked Asian woman too, physically just to look at them. Not the men. (laughter) But I respect their culture.

JW And you married Liping. How long have you and Liping been married?

EC Maybe twelve years now.

JW Twelve years. And your daughter Melanca would be how old now?

EC Thirty-seven or thirty-six.

JW And what does she do? Is she into art?

EC No, she’s a lawyer. A Harvard graduate. She’s a lawyer in D.C. [Melanca Clark is with the Obama Administration as Senior Counsel with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative. Prior to this position she worked at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison, all in New York.]

JW And I understand she just got married.

EC Yeah, she married this West African—Moddie Turay, his family is from Sierra Leone. He’s pure African but was born in Washington D.C. and grew up in North Carolina.

JW Sounds good. Are you and your daughter close?

EC Real close. She’s real happy. I mean she was unbelievable with me. I would spoil her. You know, me and Hedy had separated, and she’d say, “I want to go see Daddy and play.” She was real small then, right? And she’d come over here and say that she wants to go to the Natural History Museum to see the animals. And I’ll never forget, we went there, stood in line and finally got in and then she said, “They’re not moving.” That meant that she wanted to go to the zoo.

JW Did she ever have an interest in becoming an artist?

EC Yeah, and if she had been a male I would have taken it more seriously. But I’ll show you something. See that blue thing?

JW Yes.

EC That’s her painting herself. She was never trying to flatter herself, right?

JW So that’s a self-portrait by Melanca. Very nice. Did you ever offer to give her art instructions?

EC No, I never thought she would be an artist. As I said, if she had been a male I would have maybe.

JW Aho!

EC Well, now I’m just thinking that. But I didn’t think that she’d be an artist.

JW But are you proud of the fact that she went into law instead?

EC Well, yeah. First of all an artist, unless she’s from a real rich family, man, you know, how you going to make it? You got to get a job and do that too. I’m not real rich; I’m rich enough . . .

JW Very good, Ed is just going over to bring the self-portrait done by Melanca a little closer. Looks very good, sort of light grays. Very direct, very serious. Interesting portrait. It’s approximately ten, twelve inches squared. We’re in Ed Clark’s studio and we’re literally surrounded by paintings from different periods. Some small, some huge, I’m thinking like twelve, fifteen feet. I’m sitting on a chair in the middle of his studio. The floor is entirely covered with paint—

EC (from far away) Hey, Jack?

JW Yes, Clark.

EC I want to open up this safe a minute. I want to show you some papers if you got a minute.

JW Yeah, sure, go ahead. Looking at Ed’s studio floor, it is some sort of physical memory of every painting that has been done. I can see the paint spills. It’s what we call the tracks. And in his studio, the tracks of the paintings are on the floor. You can get an idea of the process that he uses. Obviously, a lot of fluid pigment was used in the process. The floor is totally covered in paint. And it’s not the whole floor—it appears to be a platform of some sort. I would say it probably measures fourteen feet square. So all of the activity takes place down on this plywood platform. The build up of paint is quite amazing. There’s a plastic sheet covering the floor. I’m looking at blacks, pinks, reds, blues, a whole range of grays. The blues become gray; some of them become bright. In truth it’s like sitting on an artist’s pallet. Some of the paintings are very dry, obviously done with dry pigment. Some are totally wet, have a real nice wet look, very sensual. I’m looking at one facing me right now. It’s a bright pink: probably one of the brightest pink paintings that I’ve ever seen in my years of viewing paintings. Very sensual. I mean downright sexy. Some delicate grays toward the centers, some blue-grays, some dirty-whites, some dirty-grays, dirty-blues, but the whole painting has an intense sensual quality to it. Which makes me think, we haven’t yet talked about Ed the painter in terms of his ideas. But we’re getting there; bear with us. We have just finished marriages and finding out things that I didn’t know. Ed has been married four times. The first wife was Muriel Nelson from Chicago. The second wife was Lola Owens. (calls across the room) Ed, where was Lola Owens, your second wife from?

EC Montreal.

JW Muriel Nelson was from Chicago. The Hedy Durham marriage lasted, Ed said, seven or eight years. She is from Philadelphia. He has one daughter by that marriage, Melanca, who is thirty-seven at this point. He spoke of going to China, meeting his fourth wife Liping [An]. At the time he met her she was twenty-three years old. And Ed claims that they have been together now for approximately twelve years.

EC (distant voice) I can’t open it up. I’ve been trying to open it but I can’t open it.

JW That’s okay. Let’s continue.

EC I had a lot of papers in there that I wanted to show you. But you’re coming again some time.

JW Yes, we’re going to continue at another date—but I’m finding out a lot I didn’t know about you. I didn’t know you were married four times.

EC Four times, but I was nine years with the one we were talking about that I just mentioned—[Louise]. There was one I wasn’t married to but it was just like marriage—

JW But you were not legally married to Muriel?

EC Oh yeah. Big, big wedding! She was a big bougie from Chicago.

JW And how long were you married?

EC It was probably three years. She came to Paris with me [1955-1958].

JW Tell me Ed, a little bit more about Paris and your exhibition record there. You were showing at galleries—

EC At good galleries.

JW I’m interested in the commercial galleries in Paris that you showed with.

EC Yeah, I made money. A lot of them are not big names, but that one was—

JW Yeah. Galerie Creuze?

EC Yeah, Raymond Creuze. He was a rich man.

JW And who were some of the people you showed with?

EC He had John-Paul Riopelle. You know John-Paul Riopelle?

JW Yeah.

EC But that’s before me that he showed Riopelle. But you know, that’s what buried Paris. I mean around the time I got there the big names were happening here. Jackson Pollock and just Jackson Pollock alone changed it, so the pendulum started swinging towards here [New York]. I would be a different artist if I hadn’t gone to Paris. I got into the French sensibility. I used to talk about the Mediterranean use of colors. They use certain colors that we don’t use so much, like Monet. When you went to Paris, did you go to Monet’s [garden in Giverny], where the water lilies are?

JW No, I didn’t.

EC Monet died in 1926—that’s the year I was born—and long before the turn of the century he was famous. And all of a sudden the Cubists and modernists started in Paris. They’re making modern art and experimental art—and here’s Monet. The president of France just happened to like Monet. Everyone was in Paris; the Surrealists, everybody was in Paris. Now let’s say you and I were young, [we’d be saying], Guess what he’s painting? Water lilies. (laughter) Now when we look at the water lilies, you stand there and there is no focal point! Your eyes do that…you just absorb something else. Just like Pollock. But this was long before Pollock. Monet was at the vanguard, but Cubism and everybody was there and they’re all on fire! Marcel Duchamp, everybody! So they’d say, you know, [Monet] knows the president, he’s lucky, but his reputation? He’s painting what?

JW What other galleries did you show at in Paris?

EC Well, I’ve shown in different galleries, [Galerie Craven] but in terms of a solo show it was only Creuze.

JW You did it to make money?

EC No, man. I mean you did it to make money, but you’re in Paris and it’s any way you can get on a wall, man, right? That’s the same here in New York—not only in that gallery. I didn’t speak a word of French and I showed in another gallery where he spoke no English, but somehow he liked what he saw and to my pleasant surprise, he put it right in the window! I mean everybody could see it! And that was like a whole summer it was there. So I went back to get it, and he said, “No, you have to pay me for showing it.”

JW Oh, that’s what we call a vanity gallery.

EC Yeah, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know anything. Now, four months ago the painting shows up, I gave it to Melanca. So all those years . . . but it was shown and people noticed it. The guy was just a sheister, that gallery guy. I don’t know where it’s been all that time but some German guy bought it and he’s a big shot. And when he found out that my daughter wanted it, he let me buy it back. So I bought it and I gave it right to her.

JW Did you ever show at Galerie Huit?

EC No, because I was already in a gallery. Galerie Huit at the time was the first co-op gallery in the world, maybe.

JW And who started that gallery?

EC [Hayward] Bill Rivers knew where the money was. There was a money man—American, white, I guess—who wanted to do something, and they were wondering if it would happen, but Bill Rivers was one of the ones who was there in the beginning, and he was the go-between between the money guy and the artists.

JW Okay, well, for the record, because you were there and you know the facts—

EC I wasn’t there when that happened.

JW Yeah, but you know the facts of it. So we can say, without a doubt, that Bill Rivers started Galerie Huit?

EC Yeah, but he started it not by being a director. He was a great artist, and he knew the man who rented out the gallery space, see, but there was no director at the Galerie Huit. The Galerie Huit was as big as this room.

JW A decent size gallery.

EC The thing is that a lot of the French didn’t think much of American artists then. I mean the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, when I went there, didn’t have one fucking picture by an American artist. They didn’t have any! They didn’t think much of American art in general. All the big name artists were alive: Matisse was alive; Picasso was alive. And they were like gods then! I remember when I got there in ’52 there was a bookstore that had a pyramid of books just on Picasso! He’s something very special. In my opinion he is the epitome of the 20th century. Even Marcel Duchamp, who is a genius but I think he was intimidated by Picasso being overwhelming with his talent. And now this is the twenty-first century, and it’s time for you and I to be great artists.

JW What has been your experience with commercial galleries?

EC I couldn’t get into a commercial gallery where a white person was running it. I remember Max Hutchinson had a gallery and all my friends in Paris tried to get me in. He didn’t say anything about a nigger, but he didn’t take me. OK Harris [in New York] wouldn’t take me. But a lot of people didn’t think of that because I was getting to be known because a lot of the spaces I was showing in when I came back—I rented out the spaces! That was another way to do it—to rent out a gallery with a name. I mean it was a co-op gallery. I was making money any fucking way. And then I showed in the James Yu Gallery [in New York]. James Yu was fine. Big, big gallery! But James Yu happened to be from Taiwan and so was his wife. I’m just getting technical. No white dealer ever took me.

JW You showed with Brata Gallery [founded in 1957; Clark showed there in 1958]. That was not a commercial gallery.

EC No, but Brata was different. I had the first show at Brata.

JW But that was a cooperative gallery [on Tenth Street, New York], not a commercial gallery.

EC Yeah, and that was a white guy. But they were waiting for me. I mean, I knew George Sugarman; I knew all of them. And Sal Romano; we were all in the Brata Gallery. That means we were brothers.

JW Your connection with the Brata Gallery started in Paris?

EC No, no, no. It started in New York. When Sal and I came [back] here . . . [Paris is where Ed met Sal; they came back to NYC together and were roommates for 9-10 years in a loft at 798 Tenth Avenue, off of 27th Street.] It was George Sugarman who wrote me—he knew how much I loved Paris—but he told me to come to New York because things were happening. So I left Paris and came here. You know everybody didn’t think about race. I knew Al [Held] in Paris.

JW You knew Al in Paris?

EC I knew him well.

JW Who else did you know in Paris? American artists. Give us a list.

EC Well, Sam Francis [1923-1994], Al Held [1928-2005], Beauford Delaney [1901-1979], but I was there before Beauford.

JW Harold Cousins [1916-1992].

EC Yeah, Harold Cousins. And….

JW Haywood Bill Rivers. Bill Rivers [1922-2002].

EC Bill Rivers, yeah. I didn’t know him in Paris but I knew him right away when I got back here.

JW Did you know Ellsworth Kelly in Paris?

EC No, but he was there.

JW He was there. Sam Francis you knew?

EC Yeah. He tried to help me once. He saw my painting in Paris at a Gallery Creuze exhibit where Shirley Jaffe had taken him. When he later saw me in New York City, he said, “Let’s do something together,” perhaps an exhibition, a project? I never followed up.

JW What about Romare Bearden, when he was in Paris?

EC No, I met him here in New York.

JW Is there anyone else we should know about that you met in Paris at that time? Now did you meet Joan Mitchell in Paris or in New York?

EC In Paris.

JW And what was your relationship with her?

EC One day I’m walking down Montmarte with Hedy [1966], and Joan’s sitting at this café that was festive at night, and she said that she wanted to invite us over to her studio. And we went. And right away, the thing that always made me uncomfortable, Joan was always into race, and she would look at me and say, “I see you, and you’re not all black.” And she would look at Hedy and say, “I see you have some white blood in you too.” So we felt uncomfortable by that, but she said it. I didn’t think much of her then but I was wrong. So then a year passed, and all of a sudden she got a place outside of Paris where Monet was when he was young. Vétheuil. And she had the property up the hill. She had just moved there. I think she had inherited some money, and she got the place, which was like heaven. I couldn’t believe it. But she said, “There have been some robberies out here. I’m wondering if you might want to come out and stay?” So she picked us up in a car and we all went out and I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never seen a place so goddamn beautiful. You looked straight down at the Seine River.

JW Beautiful home, studio.

EC Now here’s what’s happening. She said, “Well, maybe we’ll do a little work here and whatnot.”

JW She invited you to do work?

EC She’d mean like paint some walls, the ceiling too. But anyway . . . she wasn’t in any hurry or anything, because she was having a show at the Stable Gallery here in New York. So she went back to New York and said to hold the fort down. She bought a little painting from me, anyway, so I had like $300.

JW Joan Mitchell bought a painting from you?

EC Yeah, a little thing. A bullshit painting. Well, I never bullshitted, but she probably knew I needed money. I never asked for more money, never. Nor did I ask to exchange any work. I remember Ausby [Ellsworth Ausby] wanted to do that, and I said, “Artists should never do that.” If one artist is making a lot of money and you’re not, you might be better than them, but don’t do that, right? I never did that.

Paris Gothic 1993, 70½ x 66½ inches, Acrylic on Canvas, All images courtesy G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, Detroit and/or the artist

JW But Joan Mitchell bought a painting from you and she invited you to stay at her place and do some work—

EC Yeah, and she wasn’t famous in Paris. She still did all these great paintings. I like her work now, but then I didn’t like it. I didn’t dislike it, but I’m just telling the truth. But Riopelle, he’s French Canadian, he was the cat’s meow. He made a lot of money—sort of the way I’m making money now—all through his art. He even had a yacht down in the South of France that he got through his art. I was invited to go on the yacht one time but the trip never came together. And he was a purist: he wanted a yacht with no motor, with the sails. And he collected Bugatti cars, very expensive, antique cars. Once he came here to look at one and it had a new engine so he wasn’t interested.

JW I knew someone here in New York who collected Bugatti cars.

EC Well, he was an interesting guy. So, here we are, and Joan goes back to New York. She had a sold-out show once, and then the gallery [the Stable Gallery on 57th Street] went bankrupt. The woman didn’t get the money [the gallery never paid her], but that’s her life. Anyway, as soon as she was gone, we were comfortable. I had some money. I also had a car. Now we’re sitting alone and here comes the maid, “What would you want for dinner?” I knew she had a maid, but I didn’t think that had anything to do with us when she wasn’t home. So the maid comes and the plates were hot! I’d never had hot plates. But see, that place was once owned by very, very rich people—and the only way that Joan could buy it was to promise that they [the help] could stay there for life. They lived down in this little place on the road near where Monet lived. Monet’s wife Camille died there in her twenties, during childbirth. So all that history is right there. And I’m sitting right there. All kinds of shit happened out there! I started painting. I did a little thing that Joan saw, real fast. She had a studio up on a hill. You’ve seen the famous painting by Monet where it looks like a young girl and guy—they’re right on that hill where her studio was. It was Riopelle, not Joan, who said that it was time for me to start painting. He was an artist and had seen some of my work in Galerie Creuze. Anyway, she didn’t see it. And it was Riopelle who said, “Go paint.” And he was her lover—

JW Wait a minute. Riopelle was Joan Mitchell’s lover?

EC Oh yeah. Yeah. For years.

JW How long did you stay at Joan Mitchell’s place?

EC Fifteen months or something.

JW And you did work around her studio, painting?

EC Well, I finished it.

JW So that was generous of her.

EC No, it was fine, it was fine. But this was paradise, man! All kinds of famous people would come there. I mean, Sam was my friend anyway, but Sam was there.

JW Oh, Sam Francis was there?

EC Yeah, I met him through Al Held.

JW And he would come to Joan Mitchell’s place?

EC He came one time. A lot of people—celebrities—would come to her place. I’ve just never seen a place so beautiful. Oh, goddamn! And right down the street was where Monet, where the tourists go now—

JW Giverny.

EC Right, Giverny. We passed it one day and it was decaying, but they got money to rebuild that place up. You could walk there in a half an hour from her place. It was paradise. I did some of my best work there.

JW How was Joan Mitchell as a person, did you like her?

EC Well the racism bothered me.

JW You think she was a racist?

EC Well, no, I didn’t dislike her. I respected her. She was also stuck on me; she wanted to sleep with me and I knew that.

JW Aho!

EC And I would have done that. She was my height, my age, and she was masculine looking, even though I don’t think she was gay. But she told Hedy one time, “I’d love to fuck him!” Hedy never even mentioned it that night because she knew that she wasn’t my type. But Riopelle had a daughter who was beautiful. She had some Native American in her. And if she had said it, then Hedy would have been worried because she knew that that was my type. But anyway, there was no way that was going to happen with Joan. But she’d say things like, “I don’t have any watermelon!” You know, I know blacks like watermelon. I’m sorry I don’t have any watermelon.

JW Did you know Joan Mitchell in New York at all?

EC Yeah, I knew her afterwards when she came here.

JW But at the time you didn’t have any respect for her as a painter?

EC No, no, not really. I was never in awe of her. But now I feel different. I’m looking at her [work] now and the paintings stand out.

JW It’s interesting to note that you received a Joan Mitchell Fellowship grant [1998], did you not?

EC After she was dead, yeah, yeah. I never even asked—I was trying to get the Guggenheim. I never got the Guggenheim. Did you get it?

JW Yes, I got the Guggenheim. How many grants have you received?

EC Well the biggest one is from the National Endowment [1972]. I got that before you could apply. And who did that was Don Judd, who was also a good friend of mine. Don Judd was a real friend of mine. He was a painter then, he wasn’t a sculptor.

JW Right, I remember.

EC And the reason he stopped painting was because he was allergic to turpentine. February 23, 2012

JW Did you like Don Judd’s work?

EC Yeah, yeah, yeah, but he hadn’t gotten to the boxes yet. I remember when he first did. He and I lived in the same building [Park Avenue South. Ed moved there first]. And I congratulated him then—it was beautiful. And he was anti all of that, right? Yet regardless of what he says—one time the Guggenheim had a show of his up on the top floor—it looked like jewelry. He was anti-anything. He hated pedestals. So I never asked him about Michelangelo, who’s probably the greatest artist who ever lived (laughter)—but he hated pedestals.

JW Okay, Ed. We’re ready. Let’s see, what time is it? 11:15AM. (sound of siren in background) You with me, Ed?

EC Yeah.

JW Yesterday, we covered a lot of background in terms of your biographical material—You have a beautiful daughter that you had with your third wife, Hedy. She is absolutely charming, someone I know personally, someone that not just you, the father, but the whole community is proud of. So there have been a lot of fantastic highlights in your life: a very large record of exhibiting both here and abroad. We’re gonna take up where we left off yesterday. At the era of artists, people whom you have met who have proven to be important to you. Ed, from an art historical perspective, you are classified as a second-generation abstract expressionist.

EC Some people would say that, yeah.

JW Which means that you came along at the time and shared that classification with Joan Mitchell, Michael Goldberg—

EC That was one of Joan Mitchell’s lovers.

JW (laughter) Please let us know things like that. Norman Bluhm, Alfred Leslie—

EC Yeah, also Sam Francis . . .

JW Sam Francis, and Edward Clark. It’s a neat group of people. Now a lot of those people rejected the label “second generation.” I knew Mike Goldberg well—he didn’t like that label. He would say to me, “That’s bullshit.” I just see it purely as a matter of age and as a matter of timing, of when people entered the scene. I knew all of those people—they were a group.

EC Is Goldberg still alive?

JW Oh no, we lost Mike. Unfortunately, we lost Mike in 2007.

EC I knew him.

JW Yeah, I knew him well. Met him first in the early ’60s. He was somebody that was from that second generation of abstract expressionists. Historically, you are in that group of artists.

EC Yeah.

JW Now, who do you consider to be major influences in art for you?

EC Let me tell you this. I’m an American who went to Paris, and if I’d gone to New York, I would have been programmed differently, but the moment I got to Paris, my first big influence was looking at what they call in art school Holiday magazine. It was a picture in color, a full page of Cezanne. It wasn’t even seductive, just trees. I looked at that, I started sweating—something about it, right? That’s what he did to those other artists, too. Back at the turn of the century—he died in 1906. One time Van Gogh and Gauguin made a pilgrimage just to see Cezanne. Cezanne gave them that . . . whatever abstraction is about. Cezanne influenced me.

But Cezanne, with every stroke, was trying to do something just plain intelligent. He had exceptional given talent with paint, not just brains. He was pulling things around, respecting the flat surface of the canvas. Some people can’t see it. But Cezanne did influence a lot of people. I was quickly getting beyond the point of copying. I was painting the way I thought: flattening the surface and the images. 1

I mean you gotta look at Cezanne. You know, there’s a mountain, there’s a sky. And then you look at it close and the sky is on the same plane as the mountain. He just brought it straight up to the same plane . . . he’s into something; we know that.

But just real quick, now you know I’m a Creole. Being here you have to know I’m a Creole—

JW Oh, Ed’s showing me a letter from the Creole Heritage Society.

EC That’s the Creole heritage. I didn’t ask to be in it but they put me in it.

JW So they’re proud of you. We’ll come back to that. Let’s continue with the influences. So who else was a major influence?

EC Now when I got to Paris, see, I remember I was shown into the Salon de l’Automne. It was on the Grand Palais, this big show they have every year. It’s the same show that I think Manet—long before I was born—was rejected [from] but then he had money, and he opened up a Salon des Refusés [Salon of the Rejected]. You know, he’s gettin’ back at them, right? And that Refusés introduced him to people like the Impressionists. And I’m walking through the Salon d’Automne [in 1952], and all of a sudden I looked at a painting that—I didn’t know who did it—but I’d never seen anything like it. Now this was influencing. First of all, I thought it was abstract, completely. But then the next Wednesday, that’s when they used to have a newspaper in Paris called Art Spectacle. It was the format of the New York Times, that big—but only about three or four pages. And there it was, reproduced—it was an image of a football game! I didn’t know it had a story to it. Well, I was so shocked because in the painting, the football field had come right up onto the plane. I’m not interested in illustrating. But it was a football game, and I didn’t care. What I liked was that I’d never seen painting with these big strokes, [his strokes are more plastic].

JW And that was Nicolas de Staël—

EC Nicolas, he committed suicide—nobody knows why. I mean they tell a story. They said it was over a woman that he committed suicide—he jumped into the ocean somewhere. We know how he died.

JW You met him personally.

EC Here’s why I didn’t. I went to an exhibit of his. He was real tall, like 6’3 or something, stooped over. He was probably in his forties. And I was afraid to go up to him because of the possible rejection. But then I was in the same show. It was a catalogue that I had—they had everybody in the catalogue and they had the address [of everyone in the show], even Matisse, who wasn’t at the show but his paintings were there. And I’m looking for Nicolas de Staël’s address and I couldn’t find him because I looked under “S.” But it’s under “D,” de Staël. I didn’t know that; it was there all along. And I was gonna go to his house. I know he would’ve greeted me, right, he would’ve been flattered, but I didn’t meet him when I saw him. And in this gallery, all these people looked like they were from the nineteenth century, older people—they knew they had some kinda genius. Well, I wish I still had that catalogue.

JW So, we have Cezanne, we have Nicolas de Staël. Who else?

EC Now, if I had lived, if I had been in America at that time—even though, they had a show over in Paris that was forced on the French. You know, [Sweeney] got a show together and sent it to Paris. Paris was always the place to show. The first time in my life I went to the Musée d’Art Moderne was in 1952, and there were these pictures of Rothko, Pollock and whatnot. The French were really excited about the Americans there. The Musee d’Arte Moderne now is different. Back then, they didn’t have one American painter—not one [in their collection]. They had all the geniuses there, I’m not counting—they had Matisse, Léger and everyone. But they did not have an American painter. Now it’s changed. They got ‘em. I think the first American painter was—I forgot his name. He still may be alive; he was over in America. He happened to be talented and rich—really a household name but anyway . . . if I had not gone to Paris, I would have been right in the mix of things here. But anyway, I was influenced by de Staël. In fact he was better known then than he is today. But then he died. And still, it costs a lot of money to buy one of his paintings. But that changed me—the flattening out of space.

JW After de Staël who else would you list?

EC Consciously maybe nobody. I influenced a lot of people. But, I’m living in France. I never met Matisse but they were all alive. I’m influenced maybe just being in France. The main thing that influenced me in France was the color—the colors of the great artists there were more memorable than American color for some reason. They’re painting from nature—Monet for one—and their use of pink, and Matisse. Obviously when you’re looking into color the French Impressionists become very important. That movement was over. But it was different than America; France is blessed. There’s something about France—the angle of the sun or something. Also when I was in Vétheuil (Joan Mitchell’s place), something was different. It gets into your unconscious a little bit. I could see the color was different. We got a lot of Americans—Arthur Dove, who had been over there just before my time and who was influenced by a lot of them. But, you know, color was the French thing.

JW So after de Staël who else would you list as being a major influence on your thinking?

EC I guess when I came back here to America, maybe unconsciously, de Kooning. De Kooning gave me a book—I’ll show you. A painting was dedicated to me. I’ll show it to you.

JW Anyone else from that period?

EC Well, that whole school. When I left Paris in the late ’50s with Sal Romano, and we [came to New York and] got with the Brata Gallery on Tenth Street, there were a lot guys, a lot of energy. You’ve heard about the Brata Gallery. And that was luck because George Sugarman knew me in Paris. George Sugarman was the one who got me to come to [New York], because things were getting bad—I was successful in that Galerie Creuse. And then I had another show and it didn’t sell well. So, you know, I could see I wasn’t going to make more money. It was time to go somewhere. I wasn’t going back to Chicago. Well then George Sugarman wrote me and said, “Come on, Ed, come over here. You’ll see what’s happening.” And it was happening like that (snaps fingers).

JW Okay. Did you know Michael Goldberg before moving to New York?

EC I met him because he was once Joan’s lover. I remember that Hedy and I met him, and he invited us to his studio at Fauberg-Saint Antoine. He was smoking the reefer, and he said, “Be my guest,” like that. So we spent the afternoon with him, but I didn’t think much of him. But Joan got him out of trouble. He’s the one—I hope I have the right name because this is important—he’s the one that went down to where Cézanne’s from, this famous place where Cézanne died. There’s a little museum.

JW Oh, Provence.

EC Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s in Provence. Anyway, this is a true story, because Joan told me Mike went down to the museum there. They had Cézanne’s sketchbooks and he—don’t write this until I make sure—he cut a page out of one with a razorblade. When he got to the station they were waiting for him. They caught him with the—

JW For cutting a page out of a book?

EC You cut a page out of a Cézanne sketchbook, you’re gonna go to jail, man (laughter). I mean that’s Cézanne’s sketchbook!

JW Oh, it was a sketchbook? So wait a minute, let’s slow down. Are you telling me that Michael Goldberg stole a page from a Cézanne sketchbook?

EC Yeah, from a museum—

JW Get outta here.

EC Yeah. Well, that ain’t the end of the story! You know who got him out of it? It was Joan Mitchell, ‘cause he was her lover. She had to pay a lot of money. So he never got incarcerated. But she told me this story. But that’s too iffy because it could have been another guy.

JW Oh my. So did you know Alfred Leslie?

EC Alfred Leslie, yeah.

JW What about Norman Bluhm?

EC Yeah, I knew Norman.

JW In Paris or New York?

EC He was an obnoxious guy, but not to me. He’d come out and he’d curse—well, I don’t mind him cursing—but he’d come out of the Jones Street Bar after spending an afternoon. I knew him all along anyway. He would be like, “That fuckin’ bitch.” He’s that kind of guy. Now a lot of those guys had been pilots in World War II. One was Sam Francis. Norman Bluhm was also a pilot and actually fought in combat. He was like, real, he was okay, but I never was sold on his work that much. There’s a famous picture showing him on a ladder in front of a book on abstract expressionists. He was all into that. I mean Joan liked him; a lot of people liked him. Yeah, I met him many times.

JW Okay. So, let’s move on. You’re eighty-five years old. Born in 1926. That means you have been practicing art . . . you’ve put in sixty years, at least.

EC Well, see the self-portrait was done when I was twenty-one, that’s 1947. I’d been in art school maybe two years, but it wasn’t painted in art school, it was painted in my apartment. There was no instructor looking at me—

JW Yeah. So—

EC The war was over in 1945, when they dropped that bomb. We didn’t know about the GI Bill until we got back here. That was something; all of a sudden you qualified to go to four years of school. It was a good deal, if the school was accredited. A lot of them [the art schools] were over in Paris, and all of a sudden Léger, who happened to be a part of the Communist party, and who had a school over there was cut off the list. A lot of the artists went to Léger. The only reason I didn’t go—I knew about Léger—was because I didn’t particularly like Léger—I mean, he’s all right—he would come there on his bicycle and whatnot, but he influenced lot of art. They say he was a real nice guy.

Erotica 2003, 72 x 58 inches, Acrylic on Canvas

JW It was a school?

EC Yeah, it was called Léger.

JW And that was the name of the school: Léger?

EC Yeah, yeah, yeah. Joan Mitchell went there, a lot of people went to Léger, and then they also went to one here [in New York]—who is the German who had this school on Eighth Street. What’s his name, Hoffman?

EC Hoffman, yes. But that was here in New York—

EC Yeah, I know, but he was a European. And Hoffman influenced a lot of artists. I knew about Hoffman. I didn’t like his art, much. But that’s just personal.

JW Now, you’ve practiced art for a good sixty years. What I would like to know is how have you made a living all these years?

EC The nineteenth century way—you starve a little. People talk about my studio in Paris, and they call it a chicken coop. It was unbelievable! Because of the GI Bill, I had to be affiliated with some school, and so I was at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. The teacher—who thought I had great, great potential—he said, “You know your work has the smell of the Academy.” He means, it’s still student age. And then I thought, Wait a moment. If I painted a nude model in bed in the school, that’s different than a nude that is your girlfriend. You’re doing it and the whole class is doing it. And I never once painted in a school after that. Then I went looking for a studio. I had no money, and there was a Hungarian guy—he looked like Rasputin, right? He wore boots and whatnot—Zarbo was his name. And he had this place full of artists. L’Atelier le Feu—the word for fire—was his thing. I went over there. It was hard to get a studio in Paris. Paris has always been occupied. In New York the prices go up high—in Paris, it’s a law that everything is more or less taken—unless you got super money—and I got this place. He had other artists in there. Sugai—a Japanese artist, and this younger one from Haiti—a great sculptor—anyway.

JW L’Atelier de Feu was the name of the place?

EC No, it didn’t have no name then. He thought of it afterwards—he had a show there called Académie le Feu—

JW I see. So how were you makin’ a living?

EC First, not just me, man! A lot of people ran outta money, and they did what you do: you starve. I mean you don’t go rob no banks or nothin’ like that. Well, first we had the GI Bill. When that ran out, you got a problem. I’ve told you the story: there was a woman. I shouldn’t give her name ‘cause she still may be alive—and she was attracted to me. She said, “I’d like for you to give me art lessons.” And she came over and she started payin’ me—and she wanted to go further, but I didn’t desire her, right? But a lotta artists—I mean you might go for two months without knowing what’s gonna happen. I would eat oatmeal, right? Like that. But I wasn’t gonna go back because I didn’t know about New York—I’m from Chicago and I couldn’t see me going back to Chicago after Paris—and all those great artists were still alive. I mean they were right there. I was gonna stay—I just stayed!

But look—the studio had no light. Everybody else had a window; I didn’t have a window! And all the other people would come to see—they’d kinda smile, “It ain’t got no light!” You know, except for a light bulb. And then one day Zarbo went up on the roof and he sawed a big rectangle in the roof and he put a plastic skylight over it: voilà! I had light like Moses. (laughter) And then I was the envy. Plus I had the mezzanine. You could go up to the balcony, where I slept. I had a lot of girls [who] would go up there. I had things like that. And I began to really work. I did some great work there, you know. In fact, that thing I showed you from the Studio Museum; that was painted in there. [The City]

JW Mmm hm.

EC I bought The City [1953], back from the collector who had it, and paid—two years ago or so—$50,000 in cash to get it back. When he bought it, it was $5,000. I bought it for my daughter. She has it now.

JW Have you had any teaching experiences?

EC Yeah. I avoided teaching. Not that I had any papers anyway, ‘cause I didn’t finish school—but I was offered, even when I got back here. There’s a school on 14th Street, and this guy wanted to hire me—nice guy. He came up and he said, “Look, why don’t you—” I said, “I don’t know how to teach,” but the moment I walked down to 14th Street with him and we went up the steps—I could smell oil paint. I knew I was gonna tell him no, but he really wanted me to teach. But I did teach as a visiting artist a lot. Many schools: I went to Syracuse, LSU, Ohio State . . . That would last for maybe a month, and I’d be gone. I wasn’t a good teacher, you know—the Art Institute of Chicago, even—

JW Did you go there to teach?

EC Remember Emilio Cruz?

JW Yes, of course.

EC Yeah, well he was teaching at the Art Institute. So he got me a visiting artist thing, which was fine. So I’m in Chicago—he was sayin’, “This guy’s an important artist.” I’m talkin’ to them—and I’m so lazy, I’m lookin’ at my watch. They couldn’t see it—and I’d say, “Okay, tomorrow we start.” They’re ready to start right away, ‘cause they were excited about me, the way I would talk and whatnot. And I remember, the Art Institute’s on Michigan Avenue, and I decided I just wanted to get away from everybody and go to Wabash Avenue and eat a hamburger—I would just dream of this hamburger. I just left the class—I went two blocks, I’m eating my hamburger, and this little girl that’d been listening to me all the time, comes up to me and she said, “Mr. Clark, can I ask you a few questions?” And I’m very polite, so that went on for forty minutes, ‘cause I’m nice once I’m trapped, right? And I was exhausted! They can drain you—me, anyway—some artists can be cool about it. But if they asked, I was a lazy guy, I didn’t wanna go—

JW (laughter)

EC I was invited to Skowhegan—and Danny Johnston had somethin’ to do with that. I stayed a week out there and they have a place for the visiting artists. Only thing wrong with Skowhegan, the mosquitoes’ll kill you! You know who was teaching that year? I only was there for a week. They give you a place, a bottle of good liquor, and a nice room, and if you can catch a girl, that’s up to you. You ever been to Skowhegan?

JW I’ve been invited but I’ve never been there.

EC It’s somethin’ else. I was there the whole week—and Danny Johnston set it up. He said, “Look man, don’t worry about it, they’ll give you the check, and all you gotta do is go to the bank before you get on that train.” And you have that money. They paid well: $500, somethin’ like that for a week. So I’ve experienced all that.

Portrait of Nicole 1952, 20 x 25½ inches, Oil on Canvas

JW Do you like working with young artists?

EC No. But they didn’t know that. No, I never saw an artist in the school I thought would be great someday, but I would never say anything. A lot of ‘em wanted me to touch their paintings with paint. I said, “No, it has to be your decision.” I was not a good teacher. Nor was de Kooning! Now I knew de Kooning, and when he was with Janis Gallery before I ever worked there, he was out of money so Janis sent him to Yale instead of giving him money . . . because one of Janis’s artists was Albers [who taught at Yale]. I know people who studied under de Kooning. He wasn’t a good teacher—they didn’t fire him, but you know, his name wasn’t always a household name.

JW Right.

EC But I was not a good teacher and I knew it—I was just waiting for the bell to ring. At the Art Institute of Chicago, the teachers still gotta take attendance and whatnot. In France—I don’t know about the Sorbonne—a guy walks in once every two weeks, he doesn’t say anything. He goes from easel to easel and the kids gather ‘round and listen to what he’s gonna say, and then he leaves. He don’t have to take attendance or nothin’. [Ossip] Zadkine—you know the name?

JW Yes.

EC I decided to take sculpture, so I went to this class, and all these kids—they knew I was talented—but I didn’t want no one to look at me or anything. An older man, was modeling; he was naked—and I’m doin’ just his head. He was The Thinker, à la Rodin, right? Now this was in the ’50s. And I didn’t know nothin’—didn’t care—and anyway, here comes the teacher, [Ossip] Zadkine. And he walks around, cerulean blue sweater, white hair, really nice, Jewish. Now he gets in front of my work, and he said, “You see? Let’s say I’m doing your face. You got the front, you got the side, yeah, but you have to think ROOOUND!” So that was the end of me being a Michelangelo, right?

JW (laughter)

EC I mean, he destroyed me, and then he just waltzed on to the next thing. You gotta think roouuuund, as you’re doin’ it. I’m thinkin’ I’m doin’ it just right.

JW When you came back to New York—you did work for Sidney Janis for a while.

EC Two years.

JW And what was your position there?

EC I was the young man [Ed was an assistant, helped show paintings, etc.]. I was recommended by William Baziotes, who knew me so he told me to go. Baziotes eventually became an artist in the gallery stable, and Janis later kicked him out. It’s a sad story: I wasn’t in the gallery at the time. He wasn’t selling as well as the other artists, so Janis told him, “This will be your last show.” Baziotes, said, “I’ll take my paintings now.” Baziotes died in a year anyway. His pride. The other artists Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko would talk about the fact that Baziotes just got up and walked off, you know, instead of waiting for the show.

JW So what did you do for Janis?

EC I’m the young man! The young man you need, right? I would be there, and, first thing, I knew a lot about art! I would go out and look. I remember, the artists would come in the back, especially if it was a Klein show, a de Kooning show, and Janis said, “Look, I don’t want you to spend all the time, wasting time . . . ” ‘cause you could lose more money on the artists, right? I mean he didn’t know. There’s Donald Judd and all those people. Janis said, “No swivel heads”—swivel heads means people just lookin’ at the paintings; they ain’t makin’ no money, right? But still, Janis was a genius in what he did.

JW He used the word swivel head?

EC Yeah yeah—

JW (laughter) Fantastic.

EC Let’s say people would walk in the gallery—and Janis would be in his with the door closed. He’d say, “Don’t bring anybody [in] here unless they’re serious.” And so many people would come and they just wanted to know the price. He was a vanguard. What’s the Italian one, he would come later, Castelli—we’d have to wait for someone like that to come to New York from Europe. Janis was the number one gallery in America.

(pipes banging over voices)

JW And what did you do for him?

EC First of all, you need someone to be out there that makes sure they don’t steal anything. All I was required to do was vacuum the floor before I go home and make sure I’m the last one. He said, “Never leave before me.” He was hard to work for but he was a genius in what he did.

JW Did you know his sons?

EC Yeah, he was hell on them—both of em’. The taller one—the better looking guy—he had been in the movies. It was a complicated thing. All I’m doing is working. He paid good money but he was difficult. He could make a sale like that, and I’m learning a lot from him. Some people walked in and said, “Mr. Janis, I like Klein, but the paintings are too big, do you have a smaller one?” And I knew right where [they were]. I started towards the back and he’d get like this, “Don’t go back there.” I’d have to keep my mouth shut, see. He’d say, “No, we don’t have any that size, and there’s a waiting list, anyway.” He’s talking to them, right? He said, “You know, maybe we’ll be lucky.” So the guy called—he might’ve been from Kansas—white guy, and he’d say, “Yeah, one did come in.” Well, the reason we had it—it was a lousy Klein—but he painted it with house paint and whatnot. He knew what to do—he says, “I’ll ship it to you, or you’re gonna have to come for it, at your expense.” You know, “I’ll send it.” The thing never came back. Now I used to think about that, no matter what, that Klein’s worth money enough. No matter what it was, [but] it wasn’t a good Klein. Klein’s a genius—a nice guy. I’d been to his studio on 14th Street. Nice guy—he liked music as he was working. You know, I met all those guys like that. Janis never saw my paintings. He said, “I don’t want you to take advantage—you’re here.” You know, in other words, “Don’t try.” I never showed him. I showed [them to] his wife, Harriet. I remember one time, I’m with the Frenchman, the famous—he was a sculptor, and a painter—the father of everybody—he’s dead now—Marcel Duchamp. He would come in all the time. Marcel Duchamp was ahead of everybody. He started all this.

JW He was a very smart man.

EC Yeah, and he could paint, too! Picasso blew everybody away.

JW Did you ever meet Picasso in Paris?

EC No, but I saw him. I’m sittin’ in the café, and all of a sudden the people—I’m in the back on the terrace—I’m in my twenties now—and all the people start doin’ this silently [applauding], and that was Picasso walkin’ down the street—he just waved. And they just meant, “Thank you for being Picasso.” The French never go up to celebrities. They never ask for autographs. I saw Clint Eastwood in the Coupole once and he was famous: nobody went up to him, but they knew about him.

JW Now, Bearden knew Picasso.

EC Yeah, I wonder. Look, Bearden’s all right, but I’m the one who told him when I came back from Paris about Picasso walking down the street. Then, he was at some kinda thing sayin’ he saw Picasso walkin’ down the street—that same story, like I said—but he put himself in it. Bearden might be a great artist, and to me, he’s good. He’s got the stamps, and good for him! There’s something even in the Times today about him. But to me, I could smell old fashioned-ness in his work, you know.

JW The way I heard the story from Bearden—

EC All you need is a photograph. Who else said that—there’s Beauford Delaney. He didn’t say that, but another guy that was livin’ with Beauford, who was ninety-eight when he died—he didn’t know that Beauford died in his sixties—he told me that when he was with Beauford, Picasso was there all the time. And I said, “Well did you ever take a photograph?” Because even one photograph, if you were with Picasso, would [have been] everywhere. If you have a photograph of him in your studio, you’ve got somethin’ that the whole world would envy.

JW But the story I remember hearing from Bearden was that he’s in Picasso’s studio and a woman comes into the studio—an American who was draped in furs and pearls—and Picasso says to Bearden, “Excuse me, Mr. Bearden, but I have to take care of some business with this woman.” And this woman, she’s all over the place, flingin’ around her pearls and her furs. She goes up to a painting and she says, “Oh! It’s so beautiful! What is it? What is it?” And Picasso says to her, “That, young lady, is $50,000.”

EC Yeah, that story’s been in the books all along.

JW I’ve heard that story from Bearden.

EC Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JW Is it true? I don’t know.

EC Anyway, it wasn’t $50,000 then. It was, maybe $10,000—with inflation—that was a fortune. He said, “That is $10,000,” and that would be like $50,000. That was a lot of money.

JW So that’s a true story?

EC Yeah, but I didn’t never hear Bearden [tell it], but I heard that story.

JW Yeah. Okay, I want to zero in now on, who is Ed Clark? I think that artists only have a few symbols to work with. Nature is available, sexuality, technology, autobiography, diary-like narratives, the sublime, formal issues, political, spiritual—so what about Ed Clark? What symbol do you react to? What symbol in art excites you?

EC Well I’m a big ego guy, I think about me! (laughter) When I was very young, I’m not thinkin’ about the next painting. Let me show you this real fast. This is 1946-1950. I’m in the Art Institute: (pages flipping). Let’s see, I’d taken drawing first, then general drawing. I’d taken drawing the figure, still-life figure painting—you had to; now it’s not like that. Lecture art, evening school, the history of art, here’s where we start learning the—

JW The history of art—

EC Art One—

JW You studied with Helen Gardner.

EC Yeah. Chicago. Evening school, figure painting—history of art. I went to the best school in the—

JW How long did you study there?

EC Here it is, man, look! (laughter) 1946-1951, because I didn’t go to day school; I went to night school and whatnot—it’s fragmented.

The City 1953, 76½ x 45 inches, Oil on Canvas

JW So you were there for five years?

EC Five years—it only takes four years to graduate—but the day school you’d have to take other courses.

JW Did you graduate with a certificate?

EC No, I didn’t want it! I would’ve turned it down.

JW You were there for five years and you left without receiving—

EC I left and wouldn’t have gone back there if they wanted me to get it. I just felt that way. And I got that from reading about Picasso. Picasso went to the great school in Madrid; he surpassed everyone and he never bothered to get a piece of paper.

JW So what ideas do you work with?

EC I get my brain now into the vocabulary. I’ll tell you something. One time I was in Chicago having this show at N’Namdi, and this woman, an educated woman, a lawyer—she said, “Can you explain this painting [Paris Gothic, 1993] to me?” This was the opening. Some people look at work and if it’s abstract, it’s like a puzzle they want to put together. And some people don’t need that. They had kids from grammar school come in, white and black. And someone said, “I’m going to show you Mr. Clark’s painting [Paris Gothic].” And one little boy, he was about seven, he said, “This is beautiful!” He didn’t need it to come together, he had that kind of mentality to just say, “This is beautiful!” Some people just can’t think that way. When I get myself into painting now, it’s hard to put in the words. I’m thinking, and thinking, and thinking, but it’s like talking about relativity. I’ll get into it and then all of a sudden I’ll say, “This is going nowhere!” And then destroy the fucking painting through frustration. But I’m certainly not the first artist to do that. And with acrylics you can do things that you can’t do with oil! I started with what you could do. I’ll be working for a week and then get some hot water out of the sink and just pour it on it and all of a sudden it will start doing something I didn’t have in mind. I’ll start looking at it and it’s still my color sense but I’m just watching it, right, watching it as it moves. Some of them looked like they were moving pictures!

JW So what you’re saying is that you’re not reacting to anything specifically?

EC No, but I’m in a higher part of thinking. I’m just thinking about this painting, my painting: Do I like it? Can I live with it? They’re not going to be decorative just for the sake of it. I mean, what’s her name? She’s written about you too. She’s white. Very pretty.

JW April Kingsley.

EC April Kingsley. She wrote on me. I’ll show you when we go into the living room what she says about me.

Ed Clark is like a sponge, absorbing every drop of life’s experiences and processing them unconsciously into art. He goes on frequent working trips to distant, often exotic places to experience new sensations of light, atmosphere, and material substance. Clark knows that, without doing it purposely, his work will look different, feel different, and sometimes even be made by a different method as a result.2

The writers can write, but I can’t put it into words! But I know when I’m here [in the studio], and I’m not thinking about nobody else, I’m thinking about it, it itself, and what to do. I’ll tell you it really started when I went to Crete [with you and Mary] that time [1971]. I’m just doing the thing I did in New York before that, and then people said, “Do you have anymore of those from Crete?” That’s the first time I realized that I’m [un]consciously influenced by where I am, but I’m not looking out at mountains or the ocean. I’m not going to do that.

JW But does nature inspire you?

EC I’ll show you. The unconscious things in my work are too sexy.

JW Sexy?

EC Let me go get the book.

JW Okay, Ed’s gone for a book that he wants me to see [For the Sake of the Search]. I want Ed Clark to express himself in terms of what he’s working with. So far he says things like, “I can’t put it in words”—which is a legitimate response. But. I think that he is capable of doing this. We still have a lot of material to get into. We have not gotten into his processes or materials. I’m very much interested in his worldview. There hasn’t been any mention of him being black as an artist, except peripherally. I’m very much interested in seeing what kind of sensibility comes out of that. I’m interested in his coming from the South, and if that plays a role in his thinking.

EC (calls from across the room)

JW Come a little closer and say that. Here’s your mic. There’s your seat.

EC First let me show you this painting. This is the painting [The City, 1953] but here’s where it was painted [it was painted at L’Atelier Le Feu, Rue De Lambre] That’s the one that I paid $50,000 for. My daughter has it now. That’s from back in Paris when I was young.

JW You re-bought this painting from a collector?

EC Yeah, a collector who had a lot of my paintings. He wasn’t going to sell it to me. But he said, “Well, I was going to leave it in my will [for your daughter] anyway.” So I paid. $50,000 cash.

JW Why is this painting so important to you?

EC Because it’s one of the best paintings I ever did. When I was painting it, I was trying to paint a city. At one point—and I’m not religious—but this was probably a cross, a church or something. This was a tree. And then I’m just painting to put it together. This is the one that Valerie Mercer put on the invitation for the “City of Light” exhibition at the Studio Museum of Harlem. And this collector, he was an architect with Polish ancestry [Herb Auerbach].

JW How would you describe yourself as a painter?

EC Let me just show you this unconsciousness down here.

JW You keep using the word “unconscious.” Please help us understand what you mean by that.

EC I’ll show you a couple of pictures to show what I mean. This painting is called Erotica (2003). When I’m painting it, I’m not thinking about anything but paint. But I’m looking at it now and I see a woman’s torso. Maybe that could be a vagina. So that’s unconsciousness. Here’ s another. This one painted itself. I mean, you can’t paint those, not you, not anybody, yet these clouds were made by the flow of the [of the broom]. Look at this one…

JW The title of this painting is [Jumaane’s Choice, 2005].

EC When we look at it now—it looks like a woman with her legs open and that’s her vagina. But I’m not thinking of that when I’m painting it! I’m not thinking of figurative art; that’s unconscious. Like Erotica [2003], Impact [2002], could be a body, but I’m just thinking about sweeping my broom. And later when I look at it, I see all the sexual implications.

JW So, you would agree that sexuality is a major symbol in art history?

EC It’s unconscious. I’ve got nothing to do with it! I’m not trying to think of that at all. You know that I can’t wait for my panties, but I’m not thinking of that.

JW So what are you thinking about when you paint?

EC It can’t be described. Even this one—I see the brush but if you turn the lady over on her back with her ass up then that could be the vagina. I left it but I’m not thinking of that. I’m thinking of making a painting…. Here, I’m in Avignon, France, painting outside. I’ve only painted outside a couple of times in my life. But you can see, obviously, that one called Erotica (2003) that’s unconscious. Now people look at it and they say, “That’s breasts, and the body with the legs open.” It’s sexy but not consciously, not to me. A lot of people see that in the work.

Untitled 1957, 46 x 55 inches, Oil on Canvas

JW You would agree with the Surrealists’ notion of the unconscious?

EC It’s obvious when people talk about it, but it’s strange because I never think about it consciously. I just know that there’s something very sexy about the work. All those were eventually sold.

JW I call it sensual. I find your work very sensual.

EC That’s a good word.

JW Now, you were raised Catholic. You spoke of your mother being very religious.

EC Very.

JW You spoke of your father as being not interested in religion.

EC Man, in the Depression nobody was. The Catholic school taught religion but they didn’t teach art. But I was lucky because they needed somebody to draw pictures and I started drawing Jesus and all those types of things.

JW Ed Clark, do you believe in God?

EC Sometimes, logically. What happens when you close your eyes? What’s the great magician? The greatest of all? Magic tricks and all that—Houdini, that’s it. Houdini said that he would come back from the dead. That’s what he told people. And I think, What happens when you die? The light goes out. What’s the next moment? You might be so intelligent that it’s not worth coming back. I don’t know. You may never come back. I used to joke with the guys, used to say, “Have you ever thought of this: Jesus, Moses, Confucius, Buddha, they’ve all died? And we haven’t heard from them since they’ve died. If they’re God, why don’t they come walking around?” I’m sitting in Catholic school, seven, eight years old, and I believed everything! The teacher’s a nun, and they didn’t teach us science but they taught us religion. And when they said that Christ died on the cross, I thought, Okay, he died on the cross. And the next thing they take his body off the cross—the Renaissance painters show him going up to Heaven—and they look to where his body was and he disappears, he rises to heaven. I don’t believe that.

JW Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

EC No, I don’t believe in him. He might have been a great man, but he didn’t defy the laws of gravity. I can’t see that. Einstein—what was complicated to others he could understand. And he had no ego, because he knew that as bright as he was, there was much more that he didn’t know. But he did say, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

JW So what does Ed Clark think about God?

EC I don’t know, it’s a mystery. But I can’t believe in any floating. Nobody knows because they never came back!

JW Well, B.B. King said, “I got a sweet little angel. I love the way she spreads her wings.” So, does Ed Clark believe in angels?

EC Here’s what I was. I was hopeless. When we were in grammar school, in Catholic school, if you went to church every morning, instead of going to school, that was good for you. Finally in this Catholic church—St. Anselm in Chicago—they had some German artist paint angels over the altar, one on one side and one on the other. And he started by just making the outline. And I’d be there every day because they were naked. And the nuns would say, “Oh, he comes every day!” And I just cared about the naked chicks. I didn’t believe anything else.

JW You grew up Catholic. Do you believe in the Virgin Mary?

Creation 2006, 72 x 84 inches, Acrylic on Canvas

EC Look, the biggest cuckold—do you know that word? That means you’re being cheated on. I was with a French guy once, and he was with an American, this woman who was in a department store, and she called him that. She didn’t know that he understood it, she meant, “Your wife is cheating on you.” That’s a real insult. Now what did you ask me? Because I’ve got a point.

JW Do you believe in the Virgin Mary?

EC The Virgin Mary. Was she a virgin? I think that Joseph was the biggest cuckold we ever knew. She got pregnant and a kid was born, and the story is so powerful that more people are Christians than any other religion in the world.

JW Are you Christian?

EC If you give five years of a child’s life to being Catholic, they say that you’ll always be Catholic. I told you about this nightmare I had about three years ago right in this house. It didn’t seem like a dream. My daughter is in the dream, and Lily was, and my sister. We’re all sitting in a hospital building that looked like a set, but at that point it’s real. And they got ready to go downstairs, and I said, “I’ll meet you downstairs.” I had something to do. And then I started walking. Twenty minutes later, or at least it felt like that amount of time, and I must have looked strange because a doctor ran up to me and said, “Do you need a doctor?” And I said, “No, I need a priest.” And I’ve never thought about a priest in any way like that, but that’s what I said. And the dream isn’t finished. I started walking to the elevators. They had three big elevators but I looked at them close and they were like three refrigerators. Then I look to my right and there was Adger Cowans, a friend of mine, and he was just sitting. I looked at him close and he was dead! A real nightmare. Somehow I did get downstairs. I said, “I needed a priest!” I used to joke about that with my sister, and she would say, “Just wait until your time comes.” (laughter) But I said, “a priest!” I don’t think much of priests. They represent God even as they masturbate! Let’s say I’m dying in a hospital and the Pope is there. He would scare me. The one that died before the current one, I wouldn’t mind.

JW Do you still consider yourself to be a Catholic?

EC I’m sure if I’m on my deathbed and the priest came…. In fact, it’s happened already. I was in the hospital in Vienna one time [1996] and a priest comes automatically because they found out from my records that I was Catholic. He comes in—they wanted to give me a test for irregular heartbeat—and he looks at me and starts praying. Someone said, “That’s the blessing they give you when you die.” I didn’t think I was going to die; and I didn’t. Well, my dick died eventually but that’s something else. (laughter) But I remember I ran into him a week or two later and he was startled to see me because—

JW He thought you were dying?

EC I don’t know. I told it to some other guy and he said, “No, that couldn’t have been the Last Sacrament.” And here’s what I always doubted about the Catholic Church, even as a kid. They say that to get into the kingdom you have to be a Catholic and I said, “This doesn’t seem right.” So I asked, “If you’re not a Catholic, and you can’t get to the Kingdom of Heaven, then where do you go?” And they said that you go to Limbo, a halfway thing. And yet if you are a Catholic, and you’re a very bad guy and kill some people, if you confess to the priest while you’re dying, then you go to Heaven. That don’t seem right. So I don’t believe in any of it.

JW So you don’t believe in Heaven?

EC Worse. Most people believe in Heaven but they don’t believe in Hell. Nobody believes in Hell. Now when you go to Paris and see the great cathedrals, they got all those things that people believed in. A lot of people couldn’t read so they’re showing it visually. In Notre Dame, on one side they got Christ and on the other side they got a lot of people, and if you look close, they’re going to Hell. And the good people are going to Heaven. No, I don’t believe in that shit.

JW So you’re lucky—you don’t believe in Heaven, you don’t believe in Hell, you don’t believe in Jesus Christ—

EC No, no, no, I lean towards existence.

JW Existence?

EC But it won’t be what we want to understand it as. We probably go back to something that was created before. Because life is a mystery. It’s always been a mystery. And death is a mystery. That’s why we have religion.

Jumaane’s Choice 2005, 58 x 72 inches, Acrylic on Canvas

JW Okay, who is Ed Clark?

EC I don’t know. (laughter)

JW (laughter) I want to know: who is Ed Clark? The world wants to know. Is he an African? Is he an American? Is he a black American? Is he a Southerner? Who is Ed Clark?

EC But that black thing has been good and bad for me. I went to Africa when nobody was going to Africa [Ife, Nigeria in 1973]. And I’m in Africa, and people didn’t like me. I wasn’t with a woman or nothing. They just didn’t like me. And it got worse and worse. I remember I was in the University [Obafemi Awolowo University], and I had a cheap camera and I asked a guy to take a photo of me, and when he took the photo he cut the head right off. He didn’t like me. And then I went to see the Classical sculpture [of Ife, Nigeria ] with the vertical lines, and I met these teenagers—I was still in my 20s I think—and I thought they were coming to kick my ass. I put my hand over my pocketknife, but they wanted to just talk to me. They were curious. Finally they [the Nigerians] took me over and began to be very friendly with me. They told me stories and gave me an African name and all that shit. But I could tell, Okay, everything is fine, they like me. They liked any foreigner. And then I realized that they probably didn’t think I was black, because that has happened. I couldn’t get it across to them. I said it, and they were still nice. So I told them a little black lie. I said that my grandmother was from Africa—she wasn’t—but I said that she was. And just like that, they understood, because that meant she was black. She was light-skinned like me and you, but I said it anyway. And then they said, “They cannot say no to you now. You’re one of us.” And I was getting ready to meet Ulli Beier. He had a big collection, and he even had a school where he taught art. He said, “By the way” —he spoke [King’s] English—“I had a chap here two years ago whose name was Bill Hudson.” I said, “Bill Hudson. He’s in my studio right now in New York.”


I’d already asked if he could find a place for me to paint, without begging. He did it the 19th century way: He got out a piece of paper. He wrote something. He put it in an envelope. He didn’t seal it. He gave it to me. He said, “Take this to a certain chief.” I did. And see in the 19th century that’s what would happen. He [the chief] looked at it and he read it. He was a jet black. He was about six feet seven. He looked like a chief. He said, “What can we do for you? Well, the art school’s closed. This is summer [but] why don’t you go over there?” I went there. I couldn’t believe it. The art school was fantastic. No one was there. Someone let me in the door. There was this studio with all kinds of easels that the students had left up. There was even dried pigment there, rare colors and what not, everything I needed. And nobody bothered me. I’m in there two weeks working on paper. And I remember then it almost got surreal. On the last day, I’m getting ready to pack up, and the same African guy, who was a big shot, said, “Did you enjoy your stay here?” I said, “Yes, yes, very much.” And then he got into things so I realized he didn’t think I was black. He said, “We satisfy our women.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, this is like Laurel and Hardy—Who’s on first?” He said, “We’re very strong down there.” I said, “Yeah, yeah.” He’s looking at me, and I’m looking at him. I’m saying “Yeah, we.” He’s talking about, “But our race, we’re men. We please our women.” In other words, we’re better than you. And I said, “Yeah.” But he couldn’t understand: You’re looking at a brother.


A lot of those kinds of things happened there. We had to go to Cameroon, and that’s the frontier. When I got to the frontier, I had to change money into Nigerian money. I had to see some guy at the border who said, “You should have changed your money [earlier].” “I was told I could change it here.” He said, “You should have changed it last night.” I said, “Well, I didn’t. I’m sorry.” I had like 150 dollars in their money. He said, “You cannot take it out of this country.” He’s giving me an order. I said, “Well what do I do?” [He said,] “There’s some blokes out there changing money.” The bloke out there gave me about thirty-five dollars. There were a lot of African ladies and they were laughing at me, like, That’s what you deserve. Now, to get to the other side of the border, there was a rope bridge. There’s a guy there with a rifle. I started to just walk across. Someone said, “They probably wouldn’t have shot you [for taking money across].” But hey, I didn’t take any chances. I walked across that rope bridge and when I got to the other side that was the bush. The jungle. And there was a guy, who heard the argument about changing money, an African guy who spoke English. “Sir, I must apologize for my colleague. But we have a vehicle if you want to pay your part.” Well, there was no other way with no bus or anything. I got in this Volkswagon. This guy reminded me of [Desmond] Tutu, later on. He spoke with an accent. He was friendly and luckily I learned to eat the food and drink the water, or otherwise I would have had a problem. I learned to drink the water from my Japanese friend who once went to Mexico. And what he did right away was drink the water. He got diarrhea, but he kept drinking the water. He built up an immunity to it. So I’d done the same thing. When this car would stop, it would be so filthy. They would just reach up and give you some water. The food was terrible, but the people were good. And good thing I’d been drinking the water; I didn’t have diarrhea or anything like that.

JW Ed, what’s your definition for art?

EC I always wanted to be an artist. I always wanted to be the best. When I was in grammar school, I started with a lot of problems from the South. It was a black school. But by the time we got to the third grade, the nun asked, “Could you copy this and put it on the blackboard?” And that started it. I was the star of the school. Still to this day I’m wondering, what did that give me?

JW So what are you trying to tell us about the meaning of your art?

EC That I always felt I was the best. Even in Louisiana…at that point, I knew I was the best at copying. Other students were drawing bubbles for leaves when I was doing branches. I knew I could be the best. I’m not the only artist who thinks that way.

JW What does that have to do with your meaning of art?

EC I’m a painter and nothing else. I could have probably been a scientist. When I got out of the military, I wanted to go to the University of Chicago. When they told me you had to write—I couldn’t even spell. I can’t spell centrifugal, inertia. So I said, I’d better go to an art institute.

JW Which brings us to an interesting junction here. When did you know you were an artist, absolutely?

EC When I did the self-portrait [1947-1949]. But when I did it, no one was looking over my shoulder. That was done in my house. I was studying Art History and Art [at the Art Institute of Chicago]. They got to da Vinci before Michelangelo, who I like better now. I saw the Mona Lisa. I hadn’t been to France yet, but I saw [pictures of] it. I said, I’m going to draw and paint better than anybody. I didn’t even have oil paint. They didn’t have acrylic then. I didn’t know what to do. I took watercolor, the cheap tube kind. Painted it on a board. Of course, it did funny things, and I kept it on until I built it up, built it up. For two years I’m working on the thing. Ain’t nobody else can show me any painting in this country better than that, from my point of view.

JW Your self-portrait?

EC I would not look at a photograph. And now it almost looks three-dimensional. Just looking at it every night, every night. I hadn’t seen Wyeth’s paintings—but I don’t like them as well as my painting.

JW Your self-portrait convinced you that you were an artist?

EC A great artist. Not an artist, but a great artist. I’d go into the American museums, [where] there’s obviously artists such as Vermeer. I hadn’t known about him; he’s very, very perfect. Almost too perfect. But pretty soon, when we got to Michelangelo, that’s something else. It took da Vinci two years, I think, to do the Mona Lisa and it might even be a self-portrait. Michelangelo didn’t even want to be a painter, but with those twisted figures and all of that, he becomes the greatest.

JW You’re known as an abstract painter? Would you give us your meaning of abstraction? Would you define yourself as an abstract painter?

EC First of all, you abstract things. It’s up to you. I don’t want no figure paintings around. I have painted every wife, but that’s something else. I don’t consider that as important as abstract painting. Once I could do the self-portrait, I figured I could do everything. I got that out of my system. All you’ve got to do is look at it, if you don’t think it’s good, then you do it and show me. I knew it. So then, I’m abstract.

JW Did Jazz play a role in your thinking about abstraction?

EC I’m from New Orleans. Even though I don’t really have the love I should have for Jazz, I know damn well that I like Jelly Roll Morton. Everybody talking about Louis Armstrong—I can’t stand Louis Armstrong. But they say he’s the best. Elizabeth Catlett did a statue of him in Congo Square [in the French Quarter], and she felt like me about it. She did it for the commission. I’m black, from New Orleans . . . but everybody knows more about it than me.

JW So what’s your connection to Jazz music and abstraction?

EC I know one thing. When I’d go to that Five Spot [Cooper Square on the Bowery in New York] and see Thelonius Monk, I knew he was a genius. And a lot of artists went there, Pollock and what not. We’d go there and that’s genius. Ornette Coleman gave me some of his records. I never played them, and then when I had this place painted, this guy stole them. I had two or three records.

JW Do you think there’s a connection to Jazz and abstraction? Could you describe it?

EC Yeah. There’s also a white sound and a black sound.

JW How would you describe Jazz’s connection to abstraction?

EC I went to Brazil. They’ve got beautiful music too. But Jazz has something to do with the industrial revolution. The train: humm du dumm, du dumm, du dumm. But it’s the black man who’s doing the music, watching that kind of thing. It changed the world. You know, everything’s better in Europe than here, even though this is one of the greatest countries. Who’s the greatest scientist? Edison. But they had Einstein. Who’s the greatest anything? Who’s the greatest artist? It’s probably European. Picasso. But Jazz was different than anything. In World War I, the blacks went to Paris, and that changed everything, that Jazz music. King Oliver and all of that. They didn’t even have records. One musician who was a legend [in Paris], didn’t realize how popular that was going to be. He wouldn’t let his stuff be recorded.

JW We’re looking at a painting here now. What’s the title of that painting? It’s a beautiful pink—sort of a center, with a grey, blue, whiteish.

EC I have a hard time with titling things. That one back there, just sticking out, is called Winter Bitch [1959]. That’s a hell of a name. I think my second wife thought I was talking about her. Because they were all sisters, who I’ve been married to. Except Liping. She [Lola] might have thought I meant her. She was from Montreal. And maybe, unconsciously, I did mean that.

JW What about that big one there? I’m looking at a painting there that’s got to be over twelve, fourteen feet.

EC I guess it’s called Silver Stripe [1972]. It was shown in a big gallery. 141 Prince Street Gallery in SoHo [September 16-October 5, 1972]. It almost was sold. But “almost” don’t mean it was sold. I’m glad I’ve got it now. You came on as a plumber once to do some work when I was in. You’re the one who told me how to use the tape to seal it up. You influenced me on that. I hadn’t seen your work.

JW What does that painting, Silver Stripe, mean to you? That large oval painting?

EC I don’t know. But I used to say, Look, the eyes are oval shaped. That used to be my excuse. [His first oval painting was painted in France in 1968]. It’s like the expanding image. You got a pen? (sketches on a piece of paper) When I started making those lines, I realized if I put those lines next to each other, and then away from each other, and then further away, it would give the illusion of form. If you place them closer, closer, closer here, and wider there, it’d give the illusion of a third dimension. That’s just elementary. Can you see it there? That was all thought out. Anyway, we know that’s going to be sold. I’m not worried about it. I’ll sign it. It’s a piece of bullshit for you. (laughter)

JW Thank you, Sir Clark. Now, what’s your thinking about the term Black Art?

EC I never liked that.

JW How do you understand the terminology? What does it mean to you?

EC The reason I got into that Galerie Creuze in France was, that this critic [Michel Conil-Lacoste] from Le Monde saw my work—in fact, it was this painting—The City, 1953—in the American Center in Paris. I was at the opening but he wasn’t. One day, he came there, and he wrote about it for Le Monde. He was so famous he just put MCL. He didn’t have to put his name. Then someone came up and said, “Ed you’re famous,” to me. So he read it to me. In those days, they didn’t say blacks. They said Negroes. He said, “Negro of great talent.” The French never put race on ID cards. “Great talent.” He said, “Why don’t you send him something?” So I sent him something. And to my pleasant surprise he wrote back, “Let’s have a rendezvous at the Café Select.” So when he came to Select, he was older than me, but not as old as I thought. I said, “You’re younger than I thought.” And he said, “You’re not as black as I thought.” So I said, “By the way, why did you use that word?” He hadn’t seen me. I wouldn’t have said anything. He said, “Because the woman [at the American Center]—who was American—she must have said it thirty times. “He’s a negro, negro, negro, negro.” That’s why he said it. Well, he never used that word again. Nor in France do they say that. They only talk about your nationality. I remember once the Herald Tribune, wanted to know how many blacks were in Paris. Now, they probably know anyway. But they said, “We only put down nationality. We don’t put down race.” Now when he [LaCoste] writes, he would ordinarily avoid that and just talk like a human being. In America they couldn’t do nothing with my name. A Latin name would have been better. Clark, that’s an Irish word for clerk. Now Basquiat never went to France, but he had the name. He’s a good artist anyway. He’s been here, before he was famous, according to Danny Johnson. Did you ever meet him?

JW Yes, I met him through Henry Geldzahler. I still can’t get you to talk about your ideas in art. I want you to talk about your paintings. What you’re thinking about.

EC It’s a vocabulary that’s beyond rational words. When you get abstract eyes, even saying that is abstracted conversation. I’m trying to make something that’s visual and attractive but not to the point of being pretty. When I’m painting, it’s my end. I read just like you do and what’s his name…Greenberg?

JW Yes, I knew Clement Greenberg.

EC I remember when I was having a show in SoHo. No one knew who I was. He was across the street and I’m looking at him. He didn’t even talk to them about my work. And none of those artists there, Danny Johnson and all, none of them turned out to be an Ed Clark. But he didn’t particularly say anything. Just nothing. And yet, I respect him as a writer. He writes very well. He influenced James Little on Seventh Avenue who just had a show at June Kelly about sixth months ago. Oh, he’s famous. But he needed Greenberg’s influence. Greenberg liked his work. He encouraged it. But he didn’t say anything about me.

JW Tell me something about this painting. We’re looking at the cover of the book on Edward Clark, For the Sake of the Search, and reproduced on the cover, is a painting with an irregular shape. Tell us about that painting [Untitled, 1957].

EC The thing about this painting, this was the first one that was written about. I was making that painting without thinking about anything, and nothing would work. It was an almost painting. And then I must have accidentally dropped a piece of paper on it, and it looked better that way than any other way. And that was the first [collaged/shaped] one that was ever seen.

JW What’s so important about that painting in your mind?

EC The big thing is it went beyond the frame. And that’s what they talk about when they talk about it. I got other documentations here. Anita Feldman is coming over here, but not now. She was the first one to write about it, as her husband [Joe Feldman] was in that gallery [Brata Gallery]. They had never seen a painting like that. It was Tenth Street that started this thing with co-ops in the world. The artists would pay the rent, and when your time comes your wife or girlfriend will be there to sit at the reception desk. And that was the [Brata Gallery]. And they put it right in the middle of the gallery. It was written about that week.

JW Tell us about your thinking in doing that painting.

EC In that painting, it’s because I got frustrated. First, it’s on a rectangle. This was all paper. I just tore it off. And I’m using it to glue it on any kind of way. Like a collage. But then this is paint too. And then nothing would work until I saw that [piece of paper lying on it], and then it worked. It influenced everybody when they saw it. Sal Romano was there. They were all witness to it.

I was painting a rectangular picture that looked pretty good, and I decided to coat the paper with oil paint strokes. I was going to glue it like a collage, and I looked at it and looked at it and looked at it, and I thought it had a punch. All of a sudden, I put the paper over the edge; it stuck out and it worked! Only without a stretcher, the piece was limp, so I built it up. I built it up a stretcher, and I mounted that area so that it was no longer limp. There was no precedent for it, but that was the only way the piece would work…Then it was shown in a group show at Brata for Christmas 1957…People said they had never seen anything like it…It wasn’t called shaped painting, just something strange and different that began with that painting. 3

Part Four: February 23, 2012

JW How many of those shaped paintings did you do?

EC Only about seven or so, some of them I probably destroyed. But it just needed that one to make the difference.

JW So if you felt that painting to be so important, why didn’t you continue working in that way?

EC Well, I did. I knew I was doing something that nobody was doing. (Showing a picture in For the Sake of the Search) You should see this in color. I don’t have it now. It was sent over to Europe; it got left in a crate. Water damaged it. But it made a big noise. Here I am [in 1985]. (pages flipping) This is me with Joan [Mitchell]. I got this in color. Those are my paintings. This is Paris. She’s got a cigarette and I don’t.

JW You said she was a heavy smoker.

EC That’s right. She always smoked. She died of lung cancer. And she was crazy about me but I wasn’t crazy about her, sexually. But she told that to [my wife] Hedy, “I’d love to fuck him.” She was that kind of woman.

JW How would you describe yourself today as an artist? If you had to put yourself in a proper perspective, in terms of art history—

EC (interrupting) Like a master. I feel like that. I’m eighty-five and I just feel like I’m ahead of everybody. That’s my own ego, right? It’s not written on the walls that I am, but when I look at other artists . . . I like Warhol’s idea. It’s almost poetic. He’ll do, for example, somebody in an automobile accident. He’ll silkscreen an electric chair and make it pink. He’s hitting on something like that. And I like Lichtenstein, who I met, when he first came from Ohio State. I like when you take those dots . . . I never met Warhol. But Bill Hudson did. I’ve seen him, though, in the news on modern art.

JW How do you want to be known? How do you see your position in the history of art?

EC Well, I want to be called “great.”

JW For what reason?

EC Because I am great, in my opinion. But most artists think that. I’m not the only one. They’ll say that but I don’t see anybody out there that I like better than myself. But I still know when they’re good. I ain’t got nothing to do with Warhol. But he’s a great artist.

JW So tell us, for the audience, what makes your paintings so good?

EC It’s visual arts. You get that picture. I’ve had so many compliments in different areas, and so much written about me, as long as I’ve been painting. I’m not in envy of anybody. No. I might have had a problem in 1913 with a whippersnapper named Picasso around. He buried everybody. But he’s not around now.

JW So what makes Ed Clark so great? Tell us.

EC Because I love painting. I can’t think of nothing else. And I’m lucky: now that I’ve got the money, I don’t have to do anything but paint. That used to bother me. I’d think, What am I going to do? I’ll go broke. I suffered but I still was young. One thing about being young is you don’t get sick. Now I’m married to Lily. She’s sometimes like a hypochondriac, but she’s fifty years younger than me. She’s not gonna get sick.

JW (laughter) How many years?

EC She was twenty-three, I was seventy-three when I met her. That’s fifty years’ difference. I forgot your point.

JW I want Ed Clark to speak about Ed Clark as a painter. I want Ed Clark to position himself in the history of art.

EC I’m thinking of myself as a lover right now.

JW (laughter) So Ed Clark refuses to talk about his paintings and his ideas of art. Here’s one. Untitled, 1992.

EC That’s been sold a long time ago. Now this one, which is Untitled from 1992, [p.50 of Edward Clark, For the Sake of the Search], the interesting thing about this picture, is if you put it in black and white, you wouldn’t see some of these things. But then the strength that comes with the movement…. You take a pastel color and make movement; it’ll get stronger than another one. The broom had a lot to do with it.

JW Tell us about the broom.

EC Well, I’m the first to use that. There were two artists in Paris, Hans Hartung and Soulages. They used the broom but they didn’t use a push broom. The moment you use a push broom, you do something else. Straight up and down. But I never liked their work much.

JW So you wouldn’t list Hartung and Soulages as an influence?

EC No, I wasn’t really influenced by them. I didn’t like their work much. I know it was in a good gallery in Paris. The son of one of them was here about a year ago. And he said, “Maybe my father was influenced by you.” He said that about his later work. Because when I used the broom it made it something else.

JW So that was the first time you had seen a painter use that type of a tool in painting?

EC You can’t show me any one now who uses the broom. There’s no evidence of anybody using a broom but me. There’re people after me who used the broom but you go dig it up in a museum. I’ll be the only one with a broom. The broom itself makes something possible. You crush through things. You get a feeling like (imitates noise of broom, or wind).

In 1956, I got into using a broom or what I like to call “the big sweep.” I wanted to cover a large area. And the push broom I began to use a little later gives you another thing, something you cannot do with your wrist. You can use a broom that’s wide with your hand, but it won’t give you that straight stroke. You have to want that straight stroke. It’s like cutting through something really fast; that’s what the straight stroke with the push broom gives you, speed.4

JW Is there a connection to Jazz in your use of the broom?

EC Probably. In fact, I said that once. I was talking to my daughter about when I did this painting for Reginald Lewis. I’ll show you. (pages flipping) This is a big painting. Eighteen feet. It’s almost twice as high as this loft. But when I did that painting [Elevation, 1992] was commissioned to do it. I only had two commissions, this one and doing a piece for Reginald Lewis’s jet. And I remember I had Chris Shelton helping me.

JW Chris Shelton. I remember him. Is Chris Shelton still alive?

EC Yeah, he called me about two months ago. I remember, he, Ernie Crichlow and Norman Lewis. They were all involved in the Cinque Gallery.

JW You knew Norman Lewis?

EC Yeah. And Chris got a commission. There was a big thing to do a schoolyard in Brooklyn. Chris wanted the sculpture to be a certain way. They accepted it. But then they realized that they couldn’t do it that way, because it would just come down from gravity, unless you spent a lot of money anchoring it. And Chris never went back to even look at it. It had to be his way and it was almost impossible to do it his way. And other people said if he could just realize what he’s doing—he’d be a big, big name, and we’d see it. But Chris was that pure.

JW Tell us more about your use of the broom. What would it allow you to do? Is it a notion of freedom, when you use the broom?

EC I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Somehow, I just felt I needed that speed.

JW So the broom gave you more speed?

EC Yeah. That’s modern times.

JW You drive a car, right?

EC I’ve had cars. And I drove real fast.

JW You ever own a sports car?

EC No, I would be dead if I did.

JW (laughter)

EC But speed was something. April [Kingsley] writes about that.

JW I think it’s an important ingredient in your work. So, Ed Clark. What does Ed Clark want?

EC I want some strange drawers. Do you know what “strange drawers” means? In the military, when you do target practice, when you shoot your rifle, you’re a long way from where the target is, so they have guys in the pit down there. They let the shooters, who are maybe seventy meters away, know what it was. They would put up a sign. “Target. Bull’s eye.” Let’s say it missed the target altogether. They’d call that “Maggie’s drawers.” That means a woman’s panties. I want strange drawers. That means something new. After a while, you get bored, no matter who. So I’m looking for some strange drawers.

JW Very good. Ed Clark wants strange drawers.

EC Most men do.

JW But you see yourself as part of a movement?

EC I’ve influenced a lot of people. I know that. When I had the last show down in Chelsea, we’ve got a little video of it. Do you know how to put that video in? It was done a year and a half ago.

JW If you believe in being a part of a movement, how would you describe this movement?

EC Impressionism I was a little influenced by, and I’m influenced, of course, by Matisse and all those people.

JW But if you’re part of a movement today, what would you call it?

EC Wait, let me see. (flipping pages) It says something about me here, the very last chapter. (reading aloud)

“In his painting Pink Wave, a single monster wave dominates the entire field. Red, black, and blue peek out beneath the overwhelming white-pink-gray sweep, on which two patches, green and black, surf. Inertia was completed while Clark was being filmed for an interview; there is a very exciting interaction between yin and yang waves, the lighter colored gray-pink-lemon swoop at the bottom with a brown and red mess looming above it. (The crew was astounded at the speed at which he moves across the canvas.) In the Locomotion and Pink Top paintings there [sic] both created vertically, with four or five stacked bandings. The pink, white, and blue bands in Pink Top are very loosely shaped and atmospheric, while Locomotion’s colors are firmer. However, they both tend to confine themselves within the painting’s perimeters, not seeming to speed through them. The color pink provides the warmth in both images, as it does in much of Clark’s work. It is to him what orange was to Cézanne and yellow to Van Gogh. Someone once said that you can judge a painter by how well he or she handles pink. That person was probably thinking of Matisse, but might just as well have been talking about Ed Clark, who uses pink more than anyone around and handles it just beautifully.”5

Whenever you take a word like pink . . . pink is a pretty color but once you put the broom through it, it’s no longer peaceful, because of the speed. The broom can make something else happen to color.

JW Extends it.

EC The movement.

JW Breaks through.

EC April knows a lot about me.

JW I think Ed Clark knows a lot about Ed Clark, but he’s not willing to say it.

EC When I was very young, we went up to Chicago and then we’d go back to Louisiana. It would take a long time on the train. And maybe that going as a little boy, and then coming back…April once said, “Maybe that thing just got into you about movement.” Movement, movement, movement. She could see something like that. April’s very special. I have to call her because I heard she was sick—

JW Yeah. Her daughter, Grace, tells me she’s not well. Grace claims that it’s the beginning of Alzheimer’s.

EC Alzheimer’s, wow. That’s terrible. No matter how bright you are—there was the President who got Alzheimer’s, Reagan, and then de Kooning. One thing about Alzheimer’s is you will stop working. I saw de Kooning two years before he had Alzheimer’s. He was just sharp as can be. That shit just rots you brain away. Oh, that’s too bad about April.

JW How do you want people to think about Ed Clark?

EC I want them to say I’m a great artist. I’m human: whether I am great or not, I’m just like a kid! I think they will know more about me.

JW You came out of second-generation Abstract Expressionism. How would you describe yourself today?

EC I’ve maybe got to invent a name for it. I don’t know what they’d call this. You see that painting there that’s beyond the roll—the round one?

JW Yes.

EC The French call that tache. That means stain. I’m not the first to do that. To use colors transparently, that’s called tache. Move that thing. (dragging something out of the way) This is one that that millionaire guy is buying. You know, it’s like Easter eggs. You let it get watery, then I drop hot water on it, it just does things like that. Most of them I reject. But that one and some of them here, that’s what the French call stain painting. But that’ll keep the hawk away from the lure awhile.

JW Before we leave, who represents you work today?

EC Right now, George [N’Namdi].

JW What’s your relationship to George N’Namdi?

EC The first show he put me in was because of Adger [Cowans], who’s from that area [the Midwest]. George comes into New York. He knew he was going to open a gallery. He came to my studio and some others, and some he didn’t take, and right away he took Al [Loving ] and me. I never went when he had the first show, in the gallery called Jess Olner, in Detroit. And he paid for us to come there. He had some kind of cheap place we could all get and I was on that first flight, and then the second flight was Al and . . . what’s the name, the painter that’s also in George’s gallery…She’s a good painter; she’s famous, and she makes money. She’s with George and she’s from Newark. Her father was the mayor of Newark or something like that [Nanette Carter].

JW How many dealers have you had in New York?

EC I never had a white one. I had James Yu and Brata. A lot of these others, I chose myself. I just went and rented out the space. And then George N’Nnamdi.

JW You ever work with June Kelly?

EC No, but June used to bring people over before she had the gallery. She never invited me and I never tried to kiss her butt to get in there. No, I didn’t show with June. But she showed me before she had a gallery, in some kind of way. I forget how that was.

JW Now you said that black art was a term that you didn’t like.

EC I never liked that. “Black art,” like we’re different. Different creatures. It sounds kind of racist to me. Like black art is different than . . . maybe it is. I know Mary Ann Gentry, she’s strong on that black art thing. Were you in that show that she curated and sent around?

JW No. So do you believe there’s such a thing as black art?

EC The mistake of my life was, I was showing in SoHo. I’d rented out the space. And it made money. Ornette Coleman bought a painting. Two or three people bought paintings. The last day I went to get the things under glass, they said, “The Museum of Modern Art had picked them up.” That’s very flattering. But I suspected that it was for a black show. I went to the Museum of Modern Art and there were about six paintings [of mine] there. They had picked them all up. They were framed and all that stuff. And I was angry. I didn’t curse them, but I took them out. I must have had a truck downstairs.

JW Let me understand this: the Museum of Modern Art picked up your paintings with the idea of buying them?

EC They saw the show in Soho, at 141 Prince Street, which is now Gallery Nine, and they just liked them. They picked them up because they thought it was good. I should have stopped there and not taken them out.

JW But how did you know the Museum of Modern Art picked them up?

EC Well, when I went to the gallery in Soho, they had somebody sitting there when I couldn’t be there, and he told me they picked them up. I wasn’t worried about that; I knew that was kosher.

JW But they didn’t tell you the reason they picked them up?

EC Because they thought they were great paintings. He didn’t even have to ask: everybody wants to be in the Museum. Including me. That was flattering, but I didn’t like the idea of it being “black” art. When I got there, I asked, “Is this show of black art?” He said, “Yeah.” With pride. He was not even an American but he meant that with pride, right? I’m going back to his mind.

JW This was a black person?

EC No, he was white.

JW Did the show ever happen?

EC No, because I took them out. I went to the Museum of Modern Art. You go upstairs and there they all were. And then the guy comes out. He’s very nice to me. I’m not saying he did anything wrong. It’s how I felt about it. I didn’t want to be in a show called “Black Art.” They’d never do that in France.

JW So the show never happened. Were there other people involved, that he wanted to show?

EC I guess it would be with other people. Give me that cardboard-cover book again [Ed Clark, Master Painter]. I’ll tell you the year. (flipping pages) In 1955 Galerie Creuse, Paris, American Embassy, Paris…Oh, so I showed in the American Embassy [1969]. Donald Judd showed me in his gallery [Donald Judd’s Loft, 1971]. He was determined to do something with me.

JW I remember that.

EC South Houston Gallery in New York, 1974. Sullivan Gallery, Ohio State University, 1976; Peg Alston Art, New York City, 1977. I don’t see it here. It was before Donald Judd. So it’s probably right around 1970.

JW So let’s go over it one more time so I can get the record straight. You had a show in SoHo, and you said that the Museum of Modern Art picked up some paintings, and took them to the Museum, with the purpose of doing a group show of black artists.

EC Yeah. That’s separating the races. I’m talking about that point in time. It’s bigger than me. It’s so big I can’t do nothing about it.

JW But you don’t remember the name of the person at the Museum of Modern Art?

EC No. He was somebody . . .

JW Would it have been Mr. Rubin? Mr. Rubin was there at that time.

EC No. I knew Rubin, he was one of the clients that would come into Janis Gallery. So it must have been the Department of Drawings, or something. There’s a section for that, right? But it was a black show. I never went to see it.

JW I never heard of that. Never knew anything about that.

EC But I’m proud to say it was a mistake. I should have shown! You know, I would have made money. But I was making money anyway.

JW Have you ever participated in a show under the label of “black art”?

EC Well, it got bigger than me, after a while. Every time I showed with Peg Alston, she never had white artists, and that was black art. My first sell-out show was with Peg Alston [1977].

JW Well, we’ve covered pretty much everything on my outline. Have we missed anything? What would Ed Clark add to this?

EC Well, you know, I don’t have Alzheimer’s yet, but I’m probably getting it. Might have missed a lot of things.

JW (laughter) I came here with the idea of getting the whole picture from Ed Clark. I’ve done my best to get him to talk.

EC Well, when you get to be eighty-five, and you’ve traveled like me, and had all kinds of experiences in Paris, and New York, the opening of the Brata Gallery…I did the first show there. And then that show, the shaped paintings, and all those artists I had met before in Paris. Al Held, and Sal Romano . . . and who else? George Sugarman. I wasn’t thinking of race. Somehow when they were in Paris they didn’t think of race either. But when they get back to America, after a while they begin to.

JW You’re reminding me of someone. Cy Twombly. Cy Twombly just died. A few weeks back.

EC Yeah, a good artist.

JW Cy Twombly wouldn’t talk about his works. He claimed that there was nothing to talk about.

EC He was white, right?

JW Yeah, he was white. A Southerner. Which brings us to one more thing that we did miss. You were born in the South.

EC Yeah.

JW America has produced a lot of artists from the South. Do you think that coming from the South makes a difference in your thinking about painting?

EC Oh yeah. Especially Louisiana. It’s something about Louisiana. In the swamps, and the trees, the melancholy Southern thing. I remember walking, living in New Orleans. They didn’t have electricity on the block, but the people had those swings on the porches. At night they’d have a Roman candle to keep the mosquitoes off. Things like that. Those are memorable things. That’s the South. They don’t have that up North. It doesn’t happen here. But those things…I remember. Wait, let me get a picture of my father. I’ll show you something. (turning pages.)

JW (aside) We’re going to pull it out of him. I still want him to speak about his paintings. I still want him to speak about his ideas in art. We got a little information about procedures and his use of the broom, which is good. We got some information about his use of color, especially the color pink. A little bit of information in terms of symbolic gestures. Sensuality, sexuality. A little bit about his connection to nature. I must admit, though, I’m not getting what I want. I’ll continue to press a little harder. It’s difficult for every artist to talk about their art. In my thinking, it’s just as Edward Clark said, “It’s a plastic language.” When you are asked to talk about art, it’s a translation process. One must be able to translate the plastic language into the spoken language. And he’s telling me that that’s what’s difficult. He can’t do the translation. We’ll continue to press. I think if he makes an attempt, some form of translation will take place.

EC That’s before I was born.

JW That’s your father?

EC Yeah, that’s my father. He looks white, right? Straight brown hair, not black hair.

JW He seems real dapper.

EC Yeah, he was vain. He dressed better. Everything looked like it’s tailor-made.

JW He’s dressed very much typical of 1940s style. He reminds me of my uncle, really. Double-breasted suit, tie, handkerchief tucked into his pocket, front pocket, nice shoes, beautiful hat—could be a Stetson.

EC He only wore the best shoes, and all that.

JW Clean dresser. He’s a real dapper, Ed.

EC No, I know that. Here, that’s in color, with Joan Mitchell.

JW Yes. You’re looking very buddy-buddy there. She has a cigarette in her hand, and a glass of wine. You have a glass of wine. Painting of yours in the background. I only met her briefly here in New York.

EC Oh, you did meet her, then?

JW Yeah. But briefly. At an opening, in New York.

EC Here I am with Beauford Delaney.

JW I never met Beauford. This photograph is taken in Paris?

EC Yeah. (flipping pages) This is me and David; we look like a little gay scene there, right? We were just horsing around.

JW Nice photo. Tell me some more about your father while you’re looking. Did you admire your father?

EC In the beginning, they say I loved him very much. And then when he would be hollering at my mother, I couldn’t believe — I’d never heard…. He said all kinds of words. Curses. “Motherfucker.” You know. I couldn’t believe that. After that I hated him. Every time he’d get near and he’d kiss her after that, I’d try to wipe his kisses off. But that wouldn’t have done anything in the least. (pages flipping)

JW What are you looking for?

EC Anything. I’m looking for that picture of me with watermelon, but I don’t see it here. You’ve decided to be mute on that, for whatever reason, it’s not an evil reason. But you will not bring me that picture.

JW Oh, I’m bringing it. I have it.

EC Just leave it here right now.

JW Oh, that was a beautiful time. Anything you would like to add before we call it a day?

EC Can you come tomorrow?

JW I would come back tomorrow if you promise me that you’re going to talk about concepts and ideas that you work with.

EC Okay.

JW Is that a deal? You want to shake hands on that?

EC Yeah.

Louisiana Red 2004. 67 x 72 inches, Acrylic on Canvas

JW For the record: we’re shaking hands. So, I’m coming back tomorrow, we’re going to spend an hour tomorrow, and it’s only, only going to be about Ed Clark’s thinking on his paintings. I don’t want to know what April Kingsley says, or Miss Feldman says—

EC When you put it that way, that gives me the night to think about it.

JW I want to hear Ed Clark. But I’m coming back tomorrow, eleven o’clock, we’re going to spend one hour, and we’re only going to talk about painting.

EC Good enough.

JW Gentleman’s agreement. Okay. This is Jack Whitten, signing out. We’re coming back tomorrow, and I’m not going to say anything. It’s only going to be Ed Clark talking about his painting.

February 24, 2012

JW We’re at Ed Clark’s studio, 4 West 22nd Street, New York City—

EC Twelfth floor.

JW The final session for BOMB. Last evening, before leaving, Edward Clark and I made a gentleman’s agreement. We shook hands, and we said that we were going to spend today talking about his ideas in his art and what he works with. And that’s where we start today. It’s an agreement, you remember?

EC Yeah. Let me get the art book. They quote me about four times, there. I’ll just read some of those quotes.

JW Okay. We’re looking good. Hopefully today, we’re going to get the information that I want. As I said, it’s been difficult. He’s been reluctant to open up and express himself in terms of his work. But we have gotten a lot of good information about background, interests, influences, things that he’s interested in, a lot of good information on side stories, experiences in traveling, quite a bit on processes and materials. So the main thing I’m looking for today is for Ed Clark to open up to us and let us enjoy his speaking in his own words about his work. The truth of the matter is, it’s the artist’s choice. They can keep their mouth closed and say it’s all in the painting, and we have to accept that. I’m hoping that Mr. Clark does not take this route, and that he will open up to us. (Ed returns) Okay, what have you got there, Ed? He’s leafing through the book Edward Clark: For the Sake of the Search.

EC I have to go through to find the statements. There are about six of them. (flipping through the book) This is where George Sugarman—“In 1950, the sculptor, George Sugarman, told me that I should come back to New York because there were things happening. I met George Sugarman in Paris.. ” For some reason I came to New York, even though I loved Paris so much

JW The main thing is that we’re sticking to our agreement. Right?

EC What’s that?

JW “What’s that?” he says.

EC I don’t know.

JW (imitating him) “I don’t know.” (laughter) Yeah, you’re from the South. That’s right. You’re a Southerner.

EC Well, I think that’s where they quote me, but where’s the English…(flipping pages)

JW It’s in French?

EC All men—“Toutes hommes de talent”—all men of talent . . .

Je concluerai en disant que l’art n’est pas matière à eu politiques; son importance s’élève bien au-dessus des différences raciales. Tout homme de talent, à l’ésprit noble, peut le produire. [I would end by saying that art is not subject to political games; its importance elevates it above any racial differences. All men of talent, of noble spirit, can make it.]6

JW Do you read French?

EC Enough to know if there’s a World War III—I speak it, but badly. Wait, I think this:

“In 1968, Clark began to use the ellipse form, because, in his words, ‘I began to feel something was wrong. Our eyes don’t see in rectangles. I was interested in an expanding image, and the best way to expand an image is the oval or ellipse. It seemed to me that the oval as a natural shape could best express movement extended beyond the limits of the canvas.’ He completed his first oval painting, titled The Big Egg, that same year.”7

Lawrence Campbell’s in there. It’s got a sentence from April [Kingsley], but you want it from me. (flipping pages)

JW Okay. If you don’t mind, allow me to read this statement by you. Is that okay with you?

EC Yeah, go on.

JW This is Edward Clark. It’s a statement in the book American Abstract Expressionisms of the 1950s: An Illustrated Survey. It has a lot of people in this show: Amino, Bazeotis, Biscoff, Bluhm, Bourgeois, Briggs, de Kooning, Diebenkorn. It’s a lot of people. Everybody that we know is in this book, and there are two beautiful reproductions of Edward Clark’s paintings. One is The City, 1953; and the other is Untitled, Shaped-Canvas, 1957]. And I would like to read Edward’s statement:

“Art has its own conception of beauty. The other day, at the Musée d’Orsay, I looked at some Van Gogh paintings and thought, How unattractive he painted the children, and some of the people. But how beautiful and contemporary his paintings were! What is beautiful in art is not necessarily what we experience when we see. For example: a beautiful woman, or flowers. African sculpture, in particular, is never pretty, but it is nearly always aesthetically beautiful. However, there are artists who have made great art with prettiness, for example, Botticelli’s Venus, and some of Renoir’s masterpieces. This leads me to conclude that all great artists can only do what they esteem to be right. No matter how it appears at first, it will always be beautiful.”

You remember writing that?

EC Yeah.

JW So, the platform is yours. I don’t want to talk. I want you to talk.

EC I don’t know. (laughter) But you asked me yesterday to say what am I thinking when I’m doing them.

JW Just, anything you want to express about that particular painting as an introduction to your thinking.

EC Now what is that? That’s my phone . . . (A long break in the conversation while Ed Clark goes to answer the phone.)

JW This is like pulling teeth. (Inaudible conversation from the next room…Ed Clark returns)

JW You were going to give us an introduction into this painting.

EC We should go look at that video. They’re flashing those things up there, like that. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom. It’s only four minutes. That might make me say something.

JW That might make you say something? I’m willing to do anything to make you say something. If you think we should see the video.

EC The problem is it’s a visual vocabulary. Imagine you’re talking to Cezanne: “Why, would you tell me over there about that chateau by the mountain?” What’s he going to say, if it were back then? We understand it now, maybe. Picasso never talks about his work that I know of. You know the famous story. “What is that?” “That’s $10,000, lady.” I like that. But how do you put the Guernica into words? You can’t explain the Guernica. It’s very poetic . . . a woman dying and whatnot, and the lightbulb. It’s hard to explain a Jackson Pollock. But you take Jackson Pollock when he was out in the Hamptons, in that famous photograph, where he’s got the cigarette in his mouth, hanging down. He painted that picture all night long. It’s on the ground because of gravity, cause he’s splashing it and dripping it. When he stood it up it had Herculean power. How do you explain that? He wasn’t thinking, I’m gonna do this. But that’s how it turned out. It changed. It buried France. They had all those other artists. They were dying off. Now they’re all gone. Everybody, all those young French artists now want to get to New York. At one time everybody was running over to France. And especially after the war, a lot of guys who couldn’t have ever gone to France, because of the G.I. Bill, they could go. There’s Sam Francis, there’s Al Held, there’s others . . . They came. That’s seventy-five, a hundred and ten, dollars a month. You could live and get the art material. That made France very important, and a lot of them love the country. Have you seen the Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris?

The Circle 1968, 72-inch diameter, Acrylic on Canvas

JW Yeah.

EC He says it’s the greatest city in the world. And he’s a New Yorker. I couldn’t believe it. It was cold when I got there. You couldn’t get any heat. The war was over in 1945; I’m there in 1952, and I said, “This place, God damn . . . ” You have to get out of the cheap hotel room right away because the heat goes off, and you could always touch the radiator. It never was real hot. And so if you think you’re going to just lay there all day—there’s no heat. You need to get your ass out. I’d go on down to the Café Dome, where they had a potbelly stove. I was doing this to get some of that darn heat. I couldn’t get comfortable. And it’s funny how you do things like that. Once I was visiting my sister, when my grandmother died. I flew into Chicago. And the place was overheated, I thought, because I’d gotten used to Paris. I didn’t like Paris. I mean, I didn’t hate it. And then it was one spring day. All of a sudden it was spring, and I said, This city is so . . . something. I love it like a woman. It’s beautiful. I fell in love with it, like, where am I? I experienced all of that. I never was [one] to attack the French, either. They had their problems. They’re snobs. I had hard times there. But I loved it anyway.

I ran out of the G.I. Bill, and usually that’s the time to go back to the States. And if I was from New York, I probably would have gone back, but I didn’t want to go back to Chicago. New York City is the art world. That’s what I knew about. And so I just stayed in Paris. For five years, that time. And I loved it like you love a woman. All kinds of things happened to me. You never asked me this. I have never been in love with a white woman. However I was in love with one once. She happened to be Dutch. Sal Romano remembered seeing her. She was blond, and she was unbelievably beautiful. She was making money by modeling in the art school as a nude model. Everybody was after her. And so, when I started flirting with her, and she came to my place—you know, I’m bragging about my stuff—she said, “Are you a professional?” People called that apartment a chicken coop. It was a dirty old place. She startled everyone with me. She started washing the furniture; she started doing everything. I’m really in love with her. Some big guy, I think he happened to be Jewish—he was not a Frenchman, I think he was an Israeli guy—he told her, “You know, you’re with a black man.” I think he used the word Negro, but she did not care, one way or the other. And so, now I am in love.

And then something happened that I’ll regret until the day I die. One day, I had the equivalent of twenty dollars American money, in French francs. And I start looking for it. I looked everywhere for it. Everywhere. I couldn’t find it. And I said, “She has stolen my money.” The reason she was with me in the first place was that she had been to London, and she was in love with some East Indian, who was from a rich family, and his family didn’t want him to marry this girl, even though she was beautiful. That’s why she was in Paris in the first place. Her heart was broken. Now she’s with me. And I loved her then, and one day I just changed. I didn’t tell her; I didn’t tell her about the money. But she could sense it.

Then when some of her friends came over, they looked at everything. They could see she’s living in the ghetto, or whatever you want to call it. And at that time, I was so cold to her that they took her back to London. And I hope she had a nice life. But after she’s gone for about two weeks, I took one of my shirts, and inside the shirt—she didn’t ever wash it—was that twenty-dollar bill. It was there all along. That changed my life. Now if you’re religious, God works in strange ways. She would have been with me…and I’m thinking, Why? She was unbelievable. I had a motorcycle, and somebody’s got a little movie of me and her on this motorcycle. I couldn’t believe that. I could never be in love with her when I thought she had gotten my money. But she hadn’t gotten my money. It was there. It changed my life. It changed her life. I’ve been with French women. Close, but just fuck buddies, really. Not in love but I was in love with her. And I’ll always think of her. Was she beautiful. You meet Sal, he’ll tell you about her. All the guys were envious of me, ‘cause she looked at nobody but me.

JW Did she affect your paintings, how you were painting?

EC I don’t know. Out of five or six paintings, there’d be one that’d be famous. I was always painting. Sometimes I just didn’t have any paint. And then I just had to do nothing for a while. I remember, I’d stay in my bed, and there was no money to even go down and get a croissant. But I wasn’t going to go back to America, to Chicago, because I knew I was in a very special place. And then this dealer picked me up, Raymond Creuze, because of this art critic Michel Conil-Lacoste, who saw my work at the American Center, and he did something unusual. He said “a Negro of great talent.” And someone said, “Look he doesn’t say that much, that’s a very strong thing, the ‘great talent.’” They said, “You should call him.” So I did. They had the pneumatic then—they didn’t have a phone. And he sent something back. “I’d like to rendezvous with you.” At the Café Select. And that’s where Modigliani—he was dead when I used to go there—they used to have fun and say it’s the Jewish place. Only because of the owners. And also, they say, the father of Communism, Lenin, when he had to get out of Russia, he used to go there. I would see everybody there. Nothing special about it. There was Faulkner, one time—and that one,what’s his name, with a woman looking like she’s younger than him, much younger, sitting there in the Select. And in the Dome, across the street, was everybody, you know. I said, “What a city.” You know. What a city. And they were all alive. Everybody’s dead now. I mean, everybody’s dead. I just saw on TV this morning, that there’s only two people left from The Wizard of Oz, from 1939. There were at least thirteen hundred people in it—and only two are alive. People die. I don’t intend to go, but I’d better be prepared.

JW (laughter)

EC People die, right? You think it’s forever. But back to Paris. Talk about a square! When I first went there, all I could do was point. I went to a boulangerie, I pointed at the woman to give me the bread and she handed it to me by hand. Now they got a little wrapper on it. She just handed it to me, right out of the oven. And I thought, What am I going to do with this baguette? Eat it on the street? I didn’t know what to do. Everything was different. America’s a vibrant place—but I couldn’t believe there’d be another place in the world, that had nothing to do with America, that was still vibrant. That was France. It was like that. But I could’ve never been French, even if I learned it. You have to be a Frenchman. But they were very, very philosophical. Girls then had experienced the war. The French had surrendered to the Germans, and a lot of them went over to England during the war. But they all, because of the war, were very philosophical. They’d talk certain ways. And I remember once there was a beautiful French woman, Nicole. She was gorgeous. Where’s that picture? (flipping through papers) This is her. I painted her once. She was gorgeous.

JW (reading) Portrait of Nicole, 1952, twenty by twenty-five inches. And she was your girlfriend?

EC She told me that there was a guy there that was flirting with her. I didn’t think she knew how old he was. He was thirty-five. She says, “He’s a man, isn’t he?” You know, when I met my present wife, she was twenty-three and I was seventy-three. Fifty years difference. But back then I’m saying, What a minute, you know, that’s an old man. He was from Louisiana, a white guy. But she wasn’t going with him. Anyway, I fell in love with her and that’s another story. (flipping through photos) And that is my first wife there. She hated Paris. I painted her. She’s looking in the mirror. That’s the mirror there.

JW That’s Portrait of Muriel, 1952, twenty by twenty-five and a half inches.

EC I had given her this ring, and everybody was nice to her, but she wanted to go back to the States. So it didn’t work out. When I was young, I never thought I was a cute guy, but women really liked me. But I’m not a gigolo type. I’ve never taken no money from no woman. Some of my friends, they make a living out of that. They’re good lovers, and that’s the first thing when they get around a woman, is like, well, “What are you going to do for me?” A lot of brothers. None of the great artists, though. I mean, if they happen to be rich, they just happen to be rich. And all those brothers went up to Sweden. I used to think, Why’d they go up to Sweden? They lived in France, and that’s the capital of the art world, in my opinion, at that time. Certainly not Stockholm. But what’d they go up to Sweden for? I went to Sweden once. It was okay. I went to their big museum. What did they have in the museum? The ancient pictures were the Norwegian ones. They had nothing! You can think about it right now. What white artist, from Sweden, is famous? I’m sure there is none. But anyway, there was no reason to go there but the girls. Well, girls are girls. I prefer the French girls anyway. Little pouting lips and whatnot, they’re philosophical, and they’re freaks. All of them are a little bisexual, and I like that.

I love that about France. And the next thing I noticed is they wouldn’t play around. I took one of them to a movie once, and right away she pays her part. They’d go Dutch. In America, they’d be powdering their nose or something while you get your money out. And the French women would go right to bed with you. They’re not playing no games: if they liked you, they’d go to bed. It’s not like, “Well, it’s the first time . . .” With all of them, if you’re a good looking guy, you’d get all kinds of women. I loved it for that.

What a place it was. It’s still that way. When you go there, the city is still vibrant, but it’s not like in the ‘50s, where the artists were on the top. No one thought that would end. They had everybody! Nobody was famous who hadn’t lived in Paris. Kandinsky, all of them, had been to Paris at one time. Even though they started all these “isms,” they saw what was happening there, at the turn of the century and after. You could smell it. I loved that place, even the bad times.

I remember being there with Beauford Delaney. One time I passed the Café Dome, and there was some American who reminded me of Otto Preminger. But it wasn’t Otto. And he was buying paintings. He didn’t care about whether you had showed or not, if he liked them. All the Americans [artists] were around. It was unbelievable. He was buying them, in cash: one hundred, two hundred dollars. A hundred dollars then, you could live one month in Paris, if you had the GI Bill. You could pay your rent. You could go to the movies one time with a woman. So I thought of Beauford, who was my best friend. I went to his hotel and I said, “Come on, man, this guy, he’ll probably like your paintings.” Beauford took two small paintings, and we walked down to the Dome, and he was still there. All the guys were there. They said, “Oh, yeah, that’s Beauford.” No one brings up race. And the other guys were cutting, going the other way. They’ve been there a couple of hours. The American’s sitting at the table, and we sit down. He had a lot of paintings he’d bought. And he said, “Let’s see what you’ve got.” Beauford had two paintings. He looked, he said, “How much do you want?” I think it was two hundred dollars apiece. (Imitating the sound of gunfire) He bought them just like that. We’re sitting down, at the café, near the back. And the mistake of our lives…we should’ve left then. Well, he said, “What do you want to drink?” And Beauford liked Cognac, so he ordered a Cognac, and we’re sitting there, and he’s feeling good. The guy’s got the paintings. The money’s in Beauford’s pocket.

I’m feeling good, because I knew what I’d get out of it: we were to go to a restaurant—one called Carbaise. And they had gateau de riz. Not every café had that, rice pudding cake. I could just taste it. I knew that was where we’d go, later on at night. We’re sitting there, and Beauford’s feeling comfortable, and all of a sudden the waiter comes. In those days, they didn’t even have paper receipts. They had saucers stacked up, and they knew instantly how much the bill was. They trusted people enough not to steal the saucers. All of a sudden they come and ask for the bill—and the other people are gone. And when he went in his pocket, he didn’t have the money. And he said, “Oh, God, I’m sorry about this, but could you give me the money back?”

JW Oh my. (laughter)

EC Yeah. All we had to have done is say, when we got the money, “No, we’ve got things to do.” But we’re sitting there, drinking Cognac, because the man likes his work…It’s in that book up there: I’ll show you. The book says the artist never saw his money, or [got] his paintings back. But they exaggerated, because he did give him his paintings back. The book’s on anything that happened in Paris for two hundred years—when Tanner was there, whatever. They concentrated on black artists, where they were. On this, street, this street . . . They got me about twelve times. Gentry [Herbert], everybody. I’ll show you the book. You want me to go get it?

JW No, no, keep talking. You’re doing good.

EC Beauford was something else: you’d go over to Beauford’s place on Rue Delambre, and when you’d get there, you’d think, People love Beauford. They couldn’t get enough of him. All the Americans, the New Yorkers, would be there, visiting him. He was something else. He was a conversationalist. He knew how to talk. Actually, I remember one time on the street, I saw this couple. They’d been in France too long. He just gave them a word. He meant, “Maybe, should you go back.” He said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” He meant, “You’re not chosen. It’s not going to happen for you.” And it wasn’t going to happen for them. And some people, they die in there. They want to become Van Gogh-ish, or something like that.

JW Was Beauford gay?

EC Yeah, but he never hit on anybody. He was gay. I used to joke with Gentry, though. Gentry had been in Paris before me, and then he’d come back to New York, and then when he went over to Europe again, Beauford Delaney and he were on the same boat. They’d go out on the deck. I knew Beauford was gay—I said to Gentry, “Well, are you gay?” I said, “Did you tongue kiss?”

JW (laughter)

EC We knew Beauford was gay. In Paris we just assumed. He never hit on anybody. One time he was telling me about his life. When Beauford left New York, somebody named Dante had given him just enough money to get on the ship. And he always felt guilty about that. He was never to see him again. He couldn’t leave Paris once he got there, he didn’t have the money. He loved Paris. I remember one time he went to Luxembourg Gardens, and he didn’t know that certain seats with armrests and whatnot you have to pay for. They’ve changed this now. The little ladies would come up and they’d shoo him away. He said, “I don’t know what happened.” I said, “No, they’re supposed to do that.” Most of the women who had that job were widows from World War I. I said, “No, no no, it wasn’t personal. They didn’t mean, ‘Nigger, get out of here.’” They’re just doing their job. Then he knew that. But he wanted to see [Henry Ossawa] Tanner’s The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896) at the d’Orsay. And by that garden, there’s a little Musée de Luxembourg, that’s where, in the book; Tanner came to the States and died in the thirties.

There’s an interesting story about Tanner. Back in Paris he became very famous. He won a big prize and things like that [Knight of the Legion of Honor]. Then he comes back to Philadelphia, which is where he’s from. He’s big because he won some famous prize in Paris. And then when the paper came out the next day, there’s Tanner, who’s kind of light-skinned. You’ve seen pictures. They had a picture of a jet-black man. Not him at all. That’s to say, “We know you’re a nigger.” No, they wrote a nice story, but that was a black, black man. What can we say? He’s a brother. But that was the thing: “With all your airs, you’re just a nigger still.” Racism. That’s a true story too. But the French have colorblindness, as far as that kind of thing; it was great. And Tanner was famous enough that they came to interview him in Philadelphia. That’s where Barbara Chase Ribault, the sculptor, is from.

JW Did you know her?

EC Oh yeah. We’re friends. She’s got plenty of money. And she’s talented. She’s married to a man who has fifty buildings in Paris. Fifty! One time she wanted me to come to her studio. If she’d been younger, I would have really been after her. But I’m not that kind of guy. So she took me to her studio by the Jardin des Plantes. It’s a beautiful studio. Big studio. There were no seats. I’m the kind of guy, even when I was young, I want to sit down.

JW (laughter)

EC When I come there, it’s fabulous. She didn’t have any of her sculptures in the studio. She had tapestries. They’re two or three hundred years old. She’d have them right now, if you were there. It’s not showing her work, not showing contemporary work, but it shows taste. So, finally we’re talking, and she’s got some very good wine, because they’ve got money. She’s just sitting in a chair, and I’m sitting, and here comes her husband. And he immediately puts his arm over her shoulder. They’re both looking at me.

JW What was his name?

EC I don’t know. He’s famous. It wasn’t Ribault, because she was once married to Ribault, who was a famous photographer, who lived in that same building. When she was with Ribault, they went to China, when no American could go. And they met Chairman Mao. That’s also part of her life. The French were friendly with China. To us, the French were Communists. But anyway, in her studio, I’m still wondering, What’s this? She’s sitting, and here comes the punch line. She knew I knew Reginald Lewis, and she says, “Did you know in the Washington Mall, there is no black sculpture? Nothing by a black person?” It just happened again recently with that sculpture of Martin Luther King, that’s by a [Chinese] guy. You’ve seen it?

JW I’ve seen photographs of it.

Portrait of Muriel 1952, 20 x 25½ inches, Oil on Canvas

EC I like it. But the point is, she was talking. She was asking me if I could show her stuff to Lewis. I never did and then Lewis died. She never got her sculpture on the mall. I thought she was influenced by Mel Edwards. What I really like, when Mel showed at the Whitney, downstairs, he had that barbed wire thing on the wall, and from a distance it looked like silver. It looked like jewelry. And you get close, it’s barbed wire. And he’s done a lot of things like that. So she showed me a sculpture. Well, she’s very talented, but she never got it [the commission]. But I didn’t realize they didn’t have anything. By a black person. Nothing. Until this thing now of Martin Luther King that looks like he’s coming out of a wall. I like it, though, but some people don’t like it.What do you think of that piece?

JW Oh, I don’t care for it at all. I think it is just commercial.

EC We’re not going to argue about that. It would have been better if they’d gotten Gabriel Koren, even though she’s white. She’s the sculptor that does Martin Luther King and everybody else. She’s got the studio in Queens. She calls me “Maestro.” She’s Hungarian. She only loves black people. She will not do a sculpture of a white person. One time she was forced to because it was the history of a black slave woman, who became famous, and it was this white woman who helped her. And she says, “I don’t want to do white people.” I said, “Wait a…,you’re white.” I said, “ You can’t help it, you’re still white, right?” (laughter) Gabriel Koren. She’s European. And she’s trained that European way, like the nineteenth century. They had to be three years doing sculpture. Carving and everything like that. That’s like it used to be at the Beaux Arts, in France. (long pause)

JW So what’s your feeling about the painting now?

EC It’s okay. I’ve seen better by Ed Clark, you know. I’m very prolific, man. There are paintings everywhere here. But I know I’m going to sell that one as soon as they come here. I tell you, the Chinese are buying now. Well, they’ve been buying. And now this Chinese guy, he’s been here once. And he called up to tell through the grapevine that he’s coming, and that he’s going to buy a painting. Here’s the latest on him. I didn’t know he was that rich. He’s in Beijing, and he just bought a seven million dollar sports car. There can only be one or two cars that’s worth that much. That’s got to be a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. There is no other car. Rolls Royce is not a sports car. He is real rich.

JW What’s his name?

EC I got his name somewhere. He’ll be here next week. And he’s so excited, because we sent that video.

JW What does that pink mean to you in that painting?

EC A woman’s vagina, maybe. Unconsciously.

JW So you associate pink, your use of pink, with a woman’s vagina?

EC I don’t think I’m thinking of sex consciously. I’ll get those other books. Not this one. If you want it, then I’ll give you —

JW Ed’s going to look for another book that he wants me to look at. My strategy has changed a little bit. I feel it’s best just to let him talk, even if it means rambling from one subject to another. But that’s okay. In between the rambling, we are getting some information, which I think is good. So I say, let him talk. Give us a few seconds until he returns.

EC (Entering the room) I showed you this is the book with the streets of Paris. They’ll have anyone—it could be before Tanner, it could be 1850, and they know where they were. In the back of the book, look for any name . . . (turning pages) Clark, Edward. All those are something to do with me: page twelve, page twenty, et cetera. And they’ve got Chester Himes.

JW Who was Chester Himes?

EC He’s a great writer [detective novels, Harlem Renaissance, (1909-1984)]. And he got rich over there, with his books.

JW And you knew him?

EC Oh yeah. (flipping pages) Here, I just found this. This might interest you. This is a show I had with Adger [Cowans]. Did you come to the opening? It was up in Chelsea. That’s Bob Blackburn—

JW Oh, you knew Bob Blackburn?

EC Very well.

JW What did you do with Bob? Did you ever do printing?

EC I met him in Paris. Yeah, he taught me how to make prints. We were very close.

JW Who’s the other guy there in the middle?

EC That’s the great photographer, from Life magazine.

JW What’s his name?

EC You know, the most famous black photographer. He used to do Life magazine. He’s the most famous of all photographers. It’s really a household name. He also did a book, a movie…[Gordon Parks]. (turning pages) There’s Vincent Smith. We were very close. Very, very close. And you know all these people, don’t you?

JW Who would that be? Looks like Steve Cannon.

EC Yeah, that’s Steve Cannon.

JW And you knew Steve?

EC Yeah, sure. Vincent, Gentry, Richard Mayhew—

JW You knew Herbert Gentry?

EC Yeah, very well. Paris, that’s where we met—Herbert Gentry, Gordon Parks.

JW Gordon Parks. Yes, of course.

EC He’s the most famous one.

JW He was a friend of Adger Cowens, a mentor figure.

EC Yeah, yeah, Adger called him “Pops.”

JW Yeah, I knew that.

EC Here’s another show I was in, in East Hampton.

JW Tell me something about George N’Namdi. George is your dealer, right?

EC Look at this. (showing Jack a photograph)

JW And who is she?

EC A woman who worked for George in one of his galleries. I told her, “Don’t come here no more, nobody’s going to ever look at my paintings with you here.” That’s a compliment. And there’s Adger. It was a big show in East Hampton.

JW What’s the name of the gallery?

EC Here it is: Walk Tall Gallery.

JW Okay. I still see you are reluctant to talk about your work. Why do you find it so difficult?

EC It’s because, when you’re thinking a painting, it’s not about English, French or anything. An abstract painting is different than if you’re painting a portrait, the cheeks and the lips. An abstract painting, how do you talk about it? Obviously, there’s sophisticated people here in New York, they know. But you take some educated people and they just say, “Well, what’s that?” They don’t understand it. But most people, when they look at a work, they say it looks powerful, or present, or original. When I’m painting, I’m not thinking about that. I know who I am. I blow most people off the wall, in my own opinion, when I do painting. But I’m not thinking of that. I’m just doing my thing. That broom…in the invitation for the show in Detroit, it said, “The powerful stroke.” We were talking about the stroke the other day. Soulages or Hartung, they’d use a broom. But they didn’t use that push broom. All I know is, I’m just looking, How’s it going to be? It’s like the Rorschach test. Sometimes I see something I don’t like. You see something, a big black thing. I see something, a big black thing. And I think it’s an ink spot. And yours, you think it looks like a juicy dick. (laughter) They give the Rorschach test for psychology, to see, what do you think of this? And they start telling on themselves. “Oh, looks like a lady with her hand open.” Or with her legs open, or something. My paintings are done wet; it has to be on the floor because of gravity. And then it starts doing something that I didn’t have in mind. I told you before, that one, it painted itself. You can’t paint that. It’s acrylic. Even oil, but oil’s more dangerous right now.

JW What do you mean by “painted itself”?

EC It paints itself. I’ll explain that to you. Let me show the photograph of the painting I’m talking about. (standing up)

JW Before you leave—do you do a preliminary sketch for each painting?

EC No.

JW Never?

EC No. At one time I did, years ago, but now, never. It’s in my mind now. I’m an old master.

JW What’s your reasoning there for not doing a sketch?

EC I’ll show you the photograph (in Master Painter). An, A-N. That’s the family name [EC’s wife, Liping An, took the photograph on the book’s cover].

JW This is the painting on the cover [Creation, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 84 inches].

EC (rustling pages) That’s me in the studio. I’m painting outside in France. In the city of Avignon. (flipping pages) Now let me show you the painting I want to talk about. I think it’s in here. See this one?

JW What’s the title?

EC Louisiana Red [2004]. One could paint clouds, but this one, I let it paint itself. It’s on the floor, it starts doing . . . you can’t do that. I didn’t touch it. I mean, I poured it and watched it do this. And then I took the red, and I let it do…. But it was just doing it, and that felt right. Immediately, it sold for a lot of money. But I didn’t touch it. Not with the brush. I didn’t get that far. I just let it do what it’s going to do. Like dyeing Easter eggs. I didn’t touch it, but I still created it. I liked what I saw. And a lot of them are like that. Some of them take half a day to dry. Or I’ll wait all night, and I’ll see what happened to it.

JW You know, the Surrealists had a word for that. The Surrealists call it automatism.

EC I like Surrealism. Have you ever been surreal in your work? I don’t think so, knowing your work. I like Magritte. I used to think Dalí, who I met, was too commercial, but now I like him better. He’s the most famous. And I met Dalí. When I was in Janis Gallery. When I’m in Janis Gallery, a lot of celebrities came in. And one day, I’m in the back room, and someone says, “Hey, Dalí’s out there.” He was doing this (imitates curling a moustache) . . . And so I went out. They’d kind of closed the gallery for an hour or so. And he immediately didn’t do that to me. He started talking straight. But he was doing his thing.

JW Curling his moustache?

EC He’s being Dalí, like a movie star.

JW I only met him once, briefly.

EC I saw him when I first got to Paris. I went to the Sorbonne, and someone said, “He’s going to speak.” He’s in the Sorbonne, up on a stage. He was talking. He knows French. He had something on his head, and he had like a pork chop over his eye. That’s phallic, right? He was just speaking. But he’s doing his surreal thing. I like his May West and all of that. And when he started speaking to me in Janis Gallery—he was talking about Klein—he said, “I like Klein.” Not very good English, but he didn’t do this (curling an imaginary moustache). I wanted him to always do that, but he knows . . . That’s what a little bit of his work is, with that attitude. And he said, “I like Klein; I went to two shows before this.” We talked a long time. Did you know Ted Jones?

JW I’ve met him more than once.

EC Ted Jones knew Dali and wanted him to be the godfather of his baby. It didn’t happen.

JW Is there anything else you would like to add?

EC No, but we can talk. You got a rendezvous outside, that’s your business.

JW Don’t worry about me. I’m here totally for you.

EC I’m not worried about you. And I’m not in a rush. We can talk as long as you want.

JW But is there something else you would like to add? I still haven’t gotten what I wanted, but . . .

EC Yeah. To me, when you work like that, its automatic, and you let nature take its course

JW You haven’t mentioned your drawing at all. Do you draw a lot?

EC I used to. But now I don’t.

JW Why is that?

EC I used to figurative paint. At the Art Institute, if you look at the figure drawing classes, I’m drawing. That’s a serious school. The whole semester—first still life drawing and then figure drawing. And that’s before you paint. And the next year it’s still life painting and then figure painting. They don’t do that now.

JW Why is it that you don’t draw any more?

EC I guess I don’t see the need. But I used to. When I got to Paris, I was influenced by Cezanne ’cause he drew. He draws some very beautiful drawings. And the Renaissance, and da Vinci. It was beautiful. But I don’t. There’s a time for that. I used to. I have sketches of Lily, and whatnot.

JW But there isn’t a drawing for a painting?

EC No, no. But at one time, when I was in art school, there was.

JW Do you think the fact that you don’t draw has something to do with the fact that you’re an abstract painter?

EC Yeah, but I wasn’t abstract in art school. (laughter) I was also taking drawing. Sometimes I would draw on the canvas before I painted. I was doing it that way.

JW Let me know something. I’m very interested in this. Do you think it’s necessary for an abstract painter to draw?

EC No. I mean, say Cy Twombly, I don’t think he draws. I don’t know him, but I know people who know him. He just puts little spots. And then it can be a drawing another way, you know [with the paint]. Here, this will give you a little taste of . . . (moving around)

JW (both moving away from recorder, inaudible) Edward just showed me a beautiful drawing, small—it’s only about ten inches—that dates back to the 1950s, ’53, of his first wife. Beautiful, very much in a Cubist style. He explains himself by saying that, when he was doing figurative painting, he did a lot of drawing. Now that he’s doing abstraction, he doesn’t see the need to draw. He seems to imply that the drawing and the painting are one: there is no separation, which is an interesting thought. He depends a lot on automatism, and—I’ll have to ask him, not to put words in his mouth. Now, you depend a lot upon spontaneity. Does it have something to do with your connection to jazz?

EC When I was talking about that yesterday, about when I was commissioned to do this painting, Elevation [1992], for Reginald Lewis and it wasn’t going right, even though everybody liked it. I told Melanca, my daughter, I said, “It wasn’t right, it wasn’t right.” And then the next day, I came in here and I went into my dance. I mean, with the drum. I’m calling it the dance. My daughter kind of just smiled, and then when I did that dance, there was nothing . . . I knew when Reginald Lewis was coming over. The thing about Reginald Lewis, he’s a man who doesn’t have much time. He was in Europe, but then he’s got a private jet. He’s coming up when he wants. And all of a sudden I’m expecting him three days later, and he says, “Can I come over and see the painting?” That was on a Thursday . . . And he was smart enough to say, “I’ll come Friday.” To give me more time. And the painting was not going right. I’ve got pictures of it somewhere. Here. Here it is. It is in his Fifth Avenue apartment. Now everybody sees spiritual things. When I did it, it was almost like that, but I knew when I did my dance, it was finished. I just knew it was finished. You couldn’t change it. And then Reginald Lewis’s wife [Loida Lewis] saw something spiritual in this. They had a duplex, actually, right on Fifth Avenue. And the wife saw a cross in the painting. Well, I’m not religious. But you got to behave yourself because I’ll be down there before you, and you may think you’re going to Heaven, I’ll say, “No, bring him down here. He’s a naughty boy, too.” But she saw something spiritual in the painting. I knew when it was finished. Everybody was pleased with it, but I wasn’t. I’m all alone, and the way I put it, “I did my dance.” Do it, do it, do it, like that. And Loida loves that painting. She’s rich; it’ll never be shown.

JW Tell us a little bit more about doing your dance.

EC Well, I just used that [term] because I realized that…I don’t really, can’t really dance. But I meant that I’m just imagining myself with those strokes, so boom, boom, pouring. And I called it a dance.

JW It’s a very nice metaphor.

EC Yeah. Occasionally I know that everything’s going right. I’ve destroyed some paintings I wish I hadn’t. And so had de Kooning. I remember once, de Kooning—there’s a picture of it in one of the magazines, black and white. I don’t have that magazine, unfortunately. It’s an unbelievable picture, a figurative picture. But he destroyed it. He lost it. And I remember once he told that to Janis. He called up the gallery, because Janis would always ask, “Was he working?” ’Cause he’s very famous. And what Janis saw—he wouldn’t holler at de Kooning—what he saw was fantastic. But de Kooning told him, “I lost it. I went too far. It doesn’t exist no more.”

JW Reginald Lewis’s wife. Do you remember her name?

EC Loida. Loida Lewis.

JW And she saw a cross in that painting?

EC We took it there, and she wrote me that she saw a cross. If you blur your eyes, you see . . .

JW Did you agree with her?

EC No, I’m not thinking about Jesus. But she saw a cross. I mean, not enough to go say it’s a cross or it’s not. She’s spiritual anyway. She saw a cross. You could see it too.

JW Okay, Ed. You went into your dance, to finish that painting.

EC Yeah, I did my dance—and I knew it was finished. I’d been working on it for two weeks. It looked something like that, but it wasn’t ready. And Reginald Lewis surprised me, because I knew he was coming, but not that soon. I said, “I’ll have it tomorrow.” And he said another day. Two days. He’s smart enough to know that’s what I’d probably need. And I knew it was finished. He walked in here with his brother—who was later fired when Reginald died. Well, I knew I’d get some money no matter what. So I had other, older paintings out. When he walked in, he ignored everything. He just wanted to see this painting. “Oh, how’d you do it?” And the moment he saw Elevation . . . I always have to see them up. It was lying down. He just said, “I like it. How much do you want for it?” I told him. He didn’t say anything. It was a good price.

JW What was the price?

EC I don’t remember. Nowadays I get that for one painting, $50,000 or something. But he’s got all the money in the world, right? He’s rich, rich, rich, rich, rich. And that’s why that book is called Why Do White Guys Have All the Fun? If you go to his house in Paris, God damn, he’d have wine that was maybe three hundred years old. He was just enjoying life, because with wealth, you can do that. He was something else. And he didn’t have much when he started. I got the book on him. When he was young, he had a paper route. One time he couldn’t do the paper route, he had to do something else, so his mother did it for him. And he learned a lesson, he said. When she came back, he wanted the money. She said, “What do you mean, the money?” His own mother did. She said, “Did you do it? I did it. That’s my money.”

JW Okay, Clark, we’re running out of time here. That’s about the end of the tape.

EC Okay. But Reginald Lewis was a very special guy. He would say, “I’m a sucker for your work, it’s got a certain . . . ” He didn’t care who was famous or not famous. He had to like it. And I noticed, when I worked at Sidney Janis, back when I was doing that kind of thing, that all those people would come in there. They hadn’t studied art, but they were big millionaires. They liked that kind of work, Klein and whatnot. They could just relate to it. I could see that. They didn’t have to know anything.

JW Just a gut feeling.

EC Yeah. For Klein, and excellence. And they knew that. Nothing to do with me. But I noticed that. They didn’t have to think about it. It would just hit them, the strength of it. Especially Klein. But I’ll tell you one thing that I won’t write. I’ve told you this story. It’s around Christmas time, and nothing wrong with that, Janis ain’t no Christian, but Christmas time, at the end of the year, they would all try to get rid of some paintings, contribution. That’s kind of the junky ones. They pull them out, and maybe other colleges or other galleries in another part of the country would know that they’re cheaper, and then he could use that as a write-off. So here comes Alfred Barr. I used to see him all the time. He’s the one who was the first director at the Modern when it opened in the thirties. He wrote about Picasso, two or three times . . . now here’s Barr. And at this point, I’m the young man in the back room. Janis is sitting on the chair with the guy, while I’m standing up with the painting, maybe as big as that one behind there. And Klein has started using color for the first time in his life. And so he showed it to him. And he also showed him a de Kooning. Barr liked the Klein, but he thought [the color one was by] de Kooning, so he said, “I’d like to see the de Kooning again.” And Janis didn’t want to embarrass him, didn’t want to say, “No, that’s not a de Kooning, that’s a Klein.” He meant well for that. As it was, Barr didn’t pick that one, but Janis meant: Don’t say anything, cause he’s a learned man; he’s the director of a museum; he’s the most famous man in America, in that area. You don’t just say, “Hey man. You’re looking at him.” Anybody could have made that mistake, I’ve witnessed that, and Janis was a bright guy. He was super good.


One time, a rich woman from Texas came in. And there were tie-in things. A woman at the Museum of Modern Art sent [her over]. I knew she was coming. And there was a chauffeur, Al, sitting in the chair. Turned out that was her pilot; she came in a plane. But I didn’t know that. Now Janis is not going to show her de Kooning and all of that. ’Cause he also had other paintings, Matisse and things like that. He had bought a Matisse the summer before. His wife was furious because he paid a lot of money for it. And it was a work of genius but kind of dry, for Matisse. He didn’t try to show the woman anything very modern. So she’s there, she’s looking, he’s showing her all those kinds of paintings, and then he showed her the Matisse. And I’m wondering if anything is going to happen. It’s quiet, absolutely quiet. And she said, “Mr. Janis, do you think I should start buying paintings for the first time, and pay those kinds of prices?” And he said, right away, “In 1936, I bought something from Nobles Gallery”—which existed then—“and it’s worth millions now.” He was just telling her, “Don’t get into that.” He wasn’t lying. And she said, “Well…I’ll take that one, this one, that one . . .” And he must have made over a million dollars that day. She had several paintings. But he was smart enough not to get her with a de Kooning or a Pollock. He made a fortune. Every day he was selling them. Now, when I first got there, [Philip Guston] was being shown. I didn’t particularly like Guston. I’m not giving some critique. He would sell. And now, when I see his work, he’s a great artist. I like that stuff he’s doing, the kind of cartoon stuff. Even the big ones might look good. But at the time, I didn’t think that. But he was a nice guy. And one time he came in, late—and you’re never supposed to be late with Janis. He came in late, maybe an hour late. He had a studio over a firehouse. Actually it was illegal, but they were getting money for that. He said, “Just as I was leaving”—they knew he was an artist. They asked, “Could you make a sign for us?” So he painted a sign for them. And he’s telling me that, because that’s where he stayed. And he’s real nice. He’s laughing at that too. You got to do what you got to do, right?


JW Absolutely.


EC If they like you, they’re not going to say, “We’ve got a guy up there that doesn’t have a lease or nothing.” And then he and Rothko dropped out [of the gallery], but I had left the gallery then. And Chris Shelton took my job. I saw him on the street once, and he told me Guston wasn’t with Janis no more, but I could go see his stuff in some hotel. And that’s the first time I saw the cartoons.


JW That was at McKee.


EC That was the beginning. He was almost worried about what the crowd would think. I always liked those things.


JW I knew Guston. He was a good man. I liked him.


EC But he was also confident. Even before he was abstract, he was figurative anyway, back to the old-fashioned figure. So was Rothko. I’ve seen all their paintings. Rothko and I were friends. He knew I was an artist, and so one time he said, “Come to my place, I want to give you something.” He gave me all his stretchers. They’d be selling his paintings like hot cakes, very seductive. He’s genius anyway. But often people would come in . . . he [Rothko] had real cheap stretchers. And one time they could see they weren’t right, and immediately he said, we have the redwood [stretchers]. Redwood is expensive because it never warps. Because those trees are a thousand years old . . . But they didn’t say nothing, they’d take it. And in those days, if it was on the fifth floor, they’d put it on top of the elevator, no plastic or nothing. And then when I went away and came back, everything was in plastic and whatnot. But in those days, that’s the way it was.


JW So Rothko gave you his stretchers?


EC He gave me all of them. He didn’t need them no more. Just being nice to an artist. He gave me a bunch of six, seven stretchers about that big . . .


JW Fantastic.


EC And I had a car, and I put them on top. And they even had specks of color on them.


JW Is that when you had a studio down on the Bowery?


EC No. This studio was up in the fifties somewhere.


JW What year was that? Do you remember?


EC It had to be 1951 or about.


JW Yeah, early.


EC I worked there [at Janis] two years. He [Rothko] was very nice. And he didn’t like people much. And I remember there was one of the paintings that he liked, that other people didn’t like, but I knew he liked it a lot, right. And I told him, I said, “I know that’s one of your favorites.” But here’s another thing about him. You know how he painted?


JW We’ve got a few minutes left on here.


EC Yeah. You know how he painted? There was a guy, a famous photographer, that would come and do the photography for Janis Gallery. He was good. And he had a place in Washington Square. Anyway, I’ve forgotten his name. He didn’t like abstract. I’m just a young man. He said, “Take that crazy one,” he was talking about Rothko—“you know how he paints? Listen to me.” He says, “He takes maybe like a broom, but puts a rag on it.” And I’m getting that from him. That’s what he told me. It’s genius, anyway, but he just put a big rag on it and did it. Baker was the photographer’s name.


JW For some reason, I knew that Rothko used a lot of rags, but I didn’t know he attached them to a broom.


EC Anyway, I didn’t see that. This guy was telling me that. So I can’t really say, but I know he would know because he would go to the studio, and that’s what Rothko did. But artists, they can do anything.


JW I only met Rothko once, briefly. Al Held introduced me to him.


EC Rothko could be real nasty if he wanted to be. But he never messed with me. I met him the first time when he—you wouldn’t know, Earl Kerkam was an older man over in Paris. He died before—


JW How do you spell it? Earl?


EC Yeah, Kerkam, with an E. Earl Kerkam was over in Paris. He loved Paris. He was in Paris before the war. And he went back there. He liked to hang around the young artists. We were all young artists. So we’re with Earl Kerkam, and we all went to the Museum of Modern Art. Sal, me, and Kerkam. He was an old man then. He was in his seventies, and we were still in our twenties. And there was Rothko. We didn’t even know that. We sat down, and we’re talking to him. And he’s really nice. We met him like that. I thought of all the artists they had—Janis had the best artists. The only one he didn’t have that he wanted was Clifford Still, who wouldn’t have nothing to do with him. And he also was flirting around with Sam Francis, who refused to show with him. But other than that, there’s nobody he didn’t have: de Kooning, Klein, Motherwell, Rothko, Albers. And he treated Albers like he was bullshit. One time I’m there, it’s time to go home, they’re in the office, and I heard him hollering at Albers. “If you don’t like what’s happening here, you’re out.” I heard him, Albers’s an old man, German, and he’s with his wife, and she’s an invalid, and he was probably asking for more money, and he just walked out. But Janis could be a bastard.


JW Did you know Nassos Daphnis?


EC I think we lived in the same building on Ninth Avenue. He’s Greek.


JW Yeah. You knew Nassos?


EC We lived on Ninth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. Yeah, I knew him. He’s good. And [Leo] Castelli would show him no matter what.


JW You know Nassos died.


EC I know that. I’ve got his obituary. But he was very good. Also, he was over in Paris. He lived in the same hotel where Beauford did at one time. The Hotel des Ecoles. Yeah, he did the Paris thing. A lot of people did the Paris thing, back in those days. He’s older than me. You met him?


JW Oh, I knew him. I knew Nassos well.


EC He was something. Did you know Knox Martin?


JW No. No, I didn’t know him.


EC Sal Romano and I, on Twenty-seventh Street and Sixth Avenue, we were on the top floor and Knox Martin was on the floor under us. He had a big ego. Artists, some do. You hear his name every now and then.


JW Okay. I think that’s about it, unless you have something else to add.


EC No, well, we’ll talk about it over the phone.


JW Thank you, Ed, very much.


EC Do me a favor.


JW Yes.


EC You bring that book up. It’s hard for me, at my age, to stoop down and get that heavy book.


JW Very good. Can I help you with something else?


EC Ah, well . . . I’m trying to think of some kind of corny joke. (laughter) No, man, nothing else.


JW Okay. Signing out.


1From Edward Clark: For the Sake of the Search, edited by Barbara Cavaliere and George R. N’Namdi, Belleville Lake Press, Belleville Lake, MI, c. 1997, from an interview with Edward Clark by Quincy Troupe, page 14.

2 From “Edward Clark, The Big Sweep,” in Edward Clark, Master Painter, by April Kingsely, G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, 2006, page 11.

3 From Edward Clark: For the Sake of the Search, edited by Barbara Cavaliere and George R. N’Namdi, Belleville Lake Press, Belleville Lake, MI c. 1997, interview with Quincy Troupe, page 20.

4 From Edward Clark: For the Sake of the Search, edited by Barbara Cavaliere and George R. N’Namdi, Belleville Lake Press, Belleville Lake, MI c. 1997, interview with Quincy Troupe, page 17.

5 From Ed Clark: Master Painter, published by G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, 2006, in “Edward Clark, The Big Sweep,” by April Kingsley, page 13.

6 From For the Sake of the Search, from, in “Un Musée pour Harlem,” by Ed Clark, Chroniques de l’Art Vivant, Paris, November, 1968, page 58.

7 From For the Sake of the Search, page 68.

LA Artist Sterling Ruby: Interviews+Commentary

  • Sterling Ruby has just opened a 90,000 sq ft studio in California” Financial Times London




Sterling Ruby: Balancing Act

Controversy hasn’t stopped the artist from coming out on top.

The artist Sterling Ruby’s bright future appears momentarily in doubt as he turns left off 26th Street in an industrial sector of downtown Los Angeles and suddenly faces a tractor-trailer, its white cab aglitter with chrome and menace. A split-second later, it’s clear that there’s no real danger—the truck is slowing to make a wide right turn—but the approaching hulk still appears ominous from the lower perspective of Ruby’s front seat. Its headlights are fierce eyes, the massive grille a toothy maw, and the manufacturer’s name, approaching us at eye level, is declared in manly block letters: sterling. “I was almost taken out by Sterling,” notes the 42-year-old with daredevil glee.

In a decade that has seen Ruby become the dominant L.A. artist of his generation and a star on this year’s international biennial circuit, he has faced actual perils that might have flattened a less ambitious man. In 2005, he was denied a master’s degree from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena because his advisory committee split sharply on the merit of his final project, which included a messy and perhaps incomplete thesis and a weird video triptych that showed the artist in flagrante with a skull—a shaky reference both to Shakespeare and to perhaps more senior local artists like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. Three years later, Ruby survived the bust-up of his first studio, a collective space in one of Los Angeles’s gangland neighborhoods. And, more recently, he weathered the charge of being a careerist gallery hopper after he moved in quick succession from L.A. based Marc Foxx to Manhattan’s relatively low-key Metro Pictures to the more internationally known Pace Gallery to the global powerhouse Hauser & Wirth.

But none of those threats to Ruby’s reputation as a serious artist have imperiled his ability to make money. Like a punk rocker who breaks into the Top 40, Ruby has surged to market heights, thanks largely to support from supercollectors including Michael Ovitz, who set up a meeting with Pace when Ruby decided to leave Metro Pictures.

“ ‘Material’ is the word that comes to mind when I think of Sterling’s work,” says the artist Alex Israel, a 31-year-old native Angeleno. “I remember thinking the first time I saw one of his ceramic pieces that no one was doing ceramics and yet he made it seem relevant and gorgeous and really fresh. And his stalagmites are these strong totemic sculptures that appear malleable and liquid. He’s inventing new forms that are somehow both alien and familiar—that feel like they are tapping into the pulse of our time. Sterling’s work doesn’t look like anyone else’s.”

Like a punk rocker who breaks into the Top 40, Ruby has surged to market heights.

And yet, until recently, his rise has not been universally cheered by critics. “Sterling has such a drive to produce, and he wound up being very commercially viable, very early on,” says Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, which will feature Ruby as one of eight artists in “The Los Angeles Project,” an exhibition opening in September. “For those of us in the critical establishment, that kind of success usually creates a disinclination to like the work. Artists who are able to build a giant apparatus marginalize themselves by being too successful, unless it becomes part of their shtick, like with Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. But Sterling is sincere.”

And as for the observers who fret about Ruby’s equally sincere commitment to sales—well, time is on his side. A generation of young curators including Tinari, who is in his mid-30s, came of age in the era of superstar artists like Hirst and are less inclined to look down on business savvy. These new arbiters are the ones who have booked up Ruby’s exhibition schedule. This year alone, his signature clay “basins”—which look like oversize ashtrays drenched with wet-finish glazes and filled with the fragments of earlier pieces—were included in the Whitney Biennial, and the Baltimore Museum of Art recently opened a show of “soft work”: fabric sculptures of what Ruby calls “vampire mouths.” (“My Rolling Stones tongue,” he jokes.) Ruby unveils new works in May at Hauser & Wirth, New York; in September at Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo; and he will also be represented at the Gwangju and Taipei biennials, which open at the same time as the Ullens Center exhibition in Beijing. He calls the run of transpacific dates his “Asian tour.”

Ruby’s booming career is reflected in the spaces that have given rise to it. When I first saw his current studio on 26th Street some five years ago, he and his 10 assistants had just moved in, and the place seemed gigantic. The converted industrial space consists of a series of workshops, each dedicated to one of the many materials Ruby uses in his versatile practice. One is for drawing; another for ceramics (the basins are made with up to 300 pounds of clay); another for ceiling-high poured-urethane sculptures (his instantly recognizable “stalagmites”); another for fabric collages; another for paintings (up to 20 feet wide); and, finally, a white-walled gallery to display completed works. The really big pieces are assembled outside: The cardboard-and-urethane forms used to cast his stove sculptures require a forklift to transport them around the studio. After my first tour, I walked away unsure of how to characterize him as an artist (sculptor? ceramist? painter?) but with a clear understanding that everything about Ruby’s practice, apart from his own compact physical stature, was XXL.

Now, five years later, Ruby and his current team of 14 assistants have outgrown 26th Street, and he’s building a new studio nearby that dwarfs the old one. The compound encompasses four acres—more than two acres are under roofs. When you set foot inside the main building, the feeling you have is something like awe. Its central bow-truss ceiling soars to 42 feet and is flanked by barrel vaults on either side. Thirty thousand square feet will be devoted to a viewing room where Ruby can study his work—a mega-gallery of his own. A separate building houses a ceramics studio with glass-fronted bays large enough to park in. Another 10,000-square-foot corrugated-metal building is reserved for storage, so that Ruby can hold back 50 percent of his production as a personal archive. On the bright spring day when Ruby shows me around, it is months before he will begin moving in, and only one artwork has been installed. It is, predictably, large. The cast-bronze basin is a Pompeian riff on his ceramics, he says, and it could easily serve as a wading pool for Ruby as well as his wife, the artist Melanie Schiff, and their children were it not tipped up as a wall sculpture and filled with quasi-archeological scrap from the foundry in China that fabricated it. If Ruby’s current studio is XXL, this new one will be XXXXL.

Born in 1972 to a Dutch mother and an American father in Bitburg, Germany, Ruby and his family lived for a time in Baltimore before moving to rural Pennsylvania, the childhood home with which he most strongly identifies. By 13, he was focused on the California punk scene and busy with a sewing machine that his mother had given him; his peers preferred shop class. Ruby got into a lot of fights. He still sews, and in addition to his fabric sculptures, he makes fabric-collage “paintings” that reference the Pennsylvania quilting tradition; he even designed his own studio wardrobe of denim trucker jackets, jeans, and aprons—all splattered with paint and drips of urethane. Ruby’s attire intrigued the fashion designer Raf Simons, the creative director at Christian Dior, who has collected Ruby’s work in depth and referenced it in his designs since they became acquainted nearly a decade ago. At Simons’s prompting, the two designed a collection for Simons’s eponymous men’s wear label; it was shown in Paris this past January, vampire-mouth fabric sculptures looming over the runway. “When we worked together, it was almost like being married,” Simons recalls of the collaboration, noting that his family in Belgium lives just across the border from Ruby’s Dutch relatives—a bond they discovered when they first met. “The collection grew out of years of talking—so many similarities between us, so many shared interests. It was a really natural thing to do.” Ruby likens the experience to the Bauhaus practice of combining craft and fine art, and says he loved the standing ovation that ended the show. “Raf was crying, and I was crying,” Ruby recalls with a laugh. “Everybody was standing up, cheering. At that moment I thought, Fuck being an artist—this is wonderful.”

Ruby realizes that some may look askance at his fashion-world dalliance, but he prefers not to distinguish between his side projects and his so-called serious work, because he views what he does as a single practice that challenges old artistic hierarchies that place metal and paint (“masculine”) above ceramics and fabric (“feminine”). Former Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) chief curator Paul Schimmel, who is now a partner in Hauser & Wirth’s upcoming L.A. gallery, suggests that Ruby’s dislike of such judgments stems from his view of himself as an art world outsider, someone who grew up far from the “thin sliver of culture” along America’s coasts. “It’s almost a moral stance for him,” Schimmel says. “It’s fundamental to how he sees himself.”

Since arriving in California, Ruby has consistently explored antisocial behavior.

After his undergraduate years at a small Pennsylvania art college that emphasized unfashionable craftsmanship courses and sketching live nudes, Ruby earned a BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Then he headed west in 2002 to attend Arts Center, attracted by what he calls the “pathology” of Los Angeles and the presence of established artists including Kelley, who was then an Arts Center faculty member; Chris Burden; and Paul McCarthy. “It was a completely different art world than New York,” Ruby explains one morning at the pleasant but modest house he and Schiff own in Sunland, about 45 minutes from downtown L.A. “It seemed way more dangerous. I was drawn to that.”

Apparently, the sketchy fringe still appeals. The suburb used to be a Hells Angels hideout. “Some of the neighbors were unsure about having a couple of artists move in,” Ruby says as he shows me around the acre plot and his contemporary house—painted matte black—shaded by oaks. But over time, the Ruby-Schiff clan has quietly fit in. “It reminds me of where I’m from. Sort of rural. We have a Sizzler.”

Since arriving in California, Ruby has consistently explored antisocial behavior and his own relationship to art history. He assisted Kelley as a grad student, and from their conversations, he developed the notion of the artist as criminal, someone who decontextualizes meaning and faith with only a skewed sense of social responsibility. Ruby’s key themes were fully expressed in his breakout solo museum exhibition, “Supermax 2008,” at MOCA, which drew parallels between the penal system and art history, the common thread being incarceration and repression. It amounted to a forceful reaction against the theory-heavy curriculum at Arts Center, where, in Ruby’s opinion, discussion was given precedence over studio time. Almost as revenge against the faculty who denied him a degree, Ruby stuffed as many handmade objects as possible into the galleries. The exhibition included sculptures, paintings, drawings, and collages, all of which shifted abruptly between the anthropomorphic (goopy, drippy, wet) and the geometric. “It had to be packed, dense, confusing,” Ruby explains. “It had to be nauseating.” Some of the hard-edged sculptures were purposely defaced with dirty smudges and graffiti, as if Ruby were “tagging” the pristine legacy of his minimalist and conceptualist forebears. Some visitors walked away saying “This guy needs to figure out what he wants to do,” Ruby recalls. Ovitz and his curator, Nu Nguyen, were not among them. “I was blown away that he could work in so many materials and deliver a message as coherent as it was,” Ovitz says. “We sat in there for about an hour, and when we got in the car, we called his studio to start talking to him about doing something for us.”

Ruby had produced the “Supermax 2008” work at the studio he shared with a revolving cast of 10 to 15 other young artists—including Amanda Ross-Ho, Brenna Youngblood, and Aaron Curry—in the aptly named Hazard Park neighborhood. Their dilapidated sheet-metal building once partially collapsed during a minor earthquake; another day, a shoot-out took place on their street. Ruby and his studio-mates were energized by the gritty reality of making art among the gangbangers: It felt dangerous and, thus, somehow authentic. “I think in many ways the best part of being there was that we were working toward a movement,” he recalls. “We fed off one another.” But the group fragmented only three years after it was formed. Feeling hemmed in by the emotional complications of navigating friendship, studio life, and gallery politics, Ruby left in 2008. He skirts the details of the studio’s breakup, other than to say, “It was a pretty conscious effort to drop out.”

Today, Ruby keeps an orderly 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday work schedule. He insists that his real job is making stuff, and he goes to work like a blue-collar man. He -acknowledges that he’s not entirely comfortable with the established gallery system—“Very early on, I started to think about what it is to share 50 percent of your income with a dealer,” he says—and he cites Kelley and Burden as other artists with working-class roots who taught him to be pragmatic about money. “I have to say that I can’t do this without the dealers,” he tells me on another day. “But I think that at some point in the future, they will have less of an impact on the market, and artists will do things differently.”

Nine years out of grad school, Ruby oversees a studio humming with activity and is making the transition from “young” to “midcareer” artist. When I show up at the studio a week after our meeting in Sunland, Ruby emerges like an apparition in a paint-splattered white-denim outfit that looks as if it had doubled as a drop cloth. He jokingly calls it “studio camo.” Sitting down, he tells me a story he apparently forgets having told me the week before. Ruby recently ran into the artist Diana Thater, whom he knew as a grad student at Arts Center but hadn’t seen for years, and certainly not since she became chair of the graduate faculty that had denied Ruby his degree. “The first thing she said was, ‘Sterling, I’m the chair. I can get you your degree now,’ ” he recalls. At first, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to sew up this small rip in his legitimacy, but then he told his studio assistants to dig into his digital archives for a copy of his forgotten thesis and video project to send Thater. The degree would be purely symbolic at this point, but apparently old scars still smart. “I figured I paid for it,” Ruby says. “I should probably have it.”

Sterling Ruby Talks His New Show, Punk Rock, and Why You Won’t Find Him at Frieze


Sterling Ruby

Photo: HANGING FIGURES (4838); 2014; Fabric and fiberfill; 388.6 x 480.1 x 414 cm / 153 x 189 x 163 in

Thanks to a Fall ’14 menswear collaboration with Raf Simons, Sterling Ruby has become somewhat of a household name amongst the fashion set. But in the midst of his splattered sartorial foray, many missed out on the sheer scope and scale of Ruby’s accomplishments off the catwalk (as far back as 2008, The New York Times’ Roberta Smith dubbed him “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century”).

Sunrise Sunset, which bowed in NYC Friday night at Hauser & Wirth’s West 18th Street outpost, offers a good opportunity to catch up. The L.A.-based Ruby has tackled 10,000 square feet of exhibition space to create a wondrously ominous playground of new works. His pieces are informed as much by institutions (Ruby was born on a military base in Bitburg, Germany, and grew up in the darkly named, rural town of New Freedom, Pennsylvania) as a lack thereof (punk and skate cultures were among his earliest aesthetic touchstones). Faceless, flaccid effigies in a deceptively cuddly Stars and Stripes fleece hang from the rafters, and a bleach-riddled patchwork flag presides over the space from a back wall. Elsewhere, murky, spray-painted horizons recall graffiti. Ranging from ruminations to eviscerations, these works turn an eye to topics like the prison system and U.S. military involvement, and are affecting in a way that’s rare for such large-scale pieces.

We sat down with the master of many mediums to talk punk, bleach, and why you “goddamn well” won’t find him at Frieze.


Photo: SCALE / BATS, BLOCKS, DROP (4837); 2014; Wood, steel, fabric and fiberfill, paint, and mixed media; 459.7 x 454.7 x 396.2 cm / 181 x 179 x 156 in

I’ve read that you came to art through punk rock and skate culture. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I grew up primarily in rural Pennsylvania. I went to a pretty straight agriculture school. We had calligraphy and we had drafting—those were the only two art classes. And around the age of 12, I think I loved skateboarding and the associations [with it]. At that point in time, skateboarding was so closely merged with not only the aesthetics but also the attitude of California punk. There wasn’t necessarily a cultural background to my family; there weren’t museums. My family didn’t know art. It wasn’t a visual childhood, and so when I reached 12, 13, I got super-obsessed with that kind of lifestyle [and there] was already a type of aesthetic associated with that, and so it was to me a real challenge to associate a look with an attitude, and that became something that has mostly held true throughout my adulthood. Later on, when I started to meet a lot of other artists, like Mike Kelley, those things were also how they were introduced to visual culture. Not through art, per se, but through music.

Why L.A.? I’ve heard people talking a lot about the artistic community there being at a point of change.
I first started art school in 1990, and I went to a straight formal foundation school in Pennsylvania. When I say foundation school, it was like four years of figure studies, bowls of fruit, perspective and a lot of color theory. But the school modeled most of its curriculum on, like, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, which stops very much at modernism. I mean, you had your de Kooning books, but there wasn’t anything that seemed crazy and out there, and I remember sometime around ’93, Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s was bought by the library at the school. It was such a strange thing for this library to get, and I liked the pathology of the work that I saw within [it]. That made me really interested in Los Angeles as a place, as opposed to, say, New York. Years later I went to visit for the first time and I just felt super-comfortable with it, and I knew that I could feed off of that behavioral geographic. So when I wanted to go to graduate school, I only applied to two places— Art Center [College of Design] and UCLA. UCLA didn’t let me in, so I went to Art Center. But it was perfect. I became Mike Kelley’s teaching assistant for three years, and I’ve been pretty happy ever since. It’s also cheaper; you can work outside most of the year; and geographically, there’s a lot of diversity within it. It’s a big suburb. It’s not a real city, you know? And I quite like that about it. It’s so spread out and there’s a lot of hermeticism. People can easily stay isolated for long periods of time, whereas I think the logistics of New York don’t allow that as much.

How do you feel about the proliferation of art fairs?
I don’t really feel one way or another about it, but I think strategically I’ve realized that you need to be more selective or you’ll burn yourself out. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with the idea of people seeing the work, but it’s the context within the work…whether or not it’s shoved into a corner that has a bad floorboard on it…something like that. So those are qualities that are negative, but the fact of the matter is that more people will see, say, Basel Switzerland or Basel Miami than they will this show, and that’s challenging, to say the least.

Do you see fashion glomming onto the art world? Basel Miami has basically turned into a party scene.
I have to say that I don’t know the last time I actually went to an art fair. I mean, I’m in New York for a week, but I know goddamn well I’m not going to Frieze. I would love to if they would let me in with, like, five other people. But I don’t actually like seeing art in that scenario because it really is social—extremely social, and it kind of waters down the experience of what it is that you’re standing in front of. I’m sure for other people that’s a nice thing, to see art at a party, but I typically don’t—unless I absolutely have. I don’t do it.

Sunrise Sunset—does that refer to the fall of empires?
I think that Sunrise Sunset is a title that’s super-open. And I kind of like that. It could easily refer to the fall and rise of an entire empire. It could be a bookend. It could be my entire autobiographical archaeology of my day-to-day existence. I drive off the mountain into the city at sunrise. I drive out of the city, up to the mountain at sunset. I have at least an hour, an hour and a half in the car where there’s nothing but contemplation of what it is that I’m doing. And that again just seemed perfect for a show like this. It’s sort of a mixed bag. It is this rise and fall of the contemplation of what it is that I’m actually working on.

Sterling Ruby

Photo: TROUGH (4837); 2014; Bronze; 133.985 x 110.49 x 233.68 cm / 52 3/4 x 43 1/2 x 92 in

There seems to be a very domestic reference in this show. Can you speak a little bit about that and how it’s crept into your work?
The stove in and of itself—I think that I initially started making these stoves on a much smaller scale, and there were two reasons: I grew up on a farm until I was 18, and our entire source of heating for the house was always the wood-burning stove, so at a certain age I was bound to the chores of chopping wood, stacking wood, and starting and maintaining a fire. In ceramics, I started to think specifically about the truncation of things within the stove. What does the fire mean? What is the alchemy of it? And so I really wanted to make my own stove. We started importing these cast-iron stoves that were similar to the ones that my parents had on the farm, and we were burning scrap lumber, we were burning all of our documents, doing all of these things in the studio. After a while I realized that I wanted to make my own. I didn’t want to rely on other people’s cast-iron stoves, so we started making really small ones just out of cardboard and then casting them. And then I realized I wanted to make a monument to that. So this one is, in particular, a large-scale, fully operational stove.

The large fabric pieces of the flag, the fabric paintings, and fabric collages are really based on quilts. I’ve always been somewhat obsessed…they were one of my early visuals, because we lived so close to Lancaster and I had a lot of friends who were Amish. I saw quilts before I saw any sort of Pop art or geometric art. Over time, I really started to like Japanese boro textiles, which are a kind of transformation from the utilitarian to the aesthetic. With boro textiles, when your clothing gets too worn out from working too hard, you turn it into a quilt or a tapestry. It’s this exchange between something that was once used as clothing for something that is looked at as an aesthetic. And I’m doing the exact opposite—we tend to dye, bleach, and paint fabric canvas in the studio almost every day. Then I hand the scraps to my patternmaker and I have her make clothing. I think in many ways I like the universalness of not only formalism but also recognizable icons of use, value, and associations. I like that. Not everything has to be a complete abstract.

Sterling Ruby

Photo: FLAG (4791); 2014; Bleached and dyed canvas and elastic; 431.8 x 675.6 cm / 170 x 266 in

Is bleaching for you about creating an absence, or is it about putting something onto fabric?

I think of bleach in both of those terms. I like the deduction of bleach—I like that it’s not an additive, it’s a negative. And that’s something Raf [Simons] and I have talked about at length. Also, bleaching is a destructive process, so you’re riding an extremely fine line of things being broken down and deconstructed. Sometimes the pieces get completely chewed through, and other times we time it just right so that we get these really beautiful washes that are almost like photographic processes that turn into negatives.

Has working with Raf informed your practice in other ways?

I think the project with Raf has confirmed the idea of not following an allegiance to hierarchies within art. Why should making clothing be anything better or worse than making a painting? I understand from the art community why there are differentiations between [those], but I think both Raf and I are huge fans of the idea of working within a Bauhaus mentality, one that has no barriers within genres.

Ruby Sterling

Photo: The Cup (4791); 2013; Foam, urethane, wood and spray paint; 233.7 x 293.4 x 223.5 cm / 92 x 115 1/2 x 88 in

You seem to be able to really draw out the plasticity in everything you work with. What is your approach when you’re bringing a new medium into your practice?
I think a lot of the time it’s already there. Maybe it was something that evolved out of another body of work, or something that was kind of trial and error with something previously. Most of the time that’s how it happens. It’s like working on something that is determined already and trying to work with that, and maybe failure of working with that turns into an entire other body, that the material jumps from one to the other. And then sometimes it’s really a matter of looking at it from a different perspective; that there exists something that’s made out of a certain material that is either functional or already exists, but I kind of like the tonality of it or the meaning of it.

Your pieces are obviously very spatial. Is it challenging to create these in your studio and conceive of how it’s going to exist in a gallery setting?

That’s always the hardest thing. I enjoy the installation process, but I’m not a very good preplanner, and I know some artists work off of a diagram, but that never works for me. I need to be in this phase to see the sights and see the crescendos, to see the breathing room between works. The ceiling here in the 18th Street space is considerably difficult because it’s almost like having a train track or a bridge above you. Even though we made a diagram on a computer and tried to plan, it just never works. It doesn’t work. You can’t do it. For a show like this, it makes me anxious to bring everything in and think that maybe we’ll edit half of it out. We don’t really know. I have to give credit to my gallery for this, because I think it’s a leap of faith to let an artist show all of his work. Maybe three pieces are going to go in. I don’t know until we actually start moving things around. But for me it’s a super-special challenge to get everything in and start to look at it—the demographics of viewing things both on the wall and in the space.

Your work looks at institutions and at the same time a lack thereof, with punk influences. How do you think those forces end up playing out?

I don’t always like making something that’s so didactic that it takes one side or the other. What I like the most is when a piece comes together and it alludes to this scenario of self-reflexive acknowledgment of the negative. I think that the pieces, for a lot of people, are very American. They’re very male. But at the same time, I would hope that you could read the self-reflexivity and criticism of that in the scale and you don’t have tropes or colors or the masculinity of it. I don’t think there’s always proportion to such a degree that it’s reveling. Sometimes it’s reveling in the negative of it.

Photos: © Sterling Ruby; Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Robert Wedemeyer


Pass Notes: Sterling Ruby

Violet Hudson gives us the lowdown on fashion’s favourite artist Sterling Ruby.

Who is Sterling Ruby?

If you have been paying attention to the fashion merry-go-round, you will have already seen some of Sterling Ruby’s designs. He collaborated on a punky, collage-inspired menswear AW14 collection with Raf Simons, shown in Paris last week. But Ruby isn’t actually a clothes designer; he’s an exciting young artist of international renown.

Who is he?

A German-born artist who currently lives and works in LA.

What’s his stuff like?

Good question. Ruby doesn’t confine himself to one medium. His work has spanned many oeuvres of art, from canvases and collages to ceramics and ‘nail varnish drawings’. He works in sculpture and in textiles. Immensely versatile, there is no signature Sterling Ruby style – although there are unifying themes if you look carefully enough.

So…how would I recognise one of his pieces?

They share the same punk aesthetic, and are all influenced by societal issues. Ruby has cited schizophrenia as an inspiration, as well as gang warfare, cults and maximum security prisons.

Is he mentally stable?

He is sane, but wildly creative (if those attributes aren’t mutually exclusive).

Tell me more…

He was born on an American military base in Bitburg, Germany. He’s a bright spark: Joyce Carol Oates’ novels are a big influence, and he finds creative stimulation in everything from fascist architecture to LA graffiti.

Who likes him?

The New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, has called him one of the most interesting contemporary artists around. The Guggenheim, MoMA, Tate and Raf Simons are all collectors.

Where can I see his work?

Apart from his work in permanent gallery collections, Ruby has created a public sculpture in Portugal. As for exhibitions, you’ll have to pop over to NY to see him this year. He’s showing at Hauser & Wirth from 9 May – 25 July. See hauserwirth.com for more details.


Installation view, ‘EXHM’, Hauser & Wirth London, England, 2013 © Sterling Ruby / Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth / Photo: Alex Delfanne

CDCR, (2011)

© Sterling Ruby / Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth /Photo: Robert Wedemeyer


Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

January 7th, 2014
Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

Artist: Sterling Ruby

Venue: Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle

Exhibition Title: Droppa Blocka

Date: October 27, 2013 – January 14, 2014

Click here to view slideshow

Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

Sterling Ruby at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

Full gallery of images, press release and link available after the jump.


Images courtesy of Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle

Press Release:

Sterling Ruby (b. 1972 Germany, lives and works in Los Angeles, U.S.A.) is a multidisciplinary artist who became renowned for his large glassy ceramic sculptures and abstract paintings.  His paintings are reminiscent of dark interpretations of the Colour Field Paintings from the sixties.  His work can as well refer to classic architecture and modern Minimalism, but also to marginality, vandalism and power structures.  His exceptional use of materials and his ability to develop a particularly powerful visual language makes Sterling Ruby one of the most important artists of the beginning of the twenty-first century.  At the museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Sterling Ruby creates a complete project for the large patio and the garden.



Sterling Ruby

Bonniers Konsthall invites Los Angeles based artist Sterling Ruby to present his first solo exhibition in Sweden.

On December 15th Bonniers Konsthall opens the first large solo exhibition for the Los Angeles based artist Sterling Ruby in Scandinavia. Sterling Ruby, whose been named one of the 2000s most interesting artists, works in a mixture of materials and genres, from glazed biomorphic ceramics to drawings in nail varnish. He takes his subject matter from a wide range of sources, including maximum security prisons, urban gangs, modernist architecture, and the mechanisms of warfare.  His works can be seen as a form of assault on both materials and social power structures.

The universe of Soft Work is by first look playful, soft and humorous but will soon reveal a dimensions of fear or terror. The artist transforms pillows, blankets, and quilts from objects of comfort into ominous sculptural objects that hint at the possibility that safety and security are an illusion. Here the American flag is used as material in gigantic vampire mouths and obese stuffed animals hangs from the roof like macerated cadavers.

The exhibition is organized in association with Centre d’Art Contemporain, Genéva, FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, Reims and MACRO, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome,



Wed 9 Jan, The Cool School by Morgan Neville

The Cool School is an abject lesson in how to build an art scene from scratch and what to avoid in the process. The film focuses on the seminal Ferus Gallery, which groomed the LA art scene from a loose gang of idealistic beatniks into a circuit of competitive, often brilliant artists, including Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Craig Kauffman, Wallace Berman, Ed Moses and Robert Irwin.

Wed 23 Jan, Surfer Aesthetics. Liv Stoltz on LA art scene

Los Angeles is home to not only iconic artist names, but also an emerging young artist scene. In this lecture, curator Liv Stoltz talks about the younger generation that she had the opportunity to meet in Los Angeles when curating the exhibition LA Trash & Treasure at Milliken, 2006 – one of whom was Sterling Ruby.

Wed 6 Feb, Graffiti and the established art scene

Graffiti and street art and its characteristic expression has long inspired artists working in the institutional art scene. What happens when the terms change contexts? Jacob Kimvall, a doctor of art history and author of Zero Tolerance – The fight against graffiti 
in conversation with gallery owners Jonas Kleerup and Jeanette Steinsland, representing a new generation of street art inspired artists.

Jacob Kimvall is an art historian and writer. He is currently a PhD student in art history at Stockholm University and working on a thesis focusing on street art, and among other things, investigating the interplay between art institutions and street art. Kimvall himself has a background in graffiti art, and in 1992 co-founded the international graffiti periodical Underground Productions.

Jeanette Steinsland is a curator and head of the gallery Steinsland Berliner which opened in 2008. She was the first to exhibit the street artist Banksy in Stockholm and today her gallery organizes street art walks. Jeanette is currently working on an exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken in Arendal, Norway.

Jonas Kleerup is a gallerist and head of Gallery Kleerup in Stockholm. Since opening in 2006, Gallery Kleerup has represented several artists inspired by street art. Jonas also runs the project Villa Contemporary Art.

Wed 20 Feb, Jörg Heiser: Who is Sterling Ruby?

Jörg Heiser, co-editor of Frieze Magazine and co-publisher of Frieze d/e, and one of the most influential names in contemporary art criticism, gives a presentation of Sterling Ruby, putting his practice into a broader context where both Ruby’s sources of inspiration, such as minimalism, Mike Kelley and brutalistic architecture,  and Ruby’s later ”softer” works are discussed.

Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze magazine, co-publisher of frieze d/e, and writes for the national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. He is a visiting professor at Kunstuniversität Linz, and teaches at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Hamburg. His book All of a Sudden: Things that Matter in Contemporary Art (Sternberg Press) was published in 2008, and he co-edited (with Eva Grubinger) the volume Sculpture Unlimited (Sternberg Press 2011). Heiser curated the exhibition “Romantic Conceptualism” (2007, Kunsthalle Nürnberg, BAWAG Foundation Vienna). He lives in Berlin.

Wed 27 Feb, Does material play a role in artists’ practices today?

This seminar focuses on sculptural materials and asks questions surrounding what materiality can be seen as today. What information
is inherent in contemporary artists’ material choice and which shifts have influenced sculptural processes. Three artists working in three-dimensional fields discuss their view of sculpture today. Confirmed participants are Zandra Ahl and Olav Westphalen.

Zandra Ahl is a artisan and professor at Konstfack in Stockholm. Her work has often focused on taste, class and power. In her practice, she has produced and curated exhibitions, organized talks and seminars, and worked with the fanzine Slicker. She also made the documentary short film “National Museum and I” (2008). This year Nilleditions re-issued Zandra and Emma Olsson’s “Swedish Taste” (2001), and in October she will open “Family Outlet” at Gustavsbetgs art gallery.

Olav Westphalen is an artist and professor of Fine Art at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, specializing in the performative characteristics of art.

Wed 6 Mar,
 Soft Work according Kakan Hermansson

Karin ”Kakan” Hermansson, Swedish artist, tv personality, DJ and club organizer, makes a more personal tour of the exhibition. As an artist, Kakan Hermansson works with questions surrounding gender, class and sexuality. She has arranged such events as the nail-art salon Girls Club in both clubs and in the art world.

Wed 13 th Mar. Florence Derieux on Soft Work

Florence Derieux is a French art historian and curator. Since 2008 she has been director of the FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, reims where she curated the previous Soft Work exhibition and initiated the basic idea of the tour.


All is subject to change. Limited number of seats. 80 kr; 60 kr for students and pensioners. Free for members and everyone under 18 years. Get your ticket from 11 am the same day at the Konsthall reception desk.



Sterling Ruby: EXHM


Contemporary art

Various venues

Until Sat May 4 2013

  • Free
Installation view of Sterling Ruby at Hauser & Wirth, 2013.

Installation view of Sterling Ruby at Hauser & Wirth, 2013. http://www.DELFANNE.com

Time Out says

Posted: Wed Apr 3 2013

Drip-spattered dirty monumental effigies to America dominate Sterling Ruby’s first show with Hauser & Wirth. However, the Los Angeles-based artist isn’t paying homage to the land of the free; rather, he’s exposing his misgivings.

Enormous urethane sculptures are displayed alongside debris-encrusted collages. Akin to stalagmites and missile weaponry, the floor pieces derive a corporeal quality from the poured red, white and blue pigments that run, sweat-like, down their surfaces. These glistening forms are branded with their own titles, ‘We Luv Strugglin’, ‘The Pot is Hot’, and ‘Drag On’, honouring the protest slogan. Ruby also uses acronyms to reference the very government agencies he’s questioning, most blatantly in ‘CDCR’ – California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations.

There are odes to American craft in his quilt-like soft fabric sculptures. ‘Pile (4129)’ slouches on the floor, its stars and stripes material oozing red droplets, while the bulbous form of ‘Husbands + Drops (4133)’ hangs from th gallery ceiling like a disemboweled cuddly toy.

If only the exhibition’s slick production had taken on more of the works grungy poetics, Ruby would be as much of a superpower as the organisations he’s poking at.

Freire Barnes



    Sterling Ruby installation view of MOCA Focus: Sterling Ruby, SUPERMAX 2008 2008 photo by Brian Forrest

  • September 22, 2011

    Sterling Ruby and Lucio Fontana


    Andrea Rosen

    525 West 24th Street, Chelsea

    Through Oct. 15

    Pairing Sterling Ruby and Lucio Fontana is an inspired idea. Fontana (1899-1968) was the Italian avant-gardist known for cutting neat, graceful slices into his own monochrome paintings. He violated sheets of copper, too, leaving them bent, scratched and ragged along the edges of the incisions. Three examples from 1962 are included here. Less well known and compelling in a different way are his ceramics: pedestal-size, expressionist sculptures of vigorously worked and beautifully glazed clay. In two representations of the Crucifixion from the 1950s the literally torn and gouged clay and the figuratively tortured flesh of Jesus become one.

    Mr. Ruby, who was born in 1972 and lives in Los Angeles, toys freely with multiple styles. He has the attitude of a grunge rocker with a head full of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. A big, bracingly ugly bronze sculpture resembles part of a subterranean archaeological dig. Displayed on pedestals, flat-bottomed, crudely hand-molded clay basins contain broken pieces of other basins and pours of brightly colored glazes that resemble toxic chemicals and tarry sludge. Large, framed collages are mainly made from pieces of stained and splattered cardboard that appear to have been used initially as studio floor covers.

    Fontana and Mr. Ruby share a mission to uncover violent psychic depths that genteel idealism covers up. Yet in so doing, both exercise acute conceptual and aesthetic sophistication. (Mr. Ruby might be the love child of the artists and university professors Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley.) They are mandarins masquerading as barbarians in the wishful service of convulsive beauty.



Full color illustrations
Paperback, 152 pages, English

Introduction by Jeremy Strick
Cataogue essays by Sarah Conaway, Erik Frydenborg, and Philip Kaiser

Published by The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-933751-10-8

30 USD

  • Monocle
    Sterling Ruby

Sterling Ruby is now at the top of the LA artworld. The Wall Street Journal recently said Ruby is the number one artist who will enter art history.

  • ========================================================================
  • 7 Dec 2012
  • The Wall Street Journal Asia


40, lives in Los Angeles

Gestures of apocalyptic angst. Mr. Ruby is a pro at toggling several gritty series of artworks that collectively chronicle what he calls his “generation’s unrest”—from ceramic bowls that evoke ancient dig sites to drippy fang-toothed “Vampire” sculptures to neon graffiti-style paintings. At a time when some art schools still preach cerebral conceptualism, Mr. Ruby’s eagerness to get messy makes him look like a maverick. When it comes to coveted artists, London collector Tiqui Atencio says this artist is “first on everyone’s list.”

sterling ruby 5

Sterling Ruby 2

sterling ruby 1


Apr 5, 2010

Sterling Ruby

Posted by Honey
Filed in All entries, Art



Sterling Ruby’s three dimensional structures engage with traditional considerations of sculpture being inherently relative to the human body: things which occupy real space (rather than painting’s illusionary space) are experienced physically. Measured against minimalism’s hallowed purity of the object, where form is asserted on a conceptual level, Ruby’s Kiss Trap Kismet is a radical convergence of the sublime and abject. Presented as a towering arch, Kiss Trap Kismet poses object as organism – primal, totemic, exuding a raw, animal power in its visceral aesthetic. Mounted on a graffitied plinth, Ruby’s sculpture teeters between instinctive revulsion and stounding beauty, drawing reference to contemporary ritual, aggression, and urban experience.



Art in Review


Published: March 21, 2008


Sterling Ruby and Metro Pictures

“Bread Basket,” a sculpture from 2007 by Sterling Ruby.

The Drawing Center

Sterling Ruby is one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century. That’s only eight years, of course, but the claim may stick. He makes obstreperous, richly glazed ceramic vessels that suggest charred remains; totemic sculptures webbed with mucousy, macramélike drips of resin; large, dark collages dotted with constellations of tiny images of artifacts; and drawings, photographs and short videos.Mr. Ruby draws from ancient art, graffiti, sports, science fiction and the persistence of primitivism on all fronts. Minimalism and other forms of authority are frequent targets. Most important, he situates all this in a continuum of material, process, history and emotion.

Mr. Ruby, who lives in Los Angeles, stormed New York last spring with an inchoate two-gallery show at Metro Pictures and Foxy Production. “Superoverpass,” a big white Formica arch à la Tony Smith — expertly finished but grimy and incised with graffiti — turned Foxy into an eerie mausoleum. Metro displayed the drawings, several increasingly phallic totems and a large ceramic mortar with pestles swimming in glaze. It all fulfilled the battle cry of his most widely quoted anti-poster: “Finish Architecture. Kill Minimalism. Long Live the Amorphous Law.”

Now Mr. Ruby is back with a pair of slightly quieter, clarifying exhibitions. The Metro show is his first devoted entirely to ceramics, a medium he took up about 10 years ago, evolving an innovative, violent variation of “hand built” that suggests post-Schnabel Peter Voulkos. The 14 works straddle the line between decoration and tragedy. Some suggest votive objects adorned with misshapen amphora handles. Several contain small bowls, as if you were supposed to scoop up their bright, slurred glazes. “Bread Basket,” splattered with shiny oranges, black and blues and a crusty white, resembles a child’s car seat or a football helmet after some cataclysm.

At the Drawing Center Mr. Ruby has filled the small gallery with drawings, collages and photographs, as well as two enormous, Formica-covered, benchlike monoliths whose incisions include “cop” in enormous letters. Here glaze is replaced by red nail polish on paper, and the artist’s vessels are primarily tattoo-covered bodies seen in photographs.


Sterling Ruby / frac champagne-ardenne

Exposition Sterling Ruby / frac champagne-ardenne

sterling ruby 3

A Hard Look during Sterling Ruby’s Cushy and Satirical Solo Exhibition in France

| June 5, 2012 |
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Plusone Digg Pinterest Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Posterous Email

REIMS — ”Soft Work,” Sterling Ruby’s initial solo uncover in France, non-stop final week during a Champagne-Ardenne FRAC in Reims. It focuses on several new pieces in an garb initial recognised in 2005, and outlines a depart for a artist, who formerly worked essentially with some-more plain materials. Here, as a pretension indicates, density predominates by a use of pressed fabric — though a ideas are hard-hitting.

The muster was curated by FRAC executive Florence Derieux — a opposite chronicle of it was presented during a Geneva Contemporary Art Center progressing this year. It includes works imitative vampire mouths that hang from a rafters, red drizzling from their teeth like cushy metaphors for consumerism. The array “Husband Child” consists of beanbags made like bum and was desirous by a beanbag chairs found in standard American TV bedrooms of a 1980s. Other pieces are some-more vertical, like a set of thin, intertwined sausages that remember a bars of a prison. “This era of artists, generally in a United States though not customarily there, has stopped desiring in this antithesis between condensation and formalism,” Derieux told ARTINFO France. “There is a arrange of reusing of these strategies.”

The sculptures in “Soft Work” — that is on perspective by Aug 26 — have been sewn with several pressed and colorful fabrics, some of that are recycled, while others were purchased. Certain pieces are lonesome with dripped paint à la Jackson Pollock, while others underline tangible patterns, like a American flag. At initial peek a designation is fun and humorous — a large cushiony playground. But there’s unequivocally zero so soothing about this show; a meditative is utterly radical. Erotic though not vulgar, domestic though peaceful, a designation touches on 4 vital subjects: a United States, feminism, mercantile liberalism, and a penal system.

“‘Soft Work’ is customarily a terse term. It’s not hard, it’s not solid, it’s malleable,” Ruby told ARTINFO France. “This tenure refers to what a designation is. It’s a fiber sculpture though it’s also in anxiety to several centuries of art regulating textiles, to art therapy, and to feminism, especially. In America, there is a domesticity that is not compared with masculinity — or if it is, it’s customarily compared with a difference, a contradiction.” Ruby, who complicated French speculation in college, cites a incluence of Foucault‘s papers on a penal system, heterotopias or spaces on a margins of society, passionate norms, domesticity, and governmental constraints on a individual.

Born in 1972 to a Dutch mom and an American father, Ruby chose to work in Los Angeles, where he was an partner to a late Mike Kelley, who became a tighten friend. Derieux pronounced that some of a works are an loyalty to Kelley, who committed self-murder progressing this year. “The star of ‘Husband Child’ is utterly tighten to that of Mike Kelley,” she said. “Why certain practices, certain tellurian activities are ascribed to women, for example, sewing, etc. — they had talked about this a lot.”



a conversation with sterling ruby

27 April, 2011

Berlin rents might be going up, but Berliners still root for gritty ideological integrity in art. Sprüth Magers’s decision to present Sterling Ruby‘s I Am Not Free Because I Can Be Exploded Anytime during Gallery Weekend exemplifies that commitment.

Ruby is a Los Angeles-based artist working primarily with large-scale ceramics, spray-painted canvases, poured urethane sculptures and collages. He was born in Bitburg, Germany but grew up in Baltimore and suburban Pennsylvania. His background includes a degree in agriculture and experience in construction, which he applies to the massive proportions of his physically intimidating sculptures. A sense of being overwhelmed and even threatened activates his art, which largely addresses America’s methods of containment, restraint, restriction and punishment. Supermax, his 2008 exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which evoked the feeling of being incarcerated, is the foundation for his solo show at Sprüth Magers. Here, he focuses on America’s insidious paranoia—and its use and abuse by the American government.

Ana Finel Honigman: How do you define and value freedom?

Sterling Ruby: To me, personally, freedom is always about being able to set up my own parameters and to have a private space in order to work through them. I definitely don’t see myself as an anarchist, but coming up against external limitations is where the definition of freedom becomes less abstract. Being able to work the way I do, as an artist, seems like freedom… for sure.

AFH: On ideological, not just petty logistical levels, how does America’s obsession with terrorist threats limit our profound freedom?

SR: America’s obsession with terrorism, in general, is a scapegoat for its own self-importance. What I mean is that our paranoia regarding terrorism is used to give primacy to the ideologies of America ahead of other countries. This kind of U.S. righteousness holds countries of “difference” into account for not being similar to us. We also have a real predisposition to equate fighting with freedom, which creates a situation where conflict and liberation go hand in hand with one another.

AFH: What were the circumstances when you first encountered the collaboration between Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink?

SR: I first saw these works in Munich at Sprüth Magers. Philomene Magers introduced me to this collaboration between Holzer and Pink, and I immediately fell in love with the series. Holzer is one of my all-time favourites, but her works are so clinical and polished. The Lady Pink graffiti images accompanied by Holzer’s stenciled texts seemed much dirtier, less finished, almost illicit.

AFH: Does RWB (Red, White, Blue) also involve England, France and other countries with these colours dominant in their flag? Is this show essentially referencing America, or the West in general?

RS: I suppose it could be seen as reference to those other countries, but in this instance it is an autobiographical take on being an American and associating that colour combination with American power.
For most of my youth I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and quite often I would see shirts, bumper stickers and posters that read “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN.” This slogan perfectly illustrates the symbolic attachment of Americans to the colours of the flag, and again there is that implied readiness to fight . . . it has always stayed with me.

AFH: What is your ideal for government involvement in citizens’ lives?

SR: Stay out—stay out and let us crash if we need to. I suppose that’s not a real answer. My ideal for the American government is for it to allocate more funding and tax revenue towards mental and physical health, change the drug laws, raise education levels, revise prison and correctional standards, and reverse its continued escalation of funding for the military industrial complex. But this is difficult, we are such a large and diverse country, and we have come to be seen as the peacekeeper for the world, which is very schizophrenic. You know. It often seems impossible to make this kind of change in the trajectory that we have had for so many years—we’re fucked.

AFH: How have Robert Morris, Rosemarie Trockel, Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink influenced your work and world view?

SR: That’s difficult to sum up and even more difficult to give credit where credit is due. Morris defied Judd’s Minimalism by making it psychological, physical, theatrical and personal. Trockel’s work has been very important to me, she seems like the logical figure to continue the Beuys trajectory of alchemy—political, formal and healing processes of actual art making. Holzer is militant, she is unforgiving in her subject matter and I admire that a lot. Lady Pink is the exception here, I was interested in her work because of her use of spray-paint and her themes of sexuality, which you don’t see very often in graffiti. I’ve been influenced by urban environments for a while, particularly since I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. This is not street art in particular, but more street expression, what happens in the streets as survival adaptation. Lady Pink is an anomaly to what is happening now in “formal” street art. I don’t know what she’s been up to recently, but I quite like this set of collaborative work from the 80s.

AFH: What attracts you to Minimalism?

SR: My first real introduction to Minimalism was in grad school at Art Center, primarily through Donald Judd’s writing, which seemed hierarchical. I understood Judd’s interest in laying out the initial discourse, which was a foundation of simple industrialised objects or sculptures with no personality. Objects that were realised without the actual hand of intervention, this was also similar to Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood. Judd seemed to be responding negatively to Abstract Expressionism.

I started to think about simple minimalist forms in urban environments and how often I saw them demarcated, as a kind of existential “tagging”—you know, citizens trying to gain footing and legacy by placing their name on something with object presence… within their own community. Of course in Los Angeles this was primarily a gang-initiated activity—claiming that a certain territory belonged to you. For me it seemed to be similar to Judd’s possessive strategy 30 years prior. It is all about territory.

AFH: How does Berlin compare to L.A.?

SR: I’m not sure, I suppose that they are both inexpensive and somewhat sprawling. They both seem like easy artist cities. Germany seems to have a similar artist and education connection to Los Angeles—artists still teach.

AFH: How do you respond to common anti-Americanism in Europe?

SR: I completely understand it. I was born in Bitburg, Germany. My mother was from Eindhoven, Netherlands, and I still have a big “Dutch” family there that I visit frequently. I’m quite aware of the hostility that America seems to disseminate. I get it.

AFH: How does paranoia in America manifest differently from elsewhere?

SR: Well, we’re crazy—we worry about everything. There is such a tension between wanting freedom and wanting protection. We are true historical schizophrenics. Paranoia and fear serve to legitimise our actions in regard to what we produce both politically as well as culturally. I suppose that it is a good time for me to say that I wouldn’t want it any other way. I like the push and pull effect that America has had on me—it is true contemporary existentialism.

AFH: What makes political art successful?

SR: Political art only seems to be successful when it has no bias or hides its bias. I suppose that most art has an agenda, but quite frankly I don’t like art that preaches as much as I like art that calmly reveals circumstances or societal problems that most individuals ignore.

by Ana Finel Honigman


STERLING RUBYFALSE POSITIVE PROPHETSThe False Positive Prophets will bring light to the fact that we cannot continue in the ways that we have in the past. The False Positive Prophets will foretell of the final outcome, and herald an end to the continuum. The False Positive Prophets will cut through all cynicism, ironic contemporary endeavors and meaningless gestures to shed light on how truly fucked we are. Achieving these states will require psychotic-like divination.VISIONARY SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCESeveral diagnostic categories have been proposed for the term, psychotic-like divination, which have the potential for false-positive outcomes. Two of the most promising categories, from recent studies and limited control groups, are problem-solving schizophrenia and positive disintegration. In direct contrast to contemporary mainstream psychology, psychotic-like divination sees “disturbed” or “harmful states” (tension, anxiety, depression, psychosis et al.) as necessary conditions and conduits for growth. Further categories will include creative illness, spiritual emergencies, mystical-experience with psychotic features, metanoiac voyages and visionary states. The term Visionary Spiritual Experience from a False Positive Prophet or “VSE from FPP” is used to describe how, through the guidance of such an instructor, one can achieve these states. For the purposes of this study, the term visionary is used as it is in anthropological and religious studies to refer to a person whose mental condition leads that individual to see things more clearly than the general population and to propose radical changes for the entire society. Such visionary experiences are more likely to occur in societies undergoing rapid and devastating social change like the United States of fucking America.DEVASTATES
te, dev·as·tat·ed, dev·as·tat·ing, (see also: United·dev·a·States)
1. To lay waste; destroy.
2. To overwhelm; confound; stun: was devastated by the overwhelming amount of apocalyptic information.PROBLEM-SOLVING SCHIZOPHRENIA: A CASE STUDYThe Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow just won the 2010 Oscar award for “Best Picture”. This says something about what is going on today, here and now, but maybe not what you might be thinking. Actor Jeremy Renner plays Staff Sergeant William James. James is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) sergeant who gets stationed as the team leader in the U.S. Army’s Bravo Company during their last month in Baghdad, Iraq. James has a deep addiction to the risk that this job entails; he has a reckless demeanor when dismantling bombs, and he continuously places his company in jeopardy while out in the field. He plays ARMA HD military simulation games while off duty. James finishes his tour of duty and returns to his wife and infant son in America. Within this domestic situation, he is uninterested, alien, and absent. He quickly requests to serve yet another year of duty in Iraq.Many film critics have praised The Hurt Locker for its accurate portrayal of contemporary warfare. The complexities and uncertainties of this film, stirred a contemplative debate regarding what side we are on, if any. But the fact is, that James doesn’t seem to be particularly patriotic, or even loyal to his task or company; instead he seems to be a pure product of his symbiotic relationship with the bombs he is dismantling. He does not exist without this relationship. Without a war zone, without an enemy, without an apparatus to disengage, he does not exist. He is a case study for contemporary schizophrenia, or Problem-Solving Schizophrenia (PSS), created by a zone of habituated risk.SUPERMAXI was born in Germany to an American father and a Dutch mother. I was raised in rural Pennsylvania, but would visit my mother’s family in the Netherlands. So, I am a citizen of the United States of America, but with a bit of a remote perspective. America revels in a kind of cultural slumming; we identify with bad behavior more than any other country. America wants to be seen as a force for good across the world. To maintain this delusion, America must keep its darkness hidden and contained. At the same time, it is almost expected for an American to have the need to consume violence, as if it were a kind of longing.The Supermax is a prison constructed to be on permanent lockdown, prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, and often under sensory deprivation. American citizens are kept in homes watching television shows like MSNBC’s Lockup, where we see what it is like on “the inside.” This is interesting because, usually, one wants to be on the inside, and the outside is the bad place. The Supermax as an allegory of contemporary American society is like a beacon of the end. I look at Supermax as the closest thing I can imagine to hell.TRAUMA THEORYRobert J. Lifton and Dominick LaCapra are two authors who have considered at length a kind of “trauma theory” by means of psycho-historical studies. Robert J. Lifton is an expert on cults and thought reform. He has identified recent generations as embodying an attitude of apocalyptic uncertainty. Dominick LaCapra wrote two books, History and Memory After Auschwitz and Writing History, Writing Trauma that examine how societal violations throughout history have launched a kind of aftermath in which the dominant society became confused about who it was or who it thought it should be. They trace this trauma through multiple generations, and expound on how history has become a kind of baggage or burden for us. This baggage impedes the growth of the society, and as the timeline of history gets bigger, so does each generation’s burden. We feel ashamed of the atrocities committed in the past, but continue to commit equal atrocities in the present and look to the future with extreme apprehension and anxiety. We see no possibility of a correction, just a continuation and a continuum. We perceive ourselves universally as both victims and perpetrators and this burden will only get heavier as time goes on.BASIN THEOLOGYI collect catalogs and books, published by private and museum collections, of knives and ceramic pottery, objects from a dirty, functional past that are now being preserved in a sterilized refuge. These objects, in a sense, have been separated from their use-value. They are remnants, signs and memories of a previous utilitarian life. It is as if these knives and vessels have been removed from one functional world and placed into another kind of world, one that worships primal significance. Which I suppose means that these pieces still have a use-value, just a different kind.I have been making large ceramic basins and filling them with broken materials that look like animal remains and architectural waste. I am smashing all of my previous attempts, and futile, contemporary gestures, and placing them into a mortar, and grinding them down with a blunt pestle. I am doing this as a way of releasing a certain guilt. If I put all of these remnants into a basin, and it gets taken away from me, then I am no longer responsible for all my misdirected efforts. I will no longer have to be burdened with the heaviness of this realization. This is my basin theology. (Visionary Spiritual Experience from Vessels and Containers/VSE-VC)THE OUTSIDER AND THE DEEP SAD PITOur generation and those who come after are going to have to redefine our relationship to “the outsider”. This is not because we will reconsider our relationship to those who we perceive to be different, oppositional, or marginal, but because we will be lamenting the loss of our belief in “the inside”. When history and conditioning disallow this generation to feel autonomous, then inevitably we will feel as though we have lost control over that autonomy. The idea- -that this generation’s particular beliefs and actions are innate and unique to its identity –will inevitably become trumped by the weight of historical precedence. This will be our burden and our baggage. The product of this final reckoning will be the Deep Sad Pit.A NEW GENERATIONYoung contemporary art, particularly in the US has become abstract and formal as if in direct opposition of 90’s post-modernist and post-conceptualist terms. This return to abstract expressions and formalism is a response to the Deep Sad Pit. This new formalism brings us out of the Deep Sad Pit and into a New Era. This new formalism will heal our current state of confusion, and our lamentations about what to do next. This new formalism is a sign of our disengagement. This new formalism is a cheap and lazy cry for attention. Are we embarrassed by our abstract expression? Do we find comfort in its excess and effortlessness. This new formalism is a False Positive Prophet that will lead to a Visionary Spiritual Experience. The new curriculum will enforce the reading of “The Spiritual In Art: Abstract Painting” in opposition to “Relational Aesthetics”. Our teachers told us that this was not possible. They said that too much was destroyed, that too much was known. But this is our generation’s burden to discover. It is our burden, it is our formalism, it is our New Era.Sterling Ruby 2010


Sterling Ruby


Submitted by Wayne on Mon, 2011-10-31 22:24.

American artist Sterling Ruby’s first solo exhibition in China

American artist Sterling Ruby’s first solo exhibition in China

“In this exhibition the artist is exploring the idea of the vampire as a way of reassessing the uncontrollable and insatiable drives that inform the darker aspects of human behavior.

Submitted by Wayne on Thu, 2010-02-25 22:59.

"These works bring what Michael Fried forty years ago called the theatricality of Minimalist sculpture to a gruesome point." AF

“These works bring what Michael Fried forty years ago called the theatricality of Minimalist sculpture to a gruesome point.” AF

Submitted by Wayne on Mon, 2008-10-20 21:00.

Raf Simons' Tokyo store "remixed" by artist Sterling Ruby Image via kultureflash

Raf Simons’ Tokyo store “remixed” by artist Sterling Ruby Image via kultureflash


Sterling Ruby's Ashtrays

Sterling Ruby’s Ashtrays

October 8 – November 6, 2010

October 7, 18.00 – 21.00

15, Rue des Minimes
1000 Brussels

The Pierre Marie Giraud gallery organizes regularly “solo shows” of the most significant figures in contemporary ceramics. From october 7th to november 6th, the gallery will feature for the first time artist Sterling Ruby, internationally known for the large variety of media and techniques he uses. The artist will present “Ashtrays,” an intriguing series of colorful and unusually shaped ceramics.

Born in 1972, Sterling Ruby lives and works in Los Angeles. His creations are very much sought after by American and European collectors and noted by arts critics at exhibitions in New York, London, Miami, Cologne and Paris. At the last Paris FIAC, his productions were endlessly astonishing in the very diverse directions he explored in order to deconstruct the norms and assert his own freedom of creative thought.

Sterling Ruby is well known for his propensity to confront all and any power or social pressure mechanism, including the major institutional art forms. Social transgression, devious attitudes, delusion, paranoia, repressed libido, are so many subjects “constellating his work.”

The creative act, for him, asserts the individual, and lets him break away from well mannered shackles, by distorting the use of media.

Created in 2010, Ruby Sterling’s ceramic “Ashtrays” explore the traditional language of design, art brut and minimalism: we are delivered unidentifiable work, bearing the intrinsic stamp of an art that is timeless and oblivious of fashion.

At the occasion of the exhibition a catalogue will be published.



Sterling Ruby Zen Ripper

Sterling Ruby Zen Ripper

The first time I had the chance to see Sterling Ruby’s work was two years ago at Emi Fontana’s gallery historically located at the address Via Bligly 42 in Milano: the show was composed of black and white pictures based on the torsos of female body builders and candles as well as totemic, dark and vaguely anthropomorphic, sculptures recalling the dripping of the lit candles. “Recombines” – that was the name of the 2006 exhibition – suggested an interest in both the imposing and the elusive.

Sterling Ruby Zen Ripper

The same can be said of “Zen Ripper”: the gallery is invaded with big, geometric sculptures made of formica sprayed with colourful textures and, now and then, cut with symbols and phrases as the ones that can be found on trees or park benches made by teenagers who want to leave a mark of their presence. There is a sharp contrast between the sculptures which seem to come from the minimalist tradition of neat and geometric shapes and the almost camouflage-like painting that disorients the viewer visiting the labyrinthic installation.

Sterling Ruby Zen Ripper

“Zen Ripper” opened in parallel with another exhibition of the Los Angeles based artist in the area: “Grid Ripper” held at Bergamo Museum of Contemporary art GAMEC which is only an hour or so away from Milano and it’s definitely worth the visit.

Date: September 19th – November 10th, 2008
Opening Hours: Tue-Sat 11:00-19:30
Place: Galleria Emi Fontana, Milano
Address: Viale Bligny, 42, 20136 Milano
Tel: +39 02 58322237


Sterling Ruby

Sterling Ruby Geometric Study 2005 inkjet print with red pen on paper 13″ x 19″

Sterling Ruby 90-Degree-Cryer 2004 Lambda print mounted with sintra and plexiglas 20″ x 25″

I’ve seen Sterling Ruby‘s work in Foxy Production‘s rooms before, and it pulls me in every time. I can’t explain why. Even once inside, there seem to be so many questions unanswered; in fact I think that includes most of the questions, but you can tell he’s very serious about asking. While I admit his investigations are of a kind which wouldn’t occur to me, or perhaps to most any viewer, they manage to give his unique aesthetic an extraordinary intensity just for their being posed.

Yeah, I really like them.

One caution: The two images above don’t manage to do justice to the actual work, on view in the gallery as part of a very good small group show, “Geo,” until February 12.

[both images from Foxy Production]



Sterling Ruby. Soft Work

Catégorie: art, exhibition, featuresPas de commentaires
27 February 2012

at Centre d’Art Contemporains, Geneva
from 24 February – 22 April 2012
all images © WFW


For his first solo exhibition in Switzerland – that opened a few days ago at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva,  Los Angeles based artist STERLING RUBY (1972) toys freely with a series of large-scale installations of soft sculptural works designed especially for this exhibition.

RUBY makes art of myriad forms which includes ceramic vessels, enormously phallic polyurethane stalagmites, minimalist cubes “defaced” by graffiti, photographs painted with red nail polish or video works. Alternately raw and elegant, degraded and ballsy, his works depict a fascination with the repressive overtones of minimalism, architecture and the history of abstraction.

Coming from an artist known for working in an excess of media, STERLING RUBY‘s current exhibition in Geneva is surprisingly single-minded. In fact, the exhibition focuses on a significant part of his body of work that has not received specific attention until now. Pillows, blankets and quilts are transformed from objects of comfort into sculptural objects that hint at the possibility that safety and security are an illusion. He also used his soft sculptural material to transform threatening or aggressive subject matter into playfully pop-like form. However, just as his previous exhibitions, it is all about overwhelming the viewer with objects, color and surfaces.

RUBY’s vocabulary is constantly mutating and expressing danger, as in the animal kingdom where the evolutionary expression of bright colors distinguish a poisonous creature. Similarly, in a manmade environment florescent colors are used to warn or avert, to caution or police, to highlight or even to castigate, as with the choice of a florescent orange uniform for a prisoner. Color is sometimes easy to overlook, yet considering his formal choices RUBY proves to be a well-versed student of that artistic tradition. – by STEVEN PULIMOOD for 032c #20

Soft Sculpture is currently on view at Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva until 22 April 2012


There Is No There
Miami-based. Internationally-sourced. Contemporary art site. Primary Documents. Local Explication.

Event Horizon: Sterling Ruby at the Rubell Family Collection

by Hunter Braithwaite on Jan 3, 2012 • 10:04 am No Comments

“In Mississippi it is difficult to achieve a vista.” –Barry Hannah

“When the links of the signifying chains snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers.” That’s Fredric Jameson, outlining what he calls subjective schizophrenia, one of them postmodern maladies that we keep hearing about. His diagnosis also fits the Down and Out in Detroit and LA work of Sterling Ruby. In his rubble, one finds chunks of the New York School’s cloudwhipped façade, discolored by the gang tags of East LA. As tangled ends of the cultural continuum, they constantly try to snuff the other out. Moreover, as once separate levels of culture, quarantined from the other, their collapse reveals not so much a negation of cultural difference, but of space.

Sterling Ruby, SP170, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.

Viewed this way, it makes sense that the paintings are preoccupied with atmospheric perpective. Created with spray paint on canvas, the images arise and retreat into a lo-gloss haze of pigment–cue the schizophrenic dispersion of subject. The color scheme recalls a heat-sensitive camera, or Predator’s vision. The dot, a puncture wound and a structuring element, lands on the cultural register somewhere between Ben-Day and an arterial spurt. And then there is the line: vertical and horizontal, repeated. This horizon underscores the work.

A horizon provides structure, be that geospatial, or narrative (John Wayne riding off into the sunset at the end of Red River). Speaking to the border between ex- and internality, it is the easiest way to locate oneself. Sugimoto, when attempting to photograph the primitive moment of naming, photographed the line between sky and sea.

Ruby comments on the distance between the subject and the landscape in his 2010-2011 essay, American Perspectives: “Our generation and those that come after are going to have to redefine their relationship to ‘the outsider.’ This is not because we will reconsider our relationship to those who we perceive to be different, oppositional, or marginal, but because we will be lamenting the loss of our belief in ‘the inside.’” Being outside history is a condition of what Karl Jaspers defined as an Axial Age, or the brief period between social epochs where thought flourishes. It is obvious that America has come to a turning point, but many, the artist included, are not optimistic about time to come.

Sterling Ruby, SP171, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.

But the thing about the horizon is there’s just one. What is one to make of Ruby’s paintings, where the line jitters top to bottom? One can begin with parallax. Freshman year geometry example: Look at something twenty feet away. Close your right eye. Open it, then close your left eye. The object will oscillate. This phenomenon, which becomes more pronounced on the astronomical scale, is an easy allegory for the multiplicity of self. Take this excerpt from Joyce:

“What’s parallax?…Never know anything about it. Waste of time. Gasballs spinning about, crossing each other, passing. Same old dingdong always. Gas: then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock, like that pineapple rock. The moon. Must be a new moon out, she said. I believe there is…I was happier then. Or was that I? Or am I now I?” (Ulysses, Episode 8, Lines 578-608)

Sterling Ruby, SP173, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.

So while the illusory movement of a distant (solitary) object testifies to a plurality of the subject, these paintings, with their multiple horizons vibrating in tandem, almost completely dislocate the viewer. This complication of perspective reveals much larger breakdowns. The failure is not visual, but ideological. With the single horizon, we are simultaneously inside and outside of a space that is once shifting and contained. A line across a composition provides this ontological framework. (A comparison: the meditative internal space on view at the Rothko Chapel). By multiplying the horizon, the paintings seem to place us outside the outside-removed from the entire network.

Sterling Ruby, SP170, 2011, Spray paint on canvas, 160 x 235 x 2 in.

In case you were wondering, the distance to the horizon can be identified with the following formula: distance(km)=3.856√height (from sea level). For a person of average height standing on the beach, the horizon is 5km (3.1 miles) away. However, it’s rarely the numbers that matter. My favorite description of the horizon comes from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move. (Lines 19-21)

The horizon is not just the dividing line between firmament and terra firma. It is the limit, albeit one forever retreating, of human endeavor. What was once a Sublime representation of human potential is now shattered. Think of Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818. Think of the thumbnail crest of a rising moon. Etymologically, the sublime comes from the Latin sublimis, which is a combination of sub (up to) and limis (a boundary, limit, or threshold.) Push it to the limit. With Sterling Ruby’s new paintings, this limit ceases to become a spatial term, but another bit of cultural wreckage that one can pick through if they’d like.


International Edition
December 15, 2012 Last Updated: 10:23:AM EST

A Hard Look at “Soft Work,” Sterling Ruby’s Cushy and Satirical Solo Exhibition in France

Photo: Martin Argyroglo
Installation view of Sterling Ruby’s exhibition, “SOFT WORK,” at the FRAC Champagne-Ardenne
by Juliette Soulez, ARTINFO France
Published: June 3, 2012

REIMS — “Soft Work,” Sterling Ruby‘s first solo show in France, opened last week at the Champagne-Ardenne FRAC in Reims. It focuses on several new pieces in an ensemble first conceived in 2005, and marks a departure for the artist, who previously worked primarily with more solid materials. Here, as the title indicates, softness predominates through the use of stuffed fabric — but the ideas are hard-hitting.

The exhibition was curated by FRAC director Florence Derieux — a different version of it was presented at the Geneva Contemporary Art Center earlier this year. It includes works resembling vampire mouths that hang from the rafters, red dripping from their teeth like cushy metaphors for consumerism. The series “Husband & Child” consists of beanbags shaped like buttocks and was inspired by the beanbag chairs found in typical American TV rooms of the 1980s. Other pieces are more vertical, like a set of thin, intertwined sausages that recall the bars of a prison. “This generation of artists, especially in the United States but not only there, has stopped believing in this opposition between abstraction and formalism,” Derieux told ARTINFO France. “There is a sort of reusing of these strategies.”

The sculptures in “Soft Work” — which is on view through August 26 — have been sewn with various stuffed and colorful fabrics, some of which are recycled, while others were purchased. Certain pieces are covered with dripped paint à la Jackson Pollock, while others feature recognizable patterns, like the American flag. At first glance the installation is fun and funny — a big cushiony playground. But there’s really nothing so soft about this show; its thinking is quite radical. Erotic but not vulgar, political but peaceful, the installation touches on four major subjects: the United States, feminism, economic liberalism, and the penal system.

“‘Soft Work’ is only a didactic term. It’s not hard, it’s not solid, it’s malleable,” Ruby told ARTINFO France. “This term refers to what the installation is. It’s a fiber sculpture but it’s also in reference to several centuries of art using textiles, to art therapy, and to feminism, especially. In America, there is a domesticity that is not associated with masculinity — or if it is, it’s usually associated with a difference, a contradiction.” Ruby, who studied French theory in college, cites the incluence of Foucault‘s writings on the penal system, heterotopias or spaces on the margins of society, sexual norms, domesticity, and societal constraints on the individual.

Born in 1972 to a Dutch mother and an American father, Ruby chose to work in Los Angeles, where he was an assistant to the late Mike Kelley, who became a close friend. Derieux said that some of the works are an homage to Kelley, who committed suicide earlier this year. “The universe of ‘Husband & Child’ is quite close to that of Mike Kelley,” she said. “Why certain practices, certain human activities are ascribed to women, for example, sewing, etc. — they had talked about this a lot.”

To see works from Sterling Ruby’s show at the Champagne-Ardenne FRAC, click the slide show.

This article also appears on ARTINFO France.

o See – New York: Sterling Ruby “2TRAPS” at PaceWildenstein, West 22nd Street through March 20, 2010

March 6th, 2010

Sterling Ruby, “Pig Pen” (2009-2010), on view at PaceWildenstein.

Through March 10, Sterling Ruby has two new pieces at PaceWildenstein’s downtown gallery.  On view are “Pig Pen” and “Bus,” two industrialized traps that confine, says a gallerist, humanity’s basic primitivism. This is an artist’s apocalyptic endgame.

Sterling Ruby, “Bus” (2010) at PaceWildenstein.

More images and story after the jump…

Installation view, Sterling Ruby’s “2Traps” at PaceWildenstein.

Where “Pig Pen” is a stationary cage, “Bus” is a vehicle of transportation converted into a sculptural object, emphasizing 2Traps’s feel of ultimate stasis. They are the same size — about 10′ x 9′ x 40′ — but “Pig Pen” is almost cubist nature, comprised of smaller blocks themselves composed of the security doors found on many urban homes, where “Bus” is just that automobile fitted with speakers, sub-woofers, chrome, and confinement cages. That is, the artist in both cases confines an animalistic interior, but “Bus” comments most explicitly on societal stagnancy.  Argues Ruby, today’s transportation holds its patrons still, defines them as animals in a procedurally ordered, dehumanized/dehumanizing society.

Detail from Sterling Ruby’s “Pig Pen” (2009-2010), at PaceWildenstein.

Back view, Sterling Ruby’s “Bus” (2010) at PaceWildenstein.

Detail, Sterling Ruby’s “Bus” (2010), at PaceWildenstein.

Born in Bitburg, Germany, Sterling Ruby studied at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Center College of Design. He has had solo exhibitions at Galleria d’arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo, Italy; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and more. Ruby is recently represented by PaceWildenstein, which hosts this show. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

- R. Fogel



Issue 122 April 2009 RSS

Who is Sterling Ruby?


Grappling with the work of an artist who relishes multiple viewpoints, myriad materials and a slippery approach to meaning


‘SUPERMAX 2008′ (2008), exhibition view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

‘And he invents spaces, of which he is the convulsive possession.’
Roger Caillois

Landscape Annihilates Consciousness
On screen: a blob of viscous matter is gathered on a palette, and then smeared against a blank field. The image is accompanied by a soft, soothing, cajoling whisper, a voice, and the sound of repetitive movement: ‘I’m gonna just tap. Just gonna tap, very lightly. I don’t want to destroy. I want to diffuse. Now very lightly, lift it upward. See now, it softens it, pushes everything back. You can continue to do this ‘til it absolutely disappears on you, if you want to. You can soften it to any degree of brightness or darkness that you want in your world.’ A picture begins to emerge from planes and volumes: a snow-covered mountain landscape, the result of this tapping, softening, and diffusing. And where the painting is elaborated progressively, the voice loops back. In repetition, the murmured instructions come to seem like a mantra of sorts. Under their spell, the painter’s steady articulation of a conventional landscape comes to be more and more ambiguous.

In its 19th-century heyday, landscape painting put forward a human confrontation with the matter and appearance of the natural world. Sterling Ruby’s video, Landscape Annihilates Consciousness (2002), shows the practice as now deformed and inverted, determined instead to idealize and ‘diffuse’ this material world, ‘’til it absolutely disappears on you.’ Conventional landscape painting is figured here as the neutralization of world and mind. Reduced to its pure semiotics, painterly modulation becomes transcendentalist death wish. The last thing the painter renders is a house: flat geometry and broadcast television now produces the picture of a rustic pre-modern cabin – a nostalgic and ideological fantasy. Sovereignty is established, and totality realized. This painted world belongs to the artist, and – through the apparatus of televisual transmission, in the form of Bob Ross’ show The Joy of Painting – his world is to be yours. And yet the video dramatizes another turn as well: in his looping narration, the painter-fantasist is stuck, inertial, repeating himself. He is prey to his own creation. Annihilated and consumed by landscape, he is the one who fades into the background.

Legendary Psychasthenic
Who is Sterling Ruby in this arrangement? Which position does he inhabit? Is he the annihilated painter, or the mesmerized viewer? Is he the absent presenter of an altered artifact – its conduit or amplifier – or does he observe with us? In this video, and elsewhere, Ruby converges with each of these identities in turn, in a universe of effects without causes. Form is infinite, and dispossesses everyone equally: producer and consumer, image-maker and the one who looks. This troubled shifting of positions casts the artist one moment as producer of a heterogeneous range of conventionalized objects and styles – abstract paintings, Dada-lite collages, Minimalist art, Situationist posters, graffiti, ceramic earthenware, and so on – and the next as the outraged and dispossessed consumer of the generic signs he has produced; a third moment might find him ironizing this hysterical reaction, lacerating its private aspirations to totality; and so on.

‘Sterling Ruby’, then, is an unstable sign for a set of convergences, enactments, and circumscriptions – indeed, in its blank preciousness his name reads like a pseudonym, as if he were a fictional character. This conclusion is affirmed elsewhere: ‘The character at work,’ wrote Ed Schad in a review, ‘is not Ruby specifically, but a person who makes art created by Ruby.’1 ‘I have always thought of Sterling as a serial killer Joseph Beuys,’ Sarah Conaway declared in the third section of Ruby’s 2005 video Transient Trilogy. ‘Each pocket of work came from a different viewpoint’, Ruby told Holly Myers in 2006. Yet they share a ‘lineage’, he continues: ‘a dichotomy of repression and expression’.

Abyss of Negative Utopias
This ‘Ruby’ has been prolific since his first solo exhibitions, which began in 2003, while he was a student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena; a survey will include ceramics and sculpture, posters and collages, and finish up with his synthetic exhibition-forms and video works.

His work deals with the production of space, including abstracted ceramic biomorphs, polyurethane stalagmites, and stained or defaced ‘Minimalist’ objects. His 2008 exhibition ‘Kiln Works’ at Metro Pictures is emblematic of this approach: convoluted and asculptural objects reproduce the organizational logic of microcellular organisms (Clover Dear, Blackout Romeo, all works in the exhibition 2008), simple containers or tools (Mortar and Pestle, Bread Basket), and mutant artifacts (Head Artist / Archaeology). Applied with expressionistic fervour, liquid rivulets of drizzled glaze are fired into unlikely, grotesque anti-forms – flayed turkeys, uterine dissections – that shade unexpectedly into ostentatious ornaments (Pyrite Fourchette) or weird reliquaries (resonating with Paul Thek’s and Lynda Benglis’ work, among others). These objects nevertheless relate to human size, embracing their domestic status as things for us, sometimes with comic literalness: Bread Basket is no bigger than its namesake.

Installed for ‘Killing the Recondite’ (Metro Pictures, 2007) or ‘Stray Alchemists’ (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, 2008), Ruby’s ‘stalactites’ embrace instead an architectural and geological logic of phallic verticality, somewhat effaced by the alien fragility of the polyurethane strands from which they are composed. Like the ceramic artifacts, these are borne up by support structures marked as objects in their own right: wooden gallows, beam structures, minimalist cubes, plinths, and ethnographic or consumerist display platforms. These geometrical structures are evocative of public sculpture and the relative anarchy it can provoke: works like Inscribed Monolith (EPA-Alabaster) (2006) incorporate scrawled graffiti, fingerprints, and aggressive inscriptions on their surface. But they can also act out that version of minimalism which instates an oppressive ‘inclusiveness’.2 For example, Superoverpass, (Foxy Production, 2007), a minimalist arch which compresses the space of the gallery and looms above the viewer, or the various Inscribed Plinths from ‘SUPERMAX 2008’, presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which confront and structure the physical behaviour of their audience. They enact an oppressive minimalism to destroy it – to exacerbate and attack Minimalism’s perverse logic of power, its negative Utopia; even so, they are subject to the contradictory logic of iconoclasm, which reifies and glorifies the power it aims to defile. Defaced, shat upon, decapitated – titled Headless Dick / Deth Till (2008), one work presented an erect and bloodied formica shaft – and forced to bear the written language its pristine surfaces meant to forestall, 1960s Minimalist sculpture remains ineradicably and inevitably at the centre of the story. So too does the established critique of minimalist form as brutal and domineering, famously articulated by art historian Anna Chave in her 1990 essay ‘Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,’ come to seem, in Ruby’s new context, reciprocally grotesque – paradoxically in love with the movement it means to insult.3

Paintings, posters and digitized collages map out a second zone of heterogeneous activity, pictorial in nature: breathtakingly lurid paintings, bright, sharply-defined acrylic spatters over blurred, neon topographical maps (such as Spectrum Ripper, 2008); fungal smears of dye captured in thick blocks of translucent urethane (Absolute Contempt for Total Serenity / DB Deth, 2008); bubblegum zones of flesh and mint and orange, stained with nail polish and framing magazine clippings of military camouflage and a depiction of a dressed wound (American Soldier – Digital Camouflage Composition, 2007). Collages notice strange patterns in the detritus of culture, and assemble them for our view – for example cross-breeding high Modernist abstraction with LA gangs’ colour fixation in FEMALE GANG HANDS (2007). Or they barrel off with giddy takes on postmodern body culture that decry formal domination (‘Long Live the Amorphous Law’ reads a graffiti slogan scrawled across Anti-Print Poster 3, 2007) and locate allegories of metamorphic possibility. These include the male-to-female transsexual effacing her phallus who appears in Trans Compositional (Crimped Red Hair, Cream Satin Dress) (2006), alongside gestural droplets of red nail polish that are themselves ‘reoriented’ from horizontal to vertical; and the bodybuilder whose physique mimics an erect penis in ‘Physicalism – The Recombine series’, (2006), as their clenched bodies are paired with – or have their heads replaced by – biomorphic candles.

To describe the works in this way, however, is to present them problematically severed from their system of objects. In their synthetic forms – exhibitions, video – Ruby’s works achieve a more programmatic scenography. The installation for ‘Stray Alchemists’ is a blasted psychedelic bunker; ‘SUPERMAX 2008’ presents the spires of a living organic city emerging from the inert remains of an imperial, minimalist urbanism. Paintings and actions are related to one another allegorically and semi-autonomously; they become accreted scenes and atomized props in a larger Gesamtzerstörwerk (a ‘total work of destruction,’ as historian Hanne Bergius once described the cumulated assemblage of Johannes Baader’s The Great Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama, 1920).4 From this allegorical terrain of exhibition we perceive both Ruby’s meaning in fragments, and a traumatized and hysterical ‘Ruby.’

‘… ciphers of an infinite authority …’
Perhaps this ‘Ruby’ will assassinate or replace the artist who produced him. In Transient Trilogy he seems intent on erasing his twin from the story, at least judging by the quote from an essay by Roger Caillois worked into the video’s script as a voice-off: ‘If an artist is invested with what he does, then there is little possibility of disassociating the maker from the work. When work is specifically about the artist, or if the work is dependent on what the artist-figure is occupied with, then the maker can have no real distance from the work. The artist and the work are unified as a hermetic structure and isolated from outside influence.’ Alternately this artist is simply self-similar: ‘… not similar to something, but just similar.’5

Yet the ‘Ruby’ enacted by the work is hardly so hermetic or isolated; rather, pre-existing sources, references and theories pervade his work, where they are brought into a contradictory and mutually embarrassing constellation. Critical theory ruptures artistic practice, even as its aphoristic obscurity is lampooned. Every work comes readymade with theoretical armature, self-annihilations, didactic instructions, blasé refutations, rabid slogans and more. This can leave an attentive viewer confounded – wondering if theirs is just another paranoid inscription onto forms full of evident energy, but still mysterious or essentially arbitrary. Ruby is clearly aware of what Henri Lefebvre described as ‘the vanity of a critical theory which works only at the level of words and ideas (i.e. at the ideological level)’6. Yet his practice leaves both theorists and artists in place, as ciphers of an infinite authority that might be resented but never overcome.

Dark Space
The final moments of Transient Trilogy: a camera scans the graffiti-covered terrain of a ‘natural’ reserve (gravel paths are in view, and cars just out of sight) and discovers a character, played by Ruby, trousers around his knees and head tucked into his arms. This is the homeless ‘transient’ of the work’s title, who ‘makes art by marking and decorating the environment’ – though it is inevitably erased by time and entropy. So too is this character caught in a troubled flux of sexual identity: hermaphroditic and sterile, the trans-figure is discovered in a moment of doomed and autoerotic sexual congress.

Figurations of this solitary, ‘fucked’ subject appear most clearly in Ruby’s video works; he ‘invents spaces of which he is “the convulsive possession.”’ Indeed this line is quoted in Dihedral (2006), which combines a voice-over reading a Caillois quote (again from the same essay) to a film of different dye-colors falling into a clear medium, a live-action Morris Louis painting. The ‘dihedral of representation’, for Caillois, stands for that context of perception wherein ‘the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself.’7 This demotion is presented, in the videos, alternately as terrifying – space becomes a ‘devouring force’, the subject merely a ‘dark space where things cannot be put’ – and perversely comforting: no longer forced by abstract form to identify himself, this subject can be one amorphous shape among others in a dedifferentiated universe.

This dream, however, is impossible to grasp – abstract space keeps intervening. The video works put forward several versions of this isolated character, dispossessed by space: the hiker, followed by the camera as if by a stalker, walking through a spectacular landscape transformed by the eye’s prerogatives, and perilously close to the abyss (Hiker, 2003); the vampiric office-worker who, bearing a camper’s rucksack, craves the comforting compression of a bathroom stall, sleeping bag or heating duct (Agoraphobic, 2001); the primitive-convulsive characters acted out by Ruby in Temper Tantrum / Intimate Death Magician (2003) or Found Cushion Act (2005).

In Transient Trilogy the character marks his presence in ritual fashion: cultish constellations of talismanic objects, spatters of nail polish. These efforts are not built to last, fading soon into indistinction. Stumbling into the woods, over a thick loam of leathery animal corpses and condom wrappers, the transient soon merges with the bushes. ‘Transient’ is not put forward as a social category, but as a state in which all life and form must inevitably exist: between life and death, male and female, form and formlessness. Not content to let this melancholic allegory stand, Ruby immediately reappears in a new role: an asshole director, whose ridiculous stage direction and squabbling with his intractable actor comically annihilates the sombre narrative that precedes it: ‘Listen! Think of Hamlet! The character who could not make up his mind.’

The Ruby of 2005 dramatized and ironized this punctured subject – an artist ‘afraid of yet obsessed with what went before and neurotically pursuing [his] own symptoms.’8 ‘SUPERMAX 2008’, on the other hand, puts forward the artist as the paradoxically exuberant governor of a rotting carceral order (the title refers to specialized ‘control-unit’ prisons). Geometrical abstraction is present still – in the form of stained and defaced plinths and grids – but these seem now to undergird an alien-geological order that stretches to the ceiling. The subject of this sci-fi scene remains troubled: permeated by a dark space that ‘touches the individual directly, envelops him, penetrates him, and even passes through him,’ he inscribes on the framework of Headless Dick / TSOVM (2008), and: ‘the past has cheated me/the present torments me’. Partly obscured, the third phrase reads: ‘the future … me’. The erased word is ‘terrifies’. Such negations are all the hope we get, in Ruby’s work. But perhaps they’re enough to live on.

1 Ed Schad, ‘Sterling Ruby: Supermax 2008’, Art Review, September 2008, p. 145
2 ‘Inclusiveness’ is Michael Fried’s term for a situation, precipitated by a ‘theatrical’ Minimalism, where ‘there is nothing within [the beholder’s] field of vision – nothing that he takes note of in any way – that, as it were, declares its irrelevance to the situation, and therefore to the experience, in question.’ Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood,’ Gregory Battcock, ed. Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York, E.P. Dutton & Co 1968, p. 127
3 Anna C. Chave, ‘Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,’ Arts 64, January 1990, pp. 44–63
4 Brigid Doherty, ‘Berlin’, in Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris (exh. cat.), Washington D.C., The National Gallery of Art 2006, p.97
5 Roger Caillois, ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,’ October 31, Winter 1984, p. 30
6 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1991, p. 60
7 Ibid, Caillois, p. 28
8 Sterling Ruby, ‘A Brief Rebuttal to Michael Workman’, New City Chicago, 7 February, 2005, http://www.newcitychicago.com/chicago/4075.html

Julian Myers

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.



Sterling Ruby Chron

by Shane McAdams

The Drawing Room
February 22 – March 27, 2008

For hundreds of years, artists did everything in their control to refine their studio practices to achieve a singularity of style and technique. This changed slightly over the past century as Modern artists bounced from one orthodoxy to the next, but at any given point their work would have still been cohesive. In the last two decades, however, attitudes have changed considerably. Sterling Ruby’s exhibition, Chron, at the Drawing Room in Soho is emblematic of the rejection by younger artists of the unitary vision sought by generations of artists before them. Though it is positioned as a “drawing” show, Ruby’s wanderlust takes his work outside drawing’s conventional domain into collage, photography, and sculpture, incorporating a range of media from cosmetics to spray paint to gold foil—all the finest trappings a trip to Canal Street can offer.

Sterling Ruby: CHRON, February 22 � March 27, 2008, The Drawing Center. Photo by Cathy Carver.

The wide stylistic variations of his work, however, as well as his bizarre love/hate relationship with Minimalism, sometimes result in Ruby’s goals getting lost in the noise. The question is whether there is a method to his divergent madness. In Chron, he mixes the excesses of pop glamour with elements drawn from reductive sculpture and painting. “(Mapping) Pink” for example, lays a riotous nest of drizzled nail polish over a geometric matrix of carefully inked lines. It is at once elegantly restrained and trashily expressive. The fact that the drawing is composed of nail polish can’t be overlooked, either. Its effectiveness as an innocent line drawing is quickly subverted by its materials, which transport the work from the realm of the autonomous and abstract to the referential and literal.

Other works such as “Soft Vortex” and “Prison” continue the visual duel with art history in ways that look nothing alike. “Soft Vortex,” a 60-inch-square wall object, looks like an oversized, bleach-splattered shirt ripped off an extra from Flashdance and wrapped around a small Carl Andre floor sculpture. If you approach such a work in terms of art’s past, it is clever and funny; if you don’t, I suspect it might look like trash. “Prison” collages a photo of a prison cell in the upper midsection of the paper, out of which emanates an array of slightly irregular, and slightly clumsy, colored pencil lines. One can’t help but read the prison image metaphorically in light of the geometric shortcomings of the line work (the “prison” of autonomous art?). If there is any lingering doubt whether such works are in fact guileful jabs at Minimalist dogma, and not accidental commentary, remember that Ruby exhibited a set of letterpress prints at Foxy Production two years ago, one reading “kill minimalism” and another, “minimalism tries to kill the amorphous law – geometry ends life.” Anyone who saw that show couldn’t be a character witness for Ruby if he was ever put on trial for vandalizing a Frank Stella painting.

Sterling Ruby: CHRON, February 22 – March 27, 2008, The Drawing Center. Photo by Cathy Carver.

Chron’s gaudiness is heightened by its more than occasional references to bodily fluids, body parts, and sex. At moments it has the unsanitary, faux-glamour feel of a strip club with its lights on. The use of gold and silver foil and cheap cosmetics in several of the works on paper makes it difficult to separate the cultural implications of his work from its formal characteristics—a circumstance that asserts an ongoing challenge to the rhetoric about “Primary Structures” and “Specific Objects” mouthed by Donald Judd, Robert Morris and company forty years ago. Ironically though, despite Ruby’s determined rebuke of Minimalism, his most significant achievement in Chron is his treatment of industrial material, a concern not far from the hearts of many of the Minimalists. However, Ruby and others like, say, Rachel Harrison and Isa Genzken, now seem to celebrate excess production and the accumulation of waste, rather than the mechanical possibilities of the process. Judd’s immaculate stainless-steel boxes look less utopian now, and more like precursors to the year-old, junked IKEA coffee tables waiting on the curb for the arrival of the Department of Sanitation.

Yes, there is a method to Ruby’s madness, but it is a counterintuitive method for anyone expecting unity and homogeneity. While a knee-jerk reaction would be to judge this exhibition as lacking a center of gravity, the more patient observer will recognize in its unevenness an antithetical relationship to the evenness of the past. Chron addresses the failures of the autonomous pursuits of reductive art by indulging in the excesses that seem to be our society’s—and art’s— destiny.



interview by Sterling Ruby

Ron Nagle, Chez Monieu, 2009
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle

STERLING RUBY    I am sitting here looking at a yellow work of yours that I own called Wall Street Gerbil. It has had a place in our house for a few years now, and I enjoy it quite a bit. There has been a lot of debate over whether the small hanging protrusion in the middle is a nose or a dick. I was wondering if, as a personal favor, you could shed some light on this…

RON NAGLE    I wasn’t thinking of that particular protrusion as a nose or a dick. My intention is to make images as ambiguous as possible so that viewers can create their own story. But for your own peace of mind, the protrusion has nothing to do with a nose. I would think of it as some kind of growth coming off of a field. I think the main influences on this kind of image, which occurs occasionally, are warts, skin tabs or moles, but I never make things too specific.

SR    Since we’re on the topic of titles, I keep thinking that a lot of your titling is directed toward naming or giving a kind of subjectivity to your objects.

RN    You are correct in thinking that my titles are often an attempt to vaguely personify the inanimate. My assistants and I usually have an on-going list of titles. We then put these against a group of pieces until we find one that makes some sort of sense at a vague associative level. Wordplay, non sequiturs and free association of imagery all come into play in the titles, but don’t actually affect what I make. I name my pieces like you would name your kids. I particularly love the way some words fit together phonically, which must come from my background as a songwriter. Without being too heavy-handed, most of my titles have an element of humor and, frequently, darkness. I will often hear a phrase that catches my attention and I’ll write it down because it struck some humorous note for me. For example, there was a guy from the utility company who, after performing various services, asked me to fill out a form evaluating his performance. He instructed me to “circle excellent.” This cracked me up, and there will be a piece coming soon called “Circle Excellent.”

Ron Nagle, Blue Weeorama 2009
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle

SR    Your sensibility for ’50s post-war aesthetics seems more in line with artists such as H.C. Westermann or Billy Al Bengston as opposed to Peter Voulkos or John Mason. What are your thoughts regarding the interactions between abstract expressionism and things like the Hot Rod or Kustom Kulture movements during the early stages of the California clay Revolution?

RN    Even though I am strongly associated with the California Clay Revolution, the majority of my influences come from sources other than ceramic artists. I first delved into the well-crafted object when making model airplanes as a kid. I saw these guys at the rec center making Japanese fighter planes out of orange crates, sanding the wood down to a fine finish, sealing off the surface, painting the planes with Testors Dope hobby paint, and then meticulously gluing the components together. That same mentality still exists in my work. When I was making model airplanes with my father, he would always tell me two things: “Sand with the grain” and “Never do a job half-assed.” As much as I rebelled against the majority of his teachings and opinions, those two seemed to stick. After this, I was fully engaged in the hot rod culture in San Francisco and had a ’48 Ford Coupe, which had forty coats of British racing green lacquer, sanded with fine sandpaper between each coat to create a richness and depth that couldn’t be achieved without that kind of fanaticism and attention to detail. I still think that there are cars from the past, both custom and production, that are more interesting than most sculpture.

I came from San Francisco, but I couldn’t relate to the Bay Area figurative school, so I made pilgrimages to L.A. to see shows at the Ferus Gallery as often as I could. Theirs was an aesthetic, in scale and execution and surface, to which I could relate quite strongly. You mentioned Billy Al Bengston; I was unquestionably greatly influenced not only by his use of the airbrush to apply paint, but by the incredible sense of color in his paintings of the mid-’50s. Of all the California clay “revolutionaries,” my main influence was Kenny Price, whose discipline, sense of craft, and integrity have been major influences on my work.

With a few exceptions, I have a great deal of disdain for the “ceramic world” and its preoccupation with material, process and trite humor. I am much more drawn to painting. In my younger days, I looked a lot at Tàpies, Morandi, Albers, de Kooning, Rothko and Twombly. I always felt the aesthetic aspirations of painters were on a much higher level than those of the ceramic crowd. That being said, I am crazy about almost all ceramics from the Momoyama period in Japan (in the late sixteenth century) and American 1940s restaurant-ware, because of its lack of pretense.

Ron Nagle, Knights of Franconia, 2008
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle

SR    I’m not sure if you are tired of talking about this, but I just found out that you did all of the sound effects for The Exorcist (1973). What were some of your favorite scenes and your techniques for producing the sound for them?

RN    I’m never tired of talking about this because its one of the best jobs I ever had. I was working with brilliant professionals in a rarified environment where I could do anything I wanted and get paid for it. The film’s director, William Friedkin, wanted the sound to be “bigger than life” so that even the smallest details were magnified. I was given a portable tape recorder to record anything that popped into my head, which could potentially used in the film. The sounds for the beginning of the movie were organic, such as the sound of a single bee in a jar tuned a hundred times to create a threatening din. That was combined with the sound of pigs being slaughtered along with some ambient machine noise that leaked into the recording. I had no idea what I was going to do with this combination of sounds once it was assembled on multi-track tape, but when it was played against the opening scenes, it seemed to work. The director flipped for it and I got the job.

One scene that stands out is when the priest goes through the window. The sound was created by smashing many, many window props and recording the smashing at various distances, as well as extending the tinkling and falling of the glass to just a little more than real time. That one window crash consisted of about forty one-inch pieces of tape spliced together to make one long crash. Later on, it occurred to me that much of the stacking or layering used in the recording process is not that dissimilar to my approach for glazing sculpture: I fire my ceramics many times and use layer after layer of glaze, underglaze or china paint to create the color. At least that is what I did until very recently. I am now using auto paint that has been matted out to paint on bisque ware. This usually requires fewer layers for the same effect, and it is a much more direct way of working. It is very satisfying to see how certain color combinations come alive immediately, before my very eyes, without having to wait to open the kiln every morning. It is just more like painting, which is something I’ve been trying for all along. I am seriously considering making my next group of work out of hollow cast plastic, using clay only to create the first immediate image and taking a mold from that.

Ron Nagle, Dr. Bob Cobbler, 2008
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle

SR    I am always amazed at your generation’s craftsmanship skills. Do you think that this comes from a time when everyone learned how to fix and make things properly? You first learned ceramics from your mother, and then moved into jewelry-making. What were the gender associations at this time for someone working in ceramics and jewelry?

RN    My father was a businessman by profession, but he could make or fix almost anything, so the idea of making objects was instilled in me early. My mother was also a very skilled seamstress. I am like many people of my generation, whose parents made or fixed stuff because they came out of the Depression.

Craftsmanship, for me, does not only represent slick or finished work. It is any technique that makes the finished piece believable. I started off as a jeweler because it was considered a very hip thing to do during the Beatnik period. During that time, the majority of contemporary jewelers were men, whereas ceramics was still thought of as something that little old ladies did. It wasn’t until the studio pottery movement and then Voulkos that ceramics took on a macho image. When I started using things like store-bought glazes, china paints and decals, and began slip casting, it ran contrary to this macho image. Let’s not forget that it was Kenny Price who took these small cup and vessel forms and started bringing bright color and subtlety to contemporary ceramics.

SR    Can you explain what you mean when you call yourself a “White Devil Formalist”? Is this the same as being a “Precious Asshole”?

RN    Being a “White Devil Formalist” and a “Precious Asshole” are two separate, but similarly glib, responses to classifying myself. “White Devil Formalist” is a sarcastic way of saying that I am a white male whose work doesn’t necessarily have literal meaning. “Precious Asshole” means that I am drawn to small-scale intimate work by artists such as Morandi, Vermeer, Price, Cornell, Albers and Albert Ryder.

Having taught at the college level for fifty years, I’ve become very cynical and, in fact, resentful of political correctness, French theory and the what-does-it-mean crowd. By and large, I learned to detest academia and its left-brained approach to the arts. People forget that all of the aforementioned issues are matters of fashion and not necessarily the truth.

I come from a music background and I apply the same sensibility to both making and experiencing art. It all comes down to what it feels like, what it conjures, what associations a great piece of work can have on a vaguely, dare I say, magical level. I make no separation between high or low, pop music or oil-painted masterpieces. I would just as soon hear “River Deep, Mountain High” as look at Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. They both do the same thing for me. I told my daughter to go to the Met and see the Turner show. She said, “Ike Turner?”

Ron Nagle, Knights of Franconia, 2008
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Don Tuttle



Ciprian Muresan and Sterling Ruby at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève

April 21~2012

Artistic and literary works are the starting point for the work of Ciprian Muresan (*1977, Dej, Romania), who appropriates them for a reflective project that intersects with the recent history of Romania and other Eastern European countries and, more generally, ponders the realities of the contemporary world.
For his first solo exhibition in Switzerland, Ciprian Muresan presents two new pieces: an installation, “Recycled Playground”, from which the exhibition takes its title and its tone, and a companion video creation. A selection of other significant works is also presented. Juggling humour and critique, the artist highlights the structures and processes of all forms of power.

Above – Ciprian Muresan. Recycled Playground
Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève
until April 22, 2012

© Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève. Photos: David Gagnebin-de Bons



“Soft Work” is the first solo exhibition in Switzerland by the Los Angeles based artist, Sterling Ruby – described by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith in a 2008 review as “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century”. Taking cues from artists such as Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, Ruby works in a variety of different media. His work is a form of assault on both materials and social power structures. The show in Geneva focuses on one significant body of work within the artist’s practice that has not yet received specific attention: the “soft sculpture”.


Sterling Ruby. Soft Work
Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève
until April 22, 2012

© Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève. Photos: David Gagnebin-de Bons


by David Spalding

November 8, 2011

Sterling Ruby’s “Vampire”

THE PACE GALLERYBeijing24 September–5 November, 2011

Caught in that dark crawlspace between the living and the dead, hounded by a destructive, unending hunger and burdened with the need to indoctrinate: this is today’s American empire as it appears in “Vampire,” Sterling Ruby’s exhibition of new and recent work at The Pace Gallery, Beijing. Ruby has always needed to tag and topple monuments dedicated to the old order. For his 2008 exhibition SUPERMAX at the Geffen Contemporary, MOCA, Los Angeles, Ruby scratched, scarred, and defiled Minimalist-derived sculptural forms until they confessed their sins, creating a claustrophobic installation that forged links between 1960s American Minimalism and incarceration. For his first solo show in China, Ruby returns to the period’s obdurate, block-headed muteness, finding an unspoken desire for power in the geometric, reductive, and “objective” approaches made famous by Minimalists and the critics that championed them. Here Ruby reinterprets these forms, along with historically contiguous modes of painting and sculpture, dragging the whole lot squarely into a present marked by desperate consumption, global war, and economic collapse.

Ruby has a flair for the theatrical. With its star-spangled smile and dripping fangs, the soft sculpture Double Vampire 6 (unless otherwise stated, all works 2011) evokes the Rolling Stones’s lascivious tongue-and-lips logo, high on meth and out for blood. It’s plagued by a grimacing hunger without conscience, sitting in a gridlocked SUV, gobbling Oldenburg’s burgers after a visit to art history’s drive-thru. Though undead, it must continue to feast: gluttony has become its eternal curse. The only word it knows is “more.”

America’s endless conflicts in the Middle East are palpable here. An inclined, rectilinear form made of spray-painted aluminum, Predator Monolith rises from the floor as if it’s about to take flight. The work simultaneously suggests the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the wing or cockpit of a “hunter-killer” MQ-1 Predator, those unmanned aerial vehicles used by the US Air Force and CIA for classified bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan…wherever the war on terror takes us.  A related work, Consolidator (2010-2011), repossessed from Ruby’s junkyard of spray-painted geometries, is a Euclidian take on an all-in-one cannon-cum-coffin. Predator Monolith appears to be aimed at Monument Stalagmite / Vampire Empire. The work is a monument to erectile dysfunction: a sinewy, psychedelic tower of shiny red and blue supported by an unpainted board (a “crutch,” in Ruby-speak) on which is written, in prison-jumpsuit orange, the phrase “VAMPIRE EMPIRE.”

Surrounding these works are three large bronze Debt Basins: sutured, roughly circular structures containing what look like artifacts unearthed from the site of a post-credit crisis Pompeii. Each of these reliquaries contains petrified dioramas—miniature landscapes of scavenged junk where stacked kilns become towering crematoria. Though they seem to have been sent from the tombs of an ancient, ruined culture in order to warn us, they arrive too late, foretelling a future that has already been set into motion. A series of three works called JIGS are solemnly arranged in an adjacent room: abstracted American flags made of rebar and displayed atop configurations of what looks like scrap metal—an improvised, solemn tribute to fading glory.

With their overlapping bands, scribbles and blasts of hazy, electric color, Ruby’s enormous, spray-painted canvases play at transcendence through an irreverent, day-glo nod to Rothko’s color fields. They also give a shout-out to artists such as Jane Kaufman and Jules Olitski, who continued to expand the medium of painting during the mid-60s, despite the limitations touted by Minimalism’s critical cabal. The distinction in these works is not between figure and ground, but between a series of competing planes of atmospheric color that alternately float against the painting’s surface and then recede like so many after-images. Their fuming magnetic fields draw viewers toward an imploding horizon. If the paintings sometimes suggest the luscious sunsets of Los Angeles, it’s the LA of Synanon and the Crips, seen in hindsight through the rear view mirror of an apocalyptic present.

Sterling Ruby is at the forefront of a generation of LA artists whose training enables them to successfully mine the legacy of recent sculpture, particularly Minimalism and its aftereffects—artists as different as Jason Meadows, Taft Green, Won Ju Lim, and Rachel Lachowicz. Ruby is also a storyteller, motivated by formal and ethical questions. It doesn’t matter whether Beijing audiences can identify the art historical references in Ruby’s work. His point is not to stage a solipsistic conversation about the art of the 60s, but to use his knowledge of these forms to speak to something far more pressing—the vampiric impulses of an undead empire, one that continues to devour resources because it cannot be laid to rest. To present this work in Beijing, the political heart of an economically ascendant country widely prophesized to be the next global superpower, couldn’t be more fitting.

DAVID SPALDING is an art writer and curator based in Beijing, China.


  1. morad ezzanzoune

    good work

Leave a Comment


View of, "Vampire", The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.

1View of, “Vampire”, The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.

Sterling Ruby, Consolidator, 2010-2011.

2Sterling Ruby, Consolidator, 2010-2011.

Sterling Ruby, Monument Stalagmite / Vampire Empire, 2011.

3Sterling Ruby, Monument Stalagmite / Vampire Empire, 2011.

View of, "Vampire", The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.

4View of, “Vampire”, The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.

Sterling Ruby, Debt Basin 3, 2011.

5Sterling Ruby, Debt Basin 3, 2011.

Sterling Ruby, JIG 1, 2011.

6Sterling Ruby, JIG 1, 2011.

  • 1View of, “Vampire”, The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011. All images courtesy of The Pace Gallery, Beijing.
  • 2Sterling Ruby, Consolidator, 2010-2011. Bronze. 175.3 cm x 233.7 cm x 642.6 cm.
  • 3Sterling Ruby, Monument Stalagmite / Vampire Empire, 2011. PVC pipe, foam, urethane, wood,spray paint and formica. 558.8 cm x 96.5 cm x 157.5 cm.
  • 4View of, “Vampire”, The Pace Gallery, Beijing, 2011.
  • 5Sterling Ruby, Debt Basin 3, 2011. Bronze. 243.8 cm x 243.8 cm x 50.8 cm.
  • 6Sterling Ruby, JIG 1, 2011. Metal. 105 cm x 96 cm x 90 cm.



Sterling Ruby

In his 2004-5 video Transient, Sterling Ruby embodies a disheveled, homeless drifter moving through a terrain both ruinous and vacant. Along the way the eponymous character creates unsettling little ephemeral sculptures, splashes blood-red nail polish in a concrete pit, and—yikes—fucks a skull. Later in the video, Ruby adopts a second persona: the obsessive, obnoxious director of the narrative we have just witnessed. The appearance brings unexpected comic relief to a dark and knowingly unpleasant work; more importantly, it suggests Ruby’s interest in positioning the artist as an archetypal figure, a duplicitous creator-destroyer engaged in a self-induced, self-perpetuating cycle of making and unmaking.

Highly prolific, Ruby moves fluidly—like a transient—among video, ceramics, sculpture, installation, drawing, photography, and collage. Rather than obliterating the notion of medium, his sprawling practice reifies a more primitive sense of the term, structuring much of his work’s meaning around the agency of its becoming. His ceramics, with glazes that appear to be melting, suggest violent, visceral creation, retaining a sense of the material’s initial malleability in the final forms. The ceramics are visually striking but nearly impossible to apprehend in one’s memory, at once recalling wobbly three-dimensional peace signs and eviscerated rib cages. (Clearly related to the ceramics, a creepy kiln has appeared in a number of collages, appearing paradoxically as a vaginal point of origin and a deadly void.) While a recent sculpture, Orange Inanimate Torso (2005), is as grisly as the name suggests, the work also vigorously asserts its indefinite, “abstract” nature.

This engagement with form and formlessness is clearly indebted to postminimalists including Lynda Benglis and Robert Morris (both keenly aware of the artistic potential of embodiment and persona), as well as Los Angeles father figures Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. But the scariest and most rewarding aspects of Ruby’s work, in which the artist obsessively attempts to locate sublimity at various sites of trauma—and in the horrific potential of materials—finds roots in marginalized oddballs such as Paul Thek, Lucas Samaras, Bruce Conner, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and as suggested by a recent collage, sci-fi artist-designer H. R. Giger. Giger’s signature aliens, part insect, part machine—methodically juxtaposed alongside images of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, war protestors, Linda Blair from The Exorcist, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, and heavily tattooed women—are agents of transference, transgression, transformation, and (perhaps) transcendence. As such, they embody Ruby’s ambition to locate trauma—and meaning—in an unfixed state.

This essay originally appeared in the catalogue for the 2006 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, October 31 – December 31, 2006.


João Ribas

Flash Art  n.271  March – April 2010SINCERELY HOSTILEJOÃO RIBAS: I’d like to begin by discussing this post-humanist condition underscoring so much of your practice — ranging as it does from sculpture to drawing, video, ceramics, and painting.Sterling Ruby: Post-anxiety, post-cynicism, post-transgression, post-depression, post-war, post-law, post-gender, etc., etc., etc. For me it seems fitting to the purpose that all of this baggage is the reason we have to be post-humanist. There is just too much information for anything to be coherent or whole. To be quite honest I had never thought about post-humanism in relation to my work until Robert Hobbs started the discussion while preparing his essay for the JRP|Ringier book. What makes it hard is that there is no real definition of post-humanism, which seems fitting for the times and for the topic. During the ’80s and ’90s, Félix Guattari and Jean-François Lyotard were focusing on technological advancements and sociological peripheries that seemed to suggest a future transformation or liberation of some kind. At present Mike Davis sees the post-human as an entity of excess, an individual or group who can’t take any more. Even Steve Nichols who published The Post-Human Manifesto in 1988 suggested the situation might be generational.
Grid Ripper, 2008. Installation view at GAMeC, Bergamo (IT), 2008. Courtesy the artist and Emi FontanaWest of Rome, Milan / Los Angeles. Photo: Roberto Marossi.
JR: Yet somehow your work seems particularly grounded by a specific notion oftransversalitySR: Well, one outcome of this ‘post-situation’ is generating a feeling of continuum, as an adjustment or a way of coping. It certainly doesn’t feel as if it is anything other than a strategy for survival. I recently started thinking that I apply a kind of ‘transversality’ not only in theory, but also as a work ethic. My intention is to use many media as a kind of schizophrenic labor strategy. It seems very easy now to say it, but it has taken me years to convey that this scattered routine belongs within a coherent trajectory. Works may not look the same formally, they might not even be within the same medium, but there is a lineage that links everything that I do together.JR: There are two poles that emerge directly from your early sculptural and drawing work that seem foundational. On the one hand there is the masculine orthodox language of minimalism, which your work has had an agonistic relationship with, in its reappraisal, from the start. On the other hand, the notion of representing, in symbolic form, marginal states and forms of containment like the penal system and incarceration, normative sexuality, the notion of a stable social identification, as well as attempts to move out of these things that are often deemed types of ‘pathologies’ — gangs and criminality, transexuality, abjection… These are in some way the repressed otherof minimalism…SR: These two poles (formalism and representation) have always seemed to be in opposition of one another, but for me they became mirrored necessities, especially over the past decade working as a contemporary visual artist. I went to a foundation college in Lancaster,  Pennsylvania, for four full years; I learned the visual basics like perspective, color, composition and form. In that curriculum I did nothing other than still life, figure studies, mixing colors and additive and subtracted sculpture. After that my education switched completely; I wound up taking almost no studio classes, enrolling mainly in psychology and theory courses. Havingone versus the other seemed absurd and I often thought about what it would be like if I haddone neither. This is where my graduate education fell into a downward spiral, which ultimately led to not receiving a degree. I felt like I was regressing, that I had too much education, and that this was preventing me from making anything other than premeditated work. The antagonistic approach that I have taken towards minimalism started during this period. I thought that Judd’s writing was too much of a handbook and that the movement was restricted because of it. The ideas of territory and how things were deemed minimal were in dialogue with masculine authority or, more significantly, who controlled the movement, and I found that to be problematic. I have always thought of art as similar to poetry, that it can’t be proven and yet, if done right, has a sense of unmistakable aura. This idea is also in direct conflict with education and training; it brings with it my generation’s shift towards primitivism or naivety. My disobedience of the regulations that set definition to the movement manifested itself in certain pathologies. Everything started to collapse in on itself, and there became no line between formalism and representation. The minimal form was in fact no longer the item of exteriorobject-hood, but instead the vessel that contained all aspects of marginal states.JR: Is there also a sense of embracing devalued cultural forms, say like ceramics, orgraffiti — as demarcations of territory and collective identity?SR: Yes, absolutely. Ceramics in particular correspond to the therapy-driven collective identity. The medium of clay for me is universal. It holds all sorts of shared principles with reference to desire, immediacy, sexuality and repression. The malleability of the clay becomes truncated via the kiln, which is also a kind of a monumental allegory for where we are as a generation. Perhaps it characterizes our incapability to truly feel as if there is an innate expression… that even this is an incarceration of current times. It is converted through the firing into a monument of the gesture that it once had. Graffiti is similar to this as well. It seems like a kind of collective mark making, as much as it is about territorial pissing.
American Risk, 2009. PVC pipe, foam, urethane, wood, spray paint and formica, 422 x 229 x 183 cm. Courtesy the artist and PaceWildenstein, New York / Beijing.ACTS/KKDETHZ, 2009. Formica, wood, spray paint and urethane, 154 x 159 x 86 cm. Courtesy the artist. Photos: Robert Wedemeyer.
JR: One of the terms that seems to keep coming up in discussions of contemporary art practice is the idea of ‘sincerity’ — almost taken on as a positive, critical term. At the same time, your work has often been reproached for being precisely the inverse. I find it somewhat puzzling that sincerity would be taken up by a generation of artists as a critical term.SR: Yes, I agree with that completely. Sincerity seems to have become a designationfor our generation. It feels like the backlash to cynicism or even postmodernism. I guess I hadn’t thought that it was a critical term as much as a way out of conceptual pessimism, maybe even anti-critical. I get pretty down on the fact that people equate sincerity with being positive. I do think that my work is sincere, but this often gets overlooked because of its underlying hostility.
The Masturbators, 2009. 9 channel video with sound, installation view at Foxy Production, New York.Courtesy the artist and Foxy Production, New York. Photo: Mark Woods. Animal, 2009. Lambda Print, 183 x 122 cm. Courtesy the artist and Marc Foxx, Los Angeles.
JR: I’m curious about The Masturbators (2009) in terms of its structured patheticalness— the corporality is so intense and aggressive as to almost be a form of torture…SR: I started The Masturbators almost a year ago. I originally had a different idea for the work.I hired one male porn actor and asked him to masturbate to climax in a room by himself. The camera and crew were in the adjacent room with the lens being focused through a hole in the wall. I expected the actor to run through the request with ease, but the reality of it was that he couldn’t do it. His embarrassment over his profession and not being able to masturbate to climax became the project itself. I followed the project over six months by hiring an additional eight actors, shooting them all the exact same way. In the end only three of the nine actors were able to climax; the ones who could not had reactions ranging from subtle humiliation to violent disappointment. There were times during the production where it got very tense. I had focused so much on the super maximum penitentiary stuff the years leading up to this, that I had contemporary masculinity in the back of my head. I read a great line from Lorna Rhodes’ Total Confinement, which stated: “The secret of violent men is that they feel ashamed —deeply ashamed over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them.” I thought about this quote every time I finished a shoot with one of these guys. I mean: who should be expected to climax on cue? The projectbecame like a core behavioral study once completed. It seemed brutal, but honest.João Ribas is curator of exhibitions of MIT, List Visual Arts Center, Boston.Sterling Ruby was born in 1972 in Bitburg, Germany. He lives and works in Los Angeles.Selected solo shows: 2010: PaceWildenstein, New York. 2009: Xavier Hufkens (with Robert Mapplethorpe), Brussels; Foxy Production, New York. 2008: Sprüth Magers, London; GAMeC, Bergamo (IT); Emi Fontana, Milan; MOCA, Los Angeles; Metro Pictures, New York; The Drawing Center, New York. 2007: Christian Nagel, Berlin; Bernier/Eliades, Athens; Foxy Production, New York; Metro Pictures, New York. 2006: Marc Foxx, Los Angeles; Emi Fontana, Milan; Christian Nagel, Cologne. 2005: Marc Foxx, Los Angeles; Guild & Greyshkul, New York; Sister, Los Angeles; Foxy Production, New York. 2004: 1R, Chicago; Foxy Production, New York. 2003: Art Center College of Design, Pasadena (CA); 1R, Chicago; Suitable, Chicago.


Sterling Ruby

Sterling Ruby Painter, Mixed-media Artist, Ceramicit, Sculptor– For an artist whose hyperprolific output jumps from inchoate stalagmite sculptures covered in a urethane coat akin to a nail-polish lacquer to a refurbished bus that once transported California prison inmates; from neon-dappled semi-abstract graffiti paintings to one recent video work of masturbating male porn stars, the studio compound of Sterling Ruby is surprisingly organized. Located southeast of Los Angeles in the industrial stretches of Vernon, California (Pennzoil motor oil is produced directly across the street), the artist’s headquarters, staffed by 10 assistants, is divided into five separate workshops for drawing and collage, ceramics, paintings, urethane, and woodwork. Ruby, who was born in Germany but grew up on the East Coast and attended college in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles for graduate school, is probably one of the most accomplished material-jumping art stars of the last decade. He’s known for producing bright, pop-colored works that belie more sorrowful, failed underpinnings—as if the 38-year-old’s sculptures can’t seem to organize themselves into a form and the canvases can’t cohere to produce a single order. This, of course, can be read as a structural breakdown or the beginning of new possibilities. “I’ve found a pretty happy route in using a lot of different mediums,” he explains. “Even video. I feel very capable of picking it up without preconceived rules and regulations to make it work.” Currently, Ruby has two different bodies of work taking up most of the activity of his studio. One is a series of Mexican scrap-metal sculptures, many of which seem to be shaped like guns, which was inspired by a recent stay at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, near the Mexican border. The second is a number of large ceramic basins glazed in vibrating colors and filled with broken shards that reflects Ruby’s “basin theology” (his belief that in placing past work in these containers, he might reclaim his futile gestures). In a sense, these pieces may be the receptacles of Ruby’s past mistakes, but they are also small monuments celebrating their own subsistence.

Sterling Ruby at his studio in Vernon, Ca, October 2010. All clothing: Ruby’s own.



06.19.08 – 09.19.08
MOCA Focus: Sterling Ruby, SUPERMAX 2008 is the eighth installment of MOCA’s series of one-person exhibitions of work by emerging artists in Southern California. Presented at MOCA Pacific Design Center, the exhibition will feature new works in an installation specifically designed for the space. Sterling Ruby’s works in collage, ceramics, video, and sculpture tackle received notions of aesthetic tropes and social stereotypes that are based on visual signs. Often monumental in scale, Ruby’s works immerse the viewer in sets of formal codes and gestures that refer to transience, transgression, and transference—phenomena that are social and psychological, physical and emotional. Born in Bittburg, Germany, in 1972, Ruby received BFAs from the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design in 1998 and from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. After relocating to Los Angeles in 2003, Ruby received a MFA from Art Center College of Design in 2005, and his work has been featured in numerous exhibitions internationally. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by MOCA Curator Philipp Kaiser.MOCA Focus: Sterling Ruby, SUPERMAX 2008 is made possible by generous endowment support from The Nimoy Fund for New and Emerging Artists and the Fran and Ray Stark Foundation Fund to Support the Work of Emerging Artists.Major support is also provided by a multi-year grant from The James Irvine Foundation. Additional generous support is provided by The MOCA Contemporaries, Karyn Kohl and David Hockney.
4 images


21 Questions for Artist Sterling Ruby

Published: October 11, 2011

Age: 39
Occupation: Artist
City/Neighborhood: Los Angeles, CA

What project are you working on now? 


I am working on a soft-sculpture exhibition for the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, organized by Katya García-Antón, which opens in February 2012. I’m also finishing a show titled EXHM / BC for the Frac Champagne-Ardenne, in Reims, in May 2012, working with Florence Derieux on this one.

Your solo show, VAMPIRE, is currently the first exhibition by a Western artist at Pace Beijing, and one of the first selling shows by a Western artist in mainland China. What do you make of that distinction?

I’m not sure what this means, to tell you the truth.

Why do you think they chose you?

I was very excited visiting Beijing for the first time in 2008 — there was an energy that the city had that the artists seemed to be feeding off of, it reminded me of the first time I experienced Los Angeles. I became fascinated by China’s speed and scale. It seems somewhat cliché but there really is an excessiveness and power in Beijing. The invitation to exhibit came from Leng Lin, the Pace Beijing director. We have a good rapport, and I admire what he’s done.

You are known for jumping from one medium to another, which is a rare approach among Chinese contemporary artists, who tend to cultivate signature styles. How has your work been received by the Chinese audience?

So far the reception of the exhibition has been good. The idea of Chinese contemporary artists cultivating signature styles is misleading. I don’t believe that Chinese artists are any more unidirectional than, say, American artists. That assumption might be based on the obsession with media, auction prices, and specific works. I have been to Beijing eight times over the past couple of years and realize now after getting to know many artists there and having done frequent studio visits that my perception prior to going was wrong. Someone like Zhang Xiaogang is primarily known for his paintings because of the auctions, but he has an incredibly diverse practice, which also includes sculpture, collage, and printmaking. This is something that I would not have known without visiting his studio and meeting him. I really like the work of Song Dong, whose ’90’s performative roots continues to inform his interdisciplinary practice. Even Li Songsong has made sculptures. The younger generation of Chinese artists is also working through this figurative/narrative (pre-Cultural Revolution) paradigm, which seems to be the West’s narrow definition of Chinese contemporary art.

You also have a show up currently at Andrea Rosen Gallery where your work is displayed alongside that of Lucio Fontana. Is there another historical artist with whom you would like to share a show? 

I would love to curate a show around Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose” and Bruce Conner’s assemblage works like “The Bride.”

What’s the last show that you saw?

Paul Schimmel’s phenomenal “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981″ at L.A. MOCA.

What’s the last show that surprised you? Why?

Tatsuo Miyajima’s “Ashes To Ashes, Dust To Dust” show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. The LED counters, projections and sculpture were so crystal clear and hypnotic. I loved watching this optically trippy set of works and thinking about their Buddhist-Existentialist subject matter. I like the fact that as long as the equipment continues to run, the works perpetually have a life of their own. I forgot to ask the Ullens folks if they turn it off at night.

Do you make a living off your art?


What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?

The Hitachi CR18DL 18V 3.0Ah Lithium Ion Reciprocating Saw.

Do you collect anything?

I collect art and pottery.

What’s the last artwork you purchased?

I recently acquired Taryn Simon’s “Ski Dubai, The first indoor ski resort in the Middle East, Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai” (2005) and Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of the Baltimore writer “Cookie Mueller” (1978).

What’s the first artwork you ever sold?

I sold my first sculpture in 1999-2000 while living in Chicago. I was paid $500, which is what my rent was at the time. I spent $700 to make the sculpture. I bought the sculpture back from the collector a few years ago. I’m glad to have it in my possession again despite having lost money both times.

What’s your art-world pet peeve?

There are many, but I tend to keep them private now.

Do you have a gallery/museum-going routine?

Not really, I try to see what I can… I tend to see more shows when I travel.

What’s the last great book you read?

I just finished “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Faber and Mazlish and Murakami’s “A Wild Sheep Chase.”

What work of art do you wish you owned?

I wish I owned Georg Baselitz’s “The Big Night Down the Drain” (1962-1963).

What would you do to get it?

Almost anything, and I mean “anything.”

What international art destination do you most want to visit?

Egypt — I want to see the pyramids.

What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about? 

Three photographers: John Divola and friends Sarah Conaway and Melanie Schiff. I think Mara McCarthy’s gallery, the Box, is exceptional.

Who’s your favorite living artist?

I have always been a fan of Chris Burden, I’ve gotten to know him personally over the past few years and really admire his way of doing things. He’s up there for me.

What are your hobbies?

I’m trying to get Young Buck out of his contract with 50 Cent so that he can finally have a real follow up to 2004’s “Straight Outta Ca$hville.”


by Walter Robinson Artnet

The notion of the “abject” came into the art world in an appropriately half-assed way, as a show organized for the Whitney Museum by students in its “independent study program” in 1993.Subtitled “Repulsion and Desire in American Art,” the survey focused on what might be called female troubles — those very physical and very real elements of sexuality that men don’t typically find sexy. The exhibition included works by Louise Bourgeois, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and that maestro of the anal phase, Paul McCarthy.

Since then, the idea of the abject has spread like a fungus, and today is the attribute that few avant-garde artworks can do without. Their anti-social truancy is all that separates “advanced” art from our flourishing mass culture. It makes you think: Long gone is the time that contemporary art was about abstraction taking us to new spiritual heights.

A case in point would be Sterling Ruby, the 30-something Los Angeles artist whose Minimalist sculptures defaced with smudges and scratchiti took the art market by storm in 2008. One especially clear example was exhibited at Metro Pictures, a sculpture of two geometrical forms smeared with schmutz and titled Absolute Contempt for Total Serenity.

These modest thoughts framed an evening visit to the Museum of Modern Art a couple of months ago, where curator Barbara London had arranged a special screening of five of Ruby’s videos in collaboration with his Chelsea gallery, Foxy Production. (Though shot on video, they took the form of “films,” and were projected in MoMA’s theater as part of a “Modern Mondays film screening.” )

The notion of abjection provided a way into a group of short videos — 61 minutes in all — that were otherwise fairly hermetic. Like a lot of artist’s films and videos, Ruby’s are not what you would call “narrative structures.” Rather, they’re more like drawings or sketches, in which each video tries out a single idea, rather than telling any kind of story.

For what it’s worth, though the artist likes to work across disciplines in many mediums, these five vids struck me as the work of a sculptor — though they do give a broader sense of Ruby’s artistic practice.

Thus, the short vid Hole (2002) illustrates a voice-over of some retail employee relating how he hated his job so much that he would stuff store stock into holes in the wall, costing thousands in lost inventory, with footage of several actors putting stuff through a gap in a plaster wall.

Similarly, Cartographic Yard Work (2009), shows the artist in an industrial yard, surrounded by piles of construction debris and the like, filling in small holes. (A task undertaken at the request of his landlord, Ruby informed the audience, as he himself had dug the holes, which were behind his studio, apparently as a kind of meditation).

This video especially seemed to be the work of a sculptor, particularly the “anti-form” sculptors of the 1970s, though Ruby’s approach seems more downbeat, even nihilistic, than those Postminimalist exercises in matter, volume and texture could ever be.

In Dihedral (2006), on the other hand, the image is pure prettiness, a chromophonic spectrum of color and movement presumably effected by dropping colored inks into an aquarium. The soundtrack for this nutrient-free eye candy is some gnomic scientific text, possibly about form in space but, really, impossible to follow — in its own way, nutrient-free as well.

Most abject, and decidedly avant-garde, is the final video in the series of five, called Triviality (2009), and featuring an endless — actually it was only nine minutes long — scene of a Los Angeles porno actor, Tom Colt, standing naked in a bare room masturbating, trying unsuccessfully to bring himself to orgasm. The film’s approach is all Body Art and very little eroticism (and is not at all coy like the accompanying still).

The artist said he was interested in his actor’s sense of embarrassment (at his professional failure to ejaculate on cue), but to the viewer the performance was a challenge to watch. Though the action in Triviality is utterly familiar — and certainly much can be said about it — its presentation was offensive first of all. Which is what makes it an emblematic avant-garde gesture.

The longest video, at 36 minutes, is titled Transient Trilogy (2005), and comes the closest to being a real film, with an actor, a setting and something of a narrative scheme. Ruby himself plays a bum, who transits a marginal landscape, neither nature nor manmade, where he occupies himself crafting what can only be called artworks from string, cast-offs and other bits of trash. In one scene, he makes a minor splatter painting on a rock with red fingernail polish.

As a filmmaker, Ruby lingers longingly on his “nonsites,” woods and streams on the city’s fringes, contaminated by urban runoff and trash, its trees spotted with carved initials and graffiti. He seems to be saying, as an artist, this is my place, and I love it.

The vid also has an odd interlude, in which Ruby, this time playing the filmmaker, gives impatient and loud direction to his schizophrenic performer, who is off screen, and who invariably fails to understand. The hostility and aggression here stand out. They are the actual feelings that hide beneath the affectless shield of the avant-garde abject.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.


Best in Show | Sterling Ruby’s Caged Heat


February 11, 2010, 1:15 pm 1 Comment

Sterling RubyG.R. Christmas/Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York “Pig Pen” and “Bus” by Sterling Ruby, on view at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea.

Best in Show follows the peregrinations of critic and novelist Linda Yablonsky, author of The Story of Junk, and a front-line chronicler of art-world events and exhibitions.

Art is such a subjective pursuit that the next best thing to living with it may be having it to yourself in public. Sterling Ruby’s “2 Traps,” two new monumental sculptures on view at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea, offer such solitary experience in spades. “Bus” looks at first like a cross between a heavy metal band’s tour vehicle, a prison van outfitted for “Mad Max”-style siege and a nightclub from hell. Actually it is all three – and more.

The bus once belonged to the Los Angeles Police Department, which used it to ferry inmates to and from California prisons. A rock band then acquired it and painted its fiery logos on the exterior. Before Ruby acquired it from the city’s metro transportation system, the bus also did service as a mobile salesroom for stereo sound equipment.

The L.A.-based Ruby, who is 38 and a subscriber to Bus Conversion magazine, made his bus a gothic icon. He put in black vinyl banquettes of the sort common to party limos, and enclosed them behind the kind of security gates used by California homeowners in bad neighborhoods. To complete its transformation as a metaphor for a dark night of the soul, he installed multiple subwoofers and shiny chrome globes, as if it were a traveling disco engulfed in an eerie silence.

“Bus” functions as a metaphor for the suppression and release of personal demons that becomes even more pronounced with “Pig Pen,” the other monster piece in Ruby’s show. Looking like a minimalist structure conceived by Sol LeWitt in a straitjacket, or a live chicken market absent its inhabitants, it is made of 68 locked steel cages that replicate solitary confinement cells in San Quentin. Though hardly a thing of beauty, the work is somehow as sexy as it is forbidding — and best experienced alone.

Followers of Ruby’s work, which includes gloppy but fascinating ceramic vessels, enormously phallic polyurethane stalagmites, minimalist cubes “defaced” by graffiti and photographs painted with red nail polish, may be surprised by the claustrophobic extremes of the “traps.” But Ruby, whom the Times’s Roberta Smith has called “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century,” is nothing if not unpredictable. After all, his last show in New York, “The Masturbators,” was a video installation showing nine male porn stars doing what they do best — and mostly failing at the task. A similar sense of shame, rather than remorse, runs through both “Bus” and “Pig Pen.” Ruby thinks of them as time machines — places that stop time the moment you enter and alter it when you come out. Such rearrangement of the senses is exactly what art delivers — like nothing else.

“Sterling Ruby: 2 Traps” continues through March 20 at PaceWildenstein, 545 West 22nd Street.


New York

Sterling Ruby

An installation about masturbation falls limp.

By Time Out editors Mon Nov 9 2009

Installation view; Photographs: Mark Woods, Courtesy of the artist and Foxy…

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Sterling Ruby takes the comparison of contemporary art and onanism to new lengths—eight inches or more—in The Masturbators, an installation featuring nine video projections of naked men jacking off. Each guy stands in the same alcove, its walls covered with peeling paint, and, to stress the relationship between self-gratification and art, each stands in his abject white cube on two towels of contrasting colors, like Minimalist paintings underfoot. The spectacle momentarily shocks, but that sensation quickly shrinks to mild interest as we begin appraising differences in body type and—since the models all work as professional porn actors—manner, from theatrical to affectless: A tattooed, bearded guy stands on tiptoes and pinches his nipple; one with a hairy chest plays with his balls; a third needs to lie down with a magazine. An amplified cacophony of heavy breathing, grunts and wet slapping sounds accompanies the visuals.

Male masturbation in art has a sizable history, going back at least to Vito Acconci’s Seedbed of 1971, so to think of Ruby’s work as transgressive is difficult, especially when similar entertainments are readily available on any computer without parental controls. A gallery handout’s claim that The Masturbators says something meaningful about either masculinity or performance art is merely risible. Yet nearly anywhere we stand in the gallery’s close quarters, our own shadows get cast on the sometimes life-size projections, turning viewers into actively participating voyeurs of a creepily pretentious, deadpan—and deadening—wankfest.—Joseph R. Wolin


Sterling Ruby. Anti Print Poster (in three parts), 2007
Sterling Ruby
Anti Print Poster (in three parts)
23 1/2 × 17 1/2 inches
Edition of 30

Sterling Ruby. Anti Print Poster (in three parts), 2007
Sterling Ruby
Anti Print Poster (in three parts)
16 × 23 inches
Edition of 30



by: Robin Newman

The exhibition of Sterling Ruby and Lucio Fontana currently on view at Andrea Rosen Gallery intertwines the work of two artists, juxtaposing while illuminating their similarities. Ruby is a contemporary artist based in Los Angeles, known for his biomorphic sculptures and graphic paintings as well as collages. Fontana was a Italian-Argentinean artist who founded the Spatialism art movement in New York during the 1940′s, alongside the development of abstract expressionism.

Although separated by time and place, both artists’ works are heavily influenced by their use of bronze and ceramics, and the organic forms and qualities that these materials take on. The exhibition begins with Fontana’s spherical bronze sculpture with a violent cracked down the center, recalling land splitting during an earthquake or a planet cracking in half. This sculpture sits by a smaller ceramic piece that twists and turns as if melting. In the next room we encounter a monolithic bronze sculpture by Ruby with the words “EXCAVATOR DIG SITE” emblazoned on the front. As Fontana’s sculpture recalls land, Ruby’s piece is more literal, creating a kind of archaeological dig site. Dripping in bronze, it looks as if the site has been consumed by molten lava and is as frozen in time as the ruins it was attempting to unearth.

These sculptures are juxtaposed with Fontana’s wall pieces of metal sheets that have been slashed down the middle. They are visceral yet somehow pristine, a perfectly executed cut. Also lining the walls are Ruby’s collages of found objects and paint on cardboard. These pieces recall the landscape of a dirty floor in an artists studio. Seemingly made from the leftovers of other works, they relate to Ruby’s ceramics which make up the second half of the show. The ceramics are at once destructive, while simultaneously allowing for a new creation. As in nature where decomposition feeds growth, and in recycling where trash can be reused, Ruby uses the refuse of failed ceramic attempts to birth a new piece. Broken bowls and shards are layered and glazed over, building a haphazard but complex structure. The works take on a psychological dimension when considering Ruby’s statement that he is destroying his past attempts and “grinding them down” as a way of “releasing a certain guilt” about the failure of the pieces. All the broken pieces collected into a basin feels an apt metaphor for a fragmented psyche. The pieces excavate and monumentalize failure by trying to come to terms with it. While Ruby’s ceramics are born from destruction, Fontana’s seem to be effortlessly slab-like and fluid.

Both artists engage the primeval nature of their materials while using it to create multi-layered works that investigate their modernity and history. The show attempts to unfold the past and bring it into the present. Partnering the historical work of a deceased artist with that of contemporary is an exercise in the archaeology of artistic lineage.

Now – October 15, 2011 at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 525 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10011


Sterling Ruby

by Rachel Corbett Artnet magazine


Sterling Ruby (b. 1972) makes a strong impression. His esthetic is masculine and a little bruised, antisocial and smart, grounded in its materials, and seems completely unpredictable. His varied output includes 18-foot-tall phallic “stalagmites” dripping with seemingly viscous urethane; rough-hewn ceramics with primordial glazes; paintings done with Robitussin-red nail polish or graffiti-like spray-paint; sculptures of smudged and scratched white minimalist forms; bus-sized cages on wheels; and videos of frustrated male pornstars masturbating to no end. For his latest exhibition, Ruby has turned to a classic Goth theme — vampires.

“Sterling Ruby: Vampire,” Sept. 24-Nov. 3, 2011, at Pace Beijing, is an appropriately splashy entrance into what looks like something of a new phase in the Los Angeles-based artist’s career. In the six years since he earned his MFA, Ruby has seen his prices leap to unsustainable levels, has ricocheted between galleries, and has confused some collectors and advisors with his refusal to stick to any one — or even three — mediums.

But now, the painter-sculptor-ceramicist who has been labeled a “rising young star” for years — he turns 40 in January — seems to have hit his stride. He has signed with Pace Gallery, stabilized his market and suddenly looks poised to move from cult hero to a kind of “mid-career” canonization.

“Sterling is the only one who shows signs that he’s going to be on the level of the major artists Pace has shown in the past — or that he could be in 20 years,” said art advisor Lisa Schiff. “There’s a space opening up. Artists like Christopher Wool and Albert Oehlen are starting to move into seniority, so there’s room for the next wave of great artists like him.”

“This has been a particularly hectic year,” said Ruby by phone from his studio in Vernon, Calif., a few days before catching a plane to install his first solo show in China. In 2009, Ruby was one of Pace director-in-waiting Marc Glimcher’s first recruits, and now he’ll be the Beijing outpost’s debut western artist. Luckily, “I tend to make an abundance of work,” he said.

Ruby is also in a two-person exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, in which his ceramics are aptly paired with works by Italian maestro Lucio Fontana, who of course also made ceramics as well as his trademark punctured monochromes. Last year, in a similarly savvy bit of curating, the Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels juxtaposed Ruby with Robert Mapplethorpe, another chronicler of elegance and the abject.

In an even bigger consummation, Ruby has recently seen a stream of museum endorsement — traditionally the ultimate arbiter of legacy. Since just last year, his works have been acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Tate Collection, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and seven other major public collections around the world.

But success for the young artist whose market once teetered on the brink of too-much-too-soon has not always looked so probable. Born on a military base in Bitburg, Germany, to a Dutch mother and American father, Ruby has spent most of his life far outside the bounds of the rarified art scene. The family moved around the Netherlands, to Baltimore, and finally settled on a farm about 20 minutes south of York, Penn., because, as Ruby put it, his parents “were hippies who had a subscription to Mother Earth News.” (That also might explain his name, which, he added, “was somewhat difficult as a kid living around a bunch of rednecks.”)

After graduating from an agriculture high school, Ruby spent several years working in construction and “getting very depressed” before having his introduction to the art world. His mother’s friend, a wildlife illustrator, helped him get into the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design in Lancaster, an unaccredited college where Ruby learned, predominantly, to draw bowls of fruit and nudes.

His real artistic awakening came with the discovery of Paul Schimmel’s catalogue Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s in the tiny school library. “It was a red herring — I don’t know how it got there,” Ruby said. “I became certain that I was going to wind up in L.A., which seemed like it had more pathology than any other city in America.”

But he got his first break before he ever made it to the coast. He moved to Chicago to finish his degree at the School of the Art Institute, and it was there, at 1R Gallery, that New York dealer Michael Gillespie spotted Ruby’s work. The following year, Gillespie gave the artist his first solo exhibition in the city at his gallery, Foxy Production.

In 2006, not long after Ruby graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he signed on with Metro Pictures gallery. But the relationship was rumored to be unsteady and they parted ways after two shows. So Ruby bounced back to working exclusively with Foxy Production (where he continues to show today on a project basis).

Then, the following year, Ruby saw a stratospheric surge in his auction prices. A spray-painted canvas, SP28, estimated at $35,000-$45,000 at Phillips de Pury, sold for $260,000. A month later, a print estimated at about $10,000 at Phillips in London went for $62,000.

“He came of age right at the pinnacle of the last decade’s market,” said Schiff. Suddenly, “a lot of people were glomming on, trying to get work out of his studio.” Gillespie remembers that “no one knew him and really no one knew us. But a small group of collectors and other gallerists started coming around. I think it was just the rawness and visceral quality of the work — it just hit you in the gut.”

Schiff stopped recommending Ruby’s work to her clients. Sure, he was popular, and the critics loved him too — that year Roberta Smith wrote in the Times that Ruby was “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century” — but “I couldn’t understand what was going on, and it made me nervous,” Schiff said.

Glimcher said that dealers face a problem of arbitrage when this happens. “If your public market goes above your private market, what are you going to do? Your dealer has to drop prices. Nothing hurts confidence in an artist’s work more than when a gallery has to say, ‘we’re going to drop prices.’”

And the most coveted works seemed to be Ruby’s paintings — not the sculpture or ceramics that had largely defined him thus far. Paintings, as a whole, tend to sell better than other media because they’re considered more livable, but some advisors worried he was becoming too stylistically pigeonholed.

“People are always confused by artists who work in multiple practices,” Glimcher said. “But he doesn’t really care.”

While Ruby’s primary-market prices have risen steadily over the years, he “is very conservative. He has kept his prices low and that’s a consistent trait of artists who, 40 years from now, we still know their names,” Glimcher said, citing Robert Ryman as a model of this kind of long-term prudence.

According to Pace, the majority of Ruby’s works range from $25,000-$150,000, while his large-scale sculptures go for between $250,000 and $500,000. (One dealer said that a larger ceramic work in the Andrea Rosen show is going for $75,000.)

Things seemed to settle down for Ruby in 2009. The economy was faltering, but that may have helped slow any further spikes in his auction prices. That was also the year he signed with Pace and, so far, they seem to be making smart moves. Ruby said he has intentionally held off showing ceramics for a while, maximizing the Fontana exhibition’s impact. “Ceramics are in vogue, without a doubt,” he acknowledged.

And could there be a subject with more mass-market appeal than vampires? “Twilight, True Blood, that Gucci Mane single… everyone wants to be a vampire in some way,” he said, adding that he was happy to play up to the theme, partly selected by Pace Beijing director Leng Lin.

But that’s not to call Ruby a sell-out. “Vampire” is a natural continuation of the anti-jingoistic themes he has long explored. There are 30 extremely large-scale new works, including Old Glory-printed fabric sculptures of lips and fangs; a supersized sheet-metal flag; new spray-painted canvases; a series of five-by-eight-foot bronze Debt basins filled with scraps; and an 18-foot stalagmite in which shades of empire red and blue bleed into black. It’s all housed in Pace Beijing’s perfectly Brutalist 25,000-square-foot old munitions factory.

“Society-conscious art has taken shape and risen in China,” said Leng Lin in an email. “Chinese contemporary art tends toward narrative, while Sterling Ruby’s work emphasizes shape and form. Sterling’s entrance will undoubtedly open eyes and minds and pour new life and energy into a flourishing, society-conscious Chinese contemporary art scene.”

“There’s something drastic about the vampire,” Ruby said. “It’s hyper-sexual, taboo, and there’s the existential scenario of never dying, being faced with the principles of eternity. It seems fitting for the time.”

RACHEL CORBETT is news editor at Artnet Magazine.


-Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

July 29, 2012

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)

Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings

California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.

Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches

Cosmos. Oil on canvas  2012 by Vincent Johnson

Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.

Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting, Snow White/White Snow (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles.


Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,000 other followers

%d bloggers like this: