In anticipation of the upcoming sale of Jim Hodges' 1991 work Untitled (Study for Gate) from The Triumph of Painting: The Seven & Ann Ames Collection in the Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 17 November, Sotheby's Meredith Kirk met up with Hodges in his New York studio to discuss the work, the artist's process and his reflections on creating it. Three further works by Hodges will be offered in the Contemporary Art Day Auction on 18 November in New York.
Meredith Kirk: As you know, this fall Sotheby’s will be offering works from Steven and Ann Ames’ collection, one of which is your Untitled (Study for Gate) from 1991. I want to begin by talking a bit about the process of the creation of that work, and also about the process of the creation of Untitled (Gate), which it was a study for. Walk me through that time, when you were making Gate for your exhibition at White Columns in 1991, and how it all came to be.
Jim Hodges: The White Columns exhibition was going to be my first solo exhibition in New York and I wanted to use that opportunity of having a dedicated room to think about space for myself, materially. I started by first thinking of my installation there in spatial terms; the material of the space itself was what initiated my thinking of what I would actually make for it. So, thinking about having an actual space dedicated to me and realizing that I wanted to make an installation, it was an opportunity to do something outside the realm of my experience up until that point. Thinking along those lines I decided that I would make the space itself a kind of collaborator or the subject matter if you will. Blank space in particular was something I’d been thinking about in my studio for a while in terms of absence. It was really about my investigation into my relationship to object making in light of the situation (the AIDS crisis) that was going on in the world at the time; and so this space of the gallery allowed me an opportunity to display those thoughts in a kind of formal aesthetic way.
So I decided I would use the space itself as the material, and then to frame that, I decided to literally frame a doorway and create a room out of the space of White Columns. Then I painted the entire space this particular color blue so it was not just space but it was blue space, and this blue space became the subject and then again it was a kind of framing and contextualizing that blue space with a gesture, which became the Gate.
So to make the Gate, which gets us to the piece that Sotheby’s has, I had to figure out the mechanics of it or the structure of it, a basic kind of structure of varied chain to create this thing that could stand alone and hold itself together, and I wasn’t sure if it would work. Anyway, I had never designed something like that before so that’s when I made Untitled (Study for Gate), to test the viability of that as a system of architecture, of building something.
MK: And it was through the construction of this work, and subsequently the final Untitled (Gate), that you arrived at the web motif that you continued to explore for many more years?
JH: Actually I had been exploring that motif, but nothing to that scale, nothing beyond a kind of fine jeweler’s chain. So part of building something that was going to be architectural was wanting to expand the spectrum of the chain across a kind of, not just scale, but also what I was thinking would be registered as a kind of location, culturally or socially of where the chains would be seen in the world. So it goes from the most fine, tiny, intricate, delicate chain to a “biker chain” (heavy, industrial chain). And riding across that spectrum for me was part of what I wanted to expose as far as my thinking of spectrums and ranges within gestures. A lot of this was being informed by my readings of Genet who was my hero/role model of sorts who, in his writing, presents a spectrum of what I was thinking of as maleness, male representation, through a spectrum of weight that I was articulating as the most tiny refined delicate chain to the “biker chain,” and everything in between it, as identifying an idealized masculinity.
MK: It’s fascinating for me to hear you speak about Genet as one of your main inspirations and how the various chains in this work are supposed to represent a spectrum of idealized masculinity in a way.
JH: Let me be clear: what I just described was the moment of conception of that particular work. This is one of the things that I was thinking about.
I wouldn’t want my words that I am attributing to that reference to narrow or limit or become definitive of the work. So, what I am saying about this historic idea is that it’s this autonomous thing that was existing outside of me. That’s what was going through my thoughts, but I am sensitive to not wanting to make those assignments of meaning. Because that’s a kind of violation and violence that’s put on to something that is its own reality, and I’m just trying to give you some insight into where I was; it’s not the piece. The piece is its own. And I wouldn’t want to narrow your experience of it with my narrow experience of it. I think as far as authorities go, I trust the authority of the anonymous viewer more than my own. I can only give you a context of where these things come from without it being assigned as meaning.
MK: I want to return to the form of the web as an idea, and how that came about in your mind. For me, when I think of a spider web I think of the inherent paradox that exists: it seems delicate and fragile but actually it’s deceptively resilient. So, when I think of that, and then I look at Untitled (Study for Gate) I think that it’s the perfect articulation of this inherent paradox. So I just wanted to explore what was going through your mind at the time that you were coming up initially with the thought of the web as a theme.
JH: There was a sequence of events that occurred, that were a kind of noticing of the web: in nature, in different places where I would come upon it and notice it. Of course what I’m giving you is a piece of a continuum of events that were occurring, but there’s this window of time where the recognition of the image was getting my attention from different places: opposite ends of the country. So it was something that I was paying attention to and it seemed obvious that there was something for me there. It folded nicely into many thoughts I was having about time and vulnerability and the paradox that it presents and many other concerns that I was having at the time, and it just fit for me. It just fit. Also, with my sense of where I wanted to be in the world, it offered me a vehicle of representation, of my concerns, that allowed me to move to the edges of spaces in a very natural way because it’s where spider webs are naturally found. So it wasn’t so much an outcome of my working at trying to find the right form, it was that the right form selected me when I was having these concerns. The right form appeared and presented itself as the kind of perfect vehicle for my concerns at the time. And…it was luck. Lucky me. Here it is. I had these concerns, these thoughts, these beliefs, and these wonders and curiosities and inquiries and this thing, this symbol, allowed me to explore and to present those. I was lucky.
MK: We also have one of your mirrored pieces in the sale, and when you talk about your concern with space obviously mirrors are an ultimate way of conceiving of space, expanding space, reflecting space; can you speak to how that fits in?
JH: You know, in the trajectory of my work, of my process, the mirror is again a vehicle which presented itself in the same way. It just fit perfectly in at a time in the everyday crisis of my practice where I was really in need of a way to again present ideas that I was having and questions that I was having. And so the mirror, much like the image of the web, was kind of luckily stumbled upon as a result of numerous observations of it in the course of my life and I just put them together in this way. And once I was in possession of it materially I just started thinking about the potentiality for other manifestations of it. And it’s still an ongoing place of entertainment and play for me. You know it brings an entirely other conversation into play.
MK: One of the other themes that I wanted to touch on is the relationship between the work of art and the outside world. You are very clear that the core identity of one of your works has nothing whatsoever to do with your mindset at the time of its creation, and that it exists independently of you. But it’s also clear that you’re thinking about how the work will be once it leaves your studio and enters the world. How do those two impulses reconcile themselves for you as you’re creating a work?
JH: My thinking about what I’m making in terms of its imagined life is always in my thoughts. Always. More though how it moves from point A to point B. Because I like making installations and so things always have to be experienced in space, which offers me an opportunity to think about relationship. All of my interest really is somewhat about relationships. And certainly I believe that there’s some sort of fundamental truth about art performing socially and how it functions as an essential instrument or transmitter, and that is about relationships. I do a job as an artist. I’m at the service of the art and that is a fulltime job that I love and embrace of course and am privileged to do, but also that’s my priority: to take care of art for the little bit of it that I’m responsible for, which is what I generate. And in that way I think that everything that follows that is just icing on the cake, because the meat of everything for me is the making of art. And as a practitioner, my responsibility is to stay alert to the opportunities that it elicits in me.
Part of my background was working in art galleries when I was younger and that’s what educated me as far as how objects are functioning day-to-day and also in regard to an object-collector relationship, which is fascinating and amazing. The life of an object becomes about one transitional experience after another: the object moves into the world and then comes into a relationship with some other caretaker and then it just continues to move. But what it generates in that movement is so far beyond just its physical properties and its relationship to that individual. The objects are these incredibly fragile things – even if they’re made out of steel and indestructible – but just in terms of what’s being transmitted from them and where that goes, and where it goes into you for instance. I think that’s what art is; I assign art the definition of participating in the world in that way, it’s about a kind of meaningful transmission that changes, alters, or affects us in some way. Because we don’t understand it really, I think we’re always playing catch-up with it.
Where art resides is in us, but whatever the objects contain, that spark, is magical. Magical in the sense of my understanding of magic, which is that I don’t understand how it happens. That it is beyond my ability to actually know. I don’t want to come off as the authority of what I do, because it would be false. I have an experience of making the work in my practice but that does not make me the go-to person to know what’s going on there. In fact, I think I probably know less than you or other people who come upon it because my relationship is so labored and overwrought. And when things are finished I feel I reach a point where I am dismissed by the object and at that point of dismissal it is done and I am estranged from it. And at that point I feel that I lose sight of it and that your vision of it is far clearer than mine.
MK: OK so last question and then I’ll let you go: do you ever have nostalgia when you confront an object that you made 25 years ago? For example, when was the last time you saw Untitled (Study for Gate)?
JK: Years ago. I mean, yes. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia as much as it’s a recognition of self, like looking at an old photograph of yourself, like, “oh man look at that hair, what was I wearing” because that’s part of it too, but it also reminds you of beautiful times because what’s opened in that is the transmission, which is huge and beyond understanding. I mean one can articulate it through different approaches because art can be approached spherically from any direction and no matter what will have a welcome mat out there for you that says, ‘Come this way.’ That’s what art is- an open door to questions.