INTERVIEW: BRADFORD MORROW ON HIS MOST RECENT NOVEL, THE FORGERS

 
 

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Put a rare book in the hands of author Bradford Morrow and he will tell you about it like a sommelier discussing fine wine and handle it like a newborn kitten. Morrow has devoted his life to literature, working since his 20s in a variety of facets of the industry. After attending grad school at Yale, Morrow ran a rare bookshop in Santa Barbara, California, which he later sold in order to launch the innovative literary journal, Conjunctions.

Morrow’s seventh novel, The Forgers (Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic, November 2014) draws upon his area of expertise, telling the story of forgers in the rare book trade. Our narrator is Will, a semi-repentant and publicly shamed forger – erudite, perhaps a bit nerdy, and sly as an alley cat. His lover Meghan’s brother, a book collector named Adam Diehl, is discovered half-murdered and missing his hands. When Adam dies, his hands and killer are nowhere to be found. As Will tries to recover his reputation from his unsavory (if esoteric) past in order to build a stable home life with the grieving Meghan, he is stalked by another forger whose abilities rival his own.

Morrow is wily in his ability to tinker with genre. The reader who appreciates finer details is rewarded with a trail of narrative lacunae the size of a pinprick and an exquisite tone that is just barely, barely uneasy. Morrow knows how to lay canvas on a frame and stretch it just until the fabric is so thin, one cannot tell whether one is looking at reality or fabrication. The portrait of Will, as he tries to put his life back in order after being exposed as a highly skilled forger, is moving. Will is both an artist and an addict, and his disgrace saturates the page. The deeper thread that drives Will is the artistic urge to have a hand (ha) in beauty and history, and thus much of the novel can be read as a series of meditations on art itself.

I met with Morrow in his Greenwich Village apartment (stuffed floor to ceiling with books) to discuss The Forgers, the idiosyncratic book trade, and what a little imagination can do to alter history.

How did you get involved in the world of rare books, which inspired The Forgers?

Growing up as I did in a household where there were very few books, I suppose I’ve spent the rest of my life overcompensating by surrounding myself with all kinds of books, from beat-up paperbacks to rare first editions. I’ve done almost everything with a book you can do, from writing them to binding, selling, editing, publishing, translating, collecting, and teaching them. All of these are facets of my lifelong love affair with books.

My first job in a used bookshop had more to do with handling reading copies of classics from every field than with rare books, although I was always intrigued by the volumes the owner kept in a glass-fronted cabinet. They possessed a kind of magic that to this day I can’t quite explain. When I went to graduate school on a fellowship to Yale, I somehow got it in my head that rather than spending my money on typical necessities like groceries, I would acquire first editions of some of the 18th century books I was reading for class. I persuaded myself that reading them in original editions might bring me closer to the text somehow. There was a very dangerous and wonderful bookstore near campus at the time called C. A. Stonehill, and so I bought a mixed edition of Tristram Shandy in the original nine volumes, three of which were signed by Sterne for copyright purposes, as well as a set of Fielding’s Tom Jones in contemporary speckled calf, six volumes. Believe it or not, these were relatively inexpensive at the time, although I did wind up moonlighting in a pretty sketchy Italian restaurant in order to pay off my book debts. After I moved on from Yale, I got a job at a rare bookshop out in California that specialized in modern first editions and that was when I really got interested in rare books. I left the shop after a while and started my own business with some borrowed money.  Before I knew it I was in my mid-20s and running a pretty substantial rare book trade of modern first editions in Santa Barbara, California. After putting a lot of effort into that business for four or five years, I sold off most of my inventory and moved to New York so I could start the literary journal Conjunctions.

Have you known any forgers in your dealings?

I hope not!

There is an element of fetishism of rare books suggested in The Forgers. Is that what the rare books community is really like?

No, not always.  Scholarship is one of the leading reasons people and certainly institutions collect. Still, every book collector has his or her own reason for participating in what Nicholas Basbanes calls “the gentle madness” of collecting. The collectors I find most intriguing and even endearing are those who accumulate books—books they’ve read and cherished—because it somehow completes an essential part of their life. I have a friend whose rationale for buying signed first editions of his favorite books is to be a little closer to the author—a book that the author actually laid her hand on makes the experience more tactile or vital to him. Those who collect rare books as an investment may be involved in folly because writers go in and out of favor. Back in the early part of the last century, writers like John Galsworthy, for instance, who we rarely talk about anymore, were highly collected. So collecting books is a really tricky investment. But finally, book collecting, like collecting anything, involves a lot of personal imperative, the first and foremost of which is a visceral as well as intellectual love for what is being collected.

Meghan – the narrator’s lover – is the owner of a bookshop. Were characters in The Forgers inspired by personas you know from the book trades?

This is the book I had to research the least because in a way I spent my whole adult life researching it without even knowing it. In retrospect, it seems strange that it never occurred to me before to write about this milieu. So no, none of the characters in the book are drawn from a single individual in the bookselling world, but there are definitely some composites. In Meghan, I wanted to recreate a little bit of my experience with a man I knew when I was going to college in Boulder, Colorado. Dick Schwartz, proprietor of Stage House II, was a real mentor to me. Back then I didn’t have much money, so I would just take books, carefully chosen, and pay him on time when I could. One day he said to me, “Hey Brad, do you know how much money you owe me?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.”  He said, “How would you like to work some of it off? Here’s a broom, go upstairs, and do some sweeping and you’ll see there’s shelving and alphabetizing to do up there.” It was as if Dick read an invisible sign hung around my neck, Will Work for Books. I can’t tell you how happy I was to sweep and shelve and pack books for shipment. That said, I tend not to base many characters on specific people.  I find it a confining rather than useful approach to character creation.

Landscape is important in your work, and many of your stories take place in bucolic settings, but much of The Forgers takes place in New York City, where you’ve lived for decades.

I’ve lived in downtown New York now since 1981, so I didn’t have to do any particular research on the East Village or Gramercy Park. Every year I attend the New York Antiquarian Book Fair at the Armory, so, again, walking around in my mind through that show with my narrator and a nemesis of his, I didn’t even have to close my eyes to imagine it. I know what it smells like. I know the lighting. I know the dealers there. I didn’t have to give it a lot of thought. It came very naturally.

Bucolic settings are more characteristic of your narratives, and some of how you handle landscape reminds me of Willa Cather’s writing. You’ve written a bit about her, and like Cather, you’re familiar with and affected by both the American Midwest and NYC.

Willa Cather and I share a love of landscape. Landscape to each of us is a kind of character. Nature is interactive and often willful in our books. To me, My Ántonia is as much about the Nebraska prairielands as the pioneers who populate it. My own novels such as The Diviner’s Tale, Ariel’s Crossing, and Trinity Fields are much more landscape-oriented than The Forgers, in part because much of the action occurs in natural environments. In The Forgers, the nature-based scenes in Ireland are invested with a quality of interactivity between people and the natural world. For instance, images of the night sky with its wheeling stars and constellations offer the narrator a kind of magisterial, eternal counterpoint to the transient, nasty machinations of those running around in the darkness terrifying him. Though some of the most violent acts in the novel occur in Ireland, there remains for me a kind of quasi-mythological aspect to the landscape there.  Whereas New York scenes and those in Montauk are very tactile and “real” and have a dimensionality, scenes in Ireland verge on nightmare. Ironic, since Ireland is meant to be a safe haven where Meghan and Will are hoping to find peace.

Something that interested me about the parts of The Forgers that take place in New York is the foreboding sense of being watched or followed. I thought about how cameras are now all over lower Manhattan and how the city has been a Petri dish in a way for the privacy wars. Did this mindset impact your portrayal of the city?

I heard recently that you can walk from Battery Park to Harlem and be caught on surveillance video the entire time. It’s my understanding that more and more building owners are compelled to install cameras in foyers, elevators, and front doors for fear of lawsuits if the property isn’t outfitted with surveillance. 

The Forgers begins with the line, “They never found his hands,” which is prelude, of course, to a murder. I was thinking, If you wanted to deprive a forger from pursuing his questionable art, what would hurt him the most? Taking away his pens, inks, papers? He could find more of those. No, the answer is his hands. Like a concert pianist, it requires years of practice and great skill to be a master forger.  So when accounting for that murder (about which I wouldn’t want to go into details for obvious reasons) I had to think about those nosy cameras, too. There weren’t quite as many of them in New York around the time The Forgers is set as there are now, but the murderer still had to find a way to get around being seen. Comes with the territory, if you want to avoid capture.

 The characters in the book who are forging are also sort of classic examples of New York paranoids. But we’re living in a world now in which everyone is paranoid.

The forgers in the book, Henry Slader and Will, and perhaps Adam as well, have all earned their paranoia. They would be crazy not to be paranoid. What’s that line by Delmore Schwartz?  “Even paranoiacs have real enemies”?  Even though Will’s past has caught up with him, so to say, and he makes an effort to reform, he must look over his shoulder, as the past is a hard thing to shake. A phrase by another author, William Faulkner, comes to mind—“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” In The Forgers, that concept is very much in play in a host of different ways. For one, the whole notion of forgery involves messing with the integrity of the past, changing the past by creating ideas and objects that are supposedly a part of the past but in fact didn’t exist before. And in a world where the reliability of the so-called objective past is put in question, paranoia about what’s real and what isn’t becomes central to how life and “reality” is viewed.  So, yes.  Paranoia and the terror of not being in control of one’s fate are very much a part of this narrative. There’s even a section that opens with the line “Dying is a dangerous business,” followed by a brief meditation on how, when you are dead, you lose control of how people perceive who you were and what you did.  Death is open season on you, in other words. That’s classic paranoia at full throttle, I think.

You are sometimes labeled a mystery writer, but what especially delights me in the revelation of a mystery in your works is that you are a writer who will reward the detail-oriented reader. For example, you only name your narrator once.

I don’t really think of myself as a mystery writer, as such, and tend not to play by the traditional rules of mystery or crime fiction. I’ve always been considered a literary writer, whatever that means, but have in recent years gotten very interested in working with genre, which I consider a profoundly rich form of literature. Having said that, I do very much adore detail, and it’s just in my nature to bring my narratives to life with as much nuance and meaningful detail as I possibly can. 

As for Will, he does not like his name. I was halfway through writing the book before realizing he hadn’t given his name.  It didn’t take much deliberation to figure out why he didn’t, but I wanted him to offer it up, if grudgingly, just once. I thought Will was appropriate because he’s willful. Also, there’s a famous 19th-century forger named William Ireland—one of my all-time favorite forgers—who created Shakespeare (another Will) letters to give to his father. Ireland’s father was a Shakespeare scholar and collector, and since there are only a handful of bona fide Shakespeare signatures, young Will Ireland saw an opening to create some ersatz manuscripts to enhance his dad’s collection and thus please his father.  He got away with it for quite a while. Some great forgers such as Ireland and Thomas Chatterton are actually collected in their own right.

Will, the narrator, is reliable, but as the novel progresses, the tension that develops is a did-he-or-didn’t-he-do-it thing. Of course, he’s also among other forgers who are just as suspect.

Well, the reliability or unreliability of the narrator is very similar to forging. It all has to do with imagination and making things up. If you’re good at it, you can get away with it. There’s a line in another of my books, “It takes a lot of truth to tell a lie.” If you stop and think about it, for a lie to work, it has to be mostly truth because if it’s just a pure fabrication, nobody’s going to believe that lie. But if you frame the lie in truth, people will be inclined to believe. So when people in this novel are forging, masters that they are, they know it’s imperative that their forgeries are grounded in truth. For example, to properly forge Conan Doyle papers, as we see in the novel, the forger would have to have done extensive biographical research and have an empathic knowledge of how the author’s mind worked.  He would have to really know the period, work with materials that are as close as possible to the period.  Nibs, ink mixtures, everything has to sing authenticity.

Forgery is also in a way an act of betrayal, and betrayal is also a theme of this book.

I think that when my characters, and especially in Will’s case, are making forgeries, they honestly believe they’re bettering the world. We on the outside may consider this a rather insane thought, but if you can forge an interesting document well enough, add something intriguing to the history of literature, for instance, can make something great out of the ether, then it’s not impossible to delude yourself into thinking this is a good thing. It is, I guess, an elaborate form of self-betrayal to think like that.

But betrayal has a role in almost all novels. Betrayal—in politics, in love, in business, you name it—is one of those things that humans unfortunately do. It’s an activity that sparks a crisis, which in turn can often be central to an interesting narrative. I think in The Forgers, Will in particular has the capacity to believe that he’s not doing it for the money and that he’s just doing it because he needs to. Much as I am fond of him, I’m fully aware he’s a deceiver. He’s also a writer who creates narratives that didn’t exist before. He loves going back in time and mucking with it. He adores laying claim to literary history, to biography, and bending it to his will. And if you can bend history perfectly enough, the original historical fact becomes wrinkled, complicated.

I’ve always been interested in memory and how memory is a function of an original perception that has been shaded by desire—the desire to reshape the moment that was just lived into something more palatable and fulfilling. I don’t want to play his analyst, but I do think a lot of the forgeries Will makes are, in a way, in (admittedly twisted) honor of his mother because she was a great calligrapher, his teacher and inspiration.

Will says at one point, “History is subjective. History is alterable. History is finally little more than modeling clay in a very warm room.” We know that Will’s character is morally shaky, but I found this train of thought about history insightful. 

The Western world’s very first historian, Herodotus, is called The Father of Lies.  Why?  Because he was really a writer of historical fictions as much as anything.  Where he couldn’t verify, or if he needed to fill in lacunae in an account of some war, say, in North Africa, he simply made things up and approximated. Objective, verifiable fact is, in the everyday world, as rare as hen’s teeth (maybe rarer, since there might be a genetically altered hen out there somewhere with incisors and molars, who knows?). Once people armed with imagination and predisposition witness anything, it morphs.  I’m not saying we’re all delusional, by the way, but we are to some degree creatures of approximation, certainly when it comes to emotions. So yeah, to be sure, one of the themes of this book is to look at the idea of what is real and what is illusion, what is authentic and what is a fabrication meant to trick the eye into believing it is authentic. 

Which implies something intrepid about art. The Forgers is asking, in a way, what is the role of imagination in the world?

Imagination is what we use to get through the day. It funds and nourishes us. Even when we’re asleep, imagination is firing up our dreams. Imagination is the prime mover of any individual’s life. You can imagine that there is a god you will worship that is your main reason for living and breathing. You can imagine that there is no god and you’re not going to have anything to do with such a crazy idea, and you’re going to imagine a way to be ethical without having to follow an ancient rulebook. And what I find fascinating is that you can imagine yourself as being very, very innocent and a very good person, and you’re not. There are a multitude of things that shape an individual life, but imagination has to be at that top of that chain.

Protagonists in your books tend to behave badly in order to protect something beautiful or special or good. Will, for example, rationalizes making forgeries in a variety of ways, one of which is convincing himself that he does it in order to create a good life with Meghan – and their life together is indeed kind of lovely. I thought in a weird way that might be what art does – keeps things that are beautiful and precious and strange, and protects them for us, but sometimes at a price.

And enlivens them, because most artists I know, not just writers, work in order to share with others, the ultimate purpose being to offer a gift to someone else, probably someone you won’t ever meet, so they can share in your experience, dreams, ideas, vision, life. I’m not the kind of writer who is particularly interested in drawing the reader into embracing any philosophy or worldview but I do like the simple idea of building something as best I can, and sharing it with those who might want to commune.

If you’re a fiction writer, you’re making things up, but it’s also important to be absolutely truthful, as honest as you can be, sentence by sentence, and every word has to be the truthful word. You have to create a mathematics of truth that constitutes a book and it has to answer to itself or else it’s not going to add up. I don’t like fiction that smells like fiction. There’s a certain stench. I love fiction that makes me feel I’m truly experiencing a fact. Obviously, I’m not wedded to only realist fiction or historical fiction. I love Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, but that book is just golden in terms of the truth page by page.

Does this relate to your more recent tendency to write in the mystery genre?

When you think about it, everything is steeped in mystery. Many novels are crime novels in the sense that they explore the human capacity for subversive behavior, harmful behavior that goes full-bore against the grain of societal mores. A lot of fiction investigates subtle criminalities that occur in everyday life. Not necessarily robbing a bank or shooting a bodega clerk, but the moral equivalent of such rotten, even evil behavior, is often at play in the narrative arc of much fiction. Nursery rhymes, fables, and fairy tales often portray some of the most diabolical, violent, and deplorable acts humanity is capable of. London Bridge is forever falling down and don’t try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, for he’s a lost cause!

As for your own process, it sounds as if you tend to write quickly?

Sometimes I write very slowly. But The Forgers was white heat fast, written in a matter of months. Otto Penzler, my editor, runs Mysterious Press, and he has a wonderful series called Bibliomysteries, for which he asked me to write a short story. That’s when I got that opening line about the hands, and I asked Otto if I could write about forgers. He said, “Absolutely, just so long as there are books and there’s a murder.” Those two elements are the premise. I started with a short story last year in the spring, some pages and notes. It shot way past the 50 pages. When I finally gave it to him, I gave him 86 pages, but I had already moved on past 120 pages. I said, “This isn’t all,” and I showed him the rest, and he asked me if I could get all of it to him by the end of the year. Every day I got up and couldn’t wait to get back into the forger world, so it was done ahead of schedule. When I handed in the novel, I turned around the next day and wrote another bibliomystery called The Nature of My Inheritance, as a way of fulfilling my original promise to Otto. That one came out this past summer.  

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a book for many years now that I am finally finishing. It’s called The Prague Sonata, and is a novel in which the holograph manuscript of the second movement of an unattributed, magnificent piano sonata from the late eighteenth century surfaces in New York.  Its owner, Irena, is a Czech immigrant dying of cancer who passes it into the care of a young musicologist, Meta Taverner, after telling the hair-raising story of how it came to be in her hands.  In 1939, when the Nazis came to Prague to establish “the protectorate,” this manuscript, which had been inherited by a woman named Otylie after World War I, was deliberately broken up in three parts to save it from Reich confiscation. Oytlie gave one movement to her husband, who perished into the underground, another to her best friend Irena, and she kept one part for herself.  In short, Meta’s quest to locate the missing movements of the sonata takes her to Prague, London, and elsewhere. It’s a novel that has involved doing research in places as far apart geographically and culturally as the Czech Republic and the hinterlands of Nebraska, not to mention endless reading and consultation with experts about Beethoven and other composers from Mozart and Haydn forward.  I hope to have it completed by year’s end.

Author photo by Jessamine Chan. Images courtesy of Grove Atlantic.

Follow Rachel @rcdalamangas

 

ZINGCHAT: Enter the world of BLAB! with Monte Beauchamp

 Cover art by Gary Taxali; Blab World #2

Monte Beauchamp is the award-winning, Chicago-based founder, editor, art director, and designer of BLAB! magazine, a comics anthology first published in 1986 as a self-published fanzine, with book projects including The Life& Times of R. Crumb (St Martin’s Press), Striking Images: Vintage Matchbook Cover Art (Chronicle Books), The Devil in Design (Fantagraphics), among others. BLAB!, in its current form of Blab World,  is now a highly-regarded venue for contemporary artists working in sequential and comic art, graphic design, illustration, painting, and printmaking—a love song to these underground worlds often placed on the periphery of the visual arts. Monte teamed up with photographer Paul Elledge to produce BLAB! magazine: Inside Out, a project in zingmagazine #21 in which the artwork within BLAB! finds its way out into the cold, cruel streets of Chicago. I met Monte for the first time in 2010 at the opening of the outstanding BLAB! exhibition he organized at the prestigious Society of Illustrators in New York. I’m now fortunate to once again get to opportunity to speak to Monte about BLAB!, his project in zingmagazine, the world of print, and his newest book, Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World, published by Simon & Schuster, which features top illustrators telling the stories of sixteen monumental figures in the world of comic art and pop culture, including Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, The creators of Superman, R. Crumb, Jack Kirby, Winsor McCay, Herge, Osamu Tezuka, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Hirschfeld, Edward Gorey, Chas Addams, Rodolphe Topffer, Lynd Ward, and Hugh Hefner.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

What did you set out to achieve in founding BLAB! magazine?

There were no grand plans whatsoever. How BLAB! came about was a total fluke. One evening after work back in the mid-80s, I began bellyaching about shenanigans taking place at work where I was employed as an art director. To help take my mind off it, my wife at the time suggested I draw a comic book, which I didn't have the desire to do, but several days later the idea of creating a fanzine about comics flashed in my head.

I had always felt that if it weren't for MAD magazine, the sixties counterculture may never have happened. MAD ingrained in its readers the ruse of advertising and the distrust of corporate authority. MAD's publisher, William M. Gaines, also issued a very fascinating line of comic books known as E.C.'s, featuring incredible page-turners such as Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, and Two-Fisted Tales, which were discontinued during the great comic book witch hunt of the mid-1950s.

So I decided to contact the counterculture cartoonists themselves to see if they'd write essays about what influence, if any, MAD and the rest of the EC line had on their work. And much to my surprise nearly all of them gave the project a thumbs up; they agreed to blab about it—which in turn gave way to the title BLAB!

So I self-published a one-shot limited edition of 1500 hand-numbered copies which I schlepped around to independent record, book, and comic book stores and placed on consignment. I also placed a few ads in several comic book publications.

Not long after, I went to the post office box on a Saturday morning and it was jam packed with orders; it was like this for a good solid month and then came a lull in orders—and then four to six weeks later, the post office box again became jam packed with letters, this time with letters from fans raving about BLAB! and inquiring when the next issue would be out, which in  turn inspired me to attempt a second issue.

The same week that BLAB! #2 was printed happened to coincide with Chicago's big summer comic book convention, so I brought a handful of copies to show around hoping to drum up sales. Kitchen Sink Press—which published the work of several of my heroes: R. Crumb of Zap Comix fame; Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of MAD; and Will Eisner, considered by many to be the father of the graphic novel—was exhibiting there so I gave a complimentary copy to its founder Denis Kitchen, who flips through it, and immediately offered me a publishing deal—which blew my mind. Right then and there we sealed the deal with a handshake.

Denis tripled BLAB!'s press run, expanded its page count, and we also reformatted it as a square-bound, digest-sized paperback. I began adding more comic book stories by the incredible Joe Coleman, Zap artist Spain Rodriguez, and a talented newcomer—Richard Sala. I also assembled a compendium on the influence R. Crumb had on popular culture (which 10 years later was expanded into a trade paperback published by St. Martin's Press—The Life and Times of R. Crumb). That same issue also sported a magnificent cover by RAW magazine artist—Charles Burns. Partnering with Kitchen Sink Press put BLAB! on the map; from the incredibly brisk sales, I knew we were on to something. Four years later, issue #7 of BLAB! won a Harvey Award (the comics industry's equivalent of a Grammy) for Best New Anthology of the year.

So that's how BLAB! got rolling; it was never something I set out to do—it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I had no inkling whatsoever that BLAB! would take on a life of its own and evolve into the full-color, hardback compendium of comics, illustration, found graphics, and articles that it is today.  

 

 
The Rapture, Ryan Heska; Blab World #1

How does a typical issue of BLAB! come together? Do you always have specific artists in mind for each issue?

Nowadays the process is very nonlinear, intuitive, one that starts with a single inspirational idea and builds from there. For example, I was walking around downtown Chicago one afternoon when a humongous storm hit. Massive gusts of wind were whipping all sorts of objects about and as I ducked for cover, off in the distance I saw a funnel of garbage swirling about in the air being sucked skyward. It was an eerie yet awe-inspiring sight, which set me thinking about The Rapture—and then a scene of people rising skyward interpreted by BLAB! artist Ryan Heshka flashed in my head. So I ran the concept by Ryan who dug the idea, and created a masterpiece. Ryan's painting was so inspiring I began asking other artists to create "end-of-the world" scenarios that I compiled in a feature titled "Artpocalypse" for the first issue of BLAB!'s sister publication BLAB WORLD, which in turn set the tone for the comic strips and feature that appeared  in that of volume.

 

You curated a project in zingmagazine #21 called "BLAB! magazine: Inside Out" which features various works that appeared in issues of BLAB! in different formats and mediums and photographed these in outdoor environs around Chicago. It's sort of a magazine within a magazine—a peek into the world of BLAB! What inspired you to present BLAB! in this way?

Actually zingmagazine did. One aspect of zingmagazine that I always admired was it's offbeat curatorial nature, which inspired photographer Paul Elledge and myself to present BLAB! in a similar fashion. Rather than shoot the artwork in a hoity-toity setting—such as a gallery—we took a less precious approach and photographed the artwork itself sticking out of garbage dumpsters, in alleys, and on the streets of Chicago.

 

Adolf's Aberration; four-page story by Nora Krug; Blab World #2

Your new book Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World is a collection of biographies of 16 legendary cartoonists presented through an equally graphic medium as created by other illustrators. There's a double curation here—first the subjects, and then their corresponding artists. How did you conceive of this idea, and how did you select each group?

In late 2007, I was fishing around for an idea for a graphic novel to produce and the media blitz surrounding the release of the final Harry Potter novel earlier that year set me thinking about the far-reaching effects fictional characters can have on the world. I began thinking of popular literature equivalents from generations before. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came to mind as did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, followed by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan—whose successful spin-off as a newspaper comic strip set me thinking about cartoon characters of equal iconic stature. Disney’s Mickey Mouse flashed in my head, followed by Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat, followed by Siegel and Shuster’s Superman—the archetype for all superheroes. And then it dawned on me—had it not been for iconic comic characters such as these, the entire cartoon industry as we know it today wouldn't exist. So I pitched my New York City agent on a collection of short-story biographies told in the very medium the industry itself had spawned—the comic strip—about the monumental creators who pioneered the entire cartoon medium—from syndicated newspaper comic strips to comic books, manga, graphic novels, caricatures, gag cartoons, children’s books, and animation. She loved the idea and that's how Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World came about.

 

Any particularly difficult editorial decisions in this process?

Such a grandiose undertaking is an obstacle course, there are always editorial hurdles to get over, roadblocks to maneuver around. Fortunately my agent sealed a deal with a wonderful, seasoned editor at Simon & Schuster—Anjali Singh. Anjali, what can I say except that she is an incredibly insightful, intuitive, and brilliant senior editor who has a knack for signing fresh and original projects. For example, she brought the graphic novel Persepolis to America, which became a hit and was turned into a feature length film. Anjali turned out to be a dream editor to partner with; we really worked well together and she backed me 100% on the team of illustrators and cartoonists I assembled—fabulous seasoned talents by the likes of Drew Friedman, Peter Kuper, Sergio Ruzzier, Nora Krug, Arnold Roth, Greg Clarke, Nicolas Debon, and so forth. As Masterful Marks was nearing completion disaster struck—Anjali, along with several dozen other Simon & Schuster employees, were laid off. When the news arrived that we wouldn't be ushering Masterful Marks into the world together, I was devastated. Completely. The very person championing my book was gone and all sorts of turmoil can happen when a book is orphaned. Fortunately, the project landed in the lap of a junior editor who got the project back on track. And then as we were completing the book, what happens? He takes a position with another publisher, and Masterful Marks landed in the lap of yet another junior editor, Brit Hvide, who did an admirable job ushering the book into print. After seven years, Masterful Marks was released this past September and received incredible accolades and reviews from the press. For example, it was included in Entertainment Weekly's "The Must List," plugged in USA Today, The Huffington Post, and Library Journal. A most wonderful and totally unexpected perk was receiving a letter from Hugh Hefner (also featured in the book) stating that Masterful Marks was "… a grand compilation."

 

 
Dispatches From Oblivion; four-page story by Greg Clarke; Blab World #2

Why do you continue to make print books in this dematerializing world of media?

Well, there's a caveat to all of this. As long as I'm allowed to edit, design, and package visually content-driven books that I have an intense passion for, that I believe in one-thousand percent, I will continue to create books. It was a long, arduous road to get here. Looking back on the unexpected twists and turns my professional career has taken, I sometimes ponder that had I remained in advertising, I'd have a house all paid off, a hefty savings account, and my dream car—a light green '56 Chevy with a 3 speed column shift to tool around in. Yet, on the other hand, a rewarding career isn't always about money, it's about the love of the game.

 

 

 

INTERVIEW: THOMAS ØVLISEN’S ART OF THE CHILDHOOD MEMORY IN HARD TIMES FOR HUMANITY

The Danish artist on the “puzzle” of art and what (good) art does – and doesn’t – do for the world

 

Installation view at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery; Polyurethane, fabric, epoxy and auto lacquer; Opening September 7, 2014

What good does art do the world anyway? If you wanna save humanity, join Doctors Without Borders, is the advice of trending Danish artist Thomas Øvlisen. But if you wanna be an artist, make good art that facilitates contemplation, work hard, and don’t try to be like Axl Rose. Øvlisen’s work is a playful, sophisticated peculiarity in a market bloated with hack abstraction like so many cronuts in the gut of a gluten-free health-foodie fallen off the wagon. Øvlisen’s development of a visual puzzle is based on the raw material of childhood memories and he thus explores memory as its own experience. Moreover, Øvlisen embeds cultural criticism in his work – slyly recognizing “the square as a symbol of western culture,” for example.

With a show on the horizon at Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery in September, Øvlisen and I had a conversation via Skype about the state of abstract art and the state of humanity.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

You’re recognized as an abstract artist whose sensibilities are unusual to the history of abstract art.

Well. I never considered myself an abstract painter. For my degree project at RISD, I expressed abstraction as a symbol of our culture, rather than a self-referencing painting technique. You find abstract art everywhere, even on coffee mugs. So you can use abstraction as a symbol of our culture. It’s a glorified aesthetic. Since the beginning I was interested in breaking down the genres in art or ignoring them at the least, so I paid equal attention to all 5 visible sides of my paintings.

These ideas gave me an excuse for making abstract paintings. I quickly learned that I also liked making beautiful paintings or good abstract paintings, and I developed the ”satisfy my childhood memory” technique. I have always believed in good art

For your project in the last issue of zing, you asked ten artists to contribute a drawing from memory of a childhood object. What is your “satisfy a childhood memory” technique?

When I started making abstract paintings, I thought about trying to satisfy, for example, a childhood memory of growing up on a lake and being in the lake and looking at the trees in the background. So I started doing these abstract landscapes that only I could identify. But when I could identify that aura and space, then I called the painting “done.” My aim was to get that feeling and that specific landscape recollected.

The people who contributed to the project in zing are artists of all genres who have influenced me and made me who I am today. I thought it was quite amazing that, Margrethe Sørensen, a woman in her 70s made a drawing on a project her father had done was she was a child. Dike Blair did an actual story on how scared he was in his first childhood memory. It’s always interesting to define drawing and obviously these artists did everything but draw. The fun thing is that the director from Los Angeles, Brian Lee Hughes who works with film, was the only one who actually did a line drawing from memory, which is what I expected to receive from everyone, and he did a great drawing too.

To return to another statement you just made, can you explain more about what you mean by “abstraction as a symbol of our culture”?

I think that at any given point, art is used to critique our culture, whether it’s the artist or the culture looking back in history. For example, if we want to understand what people were doing and thinking during the Renaissance, we look at the art they were making.

To me the square is very symbolic of western culture. It doesn’t exist in nature. The prime monument of what we do is put a painting over a couch in the suburbs, solidifying one’s achievement of being the happiest family on earth. It is the perfect symbol (monument) of a retarded culture (system) on autopilot. And abstraction, maybe through Cold War propaganda, has become the symbol of our freedom (coercion of others) and way of living.

 

  “Happiness,” Auto lacquer and enamel on MDF, 122 x 90cm, 2003

What was the process for making your earliest works?

How I started making abstract paintings more or less happened by chance. While I was a student at RISD, I spilled black enamel paint and instead of wiping it up, I painted everything in my studio the same color. Then everything I was working on became abstract. In my degree project, the paintings were all abstract, sanded to the point of almost no paint on the canvas. The idea was a simulation of nature. The effect of the elements raging on our cultural golden calf. The paint I had spilled was enamel and I my sanding was that of the auto body shop. Working with cars or mopeds is another childhood thing.

So when I ventured into image making in my first show, I exhibited the silhouette of Monument Valley with five graphically receding stars above them ingrained in the paint layering. I quickly realized that this use of imagery on my shaped and five-sided wall works rendered them canvas-like. They were just bearers of visual identifiable imagery. The sculptural part disappeared.

Art making in school is like putting together a puzzle. So, for the Monument Valley exhibit, I had appropriated the process of an auto body shop and I had simulated the weather and the elements. I used Monument Valley as the perfect image because it is a natural landscape named “Monument” and it’s the perfect example of what is wrong with our cultural belief in dominance over nature. It’s like when we cut a big hole in the biggest sequoia and then are like, “Look! We can drive through it! But oops, it died. Hey, let’s do it to another one!”

Basically now I’m doing what I like.

I always did what I liked. I always felt it was the only thing to do as an artist. To honestly pour myself into my work. It used to be my childhood, but now I have kids and a great family and I pull from the many joys and strains in my everyday life. The process and materials are transparent. You get what you see and feel, and my works are not trying to be something else. They are not trying to create an illusion. Now I don’t really care about explaining it. I don’t see my work as something to get. I want people to experience it and like their own experience.

Do you think with the rise of Internet and the tech boom that progress/devolution in culture is speeding up? How does cultural speed relate to the kind of art that is produced?

For me, I’ve always focused on making really slow art. It takes a lot of time for me to make work, and it takes a lot of time for the viewer to experience it. There are so many layers of the work and the materials change with the lighting. Art can do that – give you a break. Art can do a lot more than that too. But it is a place for contemplation. I think artists are the last idealists. I guess there’s something kind of naïve about being idealist these days because it’s tough times for humanity.

On your blog, you do espouse opinions that imply you really do believe in the efficacy of art and its place in the world.

I really do, but I don’t try to explain that. Some artworks can just hit you with awe, but I just want to enjoy it.

 

  “The Ignominious Providence of the Industrial Revolution,” Auto lacquer and enamel on MDF, 122 x 122cm

How does art confront the terrible things that happen in the world?

It can, but I think it’s very difficult to make art that doesn’t border on propaganda. If you make work on such a big topic, it’s easy to ridicule both the art and the topic.

I sometimes wonder if I should just join Doctors Without Borders. I don’t think I could save the world through my art.

I don’t know if it’s escapism, but entertainment isn’t bad in tough times. Even if it’s just room for contemplation, and a place to free your mind from other terrible stuff.

Of course art is central to humanity. It’s cross-cultural and is a unique habit of our species.

It’s like smoking. There’s no tribe that doesn’t smoke. Art and smoking.

But I agree. I don’t think art in any direct way saves the world.

A great song can keep spirits high. Sometimes it’s just the simple things.

If I can make work in terms of the aura of the work, if I can fill my work with love and happiness, it will communicate love and happiness the other way around. There’s no way to prove that, but this is the pure essence of art for me.

That’s kind of an old idea of what art is – an object imbued with some sort of magic.

I also think that the whole lifespan of the object acquires aura. I don’t think that the process stops with the artist. The work takes on its own life.

The Romans and the Greeks had the idea of the muse – that genius came from the outside. The artist was considered great and honored, but it wasn’t doubted that his genius came from the outside, which I think takes a lot of pressure off the artist.

I think culture in general is still very modernist in its way of thinking. So obviously what’s more important to culture is the artist, the individual who is the genius. That’s not the way I see it and that’s one of the reasons I like abstract art. When you see my work, your experience of it is just as important as my making it. Your accumulated memory becomes a part of experiencing my sculpture. There are shapes and forms in the work that aren’t quite recognizable but that are evocative so maybe you think, “Have I seen this before?” and then perhaps you start to play with your mind trying to figure out what’s going on.

Furthermore, art is an old idea! I am not so sure art changes that much. Content and context are relative terms to experience and production.

On your blog, you wrote about the “idealized image of the artist in western culture.”

Mary Bergstein was my degree professor at RISD and I wrote a thesis paper about the role of the artist based on modernist writing by Emile Zola. I was engaging with the idea that the artist is supposed to suffer, which has become a financial issue. The artist is supposed to give up his entire life in order to make a masterpiece and in reality most modernist artists came from pretty middle class, upper class families. They were able to make as much as doctors.

It’s maybe easier to talk about rock stars. Nobody has to act like Axl Rose, but half of Brooklyn does. In reality, rock stars turn 25 and start doing yoga. Then by 30 they have kids. Then they go on stage and look and act like they’re 15.

It is never sexy to be an addict.

What is your advice for emerging artists?

Don’t do drugs. And in the end, persistence is key. If you really, really want it, just keep on keeping on. The great thing about New York is that there are many pinnacles in the art world. Gagosian is one of them, and that’s about a lot of money and hype. If you don’t care about that, then there’s luckily a lot of people who support other kinds of art.

You have a show upcoming at Klaus von Nichtssagend in September. What’s that about?

It’s a series of new sculptures. Simple, slanted cubes that happened really randomly and just started growing on me. They’re light and playful, and at the same time they’re heavy looking cubes. Then I have these flying buttress things that I lean up against the wall. And a few of my boards (DIY surfboards are another childhood thing). I think it’s a more calm and mature exhibition of my work. A little bit less experimental (this isn’t true, I have been told – it just feels that way to me). I’m really excited about it.

Photos courtesy of Studio Thomas Øvlisen.

Follow Rachel on Twitter, @rcdalamangas.

LESSONS OF NEW YORK: KITTY BROPHY, PART I

During the late 70s, artist Kitty Brophy struggled in a male-dominated art world while falling in love with one of the rising stars of the downtown scene

 

 

Kitty Brophy & Kenny Scharf at Fort Tryon Park, Summer 1980, Photo by Larry Ashton

EDITORIAL NOTE: Lessons of New York is an oral narrative series told in parts and based primarily on interviews with artists who were involved in the Lower East Side scene during the 70s and 80s.

 

Recorded and edited by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

NEW YORK, 1978

 

KENNY SCHARF: My first girlfriend in New York was Kitty Brophy. She went to high school with Larry Ashton, my roommate in Santa Barbara at University of California. She had just moved to New York to go to school at Parsons. Larry came to visit, and this Arizona girl, I met her and she immediately moved in with me at my apartment on 55th Street. That night we met, we went to of all places – we were pretending we were sophisticated – to The Plaza for drinks. She grabbed me under the table and she was like a crazy, fun girl. She’s a great artist.

 

KITTY BROPHY: I had a lot of premonitions and psychic moments when I was young. I always knew I was going to live in New York City. I knew I was going to be an artist. I knew I was going to be a model. I just knew it would all happen.

 

After I was accepted to all these art schools, I narrowed the decision down between Parsons and RISD. I knew RISD would be a much better school, but I wanted that glamorous New York City life. In a way, I knew I was making the wrong decision about art school, but was making the right decision about where to live and I did have an amazing life in the city.

 

My mom put me on a plane in Phoenix, Arizona. I was 18 years old. My aunt Mickey lived in Princeton, and her husband was a famous writer, and they picked me up at the airport and took me to my dorm and dropped me off. Mickey was an actress and had lived in New York when she was young. She saw the adventure that I was about to have and was excited for me. 

Kenny Scharf was the first person I met in New York. He was this darling California guy who looked like Shaun Cassidy. We met through Larry Ashton who was a really close friend of mine in Phoenix growing up. He’s a few years older than I am. He introduced me to Kenny and it was love at first sight for me. Kenny had a blond shag and he was tan and he was so cute and he had the greatest butt.

 

Basically, I was living with Kenny right away. I had been living in a dorm. Have you ever seen that movie Pitch Perfect? Remember when Anna Kendrick’s character walks into her room and the Korean girl is sitting there and won’t talk to her? That was my experience. I had a Korean roommate and a Greek roommate, and they wouldn’t acknowledge me or say hello. It was just like that. It was so funny because here we were living in New York, the greatest city in the world, and these girls would just go to school and then go back to the dorm. And I was the sort of person who wanted to learn everything, see everything, do everything.

 

Kitty Brophy at Kenny Scharf’s 55th Street apartment, Fall 1978, Photo by Larry Ashton

So, I started crashing at Kenny’s apartment on 55th Street. It was bizarre . . . that part of the city had nothing to do with our life, which started to be more and more downtown. He had a job nearby at a salad bar. I can’t believe the amount of food we stole from that place . . . I was an accomplice. I would come in and sit down with this huge purse and we’d just fill it up. I also had bags and we’d fill them up with food, yogurt, cases of Perrier or whatever. Once, Kenny stole a plant. 

One Sunday, I went to Penn Station to take the train to visit my grandfather on Long Island. He was in town from L.A. and staying at his sister’s house. I put on a corduroy skirt and a nice coat. I had been in a real serious depression. The night before I had stood on the edge of my 13 story dorm building and contemplated jumping off of it, but something just told me not to. I had a chemical imbalance that started when I was 14. It was a horrible way to live. I’d experience intense mania followed by serious suicidal depressions that would last for weeks, then maybe one week of normalcy before the cycle started over again. It was different back then because people didn’t really talk about these issues. It was very taboo still. Now, of course, it’s different. But, the next morning, I still had to get up and go meet my grandfather for lunch in Long Island and pretend like everything was normal because he was funding my schooling.

 

I was sitting in Penn Station waiting for my train and it was very crowded. This huge guy who was out of his mind, I think he was probably on heroin and PCP, he had on a big overcoat and he was just gross. He walked over to me and just started molesting me and I was floored and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even scream. I was thinking, “This guy is going to fucking kill me. He’s going to rape me and kill me in the middle of Penn Station.” And all these other people were just watching. Nobody did anything and I was gasping and couldn’t breathe. Finally, I turned to a young guy sitting next to me and said, “Can you get the police?” The young guy ran and came back with a police officer. But by then the guy who attacked me had moved on. What really got me was how when the police showed up, all these people rushed forward to tell the police their version of the story. I asked the young guy, “Why didn’t you help me?” And he was like, “Oh, I thought you knew that guy.” Like some huge, dirty, derelict guy in an overcoat is my friend? They did capture him and they told me he had been going around all morning doing that and pulling knives on people too. He even broke through the handcuffs when they arrested him. I missed my train and had to use a payphone to call my grandfather and make up a story about why I was late. I went home to Kenny’s on 55th Street that night and told him all this and he looked at me like, this is just too much.

 

 

pen & ink drawing by Kitty Brophy

The illustration program at Parsons just killed me creatively. The teachers basically just wanted us to do what they wanted us to do. And they wanted us to paint like them but not as good as them because they were afraid that we would get good and take their jobs someday. That was during the time of super-realism and photo-realism. My work is the exact opposite. The teachers were biased toward the male artists and there weren’t many girls in art school. Most of the girls who were there were in fashion or in graphic design.

 

I had been celebrated in the large public high school I went to in Arizona. I’d been in the gifted program where we got to do whatever we wanted. My high school teachers had been all like, “Your work is great, this is wonderful.” I just flourished. I was awarded artist of the year. I was already drawing S&M art in high school, drawings in which the women were empowered and the guys were tied up.

 

So I went from encouraged and creatively free-flowing to Parsons where everything I did, the teachers were like, “This is shit. You can’t do this.” There was one teacher at Parsons in particular who called my work “fake naïve,” and I was like, “What does that mean?” And he said, “Why don’t you study Grandma Moses and learn how to do real naïve?” He wasn’t referring to my pen and ink stuff, because my pen and ink stuff was my personal outlet. Those drawings were very indicative of my mental state during that time. I never showed them to anybody except a few other people.

 

 pen & ink drawing by Kitty Brophy

It was so bizarre for me to go to New York City where it was so much about pushing the men and encouraging the guys and there was really no support for women. I mean think of how few women succeeded in the art world back then. You can count them. And here I was doing these delicate little ink drawings, things from my heart and my damaged brain, and no one knew what to do with them. Kenny liked them. Keith Haring liked them a lot and he was very encouraging. But art at that time was getting to be bigger bolder faster funner.

 

Not all women have that story. There are women who say, “Oh no, it was a great time to be a woman artist.”

 

I mean, Kenny had it tough too at art school. But he was strong enough. He had the confidence and the strength to deal with that criticism. One of his teachers was the wonderful illustrator, Sue Coe. He was also very smart because he learned technique. That was something I didn’t learn in part because the teachers I had didn’t teach that at Parsons – maybe I just took the wrong classes. Kenny learned as much as he could about how to paint. He was doing video and silk-screening and photorealism and oil in school.

 

Kenny was perfect for me, and we were eager to go out and experience everything. We’d go to Xenon and get all dressed up in spandex. This was back in the era of Rocky Horror Picture Show and David Bowie. People were flirting with gender identity. I never labeled myself as gay or straight or anything. I’d put makeup on Kenny and we’d put our spandex on and go out. We went to Studio 54, but it was so over our heads. Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Halston, these people were there but they were older and much more sophisticated. I remember going there and feeling so young and so wowed. This was before our whole scene started downtown at the end of 1978. We loved disco, but as soon as clubs opened downtown, we never really cared that much about going uptown anymore. We were just new to New York and the nightlife was in transition.

 

I was one of the few non-punk or retro-dressed girls in the East Village scene. I had been a debutante in Phoenix. I was the girl who would wear the hot pants and mini-skirts and high heels and makeup. Like, I wouldn’t let anyone kiss me when I was out at night because I didn’t want my lipstick to get messed up. I never drank in public, mostly because I didn’t want to spend the money, and later I was put on Lithium for my manic depression so I couldn’t drink at all, and quaaludes were all over and cheap so that was pretty much my thing until I got into coke in the 80s.

 

 pen & ink drawing by Kitty Brophy

John Sex and Wendy Wild, and Kenny and me, we used to double date. It’s so funny to call it “double dating.” We didn’t “date” in our group, but we did hang out all the time. John wasn’t John “Sex” yet and Wendy wasn’t Wendy “Wild.” That was later. John was this guy from Long Island with blond hair. The nicest guy. He would wear like these little tiny cut-offs. He was so creative and made these amazing silk-screens. Wendy was just this girl from Long Island with long, dirty blond hair and she was cute and fun. Nobody in our group was stuck up. We were always doing something. Like, “Let’s party!” “Let’s make a video!” “Let’s put on a show!”

Then all of a sudden John and Kenny were fooling around, and Wendy and I were like, “What just happened here?” The story I heard later was that Kenny hooked up with John at GG Barnum’s, which was this amazing transsexual nightclub with trapezes. The drag queens were incredible. I loved them. We’d be in the ladies’ room and they’d be in there, and we’d be putting on our make-up together. I was in awe of them. They were like super women.

 

Back then nobody was monogamous. Kenny wasn’t. I hadn’t ever been either. I wasn’t the kind of girl in high school who had a steady boyfriend for years. That kind of thing to me was uninteresting. And at the time, Kenny was blossoming and I encouraged him. I was in love with him and he was in love with me, so I just said, “You need to be who you are.” Wendy was pretty open too. But we were also hurt. Kenny and John were these young guys and suddenly the whole world opened up to them. I didn’t expect monogamy with Kenny, but I did want to be the main girl. Kenny would tell me, “Kitty, I just want you to know I love you. I really, really love you.” And that was my tip off he was going to go get with someone else. It was very funny.

 

I had terrible social anxiety so it was very hard for me to ever get up on stage. I did Acts of Live Art and a few other things on stage. Kenny didn’t have that problem. He’s the biggest show-off and that was part of my attraction to him. He was the most engaging person. He would just walk up to anyone he thought was interesting and say, “Hi, who are you?” And that’s how we met Klaus Nomi. Klaus was a lovely, lovely person. He was actually a baker at the time. He was a bit older than us.

 

But then later it became an issue for me. It was very, very hard to live in Kenny’s shadow because I had been a promising artist in high school and then suddenly I was just Kenny’s girlfriend. Our relationship happened even before Kenny was famous. I mean, Kenny was famous before Kenny was famous. And I was like, “I’ve never just been somebody’s girlfriend.” You know? Even after we broke up later, for the longest time, people kept referring to me as “Kenny’s girlfriend.” On the one hand, I could stay in obscurity and do whatever I wanted artistically. I had incredible freedom. I was never stuck or pigeonholed or dictated to. On the other hand, no one knew anything about me or my art. People weren’t mean to me, but that was how it was especially when Kenny started making it.

 

I never felt bitter or angry about it. I just felt sad about it because that was the era of women’s lib. I grew up in the 70s and I was that first generation where women could do everything, or at least we thought that way. In hindsight, the reality was very different.

 

Follow Rachel on Twitter, @rcdalamangas

 

 

 

INTERVIEW: GIASCO BERTOLI HAS ALWAYS FELT COMFORTABLE IN THE DARKNESS OF A MOVIE THEATER

The Warriors, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, 2014

 

How does one tell a story through a photograph? Let us turn to Giasco Bertoli’s most recent show “Locations,” at Galerie Nuke, Paris , and count the ways. The Switzerland-born artist first began photographing at age 12, when he received his first camera, a Kodak pocket Instamatic 200. His work came of age during a pivotal time for photography – as it evolved from a commercial medium to a subtler and less idealized one. And much of his work reflects this transformation. Giasco believes in the power of a story—and in the power of a photograph to tell a story. The results are works that tend to blend the everyday with images and memories from his adolescence. In “Locations,” Giasco photographs various film locations—each locale from a vital scene to its corresponding film. And though it’s been years since some of these films were released, the photographs are nonetheless powerful, demonstrating the lasting and indelible strength of these iconic and particularly memorable films. Giasco’s projects in zingmagazine include a survey of tennis courts “15 love” in issue #15; and Cathedral interiors “in a year of 13 moons (1978)” in issue #17.

 

Interview by Rachel Hodin

 

All of t­he photos in “Locations” are shot at different film locations. Did you have to research the precise address of each location before? Or was it more like you recalled the locations from memory?


I researched different New York film locations on the Internet – locations that were first scouted by site hunters.

 

There was a really fascinating article about memory in a recent New Yorker that demonstrated just how much it’s subject to change. Two quotes that stuck out to me: “The very act of remembering something makes it vulnerable to change” and “’Memory works a little but more like a Wikipedia page...You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.’”

I don’t know much about this subject. To me memory is a diary we all carry about with us and sometimes a perfect memory can be ruined if it’s put into words. A photograph captures a moment that’s gone forever, and impossible to reproduce.

 

All of the shots are in New York. I know you moved from New York to Paris when you were much younger, and haven’t moved back since; how would you compare the two cities?

Everybody knows that there’s just something about New York – this inexplicable quality to it, whether it’s from the heat, the music, or the money. In Paris, we don’t really have all of that; here it’s much more romantic with its nice boulevards lined with pristine trees and the Eiffel Tower. To Europeans, New York City feels almost like a movie. For example, the taxis—if you think about the taxi driver, the guy who drives around all day, waking up early to start his shift with steam rising from the streets. Even the loud music New York City is known for—rap music emanating from passing cars. There’s just this unique power to NYC that emerges particularly in photographs, if you find the right shot. It’s a mysterious, yet strong quality. Perhaps it’s more compatible with my work because it’s more international than Paris. In fact, in “Locations,” I was aiming to reach a more international audience – of dreamers, movie dreamers and cinema lovers from around the world. I always want my work to reach an international audience, and in Paris—with its picturesque trees and romance and its charming street lamps—that’s less likely to happen.

 

Obviously “Locations” is a product of recalling pleasant memories. Are there any memories you wish you could erase?

Memories are killing. We must not recollect on certain memories from our pasts—memories of those who are dear to us. Or rather, we must think of these memories and continue to remember them. For if we don’t, we run the risk of these memories surfacing in our minds, all on their own, little by little.

 

Did any of these films figure prominently in your childhood?

My childhood is so far away; we would have to go back to the 70’s, when most of these movies had yet to even come out. No—these movies were selected much more naturally, almost accidental. In fact I decided on most of them while sitting on my couch, chatting with a friend. The selection was more about mixing our memories, and my personal fascination with these films. They all define a city, rather than an era, and during the making of “Locations” I actually discovered quite a bit about these films. For instance I had no idea that the outside of Victor Ziegler’s mansion in Eyes Wide Shut is really the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York City.

 

Who is the most magnetic person you’ve watched on screen?

The list is too long. The first film I ever saw in theaters was Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway—two irrefutably magnetic actors. I think Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter is magnetic too, and Orson Wells in the Third Man. I like Harry Dean Stanton in general; Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris; Takeshi Kitano in Hana-Bi; and a young Gerard Depardieu was of course magnetic as well…


How about the most arresting subject you’ve photographed?

This is a really tough one because an arresting subject—that could be a lot of things. It could be the tennis courts book I shot; there was this one particular shot of a tennis court that I captured, just as it was getting dark out and the sky was very blue. I mean, just physically experiencing that in such an empty space was arresting in itself. But probably the most arresting subject was this ballad to NYC – “Locations” – because it’s my most recent project. For two to three days my girlfriend and I walked around these various locations as we also went shopping; we were able to mix work with pleasant, amateur tourism. We went to Brooklyn and we saw Tony Manero’s house from Saturday Night Fever, and it looked entirely different. We visited Queens too. We were really able to discover NYC through this “Locations” series. More so than arresting, it was just a nice journey—a nice touristic journey. And I like to be a tourist in my work; I think it adds some lightness to it.

 

“Locations” seems to evoke a similar appreciation for film and movie theaters displayed in the film Cinema Paradiso. Do you have a favorite film?

I’ve seen thousands of films, so many films. I even made one myself. As for my favorite film? Of course that depends on a lot, like the period of the film. I saw all of the films featured in “Locations,” and appreciate each and every one of them. For instance Dressed To Kill, The Warriors, Two Lovers, Manhattan, Carlito’s Way, Afterhours, Saturday Night Fever, Serpico, Raging Bull, Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas . . . I think cinema has played a huge role in shaping my imagination. I always found myself pretty comfortable in the darkness of a movie theater—I always felt like I could learn more from characters in movies, as opposed to characters in reality. I like to think I have a better understanding of reality through watching films. For me, the works of directors like Bresson, Bunuel, Kubrick, Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Fellini, Godard, Kaurismäki, Herzog, Pasolini, Rossellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, and Vigo mimic real life experiences.

 

 

Dressed to Kill (The office of shrink Dr Elliot), New York, 2014

 

The photos here are noticeably empty—they almost look abandoned. They aren’t particularly explicit either. Was this intentional? I find that, usually, the less explicit something is, the more aptly it’s able to convey inexplicable ideas like death.

There’s something about an abandoned-looking place or house that makes it look like it has a life of its own. I really like it.

 

Can you tell me some of your favorite films from the past year? And any recommendations you have for films everyone must see?

I recently saw Black Coal, Thin Ice, which won the last Berlin Film festival; it’s a great film.

In general, I would recommend Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lindon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. I like the Coen brothers’ films too—they’re fun, sulfurous and quirky. I love western movies—John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Clint Eastwood—and Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray too. And among the many films I love, I’m particularly taken with The Last Detail, a 1973 comedy-drama directed by Hal Ashby, and The Mass is Ended by Nanni Moretti.

 

I saw you did a video for the fashion brand Lutz Huelle. Personally I think fashion films are an untapped resource in the broader category of films. What are your thoughts on contemporary fashion films/shorts?

I don’t know—some fashion short films make pretty advertising, but I find fashion to be mostly boring and a bit depressing these days.

 

I also heard you’re working on writing your first feature film. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

It is finished. When You’re Smiling, it’s a 10-minute short film freely adapted from a Bukowski novel.

 

Obviously stories are important to you; do you have a favorite writer, short story, novel, or poem?

I always liked the Italian poet Sandro Penna; Pasolini said he was the greatest Italian poet of the 20th century.  I like the writer and film critic Serge Daney, whose L’Amateur de tennis helped inspire my tennis court series. Sadly, he died from HIV 20 years ago. I like to think he would have liked my tennis court project. The two books that are on my bedside table right now are Kitano by Kitano by Michel Temman and Big Bad Love by Larry Brown.

 

Any particular artists you were influenced by – for this series or in general?

The influence here was drawn purely from films—a lot of films—and many directors too. I guess it is a cinephile project, meant for the guy who loves movies and going to the movies, stories, shots, etc etc.

 

Did you use any noteworthy camera techniques?

Just an old Nikon F3 and Kodak color film—very simple—and a Fuji 4.5x6 millimeters.

 

 

Follow Rachel on Twitter, @RachHodin

Rachel’s writing can also be found here

 

INTERVIEW: WILLARD BOEPPLE ON THE MYSTERY OF LIFE

SoHo’s best abstract sculptor divulges the two rules of art

& explains how objects come alive

 

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Willard Boepple’s sculptures flirt with the viewer. Maybe it’s the topsy-turvy flutes and cylinders that seem to grow from a so-called bookshelf or the playful twists of shadow that fall from a tower that cause these objects in Boepple’s live/work space in SoHo to radiate a sense of teasing vitality. The compositional spontaneity conjures plant life and music to the mind. Then again, the very same sculptures are borrowed – at least distantly – from functional objects such as stepladders, and thus echo architecture and industry. Visual associations arise from the suggestion of trumpets and antennas, scrolls of light and debris, but are never satisfied as metaphors. In this way, Boepple’s work taunts the mind into a heightened contemplation of what existing feels like, and delivers perhaps the most effective experience of engaging with abstract art. What is it like to have a body? What is the relationship between a being and its environment?

This July, Boepple will exhibit a monoprint series at Lori Bookstein Fine Art based on his resin sculptures. The monoprints came about when Boepple met the master printer Kip Gresham in Cambridge, England over ten years ago. Additionally, a monograph of Boepple’s work will be published this fall.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

The critic David Cohen has written on your work as a reaction to Plato. How is your work a response to Plato’s notion of forms?

I look to the world of objects for my sculpture, objects made for people to use. Objects designed by people for people to use imply the figure, they have to do with the hand, arm or leg. The height of a chair has all to do with the body’s proportions, a step ladder has to do with how we behave in gravity and the distance between the ankle and knee. A handle has all to do with the length and reach of the arm and hand. This vocabulary of forms really interests me. It’s part of our landscape, we grow up with it, it’s our visual environment – everything around us that is made that isn’t natural comes out of the measures, needs, demands, tastes, inclinations, uses of the body. I think we know much more about that visual world than we realize. There is so much knowledge that is not rationalized or indexed. But when the handle is too low or the step is too shallow . . . what is it about what’s right and what isn’t? What is it about a window that’s a little too high? It looks wrong. We feel it right off the bat. We don’t necessarily articulate it or understand why, but we feel it. We have this accumulated vocabulary of proportions and shapes and sizes. I’m interested in that as source material for abstract sculpture making. I don’t work from the figure directly at all, but I’m very interested in what it’s like to be in the world as a human being, as bodies.

An abstract sculpture has the gift and burden of being in the world without explanation. A painting hangs on the wall and we read it as art whether we like it or not, whether we know what it is or not, we know it’s art. It’s rectangular usually, it hangs on the wall, it has a light on it – oh, it’s art. An abstract sculpture plopped on the floor or on the table – what the heck is that? I’m really interested in the resonance we create with a sculpture that makes us notice it or respond to it emotionally or somehow see something in it that it generates.

Is there a relationship in your sculpture to architecture?

Yes, but my work isn’t functional. I don’t make functional things.

I’m interested in the process by which you find these forms and shape them into an abstract sculpture. How much does the process start in the mind or how much does in start in the physical making of it, which is a Platonic question too.

Process evolves and varies. I work intuitively and in response to certain material stuff, the fact of what’s in front of me, whatever it is. I’m a constructor, I tend to work additively building things rather than chipping away. In the context of the vocabulary of form I described, I will typically begin the sculpture with some kind of construct or object as a starting off point. Step ladders, for example were kind of the beginning of this thinking really. I worked in the early days more out of constructivism and cubist collage. The step ladder really was the beginning. I was looking for a way to make vertical abstract sculpture that didn’t read as figure. You take a pole and stick it in the ground and we read a figure immediately. It’s our ego, our self-centered nature as an animal. So how to make something abstract and vertical that did not do that? Did not simply fight the figure-ness of verticality always?  That was the problem I was chewing on and I came upon the step ladder as a form that is both absolutely vertical – it’s meant to get you up – and yet does not read as a figure. It reads much more architecturally and functionally. The late 70s, early 80s, I made a series of them, which began this exploration and it was from then that I moved into other objects. More furniture-y. Book shelves, room structures, and the like. With the ladder sculptures, I would actually build the wooden ladders as the beginning proposition and start responding to that, very intuitively, very directly. Let’s take out all the steps. Let’s turn it upside-down. Let’s turn it inside-out. Let’s see where we can go with this thing. Somehow make it speak, make it come alive. Mysterious process, but very much the way I work in the studio.

Plato also proposed a series of dualities: mind/body, good/bad, abstract/material. Is your tendency to move away from function and representation a rebuttal to Platonic dualities?

The first one for me is alive/not-alive. I can’t say that I ever consciously work against some ideal or toward some idea. The idea such as it is begins with that beginning object notion. Let’s see if we can make a sculpture out of this or the idea of this door handle or footstool, a half-open window. It’s like I’m looking for an idea, something new in the world. Looking for signs of life. When the thing comes alive – that mystery of all mysteries – is when you’re dealing with something, is when something starts to happen.

There are two rules in art. The first is it needs to be alive. The second is it has to be good. But the first rule is first, because without that live-ness it can’t be good. Very often the live thing leads to horror – oh my god, what a mess and what have I done and what am I thinking?  But when you generate those sorts of reactions in yourself or anyone else, something is cooking, something is happening.

 

 

 

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What are signs of life in art?

What are signs of love? I don’t know. Therein lies the center of the mystery. What is it? We just know it when it happens. We know it when we feel it. But what is life is the question you’re asking. I hope and I think that art when it is wonderful and it is great, teaches us about that live-ness. It is about that quality of vividness of two people being together and responding to each other.

So an indication of live-ness is when some sort of exchange develops between an object and a consciousness?

Exchange sounds a little clinical. Some form of communication is at work. When we talk about music . . . music for some reason is very easy for us to talk about in our culture. I think because we don’t doubt that it’s art. We argue and have taste and have standards of good and bad, but you never question what it is. Yet, when you think about it, it is entirely abstract. Music is entirely, internally relational. It’s about sounds juxtaposed to each other in some kind of rhythm. It moves us or doesn’t. We don’t see that way. We’re not as visually comfortable. We want to know what something represents. 

Your work has been described as musical, which adds a synaesthesiac quality.

I think more key at least in my ambition for my work is the relational . . . one bit relates to another. The logic that it creates. That’s what it’s about. Thick and thin. High and low. Long and short. Oblique and acute. Therein lies the magic of music.

Has music influenced your work?

I listen to a lot of Bach, but I like a wide-range of music . . . Bob Dylan. I played the cello badly as a kid. My parents are musicians. My mother is a pianist. I grew up around music.

 

 

 

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I’m always curious – what do abstract artists get up to as kids? I mean, what were your creative inclinations growing up?

I always wanted to be an artist. I don’t know where that came from or why. When I was young – maybe 12 or 13 – I got to know Richard Diebenkorn who was a neighbor and friend of my family. He was very encouraging to me. I used to muck around in my basement where I painted and did stuff. Whenever he came by, he always wanted to have a look and see. Where, this came from, I have no idea. I went to Skowhegan young. I was too young really, but it was a wild adventure. I continued to paint badly through college.

When you were 37, you were hospitalized with a severe case of Guillain-Barre syndrome, and though you recovered, you continue to live with legs that are paralyzed below the knee and limited function of your arms below the elbow. Have these circumstances influenced how you make art?

I have no answer really. Changing the way you work changes your work and inevitably my physical situation has altered my work. That said, I cannot see or say how. I was just starting with the stepladder sculptures – I showed some at Acquavella in 1981 just before I got ill. When I was able to get back to work, I picked up where I left off with them. A lot of people have asked, “Were you making stepladders because you were learning how to walk and climb?” – the metaphor was irresistible. But I started work on the step ladders beforehand. It was not a response to the illness.

I was in the hospital so damn long I had assistants come in and worked verbally because I couldn’t move. Getting back to work was a gift. Illness is so boring. You lie there like a dead fish and well-meaning people look down on you and kind of shout at you because they think you’re deaf and they are asking about your body all the time. Boring. Healing was so slow, incremental. A news flash would go down the hospital hallway that I moved my eyes or moved my shoulder. So when I had some former students (from the Boston Museum School) come in with balsa wood and a glue gun, I could think about making a little something. It was life saving.

How does your upcoming monoprint show at Lori Bookstein fine art relate to your sculpture? How did your making monoprints come about?

My wife and I lived in England for three years beginning in 2001 and I didn’t have a proper sculpture studio, so I thought I’d try out some new media for me. I met the printmaker Kip Gresham -- I’d never made a print in my life – and told him I was interested in trying to make some prints that related to my resin sculptures. The resin is translucent in these pieces -– you can see into them, through layers of color that live in the light.  For the first few sessions, we took shapes right out of the sculpture and used them as templates then filled them, built them up with color.

Follow Rachel on Twitter, @rcdalamangas

Images courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

 

 

 

INTERVIEW: Fabiola Torralba

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Allis Ozornia performing in Torralba's Nos(otros) ¡somos!  

 

Fabiola Torralba is a dancer, educator, artist, and activist.  After several years of community organizing and cultural work in San Antonio, two bachelor’s degrees, and some ethnographic fieldwork, she decided to return to her first love. Fabiola then trained under Erica Wilson-Perkins at Palo Alto College receiving an Associates of Arts in Dance with additional training under the Urban Bush Women, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and David Grenke of ThingsezIsee’um Dance/Theater among others. She collaborates frequently with local artists, schools, galleries, and non-profit organizations on multi-disciplinary, educational, and performance based projects. Previous works include, En Rumbo, entre nos, Zapatos Viejos, This Bridge We Call…, XVoto, Me Gustas Cuando Callas, and nos(otros) ¡somos!, a full length bilingual multimedia performance that presents multiple facets of the immigration experience by first voices. Fabiola utilizes movement as a vehicle for community building, civic engagement, and social-cultural awareness. She enjoys exploring interdisciplinary collaborations and the intersections between art, story, and action.

At the beginning and end of summer 2013, Torralba produced and performed in nos(otros)!somos! accompanied by a related solo installation at Lady Base Gallery.

Interview by Josh T Franco

  

How did you recruit the performers for nos(otros)!somos!? Did you have the idea then find them, or vice versa?  

My primary objective was to find immigrants to invite to participate. Given that many do not identify themselves so openly and that I knew few myself, I simply asked people that I knew to participate and then asked them to identify people that they knew to invite as well. I set the parameters of the project in terms of vision and scope, facilitated its development, and co-directed the program. The rest was all magic.   

 

What is the show’s relationship with the environment you created at Lady Base Gallery simultaneous with the first performance? 

The initial performance of nos(otros) !somos! held inside of Gallista Gallery was part of the closing reception of my solo installation exhibit titled nos(otros). I felt the need to express my identity as a Mexican immigrant woman given the limited dialogue that exists in U.S. mainstream media on immigrants and my need to be recognized beyond stereotypes, romanticized notions, and politically influenced jargon.

The installation pieces were largely based on stories that I came across in my experiences working among immigrants and as a U.S. based immigrant in Mexico and Guatemala. Each of the pieces in the installation exhibit different aspects of the immigrant experience as I relate to them personally through the stories of other immigrants. These are immigrants who had traveled to the U.S. and had returned to their home, immigrants who currently reside in the U.S., and Mexican natives who aspire to migrate to the U.S.

Part of my goal was to complicate or problematize the dominant narrative of immigrant experiences. I wanted to share these images because they provide multiple facets of the immigrant experience that complicate and speak to the multiplicity of immigrant identity.    

Another part of my goal in sharing these stories was to provide a space where immigrants could speak for themselves. Being that I was fortunate to have witnessed these first hand I wanted these stories to be told because I want these realities, these people, these voices to be recognized and heard. As a person that is now U.S. based, I also felt the responsibility to do so and in a way that would be more accessible to viewers than formal academic or literary processes.   

Lastly, my experience as an undocumented immigrant has been largely marked by silence and erasure. The way that I’ve learned to understand my own experience has always been in relation to the experiences of other people.  My sharing of these stories is a way to tell, understand, and come to terms with my own. Given that I had the opportunity to capture a crowd with the installation exhibit of nos(otros) and that I had the full support of Sarah Castillo of Lady Base Gallery to explore my creative capacities I wanted utilize the moment to share as many stories as possible by opening up the space for other immigrants to speak for themselves.  

As a dancer and choreographer, I also wanted to facilitate a space where these realities could be explored through performance directly through the body. Hence the creation of

nos(otros)!somos!, a multi-media live performance that presents multiple facets of the immigrant experience by first voices.

 

I noticed Tomas Ybarra - Frausto was in the audience at the second performance. This made me think about the piece within Chicano/a art history, and I thought about how it blurs the line (which seems bleakly solid the more I learn) between Chicano/a and Mexican art. How does the whole performance, the cast, the context, relate to this distinction?

I'm not sure that I can readily call out the differences between Chicano/a and Mexican art but I know from being a Mexican immigrant who was raised in the Westside amongst a majority Mexican American community adopted into a working class Tejano family that major differences do exist between Mexicans and Mexican Americans.  Nationality for one is a major difference along with legal status and language.  Naturally these and amongst other factors shape identity and cultural expression.  

I have felt this distinction myself within the Chicano community, a feeling of silence and difference. Its not a conversation that is always welcomed.  Personally, I think it may be because many individuals still have their own work to do with their own internalized racism. The conversation can also easily lend itself to addressing questions of privilege and status which becomes even trickier in a state that doesn't even admit its own history of colonization. Regardless, Chicanos have worked hard to reconnect with their heritage and situate themselves within their Mexican identity and continue to do this work by mobilizing, educating, and building community.

I created the space for nos(otros) !somos! specifically for immigrants because I felt that there was no space for us to tell our stories. Though the topic of immigration had become popular on a national level over the past five years or so, it is often a conversation that is shaped by U.S. nationals and not by immigrants themselves via policy, academia, and mainstream media. In the moments where there have been immigrants speaking on their own behalf it is only a sector of the population that is covered as news but these do not represent us all. Not all immigrants are DREAMERS, or Mexican nationals, or men that migrate to care for their families on their own. I had also felt that within the literature that I read as a Mexican American Studies student that immigration or migration was often romanticized or idealized. It was a topic that many did not have first hand experience with amongst my student peers and within the organizing community that I was a part of. Naturally, I felt alone. As I became more and more involved in local actions in support of immigrant solidarity efforts along with Chicanos and Mexican Americans, I realized that regardless of their families history of migration or ethnic identity, that I was living it alone and that this difference was valid and needed a place of its own.  

I wanted immigrants speak on their own behalf because I didn't want to feel alone anymore. I also wanted a space for us to speak for ourselves to break the silence and erasure that is so much a part of being undocumented. I also wanted a diversity of voices and experiences to be shown because we are not a homogeneous community and many have already been left out of the conversation.  

 

Can you discuss a bit about the difference in the two venues in which you’ve now shown the work?

Lady Base is a gallery that supports the artistic practices of Women and LGBTQ artists of San Antonio. It is located inside of the Gallista Gallery in the South Side of the city and is run by Sarah Castillo, an artist and graduate student in the Bilingual Bicultural Studies program at the University of Texas at San Antonio. For more information visit http://ladybase210.wordpress.com/.

The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center is a non-profit cultural arts organization committed to social justice and the celebration of the artistic and cultural expression of diverse voices. For more information visit www.esperanzacenter.org.

 

To see what Torralba is up to now, check out her blog.  

 

 

LESSONS OF NEW YORK: KENNY SCHARF, PART II

Street artist Kenny Scharf on the ups and downs of friendship,

the absurdity of life

Recorded & edited by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

 

 

People need to be made more aware of the need to work at learning how to live because life is so quick and sometimes it goes away too quickly. – Andy Warhol

NEW YORK, 1976-

I was invited into the Time Square show by John Ahearn who came to my show called “Celebration of the Space Age” at Club 57 in 1979. I didn’t ask anyone for permission, I just brought Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat with me and said, “You guys have to be in this show – join me.” Jean-Michel’s painting made a huge sensation, he got noticed and got into the “New York New Wave” show at PS1. He had a show in Italy, and boom – his career took off. I believed in him, for sure.

My friendship with Jean-Michel was very rocky. He had a double personality. He kind of turned on me more than once. He used to make me completely uncomfortable. Just tried to torture me sometimes. Once, I was at a party and there were lots of people and music and whatnot. It was a very crowded room and I felt really uncomfortable, like, something just felt really weird. And I turned around, from across the smoky room, he’s beaming an evil eye into the back of my head. I felt that and I caught his eye doing that, and I just started sweating. And it would happen a lot. It would always be the same thing and he was trying to make me feel intimidated and it worked.

About a month after I had the show at Fiorucci, Jean-Michel was making a painting with John Sex, and they made this wet oil painting and cars were driving over it – it was so cool and punk rock – and Jean-Michel was kind of spastic and he decided he wanted to have a show at Fiorucci. So he goes up to Fiorucci with these wet oil paintings and in that spasticky manner he used to have, he managed to get wet oil paint all over the clothes, and they kicked him out.

I heard later that Jean-Michel kind of had a problem with me because I didn’t sleep with him. I went to visit him at this apartment he had in Chelsea. He had his art, these collages, on the wall in the kitchen and I was just totally blown away by this crazy energy they had coming from them. The colors on these collages were amazing. That’s when he came onto me. I had just arrived to New York. I’d never done anything with another guy. I was scared.

Jean-Michel was really sweet, charming, funny. He adored Keith, he was always nice to Keith, which was really hard on me. It was one of those things where I liked Jean-Michel so much and when he would be sweet to me, I would be all forgiving and then he would turn on me again.

One time, years later, Jean-Michel and I were both in Italy at the same time and he apologized. And I was like, “I can’t believe you’re apologizing. I never knew what this was about. Why were you so mean to me?” And he said, “Because I’m jealous of you.” And I said, “Why?” Because he was famous at that point, I wasn’t really famous at all then. I wasn’t selling my work. Nobody cared about what I was doing. I was like, “Why would you be jealous of me?” And he said, “Because you’re happy.” I just had this incredible moment of empathy for him and was completely forgiving him for all the stuff and the very next day, it was like my heart was open and he took a knife and just went, “Rrrrrrr-nuh.” Immediately, he turned on me the very next day after apologizing. After that, that was it. I shut down. I swear it was like a month before he died, we kind of connected again. I felt sadness in him and he seemed really in such a sad place that I couldn’t keep that thing I was carrying anymore. Then he died.

John Sex was my first guy. John had moved from Long Island to New York with Wendy Wild together as a couple. I was living with Kitty [Brophy] as a couple. I met John at SVA and the four of us would go on double dates. We’d go to music venues like everybody did. Me and John Sex left the girls and ran off one night. There was a place called GG Barnum’s. It was this disco back then and it was crazy wild and all these dancers were above the dance floor on these nets. And the dancers would jump off and land almost on top of your head, this circusy kind of thing. Then they had these drag queens come on stage and do a show. By then, John and I were really drunk, and we got so excited that we jumped the stage during the show. We went back in the dressing rooms and the bouncers got us and threw us out and that’s how our thing started. Drunk and allover the ground.

Wendy was kind of distraught about what was happening to her boyfriend. Not long after that, Kitty went back to Arizona leaving me to continue my New Wave Punk Rock Bisexual studies.

John and I were involved awhile off and on. He was an amazing person in my life. Really amazingly smart and talented. He taught me a lot about art and Dada. One day he decided that art was bullshit and he threw all his art away in the garbage and announced that he himself was art and he only did performance art after that and became the John Sex persona that people know him as. But nobody knows that he was a really amazing visual artist.

I met Andy Warhol twice. The first time I met him was right after the “New York New Wave” show at PS1. I was in this group show that Andy Warhol was in and I went to this opening at a club called Peppermint Lounge, and Andy showed up there and I went right up to him and said, “Hi, we’re in a show together.” It didn’t impress him much. He said, “Oh, that’s so great,” and wasn’t even listening. He had these rude guys with him and he pointed to one of them and he said, “Make out with him.” And I was kind of like, stunned a little bit, shy and uncomfortable. I can’t remember if the guy did or didn’t honestly. I have the feeling that I chickened out and didn’t go with that. So that was it and he didn’t know who I was. Then later, Keith became famous and was invited to The Factory on Union Square for lunch and I just invited myself to go with him. I was creaming in my jeans. It was everything I could have dreamed, not only meeting Andy, but having lunch with him. I was used to a diet of bad perogis and pizza and donuts, and they had food delivered from some nice place. So many celebrities were going to The Factory then. Andy was taking their picture and the celebrities were getting into Interview magazine. All of a sudden, I went from only knowing East Village celebrities in my sphere, to, “Oh, there’s Farrah Fawcett, or there’s Arnold Schwartzeneger.”

The artist David McDermott and the artist Peter McGough were around the scene then. And there was this guy Diego Cortez, who was the curator of the PS1 “New York New Wave” show, and his boyfriend was named Johnny Rudo. And Johnny Rudo had this loft in Time Square that he was renting from the artist Jimmy DeSana. Jimmy was a very interesting artist who died very early of AIDS, and he did these really intense sadomasochistic photographs that were very Mapplethorpy. So Johnny Rudo called me and was like, “I’ve got this room in this crazy place. There’s space for studio work and whatever, do you wanna come here?” So I left my East Village place and then two weeks later, Johnny Rudo couldn’t handle me. He was intimidated by my intense procreation of art making. I just got there and started hot gluing this and finding trash and painting that and taking over and celebrating the fact that I had some space to work. I was overwhelming him. I got home from school one day and all my bags were packed, and Johnny had brought David and Peter over. I was like, “What’s going on here?” And they were like, “We are here to kick you out. Johnny Rudo doesn’t like you. His dad is a lawyer. And we are here to kick you out.” I just looked at them and was like, “I got news for you. Someone’s leaving and it’s not me.” And the next thing I knew, Johnny Rudo put his tail between his legs and ran away, and David and Peter left too. So I called Keith and I was like, “Keith, I got this great place.” Because Keith was living in this weird men’s shelter, sharing a room with three old men. Keith was like, “Okay.” So Keith came up. There was even a painting that David McDermott and Peter McGough did of this scene. On one side, it’s me with space ships and dinosaurs, and on the other side is them with all their doilies and clocks, and they’re making a face at each other.

Life is just little crazy stories.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Lessons of New York is an oral narrative series told in parts and based primarily on interviews with artists who were involved in the Lower East Side scene during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. 

Read Part I of Lessons of New York.  

Follow Rachel on Twitter, @rcdalamangas

Photo courtesy of Kenny Scharf.

NEW WAVE, THE STREET, & OTHER LESSONS OF NEW YORK

Before he earned international recognition for his fantastical pop-surrealist style, Kenny Scharf was another dreamer in the City

Recorded & edited by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Traveling through the galaxies

Looking for a home

Interstellar tragedies

Living like a gnome

Stretching like a comet tail

From star to star and back

Intergalactic habitrails

Keep me on the track

-- Klaus Nomi

 

 

 

 

NEW YORK CITY, 1976

When I arrived from Santa Barbara when I was 18, I was kind of surfery. I had that 70s Farrah Fawcett, blonde hair. I grew up in California surf culture. My dad used to run a ladies’ knitwear line, basically the L.A. version of the New York schmata biz. My mom is a housewife, she got her hair done and she decorated the living room. My dad grew up in Brooklyn and he couldn’t wait to get out. It was a shit hole.

I was going to UC Santa Barbara and I had this art history course, which was a big class in an auditorium, taught by Eileen Guggenheim. She was, like, this savvy New York art lady. It was a course about 20th century art, and she was going into all the stages, and she gets to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, and I started to get excited. She got to Warhol and the Factory, and I was like, “This is GREAT. I’m getting out of here.” And I thought, okay, I know this is the 70s and that was in the 60s, but I have a feeling there’s something here along those lines that I can find. So I told my parents, “I want to go to New York,” and they said, “Well, then you’ve got to go to school.” I applied to like 10 different art schools allover and none of them accepted me except SVA.

I was super excited to be in New York. I sold my car and basically here I was with a bag of clothes. Right away I went to a Devo concert and on the way, I took a leopard skin coat I found in the garbage and I cut it up. I cut my hair all punky, spiky and I put black under my eyes, and went to this Devo concert at The Bottom Line. I waited in line with all the other New Wavers, and within five minutes I became friends with everyone in that line. From then on I was, like, punk rocker/New Wave.

My first week that I was there, I was a little disappointed, because all the kids at SVA were like suburban kids from Long Island. And I was like, this is just like suburban L.A. where I just came from, and I’d had this idea that I was moving to New York and people were going to be amazing. I was like, there’s nothing different about these kids, they’re just paler. Then a week later at school, I heard Devo music playing and I followed it and there’s Keith Haring in this empty room he had taken over. He had covered the walls and the ceiling and floor in paper and was painting his Dubuffet-like black lines. He was in the corner about to finish and I was like, THIS is the person I thought I was going to meet, THIS is what I came looking for in New York. It was like, BOOM. I started talking to him and we became friends instantly.

Then a couple of days later, I was hanging out in the cafeteria at SVA and there was this super-cool guy named Chris there with Basquiat. I was holding a little portfolio of these paintings I was working on and Basquiat locked eyes with me and said, “What’s in there? Show me your work.” So I showed him and he looked at me and said, “You’re going to be famous.” I was like, that’s a weird thing to say, the very first thing someone says to you.

The first place I lived in was bizarre. There was this saleswoman from my dad’s company, and she was moving to L.A., and I was going to sublet her place. So I took her place on 55th between 6th and 7th. What a weird neighborhood. Out the window, you saw that blue glass of that 60s Hilton Hotel. On the other side, it was Nowheresville. Empty on the weekends, full of strangers all the time.

I got a job at this place called Health Works, which was a salad bar. They had these salad bars and this one was right next door to the place on 55th. Basically people would come up and go, “I want a Salad Niçoise,” and you’d take chunks of tuna and mix it up right in front of them. The manager was like, “You clean up, you close up, you’re just right next door.” So every night I would take big vats of yogurt like out of those machines. There was Perrier, it was the first time water that you pay for got introduced, that was a new thing. So it was Perrier, yogurt, and I’d take a bag of pre-cut turkey chunks, I’d take a bunch of that, and then these kids would come over after work, and I’d feed everybody. There were probably 10 or 11 of us, people I met at the Devo concert.

I had everything. My first girlfriend in New York was Kitty Brophy. She went to high school with my roommate in Santa Barbara, and she had just moved to New York for Parsons. Larry Ashton, my roommate, came to visit. He later ended up moving to New York and took part in Club 57 and everything. This Arizona girl, I met her and she immediately moved in with me in my apartment on 55th Street. That night we met, we went to of all places – we were pretending we were sophisticated – to The Plaza for drinks. She grabbed me under the table and she was like a crazy, fun girl.

About a month after moving into the place on 55th, I got kicked out because someone had robbed me. I was coming home from school and I saw a kid on the street holding a bag of weed and I looked at him and the bag of weed and was like, “Oh, he’s holding a bag of weed.” Then I went up into my place, the door was down and I was like, “Shit, that was my bag of weed.” I went crazy and raced down to the street to see if I could find him. I am running allover the streets, and every kid is looking like him at that point. Anyway, because of what happened, all that caused, and because I always had all these kids eating in my apartment, the owner kicked me out. After that I just kept moving. I moved to 23rd and 8th and then I moved to 9th between 1st and A.

On 23rd, I was in a studio apartment and I remember there was hardly any heat and there were holes, the window was broken. I remember waking up one morning when there had been a blizzard and there was a snow pile on my sink. I saw it floating in. It was cold, but pretty. I had to paint with gloves on in there.

I discovered that Jean-Michel lived near 23rd, and we became closer and started spending more time just walking around tagging. I remember just going around, he would do the SAMO, and he had this big Fat Cap marker and let me have it. I remember I drew a TV set with antennas and inside it said, “The Jetsons.” We went around, and it was really cool. Then one day we were going around, and I turned to take the Fat Cap marker, and all of a sudden he was like, “I’m not giving that to you.” All of a sudden he turned on me, and I thought, “Uh-oh.” That was my first inkling that he had a double side to him, a scary side. He would change on the drop of a dime, you never knew what you were gonna get. He had an intense, demonic side sometimes.

Anything below 23rd Street was kind of fucked up. I quickly learned about the street. Especially back then, New York was the street, a very intense place. I got mugged a lot when I lived in the East Village, with knives, a gun. Even a guy in my building on 9th would wait for me in the hallway with a knife and I used to have to go to a building next door up on the roof over to my roof and down the fire escape into my apartment to avoid him. The reason why he was waiting for me with a knife, is because he was fucking his dogs and I overheard it and I reported him to the ASPCA. He was like this crazy Vietnam vet. There were a lot of Vietnam vets running around back in the 70s, these crazy guys that were just let loose in the street. And he was one of them. He was fucking these big German Shepherds and I heard them crying. For some reason, he caught on that I was the one that reported him so he started waiting for me in the hallway. It went on until I left and went back to L.A. for the summer.

We all worked at nightclubs. It wasn’t right away for me. It was around the time I stopped going to school that I started working the clubs. About year after being in New York, I quit school. Keith stopped going and we were more excited about what was going on in the street than what was going on at the school. We were like, “Why do we need to be here for this?”

 One day, I walked into Fiorruci with Kitty, and Joey Arias was working and he jumped on us and we became fast friends. I had him over at my studio. Around the same time, I was introduced to Klaus Nomi and I was thrown on the stage. All of a sudden I’m on stage at Max’s Kansas City and Hurrah and Danceteria. I was dancing this robot dance with Joe Arias behind Klaus. It was overwhelming. After Joey discovered me, and they saw the paintings I was working on, they said, “You’re a Nomi.” We did a one-day rehearsal and then we did a show.

Around that time, I got a job with Diane von Furstenberg because she saw the New Wave show I had at Fiorruci in 1979 and hired me to do her lipstick and nail polish campaign called, “Hot Pinks.” I did this whole campaign for her and I promptly learned I shouldn’t ever do commercial art. I went up to Diane’s office. It was a sleek uptown office. I went up and there was a shag rug and she was wearing a high slit skirt and big high heels, and Barry Diller was sitting behind her. And she was like, “Darling, I’m so excited to do this campaign. We’re only going to pay you like $50, but we are so excited because we’re going to introduce you to Andy and Halston and Bianca.” And I was like, “Oh my god, that sounds like so much fun, okay.” They ended up using the image for the campaign and gave me $50 and that was it. They never answered my calls. So one day, I just went up to the counter at Bloomingdale’s and took the advertisement and said, “I made this thing and they can’t answer my phone calls and I’m sorry but this is all I have,” and I just took it and left. It was a hand with fingernails all different colors pink and rockets were shooting out of the fingernails, but the rockets were lipsticks. It was really New Wave. I was like, “Fuck this.”

A few years later, after Keith became famous, he got invited to Sean Lennon’s ninth birthday party and I went with him and I’m standing there with Keith and he’d heard that story like a million times, how much I was complaining being treated like that. Then Diane walks in and I said, “I just wanted to thank you.” And she didn’t remember me and said, “For what?” And I said, “Because of you, I decided to go from commercial art to fine art and everything has been going great.” Because after that experience I went back to school and was like, I’m not doing this commercial art thing anymore because they just treat me like shit. Because that was how you thought you were supposed to make money, do commercial art.  A week later, Diane found the painting and I got it back. Someone had painted over my logo for the Hot Pinks with a new logo on it. I ended up painting over that.

EDITORIAL NOTE: When I first interviewed Kenny Scharf in October 2013, I was struck by how muralistic the stories about his experiences were, in particular those that took place in New York during the 70s and 80s. Listening to Scharf recount his many anecdotes, one gets a strong sense of landscape as well as the radiant infinity of sprawling micro-narratives that go into the blockbuster of the City. I realized that in the course of conducting interviews with various artists for zingmagazine, I had encountered a treasure trove of personal tales ranging from the quotidian to the hilarious to the tragic to the absurd to the enigmatic that accumulate into a depiction of the lives of artists struggling as often as succeeding in the art capital of the world. Thus, I was inspired to prioritize the telling of these stories in the voices among us to tell them, as a sort of living history. -- Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Follow Rachel on Twitter, @rcdalamangas.

INTERVIEW: ON THE NATURE OF ART & THE ART OF NATURE

 

Emergences, Lighthouse Park, Port Ewen, NY 2012, on-site stone, variable, Hudson River, low tide

Raquel Rabinovich on the invisible world, slowing down & mud as aesthetic

In a bright, airy studio infused with an uncanny sense of the ethereal, ensconced in a forest in upstate New York, Raquel Rabinovich is at work on sculptures and drawings that are subtle in the extreme. An Argentine expat who was once briefly imprisoned as a teenager for civil disobedience and a visual artist paradoxically concerned with “invisibility,” Rabinovich’s work occupies a radically organic territory of abstract art. Her recent sculptural pieces, the Emergences series, are most closely related to land art, featuring rock formations positioned in the path of the Hudson River’s tide. Ultimately, Rabinovich’s work is invested in a visual language that interrogates the essence of meaning itself. For example, her River Library, which is archived in a long wall of drawers in her studio, contains hundreds of river “texts” and takes the act of reading as metaphorical for the process of deciphering significance from objects. The “Gateless Gates” painting series emphasizes even more acutely the search for signs of meaning, which may be partially concealed even in direct view. The conceptual sensibilities driving Rabinovich’s work are neither impractical nor sentimental, and are rather directly intertwined with and inspired by the processes of nature. Therefore, the art objects Rabinovich creates are meditative, essentially puzzles for contemplation that reward the conscientious viewer with an avenue that leads from the plane of material to the transcendental. 

She has work on view in two upcoming exhibits, one at Creon Gallery and the other at Morgan Stanley Global Headquarters.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Your work is engaged in the plane of invisibility. What exactly does that mean?

I have been interested in invisibility for a long, long time. I remember a series of paintings I did in ’63 in Buenos Aires called The Dark Is Light Enough, and I think it was the beginning of this lifelong interest. When I say “invisible” I mean to look at something and see what’s behind it and behind it and behind it. Not to stay with the appearance of things but investigate and explore everything that is not visible or apparent seems to me to be a search that is very meaningful. That has been a search that led me to paintings, works on paper, sculptures and installations for the last 50 years. My sculpture medium when I lived in NYC during the 1980’s was glass. Then eventually, when I moved here to the country, I began to work with stones.

Stones, unlike glass, are not transparent and ‘invisible.’ Still, when I use them to create sculpture installations along the shores of the Hudson River, they become invisible at high tide because they’re covered by the waters of the river. These sculptures, called Emergences, exist in a perpetual state of flux, being gradually concealed and revealed with the rising and falling of the river tides. I’m interested in that process – not only how you see what you see, but how something emerges into view from being concealed. It could be a thought, it could be images, it could be whatever philosophical assumptions we have. In the case of the sculptures, the water covers them gradually so the process of emerging from being invisible to becoming visible is very slow.

It seems to me that our contemporary culture, especially our city culture is very fast: we have computers, digital images, cellphones . . . I want to slow down to be with the whole process.  Perhaps the slowness in my art is a comment on contemporary culture in the context of nature. Nature respects the slowness of process. You cannot speed up evolution. You cannot tell a baby to be born faster. You cannot tell the plants in the garden in winter to show up today.

For everything, there is a process in time. I respect that when I work. There is a time for incubation, a time for being with what slowly emerges, a time for invisibility to be present. 

You’re a bit of a land artist.

You could say that, though my art is and is not land art. It seems to me that most land artists tried to preserve [their art]. From Walter De Maria to Robert Smithson. For me, it’s not like that. It’s about letting go and not about control. I know from the beginning that when it’s completed, it’s not mine anymore.

How did you become interested in this art of the invisible?

I like the challenge of discovering something that is not obvious.  I spent many years in Europe during the 50s and part of the 60s making art and visiting museums. Say I would go to Museo del Prado in Madrid and I see Velasquez.  I look at the figure and ground in his paintings, but what I really ‘see’ and gets me is the background itself, which seems to me to be the essence of his paintings, just behind and around the figures.  I think that that presence of the ‘invisible’ got me started with the concept that what we see is not what we see.  

It seems like landscape is very important to you?

Not exactly landscape as we know it. I am interested in nature’s modus operandi and resonate with the cycles of nature. I am interested in using the context of nature to make references to impermanence and the passage of time. 

 

 

  

River Library 380 with Footnotes, 2012-2014, Mississippi River (USA) mud on Essindia paper,

15.5 x 22.5 inches

Are there political or social implications to the process of trying to see what’s not obvious?

Not in a direct or literal way. For example, with the mud drawings, the series I call River Library, I use mud from rivers around the world as my medium. Mud embodies the history of the Earth and humankind. Like the alphabet of a language yet to be deciphered, like a yet unwritten history of nature and culture, functions like a text, providing a trace, a memory of our existence. I gathered mud from the Ganges in India and from the Hudson here. Also, other people who know what I’m doing and encounter rivers in their travels, gather mud, and bring it here or ship or send it to me. When I get the mud, I seem to get an alphabet with which to ‘write’ my drawings. Mud is invisible under the water, in the riverbed. It accumulates in layers. When something gets into the river, it doesn’t mix with what is already there.  While the waters of the rivers constantly flow, the mud accumulates layer upon layer upon layer.

If you look at the Hudson River mud, if you see the latest layer that’s there, it’s the chemicals from General Electric. I’m not interested in the science part, but in the mystery, which is embedded in that mud. I say mystery because it’s not known in a rational way. I don’t mean something mystical. I mean something that is not obviously seen or known.

Rivers are repositories of history, the history of the planet, the history of people, the history of culture.

I’m interested in the theme of “text” as literal and metaphorical your work. You also did a piece using the work of Italo Calvino.

That was in the 80s, I was actually living in NYC at the time. That was when I began using letters and numbers. First, I used them to indicate proportions within the space of each drawing in the series “Temples of The Blind Windows.”  I drew on the Fibonacci series to establish spatial relationships within the drawings. During the 80s, I did a series of glass sculptures in which I drew also on the Fibonacci series to establish spatial relationships between the glass panels of each piece. Starting with just using letters, I got interested in text itself. I became fascinated with a book I read at the time by Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities, and also during the 80’s, I did a glass sculpture installation and a series of drawings based on that book.

I used the idea of an invisible city, what it meant for Calvino, to create my own city, which is not in the book, and then I used excerpts from the actual book to make seven drawings.

I remember writing to Calvino for permission to use his text and he was excited. He said, “Well, send me photographs.” By the time I wanted to send the photographs, he died.

Does literature inform you as an artist?

Indirectly, I would say yes. For instance, one of my favorite writers is Borges. I think that a certain way of seeing for me comes from him. The way he perceives reality and how he invites you into his world . . .

 

 

 

Gateless Gates 6, 1995-97, Oil, wax and pencil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches

You did some paintings that involve text, right?

This is part of a series of maybe 20 paintings called “Gateless Gates”. The title is embedded into the painting and it is not obvious. You have to sort of dig it out of the paint itself. Gateless gate is a paradox used in Zen practice.  The mind transforms itself when confronting the paradox.  If you look deeply and spend time with the painting, then you will discover the text, which functions as a metaphor for what happens in the act of looking at a painting. You have to go through the ‘gateless gate’ to get to the painting because what counts in the painting is embedded in the painting itself. It’s not as if you add or take away meaning. Meaning is inherent in the painting. When you wonder what it means, you are already entering the process of painting itself.

How I hear you speak about “the process of painting,” I’m reminded of what I’ve read about the French Impressionist studies of light. I recall reading about how Monet would simply sit and watch how light changed before even beginning to paint.

I can relate to how sitting and thinking is part of the work. It is a sort of incubation.  It also happens in nature and in every creative process: something is happening even if it is not visible or tangible yet.

What are you working on now?

I continue working on the two ongoing series that I mentioned before: Emergences and River Library. And I have just begun a new series of paintings, after 15 years during which I concentrated only on installations, sculptures and drawings.

Follow Rachel on Twitter, @rcdalamangas

Photos courtesy of Raquel Rabinovich.