David Hammons

Harmolodic Ingenuity: David Hammons Marks an Immersive Return to Los Angeles at Hauser & Wirth

By George Melrod

David Hammons does things on his own terms. Even for an artist, he’s made a trademark of elusiveness. He doesn’t show up at his openings. Not that he has a surfeit of them: by now, any exhibition by Hammons is a significant event. But a show in Los Angeles is a once-in-45-years happening. Hammons, who was born in Springfield, Illinois, and spent much of his career in New York (and who is a longtime friend of this publication), lived in Los Angeles for a crucial decade at the outset of his artistic career, starting in 1963 when he was 20. So you know the place has got to hold a special resonance for him. In his new exhibition in Los Angeles, at Hauser & Wirth Gallery (running May 18 – August 10), Hammons returns triumphantly to his old stomping grounds with a cornucopia of works both recent and historic. As one might guess, he makes his West Coast re-entry with his well-known penchant for subversive conceptualism, racial identity, sociological critique, and material mischief firmly intact.

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019  Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

For someone who has always had a kind of disdain for the art world – “The art audience is the worst audience in the world,” he once stated, in an interview with Kellie Jones. “It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s put to criticism, not to understand and it never has any fun! Why should I spend my time playing to that audience? That’s like going into a lion’s den…” – and who wields his identity politics like a razor, the fact is, Hammons manages to bring an awful lot of joy to his art-making. Despite his affinity for Duchamp and Arte Povera, his works draw not from the thin recycled ether of art history but, emphatically, from the real world around him, from its textures and materiality, its issues and its emblems. His ready-made materials have famously included the detritus of African-American life, from bottles of Thunderbird to snippets of hair culled from African-American barber shops. He draws meaning from the lone quixotic gesture and loaded allegorical icon. To trot out another telltale Hammons quote, “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.” Which is to say, although he may act like a cool cat, he’s always been playing with fire. But he’s clearly playing, too.

And despite the numerous ironies, that stance clearly works for him. Remarkably, he’s not attached to any one gallery. In 2016, he had a five-decade retrospective at Mnuchin Gallery, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. During the show’s run, a stone “head” bedecked with neatly cropped black hair was pulled for auction at Christie’s, where it sold for over $1 million. That number still pales next to the record high of his glass crystal basketball hoop adorned with chandeliers, which sold for $8 million in 2013, putting him among the top ten priciest living American artists. That’s quite a journey for a dogged iconoclast who has embraced not just distressed found materials but the iconography of civil rights and Black identity, and earlier in his career sold snowballs and doll’s shoes on the sidewalk to engage with random passers-by.

Despite his claim “I never, ever liked art, ever,” the Los Angeles art scene of the ‘60s must have been invigorating for Hammons. From 1966-68, he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (later to become CalArts), where he first experimented doing body prints, using greased margarine; from 1968-72 he took classes at Otis, and studied with Charles White (whose own knock-out retrospective exhibition is currently on view at LACMA). While in LA, he forged relationships with artists such as sculptors Senga Nengudi and Betye Saar, with whom he shares various totemic and appropriative impulses (who will be subject of her own solo MOMA show this fall), and Noah Purifoy (subject of a wonderful 2015 retrospective at LACMA titled “Junk Dada”), an influential artist and organizer, and co-founder of the Watts Towers Art Center.

In 1971, Hammons showed his body prints at the Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park, and was featured in a three-person show at LACMA organized by the museum’s Black Arts Council, alongside Charles White and Timothy Washington. By then, Hammons was already employing forceful symbolic imagery, in one work showing Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale bound and gagged, and framed by an American flag; in another, titled Spade, creating a visual pun of a racist epithet. Some of these early works can be seen in an exhibition now on view at The Broad Museum, not far from Hauser & Wirth in Downtown Los Angeles, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” Yet even after he moved to New York, he continued to visit Los Angeles, staging art events, sharing a studio with Nengudi. His last official show here was in 1974.

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019  Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Sprawling over several large galleries and the building’s central courtyard, encompassing both new works and a smattering of greatest hits, Hammons’ new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth is considerably more massive than the delicate installation of hair and wire that he set out, like a row of cattails, along the edge of Venice Beach in 1977. The build-up to the show was at once secretive and highly anticipatory. Even the press release is enticingly evasive, just a one-page flow-chart of scribbled lines, like an abstracted musical score, with the text “This exhibition is dedicated to Ornette Coleman, Harmolodic Thinker,” an allusion to Coleman’s innovative philosophy of free jazz. Although Hammons has long admired (and emulated) the detached attitude and experimental rigor of jazz musicians, his dedication to Coleman is notable, as if to explain that it’s not the notes themselves, it’s the idea behind them. As part of the homage, the show features two outfits worn by Coleman, which stand amid the artworks in clear plastic tubes, exuding the lustrous presence of vintage royal robes. One is gold, the other, a lush teal, black and magenta grid, like a shimmering sartorial riff on Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.

At the press opening for the sprawling exhibition, Hauser & Wirth partner and Vice President Marc Payot explained gleefully: “It’s very much his universe. The show is free-floating between recent pieces and historic. David... worked years to put this together,” he added. “It’s all him.” In an email exchange afterward, Payot described the process of working with the artist on the exhibition. “Hammons really is like a master jazz musician,” he observes. “He makes work that is incredibly precise, but also improvisational and always multi-layered. And that approach extends into how he addresses the space where his work appears. So it made total sense that he would be in command of the work on site, and place it as he saw fit, in real time. For us it was natural to have the artist work on site and determine which things would be presented, and how. Like Ornette Coleman, to whom David has dedicated his show, he’s a ‘harmolodic thinker.’”

So what exactly does the show contain? Quite a lot. Among the classic works are one of his signature stone heads, that is an oblong stone affixed with short black hair, along with photos documenting the African American barber giving it a haircut. There are several African masks, one with its protruding sculpted hair sanded down, displayed with the resulting sawdust (and a comb), another splashed with orange paint and titled, in a typical dark pun, Orange is the New Black. On the subject of puns and hair, there is a plush chaise lounge, bedecked with snippets of black hair, titled Hair Relaxer. One room offers a half dozen of Hammons’ repurposed fur coats, assembled as if in conference; the onetime status symbols (and animal pelts) are smeared with crude expressionist splotches of pink, lavender or yellow paint, or visibly charred; transformed from agents of one type of cultural value system to another. A looming, orange-painted mask hovers behind one of them, like a backpack or a pair of wings, or a menacing shadow.

On one wall is a set of photos documenting various historical works, among them a trio of battered fur coats splayed out on tree branches, a group of “toilet trees” in which he affixed Duchampian urinals to tree trunks, and a New York City subway gate that’s been adorned with condoms (titled, musically, Four Beats to the Bar). In one image, a pile of art books is stacked like a jack beneath a vandalized urban car that is missing its wheel. Just how useful is art history, he seems to ask. A similar concept animates one of the largest current installations in the show, a room of vividly arcane scales each set with a stack of art history books, on figures like Goya, Munch and Serra, as if to quantify the aesthetic knowledge and value contained within.

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019  Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Particularly noteworthy, and amusing, is a shelf holding a bowl of water, ostensibly snowball residue from his famous 1983 action in which he sold snowballs to random pedestrians in New York’s Cooper Square; posted beside it, a letter from a collector to a gallerist politely declining the purchase of one of the snowballs. Nearby is an ice-cream freezer with copies of a book about the work. Set out among his own creations are works gathered by Hammons: paintings by de Kooning, Agnes Martin, Miles Davis (!), Ed Clark and Jack Whitten, the iconoclastic Black artist and painter who died in 2018. Set before the Whitten work is a dresser laid on its back, its mirror gazing skyward. There’s a game of exquisite corpse, with doodles from numerous artists. And don’t forget the giant chicken sculpture by Paa Joe, the celebrated Ghanaian coffin artist, a reliquary for chicken bones, roosting in the gallery’s outdoor garden, among actual chickens.

Filling the gallery’s courtyard is a colorful installation of tents, some of them stamped with the words, “This could be U and U.” Referencing the many homeless encampments which are now ubiquitous all across Los Angeles, it’s a stark reminder of the human misery we strive to ignore: talk about bringing the spirit of the street into the gallery. The tents spill down the gallery’s brick breezeway, past a coat rack of black-tie outfits, beneath a neon work by British artist Martin Creed that blithely proclaims: “Everything is going to be alright.” Spoiler alert: it’s not.

The show is best defined perhaps by his numerous ‘wrapped works’ – canvases which are often effusively colored, which have been obscured or wrapped so that one can only discern glimmers of the visions held within. They’re spread throughout the show in extraordinarily diverse variety. Upon encountering them, a viewer’s initial reaction is often frustration or puzzlement; but as the realization sets in that the ragged, banal or seemingly provisional coverings are in fact part of the work, one can appreciate them for what they are. Instead of frustrating the evocation of beauty, the tattered sheath merges with the hidden work and becomes the beauty. Some of these works are actually quite spectacular: in one a swath of vibrant lavender is revealed by a splintered hole, in another a pocked white tarp reveals glints of exquisite jewel colors. In one large piece, a field of dark Yves Klein blue is interrupted by a scuffed rubber walking mat. Some play a teasing game with silken swathes or diaphanous veils; in others, the tarps themselves conjure the bold graphics of abstracted flags. Devilishly, Hammons set one piece, inside a fractured shipping crate, along a courtyard wall, all but daring viewers to walk past it. More than just a conceptual one-liner, the works remain among the most challenging, and moving, of his oeuvre, in part because of the universality of their allegory, with their obstructed potential for exuberance and joy contained within. More than his other works, they both suggest but also potentially transcend issues of race. But, as usual with Hammons, he makes you work for it.

“My conclusion is that he is a genius, a true master of our time,” states Payot. “He is undeniably part of the trajectory of American art... He is a pivotal figure whose practice spans the 20th and 21st centuries as well as many of art’s movements, ‘isms,’ and cultural imperatives, and many important peers and younger artists cite him as a key influence. The market has come to reflect all of this, and we are glad to see that institutions and leading private collectors are embracing and reinforcing Hammons’ rightful place in the larger story of art.”

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019  Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

And what exactly is that place? Setting aside issues of race and materiality, in which he is clearly a trailblazer, one could say he shares the poetic performative impulse of, say, Vito Acconci, the distrust of authority of Hans Haacke, the appropriative passion for real-world artifacts of Haim Steinbach. One can almost view him as a kind of anti-Koons: while Koons employs a shiny veneer to reflect back his own kitschy values at the viewer, Hammons elevates a loaded racial icon, or a withholding dingy surface, then challenges the viewer to appreciate and look past it. Adding to the challenge of defining Hammons is his own reluctance to dance with the prevailing authoritative institutions. His involvement with these mega-galleries has been mainly on his own terms. He hasn’t had a major museum retrospective; indeed, the story goes that he actively derailed a prestigious museum’s intended retrospective of his work.

Discussing Hammons’ elusiveness, Elena Filipovic, in her book “David Hammons: Bliz-aard Ball Sale,” writes: “Rather than anecdotes of one artist’s cagey behaviour, all of these accounts describe gestures that occupy the very core of Hammons’ practice. Arguably, these gestures are his practice. That practice is based not on the habitual art-world hope (and hype) for ultimate visibility and omnipresence, but the opposite: willful obfuscation at the risk of obscurity.”

Like Miles Davis, one of his icons, or the famously reclusive Garbo, Hammons’ withdrawal has only burnished his mystique. And yet, I must respectfully disagree with Hammons as to the art world audience. Perhaps it has evolved in the decades since he made his remark, or perhaps it’s because his own work has by now informed it, but I’d say the art world audience has caught up with him. They’re in on the game: his affluent collectors aside, many art-goers are not moneyed members of the 1% but woke cultural consumers eager for a challenge. Even without the aid of wall texts or an artist’s statement, the crowds I saw ambling through his current show seemed highly engaged: open both to the artist’s mischievous spirit and to the solemnity of his themes. You don’t need to have known Ornette Coleman to grasp his creative ambition in “Skies of America.” You don’t need to have met Miles Davis to bliss out on “Kind of Blue.” In sculpting his career, Hammons has been savvy enough, and lucky enough, to stake out his own inspired plane. Good for him. But his music, as pointed, confounding or quixotic as it is, still clearly resonates with his many admirers left behind to complete the tune.

The 58th Venice Biennale "May You Live in Interesting Times" - Part Two

Photo Credit: LaBiennale.org (Biennale Arte 2019 | 58th Exhibition)

Photo Credit: LaBiennale.org (Biennale Arte 2019 | 58th Exhibition)

The 58th Venice Biennale
"May You Live in Interesting Times"
Running: May 11 - November 24, 2019
Part Two

By Lee Klein

...Gold Lion (leone d'Oro) winning artist Arthur Jafa's giant medallions fashioned of tires wearing chains and clusters of rocks seemed both made for and in parody of those effecting style to make huge impact. In fact many of the pieces in the Giardini section of the curated international exhibition appear to have been selected to strike with deep impact; from Yin Xiuzhen's "Nowhere to Land",  made from an upside down set of gigantic tires into sort of an axle like turned over skyjack-in-the-box from an airport runway in a sci-fi movie, to Lie Wei's sculptural cubist-tubulist blown up medley "Micrworld" .   So as has been indicated in other reviews works run the gamut of exploring ideas about world issues and social trends but at times it was a bit too much to take in so many large scale works at once.

During his press conference talk Biennale curator Rugoff highlighted specific works and this viewer was sort of checking them off at the exhibition. The most apparent minefield of cognition for this writer was when coming into the room in the Giardini where some of the choice painters the director of the Hayward (who sent me away wayward) decided to embrace were grouped. Henry Taylor who has earned renown for his painting of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial here shows a canvas "Another Wrong" of a white Wall Street type fictitiously getting arrested by two white cops for financial crimes as well as a painting of the iconic David Hammons on a voyage to Africa next to his famous snowball work, the adobe Mosque in Djenné, Mali and a hyena, titled, "Hammons Meets a Hyena on Holiday". Adjacent in this volley are works by Julie Mehretu which differ somewhat from her earlier work with less color-coded shapes but which are busier on the avenue of pencil work. Meanwhile here is George Condo (in one of the exhibition's few 1980's flashbacks -along with Rosemarie Trockel). Here Picasso who outlived Picasso is exhibiting among other works a large canvas called "Facebook', which is of course of countenances on top of one and other and Condo's great eventuality down the Yellow Brick Road of his ouevre.   "Facebook", plays well with others, including, a work in the arsenale also dealing with the role of community in social networking. Therein, Eva Rothchild's instillation in the Irish pavilion sort of illustrates how sculpture or instillation or a sculptural instillation might gather people together in certain areas like a social media platform; so a social platform platform might actually literally be a social platform,

Having always thought that along with the curated and official pavilions the whole city of Venice and its environs and everything being shown in all the collateral exhibitions is still part of the Biennale. This Biennale goer believes it is the total experience which is the experience. Thus it is cool to point other highlights, one of which for I this time was Jake Szymanski and Alexandra Kohl in the "Venice Design 2019" exhibition at the Palazzo Michiel del Brusà. Here this design duo offers a hanging creation of two long stick lucite like rectangles for a large part of their length clothed in black attached but movable up against a cast iron ball, also black. This construction grew and grew on me (-thinking chopsticks have always been navigated when placed together as instructed by human digits but here they are attached and still moving so as if one had long ago thought about the limbs but not the joint-), Seduced and stupefied by the simplicity this Bellini sipper actually started daydreaming of a David Rockwell type of theme park Las Vegas restaurant where a Hollywood worthy version might one day hang. 

Some of the national pavilions caught my attention. At Iceland where we wound up at the party for the opening where Shoplifter / Hrafnhildur Arnardottir in her immersive work "Chromosapiens", festooned the space with giant psychedelically colored fabric hair in covering an entire long entry chamber in an upside up upside down run to render a totally imagineered textural world, Three huge dandy artists who were everywhere (including on a vaporetto where there was a fight and a belligerent passenger had to be removed by the carabinieri who appeared dockside [violence in in Italy always reminds me of the public battle and death scene in the Merchant-Ivory film version of E.M Forrester's "A Room with a View"] were going on and on about it. The artiest one was saying he lived in Iceland as well as China (but also said the lead singer of the death metal band on stage was otherwise the Icelandic Minister of Health and he turned out to be incorrect)... The party went all night and as far as I was concerned is the party of the century so far..

Mark Justiniani's work in the Philippines pavilion also in the arsenale was quizzically pleasurable.  With an architectural layout shaped to be evocative of the Philippine archipelago.  The viewing vantage for the work is reached by climbing up onto the islands.  Once atop the islands they offer an illusionistic infinity as one might find in a Turkish cistern through ages old trompe l'oeil... The Argentina pavilion is exhibiting the work of sculptor Mariana Telleria. They have her giant creature like hybrids of materials with anatomies which include fabric and automobile parts hanging out and it was indeed fun to navigate around them at the opening while hunting down flutes of prosecco on the fly.

The pavilion of Japan makes light of the natural unnatural phenomenons which have washed ashore after the great tidal waves and have been aptly christened "Tsunami Boulders".  For this work called "Cosmo-eggs" an entire ensemble team made up of artist Motoyuki Shitamichi (visual artist), Taro Yasuno (composer) , Toshiaki Tshikura (anthropologist), and Fuminori Nousaku (architect), along with curator Hiroyuki Hattori have collaborated to imagine a successful co-existance between the planet and our species all the while taking a extraterrestrial yarn as a thread to explain the appearance of these ominous rocks.

Then on the flip side there was the torture of the Israeli pavilion. Artist Aya Ben Ron here turned this duplex pavilion into what she what she termed a "field hospital". Here one takes a number as if waiting for an emergency room visit. Then when one's number is called one is invited up to a chamber like a storage pod behind a warehouse to scream where "no one will hear you" after listening to a series of instructions. Later you move to a station where you learn about her coming out about being of victim of family abuse (of which variety you never find out). One then watches a seemingly endless video trying to program you for victim status . Oy!..seemingly a big waste of time which makes fun of medical attention and you only learn of being a victim but never what preceded to get you there. Soon you join a long list of those who went before you in becoming a victim of this pavilion.

While there some magic was missed by this writer but it is all part of the atmosphere. Looking along on instagram it did not go unnoticed that the Socialite Peter Brant Jr. and the vogue editor at large Hamish Bowles were out and about for what turned out to be for them and other fabulists like Tilda Swidon and Sienna Miller to attend  a semi-recreation of the  Bal Oriental (often referred to as the the ball of the century [20th] where Dali designed for Dior and vice versa).  It was held at the very same Palazzo Labia in Ca' Rezzonico, but, this time as the Grand Tiepolo Costume Ball for the Venice Heritage Foundation chaired by architect Peter Marino... So who knew Marino would leave his bike leathers for the garb of Giacomo di Casanova.. I was out in Posagno trying find the Gipsoteca Canova and then hit Ristorante Da Bepi in.Mestre for the supreme seafood antipasto starring Bon Jovi's father's sister Anchovy.  Then later after returning to the hotel it started storming and as my vaporetto card had run out I returned a pumpkin.   But to top it all off Banksy was there going to work in the stall of a Venetian touristic painter but laying down a sectioned but giant seascape of an oversize cruise ship... And then don't you know just a couple of weeks later a out of control one crashed into the the cruise terminal.

Diving as the chosen sacrifice in mesh metal neptunic the aqueous beast comes thrashing into the cage rattling the armored sushi inside driving along the highway on an interstate such as I-95 and Trans-American trucking company's monster comes along out of its passing lane and into yours' on the passenger side obliterating the side-view mirror like a skeet target shot upon having mostly missed the automobile the tail end swiping appearing as if a steel bridge span then moving off into the distance with the arch in its form with the gradient in the road.

In Venice a huge luxury boat pleasure mall afloat directionless after its crew having lost control having come in off the Giudecca Canal form the sea wedging itself in lopsided between the shore or the filled in shore who can be sure as tourists as if cast for a mega- tweet scamper and evacuate.. and nowthis was it just a minute ago Banksy was here in La Serenissima making light of it all.

David Hammons at Hauser & Wirth

It’s been done before
This could be u

By Sola Saar

What is your authentic reaction to an art piece? What is your first impression, before reading what others have told you the work is about? The press release for David Hammons’ “Harmolodic Thinker,” a squiggly line drawing evocative of a composer’s hand motions, equally places the casual viewer, the art critic, and the student on the same plane to draw their own conclusions. It forgoes the theoretical context, the gallery’s interpretations, the artist’s educational background, the list of museums that have shown the artist’s work to lend credibility and give the art critic words to regurgitate, markers into which David Hammons, one of the nation’s top 10 selling artists, could easily play. At a certain point, don’t all press releases proffer the same format, check the same boxes of art world success? If stripped down to their main function, they feed the art market, not the artist.

David Hammons has not had a solo show in Los Angeles for 45 years, has eschewed large commercial galleries and who has long criticized the white, profit-driven art world, dedicated “Harmolodic Thinker” to the late Ornette Coleman, a jazz musician known for his spontaneity. Hauser and Wirth, a gallery with locations all over the world, would seem a surprising place for Hammons to make these kinds of statements, however the gallery’s location in the downtown arts district lends context. Hammons created a site-specific work: an encampment of tents with stenciled messages such as “this could be u” directly addressing the LA homeless crisis most visible near the rapidly gentrifying downtown arts district. Like his previous site-specific work, “Six Sites in Alexandria” in Egypt, Hammons continues to invites the viewer to deconstruct the boundaries between designated art spaces and the real world. Noticeably absent from the two gallery spaces were traditional artwork labels. Categories such as the year the piece was created, artistic medium, or a short blurb about the work, are forgone, forcing the viewer to more directly and viscerally form their own response to the work sans context.

David Hammons
Mixed media
Dimensions variable
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Instead open-ended phrases were handwritten on the wall in the place of titles such as “It’s been done before,” “this reminds me of…” parodying trite phrases people throw out when evaluating art and also giving new meaning to them when placed next to David Hammons’ work.

Hammons’ tarp series dominated the bulk of the two gallery spaces and underscored the exhibition’s theme of art world criticism. Initially he painted abstract expression paintings in the likes of William de Kooning, whose work is of high value in the art market, and cloaked tarpaulin, brown paper, patchwork fabrics, and clear plastic wrap over the paintings. The covering materials are reminiscent of freight shipping materials, yet draped over the paintings like Grecian robes, allowing only slips of the paintings to show through. Often placed on the floor, they are intentionally presented as though the exhibition hanging is in process, questioning the authority of curation and “finished” presentation in these spaces.

By including artworks by artists as versatile as Miles Davis, William de Kooning, and Agnes Martin, the exhibition challenges notions of authorship and authority in art. An expansive exquisite corpse created in collaboration with poet Ted Joans, includes contributions from artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals from around the world, including William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Bowles. The exquisite corpse, a game invented by the surrealists in which each person adds to a drawing to create a collaborative work, underlies a desire for communal rather than ego-driven art.

David Hammons
Mixed media
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

“Harmolodic Thinker” is also a dialogue with Ornette Coleman, the free jazz musician and composer who passed away in 2015. Coleman’s jazz philosophies were somewhat unorthodox but influential, especially to David Hammons. The essay on Ornette Coleman from Hauser and Wirth states:

“‘Follow the idea, not the sound.’ This statement by Ornette Coleman is an inspiration for David Hammons who reflects, ‘I was impressed with that. Follow how my ideas are put together, as opposed to whether the rainbow appears or the rain comes. I use this logic a lot. It moves in the realm of poetry as opposed to the actuality that people are used to or expect.’”[1]

With this sentiment, Hammons’ work is best taken in without the expectation of a finite conclusion of what the work is meant to convey, as with jazz or poetry, his is an art form intended to open up new modes of thinking rather than express an ideology. Throughout his decades-long career, Hammons has made art out of the ephemeral— selling snowballs on the street, or urinating on Richard Serra’s work. While neither of these concepts could be replicated at Hauser and Wirth, a single bowl of water in the place of a melted snowball with a note from an art collector who declined purchasing one of Hammons’ snowballs on the basis of it being too expensive to maintain, implies a larger problem in the art world— that it is preoccupied with the idea that art is ultimately a commodifiable object.

David Hammons
Orange is the new black
Mixed media
139.7 x 40.6 x 30.5 cm / 55 x 16 x 12 in
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Speaking about his installation in Alexandria, Egypt, Hammons wrote in Artforum, “I was more interested in shifting the idea of how artists think about producing art. Artists are often more interested in the act itself. I choose artworks that are ephemeral because, well, life is that. It’s such a temporary journey.”[1]

With this idea I wonder why with visual art and prose, the intent is always a finished unchanging product, whereas with poetry or music, the creation process is inherently ephemeral, open to change, and performative. As opposed to performance, a gallery space has historically been a one-way interaction between a viewer and object, but “Harmolodic Thinker” encourages the visitor to transcend beyond these distinctions by doing the work for themselves, forming a meaning not based on what art experts would want you to think, but by inciting a response you might not know existed and giving you permission to access those feelings as you would in daily experience.

David Hammons Will Stage Show at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles

Photo: David Hammons Courtesy Timothy Greenfield Sanders

Photo: David Hammons
Courtesy Timothy Greenfield Sanders

Influential and elusive contemporary artist David Hammons is having his first Los Angeles solo show in 45 years at Hauser & Wirth‘s giant gallery space which will run from May 18 through August 10, 2019.

Read the full article here.

A Blind Publisher, Poet — and Link to the Lower East Side’s Cultural History

ONE AFTERNOON LAST fall, Steve Cannon — who is also known as Professor Steve, the only blind gallery owner in the history of New York and, in the words of his friend Ishmael Reed, “the emperor of the Lower East Side” — was sitting on the couch in his small East Village apartment, wearing Mardi Gras beads over a sweater, his glaucoma-clouded eyes covered by sunglasses. He was talking about how he decided to start the arts organization A Gathering of the Tribes, a magazine and former gallery that is a kind of manifestation of Cannon himself.

The idea came to him one night in 1990 at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which was a block away from the building he owned at the time on East Third Street. The Nuyorican opened down the street in 1981, and by 1990 its poetry slams had become a downtown sensation. Cannon, the author of the legendary but little-read 1969 book “Groove, Bang and Jive Around,” which Reed calls a “pre-rap novel” that predicted the spoken-word style that was flourishing at the Nuyorican in the late ’80s, was the club’s resident heckler, shouting at hesitant performers to get on with it and “read the goddamn poem.”

He was there with his friend David Hammons, a renowned artist so famously reclusive and unreachable that the very idea of him having a friend seems strange, like trying to imagine Thomas Pynchon buying toilet paper. Cannon and Hammons met on a park bench in the late ’70s, a few years after Hammons arrived in New York from the West Coast and began making mordant, provocative sculptures that dealt with black identity, using discarded materials he gathered around the city. A gardening spade with chains dangling from it lampooned racist terminology; bottle caps gathered from bars were used to adorn comically tall basketball hoops in a 1986 public installation called “Higher Goals”; hair swept from the floors of black barbershops became a leitmotif of many sculptures and installations. Hammons would often find these materials on long walks from his studio in Harlem all the way downtown, where Cannon’s house was a regular stop.

Read the full article here.

John Farris, bohemian poet who chronicled life on Lower East Side

John Farris in a recent photo in the vestibule at Bullet Space, a former squat on E. Third St. Photo by Maggie Wrigley

BY SARAH FERGUSON | It’s hard to fathom a Lower East Side without John Farris. The beloved, if notoriously cantankerous, poet was found dead of a heart attack in his one-bedroom apartment at the Bullet Space artists’ homestead on E. Third St. on Jan. 22. He was 75.

With his sharp wit and abrasive personality, Farris was for decades an integral part of the Downtown literary and jazz scenes. He performed at a wide range of venues, reading wry, lyrical poems and densely crafted prose that both celebrated and satirized the people of the Lower East Side. He insisted that you listen to him — whether you wanted to or not.

Though he was constantly writing, Farris didn’t actually publish much — a single novel, “The Ass’s Tale,” put out in 2010 by the Unbearables collective, a slim volume of poetry, “It’s Not About Time” (Fly By Night Press, 1993) and some chapbooks — along with numerous poems, short stories and essays he contributed to magazines, art journals and anthologies. Yet his influence extends far beyond what ended up in print:

In 2008, the Howl! Festival named him poet laureate of the Lower East Side, and in 2013 he won an Acker Award for his novel, and in recognition of his life spent performing and mentoring other writers and artists — many of whom went on to achieve national prominence.

“His work was extraordinary. He plucked these gorgeous, surreal and very funny poems out of thin air,” said writer Darius James, who first encountered Farris in 1983 when Farris was living in the back room of Life Cafe on Avenue B and running a weekly reading series there.

James credits Farris with helping school him in his artistic roots.

“John was definitely part of the black bohemian scene that’s been in existence and largely undocumented since the 1840s,” said James, author of “Negrophobia” and “That’s Blaxploitation.”

“He knew all the black musicians, writers and artists who were prominent in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He knew them from hanging out in places like Slug’s,” James added, referring to the old jazz spot on E. Third St. “So you had a sense of continuity from John. He was part of the Lower East Side bohemian spirit.”

“He was a great poet. He owned the streets. He really was of the neighborhood. A fixture,” said Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club. “He was also a synesthete, someone who could see sounds and hear colors, for whom the senses mix. You can hear it in a lot of his jazz poems. They are filled with crazily imaginative language that is like synesthesia.”

Though fiercely political — he was at one time a bodyguard to Malcolm X — Farris eschewed any inkling of black nationalism, hewing instead to a more universal aesthetic.

“John was the first black poet I met who didn’t talk about the black experience in his poetry, and I was impressed with that,” said renowned conceptual artist David Hammons, who considered Farris a muse.

“He had a sense of humor and I really liked that,” Hammons continued. “Wherever he went he could seduce the bartenders to give him free drinks. I watched him go from place to place — Life Cafe, Vazac’s, 2A, NuBlu. Everywhere he went, he’d sit at the corner of the bar and hold court. He would, like, own the bartender because of his mouth.” (Of course, that same mouth got him 86’d from most places, too.)

John Farris on the roof of Bullet Space, circa 2000. Photo by Hisashi

He also was a ladies’ man and a “prolific father,” joked his daughter Sienna, who lives in Brooklyn. He was married four times and fathered six daughters “that we know of,” she said.

A high-school dropout, Farris was remarkably well-read and would have enjoyed wider acclaim were it not for his determinedly outsider status and obstinate personality.

Part of that owed to his difficult upbringing. He was born in Far Rockaway in 1940 and raised by a single mother who was part Seminole and from the South. They lived with his two sisters and brother in a small apartment with a shared bathroom down the hall.

“The library was my refuge,” Farris said in an interview. He left home when he was 17 and began hanging around the coffeehouse scene in Greenwich Village.


I was born in 1940

on Manhattan, “Island 

of Hills”, “Place of Inebriation.” 

placer of muskrat, beaver

and mink. My ancestors built a wall

for the Dutch

to keep them contained, out

like a line in the sand, being

thereby kept both in

and out, effectively dividing them-


against themselves for the patroons… 

— from “Heritage,” 1999 (for Ama-

dou Diallo)


“He was one of the original Beats in his way. He came of age among the Beats,” said Dalton Anthony Jones, an associate professor of cultural studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who considers Farris his stepfather. “When I was kicked out of school at age 13, he took me under this wing and mentored me,” said Jones.

If Farris found freedom in the counterculture, he quickly ran up against its double standards. In 1959, he was smoking a joint with a couple of white Beatniks on Bleecker St. when he got busted for trafficking marijuana. Farris said his friend asked him to pass a paper bag of pot to some guys, who turned out to be undercover cops

“I didn’t know what was in the bag, it wasn’t even my reefer,” Farris later said. Yet, unlike his white counterparts whose families could afford lawyers, Farris was sentenced to three years. While in prison, his mother passed away on the day of his 21st birthday.

“It was a big turning point in his life. He talked about that a lot,” said Jones. Another setback was the heroin overdose of his older brother, Philip, an artist and jazz musician.

Released from jail in 1961, Farris moved to a friend’s apartment on Avenue A, where he met his first wife, Chinyelu, a dancer for Babatunde Olatunji. They moved to Harlem, where he fathered two daughters and helped raise Sai, Chinyelu’s son from a prior relationship with actor Morgan Freeman. According to Chinyelu, they lived off her dancing and Farris’s poetry.

“He’d go to jazz shows or stand on the streets of Greenwich Village and recite poems, and people would give him money for it,” she recalled.

Though never a Muslim, he was inspired by Malcolm X and served briefly as one of his bodyguards. On the night of the assassination, Farris was in the Audubon Ballroom, assigned to guard Malcolm X’s wife, Betty Shabazz. Farris’s wife, Chinyelu, then pregnant, was sitting in the front row with their first daughter and Sai.

“When Malcolm was shot, the gunshots were going and they were all running from the stage to the back of the ballroom, and John was running after the shooters,” recalled Chinyelu. “I know he later felt guilty that he hadn’t done more, though he shouldn’t have. They were shooting like crazy. It was total chaos.”

Phoebe Farris, his second wife, said John related the story differently:

“John saved his first wife and their two children, who were in the front row during the shooting,” she said. “His first instinct was to save his own family, and he felt guilty later.”

Disgusted by all the political infighting in the black militant scene in the wake of the assassination, Farris migrated to the Black Arts Movement, then under the orbit of Amiri Baraka — though again he found himself on the outskirts.

“During that period of black nationalism, he never succumbed to the easy answers of racial essentialism, even though that often put him at odds with some of the figures of that period,” said Dalton Jones. “He always maintained his own center of gravity.”

In the early ’70s, he taught poetry to kids at the Children’s Art Carnival in Harlem, where he worked with Phoebe.

“He invented a poetry board game for children and the kids loved it,” she recalled. “But he was not able to get funding to market it.”

They had a daughter, and Farris sought to make a name for himself on the poetry circuit, reading at jazz and dance performances and literary events alongside people like Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon, Ntosake Shange,  David Murray and Don Cherry.

His family describes Farris as a loving father, but quintessentially narcissistic and difficult to live with.

“He wanted to have the luxury of just writing and have others deal with the real world of paying the rent, etc.,” said Phoebe, who went on to become a professor of art and women’s studies at Purdue University.

“He was a creative genius and artist, but he made it clear to me he was devoted to his poetry and art first,” added their daughter, Sienna. “For him, it was like he had to make that decision.”

Following the breakup of his second marriage, Farris returned Downtown and assumed the role of poet full time. He had a remarkable knack for living rent-free. He lived with jazz great Ornette Coleman for six months in the early 80s. (“I was the doorman,” he quipped. “I let the ladies in.”) He also lived in back of the after-hours bookstore Neither/Nor on E. Sixth St., where he held a weekly reading series that fans say was not to be missed — hosting cutting-edge writers like Baraka, Kathy Acker, Miguel Pinero, Joel Rose, Catherine Texier and Patrick McGrath.

John Farris in a heavy costume of bones in “Barkelot,” a feminist performance piece.


When Neither/Nor closed in 1986, he took up residence in a squat at 539 E. 13th St., where he held readings at the second-floor Alchemical Theatre. (Drunks, crackheads and other vagrants from this period turn up in writings, morphed into animals — including Farris himself.) He also lived in the basement of the Living Theatre on E. Third St., where he served as a caretaker, staged plays and ran a midnight poetry series.

Dancer Patricia Winter recalled performing with Farris in her feminist performance piece “Barkelot” — she on a leash and Farris in a costume made entirely of cow bones.

“John was such a trooper,” she said. “He was naked in this bone costume that weighed like 50 pounds, and he was already kind of crippled then, so he was limping, but he loved it. It was just such a bizarre piece. [Painter] Al Loving did the set design and Frank Lowe, the saxophonist, played with us.”

When the Living Theatre closed in 1993, the artists at Bullet Space took him in.

“Bullet Space was a godsend for John,” said Jones. “He really did a lot of writing and readings there.”

In the 1990s, Farris also helped out at poetry workshops at the East Village’s Tribes gallery, and was an editor for the literary journals “Peau Sensible” and “Sensitive Skin,” deeply influencing that close-knit circle of writers.

“He was our loa, our Papa Legba,” said writer Norman Douglas, referring to the Vodou spirit trickster and elocutioner.

Still, friends say his obstinate personality often got in the way of more worldly success.

“He was definitely an antagonist. He was a difficult man. He ended up burning a lot of bridges,” remarked Jones.

Darius James recalled the time he persuaded Bob Guccione, editor of Spin magazine, to allow Farris to interview Sun Ra, with whom Farris was tight.

“The interview was great,” James said. “It still gets quoted in academic circles. But John got mad when Spin didn’t pay him in a timely fashion. So he went up to the office and was like, ‘Mo’f–kas, give me my money!’ So Guccione had them cut him a check right there, but that was it,” James said, meaning Farris had blown up a good connection.

Similarly, Tribes impresario Steve Cannon said that shortly after he published Farris’s first book, “It’s Not About Time,” he arranged for Farris to guest lecture at Rutgers University, where Nuyorican poet Miguel Algarin was teaching.

“Rutgers was going to pay him like $1,500 and buy 60 copies of the book,” Cannon recalled. “But when we went back in the storage room, we found all the books were gone. Farris sold them all to buy drinks at [the bar] 2A.

“He was constantly getting in fights with people,” laughed Cannon, a close friend. “Not only was he mean, he would kick someone’s ass if he got into a disagreement with them. I used to have to throw him out of Tribes all the time because he would antagonize these young poets I had helping me here. He got thrown out of the Nuyorican [Poets Cafe] for berating the poets there.”

Farris made no apologies about such behavior. He reveled in the flaws of others, and himself.


Two years past fifty & I’ve got a pot 


My teeth, demolished bridges I can’t 


anymore; the abutments list in weak 


— from “Bridges,” 1993


Farris was also stubborn about not pushing to get his stuff in print

“It was a willful choice not to publish,” said Douglas. “Like Socrates, he felt it was more important to reach somebody through his voice in person, to imprint oneself via the oral, than through the written word.”

Some of the drawings that covered the walls of Farris’s apartment where he died. Photo by Sarah Ferguson

Drafts for Farris’s phantasmagorical novel, “The Ass’s Tale,” circulated around the Lower East Side for years before Ron Kolm of the Unbearables collective persuaded Farris to let them publish it. The book, which won a PEN Oakland Award in 2011, is a satirical play on the ancient Latin novel “The Golden Ass,” by Apuleius. It’s also a shaggy-dog tale about a down-and-out drifter who turns into a dog, suffused with punning references to jazz, mythology and pop culture.

“He mixes in all these pop references but the dude is actually a classicist,” noted Kolm, who said he was “in awe” of Farris’s writing.

Farris loved the Lower East Side; he said he found “everything” he needed there. His work captured the life and cadence of the neighborhood with meticulous detail. He found wonder in the most mundane, with funny puns that get inside your head and tug at you. “Sightings,” a chapbook he published in 2004 with Sisyphus Press, is made up of poems about sitting at his window watching a new building go up.

“He had a very photographic eye,” noted poet and publisher Steve Dalachinsky. “He told me he only wrote stoned. His drug of choice was weed. He smoked weed constantly, and he would smoke before he gave readings.”

You can google videos of him reading alongside jazz musicians that should be preserved on vinyl for future generations to venerate. “Flatting Third” — a film poem produced by Ed Montgomery in 2008 — features the voice of Farris juxtaposed against panoramic views of Loisaida, accompanied by the searing trumpet of Jumaani Smith.

A sculpture by John Farris made out of masking tape.


Partly on the suggestion of Hammons, who thought it would be a good way to earn money, Farris took up drawing in his latter years, producing scores of self-portraits and sketches that blanketed his walls, and sculpting heads out of plastic bags and masking tape. He had his first show in 2010 at Bullet, and sold several pieces to collectors.


I draw like a precocious ten-year old. I 

draw blacks and make vivid color

in black graphite, use self-portraits to 


blue, anger say, to suggest red. 

If I am brown, it is only in the context 

of the context, 

a wink to suggest the bright, the clever.

— from “Drawing,” 2015


But over the past decade, his health and his mobility declined markedly. Friends said he stopped drinking in 2000, after he suffered a minor stroke — or that’s what his family believes — it was never fully diagnosed.

“John always refused to go to the doctor. You could threaten to call 911, but he wouldn’t budge,” said Bullet Space co-founder Andrew Castrucci.

He had trouble walking and climbing the stairs to his fourth-floor apartment, so his fellow artists at Bullet helped care for him. Photographer/writer Maggie Wrigley frequently brought him meals.

“He was one of the most creative, challenging and inspiring people I have ever met,” she said.

“He was like our grandfather,” added Castrucci.

A drawing of a reader covered the screen of a Mac computer in his room. Photo by Sarah Ferguson


“I saw him the week before [he died] on Avenue C,” said Holman. “He was hobbling down the avenue on a double cane set, bent over like some kind of crazy happy beast. We joked about his getting back up on the bicycle. He loved to ride the bicycle. He would ride it even when he had trouble walking. I don’t know why he grew so old so fast.”

“He got more isolated in the last year,” Castrucci said, “especially after Tribes closed. He’d spend weeks up in his apartment without leaving.”


… All my musician friends are dying

Diz, Miles, Clifford Jordan, Philip Wil

son; Sun Ra is in Alabama

helpless with a stroke (O black world, I 

never imagined this 

life without Sun, without the stride 

piano, his sequined dance).

— from “Bridges,” 1993


Nevertheless, Castrucci believes he died happy.

“He didn’t die in the hospital. He drew every day. Right before he died, he was working on a new wave of poetry — some of his best stuff. It was all about drawing,” Castrucci said, sifting through the detritus of handwritten poems, sketches and loose tobacco mixed in with old bills and correspondence that littered the floors of his apartment.

“I’m finding unfinished novels in here.”

A memorial note to Farris on the front door of Bullet Space. Photo by Sarah Ferguson


Farris’s ashes will be scattered under the maple tree in the backyard of Bullet, in accordance with his wishes. A celebration of John’s life and work will be held on April 29 at Judson Memorial Church, in the Village, at 55 Washington Square South, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. There will be a retrospective show of his art and ephemera at Bullet Space in May.



At last

I am



I can

Get myself

Arrested for.

The bridge

of the nose

will finally take me

to Brooklyn.

I’m back on


Identification. It


The sneer

of the lips

The eyes

Look you straight

in the face


Pure arrogance. Yes, I confess

— again,

I did that

I’m bad.


I had tried being born again in 1940: no 

fanfare (flash photographs 

of the Child-Me-Asleep, Under the 

Madonna’s Adoring Gaze, Magi),


fancy (halo, my first shoes, bronzed, 

made into bookends)

— from “Born Again,” 1993

Black Artists and the March Into the Museum

After decades of spotty acquisitions and token
exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the
history of 20th-century art to include black artists.

The painter Norman Lewis rarely complained in public about the singular struggles of being a black artist in America. But in 1979, dying of cancer, he made a prediction to his family. “He said to us, ‘I think it’s going to take about 30 years, maybe 40, before people stop caring whether I’m black and just pay attention to the work,’ ” Lewis’s daughter, Tarin Fuller, recalled recently.

Lewis was just about right. In the last few years alone, his work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. This month the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened the first extensive survey of Lewis, an important but overlooked figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement — and a man who might well have been predicting history’s arc for several generations of African-American artists in overcoming institutional neglect.


An untitled oil on canvas, from 1949, by Norman Lewis.Credit Estate of Norman W. Lewis, Courtesy of Iandor Fine Arts, New Jersey. After decades of spotty acquisitions, undernourished scholarship and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before, playing historical catch-up at full tilt, followed by collectors who are rushing to find the most significant works before they are out of reach.


An undated portrait of the artist Norman Lewis, who died in 1979. Credit Willard Gallery Archives “There was a joke for a long time that if you went into a museum, you’d think America had only two black artists — Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden — and even then, you wouldn’t see very much,” said Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “I think there is a sea change finally happening. It’s not happening everywhere, and there’s still a long way to go, but there’s momentum.”

The reasons go beyond the ebbing of overt racism. The shift is part of a broader revolution underway in museums and academia to move the canon past a narrow, Eurocentric, predominantly male version of Modernism, bringing in work from around the world and more work by women. But the change is also a result of sustained efforts over decades by black curators, artist-activists, colleges and collectors, who saw periods during the 1970s and the 1990s when heightened awareness of art by African-Americans failed to gain widespread traction.

In 2000, when Elliot Bostwick Davis arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as chairwoman of its Art of the Americas department, there were only three oil paintings by African-American artists in the wing, she said, and not many more paintings by African-Americans in the rest of the museum’s collection. “I had to deal with a lot of blank faces on the collections committee, because they just didn’t know these artists or this work,” said Ms. Davis, whose museum has transformed its holdings in the last several years.

Over just the last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., have hosted solo exhibitions devoted to underrecognized black artists. Within the last two years, the Metropolitan Museum has acquired a major collection of work by black Southern artists, and the Museum of Modern Art has hired a curator whose mission is to help fill the wide gaps in its African-American holdings and exhibitions.


A More Even Playing Field

In interviews with more than two dozen artists, curators, historians, collectors and dealers, a picture emerges of a contemporary art world where the playing field is becoming much more even for young black artists, who are increasingly gaining museum presence and market clout. But artists who began working just a generation ago — and ones in a long line stretching back to the late 19th century — are only now receiving the kind of recognition many felt they deserved.

Like Norman Lewis, most of these artists showing up for the first time in permanent-collection galleries — including the painters Beauford Delaney, Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson, Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson — did not live to see the change. But others, like the Los Angeles assemblage sculptor Betye Saar, 89, and the Washington-based abstract painter Sam Gilliam, 81, are witnessing it firsthand. The Chicago painter and printmaker Eldzier Cortor, who worked in New York for many years and died at 99 on Thanksgiving Day, lived to see his work featured in the inaugural show of the new downtown Whitney Museum. Mr. Cortor had been fielding curators’ inquiries with increasing frequency and donating pieces he still owned because the market had ignored them for much of his life.

“It’s a little late now, I’d say,” he observed dryly during an interview last month in his Lower East Side studio. “But better than never.”


Eldzier Cortor's 1982 work “Still Life: Souvenir No. IV.” Credit Eldzier Cortor, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery


Betye Saar’s “Dat Ol’ Black Magic” (1981). Credit Corcoran Collection, The Evans-Tibbs Collection, National Gallery of Art And while it was bad enough for male artists, black women faced even steeper obstacles. “We were invisible to museums and the gallery scene,” Ms. Saar said.

Through the rise of Modernist formalism and, especially, as abstraction took hold, black artists were often at a disadvantage because their work was perceived by the white establishment as formally “lesser” — too often figurative and too narrowly expressive of the black experience.

But even abstract artists like Lewis, who resisted pressure from within the black art world to be more overtly political, were eclipsed — in part, paradoxically, because when curators did seek out black artists’ work, figuration helped them check off a box. “Up until about five years ago, when curators came to us, they were really only interested in narrative works that showed the black experience so they could demonstrate in no uncertain terms to their visitors that they were committed to representing black America,” said the New York dealer Michael Rosenfeld, who has shown work from black artists and their estates for decades. One indication that serious change is afoot, he said, is that more and more museums are seeking prime abstract works by black artists.

Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, said that even within MoMA’s strict vision of Modernism, there were black artists — like the abstractionist Alma Thomas — “who would have absolutely, comfortably fit into the narrative.” But the museum bought its first Thomas works only this year.


“It’s pretty hard to explain by any other means than to say there was an actual, pretty systemic overlooking of this kind of work — with some truly wonderful exceptions, but exceptions that prove the rule,” she said, adding that the way the museum was making up for lost time was by actively buying works, “putting our money where our mouth is.” untitled5

Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times Museums Make Up Ground

A handful of institutions — among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Newark Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art (now closed) — have been regarded as ahead of the curve. As others make up ground with gathering speed, said Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, “I think what we’re seeing now is the aggregation of forces that have been in motion for at least the last half-century.”

He points to black collectors and historically black colleges, like Howard University and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), which were buying work when few others were. Another force was the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1968 and pioneering exhibitions that began to change the conversation, like one Mr. Gaither organized at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1970, “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston”; and “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” curated by the scholar David C. Driskell in 1976 for the Los Angeles County Museum.

The shows pushed “curators and historians to admit there was a whole body of art out there they hadn’t known,” Mr. Gaither said. “They showed how a discussion about African-American art is inseparable from a discussion of American art. One can’t exist without the other.” And slowly — far too slowly, he added — the seeds that were sown changed academia and curators, of all races, who are now in charge of permanent collections and exhibitions.

Gavin Delahunty, a Dallas Museum of Art curator who recently organized a show devoted to Frank Bowling, a Guyanese-born abstract painter who has long worked in New York, said a growing number of curators emerging from graduate programs since the late 1990s felt “like we were educated to address an imbalance in representation.”

Museums are expanding their collections of 20th-century artworks by overlooked African-Americans. What artists do you think they should include and why?

“And it’s very natural to me that it’s what we should be doing now in our positions,” he said, adding, “I think there’s a real sense that the doors are pretty wide-open now.”


Mr. Axelrod, who donated and sold most of his American collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011, added: “As we became exposed to it, more collectors came to the same conclusion: There are great pieces out there. These are great artists. Why haven’t I seen them before? And I’d better get them now before they’re all gone.”


A basketball hoop as light fixture by David Hammons sold for $8 million in 2013, putting him among the most expensive living artists. Credit David Hammons, via Phillips

While the market is catching on, it is doing so slowly and unevenly. Auction prices for the most sought-after contemporary black artists are very strong now when compared with their peers. A David Hammons basketball hoop as chandelier sold for $8 million in 2013, putting him among the most expensive living artists. Paintings by Glenn Ligon and Mark Bradford have recently sold for more than $3 million, and Kara Walker, whose pieces exploring the horror of slavery are tough sells for collectors’ homes, has approached the half-million-dollar mark. But prices for critically successful artists who came of age earlier, even as recently as the 1960s and ’70s, still lag behind what many dealers think they should be. Mr. Gilliam, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1972 and whose draped canvases have had a strong influence on younger painters trying to rethink the medium, has only recently broken $300,000 at auction, though works by Mr. Gilliam on view recently at the Frieze Masters art fair in London were priced at up to $500,000.

“I’m sorry, but I really believe that if he were a white artist, you wouldn’t be able to afford him now; you wouldn’t be able to touch him unless you had several million,” said Darrell Walker, the former professional basketball player and coach, who has collected works by Mr. Gilliam, Norman Lewis and other black artists for more than 30 years.

Untitled7Sam Gilliam’s “Empty” (1972). Credit via Christie's A Rush for the Best Works

As the gauge begins to move toward correction, more collectors and museums are scrambling to find the best works. “The prices are now well beyond what I could do without major financial sacrifices to buy just a single painting,” said James Sellman, who, along with his wife, Barbara, has been collecting work by self-taught black artists like Thornton Dial for decades.

Mr. Sellman is on the board of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, which last year donated a major collection of 57 pieces by African-American artists from the South to the Metropolitan Museum, a gift Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s director, called “a landmark moment” in the museum’s evolution. (It came 45 years after a widely derided Met exhibition, “Harlem on My Mind,” which was intended to celebrate the cultural history of black Americans but contained no work by painters and sculptors with flourishing careers in Harlem.)


Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Studio)" (2014). Credit 2015 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Kerry James Marshall

A show organized around the Souls Grown Deep donation is being planned by the Met, and next fall, at its new Met Breuer building, the museum will host a retrospective of the work of the highly sought-after contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall, making for perhaps the most concentrated focus on work by African-Americans in the museum’s history.

But Ms. Sims has been around long enough to know that the art world does not always move in a consistent direction, and warned that such progress in many ways remains fragile. “The canon is like a rubber band,” she said. “You can stretch it, but there’s always the danger it’s going to snap back.”

Thelma Golden, the current director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, said, “Yes, things are better.” But, she added: “What we need to continue to understand is that the exhibition and collection of this work is not a special initiative, or a fad, but a fundamental part of museums’ missions — and that progress is not simply about numbers, but understanding this work, in the context of art history and museum practice, as essential.”

Link to full article with videos




David Hammons photographed on September 2, 1980, in New York City. ©TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/PORTRAIT COURTESY THE PHOTOGRAPHER Last spring, Mike Spano, the mayor of Yonkers, New York, a city of about 200,000 that shares a border with the Bronx, delivered his State of the City Address at City Hall. After describing Yonkers as a destination for “new-economy” companies—a developer of shared workspaces, a brewery, and a wine-storage business—he announced that the artist David Hammons would be opening an art gallery in South Yonkers. Hammons, who lives in Brooklyn, was in the audience.

To most eyes, this must have seemed like a fairly ordinary moment, a fine bit of municipal pageantry. However, for anyone who knows Hammons’s reputation in the art world, it would have been an astounding sight.

The African American artist, now 71, has, for the past few decades, been famously, willfully, inaccessible. He is one of the most influential and in-demand artists of the past half century, but he has not had gallery representation, often sells work straight from his studio, rarely agrees to shows, and has given very, very few interviews in the past two decades. The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl was one of the chosen journalists, but even Schjeldahl admitted that, when a misunderstanding about where he was supposed to meet the artist scuttled their first planned talk, “I weighed the odds that I was being treated to a custom-designed artwork.” The appearance of a new Hammons work, in a group show or benefit, has the feeling of an event. The news spreads quickly.

Turning up at Yonkers City Hall seemed like a distinctly uncharacteristic thing for Hammons to do. Perhaps, I thought, he was having a change of heart. And so I tried to get in touch with him. I called the collector Lois Plehn, who I was told serves as Hammons’s gatekeeper. “David is not going to do any interviews about the project,” she told me kindly but firmly, when I finally reached her. Higher Goals, 1986, mixed media, 5 units, heights 20'–35'. PINKNEY HERBERT/JENNIFER SECOR, COURTESY PUBLIC ART FUND, NY Though Hammons guards his privacy, much of his best-known art has been, in its way, resolutely public, albeit ephemeral. As a young artist in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he gained attention for his one-off body prints—made by pressing a grease-covered body (usually the artist’s own) to paper, then sprinkling the paper with powdered pigment—that anticipate performative works to come.

Hammons moved to New York in 1974 and in 1981, in two separate actions, he threw tennis shoes over and urinated on a hulking new Richard Serra sculpture that had been installed in fast-gentrifying Tribeca. In the winter of 1983, he staged his Bliz-aard Ball Sale, hawking snowballs at Cooper Union, New York’s then-free art school. In 1985, as part of Creative Time’s last “Art on the Beach” outdoor sculpture show before the site was swallowed up by Battery Park City, he built Delta Spirit, a wooden shanty house decorated with bottle caps set in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers. And in 1986, he installed a number of his Higher Goals pieces—basketball hoops soaring 20 to 30 feet off the ground—in Cadman Plaza Park in as-yet-ungentrified Brooklyn.

These public pieces offered up a succinct map of societal systems in flux that now seems shockingly prescient. Last year, Cooper Union, whose founder, Peter Cooper, once declared that education there be as “free as air and water,” began charging tuition, having saddled itself with huge debts from an overambitious building project. Brooklyn, where Hammons once asked people to dream bigger, now has the least affordable housing stock in the country. (Harlem, where he first created those hoops, has been hit with its own condo boom. “Harlem is under attack,” he told Deborah Solomon in the New York Times in 2001. “White folks want it back.”) Untitled, 2014, mixed media on canvas and blue tarpaulin, 137" x 123". ©DAVID HAMMONDS/COURTESY WHITE CUBE

Hammons’s actions and temporary structures are preserved as photographs and films, but also as stories, which may be filled with apocrypha. He made $20 selling snowballs, or sold out, depending on what you read. As the writer Greg Allen has pointed out, various accounts of Hammons peeing on the Serra (the work is called Pissed Off), say he either got arrested or was threatened with arrest, or was issued a citation. Hammons has made an art of rumor.

Ambiguity has entered Hammons’s art in an even more purposive, physical way of late, as in his much-discussed 2011 show at L&M Arts in New York. The exhibition consisted of a number of punchy, swirling abstract paintings partially obscured by found tarpaulins or plastic sheets—the stuff of makeshift shelters, and the street—or, in one case, a hulking wooden armoire.

Hammons has also covered luscious drawings made with Kool-Aid powder with curtains that can be lifted only under certain conditions. When one was shown at MoMA in 2012, visitors had to make appointments to view the work with a museum staffer and enter through a different entrance.

“[T]he efficiency, quantity and immediacy of information and information-systems has placed art and the artistic gesture at risk of being identified, categorized, digested, cannibalized and made into information before it has a chance to begin being art,” the curator Anthony Huberman has written. “Curiosity is being castrated by information.” Hammons’s paintings exemplify a considered response to that condition. They confront you with a sustained refusal, cloaked in beauty.

I have heard the criticism from some that Hammons’s recent works, particularly these half-hidden paintings, are too directed at the art world—that they lack the incisive political bite, not to mention the gutsy aesthetic panache, of his “Spade” sculptures of the 1970s, his assemblages made with materials like hair and chicken bones and wine bottles, and his black, red, and green African-American Flag (1990).

To be sure, Hammons’s output of the last two decades has not been as overtly engagé, but it is no less directed toward specific ethical ends. As information overflows and as surveillance networks expand, his works increasingly block, or withhold, information, addressing the politics of visibility, of who and what can be seen and explained. This preoccupation with seeing was enacted most literally in his Concerto in Black and Blue (2002), for which he left the Ace Gallery in New York in pitch darkness, giving visitors little blue flashlights to navigate the space.

Hammons’s most recent exhibition was a 2014 survey of work from the past ten years, at London’s White Cube gallery, which had him manipulating the conditions of display, of being seen, in new ways. One had the feeling of walking through an exhibition mid-installation, or even while it was being torn down. A security gate was partially lowered, and the lights were dim on the top floor, where a few of Hammons’s basketball drawings—sheets of paper on which he has forcefully bounced dirt-covered balls—were on view. On an otherwise blank wall was a rectangular void in the dust and dirt, as if a painting had been removed. Ceiling light covers were missing. Four recent paintings, hung with tattered rags and plastic sheeting, were on view. One was placed across a concealed door to the gallery’s loading dock. The door’s drywall skin had been partially stripped away, exposing the opening to the public. It felt inappropriate to be there.

There was also a surprise inclusion—a humble little Agnes Martin painting, with repeating stripes of white and pale red, blue, and yellow, hanging on its own wall. Such inclusions have become a hallmark of Hammons projects. There was the Miles Davis painting that he offered to the 2006 Whitney Biennial in lieu of contributing his own work, which effectively undermined the curators’ authority. Then there were the works by Donald Judd, Joan Mitchell, and Yayoi Kusama, which were included in an Ed Clark show that Hammons curated at New York’s Tilton Gallery last year (all three were friends with Clark). He enters the institution on his own terms, taking authority as he pleases. David Hammons, America the Beautiful, 1968, lithograph and body print, 39" x 29½". COURTESY MOMA PS1/OAKLAND MUSEUM, THE OAKLAND MUSEUM FOUNDERS FUND

In an essay, Philippe Vergne, one of the organizers of that 2006 Whitney Biennial, termed the Davis painting a “premeditated enigma,” and added, “This event—not to be understood or understandable, not to be seen, but to be conceived as a verbal enigma—possibly insinuates that we are culturally, aesthetically, miles away from assuming the full consequences of its occurrence.”

“Hammons tries to make art in which white people can’t see themselves,” artist Lorraine O’Grady has said, and while that’s clearest when he’s using hair from black barbershops and items from African American culture, there is a similar negation in these new works. In them, he informs you that there are things that you cannot see, and that you cannot know.

It’s anyone’s guess what Hammons has planned for Yonkers. Perhaps there is a clue in the catalogue for his 1993 show at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Illinois, his hometown, in which he talks about having a private museum there, a place to show his work. It might also be a place to show other artists’ work—either a fully functioning commercial gallery or a nonprofit alternative space.

The week before Christmas, I made the trip to the gallery’s future site. The BxM3 bus dropped me off at Radford Street on South Broadway, the town’s main commercial strip. There’s a McDonald’s, a smattering of pizza places, a non-chain pharmacy, a few vacant storefronts.

The building that Hammons bought is a 5-minute walk away, past a few modest suburban homes and a block of public housing. It’s next door to the community affairs office of the Yonkers Police Department. There’s a storefront church and soup kitchen nearby, but otherwise it’s a sleepy section of town.

Hammons’s space, at 39 Lawrence Street, is a one-story brick building with tall ceilings, filling a lot that measures two-thirds of an acre, about 29,200 square feet. According to property records, an entity called Duchamp Realty LLC, which is registered to the artist’s home address in Brooklyn, bought it for $2.05 million in January 2014. Construction permits for roof repair, issued a few months before I visited and valid well into 2015, were plastered over a door.

Whatever the Yonkers gallery becomes, it will join many of Hammons’s works as a marking, and reconfiguration, of public space. Slipping just beyond city limits, it denotes a hallmark of our time: artists’ flight from the moneyed playground that New York has become. “I’ve always thought artists should concentrate on going against any kind of order…but here in New York, more than anywhere else, I don’t see any of that gut,” Hammons told the art historian and curator Kellie Jones in 1986, anticipating this moment. “Because it’s so hard to live in this city. The rent is so high, your shelter and eating, those necessities are so difficult, that’s what keeps the artists from being that maverick.” Perhaps “Duchamp Realty LLC” is another clue: one might see the gallery as an assisted readymade, a former industrial space redirected toward a new purpose.

On the day I visited the site, the sound of a jackhammer was ringing through the neighborhood. It seemed to be emanating from within the building, but there was no obvious way in. The gates were down and locked, and looking through the high windows, I could see the sky peeking through sections of the roof that were missing. I bought a slice of pizza and headed back to Manhattan.

Andrew Russeth is co-executive editor at ARTnews.

Interview of John Farris by Norman Douglas

*John Farris* Interviewed by Norman Douglas, 10 October, 2010

I met John Farris in 1983, not long after moving to the Lower East Side. Tina Carstensen was a budding poet and a teacher at the nursery school on Avenue D, and she introduced at Vazac Bar on the corner of Seventh Street and Avenue B. Also known as Horseshoe because of its U-shaped bar, actors Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone—then with Squat Theater, as well as regulars at 8 BC, the performance space a couple of blocks away—were two of the main bartenders, along with the brothers Hylfeldt of the new wave band, Tav Falcon and Panther Burns. The spot was a regular meeting place for a group of writers who included Emily Carter, Darius James, B. Cold, and others who frequented Rick Van Valkenburg's Neither/Nor. But most of what I think of Farris a writer, teacher—and maybe a little of our friendship—can be read in the transcript of the interview we did in mid-October of last year. Tribes was hosting a group reading of The Ass's Tale by the Unbearables and friends that night. I'm told an old ghost or two dropped by in the early part of the night, but my date and I arrived late so, I can't swear by hearsay. As long as it took me to transcribe this recording, a few more ghosts may be lurking in wait. Take heed...

FARRIS: I started drawing!

DOUGLAS: What made you start drawing?

FARRIS: Those people downstairs, when I saw what they were doing.

DOUGLAS: Oh, you saw all that stuff in the gallery and figured, “Man, who put this nasty shit up?”

FARRIS: Awful! That shit is ugly, man. I said to myself, “Damn, I could do that!”

DOUGLAS: How long have you been doing it?

FARRIS: Oh, about six years.

DOUGLAS: You still have some poems coming out of you. Right?

FARRIS: I had a show already. I sold some of those heads over there. I do these heads, too. But those are perishable because I didn’t go to the art store and get the last tape. I got it from the hardware store, so the humidity made them unravel. But I sold some to collectors. I sold two to David Hammons, and I sold one to Paul--Andrew’s brother [the Castrucci brothers ran A & P, one of the first artist-run galleries in the early Eighties’ East Village]—and a couple more. I sold those for 150 apiece. And I sold a couple of drawings. My show was called “Dear John," like "Dear Theo."

DOUGLAS: Damn! [unintelligible] drawing like [unintelligible].

FARRIS: Oh, you like that? I was ready to throw that away.

DOUGLAS: Are you serious?

FARRIS: Yeah. I'm looking at it, and it's too narrative.


FARRIS: I didn't want that.

DOUGLAS: It's amazing.

FARRIS: Well, there are a bunch of good ones in there. These are all recent. I make somewhere between three and nine drawings a day. So, there's all kinds of things.

DOUGLAS: Is there a difference between drawing and writing in terms of how you feel about expressing yourself?

FARRIS: Well, didn't you hear me say--when you first got here--that I was tired? But I can still do some drawing. When you came in, I was kind of grumpy, because I was so exhausted. But that's the difference. When I'm very tired, I can draw because I don't have to think about it. I may be laying down. I can even get in the bed. If something flashes in my head, I get up and I do it. A lot of them, I sketch from the morning paper.

The process of writing is involved. I have to think. Drawing, I don't have to think. That's it, to make a long story short.

DOUGLAS: So, does it feel more liberating, or is it just a different means of expression.

FARRIS: It's more liberating. In fact, I think that if I had started this when I was younger--I did _try_ to draw when I was a kid--but my brother, who was two years older than me could draw. But he was jealous of me, and he would say, "You know you can't draw!" So, I didn't do it.

DOUGLAS: So, you believed him like a little brother.

FARRIS: Yeah. And I didn't do it. But if I had kept drawing, I never would've... I probably would have written, but my primary thing would be art. That's how I emote towards it.

DOUGLAS: Your mind would have been totally different now.

FARRIS: Yeah. I don't go to museums. I have art books. I don't look at those books. This stuff is in my head. Andrew was just saying that it's amazing how much I've improved. I still love good writing. Not necessarily poetry. I like fiction. I'm talking about literature. Not criticism, history, stuff like that. I like fiction that's satirical.

DOUGLAS: You've always been into satire?

FARRIS: Always

DOUGLAS: How do you think that the pursuit of drawing would have given you a different outlook on life and art?

FARRIS: Well, the satire is probably yet my response to my brother. And then, to people in general. I tend to be satirical about their responses to me. It's funny, because I'm so grumpy, but humor is my bag. But, I'll tell you how I started this [drawing]. They were working on this building. They were in here. In fact I was writing another novel. It's in there [indicates adjoining room]. And I couldn't do it. I couldn't write. I was in here while they were working, renovating my whole place. And I couldn't think. And I started making cartoons. That was the beginning of it. It was a response. Here's a cartoon right here.

DOUGLAS: [reading] What do you mean you've given up Hope? It was only last week you were going to marry her.

FARRIS: It's a light thing.


FARRIS: I did one...

DOUGLAS: So, the punning is still in there.

FARRIS: Yeah. I did one--my ex-wife came over and took it--but this gentleman's standing outside and the sign says Toyota and the guy is talking to the salesman and he says "My wife won't give me a divorce, so I'm thinking of getting her a car." That was when they were having problems with Toyota. Then, there's one over there that has this old guy with an older lady--they're elderly. And he says, "We just got married. We're going to Viagr--I mean, Niagara Falls for our honeymoon." I sold a bunch of them. The cartoons and the heads were the hit of the show.

DOUGLAS: Let's backtrack a bit. Talk about how your relationship with your brother affected you and your life, your art.

FARRIS: We're both bastards. And we're bastards from different fathers. And for some reason, I was never told who my father was. Nor was my brother. For some reason, I never asked. My cousin, Robert, he was like a father, and he related to me like that. He didn't relate to my brother like that. So that created a situation that was contentious.

DOUGLAS: And you still felt that entering into adulthood.

FARRIS: My brother had a problem with heroin. He was a very bright guy. And, you know I went to jail for marijuana. They gave me three years for some marijuana I didn't even have. This guy, Dick Whalen [sp?]...

DOUGLAS: This is about 1950-something?

FARRIS: 1959. I was over in Sheridan Square hanging with Dick Whalen. His father owned shoe stores. We're out there smoking pot. And these two guys come up there where we're hanging out. We're over in the dugout by Bleecker Street. Over there at Bleecker and West Broadway. Now, these guys are at a table, and Dick says to me--I'm sitting between them and Dick, and Dick says, he says, "Pass this to them." So I pass the bag for them. It was a brown paper bag. I guess it was a bag full of pot, but I didn't know. Then he says, "We're going to go to a party tomorrow." So we're going to this party, and we get a cab. We're going by Abingdon Square with these two guys, Dick Whalen and these two guys...

DOUGLAS: And they roll up on you.

FARRIS: Up pop the rollers with the guns to our heads. "You're under arrest." So I say, "You must have made a mistake." You know, I'm all Ivy League. I'm not going to any school, but I was, I had all the attitude. I was smarter than most of them in that, which was why I didn't go around there. I was just like my brother.

DOUGLAS: In terms of...?

FARRIS: You know, authority. I would not accept authority, nor definition from anybody. So anyway, they say, "You're under arrest." And I say, "You must have made a mistake." And they say, "What's your name?" I say, "John Farris." "Oh, no, we didn't make a mistake." Cut to the chase: they gave me three years, and I am seeing the parole board. I'm a good kid, I'm not doing anything, bothering anybody, and I find out that my parole has been turned down. And I'm saying, "Why has my parole been turned down?" They said, "Because your home is not sufficient." So, I say, "What do you mean my home is not sufficient?" They say, "You don't have a home. Your mother died." "When did my mother die?" "July 19th." "July 19th? That's my birthday!"

DOUGLAS: Right...

FARRIS: She died on my birthday. She had an insurance policy, which she put in his name. He was supposed to give out the money. He didn't tell me that she died until he could spend that money.

DOUGLAS: He gave out the money; only he didn't give it to you.

FARRIS: He didn't give it to me.

DOUGLAS: He was already a dope fiend at that point.

FARRIS: Hum hm, he was a dope fiend then, too. So, that was basically my relationship with him from beginning to end.

DOUGLAS: What happened to the other dude? He was a white guy?

FARRIS: Dick Whalen?


FARRIS: Nothing as far as I know. They separated our trials. He had a lawyer. I didn't have a lawyer. You don't have a lawyer, you go to jail. He's selling weed. I smoked a joint.

DOUGLAS: White guy?

FARRIS: Jewish. Dick Woolen, W-o-l-i-n.

DOUGLAS: You know where he is now?

FARRIS: You know, it's amazing. I was on Bleecker Street. It was either last year or the year before last, and I saw him. I couldn't run after him. I called him, "Dick Woolen!" He turned around. I said, "You remember me?" And he looked and he bolted. If I could've run, I would have... they would have put me back in the jail for assault.

DOUGLAS: So, was he all dressed in a suit and everything?

FARRIS: No, you know, casual, upper middle class.

DOUGLAS: So, he copped a plea, blamed it on you, rich Jew, poor black, you took the fall.

FARRIS: Well, they told me it was either 15 years or 3. I said, "I'll take the tree."

DOUGLAS: So you got "conspiracy to distribute marijuana."

FARRIS: Right.

DOUGLAS: That shit is crazy.

FARRIS: Well, I didn't have anything to do with it. You might say I conspired to deliver. But I had no idea. Technically, if I had a lawyer, he would have said, "Hey, my client didn't know what was in that."

DOUGLAS: Were they undercover cops?


DOUGLAS: That's funny that they waited a day.

FARRIS: Raymond and... I'll think of it. One Irish fellow and one Latino. What was Raymond's name? That was the Latino. But, I did some writing there, which was why I was convinced I was a writer. They wouldn't let me take it out for some reason. If it weren't for bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all. I forget... There was a reason that they told me. Not only did I not have a home to go to, [laughs] they wouldn't let me take that stuff out. And then, guess what? I go out of there. I have three months left on parole... four months on parole. So I come down here, and I knew a fellow over on Avenue A, 20 Avenue A. I was staying with him. And it was authorized for me to stay with him. One day, I'm screwing this lady. The buzzer rings. It's the parole officer, black dude. And he comes in and he sees her in the bed, so he says, "Oh, come downstairs for a minute. I want to talk to you." I go downstairs and he says, "Hold out your hands. Put the handcuffs on me. Took me back to jail." I had to get rid of all my days, because you can't have sex--casual sex--when you're on parole. Now, this woman was a dancer. African dancer. She was dancing with Olatunji. She came to see me every day while I was in there and brought me whatever. When I came out, I felt beholden, and I married her.

DOUGLAS: And then you had your first child.

FARRIS: My oldest daughter. And she had a child, Syphilis Freeman, that's Morgan Freeman's son. He never gave her a nickel and I had to support them for five years.

That experience... that whole prison experience and the

Oh! I was hanging out with the Roomettes. They told me they couldn't hang out with me anymore because there was this big producer guy, and he liked her and he didn't want her to hang out with me. And she was going to marry him and they got married. That's Phil Specter, he's a murderer.

DOUGLAS: It wasn't her? Not this one you were with. He probably just beat her up and then dumped her.

FARRIS: Yeah, he used to beat her up.

DOUGLAS: That whole experience--you've told me about getting busted for pot before--that all comes across in the book really well.

FARRIS: Well, I started smoking pot when I was ten years old. So, I was definitely a pot smoker. No! I wasn't ten, I was twelve.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, that's about when I started smoking weed. We met about 25 years ago, in the early 80s, about 84 or so.

FARRIS: Something like that.

DOUGLAS: At the time that we met, or shortly thereafter, after my initial suspicions of your motivations--the which I cannot really pinpoint what those were, other than that I was, that I've always been resistant to the race pigeonhole, and I was afraid that that would be part of what was going on. You also had a period where you were hanging with the Muslims.

FARRIS: That was a response to that.

DOUGLAS: You encountered them while you were in prison? Or before prison?

FARRIS: No. I sought them out. I sought Malcolm X. I never liked... I suppose I had my religious period when I was a kid. My reasons for joining them were political. That was in the 60s. I went to the Black Arts after I saw him shot, saw how ridiculous that whole thing was.

DOUGLAS: How did you hook up with Malcolm?

FARRIS: I just went down there and said I wanted to join and they said okay.

DOUGLAS: How long did that last?

FARRIS: Oh, that lasted about a year. He would always be on the road somewhere. I never went on the road, but when he was in town, I was part of his phalanx of (quote) bodyguards (end-quote). [chuckling] You see how effective that was.

DOUGLAS: Was that just for public events, or did you breach the inner sanctum?

FARRIS: Public events. And I have been to his house and all that. He was a busy man. And I could have told him, I-- he started that stuff about Elijah Muhammad the week before. And I said, "Uh-oh! He shouldn't be saying that..."

DOUGLAS: So, it was that quick, the response? Nobody was able to even discuss whether or not that was a smart thing to do: the Talking Bad About Elijah

FARRIS: No. Most of the people in there were disaffected. They had had their differences with Elijah Muhammed. But no one said anything.

DOUGLAS: And no one really anticipated such an immediate and complete, total response

FARRIS: No. I was the only one. And my two daughters were up there with my ex-wife. Right on the stage. And that guy, Reuben pulled out that shotgun. No! Wait! However they were: they came up and they shot him. One had a handgun, and the other had a shotgun. And it was just: WHAM! WHAM! And then, Reuben--they started running--Reuben was Chief Bodyguard for Malcolm. He had a handgun. They shot one of them in the leg. It was all very suspicious.

DOUGLAS: What happened to these dudes?

FARRIS: The guys that did that?

DOUGLAS: The shooters.

FARRIS: They just got out of jail.

DOUGLAS: Just recently? Did they talk about it at all since they've been out?

FARRIS: Nope. Nothing.

DOUGLAS: Do you think that there was actual FBI involvement?

FARRIS: Of course. Once you have an organization like that, it couldn't have existed without that kind of situation. I mean, you just said what I said about smoking pot. You know what they were up to, FBI.

And I was just trying to find my way to what you see me doing right now.

DOUGLAS: So was it a sense of futility and shock that caused you to abandon politics? Or was there something else?

FARRIS: Yeah. I went from there to the Black Arts Theater Repertory School and ran into the Paterson brothers. And the Paterson brothers were--I don't know where they got things from--they were part of the coterie up there. Bought that up or rented that brownstone.

DOUGLAS: This is in Newark?

FARRIS: No. That was 132nd Street between Lenox and 7th. He would put on plays, do poetry. That's where I met David Henderson. This book speaks to that. The guy who edited that was at the Black Arts. I was in total awe of them, because they had this kind of militant attitude. I net Harold Cruz there. They were intellectuals I really respected. I respected Harold Cruz a whole lot more than I respected Baraka.

DOUGLAS: Why was that?

FARRIS: Because, as I was starting to say, there was a sort of posture from those guys. But they weren't going to hurt anybody. I was going to hurt somebody. And I didn't know why they would talk like that; and posture like that. In fact, what Steve Cannon was laughing about last night at _you_ guys, was there was a guy named Roland Spellings--he was a poet--I think he's dead now. He used to go around in Muslim clothes, in robes and a turban and all that stuff. And the Hell's Angels had a motorcycle club on Third Street.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, they're still there.

FARRIS: Well, he wanted to go-- Where were we coming from? I ran into him somewhere. And he told me he was scared to walk up the block. I said, "Man, what is wrong with you?" Now these were these guys who were-you know, they had all this posture. Now, I might get my ass whipped, but I'll put it up there to get it whipped.

DOUGLAS: In other words, they're talking all this smack about how they want to get Whitey, but when it came down to it, they wouldn't even talk to them.

FARRIS: I have a poem in there... I met Joe Overstreet there... This is one of the first pieces of art that I saw there... Let me see... Overstreet... in the front there... And I knew Sun Ra. I was coming out of Sun Ra's house and I ran into Roland Smelling. Ra and them lived right across the street. That's how I knew they weren't bothering anybody. So, that was Joe Overstreet's portrait of Sun Ra, a fantastic portrait of Sun Ra which I didn't like... That was another thing I didn't like. So they asked me to contribute something. And I did. Want me to read it?

DOUGLAS: Go 'head...

FARRIS: They took Juan away...

That's really one about that street up there that they named after Pedro Petri rather than Joe Overstreet. And since Joe had contributed some money, David and them... Well this fellow, not David, Ted Wilson, he had elected not to put it in because he didn't want to offend Joe. But, you know me, I told Joe. It wasn't negative. This is titled Duet.

i. acquisition

after being unloaded from the truck, and unpacked the masks were lined up row by row and identified each in its turn, bim bom, dambara, oshunupo inspected carefully for arawa then arranged, like with likes the grapes and if birds allowed pride of place in the lobby due more too the sheer dimensions of its size than to the lifeless snake dangling from its wooden beak with huge wings that cast their shadows over the entire collection.

how proud you were pointing out this mask or that adimbowle, adam, the great bird, the avenging messenger of some god whose name you stumbled over hoof and branch.

a prize collection, you thought, eyeing the rough-hewn wood sniffing it for any evidence of blood like a cork on a bottle of good wine

"that's how you authenticate this stuff," you said, "blood, the stink of blood."

ii. blessing

[unintelligible] makes you crazy, you said, pointing out sister amunata talking to herself in her elaborate headdress her colorful bubal and skirt. i remember she had three teeth, and spat her words out like a machine gun spraying bullets at everyone and at no one in particular inside her borders.

noticing you, she would let loose a barrage of language unrecognizable as anything but her own the few garbled syllables she had at her command repeated after a pause, during which she would glare at you reloading her clip. it was her own cosmos with her own gods.

DOUGLAS: Goddamn! They thought they couldn't understand that.

FARRIS: [indicates drawing] You see David over there?

DOUGLAS: With the horns?

FARRIS: Yeah. He just got a million dollars.

DOUGLAS: For what?

FARRIS: Those flags, for one of those flags. No, what am I saying? Forty million.

DOUGLAS: Forty million?

FARRIS: Yeah, for one of those flags. What's his name?

DOUGLAS: No, four million. I guess he moved out.


DOUGLAS: Man, Rolando?

FARRIS: I'm not talking about Rolando, I'm talking about the guy who makes the flags.

DOUGLAS: Rolando?

FARRIS: No, makes the flags... Jasper Johns!

DOUGLAS: Oh, okay!

FARRIS: I think it was forty million.

DOUGLAS: Oh, okay.

So, you spent some time with the Black Arts people. How long did that period last?

FARRIS: That lasted until the grant ran out.

DOUGLAS: Federal grant? State or corporate?

FARRIS: Federal grant. I wasn't privy to what the conditions were, but they ran out and bought some building and all that. I left my wife about two years after that.

DOUGLAS: So you were together seven years? five years?

FARRIS: Five years. Married. About seven years.

DOUGLAS: So when the Black Arts ran out, that's when Baraka headed off to Jersey?


DOUGLAS: So, what did you find yourself drawn towards then?

FARRIS: I was working. I was still... I didn't... in those yers... I was working for her mother, who had a real estate agency and I would go show places. Then, I cut out, went to Mexico

DOUGLAS: You went down there with Red?

FARRIS: Nick Smith.

DOUGLAS: How long did you all hang out down there?

FARRIS: Three months.

DOUGLAS: Were you writing actively? Or were you not really thinking of yourself as an artist at all? Reading?

FARRIS: I was just reading a lot and taking it in.

DOUGLAS: What kind of things were you reading?

FARRIS: A lot of poetry and a lot of art theory. If all that hadn't happened, before they kidnapped me, I was down there smuggling all the weed I could get my hands on. We were down there in Sinaloa on this turkey farm outside of Culiacan, where they're killing everybody now. What did they call me? They liked me. Smoked up a bunch of weed. Neither one of us spoke Spanish. Nick spoke more than I did. But I can still drag it out of me, make people understand what I want, what I'm saying. But I was the go-between for Nick and them, because they related to me, you know.

DOUGLAS: So when you got back to the States, was it straight to the City?

FARRIS: Then, I got married again. No, I didn't get married, but I went through a bunch of women. One of them was Eloise Lofton, the poet. I was experiencing art. I was like an infant. Like people's children who are artists.

DOUGLAS: Freed of your brother and freed of prison, you were looking for a different path.

FARRIS: I was looking for expression.

DOUGLAS: Do you think you would have defined it that way back then? That you were looking for expression?

FARRIS: No. I was

DOUGLAS: You would have said, "I'm just fighting the fight. Trying to stay alive."

FARRIS: Well, I would have said more than that. Close to what you said. I would have said that I'm trying to find myself. But no one would have accepted that, so I didn't say it.

DOUGLAS: Right. To this day, that remains an inadequate response, true as it may be.

When did you sit down and really start to scribble?

FARRIS: After I left the Black Arts. And that, again, was a response. I didn't like their poetry. It was Ginsberg and Baraka and all of them. And I never really... Like I said more toward introspection, humor, satire, that kind of stuff. And since I'm taking everything so seriously back then, I didn't even like all that. My beginning to write was a response to that. I had to work through that attitude, and I had to find out who was writing that I liked. Of course, I'm pretending. I read everything. I didn't stop reading until very recently, man.

DOUGLAS: So, you basically gave yourself a course in the classics: Rabelais, Shakespeare, everything.

FARRIS: Everything.

DOUGLAS: What contemporary writers did you favor at that time?

FARRIS: I liked a whole lot of them. Mostly the South Americans, the Central Americans. Again, my response to the classical was an examination of its relationship to me, my relationship to it. There again, is the response, my response to that stuff. I'm going to be bad with names when you ask me about contemporary people. I was there, just like you see me with literature now, when I've got to that literature in my hand. I've read it, looked at it, disliked it or liked it. Derek Walcott was a friend of mine. He was all into everything. You know Derek Walcott?

DOUGLAS: Oh, yeah. What was he, a West Indian, uhh...

FARRIS: Trinidad.

DOUGLAS: I must've checked him out in the late seventies, early eighties, just before the time that we met.

FARRIS: I was friends with Leroy Clark, the painter. And he painted a lot like Wilfredo.


FARRIS: Wilfredo Lam.


FARRIS: Cuban. He also was a poet. He was a good poet. I really like his poems. He was angry.

DOUGLAS: Mervyn Taylor. I remember reading him back in the seventies, too, back when I was in college. I had Michael Harper back then. You ever read him?


DOUGLAS: I was never too crazy about his work. Some of the shorter things worked once in a while. But I think he was too busy trying to impress his colleagues up in the ivory tower.

FARRIS: Right. That's all that was. But, I been around. Even when I was a kid. I didn't belong to anything. I was looking in from outside.

DOUGLAS: What I was driving at a while ago was that, when we met I was in a place where I'd read a good amount of the classics, a lot of contemporary work. But because people would continually try to impress upon me that I would be a great leader of my people...

FARRIS: May I interrupt you?

DOUGLAS: Go ahead.

FARRIS: I didn't think you were going to be a great leader of my people. I didn't think you were going to be a great leader of anything. What I thought you were going to be was a bright young black fellow.

DOUGLAS: I'm not saying you, personally. But what I reacted to when I met you was others...

FARRIS: So you fulfilled that in me.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, I projected that upon you.

FARRIS: Projected what?

DOUGLAS: This concept that you were another one of these people who was going to try to make me into this black... What I rejected early on was not the fact of being black...

FARRIS: Well, you remember, I used to laugh at you guys. Right?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. But I was at that point of... I didn't want a black revolution. I didn't trust the idea because I had grown up with the black upper class...

FARRIS: That was your response to me.

DOUGLAS: Right. So, as a radical, I already understood that whatever people were pushing for--black lawyers and doctors, businessmen...

FARRIS: I thought you were a bright guy...

DOUGLAS: I didn't want that to happen because I saw it as not real change in the system. It would change the face of the system, but it still wouldn't change the class relationships that are at the root of everyone's problems.

FARRIS: I thought that you were bright, you were writing. I thought you were a bit arrogant. You see? You forced me into that position. One of a kind. Right there, there you are, all alone, fly in the buttermilk. You had to have some response.

DOUGLAS: But, in general, I was never interested in a black president or any of these things, because I felt that none of it would change what I thought was the real problem, which was class relationships. It would just allow certain people of color to become part of the upper class. But it wouldn't change the fact that the poor of every color would still be the poor. And although the white poor may have a little iota, a bit more privilege than the black poor, the maintenance of the poor and the maintaining of the upper class--even if it was integrated--wouldn't really change what I saw as the problem. That was the class problem. I just saw the racial problem as a tool to maintain the class problem.

FARRIS: You didn't see class as a tool of the ruling classes?

DOUGLAS: Yes, I did. I mean, if you had no black people or no white people--either situation--as long as we maintain the class system, there will still be the problem of poverty and the like.

FARRIS: But you were aware of imperialism.

DOUGLAS: Right. I still see that as the problem. Class is the major battle to be waged.

FARRIS: Well, if you ask me right now if I want to be in Africa, I would say, Hell, no. "I will be right here on Third Street where I am."

DOUGLAS: What I'm driving at by all that explanation of the question is this: did you find yourself in the same position?

FARRIS: You mean, given my situation?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. Once I did overcome that--and it was rather quickly that I realized that you were not trying to impose any nationalist stance upon me—I saw you early on... and I think the fact that ten or fifteen of my peers and I all looked to as our mentor. Some of us were college grads, and I think that without misrepresenting anyone I could definitely say that people like Higginbuckle and Emily Carter and Pamela Dewey and a lot of these kids that were my age, we all saw you as a great writer. You were not in the same place as Amiri Baraka. Baraka, we understood a certain type of greatness, but we were not really identified with the black...

FARRIS: ...Not from that school. You all wrote from a different school.

DOUGLAS: I'm not saying that we saw you as having transcended race. That wasn't the deal. Nobody wanted to transcend or deny race, but at the same time, you represented to us...

FARRIS: I was just beginning to see my way into what I had been looking for.

DOUGLAS: To us, you were emblematic of contemporary literature, what contemporary literature should be. You had this kind of classicism. You had the ability to write in a way that was an acknowledgement of the literary canon at the same time that your work was also infused with contemporary colloquialisms that affirmed your personal heritage. There was no denial of anything, but a perfect blend—in our eyes—of what literature in this time should be. You never rejected the past or said anything like "white writers ain't shit..."

FARRIS: Well, I never said that throughout that whole period.

DOUGLAS: That's what I'm saying. Given that we met at the tail end of the seventies, the early eighties, a lot of people were still very conservative, reeling from the failure in Vietnam, the horrors perpetrated by our government here and abroad...

FARRIS: You found me at a time when I was trying to reconcile.

DOUGLAS: Well, to us, you were the perfect writer. To us, there was no one, other than maybe Borges, who measured up.

FARRIS: Oh, I left something out. Instead of going to school, I joined the army, and I punched out the specialist in charge of my platoon. I got an undesirable discharge. That was in 1957.

DOUGLAS: Okay, so before the whole arrest thing.


DOUGLAS: Having been among the Malcolm X crews and the Black Arts crew, how did you reject that kind of attitude? I'm not saying wholeheartedly, nor as a viable force...

FARRIS: I didn't accept it or reject it. It was just either available to me or not available. And when I say available, I don't only mean materially, I mean emotionally.

DOUGLAS: At that time, wasn't it rare as a black artist...

FARRIS: I've never seen myself as a black.

DOUGLAS: So that was part of you even before you started working in the arts.

FARRIS: Right. Not in a defensive way or with any baggage attached to it. I just rejected that.

DOUGLAS: You came to affirm something else. Literature as literature. That was a brave posture at that time. Don't you think?

FARRIS: I understood it. So, as I understood it, it was my language. It wasn't my cultural experience.

DOUGLAS: Did people come down on you and try to say you should write this or that?

FARRIS: As I began to close in on what I was looking for, the writers that I was interested in were mostly Caribbean. They wrote English, or they wrote Spanish, or they wrote pidgin. Whatever. But they had the same experience I had. They were going through the same thing. People thought I might have been a communist or something. I was never a communist. I was never anything. Just a radical, that's all. But those were the writers that informed me because, having read the classics and experienced that cultural ouevre and having to digest it from outside of it...

I liked African writers, too. Like Leopold Senghor, and...

DOUGLAS: Achebe...

FARRIS: Chinua Achebe! I love Achebe... People like that. I could go into that world without all this kind of conflict. And since I was actually born and bred here, it was easy for me to assimilate that into what I am.

DOUGLAS: So, in the sense that the Caribbeans tend to acknowledge their mixed racial and cultural heritage...

FARRIS: Absolutely.

DOUGLAS: It's not a black and white world, but one of many shades...

FARRIS: Absolutely. That's it.


DOUGLAS: When did you decide to make this neighborhood your headquarters?

FARRIS: I came down here in 1962. I lived with my first wife on this block. Then for a couple of years, I went back up to Harlem, then came back down.

DOUGLAS: With the Black Arts.

FARRIS: I also worked retail in clothing stores. Jerks.

DOUGLAS: When did you start bringing your work out into the public?

FARRIS: That was up in Harlem, hanging out with Leroy Clark and Derek Walcott and those... What was I writing then? Drivel that I couldn't quite call anything. It had no form. I was looking for a voice. A voice that would suit the aesthetic I had formed. That's why I had such a bad reputation. The person you're looking at right now and having this conversation with is not the same person of ten years ago. People thought I was crazy. When I started making these little drawings I was making, I wish that hallelujah. And it wasn't agony as it is now. An agony to pull that stuff out. If it looked like something I liked, I'd go to bed so ecstatic and I couldn't wait to get it up and do it some more. And whatever I had done, I didn't like anymore. People would come by and I'd say look at that, I'm gonna throw it away. They'd say, "No, don't throw it away." And so, there was that. Now that I'm starting to be able to express myself like that, it's kind of a completion. It's transformed me totally. I have more confidence. It's something that I really didn't learn from anybody.

DOUGLAS: What brought you to Life Cafe?

FARRIS: Oh! Breaking up with Sienna's mother. I had no job. I came to where I knew musicians. They were playing music at Life Cafe. And David liked me and he liked whatever drivel I was writing, so he put me in charge of that and I moved in. It was still kind of half home and half cafe. Home in the back. And I got locked down at night. And somehow I got to meet Rick Van Valkenburg who owned Neither/Nor. Miguel Algarin was there, but I didn't know Algarin. He was a star. A junkie star. He had his own situation. But they played music there and I knew all the musicians, so I started doing the poetry there. That's when I met Emily [Carter]. No, maybe I met her at Life Cafe. And I met you.

DOUGLAS: Tina [Carstensen] introduced us.

FARRIS: Yeah, hanging out at Vazac's.

DOUGLAS: So, jumping ahead but still in the past, when you started to put down the ass's tale, had you banged out any earlier novels?

FARRIS: Yeah. I was always writing something. I was always writing narrative. That was some good stuff because that was straight from my eye to the paper. And I can't remember why they wouldn't let me take that stuff outta there. Maybe it was something I said or that they thought I was saying about them. But I was always writing narratives. I think the first story you saw that I really liked was that thing about Raymundo del Mundo. I was beginning to find a voice then. That's another reason I molted, released from the Chrysalis, because of that novel. I have another one there. It's almost finished. What I intended to do was make some money off of that and get this one out. But I got hooked on this drawing. But I like that one, too. And I have new stories that are good. It's not quite a collection, but when I start writing again, I have work to engage me.

DOUGLAS: Do you see the Raymundo series as a contemporary Spoon River Anthology? It's more like linked short stories than a novel or novella.

FARRIS: And so is this one. It's widened, it's broadened... I'll show you something if you move this here. I'll just say this little poem, because it's local:

NuBlu after dark

all the women in brazil dance carolina tells me dancing jiggling her way up and down the bar pneumatic, shaking cocktails in sensitive counterpoint to the rhythm of the bateria a choreography of knees her feet in casual synchopation of the samba where I come from in brazil she tells me shuffling it's no big deal first you dance and then you walk first you dance and then you talk first you dance and then you eat first you dance and then you sleep and what you dream about when you sleep is only dancing it is impossible to do anything in brazil she tells me with dark eye of a conspirator pouring me a drink and sitting without dancing she thinks it is the curse of the palmaristas maybe they

DOUGLAS: One thing that's always impressed us about what you did was write a poem, and then you'd see one of us or we'd be together and you would present it to us. It always seemed that a lot of your work, almost everything you've written since I've known you, has a quality that, consciously or not, and though written on paper, makes these works for the ear; oral works in terms of the way they're presented to the public.

FARRIS: Personal. Personal. Personal. It's my stinginess. I don't really want people to have my work. I want them to accept ME as the author of this. It's not their experience. It's my experience and I'm sharing it with them.


FARRIS: And that's what I want. That was always more important. That's seeking validation.

DOUGLAS: So, it's not as theoretical or technical as a question of the written versus the oral.


DOUGLAS: The oral is just a component of the expression seeking validation.

FARRIS: Right. Uhm, here's a poem. They're all short.

Funeral cortege

I climbed aboard at 125th and rode with them up Seventh Avenue and across the MacCombs Dam Bridge where the Giants would play as he practiced and practiced and practiced through all the scales until he could blur them into a blue canvas first left, and then right, like a slider past Edgecomb where the rabbit lived when in town and the more I get to live with her [unintelligible] to Saint Nicholas the measured cadence of the call, an ululation [unintelligible] his approach by the great John Gilmore on temor as we headed back to the valley hard bopping to Walter Davis slowed to a dirge on piano the mysterious Ronnie Boykins on bass the drumming of the magnificent Clifford Jarvis samba muffled reflecting the great man's heartbeat seven hundred horses under the shining hood of the Jazzmobile we're not idlers we had not fallen he was laid back, stretched out there were no empty boots hanging backwards from an empty saddle if there was a [cason?] it did not contain a cannon it was the great Bud himself.

DOUGLAS: That's a perfect lead in for me to stick my guns about the oral. You just laid out that you are a true acolyte and tyro of the jazz.

FARRIS: Yeah. Mona. That's Johnny Hodges' daughter. She had this [socoochie?] monkey.

DOUGLAS: So the novel, The Ass's Tale—and I've seen it said about other novels, them being jazz novels and what not—The Ass's Tale, to me, in terms of what I've read, and I haven't read everything—it seems like the closest literary manifestation of jazz that I've ever come across in my life. I guess that's why I see it in terms of an oral project. It's so clearly—even reading it silently to myself—but moreso when reading passages aloud—it's so powerfully musical that as I read I can't help almost tapping my feet to the beat. Not constantly, it goes from the beat to the melody and back. Is that a conscious thing or did it just come out that way?

FARRIS: No, that's my bow. I guess that comes from South American writers. You know who really influenced me a lot? What's that guy who wrote Autumn of the Patriarch?

DOUGLAS: Marquez.

FARRIS: Yeah. Marquez. Incredible rhythm. Incredible. I read a lot of writers like that.

DOUGLAS: Is it something you became aware of as you got into the novel, or you started up like that?

FARRIS: No, I started writing in rhythm because those are my instincts.

DOUGLAS: Talk about James Moody.

FARRIS: Moody is a plot device. What he is, is Moody's Mood For Love. And the animal is looking for love. The protagonist is—as I have been—looking for acceptance. And he hears James Moody and Moody's Mood For Love. And he says, "That's a great man." So, he looks for him. And of course, I think the last line is "And I never did find James Moody."

DOUGLAS: Instead, he finds...

FARRIS: He realizes himself. He transforms himself into a human being, but he's still invisible. I don't remember. I haven't opened that thing since I... These people have me reading and hearing it, but it was written—just like everything, I put it down. Just like in there, in that review [indicates magazine containing a review dropped off during interview by Ron Kolm, Unbearables editor]. People want to know what you had to say, but I'm already finished with that. I'm thinking about something else. I'm trying to formulate my next move. I hate to start talking, but the drawing's a metaphor. Even though you can see it's my drawing, they're different styles. That's the way I am.

DOUGLAS: In terms of the final transformation that happens to the ass, is it on a par with what happens to Pinocchio?


DOUGLAS: Is it a device borrowed from Ellison, or a more general idea Ellison borrowed from as well.

FARRIS: It's a general idea. That's a whole tradition.

DOUGLAS: He achieves a kind of humility.

FARRIS: Yeah. I loved Ellison. That definition is entirely cultural. But again, It was more personal. I could be inside of that. I didn't have to be outside in need of a teacher who could explain it to me. What these people in here are just finding out about me is that I don't want them to tell me anything. Somehow these folks think they've invented the world, and that they've invented all the machinery of it, and that they need to tell me what to do. I appreciate the comforts but I'm not the guy you can tell what to do. That's what I said to this woman yesterday. I said, "Wait a minute now," because we had a meeting that was Friday, "who do you think you are? Who died and made you boss?" The protagonist has a profound humility. That's why Moody's Mood For Love is a device. I would love to put that first and foremost.

DOUGLAS: Is it an autobographical...


DOUGLAS: Not even thematically?

FARRIS: I use devices from my own life. But it's not autobiographical. It uses a lot of my autobiography, my experience, but it's fiction. I used to go and steal stuff outta cars. That's where I got that from. There are many many many elements where my autobiography informs the plot, but it's not autobiographical.

DOUGLAS: Given the current craze for the memoir, do you have an affinity for that form... Do you feel like there's a memoir in you that could work?

FARRIS: A memoir would be very easy for me. I probably will because I need to spit some stuff out. There are some human beings on this planet who would scream in protest about having been left out. That's what I'm doing right now. In a way, since I don't really have anything morally to give anybody, to make the world better. I think a memoir would just be an egotistical thing.

DOUGLAS: Do you think it's in any way indicative of the culture that this form is so popular?

FARRIS: Well, everybody's a writer and they don't have anything to say except what happened to them. Yeah, everybody's a writer, everybody's an artist, everybody's part of the leisure class.

DOUGLAS: Navel gazing.

FARRIS: Yeah, navel gazing. I hope I'm doing better than that. What do you think of this fellow Jonathan Ames?

DOUGLAS: Ames? That weird conflict of egotistical Bravado and self-aggrandizement combined with self-deprecating... Personally, I blame Bob Holman for the whole mess.

FARRIS: Well, don't get me talking about Bob Holman because I won't be able to stop.

DOUGLAS: Me neither.

FARRIS: I think he's a bit of a whore.

DOUGLAS: Yeah. Or a pimp. I don't know which one.

FARRIS: [belly laugh] Well, he used to be a pimp, but now he's a whore.

DOUGLAS: I think he did a lot to destroy literature.

FARRIS: He did everything he could to destroy it.

DOUGLAS: The hope that I had for literature in the days when you were doing reading series at Life Cafe, Neither/Nor, Living Theater and so on was totally erased by the poetry slam frenzy. I'll never forget the time that you did the poetry slam and you were obviously the best one up there and you were trounced by these one-legged, black lesbian dwarves who just whined about their little high school hurt. How high school hurt came to replace literature, I'll never know.

FARRIS: Bob came and started pimping Pedro Pietri. They were the Bobsey Twins for a while. That was Bob's entry pass into the underground.

DOUGLAS: Though he made Pietri more of a clown than he made himself.


DOUGLAS: He was careful to do that. Sort of a trained monkey act.

FARRIS: That's what it was, a trained monkey act. I was ragging on Joe Overstreet for being upset about it. I mean, he doesn't really care...


this should go with those other two.


Kenkeleba House abuts Pedro Pietri Way. The Lord of Kenkeleba House sits high in a turret of his castle mixing excrement for color. "A little piss makes a good green," he says. "I only like the good shit. For the blues, I listen to Miles Davis, Shirley Scott, Billy Coggins and [Frink?]. "Looking out that window," he says, pointing to where the sign Pedro Pietri Way is clearly visible, "makes me see red, red and more red. It's too much. I'd put that guy behind the eight ball if I could. But he's dead. My hair is white. Around here," he says, the purple plainly apoplectic, "I'm the institution. Get me? When it comes to whirling squares and [kebonatchee?] I'm Monet. I'm Monet!"

DOUGLAS: So, in the sense of a Spoon River anthology, you have many local characters in your work. Not that I think one needs to know who those people are in order to comprehend what you're saying. For a while, though, I think maybe the late eighties, weren't you consciously engaged in doing a lot of character sketches?

FARRIS: Oh. I refer to my grandmother. The protagonist of that novel refers to a grandmother. This is a real picture of my grandmother.

Alice's Afternoon

Chopping collard greens instead of cotton, Alice stands at the kitchen sink preparing dinner, rinsing the last sand from the leaves throwing them into a pot of water in which she had boiled some hamhocks. She makes spoon bread, adding the white corn meal to a pan of chicken broth and onions, sprinkling in some parched, yellow kernels from a burlap bag tied with string and kept downstairs in the pantry. He hums a high falsetto interrupted by a grunt of satisfaction while tasting the result of her efforts and, catching up her melody, moves heavily through the stations of her ritual, routinely pronouncing what should be done or not, how I could go wrong from making spoon bread where she learned hers the hard way back in Alabama.

DOUGLAS: Is there anything else you want to add at this point? Any advice to poets?

FARRIS: Well, I'm just working. That's all one can do, keep working. Don't stop.

DOUGLAS: I remember a thing I once said to Tracy Morris years ago, and which she actually acknowledged years later, when she was asking Steve Cannon for advice about writing and he gave her some long Steve answer. I said I got some advice for you. It's a four letter word: R-E-A-D. Read.

FARRIS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We have to make the language ours. It's not ours. I mean, we come here and it's already being spoken and it's already being expressed. What we have to do is communicate. So there has to be a commonality of the language. And we still have to find a way to be personal. That's where the work is. One just has to keep working.

DOUGLAS: There's what I call the pie in the sky theory of art where these young artists and writers—since my time, maybe before—they have this idea that... Like, I say to my partner's son, who's sitting around making cartoons, is what you should do is find all the cartoons that you can, check out what other people are doing, and that will help you. And he says, "I don't want to. Why should do that?" But I heard it when I was in art school, I heard it when I was with Vibeke [Jensen] over in Norway doing workshops with kids, they don't want to be influenced by anything. And I try to tell them, "You are being influenced all the time, so you might as well consciously seek out your influences."

FARRIS: It's not our language. We have to make it.

DOUGLAS: You didn't invent the language, you didn't invent art, so you should go and see what's been done. Why reinvent the wheel?

FARRIS: See what's being said, or being expressed. The more information we have, the more stuff changes. But it's still the same. Here's this remarkable machine [indicates the laptop Douglas uses to record the interview] is translating everything we say into that format, and you're not taking shorthand.

DOUGLAS: Nothing new is coming out of it.

FARRIS: No. It's the same language.

DOUGLAS: It's a different form that they think is new content. But the content is...

FARRIS: ...still the same. Where's the chicken?

DOUGLAS: There is no new thing under the sun.

FARRIS: There was this communication in your crowd where everyone had something to read. Everyone was writing. And everyone was eager to read what they were writing. It was our own little workshop. It wasn't that formal. It was just sitting in the bar having a drink and reading our stuff to each other. And I really enjoyed that. I don't want to name any names, but as a group, I don't think you have any parallel.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, I miss those days a lot. It's difficult to find anyone who is on the same level.

FARRIS: That was Punch and Judy, man. Right down to the real nitty gritty. BAM! Over the head! I loved it.

DOUGLAS: Here's one of the first and last poems I've written in a while.

FARRIS: Oh, yeah.

DOUGLAS: Oh, here it is.

I think it's called "dark road," but I'm not sure yet.


Children play outside this broke Down trailer smelling of fecund rot and ruined Years when old men drank and swindled, burning Kerosene, gas, farting, blind mostly in third eyes.

Wild deer graze the graveyard shift Until crepuscule in ditches, by soggy stands of spikenards, At cattails, munching milkweed on meadows bulging green grass, Spread seedheads inside purple feces balls round county lines.

Coyotes howl forlorn Outside your deadbolted doors, yelping Sadness that the emptied moon adores even As it hides anew among the winking harvest stars.

Night cats prowling yellow and white Stripes, hunched on fences, swatting mice, dodging Lights that roar and wheels that soar heavy, unlike The giant owl afloat to a dead branch, skittish prey.

Stealthy gray foxes skipping quick From one side to the other, the white skunk Waddling sudden surprise the dog smells afar, Whining to go out and scout its source.

Insects aim into the electric heat, hundreds Blind to the light webs woven to suck their short Buzz away, fattening spiders lollygag in corners cobbled of dirty dust, paint and yucky rust chips.

Squirrels stutter and start and retreat so swerving Autos spin and smash up. Only rabbits, peeking up, rival Them for mad dashing through dawn's dark roads, across Shifty shadows, like rabid rodents reclassified by men.

A star shooting fast in the corner of my sky, Then a meteor turns green into meteorite, drop this Wish into the treetops’ bunched silhouettes Against the black and blue wrinkling under one eye.


I see whose great gardens grow between the lawns You people mow, repaving roads and driveways. I see something long ago, just up ahead, undead, Alive and kicking in the night, while you encrypt your dreams.

I see the skidmarks on the blacktop, the missing Box, the six-sided stop, the diamond fork, a woman’s Crotch missing her hips (my partner says with her two lips), The yield, the curves, the jittered nerves under my skin.

I see something you can see, a mirror, the floor, windows, walls. I eat and drink and sleep this glass ceiling, falling Hope and longing, swishing, soughing, wishing. Well, I Never had to write a poem, or count, or tome, nor essay,

Because I see all the things we do unthinking steady Life will not be missed by these little gadgets, bony Hatchet jobs, a child whose sobs want someone to play House, some made-up game I cannot name, unspoke of, not forgotten.

FARRIS: I would take the I out. But the last part makes the critique that I gave you very difficult. The first part is very easy since you're dealing with nature and all of that, I would let the narrative be the eye. That way it cleans it up a lot. Because you don't have the dichotomy there. It's easy to do that because you don't need that. Now, what I would do with the last part, when you become personal, make that "ii." And that will take a lot of clutter out.


FARRIS: Then it will work perfectly.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, I could definitely see losing the "I see" part.

FARRIS: You can see that?

DOUGLAS: Well, in the first part, the "I see" is not really significant. It could still achieve that. Thanks. That's what I miss.

FARRIS: Me, too.