Trumpeter, composer, educator, and visual artist Wadada Leo Smith was a key member and an active participant in the AACM during the 1960s and 1970s. His four-panel work Multi America is featured in The Freedom Principle, and on Sunday, October 11, from 4–7 pm, the Renaissance Society opens an exhibition of his scores, Ankhrasmation: The Language Scores, 1967–2015, as part of their centennial celebration program. Schedule a return visit for an October 24 panel with Smith, curator Hamza Walker, and gallerist and jazz expert John Corbett; as well as an October 25 performance by Smith with live visuals by Jesse Gilbert. Both events are free.
“They mentioned sticks,” joked one teacher, citing the closing remarks from the previous day. “They did mention sticks.”
Nick Hostert, one of the Institute’s two facilitators, greeted the group for the morning. “See those amazing-looking sticks? Right? Nothing but,” Hostert paused, reaching for the right words, “crazy potential for experimentation.”
Guest artist Faheem Majeed sat next to Hostert. Majeed had come in to guide the teachers through a special sculptural project he’d developed, simply titled Sticks and Tape. Earlier that morning, MCA staff had marked off a large swatch of their first-floor lobby. With minimal direction from Majeed, a bunch of varicolored duct tape, and some teamwork, over the course of the day the teachers would build an enclosed, free-standing structure out of the thin little beams.
Majeed prefaced the activity with a conversation among the teachers. The talk took place in Majeed’s third-floor exhibition at the MCA, an installment of the museum’s locally focused Chicago Works series.
“The last ten years of my life . . . is kind of represented by all this work,” said Majeed. The teachers, Majeed, and curator Steven Bridges had all gathered in the exhibition’s central wooden shack. Majeed had designed the structure to recall the creaky, intimate feel at the South Side Community Art Center in Bronzeville. He’d served as the Center’s executive director before leaving to pursue his practice as an artist and sculptor. “These aren’t the walls,” Faheem joked. “They wouldn’t let me have them.”
Majeed related his experiences teaching at Chicago State University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to how his shack fit in the MCA’s space. He called attention to the gap between his brown cube and the museum’s white walls.
“The space between the walls is the point,” said Majeed. “It’s not about fitting, but about trying to fit.”
He related his experience teaching art history through a faithful understanding of who he was teaching. Majeed’s mostly adult Chicago State students brought their own, entirely unique set of experiences to the course. He couldn’t virtuously run that late-night classroom like he might for the predominantly white, middle-class, and 20-year-old SAIC students he taught by day.
Facilitator Rachel Harper concurred, commenting on the standardness of Western art education: “It’s just the water we’ve been swimming in. To find new points of entry means to unlearn—there’s so many processes of unlearning. We’re really talking about creating an urban art education practice.”
“If you begin with what is right in front of you—art is not far, far away and for somebody else,” said Majeed. “Begin with a student’s art history!”
Discarded lumber was what had been right in front of Majeed. You could find the necessary materials for Sticks and Tape down alleys and in dumpsters. Much of Majeed’s art is made from cheap, disposable construction materials. The sticks for that Wednesday’s iteration of Sticks and Tape had been several structures, already. They first came from a test install he’d done at Mana Contemporary in Pilsen.
Majeed walked out into the center of the marked-off lobby space, gripping one of the longer sticks.
“Okay: No sliding! We don’t do this.” Majeed ran his hand roughly along the unsanded edge of the pole. “Why? Splinters!” He then slung the pole over his shoulder. “We don’t do this! Why?” He mimed thwacking several bystanders, and the teachers laughed at the self-evident lesson.
“This is duct tape,” demonstrated Majeed, holding up a roll. “It was my favorite toy growing up. The tape isn’t tape, though, think of it as string,” instructing the teachers to knot long, narrow lengths of the tape around vertices made by intersecting sticks.
“Let’s get building,” Majeed shouted.
The teachers each grabbed a pole apiece, and began planning out loud:
“Okay, we have a problem—”
“Bring it up to this point—”
“We could also tape—”
“—so everyone can see it!”
“Raise it up—!”
“Let’s take two!”
Faheem walked back into the construction site. “I’mma give you guys a hint, because you don’t have a lot of time: You need your corners. This here, teepee-style, is good! Think about your points of entry, guys.”
Within five minutes, the 21 teachers had roughly designed a frame big enough to accommodate them all. Over the next 10 minutes, they built out the structure to take up all the available space marked down for them.
“It’s like a giant erector set,” laughed one of the museum’s engineers, watching as he waited for the nearby elevator.
The teachers began to build in a doorframe, and thatched sections of wood across top beams to create a ceiling. Some teachers spun the colored duct tape around structural members that met at sharp, opposing angles, creating vibrant volumes—three-dimensional geometry.
Majeed had the teachers step back for a moment and draw out “windows” for the new building on sheets of paper. On one side, they sketched the perspective looking in; on the other side, the view looking out.
Once the windows were in place, the teachers shared their impressions.
Some spoke to the act of making, itself: “I was first thinking about how to build walls, but John was like, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ and he was right! And then Faheem said to think about entry points and it all became about making the door.”
Others spoke to the sculpture’s significance: “It came together as a sacred space. It was really about feeling a part of an artist’s work.”
A third teacher built on that idea. “We had this hour to enjoy ourselves, and be curious about knowledge outside of the school.”
Faheem returned to the power of that exterior knowledge before he left for the day: “It sure didn’t sound like a big deal—I see 2-by-4’s on the drive home! But this is a chance for the shy kid, in the back of the class, to pay attention, and say, ‘I’m brilliant with these sticks!’”
Even the sticks themselves turned out to be quietly brilliant. The teachers had begun the day by thinking about points of entry: ways they could start talking about certain artworks, means by which they could better envision their students’ diverse preoccupations and fantasies. They ended their day—lying on their backs—staring upwards at the vaults of a porous chapel, a building with hundreds of potential doorways. You could clamber through the walls, duck under the dedicated archway, fit between buttresses.
Yet, at every point, one false, careless, inconsiderate step could bring the whole thing down. It was a structure that fought back, too, as the teachers attempted to dismantle it. In this respect, Majeed’s activity was more than a learning tool, an elegant way to appeal to a student’s multiple intelligences. Sticks and Tape smartly spoke to the fine fault-lines CPS teachers tread every day, their ongoing task of cultural construction in a challenging city.
A patch of lawn and a few trees surrounded by skyscrapers does not sound like a promising spot for bird-watching. Add a major thoroughfare—Chicago Avenue—and it sounds even less promising. But as bird-watchers know: as long as you have a tree, the birds will come to you; and as long as you have keen eyes, and maybe a pair of binoculars, you will see them.
And so it is, viewed from our fifth-floor aerie perch, that during spring and fall (blessed by our proximity to Lake Michigan) our modest trees are visited by a wide variety of migratory birds: American redstarts, indigo buntings, warblers aplenty, sapsuckers, creepers, chickadees, tanagers, flycatchers, and more. The redstarts are especially appealing, fanning their tails to display patches of orange on the predominantly black male (a true Halloween bird), and patches of yellow on the predominantly gray female. If there is an especially rare sighting (say a golden-winged warbler), our colleagues understand that business may be postponed for a few minutes. Not only are they okay with that, they frequently share our enthusiasm.
For the staff at the MCA, we have come to find that a love of art does indeed cross over to a keen appreciation of the natural world.
Before coming to the MCA, I’d written for a few print publications and websites, but I had no experience writing copy for ads. For that reason, I am always equal parts perplexed and intrigued when I hear our communications team talk about our marketing strategies. As they throw out words like “proof points,” “call to action,” or “visual storytelling” and start passing around creative briefs, I start to feel like I’m on the set of Mad Men.
And so I was thrilled when the team invited me to work on a marketing campaign for The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. “We need someone to draft a few lines of copy for the campaign,” they said. I’m going to be the next Don Draper, I thought.
In a meeting later that week, they talked about the exhibition and the campaign they wanted to build around it. I jotted down a few notes, reminding myself to read up on some of the names they mentioned—AfriCOBRA and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). And then I skipped off, certain that I could come up with some clever tagline that would convince everyone in Chicago to see the show.
The next morning, I put my impressive Googling skills to work. I learned that many AACM members were also fine artists, and many AfriCOBRA members were musically inclined: Roscoe Mitchell, a longtime AACM member best known as a jazz iconoclast, is also an active painter whose works have graced album covers and gallery walls alike. And Wadsworth Jarell, one of four founding members of AfriCOBRA, chronicles the Chicago jazz scene in his paintings, immortalizing many of its most influential musicians. In short, many of the artists and musicians featured in The Freedom Principle don’t just visit the borderlands between art and music from time to time; they’ve taken up permanent residence there.
So when I sat down to draft potential taglines for the campaign, I wanted to try to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the exhibition—without actually using yawn-inducing phrases like highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the exhibition. After writing—and immediately erasing—a few terrible taglines, I finally settled on “Art you can hear, music you can see.” Short and sweet, I thought. Original.
Only later, after a few coworkers told me that they liked how self-referential the tagline was, did I realize that it wasn’t quite as original as I had thought . . .
In 1964, 30 art professionals and philanthropists banded together to establish a museum of contemporary art in Chicago. And in 1967, after purchasing and remodeling a building on East Ontario Street that had once been a bakery, a photography studio, and the corporate headquarters of Playboy Enterprises (but, for better or worse, never at the same time), they opened their doors to the public. According to a Time Magazine article, they threw “a rafter-raising cocktail party replete with macromesh dresses and one dead woodpecker hung around a girl’s neck by artist Ray Johnson” to celebrate the opening. They also invited their festively bedecked guests to preview two thought-provoking exhibitions curated by Jan van der Marck, the museum’s first director: Claes Oldenburg: Projects for Monuments and Pictures To Be Read/Poetry To Be Seen.
Pictures To Be Read/Poetry To Be Seen, as its name suggests, presented works by artists who blurred the line between words and images, literature and art. One of these artists, local legend and founding member of the Hairy Who, Jim Nutt, created fantastically detailed comic-book panels. Another, internationally renowned performance artist Allan Kaprow, re-created a 1962 environment, encouraging visitors to “make poetry, make news” by stapling words and phrases to one of the gallery walls. Elsewhere in the museum, visitors also enjoyed a live performance by John Cage, an iconic composer known for muddling the distinction between art and music.
In other words, nearly 50 years ago, the founders of the MCA were already very much aware that artistic virtuosity isn’t limited to paintings on walls or sculptures on pedestals. Exhibitions like Pictures To Be Read/Poetry To Be Seen and The Freedom Principle remind us that artists have long been bridging the divide between art and music, art and literature, art and life to more fully express themselves. And they remind us that every art form—painting, drawing, music, poetry, sculpture, dance, beat boxing—is, at its core, an expression of the human spirit.
Lynne Warren: How was the Tierra del Fuego exhibition, which featured paper-bag paintings, found-object constructions, altered maps, and invented flags—among other items—a turning point for you?
Rafael Ferrer: The key work that preceded all the so-called process works was the Three Leaf Pieces [wherein Ferrer did guerilla installations using autumn leaves in three contemporary art sties in Manhattan]. The reaction I perceived at that time from colleagues and tastemakers was that my work was excessive. I come from a culture where purity, denial, and guilt are not the driving forces. Mine is a place of improvisation, wit, and invention.
I found a map store in Philadelphia that sold aeronautical navigation charts with the whole world in quadrants. I bought the areas of the globe that resonated with tales, history, memories that intrigued me. Thus, Tierra del Fuego and the South Pole started the avalanche. Like melting ice, the maps began a warming of sterile dogma, mocking critical idiocy, making art with my hands rather than from arcane philosophical tenets. My earliest motivations leading to a desire to make art came from the excitement and admiration I perceived from the works of early 20th-century artists. The Dadaists—with their irreverence and black humor—were important, as were the developments of their influence in New York City in the early 1950s. Assemblage and Happenings became significant, as did the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. As my work accumulated, paper bag faces and maps were objects which in turn led to flags, hybrid constructions made of boat parts and oars, ironing boards with metal hats, and then to the kayaks made of corrugated steel and rawhide.
This became a museum—my museum or MUSEO. It was my natural history, and the MCA allowed this museum’s incarnation to occur, a most generous and welcome act by Steve Prokopoff, the then-director.
LW: Two major works from Tierra del Fuego will be featured in the MCA DNA presentation: A Flag for the Straits of Magellan and Kayak #2: Norte. You grew up in Puerto Rico and, for me, these works evoke great realms carved out by your imagination and experience, allowing me to travel to vivid places through your artworks. Did you ever actually visit the Tierra del Fuego islands, or are they a proxy for your experience of the island of Puerto Rico?
RF: I went to Syracuse University for two years. During that time I worked as a musician—playing drums—and formed a Latin Jazz group that played in a local nightclub. I enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico in the fall of 1953, and it was there that I met and studied with Eugenio Fernandez Granell, a surrealist painter and writer. His influence was manifested in long conversations, books that he suggested, and anecdotes involving his friendship with the ample panoply of surrealist poets and painters. This led to a trip to Europe in the summer of 1954. I spent that summer in Paris, where I met up with Granell. Through him I met André Breton and Benjamin Peret and joined their weekly meetings in cafés. I attended openings, most memorably one of the works of Pablo Picasso from collections in Russian museums. With Granell I visited the studio of Wifredo Lam. This was significant because Lam, being Cuban, enabled me to speak about Afro-Cuban music, my knowledge of it, and its power.
This answer suggests that my choices are tied to my imagination. No doubt that having been born on an island in the Caribbean, which became a colony of the United States in 1898 and is now the oldest colony in the world, is part of who I am. My art is personal, which means that it responds to my nervous system and is not guided by any overarching philosophy. I do believe that democracy and capitalism have reached a point of incompatibility. Predatory capitalism devours systems, converting them into entertainment, which is highly lucrative. Art faces this dilemma.
LW: Another major work featured in the exhibition is also a gift from your long-time patrons Earl and Betsy Millard, namely the extraordinary cycle of paintings Cien Anos de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) of 1982. You were commissioned by the Limited Editions club to illustrate a deluxe edition of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel and created a cycle of 13 oils painted in your characteristic direct, island-influenced style. This novel was very important to you, I understand. How did you feel when you were asked to do paintings based on such a marvelous work of literature?
RF: My initial response to the invitation was tremendous excitement. I had read the novel in Spanish and English in 1970. I also had to face the issue of illustration, something that I had always criticized. Words cannot be equated with images. Movies made from novels are generally awful because of this impossibility. Garcia Márquez never allowed the novel to be made into a movie. I tried to create images which would not be tied down to a specific narrative in order to allow visual elements that could simply be cryptic. I have no idea what “island-influenced style” means. There are some tiny Goyas, barely discernible, as well as a thousand examples [of visual elements] from every century. Facts: the size of the canvas is 18 by 24 inches; and there are Seventeen Aurelianos. The primitive canard? Really?
LW: I notice a lot of the faces in one of the “Solitude” cycles—Los Diecisiete Aurelianos (The Seventeen Aurelianos)—look familiar; you’ve mentioned some are portraits of artists and others who are important to you. I see Grace Jones in one, and a self-portrait in another, also Carl Andre and Alex Katz and is that Jackson Pollock with the bald pate and red hair? What was your impetus to use real visages to represent the doomed sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendia?
RF: Los Diecisiete Aurelianos was a real joy. In the novel all 17 of them had a cross on their forehead. They were all different races, colors, and sizes, were dispersed all over the world, and they all died on the same day. Sorry dear—Grace Jones is not an Aureliano; that is Chano Pozo the legendary Cuban conga drummer. Pollock and Carl Andre: not there. I will tell you who is there [in the picture]. I do recall Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Alex Katz, Emiliano Zapata, and, of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And the last one is me. The impetus for doing this is the manic, mischievous inventiveness that permeates the novel and is intrinsic to the region. Macondo is really a Caribbean village with all the idiosyncrasies known to all of us who were born in this basin. Aracataca, Garcia Marquez’s birthplace is near the coast.
LW: Music has been an important part of your life and you were a professional drummer involved in the Afro-Cuban music scene in the 1950s before you began to make visual artworks. The three-work cycle Elegia para un Amigo (Rafael Cortijo Verdejo, 1928–1982) (Elegy for a friend [Rafael Cortijo Verdejo, 1928–1982]), 1983, I find particularly moving. Can you tell me a little about your friendship with Cortijo, who was one of the Caribbean’s most successful artists of the 1950s and 1960s?
RF: As a percussionist, I had gigs with different groups in Puerto Rico. I happened one day to play with a large orchestra in which Rafael Cortijo was the conga drummer, while I played the timbales. We spent our breaks talking, and from that evening on we became friends. Musicians hang out with musicians; you practice, talk, listen, and learn. Rafael was an extraordinary individual. Elegant, generous, he had a quality which I always imagined came from African royalty. I would go to his house and meet his older sister and brother. He would come to my house, where I still lived with my mother. One day he said that he wanted to introduce me to a friend, who worked in construction as a brick layer, that he felt was a terrific singer and was going to join his group. This person was Ismael Rivera, who became one of my greatest friends from that unforgettable period: the Golden Age of our music in Puerto Rico and New York City. In Manhattan it was the heyday of the Palladium Ballroom, where the greatest bands from Cuba, New York, and Puerto Rico played. Birdland, a block away, was where Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and all the greats of jazz played. Musicians from these two extraordinary music idioms listened to each other, thus enriching music and creating an excitement unparalleled anywhere else.
When Rafael Cortijo died, I was not told about it until after his burial; thus, my elegy came from my grief, the images motivated by the photographs in the papers. When Ismael Rivera died, Francoise and I flew to San Juan, arriving after midnight, and friends took us to the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, where his body was seen by multitudes of fans. The next day his body was taken to the Public Housing Project in the neighborhood from where Cortijo and Ismael Rivera came. It was an amazing experience, though nothing compared to the funeral the next day. Francoise and I arrived as the coffin was being brought out to the multitudes chanting, “A pie! A pie!,” meaning the crowd wished to carry the coffin on foot all the way to the cemetery, which was a very long distance away. My friends motioned for me to join the first group of pallbearers carrying the incredibly heavy coffin under a blazing sun. Thousands lined the streets as we all chanted songs we knew from our lives in music. Dripping wet with sweat, Francoise holding on to my belt so she wouldn’t get lost in the crowd, I finally had to allow others eager to take my place to continue and share task. The cortege continued slowly along the route to the cemetery where Ismael would be buried next to Cortijo.
LW: Although you never lived in Chicago, you had some deep friendships here, especially among the Hairy Who and other artists around the Phyllis Kind Gallery, where you once showed. Can you tell us about your experience of Chicago’s “Imagist” artists?
RF: Tierra del Fuego at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opened up a world that was in sharp contrast to the art scene in New York City, and clarified for me the direction my work was taking me. I met Phyllis Kind before the museum opening. She became my first dealer in the United States. An extraordinary individual, Phyllis received us with open arms, she introduced us to her artists and in a very short period of time, these artists in turn introduced us to their friends, to collectors and to a group of luminaries who made up the vibrant scene in Chicago at that time. The art and artists of Chicago had created an art world independent from the exclusivity and categorizing prevalent in New York. Roger Brown was our closest friend in the city. Francoise and I stayed with Roger and his partner George Veronda on our frequent visits to Chicago. We would see Roger in New York City on his visits to exhibit with Phyllis Kind in her Soho gallery. Our friendship lasted until Roger’s untimely death.
The idea of dance as a musical instrument is very close to my heart. I took dance classes between the ages of 6 to about 14 and, although I didn’t take tap classes, I guarantee I would have loved them. Combining dance with sound is mashing together my two most pleasurable pasttimes. I’ve even been known to lose a good amount of time on YouTube watching hambone videos. Combined with improvisation, I personally can’t think of a more entertaining experience. These characteristics all combined in the form of the Human Rhythm Projects performance at the MCA.
To set the scene: Saturday, August 22 was a quiet day in the museum, that is, until you walked up to the 4th floor. There, a modest yet fixated crowd gathered to enjoy an improvised performance that included three tap dancers accompanied by a single bass player. The bassist’s demeanor, outfit, and posture set the mood for a casual and funky yet extremely skillful interaction between the performers. Taking turns, the dancers had various conversations with the bass player using nothing but their feet. The mood was light but focused. “That boy’s got it,” a low raspy voice behind me remarked.
For this round of drawings I decided to pack light and only draw on colored index cards, an art supply that I use daily and carry with me pretty much everywhere. I use these blank cards to collect concepts, phrases, names, and other nonsense during my day-to-day happenings. Every few weeks these cards get organized and filed at the studio for future reference. Categories include People, Places, Things, Concepts, and Art Advice, as well as for specific projects that I’m currently developing.
I realized after the fact that my drawings gave little credit to the bass player—seen on the left side of each card as four lines, which represent the bass strings. For me, this was a rather large oversight as the bass player was just as much a part of the performance as the tap dancers. Conversationally reacting to various rhythms, crescendos, decrescendos, and so on. It truly was a back and forth between two musicians, not a dancer and a bassist. I also learned the name of some basic tap steps along the way, which I decided to include on the back of each card—as well as some general descriptions. I also learned that just like jazz, tap has standards. These are routines that dancers learn throughout their training in order to perform with other tappers on the spot, without lengthy rehearsals. Lastly and most unexpectedly, I realized the different styles and finesse of each dancer that are expressed strictly through movement in their arms and upper torso—similar to the swaying and rocking motions of a horn player, mid solo—as I’ve always assumed that the top half of the body was reacting to the bottom only to keep balance. After this great performance, it will be hard to subdue the urge to brush up on my dance skills with a class or two.