I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Part of the The Oral History Project series.
The Oral History Project is dedicated to collecting, developing, and preserving the stories of distinguished visual artists of the African Diaspora. The Oral History Project has organized interviews including: Wangechi Mutu by Deborah Willis, Kara Walker & Larry Walker, Edward Clark by Jack Whitten, Adger Cowans by Carrie Mae Weems, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe by Kalia Brooks, Melvin Edwards by Michael Brenson, Terry Adkins by Calvin Reid, Stanley Whitney by Alteronce Gumby, Gerald Jackson by Stanley Whitney, Eldzier Cortor by Terry Carbone, Peter Bradley by Steve Cannon, Quincy Troupe & Cannon Hersey, James Little by LeRonn P. Brooks, William T. Williams by Mona Hadler, Maren Hassinger by Lowery Stokes Sims, Linda Goode Bryant by Rujeko Hockley, Janet Olivia Henry & Sana Musasama, and Willie Cole by Nancy Princenthal. Donate now to support our future oral histories.
I’m very pleased to present this introduction into the world of Gerald Jackson. I think you will find him a very rare and extremely creative human being. I have known Gerald now for over thirty years and continue to find our conversations inspiring, funny, and poignant. As an artist, his work goes from video to painting, sculpture to fashion, and music to performance.
Stanley Whitney So Gerald, I’d like to start with your early life. You’re from Chicago. Can you give us a little background about when you were born, your parents, your history?
Gerald Jackson I was born in Chicago. My father and his brothers ran a numbers racket. So my earliest memory was: I woke up, and I was in a suit. Men were walking around, guys in their suits. There was a big wheel that they would spin and get their numbers. And we were all dressed up.
SW What year was that?
GJ I was born in ’36. This was my earliest memory before the war. So, maybe I was three years old.
SW Where in Chicago?
GJ South Side. We lived on Lafayette Street. We had limo cars, too. My father and his brothers were from Freeport, Louisiana. They were hunting guys, fishing guys, big strong guys. My uncle had a farm with horses up in Michigan. [They] all could ride horses, you know. They knew horses, and I thought I knew horses. What I really wanted was a pony. They took me to the farm though. They put me on top of the horse. I freaked out. I started screaming ’cause the horse was so high off the ground! I was like, “Damn!”
SW How old were you then?
GJ I guess I was five or six years old, something like that. I just remember [a few] scenes of my early days. So I was screaming, and my father and them started laughing. And they said, “Your son is afraid of horses. He’s not man enough for some of this stuff.” I was like, “Forget you guys, man. This horse is ugly; it’s big, it’s tall.”
SW (laughter) Do you have brothers and sisters?
GJ I have one sister: Irma Jackson.
SW What did she do?
GJ My sister died. When she was working, she was like a social worker: a person who would get people outta jail if they were drunk, or get them into an apartment. She had about fifty clients, something like that. My sister was like my father in that she was like a dictator. She wanted everybody under her control. She used to make me and my cousins bark like a dog if we wanted something she had: “I’ll give you some popcorn if you bark like a dog…” She was a control freak. And my cousins—Felix, Joel, and Barbara Sandford, we all lived in the same place for a while.
SW Was it a house or was it an apartment?
GJ Well, when my mother and father divorced, my mother went over to my grandmother’s [house]. And my sister always stuck with the women, so she left with them, too.
SW So you lived with your father?
GJ She left me with my father there, in the house.
SW How old were you?
GJ I was about twelve years old.
SW Were you at all involved with the arts at that point?
GJ I was not involved with the arts. I liked model airplanes. That was what I liked to do—put them together. My father would always finish ’em because it got to be too much for me.
SW How about school?
GJ I went to a regular grammar school over there. It was kind of a mixed school when I was growing up, on 57th Street.
SW Mixed, you mean in terms of race?
GJ Well, there were a few black kids going there.
SW So, at that point the South Side wasn’t a huge black neighborhood?
GJ The South Side—this school was across the railroad tracks. The other side of the railroad tracks was all black. Once we got to the railroad tracks the white kids would stop chasing us, [but] then the black kids would start chasing me, and everybody would go their own separate ways.
GJ Every day the white kids would chase the black kids back across the tracks. And every day, the black kids would chase me back across the tracks.
SW Why would they chase you?
GJ Well, the black kids and the white kids didn’t really like me, because my complexion was different or something. In the meantime, the Italians actually shut my father and them outta business. The Italians took over the whole limo business in Chicago, and killed a bunch of black people to take over. In the black neighborhood everybody’s just thrown in there together, if you have money or if you don’t have money. Everybody on the South Side, they’re all in the ghetto.
SW Right, all the classes, rich or poor…
GJ Yeah. Everybody. So, I figured they’d been watching me jumping in and out of limos, and they harbored all this resentment towards me ’cause they thought I was better than them. When we went down and the Italians moved in, I was just like everybody else in the neighborhood. But they still built up all this animosity.
SW How old were you when that happened?
GJ All I know is that I left soon afterwards to live with my [maternal] grandmother, Viola Kidd. I was twelve years old when my father, Otis Jackson, and my mother, Daisy Kidd, divorced.
SW Was your mother from Louisiana, too?
GJ No, she was from Georgia.
SW How did your father and mother meet?
GJ My father and my mother’s brother were best friends—they were kind of gangsters. I had five uncles on my father’s side, and three uncles on my mother’s side. They were all gangsters.
SW So were there guns in your house?
GJ There were always guns around. Viola Kidd, my grandmother, met my father in court. He was there on some charges with her son Red Kidd, my mother’s brother. And that’s how they met him. Guns are part of my first memory, too. My uncles always had guns. My uncle Henry Jackson—kind of a crazy guy—one of his favorite things to do was to line us all up and pretend he was gonna shoot us with his gun.
GJ Now, he had a beautiful blue steel .38 pistol. But instead of shooting us, he would give us all a dollar or something—if he had dollars. He’d be like, “Bang, bang, bang! Here’s a dollar, here’s a dollar.” My other uncle, Joe Jackson, he had a pearl handle .45 [ACP] with some scrolls and stuff [on it]. I was looking over the fireplace one day, and this gun was just lying there on the little shelf and I took it down. And I remember it was white and silver, with gold writing on it. All these guys liked to dress up. They looked just like regular gangsters.
SW Did they tell you any stories?
GJ Oh, they had stories. The Italians were rough. This story has been written about in Chicago history, too. So, the Italians didn’t come in saying, “We want you guys to give over [your business].” They just came in shooting people. There was always violence—and there was always this threat of somebody taking you off or running you outta town. [But] my uncle and them were good. They were able to make a living in this kind of environment, even though there were guns and stuff, too.
SW Did you go to high school in Chicago?
GJ I didn’t go to a regular high school because of my background, you know. I went to a vocational school. I didn’t go to a college.
SW How long were you in vocational school? Were you a teenager?
GJ Yeah, teenager. I didn’t go to college. How did I get into art? I was working at the post office. There were two or three different incidents that brought me into the art thing.
SW Is this before the army or after?
GJ Before the army, and sort of after the army: when I was twenty-one.
SW So, when did you join the army?
GJ I’d say, ’61, ’62. In the army they select people who they think would be good killers. I was already acquainted with guns, so I tore up the firing range. I could hit the target from 400 yards, easily.
SW Mm hmm.
GJ I didn’t know that these sergeants were watching us to see who would not flinch, so they could put us into combat.
SW So, in the late ’40s, while your father and uncles were being gangsters on the South Side, you went to vocational school and then joined the army?
SW Talk a little bit more about what happened between the ’50s and ’60s.
GJ Everything I can say about the ’50s seems to me like regular stuff: we had rock n’ roll; we dressed up; we tried to sing on the corner; we played a lot of baseball, basketball. I had my team, the Jets, which actually won the championship in basketball. Our territory was from 51st Street up to 63rd Street. Everything was called “territories.” And Jets’s territory was here. So-and-so’s territory was there. The white people’s territory was over here. You couldn’t go into the white people’s territory. We couldn’t go to certain parts of the beach over there. We could go to the beach near the University of Chicago, but Jackson Park and places like that, we could not go.
SW This is the ’50s?
GJ Yeah, you know, going out to parties and meeting girls, dressing up—just regular stuff.
SW Was music ever part of your life at that time?
GJ Well, music is a part of Chicago because they have the blues. My mother and them, they liked Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. On the weekends people would get off from work and come to the South Side. It was mad. There were these bars that they would go to and watch blues performers. I would leave though. I would just leave the neighborhood till things quieted down at night, or I’d come back Sunday.
SW Where would you go?
GJ I’d go to some friend’s place. My name at that time was the “Mad Traipser,” ’cause I would traipse all over Chicago. I’d be over here, over there. I’d be over at the University of Chicago. I’d be all over the place.
SW Your name was the “Mad Traipser”?
GJ Because this guy, Benny, kept saying, “Where’s Gerald going, man? He goes everywhere; he’s like a mad traipser, man. He goes here, he goes there…” The neighborhood was crazy. It wasn’t like my father’s [neighborhood]. My father and them were kinda cool guys. These guys were crazy when they got off from work. They were mad; they were drinking. They were not like my father and ’em.
SW What kind of work were they getting off from? Do you remember?
GJ Any kind of dirty work. Like loading starch on the railroad trains, digging graves, cleaning—sanitation work—all kinds of manual labor stuff.
GJ Sometimes. They did a lot of work out there at the steel mill in Gary, [Indiana], where Michael Jackson’s from.
SW What did you study at vocational school?
GJ I studied machine shop for a while. And then I worked at a shoe shop for a while. I worked in a foundry. Again, I was traipsing around. I’d go to these different shops ’cause I had buddies that worked there, and I would find out how it was to work in those shops. A certain amount of jobs were given out to the graduating class. Everything was “a certain amount.” So, if you were not up on your homework… My family [home] wasn’t the kind of environment where you could sit down and do your studies. There was no room for phony stuff or trying to be something. You had to really be yourself or you would be confronted—somebody would challenge you. So, in this type of environment it wasn’t a place where you would sit down and study math or anything like that. I had to carry a gun when I went to school. That’s what I carried with me.
SW You’re like seventeen, sixteen?
GJ Right. And I was also racking balls at the poolroom. That’s the way I was, but at the same time there was another guy racking balls, Lawrence Taylor, who was into art. And my mother kept saying to me, “You should try to do some kinda artwork because you’re not big enough to handle what these heavy guys have to do. You can’t dig a big grave like that. You can’t carry those hundred-pound sacks,” ’cause at the post office those sacks do get heavy. And I was working at the post office.
SW That’s funny, ’cause when I was a kid, working at the post office was always a great job.
GJ Me, too—my uncle was a postman, and everybody said he gave up a good job.
GJ It was a good job. My uncle was actually accepted to go to this technical high school, which was with all the white kids, and they were smart. But again, the background, the environment, didn’t allow for that. So he did try, and he did shoot a pretty good game of pool, too. But he would lose and would start drinking. He would go all the way up and all the way down.
SW Up where?
GJ Like he would win—
SW Oh, at the pool game.
GJ The money; all the way up. And then he would lose, all the way back down.
GJ It was a common thing for people in that neighborhood. Some would go away on a scholarship.
SW Who went to college?
GJ Athletes. There were guys in our neighborhood who were superior athletes. But, they could not adjust to the college [life]. It was the same thing for all of us; none of us could adjust to that kind of atmosphere.
SW Yeah, it was like that in my neighborhood, too.
GJ They would come back and be all messed up. But they still would break ballplayers. They would get out on the court drunk and outplay everybody. That was my uncle’s tragedy. All their tragedies were the same.
SW When you say, “All their tragedies were the same,” tell me more about what you mean by that?
GJ The neighborhood, the South Side, had all of its own stuff: cleaners, doctors, dentists, clubs… this was before the projects. When people moved to the West Side [to the projects], it kind of destroyed all the infrastructure and social life of the South Side. You really didn’t have to go outside of the South Side to have fun, or do what you wanted to do. But you had the feeling you could not go outside of that. We didn’t feel like we could go to the North Side, because the police would chase us outta there. So, no matter how talented you were, you still had to adjust to that environment. It was a little slower [on the South Side]. It was really the beat, the body language. Everybody could tell who you were from a half a block away or more, just by the way you walked. Everybody had a distinct personality, but it all had a rhythm that fit in with the way you dressed. It was just a whole art form in itself, and it didn’t fit into the college environment.
SW Of the ’50s?
GJ Well, today too. If you go to Princeton your family name means something. If you go to Yale your family connections mean something because their [forefathers] went to Yale. There’s a whole history of their family being able to adjust to this curriculum. If your family is from the art world—money, family name, background, and neighborhood—all this still counts today, just like it did then.
SW You said you went to vocational school and then joined the army. Were you drafted?
GJ I was drafted.
SW You were drafted for the Vietnam War?
GJ No, that was before Vietnam.
SW In ’61 you said? Were people then trying to get out of the draft or did people just go?
GJ People just went, but I needed to go. The police were after me. My cousin—they were putting him in jail. The [police] said we robbed a bus. We never robbed a bus. My cousin and I just wanted catch up with my father who was out at Morgan Park with his brothers. Anyway, he went with me to meet up with my father. He was mad at me because he said it was my fault. I said, “But it wasn’t me. It was my father, Crow, he was the one who caused all the trouble.” We called him Crow because they said he could sit for long periods of time without talking—like a crow, sitting there, watching people. But I said, “Crow is the one who caused the trouble. I had to come and try to get money from him to go to school, and your mother told you to come with me. It wasn’t my fault.” (laughter) ’Cause we had T-shirts and Levi’s on, there was nowhere for a shotgun to be. We just left from his house to go catch up with my father. And when we got there my father and ’em went through with it. All of a sudden we had shotguns and we stuck up the bus. My cousin had about fifty offers to go to college for basketball ’cause he was a star player. And when they put him in jail he lost most of his offers. Man, he was mad at me. ’Cause he had to go with me to catch up with my father. But it was really my father’s fault ’cause he was a troublemaker. So, my cousin Felix Sanford lost all of his—
GJ But he did get a couple in Oklahoma. He told me he used to hang out with the [American] Indians out there, and also that in the basketball games people would stick pins in him. When you start playing big time basketball they do a lot of different things that you don’t do in high school. They’re dirty; they can put all kinds of stuff in you. They’ll stick a needle in you, they’ll pull any kind of thing: step on your foot, punch you in the jaw…
GJ My cousin could shoot from half court. He was a star. He could shoot because we were always acquainted with guns. And that sight, the line up mentality… But I had to leave town.
SW So that’s why you went to the army?
GJ There were two or three things going [on] at once. I had to get out of Chicago. The army came along just in time. I didn’t really wanna [join] the army. I wanted to get out of Chicago.
SW Right. You mentioned earlier that your mother brought up the subject of art to you. Was she involved in the arts?
GJ My mother was saying, “You’re not going to be able to get a job with these heavy [bags]”—although I was working at the post office loading trucks. The bags were at least a hundred pounds. I said, “You got a point there, ’cause I don’t like to throw those sacks around anyway.” So, I went down to the Art Institute [of Chicago]. I went in there and was walking around. I went down to the school section, and I saw artists down there. There were models, artists’ drawings… I said, “Finally, my mom got on to something here.” (laughter)
SW Was this before the army?
GJ Right. So I said, “I can’t believe that she came up with this. Maybe I could do this. This is much better.” At the same time, my girlfriend was saying, “Gerald, you should be an artist.” She was into the arts and poetry. I was into the poolroom. I was into dressing up. But I was trying to save my life ’cause people were after me all the time, you know. I mean I had to carry a gun to keep these fucking assholes—
SW You were a hoodlum. (laughter)
GJ I didn’t mess with anybody; just don’t mess with me. You know what I mean? But people were after me. Every time I went downtown alone, across town, over to the lake, they would chase me, over and over. I had to keep them off me. I wasn’t after them; they were after me.
SW Were they after you because of your father, Crow, was a numbers runner, or after you because everyone’s after everybody else in the neighborhood?
GJ I thought it was because we did have money at one time, and maybe my attitude, although I was very quiet. My reputation was that I could not, or would not lie to people. I just told people exactly what I thought. Everybody had to have their own personality; otherwise you’d get run over. So, I had my own personality from the time I woke up with that suit and my little shoulder-holster pistol on. And when they’d say, “Gerald,” I’d say, “That’s me.” And that’s who I was, from that day until today—the same guy.
SW Interesting, interesting. Your girlfriend—
GJ My girlfriend read. When I met her I was thinking, What is she reading? She was reading every kind of thing. She was into the arts. Our first date was at the Art Institute [of Chicago]. She kept saying, “You should be an artist.”
SW So who was your girlfriend at the time?
GJ Hannah. Her mother was a schoolteacher. She was into jazz: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue(1959). I was trying to get away from Muddy Waters—those blues guys. She was into Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, all that stuff. Edgar Allen Poe was one of her favorite [poets]. In fact, I talked to her not too long ago. I told her, “They got all these poet houses over here in the Village; maybe we should go sometime.” Anyway, so she was going to these art fairs and stuff like that. And then one day I’m going to work down at the post office. When the train was leaving the South Side, the people—they called them Negroes at that time—they made a lot of noise. And on this particular day everybody was making noise. The train went straight downtown, but then it stopped at the post office. And all those people from the South Side got off there at the post office.
GJ They were making so much noise, and I was sitting there with a friend of mine from grammar school—we called him “Chief” because he talked like an [American] Indian. And when we were outside in the cold, he would dance around like an [American] Indian. So, Chief was there and I was saying to him, “Chief, somebody threw a bottle and hit the train.” I said, “Chief, I cannot take this no more.” He said, “Now hold on, Gerald. Do you have a talent?” I said, “Man do you see what’s going on here? They’re throwing bottles at me.” He said, “Gerald, do you know what ‘talent’ is?” I said, “No, what is ‘talent’?” He said, “‘Talent’ is something that you can do easily.” When he said the word “easily,” I thought about throwing them one hundred-pound bags. I said, “What I’m doing certainly ain’t easy, but I can draw easily.” He said, “Well, that’s your talent.” I went down to the post office, thinking, That’s my talent! Okay, now! That’s my talent! Then I started thinking about the Art Institute. But when I came back to my mother, she said, “I wasn’t talking about that kind of art. I was talking about commercial art. Where all you lift is a pencil and it won’t be anything heavy.” I said, “But still, you hit on a good idea.” And so, when those three elements came together, that’s when I got interested in art, though mainly because Chief said “talent.” ’Cause a lot of guys, like I said, would leave the South Side and go to college ’cause they had talent. That’s why they went, too.
But I never thought of myself as having a talent. I don’t even know if those guys thought of themselves as having a talent. It was just something that we could do. When [Chief] said, “That’s your talent”—if Chief says it like that, then it must be true. That’s how I got into it.
SW Were they very welcoming to you at the Art Institute?
GJ No, because I didn’t have any kind of academic record. You had to have a certain amount of grades and certain level of scholarship.
SW What year was this, Gerald?
SW But did you take courses there? Or did you—
GJ I couldn’t do the day school, I could [only] go at night. So, I did go at night for a little while.
SW And what courses did you take?
GJ Painting. I started painting. Actually Chief was right ’cause it was kind of easy. It was almost like shooting, you know. [With] shooting you have to line up, you have to be a little ahead of the target—but [also] a little bit behind it. It’s all [about] lining up. Playing pool is the same way. Pool is mathematical; it’s dots you hit between. And painting is sort of mathematical, too. Anatomy—all that to me is mathematical. Like music is, to me, mathematical, too. But when you’re painting it’s just going faster. You really have to have a talent to go that fast putting those pieces together with a human touch and not make it look mathematical—[although] the structure itself is mathematical. And playing pool—and I was pretty good—is the same thing to me. A green pool table to me is the same as the canvas.
SW When you were in school, was there a particular type of painting that struck you there? Or were there teachers that mentored you?
GJ Well, I went at night. I had been going to the Art Institute with Hannah actually before any of this, because—
SW With your girlfriend?
GJ Yeah. She was a very smart person. So, I was acquainted with the arts through Hannah. She would show me her books and things like that. I was also thinking about it in terms of what my mother was saying, too. Because my mother’s original idea was for me to get outta this heavy labor stuff: “Try to get into something where you can make it.” So, there were always more or less two factors—my mother’s and Hannah’s. My mother had the wrong intention. She had the right idea but for the wrong reason.
GJ So, when I got to the Art Institute I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to get in with a scholarship, ’cause I’d been turned down by every high school in Chicago already.
SW Mm hmm.
GJ But I did go at night, while still working at the post office. And I did get the sense that maybe Chief was right. It was something I could line up. You line up the pieces in a certain kind of way, like Cubism. It’s sort of like that in a way.
SW Right. Did you have a class where you painted from a model?
GJ Yeah. I had the model thing. That was part of it.
SW Do you remember any of your teachers from those days?
GJ No. I only went for a year at the Art Institute. I just took painting. I think it was some European guy from Poland or someplace.
SW And after that you were drafted to the army? You got drafted when you turned eighteen?
SW Can you talk a little bit about your experience in the army?
GJ The army experience… There were forty or fifty guys in the barracks together. They were all men. And what [these] men appreciate are valor, honor, and courage. And if you can exhibit those qualities, you can be with the men. That’s what men do. And all those qualities were the same qualities that you had to have in Chicago if you were in the racket [business]. You had to have courage, and you had to have valor in that you were looking out for your family; you were providing for them in an environment where they said, “You can’t do that.” That’s what soldiers are confronted with.
SW Did art take a backseat then? Were you still thinking about art?
GJ They had what they called “clubs,” social places where soldiers would go: the library, the wood shop, stuff like that. They had painting easels, too. I did complete some projects: I would draw a face or a model. But I wasn’t able to put my complete emotional content into the artwork.
GJ I would go to the club and paint, but our company team was the championship team.
SW In the army?
GJ [Yeah]. I mean we beat everybody.
SW Was this baseball?
GJ Basketball. I like basketball. And so, a lot of our time was taken up with basketball. There were not many other guys in my company that were into art.
SW Right. Where were you stationed in the army?
GJ I was down at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Then I went to Korea, Japan, Guam… Then I was sent to California. I became a clerk. I worked at headquarters, you know, where everything goes down.
SW Right, right.
GJ The Red Cross, the [Military Police], all of the engineers, the lawyers, commanding officers… At headquarters, again, all of my suits, my army uniforms, were tailored. Everyday my shoes were spit-shined. I went to my office everyday.
SW Well, how did you get that job? Was it an easy one to get in the army? Before you were saying how you were a sharp shooter.
GJ Stanley, one time coming off the range, I hear some boys behind me. There were about eight white guys standing behind me. They said, “Jackson, you really tore that fucking target up.” They were Southern boys. They said, “If we get into any stuff, we wanna be with you.” And I was looking at these guys like, “What? You don’t wanna be with me.” They said, “No, man, you got it.”
SW Now, how’d you get the job working as a clerk?
GJ I took a test. Everybody had to take tests. And Chief was coming outta the test to become a typist.
SW Was he in the army with you?
GJ [Around] the same time. He was coming down the line; I was coming into the room. He had all the answers. He just gave me the answers. I passed my test. That’s how I got to be a clerk.
SW (laughter) And you were in the army for two years?
SW Japan, Guam, Asia, California… Did these places have any effect on you, in terms of your art?
GJ The army has a saying: “Ours is not [to] reason why, ours is [but] to do or die.”
GJ And art is the same thing. Every one of these things, to me, fits into art except for music. Jazz had a higher level. And Miles [Davis] and them had a higher level of communication. It was a different kind of time. There’s a time element involved.
SW What you mean by that?
GJ The time element of music—every note is indicating a particular moment in space and time, whereas in a painting color doesn’t really do that. It’s moving faster, and it comes at you optically faster. So it’s not mixing the way that music and time intervals do.
GJ Or like with blues, the emotional content is [much] stronger than the musical content. But again, you could paint “blues” in a painting without getting that blues emotional content in it. So, painting actually fits [more] easily into the way my mind works. It’s quicker, and it’s sort of like when you pull the trigger, too. It’s not something that’s gonna take a long time. The interval between when you flinch and when you pull the trigger is what they call “the moment of truth.” And that’s what the matador faces. That’s what men face when they hit the field—the field of honor. Like Van Gogh died in the field. That to me was really the field of honor. And he sacrificed himself. That’s what men do in the army, or like Van Gogh in [his] paintings. They’re confronting the same honor, the same criteria: to come through with a clean [slate].
SW So after the army you went back to Chicago?
GJ I went back to Chicago.
SW This is now, what? Early ’60s?
GJ Exactly. When I broke up with my girlfriend.
SW You broke up with [Hannah] when you came back?
GJ Well, we didn’t break up, but it was different. Everybody says you’re different when you come back [from the army], so it was different in that way. I started hanging out with people over by the University of Chicago. They had some bars over there. There was a movie house where we saw foreign movies and stuff. And we were very much up on the French aesthetic, French philosophy. I mean, it was beatnik stuff; it was bohemian. There were French berets on, [people] in the cafés… We already knew all this information, me and my little group.
SW Was this a new group since coming back from the army?
GJ Some of them were new to the group; others went to grammar school together. Like Margie, who came to New York with me. We went to grammar school together. Margie was always on the scene at the University of Chicago. Margie was a very hip person around Chicago. So we said, “Let’s go to New York and see what that’s all about.”
SW So what year did you come to New York?
GJ I think it was around ’63.
SW This is with Margie?
GJ Margie and I came. She was modeling for a while. I had met some army people who knew this guy Michael Monk who was living in the Village. He was a socialist guy who was working for one of those socialist newspapers [The National Guardian]. He said he could get me a job there at the newspaper and that I could stay at his place. So I did.
SW Were you thinking about art [then]?
GJ Yeah, because this guy Mike was living with this Japanese woman, Noriko Ito. She was going to the Brooklyn Museum School.
SW I remember the Brooklyn Museum School, yeah.
GJ That’s where I met Arthur Coppedge. Noriko got me on a work scholarship at the Brooklyn Museum [School], and that’s where I went to study drawing and painting.
SW And this is ’63?
GJ Between ’63 and ’64.
SW And you were living in the Village.
GJ Yeah, I was living on Charles Street with Michael and Noriko. Margie stayed for a while but then she went back to Chicago. I went over to a party at Arthur’s [Coppedge] place. It was a big loft on 14th Street and I said, “That’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna stay [in New York] and get a loft and paint.”
SW Was there something about New York that struck you more than Chicago?
GJ It’s a big city. If I weren’t painting, it would pretty much be the same thing as Chicago. For a person like me, no education, no money, no background, just throwing one hundred-pound bags around at the post office at that time, that was it. It would be the same here [in New York]—I could have gotten a job working at the post office. So, for me to move to New York was no different from me staying in Chicago—same kind of problems for Negroes or black people as in Chicago.
SW But you made the choice to come to New York.
GJ Because the art thing was the additional bait or lever to say, “Yes, you could stay and make it in Chicago. But if you stay here you’re gonna be throwing those bags. You’re gonna get married to somebody. You’re gonna be stuck here, and you’ll never be able to utilize your talent.”
SW So, New York—
GJ Yeah, because it turns out making art was the best idea [for me]. My mother’s idea was good because it got me started. She said, “Look, you are skinny; you are little. You can’t hang out with your daddy and them big guys.” (laughter) Everything was negative. And then I had a [history] of people chasing me, too. Black folks were getting on my case all the time. I had to carry a gun!
SW Right. So when you came to New York did you drop the gun?
GJ Well, it wasn’t really anything that you would just drop. It was just protection.
SW But when you lived in the Village did you have a gun?
GJ No. After I left the army I knew I could hit any target from 400 yards [away]. I’d done that already. I’d never had to prove—men, [soldiers] never had to prove anything like this to anybody.
SW I understand that. But I’m saying, in terms of lifestyle, now it seems like you’re in a big shift. All of the sudden you’re getting more into a bohemian, as you say, “beatnik lifestyle.” That seemed to be a big shift.
GJ Yes. Hannah was already into poetry and had a lot of exposure to this kind of stuff before these later events took place. We would sit down and read poetry to each other all the time. It wasn’t like I was just jumping off into something that I had no idea about. I also think certain minds like art. I see it more like a psychic reconstruction, the period you’re talking about. I had to deconstruct that previous construction of being a black person living on the South Side of Chicago. I had to deconstruct all of that out of my mind, and then replace it with something [else].
Whereas the problem with most of these [rehabilitation] programs is that they take away the drugs, but they don’t give you anything in return. That’s when Chief comes in. Instead of me asking them for something in return, I had my “talent,” as he told me. Later, after I went to a psychiatrist and people like that, they explained to me that my previous self that you’re talking about—my history in Chicago—had been deconstructed, and I was a person with potential. The only way to correct that would be to reconstruct my self, but I had to have a plan. Just like a drug addict would have to have a plan for their life after they quit drugs. Because all that negative stuff, your past, that’s you. We’re talking about up to this point in my life. I don’t really see [my old self] as me. I see my reconstruction as me [now], as I am today.
SW Is that reconstruction still happening, or did that reconstruction happen because you moved to New York? Did moving to New York allow you to de/reconstruct?
GJ I never would have thought about any of this deconstruction, reconstruction stuff, [until] I went to the doctor—this woman, Emily O’Brien. [She] said, “I’m gonna send you to a psychiatrist,” ’cause I was drinkin’ and goin’ crazy.
SW Was this in New York?
GJ Yeah, this was in New York. And up until that point I was still just like Gerald—I imitated the role models I grew up with, the role model of carrying a gun. It signified self-protection, self-survival: if you don’t keep these people off you, they’re gonna hurt you. But all of that stuff made up this person, who at that time was a Negro, and who made decisions based on that pre-constructed psyche. All my decisions were, except for the decisions I made about art. Those decisions became my new [persona]. When the psychiatrist told me, “You’re dead. There’s no medication, nothing that we can say—medical, mental—for you. You’re dead. You don’t have a job. You don’t have an education. To society, you don’t exist anymore.” But, this psychiatrist guy, Dr. Viller said, “You have developed a sixth sense. Like when your other senses shut down, if you don’t die or go crazy, your mind starts to make a new set of rules. And those rules will be the rules that you will follow to survive. If you try to go back, you will not survive. You can only survive by making up your total psyche from where you are now, and creativity is one of the best ways to do that.” ’Cause whenever you add creativity to something, it always gets better. Plus, I didn’t have any choice. They said, “This person is dead.” [There was no record of who I was.] So since that time, I saw myself as being dead.
SW When was that time?
GJ The time was ’77. And then recently I went with Jonathan Kaufman maybe two, three years ago to the social security office, and we asked them what was my [social security number]? And this printout came out, and it said: “There is no help for this person. There’s no medication. Permanently disabled.”
SW We’re jumping ahead ’cause I want to talk a little bit more about when you left Chicago and came to New York. I’m curious. I understand that New York’s the place to go. New York is the center of the art world. But it seems like what you’re talking about is getting away from the neighborhood, getting out of that environment.
GJ Certain people you [can] take them out of their environment, but you can’t take the environment outta them.
SW Yeah, I understand. Well, that seems to be the thing. So you come to New York and you’re out of the environment, but at the same time all your habits, or all your ideas, are based on the South Side of Chicago.
GJ I started to reconstruct this psyche into another personality, another person. I went to school over at the Brooklyn Museum, and then one day I just got up and I started painting.
SW Who was your teacher there?
GJ One of my teachers was Toshio Odate. I studied sculpture with him. And what’s the other guy’s name? I can’t think of it. I studied painting with him. He’s a figurative guy; died recently.
SW So you’re going to the Brooklyn Museum School in 1965, you’re studying art, you’re living in the Village—did you have a job?
GJ I had a job making paintings for a man who would sell them in Paris. They were scenes of flowers and fruit, and landscapes. I painted them; he’d take them to Paris to sell to tourists. He left for a couple of weeks at a time. And when he came back, I had already painted all these paintings: bananas, apples, and all this stuff. And he looked and said, “Your stuff is better than mine!”
SW What did you think was the main difference between being in New York, than say, being in Chicago at that point?
GJ In New York, they already had two things—jazz musicians were already there in the ’60s, and there were a lot of really great black artists in town.
SW In New York?
GJ In New York. Already. They were like those major league football players—they were throwing the ball so hard they’ll knock your helmet off. These guys were hitting hard. That is one difference right there.
SW Right, right.
GJ In Chicago, there was still a lot of racial stuff going on. You would have to go back to your old neighborhood ’cause you weren’t allowed to go anywhere else. There was only so much you could do, whereas jazz musicians had already made an imprint in the New York scene. So, that was different from Chicago.
SW Well, I sort of get a sense that you’re saying that New York, because the jazz musicians were already there, it was the place for you.
GJ There was some creative dialogue already established by these jazz musicians. Not so much by the painters.
SW Did you meet other painters? Did you meet any other Afro-American painters?
GJ Well I was talking the other day with Jonathan [Kaufman] about Ellsworth Ausby—I moved to St. Mark’s Place, down the street from Tompkins Square. I met Ausby and Nathaniel Hunter Jr. in Tompkins Square Park and started hanging out with them. Ausby was working at Slug’s, and knew Bob Thompson.
SW He was an artist at the time, too?
GJ Right. Ausby was an artist, and he was also a waiter at [Slug’s]. He told me a story about Salvador Dalí coming into Slug’s. He said everybody was sitting there and started smelling this incense, and [Ausby] said, “Dalí!” And it was Salvador Dalí who was holding these incense sticks, floating through the room. Ausby was with Bob Thompson when he [died] in Italy. Ausby was tight with a lot of these people. Jimmy Hendrix was one of them. [Ausby] was in Slug’s when that trumpet player got shot.
SW I remember that. [Edward] Lee Morgan got shot in Slug’s [by his wife Helen More].
GJ They had a Bob Thompson painting in Slug’s, too.
SW I didn’t know that. I went to Slug’s when I was very young. I started hanging out at Slug’s around ’64.
GJ Ausby used to walk with Jimmy Hendrix from the Lower East Side over to Cafe Wha?, off of MacDougal, right around the corner from Washington Square Park.
SW [Minetta Lane] and MacDougal Street. Yeah.
GJ The Fat Cat is around there, too. Ausby used to do drawings over there on the street. He was sort of in with those people. He knew everybody from working at Slug’s. And all the hip people were going to Slug’s.
SW Yeah, Slug’s was the place to be. There was no other club.
GJ So, when I met him I met those people, too. And then I remember Bob [Thompson] had his opening—it was one of the best openings I’ve ever seen.
GJ At Martha Jackson Gallery. Everybody was standing outside and they were all yelling, “Where’s Bob? Where’s Bob?” It’s the only time I’ve ever seen that happen. Then we went to a party at Bob’s loft.
SW Do you remember where, what year Bob’s show was?
GJ I don’t know, but it’s documented. [He had two solo exhibitions: ’63–’64 and ’65].
SW And where was Bob Thompson living at this point?
GJ He was living on Rivington Street.
SW Did he have an apartment or a loft?
GJ Oh, he had a loft. That’s where he was painting. He had a party, I don’t know exactly when, but Joe Overstreet and Bob Thompson were dragging Ausby out of the toilet because Ausby was hitting some woman, and so they took him in the toilet, punched him in the stomach, and then they dragged him out of the party. But Ausby knew everybody, and I met all kinds of people through him, too.
SW Can you say any more about Ausby? I know he passed away last year.
GJ Well, Ausby was connected with more stars at that time. The way I see this whole period is that a lot of really talented people arrived on the Lower East Side at that time.
SW In the early ’60s—
GJ Jimmy Hendrix, Nathanial Hunter Jr., William White, Ellsworth Ausby, they were all on the Lower East Side around Tompkins Square Park. It was just great timing. I just sort of wound up [there]. I think there’s a story that could still be told [about these artists], because the East Village, the poets, they had [Allen] Ginsberg and them—they had their own voice. But there’s never been a real study on the black artists that were on the Lower East Side at that time.
SW The black artists at that time, did they party with Ginsberg and his crowd? Did they party with the Abstract Expressionist group? Or were things more segregated?
GJ It wasn’t really segregated at all, because the artists recognized talent differently than your regular bourgeois. I think people knew talent. People knew Jimmy Hendrix had talent. It wasn’t like a mystery or anything.
SW Bob Thompson was very talented.
GJ Yeah, people knew that. Just that opening, I’m telling you. I’ve never seen anything like that before. The whole crowd was all outside and I was sitting by the window at Martha Jackson [Gallery].
SW Was it a very mixed crowd, a very downtown crowd?
GJ Yeah, it was a very downtown crowd. That’s pretty much the way it was, yeah.
SW Can you tell us more about downtown? How was it race-wise? I mean you had the Italians over there on Mott and Mulberry Streets. You were living on St. Mark’s Place, in the East Village. You weren’t living, say, in Harlem. So, will you talk more about those neighborhoods or scenes, or what downtown New York was like?
GJ When the hippies moved in [to St. Mark’s], it was another movement that led into Woodstock with the Diggers and all those people. But then the musicians and the artists, they sort of had their own thing, in a way. They were artists who weren’t hippies or Diggers. But their cultures were similar in that the goals of the hippies were similar to the goals of the artists. They wanted a society that was non-racial, where money was not the dominant motivating force for the people. The artists wanted creativity, but the hippies wanted freedom to dress any kind of way, using their fashion as a statement. The hippies also had rock music, which was [on] the radio, and the radio became their voice or medium. So they had control over their medium. But the black artists—as we saw on the cover of Artforum [in 2012], for African American History month, they published a painting of black artist, Jack Whitten. That’s probably the first time that a black [artist] has had that kind of exposure. But the hippies always had their exposure through the radio and rock music. But the goals of the artists—who were the black artists, too—were the same as the hippies, I think. [Amir] Baraka was living with Hettie [Cohen] down there on Cooper Square. And there was Slug’s—that was a more integrated group of people. And the goals of the hippies and the Diggers were the goals of a society.
SW You say, “the Diggers.” Who were the Diggers?
GJ The Diggers were this group of people that passed out free food and other stuff. They were from California but they did set up in Tompkins Square Park, too, giving away free food and clothes. They were anti-money, power, [and] Wall Street. They didn’t want that for their future. So, they would go through garbage and collect food, and they would pass it out to people in Tompkins Square Park.
SW Can you give us some more names of, say, black artists? You mentioned Ausby, Bob Thompson…
GJ There was Charlie Parker. He lived there off of Tompkins Square Park, too. So there was always jazz. And then Rashied Ali, the drummer, he used to live right across the street from me on St. Mark’s. There was always a jazz presence. The jazz musicians had created a space for black artists within this culture, out of the whole Lower East Side, through their music. But they didn’t have The East Village Other, or access to the media like [Allen] Ginsberg and the Beat poets did—except for LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], who was also in with the beatniks, in a way. He also did some painting, too. And I think LeRoi Jones also had some exposure.
SW The black artists, let’s say the visual artists who were downtown, would you say they were a very small group of people?
GJ Yeah, there were not that many [black] visual artists.
SW How many do you think? Could you give us a roundabout number, living in downtown New York?
GJ Well, there were so many people who came to try to be artists that didn’t really—
SW And then left.
GJ And they left. But the main people, I would say maybe ten. Yeah.
SW That’s what I was thinking. Downtown was pretty empty at that point, don’t you think?
GJ It was mainly the jazz musicians who had created a space within that culture for black artists. Bob [Thompson] used to say he was influenced a lot by the jazz music.
SW So, was Bob Thompson the biggest figure?
GJ Joe Overstreet was downtown. Joe, and I think Emilio Cruz might have been down there, too. Bob always had a group of people with him. You know, he had a car, like a Citroën or a Peugeot—a little French car with the little hump in the back. And you could see him coming with [his] little hat on, driving around the corner. You knew it was him. And they had their drugs and everything, too. So, they had a whole mystique about them. So when you saw them coming down the street, the little car going around the corner, you’d say, “Oh, there goes those guys.” But a lot of the musicians hung out there at [Amiri] Baraka’s place. Marzette [Watts], the saxophonist, he was there. He was a painter, too. I’m trying to think of some other musicians, but a lot of that wave came in with Albert Ayler. Those guys were also hanging out. Then when Baraka went to Cuba, I think that’s when he changed and decided to go in another direction.
SW Can you speak a little bit about that? It was a very small community. What was your relationship to, say the black bourgeois community? Were people then still involved with Harlem or was downtown just the black bohemian scene? Was it separate?
GJ Downtown was not like a black scene in the sense that they were—I don’t want to say “free spirits,” because the intensity of the research and the study of these artists and their dedication and resolve were on a very high level. It was on a higher level than I could even imagine. I think that’s why the drugs were important, in that the drugs sort of shielded us from a lot of opinions. It gave us a little wall with which we could hide behind and develop ourselves. But they were so intense and involved in the arts—as you know from Bob [Thompson]’s work—that it was just staggering to see how maniacal these people were. I’d never met people like that. But these people were on the same level as the athletes in my neighborhood, like my cousin: practicing, practicing, and practicing. They were down people.
SW I think I understand what you mean by “down people,” but can you maybe clarify?
GJ “Down,” meaning that they were down—they got down to the basics. To practice day and night, like out there in the middle of the night shooting your basketballs. These [artists] were the same kind of people. Their study, their research, and their knowledge were at a very high level. But that meant getting down to basics: the root of where all this stuff is coming from and how you can fit into it, and how you can excel at it. This wasn’t the attitude in Chicago. This was the attitude on the Lower East Side at that time.
SW When did Slug’s shut down? Do you remember? I don’t. It must have been in ’68, right?
GJ I don’t remember exactly but Slug’s was black, white, and international. It was on 3rd Street between Avenues C and D.
SW Talk a little bit about how that scene shifted, or changed. You said something about the hippies coming in—that was a big shift. LeRoi Jones became [Amiri] Baraka, and then Black Nationalism and Malcolm X… Did King and Malcolm X affect these artists?
GJ There were a lot of poets around: Joe Johnson, David Henderson, Steve Cannon, and all the Umbra poets. They had Umbra Magazine, too. Bob [Thompson] and them were friends, and Bill White was around at the same time, too. But the painters weren’t really political, unlike the poets. A lot of the poets were political. The poetry was about the black community and going through its changes, and the new consciousness of what a black man is supposed to be—how he should be aware. That was the time of the Black Panthers, too. They had some artists—people who did their art [propaganda]. What was his name?
SW The New Museum did a show with him [in 2009]—Emory Douglas.
GJ So, all that was happening with the hippies at the same time. This culture was also the time of the May ’68 events in Paris, when they almost took over the whole government. It was a worldwide thing. But painters and jazz musicians, I think, aren’t really that literary. They weren’t that word conscious in my opinion.
SW I know for myself that it was a very confusing time: Black Nationalism, Malcolm X, the Muslims, the Black Panthers… I remember I was trying to paint and it was a very difficult time. How did you negotiate that time with your art? How did that affect your art? What was going on in your studio then?
GJ Stanley, the intensity of these black artists was really something else. It was like I said, they were really down to paint and get their art together. As you know, painting is something that you grow into, in a way. It’s not something that you can start off doing like picking up a gun and shooting somebody. You couldn’t really do that with painting.
GJ If I could have done that, I would have done it in a hurry. But it wasn’t that kind of thing. Plus, they were laying down such a heavy rap that if you didn’t have your shit together, you couldn’t really paint. And with the drugs and everything too—it was like a shield. But when you got through that shield, you could see a person behind that. Behind that shield of drugs you could be yourself. It was really intense and very strong. But Malcolm X did have a strong effect on the poets.
SW So what were they painting? The painters that you knew—[Ellsworth] Ausby and Joe Overstreet—what were they painting?
GJ Well, Overstreet did paint some political [paintings], I think. But I don’t really remember so many painters being really involved in any of that.
SW All the political turmoil?
GJ I don’t think so. I think they were more involved in how you develop expression: how one expresses oneself in painting.
SW Al Loving, William T. Williams, were they here yet?
GJ No. I saw Al [Loving] the first day he came into town. They moved in across the street. He had a little red truck. He was with Wyn [Riser]. She was very political, too.
SW What year was that?
GJ I can’t remember exactly. But I remember seeing them. She waved at me from across the street, and she said, “Big Brother,” or something.
SW Were you still living on St. Mark’s?
GJ No, I was on Bowery at that time.
SW I met you when you were living on Bowery, but when did you move from St. Mark’s to there?
GJ I had a show on 10th Street at Strike Gallery, I think it was, and a guy came by and asked me if I wanted a studio. He had an [old] synagogue on Henry Street, and everything was still there. The Torah was there, books—I used to go up there and look at the books ’cause they had them both in English and Hebrew. It was all set up like it was a regular synagogue. It seemed like they’d just walked out and left. And so, at that synagogue, at night, sometimes some Jewish people would come and knock on the door, and I would answer. They would go into shock, like, “Whoa!” And I would go, “You know the synagogue’s not here anymore.”
SW Who was this guy who owned the synagogue? Was he a rabbi?
GJ No, he was a Jewish guy who worked in real estate. He saw my paintings and—
SW Can you tell us a little about the gallery?
GJ Strike [Gallery]. There was a whole 10th Street gallery [scene]. De Kooning had been there before, and Ed Clark was over there, too. And Strike Gallery was on the other side of 3rd Avenue.
SW And who was the owner?
GJ I don’t know.
SW Was it a cooperative gallery, or a commercial gallery?
GJ It was a commercial gallery.
SW Do you remember any other artists that showed at the gallery?
GJ No, I don’t remember. Anyway, he saw the paintings, called me up, and said, “Would you like to go and take a look at this place?” I was still living on St. Mark’s, but I did go down to the place and stayed there for a while in the basement.
SW What were your paintings like at the show? What were you painting then?
GJ The show at the gallery, they were mainly abstract paintings. They were big paintings. Some were nine by eight feet. I had my own style and it was expressionistic, but it was influenced, in a way, by some Asian art in that the line quality would be either thick or thin.
SW Can you talk about your influences? Were you out looking at a lot of art at that time in your career?
GJ Well, the Abstract Expressionists, everybody knew about them. Warhol sort of started with Pop art, but I wasn’t so interested in Pop art because it was not the type of art where you could find a lot of self-expression. It’s more or less about: What is the culture like? It’s more political, to me, than expressive. And I thought even Basquiat’s art was more political than expressive.
SW Oh, interesting. So when you were with Ausby and Bob Thompson, were you talking about shows you saw and different artists?
GJ Romy [Romare] Bearden was a big name at that time. But if you look at the first pictures of the Abstract Expressionists [The Irascibles], Norman Lewis is sitting at the table. You can vaguely see him standing out. But when they did the big picture, with Pollock and Rothko and all those guys, Norman Lewis is not in it.
SW No. They didn’t call him up to come.
GJ They didn’t call him up to come. So that’s the kind of scene it was, except that Romy Bearden and the guy that was in Paris, Delaney…
SW Yeah, Beauford Delaney.
GJ They weren’t as intense and deep as Joe [Overstreet] and Bob [Thompson] and William White. Then there was [Merton Simpson] and all those guys in the Spiral Group [who were political] and to some degree, Jack Whitten—he was around, too. The main thing was: How can you find yourself in painting in the deepest possible way? Which I think they all were involved with—Thompson more or less because his relationship to the Old Masters was more acceptable and recognized, but all those guys, too. All the guys in the Spiral Group, they all had a different kind of intensity about them in the ’60s. I think also that black art went through two or three different stages. It was negro, then it was Negro with a capital “N,” and then it became black. But, to me, [the Spiral Group] seemed to have a kind of ’30s interest [to] it.
SW Who was in the Spiral Group?
GJ The Spiral Group was Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, Emma Amos, Perry Ferguson, Alvin Hollingsworth, Merton Simpson, Beauford Delaney—you know, the first group of recognized black artists—Hale Woodruf. But they didn’t have this other kind of feeling that came in with the ’60s and stuff. It was different. It was the ’30s. It was more about color.
SW Where would Norman Lewis fit into that, do you think?
GJ Norman Lewis, same thing [he was considered a part of the Spiral Group]. It was the colors and the way that they handled it. It was more formalistic in a certain way. It wasn’t so much, How much can I express myself? I think at that time the Negroes weren’t able to see themselves as expressing feeling.
SW How would you compare Norman Lewis to Bob Thompson?
GJ There’s the difference, right there. When you see Bob’s work it’s got intensity, but it’s not overwhelming because it’s handled in such a beautiful way. And it’s expressive in that same kind of beautiful way. Norman Lewis does not have that kind of intensity: “I do a good job. I’m proficient. Therefore I’m a good artist.”And these other groups after [Spiral], they weren’t so—they weren’t really Negroes at that point.
SW What do you mean “they weren’t Negroes at that point”?
GJ They had crossed over. I think in the previous group: Bearden, Lewis—in fact, I’m reading this book now by Anaïs Nin, who mentions that there was a mulatto painter named “Bearden” that came to visit her. I think it was when Romy was in Paris. Also, the American Negroes in Paris were a different type because they looked at Paris as a place where they could be free—again, to be free to express themselves. And this Parisian group wasn’t really interested in being accepted by, say, the French people or the French culture. They were really interested in how they could find expression within themselves, to be free enough to express their own individual selves—whereas Bob Thompson used drugs to protect himself and get to his personal self through his artwork. Your work [Stanley] is like this, too, I think. It’s not ’30s work. It doesn’t have that same color and that same kind of formal concern. It’s expressive and it’s colorful, and I think it’s more in the line with what Bob Thompson and them were really about.
So that kind of expression of finding myself, and how I can express myself in painting is a new type of thing I find in the Afro-American [psyche]. Not with everybody though, because today it seems like, with Basquiat for example, there’s another kind of political play that’s going on, and a sexuality that is coming from the dominant culture. The dominant culture says that these people should be sexy, and with Basquiat, his involvement with Andy Warhol puts him in the place of not only being an artist, but also being a sexy person, too.
SW He had to be exotic.
GJ Even “exotic” is a better term than “sexy.” All this penis envy stuff, and all this stuff going on with sexualizing black men—all this is not the role of a person who is trying to express themselves totally. And so today, even in some of Jack Tilton’s shows where they have maybe twenty pictures of a black guy showing his butt, or when they had that show Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art [at the Whitney Museum of American Art in ’94], where the gay element had a more predominant role—I mean, it was first brought into the scene with Lyle Ashton Harris having that show [Face: Lyle Ashton Harris at the New Museum in ’93]. So when that element comes in, which is sort of the element now, I think it’s just another way of pushing this other, [individual] person out of the picture, and putting in a stereotyped person as an easier way to deal with this black male presence.
SW But if we go back to, say, Slug’s and that era, was there a gay presence then?
GJ Before that, jazz was the medium in which the black artists created a space for themselves in New York City. And we know that jazz musicians are more macho guys. I don’t even think I know of any gay jazz musicians.
SW But I’m just thinking… We’re talking about a full community, and it seems like the community is saying, “You’re either this, or you’re this, or you’re this. You can’t be everything. You’re either this or something else.” But getting back to your own work, again, just the little things: Where would you buy art supplies? Or where were the art supplies stores? Did you paint all day and then go to Slug’s all night? What was your lifestyle?
GJ At the synagogue, downtown on Henry Street, a painter moved in: Dominic de Toro. The [landlord] didn’t tell me he was going to let somebody else move in upstairs. And so when he turned the place over to Dominic, Dominic then evicted me out of the place. And as he was moving me out, he saw my paintings. So after I moved and everything, we were sitting in his car—he had a big Cadillac—and he said, “Man, I am really sorry that this happened, but I have a dealer, Allan Stone, who I would like to introduce you to.” And when he introduced me to Stone, Stone liked my work.
SW And what year was this, can you recall?
GJ In ’68. And so, when I got into Allan Stone Gallery, [Allan] had a charge account for me down at Pearl Paint. And then Peter Bradley and them were around. Peter actually bought me some art supplies, too.
SW When did Peter Bradley appear on the scene?
GJ I don’t know. Peter was working uptown at Perls Gallery. I remember he had a Ferrari at the time. They had told me—[Allan] Stone and them—“Stay away from that guy,” ’cause he’s a troublemaker or something. But Peter did actually take me down to Pearl [Paint] one time and bought me a whole bunch of canvas and paints, too. I thought he was a really nice guy.
SW Before Pearl Paint, where’d you buy your art supplies?
GJ The Abstract Expressionists used to go downtown and buy yards. I mean, they would buy it from those—
SW —fabric places. So, like White Street, Walker Street…
GJ Yeah. So I would do that, and I think there was a—what was that art supplies store right above 3rd Avenue, off of 10th Street or something?
SW I don’t remember.
GJ It was on the other side of the street, and I think it was 11th Street and 3rd Avenue [New York Central Art Supply]. I painted every day for three years straight. I painted so much I couldn’t see in [three] dimensions—I could only see flat. Every day. Because that was the kind of thing that was being laid down. You had to get your shit together. So I really did paint all the time. I was living with my girlfriend at the time, Kevin Claire. We lived together on St. Mark’s, and then we moved down to Henry Street together, too.
SW Can you say more about her? Where did you meet her?
GJ Well, Arthur Coppedge actually introduced me to her. She was working at a Volkswagon car dealership. And then we just stayed together from that time on.
SW Where was she from?
GJ She was from Boston. I talked to her brother not too long ago, actually.
SW Yeah? What is she doing today?
GJ She and her mother used to do upholstery stuff. So she was sewing, and she wanted to do some artwork herself, too. She’s still doing the upholstery stuff. She’s thinking about moving to Mexico. Kevin was important to me, because one night I said, “I’m going back to Chicago, because if I stay here much longer I will never go back.” And she said, “Don’t go back to Chicago.” So now, her brother says she’s thinking about going to Mexico—’cause she called me on the phone and I wasn’t here, so she got the machine—and I’m thinking about calling her brother and saying, “Tell Kevin, ‘Don’t go to Mexico.’” (laughter)
SW Is she Afro-American?
GJ No, she’s part Jewish and part Irish.
SW How was that mixed scene downtown?
GJ There was also a group of black women, you know, the first wives of some of those people, like Lou Gossett’s then wife, Hattie [Glascoe] Gossett.
GJ You know, Hattie Gossett and Louis Gossett. They were also downtown. There was Vertamae [Smart-] Grovesnor, who later married Ausby. So there was all this tension between black guys who were with so-called white women, and the black women with white men, too. There was always some friction. If he’s hanging out with a white girl, or so-called white people, there’s something wrong with it. And Kevin Clare, my girlfriend, was really an open person. Whereas the black women were more or less, you know, a little bit more aggressive, and so they had their opinion about whomever—although I didn’t have any trouble with them. And later on, when the Studio Museum and all those people got to know her, they did like Kevin because she was a [nice] white lady. Al [Loving] and them were a little more flexible, although Al was with Wyn [Riser] and that complemented black women. They could go anywhere: museums, galleries, parties… But since I was with Allan Stone, I really didn’t have to hustle ’cause Allan had given me enough support. I liked his attitude. At that time I think there were maybe seven black artists in galleries—
SW All in New York?
GJ Well, in Paris, too. And I was one of those guys. So [Allan] knew [he] had to respect me. My work was on a certain level. But there were a lot of problems with being a [black artist].
SW This group of black women downtown—were they artists too? Were they painters?
GJ Well, they were wives of certain men. Like Dorothy White was William White’s
wife. And then there was Hettie Jones. She was white, but there was a group of black women that were downtown, too.
SW How did you deal with Hettie Jones?
GJ Well, I think it’d be easier to look at Bob Thompson’s wife, because they gave her a lot of static, too. Carol Thompson got a lot of static from the black community. And this static wasn’t based on how good Bob Thompson’s work was, it was based on the fact that she was a white woman.
SW So there was a lot of policing in terms of race?
GJ I think they gave Carol a time, I mean, a hard time. And later on, when I got to be her friend I really felt bad about it, because I know he was one of our major talents. But she got a lot of static.
SW Well, we know, on the bohemian scene, you saw black men with white women. Did you see black women with white men?
GJ Vertamae was married to Robert Grosvenor. There was the Paris group: Ed Clark, Bill Hudson, Herb Gentry, Bill Rivers, and Bob Blackburn. The Paris group was different. They were going out with French gals—it was a different scene. It was a great scene in that it was coming from all kinds of different directions, and the main theme was, what black men were doing and who they were doing it with. That was one of the major topics. But people like Thompson, they didn’t really give a shit about any of this stuff. Maybe the writers were more into writing about it, like James Baldwin and them. This was their grist for the mill in a way: the sexual literariness of things.
SW Who was in the Paris group?
GJ Ed Clark and them. Even today, Ed says, “Well, I saw him in Paris.” I think, Heywood [Bill Rivers] was the only one who could speak French. He took the time. The rest of them would be at La Coupole and all these places—they couldn’t even really speak French. But when they got back here, they were like, “Hey, I saw you in Paris. We were in Paris.” That’s a big thing for them. But, when you’re down at Slug’s and with these other people—I think what the jazz musicians did was create a situation or an environment where improvisation is one of the leading ways of going at things. When you’re improvising, you’re working out of your subconscious, which is what the Surrealists had done—the subconscious being the source of art. The jazz musicians had held that open, and they pretty much expressed that. Later on, painters—Abstract Expressionists, and some of the black artists, too—they began to go into the subconscious. But once you go into the subconscious of the black person, you have to reconstruct [the] psyche. [In] this reconstruction of the psyche, you have to block out all that other stuff. And again, I think that’s where the drugs come in. Once you block all that stuff out, then you can start to construct your psyche in a different way. You can choose how you want your subconscious to react to your conscious reality. If your conscious reality has been [part of] a slave mentality, you don’t want to put it through that channel. What you want to do is develop a subconscious that is free of all those things. The jazz musicians had already opened that channel to the subconscious. But once you re-enter the subconscious, you have to restructure your subconscious in a way that’s going to be beneficial to you as a person. And so the first thing would be: How do I express my self as a person through my subconscious? That’s what the painters were involved with. So, in doing that, once you bring in sexuality, like Basquiat did, you’re starting to reconstruct your subconscious with a slave mentality, which you’re supposedly trying to get rid of. It’s more like an image that, say, the ruling class has put on you—trying to make that fit into your conscious world.
SW So, in a sense you’re saying that people are dictating who you are. You’re not dictating who you are.
GJ Right. They’re telling you and you’re putting it together in such a way that they will understand it. But a real reconstruction of the subconscious, which is where all art is coming from, would not do that. It would try to find the freest way of being itself, just as the Surrealists or the Abstract Expressionist did. So we can go from Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism. If you take a black person trying to open up what’s inside of him, which is a free person trying to express himself, then you would come out, as I saw many times, into the consciousness of the white audience in order for them to be titillated. Those recognizable images are titillating or stimulating, because they have already said, “That’s who you are,” which is not who you are.
SW Right. (laughter) It’s a caricature of who you are.
GJ If you do it well—like [David] Hammons does it very well. But they say the source of creativity is in the subconscious. So when I went to my psychiatrist, he said, “Your consciousness has been totally obliterated. You no longer have a consciousness, and that’s what’s making you crazy. All you can do is try to develop your subconscious,” which is what my friend Chief was saying: “Gerald, do you have a talent?” But if I don’t have a consciousness, how can I live? I don’t know. That’s why I wasn’t able to live. So then I had to reconstruct my subconscious. So then [my psychiatrist] said, “Okay, you can develop your sixth sense”—
SW When did you meet with the psychiatrist? What year?
GJ It was after ’68, maybe ’70… Through [the] drinking and carrying on, it’s all slave consciousness. You’re trying to deal with it but you can’t. “What you will have to do is develop your sixth sense,” [the psychiatrist] said, and that I would have to reconstruct my selfthrough my subconscious. So I’m like, “How am I going to do that?” He said, “Well, what would you like to think [about yourself]?” I said, “I think [I’m] a good and talented guy.” And that’s who I am today: a reconstruction of my subconscious. [But] that’s why [I] run into trouble with society. They’ve cut me out of it. I’ve been eliminated. I’ve been dead since ’73.
SW Why do you say you’ve been dead since ’73?
GJ Because all the faculties that [I] had to maneuver through society have been eliminated. They’re not there. They’re not functioning.
SW But you came to New York in ’62. You said you painted every day, for three years. You were part of that early scene: Slug’s, Bob Thompson, the hippies on the Lower East Side…
GJ I’ve been able to disguise my self or construct my self in a way that I could function. But for me that is death—it will not allow me to go fully into any of those things. I could disguise my self in a way similar to making a kind of art that could be recognized by society. I could also wear a Brooks Brothers suit and be recognized, but that would not allow me to live in society. That would only allow me to have this kind of mask, which I think the drugs, for some people, were able to hold that at bay. [The drugs] gave them enough time to develop their subconscious in such a way that they could use it in art. But it could not really be used in society. I could never be a stockbroker or any kind of man like that in society, because I would never have the faculties to do those things. So to me, I’ve been dead since 1973. The rest of the time I was reconstructing my subconscious, which is what I’ve been doing since.
SW When did you move to the Bowery?
GJ In ’68.
SW You lived in that building on the Bowery from ’68 to when?
GJ Till maybe 2002. And when I got evicted from the Bowery, I didn’t have the faculties to raise money to keep the place. I could disguise my self to a certain point, but it would not allow me to compete.
Everything that preceded this time in ’73 was designed to destroy me as a person. It was already designed that way. People chasing me, the color stuff—all that stuff was designed to destroy me as a person. So I couldn’t defend myself. I didn’t know how. That’s why we had guns; that’s why we had our own business. So by that time, if I didn’t meet Emily O’Brien and she hadn’t sent me to that psychiatrist, I would have thought I was a normal person just having some problems drinking too much. But it was much deeper than that. I was drinking too much ’cause I had no way of dealing with my reality. I could only fall back on those destructive things that I had learned from other people. What destroyed them was also beginning to destroy me, but I had no idea.
SW But didn’t the painting or the painting world lead you to another reality?
GJ Only if you already know that you’ve been destroyed. Only if you can accept yourself as you really are. Hammons has been able to see that, but he’s also been able to see how he could use that and put it into a form, which I could not do. I was more destroyed [than] he was.
SW Do you think that’s true with the jazz scene, the jazz musicians?
GJ It’s free expression, and you have to deal with your subconscious—
SW Look at Eric Dolphy, Brook Little, people in the jazz world—that world didn’t last very long. It was a very short time.
GJ Eric Dolphy’s solo is strictly subconscious. He used that to construct his subconscious so that when he got to that point he could switch it on. And it’s truly, to me, his subconscious mind functioning.
SW I agree, but I’m just saying in terms of survival—the casualties were so great.
GJ Yeah. ’Cause they weren’t able to adjust their conscious mind to the society that they were living in, so they would take drugs; they would drink alcohol. What destroyed Charlie Parker is what I’m talking about.
SW Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.
GJ So—I’m not as great as Charlie Parker—a little guy like me, I was totally wiped out. By the time they evicted me from the Bowery, I knew then that I didn’t know anything about who I was; I had no resources, other than my talent. But anything else, don’t even try it, because you will not be able to do it. The same thing goes for Charlie Parker, he had an intuitive, improvisational subconscious, highly developed through music, through practicing and practicing, again and again—the same kind of intensity. But that talent doesn’t work in the real world, no way. And then at thirty-three or thirty-four years old, you’re dead. And that’s what will destroy me.
SW But you’re still here.
GJ I’m here if you call this here, but I’m here because of talent.
SW I know what you’re saying, and I totally understand, but it’s like a world that didn’t really happen. I mean, the world that almost happened, but didn’t happen. If you look at the bohemian scene, whether it was black or white, that scene never really developed into a major thing—except for the writing. The writing’s left, the music’s left, but the people are not.
GJ The feeling is left. I have to go back to Charlie Parker. He really [had] a highly developed subconscious—and that is the key to art. If you maintain those things, you can go [anywhere].
SW But that idea of art on that level, where people work, and like you say, get down—that was happening in New York at a certain point—don’t you think that ended? Or was it destroyed?
GJ For the white people it continued, and it still continues on: in literary form, in the media, and in terms of culture.
SW Okay. So, for say, black artists or black intellectuals—
GJ [They] can only rely on [their] subconscious.
SW Why do you say that? You’re saying for the white world it continued? Do you think it doesn’t continue on for the black world?
GJ Not in those forms, it continues on in a subconscious and improvisational form—if you can tune into that, if you’re able to do both. Many college-educated black people can probably do both because they’ve had training in those fields of study. But a pure black person, on an improvisational level, could never do it, because there’s nothing there. It’s all negative. Everything in his mind is negative. It’s designed to destroy him, to bring him down. The only way that I see [the] black artist [progressing] is if they’re able to reinvent or reinsert themselves into their subconscious, and then create a physical expression of it within the culture. And that won’t happen. Every movement, every group, when they come in, replaced the group that came before them, like the Abstract Expressionists—all the galleries changed, everything changed. You can’t do that with a black person. Nothing ain’t going to change for him.
SW Can you clarify that for me?
GJ Every group that came into power changed the whole scene. The galleries changed, the theaters changed. When the Abstract Expressionists came, they knocked all of those [previous] guys out and the whole scene changed. Galleries changed; dealers changed. And when the Pop artists came in, they did the same thing. When the Minimalist people came in, they did the same thing. But that won’t happen with a black person.
GJ Because they ain’t going to change! The black consciousness—which is their subconscious—is a great subconscious, and it might be too much of an artistic subconscious for the regular person to deal with, [but] that’s a good thing. They won’t change all the galleries and all the magazines. You’ll have a magazine coming out like that February issue of Artforum, but the whole scene won’t change. It will never happen. I don’t ever see that happening in my lifetime. There will be some black artists who will get through, but it won’t change the whole scene. It won’t change the dealers, it won’t change the galleries—it won’t change anything on that level.
SW Only on a small, individual level—
GJ And then it would have to be something that they could recognize, too. It would be something like David Hammons—it would have to be something that they could recognize: “Oh yeah, I see the black-eyed peas, okay. I see the chicken bones. I can relate.” So again, for a person like me, I won’t ever be able to change the course of how things happen in the art world, but I will be able to overwhelm them with my talent. In order to change the world, first you have to change the art world. You can’t jump out in front and say, “Follow me.” You have to build a thing, and then they have to come around to that. They will never have the consciousness to realize the subconscious of a person like me. That would never happen—not in my lifetime. And I don’t think it will ever happen. And maybe it shouldn’t happen.
SW But do you think that’s because you’re such a creative person?
GJ It’s because of what they recognize. If everything you do is something that I cannot recognize, even though it’s good, I won’t be able to accept it. Say you come from Philly and you say, “Philly dog.” I’ll say, “Okay.” If you say, “Philly steak burger,” or something like that, I’ll say, “Okay.” But if you start going like, “Stop-a-doo-be-dee-be-dop-a-doop,” (singing) then I’ll say, “Wait a minute. You lost me here.” (laughter)
SW No, you’re right.
GJ If you say, “Detroit,” if you say, “Ford,” if you say “Cadillac,” but if you’re saying “Dee-dee-dee-dee,” I won’t know what the heck you’re talking about. But if you said that to me in the context of a black environment, everybody would say, “Hey, ba-ba-bee-bee-boom”—you know we used to do the hambone. If you start doing that, [white people] will look at you like, “What the hell! This guy flipped out right here.” But if you put something in there—which again, I hate to say it, ’cause I know Hammons is a genius and I think he’s above all this stuff too, and he’s smart enough to know—like you [Stanley] would say, “Dummy down.” [If you dummy down, they’ll understand you.] To me a lot of times—[Hammons] was trying to really save me in a certain kind of way, except I couldn’t dummy down, because I didn’t know what “dummy” really meant.
SW Yeah, I know, David Hammons always tells me I say, “Dummy down.”
GJ I don’t have time to learn how to dummy down at this point in my life, anyway. So I had to abandon all of that [and] just focus on myself.
SW That’s true because we’re a minority in the dominant culture. It’s hard as a human being to really see yourself as a minority and what that means—especially a minority that has such a huge influence on the majority. I mean, it seems like now, America’s blacker than it’s ever been. If you watch sports, or you watch people talk—maybe they don’t go, “Scooby-dooby-dee,” or something like that—but if I see people now, even on TV, there seems to be much more blackness in what used to be white. Would you agree with that?
GJ It’s kind of a white blackness, because it’s recognizable. What I’m thinking is that since we all are human beings, there’s really no you, or me, or they, because the collective unconscious is prevalent in everyone. But once you try to paste that into these mediums, it has to reflect 90% of what the dominant culture wants to see. So all of those shows, and even the athletes, once you take them off the field, they really don’t have a subconscious mind in a certain way. They’ve been trained to perform in this other way that will encourage us to get the things that we think we should have and want: money, power, these kinds of things—like with O.J. [Simpson]. They didn’t really want to get rid of O.J., because he was the man that on the football field expressed [his] own maleness in a way that they could understand. “I’m charging the line, I’m breaking through, I’m going forward.” He was not allowed to really be a person. But once he became O.J., then he could do anything he wanted to do. But that wasn’t really O.J. That was the guy that we wanted him to be. And today, that to me, is the same—every time a new movement comes in the whole scene changes, but it ain’t gonna happen for black people.
SW And that’s how you’ve seen the art world since you’ve been in New York?
GJ That’s what I saw in the army, too. In the army, because I could shoot real well, these guys—who were murderers—were searching for guys like me to turn us into superior killers. That’s why when I dodged them and became a clerk at headquarters, I put down the gun because I knew that they wanted to turn me into one of these guys who kills hundreds of people and not think anything about it. They’re watching to see when I’m pulling the trigger, so that I’m not flinching. “Don’t flinch!” If you don’t flinch, that means you can kill—easily. And that’s what they wanted me to be, and they were always conspiring to make me into something that I didn’t want to be.
SW Okay. Let’s start talking about you living on the Bowery and up into the present. So, [in 2002] you were evicted from your apartment on Bowery, right?
GJ Yeah, I was living in a synagogue and then I moved to the Bowery into an empty three-story building in ’68.
SW So talk a little bit about the Bowery in ’68—who was there? What was going on?
GJ In ’68, if you remember, that was the summer of love. Charlie Mingus Jr. said that Elvis—because he had this song called, “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog”— said more for civil rights than anybody [else]. But that was part of the overall culture: Slug’s, Tompkins Square Park, Lower East Side, Manhattan, Nathaniel Hunter Jr., Ellsworth Ausby—
SW So let’s clarify that. Who was Nathaniel Hunter?
GJ Nathaniel Hunter Jr. was one of the first people that I met in Tompkins Square Park along with Ellsworth Ausby—both black artists. And Ausby was working at Slug’s. But Junior and I used to go uptown to parties and stuff, and I think that’s how we got tight.
GJ Nathaniel Hunter. People would say, “You can continue to party but you can’t continue to party here.” But a lot of times Junior and I would be on the train, coming back from these uptown parties.
SW Uptown—how far are we talking uptown?
GJ We’re talking DuPont’s, we’re talking Park Avenue—we’re talking about uptown people, who are different from downtown people.
SW Right. We’re talking about rich people.
GJ We’re talking about rich people uptown. And I think at one of the parties DuPont said to Junior, “You’re very opinionated.” I mean everybody knew that Nathaniel talked a lot—and he was always opinionated.
SW How did these kinds of mixtures go on like that?
GJ Well everything was moving around like that. There were a lot of civil rights people who were—I don’t want to say, “integrating,” but were merging. But jazz never did become popular culture like the Beatles and Elvis, and the Rolling Stones.
SW A lot of artists lived on the Bowery in ’68. I mean you had [Mark] Rothko—
GJ A lot of artists lived on the Bowery, and now [they] have a program at the New Museum called, Bowery Artists Tribute, where they’re doing something about all the artists that lived on the Bowery.
SW Are you a part of that?
GJ Yeah, they got in touch with me.
SW Oh good.
GJ Mike Goldberg was down there, Carmen Cicero was down there, [Roy] Lichtenstein, [James] Rosenquist… I read something recently about [Willem] de Kooning getting drunk or something on the Bowery. They said, “We were worried about him because we thought we might find him in a doorway somewhere on the Bowery.” And that’s where I was living on the Bowery. So, if they were worried about de Kooning once in a while, stumbling around there, I was stumbling around there every day. So these different cultural things were crossing—
SW But did they cross over? Did you go to parties with Lichtenstein? Did the black artists deal with Rothko or these people then?
GJ The black artists at that time did get invited to parties. Later on they stopped inviting the black artists to parties.
SW Well, when do you think they stopped? What year would that be?
GJ Maybe the ’80s, or something like that.
SW Can you talk a little bit about that, like what happened between ’68 and the ’80s?
GJ Well I don’t know how much you know about the Rolling Stones, but Brian Jones had a statement describing the difference between jazz and R&B. He said that rock was [the] step-child or something of R&B. But R&B was not like jazz. Jazz was on a higher, more intense level musically. Whereas R&B was black pop music, and that black pop music got replaced downtown by the Rolling Stones. So, I’ve been listening to the Rolling Stones for many years. But at the same time I already knew R&B, and so that created a kind of schizophrenic thing I guess. You sort of had to relate to the Rolling Stones, but then you could go back into R&B with the Dells and the Temptations. And the parties were different. Uptown parties were more talk parties. R&B parties, or black parties, were more dance parties. And so I don’t know whether these things actually—I guess they did mix at a certain point, but there was a difference in that rock did sort of pick up from R&B to become rock, and since I was already into R&B I had to then make an adjustment to rock.
SW When you came out of Chicago, you came out of all those little bucket-of-blood bars. I mean you were from the South Side, so you knew all of that—
GJ South Side, again, was a place where all of its cultural needs were met.
SW But if we’re talking about the music, you were there for the music, for Muddy Waters and all that.
GJ Muddy Waters, Chicago blues, all of that. But then again, all those other groups sort of picked up from those Chicago blues guys. So it was just strange.
SW So, people talk about the downtown painting scene: 10th Street, Cedar [Tavern], Slug’s… What did you think about Cedar [Tavern]?
GJ It was these two different cultural tides, cultural streams, [Slug’s was black, Cedar Tavern was white] and everything in that way was different. I mean Bob and them dressed differently from Rosenquist [and] Rothko.
SW Well how did they dress differently?
GJ I think Mark Fisher was around. The jazz musicians—Nat Coleman was around—were what we called, “kind of hip.” I mean Miles [Davis] was around. Miles Davis was always known for the way he dressed. I mean everybody was like, “Miles wore this, Miles had this—Miles had the Ferrari.” I met Rosenquist in the Park. He introduced himself to me in Central Park one day and then we kind of got to be—
SW How did that come to be?
GJ I was just walking through the Park, and this guy walked up to me and said, “Hi I’m Jim Rosenquist. Who are you?” And so I said I’m so and so, and we started talking for a bit and he said, “I’m on my way over to the gallery, do you want to come?” And he was going to Leo Castelli’s and that’s how I ran into [Castelli].
SW And that was in the ’70s?
GJ Yeah, in the ’70s. It was when Castelli was uptown in that townhouse up there. And then I got into Allan Stone Gallery, and then I met Ivan Karp, and I worked at Ivan Karp’s for a while. I think the difference is that Bob [Thompson] sort of dressed differently, more like the jazz musicians. The jazz musicians I think wore hats and the other group didn’t really wear hats.
SW But the downtown loft parties—were they loft parties?
GJ Well, the downtown loft parties—they’ve always had these loft parties. When Pollock was around, they had these dances. Dancing, I guess, was part of the artists’ thing in a way. I think when you got with the collectors they were more talk parties.
SW So would you say that’s where the money came in, more in talk parties than in dance parties?
GJ The money never came in. The money still never came in. But Bob [Thompson] was kind of exceptional because he could get money.
SW Yeah, you said he had a huge show uptown.
GJ Bob Thompson.
SW Yeah, with Martha Jackson Gallery.
GJ Yeah he was one of a few artists—oh I think Jack Whitten lived on the Lower East Side, too.
SW Well, I came maybe ’69, ’70—when do you think things really changed in terms of what you saw from different eras? Like you said, the black artists and the white artists talked and then they stopped; things split. When do you think that split happened? Because I remember all those parties—I guess maybe in the ’80s—on Broadway [at] Charles’s parties.
GJ Charles Searles.
SW Yeah, Charles Searles!
GJ Ausby brought Charles Searles to New York because Ausby was going up to Philly. I think Ausby knew everybody, and then Charles came in and rented the place with Ausby on Bowery. But Charles was not part of the original downtown crew.
SW No, I know. So when do we—
GJ I’m trying to think, the ’80s.
SW Well, even before the ’80s, because let’s think. You moved to the Bowery in ’68. So when did this split happen with the parties?
GJ I’m trying to think, because you know what they say: “If you can remember, you weren’t there.” (laughter) It was a blur—still is a blur. But Charles’s parties were definitely in vogue. Charles’s parties were the kind of parties I was talking about—with the black artists—but then I went to Japanese parties, to white parties, to black parties, because I was downtown. But Charles did mainly New Year’s [Eve]—big black art party. When Charles started playing the drums that was the end of the party.
SW Right. I remember that.
GJ Yeah, and the parties kind of stopped. But, let’s see, downtown parties… I don’t know. We could find out from the bartender at Fanelli’s [Café], where the parties were. David Reed was in there, Dick Mock—
SW That’s the time when people used to paint all day and then go to the bar until four or five [in the morning]. We’re talking about the ’70s, right?
GJ Al Loving came with his wife, but I think they would get to Fanelli’s around twelve o’clock, midnight, with Stuart Hitch. They were regular bar people.
SW Right. They had their own private stools.
GJ Yeah Wyn [Riser]’s stool was sort of in the middle there. Yeah, they had their own stools.
SW I remember those days, yeah.
GJ There weren’t many gallery openings for black artists at that time either. I mean, now it’s different, because they’re not black artists, they’re African American artists—
SW Well, do you recall when that changed, from “Negro” to “black,” to “African American?”
GJ What I’m finding out now is that there was a black art group—which they did call “black art” at that time in Paris—with Beauford Delaney and Herb Gentry. And I’m reading this book, which I might’ve mentioned to you. I had nightmares three nights in a row about this Beauford Delaney because it brought into focus who he was: a person who is suffering. I couldn’t believe this guy’s story. That he was black and gay, too. I thought that just capped the whole thing off. What I’m trying to say is that there was already a group of abstract painters, black artists, in Paris at the same time that there were these ex-patriots. And I don’t think that Herb Gentry was an abstract painter, but I think Bill Rivers was an abstract painter at that time. I’m trying to figure out if there was already a group of abstract artists in Paris at the time that there was Abstract Expressionism here [in New York]. But at the same time in Paris there were these black artists who were doing abstract paintings. And recently I was talking with James Little about Clement Greenberg. James went to Syracuse—he was not on the scene at the time, but he would come to New York from Syracuse. And Clement Greenberg used to come up there and give lectures and talks. And so [John’s] quoting Clement Greenberg, but I was saying if there was a group of black artists in Paris at that time, then we don’t really fit into what Clement Greenberg was talking about with Abstract Expressionists, and that maybe there was no critical coverage of black artists doing abstract paintings in Paris. I don’t know what motivated the black artists in Paris to do abstract painting.
SW Well, you think it goes back to the jazz thing? You think it goes back to being the jazz man?
GJ It was big bands after WWII. So what they were saying, I think, was that Charlie Parker and those guys were more like Abstract Expressionists, and that they [were] improvisational. And if it’s coming from your subconscious—the black subconscious—according to my psychiatrist, it is totally blanked out. I mean, because it has to be based on some conscious reality, and if your conscious reality is black, then, to me, you didn’t really have a subconscious.
SW Why would you say you don’t then? Why?
GJ Because, like David Reed said, “The world is black-and-white.” It wasn’t a colored world. It was black or it was white. You were either white or black. It wasn’t based on anything but color. So, if you were to base your reality on your subconscious, and the reality of your paintings, then there’s nothing for you to base it on, because all of that was useless—worthless information.
SW Can you talk more about your work during that time and your work now? How does the work shift?
GJ My work has always been both figurative and abstract. It’s coming from my subconscious. So I didn’t really have any barriers in terms of what kind of painting I did. Whether it should be figurative, or—as I went along I created my own subconscious, and then at the same time utilized whatever I had placed together to make my own creation.
SW Were there artists that really influenced you? Or would you paint abstract and figurative all in the same day? Or how would you go about it? Would you paint figurative for a while and then switch over to your abstract work?
GJ Well, sometimes I would go through a period of time where I would just do abstract painting.
SW Did you go to gallery shows? Were you seeing any work?
GJ Well, I would go around, because I was learning everything on the spot, sort of. Although, it didn’t occur to me at that time, but if I saw something and I liked it, then I would add that into my subconscious library. But I think I could determine what was good and what was needed to make a good painting.
SW Were all galleries at this point on 57th Street? Or were they on 10th Street also?
GJ Well Martha Jackson was uptown. It was on 69th Street, I think. And then [Allan] Stone [Gallery] was up on 86th Street. So, there was that group that was sort of uptown. And then 57th Street, and then SoHo started to peak a little—started to come through with Ivan Karp and Paula Cooper.
SW What year was that? Can you remember?
GJ After ’68, of course—I guess early ’70s. 57th Street was still the same as it is today. Leo Castelli was uptown then, Ivan [Karp] was down on West Broadway. The Museum of Modern Art… I think I just sort of created my self, in a way, from that and from what I could read, stuff like that.
SW Were you reading [James] Baldwin, or what were you reading?
GJ Well there were the Umbra poets around at that time, too: Steve Cannon, Calvin Hernton, and all those guys. So there were a lot of writers around, but there were no writers writing about black art. And the black artist writers weren’t really writing about black painters, or black art.
SW Why do you think that was?
GJ It still is that way. I just spoke with David Henderson not long ago. I was trying to get him interested in this Beauford Delaney [book], because I thought that Delaney’s story would be a good story for Broadway. I kept thinking about Cole Porter and some of the music that was around at the time they were in Paris. So the set would be a simple café or in a little cramped studio. That would be the stage. Stanley, I’m telling you, to me this guy was the most tragic figure, and he tried to create himself the same way I was trying to, but he was using all the European imagery to try to filter through his own experiences. And I thought, That’s perfect for Broadway. So I’m trying to work on that now.
SW I know David Henderson wrote that book on Jimi Hendrix, which I read this summer. It was fascinating.
GJ I just talked with him not too long ago. Different in that Hendrix was not really a tormented, tragic person like Delaney. Hendrix, I think, who was a friend of Ausby’s too, was a pretty upbeat person. Then with the music, there was a leaning toward rhythm and blues, especially with the Stones and the Beatles. So, the door was open in a way for Hendrix, and he was just an ass-kicking guitar player on top of it. You couldn’t really deny him. There seemed to have been a need to have a black image that fit in with the European image, in a way that they could accept. Bob Scott, to me was another example of a person who—
SW Well, Bob Scott seemed to be the one who really broke the door open. I mean Bob Thompson died very early.
GJ They both died around the same age. But Bob [Thompson]’s image was not an image of a wild guy with hair flying over—and not gay. Bob was more like a jazz guy; he was a cool guy. He dressed in a kind of cool way.
SW Where do you find yourself in that mix? You say you tried to recreate your own psyche—working on defining yourself. Thinking back on all this time, and where you are now, how do you feel about coming through all this, in terms of seeing everything? Where is your art going now that you’re in Jersey City? Tell me more about the present, about your ideas, about painting in general.
GJ I didn’t know I didn’t have a subconscious on which to draw from. It’s just regular. The whole time I thought that I had a subconscious—just like any other American person—that I could draw on.
SW But I mean you knew what segregation was, you knew what racism was. Did the police in New York ever confront you? The police in Chicago must’ve confronted you?
GJ I don’t think it affected my subconscious. I understood that my creativity was coming from my subconscious. I didn’t think that all those images were pure images. They were all racially motivated imagery. I mean, the things that you just named, they didn’t come from me, they came from the overall culture that said: “You’re this, you’re that.” And I didn’t think I was a black artist until they said: “You’re a black artist.” The Gerald Jackson that I understood was a person who put these things together that weren’t there originally. But then I found out that these images weren’t reliable in that it would split your psyche in two.
SW Do you think of yourself as a black artist now?
GJ Recently—since they started calling themselves African American artists I started thinking, I should be a black artist. “Black artist” is something that’s really not too bad. I mean it’s supposed to be spooky; it’s supposed to be crazy and weird—voodoo and all that stuff. Because the African American artists are generally more college educated, exposed to Greenberg, and they sort of have a subconscious that is fortified by their education in a way. Their subconscious is made up from what they learned in college. But if you didn’t have that experience, then you still don’t have that part of your subconscious.
SW You talk a lot about music: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Elvis. What do you think about hip-hop?
GJ Well, let’s see, when were the jazz poets?
SW Oh, the Last Poets?
GJ The Last Poets. I knew one or two of them; Ishmael Reed was in the bar down there raising hell and everything.
SW What bar?
GJ There was a bar over on Avenue B, up near 11th Street, or something. And then Stanley’s was over on 10th Street by Avenue C. And that’s where Ishmael and all them were making a lot of noise and screaming. Calvin and them were screaming.
GJ Calvin Hernton. He wrote a book—[Sex and Racism in America (1965)]. So, hip-hop—the Last Poets were sort of like hip-hop without the beat. I thought if we just added the beat to David Henderson’s poems, we would have a more sophisticated hip-hop. It would be hip-hop. But the majority of hip-hop is about rhythm and blues, it’s about relationships between a man and a woman, you know: “We got laid. We didn’t get laid. She looked good. She looked sexy. He was full of shit.” You know, those are the main lyrics of hip-hop. If you put the beat to poetry, than you would have a more jazz hip-hop.
SW Yeah, I agree. I was thinking more specifically in terms of class, when you’re talking about the African American artists versus black artists. So I was thinking of hip-hop as really being—as coming out of this under class, the prison class.
GJ Yeah. It did start in the Bronx, and it didn’t require instruments. It was something that came up from the streets. The beat is basically a rhythm and blues beat.
SW Well, are you interested in hip-hop at all, has that influenced your work today?
GJ It’s influenced my work in the sense that I would write a poem now; I would add the beat and the electronic stuff that the hip-hop people use.
SW Are you writing poetry now?
GJ I did write a poem not too long ago. I sent it out to some people. I sent one to a woman, and her boyfriend said they were going to call the police because he thought I was harassing her, or something like that. But she said she had been reading my poetry every day.
SW I didn’t know you wrote poetry. How long have you been writing poetry?
GJ Well I’ve been writing poetry ever since—see my mind didn’t really have any limitations about what I could and couldn’t do; what I should, what I shouldn’t do. Whatever I was doing, it didn’t really have that categorized type of thinking that goes with college or other disciplines. So whatever I thought was good—I mean fashion or whatever—there were no boundaries. There were boundaries set up by society, but there were no boundaries set up in my mind, because all of that other information about boundaries was all racial information, which wasn’t good for creativity. [If] you try to use that for creativity, you wouldn’t create anything. And I guess like Charlie Parker, in a way, he created his own subconscious that was fortified in his improvisation. I guess with this sensibility of not having those restrictions in your mind, you could be more in the moment. You didn’t have to go back to all those references before you made any kind of move or mark, or gesture. You could just go from your own self.
SW Right. When you showed at Allan Stone, were you showing regularly—every other year?
GJ Well, Allan would show you, but he would also buy the work. And then he would have his own shows of the gallery artists up there with his collection.
SW Were you showing abstract paintings?
GJ I first started by showing abstract paintings, and then my next show was figurative paintings.
SW Figurative—were they loosely abstract?
GJ No—figurative. I must say that since Bob Thompson and them had gone “European,” Ausby and I were thinking more African in a sense. I started to do flat figures, like Egyptian-style painting—figurative paintings. They would be flat and they would be brown-colored. So I was then able to put in more of my figurative work with some symbolism and mythology into my painting. So I then mainly did figurative work based on Egyptian symbols and stuff.
SW Was that really something that you felt, bringing that kind of black imagery into figuration? Was that because at the time with, David Henderson and those groups, Black Nationalism, there was a strong influence? Or did you feel like that wasn’t something you had to address?
GJ Well the Egyptians—it was a simplified way of dealing with the figure as a symbol. Whereas in European painting it was a little story, part of their mythology—Greek mythology in a way. And since my experience with all that stuff left my mind in a kind of schizophrenic state of having to accept myself as a black artist, then that also meant that I would not be looked at as a person, as an artist. So Egyptian art allowed me to add my own little thoughts, but it would still have the same impact as a European artist with their own mythology, it would just be Egyptian mythology.
SW Yeah, in terms of establishing the idea that in black culture, we have this. You have the Greeks but we have this. Or, I have [American Indian] friends who say, “We have pyramids, too”—thinking about the Mexican pyramids. I mean do you feel that that was important to establish at that time, that as a black artist this is our stuff?
GJ I didn’t really think about it that way. It was more immediate and it was an easier vehicle for me to paint. The only real comparison I can make is between rhythm and blues and the Rolling Stones. And that was just immediate culture. And so the immediate culture for painting—that was the simplest way that I could get through. And I think later on when I did those skids and things—
SW Oh, the skids, the ones that you found off the street.
GJ I chose those because the skids already had their own power and strength. They were strong; they were used to hold heavy equipment. And I always thought I needed something else that already had strength, that I could pull my stuff and my self with it, because I didn’t have that backup. So with Egyptian art it was the same thing—they had their own power, and I could easily add my own taste, or touch to that. And then with the skids, they already had their own strength.
SW Maybe you can explain what a skid is.
GJ A skid is what they use to put a refrigerator or heavy stuff on when they’re shipping things. They’re planks of wood, a strong base, and they’re usually used in shipping with crates and refrigerators and things like that. These objects were just all around the Bowery, too. That was my attraction to them. And when I added my stuff to their stuff, it all came together. That’s because I think my mind didn’t make those boundaries. My mind only looked for things that it could put together with itself, to rebuild itself—it’s psychic rebuilding.
SW You know, speaking about that, my mind just went straight to [Robert] Rauschenberg—he was not far from you over there on Lafayette Street. And Jasper Johns—what did you think when they came on the scene?
GJ Rauschenberg—and actually Bill White was painting in Jasper Johns’s studio over on Houston [Street]. Bill White was an abstract painter, too.
SW Did Johns know he was an abstract painter?
GJ I don’t know, I never saw Johns there. I went over there a couple times and hung out with William White. I didn’t really know whether he knew him or what, but I did know that they were on the scene. But again it was different because Johns and them had a history of images, which they were rebelling against. I mean like Pollock, he was trying to go beyond Picasso. So they already had a history. And I think that was created by Clem Greenberg—this idea of going beyond.
SW Were you thinking the same thing, were you thinking of “going beyond” something?
GJ They [Johns, Rauschenberg, and Pollock] had things they could put their strength to, and add their strength to. I didn’t have those things. So that’s why skids, which had power and were forms in themselves, allowed me to do the same thing that they were doing. Except that I didn’t have the history that I could depend on, you know. At that time black people didn’t have a history in a way. I mean, the history was slavery. But slavery is not a good power image to work from, so I just kicked that out. Whereas Johns and Rauschenberg did have their [history], which they could then say, “This is what we’re rebelling against.” Well, naturally I’m rebelling against the slave mentality because that was just a crippling mental state; you could never accomplish anything by being a slave. So that had to go. But what would I replace that with since I didn’t have the European history to fall back on? So it would be like, “Well, what’s got strength out there,” and those skids fit in. And then later when I started doing work with copy machines—the copy machines also filled that role.
SW What was the work you did with the copy machine?
GJ The copy machine is stuff like this here (shows a work), where I’m taking these images of models and I then paint over that. I create my own dresses and then I blow it up on the copy machine. So the machine now is my partner in that it gives me what I don’t have. Microsoft and all those people use technology to give them strength. So my recent work with the [copy] machine, which I think now is my greatest work, it knocks out Picasso in a certain way. It sends it back a little bit later with Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907). Where he has these female figures that are supposed to be prostitutes, I’m using models from Vogue magazine and making collages.
SW Before we look at your other pieces, I have one question about Pop art. Your piece here with the model with the frame with the copy machine—we talked a little bit about Rauschenberg—did Pop art have a big influence on you? Was it something that really shook things up? Was Bob Thompson alive to see it?
GJ I don’t think black culture had a Pop art culture; they didn’t have a Pop culture.
SW So what you’re saying is that the black artists were outside the main culture, so they didn’t see Coca-Cola as being theirs, or… I’m sure black folks ate Campbell’s soup.
GJ But no black artist ever did anything based on Pop culture. Black abstract art is different from what we call African American or black art where the imagery was folkloric. Like Willie Birch and them would do a black couple at the railroad station with some cardboard suitcases and things like that.
SW Right, so you can say the same of Bearden.
GJ And Romy [Bearden] and them—it seemed to me that the culture wants to see a black art that they can identify. If you have wild hair, if you look wild, if you pull off your clothes and act crazy and stuff, then you couldn’t fit in.
SW Well that’s not true now with the Studio Museum, do you think?
GJ Well, all the popular black art has some black imagery in it, and the person that’s doing it is a person that can be identified. For instance you couldn’t have a hip-hop black art painter, in a way. Because you would then have to paint about ghetto stuff, or stuff that they’re really not comfortable with. So, most successful black art produces an image that the culture can first identify as something that they think this black person is.
SW So you’re talking about artists who are successful in terms of making money who are well known, who—
GJ Yeah. If you are gay, then it’s okay in a way, because it’s not a threatening image, and it’s suffering—that’s why I think Beauford Delaney is the perfect black artist, in that he fulfills all of these—
SW Suffering, gay, crazy—
GJ I couldn’t even sleep. I was like, “What the hell, I don’t want to be this!”
SW Well, do you think it’s important, if you’re an artist, if you’re a so-called black artist, that the first thing that they should recognize in your work is that it comes out of black culture? You know hip-hop comes out of a recognizable black culture, as does Kara Walker, that’s the success of it. If you can’t do that, you can’t be successful.
GJ Yeah. See, like those jazz musicians and Bob [Thompson] and them, they didn’t really fit in to it, because they were too wild. They were wild people.
SW So people still don’t get it?
GJ I don’t think they can, unless you fit into one of these preconceived images.
SW Do you think that’s something you’ve always been wrestling with?
GJ I never thought about it, because I destroyed that section of my mind. It wasn’t something that I tried to, or could, put together.
SW How are you addressing those issues today?
GJ My fashion clothes now are totally not conventional.
SW But let’s also talk about you, and your work today, and how you’re thinking about your art. You have a show coming up at Gallery Onetwentyeight [the show opened January 5, 2013].
GJ Yeah, I want to show some large paintings that I did in a basement over in Brooklyn. I would like to show my fashion stuff and a couple of pieces of sculpture, and that big piece that we have in the back—some abstract and some figurative, the same stuff I’ve always been doing
SW You know we talked a little bit about that, and it seems like now, people are wide open to the kind of artist you’ve always been. The kind of artist who has done video, photography—you’ve just taken on whatever you’ve wanted to take on: fashion, sculpture, and mixed media. You don’t see many older artists who did all kinds of different artworks like that.
GJ It’s coming from a mental condition where I didn’t have anything like these young artists have [today], in terms of education, in terms of background, in terms of economics, and stuff like that.
SW But now you see people coming out of Yale, and all these great art schools, who are doing what you’ve always done.
GJ But it’s coming from a different source. It’s coming from a knowledge of what they don’t want to do; what images they are rebelling against. Mine just came out of the fact that I didn’t know what to do. I was putting the whole thing together myself. I don’t want to be a tragic figure. I don’t want to be like a Beauford Delaney or any of those people. So, I’m again running for cover like I’ve done before. I’d rather go get a studio some place where I could just go and be crazy, or whatever I am. Whatever it is, I’m making up the whole thing myself from my own subconscious. I’m not a crazy person; I’m not a black person. I’m only what I make myself up to be. I’m the guy who’s into fashion. He’s got his own hats, his own stuff, that’s me. Even the name Jackson—if I could get rid of everything that was put into my mind before I learned that I could use creativity to become something different, I would destroy it immediately. And I would grab hold of something else that had some positive strength to it. Whether it was the name, or whatever, I would become that person. I can become who I really am—
SW —a creative person.
GJ That’s who I am. And that’s what I would become. But if I hold on, even to just recognizable black art, that is dangerous to my mind. Any of those—Thelma [Golden]—they’re dangerous to a person like me, because I’m vulnerable in that way, in that I would be insecure when they started drawing out their credentials and all the other stuff. That would eliminate me; it would probably throw me back into some kind of psychiatry because I wouldn’t have any way of talking about it or of being a part of it. But this person that I’m creating, I can be a part of it.
SW This person you’re creating is the creative person, and that’s that. It doesn’t have a color; it doesn’t have a name.
GJ It doesn’t have a name, no—because it never had [one].
SW Well, don’t you think that’s like post-modernism or even beyond post-modernism? That’s what I was saying with young people making art now that it’s sometimes painting, sometimes sculpture, sometimes video… They’re trying to go beyond these kinds of definitions.
GJ It would be like a person who escaped slavery, but then had to find a new identity up North somewhere. So on their way, they would start to put together this person that they would then become, once they got out of the South. It would be like my [great grandfather]—my grandmother’s father—when he escaped and moved in with the [American Indians]; he became a different person. He’s not the same person. He was a person who lived with the [American Indians], but he was also a person who was a mixed person. But none of those things could support him.
A person like me cannot function in society. That’s why I’m sort of on-the-run, because I know I don’t fit in. Even when I walk with these things people sometimes stop me in the street, “Oh those are great!” But I know that’s not going to get me into society. Whereas, when I was wearing my Brooks Brothers suit and everything, I thought: Well, I look right, I’m doing right, and that would be my ticket into society. No. Nothing I was able to do would ever get me into the society because it was something that somebody else created, and I was trying to be that person. I was never—I didn’t look the part. So what I was thrown back into was, “Well, who are you? What are you going to be?” And that’s when I thought of the slave person. A slave has nothing; a slave doesn’t have a consciousness or a subconscious. A slave is nothing. And if that slave can escape, he or she has to then say, “What am I? Who am I?” Not like an actor, but sort of like creating a part in a movie. You become Julius Caesar or somebody. You become your acting part. And so many times I was acting the part that I was becoming. Right now, the person you’re talking to is the person I’m creating that has nothing to do with the other person, except that the other person has destroyed my mind, and caused me to have that slave mentality, which I hate. A slave doesn’t have a name; he doesn’t have a country. A slave has nothing. It’s all been pumped into his head by somebody else, and that person was probably some kind of a crazy person or a lunatic, or somebody who really had no imagination.
SW But at the same time I think it’s interesting because if you don’t have any of that, or don’t come from that, then you have the freedom to make yourself up. Isn’t that why you’re an artist? You’re making yourself up totally as an artist?
GJ Well, I’m an artist because when the psychiatrist said, “You’ve developed a sixth sense. Art is good for you to do. It’s part of your therapy. It will help you become something.” So that’s different from saying, “I want to be an artist because mentally I have to be in this state of mind.” See if you take a kid, they will automatically do some kind of creative thing because they don’t have their mind; they don’t know their name yet, or what that means. But that state of mind in a grown person cannot function in society. Just like a kid has to be socialized, you would have to be socialized again, except you can’t be socialized because that part of you has been destroyed. So it’s impossible. So all I can do is use my sixth sense. If your whole brain collapses, rarely will you be able to put those pieces back together or make anything out of it. But if that happens naturally in you, then you should do something that works naturally with your brain. The brain actually likes to do creative things. And that is where my brain is now. Rauschenberg and them still knew where they were in society. They knew they could be white people and go here, go there. But in terms of being a black person, you can become an improvisation and have it work. But not like playing an instrument. Your brain has to be able to improvise within society. But you can’t be too like that, because again you’ll be thrown out. I would be thrown out of everything. Outside of that I think I’ve become something that I created.
BOMB’s Oral History Advisory Panel includes Sanford Biggers, Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones, Odili Donald Odita, Lowery Stokes Sims, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Stanley Whitney, and Jack Whitten (in memoriam).
The Oral History Fellowship is made possible by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Cary Brown & Steven Epstein, and generous individuals.
The Oral History Project is supported by Agnes Gund, the Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation, Humanities New York with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this digital publication do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee