Judy Millar: The Artist is a Present

[This was originally published here on 18 June 2010]

Judy Millar’s MoMA artist’s pass is looking battered. “I’ve been at least twenty times since I got here,” she admits as we enter New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She pays for me – “I got my studio deposit back today. I feel rich.”

Judy is one of the more interesting characters on our art scene. Or, not on our art scene. She flies under the radar by living way out west of Auckland, yet she exhibits all over the world and keeps a studio in Berlin.

One of New Zealand’s foremost painters, Judy was one of our gals at the 2009 Venice Biennale. (For NZ folk, her Giraffe-Bottle-Gun work has been remounted at Te Papa for a spell.) I worked with her on the wonderfully bonkers TV series New Artland. In it, she guided a group of teenagers towards making an audaciously messy group painting, then turned into a giant billboard using a digital process similar to the one she went on to make her Venice work with.

Judy Millar installs Giraffe-Bottle-Gun in Venice, 2009. Courtesy of Gow Langford

Her wild paint strokes, like those of many gestural artists, could be accused, by those who don’t care to know better, of coming from the school of “my kid could do that”, except, your kid didn’t do that. Judy Millar did.

Other, better art critics can write about the way she seeks to express this or deconstruct that; to take away as much as she adds. I just love that her canvases come across like big, playful, almost cartoonish impressions of the layered graffiti that surrounds us; anchored in paint, embracing mess, unafraid of technology.

I could look at them for hours, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the point. Putting an album on ‘repeat’. Buying a DVD so it can be watched again and again. Visiting the same gallery, over and over, to sit with the same picture while it reveals its secrets.

The weekend we meet is Judy’s last in the city. She’s been here on a three-month residency with the International Studio and Curatorial Programme. She packed up her studio this morning.

It’s hot for late May. Judy’s wearing jeans and cowboy boots. All day, New Yorkers compliment her on her deconstructed denim jacket. She’s the kind of tall that makes me feel like a kid. I like that feeling. Especially today. Makes me feel as if I’ve bunked school to kick around with the cool girl from up the road. The cool girl from up the road who studied feminist theory via the University of Auckland’s Italian Department.

Our itinerary? German art, looking for candy, stalking Patti Smith. And, the Museum of Modern Art: “I’d love to check out Abramović again, I’ve been about a dozen times already.”

“Oh yeah, sure, of course we have to go,” I reply, thinking “AbramaWho?”

***

Oh, that Abramovic.

Inside a marked-out square, Marina Abramović, who’s spent much of her career naked, sits, clad neck-to-fingertip-to-toe in a white dress. One arm slack, one on her knee. Facing another chair, a person in it. Eyeballing the person, a stranger, a member of the public who queued for hours for this chance of a silent audience with one of performance art’s greatest.

It’s fascinating, creepy, beautiful. Abramović has three days to go; she’s been here for three months. She takes her seat before the museum opens, leaves it after closing time. She never breaks for food or a bathroom. It is her longest solo piece of single duration.

As we slowly walk the circuit of the square, Judy shares what she’s seen on past visits. The performance has been running for the duration of her residency, and finishes the weekend we are there. In effect, it’s been a marker of Judy’s time in New York. She points out the types of people queuing patiently for a moment with Marina; directs my attention to the demographics of those who agree to be involved, versus those who just watch (you can draw your own conclusions from this slideshow).

We mull over what makes some people cry in her presence. I think it could be that we are never given this kind of time just to look, really look, into one another’s eyes (let’s not forget, this is New York).

We wonder why we’re the kinds of people to watch from the sidelines rather than sit in the chair (unlike this chap, who sat 21 times). Me? I object to the waiver; I’m uncomfortable with the fact that you cannot sit with the artist unless you are prepared to sign away your image. Your moment is no longer a pure moment between the people in the room. You become part of the documentation. It’s a vast change from the pre-Internet 1970s, when Marina first hit the art world. (Anne K Yoder has more to say about the media phenom aspect.)

Plenty of people did sit, of course. There’s fun to be had with the statistics and the images, and other people are having it. Some celebs sat, including Rufus and Lou. I was appalled but unsurprised to hear that the curator saved the last seat for himself.

Aside from Abramović’s own performance in the MoMA atrium, the 6th floor holds a seriously big retrospective, including, for the first time in a museum space, other performers remounting her older works. (She’s let others perform her work in other contexts, including on Sex And The City.)

Naked and clothed figures are dotted around the space. Judy points to one work – two naked people facing each other, standing too close for comfort, yet not close enough to touch. In the original piece (Imponderabilia, 1977), the performers were the artist and her then-partner Ulay, creating a gateway through which all guests had to enter an art gallery. In here, they’re tucked away between two walls. It’s not necessary to go through. So it’s slightly more titillating, which is weird. With the original playing on video nearby, it only highlights how strange the re-mounted work is.

“Watch the guys,” says Judy. “Most of them face the woman as they squeeze through.” It’s true. And it detracts from the piece. Instead, I’m drawn to a work called Point of Contact. A fully- and formally-clothed pair stand with their index fingers almost touching. It’s delicate, bittersweet. I love it.

***

“I want to show you something else before we leave”.

Judy cruises through the Abramovian hoards, towards a smaller gallery housing bold, industrial sci-fi pieces. Dirty canvases poke out of their frames like a post-apocalyptic Tim Burton film set. In the centre of the room, a galaxy hangs from the ceiling.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled

The works are by Lee Bontecou. The polar opposite of Abramović, she escaped the New York art scene in the early 70s, just as her name was seriously on the rise. She kept working, she just wanted to do it far away from ‘the scene’. In the mid 2000s, the curator Elizabeth Smith coaxed her work out of hiding, and it’s popped up at MoMA a few times since, including now.

I remark to Judy that it’s an amazing thing to pull away from an art scene that loves you, especially considering the frantic adoration taking place in the gallery next door.

“I used to feel that way. It used to quite devastate me. But now I feel quite comfortable.”

– You need a lot of resilience, don’t you, to stay in this game?

“Fuck, you need a lot! No matter where you go, how high up you go, no-one else gives a shit. Picasso died and there was somebody else to replace him. You could do your work anywhere, and for nobody, and it is still your work. It does depend on how much communication you need. Marina Abramović needs a lot. For some artists, money is a communication, money is an energiser.

– How much communication do you need?

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

***

We’ve arrived at the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side. Judy stops suddenly on the stairs to finish a thought she’d started at MoMA, one she’s shared before about her process.

“I work stuff out by painting. Painting is how I figure things out.”

The current Neue exhibition is a huge collection of Otto Dix works, including his graphic, uncomfortable War series – all bulging eye sockets and leery smiles – and his glorious, somewhat grotesque portraits of Germans-he-has-known. The War gore knocks me for six. Judy’s words resonate; on the battlefield, the soldier Dix was also an artist who was obviously, painfully working that stuff out. Saving Private Ryan is kids’ stuff compared to Dix’s pencil works.

From Otto Dix\’s Der Krieg (War) cycle, 1924

The Neue Galerie is devoted to German and Austrian art from the first half of the 20th Century (think Gustav Klimt). It’s a curious specificity that makes sense when explained to us by Neue’s affable deputy director Scott Gutterman, who’s joined us for a Viennese coffee at one of Neue’s two opulent cafes. (Go, to check out the decor alone.)

Neue's Vienna Coffee
Enough cream for you?

The gallery was founded by Ronald Lauder and the late Serge Sabarsky, both enthusiasts for this period in art. It’s a quirk of American galleries that we New Zealanders don’t quite get; beautiful buildings, constructed around private collections, that don’t require, and probably can’t ask for, public funds (though they need the public’s money). Scott moved to Neue from the Guggenheim, a few blocks away, after a serendipitous plane journey. I make a pact with myself to say hello to the person next to me on future flights.

We came to the Neue because of the German connection. After New York, Judy heads to Berlin, where an exhibition of her abstracts has just appeared at Hamish Morrison’s gallery. She’s flying to another metropolis, rather than home to her gorgeously austere West Auckland studio, because she decided after much coming and going to spend all of 2010 away.

“Making the decision felt good, to decide to be somewhere. I would stay home! I get so homesick that if I hear a Kiwi accent, I stalk them! I get on trains and follow them. Sometimes I phone Telecom in the middle of the night just to hear the accent! So I would stay home, if I could.

– So why can’t you?

“My work’s getting more difficult and more expensive to make, so it gets harder and harder to show. So I need to keep developing. It’s taken me a long time to develop my work. I want to see as much as I can, talk to as many people as I can and grow as fast as I can. It seems that your desires keep lifting, don’t they? You might think you’ll reach a point where your desires might stop, you might stop wanting to know more, but that’s not the case.”

– Being on a fellowship, on the other side of the world, it must feel strange to, in effect, be a ‘nobody’, when at home you’re a well-respected artist?

“In some ways, it feels like the other way around. Here, artists are immediately drawn to my work in a way that they’re not in New Zealand.”

– So being away is good? Working somewhere else for a while is good?

“Oh yeah. I’ll go anywhere and I’ll talk to anyone! And for years, I was too shy – and too arrogant – to do that.”

We wonder for a moment why it is that shyness and arrogance always seem to go hand in hand, decide that it makes perfect sense, and declare that it’s time for a drink.

***

As we 6 it to Soho, I ask Judy why she wanted to stalk Patti Smith today, even as the question seems redundant. It’s Patti Smith, people. Poet, artist, rocker, hero. Soul sister. “I have managed to see her speak a few times while I’ve been here,” she says, sighing. Her eyes kind of glaze over.

But we’re not sure where to find Ms Smith on a Friday, so Judy instructs me to take her to the nearest bookshop. At the excellent McNally Jackson, she hands me a hard-back copy of Just Kids, Patti’s love letter to her early New York years with Robert Mapplethorpe, when they were scrabbling around Brooklyn and the East Village in the late sixties and seventies, becoming the artists they would be.

“Read it.”

(Several days later, I finished the book a sobbing mess, and spent the rest of the week in melancholic reflection. As memoirs of artistic process go, it’s a blockbuster.)

Judy Millar first visited New York in the 1980s. She’d just sold a café, had money to spare, none of the problems Smith and Mapplethorpe had. This time around “it’s a bit like being back at art school. There are 40 studios in the [ISCP] building, with people from all over the world. I’ve been working around a lot of young South American guys and they’re into what I do. I like it that it’s them.”

– Were you working on a specific thing here?

“No. I wanted to just come here and see what came out. No pressure. No expectations. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make work! But I ended up doing that. You feel you’re not being affected by what’s around you, but you are.

“I’ve been living in this Afro-Caribbean neighbourhood and it’s had an impact on me. It’s rough and tough and yet energetic. The women’s hair – it’s like seeing a new sculpture every day. Brancusi would die if he saw those things! So I’ve started doing work along those lines… It’s a work-in-progress. I’ll take it to Berlin with me.”

We’re knocking back wines in a Lower East Side bar, continuing our day-long conversation about cancer, war, our Dads, Lady Gaga (Judy’s a fan, I’m coming around. “She’s only got one good song”, Judy admits, but thinks Gaga’s commitment to her aesthetics is to be applauded.) We rank the female NZ artists we admire for their dedication to their craft and personae. (Judy: “Julia Morrison is at the top of my list”. Me: “Jacquelyn Greenbank. Judy Millar. Jack, Fiona. All the J’s!”). We discuss the relative privilege Judy has as an artist, being devoted to just one thing, while others (me!) cast around for focus.

Then I notice the time. If I don’t get to the candy store, I’m in trouble. A nearly-seven-year-old I know needs sugar-free candies for his birthday piñata. The shop closes in five. The guy is rolling the door down as we arrive. Disaster! But, he says, there’s another two blocks away. We make it. Success!

Judy has more to see before Berlin, so I wave her off into the vacuum of Manhattan. It was a lovely day. And, my brain is exploding.

***

Marina has left the building, and Judy has left the city.

She’s in Berlin now, with a bicycle and an empty studio and a foreign language. But, she emails, new work is on its way.

And, Patti Smith plays there in two weeks.

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