The sixth interview in a series of posts examining what it means to survive in New York. Today I speak with Judith Braun, an artist living and working in New York. Other interviews include, Executive Director of Rhizome and Adjunct Curator at The New Museum Lauren Cornell, artist Marcin Ramocki, curator and Prospect Non-Profit Director Dan Cameron, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett of Triple Candie, a non-profit gallery located in Harlem, and artist William Powhida. A full piece reflecting on these interviews is available in this month's issue of Map Magazine.
Paddy Johnson: When did you first come to New York and what brought you here?
Judith Braun: I came to New York after high school in 1965 to go to FIT for Fashion Illustrating. To be honest, I had no interest in being an illustrator, but I did want to come to New York, and no one offered any other options. It was just before attitudes changed for girls”¦my brother went to medical school, and I was sent to a commercial art program, which fortunately did turn out to have an excellent figure-drawing department. And luckily too the dorm was practically in earshot of the conga drums in Washington Square”¦so my brother totally missed out.
After FIT I headed straight downtown. My first apartment was $90./mo. and I worked in an ad office for $75./wk doing ”paste-ups and mechanicals,” actually using razors and rubber cement! My next apartment was sharing an entire floor with my drummer boyfriend for $125./mo on E.5th St. These were the hippy days and everything was cheap, so even if you were waitressing, or driving a cab, both of which I did by the way, you could pay rent. Let me add, I got a hack license while having no clue how to get to the airports. I drove days, stayed in Manhattan, and hated every minute, but, you know how some of the worst experiences turn out to be the best stories. Anyway, money was not a big issue, we never went to bars, no one drank, which was a big savings! We did do drugs, like pot and acid, but we never went to the movies, or restaurants, or shopping. It was torn jeans and “burning our bras!” Sometimes we'd pay $5. and go to a concert at the Fillmore East on Second Ave, but mostly we made our own music. And there were some great musicians, but everyone played something, flutes, drums, horns”¦ cowbells”¦everyone had an “axe””¦it was a pretty amazing time.
PJ: Did you think of yourself as an artist at that time?
JB: Well I'd always had some identity that way, but I'd become absorbed in the ideas of the civil rights movement and then women's liberation, “anti-establishment”, “dropping out”, those were my frames of reference, not the art world. But I could draw and I was always drawing my friends when we hung out. I wish I had those sketchbooks. Then I got in Volkswagen bus to drive cross country”¦.and ultimately left the city with the “back to nature” movement. I went to live on communes”¦ gardening, baking, crafts, trying various cultish things”¦I was looking around.
PJ: So you left New York for a while? What year was that?
JB: I left around 1972, and though it seemed very philosophical at the time, I later regretted having given up that apartment. But those were days of seeking cosmic consciousness, and it actually seemed enlightened to give up my material belongings.
PJ: Ha! ”¦ But after awhile you decided to come back here?
JB: Yes, it's a long story, but after all that “looking around” I finally put my feet on the ground when I escaped, pregnant, from an abusive husband! That was the beginning of what gradually led me back to New York. But first I returned to school, getting a BFA, MA, and MFA in upstate NY”¦.all with my new baby! And I got a new husband too who was a writer, but also had a steady job and a belief in me being an artist. So while we lived upstate, I also began to share a space in New York with several other out-of-town artists, so we could show people our work.
PJ: You just commuted back and forth all the time?
JB: Yes, I had my studio in Albany, and was teaching figure drawing there at the College of St. Rose, and would come to NY about once a month for a few days, and sleep on the floor of that studio on Mercer St. My husband took care of my daughter, who he'd adopted. It was having a supportive husband that provided my means to be in NY at the time. In retrospect, I recall that all my serious women artist friends upstate were married to supportive spouses. It was an upstate life style I guess. Anyway, I managed to develop an “emerging” art career during that time, going back and forth.
PJ: So you don't think it was necessary to be living in New York to do that?
JB: Well, I wouldn't recommend doing it that way. It was extremely hard, I felt like an outsider and it was exhausting and lonely. I mean, it was before cell phones and internet, so I was adrift on the streets and in that basement studio on the floor at night. But it's what I had to do. By the way, my married name was Weinman, and I changed it to Weinperson, in a wry nod to political correctness, so I was exhibiting then as Judy Weinperson, and developing a kind of feminist “Weinpersona”. My work then was using photocopy, sexual imagery, and text in a sort of female takeover of the office”¦or something like that.
PJ: So you were showing regularly?
JB: Yes. One of my early favorites was the “Democracy” show in 1988, with Group Material, which was Julie Ault, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Doug Ashford. I showed some of my small “pussy” pieces there. Then I had a show at White Columns, when Bill Arning was director, and an installation at the Drawing Center, with Ann Philbin. I also did “Read My Pussy”, a solo show at Souyun Yi, a wonderful space on Centre Street, and eventually this all led to the “Bad Girls” show, which Marcia Tucker curated at the New Museum in 1994.
PJ: Which received less than spectacular reviews as I recall.
JB: Yes. The Bad Girls show got panned by the feminist critics, and so after having been told by Marcia that I'd been her inspiration for the whole show, I ended up not even invited into to the museum's Annual Benefit the next year. I do still have that special nugget she confided to me, and critical views about these events shift over time, but it was hard to keep finding out how much everyone was looking out for themselves in the art world.
And at the same time my husband and I put a down payment on a loft in New York to move here together, but then we actually split up instead and I took on that mortgage. So while I was suddenly out looking for some kind of job the art world just moved high speed ahead without me! My career lost momentum faster than I would have ever expected.
So I too withdrew. I just could not be around my art friends or the art scene at all because I felt a mix of embarrassment and shame for not being able to keep it up. But I was equally disturbed that no one called me after a while either! The last person to call me was Colin de Land, in 1995, asking me to put work in his gallery benefit, which I happily did of course. And it was a hit too, with Pat Hearn buying my piece. But after that”¦Poof! I couldn't tell if I'd walked away or been left behind, and I had no idea what I felt about it. Then gradually there was an interesting kind of relief in getting away from the pressures of the art world. I mean, I was free and on my own now in New York …and I took up other things, like Tango and Swing, and just having some good ole unmarried fun”¦ and not thinking about art.
PJ: What made you come back to it?
JB: Well, it took time”¦especially to get my finances solid. That happened when I began doing “faux finish” work, which I'd never heard of but quickly realized was a decent job slot for artists. I did my first job with no experience”¦just perusing a few books”¦and soon I was an expert. I tried to do it with an artist's mentality, but at some point it just wasn't satisfying enough.
So it was 2003, I was doing my “Annual Tarot Card Life Evaluation”, and I realized that deep down I wanted to make art again. There's a whole story within that, about giving myself permission, but that's maybe for another conversation! But basically I just made a new plan: I'd move into my studio, and rent out the whole living section of my loft for income. My one priority would be to make art”¦and show it. That was the goal, to show one more time. This may sound simple but at 56 years old it was a huge challenge for me to try to re-enter the ever-youthful art world. To start with I had to make a whole new body of work, but I'd also have to make all new friends! I was totally out of the loop, not to mention that some of my contacts, like Marcia and Colin, had died, and others had moved on to positions in other cities.
PJ: So do you think you were just lucky to be a property owner so that you could create this scheme of survival?
JB: Yes, its been at the base of how I've managed to have a life here, and sometimes people comment how “smart I was to buy real estate””¦but I have to tell them it was just by chance that the year I (we) bought, 1994, was an unusual slump in the market. And I did not intentionally choose it as income property, even though that turned out to be the most important part. From day one I've had someone renting a bedroom or two, while sharing the main living area. Nowadays I give my tenants total privacy, which, of course, increases the rent I get. (please, don't anyone call me though, my tenants are happy here!) And now I'm also the “building manager” for my coop, for a small monthly fee, and which doesn't demand much time. Everything helps!
PJ: So do you feel you are achieving your goals now?
JB: Ha”¦that's the question! It has taken time”¦but I would have to answer yes now. I'm really amazed and happy that I get to focus totally on my work again, and that I'm having opportunities to show, both here and I've done some traveling too. That's all I want. Right now I'm working on a show for the Indianapolis Museum of Art and I could easily just stay in the studio all the time and be very reclusive. Which may sound odd since you know I was recently a contestant on that reality TV show Work of Art! But that was not a “goal” of mine really, but just a fun break from all my seriousness I think. The two highlights from that experience were “getting on” and “getting off”. I got a real charge out of being chosen as the one “older artist” out of thousands who auditioned. And then I loved how I got booted off, for what I call “insubordination”. After much eye rolling about the show asking artists to design a “book cover” — we're not designers — I wrote “Pride and Prejudice” backwards ”¦ “Edirp and Ecidujerp”. The esteemed art world judges sent me packing!