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What first compelled you to begin mapping out various contours of art, art history and art territories?
Looking back, I remember my first encounter with maps was in the movie Treasure Island, a rollicking adventure with Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins, full of pirates, mystery, intrigue and a map. This map was just a piece of paper with lines, words, colors and forms, but the coolest and most important thing was it showed you where the treasure was.
In Boy Scouts I had a chance to become acquainted with the practical side of maps, learning about things like the three norths, how to read a compass, and the cartographic symbols for rivers, mountains and oceans. But the important practical thing was that maps showed you where you were, kept you from getting lost, and showed you where you were going.
In the Army, I was stationed in Germany; my assignment was to teach classes in map reading with an emphasis in charting nuclear fallout patterns. When I came to New York, I ended up working at Utrecht, the art supply store, driving their delivery truck. During my time there I made deliveries to Sandro Chia, James Havard, Julian Schnabel, Wolf Kahn, Balcomb Greene and lots of East Villagers, and I had to know where the artists and their studios were.
With a few decades of observation, and a desire to remain engaged with younger artists, I was constantly shocked at their apparent lack of knowledge or even interest in local painting history. Many of them were wasting valuable time repeating investigations and directions that had been done before—not that that’s bad, but an artist can get a jumpstart on a lot of information if they have a better idea of what’s already been done.
You’ve recently exhibited works about art hubs in NYC, interlinked figures in Modernism and even, as we saw at your two-person show at Valentine Gallery, the ocular play of looking at a painting. What are you cooking up for your big solo show?
A lot of people are familiar with the “Map Paintings,” and they’re a big part of the project, but this show will also feature some major “Flow Chart” pieces dealing with the interrelationships of groups of artists over time. I think it’s worth noting that art history doesn’t just happen; artists become significant because of whom they hang out with, whom they write about or are written about by, whom they work for and where they live.
You’ve dealt a lot with 20th-century movements in your chartings, it seems. Why is that? Are these closest to your heart as a painter? More interesting to research?
Living in New York right now is a blessing. This is perhaps the central venue of artistic achievement in the last century, or at least one of the most important venues. The story of the New York School is our own Passion Play. That said, I don’t have time or an inclination to dig deep into history from far away (although that might change). Also, I need to keep things simple. I’m a guy on a bike with a two-dollar camera. I don’t have grants or people paying me a salary to travel or do research. I don’t have a team of assistants. Lots of artists think if they only had the financial backing of a Gagosian or a Zwirner, they’d be stars. I may be stubborn or stupid or both, but I’d like to believe that if you exert your energies in a 'creative' fashion, you can create something significant that’s not entirely sublimated to money or the market.
Your work as James Kalm certainly informs your practice as a painter (and likely vice-versa). Do surprising parallels, coincidences or painterly sparks come out of that sometimes?
I receive a constant stream of emails from people who appreciate what I’m trying to do, from a lone artist in Saskatchewan to a teacher in the outback of Australia who uses the Kalm Report in his classes. One of my most gratifying notes came from a relative of Landis Lewitin, a little-known artist associated with the Artists’ Club. He was doing research on his uncle who’d left his family in Alexandria, Egypt, for Paris in the 1920s and disappeared. He came across a mention in an article I wrote for the Brooklyn Rail. He asked me what I knew about Landis, so I sent him everything I had on file, including an address taken from the ledger of the Artists’ Club that was kept by Philip Pavia in 1952. Turns out this guy had a daughter living in New York. He sends her to the address on Waverly Place, and Landis’s daughter still lives there. She’s reunited with her cousin and a whole part of the family she’s never known existed. A month or so later I got another email from this guy telling me the story, and that he’d begun the search because he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer, was afraid he only had a few months to live, and wanted to reconnect with his family.
Wow, so “surprising coincidences” was an understatement.
You got it!
If we get another Polar Vortex or Alberta Clipper and two feet of snow on the night of your opening, will you still bike there?
No. I will be accompanied by my wife, the wonderful Kate, and although she’d be game, I wouldn’t make her ride on the handlebars. As always, THANK YOU, KATE.