Gerald Ferguson’s Blue Collar Conceptualism: An Interview with Luke Murphy and Phil Grauer

by Paddy Johnson on February 9, 2012 · 1 comment Interview

Install shot

People who went to school in the Maritime provinces have a special bond. The weather is extreme, the landscape rugged, the population poor and hardworking. Time moves at a different speed: slow. I spent four years of my life up there, and feel a special pride for having done so. You don’t complain about living there; you talk about how much stronger you are for having done so.

For this reason, I’ve always felt a special kinship with Phil Grauer, the Owner/Director of CANADA, and artist and curator Luke Murphy. Both attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), a school nearby my own, and had a personal relationship to Gerald Ferguson, whose show is currently on view at CANADA through February 19th. Ferguson was a teacher at NSCAD and a founding member of the late 60’s conceptual art movement, yet remains largely unknown. I got together with Grauer and Murphy recently to talk about the show, and my own introduction to Ferguson, which was through the Canadian artist and former president of NSCAD, Garry Kennedy.

Paddy Johnson: Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you about Garry Kennedy comes from my own background: I did my undergraduate degree at Mount Allison University [in New Brunswick, Canada] and the kinds of things I was taught about Gerald Ferguson sound like folklore.

We had a Garry Kennedy show at the Owens Art Gallery when I was there—a retrospective—so I knew a lot less about Gerald Ferguson than I did about Kennedy who, as I understand it, totally transformed NSCAD. He fired everyone and hired all his American friends!

Luke Murphy: Garry [Kennedy] was from Ontario and he had a summer house in Nova Scotia, so he got offered the gig. He was appealing because he was a Canadian who went to an American graduate school. And so the graduate school friends got to go up with Garry, and Garry eventually became president of NSCAD [in 1967]. He’s often cited as the person responsible for the change, but of course, it's the Americans that he brought up that had, I think, a deeper connection to the actual situation here in New York, primarily, but America in general. They were able to transplant the idea of an American art school into the Canadian Maritimes.

PJ: Which totally transformed it. It took much longer for that kind of energy to reach Mount Allison, which was very conservative, and demanded students take three years of figure drawing. Every time I meet somebody who was in my class now all they do is talk about wanting their money back! We had an award-winning installation artist named Rita McKeough as our prof and the department wouldn't even give her a room. They needed it for figure drawing! So I had friends that left for NSCAD, because it was seen as far more progressive. And it was! I think that was the legacy.

Phil Grauer: Even if it had that identity, I don't think that it ever really did the job. Gerry showed at MoMA in 1970 in The Information Show, and a lot of his contemporaries, of course, went on to build what is Conceptual Art. And he brought them up to the school, but Gerry never came back down.

Gerry's line—and he said it a couple of times—was really the “Dematerialization of the Art Object.” That was really their thing. We're going to make something impossible to buy. You can't buy stuff, because all the people that are buying stuff are supporting the Vietnam War. So it's that kind of thinking.

LM: Occupy.

PG: It's so Occupy! And we're going to do it in Nova Scotia, because it's not attached to the Man. It's far enough away. We can do what we need to do in the peace and quiet of Nowheresville. The remoteness, I think, is part of what these paintings are about.

LM: That's why Dan [Buren], and all those guys who were hanging out in NSCAD, they were loving it. You would go to Nova Scotia, and you have Daniel Buren, who's post-Marxist whatever. And they brought [Benjamin] Buchloh in to run the press. When Joseph Beuys landed in North America, he landed in Halifax. It was a good moment.

When he saw [Lawrence] Weiner and all his buds go off to [Leo] Castelli, he couldn't believe it. “What? You're selling out?” He stuck to the initial plan, which was making conceptual work, and resisting the dominant systems.

And he did that until 1990, when he said, “You know, maybe I do like painting. I'm going to start painting again.” And that's what he did. His first commercial show was in 1989 and was made up of flower paintings. He stayed friends with Lawrence, but I could tell, when he was talking to Weiner, there was always an edge”¦ Lawrence Weiner has a much bigger view of the art world in some ways than Gerry.

PJ: Well, yeah. It always seemed to me that Lawrence Weiner just didn't care so much where he showed, so long as the work got to as many people as possible.

LM: Garry had certain hang-ups about what it meant to make work and sell work. Early on, anyway.

PG: But he liked to teach. He liked to be attached to the academy. Kennedy was the president up there, but Gerry sent young Canadians out into the world as artists, down the road to Toronto. He hooked them up to the Canadian scene. He was very active. And I think a lot of Canadians, young Canadians and now middle-aged Canadians, were touched directly by the guy. So he did catch the whole generation of Canadian art out of this weird model in Nova Scotia that was set up in response to the Vietnam War and all that.

The weird thing is, given all that influence and all of that stuff, he still is this American painter that did all of this, and changed all of these artists, and it doesn't really still exist—it's still largely a secret.

LM: All these people like [David] Salle and [Eric] Fischl, they walk around carrying images of stuff that Gerry informed. When you think about David Salle paintings—the rope, the bird, all this stuff—it comes from Gerry. And the same with Fischl. And yeah, like Phil says, nobody really knows. No one really knows his work here in the States.

PJ: So you guys have a mix of work in this particular show [Gerald Ferguson], right—you have works from 1969, 2000, 2003, and 2006.

Gerald Ferguson, "Stencil Through Frottage," 1968. (Courtesy CANADA Gallery)

PG: Well, this was our mission, to show the old work. The guy offed himself with a gun. Luke here [the exhibition's curator] was a favorite student, and has the reins of the estate. What are we going to do?

We thought of showing some of the pieces from '68. We can't do a full survey of what the guy did over the course of forty years, but we can try to start some dialogue with just the paintings. There isn't a whole lot of objects.

LM: I mean, there's “One Million Pennies,” right? Which is…

PJ: The most famous work that he did — the title is basically what it looked like.

But do you want to talk about that dot painting that you see when you enter the room? There's actually some depth to it. There was a shift from his early work to his later work—the press released described it as a shift towards “task-oriented paintings with rigorous methodology.”

PG: Yeah. There was a big shift.

LM: He would set himself up, like Weiner, where he would write something, and then do it. Gerry did the same, except with painting. And so he made these “Maintenance Paintings.”

PG: Yeah. So “task-oriented” was never tied to Weiner. That was something that came out of a [Ferguson] show.

LM: He did a lot of language work, at the beginning, too. He did his standard corpus of the English language, organized by word length. I mean, what else are you going to do in your French village in Nova Scotia—which is really way bleak? Someone said Gerry's life is like trying to get through February in Nova Scotia, it’s really what Gerry's work is.

PJ: For reference here, when people describe bad weather in the Maritimes, they're talking about so much snowfall that it’s literally impossible to leave your house for three days. This will shape an artist’s practice.

LM: And it really did shape Gerry’s. So he started out writing a page of As, a page of Bs, and a page of C's. I think he did it with an IBM electric typewriter, which was the most modern piece of equipment at the time. It was all about language and structure. He started writing out the all the words in the entire English language, organized by word-length. He did all words of length one, starting with A, and then went through the whole thing. And he eventually made it into a choral reading, which we were going to do, I think, down here.

The earliest language works are the “L paintings.” These word paintings — which are like concrete poetry — arrived at these letters, that become self-organizing structures. Once you repeat them [the letters], they form kind of architectural, self-organizing structures. He would spray paint the things. A can of spray paint, pointed at the floor…

PG: …sprayed until it's empty. He has a whole body of work in between this and his stencil paintings. And there's a bunch of idea-driven paintings that are paintings made by other people. But we just needed a small collection of work that would get a little bit of attention and could reverberate off of some of the other work that was happening around town.

LM: Some of the works are quite beautiful—they can be quite light. But after doing that, and the Xs and Is, he came to the conclusion that a period is really more fundamental than a letter. So he chose to make his template from this aluminum corner-beating.

PJ: So that's why there's the appearance of a shadow? The spray paint would bleed over the edges of the metal he was using as a stencil?

LM: Yes. He didn't like the shadow that much, though. It made him uncomfortable. So after that, he started working with masks.

PJ: What exactly was the thing about this that made it better than the dots?

LM: There wasn't any illusion. When he got rid of the opticality, he felt he was doing “work.” Gerry was very uncomfortable as a painter. He’s not the artist dandy—he’s the artist workman. It’s funny how much he bought into Duchamp things, because Duchamp was such a dandy, but Gerry really believed in that other model.

PJ: This sort of really heavy black mark making here [gestures] reads like “real work”—the marks, the stamping.

LM: He totally believed in it. He went through college on the GI Bill. He was really one of those crazy hard work guys who believed that stuff. Worked in a machine shop. But the art thing was a complete fluke for him, in some ways.

PG: It's funny, because that [was the] moment in the 1960s, when they're trying to get themselves out of Pop art, and even the kind of Minimalism, as a kind of pristine objects. That movement kind of fit his personality quite well.

LM: Absolutely. If you look at Eva Hesse, who takes Minimal stuff, but then turns it into these kind of very hand-built, totally humanized work; she took that same structure, but made them hand-built. She just completely took the whole thing on its head. I think Gerry is definitely in that category.

PG: But the paintings really don't have a good international marketplace—that's the conundrum. That painting [L4, 1968] that's from 1968 and it's like $18,000. I sell paintings by 33 year olds for that much. The show is very painful like that.

LM: It’s funny, the work doesn't feel like all of this was made yesterday, but they have a kind of freshness.

PG: I think there's a lot of kind of daring in them, and I think that is something that even young artists today flirt with. At least, a few of them here have it. It's like, I know that Joe [Bradley] has tried to get away with as little as possible at times. It's almost like there was a guilt around making things.

PJ: Like, that dot painting on the wall”¦there’s so little there.

PG: In some ways, that painting, I think, of all the paintings in the show, goes to those courageous measures. Again, how little can I do? What can I get away with? I think that these bare-boned works were a response to the 1960s, the polish of Minimalism, and the colors and stupidity of Pop art…

LM: …And Abstract Expressionism. Still. All those guys were still making paintings.

Sarah Braman: I get the feeling that with Gerry, the conversation was like, “You want a good painting? I'll fucking make you a good painting!” And you're like, “Oh shit. You really did it. You made a good painting out of a pile of rope and a can of paint, you know?” He makes it look easy, but it's because he was good at what he did.

He had the capacity to see where the good painting might be in places where other people didn't see it.

PG: And maybe for the right reasons. It wasn't just done for posture's sake, or because you were trying to withdraw your fame card, the way it's maybe done now.

LM: What a good impulse though. I mean, I actually appreciate testing the system, although here, it's funny, because there was no system. Gerry was in this little town. He had a bunch of buddies in a movement that had barely even started. But he knew it was important. He really was trying to change painting. And he did it.

  • Suzanne Butler

    Wonderful interview!

Previous post:

Next post: