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March 2012: An Interview with Forrest Myers

Forrest Myers, The Wall, 1974



Forrest “Frosty” Myers is an icon of Max’s Kansas City, a bar which he designed, where artists working in different genres could meet and debate ideas. Myers moved to New York City in 1961 after spending two years at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) in San Francisco. At this time the Vietnam War was raging. Artists protested the war, fought against racism and marched for equal rights while dreaming of going to the moon. Myers’
Search Light Sculpture appeared in Tompkins Square Park during 1967, the same year as Angry Arts Week. He also had a solo show at Paula Cooper that year. In 1974 his monumental piece titled The Wall was unveiled on the side of 599 Broadway, located at the corner of Houston and Broadway.

In February, I met up with Myers at his studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn which looks a little like bit an auto-body shop on acid. Beyond the fiber-glass car tops and crushed metal barrels, one of which was made to honor the late John Chamberlain, Myers pointed to a small rotating display case that contained small miniature sculpture models, one of them being Chamberlain’s smallest sculpture, a cigarette pack that he magically turned into an art work. Myers is unwavering in his admiration of Vincent van Gogh, but when the topic of contemporary art comes up, none of it seems to compare to the atmosphere that resonated throughout New York City in the late 1960s and 1970s. He touches back on that historic moment in 1969 when Apollo 12 took his Moon Museum, a collection of drawings by 6 artists, to the moon. Myers suggests that we’re all looking for the next genius. As part of a group show titled The Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts, Forrest Myers is exhibiting a room of sculpture, actually it’s his whole living room transported to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, that will be on view from March 1st to April 15th, 2012. (Interested viewers may want to call ahead for hours, 212-368-5900.)

JC: I understand that you’re working on a commission?

FM: For me this is an interesting proposal that will be in downtown New York. It’s a 30-foot sculpture, that’s adjacent to The Wall on Houston and Broadway. This would be terrific because you’d be able to experience the sculpture and the painted relief of The Wall at the same time. I’m flipped out by this idea, but it’s still in the planning stages. There are a lot of hurdles getting a large-scale sculpture outdoors here in the city. That’s why there are so few permanent outdoor pieces in New York.

You go to Chicago, or Philly, and they have that streamlined. You can drive around and see sculpture. Different cities do it in different ways. Of course, space in New York is at a premium. The developer thought of a great idea in that all you’ll see is the sculpture above ground and the building will be underground, sort of like the Apple Store.

JC: Can you tell me about the sculpture garden that you’re working on?

FM: That’s in Damascus, Pennsylvania, the largest township in Wayne County, which is the largest county in Pennsylvania. But don’t let that fool you. There’s no town of Damascus. It’s a post office and a bank, a lot of area and a lot of deer. It’s beautiful. It has the Delaware River running right through it.

It’s a dry township and you can’t have a civilization without a restaurant and a bar. Even if you don’t drink it’s a town that’s on hold since the First World War. All the men left because they were drafted – all the farmers and loggers – they left and it broke the town. The men didn’t come back. (You know the Paris syndrome.)

The sculpture garden sort of found us. When I learned that the place across the creek from a friend I was visiting was for sale, it looked like a perfect place for large-scale sculpture and also terrific for my wife’s landscape design. We first found out that they were going to try and make a ranger station out of it to police the Delaware River. It was an older nursery that was made viable when Frederick Law Olmsted needed Evergreens to plant Central Park. When we saw it, the nursery had gone out of business because they could no longer use chemicals that close to the river and was up for sale.

It was rows of trees and plants when we saw it. When we bought it they removed all of the trees and plants, which was part of the deal. But it was such a beautiful piece of property, bordered by a beautiful creek on one side, and the Delaware flowing right through it. It was perfect to put sculpture around. My wife is a landscape designer so it was perfect for her. We have worked together as a team on this project for 20 years and now it’s starting to look like something. I need one or two more large-scale sculptures to really pull this off. Now there are 10 acres that are finished, and there’s another 200 acres up behind the place that’s just a beautiful mountain full of trees.

JC: Do people access it?

FM: It’s open. We opened it to the public two years ago, but there’s no public. Every once in a while a bus tour will come. An art dealer association from the City showed up in a bus one time, and we’ve had tours of various garden societies stop by. People are welcome to just show up and walk around. It seems a little oddly pompous to have your own sculpture garden, but you want it to be as good as you can make it. You want it to be up to the idea of such a thing. I’m calling this a sculpture garden. Sculpture parks are bigger and are actually funded.

I’m really trying to make an experience where you’re walking through nature and you come across these art works. Most sculpture parks can do that because they’re big, like Storm King Art Center. A sculpture is experienced differently from different points. I can do my garden exactly the way I want to, given that I don’t have resources, but it’s good and everyone should come and see it.

Experience the Delaware River! It used to be polluted with the cars and tires floating down it. The fish were dead, and it was really polluted. But it’s completely clean now. You can go down and swim and drink the water. The Park Service took it over and cleaned it up.

JC: David Smith lined his painted and stainless steel sculptures in rows outside his studio.

FM: They were just being stored. They all had a conversation going with each other. One of the great tragedies in American art is that after he died a government agency didn’t buy that place to leave it just the way it was. It was that great. All those pieces got sold and yes, everybody gets to enjoy them in all these different places. Who’s going to go to Bolton Landing to see sculpture anyway?

It was one of these magnificent fiefdoms where the sculptor did all this work and lined them up on his property in magnificent rows, and now it’s gone. It’s a lost opportunity. His heirs thought that they’d be better off to have these pieces out where people can see them. I mean it’s a huge responsibility to take care of sculpture in terms of upkeep and restoration. It takes a brave, dedicated person to buy a large-scale sculpture, almost to the point of being a visionary.

JC – I want to hear about you.

FM: What’s coming for an artist is always more interesting than what’s been. You spend your life working towards discovering things. John Chamberlain told me a lot of interesting stuff. (I’m talking about him because he just recently passed away.) He was a brilliant person who was also funny and dangerous. He said, “You can’t hold down a whole area with just one piece. Someone else will come along take that piece and make a career out of it.” I’m not sure if that will happen to any of my pieces although it could. I guess I’m thinking of Man Ray’s wrapped-up package that Christo used for 30 years.

What can we bring into the world that no one has seen before, that I haven’t seen before? You get so sophisticated. When you walk down the street and see something you don’t know what it is, that’s a rare moment, because you know everything. You watch TV, you’re on the Internet, we’re all googling - we know everything. It’s next to impossible to be completely original because art comes from art. The word “genius” comes from Genesis, making something from nothing. A lot of times what I’m trying to do is simply make something that I haven’t seen before. I miss that grand experience where you go into a gallery and you’re completely transported by a work that was – before – unimaginable, leaving the gallery disoriented and amazed. Believe it or not, this used to happen on a regular basis. We wait for Turrell. Maybe he’ll be able to pull this off at the Guggenheim.

With sculpture it’s a little more dramatic than painting. You make all these pieces and then there’s that one great moment and - Mark diSuvero talks about this - when you stand the piece up, and it comes together, you put the last part on and you look at it. The moment when you have the experience with the finished thing is the thrill, whether the sculpture is worthy or not, it’s a good moment.

JC: What are some of the challenges that contemporary artists face today?

FM: You know, the exciting thing about being an artist is making the future visible. Artists have that rare ability to bring vision into the world that no one has ever thought of or seen before. How cool is that? Having said that, the future is illusive. There are 5,000 artists just here in Williamsburg, and there are only three of them that can do that. So you see how hard it is.

JC: Who are you thinking of?

FM: Well obviously there’s Jim Clark. I’ll just hold back on the other two, to leave something to the imagination. After all that’s what we’re doing, right? Imagination.

Every artist can’t go into their studio and change the world, but they’re trying. What we’re really trying to do is to change ourselves, which is just as hard. It’s just not quite as dramatic in the larger scheme of things. The muses are smarter than you and they are very fickle.

JC: You came out of the CSFA in the late 1950s. Deborah Remington, Sonia Gechtoff, Ernie Briggs and Ralph Gibson also went to CSFA before moving to New York City. What was San Francisco like while you were there?

FM: San Francisco was a bit like a counterfeit Europe. It was lording its cultural prowess over Los Angeles, because it had a modern art gallery. It was the Beat era. Clyfford Still was the main influence when I was there. But the California figurative movement was also based at the school. From Elmer Bischoff to David Park and Barbara Brown – terrific figurative artists – as well as Manuel Neri – another great figurative artist. Anyway, figurative art was nothing that I had any interest in.

I was an abstract artist straight from the beginning. And I have left brain/right brain trouble in that I do what they call Minimal work and then the opposite of that. I can do it in the same day. I can do a more expressive kind of work where I’m taking an object and transforming it into something else; trying to get it to transcend itself.

In San Francisco the sculptors were trying to turn matter into spirit. And sometimes you had success with that, but it’s extremely difficult. One of the other words out there was “dumb” which was one of those words that could mean so much, but it meant that you were approaching the work as a child, without intellect using intuition, that you were just doing it. That was something I learned while I was there that also holds me in great stead to this day. I can go in and approach something without over intellectualizing it.

JC: Can you give me an example of this?

FM: One of my recent pieces Two Million Colors and Their Opposite (2011) is done with logarithms, a series of numbers that is written down. It’s a code. And then that code is translated into color – two million colors posed against their opposite color. It can be transcended, if you give yourself over to it, but it is an intellectual pursuit given how it’s made. So, I enjoy having these two sides to my personality although they’re split.

Snow (2011) is a piece that I named after a film that Alexander Calder made, one of the first conceptual films ever made. He took the camera and set it outdoors when it was snowing and all you see is swirls of snow. You know patterns. It pre-dates Andy Warhol’s “Empire State Building” film by 30 years. The truth is it’s a brilliant little poem and it’s something that I’m interested in: video, film and translating your ideas through screens when the light is projected through the back. It makes the color more intense.

People have a psychological block watching something on a screen in the gallery. They prejudge it and don’t want to spend the time that the piece requires. I’ve tried to thwart that by making a couch that is also an artwork you could sit on while watching the piece, and that had uneven results. In the end people didn’t want to get off the couch even when the piece was over. It was a rest spot and not a place to look at art. I’ve since re-titled this couch “Couch Potato.” (2011)

JC: What’s drawn you to the work of Andy Warhol and his silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe?


FM: I actually forget who introduced me to Warhol but I think it was Billy Kluver of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) who helped Andy do the silver pillows that floated around in a room. It was one of his best pieces, a miracle of a piece. It went in a room and these silver mylar balloons the size of a bed pillow were filled with helium to the specific gravity being neutral, so they would float within the space of the room itself.

And so you’re walking in amongst these silver pillows that are floating around. It was lovely and it really did work. For Andy that was a stretch for what his Pop Art endeavor was doing at the time. E.A.T. was part of the Zeitgeist, we were going to the moon at the time and every artist was effected by that.

The moon shot had the same kind of effect it had on the scientists, because it had to do with evolution: we were stepping off the planet. So at the time I’m working on the Moon Museum with Billy Kluver, which was the first art to the moon, it was Apollo 12 1969. Rauschenberg was working with mechanical and electric art as were a lot of artists being helped by the engineers at E.A.T. There was something that was in the air. Computers were new. I just heard on the radio that the new iPhone has more computer power and more computer information than NASA had for the moon shot with those big Univac computers. The iPhone has more ram than that space shot.

Things are moving even faster with that moon shot. But the more they change, the more things stay the same. Now some of the best artists today are using computers to make their art. Their computer becomes their studio. I’m experimenting with that myself. You expect computer generated art to be futuristic and up to date and yet when you see some of the most experimental artists’ work, it looks like figurative or abstract expressionism mixed together so what you’re looking at seems a bit antiquated, not up to the technical methods being used.

At the moment there are a couple guys out there who we’ve got our eyes on but can’t quite decide if they’ve really done it, because the look isn’t up to the concept. There’s more to it than what you’re looking at and that’s always problematic. So it’s an interesting time. I’m thoroughly immersed and enamored with it. I feel that my roots are pretty far back and sometimes feel that I’m in two places at the same time.

JC: But you took this generation “out there” when you went to the moon, right?

FM: Yes, the technology thing was big and I think that the idea was transcended in the sense that we were witnessing evolution. What we felt was that this was the first time in history – in our genetic makeup there’s that salamander that came out of the soup and walked on land. So when man decided it was going to go off the planet, on to another celestial body, that was so huge. You know evolution is so slow. It was the first time that man could personally experience evolution.

This generation of artists did not experience this. They only read about it. But if you were experiencing this, you felt like you were leaving the planet. The ability to leave the planet was evolutionary and when you saw those guys jumping around on the moon it was like watching the salamander jumping around on the mud. This was amazing stuff. There’s 400 million years between the salamander’s dance and man’s stepping on the moon. That’s a great space of time and you could feel it. One of the greatest moments in history, and it’s not really conveyable today.

JC: Were you part of the marches that were happening in the 1960s?

FM: I was in Washington D.C. about 4 or 5 times before I ever got into a museum. We were protesting the Pentagon. I was only 100 feet away from Martin Luther King, Jr. when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. It gives me shivers to this day when I see pictures of him. But everybody was saying, “You’re not going to change anything. You’re fools, wasting your time.” But that’s not true: we did change things. We stopped the war, we stopped segregation, we slowed down prejudice - we did a lot of important stuff. We were sacrificing ourselves to an ideal. Kids were getting hurt, actually killed, like at Kent State.

They’re saying the same thing about the kids on Wall Street today, “This is a waste of time,” etcetera. But they’re wrong. This will work, we will change this, and there will be legislation to protect us against these Wall Street wolves.

Ironically Wall Street supports art. But when Wall Street failed at the opening of my 2008 show in San Francisco, a third of the galleries (each gallery supports about 10 artists) went out of business. These artists had to go back on the street to look for galleries that no longer existed. They were loosing their studios. They couldn’t work. Now they’re going in debt, dealers are out of business. It’s a horrible thing for the production of culture.

So in order to keep these capitalists from being overly greedy, the protesters and the artists have a stake in all this. It’s a sorry thing that art and commerce are so entwined, because they’re somehow dependent on each other. The artist needs money to pay his rent and buy his materials. This has always been the case, but the government doesn’t understand sometimes that culture is about the 7th largest tax base in this country under Defense, General Motors, General Electric and some other companies. Then you get to art. Art is huge in this country, the taxes that it generates. If a politician doesn’t understand this (as Nixon didn’t when he tried to abolish the NEA) he would be out billions of dollars in tax revenue. That’s loosely how it works. It locks us into a precarious dance.

Do you think we have enough?

JC: You can have the last word.

FM: Like the man said, “If it ain’t art, it ain’t shit.”

JC: I can’t print that.



Forrest Myers, Ford, 1974-2004.


Forrest Myers, Fo Lio, 1969.


Forrest Myers, Framed, 1969-2008.


Forrest Myers, Framed 02, 1969-2008


Forrest Myers, Wall Painting, 2010.


Forrest Myers,  Gazebo, 1993. 

Forrest Myers, Searchlight, 1967.

Forrest Myers, Moon Museum, 1969.

 

 







 

 

 

Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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