Group 9: Clay Works 1990 -1994

This is a rather long text. However, it has some art history that you might find interesting. & you can see the information about each work by scrolling over the image with the cursor and can enlarge images by double clicking.

In 1990 after having settled in on the East End, I had the precious experience of going to work for the erudite artist/ collector Alfonso Ossorio. His estate, called The Creeks, had been the first place I lived in the Hamptons. In 1959, the year I turned three, my parents rented the gatehouse on his property. Alfonso was very generous to artists, letting them work in a barn studio which came with the cottage rental. Clifford Still and Grace Hartigan had worked in it before my father did and Ray Parker came in the year after. 1959 was a seminal summer for my parents as it set the pattern for their life for the next 35 years. We would spend half the year in the Hamptons and half in Sarasota, following the warm weather. So I was familiar with The Creeks, and from time to time over the years, I would see Alfonso. He had wonderful parties for the art community in the summers of the early ‘60s. I have vivid memories of seeing his works and the works he collected, by Pollock, deKooning, Dubuffet and others, and also I remember chasing Lisa deKooning around the sloping lawn that led down to Georgica Pond in front of the house.

In late ‘89 the art historian Helen Harrison took me to over to his place. It had been years since I’d last seen Alfonso. Helen was interviewing him for an exhibition she was doing on the Signa Gallery. Signa was an artist run gallery founded by Alfonso, John Little and Elizabeth Parker. It was perhaps the first “alternative” gallery on the East End. Helen’s “Salute to Signa” exhibition took place in 1990 at both Guild Hall and at the East Hampton Center for Contemporary Art, then run by Jennifer Cross. The catalog for the show describes the four years of the gallery’s existence 1957 -1960 and demonstrates that Signa was among the most avant-garde galleries at the time. Not only did they show all the Abstract Expressionists as well as some young pop and performance artists but also, through Ossorio’s link to Michel Tapie, the gallery exhibited the abstract art being done in Europe by the “informel” artists as well as art by the Gutai Group, leading Japanese abstract artists. This was the scope and vibration of activity Alfonso always seemed to manifest. I’m trying to give you a picture of what I walked into that day at The Creeks… the vibrations of Alfonso’s protean life. As Helen was interviewing Alfonso in the huge studio he occupied that had been built almost a century before by the scenic painter Albert Herter, Alfonso told me to feel free to look around. At the other end of the room was a stage (that Caruso had once sang from and Isadora Duncan had once danced on) which he had converted into storage racks for big paintings. In those racks were some of the original paintings that he had actually shown at Signa, including works by Fontana, Mathieu, Serpan, Teshigahara and many others. As I was pulling works out I noticed a small grey painting, a monochromatic painting. As it turned out, I happened to know the artist. The reason I did was because another friend and artist, David Budd, had once told me about Roland Crampton, who had been a pioneer of minimalist painting, but had been almost entirely forgotten. David said that Alfonso owned a good grey one that he hoped I would get to see at some point, so I had a foreknowledge of the very painting I found that day. I held the work up for Helen and Alfonso to see and said “Hey, nice Roland Crampton!” Alfonso said, “How the hell do you know whose work that is?” It was just luck. Anyway that was my job interview… Alfonso hired me on the spot to be his assistant. It was a wonderful but limited time we spent working together. His illnesses prevented him from doing much in the studio, but he eventually confided in me enough to entrust me with his works on paper from 1950 and 1951 which he kept in a private flat file in his study off his bedroom in the house. A lot of them were made in parts, so it was important that someone know how the parts should be arranged for their presentation. It was this group of work I learned, that had impressed Dubuffet enough to write a brilliant book about them. It was also these same works which had influenced Pollock to return to the figure, which became his black and white paintings of 1951. Alfonso once spoke to us about the “treasure he was leaving his family” and in the context of where and when he said it, to Linda Alpern( his nurse) and myself while we were with him in the study, it was clear to us he was in fact, referring to these works. There were other things he wanted me to know too, about his work and collections. However Alfonso had amassed so much that even he had lost track of all he had. I later found some significant things he had lost tract of. We made one assemblage together before he got too sick to work.

It was like cleaning out the Aegean stables…his studio. There was dust everywhere and works on paper were piled up on tables under very old plastic that had turned amber and fell apart when it was touched. Alfonso had died in late 1990 and I had the job to inventory, not only all his works, but everything left in his various collections. This meant fine art, two wine cellars and a library of about 9,000 books. It took over a couple of years with 3 people working full time. I had to become familiar with the history of his collections in order to know what he still had and what he had sold. It was required for tax purposes. This task, particularly concerning the art he had collected of others, informed me in ways that could have never been predicted. I am sure his collection in the 1950s was one of the most important in the world. He had owned several important Pollocks, including “Lavender Mist”, a ton of Dubuffets including several large “Corps de Dames” paintings, 3 classic deKoonings, same with Lee Kransner, Clifford Stills and a host of other artists. By the time I came along in ‘89 all the really important paintings had been sold. That was how he paid for his conifer arboretum and the seawall that stretched along some of the mile long perimeter of his property on the pond. Even without all the major things, there were many amazing small works that had to be accounted for; erotic drawings by Dubuffet, early works by Artschwager, Michael Goldberg, Lee Krasner, Fautrier and outsider art the Surrealists called “l’art brut”. Well, it went on and on.

My thoughts regarding my own work at the time were reactionary. I had tired of working in, or thinking in, multiples, whether that meant using many pieces or just two. Returning to the country sparked my relationship to nature, to the rawness of the elements. These feelings coupled with the extreme cultural experience I was having learning from Ossorio’s collections, formed to give me a new direction. In particular, it was the exposure to l’art brut that Ossorio had been involved with, through Dubuffet that showed me just how powerful expression could be when focused through the lens of obsession and very limited means, some of the qualities which characterize the work made by the original “outsider” artists. One “maker” as they then called some of those artists, had scraped images into the walls of his cell. That really got me, the intensity and singleness of the act, and it was proof I felt that art was indispensable to humans, no matter what their “condition”. Dubuffet had gained control of the works when he took over Companie de L’ Art Brut from Andre Breton in the early 1940s. The entire collection which in 1952 consisted of 707 peices was sent by Dubuffet to Ossorio to house and exhibit at The Creeks. In Ossorio, Dubuffet found a willing conspirator in the promotion of l’art brut. Alfonso had accompanied him to Chicago where he gave a famous talk about it. It was the introduction to an entirely new kind of art in America. The collection itself was exhibited in the upper rooms of The Creeks for about ten years till it was sent to Lausanne in 1962 where Dubuffet had arranged for an official museum to be dedicated to l’art brut. I had seen some of the collection when I was a child visiting Alfonso’s house though obviously I had no way of knowing what it was all about but I loved seeing Auguste Forestier’s “Monstre” a kind of playfully made alligator constructed of found wood, feathers and other detritus which Alfonso made a practice of showing the kids of artists. Most of the artists, curators and collectors of the time saw l’ art brut collection during the 1950s. When I was cleaning up the studio, under the piles of papers, books and drawings on Ossorio’s tables I found a notebook delineating the collection, as it existed in 1952. It was written in Dubuffet’s own hand. The descriptions of each piece were incredibly meticulous. This amazing artifact and document coupled with installation shots taken by Hans Naumth of the works as they were exhibited there helped me put together the information I needed to deal with some estate matters. Dubuffet had given Alfonso about a dozen pieces from the original collection. They were works by Auguste Forestier, Wolfli, Jeanne Tripier and Chassac. Soon after settling the estate, I made sure the original notebook written by Dubuffet was given to the museum in Lausanne.

One day I was lucky to have Lynda Benglis come to my studio. We became friends after she gave a brilliant talk at the Pollock-Krasner House one summer. I was still doing prints from clay plates and she looked at the plates and said, ”why not just think of the plates as finished work?” I really liked working on the flat clay, as I could draw in it and if I didn’t like the drawing erase it completely by smooshing the soft clay over the lines I had made. For me, it was a perfect kind of erasure, as there could be no trace or pentimento left of the previous lines. When Lynda suggested that I become conscious that my process of drawing in the clay was enough, that it could be the end result and not a intermediate stage for print-making, I found I could accept that idea, because of the exposure to the raw and primitive power I had seen in l’art brut. These are what’s called “happy accidents”.

So I began to conceive of the clay work as an end in itself. This led me to think about the meaning of clay as content and generally about how material can have meaning prior to being employed in the making of a work. The connection with earth was obviously the main motif. I began to study the words, earth, clay, dirt, soil, ground, etc. The research resulted in finding a several quotes. This one is from Heidigger.

“ Once when Care was crossing a river she saw some clay. She thoughtfully took up a piece and began to shape it. While she was meditating on what she had made Jupiter came by. Care asked him to give it spirit and this he gladly granted. But when she wanted her name to be bestowed on it, he forbade this, and demanded it be given his name instead. While Care and Jupiter were disputing Earth arose and desired that her name be conferred upon the creature since she had furnished it with part of her body. They asked Saturn to be their arbiter and he made the following decision, which seemed a just one. ” Since you Jupiter have given its spirit, you shall receive that spirit at its death, and since you Earth have given its body, you shall receive its body. But since Care first shaped this creature she shall possess it as long as it lives. And now because there is a dispute among you as to its name, let it be called ‘homo” for it is made out of humus (earth)”.

Another one was from the Hidden Words by Baha’u’llah, “…with the clay of My command I made thee to appear and ordained for thy training every atom in existence…”

So clay = man and even in a very literal sense the clay beneath our feet could conceivably be made up of those who had gone before us and who now had become part of the earth. So working with clay had had a kind of sacred quality, in that it was literally and metaphorically invested with humanity.

The return to nature and being involved with environmental concerns was all wrapped up in my new consciousness. Because I was incising lines into the surface of the clay, an act of micro digging so to speak, it lead me to think that the process was directly related to the material. Now, what kind of images would be appropriate to this “digging” in the “earth”? I decided since the process was related to the material that the images too should be related to both, creating a triple level redundancy. Among the first images I used were mounds of dirt. One day driving around I spotted one of those DOT barns with the doors open which housed a huge mound of salt, for de-icing roads. So that was were mound image came from. Over the course of the years I worked in clay I would elaborate the essential structure; material > process > symbol.

I was able to show Alfonso my clay work. It was the only time he came to my house. Sick as he was, he was kind enough to make the effort. I am still not sure what he made of the work. He was most concerned with its impracticality as an art material, as the modeling clay stays soft forever. He felt I was defeating my efforts by using it and of course on many levels he was right, but I decided to venture on anyway. I also showed the work to Chuck Close that year and he too seemed reticent about it stemming from the material issue. There is a work called Chuck’s Beard, that I did after his visit.. another tribute to marks being the building blocks of imagery.

Anyway eventually I had enough work for a show and I was lucky that Arlene Bujese was willing to exhibit these difficult to sell works at her Benton Galley in Southampton. The gallery had 3 semi-separate spaces and she would produce 3 one-person shows simultaneously. My work was shown with Dan Flavin Jr.’s and Li Lan’s. It was quite a spread. Flavin was suffering from diabetes which took him, a few years later. He had been doing prints and drawings with images of sails that were quite beautiful. Li Lan made exquisite watercolors and paintings using a language that came from postal graphics; stamps, cancellation bars, envelops, etc. and then there were my soft clay works. Flavin loved the clay works and bought one called “Bridge at Langlouis”. It was an appropriation. I had taken the image from Van Gogh and drew it into the clay, then filled in the hollows of the lines with Caran clay, a neon red kid’s clay. I think that’s why Dan bought that one, the color. I had come to using other materials with the clay too, by imbedding them into the surface. I used powdered pigments, carborundum, Caran clay and bees wax.

During the years I made the clay works the images I chose to depict always had some relation to the connotation of the material and the process, no matter how obscurely tangential. “Lives of the Cell” which was named after a Lewis Thomas book had that relationship, of life coming from the earth. Reading that book and getting to meet that great man was so inspiring. That too was because of Alfonso. They had done a limited edition book together for the Fellows of the Whitney Library and I had to have Dr. Thomas sign one for a friend of Alfonso’s. When I was visiting with him, he gave me a signed copy of his book “A Long Line of Cells”. I still treasure it. Edward Albee bought “Lives of the Cell” from a show in 1996. Another work called “Race” was an image of a big mound. At first, I had four small panels underneath the larger clay one. Each was covered with powdered pigments representing the four major races/ skin colors but then I thought that was too divisive. It was better to say all races came from one source, the earth. My wonderful collectors, Alex and Lorraine, bought that one. A central meaning in the mound images, had to do with the “rise” from the flatness and nothingness of the world, and is related to the Omphalos. It is a Greek word meaning “navel’. However it has wide connotations, including fecundity, pregnancy, womb, erection, existence and even the “centeredness of man’s collective unconscious.” A decade later I was to return to this theme, but in my water phase, when the mound became the wave, its liquid equivalent.

Some images had symbolic or metaphoric meanings like “Susanna” from the Artemisia painting “Susanna and the Elders.” I felt the image of the falsely accused Susanna could stand for our misunderstanding of our relationship to nature.. how there was a difference between a legitimate stewardship and the rape of nature seen in today’s world. The scuff marks and foot prints on the surface expressed the struggle she (Nature) had, avoiding molestation. “Shiny Whites” came from the story about Christ walking with the disciples when they spotted a dead dog rotting on the ground. The disciples complained of its ugliness but Christ pointed out how beautiful its white teeth were. I love that story.

I am very happy about this particular group of works, even though from a commercial point of view, they are difficult pieces. I was honored by the bravery of those who plunked some cash down for them. I was also grateful to the curator Meg Perlman, who conducted an interview concerning these works with me, which we called “re: source” . The idea that material has its own content is something I have carried with me ever since. The following group of works, made with raw beeswax, was simply an extension of the idea found through working in clay, as has been my recent work with resin with its relation to light and water.