Jim Dempsey

Jimmy Wright in conversation with Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey:  Tell us about what it was like to be a gay artist in Chicago when you were in school there in the ‘60s.

Jimmy Wright:  Well the first time I remember identifying someone specifically as a gay artist was when I saw the big Francis Bacon exhibition at the Art Institute just after I arrived in 1963.  Until then my only frames of reference were Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams. But for me, why I ultimately left defined the times in terms of what it meant to be a gay person in Chicago.  It was very rough.  I had the unfortunate experience of a dear friend, Ken Pullen, being murdered in a hate crime.  And I was aware at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) that being gay was a secret, that there was considerable amount of homophobia.

Did you get a sense that fellow gay artists were keeping it a secret from each other?

My best friend was Roger Brown.  Maybe very few people at that time were aware of his relationship with an ex-marine, but as a frequent guest at their apartment I knew.  Two good-looking men living together, but they were never pointed out as being gay.

They passed.

In a sense they passed as straight.  I was hanging out with misfits.  But it was actually Roger who introduced me to the hidden side of gay life in Chicago.  Movie theaters, back rooms, that sort of thing.  We both had active sex lives, but this was what society demanded, that it be hidden.  And that makes it more exciting in many ways, but also dangerous.  That’s what repression is all about.  So I introduced Roger to Ray Yoshida.  I had already studied with Ray for a year.  Roger was more discrete as a gay man.  And Ray was a total mystery – nobody knew anything about his sexuality, his social life was completely private.   The year that Roger joined the class, Phil [Hanson], Christina [Ramberg], and Eleanor [Dube] also joined.  When my friend was murdered, I had a lot of sympathetic support from Ray and Vera Berdich.  I left school for two weeks or so.  I had to go to the Cook County morgue and sign the death certificate.  The only one I’d ever seen was on the cover of a Leadbelly record.  I finished my BFA that year, in ‘67, won a travel fellowship, delayed taking it, and began grad school at SAIC.

Did Ken’s death change your idea of what Chicago was?

I had long hair and was constantly being harassed by straight men for having long hair.  This was before ‘68 and the Summer of Love.  After my friend’s murder I was more sensitive about that harassment.

Did you cut your hair?

No.  I had been living with two beautiful girls.  Ken had stayed with us.  I moved into my own place wanting to be alone.  From there I moved to Webster Street, a four-story apartment building, bought by a real estate person and renovated, near De Paul University.  That was where I met Jim Falconer, Bill Drindel, and John Henry.  The place was virtually all artists.  The building became a little community, and there were three, four, five gay men living in the building.  I continued in grad school and became Vera’s studio assistant.  That was stressful.  Ray kept encouraging me to come back to do painting with him rather than etching with her.  I was feeling frustrated with grad school and living in Chicago.  Then I met a gorgeous backpacker from Germany named Rainer.  I picked him up in the museum, had a mad affair.  He had traveled all over the world.  I wanted to go to India, and he proved to me that I could.  I announced to everyone that I was taking my fellowship money and going to India.  All my friends were terrified for me, unbeknownst to me.  Someone told me I’d never survive because I looked like a fourteen-year-old girl.  But I left and went to India in 1968.

How long were you there?

It was nine months.  I went from London to Calcutta overland by bus, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and then India.  And then back by French liner from Bombay to Marseilles, around the tip of Africa, which took a month.

Was it a transformative trip?

Very transformative.  The cultural perspective – many of the cultures I knew so little about.  And then on a personal level I realized I could navigate the world on my own.  Walking back into the Art Institute, I just didn’t want any bullshit.  I felt out of place.  I felt Ray would always be judgmental of my personal choices.  He knew me well enough.  And Ray was judgmental.  He was not shy about expressing his opinion of what you were doing, beyond what you were making.

It felt intrusive…

…in a way that didn’t feel wholesome.  It was very constraining.  But not so for Roger.  In fact, what I considered constraining is what liberated his vocabulary in painting.  The first paintings that I saw of his that were signature works were the movie houses, which have a sexual connotation.  And his silhouetted figures have a secretive, sexual association.  False Image had had their first show, and in a sense Roger, Phil, Eleanor and Christina each had the seeds for a very mature style.  I never felt a need for that.  I already had a vocabulary.  How to apply what I saw in Hindu sculpture in my painting and drawing, that was the urgent question for me.  In my early drawings, you can see that I’m interested in the repression of women, how they were treated as sex objects.  So at Southern Illinois University (SIU), in Carbondale, where I finished out graduate school, I was in school but I was basically self-taught.  I was encouraged by the head of sculpture, but I read Paul Klee’s Bauhaus teaching notes and Carl Jung’s complete writings, all independently. 

You were in school at SIU and taught there for two years.  What was your plan?

I had no plan.  I met Bruce Kurtz, a contributing editor to Arts magazine.  He was a guest lecturer two years in a row.  I threw an orgy for him.  We were close enough that we shared partners.  He lived in Oneonta, New York.  When he found out my contract at SIU was not renewed, he offered me a job filling in for a faculty member at Hartwick College, where he taught. 

Did you move to Oneonta?

I did.  Bruce’s thought was that I would share a beach house with him south of L.A. before the school year started.  We drove cross-country together, leaving Carbondale in the summer of ‘73.  Nearly everyone Bruce hung out with in L.A. was a New York artist:  Bruce Nauman, Lynda Benglis, Richard Serra, as well as John Baldessari.  I was meeting all them for the first time.  And we lived a dissipated life.  Bruce took me to my first gay bath.  In L.A., it was a blue-collar bathhouse.  There’s a drawing with a guy putting his toe in the water; that was drawn from that place.  It was populated by truck drivers and workers.  These were not men that Bruce was attracted to, but I was very popular!  The next bathhouse we went to, which was where we went for the rest of the summer, was in West Hollywood.

Were you as popular at that one?

I certainly had as good a time! 

Did relationships develop out of encounters in the bathhouses?

Well later, in New York, that’s where I met my partner Ken.  You have sex first, then get into the relationship, that’s all.  But back in Oneonta, I was there for one full academic year and I couldn’t wait to leave.  They offered to renew my contract, but I left for New York City in 1973.  Oneonta was Norman Rockwell: white, very preppy, boring.  I didn’t find the kids very interesting.  It was a contrast to Carbondale, where everyone was rebellious, maybe not top of their class, but smart enough to be really interesting.  In Oneonta, they were all suburban, predictably bourgeois. 

So you moved to New York by yourself?

Once again: no plan.  I’d been to San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, and it was obvious to me that New York was the only place I could live.  The economy was not in great shape, but I landed a job after two weeks, doing props on a feature film: Saturday Night at the Baths, now considered a gay classic.  It was set at the Continental Baths which was famous for being where Bette Midler sang with Barry Manilow accompanying her on piano.  While I was working on the film we were in the West Village, and hanging prominently in a waterfront bar was the Robert Morris poster of him in a military helmet, bare chested, arms folded, draped in chains.

There was a venue in the baths?

Next to a swimming pool!  A white baby grand.  New York being New York, as soon as it got out that this fabulous performer was performing, she was discovered by Johnny Carson.  Two years later, I was at the baths on the set.  And the Continental Bath’s piano was all white contact paper covered in cigarette burns!  I realized that this was the reality of New York City.

Like being at a bar when the lights come on.

That’s why most relationships don’t continue from the bathhouse.  This is 1974, and like that baby grand piano, New York was falling apart.  Financial crisis.  Corruption everywhere.  City services useless.  Streets full of prostitutes and drug addicts.  In the chaos of the city, gay life flourished.

What were your first experiences in the Meatpacking District

My first experiences were actually in bathhouses.  I tried to visit every one in the city.  They all had their own orbit of patrons.

And probably their own personality.

Yes, their own personality, their own appearance.  And to be honest, I was so poor that spending a few hours in a bathhouse was like going on vacation.  Ten dollars for a locker and I had a pool and steam and endless beautiful men.  I didn’t go to West 14th St., the Meatpacking District, too much until I met my partner Ken in 1975.  At that point, we were very aware of these leather clubs, so we would go together as partners.

What happened at a leather club?

What didn’t happen?  You couldn’t wear loafers, polo shirts or cologne because you wouldn’t get past the doorman. We never had any trouble getting into a club.  I was comfortable with S&M vocabulary.  First time I went to the Mineshaft, a naked man was shackled to the bar.

That’s serious!

Yes, it was very serious.  This is the world of the Weimar Republic.  Too rich visually not to record.

And so that was the impetus to make work.

Yes.  It was never a strategy or career related.  Bruce Kurtz saw all of this work, many times as it was being drawn, and though he had no interest in it in terms of art per se – that wasn’t what a NY artist did in his world – he said, very campily, that I was the gay Toulouse-Lautrec. 

Did you want to capture certain nuances of the place?

I was interpreting the unique atmosphere in each club…for myself.  I was interpreting it, analyzing it.  The drawings were a hyper reality – they emphasized the reality of the environments and social interaction I was seeing.  Each space was physically different and had its own presence.  The Loft was literally a loft on 14th Street: low ceilinged, a vast empty room, no stage but a stage “area.”  Whereas in the Mineshaft you went upstairs into a room with a makeshift bar and there were darkened rooms off that space, as well as a roof space.  The Anvil was a true bar setup; you could watch a performance while having a drink and there was a backroom.  At the end of the era, when socialites started appearing out of curiosity, it was invaded by the outsiders.

How did the action roll out?  Was there a regular, organized schedule of performances, or did things happen spontaneously?

In the Anvil it was an organized presentation.  In the Mineshaft there was no performance, everyone was performing for one another.  I did see a performance or two at the Loft, planned by someone, usually featuring two guys, but the performance didn’t make anyone feel as if they weren’t a participant.  At the Anvil, the activity was on the bar or a stage, but in other clubs it was all part of the milieu.  It wasn’t theatrics, and it wasn’t necessarily entertainment, although it was entertaining.  The Gaiety was a gay strip club in Times Square, like Club 82, the present incarnation of an entertainment establishment with a long history, having turned into an exclusively gay venue.

Were the places competitive with each other?

There were so many of them, it was part of the rich fabric of what was available to a gay man at that time in New York.  There was more than enough energy to sustain everything.  It was AIDS that closed everything, through official action.

How did you perceive that starting to enter into gay life?

Everyone in the late ‘70s knew someone who died of gay pneumonia.  There was this specter hanging over everyone – gay pneumonia, gay cancer.  It hadn’t become a full-blown plague, but it was accelerating.  And then of course you wondered: do I have it or does my partner have it?  If you had health insurance, you couldn’t take the HIV test, because if you tested positive you’d lose your insurance. And remember that everyone died.  There was no remission.  There was AZT, which they gave in heavy enough doses that it killed you.  Within this health crisis, the gay community started organizing and taking care of its own.  ACT UP is a principle example, but every community had its own way of letting people know necessary information.  It was similar to a scene in Orpheus – you walk through the mirror into an unknown nightmare.  The government marked all gay men as Typhoid Marys.  So we looked to our own community for information we could trust.  And for care.  It was gay women that took care of many gay men.  It really involved the entire gay community.

How were the gay community and the arts community linked in your world at the time?

One of my more meaningful relationships in the art world was the director of a major art gallery, and he died of AIDS.  And I’ve never forgotten taking Ken for an appointment with a doctor who had an experimental treatment, out on Long Island, total suburbia, we arrived at a house in a residential neighborhood, and there were 30 gay men waiting for the office to open.  Up pulls a limousine, a velvet slipper and a cane come out of the door, and it’s Robert Mapplethorpe.  I was completely focused on my partner’s care and not involved in the larger art world.  It was day-to-day existence.  We were going through our own itinerary of health care, and it was no different from Robert Mapplethorpe’s.  Death is the great equalizer.  Most people were very generous to each other.  And then there were the gay men who behaved badly, who abandoned partners.  Those stories went around quickly.  Some people are dysfunctional and couldn’t deal with the situation.  That’s why ACT UP are such heroes to me, because their political actions forced the government to deal with the disease. 

How did the dream cards come into the picture?

Ken and I moved in together in a loft on Bowery, which I rented to provide myself with a painting studio.  That was in 1976, which was the end of my going out to clubs.  Ken loved to dance and he went to all the big discos.  I would go to every place once to see it, and while he’d be out dancing all night on the weekends I’d be painting.  It was wonderful.  I was secure that he’d come home and I could work.  I had a place to work, a partner, a great loft, and that gave me the psychological space to look inward.  In 1980, we bought a building that needed a gut renovation, the place I still live in on Freeman Alley.  All my waking hours were consumed with getting it together.  The dream cards were a way I could continue my connection with art on a manageable level, and on a personal level.

And on a daily level, like keeping in shape.

Yes.  They come up to 1988, when Ken was diagnosed.  And overnight they ended.  We were suspicious that he was ill, but we didn’t have a diagnosis because of the consequences for insurance.  When he was diagnosed he was already very ill, and he died after three years of intense medical management.  Then the cards ended, and that was when I made the transition to setting up still lives in the studio.  In those three years I did about six large paintings that were still lives.  They don’t move, I didn’t have to think about subject matter, and I could work on them for 15 minutes or an hour.  The studio continuity didn’t have to exist.  My concern was how not to drown in all of this.  The first of those paintings was painted on stretchers and canvas that I pulled from a dumpster.  I salvaged them and didn’t have to spend any money, which was a plus.  I had bought a large sunflower head in the farmer’s market, a dried one being sold for seed, and that became the subject of the first painting.   

Jimmy Wright: Bathhouse, Meatpacking District and the Dream Cards

New York Underground 1973–1990

ISBN: 9780997499520

Edited by Emily Letourneau. Text by John Corbett. Interview by Jim Dempsey.