A conversation with Judith Braun

Judith Braun photographed in front of her studio door, November 2013 © 2013 by Susan Silas

Judith Braun photographed in front of her studio door on the
Lower East Side, November 2013 © 2013 by Susan Silas

SUSAN:

Looking at your very early work I could not help but notice that you were a gifted realist painter, and when artists have that skill they are loath to give it up, and that one ability can take precedence over their ideas, because it is gratifying in and of itself, and because not everyone can paint that way. So I am wondering how you let that go? This is not to say that what you are doing now does not involve specific and refined skills, but they are not the same skills.

2)“Portrait of an Angel”, oil on linen, 60” x 48”, 1984

“Portrait of an Angel”, oil on linen, 60” x 48”, 1984

JUDITH:

That’s a good question. That was a really big turning point. It’s a very natural place to start for a lot of artists. It’s something that has a goal to it. You know when you are getting good at it, you can look at a master and you can feel when you are getting better, and I did love doing that. But when I was in graduate school I had professor, Mark Greenwold. I don’t know if you know him. He just had an amazing show at Sperone Westwater—the figurative painter. He was very smart, very articulate and he was a strong influence over me. He encouraged me to paint well, but he also encouraged me to be myself and take myself seriously, and so what I really found after graduate school is that I had more parts to myself. I wanted things to move faster and the paintings I made took a very long time. It’s funny, but recently I was looking through something I did at that transition period called “Fuck Mark.” It was about me going through that transition between aspiring to paint like Rembrandt and realizing I had other ideas to pursue. I started to take photographs of my meticulous paintings, reducing them to xeroxes, and then writing on them. On one of them I scribbled “Fuck Mark!” So that is when I started to make the paintings really small and writing words on the paintings as well. I made a really small painting of a cat and wrote My Pussy on it. That was in 1988, for my show in the East Village called White Girl Paintings, so I was beginning to express this side of myself, a kind of playful irreverence.

SUSAN:

And was the reaction to this new work pressure to continue painting as you had before; people asking you why you weren’t making those paintings you were so good at making?

“Boots”, oil on linen, 16” x 24”, 1981

“Boots”, oil on linen, 16” x 24”, 1981

JUDITH:

Yes. I felt really strong, and it gave me a kind of confidence to do the realistic figurative painting that was so historically valued, and people do tend to respect it still. And I did some good paintings—I was really into the painting of transparent skin. But I think that was an important rebellion on my part; to give that up and find who I was otherwise was a risk, but a great feeling of liberation too. And Mark Greenwold, we’re still friends, was very supportive all the way through. I think if I cared at all along the way what anyone thought, it was about what Mark thought. It’s hard just to believe in yourself and be sure that you really have something to offer. I think people you respect have to give you that affirmation to build on.

CHRYSANNE:

I’ve noticed your creative journey explores the body from the figurative paintings to the Xeroxes to the most recent wall installations.

JUDITH:

It’s true. There is obviously a connection.

CHRYSANNE:

What are your thoughts looking back at your 30-year transition from painting the body to using the body as the vehicle?

JUDITH:

I hope this doesn’t sound argumentative about that point. Since I started doing the finger print work—people have started to think I am a body artist and they talk about the performative aspect of the work, and I try to reel it in a little because I don’t want them to be performances. As soon as people began asking to videotape me actively drawing, and I did it a little, even in front of a public audience, then I had to back off. It was fun in a way, but it limited my own experience of making the work. I’m really a studio artist. I prefer to show the results, and let the process be a mystery.

Fingering work in progress.

Fingering work in progress.

I mean it is inescapable that we are human beings and we are using our bodies. I think about the wall drawings in this way: I am using charcoal, a carbon material which is the basic material of the earth and it’s also the basic material of the body and I am drawing with my fingers, and so they are all connected. And the symmetries I do are all clearly related to nature and the body and brain too, but I see it that way more on a physics level. I guess this is all to say that I don’t connect myself to, say, Anna Mendieta, as specifically a body artist.

 

 

CHRYSANNE:

But I wasn’t talking about it in terms of performance, I was talking about it as a physical act. Is there a reason that you wanted to do it with your hands, your physical body, rather than paint brush. I see something special about the body that reveals itself within your wall drawings. I am interested in the transition of painting the body and getting to know it and the breath of history within your work, not you as a performance artist per se, and wondering what made you use your body as a vehicle.

JUDITH:

Well, yes, I did like the raw simplicity and reductiveness of the approach. There was a very specific incident that brought about the first fingering wall drawing, at Artists Space, so you possibly remember it.

CHRYSANNE:

Yes, I do.

JUDITH:

That happened because I was doing these small pencil drawings (points to drawings installed on the studio wall).

6)Installation of  “Symmetrical Procedure” drawings, graphite on paper, "May I Draw," Joe Sheftel Gallery, NYC, 2013.

Installation of “Symmetrical Procedure” drawings, graphite on paper, “May I Draw,”
Joe Sheftel Gallery, NYC, 2013.

Now sometimes people think the large wall drawings came first but actually these came first. I had chosen these three specific parameters for my work, which were symmetry, abstraction, and using carbon materials. I had come up with these rules, so to speak, in 2003, and then in 2008 had a solo show at Fruit and Flower Deli, a small gallery on the Lower East Side. Raimundas Malasuaskas, who was visiting curator at Artists Space, came and loved the show and he wanted me to do something at Artists Space on a gigantic wall. So I was trying to think how I could use my basics of symmetry and abstraction and make them larger. I tried extending my arms with sticks with charcoal attached to the ends, and I was trying to draw symmetrically like that with both hands. You can picture it—sticks were falling apart and nothing was really working. But I realized that my hands, our hands, just naturally move simultaneously, the same way. It’s harder to do different things with your hands at the same time, the way musicians do. So I thought: “Wow I can do this, but maybe it would work better with just my dirty hands,” and I made a fingerprint on the wall. Wow, I noticed that the fingerprints were really interesting marks, very three-dimensional looking. They weren’t just flat smudges. And there was so much control and variation possible, just with pressure and gesture, like any other drawing tool. So I told Raimundas I’m just going to draw on the wall with both hands simultaneously, and see what happens. And I stuck to that very strictly for that first drawing, making sure the whole thing happened with both hands simultaneously. I moved the scaffolding down the 30-foot wall, repeating the same gestures and pattern from one end to the other.

9)“Fingering #1”, Charcoal fingering on wall, 12’ x 30’, 2009 at Artists Space, NYC.  The first Fingering.

“Fingering #1”, Charcoal fingering on wall, 12’ x 30’, 2009 at Artists Space, NYC.
The first Fingering.

I guess people liked it because since then I’ve been invited to do 18 walls. Each one is unique and site specific, but they all still fit within my parameters of abstraction, symmetry and carbon materials. I do love having a very large space to grapple with, on ladders or scissor lifts, but honestly I really like being in my studio, at a table, with a light, and a clean sheet of paper and pencil, where everything is very contained. It’s a different focus. I feel everything goes down into the point of the pencil, you know, rather than spread out on an entire wall, where it’s more like conducting an orchestra.

CHRYSANNE:

What took you to symmetry from doing the xeroxes? There was a break in time, in your art practice, correct?

JUDITH:

Yes.

video ©2014 by MOMMY

 

CHRYSANNE:

I read that your annual tarot reading inspired you to return to making art full time.

JUDITH:

Yes.

CHRYSANNE:

And you ended up with symmetry?

JUDITH:

Well, the tarot reading was not the door directly to the symmetry. Although it’s interesting that the card that led me to coming back to making art again is a very symmetrical card. I have it posted on my wall over here.

CHRYSANNE:

Which one is it?

JUDITH:

It’s “The Lovers”.

The lovers.

The Lovers.

CHRYSANNE:

Oh “The Lovers,” yes I know that.

JUDITH:

I’m into tarot cards, but not as fortune telling. I just find that they act as triggers to learn things about myself. You know, it’s like I wanted to learn new things about myself, have insights, and it’s hard to get that. So, instead of going to a therapist, I went to a Tarot school for a while to look into it as a way of looking into my subconscious.

CHRYSANNE:

Where did you go to school for it?

JUDITH:

The New York Tarot School. It’s run by an older Jewish couple. I wanted to see how they do it and I learned that reading cards is very much a visual and psychological thing. It’s not like, well this card always means this, and this card always means that. It’s a combination of the card, the question, the placement and context, and things like that. I got really into it for a while but then I decided it would be good to just do it as an annual ritual—my own life evaluation. So in 2003, the big question for me was how I felt about not making art anymore. I’d had my first time around as an emerging artist in the late ‘80’s early ‘90’s, and then got sidelined. Divorce, finances, parents’ illnesses, daughter in college, loans to pay, and so I couldn’t do my work for a while. I thought it would be a temporary thing, but that actually extended into nine years. Even though I’d found other things I liked to do; tango and swing dancing were my hobbies, and doing faux finish work was paying my bills—something was missing. I wondered if I’d look back and say: “So you were a tango dancing faux finisher?” Would that be enough? The answer was no.

Detail from Fingering #7, about 10'x 16', Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, 2011

Detail from Fingering #7, about 10′x 16′, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, 2011

So when I got “The Lovers” in the reading I didn’t think it was about meeting a new boyfriend; I realized that it was about a relationship inside myself that was not 50/50. There was a dominant voice in there and there was another voice that wasn’t being heard. So I asked myself what was not being heard, and this little voice inside said, “It’s me, the artist.” But the dominant voice was always discouraging that voice, saying “Who do you think you are?! You can’t just jump in and start again. You are 55 years old.” That voice had a million reasons why I couldn’t do it.

But I asked the tarot cards seriously and I had to take them seriously. Why do them if I’m not going to pay attention to what I think they are showing me? So I made a decision to try again as an artist. I would reorganize my life to make time and space, and try to have “one more show.” I didn’t want to have too high a goal! That was when I decided to rent the back of my apartment to tenants and just live in my studio, so that income would cover me. And I quit the faux finish business and I started to make a new body of work.

Oh, and this is important. I decided to dedicate myself for three years to see what I could do, if I could get something, anything, started. I thought that was a reasonable time frame. I started to explore new work in many directions behind closed doors. I was looking for something I would love doing, actually be dying to get to work on every morning, something that would be an ongoing, inexhaustible project. And gradually I found that what I really, really liked doing was sitting at a drawing table with paper—blank paper and pencils. And so that’s when I started doing the small drawings I called Symmetrical Procedures. Actually you see that drawing over there? That’s where I started. I started making a line, a curved line, and copying it, in reverse. The concentration of copying in reverse is really, in itself, very engaging and meditative. After I’d made quite a few, and liked the process and results, I narrowed down what they were about. It was abstraction, the symmetry and the limitation of black and white. The abstraction kept them free to be anything, the symmetry made anything into something. It was freedom and discipline, and that suited me. So I started using those parameters, which is what all of this work is still about for the last 10 years, and I’m not at all tired of doing them yet.

“Symmetrical Procedure BKS-16-2”, graphite on Duralar, 16”x16”, 2008.

“Symmetrical Procedure BKS-16-2”, graphite on Duralar, 16”x16”, 2008.

But going back to the 3 years, within that time I was in some shows. The most important, to me, was with the Pierogi traveling flat-files. So this allowed me to add time onto the three years because something had actually begun to happen!

SUSAN:

So tell us a little bit about how your career evolved after Pierogi, because it is interesting to hear from women who, for various reasons, emerge a bit, get sidelined and then re-emerge. How did that end up happening for you?

Symmetrical Procedure SH-16-1, graphite on paper, 17" x 17", 2013

Symmetrical Procedure SH-16-1, graphite on paper, 17″ x 17″, 2013

JUDITH:

Okay. It’s different for everyone, but for me I think it was having my goal and establishing the timeline. I think doing the three-year plan was really important because then I didn’t question myself every day when I came into the studio. Once I had decided I was going to do it, there were no questions. And then I set up something else in my mind, which was to work “as if” I had a solo show coming up. These were very strong mental mindsets. I started to use everything I’d learned how to do in my first go-round—like send work to juried shows in some town somewhere. And just getting in, and even getting awards, energized me. I also knew about non-profit spaces because I had done them earlier. White Columns, Art in General, and that kind of stuff. Every time I got into something I’d feel a bit more confident because my work was out there somewhere. And that would push me to reach out further, because I could say: “Hi, I’m in a show at such and such.” We all hate asking people to look at our work, hoping they’ll put us in things, it feels so desperate. But spring of 2008, while I was in a show at Nurture Art, I forced myself to walk around the Lower East Side, which was starting to have little galleries here and there, and I’d go in and have conversations with people.

10)“Fingering #16”, Charcoal fingering on wall, 12’x 12’, 2013, at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit, NJ.

10) “Fingering #16”, Charcoal fingering on wall, 12’x 12’, 2013, at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit, NJ.

Finally, a really key thing happened. I walked into Fruit and Flower Deli, a small gallery on Stanton Street with a sign on the door that said, “Never open but always welcome.” The place was falling apart, with holes in the walls, but there was an interesting show up by Rainer Ganahl. Rainer’s an important artist out there but I’d been out of the loop for a while and didn’t know of him, so I was a little nervous. Anyway, the guy in the gallery, Rodrigo Mallea Lira, who called himself the “keeper” of the Fruit and Flower Deli, was explaining to me about Rainer’s work and I was trying to pay attention. Then he asked if I was an artist and I very daringly stated that I made these great drawings, told him about the show at Nurture Art and pulled out this little CD that I was carrying around, with a tiny picture of one of my drawings on the front. In a split second he exclaimed excitedly: “This is what you do?! Do you have more of them? Where’s your studio?” When I told him it was around the corner, he literally closed up shop and we walked over here. Just like the sign on the door said, “Never open, always welcome.” So he took two framed drawings off the wall, went to Art Brussels the next day, and sold them both.

Okay? So based solely on the art, not on connections or mutual friends, it just happened. It’s a really important story for me, but it’s not a story that can be replicated, as if it can just happen if you do this or that. There are so many invisible parts to how and why it happened, for both Rodrigo and me. We’ve talked about it many times. He saw something in my work that was nothing like Rainer or his other artists—he had Nicolas Guagnini, Julieta Aranda, David Adamo. These are all established artists that are more conceptual than me, on the surface. So much can be traced back to this encounter, and the solo show we did that summer, and I both give credit and take credit for making it all happen.

5)“Blue Penis”, Xerox on paper, push pins, blue vinyl report covers, 12’x14’, 1994, Bad Girls show at New Museum of Contemporary Art, NYC.

“Blue Penis”, Xerox on paper, push pins, blue vinyl report covers, 12’x14’, 1994, Bad Girls show at New Museum of Contemporary Art, NYC.

Sometimes when I look back at the important people for me: I think of Mark Greenwold, and Rodrigo, and Raimundas, and my ex-husband who built me a studio and gave me free reign to go running to New York my first time around. There was Stefan Stux in the early days, Colin de Land, Bill Arning. Quite a few men. But there were a number of women too who were very pivotal and equally important to me along the way. Souyun Yi gave me a solo show at her gallery in 1990 and put 100% confidence in me, Ann Philbin gave me a large wall in her debut show as director of the Drawing Center, (she’s now director of the Hammer Museum), and Holly Block had me side by side with Glen Ligon at Art in General (she’s now director of the Bronx Museum). And then Marcia Tucker put me in the Bad Girls show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1994. And I have to mention Roberta Smith, who gave me such a generously positive review in The New York Times last year. I mean, that was an amazing gift from such a preeminent art critic. It was a huge boost to my spirit. Which, if you don’t mind my inserting here, came in the midst of my chemotherapy treatments, following a double mastectomy for breast cancer. Okay? So you can imagine I appreciated the boost!

CHRYSANNE:

How did you meet Marcia Tucker?

JUDITH:

I think Marcia saw my work in a White Columns benefit where I had a piece titled Read My Pussy. She was there with collector Penny McCall, who has since passed away, and who bought my piece. It was around that time I was contacted by Marcia to do a studio visit for the Bad Girls show. And here I’m going to share another very meaningful story to me, that’s kind of private, but important. The night of the opening of Bad Girls, Marcia and Alice Yang, her co-curator, came over and told me that I had been the inspiration for the show.

“Read My Pussy”, Xerox on paper, push pins, vinyl report covers, 12” x 144”, 1990. Solo show at Souyun Yi Gallery, NYC

“Read My Pussy”, Xerox on paper, push pins, vinyl report covers, 12” x 144”, 1990.
Solo show at Souyun Yi Gallery, NYC

SUSAN:

That’s a very wonderful thing to be told.

JUDITH:

It sure was! Her telling me that gave me something that I can have inside even today.

CHRYSANNE:

When you dropped out did you feel an emptiness? Was it a long decision coming?

JUDITH:

It was complicated, and yet simple. I thought it was going to be shorter time span, just to get my finances going, maybe a year or so. And I was also excited about being single and on my own, so there was adventure about it too. I wasn’t missing making art right away. But I started to realize that the art world was not waiting for me either. The train left the station without me, and I was like: “Wait a minute. I’m not going away forever.” But they were gone. And then during that time I found I didn’t want to hang around artists at all because I didn’t want to hear about their studio visits and what shows they were in. So I was torn, it was a withdrawal from both sides and a mix of feelings, up and down.

That grew more clearly painful as time went on. I began to feel like the skin I was in was not really mine. I didn’t feel at one with my outer and inner self. I can now say that when I started making art again it was as if put on a skin that fit perfectly. I knew who I was again. So, long story short, that’s why I like doing my Annual Tarot Cards!

CHRYSANNE:

What’s interesting about that card is if you look at “The Lovers” card the hands are held up in the air symmetrically which you have done numerous times here.

JUDITH:

Hey, it’s so true, I had not seen the symmetry in the raised hands on the cards as specifically reflecting my own drawing process as clearly as that before!

Studio Shot, 2014

Studio Shot, 2014

CHRYSANNE:

And what do the Portals mean to you? How do you view the Portals? Is that a passageway to another way of being?

JUDITH:

In the groups that I’ve done that are called Portals?

 

CHRYSANNE:

Yes.

JUDITH:

They began basically as the reversal of the other drawings, just within my seeking variations and creating groups and subgroups, all overlapping and growing out of one another. I just called them Portals because they had the dark spaces in the middle. It didn’t have a lot more meaning than that. I always just do things and then see meaning afterwards. I choose names for the groups that are simple and descriptive, and just a bit suggestive. Some of the other groups are Lanternals, Orbitals, Rimmings, Emblems, Amulets, things like that. Otherwise the individual pieces are titled by a code of numbers and letters, but once I had dozens and dozens of drawings, I needed the group names so I could refer to them more easily. It was getting complicated!

SUSAN:

Do you think that feeling progressively more entitled as a woman artist allows you or women in general to let go of specific feminist content in their work? Or do you see your trajectory as having nothing to do with that? Because, it seems to me, your early work was overtly feminist in content.

“Sacred Order of the Burning Bush”, Xerox on paper, push pins, 30’ x 30’,  1993.   Kunztlerhaus Bethanian, Berlin, Germany

“Sacred Order of the Burning Bush”, Xerox on paper, push pins, 30’ x 30’, 1993.
Kunztlerhaus Bethanian, Berlin, Germany

JUDITH:

I had that period when I did Read My Pussy, and it was a lot about my ownership of my identity as a woman. I think that’s a big part of feminism. I had also changed my married name, from Weinman to Weinperson, as part of a feminist artist persona. But when I started my new work, in 2003, I dropped the sexual and feminist content mainly because I had changed a lot as a person. We grow and change! I’d done realistic narrative paintings and I’d done the xerox work that was graphic and sexual in subject matter and attitude. I think I was just in that stage where I was interested in how to be reductive, how I could contain all of myself, and my history, in a sort of poetic way. So I wasn’t doing it out of female confidence, but maybe just myself as a more mature person. I think it’s more about courage than confidence.

SUSAN:

I also wanted to ask you how having a child played into your career trajectory because obviously, or maybe not so obviously, but I think it’s obvious—women tend, no matter what anybody says to the contrary, to do the bulk of childcare no matter how equitable their relationship supposedly is. It’s much easier for male artists to have children than it is for women artists.

JUDITH:

Well, I think having a child was a very grounding experience. I don’t know who I would be today if I hadn’t had a child and been forced to make some very realistic decisions about life. It’s just a unique maturing experience. I had been married and I had to escape the father of my daughter because he was abusive. I was a single mother for a few years. During that time I decided to go back to school and I chose a “school without walls,” making up my own degree program at Empire State College. It was Art and Design, because something slightly career oriented seems wise. Being a mother forced me to start making better choices, including marrying a nice man the next time, someone who was kind and supportive, and who adopted my young daughter. And he paid for me to go for an MFA. I am forever grateful! Being a single mother and an artist would have much harder, near impossible, without him. But returning to the question of motherhood, having a child made me learn how to organize my time. Getting up early, going to sleep early, I’m still like that. I knew what day I was in the studio, how many hours I had, what day my daughter was in day care, what day my mother was helping. So that was all good for me. I also feel that being a mom is the one way that I am selfless; knowing that there is actually a person I’d throw myself in front of a bus for is a good thing for me to know.

SUSAN:

And how old were you when you had a child?

JUDITH:

I had her when I was about 28. Now I’m 66 and she’s 37.

SUSAN:

Just out of curiosity what is she doing?

JUDITH:

She’s just starting a Master of Social Work program at NYU. She’s done a lot of other things, writing, graphic design, teaching, personal chef. She’s following her path!

CHRYSANNE:

Is there anything advice you have for younger artists? Or even a middle-aged artist, or an old artist?

JUDITH:

There are so many things to tell people for advise, but I guess the basic idea is set your goals and keep working. Your goals, no one else’s. And I happen to think practical things like time management are very important. Practicing making decisions and following through. A lot of people are very random about how they go about achieving what they say they want. I think it’s good to say it out loud, name it, write it down too, and then find reasonable steps to get there. I am a big advocate of finding Step One.

Judith Braun photographed in her studio, November 2013 © Chrysanne Stathacos

Portrait of Judith Braun, November 2013 © Chrysanne Stathacos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A conversation with Bharti Kher

 

Aura Portrait of Bharti Kher © 2000 by Chrysanne Stathacos

Aura Portrait of Bharti Kher © 2000 by Chrysanne Stathacos

CHRYSANNE:

I first saw one of your bindi pieces in the mid-nineties when I went to your apartment for a party. It was installed directly on the wall and I fell in love with that work the moment I saw it. What compelled you, as an artist born in London, who went to India and started a family there, to use the bindi as both a symbol and a material within your artistic practice for the past twenty years?

Sweet Violet's Deathly Kiss, ( detail)_ Image Credit:  Guillaume Ziccarelli

Sweet Violet’s Deathly Kiss, ( detail)_ Image Credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli

BHARTI:

I think the reasons I started to use them initially and the intentions with which I continue to use them now are very different. If I look back to the early nineties, when I arrived in India, it was completely alien and I felt peculiarly out of tune and out of step. So as an artist there is a way to look—it is not even a journey, because you have not even started one yet—it is about basic things: “How do I start work, what do I make, what do I look at?” So I started to look at the readymade, and I think, essentially, that was my first concern. That just became an investigation into what I did when I went into the streets—the things that I observed.

Some of the earlier pieces that I made in the nineties really started to kick in about 1994 to 1995, after I had spent three years making pretty terrible work! I made a couple of shows, but I think I was just looking for something else other than painting, because I really didn’t know how to create meaning for myself.

Yet there were all these strange idiosyncrasies that I noticed, usually contradictory. The paintings of the suitcases covered in camouflage fabric for example. People at train stations would carry and wrap their suitcases in camouflage army fabric and then they would have these posters all over the station saying. “Watch out for bombs.” Why would you cover the suitcase in a fabric when your suitcase is actually protecting your clothes? So this idea of laying an exterior that was about “other” began as early as then. I made this work called, Don’t eat meat on tuesdays, which was made up of seven suitcases painted on that army fabric, with a little wire attachment that ran down to the floor to a ticking timer.

Don't eat meat on tuesdays, 1998, image credit: Bharti Kher

Don’t eat meat on tuesdays, (detail), 1998, image credit: Bharti Kher

CHRYSANNE:

Is it because the bindi itself is a more transformative object that you can re-imagine in different contexts?

BHARTI:

I think I originally approached it and thought of it as a material, in the same way that I was approaching sculpture. But when I started to really look, I think what I was able to do was incorporate it into my practice and make it integrally mine, and so I was able just to push it a bit further. I realized that there was probably a lot more going on because the surface was quite extraordinary, and yet I was doing something aesthetically and conceptually which was art historical in some ways, it reminded me of minimalism, of the pixilation in impressionism, Bridget Riley, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, all the early abstract works. I guess somehow, those artists were able to connect with something, and I did not know what that was yet in my case, but just thought: “Maybe you are just not finished with this yet.”

CHRYSANNE:

At the same time I remember the series of the small paintings, the mustaches. I love those works because being Greek—there is a history of so many men from so many countries and they all have the same mustache.

BHARTI:

What I thought the work to be about was really the male gaze. The bindi work is masculine/feminine, the feminine as masculine and suddenly the moustaches were the masculine as feminine. Strange, the paintings of the moustaches were like vaginas in the end.

CHRYSANNE:

And the paintings are just of the mouth and the mustache.

BHARTI:

They are life size. So, first of all, I went out with a camera because the streets in India in the 90’s were so masculine, I mean they still are, I just think I am used to it a lot more. The camera was like a shield, and being a photographer somehow gave me another eye to see, and some kind of other power.

CHRYSANNE:

On my recent trip to India the streets seemed more female than they had been, but I had not been back for four years so it seemed to be a big change.

Hirsute, 1999-2000, image credit : Bharti Kher

Hirsute, 1999-2000_ image credit: Bharti Kher

BHARTI:

Sure things have changed but only a bit. Back then I didn’t really know how to deal with the masculine gaze, which was penetrating and could be in some ways extremely personal. With a camera, I just stopped guys in the street with moustaches and said, “Can I take your photo?” Strangely, a camera can disarm people, and they sometimes like having their photos taken. So mostly they were all smiles and anyone with a moustache, from my guards, taxi drivers, to the cigarette and pan wallah, to my neighbors were very compliant … so I did about 225 of them and then I just got tired with it because I had to paint them too.

SUSAN:

There are certain parts of the world in which, when I look at a newspaper for instance, anytime I see a photograph of a crowd in the street, it is composed almost entirely of men. And the public space is not about women at all; so it is funny to take this mustache from the public male world, and turn it into something that looks like a woman’s private parts.

BHARTI:

Well I didn’t realize that would happen, but when you put them together—women started laughing. They are highly sexualized and oddly erotic. And it’s interesting in that they represent more than just what comes from the image of the mouth. “What is the mouth?” You start to really examine other elements, political as well as social and sexual; what is eroticism and the notion of the mouth when gendered? I think it just came out of the time, out of a very particular moment. I don’t think my practice has specifically changed in the way that I respond to the idea of the body. A lot of my work is directly concerned with what I am thinking at the time, or where I am in the specific space. At that time I was looking around for something to hold on to. I was also looking for an audience to begin a discussion with and a place for myself to think about notions of gender that seemed so clear cut but were clearly not.

An absence of assignable cause; 2007; The work in progress image is by Bharti Kher Studio

An absence of assignable cause (in progress), 2007_ image credit: Bharti Kher Studio

CHRYSANNE:

Do you feel as if you have two countries in your head, England and India? Is there an interesting dialogue between them? When you moved to India, from Indian heritage but born in England, were you seen as an outsider?

BHARTI:

I was an outsider in both places. Poor me. Lucky me. Often I had conversations about the idea of authenticity because I think within the first few years when I arrived in India, it was very difficult—I mean to find a place, I wasn’t really Indian enough, and so how could I comment on the culture?

CHRYSANNE:

I remember that …

BHARTI:

“You’re not from here.” And I remember being afraid to say what I thought, but eventually, I just had to say: “I don’t believe in authenticity. I think it is bullshit.” I don’t think you have to be from a specific place to experience a more profound “anything.” If we are going to talk about authenticity of cultures, then it’s a completely fucked up prospect, especially in relation to experiencing art. Because art touches something that is common to us all. So nationalism is not my agenda. I couldn’t care less where I was from or where you are from. If your art is going to define you by your place, that is something that I am not actually interested in at all.

CHRYSANNE:

Neither am I.

BHARTI:

This is something that I have actually been forced to think about more than I thought I would, because people ask a lot about this idea of India, and what it means to be Indian artist. My first answer is always: “Well have you seen the demography of this country?” I mean it is so large. You may live in Europe. It takes me four hours to get from the north of India to the south of India. It takes you four hours from London to Moscow. To take on and represent this huge geography with 400 living languages and closing fast on two billion people…. How is it possible for art to talk about this in a way that means more than that sum total of statistics? I think it is absolutely impossible to think that art somehow clears a path of definitions of who you are; that there are codes you can read and then eureka! To answer questions when there isn’t one answer. The role of art for me is not to answer but to ask. Sometimes the eyes that see every day don’t see everything. So who is right? And more than that, why is my agenda to specifically examine my foreignness so that you get it? What if that doesn’t interest me?

CHRYSANNE:

Exactly.

An absence of assignable cause; 2007,  Image Credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli

An absence of assignable cause, 2007_image credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli

SUSAN:

Outsiders can often see things that are invisible to everyone else because so many things are taken for granted by the insider.

BHARTI:

Yes. I think you are forced to do that because when you do not speak the language, other sensory perceptions have to take over and kick in, because you don’t hear so you don’t speak much. I didn’t speak Hindi. It took me about two and half years to learn how to speak the language, whether or not I felt comfortable talking to people in between was irrelevant.

SUSAN:

Do they still detect that you are from somewhere else?

BHARTI:

I am a foreigner still in many ways, pretend as I may. My kids tease me about my Hindi, especially my accent, as I used to do to my mother actually, about her English accent—she still has an Indian accent after all these years. You don’t lose these things; they are ingrained.

It’s interesting, you asked if there are two countries in my head. It’s really about memory, and I think your memory has such a profound effect on the way you experience things. “Do you have two heads?” Yes.

CHRYSANNE:

One of the reasons I asked, is that I often feel that I have many countries in my head. In the art world, with the stress on the Biennials, where artists represent their countries, what does it mean to represent a country? I think that artists want to be artists first. Maybe they do not identify with their country or even want to represent their country. There is a pressure to categorize artists: they are American artists, Canadian artists, Greek artists, Indian artists, English artists. It is a form of nationalism: the Indian show, the Italian show and so on. Artists are pushed into these categories, and maybe it isn’t really their choice, and they would want to break out of them.

BHARTI:

It’s all corrupted! We say: “Yes, okay I’ll be in the show, it’s fine.” At least your work gets seen. And then it’s an inconvenience because how do you break out after you have been categorized and filed away.

video ©2013 by MOMMY

SUSAN:

There seems to be more awareness, and there is a desire now to be a part of “the international art scene.” The rapaciousness of the art market has allowed the art world to spread and to become less provincial. That was not the case before. For example, people once talked about New York as the center of the art world. And prior to that, in the late 19th and the early 20th century, up until the post-war period, that center was in Paris. There was a time when people believed that one city was the center of the art world. I think in New York there is a real sense of loss and mourning over that lack of center. The world is smaller in one sense, but more diffuse. The center of the art world is an absurd assumption and it was a Euro-centric and imperial one.

CHRYSANNE:

To be an artist, like many from Cal Arts, you all went to New York.

SUSAN:

Everybody went to New York. Most of us in graduate school in L.A. felt that we needed to go to New York in the eighties because at that time the tacit assumption was that New York was the center of the art world, at least here in the States. Ironically, in part because some really talented people didn’t leave L.A. at just that juncture, the assumption began to dissolve, at least in relation to having a serious international art career from Los Angeles.

BHARTI:

It’s like in India, if you want to work, you probably have to come to Delhi or Mumbai. I think it was at one time about looking for people—you have to find your peers. It was a very small scene here 20 years ago, but it was also very fresh and exciting. What I imagine London could have been like in the sixties—that kind of energy. It’s still here.

SUSAN:

Finding peers is extremely important. But I think there was also a real sense at one time of cultural hegemony. It is not true, but people believed one city could be the center of the art world and that belief implied a great many things. That feeling would be difficult to maintain any longer and would strike most people today as not only reactionary but silly.

CHRYSANNE:

In looking back I have been fascinated by the Hybrid Series. I remember when I saw the photographs, “Oh My god, Bharti!” The woman who has a cow’s leg and hoof, and the pregnant woman with the blue baby. I found the whole group of them so radical, and the statues that came out of them. I was wondering if you could speak about them a little more, where they came from, and how they have informed your practice.

BHARTI:

I always look at the Hybrids as mythical urban goddesses, creatures who came out of the contradiction of the idea of femininity or the idea of womanhood. I think that I was aware that narrative and mythology have played a really massive part in how my consciousness has been shaped. The Hybrids were amorphous creatures who were part woman, part animal—you don’t know which is more animal or more woman—multi-dimensional, multi-faceted: she is the goddess, the housewife, the mother, the whore, the mistress, the lover, the sister… everything. She is at one state extremely powerful but kind of fragile in some imperfect way. It was very clear that the background of the works was an inside space; this is a domestic space and so within their own realm they were: all seeing, all knowing, all speaking, all powerful and yet not. At the time when I showed them, I never imagined I would get the kind of reaction that I did; some people were quite angry.

Angel (Hybrid Series), 2004; Image credit: Bharti Kher

Angel (Hybrid Series), 2004_image credit: Bharti Kher

CHRYSANNE:

Really, what were they angry about?

BHARTI:

They thought the works were violent, which in some way they are, but it is no more violent than the story of say Ganesh, and there is nothing more specifically violent than what you read everyday in the newspapers in India. I think they are more powerful than violent, more erotic than strictly sexual.

I would say those were my first mother and child works too, actually. Lola was about five months old and they were really about taking stock but also reclaiming some power back again and creating this other being. It was almost like an avatar or partly new person. I don’t ever really use myself in any of my works but in all of those works I would put my eyes back into the women so that all of them would have my eyes just to be back in there.

SUSAN:

Was the perception of these works as violent the same in the East and the West or was there a different reaction?

BHARTI:

The first few years those works were shown mostly in Asia, and until now they haven’t been shown that much, in a few biennials maybe… but for me they were pivotal works in my career. They were an epiphany of some kind; something that just triggered off a whole new body of work.

CHRYSANNE:

A genesis?

BHARTI:

Yes. It started this whole new way of looking at the body. Then I made the first woman sculpture. If I look back at my very early paintings and drawings, I have been making half animal, half human hybridized animals since way back; creating the idea of the monster. I suppose the idea is of looking at the word monster as a portent… so they are like warnings. I talked a lot about the idea of the monster and what it meant and created these fantastical beings. In mythology what were great mythical creatures? They were all sort of….

Warrior with cloak and shield; 2008, Image  credit: Stephen White

Warrior with cloak and shield, 2008_image credit: Stephen White

SUSAN:

The Minotaur?

BHARTI:

No, They were portents for the future. I want to read something to you which I think is relevant. When you go looking at things like skin, when I keep putting skin over the skin of a woman, it was to give her a shamanistic energy. To make her another.

Reads from sketch book:

If I could see my practice as an inquiry into substance, a vehicle for metaphor, then in the life of these works the skin serves a function as a cover, to maintain the integrity of the body and the soul. So if you carry the skin of another, do you make yourself more entire or more yourself? By taking another skin, or parts, you enhance your own identity, like the shaman or the hunter or the seer. Why do we wish for more energy than we already have? After all, are we not just atoms of energy? Can we make those atoms change and affect our covering?

So then I think about what skin is and I start to think about surface, cortex, dead skin, flaked skin, living skin. So this idea of creating a cover for yourself; is it a protection, is it a sense of false cover … are you creating a truth or are you creating a covering? And then you can start to play between these two things.

Then I started to look at the bindis in the same way. How was it that I was creating the skin for an animal? What was I doing with this surface—creating; looking at this surface as intoxicating. And if we take the word intoxicating; it can be both uplifting but also deadly in some way—so using this idea of intoxication both visually as well as philosophically.

SUSAN:

We also have those expressions in English, thick skinned and thin skinned. Its about one’s inner resilience in the face of adversity. With an elephant, which we think of as having an incredibly thick skin, would it now be even more thick skinned because you gave it an extra skin?

BHARTI:

Yes. I also like the idea, in the case of the elephant, where the bindis become a skin, like the memory of a life. So it talks about time as well as all the markings of your body. They are like sign posts, in a way, that mark the journey. So the bindis became the story of the life of this elephant: the journeys that she had made, the places that she has been, and the stops that she has made, and the memories that she had—a witness to life.

SUSAN:

In Confess are the bindis on the inside?

BHARTI:

Yes.

Confess,  2009/2010; Image Credit: Andy Keate

Confess, 2009/2010_image credit: Andy Keate

SUSAN:

So that is quite different, because you are taking an interior, a place that symbolizes the confession and the abdicating of power to another—and they cover that interior space. That seems like a different construction of meaning.

BHARTI:

Well, inside/outside, you know, those are like antithesis, just pushing it in a different way. What does it mean? When I found that object, I thought at the time it was a confession room. Actually, it turns out it is not a confessional, it is a matrimonial chamber. I am still not entirely sure what this room is, but when I entered it I felt I was there to confess—not in a “Catholic way”—I was hugely aware when I titled it Confess that it was just my overemphasis on the word confess. It’s actually more a confession to yourself, which is what you do as an artist constantly—a dialogue with your other.

Confess ; 2009/2010; Image Credit: Andy Keate

Confess, 2009/2010_ image credit: Andy Keate

In a way, that work was a palimpsest of all these different stories, and memories of narratives; perhaps me, perhaps other people, perhaps other women that I have met. It feels like it is a beginning, it’s certainly not an end. And so I almost feel like here, I walk into the house, I put my bags down, and then that space becomes mine. I think it has that feeling, it’s not that you’re leaving, you’re here to stay in that space. The idea to put the bindis on the inside—it already had a light bulb inside and it just felt like right. It’s about the internal.

In terms of the rest of the exhibition, when I made that work, I made another piece from gynecological charts of women in pregnancy that were made in the 50’s, and they were such beautiful drawings and I was thinking: “Shall I do these in watercolor? What shall I do?” I had them for about a year, and then I realized that perhaps they were a foil to this piece because they were really about, again, exterior/interior. And to have a child, you protect and cocoon this extraordinary alien that’s growing inside of you, and you’re protecting it and it’s actually responding to every single thing; to every touch, in such a profound way. And perhaps in our psyche we still have a memory of the womb. But we don’t—we want to have one, because that was the first and the most protected space. You’re cocooned, and it’s warm, and you get food.

SUSAN:

And you hear voices and you see light.

CHRYSANNE:

You’ve been casting pregnant women for a long time.

BHARTI:

Yes, I haven’t actually gotten to the point where I’ve done the series of the woman and child yet. But being in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there are many woman and child images here. So, I have actually started making some drawings, and suddenly I did another pregnant cast here of a friend. You talked about the hybrid works and I’m realizing that perhaps that was my first mother and child.

SUSAN:

I am curious, partly because I myself am obsessed with mirrors, about all the pieces you have done with mirrors? And it is difficult to tell from reproductions if all of the mirrors are broken or only some. In the United States, at least, the broken mirror is seen as bringing bad luck.

BHARTI:

All of the mirrors are broken.

CHRYSANNE:

Is the symbolism of the broken mirror in India the same?

BHARTI:

I don’t know anywhere in the world where there isn’t symbolism of the broken mirror giving bad luck. It’s the self broken up. The beginnings of the mirror works didn’t start with a broken mirror. They started with the bindis on the mirrors in the bathroom. When I would go into some bathrooms, I would see all of these bindis stuck on the mirror, “Oh, that’s great, being with this woman all day and that’s her eye on the world.”

Reveal the secrets that you seek,  2011; Image credit: Genevieve Hanson

Reveal the secrets that you seek, 2011_ image credit: Genevieve Hanson

SUSAN:

So they place it on the mirror to keep it for the next day?

BHARTI:

Yes. They just stick it on the mirror at the end of the day. So I started looking at making things with mirrors quite far back. With the new works you start to see yourself and a double seeing: the eye, my eye, their eye, your eye, this eye. There’s this constant to and fro, of just looking. I think that breaking the mirrors came about like fracture. A physical act of defiance as well as celebration and mischief: “I will break this mirror and nothing will happen to me.” And then, to challenge other people’s ideas of what they think about a broken mirror, because it’s my karma, it’s not yours.

Belief is really a strange monster and so is how we have faith, or how we can then instill faith into a work; which is also how you look at art in the first place. So I believe this work has the power to transform me in this way. But actually, you are just looking at an object in which you instill faith. But that mirror is an innate object, it’s not talking to you and if it is, why is it talking to you? How’s it talking to you? And are you listening?

Reads:

Is the mirror’s representation of us a means of self-knowledge or self-delusion? And in the story of light, we use mirrors to reflect our own contradictory nature. The mirror is ultimately tied to that questioning ambivalence of knowing and not knowing what it is to be a human.

If you go back to the first discoveries of mirrors that date back to 620 B.C., they were made from polished obsidian, and this was created from volcanic eruptions. This massive catharsis of some great explosion therefore was why these beautiful shiny objects would get used to reflect. Early painters would use them to reflect landscapes… which is why they often painted the mirror image. Just by looking at this idea of ambivalence and looking at the mirror image and the fact that you see what you don’t see. When the bindis start to come on you get the reflection of the broken glass, so you are getting double image, and triple image, the third eye, this ambivalence, the contradictory nature of: “Who am I, what am I, why am I here?” “I’m this big and there I’m this big.”

So when I was writing about these mirrors, I thought: “When they speak, they say nothing and when they write in codes they conceal the truth.” Art is a primal language, and I suppose visionary insight would then lead you to a language of paradise, which names all things according to their essence. When you experience those mirrors, I want you to get a sense of the essence of the work, which is that you walk into a space and you are transformed into another place and perhaps for that very short moment, time will stand still.

SUSAN:

It’s interesting in terms of psychological theory—via Lacan—that we get our sense of body integrity by seeing the entire body reflected back to us in a mirror. While you have, by fracturing the mirror, presented us with images of ourselves that disrupt the image of body integrity or wholeness.

Reveal the secrets that you seek, 2011; Image credit: Genevieve Hanson

Reveal the secrets that you seek, 2011_ image credit: Genevieve Hanson

BHARTI:

Yes. The surface is interrupted so that you see yourself in fragments or you see yourself distorted because of the bindis obliterating the surface. And I can look at the mirror as a broken surface on its own. The extraordinary texture—there is all this doubling. They are extremely seductive, these works. It’s like a thick nectar. You are falling into this thick nectar that in some way drowns you and seduces you, suffocates you in some way. And then you can come back, come back for air. It’s the intoxication of all those ….

SUSAN:

Do you think, since we tend to think of woman spending so much more time in front of the mirror—and I don’t even think this is true, but it is part of the cultural mythology surrounding women—that this broken mirror also functions as a metaphor for woman taking risks via you taking the risk of incurring bad luck?

BHARTI

“I broke the mirror, you didn’t break it.” It’s defiance in some way, and freedom. Do you know where the idea of the broken mirror bringing back luck came from? Mirrors were so extraordinarily expensive in the 17th century. A mirror had more value than gold. There was a time when a Raphael painting was cheaper than a mirror! Mirrors were produced only by two companies: St Gobain and Murano. One was in Paris and one was in Venice. The great artisans of mirror making were so covert; it was like creating gold. They were considered to be the great magicians of their time. Their art was so concealed that there were stories that when some of the great glass makers tried to leave Venice, they would reach no further than the second village before they were poisoned. There was a secret code of conduct because they were alchemists and they believed that what they were creating magic. They were finding the source of life, because the mirror reflected back the soul, which they believed was the soul of God. So when mirrors would break in the factories it was thought that the devil was interfering with the work of the divine.

CHRYSANNE:

Mirrors have a divinitory meaning. The oracles revere the mirror. There is a wonderful Leonardo De Vinci drawing of the witch holding the mirror.

BHARTI:

The orator, the seer, would carry the mirror because it meant he/she possessed vision. When people would die they put the mirror near to see the condensation of the last breath and that would be the soul going into the next life. Many ideas of divinity and religion have associated the mirror and this idea of finding oneself as central to all of it. Lots and lots of people have written about the mirror. I thought I was going to drown in the literature by the end of it. After a while I had to admit that I am not patient enough to learn about everything Lacan said about the mirror, I just want to understand what I want to get from these pieces. I think for me it was really about this sense of freedom; freedom from the reflected self in the mirror, yet about an idea of self.

I made a piece recently called Lao’s Mirror, and the title came from a story in which the mirror reflected the thoughts in your mind. What an extraordinary idea. Quite frightening.

SUSAN:

I would like you to tell us a bit about this large felled tree that looks as if it has small sheep and goat heads blossoming on its branches.

The Waq Tree, 2009; Image Credit: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich

The Waq Tree, 2009_ image credit: Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zurich

BHARTI:

The Waq Tree. That was a piece that came out of many stories; the first one being from a very small 18th century miniature of a Waq tree from Persia—a speaking tree. I’ve made a lot of trees and I continue to. Alexander the Great, as he crossed Persia/Iran over to the Punjab was told by his seer/psychic to visit the fabled Waq tree and this tree was supposedly in Iran. It had the heads of gargoyles, of hybrids, of animals of no known shape or form. It warned Alexander that he would die if he crossed into India. Alexander the Great was apparently poisoned as he passed through Punjab. What I had thought was that he was shot by a poisoned arrow, but he died of food poisoning, which is a bit boring. So I remember thinking about this tree and always wanting to make the speaking tree, the messenger tree, the portent for the future.

The first set of smaller trees were called the Solarum Series. People ask me about this and say they have been researching it and can’t find anything about it—it’s because I’ve made it up. I make up my own myths and hope for the best. Solarum Series sounds like a proper tree. One that I’ve researched and that’s from a proper academic, scientific journal but actually the Solarus tree is a plant, it’s not even a tree. It’s a plant that goes into other habitats and then destroys everything else, so it’s like the Cuckoo. It goes into places and takes over everything and then dominates like some alien species. The Solarum Series is a tree that speaks. If you plant it in your garden it will kill everything else and it will just keep growing because it is the heads of many, it is the minds of many, it is all me and you.

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The Waq Tree (detail), 2009_ image credit: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich

The fallen tree came about when I did the show for the Baltic. I made a small tree and I made a really huge tree. It was three times the size of the smaller one and they were like mother and child, just as I made the little elephant first and then I made the big one. I would see at some point that they are mother and child and this was very deliberately the baby Solarum and a giant monster one. And during the installation of the work the tree fell over. It came crashing down the day before the opening and we were very lucky actually that nobody got killed because it weighs about two and a half tons. The whole bloody thing fell over. And I watched it miss one of the technicians by about two feet. It made such a sound! And I looked at it and walked straight out of the gallery. My pride. And I called Subodh and said: “My tree’s fallen over. My opening is tomorrow.” And he said: “Um. Okay. Does it look good?” And I was: “What the fuck do you mean, does it look good?” And he said, “Go inside. Does it look good?” So I went in. And, “Shit yes, it looks good.” So he said, “Fix it.” So then, of course, we fixed it. And so nobody knew. I went back in and we fixed the tree and so we made it look like it hadn’t accidentally fallen over. I repaired it. There were no cracks. I just left it on the floor as it was. But if you had moved it, the whole thing would have fallen apart. The body was broken, but the heads were really strong. The heads were cast in my studio and the rest was made in China. And I don’t think it was made specifically well in terms of material or engineering.

The lesson of that was make everything in your studio so that you’ve handled the production because my works are so organic in some ways. So sometimes good things come out of accidents. I asked the installation team to cut off all the heads and send them back to my studio, and we made another tree, took a crane and pushed the tree over on the floor and it broke like it had fallen, which is different than just creating a broken tree. So it had that same sort of crashing effect of the weight, where the different branches just collapse under itself and then we re-fixed it and we reinforced it, and reassembled it. That was a really great project for me in many ways. Just in terms of pure practical production, that work really taught me how much I do know about engineering and production and I really trust myself to make the work now.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you think the fallen tree relates to the dying elephant?

BHARTI:

Yes. I think they should be shown together. It would be beautiful to show those two works at one point together.

CHRYSANNE:

What is the proper title for the dying elephant?

The skin speaks a language not its own, 2006; images credit : Pablo Bartholomew

The skin speaks a language not its own, 2006_ image credit: Pablo Bartholomew

BHARTI:

The skin speaks a language not its own.

CHRYSANNE:

And what was the inspiration for that?

BHARTI:

I saw a photograph in a newspaper of the back of an elephant’s feet, the hind legs, just these big round discs—an elephant shoved into the back of a truck with a tarpaulin sheet thrown over. You could just see these two round discs. So it was on its stomach and I just kept thinking about the weight of this massive animal trying to get up? I’d made the baby elephant already. And I wanted to make a full sized mother but I didn’t have a production space big enough, so when I got the opportunity to do something for APT, I proposed an elephant. It was just one of those works where you say, “I’m going to do it.” And then, you just do it. I don’t think at that time that I was thinking very clearly about intent. You’re in this other space of—why is it looking like this? Where is its center? Why does it look like a potato—we built that animal three times.

SUSAN:

It is made from a mold?

BHARTI:

It was made in clay, yes. Then we took a plaster mould and it was made from fiberglass—hollow from the inside and one piece. I spoke a lot about this work and sometimes I feel that I don’t really need to say anything about it because it’s one of those pieces that speaks. It tells you what it is. It tells you how you feel. It tells you what you want to know.

CHRYSANNE:

It’s an incredibly moving piece.

BHARTI:

The less you say about some of the works the better. I think you just have to experience it. Sometimes when I look at it I think, “God, did I make that?” Or, did it make itself? It sort of strangely made itself.

The Skin Speaks a Language of its Own (detail)

The skin speaks a language not its own (detail), 2006_image credit: Pablo Bartholomew

CHRYSANNE:

Some pieces do.

BHARTI:

At the same time, it took a year.

SUSAN:

When I was in India, I remember going to a Jain temple where a number of women worshipers were sitting on the floor and they each had a large tray in front of them. And there was a large pile of rice in the tray. And they would arrange the rice on the tray into an incredibly elaborate and totally legible image and as soon as they’d finished they would shake the tray and begin again. And I was reminded of this by a piece of yours—a bowl filled with grains of rice that had writing on them, in English.

BHARTI:

Sing to them that will listen are the grains of rice in a Tibetan singing bowl. I’ve been looking at the matrimonial columns for a long time and what I like to think about them is that they are these strange social and anthropological studies of the entire sub-continent of India in five pages. If you were to read this newspaper, then you would think you understand the breadth, the depth etc., but no, you won’t even begin to, you can just categorize and turn people into strange definitive structures: nationalistic, caste wise, wealth wise, family wise and they are these strange things and you think you understand but you don’t really understand anything. People wish to look for the same type of people that they are. We search our own kinds. I did other works with the matrimonial columns. I’ve done a painting, I’ve collected the matrimonials for three years; every single one and I’ve made sculptures out of them and I’ve made a video, which I’ve never shown. I kept thinking that I should turn it into a Dada song. Like some crazy Fluxus performance, but it’s not me yet, but when I’m looking at it I’m thinking, “How bizarre is this?” One day I’m reading Tristan Tzara on how to construct a Dadaist poem and it’s perfect structurally and so I made this work—I’ll read it to you.

“Take a newspaper, take a pair of scissors, choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem, cut out the article then cut each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag, shake it gently then take out the scraps one after another and in the order in which they left the bag, copy conscientiously. The poem will be like you. And here you are a writer, infinitely original, and endowed with a sensitivity that is charming, though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.”

So I met this rice writer. I’m in Dilli Haat, which is a tourist place, and I’m with my children. We all write our names. I ask him: “Would you be interested in doing a project with me?” And he says, “Yeah,” and he gives me his card and I’m not really sure what I’m going to do but I’m thinking that I have to work with this guy to do something —it all starts to come together, I have this poem, I’ve written it in my sketch book, and I’m thinking how strange and I’m looking at the matrimonials and now I’ve met this man—it’s perfect—so I bring them all together.

 Sing to them that will listen. 2008; Image credit: Florian Kleinefenn

Sing to them that will listen, 2008_ image credit: Florian Kleinefenn

It took him about one and half years and there are about 95,000 pieces of rice written on in one bowl. We wrote in english, hindi and punjabi.  First the studio enlarged the newspaper and would give it to him in sections. He would then give back each one in a bag and I would check every grain of rice and I’d tick them off—okay, that’s one line or two lines or that’s five lines.There are ten pages in the paper. The process is probably as important—I would go back and say, “You missed a full stop here.” And he’d look at me. “Are you insane?” And I’d be like, “Yup.” This guy got a team together from all around the country. All the rice writers he knew. They worked per grain of rice. So we’d have to count the grains of rice. It’s like counting grains of sand. And then finally, you’ve got the whole thing, they’re all in the bags. Then I worked out how to preserve them and spray them so they wouldn’t get eaten by animals and then I took them all and put them in a bowl and mixed them all up again. And they are all in one bowl. All the people, all the classes, all the structures, all the men and all the women. It’s a work that I think about in relation to the whale heart, An absence of assignable cause, which is about love. Both pieces in some way are about love. About this idea that is so ephemeral. You’re trying to work out how all of these people are trying to find something, someone or a space at least in their lives or in their heads. People are always looking for some kind of completion.

SUSAN:

I like the idea that your two pieces on love range in scale from a grain of rice to the heart of a whale.

BHARTI:

But I see those works as intrinsically linked somehow. And I think scale is very important in my work too. Sometimes I think really big and sometimes very tiny again.

CHRYSANNE:

A bindi is very small.

BHARTI:

But the bindi works are also big. It’s really about the physicality of entering a space that is bigger than you with things that are so tiny that you might not even be able to see them sometimes.

CHRYSANNE:

Is this the first time you’ve had a residency in the United States?

BHARTI:

Yes. Not just here. I’ve never done a residency. I’ve done one or two workshops. I don’t really go many places. I stay in my studio.

CHRYSANNE:

How does it feel to be in Boston living in a museum and having such access to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

BHARTI:

It’s really extraordinary because you can just go upstairs and look at a Velasquez and come back down. Or go look at Jan Van Eyck’s hands.

SUSAN:

There is actually one other piece I wanted to ask you about. It is a massive cube made up of old metal radiators. It has the scale and theatrical presence of certain minimalist works yet it is composed of smaller bits of industrial detritus—an internal contradiction for a minimalist work of the sixties.

BHARTI:

If I could remake my artistic career, I think I would be a minimalist painter. All the art that I love comes from the tradition of reduction—but I can’t because I’m super maximum! When I think about the purest form, it really goes back to the intention of the object and the integrity of the object with its narrative and name. This project will probably be a book about the journey of this work. Like a lot of the projects that I do, the journey and failure are integral to how the work actually then is shared. Because sometimes the work demands that it has to do something other than what I intended it to do. And I think the radiator work was one of those. When I found them in America I thought, “What a great idea, I can make radiator sculpture animals. They are like dinosaur carcasses. They are strange ribcages.” I was just seeing animals.

Then I changed again. I have all the machinery to make these radiators work and reach up to 45 degrees Celsius. The idea was that I would create a room where it was so hot, it would be like a Delhi summer. I found them here, in Connecticut, very close by on Ebay. We shipped them all to India in a 40 foot container. It was complete folly.

And they moved from studio to studio as I kept shifting …ten tons of radiators 5 times. I would say: “I know what I’m going to do, I know what I’m going to do.” And as with many materials in my studio, I live with things for a long time. They sit with me, they talk to me. I ignore them for a long time; then suddenly I’ll find a space where I know what I’m going to do. So with these, I had engineers from Singapore come to India with their technicians, and we had all the systems built up so that these radiators would not only heat but some of them, if I wanted, would make sounds. We developed systems where they would open and close. We’d have all these things that were moving. They’d be like these breathing but dead animals. Then we started to assemble them and I realized that actually I really didn’t need to do anything after all of that process.

The hot wind that blows from the west, 2012  image credit: Genevieve Hanson

The hot wind that blows from the west, 2012_image credit: Genevieve Hanson

So what it actually became was an overload and a very slow process of disintegration, where I just keep reducing: reduction, reduction, and reduction. And then I was back to where I started. I was back to the original object after I’d been through this exhaustive list of processes. It’s like an exercise in drawing. Like taking an orange. First of all, drawing the orange, peeling it and then drawing it and then drawing the peel and then deciding what you are going to do with the peel and then cutting the peel and drawing a piece of that and then slicing it and drawing a cross-section and a mid-section of it and by the end you are left with nothing. Except, lots of drawings. And after all that, I don’t really need to do anything with this work. And it came right at the very end. This work is actually doing everything that it needs to do; which is to function as this great folly. It tells you how hot it is. The orange is still an orange somewhere in the exercise called enquiry.

We have so many drawings and we have two or three years of correspondence backwards and forwards and ideas about what the work should do and what it could do and I think for me it’s a really important piece. And the fact is, that it came from America on a ship and turned around after seven years and went back exactly as it was, just stacked up neatly. It came as a message to me and I sent it back as a warning. And that’s what art does.

Bharti Kher in residence at the Gardner Museum, photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

Bharti Kher in residence at the Gardner Museum, photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

 

 

A conversation with Alison Knowles

Alison Knowles in her Soho studio © 2013 by Chrysanne Stathacos

CHRYSANNE:

When you first started out, you started studying painting and then you gave up painting and ended up in FLUXUS. How long a period of time was that and what was the progression?

ALISON:

I value my study with Adolf Gottlieb and Richard Lindner tremendously. They were at Pratt when I was going to school there studying painting. But then, when I got out of Pratt, I had a big painting show and somehow it was very sobering to me that it didn’t mean more in New York. I don’t know what I expected of New York or myself but I began to consider other expressive avenues. My husband, Dick Higgins, was running a wonderful press called Something Else Press and I had opportunities to do something else called performance art.  The FLUXUS group appealed to me because they offered me a chance to present things live. When I think back on high school  and grammar school, I definitely was drawn to a live expression of some sort; whether it was playing charades on Sunday night with my family or dancing on the street on July 4th. Somehow painting wasn’t holding me that strongly anymore. I enjoyed having two exhibitions but then I found that I wasn’t accomplishing what I wanted to as an artist. I began to travel with the FLUXUS group.

Here’s a wonderful book by my daughter Hannah Higgins, FLUXUS EXPERIENCE, and it tracks us as we went all over Europe to perform. Now performance art is so run of the mill, it’s so accepted. I’m pleased to say that I was in at the very beginning of performance art in New York City. The pieces that I did were done first in Europe and then coming back to New York. In Europe, the 1962 Wiesbaden performance was, I think, the first huge salad that I made. I have a piece called Make a Salad. I also performed there a piece called Child Art, where I put a two or three year old child on the stage alone as long as that child…

CHRYSANNE:

Was that one of your children?

Make a Salad, 1962

Make a Salad, 1962

ALISON:

Usually I was traveling with Dick, maybe alone, with my children taken care of in a Kinderheim (preschool) in Germany so I could travel and perform. It was very nice, those early years because it was a very fresh, new attitude about artists, that maybe you were a painter, or performer but maybe you also could make pottery or you also could dance. Now we have a much more categorized society where—I think it’s fine—to make your way as a dancer, you can’t do much besides dance and the same with maybe being a painter—I don’t know, because I’m not a painter. I worked myself into print making because I liked the idea that I could do ten or twelve of something and they could all be different. I could put a different color in, I could sign a bit differently. So somehow in those years book making, because of Dick, my husband, and print making were quite an avant-garde adventure. I see that the idea of prints and books and performance—now I think an artist is free to do just about anything as long as there is a kind of thread.

SUSAN:

When I was researching your work, I found out that Make a Salad was dated 1962. And the piece seems to be in part about communal eating, about creating community and I thought about the artist who comes many generations later, Rirkrit Tirvanija, who I don’t want to diminish in any way, but I do remember his work being greeted as if it were entirely novel but I would think that one of the major precedents for his work is your work. Are you familiar with him?

Make a Salad reperformed.

Make a Salad reperformed.

ALISON:

Yes, I am. I’ve met him. I think Make a Salad is a piece he didn’t know before he made his own salad and I don’t feel protective of the piece because I have so many pieces that I can do and I very often go to a school or somewhere where I am invited and I ask them what they would like to do. Usually, I can get four or five performers together to actually perform with me. So, I’m not really a solo type performer, although, a piece that I have done solo many times is Shoes of Your Choice, where I do need a microphone. Once I’ve described the shoes that I have on, I take them off and I show them to the audience. Then I can lure people up on the stage to do their own solo of that piece. That’s a piece I did many, many times in Europe on our tour—in ‘62 and in ‘72. Every decade we could go back to the same museums and spaces and usually do the same pieces that we were invited to do.

Ken's Shoes, 2011

Ken’s Shoes, 2011

SUSAN:

Does the person who comes up on stage describe their shoes?

ALISON:

Yes. They are alone up there with the microphone. So often you get the temperament of the person. You get an angry young man or you get someone who gets scared up there and just says, “These are my shoes,” and then runs away. I’m interested in involvements with the audience. I have pieces which involve scrolling down the aisles with papers. A piece that I’ve done often is called Loose Pages. I have a co-performer. Here’s a Tee-shirt that I put on the co-performer and it lists the head flap, the foot covers—all the different types of paper that have gone into the making of the piece. Here for instance is the hat. This is the last piece to go on. Here are the shoes and as you see they all have different sounds. This is also flax but it’s very thick so that when you pour it onto the bed to dry, either to dry by sucking out the water or air dry, it has a different sound than say—this. This is pure cotton and has almost no sound.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you make the paper?

ALISON:

I make all these papers. I can go to Cave Paper in Minneapolis or I can go upstate to Women’s Studio Workshop. This is flax. I made a flax umbrella, you can’t describe this sound. So now, if I have the two arms on, and the hat and the vest, I become a theatrical figure of some sort. And with the feet, I can slowly exit making all these sounds.

Cave Wall, 2003

Cave Wall, 2003

CHRYSANNE:

And wasn’t there a large book that you made that traveled around Europe?

ALISON:

Yes. This publication just came out: it’s called The Big Book. It was produced by Corinn Gerber, who came to me as a student and felt that this book had inspired her own work somehow. So she collected the articles about The Big Book, and here is the front cover. And she says:

The Big Book is just a book comprised of eight movable parts, eight feet tallconnected to a metal spine. This walk-in construction was equipped with casters which made it possible to leaf through individual pages. Each page had access to the next opening, different spaces and different ways the reader could approach.”

(Pointing to the book cover.) I’m climbing on a step ladder, which is provided, in order to step into the next page.There was a Muybridge print called The Exercising Man, and here you can see a little bit of him. I used about four or five different postures imitating what you might have to do to go through the big book.

The Big Book, 1967

CHRYSANNE:

Does The Big Book still exist?

ALISON:

The Big Book has quite a number of articles written about it. One called Alison in Wonderland by Emmett Williams, a wonderful poet. So I took it to France and Italy and it had a very vigorous life. Let me put it that way. Because it was available to go through physically. And so it gradually began to wear out. I got it as far as Milano and it just wouldn’t stand anymore. Because, there are just two by fours holding it up, so if too many people are engaging in the book—it just wore out. I gave it to someone named Gino DiMaggio, who has a museum in Milano and as far as I know it is standing in his basement today.

SUSAN:

It seems that you were one of the very first artists to generate a literary text with a computer. And this is interesting because even today, there is resistance in certain quarters in the art world to thinking about computer generated work as art. And this is something you were doing in the sixties.

ALISON:

Would you like to see it? I’ve got a portion of it. (Brings over a small framed fragment.) It’s called The House of Dust. It’s on computer paper. It’s pretty pale. I have many pages of it as a print out. This is just a small fragment that I framed. So, I built this in California at Cal Arts.

SUSAN:

That’s where I went to graduate school.

Event Thread 3, 2006

Event Thread 3, 2006

ALISON:

I got a Guggenheim grant and I got the money to build one. So (reads from fragment): “I built a house of plastic in open country using natural light inhabited by people wearing all types of red clothing.” So I had a chance to make each of the permutations different. And that was maybe an unusual idea.

SUSAN:

So was it that the text was generated by computer and determined how the people would appear?

ALISON:

The text has a category for what the house was made of, a category for where it was located, how it was lighted and who was inhabiting it. So here’s a house of dust in a deserted factory using natural light, inhabited by people who enjoy eating together. Here’s a house of roots in Japan, using electricity, inhabited by people who eat a great deal. So, on the house by the sea, using all available light, inhabited by lovers. So, one quatrain is not like the next. How I did this was—I just made lists. What is the house made of, where is it, how is it lighted and who is living in it, and gave to Buchhandlung König Verlag there in Cologne and they sent me four feet of poetry. And that’s a man named Kasper König and his brother Walther. They were very helpful. Without them it would never have had the attention that it got as a computer poem.

CHRYSANNE:

A number of your works have a giving capacity, an audience interaction and the idea of an exchange. Not necessarily a gift but a giving capacity and a playfulness with the audience. So many artists are very possessive of their work and there is something beautifully mischievous at play in the idea of the ego of the artist engaging the audience.

video ©2013 by MOMMY

ALISON:

My answer to that would be that other people have given me ideas all of my life, just by working with them and talking to them.

This book by Alison Knowles was the first published book of my works in 1964 and I look at these pieces and I’m still doing them and I’m still pleased with them—Tie Up the Audience—I did that, or how about Shuffle. And this is a wonderful way to begin a concert, I get to perform with people behind me and we are all making a sound by shuffling our feet on the floor and there is Make a Salad. The one that was always very shocking was called Nivea Cream for Emmett Williams because most of the time, when you had an audience and a microphone, you had a theater work. So people, in a way, subconsciously, were expecting some dialogue that had to do with theater, not Shakespeare, but a pre-existing concept, that was basically theater, perhaps memorized, but it was known by the performer what would happen. So that’s where this work is extraordinary. In a piece like Nivea Cream an audience person is invited up to let me give them Nivea Cream all over their hands and their arms and I maybe start with myself and then I say, “Is someone else going to be interested to do this in the audience?” Then you get a little line of people to come up and then we sound the “squidging” (pressing the hands together) at the microphone. On one occasion somebody slapped Nivea Cream all over the microphone and I had to get that worked out later.

Wall in Alison Knowles's studio_photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

Wall in Alison Knowles’s studio_photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

This book was published in 1965 by Dick Higgins in the Great Bear pamphlet series. And he went ahead to publish a great many of them: Phillip Corner, Al Hansen, Robert Fillou, Claes Oldenberg—I think is still alive, Dieter Roth—no, but they were all people who were doing work that was not really acceptable in the art world or on the theater stage and Dick would publish them. So we are very grateful to him for doing that.

And as I say, my daughter Hannah has continued with a lot of FLUXUS pieces and observations in The Grid Book, which is the most recent.

SUSAN:

Your daughter Hannah is an art historian?

ALISON:

Yes. And this was just produced for the fiftieth anniversary and indeed you do have a CD that you can play, which has the pieces that we did at the fiftieth anniversary. I’m very pleased that Jessica Higgins, outdoors, is being dressed in her paper suit.

Clear Skies All Week (installation view at James Fuentes Gallery)

Clear Skies All Week (installation view at James Fuentes Gallery)

SUSAN:

This past year was also the hundred birthday or would have been, of John Cage. Online, I came across a flow chart of the history of the FLUXUS movement by George Maciunas, that’s actually annotated in spots by you, and at the very center near the top of this flow chart is John Cage. In researching your work, I found that sound is very important to you, and I wonder if your interest in sound developed in part because you knew him or worked with him?

ALISON:

I think for me, what was important was the action of the performer, which, by the time you’re dressed in paper or eating a salad involves sound, but perhaps I could say John cued me to its importance in what I was doing.

SUSAN:

So it was already there.

ALISON:

But it was there along with text and action. Actually, Dick Higgins was in John’s New School class and I visited once to see the tremendous influence he had. I just got this book and I must show you a wonderful illustration— it is a text that has become a notation for performance. In other words, something like this, here on the right side, it’s something that I could present to a class and ask them to go home and come back the next day with ideas for a sound in whatever square they chose and in fact, do a performance. And these were people who were used to thinking of notation as being notes.

SUSAN:

But it is a score of some sort?

ALISON:

Yes, it’s a score of a sort.

CHRYSANNE:

Isn’t there another book the press printed about John Cage? One you helped design?

ALISON:

Do you know that book? I’ll go get it if you like. So here is unfortunately a stained cover of the Notations book, (Notations edited by John Cage and Alison Knowles, page composition by Alison Knowles, 1969), produced by Something Else Press and probably its most well known production. So what I did here was to invite maybe forty people. I sent out letters inviting them to say what they wanted about musical notation. And you can imagine Cage’s list of musicians were people involved in all kinds of art but using sound. For John, sound, I think I can say, was the core of his music, not notes. And so all these people sent me what they thought notation was.

All along the pages, but related to the texts in question were ideas about notation. And then the fun I had, because I had access to many different type faces, I was able to, with chance operations, have different weights of letters. Again, not to make one thing more impressive than another but just to make the page more interesting. So that these musical notations on the left hand page have nothing to do with the notations I put together on the right hand page. This was an astonishing book and we printed by permission of the composer, everyone who sent us something and wanted to be in this book. We’re talking about 1964. A lot of these works are from ‘63, ‘64. So you see, there is a lot of interest in sound that’s not related to notes but is related to gesture or action.

Reads from Notations:

“This book illustrates a collection of music manuscripts, which was made in recent years to benefit the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Art. The collection was determined by circumstances rather than by any process of selection. Thus it shows the many directions in which music notation is now going.”

The manuscripts are not arranged according to kinds of music but alphabetically according to the composer’s name. No explanatory information is given. Then it goes on to discuss the process of employing the IChing, and chance operations to give the different weights to the texts. And interestingly enough, there were some composers who objected to what we did with the text. In other words, didn’t care for the different weights, the way that it looked on the page. So this was a wonderful adventure that the Something Else Press put me up to.

This is a mesostic that John Cage made for me in ‘87 when I was off to do a show in Cologne. I produced the announcement card from this lovely mesostic, which had the names down the middle. It reads: “We look before we listen, who see windows where before there were walls that were nothing but notes.” I love that.

Mesostic by John Cage, gift to Alison Knowles_photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

Mesostic by John Cage, gift to Alison Knowles_photo © 2013 by Susan Silas

SUSAN:

Could you talk a little about your more recent piece Time Samples?

ALISON:

This was something that Steve Clay helped me with. And the idea was that you could hang the book up (Note: The book emerges from a box like an accordion and each page is like a flap with an image on the front and a text on the back.) and take a page and read about it and take a page and read about it. This page is green China silk bought to act as a sun shield over a skylight, because I made this in the room where I have too much sunlight. A footprint, a silkscreen fragment, an announcement, a poster. Oh, this is waxed flax paper. You’ve seen all this flax paper here—well this is when it is coated with wax. And here is flax paper with imbedments of beans. At that time in my life I had access to a graphic arts camera so I could produce all of this myself and send it to Steve Clay at Soho Letterpress. It was bound by Judith Ivry.

CHRYSANNE:

Is each book different?

ALISON:

Well, yes, because with a page like that I would make a large quantity and then cut it up. Same with something like this. No two the same. But you don’t get somebody to make a box like that every day. In other boxes—here’s a Bean Reading Kit with real beans in it. I had a friend who would do the sewing. These objects are things that had to do with beans: railroad track through the bean—actually a watch band. So this is something I would do as a performance. Whoever would buy the box I would do a performance for. Sometimes, I didn’t make so many of these, it depended on what the publisher wanted, if he wanted ten or twelve: this is number twenty-three and this is from 1981.

Thunder Bay, 2003

Thunder Bay, 2003

SUSAN:

Would each buyer get a private performance or was there a public performance around the sale?

ALISON:

Something like that. I don’t think I sold very many, maybe ten. If someone was interested in having the performance, I would do it, of course.

SUSAN:

How did beans become such an important material for you?

ALISON:

Well, for the sound. These drawings I have on the wall: I call them Bean Chimes, and very often I will start a performance by throwing a handful of Chi-Chi beans or Limas or the black bean—the round ones resonate more. So I would shake the chime and bounce the beans up in the air without spilling and that was a nice sonic beginning for an evening.

So mostly, this FLUXUS group was responsible for performances on Canal street. That’s how we publicized ourselves. Saturday afternoon performances. So you could come and see Ay-O, Daniel Spoerri, Lette Eisenhauer, Dick, myself, perform these pieces. Here’s Ben Vautier in France brushing his teeth and it’s a performance. And here are two of my favorite people; here is Takako Saito who has a special piece with liquids, I don’t remember specifically what it is, and here on the left is Tomas Schmit, who was just honored in Cologne. He spent a whole weekend pouring a bottle of water from one bottle into another bottle until the water was all gone. It took him about 48 hours.

This is nice. This is a picture of me fluttering paper on the street. And there is Ben Vautier, who came to New York and actually Daniel Spoerri was here too—but I liked the idea that I would sit there and do my paper sounds publicly on the street and of course, from time to time, someone would stop and say, “What are you doing?” And I’d say: “Oh, this is the sound of raw flax. You mean you don’t know?” And then I’d engage them and teach them a little something.

Greene Street, 2003

Greene Street, 2003

CHRYSANNE:

I’m curious, being in your studio space, if you’ve been to Asia or Japan?

ALISON:

Both.

CHRYSANNE:

Did going to those places have any influence on you?

ALISON:

I’ve been to Korea. I’m wearing a Tee-shirt from the International Paper Art Festival where I performed Loose Pages, and then Japan, which I think was just a regular FLUXUS festival. They brought three or four of us over to Tokyo.

SUSAN:

I do have one additional question. You began your career in the early ‘60’s and it was before the women’s movement become prominent and I am wondering what it was like for you as a woman artist in that period, how much you were facilitated or not by your male peers and whether or not you noticed a change in the way you were treated or perceived once the women’s movement became visible?

ALISON:

Someone titled it the princess syndrome—that I was the only woman among performing male people and probably I was only there because I was Dick Higgins’ wife, although I’m not sure whether I could have had some recognition on my own before entering with him. And I noticed that pretty soon after being in FLUXUS, you had other performers like Carolee Schneemann or Mieko Shiomi, who were coming right along as individual women, without a group, and I certainly admired that very much because as women artists they didn’t have any support financially. It’s not as if they were walking out on a stage like a man would. So, I’m very pleased to be associated at all with the women’s movement because I’ve never helped at all. I’ve been on some programs with only women performers but I never—you see, I had the opportunity to be somewhere else as a performer—meaning with this FLUXUS male group. So I have admiration for those women Carolee and Mieko, but I was simply in a different position.

SUSAN:

And were the members of FLUXUS supportive of having a woman in their midst?

ALISON:

Very supportive. They loved to have me there. They loved the princess syndrome.

CHRYSANNE:

Who coined the expression: The princess syndrome?

ALISON:

Some newspaper.

Alison Knowles with her work in Soho © 2013 by Susan Silas

 

A conversation with Robin Kahn

Portrait of Robin Kahn in New York City, 2012 © by Chrysanne Stathacos

SUSAN:

First, I would like you to tell us how you came to be in dOCUMENTA (13), because it is a lovely story.

ROBIN:

My journey started in 2009 when I participated in ARTifariti, an “art and human rights” festival that takes place in the Tindouf Refugee Camps in Algeria, where two thirds of the population of Western Sahara have been living in exile since 1975. I learned about the festival from Federico Guzmán (with whom Kirby and I have worked collaboratively on various projects over the past 20 years) who was writing a blog about his experiences in the camps the year before. Looking at his photos and reading about the recent history of the country, all of a sudden I stopped and thought: “Wait a minute. I’m an educated person, why have I never heard anything about this place, the Sahrawi people, and their ongoing struggle for independence?” I’m talking about a country in North Africa on the Atlantic coast that was illegally occupied 38 years ago by the kingdom of Morocco. Obviously there are a lot of legal questions involved but basically during Spain’s withdrawal from the territory (formerly called Spanish Sahara), Morocco invaded by dropping bombs and napalm on the defenseless population.  The Sahrawi men remained at the front to fight off their aggressors while the women led the oldest and youngest members to safety across the Saharan desert into Algeria, where they have been living as refugees ever since.

When Federico was telling me about his experience, I realized, wow, I really want to learn about this myself and not hear about the political situation as UN statistics about war and peace. So I wrote a proposal to go to the five camps and live with a family in each, to prepare meals with the women in their kitchens and eat with their families and just by hanging out in their daily routine, I would get to hear their stories about what happened in this country and what this crisis is from the people themselves, particularly the women. My idea was to create a project about cooking, something that I do everyday at home—a shared language—to compile their women’s recipes, stories and memories into a book that describes not only their dishes but also how they have built their lives and kept hope alive in this extreme situation of occupation, war and exile.

Making couscous in the camps, 2009 © by Robin Kahn

When I went to the camps and I had this experience that was like nothing I’ve ever had before. It’s a completely matriarchal society there. The women built everything—all of the infrastructure: the buildings, an educational system where there is 99% literacy. They wrote a constitution-in-exile in 1976 guaranteeing women’s equal rights, and this is in a Muslim country! So, what we as Americans think of Muslim women was completely turned on its head for me. What I experienced was a truly cooperative society, even though it is a society-in-exile. The women work in a way that is really interesting.  They have formed cooperatives to organize and oversee all aspects of the educational, cultural, political and family life in the camps.   Each cooperative has a distinct role to play that can only work in relationship to how it is serviced by and how it services the people at the same time.

I’ve always tried to design projects that engage people and grow beyond my own authorship. It is the sum total of everybody’s engagement and interaction that creates a truly collaborative project.  And so when I went to the camps and I lived with families and I got to know them, I was truly amazed by the success of the women’s structured cooperation. They are living in the hottest part of the Sahara where no food can grow and they have to, not only to feed their people, but also keep Sahrawi tradition, culture, and history alive for their children who were born there and have never set foot in their own homeland, in their own country.  The Sahrawi people are patriotic, proud and happy in this unbridled way that—I mean, it’s a very complicated question—but their sense of purpose, creativity, intelligence, and effort are all directed toward and motivated by one common goal—survival. Every effort is a total commitment.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about in terms of food. I followed the women when they would pick up supplies from humanitarian aid announced that day on posters at the main square.  A monthly ration of flour or onions would be dropped out of trucks at a specific time and place. They would help each other carry these huge bags of provisions to each other’s homes.  If one person had a sore leg, then her neighbors would assume the responsibility without hesitation. In my home in Camp 27, my hostess Salma Ali had a wounded arm and couldn’t make bread in the morning, so her friend Galia made two loaves every morning—one for her family and one for us … and that’s just the way it is.

Tent for dOCUMENTA (13) made in the camps, 2011
© by Robin Kahn

Each family is issued a standard UN white tent. So from the outside, they all look the same. But once you go inside, each home is so unique, so colorful and comfortable, and all handmade! Consistent with their Berber origin, this tent or “Jaima” functions as the center of family life. This is where everyone takes their meals together, which is a very long time honored process. It begins with a long tea ceremony where, in between multiple brewings, you relax, play or enjoy music. Then large plates of food arrive. As you share various inventive and delicious dishes, you start talking about who you are and they start telling you their story. In between helpings, you might break off into smaller conversations or grab a pillow and take a nap.

Many times when I arrived at people’s houses, I was asked, “Would you like to take a shower?” The first time, I thought, “Why, am I smelly?” But actually you are so hot, it’s 102 degrees everyday.  The “bathroom” is a small anteroom with no plumbing but what they are offering you is—just to go into this dark cool private space and take a bucket of water and pour it over your head and put your clothes back on and feel rejuvenated when you rejoin the group. So I did that and I understood. This is the kind of Sahrawi hospitality that has welcomed strangers into the fold for centuries and it is still operative—it’s a cultural tradition about bringing people together.  And through rituals like this you get to know each other. That is how I learned about the Sahrawi people—about their history, their culture, and the nature of their struggle today.

SUSAN:

So, do you think this tradition developed there, in the camp?

ROBIN:

I think they are nurtured there, but they come from the memories of little girls who are now the matriarchs, who are my age and older, who escaped.

CHRYSANNE:

Were they a nomadic culture?

ROBIN:

Yes, they were originally a nomadic culture made up of tribes. European colonial powers in the mid-1880’s set up the Western Sahara and above it is the French colony of Morocco. So the Moroccans do have an argument that they were in there earlier too because the lines were arbitrarily drawn. But the thing is the Moroccans inherited their country as it was inscribed at the time of independence and now they have illegally occupied the country of Western Sahara so where are the Sahrawis supposed to live?

video ©2013 by MOMMY

CHRYSANNE:

So the French drew those borders?

ROBIN:

No, colonization was a complicated European initiative. The Sahrawi people are Berbers, Saharan Africans and Arabs. In the camps today, there is a real mixture of colors, cultures and histories all living together as families. It’s as close to a society in terms of mixing that I’ve experienced as New York. Being a mom of color, which I am, because I’ve adopted a daughter who is African-American, when we travel I am very conscious of how she is going to feel and be treated in a new community. In this Sahrawi culture, here in the middle of the desert, the people have so many different stories about how they became a family.  A mom might introduce her family to you and there are six daughters and they’re all different colors and that’s just the way it is.

SUSAN:

And one product of your day to day experience with these women was a cookbook?

The first panel at the installation entrance to the tent at dOCUMENTA (13), 2012
© by Robin Kahn

ROBIN:

Yes. I created Dining in Refugee Camps, The Art of Sahrawi Cooking in the camps in 2009 and brought it back to NYC with the idea of approaching NGOs to fund its publication. That’s a new community for me, because I am used to working strictly within the art community, but I wanted to get this project beyond that sphere. But each NGO told me the same thing: “This is beautiful, this is really about empowerment and visibility but Western Sahara is not on our list.” “What do you mean? These people who have been living in camps for 38 years are not are your list?” “Well, America doesn’t actually support the Western Sahara Cause, so we can not give you funding.” So that negative reaction is what sent me running to the anarchist publishing collective autonomedia where Jim Fleming heartily agreed that is was a very important project to support. Let Anarchism Rule the Day!

“Dining in Refugee Camps,” 2009 Design by Robin Kahn,
photo credit Jim Fleming

And to top this good deed off, Jim then gave a copy of my book to another member of the autonomedia collective, the anarcultural writer and mystic philosopher, Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey) , who was to conjure the prophetic dream that would soon land me at dOCUMENTA. A few days after he read my publication, he had lunch with the exhibition’s Creative Director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and he told her that the night he had finished reading my “cookbook-in-solidarity with the people of Western Sahara,” he dreamt that Sahrawi women were cooking couscous in Kassel…and the rest is The Dream Come True!

Making couscous at dOCUMENTA (13), 2012 photo credit Kirby Gookin

Peter called and left a message on my answering machine introducing himself and asking,  “Would you like to be in dOCUMENTA?” Insane…but it’s great. So I’ve travelled from the middle of Manhattan to the furthest, most invisible place imaginable—refugee camps in the hottest part of the Algerian desert—and reappeared in the dream state of dOCUMENTA .

Peter and I worked together on generating the ideological structure of the piece. My friend, the anthropologist  Mick Taussig, an advisor to the exhibition, was instrumental in supporting the project too AND he wrote a great catalogue essay about it.. I thought:  “If I’m invited, no way can I do a project about a Sahrawi cookbook that doesn’t involve people from Western Sahara.”  So I went back to the camps in 2011 and I met with the women’s cooperatives that run the five camps and told them about the invitation and we came up with the idea of an installation that would center around a tent (or Jaima), a typical Sahrawi home made by women in the camps. We would transport a home-in-exile from Algeria to the Karlsruhe Park in Kassel as a symbol of peaceful refuge and see how it can interact with the environment.

June 4, 2012 Sahrawi women raising the tent at dOCUMENTA (13)
photo credit Kirby Gookin

I worked for a whole year on the plans and designs. I was able to bring eight women who were born in the refugee camps to Kassel. First of all, they are the only ones who could put up the tent, which totally amazed the installation crew at dOCUMENTA. After it was raised, we filled it with brightly patterned cushions, rugs and pillows. Adjacent to the tent, we set up a cooking area built around a food vending truck. In order to enter the installation, the visitor had to first pass through a maze of billboard sized collages that I created in the style of the cookbook’s pages, each one introducing a new concept about Western Sahara: its history of war and occupation, the establishment of the camps by the women, the role that food plays, and the strategy of using hospitality as an introduction to the conflict.

When dOCUMENTA opened there were just hundreds of people coming through the installation. They would walk through the maze of collages, reading the info and then arrive at the tent’s entrance where they received a palm-sized bowl of delicious couscous. They then would walk into the tent’s beautiful lush setting, sit down and enjoy a bite to eat, and a conversation about their experience with women from Western Sahara.

Bowls of couscous at dOCUMENTA (13), photo credit Nils Klinger

During the first few weeks, the tent was covered with hand-stitched tarps to protect it from the non-stop rain. The dOCUMENTA staff had originally promised me that their technical team would engineer “a whole water-proofing system.” So for the 15 days of installation, I kept saying: “Well, we need to erect it now…so we can set up.” “Oh yes, we know. You need to trust us.” And wouldn’t you know it, the night before the opening, we were still with no covering. So I went out and bought these huge black tarps that looked like garbage bags and the women hand stitched them together and we threw that over the white tent.  Then the women could finally raise it and within moments, we were able to set up the carpets, the mattresses and pillows, so that the women could inhabit the space and make it as comfortable and inviting as in their culture.

Painting the tarp together, 2012 photo credit Alonso Gil

SUSAN:

Did they live in the tent for the duration of the exhibition?

ROBIN:

Only from 10 a.m. to 8pm. dOCUMENTA would not allow anyone to sleep there. So I rented apartments for our whole gang. The women were all able to stay together in one enormous loft room similar to tent living in the camps.

CHRYSANNE:

Was there a reason?

ROBIN:

Yes, insurance. There were so many rules, it took me a year of just crossing t’s and dotting i’s, and filling out copies of forms of original. Then when I arrived in Germany for the installation, there were new rules. But I realized that this is the infrastructure of the culture. They use the excuse of protocol to appear in control, but the truth is that they are just as disorganized as any other culture. In the end I realized the only way to be ready for the opening was to break all the rules. Just do what you want to do because with all of their assurances, they really didn’t have so many things that they had promised me and it was the only way to make the best project possible.

SUSAN:

So you could break some promises too?

ROBIN:

Yeah. Can you believe this?  We were supposed to have running water and electricity, but it didn’t work—in fact some town inspector condemned the kitchen truck as an unsafe facility for cooking, so we had to have these plastic cubes of water brought in with a hose that you would suck the air out of so you could get the water to run into buckets. It was just so unbelievably primitive in that way. But fortuitous, because all of those things made the experience more similar to what I had experienced in the camps and to what had engaged me about being in the homes of these women and being a part of the meal and what that meal is.

CHRYSANNE:

How did the women feel about being in dOCUMENTA?

ROBIN:

Well, first of all, they said, “This is such a vacation.” When I said: “I’m so sorry you have to hand sew this tarp.” Basically, they were like: “Are you kidding? An art installation…. It’s a breeze.” They had a blast. And this was great. They arrived wearing these psychedelically patterned robes called melfas, which are their traditional Muslim dress. Basically all of the artists arrived at the same time and none of us knew who else was going to exhibit there. It’s the first day of the installation and the other artists and installers are skulking around in black clothing. We all converge on the commissary together around noon to eat lunch. In walk these elated women, dressed in brightly colored Muslim garb, who are chattering away, filling their trays with food, and just hanging out forever, commenting on their surroundings in Arabic. And I can hear every artist asking, “Who are those women?” So, in effect, they announced the project in this beautiful way.

Friends and family who put together the tent at dOCUMENTA (13)
photo credit Edi Escobar

SUSAN:

How were you communicating with them? What language were you speaking?

ROBIN:

Spanish. Because Western Sahara was a former Spanish colony.

SUSAN:

So, they speak Spanish and you speak Spanish?

ROBIN:

I speak Spanish and they speak Spanish, they speak French, because a lot of them grew up in Mauritania, which is now an ally, and Algeria too. I made sure that each woman could speak either German, French or English (in addition to Spanish and Arabic) so that they could have conversations with the public.  That was a premise of the piece. You enjoy some couscous in exchange for a conversation with the women about Western Sahara.

SUSAN:

Did they look at the rest of dOCUMENTA or were they always in the tent? Would the other exhibitions have meant something to them or were they mostly focused on their installation?

ROBIN:

Getting the word out about Western Sahara was paramount to our group. Here’s an example of how a simple exchange generated a spontaneous and amazing event. The Sahrawi Minister of Culture, Khadija Hamdi was there from the camps. The artist Issa Samb, along with his group from Senegal came for tea in our tent and then went back to his installation and returned with a gift of the Senegalese flag that he offered to her in solidarity with the people of Western Sahara. The Minister stood up and in French made a speech about how culture and art have the power to transcend boundaries in a way that does not exist in the political arena. It was so beautiful. And so later on, in exchange, I heard that she visited Samb’s installation with some of the other women and brought them the Polisario flag (the Sahrawi government-in-exile).

Issa Samb and Khadija Hamdi pledge allegiance between Senegal and
Western Sahara, photo credit Kirby Gookin

SUSAN:

How did the women assess their experience there?

ROBIN:

I am in contact with all of them all the time now. They’re my sisters and they had a great time. What they wanted to do was to enhance visibility about who they are and what their struggle is on an international level. By the end of dOCUMENTA, 875,000 people came through and a lot of them visited our tent many times because they were really comfortable there. They could get away from the “art exhibition” vibe and hang out, and have tea, hear music, and engage each other. So we really created a hot spot.

Overview of the installation “The Art of Sahrawi Cooking” at dOCUMENTA (13)
photo credit Nils Klinger

CHRYSANNE:

Would you like them to come to New York?

ROBIN:

Yes. I’ve been advocating for them. In fact, three weeks ago, I was invited by them to speak to the UN General Assembly at a Special Committee Meeting on Decolonization. I talked about my experience in the camps and about working with the Sahrawi women to make their cause more visible. I urged the delegates to pressure the UN to create a mandate protecting the people’s human rights and also for the global community to raise its voice in support of the Sahrawis’ legal right to self-determination.

SUSAN:

How did people coming into the tent react?

ROBIN:

I got all sorts of reactions, mostly very positive. But to those who sought me out to criticize the installation, I always asked, “Have you been in the tent yet?”

CHRYSANNE:

How would they criticize you?

ROBIN:

“Oh, don’t you think you are making a spectacle of these people?” or ”Oh, you’re putting these people in a cage and then saying look at them, they are so special and so different.” And I am not doing that. The whole essence of this project was engagement.

CHRYSANNE:

So they were approaching it from the point of view of Orientalism?

ROBIN:

They were talking about the 19th century approach to creating World’s Fair spectacles, but the project was not about “defining the other,” it was about “engagement.” I was actually very aware that I might get criticism from armchair philosophers. I had many conversations with Mick and Peter about just that. Finally Mick said: “You know what Robin, this is you. You love this. You built this project out of cooking and your sense of collaboration and how you define art and your kinship with these women.” Lets face it, hundreds of artists participated in ARTifariti but I continued that work after I left because it really means something to me and that’s what I wanted to extend in the form of art at dOCUMENTA.

SUSAN:

Now that we are talking about this, I want to read into the interview two excerpts that appeared in a thread on your facebook page while you were actually at dOCUMENTA, because I am struck by the fact that we often learn a critical paradigm that is extremely useful as an analytical tool and we accept it going forward without reservation and then over time apply it to situations that we don’t look at carefully enough and we fail to examine whether the paradigm is still useful or if it any longer applies to the situation we are applying it to.

The thread begins with a comment from Emma Zghal who wrote in precisely the kind of criticism we are talking about:

I have reservations on the natives displayed to visitors in their “exotic” tent and clothing as an expression of solidarity! It strikes me as the current incarnation of the 19th century Orientalism. So instead projecting all sorts of sexual fantasies, Westerners relish in their pity and guilt as a way to relate to the other. In my experience as a “native” among the well to do art types, this way of seeing the other is a far cry from respect. In many instances such imagery only comforts a harmful sense of superiority.

I think in this case the critical paradigm is coming from Edward Said, whose Orientalism was published in 1978, and which is certainly still applicable to certain current problems, particularly in our relationship to the Middle East, but it is assumed here that this paradigm can be placed neatly on top of your tent, and I think it is important to get across why this tent did not function in this way.

Tent interior, dOCUMENTA (13) photo credit Edi Escobar

ROBIN:

The installation was predicated on engagement, exchange and interaction. You had to be there to have this experience. The atmosphere was in constant flux, changing with the arrival of each new visitor. Nobody was interested in force feeding a specific interpretation, instead what was being offered was a dose of hospitality, a peaceful refuge that was completely surprising in the context of art: a very welcoming environment constructed by hand in the camps completely by the women. It was about the political power that Sahrawi hospitality carries as peaceful strategy for engaging people, offering them the opportunity to think, to converse, to rest, to react…

SUSAN:

This is how Octavio Zaya responded to Emma’s comments on the facebook thread:

Did you get to engage the Sahrawis there, Emma? Did you get to talk to them about the historical information displayed in the corridor that preceded the tent: Did you meet the Minister of Culture of Western Sahara who visited the place, or the representatives of Polisario Front? Did you partake of the couscous and tea the National Union of Women from Western Sahara offered to all the visitors with whom they engaged in conversation? This presentation was not an exotic display, nor a projection of sexual fantasies, but an opportunity to address and discuss the plight of Sahrawi people, and their struggle for independence. It is not about pity and about guilt, Emma. It is about misinformation, Western oblivion, and an opportunity to correct them.

Couscous and Conversation at “The Art of Sahrawi Cooking” dOCUMENTA (13)
photo credit Kirby Gookin

I wonder if a more useful critical discourse to frame your project with these women might be taken from the work done at end of Michel Foucault’s life; the point when he begins to talk about living one’s life as an art form, because it sounds from your descriptions as if that is what these women do.

ROBIN:

Yes, I make no distinction between life and art. Every act is intentional and that is what I experienced in the camps. The cooking is better than anything you make, the music sweeter, the homes more comfortable, the conversation deeper. There is an economy of means that is deliberate, finite and intentional. I truly appreciate that. I am consistently amazed by my friends’ capacity to react with genuine spontaneity. In an instant, singing and dancing is generated from clapping. It is so unusual to be in the middle of that experience as opposed to fielding questions from those who arrive with their catalogues open, asking:  “Wait, this isn’t in the schedule. What are we seeing now?”

Tfarra, Najat, and Mouna dancing, 2012 photo credit Kirby Gookin

Okay, if you want to read my project as propaganda, you can read it any way you want. I am not stuffing how you read this down your throat. I am presenting a project that is an extension of everything that I’ve ever done and for me—the personal is political. I mean, there is no distinction whatsoever. If you want to criticize it and especially if you want to sit there and write about it in the public domain, you should at least experience it.

Ezzana pouring tea, 2012 photo credit Emily Nathan,
ArtNet magazine

When someone asked me, “Is this propaganda?” I always asked them, “Have you been in the tent?” And they said,  “No.” And so I said:  “Well, go in the tent and if you still have that question afterward, I’d love to engage with you.” Not one person came back. Not one.

Information panels at the entrance to the installation/tent at dOCUMENTA(13)
photo credit Nils Klinger

I’ve done many projects and all of my work deals with women’s issues, empowering women, making their work visible, working with women across boundaries and barriers and race and culture, doing large scale projects that are about that and also all my own studio work is about that.  And the way I conduct myself, as a mother, as a partner in life, as a student of life, as a matron, as a cook—all the roles that a mother has, that a woman has in society, I assume those all in my work and every day and in every breath I take.

SUSAN:

Before we move on to talking about your earlier work, I do have one more question. This society that you describe is a matriarchy, so what are the men doing?

ROBIN:

That’s a really good question. So it happened that the men stayed on the front to fight in the beginning. Well, there has been a cease-fire since 1991 and since then everyone has been waiting for the UN to broker what’s going to happen.  Which is great, but if the UN doesn’t do anything then Morocco will stay in there. So the men keep training for the military but when they return to the camps, they are really bored and they let the women do all the work.

SUSAN:

I’ve seen this in other places too.

ROBIN:

So, it’s an issue.

CHRYSANNE:

When Susan and I first talked to you about this at the New York Art Book Fair you told us a story about what happened when you first arrived at dOCUMENTA.

ROBIN:

Yes. This was a personal experience that transpired in February when I was going to Kassel for the first time. dOCUMENTA opens in June, so I was going there to figure out where my site was going to be and have all the meetings that I needed to have with the various production teams (i.e., installation, publication, education etc…). So I was picked up at the Frankfurt airport by the person assigned to oversee my project and as we were driving to Kassel, she said,  “Robin, I have a surprise for you.” So, I’m thinking: “Oh, is there going to be a party? Balloons or a cake?” And she says: “Well, Carolyn (the Director) wants every artist to go to Breitanau, the concentration camp right outside of Kassel. Wait a minute, I didn’t even know what the theme of dOCUMENTA was or who the artists were. I was working on my own project and that’s all I knew and the idea that I needed to go to—it was a re-education camp that then filtered people into the concentration camps—was a perfectly horrible situation and I burst into tears. I’m a Jewish woman, whose family has never visited Germany and I firmly believe that it is my choice if I ever want to go to a concentration camp. I don’t need someone telling me, “This is one of your requirements.” I asked if there was some specific message, a piece of writing that would explain this motive but there was none. So I said that I was going to get really upset and that I’d go if she really wanted to bring me there but I didn’t know what I would do.

So we arrive there and this guy, the Director of Breitanau, takes us around the facility and he’s telling me its pre-WWII history as a re-education camp for vagrants and prostitutes, where offenders would be imprisoned for two years so that they could become “more constructive citizens when they were re-introduced into society.” And my response was: “Are you kidding me? Don’t tell me that the prison guards weren’t fucking the prostitutes for those years that they had them behind bars. I mean, what are you talking about? Explain to me what re-education means? This is a crime.” At which point, my assistant asked me, “Have you had enough?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And so, that was that.

SUSAN:

The one other question about dOCUMENTA I would like to explore is the debacle over the return of the tent. I just find it surprising that this is not being taken care of by them.

ROBIN:

Look, this was a hugely ambitious project. I was the least known artist at dOCUMENTA, way low on the totem pole and my budget didn’t cover even close to the cost of the project.  I had to raise money and put my own money in. I’ve spent the last three months since I returned in September negotiating the return of the installation because I would love to create some incarnation of the project that could travel around America. That would be great.

CHRYSANNE:

I would like to go back to the early ‘90’s. I was introduced to you by Anne Pasternak when Kathe Burkhart and I did The Abortion Project. Susan actually introduced me to Kathe, so we are all sort of sisters. I remember when The Abortion Project went to Real Art Ways, both you and Susan had works in the project. I always have loved the big fabric pieces with the embroidered IUDs that you showed at Andrea Rosen Gallery. I wanted to know if you want to speak about that early work a little bit and about how that informed the collaborative projects. I really feel like our connection, actually the three of us, has been as artists, as feminists and political activists. So anything you’d like to say….

Portrait of Fidelity with IUD, 1995 © by Robin Kahn

ROBIN:

Yeah. We are sisters from way back and have re-met up in different incarnations throughout the years—collaborating together, exhibiting side by side or even sometimes brainstorming together.

My work in the 1990’s was largely images embroidered on fabric, on pinstripe. I was exploring cultural expressions of vanity and issues of power, both male and female.  At some point after grad school, I just stopped painting because who wants to imbue a white canvas with meaning when every minute of the day is filled with it? I mean my inner dialogue or internal conversation is always disrupted with thoughts about: “What am I going to make for dinner?, Have the kids done their homework?, Where is the birthday party happening the day after tomorrow?” And so, I started working with fabrics as canvas because those are materials that intrinsically carry meaning. I went to the fashion district to find out about sewing and met all these Jewish people who talked about the social vocabulary of the pinstripe pattern. Fantastic! I took that clue as the key to my path as an artist. How do I express or define myself as a Jew, a woman, an urbanite, an artist? And I began to concentrate on decoding the images from popular culture that express power, vanity or the loss thereof; the invisibility of women’s work, all of those things that are ingrained, but not necessarily as art. And that became the subject of my work.

At some point thereafter, I realized that my work was being included in exhibitions because it represented the “woman’s perspective.” I mean, “What’s that?” I can’t speak for anyone but myself. So I decided to start making more open-ended projects. I had the idea of making publications where I could invited my friends and they in turn could invite their friends to participate.  And that process began to make our community much larger and to make our discreet ideas resonate beyond the very elite circle of gallery dwellers. In 1992, I put together Special Issue, a recipe manual that had nothing to do with food and then Promotional Copy, a yellow pages of the artist community, where I invited anybody who identified as an artist to design one or two promotional pages about their projects.Then in 1995, I put together Time Capsule: A Concise Encyclopedia by Women Artists that was distributed to every delegate at the International Women’s Conference in Beijing.

Time Capsule, 1995 © by Robin Kahn

CHRYSANNE:

Was that done by Creative Time?

ROBIN:

Creative Time co-produced it with SOS INT’l. It was their first publication-as-public space.

CHRYSANNE:

I also remember that you did a performance at the Guggenheim when it was in Soho.

ROBIN:

After Special Issue, I was approached by D.A.P. who began to distribute my publications (they have been very supportive throughout the years) and because of their relationship with the Guggenheim Downtown l got to use the museum’s lobby space for one night for the Promotional Copy publication party. So I conceived of the idea that the museum should function as a doormat to the street—you wipe your feet at the Guggenheim’s entrance, you get your book and then exit onto Mercer Street where are all these different artists and activists and neighborhood people would be painting, juggling, fortune telling and inviting you over to engage with them.  So the street , not the museum, really was the focus of the event.  I also invited a lot of friends who are artists to make interactive projects in the lobby space—to introduce their projects, sort of “promote” themselves as a part of the party. Chrysanne, you participated.

Promotional Copy, 1993 © by Robin Kahn

CHRYSANNE:

Yes, for Promotional Party Publication Party, I had a small printing press and I printed rose petals in honor of my friend Rob Flack, who died of AIDS and I gave them out in his memory. I still have some. So after Time Capsule, you published, and I have a number of them, a very beautiful series of artist books.

ROBIN:

Yes, afterwards I published a series of my own artist books.  There’s The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Art, where I reworked an actual manual of the same title that had been that written by a New York Times Arts Editor.  Can you believe it? He made a book for women about art and didn’t put any women artists it. So I thought, “This is really ridiculous.”  So I just covered over his name as author and replaced it with my name, and added my images to the pages and wrote this concrete poem naming/listing a selection of women artists who should have been included..

The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Art, 2005 © by Robin Kahn

SUSAN:

How do you see publishing as an artist vs. exhibiting as an artist?

ROBIN:

Publishing is not really the word. Editing is what I do. I come up with a concept and I invite people and then they riff on the concept. But I conceive of the structure or framework and that’s a very creative endeavor. I really enjoy it. I also have put together lots of shows that are in untraditional settings, inviting artists to do things that they wouldn’t regularly do, like making ephemeral art or making a multiple that undercut the market or that can be taken off the wall. I put together GET OFF!, the first contemporary art show at the Museum of Sex. All of these projects are born out of the same drive. It’s taking a concept or a series of beautiful ideas and then connecting them in a logical way. But then they become something else as they are completed by those who are invited. That’s so much of my working process. That’s what I did at dOCUMENTA.

CHRYSANNE:

In terms of the publishing your own artist books, do you feel that it is an empowering act for artists?

ROBIN:

Yes. Never wait to be invited anywhere. If you are waiting for the invitation, I guess you just want to go to the exclusive party. Empower yourself. Books have a different life than a painting or a sculpture or a discreet work of art because they have a much longer public life. They travel. A friend called me from Paris on Valentine’s Day because Sexual Lovemaking for Dummies was in a really hip boutique! Books take on a different life. And don’t we want to engage larger and larger audiences or participation? I mean, that’s why we’re artists. It’s an intellectual endeavor.

CHRYSANNE:

Going back to the beginning, your initiative publishing Dining in Refugee Camps is what lead you to dOCUMENTA. If you hadn’t been self-empowered, by working with these women….

ROBIN:

There’s no formula. Before dOCUMENTA, I presented Dining in Refugee Camps and my experience in the camps at colleges, art schools, anarchist bookstores—to virtually any group who invited me. Really, the whole idea of making a project at dOCUMENTA was about engaging with and learning from a larger and larger pool of people. It’s not like I’m just putting it out there, I get so much back.

CHRYSANNE:

I have one more question. When you first made the book in the refugee camp and you showed it to the women, what did they say?

ROBIN:

Actually, they were not that inviting at the beginning of the process. It was really tough getting into their homes and getting them to trust this project. A lot of them said: “What can you do for me and why am I letting you into my private space?” Into the kitchen is different than into the tent. I put the book together with materials and images that you could find in the camps—from piles of garbage, from food labels and from my photos of the families and their neighbors. It wasn’t until October of 2010 when Kirby brought the published books back to the camps and gave them to the families—when they saw their names, their surroundings, their portraits, their words honored—that everything clicked.

Now, the Cooperatives in the camps are using Dining in Refugee Camps as their textbook for teaching English. The book is about them and it is also out in the world beyond. It’s been a process but I think they are happy. And I am happy that you have acknowledged its significance and invited me to share my ideas within this singular forum about and by other women artists. Thank you Susan and Chrysanne.

Portrait of Robin Kahn in New York City, 2012 © by Susan Silas

A conversation with Barbara Yoshida

Portrait of Barbara Yoshida in New York City, 16 December 2012 © by Susan Silas

CHRYSANNE:

We met almost twenty years ago when you took a photograph of me in my installation, 1-900 Mirror Mirror, for your photographic series of women artists. What inspired you to start taking photographic portraits of women artists and how many have you taken?

BARBARA:

I was a painter for almost twenty years, then I made sculpture for about six years, and then I started using a camera in 1990 because I wanted to do this project. We all knew what the male art stars looked like, but even now we don’t really see that many photographs of women artists. I wanted to create a community and also to become part of that community, by meeting more women artists. I also wanted to acknowledge the fact that women artists are not what most people think they are. I think most people—in this country, at least—think of women artists as kind of weird and strange. I got this large format camera specifically to do this project, for a fairly formal portrait, because I wanted the women to be seen the way I see them—as intelligent, serious, committed artists who many times are quite gorgeous and are very “normal” in a lot of ways. I wanted the project to be very inclusive, so I have photographed women who were largely unacknowledged as well as famous ones, and also women who made work that was considered craft by many people but not by everyone. I didn’t want a lot of divisions or distinctions between one type of work and another. I always wanted to do 100 portraits and I have done 94 now.

Nancy Grossman, 25 June 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

CHRYSANNE:

The women appear to me to be quite majestic.

BARBARA:

Oh, thank you—that is a real compliment to the women as well.

CHRYSANNE:

They are all done in black and white, is that correct?

BARBARA:

Yes.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you think the 4 x 5, black-and-white format leads to that majestic, ageless quality in terms of the history of photography?

BARBARA:

It might, depending on the viewer’s perspective. Some people might just think it’s old-fashioned. Of course, I don’t look at it that way. The majestic quality has a lot to do with the demeanor of the women being photographed. And also, I chose that particular camera and chose to work in black-and-white, hoping to achieve that quality, a classic look. So you could be very right about that.

SUSAN:

Who was the first person that you chose to photograph and how long ago was that?

BARBARA:

I started in October of 1990 and the first person was a friend of mine, Jerelyn Hanrahan, who was making sculpture outdoors. Very quickly, though, I shifted to a couple of women artists who were older, because I was afraid we might lose them. So in February of 1991, I photographed Louise Bourgeois and Hedda Sterne. Louise was 80 at the time, but she lived another 18 years! (laughter)

Hedda Sterne, 6 February 1992 © by Barbara Yoshida

SUSAN:

She surprised you.

BARBARA:

Sometimes the feisty ones do live longer. Hedda was 81 when I photographed her and she was four months shy of 100 years old when she died. So both of them lived quite a while after being photographed. Hedda was amazing. She was this diminutive little person, physically just tiny, but not in spirit. I don’t know if you are aware of the famous photograph that Nina Leen took of a group of abstract expressionists. They were called “The Irascibles” because in the 40s they objected to the Metropolitan’s big painting show that did not have a single abstract expressionist painting in it. Leen took a photograph in 1950 for LIFE magazine, which later appeared in The New York Times. And all the men are there—this whole group of them, all in their suits—Rothko, Reinhardt, Still, Newman, Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell, Gottlieb—and there’s Hedda. 14 men and she’s the only woman. She is all the way in the back row, but she is standing on a chair. She aims to be seen, and she is! I love that photo. She is fairly unacknowledged in art history, I think, but she continued to paint probably right up until her death. So she is one of my heroines.

CHRYSANNE:

Did you photograph her again, or only the one time?

BARBARA:

Only the one time.

CHRYSANNE:

Have you ever done a group photo of women?

BARBARA:

No.

SUSAN:

By the time you photographed Louise Bourgeois, her career had really taken off again. Was she the first person that was very visible that you photographed? How did she respond when you asked her, and how did you explain to her what the project was?

Louise Bourgeois, 28 February 1992 © by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

I explained my motivation for doing the project and she agreed immediately. She had just finished a shoot with Herb Ritts, and she wanted to swing her leg, I don’t know why, but we had very different ideas. We were in her studio out in Brooklyn and there wasn’t a lot of light, so I wouldn’t be able to shoot at a fast speed. I wanted a quiet, contemplative portrait. And she wanted to swing her leg! I was somewhat intimidated by her, of course. It was one of the most difficult shoots I have ever done.

I had agreed that at the end of the shoot I would give the film to her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, who got the film processed. Then I came back out and met with him. We discussed which ones I could keep. I kept the one that was the best and they kept the rest. It didn’t bother me at all, because it was not that different from my approach with the other women, which was that even before the shoot, I explained that I would give them the contact sheets afterward and they could mark on the backs yes for those I could use and no for any they did not want me to use, and they could choose the ones they wanted for themselves. It sets up a sense of trust from the beginning, which I believe will result in a better portrait. I also think we need to control the images of ourselves that go out into the world.

And of course, there is also a difference between a woman photographing a woman and a man photographing a woman. I think that had an effect—helped them to relax, be themselves, and give me something authentic and real. And I hope that because I am also an artist, it is an insider view and maybe that also contributed to a feeling of trust.

Arlene Raven told me a funny story about Louise. One time, many years ago, a young man photographed her. Louise said he had to come back and bring all the negatives and all the film and all the prints and everything. He said OK. So he came out and she didn’t like any of them. So she boiled them. She didn’t burn them, she boiled them! That says something about Louise, doesn’t it?

CHRYSANNE:

Did she keep the film?

BARBARA:

I understand that she boiled everything.

CHRYSANNE:

But your film?

BARBARA:

Oh, mine. I don’t know what happened to the ones I gave back. It doesn’t matter.

SUSAN:

So you only have the negative of the one image?

BARBARA:

Correct. The one we thought was the best. And she is moving in the photograph, so it is blurry, but it is very much Louise.

CHRYSANNE:

You photographed Hannah Wilke?

BARBARA:

Yes, she was one of the first, because we were friends, and she chose to lie on the floor with her sculptures. She has her arm up in the photo, covering her neck, because at that moment the lumps had come back and she didn’t want them to show. Later, of course, at the end of her life, she did that kick-ass exhibition at Ronald Feldman, and she was no longer afraid of showing the effects of the cancer—she showed everything—very gutsy—so it was only at the time of our shoot that she was self-conscious about the lumps.

Hannah Wilke, 21 February 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

CHRYSANNE:

She is an interesting artist because she wasn’t exactly dismissed, but she wasn’t as acknowledged, because she had such incredible physical beauty. At the end of her life, she let go of all of it, and the work got re-examined. In the photographs that you have taken, do you see the women showing an interior that has nothing to do with whether they are beautiful in terms of how the culture sees them?

BARBARA:

I’m not sure if anyone comes to mind at the moment—they are all beautiful to me. I just try to get them to relax, to fall into very natural poses. I don’t pose them. Some of them seem to be very aware of the way they will be perceived, and the result is perhaps a bit superficial when they do that—they’re not showing their interior selves as much. But posing for the camera is also an aspect of who they are. I think the ones who are not posing, who are the most authentic, show how incredibly beautiful they are, as women, regardless of how our culture might see them.

CHRYSANNE:

Who is the most recent person you photographed?

BARBARA:

This summer I went out to Santa Fe and photographed Judy Chicago—she had to be part of this project—and also Barbara Gonzales, who is the great-granddaughter of Maria Martinez, the famous southwest Native American potter. Barbara is a well known and well respected potter, working in her family tradition. I also photographed Hilary Lorenz when I was there. She is a New York artist but in the summertime, she has a studio in Abiquiu.

CHRYSANNE:

Who will you photograph next? Do you have a wish list?

Maren Hassinger, 20 August 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

Oh yes, I have been trying to photograph Shirin Neshat for a couple of years. She is a lovely person, and she is so gracious, and she wants to accommodate me so we are hoping maybe this winter, but she is just so busy. I have tried to reach Sophie Calle, I would love to photograph her, I am such an admirer of her work. And Yayoi Kusama, I have written to her, I don’t know what is going to happen with that.

SUSAN:

Are you going to photograph Patricia Cronin with her sculpture Memorial To A Marriage at Woodlawn cemetery?

BARBARA:

I hope so. We were supposed to do a shoot last year, but Pattie felt the landscaping wasn’t right.

CHRYSANNE:

Have you photographed Deb Kass?

BARBARA:

Yes, in 1991. That’s how I found out about WAC. When I was photographing Deb she told me that a group of women were going to get together—an activist group—and asked if I wanted to come. I said, “Absolutely!” And that meeting was the beginning of WAC, Women’s Action Coalition.

Deborah Kass, 24 October 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

CHRYSANNE:

Did you get very involved with WAC?

BARBARA:

Yes, I was the “phone tree queen,” in charge of phoning people who would phone more people who would phone more people, until everyone had been notified of an upcoming action.

SUSAN:

I remember that. In fact, I think that might be where we first met.

BARBARA:

I was able to photograph a lot of women I met there.

CHRYSANNE:

I went to WAC too.

BARBARA:

You remember? Our first action was when the Guggenheim was going to open a branch in Soho. It was in our neighborhood and not only that, the opening show was going to have four white men, and not only that, one of them was Carl Andre. Even though the art world was split over his trial, many of the women felt he murdered his wife and got away with it. So we picketed the opening and a lot of people refused to cross the picket line. We were wearing these T-shirts that said, Carl Andre is at the Guggenheim. Where is Ana Mendieta?

SUSAN:

It’s wonderful that you still have that. I know I have some WAC T-shirts but I don’t remember this one.

video ©2012 by MOMMY

CHRYSANNE:

That is a fantastic T-shirt.

BARBARA:

It is.

SUSAN:

It is amazing to think that this was not all that long ago, and the Guggenheim was going to open a new museum with an exhibition of all white men. It does seem really incredible.

BARBARA:

We jammed their fax machine. That was the first thing we did. Just sent fax after fax. We also sent them a gazillion postcards, and later they put Louise Bourgeois in the show and claimed they had always intended to, which was a bald-faced lie.

SUSAN:

Yes, I remember.

BARBARA:

So it was a very successful way to start. I talked to women at WAC meetings and asked if I could photograph them, because in the beginning I didn’t want to just photograph my friends. Right after I photographed Hannah Wilke I went to Nancy Spero’s opening at Josh Baer because I didn’t know her and I was shy about approaching artists that I didn’t know. I thought maybe I could photograph her in the gallery in front of her work, and she said it would be fine. And then, during WAC, women were just amazing—they were so accommodating and accessible, no matter who they were. Elizabeth Murray, for example—she couldn’t have been more down-to-earth, and gracious. She was just wonderful.

Elizabeth Murray, 29 April 1992 © by Barbara Yoshida

SUSAN:

Do you think that graciousness was influenced by WAC? By the sense of community the organization generated?

BARBARA:

I do. Now looking back, I feel that was such a special time.

CHRYSANNE:

I agree.

BARBARA:

It was a lot easier to approach people and get them to say yes, and they fit me into their schedules. There were a few that didn’t, but most of them did. Now it is much harder, everybody is busy and we are a little more separate. It’s just not the same time. I did over 70 women’s portraits in the first four years. And part of that was the momentum from WAC, I am quite sure.

CHRYSANNE:

And so your end number is 100?

BARBARA:

I guess so, although it is going to be hard to stop.

SUSAN:

You don’t have to stop.

CHRYSANNE:

You could go to the magic 108.

BARBARA:

We’ll see.

SUSAN:

The work of yours that I am the least familiar with, but I am quite curious about, is the self-portraiture that you have done. When did you do that in relationship to these portraits of women, and how did that get started?

Pietà, from the series “Conversations with a Dead Pig” © by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

Well, as soon as I started using this camera to photograph women artists, I wanted to do things with it besides those portraits. It was about 1993 and I had a house upstate, so I started photographing at night, and I had a large field outside where I actually felt quite exposed because the moonlight, when the moon is full, is as bright as daylight. But I went out there and started doing some of the naked self portraits with masks. One time when I was shooting at night, I finished this one shot and I sat down against a tree, and I was waiting for the clouds to go past the moon, and I heard this grrrrrrrrrrr, grrrrrrrrrrr, grrrrrrrrrrr.

Oh my god, you know how magnified sounds are at night. I thought, There are no bears or wolves here, it could be a dog. So I picked up a stone and threw it behind the tree. Nothing ran off. I kept looking up at the sky to see if it was clear, and then I saw three pairs of eyes moving around, up in the tree above me. They were raccoons! They were probably waiting for me to get out of the way so they could get down the tree and look for food.

It was a little bit difficult to expose myself like that, but it was also kind of fun.

CHRYSANNE:

I know raccoons. In Toronto we are swamped with them and they are very smart.

BARBARA:

Another thing that happened which was really funny was one time when I was shooting during the day. I had bought a pig head from the butchering place up there in the country. And I was photographing myself naked with this pig head and a mask and other props, sitting on my own stone wall outside my house, when my neighbors decided to walk through my property to get to the state land on the other side. And they had a dog with them, and I had my tripod set up with a long extension cord stretched out so I could take my own photograph. And there I was, buck naked on this stone wall. Excuse me, but I have a pig’s head here, I don’t think you want to come much closer with your dog! So I put on my robe and they walked by—both of them were psychiatrists—and I have no idea what they thought. But disaster was averted—the dog did not run into the cord and knock over the camera.

Babydoll-1, from the series “Conversations with a Dead Pig” © by Barbara Yoshida

CHRSYANNE:

Did they ever walk through your property again?

BARBARA:

I don’t know (laughter), but I’m sure they called out a warning if they did.

SUSAN:

The other thing I wonder about is the work you’ve done at night, because I am a little bit of a scaredy cat when I am alone in the woods or alone in isolated places, even at a perfectly safe place like MacDowell, where city people confess that they have trouble sleeping. But you have gone to really remote places alone. I find this very brave. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the experience of venturing out as a woman to places that are so isolated.

BARBARA:

What is brave for one person is not brave for another. Maybe what I do is risky sometimes, but of course we artists do what we need to do to say what we need to say. Especially in very isolated situations—where I have been photographing standing stones, they can be way out in the middle of nowhere—I think I rely on my sensitivity and my antennae. There have been some times when I decided it would be better not to pitch my tent in one of those locations but to sleep in the car instead.

There are other times when some strange things have happened. But generally speaking, I think most people are missing out on an incredible experience—when you are out there and all you can hear is the ocean or a night bird, and there are all those stars and the moonlight and this incredibly beautiful landscape—it is a humbling experience.

Ales Stenar Stone Ship—Moonlight, Kåseberga, Sweden, 2005
© byBarbara Yoshida

CHRYSANNE:

What is the most isolated place that you have been to?

BARBARA:

There are several, really.

CHRYSANNE:

You mentioned Ireland before.

BARBARA:

I drove a ways to get to those sites, so they were often far away from villages. And the site in Armenia was pretty far away from the nearest town. A lot of them are really remote.

SUSAN:

Talk a little more about these sites and how you decided to photograph them. I think most people know Stonehenge, but that may be it. And I don’t even know myself what the origins of all of these sites are. Because you end up with these star streaks from the earth moving, I know that the exposures are quite long, and I feel that whatever else the images convey they are mapping time. I was thinking about this today as I was looking at a book that illustrated different ways people have represented time graphically. Your photographs have that quality at the same time that they are doing something else. But I wonder, did all those places have the same function at one time? Do they date from the same time period?

BARBARA:

First of all, many of them pre-date Stonehenge by a couple of hundred years. And at Stonehenge, all of the stones are dressed—shaped by hand—and the lintels are fitted to the uprights and so on, so it is the supreme example. But it is comparatively recent and I wouldn’t be surprised if artisans had come from other parts of the world, with specific knowledge and skills that contributed to how they made that monument.

I like the older stones because they are not dressed, and they have a lot of character. Of course, they have changed since they were first erected, maybe as early as 3,000 BC. Some of them are more recent than that. That was before there was written language, so we really don’t know much about them, and that, of course, is what intrigues me. The mystery is one of the things that draws me to them. As Keith Carter says, “I always love what I don’t understand.” So they are definitely spiritual sites, and people are drawn to them because they can feel the power. Scientists like Euan MacKie and Elma Parsamian have shown that some sites were purposely aligned with the movements of the moon or stars or planets. There were probably astronomer priests at that time. The Celtiberians were probably the ones who used their shipbuilding and navigational skills to bring that knowledge to various parts of the world. The Libyans were also brilliant navigators and explorers during ancient times.

Zoraz Kar—Moonlight, Sisian, Armenia, 2009 © by Barbara Yoshida

I like what you said about representing time graphically. Another reason I photograph the stones at night is that I believe they are connectors between the earth and the sky, so including star trails emphasizes that.

SUSAN:

How do you find them all?

BARBARA:

I did a lot of reading, although most of the books concentrate on the British Isles, and of course Brittany has huge formations. People know a lot about those. But otherwise there are some obscure books that have references to other sites and Julian Cope has a couple of books, where he traveled to as many stones as he could find. The internet helped a lot, because sometimes people just pose in front of a stone as a snapshot. Of course, I didn’t know if those stones were still standing or if they were covered now with trees or if they were too close to buildings or in the midst of cities. So it is always an adventure to find them, even with ordnance survey maps in the UK. Sometimes they just don’t want to be found!

CHRYSANNE:

Are there stones in Africa and Asia that you have found too?

BARBARA:

Yes, certainly there are some in North Africa, in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and I photographed some in The Gambia. Some of those people probably never saw stones anywhere else but they heard about them or the formations were described to them, and they used local stones to make what they could. The ones in Mongolia that I photographed are very different, and I have read that there are stones in India. I know that there are some in Indonesia, and some in Korea. I photographed a stone circle in Japan, but the stones are very small. Whether they are connected with the ones in Europe, I don’t know.

Wassu Stones—Moonlight, The Gambia, 2010 © by Barbara Yoshida

A man named Barry Fell, who was teaching biology at Harvard and who was a gifted linguist, especially in regard to ancient languages, wrote about ancient inscriptions discovered in the Americas. People sent him pieces of stone from the northeast that had markings on them and he said it was Ogam, the ancient Irish script, which he could read. Some people thought the marks were made by plowshares, but they even did an experiment, trying to make marks on stone with plowshares, but it didn’t look anything like what they had found. One of the inscriptions Fell translated said, Dedicated to the sun god Bel (Baal). I photographed a dolmen in New York State that has a plaque next to it and it says it’s a glacial erratic—a type of stone that doesn’t exist there, that was deposited from elsewhere by a glacier. Which it probably is. The capstone is not from that area, but it’s supported on five smaller stones, exactly like the dolmens in Ireland. So I think it must have been constructed intentionally. I know Fell’s theories are controversial. But he had a colleague who went up the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers and made latex molds of Punic and Ogam inscriptions that were apparently left by Libyans, Celts and Phoenicians around 500 BC. I think these ancient travelers were capable of going all over the world. So that is how this knowledge was probably spread.

CHRYSANNE:

And they are all photographed in the middle of the night?

Menhir de Clendy—Moonlight, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, 2005
© by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

As many as I could.

CHRYSANNE:

That is interesting to me because in Tibetan Buddhist mythology and tradition, there are Dakinis, some of these flying goddesses. They come out in the middle of the night. They are night ladies. They are not out so much in the middle of the day. As I understand it, the night is female.

BARBARA:

Interesting that you say that. Traditionally, the moon and the night are female, whereas the sun is male. All over the world, as you know, the moon has been a symbol of the feminine, particularly female emotions and intuition. And of course there is a phallic aspect of the standing stones, and although we always talk about mother earth, I thought, What if those people in Neolithic times believed it was mother sky and father earth? If father earth were lying on his back, the standing stone would be his erect penis and mother sky could come down onto that, and that could be how people were born or maybe how the stars were formed. It’s possible, it could have been a mythology at that time. And I like the idea of mother sky being the active partner!

SUSAN:

How did you get started or interested in them in the first place?

BARBARA:

When I got my 4 x 5 and started photographing, I did six residencies for the National Park Service and one for a state park. I learned a lot by photographing outdoors, and I found that I really liked texture so then I started to focus on rocks. I started seeking out rocks that were solitary and that had a presence. When I was in Scotland, I saw my first standing stones at The Ring of Brodgar and I said, “Oh my, I think the focus has narrowed and the project will be about this.” It was an amazing experience. I pitched my tent there and it was pure magic. I photographed all through the night until dawn.

Calanais Stones—Moonlight, Isle of Lewis, Scotland, 2005
© by Barbara Yoshida

SUSAN:

One thing that is interesting to me is that both of these projects, making the portraits of women and photographing the standing stones, are long term, on-going works, and I wonder if you feel that they somehow relate to each other or are intertwined? Or do they just feel like two parallel lines of thought that have no relationship to one another?

BARBARA:

I think they are related, in that they are both concerned with women’s issues, women’s perspectives around the world. Very definitely. One is perhaps more about my personal relationship to the world, and the other is more a project that I hope will enhance the image that women have, especially women artists, in the eyes of the world. Some of the women, especially the ones who are not as well known, or not known at all, working in isolation as many of us are, have been somewhat empowered by being on the walls of A/c Projectroom in the early 90s or in Poland at the National Museum in 2010, on the same wall with someone like Kiki Smith or Jackie Winsor or Jenny Holzer, and this is important to me as well. One young woman that comes to mind was part of one segment of the art world, she was probably not well known by a lot of women artists even, and she died just a couple of months ago. I feel so grateful that she will be remembered as part of this project, no matter what happens to it.

CHRYSANNE:

Who is she?

BARBARA:

Eva Nebeska, a painter and one of the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever met. I hope that being part of this group has some impact on the lives of these women. It is very important to me.

CHRYSANNE:

Have you done a book with all the photographs?

BARBARA:

I hope to, and I plan to. Right now I’m just beginning a book on my standing stones so that will come first, and then I will start working on the other one. Maybe the production of the two books will overlap.

CHRYSANNE:

Getting back to Mongolia, how did you find out that they had the stones and how was traveling in Mongolia? How was that different, east versus west?

BARBARA:

I first saw the photographs of the stones in a magazine and a friend at my day job wanted to go there and I had never really thought about it. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this would be great because they are making this huge transition from a nomadic society to a modern one and I wanted to see it before it changed. And also, it is a culture that has a very special relationship to the land, and I love landscape. And there are several spiritual sites. So I started researching sacred sites and we tried to find them. Some of those sites had standing stones. We didn’t go to the northwest, but we did go all the way east, near the Chinese border, where almost no tourists go. We had to bring tents. We hired a driver and an interpreter, which I never have done before or since, but we were able to determine our itinerary and change it at any time. It is a huge country, with mountains and forests as well as grassland and steppes, and then it has the Gobi. Our main driver was from a horse breeding family. They make everything from horse, and I milked a horse! We had a different driver in the Gobi and we visited a camel breeding family there.

CHRYSANNE:

Did you meet any shamans on the way?

BARBARA:

I would have loved to, but we didn’t.

SUSAN:

It is interesting that you bring up people from a nomadic culture because I think that nomadic culture, before Islam, had been matriarchal and the city was considered patriarchal. Perhaps that is part of the unacknowledged reason that nomadic people are reviled in contemporary culture. The gypsies have that problem and so do the Bedouin. And of course, nomadic culture resists the norms of capitalism.

CHRYSANNE:

Well, the Roma are the most obvious example.

SUSAN:

Part of the resentment comes from the way in which nomadic people think about the world around them. They have a different understanding about what is theirs and don’t recognize property in the same way. It is one of the reasons for the stereotype of gypsies as thieves.

BARBARA:

That is absolutely correct. Most indigenous cultures, like the Australian aborigines, feel like the land belongs to everyone. It is part of their whole existence—their history, their ancestors, their spirituality, everything is intertwined with the land they live in and the ecosystems they inhabit. But the idea of buying and selling land is incomprehensible. I suppose nomads are similar to refugees. Nobody really wants them and that’s unfortunate.

CHRYSANNE:

We have a friend who is a writer who terms himself a cross-cultural nomad.

BARBARA:

It is a charming term.

SUSAN:

In Mongolia, which is such a different culture, did you have a sense that the sites were respected as sacred sites, that they were part of the religion of the people who were there?

BARBARA:

Not sure about that. Even in Europe, the stones have been there so long that people will plough around them if they are in a field but that’s also because they are superstitious about them. They may be starting to honor them in some places because the rest of the world is paying attention to them, but many times they don’t revere them the way they did. In Ireland, the church had to adopt many pre-Christian things. They had to incorporate them because they couldn’t stamp them out. But many people may just disregard the old sites, not giving them importance. Sometimes the stones are defaced and so they get fenced off. At Stonehenge you can’t walk freely among the stones anymore.

SUSAN:

I didn’t know that.

CHRYSANNE:

So it is like the Parthenon.

SUSAN:

They attracted too many people.

Is it your feeling that the skill to build these stones was spread by one particular group or culture; that it came from one place and was dispersed by travel and exploration?

BARBARA:

Who knows, really? For a while, people were speculating that the knowledge came from the Middle East into Spain and then to Italy and Malta, which of course was a huge site, and on from there up the coast to the British Isles. But now some people are saying that it started in the British Isles. The more they excavate and the more archaeological work that is done, the more they learn about these cultures. I dislike the word prehistory. Why is it prehistory? It is history. It is all part of the continuum, and it is all our history as people of the Earth.

SUSAN:

Have you ever felt threatened or scared in any of these places?

BARBARA:

Well, once I wasn’t really scared but I was very tense, very anxious. I went to a site where there were fields all the way around so I could hear and see anyone approach. And the site was a square of earth that had tall oak trees, and it had a passage-tomb, and then it had some standing stones. It wasn’t near the solstice or any of those times so I thought, OK, maybe because it was on the weekend some hooligans might come and start drinking and cause some mischief, but I was not going to be in the midst of some solstice celebration or anything. I thought it would be alright to pitch my tent. But I pitched it so the entrance was facing the road that came up to the site.

So I was lying in my tent, facing this very narrow opening which faced the road, and at about 4:30 a.m. I heard a car come along and turn and come up the road.

I thought, Oh great. And the car stopped and I watched, horrified, as a man got out and started to walk up to the site. He had a black coat on with a cowl over his head and a black scarf wrapped around his face and neck, with only his nose and eyes showing. He began to perform some bizarre, personal ritual that lasted for two and a half hours. He lit a stick of incense and placed it in the ground and stood before it, facing east. He circled the site several times and again stood facing east. He was carrying a jar of some kind and it looked like there was an amulet or something, on a cord around his neck. At some point he sat down, and he was doing this rocking thing that I have seen people do in a mental institution. Finally he disappeared for maybe an hour behind the passage-tomb. It sounded like he was banging something with a rock.

I was thinking, OK, he has seen the tent, he wasn’t offended by it, somehow I have not violated the sacred space or he would have done something by now; he probably thinks there is a couple in there or maybe one man or two men, but he would never think there’s one woman in there. So I was pretty much OK but I didn’t dare take my eyes off him. I couldn’t relax or move a muscle. Finally he went to the eastern part, facing east again, and I prayed that he was waiting for sunrise and would leave then. He didn’t have the jar anymore. I didn’t know what he did with that or what was in it, and I didn’t want to know. When the sun appeared, he stood facing it. He took off the cloak with the hood and he was wearing a white sweater and multi-colored, patch-work pants! He made a slight bow toward the passage-tomb, turned, and put his arm, fist closed, across his chest. Then he went to his car and drove away. I couldn’t rest. So I just packed up my tent and went into town and had a good breakfast of crêpes with fresh strawberries.

SUSAN:

Would you describe yourself as having been wary or afraid?

BARBARA:

Not afraid, no, I decided early on that this was nothing directed toward me. Not afraid, but I felt vulnerable.

SUSAN:

Maybe we can wind down by having you tell us a couple of sweet anecdotes about the women that you have photographed.

Lynda Benglis, 21 November 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

Oh, some of them have been just great. Sandra Fabara was one. She was a graffiti artist at a time when she was the only woman in the subculture of male graffiti artists. From ’79 to’83 I think she was using her tag, Lady Pink. I was glad to include her in the project.

One of my heroines is Jacqueline Livingston. She was teaching photography at Cornell, and in 1978 she got fired after she exhibited photographs of her husband, her father-in-law, and her son, and they were naked. When she asked why she was being fired, the head of the art department told her, “You cannot be a feminist and expect to work here. And you certainly cannot photograph men’s genitalia.” Although some of the faculty men were painting nude portraits of young women that were so realistic you could tell who the models were. Of course that was accepted.

CHRYSANNE:

Did she take them to court?

BARBARA:

She was part of a sex discrimination suit against Cornell, a class action suit, that was in court from 1980 to 1985 and considered a “win” when they got an out-of-court-settlement.

CHRYSANNE:

Was she able to get another teaching job?

BARBARA:

She applied for teaching jobs but was black-listed, because of the controversy of her art and the suit against Cornell. She opened a small gallery in Soho. I went to Ithaca specifically to photograph her, and I drove to upstate New York to get Jenny Holzer at her farm. When I was out in Idaho visiting my parents, I photographed women there, and when I did my national park residency in Michigan I photographed an artist there. I photographed an artist in Ireland, two women in Poland, one in Hungary, and three in The Gambia. I tried to make the project as inclusive as possible so that it wouldn’t be elitist or geographic, just this community of women, women who make art. I enjoy seeking out some of these women in other places. It was such a privilege to be welcomed into their homes and studios and to see them in their environments—just to hang out with them. I feel very lucky.

SUSAN:

And did you have a particular selection process?

BARBARA:

It was very organic. When I was in WAC, sometimes I asked people. I asked Laurie Anderson to recommend someone and she suggested Tina Girouard, whom I didn’t know. When I went out to Los Angeles, one of my friends, Tobey Crockett, suggested a couple of people and helped me get in touch with them. I went mainly to photograph Betye Sarr, but I ended up photographing some women I hadn’t known about.

SUSAN:

So even if these women didn’t know who you were, they would still entertain the idea of sitting for you? Did you have to present a proposal or a list of the women that you had already shot to legitimate yourself in their eyes?

BARBARA:

I do now. I sent a whole package to Judy Chicago and Barbara Gonzales, for example, to see if they were amenable. It’s not as easy as it was during the WAC time.

SUSAN:

It is interesting how communities can come together in certain periods of time and then dissolve, really disappear.

BARBARA:

That is exactly what happened to WAC. It was a wonderful thing while it lasted, wasn’t it?

SUSAN:

It was wonderful, I remember how great it was.

BARBARA:

Very empowering, some of the actions really had an impact—some of the cases where we picketed outside and filled the courtroom. We were very sedate in the courtroom, but we picketed outside and wrote letters to judges. One judge quoted from our letters in his decision, and it was just an amazing thing. It was a bonding experience for a lot of women. But you are right, it was very ephemeral—when it was over, it was over.

SUSAN:

WAC seemed to dissolve in the wake of Bill Clinton’s election.

CHRYSANNE:

I think that energy and those activities are coming back.

BARBARA:

I hope so.

SUSAN:

One of first things I heard about Occupy Wall Street, early on, was how male dominated it was and that women couldn’t get their voices heard. And I couldn’t believe it. It sounded just like more late 60s activism against the war in Vietnam where the guys thought they were the real Marxists and the women were expected to fetch coffee!

BARBARA:

Right.

SUSAN:

I thought, “This is ridiculous!” Women are having trouble getting themselves heard now in an activist organization that is a critique of current governance. I really couldn’t believe it.

CHRYSANNE:

But some of them, like Georgia Sagri, who occupied Artists Space for a few days, and was in the Whitney Biennial, are making their voices known. There are some women from that group who have made themselves known whether you like what they do or not.

SUSAN:

But that was a splinter group that was more focused on the art world. I think the main Occupy movement as it began in Zuccotti Park, at least in the very beginning, was not especially congenial to women.

CHRYSANNE:

But WAC was part of the art world.

BARBARA:

Right.

CHRYSANNE:

Where would you like to see the photographs, once you finish them, installed? And how would you like to see them installed? And who would you like to write about them?

BARBARA:

Well, of course I would like to see them in a book, and I would like to see that book in every art history department in the country. And I would like Lucy Lippard to write about the photographs. Of course I would like a major museum in the United States to show this work.

SUSAN:

I would like to see all of those portraits of women in the atrium space at MOMA.

BARBARA:

And they should own it as well. I have been a little hesitant to approach galleries and museums about this. I have sent the catalog from the National Museum in Poland to several places in this country, but I don’t know anyone personally at most of the US museums, so it is hard to make a cold call. Some of them you cannot reach by phone. Yes, a New York gallery would be great, I would love that.

SUSAN:

Are they editioned, the prints?

BARBARA:

An edition of ten.

CHRYSANNE:

How large do you see them?

BARBARA:

The edition is 13 x 19. I print them from scanned negatives on my Epson printer. But I have printed larger ones as well for the show in Poland. I might do an edition that is 17 x 22, but I don’t need them too large because I like the intimate scale of a slightly smaller photograph.

CHRYSANNE:

Any other dreams? To photograph? Is there a third project?

BARBARA:

I have started one but I’m not certain whether I’ll continue that, we’ll see. But in terms of the stones, there are three more countries I would like to do. I’m going to Morocco in November because it’s a nice connector between southern Europe and West Africa. Italy has some beautiful stones that I would like to photograph. And then in the spring I’ll shoot in the Crimea because it’s a nice link between southern Europe and Armenia, which is all the way east.

SUSAN:

Thank you.

CHRYSANNE:

Any words to women out there?

BARBARA:

Just keep working!

Portrait of Barbara Yoshida in New York City, 23 September 2012 – © by Chrysanne Stathacos

MOMMY at the NY Art Book Fair /PS1 MOMA

We are pleased to announce that MOMMY will be at the NY Art Book Fair from September 28th to 30th, at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens. A preview will be held on the evening of Thursday, September 27th.

Free and open to the public, the NY Art Book Fair is the world’s premier event for artists’ books, catalogs, monographs, periodicals, and zines presented by more than 270 international presses, booksellers, antiquarians, artists, and independent publishers from twenty-five countries.

You can find us on the 3rd floor at table X06. We will be presenting books by Cathy Busby, Vera Frenkel, Claudia Hart, Maxine Henryson, Linda Montano, Susan Silas, Chrysanne Stathacos, Betty Tompkins, and Barbara Yoshida.

On Friday September 28th, at 12:00 p.m. at Printed Matter’s booth (F03), there will be a book signing by MOMMY directors Susan Silas (for her book EYES  WIDE SHUT) and Chrysanne Stathacos (for her book The Wish Machine Travels, second edition).

MOMMY is pleased to show you a sampling of the books that will be available at our table. We hope to see you the NY Art Book Fair.

 

                                                            Cathy Busby

 

                                                           Betty Tompkins

 

                                                             Barbara Yoshida

 

                                                                 Claudia Hart

 

                                                           Maxine Henryson

 

                                                                 Vera Frenkel

 

                                                                          Susan Silas

 

  Chrysanne Stathacos

 

                                                                      Linda Montano

 

photo credit for Montano book cover – Gisela Gamper

A conversation with Betty Tompkins

Portrait of Betty Tompkins in her Prince Street Studio in New York City, 22 August 2012 – © 2012 by Susan Silas

SUSAN:

Yesterday I was studying your website and the first thing I noticed was a fabulous photograph of you taken in 1973, wedged between two enormous paintings, and the caption read Ellensburg, Washington. Is that where you came from or where you studied?

BETTY:

No, I was born in Washington, D.C. and I grew up in Philadelphia. I went to Syracuse University for my undergraduate degree and then I became a cliché and I married one of my teachers and he got a job at Central Washington State College, so we moved out to Ellensburg. I did my graduate degree and then there were a couple of years where we were going back and forth between New York and Ellensburg.

I started the first Fuck Paintings in 1969 and it was in the days of slides and it did occur to me that if you took a sheet of slides of mine and just held them up, that it was just way too close to its source matter, so I set this shot up for scale and I had it printed out so that whenever I sent out my slides, I sent out this photograph. Eventually, in 2004, I was part of Larry Clark’s Untitled Portfolio, done for Printed Matter. I was really honored that he asked me to participate. When he was here he said, “Do you have any prints?” I thought he meant like etchings, lithographs, and then I thought no, to Larry Clark a print is a photograph and I took this one out and he said, “That’s the one.” And we had it editioned and it was part of the portfolio.

Ellensburg, Washington, 1973

SUSAN:

That’s a good trajectory for the photograph—to have wound up in that portfolio over thirty years later.

BETTY:

I was really interested and still am interested in the second life of anything, you know, because the first life can be really, really short. If you participate in an art fair your first life is over in three to five days for a painting or a group of works so you have to have a second life—you absolutely have to. It was really important to me at that time, to get that image in particular, established as part of my iconography so that people would know without a doubt that the paintings were large.

SUSAN:

It’s interesting that you talk about second lives because one of our motivations is to recuperate lost lineages and to recover things that aren’t totally in place the way they should be. I think for women this tends to be a bigger problem than it is for men.

BETTY:

You just defined my career, which began in 2002.

SUSAN:

The other thing I was thinking about last night looking through your site was that you talked about starting out as an abstract expressionist painter and I noticed that Philip Pearlstein says that about himself as well, and although his images were less explicit and in fact, much more conventional with respect to their representation of women, more in the vein of the images that John Berger describes, he had a much easier time getting his work out even though he too was described as swimming against the stream at the time by making “representational” painting. I wonder how conscious you were of him at that time?

BETTY:

Of course, he was a really big artist. But he was a realist and I wasn’t interested in realism.  I thought he presented the figure more or less the way you would paint a rock. And that didn’t really interest me at all, but he was a famous artist, so of course, I knew who he was even as an undergraduate. It was part of what you grew up on.

CHRYSANNE:

Were you in New York when you started the Fuck Paintings?

BETTY:

Yes. It was 1969 and I had just finished my Masters degree and my first husband, Don Tompkins, was getting an EdD at Teachers College so we moved from Ellensburg way uptown. I did one painting after graduate school that had to do with the ideas I had been working with of commercially derived imagery and then I did Fuck Painting #1.

Fuck Painting #1, 1969 (84″ x 60″)

CHRYSANNE:

Do you remember the inspiration or the genesis of that first Fuck Painting?

BETTY:

Of course I do. Don had this collection of porn, which he had gotten from Hong Kong. It was either Hong Kong or Singapore. It was illegal at the time. He was twelve years older than I was. He got these photos in the 1950s. It was totally illegal to send the stuff through the U.S. mail. At the time, he lived in Everett, Washington, so he went up to Vancouver and rented a postal box and sent off his money order and when he figured enough time had passed he drove across the border, picked up the envelope and then drove back, hoping that he looked like the all American boy and that nobody would search the car and nobody searched the car—so he had them. When I met him, the photographs came with him. It wasn’t that I had to seek them out, they were just there.

I was looking at them one day and thinking, you know, if you take off the head, and the hands, and the feet, all the identifiers, then what you have left is something really beautiful in an abstract way, plus it has this tremendous kick as subject matter. So that’s why I decided to do it. I was also new to New York City, going to galleries constantly. At that time you could actually get to see everything; you’d do 57th Street and the Upper East Side in one day or maybe a day and a half. So every month I could go and see everything and I was really disturbed by how little that I saw engaged me as a viewer. There was no essential engagement. So I was going to the shows, I was very dutiful, I went to see everything. I’d go in and I’d go out and I said to myself at some point: “This guy worked for two years, at least two years to do this work and I can’t even stand here for five minutes and look at it. There’s nothing here.”

CHRYSANNE:

Do you remember what period of work during that time struck you as so uninteresting?

BETTY:

It was a lot of different kinds of things. Anything that was realistic—boring. There was nothing abstract about the paint handling to get me so, OK, I get it, it’s a boy in a boat. Fine. I’m good with it. There is nothing else here, let’s move on. Or they were abstract paintings that were copies of essential … they were next generations down. The Pop Art I liked very much. That was really engaging to me but there was just so much that just did nothing for me so I thought: “Well, if I ever get a show, in ten years, like these people are saying I have to wait, I want people to stand there. I want them to stare at the paintings and see what I did as a painter.” When I started the Fuck Paintings, it seemed to me that I was just fulfilling my own ambition to do that.

Fuck Painting #4, 1972 (84″ x 60″)

CHRYSANNE:

And what was the first reaction? Who saw the first Fuck Painting?

BETTY:

Let’s see. I can’t remember who the first dealer was who I managed to get up there. It was really different. You could actually go to a gallery and ask them to come to your studio.

CHRYSANNE:

I remember.

BETTY:

It was different times. And they would come. And I don’t remember anymore who it was but whoever it was… you have to realize that we lived in Teachers College student housing and they were two room apartments. So the bedroom, which had the bed and the dresser was also my studio and there was a space (gestures at a small area) maybe between that painting and this stool, where I could set up the painting but obviously if I wanted to back up I had to hop on the bed. And then the living room, the other room, was Don’s studio and study, the kitchen was tacked on to one end and if you didn’t want to look at anything you put pillows in the bathtub and sat there. So that was it. So the first person to come to my studio walked in to the bedroom and ran out and then backed in. And I thought: “I wonder what it is that I really have done.”

SUSAN:

And it was a man? A male dealer?

BETTY:

Yes. They were almost all male dealers. And the men dealers were more accessible. More approachable.

SUSAN:

Because you were a woman?

BETTY:

No they weren’t interested at all. Not at all. But it was also very clear to me when I first came here because I would go around and I would act friendly and try to figure out—what is this scene that I am aspiring to join? And everybody said the same thing: “We’re not interested in people who were recently students. Come back in ten years when you have found your own voice.” And that was clear.

CHRYSANNE:

I experienced the same thing in Canada.

BETTY:

Yes, I think it was really universal. It was not the cherry picking of graduate students from studios that we have now.

CHRYSANNE:

Rothko was 42 when he had his first major solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in New York. That was standard.

video ©2012 by MOMMY

BETTY:

There is this really wonderful video called Painters Painting, a documentary on painting.

SUSAN:

Oh, it’s wonderful, yes. It was directed by Emile de Antonio. (The full title of the film is Painters Painting: A Candid History of the Modern Art Scene, 1940-1970. It was filmed in 1972.)

BETTY:

I read about it, someone mentioned it to me. I’ve watched it about four times now. You have the 40s guys and none of them had shows before they were 40. DeKooning was 44. Newmann was 45 and Hoffman was 65. Then you have Rauschenberg and Johns and the age dropped considerably. And then you have Stella and there the divide is so totally complete, the focus, the expectation. I think expectation is the correct word. What he thought his life would be compared to what the older guys had expected. Just to get to that moment. I thought, “This is a historical moment.”

CHRYSANNE:

It is, it is.

Were their any women painters at the time that you thought highly of?

BETTY:

There were the wives : Elaine De Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner. I adored their work. I was heavily enthusiastic about it. When I was an undergraduate my major painting teacher entertained us for a full three hour class on why there were no great women painters. This was long before the exhibition and research of the same name. And I kept saying: “Well what about, what about, what about,” and he was incredibly dismissive of them all, including Marisol, who was the new one.

CHRYSANNE:

She was very popular at that time.

BETTY:

Exactly. I kind of got the impression and I actually don’t know if it’s historically accurate or not but there was a period where you didn’t have to be a wife—Marisol was nobody’s wife and she was significant but they were really only going to tolerate one per movement. So you had Marisol for one kind of work and Lee Bontecou for another kind of work.

CHRYSANNE:

And Louise Nevelson for another kind of work.

BETTY:

Yes, exactly, but there wasn’t room for multiples of women and that was very disturbing.

SUSAN:

At the beginning of the eighties that was still operative.

BETTY:

I think it’s Susan Rothenberg who was instrumental in putting an end to this. At a certain point at the height of her popularity (if she’s the one I’m thinking of, it was either her or someone of her generation) — she refused to be the only woman in a show. She recognized it for tokenism and she insisted that they include others or they didn’t include her at all.

CHRYSANNE:

At the reopening of MOMA in 1984, with the new building, the International Survey of Contemporary Art included over 160 artists of which fourteen or fifteen were women. Susan Rothenberg was one of them—it was a devastating moment for a lot of people who went to that exhibition.

BETTY:

Yes, you get to see it right there in front of you: no ifs, ands, or buts. When I was an undergraduate, one of my teachers said to me: “What are you going to do after you graduate?” And I said: “Well, I’ll get my graduate degree, my M.F.A. and then I’ll go to New York and be an artist.” And he said: “The only way you’re going to make it is on your back.”

Pussy Paintings 1-9, 2011 (16″ x 16″ each)

SUSAN:

I remember that expression even when I was in college. Male faculty said that to women who had serious academic ambitions.

BETTY:

The first time I had an appointment at a gallery to bring my slides in, I was so terrified at the sexual threat that this guy had set up for me years before, that I threw up.

SUSAN:

I did read somewhere, either on your website or in a blog interview you with you that at one point—and I thought this was kind of wonderful because it reminded me of something in my experience in the ‘80s—you had begged your husband to take your work in as his.

BETTY:

I did.

SUSAN:

In the ‘80s after I finished my M.F.A. at Cal Arts, I remember sitting in a living room with a group of women discussing whether we should hire young male actors and have them take our work into galleries as their own.

BETTY:

What a wonderful idea!! In my case, I thought, “We have the same last name.” All I would do was label the work Tompkins. He was the right age, he was twelve years older than me so that made him the right age, the right gender. No, he wouldn’t do it.

SUSAN:

What was his reasoning for not wanting to do it?

BETTY:

The subject matter.

SUSAN:

Was he disapproving?

BETTY:

Actually, he was concerned because he was an academic, he taught at the time at NYU and he was concerned that it would be successful.

Cunt Painting #9, 2008 (22″ x 36″)

SUSAN:

That’s a good twist.

(Laughter.)

BETTY:

Yes, and what would that mean to his academic career if this was going to be the work that was associated with his name?

SUSAN:

That’s actually very funny.

BETTY:

I was a little pissed off at the time.

CHRYSANNE:

Did he like the Fuck Paintings?

BETTY:

Yes. He did and he didn’t. I mean, after all, they were from his photographs. Let’s just say there was a basic interest in the subject matter. I think that he was surprised at what I did with it and how determined and dogged I was with the vision of it and how I wouldn’t let anything interfere with my doing it. At the same time, I think he was mortified and nervous for himself. And probably not without cause for the period.

SUSAN:

I’m thinking there was some justification for his fears given the climate then.

BETTY:

Yes, there was. I was not a happy camper but certainly he was supporting us and I was not and so you had to pull together as a couple to keep the rent paid.

CHRYSANNE:

And the original pornography, that came from Asia?

BETTY:

Yes.

CHRYSANNE:

And was it shot in black and white?

BETTY:

They were all black and white photos, all about (gestures with thumb and forefinger) this big.

CHRYSANNE:

Were the images of Asian people or Western people?

BETTY:

They were mostly Asian. Sometimes you couldn’t tell. And sometimes I cropped things so fast and altered it so quickly it wasn’t important.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you think that the initial way that they took the images was very different from Western pornography?

Masturbation Painting #6, 2011 (54″ x 42″)

BETTY:

No. All the cropping is mine. These were scenes, orgies, two people, three people, four people, ten people. It was probably standard porn for the time. American porn in print I didn’t even know about. I’m sure it existed but I didn’t know about it.

SUSAN:

I can’t help but think about all of the theorization of male gaze that I studied in graduate school, I wonder, were you conscious of cropping them in a way that gave some kind of equal space to both sexes?

BETTY:

No. That’s really fascinating because of course it does. It was not a conscious thing. I just wanted to get a composition that sang to me. That I wanted to spend those hours painting. Of course, we are all a product of the time we live in whether deliberate or not, feminism and ideas about equality were in full force. I would have had to be unconscious to have not been influenced and I was not unconscious. Does that make sense?

SUSAN:

Yes. In any case, the more strident dialogue that developed around pornography from the feminist perspective came a bit later.

BETTY:

The general dialogue when I was first in New York—my general impression, which I think is accurate, was that the feminists were not pro pleasure.

Peep Show

SUSAN:

No. And they were certainly not pro porn.

BETTY:

They were against anything that I was doing. If you were going to theorize about it.

SUSAN:

I remember being very influenced by Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, published in 1975. I thought the way she delineated rape as a political tool was quite profound, and that’s how it functions in wars to this day, but …

BETTY:

In the stream of this current election it is a major theme. Akin is only saying what they all think. They want him to leave so that they can refocus on financial and fiscal matters but basically he has stated quite clearly their agenda.

SUSAN:

Where I wanted to go with that was that while Brownmiller’s analysis was an incredibly lucid description of power relations with respect to rape, some part of that thinking and energy became something else. The vilification of men with respect to rape was totally appropriate but it crept into the definition of sex, or somehow got laid on top of sexuality generally.

BETTY:

Yes, it did.

SUSAN:

Susan Brownmiller, I believe, was involved in the formation of Women Against Pornography, which was founded about four years after the book came out. Catherine MacKinnon was a strong supporter and while it was a crusade to prevent violence against women it seemed at the same time to be totally anti-pleasure. Their perspective made it difficult to separate victimhood from the act of sex.

BETTY:

Did you read Richard Meyer’s essay in the WAC catalogue? I’m not in the show but he wrote an essay, which I am in, and he starts the essay off by saying that almost everyone that he is going to discuss in his essay is not included in the show and that the common theme among them is as pleasure. And he goes into a terrific short history of the feminist movement, what their attitude was.

CHRYSANNE:

The well known photograph of Linda Benglis with the dildo—did you know about it at the time?

BETTY:

The dildo, I loved it! Sure I subscribed to Artforum and I opened it up and WOW! This is terrific! As a matter of fact I probably still have that issue of Artforum. I thought it was fantastic, really gutsy of her and she was beautiful, she was gorgeous.

SUSAN:

Were you attacked by women?

BETTY:

No I was ignored by everybody. You have to realize that my exhibition opportunities were so limited. I was in two group shows in 1973, one at Warren Benedict and LoGuiduce Gallery. The one at Warren Benedict was a bunch of emerging artists and the show didn’t get much attention to start with. The one at LoGuiduce Gallery got much more attention because there were heavy hitters in there. My painting hung next to an Artschwager. I have the announcement somewhere. As a friend of mine said: “I’ve heard of all of these people but who the hell is Betty Tompkins?” Don’t know. Were people upset. Well, the painting didn’t sell and as far as I know nobody ran screaming from the gallery.

SUSAN:

Was it one of the big paintings?

BETTY:

Yes. It was Fuck Painting #6 which is 84” x 60.”

SUSAN:

You must have had at least some exhibition history because in 1973 you had a painting that was going to France.

BETTY:

I was in these two shows and someone saw the painting in LoGuiduce Gallery and he was putting together a show in Paris. The idea was that it would be an auction and an exhibition—so basically, you’d get some money from doing it. So they came and they picked two paintings out and the trucker came and the packer and they were shipped off. This was before email, before internet, and phone calls were prohibitively expensive, but I got a notice that the paintings had been held up in customs and declared pornographic and were not being allowed into the country and therefore I was not going to be in this exhibition. So then there was the problem of how the hell was I going to get the paintings back, which did take a year for me to do. I didn’t know enough to call up ArtNews or Art International or any of the magazines and say: “If you’d run a little something on it maybe it will pressure them to help me get the paintings back.” I didn’t go to The New York Times. I didn’t do any of the things that people would do without thinking today. All I did was write letter after letter after letter, make phone call after phone call after phone call.

CHRYSANNE:

They might not have done anything.

BETTY:

They might not have anyway. This was happening just when Andy Warhol had some penis paintings or drawings that got stuck coming back from a show in Canada. The United States wasn’t going to let them in. So they were flopping back and forth around Niagara Falls for a while. So I read about this in the paper and thought: “Oh great, now you’re going to get the paintings back and they won’t be allowed into the country and then they will be sent back to Paris and they are going to spend eternity crossing the ocean, from one continent to the other, where I’m never going anywhere.”

SUSAN:

A nice conceptual art work.

BETTY:

I did finally get them back. And it was interesting, because even though people didn’t know about it because I really didn’t have people to tell and I didn’t know how one would go about it, there was a sense about my work that it should NOT be shown. Because that was it. After 1973, nobody would show them.

CHRYSANNE:

No one would show them?

Censored Grid #12, 2008 (17″ x 14″)

BETTY:

Zero. Zilch.

CHRYSANNE:

When did you next show?

BETTY:

The next time I showed those pieces was 2002. What I did eventually was I took them off the stretchers and I rolled them up quite carefully, put a sheet between each one and I put them under the pool table that’s in the living room and they lived there for a couple of decades. I had a small retrospective at Monmouth College in 1997 and I put two of the paintings, one of the Cow Cunt Paintings and a Fuck Painting on stretchers. So they were included in that show.

CHRYSANNE:

What did you paint after these?

BETTY:

After the Cow Cunt Paintings, I did a series with language where I would use the defining noun of whatever it was, did a lot of animals: dog, cat, cow, pig, three or four letter animals. I did a huge series of those and I had my first solo show in New York with those paintings and the dealer was, it was a very bad experience and I got so disgusted with her that I lost the discipline to do the paintings, because they were difficult. They are all difficult. We all know that—they’re all hard. But I lost the discipline to keep that vision going because of the one particular dealer. So I stopped doing those and I did a series of Muzzlemen, which were animal–headed mythological creatures and I showed those quite a lot in the East Village, during the East Village scene.

Flora

I did a solo show with Steven Styles at Sensory Evolution and was in group shows at Gracie Mansion, Sensory Evolution, Civilian warfare, Now, Nico Smith, Zeus-Trabia, among others. It was a very exciting time. For a few years, I had a piece or two on exhibit somewhere almost all of the time. Eventually the animal–headed mythological creatures became statues from Roman and Greek times with animals, I just broke them in two, in landscape or ruin settings and they eventually led to my doing….

3 Graces

I wanted to do things with real people.I found these Taschen books and they were of softcore porn from the 1890s through the 1930s. So I started a series of drawings based on those and paintings, which I did on tools. And those led me right back to the harder core stuff. So it was like this one big gigantic circle.

Flight of Diana

SUSAN:

I did read somewhere, perhaps on a blog about you—that you photographed couples having sex? But I thought all of the imagery came from pornography.

BETTY:

I never photographed anybody. I have interesting things sent to me but I don’t photograph people. I have never wanted to be in that position vis-á-vis the model.

CHRYSANNE:

People have sent you photographs of themselves?

BETTY:

Oh sure.

SUSAN:

Just like they send them to Hustler magazine.

BETTY:

Sure. It’s very easy to find my email. And I have people who volunteer. And I go: “Don’t crop. High resolution please.”

SUSAN:

Just because he’s been so in the news lately, I’m curious if the show that Paul Schimmel curated with you in Houston in 1975 was of the Fuck Paintings?

BETTY:

Yes. The review in the Houston paper said they were about as interesting as a medical textbook. For a while, I wanted to put that on my card.

SUSAN:

So he supported that work so early on?

BETTY:

Yes, he did. I think he was still in graduate school studying with Jim Harithas at the time. Paul had been a student of mine. He was a student of mine when he was in high school. I taught in a private school—the Bentley School. I thought he was a little bored by school and I challenged him. We were very close. He was always welcome at my house and often stayed there when he was in college and beyond I am very proud of his accomplishments as chief curator at L.A. MOCA. I am particularly proud of the way he handled being fired there.

SUSAN:

I noticed on your website that in 1988 you got a grant from NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts).

BETTY:

It was not for this work.

Censored Grid #10, 2008 (17″ x 14″)

SUSAN:

That is exactly what I wanted to ask because that was the period when Ronald Reagan was President and two years later (at the federal rather than state level) we had John Frohnmayer vetoing the artists who were selected by their peer review panel as recipients of NEA grants. And this veto was famously supported by Jesse Helms in the Senate on the grounds of “decency issues”. And thus we had the NEA four —Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes denied the grants that they had just been awarded.

BETTY:

That was a time when I would sit here and think that if I hadn’t already done those paintings—I’d be doing those paintings. That would be the moment to do the paintings. But the NYFA grant that I got was for the language pieces in drawing.

SUSAN:

I was made curious because I was startled by the timing of it. Because it was such a deeply conservative period.

BETTY:

It was very frightening. Although I think what is going on now is more frightening.

CHRYSANNE:

And I don’t think that NYFA was like the NEA. Jesse Helms was the problem with the NEA.

BETTY:

It was government money at the federal level. They weren’t going to give it out without conditions. It’s the public.

SUSAN:

But even NYFA is a state agency and answers to someone.

BETTY:

Yes, that is very true. There is a built-in conservatism to public money because it is public money. Makes no difference what level it is on—federal, state, local township. In my twenties, I did apply for NYFAs and NEAs. I didn’t realize it was a lost cause.

CHRYSANNE:

When you started showing again—you mentioned 2002—what happened in 2002?

BETTY :

What happened, actually happened in 1996 or 1997. I was talking to Chuck Close on the phone, and he said: “Betty, remember those paintings from the 1970s, it’s time to take them out.” I said, “What makes you think so?” He said: “I was at the Whitney Biennale and there are all these younger artists and they are trying to do what you did. And your paintings just blow them off the walls. So take those slides out.” My slides turned out to be G E3 and our mass version is G E6.  So I had a terrific photographer friend Ken Showell and I asked him if he could do anything with them and he did. He brought them up color corrected through three generations and gave me a master set.

I sent my slides around to about twenty places. I sent them around. One dealer, who is now out of business, sent me a nice note saying that he really liked them but nothing happened and everybody else just sent them back to me. And I sent them to very good galleries. My feeling was, that if they were going to go someplace, they could only go someplace with a gallery that was well established and nothing else would do. They were basically all rejected again. So I thought, “Ain’t their time yet.” And then what happened was that I heard that Jerry Saltz had said at a panel discussion that he was thinking about curating a show about sex. A friend said, “You should send him your slides.” And I’m thinking, “Oh God, not this again.” The third trip out and it’s not working and finally I decided, “What the fuck.” So, I sent him a set of slides and I put in a note that just said: “Dear Mr. Saltz, I understand that you are thinking about curating a show about sex and if you do, I hope you will consider my work. Sincerely, Betty Tompkins.” This was in 1998 or 1999.

SUSAN:

Did you know him personally at that point?

BETTY:

No. No, are you kidding. I didn’t know anybody. So I sent them off to him and nothing happened. I didn’t get them back so I figured he trashed them and he never did curate a show about sex that I knew about so I figured OK, he changed his mind. Then one day in 2002, I get a call from Mitchell Algus and he said: “ My name is Mitchell Algus, do you know who I am?” and I said: “Yes, of course, I know who you are and I’ve actually even met you.” I met him at Nicholas Krushenick’s funeral. And I said, “What do you want?” and he said: “Those paintings from the seventies; I’d like to see them.” And I was unsure actually if he meant the language pieces or sex pieces, so I said, “Sure, when do you want to come down?” and he said, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”So I thought, “Well this is new and different.”

Fuck Painting #11, 2004 (84″ x 60″)

I had the two paintings on the stretchers and I had tons of the word pieces, so I put them out and I dug up the sheet of slides and he comes over and he looks at the language pieces and he goes: “These are really interesting but that’s (points at the sex paintings) what I’m interested in.” So I said OK and I give him the sheet of slides and he says, “Yes, I saw this.” And I said, “Who gave them to you?” He said, “A critic gave them to me.” “But who?” How did this pop up years after I sent them off. I mean, it was at least three years. And finally he said to me: “Jerry Saltz came into the gallery today, put them on my desk and said: ‘I hate to see a good sheet of slides go to waste. You ought to go look at this stuff.’”

SUSAN:

That’s really wonderful.

CHRYSANNE:

So sweet.

BETTY:

I was stunned, totally stunned. And I did say to him: “You have to realize, I’ve never met Jerry Saltz, I’ve never spoken to Jerry Saltz, I don’t know Jerry Saltz. So if you’re thinking you’ll give me a show and Jerry will write about you (at the time Jerry worked at the Village Voice) in the Voice—I don’t think so.” And he said, “I appreciate your honesty.” So when he left he said: “I’m pulling together a group show that will open the season and I’m thinking about a couple of pieces for the group show. I’ll be in touch with you sometime late July or early August.”

So late July, early August comes and goes. So I think, “Get it over with.” So I call up and I leave a message on the gallery machine—because it’s August, nobody’s open. And I said, “I was just curious what was happening.” And he called me back within an hour and he said: “I’m having trouble pulling this show together, I’ll be in touch with you.” So I said, “OK, just let me know.” And in my mind everything is a no-go.

He called me about a month later and he said to me: “I didn’t like the way the show was coming together so I cancelled it. I won’t put up a show I don’t believe in and I didn’t believe in this show.” And I said, “OK. Thanks for telling me.” And he said: ”What I’d like to do instead is a solo show of those paintings and drawings.” And I said, “I’ll get back to you.” (Laughter) I didn’t know what to say. I said, “None of the paintings are on stretchers.” He said, “You’ll put them on stretchers.” I said, “None of the drawings are framed.” He said, “You’ll put them in frames, we’ll get them to the framer.” I said, “You don’t have a press release.” He said, “I’m a very good writer, Betty.” And I said, “I’ll get back to you.” He said, “When?” I said, “Tomorrow.”

So Bill comes home and I tell him this and he says, “Let me take you out to dinner.” So he takes me to our wonderful neighborhood Japanese restaurant and we’re eating Sushi and drinking wine and we come home and he goes, “Let’s look at them!” So we take the roll out from underneath the pool table and we bring it in here (into the studio) and we unroll them. I had not seen these paintings now in twenty-five years.

SUSAN:

You’d never opened that roll in all that time?

BETTY:

Once I rolled them up, that was it. History.

CHRYSANNE:

How many were there?

BETTY:

There were nine Fuck Paintings and three Cow Cunt Paintings and whatever the drawings were in my drawer. But it was the paintings of course, that were at issue—what kind of shape were they in after all this time. The light in here is not that great and it was night and we had a lot to drink and Bill is saying, “They’re in pretty good shape.” And I’m saying, “These aren’t bad, these aren’t bad.” So I called up that evening, I just called the gallery machine and I said: “I’ll call my stretcher guy in the morning and see if this is humanly possible but OK.” And he called me back the next day, started to make the arrangements, the stretcher guy came and he took everything that needed to be stretched—eight paintings. We used the Ellensburg photograph as the announcement, which I knew, if I ever did get a show with him, would be the image. Carrie Moyer was over here one day and I was showing her the catalogue from Monmouth College and that photograph is in it and she’s looking and she said: “You are going to use this for an announcement when you get to show these, right?” And I said, “Yes, yes of course.”

So there was no question what the announcement would be and after the paintings all arrived at the gallery, I had to go there because there was still a lot of cleaning up to be done on them. So I am in the big room in the back and Mitchell’s in the front room and there was a constant stream of people in and out and he knew who all of the people were. There were press people and collectors. This was my first show in Chelsea. You really have no idea what a total failure I was as an artist before all of this. I said to him one day: “Does this happen all the time, is this what happens if you have a show in Chelsea? Is there so much excitement because at shows in Chelsea everyone just shows up before the opening?” He said: “No. I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life.”

I came in one day from lunch and he’s talking to some gentleman and he introduces me to the gentleman and I recognize the gentleman’s name as a very prominent collector who had been on my mailing list for fifteen years or so and had never attended anything or recognized my existence and he introduces me to him and I say hello and I go in the back and I’m listening to their conversation, which I can’t help but hear anyway, and so they go through: how’s your family, your gall bladder, your kidney stone, whatever it was. Finally, Mitchell says: “Why are you here, the show doesn’t open for two more days?” And the guy pulls out the announcement and he says: “I got this in the mail this morning and I thought I’d come right down.” The whole thing was amazing. An incredible experience.

SUSAN:

One of the things that is interesting to me is that we tend to think if there is no big first time around, that it’s very difficult to have a resurrection but in your case there was barely a first act. From there, was Mitchell instrumental in making things happen for you in Europe?

BETTY:

Everything that has happened to me has happened because of that first show. It is truly like a fairy tale. I am very grateful to Mitchell for showing my work and standing up for it as I am for all the dealers who show it. One of them, Rodolfe Janssen, who I am showing with in Brussels, and who is also giving my work exposure in the international art fairs, when asked in an interview for Daily Canvas, Dubai Edition: “One of the art world’s greatest unsung heroes is?” replied, “Betty Tompkins.” I was so impressed by that. I still am.

Betty Tompkins, installation view, courtesy of Galerie Rodolphe Janssen

There was almost nothing before. I do sometimes wonder if I had had the big first time around or even the equivalent to what is happening to me now, whether I would still, at this point have a career or if it would have been all over with?

SUSAN:

It’s so hard to know. As a man, presumably it would have just continued.

BETTY:

It’s impossible to know because things have to evolve and things have to change. I have absolutely no idea. And it’s true that second acts are hard to come by but I think that for women it’s going to be their only act—the second act; for women of a certain age and I think it’s wonderful whenever I see it happening to anybody. It’s happening for Judith Bernstein, for instance, and it’s wonderful.

CHRYSANNE:

And in a way, for Marilyn Minter.

BETTY:

And Marilyn Minter as well. I ran into her in the street recently and she said, “The artworld loves us old broads.” (Laughter.)

Cunt Grid #2, 2003 (14″ x 11″)

CHRYSANNE:

And Joyce Pensato.

BETTY:

How old is Joyce?

SUSAN:

Early sixties?

BETTY:

I’ve never met her.

SUSAN:

She’s a fabulous spirit and this should have happened to her long ago but it just took forever.

BETTY:

And a critic like Jerry has been really instrumental in keeping that issue alive. When you hit menopause you do not lose all your juices and your creativity. If you read his essays and his books consecutively you see how consistent he is—on theme, on target—he’s incredibly supportive.

CHRYSANNE:

When did you first meet Jerry?

BETTY:

I first met Jerry at a Trisha Donnelly opening in 2004 or 2005 and I saw him there. I had spoken to him once or twice on the phone, because when the 2002 Mitchell Algus show opened, I called him up to thank him and we had a wonderful conversation about synergy and all sorts of things but I had not, in all that time, met him. I had been in the meantime, in 2003, in the Lyon Biennale. That was one of things that happened as a result of the show with Mitchell, and that was because of Bob Nickas, and I was also by then in the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou, which came out of the Lyon Biennale and I saw him there and I went up to him and I said, “Are you Jerry Saltz?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said: “I’m Betty Tompkins. I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.” And we had a lovely conversation and later Trisha said to me, “Oh, you have to meet Jerry,” and she took me over to him and said,”Jerry, this is Betty Tompkins.”

SUSAN:

This is interesting in that, I believe the late emergence of Joyce Pensato’s career was also due to help from a man who supported her work, I’m not sure but I think it was the painter Chris Wool.

CHRYSANNE:

It was a painter, yes. And she worked at David Davis for many years.

BETTY:

Really. Oh, then I know her! I’m sure.

SUSAN:

But it is interesting to me that these second acts were in large part facilitated by men.

BETTY:

Nancy Spero is another one that comes to mind. She was here in my studio when I was in my thirties or forties and she had just had a big three gallery show. Willard Gallery was the main gallery and I don’t remember what the other two were but she put up three solidly good shows. It was a major moment for her and she was almost sixty at the time and I said to Nancy, “Am I going to have to wait that long?” and she said, “You might.” And I did.

SUSAN:

There’s an expression about which I have ambivalent feelings, “Women win the only race that counts.” Because of course, women tend to outlive men by twenty years but it does seem that in the art world that’s almost mandatory for women if they want have a big career. Think of Louise Bourgeois. What would her career have been if she had died at sixty instead of ninety?

BETTY:

Well, she wouldn’t have one.

SUSAN:

And she was out there the whole time.

BETTY:

Of course this is not true for the younger generation.

SUSAN:

No, that has changed.

BETTY:

There are here a couple of generations that basically fell through the cracks. We all came to New York. Everybody told all of us that we had to wait at least ten years, which was a daunting prospect to start with and then all of a sudden it was only young painters, young artists that people were interested in and so now it’s a little bit more balanced across generations, which I prefer.

SUSAN:

That was an important and interesting aspect of the show I reviewed this summer for Hyperallergic curated by Sarvia Jasso at Joe Sheftel—that your work was included in and where we first met each other—that the artists ranged in age from 28 to 86.

BETTY:

That was one of the things that I had liked about being in the show.

SUSAN:

Yes, me too. But even now, even though artists are starting out younger, men and women both are starting out younger, when I walk around to galleries it seems to me that there is still a huge discrepancy between the number of women and the number of men represented by most of the galleries. There still seem to be way less women.

BETTY:

I have no doubt that that is true. The thing that’s interesting, of course—Bill and I have discussed this many times, is that art schools have more women students than they do men.

SUSAN:

Chrysanne and I talk about this all the time.

CHRYSANNE:

They always do.

BETTY:

And they always did. And still do.

CHRYSANNE:

I think the difference is that when you have an equal number of male to female professors….

BETTY:

My alma matter, Syracuse University—I went there a few years ago as a visiting artist. I gave a lecture and I visited any of the graduate students that wanted to meet with me. I went to their studios and I spent a day there. I wish I had done the studio visits before my lecture, it would have been different. It turned out that there was not one full-time female Fine Art faculty. Not one.

SUSAN:

I’m not even remotely surprised by that.

BETTY:

One of the students, actually, one of the most talented young women that I talked with—her work was just wonderful and she was telling me, this is how I found out, she was telling me which of her pieces her teachers had liked and which ones she liked and I said, “What gender are your teachers?” And she said they were all male. She was under so much stress she almost burst into tears. She was so relieved to be able to talk to a professional woman artist. And she had a lot of questions. I enjoyed very much spending the time with her but the stress she was under was unbelievable.

SUSAN:

I can understand that. Even at Cal Arts in the early ‘80s the females were all short-term visiting artists and there were no full-time female faculty.

BETTY:

When I was an undergraduate we only had one visiting artist at all, the whole four years and that was James Rosenquist. So it was never going to be a woman.

CHRYSANNE:

I went to two art schools. I started off at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The design and painting instructor said, “Oh, you women are here to get married?” It was the year of Kent State and then I went to Canada, which was a different experience.

BETTY:

Well, I had a teacher who just said to me: “I don’t know why I spend any time with you, you’re just going to have babies anyway.”

CHRYSANNE:

I do think that prejudice is lessening.

BETTY:

Well, there are more role models. Any time there is role model, the bar moves, the expectation changes. And it takes time. Someone recently posted on Facebook all the recent openings for painting professors. The tenure track positions had all gone to men except for one. A few untenured positions had been filled by women. So I think we would have to say that the bar is moving very slowly.

Masturbation Painting #5, 2011 (60″ x 84″)

SUSAN:

I think part of the difficulty is that subjects like art history and studying art were once considered a form of finishing school for women. It was a way for you to become interesting and educated but non-threatening marriage material. You would be more than a housewife, somehow companionable or maybe be a professional with a marginal salary that assumed support from elsewhere.

BETTY:

You could be taken to places.

SUSAN:

And you would have good taste and be a good home decorator. It wasn’t considered a professional endeavor just because you were in art school.

BETTY:

I was raised with the expectation that I would be significant to the world by my parents. Both of my parents always worked. My father was in left wing politics. We were followed by the FBI to school when I was a kid, in the days of J. Edgar Hoover. I wasn’t raised to be a housewife. And if I wanted to get married, that was fine but I was still expected to do something professionally.

SUSAN:

But many, if not most women in those days were not raised that way. Advertising back then portrayed women gleefully vacuuming their homes in cocktail dresses.

CHRYSANNE:

That’s a wonderful gift your parents bestowed on you.

SUSAN:

What bothered me was that women in art school ended up effectively subsidizing the careers of the men. There were more women studying and those women were there because they were seriously pursuing art careers, while in fact, they were making it possible for the school to continue educating students because they were paying the tuition and the men were the ones that ended up going out and getting the careers, for the most part.

BETTY:

I never thought about it that way. You may well be right about this but I was on a scholarship all the way through. It was the only way I could have gone.

SUSAN:

It’s less true. But if the proportion of women succeeding in the art world was equivalent to the proportion in schools there would be more women than men. So there’s still something wrong with this picture.

Let’s go back a moment—you had these paintings, and they were rolled up under the pool table, you were working on other subject matter—was it with a sense of relief or happiness that you were able to come back to the pornographic subject matter and find it being embraced? How did that feel?

BETTY:

It was wonderful. When I first took them out and I put the first one up on the wall to start cleaning it up for the show, I was looking at it I thought, “What the fuck was I thinking?” And I started to work on it and I thought, “Oh yeah, right, that was what I was thinking.” And it just felt wonderful to see them again. It felt really good that they were not rejected that time around and that slowly one thing led to another. It’s incredibly validating. Actually, I can’t express enough how satisfying it has been.

When I first started to use the subject matter again after that show, I didn’t want to work with the air brush, because that’s what I had done. I thought, “I did that already.” I said to Bill: “I want to make a present for Bob (Nickas) to thank him for getting me into this show (the Lyon Bienniale),” and Bill said, “What will you do?” and I said: “Why don’t we get a stamp made that says Lyon and I’ll do something with that.” He got the stamp for me and I did three drawings with it and then the Lyon part fell off. So that was the end of the Lyon drawings. The guy who made the Lyon stamp refused to make the next group of words. While I was waiting for Bill to find me someone who would make them, I did some cunt stamp drawings. I had a stamp from the ‘70s that said “COW” and I used that. Perfect pejorative. Eventually, I did have a nice group of words so I did these stamp paintings and they’re all language like this is one here (points). I had started first using language with the censored drawings of the ‘70s, after my paintings were censored, in order to hold onto my sanity. I had a censored stamp. So when I started in with the sex images again, I started with language. I did it for a couple of years and then I had terrible tendonitis in both my arms from stamping, from the impact. It was pretty clear that I would never get over the tendonitis if I didn’t stop using them and I was simultaneously working on a painting—it was a stamp painting and I was having a lot of trouble with it and I kept thinking: “If I was spraying this, if I was using an airbrush, I wonder if I could solve this problem.” I had my original airbrush but it was in terrible shape. I gave myself a treat and I bought a new airbrush. I put it in my hand and my hand said, “Where have you been?” Like it knew and it turns out that I use it a little incorrectly according to the instruction booklet that came with the airbrush, but I do it the way I do it and my hand felt really comfortable.

I’m very happy with the stamp paintings but at the point I realized that I couldn’t do them anymore, I thought that the ones that remained should be really good. And they should be the best example of it. There was this one painting that used to be in the hallway and every day I’d walk past it for three years and I’d think, “It’s not very good.” So I took it with me to Pennsylvania and slightly sanded down the surface and I sprayed over it. I thought, “Oh, I like that. Who’s next?” So I converted some of the stamp paintings to airbrush paintings. I really like working with the airbrush. And the subject matter, I now approach in a broader fashion than I had originally.

SUSAN:

When you say that, what do you mean?

BETTY:

When I first started I only did penetrative heterosexual sex and now I’ve done girl on girl paintings, I’ve done kiss paintings, I’ve done masturbation paintings, I’ve done sexual imagery with no penetration visible. I think it’s a huge subject matter and I probably have only scratched the surface after this period of time.

SUSAN:

I thought those masturbation images were unbelievably beautiful.

Masturbation Painting #2, 2009 (84″ x 60″)

BETTY:

Thank you. Thank you.

CHRYSANNE:

If you were going to give advice to a young woman artist coming to New York today, same age you were when you came here….

BETTY:

Oh, they would have it so much easier but the advice that I would give a young women artist is the same advice I would give a young man artist, which is simply, find your voice, believe in your own vision, stick to it, and don’t do it to make other people happy. Do it to make yourself happy. Because as soon as you do it to make someone else happy, there’s something false in the work and it will all fall down, whether you’re raking the money in for a minute or not. You have to do work that you believe in.

 

Portrait of Betty Tompkins in her Prince Street Studio in New York City, 22 August 2012 – © 2012 by Chrysanne Stathacos

 

A conversation with Cathy Busby

Aura portrait of Cathy Busby – © 2012 by Chrysanne Stathacos

CHRYSANNE:

You describe your work as social practice. How is social practice related to social justice, especially with regard to pain, which is a deeply emotional and feard subject?

CATHY:

I started working with pain as a way of understanding my life. I was bridging a practice between being an artist and working in communication and media studies at Concordia.

CHRYSANNE:

You got a PhD?

CATHY:

Yes, I did. That process through the ‘90’s was one of trying to read my pain and look at it in a larger context. I was trying to use my own experience with pain as a guide but move away from that and move into what was going on in popular culture. What are the different understandings and generalizations and misunderstandings about pain and how can I make a contribution that might help to open up what I felt were pretty binary understandings of pain? For instance, we know that there is physical pain and there is emotional pain. I wanted to contribute to the line of thinking where one informs the other. I also wanted to contribute to the work that was moving away from expert understandings and in the ‘90’s a new field of experts was packaging pain particularly into self-help books—and it was becoming increasingly packaged and limited to the experts.

Self-Help Library, 1994

I felt that art had a lot to contribute, art and the way artists over decades, over centuries, but particularly artists in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s worked on putting forward different formulations of what pain is: What’s good pain, what’s bad pain?

CHRYSANNE:

Was there an event that triggered your interest in pain?

CATHY:

Around 1990, I had been moving in that direction and then I started working with Bill Burns and we shared that interest. Then I had this series of deaths in my family.  My brother died of AIDS related complications and within that year my father died in a plane crash, and the woman who had been my second mother died in between those two and there were several others. It really shook me to my core. I felt like I had to reformulate myself. So I was going through a pain event in a very immediate sense. But also, growing up, I, like so many of us, lived in a family that was being pulled in different directions. My mother struggled with mental illness and I ended up taking the responsibilities of someone older than my years because I had to. Then when you get older, these things haunt you and come back in ways. With the passing away of my father, my brother and my second mother, I was reformulating myself and my work.

CHRYSANNE:

Can you tell us how you ended up showing at the New Museum and about the construct and installation of the piece?

CATHY:

Bill Burns and I were working on a book called When Pain Strikes and Laura Trippi, who was a curator at the New Museum, heard about When Pain Strikes and she invited me. She knew I was working on self-help books and knew that I was writing about self-help culture and she was very interested in having the work in the project room during Bob Flanagan’s Visiting Hours, which was about very immediate pain. She was looking for a room to come down in after the intensity of Bob’s work. Bob was going to be there much of the time and he was very ill with cystic fibrosis and treating it through his (s/m) practice.

Moyra Davey and Cathy Busby comparing books at the New Museum.
Self-Help Library, 1994

What I did was gather together several hundred self-help books and I called the work Self-Help Library. I asked that the shelving be integrated with the architecture, so they built a false wall with inset shelves so that the books would be flush with the wall. I organized them into thematic categories: a section on divorce, on headaches, another on backaches. You had perspectives from the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and ‘80’s in self-help culture, and you could see that the language and the forms of self-diagnosis and the programs for recovery were always changing with the times.

SUSAN:

I am wondering if you were familiar with a book that was published in 1985 called The Body in Pain. In it Elaine Scarry says: “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through this unshareability, through its resistance to language.” I think it is interesting that the nature of pain is its interiority and yet there is an unbelievable culture of speech that dances around it. At that exhibition at the New Museum you had your display of self-help literature confirming your understanding of its speech generating tendencies and then in the interior space there was an artist, Bob Flanagan, suffering before our eyes.

Books installed into the walls at the New Museum.
Self-Help Library, 1994

CATHY:

Bob liked the idea of Self-Help Library and eventually he contributed to the book, When Pain Strikes. He did a diary in the last days of his life. He was frustrated by that time with everything, frustrated that he was dying, frustrated with me because I kept saying I want you to keep going with this and that’s all in the book. I feel there was a really interesting dialogue that was brought about because I was doing something that was trying to deal with the fact that pain is incommensurable, that it is something that one has to continually explore and feel and move with and that it’s not as containable as medical science and conventional behavioral psychology would like it to be.

SUSAN:

Was Marica Tucker still at the New Museum at that time?

CATHY:

Yes, she was the director.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you consider this piece a seminal work for you?

CATHY:

Yes, it was the beginning of integrating an activist voice with a more subjective filter.

What’s Going On?, 1986

I had been very active in anti-nuclear campaigns, and in the women’s movement around International Women’s Day, and affordable housing for single moms in the ‘80’s, but I was moving into media studies and a deeper level of searching as an artist. The work at the New Museum helped me establish my orientation, which continues to inform my practice. Not at every moment, but it’s an important thread, a grounding thread—and I do see it being about social justice. I think the silencing of pain is a terrible thing and the incapacity to allow pain to be worked through is a big problem, although it is interesting how things have changed over the past 20 years because there are also examples of excess in representations of pain that are problematic and can be diminishing.

SUSAN:

In analyzing the category of pain, would you say that you are also interested in its uneven distribution? I am thinking of Judith Butler’s recent book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? and the her discussion concerning whose lives we value. Is part of the question concerning social justice and pain about the fact that pain is unfairly and unevenly distributed?

CATHY:

Or recognized. And I suppose you are right and in terms of basic comforts certainly there is terrible unevenness in the world; but also in terms of the recognition of that—for example, the torture of women as they reach puberty in particular African countries. It isn’t a mainstream story even though there are millions of women who suffer this pain.

video ©2012 by MOMMY

CHRYSANNE:

What drew you to those self-help books and how would you see that journey from the works on pain to the public realm and a work like Sorry—which I would consider social sculpture. You moved from books to the sides of buildings.

CATHY:

It’s been a process—about a sense of confidence in filling a space. I had a major turning point in 2004, with an exhibition that I did called Totalled, where I was invited by Sandra Dyck at Carelton University Art Gallery (Ottawa) to work in conjunction with another artist, Ron Benner. He built cars and we were talking about the other space in that gallery being available and it was quite a large space with 20 foot ceilings. I had not worked in a space anywhere near that size before but I really wanted to do something with the advertising for cars that related to self-help culture. There was all this SUV advertising at the time like; “Take the road less traveled.” So I collected SUV advertising and filled the walls with promotional lines organized into categories like arrogance (“Heir to the planet”), strength, comfort, independence, and self-help.

I found a written-off 2001 Tahoe, which was a 16 foot long SUV, and I had it bisected. It had been in a rollover accident, which is the most common SUV accident. I had it cut two ways and then placed in the gallery, just its body—it had no wheels, it was just the skin of it. It had the presence of a very vulnerable container.

Totalled, 2004

And you could see that it was only about this thick (gestures with thumb and forefinger)—less than a 1/4 of an inch. The idea of this vehicle that was going to protect was quite nicely dispelled.

I explain all of that because it was an important marker in my practice in terms of scaling up. And the next substantial scaling up was my Sorry work. I collected public apologies and I had a small book made which was a collection of all of these apologies and then I had the mouths of a number of apologizers produced as digital prints which were about 4’ x 5’, so they were quite large and I presented them as a grid.

Sorry, 2011

I started a website of my work 5 years ago to have a public archive of these various projects. And I was keeping my ear to the ground for opportunities that would allow me to be able to speak boldly in my work and I heard about the Laneway Commissions project in Melbourne. I had been in Sydney presenting the Sorry prints and I had an invitation from Ocular Lab,  an artists’ co-op in Melbourne.

Righting the Wrongs, Ocular Lab, Melbourne, 2008

I did an extension of the project there in 2008, the same year that the apologies were made to Aboriginal Stolen Generations in Australia and to First Nations Residential School Survivors in Canada. That was the beginning of the We Are Sorry work, where I used the apology texts rather than the enlarged mouth imagery.

CHRYSANNE:

Who wrote the apologies?

CATHY:

The Aboriginal apology in Australia appears to have been written by pubic relations speech writers. That speech is rhetorical. There is a rhythm and this refrain: “ To the mothers and the fathers, to the brothers and the sisters…we say sorry.”

CHRYSANNE:

Because they took children away from their parents and put them in horrible situations.

CATHY:

In Canada between 1905 and the mid-1990’s children were taken from their homes and put into residential schools. First Nation’s children were forcibly assimilated through these schools which were jointly run by the churches and the government. They were poorly funded and often this meant that the food was terrible, that the employees were not the best people—they were very poorly paid. Beginning in 1999, there was a class action suit with 70,000 people signing on and the government decided to settle out of court. The settlement had three parts: a public apology, the payment of compensation and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We Are Sorry, Winnipeg, 2010

The Australian apology came through a different process. It was a popular movement over about 10 years including huge annual demonstrations. So there was popular support—it was a “Sorry” movement. In February of 2008, the incoming Kevin Rudd government apologized, keeping their election promise. The previous government had refused to make the apology. So this was all fueled through a popular movement.

We Are Sorry, Melbourne, 2009

In Canada, the apology was part of a negotiated settlement between the Assembly of First Nations and the government. They sat at the table together and agreed to the words of apology.

CHRYSANNE:

So you’ve done the project publicly in both countries? Has the reaction been different in the two countries?

CATHY:

In 2009, I did We Are Sorry as part of the Laneway Commissions in Melbourne. For that setting, I had to find the location and I was very fortunate to find a power substation. We were able to negotiate the loan of that space for up to 5 years. As a public artwork, it brought these words into the public eye and held them there. When these apologies were given, they were fleeting media moments. Each was a big spectacle and then it was gone. The version of We Are Sorry at the Winnipeg Art Gallery was in a very large hall at the entrance. It’s about 20 feet high and I had curtain-like fabric panels printed to fit around the two interior walls so it was actually about the same size as the Melbourne version. And I was very happy that they were up simultaneously.

During the same period, AA Bronson asked me if I would be interested in doing something in the pamphlet series Artists and Activists. I suggested making a souvenir pamphlet that would include both of the apologies, one starting on one side, then flip it over, and the other starts on the other side, to be silk-screened on a heavy paper so it would have this sense of something to keep. We were able to negotiate a co-publication with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Printed Matter. For me this is an invigorating aspect of the work; to bring people together whose interests cross but whose worlds are very unlikely to meet.

Sorry (first edition), 2005

In Australia there was a lot of emotion around We Are Sorry. Indigenous writer and activist John Harding, the person who wrote about Sorry for the publication and who really supported me in doing the work, performed his outrage at the treatment of Indigenous people at the opening event. He performed his text from the book and put his whole self into it. So I felt that my work became a backdrop for something very immediate and urgent to be seen, for the 150 people who were gathered for the event.

SUSAN:

The bulk of these apologies are being made by men, because men represent power. It is male spokespersons, Prime Ministers and Presidents, that are asked to deliver the apologies in the name of the governments they run. So I think it is interesting that your pieces are looking at men apologizing for their behavior or for their previous male counterparts.

CHRYSANNE:

And the taking away of children from their mothers!

CATHY:

Yes, in the case of the two apologies that we were just talking about. There’s an accountability that doing work about public apologies brings to the fore. At the same time, they are media spectacles that come and go.

CHRYSANNE:

How many apologies have you collected?

CATHY:

I have about 140. I stopped my regular collecting after about four years. I collected again for particular exhibitions. I had an exhibition at Platform Gallery last year in Winnipeg and I wanted to have some local content so I dug up about ten apologies online that were specific to Winnipeg and Manitoba.

CHRYSANNE:

Are they mostly government apologies?

CATHY:

When I started to collect public apologies in 2001, I noticed a trend starting. There were apologies coming every few days and it escalated so that you could almost have had an apology section in the paper at one point. They were CEOs, sports stars, other celebrities, and government officials. What I am trying to say is that I think apology is a very important thing in our culture and that there are some landmark public apologies that have been made and that there are more that need to be made. But they get all mixed up with marital infidelity apologies.

CHRYSANNE:

Especially from politicians.

CATHY:

Bill Clinton or Eliot Spitzer; there are many. To me, those are inconsequential in terms politics and justice. Whereas, the apologies to First Nations people for the residential schools debacle is so important and really matters.

SUSAN:

What I am not clear about is the other side of the equation, which is forgiving. It seems to me that what’s required to resolve certain situations in the world at the present moment is not simple forgiveness, but asking people to forgive that which is unforgivable. It’s asking, for example, in Rwanda, for someone to forgive the neighbor who machetied his or her parents or children—and similar obstacles exist in other places—in Bosnia, in Serbia, or between the Palestinians and the Israelis. So yes, there is an apology, but how does one deal with day-to-day life and getting past what is being apologized for, especially since as you observe, apology is being cheapened constantly by this spectacle of apology?

CATHY:

So you are asking: “How does forgiveness fit into this?”

Harriet Nahanee, 2010

SUSAN:

Yes, because if you are apologizing, aren’t you asking someone to forgive you? And the things people are asking forgiveness for in these political contexts are so serious that the apology always seems to me to be completely incommensurate with the transgression that took place. I just end up wondering if it has any meaning. The artist Boaz Arad created a video called Hebrew Lesson in which he cobbles together film clips of Hitler speaking in order to make the following words come out of his mouth, “Greetings, Jerusalem, I am deeply sorry.” This video implies to me a deep need to be apologized to and at the same time I question what it can mean against the scale of the tragedy that was perpetrated? It seems symbolically important and it is astonishingly difficult to get the apology in the first place, so something must be at stake, and yet it seems pretty easy relative to what was suffered. Which gets us back to the question of pain.

CATHY:

So if the apology functions to silence the….

SUSAN:

I don’t know how it functions. I don’t totally understand what it does.

CATHY:

Yes, of course, it’s a discourse. But I heard from First Nations people in Canada that it’s not like everyone was rejoicing about the apology. Some people felt that it was too little and way too late and I know this is true with a lot of major apologies for big things. People also felt like it was about the guilt of the oppressor and that it was about making themselves feel better; it wasn’t about resolving the inequities, the racism, and if the apology functioned as a smokescreen we’re letting them off the hook and saying, “Well now it’s all better.” Then clearly this is an inadequate thing.

SUSAN:

It is interesting that it has become a form of contemporary theater that we all feel very familiar with.

CATHY:

Yes, and also a crisis management method. What I want my work to contribute is a critical perspective. It’s not so easy to be either dismissive of the idea of the apology nor to be blindly embracing. I’m trying to keep that conversation open.

SUSAN:

I want to ask a completely unrelated question about your studies. Chrysanne and I have talked about this amongst ourselves. When I was a student in graduate school, 50% or more of the students studying were women but once school was over, it seemed to me that the opportunities went principally, though not entirely, to the men. And those opportunities went to the men with much greater ease even though they were less in number. I am wondering if your experience in Canada, which we tend to think of as our liberal neighbor to the north, was similar in this regard?

Cathy Busby painting portrait silhouettes at Union Theological Seminary.
About Face, 2012

CATHY:

I think that I am a bit of an unusual case because I finished art school and I immediately started working, running the Anna Leonowens Gallery, at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where I’d gone to school. While I was working there I kept a studio but I was developing this other professional capacity and I continued with my artwork but in a quiet way. I think this is very true for a lot of women. And then I left that job and I organized a film festival and workshops for women directors and writers and did fund raising and eventually I ended up deciding that I wanted to continue with my artist focus but I wanted to do media studies. I had a feeling that my interests in criticality were going to be better served in that setting. So in a way, I veered off into this other world. But the whole time I was doing art projects and curatorial projects—I was keeping it going but I was affiliated with this academic world. So that took me off the straight path in terms of how I might have streamed myself. I mean, I’m pleased in the long run. I really feel like I got what I needed. And it’s all there now, in my practice, in what I’m doing.

But in terms of looking at other people around me, I completely agree with you and I think it’s the same in Canada. I think it’s more like 80% women in our art schools, way more women than men, but the recognition rate, never mind what we call success, let’s just call it recognition and the pathways to recognition continue to be more open to men. However, there was a very interesting change in that pattern when Diana Nemiroff and Jessica Bradley were the curators of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada during the ‘80’s. They showed and purchased a lot of women’s work. The National Gallery actually does much better than a lot of other large museums and still continues to champion women artists and you can see that in the collection.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you think Joyce Wieland had an effect in terms of her position as a woman artist in Canada?

CATHY:

I’m not sure if she did at the time. I think she certainly did as time went on. She was the first woman to have a solo show at the National Gallery of Canada. I think many women are proud of that. I am. And such a great artist.

SUSAN:

I am thinking that we should close by talking a bit about where we are right now (at Union Theological Seminary) and the show that you did here and how you came to be at Union.

CATHY:

I was part of a group exhibition here at Union Theological Seminary that AA Bronson invited me to be a part of at the end of 2010 and I decided, even though it was a fairly small exhibition, that I would come and see this place. Also, my dad had done his M.A. here. It was so great to be able to come and see my work here and really feel like this place informed something of how my dad was. It’s something about an openness, a kind of Christianity that is really trying to be open and yet still holding onto a particular kind of God and Christ and my dad quietly wrestled with that, from the time I was quite young.

CHRYSANNE:

Were you surprised when you found out that AA Bronson was here and started a Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice?

CATHY:

I was completely surprised; one of those great coincidences in life. You know how sometimes things just confound you? And that was one of those moments, when AA said he was here and would I like to be a part of this show and it was at Union Theological Seminary. And that turned out to be a meaningful connection in terms of understanding where I came from. After being here for a day or so, and having looked around and seen these portraits, I asked AA if the Institute would consider a proposal for an artist in residence. I proposed rehanging the portraits.

The book published as part of the exhibition.
About Face, 2012

When I got here and actually got down to work in January (2012), I realized that I had to make an inventory of the work. They were scattered around and they were in various states of neglect and so I made that my primary task. I came to really care about these art objects and really wanted to account for them. I ended up deciding early on that I would make a book and that it would be an integral part of the show. It was very important to me to contextualize, write about, and present them. There are about thirty that were hanging throughout the campus. And then there were another thirty plus that I found; some in storage areas and some in odd places like closets and back rooms. For the exhibition itself, I removed the hanging portraits and painted silhouettes in their place.

SUSAN:

The paintings are all portraits?

CATHY:

Yes.

SUSAN:

Are there any women?

CATHY:

Yes. There are three women. The earliest one is from the ‘40’s and she was the founder of The School of Sacred Music and that portrait is hanging in the stairway. And then there are two in here in the refectory and they were both Chairs of the Board; one in the ‘80’s and one in the ‘90’s.

Reception at Union Theolgical Seminary.
About Face, 2012

SUSAN:

Is this ongoing? Do they continue to be painted even now?

CATHY:

The latest one was painted in 2009. The earliest one is from 1826. Some of them are quite good paintings and some of them are almost like folk art. Sometimes it was the Board deciding that a particular Chair of the Board or President of the Faculty should have their portrait painted and they would raise the money. Other times it was a gift of a family member, so they’ve arrived by different means over the years. What I like about them is that they represent the Institution’s history. It’s not just the people who were painted in these very conventional ways; all sitting, all dressed in proper attire and framed—but they are almost all damaged and I find that very interesting because they hold the life of the Seminary in their skin, in their surfaces and their frames. I find the way that they have been handled and the residue of that, the tears and punctures, really interesting; more so than if they were in pristine condition. They seem to be about institutional forgetfulness.

Portrait of Cathy Busby at Union Theological Seminary – © 2012 by Susan Silas

A conversation with Linda Montano

Portrait of Linda Montano in Kingston, New York – © 2012 by Susan Silas

SUSAN:

I wanted to begin by asking you about Marcia Tucker (founder and chief curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art from 1977 to 1999) because she was such an important figure. It’s interesting that the head of a Museum would commit to a project that is seven years long. That is an extraordinary opportunity to offer. It’s an even more extraordinary to do that seven year work but you had a collaborator and supporter—so I wondered if you could talk a little bit about your memory of Marcia.

LINDA:

First, I would like to say that I am honored to be chosen by you, Susan and Chrysanne, and I am really honored to be included in MOMMY, your project honoring women artists. I feel raised to a dignity and respect that is somewhat difficult for women because of the myth of the suffering artist who is not supposed to be visible, who is not supposed to practice, know about or deal with spiritual issues, who is not supposed to have or know about how to make money from their work. A triple-decker!

Marcia Tucker was a maverick prophetess of the arts, completely nonsentimentally visioned, brave, no nonsense, totally fearless and forthright. She took me on and adopted me and let me play in her house (Museum) for 7 years in a very respectful way and a very visioned way in that she gave me a space. We matched conceptually, she and I collaborated and that’s the best way to say it. Each of the seven years I was “installed” in the New Museum, I wore one color and Marcia had the room I was in painted according to my schedule! I sat there once a month for seven years and met people and practiced Art/Life Counseling with them. Moira Roth had written a statement about the performance and Marcia made sure that it was re-printed in the color I wore, matching my room so the manuscripts were colored red, orange, blue, green, purple, white…. When I completed the 7 years of the performance I did another window piece, after she died, in the front window—so I moved from the back window to front window.

As women artists, we have had to train ourselves to be seen because we are socialized to hide ourselves. But I think it is very important to raise ourselves—it’s like a balancing act, because we don’t want what happens when we are raised inauthentically or in the wrong way or egotistically and yet we want recognition. It’s necessary in order to balance the scale. And Marcia was a scale balancer. A really tough, sweet, scale balancer.

SUSAN:

Had you known Marica for a long time before that project began?

LINDA:

I don’t remember when I met her first but I think I went to her with the project. Probably Martha Wilson introduced us, because she does that for everybody. Martha and Marcia have a similar charisma.

SUSAN:

In reading through your website, the project with Tehching Hsieh appears to be the beginning of your work doing long endurance pieces. Had you known him before the project began? Did you feel confident from the beginning that you could do this? (This question refers to Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano’s performance titled ART/LIFE: ONE YEAR PERFORMANCE from July 4, 1983 to July 4, 1984 in which she and Tehching Hsieh were tied together by an 8 foot rope.) I know that when I set out to walk for 22 days in Germany and the Czech Republic, halfway through I sat down on a bridge and thought: “Why am I making myself do this? I don’t think I can do this.”

LINDA:

Before I met him, I was living in a Zen monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York and it was difficult to come out of hiding, out of the monastery, to adopt art again and say my practice is not just meditation, it’s not just the monastery. But the allure to work with him was strong. Martha Wilson introduced us and he was looking for someone to work with, to be tied with. The backstory is that the intensity of being with him, of being conscripted—I’m thinking military—because it was such a disciplined and militaristic piece—the intensity of being tied 24/7— in the bathroom at the same time, in the same room at the same time and yet the beauty of working with such a master—I really consider him a master, was worth the drama and interior struggle. And it helped me to think about time in a different way because I had done the handcuffed piece and blindfolded pieces but they were different time frames. When I left him I came back upstate still very attached to the form, to the discipline, to the message and the job. I wanted more, so I gave myself another seven years of endurance calling it 7 Years of Living Art and the piece eventually evolved and became 14 Years of Living Art, 1984-1998.

SUSAN:

Did you end up with a relationship with Tehching Hsieh? Was it a friendship that lasted over the years or was the relationship contained within that project?

LINDA:

For some time after, it went through permutations of accountability and visibility. The kinds of things that happen in sibling rivalry. We had become brother and sister. And now it’s just totally peaceful and quiet and he does his world and I do mine.

SUSAN:

Would you say that a love developed in the course of that year?

LINDA:

IT’S COMPLICATED!

SUSAN:

Was it difficult to never touch each other, because even siblings or friends will touch each other and hug each other or lean on each other? It’s a long period of time without the human touch.

LINDA:

My touch sensibility changed as a result of it so that when my friends were near, I was sensorially thinking—I can’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t. Can I with you or not? I found it to be a real exercise as it did create a tension and gave birth to present centeredness. It was a breathing exercise I guess you could say, via the hands, the body. I liked it. I really liked it. I like challenge and I like difficulty and I like creating parameters within the artwork and within the art world and it fit quite well. We accidentally each touched 100 times and kept records of that and records of our talking so that there were many audiotapes that are sealed. He has all this documentation now.

SUSAN:

Would you describe conversations between the two of you as intimate?

LINDA:

No. We went into Zen mode. In the beginning we talked and then we became animals and pulled, come over here, grunted—we became Siamese twins and by the end it was all smell. Not really, but I am using the word as a metaphor. We smelled each other is how I remember it, and there was a lot of moaning and groaning and pulling and tugging and gesticulating.

SUSAN:

So you didn’t require speech anymore?

LINDA:

We evolved out of speech. I use my work to go deep or to go to places where I can’t go because of my upbringing or my psychology and that piece so catapulted me to working outside of art in order to deal with life issues that I began serious therapy after that one year performance. And then the deal breaker the heart breaker, the heart opener was taking care of my dad. Of course I think that there is more to do, no more closets to unlock, no more art to make that will reveal inner secrets but these performances are all steps on the Great Wall of China, so to speak. And there is always something hidden, waiting to be revealed. My work has always dislodged my stuff.

CHRYSANNE:

How long did you take care of your dad?

LINDA:

The beginning of that story is that I was teaching at UT Austin, in the art department—performance art and history of performance and I was coming up for tenure and didn’t get tenure but kept hearing, “Linda, go be with your father” and I said, “I want tenure, I want tenure.” I loved being Miss Show Off and Miss Academia and Miss Money Maker and Miss Insurance and Miss Driving Home from Texas Each Summer and Miss Important and it was very intense teaching performance art in Texas the way I was teaching because I was a gigger, I gigged—that’s how I made my living and I was not a stayer. Giggers come in, do a gig, show off and leave. Stayers stay and are accountable. I was not a family/academia person and I was not an academic and I was not a schmoozer/caregiver in that sense of what you have to do in order to create family/job/responsible tenured professor. I was not a community builder or community maker or family creator. So because of all that, I really needed not to be there, but I had addicted myself to wanting to be there and thought I deserved to be there. The students and I had great times. That part was great, it was just the accoutrements around it…plus we were treading on subject matter that was often explosive.

So, I didn’t get the second try at tenure but I did get sent home and got to spent seven years with my father, which was another seven year performance, so to speak. Seven years teaching then seven years with dad…. Everything I had ever done as an artist was preparing me for my time with my father, who became very sick. “You think you had it hard—try this.” And I didn’t record my time with him in order to make art. It’s just that I had a camera when I was feeding him, walking with him and with the caregivers, taking him out of his wheelchair, and I used the camera because I couldn’t look with my eyes. The power of his illness was too blinding and painful and I needed a shield.

My dad and I had started collaborating on a video right after I came home from UT, while he was still very alert and well and willing to get to know me as a friend and not just a relative, and then he had a stroke and I continued video taping but I wasn’t saying, “Let’s make a video about dad.” It was just peripheral and the thinking was—I have to get behind something because I can’t look at what is happening. And the camera was there. And then after he died I needed to say goodbye as art so I eventually saw that I had footage and took it all to my collaborator/video-artist/editor/generous magician, Tobe Carey, and it all came together as a two hour video performance. I’ve only shown it a couple of times. It is mourning art.

So what I was learning from my work after 1998 was that I had put all of my eggs in the art basket and the art basket was filling up and saying: “I can’t really handle all of this, Linda. You gotta do some life. You’ve got to do some therapy.” And the spiritual basket was always part of it but I wasn’t doing it in a way that there was a balance with the three of them altogether, working as a mix—the art, the life and the spirituality.

SUSAN:

It seems as if spirituality was present in your life very early because you were raised as a Catholic and you spent time as a novice.

LINDA:

Yes, my early work was religiously themed. And then I got uppity and believed that “real” artists can’t make things that belong in church. I basically saw myself as a “liturical” artist, I guess you could say, because I was making crucifixes for my M.A. in Italy in sculpture—(I consider all of my work sculpture no matter what, my performances are sculptures. I am a sculpture.) Later on, when I went to graduate school I thought: “I can’t do crucifixes anymore, I am an artist. And serious artists don’t do spiritual, religious work and I want to be accepted so I’d better stop this crucifix stuff.” I bought the whole elitist, irony, snob artist package and I did what the crowd did and thought the way the crowd thought and I thought the way I thought artists were supposed to think and I’m kind of ashamed of that. You know, I’m really ashamed of not thinking for myself, for not continuing my original vocation. I’m abashed how easily I am diverted by the crowd.

I allowed myself to be diverted from a sacred and wonderful invitation into the mysterium, into the mystery, into the unseen, into the ecstatic, into the suggestion that there is a really incredibly spiritual place to travel. I was a traveler to these wonderful places as a child, as a Catholic child. Now I’ve returned to these roots conceptually but hey! Isn’t that the avant-garde now, Catholic art? Tsk, tsk, Linda.

I was also unteachable and I was also uncritiqueable. I’ve always been very intuitively driven and incapable of listening to any feedback or critique and I would say: “I don’t know what’s happened or what I did but just don’t say anything about it.” I was just unable to do it any other way. I didn’t have language, I didn’t have that kind of ability to work theoretically, to work communicatively and verbally and so I just continued like a banshee, doing my wild thing.

photo credit – Gisela Gamper

CHRYSANNE:

You mentioned that you had a guru. Who was he and how did you meet him? Was he able to teach or liberate you?

LINDA:

I was teaching at a Catholic women’s college in Rochester where I met my husband to be, Mitchell Payne, and low and behold this Catholic college brought in a yoga teacher, who was my teacher’s student, a woman in her eighties. This was the beginning of my thinking with yoga as an influence—applying yoga to art. And my work started incorporating meditative-looking sittings and meditational yogic looking phenomena wrapped in the mantle of Catholic imagery and white angel chickens. Then I finally met Dr. Mishra one night at the IYI (Integral Yoga Institute) on Delores Street in San Francisco. He came into the room and sat down and tranced me by strumming a guitar, one note, for a long time. I couldn’t move and my eyes couldn’t close. Trance. After that I went every day to his Ashram in San Francisco. And it was a complete spiritual/art/life adoption.

When he started teaching the Chakras, it was again an entrancement. He had the gift of inviting each person in his life into their particular vocational mystery and their particular interest; knowing how to trailblaze for them their path. And mine was through color and sound and music and structure. I am totally in love with numbers and structures and foundational thinking because of my attachment to sculpture and matter, I suppose. And the chakras suggested a 7-tiered ladder, and like the 3 aspects of the Trinity, I was immersed in stability, the Hindu way this time. Numbers keep me on the earth and he, Guruji, knew that otherwise I would be flying off with the chickens with no real discipline to stay focused or present or happy.

SUSAN:

Do you call this structure or ritual?

LINDA:

Good question. That’s a Joseph Campbell question/answer! No, we have to think of a woman who knows the answer. Why do I always think first of what man might know the answer? Not good. Let’s see, who would the woman be? Who is the one who did the movies? Maya Deren. Yes, that’s right. That’s a Maya Deren question/answer. Not sure.

SUSAN:

I was going to ask a related question, which is, whether there is some particular thing that you think distinguishes the contemplative life as it was introduced to you by Catholicism as opposed to by Buddhism?

LINDA:

I am extremely interested in this question that you are asking. Catholics fled to the East /Eastern teachings in droves because we forgot or were not taught our mystical tradition that offers techniques for tasting the divine. That is, I just read something by a professor and theologian from Union Theological Seminary who talks about “double belonging” and what happens is that if you are not in a spiritually contemplatively nourishing scene then it’s easy to get caught in the dos, don’ts, rights, wrongs and legalism of Catholicism, and not have the tools to travel internally, and ecstatically and mystically— you have to get nourished internally.

So it is tempting to belong to both traditions to balance the scales and get fed properly. I did sort of know before I left Catholicism that there were people—saints who could show me the way, because I did study them, for example: Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwoch, Hildegarde De Bingem and others, but I wasn’t in the convent long enough to understand ecstasy and to understand dissolving and to understand union or to understand betrothal and merging and forgetting the self. These are the treasures and incredibly rich invitations/gifts that the East offers us. And so, I am so grateful that I’ve had a chance to be in the company of those Eastern teachers who opened those doors for me so that I could return “home” to my Catholic self, armed with contemplation. My teacher, Dr. Ramamurti Mishra, was an endocrinologist, a multi-faceted medical doctor who left the science of medicine for yoga. He would say, “you and I have to go back to the religion of our youth,” that is, he was very Hindu and I think he saw me as very Catholic … and he was always handing me Jesus information/images. He said, “I got you out of the convent,” and I truly believe that he brought me to the East so that I could go back to the West. What a teacher is that!

What I need to say now has nothing to do with contemplation but it is an important link to my current spiritual practice because the work with my father and also teaching for seven years in a university in a situation where I had “children” or kids or students or responsibilities, helped me think about accountability and responsibility and getting to a deeper balance and so I went to my original training in Catholicism (to the 10 Commandments perchance?), and have been re-seeing this religion ever since with new eyes and ears. My question now is, what kind of Catholic are you going to be now? What kind of artist are you going to be? What memory are you going to carry? What gifts that you’ve learned can you transpose and use? Or are you going to be a sniveling little scared-y-cat Catholic girl like you were? Are you going to stand up? Are you going to be counted? Are you going to be strong? Can you be a performance art Catholic? Are you brave enough? Are you running scared of the original patriarchal lording-overness of your original Catholic training? I have no idea why I feel called to this position of Catholic-Girl-Artist. I’m just hanging on for the ride and the message.

video©2012 by MOMMY

CHRYSANNE:

Had you let go of some of the ways you had been thinking in the past?

LINDA:

I had let go some of the things that I had done as “artist.” And that’s interesting. And it corresponds with aging. There is a letting go anyway. There’s a letting go of the body, letting go of the legs, there’s a letting go of the underarm skin, there’s a letting go of the face. It’s just this process of diminution and diminishment and aging and wrinkling and prioritizing what’s really important. So, I don’t show off some of the skills I have but it’s ok. I am calling it Aikdo-Art-Catholic-Performance Art Girl. In Aikido, you step aside and win. I find this attitude happening automatically and my former fists of fight are being bandaged and un-tightened. A new sweetness is happening inside. Is this art or contemplation? I’m not sure which, maybe both. No, maybe it is aging? To put it simply, I no longer prod or make fun of or push the envelope of my Catholic roots the way I used to. Plus it is a dangerous thing to do. People are volatile these days!

SUSAN:

You said that on the heels of talking about coming back to Catholicism. Is that something that coming back to Catholicism would demand of you?

LINDA:

There are levels. You can shop around and find a Jesuit-Catholicism or a Franciscan-Catholicism or a Dominican-Catholicism or a Maryknoll Sisters-Catholicism which is very fine or you can find a fundamentalist finger-wagging and punitive Catholicism, or you can find hell and brimstone Catholicism, and you can find sin and damnation-Catholicism. So I am really discovering and inviting my friends to help me because I’m a beginner. I’m a newbie. I am shopping for the right way, the right path, the right attitude, the right balance, the correct way to do this dance again. And I receive all the help I can get this time.

CHRYSANNE:

The idea of the divine feminine or Madonna—has that influenced your artistic practice or your Catholic practice?

LINDA:

I had to find the divine feminine inculcated and embodied in a person and that woman was from India. Her name is Dr. Aruna Mehta. After we first saw each other we became sisters, mothers, daughters, friends and soul connectors. She had all of the qualities of the feminine and of the divine and had hidden herself from taking on the accoutrements of fame that she could have cultivated in order to become a world famous guru. Instead, she just exhibited and shone light and maternal love on everyone, nothing to study, just to receive! Luckily I was one of the thousands she adopted and taught how to receive love. So I had a male teacher and a female teacher, both from India…. And she was a perfect example of the unseen feminine and of the ego-free feminine.

The reason I know she was my link to the divine feminine is because when I was in Medjegorge and feeling quite sad because Mrs. Mehta was sick, I sat in front of the statue of Mother Mary in the church there and said: “Mary, I need a message from you. I’ve come here from America, paid my air fare. What do you want to say to me?” I occasionally hear good messages and Mary really said/locuted to me, “I will be your mother when Mrs. Mehta dies.”

How lucky to find a friend who can be love, teach love, show love and get our brains and hearts ready to practice love! Mrs. Mehta modeled Mother Mary and the Divine for me. And when she died, I found that I do have a new mother, I have a new model, I have a new way of relating, I have these new skills to use that are denominationally Catholic although Mrs. Mehta embodied the Kali/Durgha/Sita Hindu versions of how to relate to the world. She had all kinds of qualities that she was able to demonstrate and to perform for me so that I could learn how to be a functioning woman. I will never forget one day when I was obsessing over a house owner problem, over and over, she looked at me and said, “Listen Linda, be a man.”

SUSAN:

We have talked about letting go of the ego and about interior space. Do you feel interior space as gendered or is it gender neutral? In other words, if one is a woman, does that letting go, that erasure of ego let go to the point where gender disappears?

LINDA:

Oh yes, absolutely. It’s a sensation. I don’t think ecstasy has gender. And compassion is genderless. And when you feel it and even now the three of us are feeling it and we’re together vibrating, we’re totally right-brained and playing together.

Bilinda by Linda Montano (photo/alteration by Michael Titus Parkes)

It’s genderless. And it’s exciting and that’s why we do our spiritual work because that’s where union and ecstasy and no competition really does happen. It’s when we come down from the mountain that we have to insist, as you are doing with this project, to honor the women and remember these feisty people like Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe and Louise Bourgeois—these really fresh mouthed women. They’re kind of like Texas Rangers. They had to be tough. Talking/acting pioneers of justice and truth. In the valley we are male and female.

SUSAN:

Do you perceive a new backlash against women making it necessary to get tough again?

LINDA:

There is so much myth that we have to let go of as women, there are so many limiting beliefs, there are so many back stories that we are told as women artists, and it is sort of double trouble, it’s a double burden, the suffering myth, the money myth, and the keep quiet myth, the victim myth and yes, we always have to have the tough mind going, the clear mind, the right intention mind, the I can do it and deserve to be creative and public and/or private mind. We must take back our power and not be ashamed of doing that.

CHRYSANNE:

One of the discussions Susan and I have had—looking back at our individual practices—is about seminal work; a work that was pivotal to our development and where we are now. Is there a piece of yours that you consider seminal, that influenced other artists, or acted as a crystal ball, embodying a work that would happen in the future?

LINDA:

I love everything I do! (Laughter.) As you were talking, I was thinking, oh this one, no this one, nooo this one… Yeah, that is exciting because the word resurrection is coming up a lot, but it brought back memories, but the first thing I thought about was Chicken, the chicken work I did when I was in graduate school. It was minimal art time, and the heavy duty male sculptors were making pieces bigger than this house, out of heavy duty materials and plastics and steel and iron.

My sculpture professors were these three incredible smelly, swarthy, musky, 60-80 year old cowboy types in boots of course, who came to my studio smoking cigars and said, “What are you going to do for your MFA show?”And I said, “Chickens.” The word just popped out of my mouth, probably because the University of Wisconsin at Madison had an AG Department, and I often made visits to the chickens and found them more interesting than classes. So that was great, so beautiful to have that word, chickens as art, pop out like that!

SUSAN:

I really like the piece. Where did it come from?

LINDA:

Where does that come from? I traced it back to my Dad, his name was Hen (Henry or Enrico in Italian). He told stories about putting chickens in his mother’s kitchen, because she wouldn’t allow him to go to the movies one Saturday. But maybe it came from the fact that I was feeling like a chicken, afraid and isolated in that big university department, having to think about sculpture minimally! After graduating from there having shown 12 (symbolic number of course) live chickens in minimal art size cages as art, I became the CHICKEN WOMAN who was a combo-platter of a bird and a Catholic angel. She endured on a chicken bed, danced in the streets of San Francisco in white make-up and white gauze re-interpreting sainthood as art.

Then after the ephemera of the chicken, I became people, because the imagery of the chicken evolved into my exploration of persona. In the ’70′s, I sat in front of a video camera and came out of myself, out of Linda-as Linda with that learned ego, to become a doctor and jazz singer and nun and country western singer. I called the work creative schizophrenia. At the time I was confused, my ex-husband had been murdered, and I found a way to not be me, as art, and later practiced getting out of my skin formally when I began to seriously practice meditation.

Art always led to the next thing I needed to learn. I am being real people in performance and video: Mother Theresa, Hillary Clinton, Raka Mukerjee, Paul McMahon, Bob Dylan…and I was also Jill Johnston. Currently, I am working on a nursing home self/lady. It is in preparation for the time that I will be totally in the hands of a certified nursing aide who will have to interpret my needs, change my diaper and feed me.

My question is: How, as an artist, do I make this nursing aide woman or man’s job easier? How do I make it so her/his 8 hour days are not so crazy? How can I prepare myself so that I am compliant and courteous to these minimum waged Saints? So I am taking senior citizen exercise classes to get ready for the ones I might take at the nursing home. Also, I am learning how to let go of my bitterness so my aide doesn’t get showered with it. And I am making loud sounds to get out rage and am also practicing receiving care. I deliberately walk slowly, so I am not freaked out when and if I have to do all of these things in the future, while under the care of a 102 pound caregiver who has 4 kids at her own home and 44 women at the nursing home to care for. The resulting video will be a—pro/con, yes/no, do/don’t, right/wrong exploration of: How to prepare now for living my last years in a nursing home. The art-part will be an ironical, comical but pathetic look at this issue of aging and possibly future diaper changes with stool softeners. But what about life? Will it be a blessed event or a trauma? Can I make it artful? I think if I practice now, it might be fabulous both for me and my caregiver? Who knows.

What is my intention and real work? Learning compassion, because as I age, I want some real kindness to be spread in me and around me and not so much projecting out, producing, penis-ing. I’m tired of hanging out solo in my left brain and want to come home to ecstasy. My art will teach me, I know.

SUSAN:

I remember when I was a student reading Harold Bloom, I came across his analysis of the moment he identifies in literature when we start to see interiority on the page. He acknowledges Shakespeare as the first writer to do this. He talks about how in a play by Moliere, the interior voice would actually be spoken by someone prancing onto the stage to tell the audience what the character was thinking, whereas in Shakespeare you already start to get characters enunciating their own interiority. In our present, with its compressed time and speed and new technologies, do you think there may be another shift in the way we construct our experience or understanding of interiority?

LINDA:

My needs have changed because of facebook, because of the internet, because of Skype. This ability to connect in secret and come and go and leave and delete and choose and be so edit conscious and so not physically present is creating a need for just that—presence. I think it’s a very mystical time, because we are connected and are thinking connection and feeling connection but without the body, without the flesh. So I guess you can call that nouveau-mysticism? There are so many places and ways that we can voice ourselves and be heard that the performance of the minute to minute is available to all. Is it interiority? Is it divine presence-ing? Is it just that everyone now knows that they are a star and they know how to collect on that knowledge? I’m actually happy to be alive now because the everyday level of awareness has shifted and there are more playmates. Even if someone doesn’t declare themselves to be an artist, they have a new way of being comfortable declaring themselves to be a lifeist, another creative option that includes interiority, which is really just an awareness of impermanence. Cosmic consciousness is changing for the better.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you think mysticism, when you go deep, is electric?

LINDA:

Good question. The electromagnetic question!! Guruji used to say, “To feel is to heal.” Why don’t we just end the interview with this visualization on electricity as he would have done and as he taught us. “Feel the electromagnetic pulsation,” he would say. And a Catholic would say, “Feel the Holy Spirit,” the invisible Holy in the cells of the feet, the legs, the arms, the genitals. Forgive the genitals, forgive the pancreas, forgive the adrenals. Be grateful to the thymus, the thyroid, the pituitary, the pineal. The left brain. Electromagnetic pulsation in the left brain. Space in the right brain. The anus, the twenty eight feet from the mouth to the anus. The blood. Miles and miles of nervous system that if all laid out in line would be miles and miles. Synapsing. Billions and trillions of cells each one an intelligence. Tiny little baby noses in every pore of the body so that the stomach is breathing and the back is breathing. This tree of electricity going through the spinal column with each vertebrae stacked perfectly. Pulsating, vibrating. Beyond past, beyond present, beyond future with such ecstasy, such orgasmic, gorgeous, engulfing vibration. Begin to feel it on the face as heat and in the heart as the four rooms being cleaned for spring: front room, front door, back door of each room, letting drop out of the heart any body, any thing, any thought that needs to move and shift. The skeleton is sitting inside us. The silence of the skeleton. The silence of our death. The gratitude for our teachers, our work, our practice, our opportunities, our friends, our art and our life.

Aura portrait of Linda Montano in Kingston, New York – © 2012 by Chrysanne Stathacos

A Letter from Ida Applebroog

I’m rubber, you’re glue 1993

SUSAN:

I first encountered the work of Ida Applebroog in graduate school thanks to Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. I think it was during my first semester at Cal Arts and I can see Jeremy in one his standard dark-blue T-shirts pacing back and forth with an imaginary cigarette between his sleek fingers telling us about an art object he received through the mail. This was in 1981 and it is hard to reconstruct at this remove whether Jeremy told us that this woman artist, Ida Applebroog, was not represented by a gallery or whether I construed that (correctly or incorrectly) at the time based on what he was saying and how he said it. What I do remember is thinking a great deal about these small objects finding their audience through the mail. At that time, I had trouble deciphering whether this was a desperate “last resort” for women artists who couldn’t find representation in a male dominated art world or whether it was a form of empowerment. Certainly, just sitting around in one’s studio while one’s male peers were getting most of the attention didn’t seem very promising.

At about the same time, Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler and few other women artists began to host one night exhibitions in non-traditional spaces. The exhibitions were similar to what we might now think of as “pop-up” galleries but also resembled turn of the century salons, inviting people for drink and conversation. These women were not exhibiting in established galleries either. They were also finding avenues to their audiences without the imprimatur of the sanctioned art world. And these activities made it clear that waiting to be anointed and legitimated by someone else could be crippling for women artists and that those who believed in their work struck out on their own and found a way to be as artists in the world. And if that more traditional form of acceptance came to these women eventually, it was because they were irrepressible and sure of their creative voices in the first place. I have always thought of Ida as an inspiration and every week for 6 months when I sat down to email an image from my series Pigeon Study, 2007-2008 to my mailing list, I thought of Ida.

CHRYSANNE RESPONDS:

My experience with the work of Ida Applebroog is much different, as I first saw her work at Ronald Feldman Galley in the mid 1980’s. I felt a connection to her portrayal of women and domestic spaces, and to her use of cartoon newspaper formats. One would discover narratives which were so open ended that they also invited one’s personal stories to infiltrate the painting while viewing them. At this time there were a lot of German and Italian expressionist paintings being shown in New York and none were by women. Applebroog’s works with their elegance were a wonderful inspiration to me and influenced an early book work of mine, Venus’ Psychic Fate. Thinking back maybe it is possible that her work influenced Keith Haring…… just a thought……

SUSAN AND CHRYSANNE:

Because both of us found Ida Applebroog inspirational early in our careers we decided to ask Ida if she would consider being the first person we interviewed for our blog. While she was not able to commit to a long interview and photo shoot she did write back to us and we are very pleased to share her letter with you. She also graciously allowed us to choose the images of her work that accompany this post.

IDA APPLEBROOG:

I am sending you some text on this subject that I think will be of interest you.

I am 20 yrs. old. I work at an ad agency. It isn’t quite the “Mad Men” version of the 60s.
It is 1950. Everyone is geared toward family.
The only degree that counts is “Mrs” (M.R.S. degrees meaning to get a husband)
I am the only woman in the bullpen.
I do layout and lettering.
I hate it. So I find a job at the NY Public Library’s Arts Division. I don’t tell them this.
I say I am leaving to get married. Everyone accepts this as a positive move.
And I assure myself of getting a good reference —should  I ever need one in the future.

By age 35 I have 4 children.
Motherhood and being an artist is not exactly a formulaic proposition.
Why it is still such a taboo is something that makes me crazy…Ida Applebroog

Modern Olympia, circa 1997—2001