Deborah Grant, A Master of Reinvention
"I wanted to examine the idea of constant information bombardment or the chaos in the back of our minds juxtaposed with what is happening physically in front of us."
— Deborah Grant, interview with the author, August 4, 2014
Peering into the pictures of New York-based artist Deborah Grant is akin to viewing the jumbled, kinetic pathways of the unconscious mind. Historical fact, cultural memory, art, motifs, narratives and personalities are combined in her work in relationships that can seem familiar yet often frustrate literal translation.
An encounter with the art of Deborah Grant is a moment of disruption that nevertheless connects picture and viewer. An occasion when the present and the past may collide with our own personal memories and identities brought into conversation. Like dreams where vivid, fleeting, fractured, fantastic, factual snippets collide in search of narrative; her art seems a similar endeavor. It connects us even where the story in the picture remains unclear.
In 1996 Grant started working in a process she calls random select which brings together a surrealistic approach to drawing, painting and collage in works that often embody non-linear historical facts and pairings of artists or events that defy art historical categorization.
Grant’s solid education and extensive knowledge of art history sustain her work. She has credited Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1504) and Leonardo DaVinci’s process of observing several things at once as early influences in deriving her approach to painting.
Her “all-over density style of drawing” and the fluidity of her process can also be attributed to her fascination with Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952) when she was a child.
Art historical sources flow naturally through Grant’s oeuvre which she readily acknowledges. For example, Picasso’s study of African masks, Duchamp’s engagement with modern culture, Bill Traylor and William H. Johnson’s affinities for folk art and traditions, are all factors that have encouraged Grant to look avidly at the past, as well as the world writ large, for sources of conversation in her paintings. She has now become an emerging master at realizing new and compelling reinventions in paintings that are hers alone.
An excellent example of the artist’s random select process, with allusion to the art historical past — in both massing and flow of work (Bosch, DaVinci, Pollock) and the co-mingling of historical biography with humor or satire — can be found in her monumental panel series The Provenance and Crowning of King William. The sheer density of the underlying pictographs here read as neural highways and the overlay of cut-outs and text imply the influence of figures such as Jean Michel Basquiat and Bosch on the artist’s visual memory. In this series, as with others, “. . .Grant provides a skewed commentary and succinct narrative about an alternative art history of modernism. . . .” 1
This exploration of the life, work and syphilitic consciousness of artist William H. Johnson included a large panel teeming with finely-detailed drawings that looked like the jumbled panels of a graphic novel about Johnson over which were painted a silhouette of Jitterbugs 11, one of Johnson's best-known works, and other solid, painted figures relating to his life. The Provenance and Crowning of King William was presented by Steve Turner Contemporary in 2012.
Grant said that she intended to create a body of work in this show that comes from biographical sources on Johnson as well as a "fictional invention of an internal dialogue of Johnson's end years in Central Islip State Hospital, 1947-1970." 2 The "provenance" term in the exhibition title relates to Grant's concern about the disposition of Johnson's work when he became ill and the dismissal of a subsequent lawsuit brought by Johnson's nephew. In this exhibition, she demonstrated the brilliant, break-through style which had its genesis when she was having difficulty at Skowhegan and saw a postcard reproduction of Johnson's Moon Over Harlem. She discusses this experience in the interview that follows.
In a review of Grant’s most recent work which include Crowning the Lion and the Lamb (2014), a fictional meeting between the black folk artist Mary A. Bell (1873-1941) and modernist master Henri Matisse (1859-1954), John Yau describes her work as “a kind of hallucinatory exercise, sampling across time and genre to connect ideas based in history and personal experience with political and social issues of the present.” 3
Now in mid-career, this uniquely talented artist has been on the verge of major, art world recognition for some time but she’s not willing to play the games of schmoozing on high-profile scenes and currying favor to expedite it. Instead she defined success as an unwavering devotion to process in my August 2, 2014 interview with her. In the following excerpts from that interview, which have been condensed and edited, the artist also reflects on a range of topics including appropriation, exclusion, audience engagement and advice for aspiring artists.
JW – What are you currently working on?
DG – Okay, I don't usually reveal all of the conversations about what's going on with my next project. But I will say that I am continuing the conversation of random select from 1996 to the present in terms of the content and how it is laid out. I will say there are some key phrases to the conversation. I'll say “Vienna,” “Central Park Five” and “the three fates in Greek mythology.” And I will tell you it is going to be at Steve Turner Contemporary Gallery in Los Angeles in the fall 2015.
You mention random select and it seems you are continuing in that working process. One of the things that interested me in looking at your reviews and some of the information on your prior exhibitions is this whole idea of pairings. You have paired Henri Matisse and Mary Bell; Francis Bacon and Moms Mabley, among others. I'm very interested in what it was that drove your creative process toward realizing these kinds of pairings?
Well you know first I have to go back in time to when I was at Skowhegan in 1996. At the time I was trying to challenge these ideas of what makes good distinctive art. That was basically what the resident artists who were there were saying to us. Like try and find a uniquely good painting pattern or unique installation.
From that concept I thought of this idea of random select. Randomly things happen to us; randomly we choose things in such a way that there is a selective way in which we look at it. But I thought that was kind of corny. It was a chance studio visit with both Jacob Lawrence and Nan Goldin, who both were saying to me at the time I was there, “You know you have choice in here. There is a very selective quality, what you choose.”
During the time I was there (1996) I was working on Basquiat. I was really deep into Basquiat. Like I was deep in the ocean of Basquiat. But I had gone down so far that I didn't have room to come back up to the surface to get air. [My work] became so Basquiat that it was said to me, this looks great. You could probably sell this on the market as a Basquiat. But it’s still Basquiat.
So it was about me trying to take a look at things a little bit differently. I came up with this concept random select — this ongoing idea of deconstructing and reassembling visual work and looking historically at specific ideas that revolve around this concept of nonlinear retelling of a tale.
I wanted to examine the idea of constant information bombardment or the chaos in the back of our minds juxtaposed with what is happening physically in front of us.
I enjoyed selecting historical ideologies and putting together two people in a conversation that may have relevance to each other, or they don't. Or they could be two different opposites. I would do research and try to find those oppositions so their random engagement defines the nature of the imagery as it might pertain to social, political or other contexts.
Okay let's talk a little bit about your artistic intent and reception. When you think about your art, and the audiences engaging your work, is there any interpretation or take away message(s) that you hope audiences will perceive?
I kind of look at this idea of the viewer as he or she is part of the action of the art making process. The viewer may come with curiosity. But there's a two-pronged thing going on here.
The challenge is whether the viewers can let things envelope them and allow themselves to enjoy what they're seeing, or on the other hand, if they want to challenge the notion of the art practice and say things like, “My kid could do that.”
And I kind of shy away from that latter challenge because I feel like it’s trivial. Because it doesn't really have a connection to what it is that the artist and viewer do together.
But what’s happening in today's market … everyone wants to be an art consultant but they don't have any history in the background of the art practice. No practical aspects of the historical referencing and they are communicating about art lacking that foundation.
We are watching the galleries here in Chelsea, here in New York, becoming these huge mega-malls. I don't know if you remember the mega-malls back in the day that used to have, you know like twenty-two theaters. That's what Chelsea is feeling like to me right now.
It's not even challenging the viewer because basically we've lost close to 50 to 70 galleries since 2008, since the crash, then since hurricane Sandy. I remember really great, second-tier galleries which helped emerging artists and mid-career artists. They're gone.
And what the blue-chip galleries are basically telling the viewer — and also telling us as the artists — is: “This is how we're taking over here.” It's always fractious because people want knowledge. And it is not just about buy and sell, technology, or you know the relationship of how fast this collector can flip this particular piece. But, I feel like there has to be a balance and stability with what you're doing with your work. And working with the viewer is kind of like working on a tandem bicycle. I feel like there has to be a wholeness or oneness that's achieved through the act of making the painting and also on the viewers to look into it. It gives us both an arrangement or part of our human connection. This is the mark (in art) I am making that makes a description about either my life or what they may see in the painting and say, "I recognize something" from that, and this connection is there. So it's about connecting.
The views and interpretations of audiences about artists and their work can change or evolve over deep time. Where those interpretations morph into ones removed from your meaning or understanding of a work is that difficult? How do you grapple with the reality of letting your work go as a creator?
Yeah, that’s part of the genius and part of the sadness of it, I guess. That is part of the arrangement that's been made when you put yourself out there. You're not sure what's going to come back.
I think history is so important. I include ideas from people who are curators themselves, who are historical, or have historical knowledge whether it be Courtney Martin or Franklin Sirmans, Brooke Anderson, Sarah Lewis. These people who I worked with in the past — their referencing and choice of research is a part of the conversation and thus vital. You can't throw that away. But I think, at the same time, is understanding that history itself has many angles. And in the 21st century that's where we’re at with challenging everything.
You recalled in an interview with The Nasher Art Museum an early engagement with appropriation, relaying your experience of learning to draw by tracing reproduction post cards your mom brought home from The Brooklyn Museum. What is the role of appropriation in your work today?
I feel the concept of appropriation is open. Everything in life is accessible and it needs to be looked at over and over and over again. So, the new invention, the so-called original idea, is always kind of premised there (in the repeated looking).
The truth is there is a kind of serendipitous moment that happens between the viewer and the art making practice that creates the conversation. So in my practice, I'm looking at postmodernist artists, specifically painters in most cases. I think about this idea of the pre-existing image — whether it be Duchamp's ready-mades or Picasso’s Cubism — and the fact that both artists went and researched other existing human fiber whether it be Picasso looking at African masks or whether it be Duchamp really looking at the ideas of ready-made culture.
I kind of feel like every young student, who comes to a conversation, comes to it through some art historical context. So whether you're looking at something like Jackson Pollock's drip paintings — I register Blue Poles (1952) for myself because it was one of the first paintings that I saw as a child, and I'm thinking that it is derived from Native American sand painting.
So there are these various ways of mimicking human experience and I think the genius is to admit where you're getting your sources. There is no original concept. It's about admitting your sources. But how do you redevelop it into something new? Everyone — whether the Old Masters, etc. — all looked at each other or copied each other. And then at the same time looked at things in many different ways.
It's really the idea of reinvention. It’s your invention from source material. There are all of these art historical references and motifs, and you as the artist are looking at those, and you are sort of making a reinvention that is your own?
Right, but it’s telling who your sources are. Many artists do not like to share their sources but it’s obvious in their painting. My friend Dana Schutz talks about Matisse's palette. You know she loved Matisse's palette and so she carried with her and used this companion book (on Matisse) for years just to look at the palette.
And then there are just levels through the conversation where she is looking at Carroll Dunham — it's obvious. It’s a thing about being able to make a decision about what she's doing, but it's also about admitting it. Artists will admit sources and references amongst each other but in public they don't. I choose to put it in the public because it's already there any way and it gets it out of the way.
This relates to some of your earlier thoughts in that you have formal training as an artist, which means that you also have art historical background, you learned a lot about the history of art and so all of those things are integrated into who you are as an artist and your creative process. And I think your admission here about recognizing the significant role that plays in your art is very important for all artists.
I think so, I really do. I think that all artists do it [appropriation] and pretend it’s not happening. Doesn't make any sense to me. It’s part of that process of paying homage to the past while looking towards the concepts of the future. The marks on the wall are loud and clear, you know, whether looking at the caves thinking of a sense of where mankind came from, or whether looking at, at this point, a computer generated painting. It's all part of it and I'm not questioning the relationship of how all art practice needs to be seen, or even how work is to be made. But stay open to the fact that we are appropriating it from something.
Included in your critical reception is the thought that your work challenges canonical thinking about categories of art and artists due to its disparate relationships and historical compression. Do you see yourself as consciously deconstructing art historical categories?
I think the question you're asking is specifically about John Yau’s review. Yeah, first let me say John Yau is one of my favorite poets and writers and I was really honored when he wrote about the show that I had at the Drawing Center that I called, Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy (2014), that just floored me.
But if I had to answer your question about my intent artistically, or specifics to it, I would say: “Yes. This is part of the artistic intent I am trying to accomplish.”
I look at myself as an artist first, but at this point of the game there are many great artists worldwide who are making the same strides and their work is coming together in such a way, with no identity, no gender, no sex.
The 21st century artist is making challenges to the perception of what is good art. It's not just art done by white men. . . . The ‘isms’ of the 20th century to me feel like they've excluded so many people from participating in the canon of art history.... For
instance, how people are embracing a number of us black artists at this point of the conversation yet they ignored people like Charles Gaines (a pioneering African American conceptual artist) and any number of different people. And I feel like there is a loss of conversation here with the sad exclusion of so many people from the canon of art history necessitating us having to go back and play catch-up. . . .
Artists are influenced by the shifting change of everything which is communicated through technology today which you can get at your hands in a second. So every location around the world, whatever type of artists there is, I think there is a response to the worldwide geographies and the wide range of what is human history.
The new global visual culture is changing. The idea of its thought practice is changing. I'm thinking about a lot of artists who are coming out of Mexico and South America and in what they're doing, you can't really recognize who is who, whether a man, a woman. They’re doing work and having fun at doing the work. But they are also challenging your notions about what you think is good work. And they are looking at issues whether it be concepts around immigration or just grappling with trying to understand what it means to come up with original ideas.
It’s not about painting the painting and then putting your initials in the right hand corner. That's over. And I think that there are just so many things that artists are sourcing from that if you think it's only about a select group, it’s problematic.
I'm just trying to say I question the relationship of those galleries and those critics and those curators who are now selecting black artists when they ignored so many black artists of the past. And I'm not saying too far past, I'm talking like 1990s and the
1980s. Completely dismissed and now they're embracing us. So we've got to be very careful of who embraces us as well.
Artists need to be able to structure themselves so it is not about the dinner parties, not about the money, not about the backslapping, not about the constant press. It's about what was your fundamental drive in you making a mark. Why was that mark so important for you? How do you cultivate that mark? It's a different world and there's room for everyone as far as I'm concerned.
What you say about exclusion has been a problem
Right. Not only for artists but also the number of curators, the number of historians. You know we're still using the same names, for instance, Thelma Golden. Not to dismiss Thelma in any way. There are more people out there than just Thelma Golden who were part of the conversation and who help set a premise about what is good art making.
This exclusionary posture can also bleed over to black collectors dealing with white galleries where they're coming up against a situation where they're told in an unsolicited way, “We don’t offer discounts,” You know, certain things they say specifically to these black collectors which exclude and dismiss them. I've heard of some collectors saying that they were standing at the gallery and then the gallery had to give Thelma Golden a call to find out if she knew this collector. That’s problematic for me. That's like a Barney's thing going on. (Refers to an accusation and 2014 settlement by Barney’s Department Store on Madison Avenue, NY, for heightened surveillance and profiling of black customers).
I was at a museum for a group show opening and there was a little child running around near me, and this woman said to me, “Shouldn’t you control that child?” The child was white, and of course, I’m not. And I said to her, “Excuse me?” And she says to me, “Maybe you should get the child. She is running around and acting out. Maybe you should try to get her under control.”
And I go, “This is not my child and neither am I nanny.” So there was a perception that she got right away. These are things we put up with daily. I think that these are things that need to be dismantled and they are moving in that direction.
And, I kind of feel sorry for those artists who are doing work that hates themselves. (referencing controversial work in popular culture from artists who foster purported negative stereotypes of blacks (e.g., Rap, ‘Medea-like treatments of black women, etc.) I'm really sad for them because they're not part of this twenty-first century dialogue. They're not. They are still caught in the twentieth century, you know, self-deprecating, self-hating. To me you're stuck, good luck. Because that's not the direction art is going. That's not the direction the world is going . . . . you better be clear that in terms of dialoguing and making a conversation about specific things, get smart don't dummy down. Too many artists I know are dummying down and they don't need to.
Well that is one aspect of your art and the way you have been received—intellectualism. Do you feel yourself to be both intellectual and artist?
Well, being an intellectual is one thing, I think that the word can kind of be thrown around in a lot of different ways…. There's this way of looking at work and getting a sense of what you want to talk about specifically in the work and the intellectualism will be there.
But it’s also kind of important to feel the freedom to do the kind of work that makes you happy. Not making work for a group of people or for a concept or for now. You're looking to the future, you're not looking to the past completely, and part of the future is being able to relinquish conflicts with the past and push forward. I think that's really important.
For instance, I was a little disappointed with Kara Walker's piece that she did for the former Domino Sugar factory.4 I found that what they were discussing was how people were reacting to it. Whether they were reacting to it as over sexualized? Or whether they were reacting to it in terms of interacting with other black people? Or how it was sort of embraced? I am a fan of Kara's work but this piece for me, it fell apart, and of course it did literally fall apart, and I just felt that there were so many more elements to be looked at in terms of what she could have chosen specifically. I think she simplified it. And maybe that's the smartness of it.
But, for me, you know when they were saying how dare people over sexualize the piece or how whites are interacting with the piece, and doing certain things with their selfies, I'm like, ‘Well blame the maker. Don't throw it back at the viewer.’
The viewer is basically there to interpret what they're going to do to that particular piece. So, I was just thinking that Kara would have pushed it a little bit more but she didn't. And, I have to question that. It's not trying to be a hater on her. I just was wondering how did that relate to the women who actually did pick sugar cane in the Caribbean and in America? I don't understand the relationship and it’s become this kind of world of ‘let’s make it quick and get it through,’ and I don't see that for the future. I really don't. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know.
You received the William H. Johnson Award (2011)5 and then followed with an exhibition on Johnson’s life and art, Deborah Grant: The Provenance and Crowning of King William (2012). What did it mean to you to receive the Johnson Award?
That was huge. I wasn't familiar with William H. Johnson until about 1996. At the time my mother had sent me a post card which was Moon Over Harlem (1943-44) to kind of cheer me up because I was having a hard time at Skowhegan just kind of relating to some of the other artists and trying to understand the jargon that went with the art making practice.
I was pretty much fresh out of undergrad at that point when I was at Skowhegan so it was a thing where I began to look up the history of Johnson’s life and there were two books that I looked at, Richard Powell's book 6 and a book recommended by a future dealer called Truth Be Told by Steve Turner and Victoria Dailey. 7
It was really exciting to get this grant because I had applied for it since it was inducted in 2003. I had been applying for it and then finally got it in 2011. In fact, 2011 was the cutoff point as to whether I was still eligible to get it because you reach a certain point in your career where they say yea or nay.
Getting it was huge because I admired William H. Johnson in terms of the work that he did in the wake of adversity. He had lost his studio to a fire and in the same year his wife dies of cancer and then he's still trying to get a gallery in New York…..
When I was at Skowhegan in 1996 I remember Jacob Lawrence talking specifically about Johnson: "He had it rough." He didn't understand all aspects of what was going on around him in relationship to how it’s not about “good art.” And, for Jacob Lawrence to say that back then made a deep impression on me.
Getting a Johnson grant solidified everything I go through as an artist even presently and many of my other contemporaries, black contemporaries, who basically are going through the same process. You can go into Chelsea or London or anywhere and you can count the number of contemporary African American artists on both your hands. That's a problem. It's still a pecking order and in the chicken coop all of us are pecking at each other. (Seeking recognition and promotion to mainstream audiences through primarily white gallerists).
So, to me, getting the award, nothing has changed since the time of Johnson in terms of that fight. . . . So, to make a long story short, I love Johnson, I loved his story, I loved the relationship of learning what I learned about him and basically understanding that not much has changed.
Well, it certainly produced a very compelling series from you. So, you were obviously immersed in his work and life.
I was and I found with Truth to be Told, not to diminish from Mr. Powell's work, I found that the two worked hand in hand together—my art and that book. I know that Steve Turner and Victoria Dailey’s book has not been embraced by the academic community at all for the fact that it’s collectors making the conversation. But I don't think many people even bothered to read the book who made that statement. (Turner and Dailey’s book elicits controversy for its re-tracing of the provenance of some of the artist’s work and charges of alleged mishandling of pictures now accounted for in existing collections). 8
If you read the book, you'll see the history. You'll see the breakdown of what is happening at that particular time. And it becomes a conversation of seeing a bit of detective work that’s happening. And, it doesn't just break it down like your regular catalogue.… Catalogues have to change. You have to tell the complete history and push pass these ideas of presenting only a positive light focused primarily on formal aspects of the work. I mean it’s not accurate.
You mentioned things not being so different now and I wanted to talk to you about your odyssey as a professional artist. You moved from your education and onto the path of being shown and being critiqued. You have had numerous successful exhibitions at this point. So for our young artists, those now starting out, tell us about your path. After completing art school and fellowships, how did you start your professional career?
Well, my professional career basically started by sticking close to the educational part of it. I went to the institutions, museums, non-profits, etc. to find out specifically what programs they had to talk about the business of art.
I went to the Access Zone at the Bronx Museum and at the Access Zone you could meet with a New York curator and basically show your work through slides. At that time it was slides.
But, after a while I wanted more research concepts. The Bronx Museum also sponsored the Aim Program. At that time they selected you from a panel, then you had an interview, and they showed the work from there.
So I basically went from institution to institution The Studio Museum in Harlem and applying to the residency program. The residency programs are really important as well as the process of knowing the business aspects. I know that the Lower Council [East Side Council] something like that, they have programs where young artists can go to find out the details and relationship of how to approach a gallery or how to do things in terms of dealing with a curator. . .
An artist isn't just about painting in a space and that’s it. It’s about how you handle your business. And it’s about trying to work it in such a way that it’s not just following the trends. You can't follow trends because it will diminish from whatever it is that you're doing.
I remember my teacher Stan Whitney at Tyler School of Art saying specifically, there probably are going to be only 1 to 3 of you to go on in this [art], the rest of you are not. And there was a collective moan [among the students] — “I doubt that!”— but he was right. There's probably out of my [class] maybe only three of us who have gone on. The others decided to do something else with their lives.
(Achieving success as an artist depends on) paying attention to the relationship of understanding the business end but keeping close to your educational roots. Because those are going to help you in the process of trying to maneuver through.
It’s not about just being handpicked or selected by some dealer. I’ve been hearing so much about how young artists, still in graduate school, are showing at the Armory or they're showing at all the different art fairs. Well, why? I question that because it’s not giving room for growth.
If I showed the stuff that I did when I was coming out of graduate school, laughable, completely laughable! So I think that there has to be a time for development and within your development move with the tide as it goes don't try and take on the waves if you’ve never surfed before….
I am sick of hearing artists tell other young artists not to finish art school, take your money and invest it in what you need to do for your work and all this other BS. I find that annoying. Because, they did finish school. And, they're telling you not to.
Yes it’s definitely a business and you can learn from the business. You can also learn how to keep the perspective going so you are a functional artist, living artist, who is basically doing your work yet at the same time still making a living from it. I was able to make a living from it. I am very lucky from that standpoint.
Take the time to pick people’s brains, ask questions, always. And, also even ask questions of those specific galleries that are approaching you — you know, timelines for payments. And ask them questions specifically about how often do you change your program, because artists are dropped all the time. And it’s always said to them, “Oh we've changed the program.” And, when you're working with a curator, same thing, how are you going to handle the work? Is it going to be shipped directly back to me? And, even drawing up your own contract. These are important.
This is an interesting topic. There are many young people out there who want to be artists and they are hungry for this kind of information. What should they do? Should they pursue their formal education—art school—how do they learn about the business? What are the best moves for them in terms of showing in galleries?
Well the business part starts from the time you choose the graduate school that you are going to attend. That's part of the business because certain artists are specifically going to Yale or going to The Art Institute of Chicago or going to RISD. You've got to choose the kind of program you want and some programs promote this idea of star status or the assumption of success.
I chose to look at a program like Tyler School of Art because they were more realistic in the conversation. In fact, when I was talking to the dean at The Art Institute of Chicago when I was coming out of undergrad, she suggested to me: “You seem a little more developed in your thinking than some of the students that are here now. Have you thought of looking at Tyler School of Art because it will give you a different perspective?”
So you're going to decide what type of artist you are and also what are you looking for, from that academic aspect. That aspect is part of the business because that's where the teachers talk to friends who are curators, and so forth. And also, certain schools will bring in a group of top gallerists or top curators for students in their programs to meet. And it becomes extremely competitive from there. So, the business has already started when you are choosing a graduate program.
Is that how you ended up with Steve Turner Contemporary? Did that relationship start through your graduate program?
No. Actually I didn't have any galleries that were considering me[in graduate school]. I went to the residency programs. I applied to programs that were available at the time in which I was able to meet with a curator. You know going to the Bronx Museum for the Aim Program, for example. These were things that were available and there are more things that are even more available now. Not to mention the resource of books. Jackie Battenfield's new book is fantastic.9 It’s definitely a book to look into to understand the business end of the conversation and how it works.
I connected with Steve Turner Contemporary through a curator, Trevor Schoonmaker, now at the Nasher Museum of Art. Trevor was a young curator at the time. He was working on an exhibition and it was a pretty rough time for him. He was eating peanut butter sandwiches and sleeping on people's couches to get things done and make things happen.
So, he was no different from a lot of us[artists] because I was sleeping on my mother's couch when I got out of graduate school and then eventually used her bedroom which she moved herself out of. We had a one bedroom apartment, and she allowed me to have the back room for a studio. It was a tiny New York City bedroom.
I had met with Trevor through the Studio Museum of Harlem, through Christine Kim and Thelma Golden. He was working on a group show with Steve Turner. Steve liked my work and we had a good conversation ...and from there the rest is kind of history. I've been showing there ever since.
So it’s a thing that where if it comes too fast, well, good luck! Slow and steady is still true today. You know the tortoise always wins, really. This is not a sprint; this is a long distance run. And it’s something you need to be very calculated about at the same time be very clear in your mind about what you want to do and what your practice really is.
Good advice for anybody who wants to consider becoming an artist.
Right. And I got this information from teachers. Picking their brain and yes I could be annoying at some times but I wanted to know. I wanted to know, “how do I make a living from this?” And artists do make livings. It’s not about being a starving artist. That's a myth. It’s about really structuring yourself as part of the system.
It’s not about standing around at the openings. I used to hear people say, “Oh stand around at the openings — you know, drink your crappy wine and try and get the ear of the dealer.” I like working directly with the dealer. I don't necessarily go through the assistant to the dealer. I want to talk to the dealer.
And so, it’s about setting up letters, writing a letter, to find out whether they would be interested and telling them about your practice. There are plenty of "no’s" that will come your way but it’s still keeping that practice. . . . And another thing, also this myth about being the artist who doesn't teach. I think that’s a complete myth. I mean teaching is vital to the process of what you want to do as a working artist. That’s part of the conversation.
It’s important not to be in a hurry. It really is in this game. Take your time. I remember Christine Kim said to me, “It’s like an old grandfather clock. The pendulum moves at its pace, yet at the same time, the pendulum is not moving at the same pace in the rest of the world.” So, I agree with that. You just got to take your time.
And another thing don't screw over other people. Don't talk badly about each other. Don't dismiss. You know, try and have a clear critique. Not something where you are a hater or you're dismissing because of your jealously. You need to really cultivate that jealously, that we all have, and yet cultivate it into your work, cultivate it into your practice.
So you are a firm believer in artists having a practice that involves hands-on materials?
Absolutely. Anyone who tells me painting is dead or someone says painting is easy, they’re wrong. They're absolutely wrong. Painting is hard. Extremely hard. That's why there are so many shifts between what an artist devises and what they think they really want to sink their hands into. I chose to be a painter. I like some performance art. I like certain installations. But, I am a painter, first and foremost.
It's inspiring to listen to you talk about your work and also about your outlook as an artist. You do not embrace moving quickly into ‘star status’. You want artists to consider their pursuit as a lifelong practice not a race?
Absolutely. If we don't think of it that way [as artists] it could be a real problem. Because it has killed other artists. It killed Basquiat. It can kill you. So, don't let the printed word be the determination of what you do. Don't let sales be the determination of what you do. Believe in what you remember as a kid. What was exciting about making marks?
When you reflect upon your artistic marks and legacy, what do you want said and thought about you in deep time? Say, 150 years from now?
To keep it simple. "I tried.” It wasn't about the success. It was the process of going through it. And through process, you're able to really get to the success after you're dead and gone.
John Welch, Ph.D., is an art historian based in Philadelphia, PA.
1. Sharon F. Patton, "Expanding the Aesthetic Horizon," International Review of African American Art, vol. 24, no. 1, 2012, p. 43.
2. Juliette Harris, "Deborah Grant/The Provenance and Crowning of King William," International Review of African American Art, vol. 24, no. 1, 2012, p. 4.
3. John Yau, "Deorah Grant’s Archive of Real and Imagined Encounters," Hyperallergic, February 23, 2014.
4. A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino sugar refining plant, installation, Brooklyn NY 2014.
5. See http:/www.whjohnson.org/foundation.html
6. Richard J. Powell, Homecoming: the Art and Life of William H. Johnson, Smithsonian institution, 1991.
7. Steve Turner and Victoria Dailey, William H Johnson: Truth be Told, Louisiana Art and Science Center and Steve Turner Gallery, February 1998.
8. See Suzanne Muchnic, "Putting the Puzzle Together," L.A.. Times, January 23, 2000. M.G, Lord, A Wrangle Over a Rediscovered Artist, NY Times, January 3, 1999.
9. Jackie Battenfield, The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love, 2009.