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 |
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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

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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.


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