From the archive: At Frieze New York 2013, McCaffrey Fine Art (stand B15) will be showing work by Jack Early. This week we're revisiting Trong Gia Nguyen's interview with Early, conducted after the artist's comeback from a seventeen-year hiatus from making art.
New York, Feb. 2011 - After a seventeen year absence from the art world, Jack Early returned two years ago at Brooklyn’s South First Gallery. He makes his Manhattan “debut” at Daniel Reich with another version of Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine (THROUGH MARCH 12TH), a trippy black light installation straight out of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon with a white Victrola spinning a white record of the artist singing his beautiful songs. This Friday, March 4, Early along with an ensemble will perform live at Danel Reich from noon onwards.
Jack Early was first recognized as part of the collaborative duo Pruitt-Early. Their now infamous Red, Black, Green, Red, White, Blue exhibition at Leo Castelli in 1992 inveighed such an unexpected lashing from the critics that both went into exile. Containing posters of prominent African Americans hung on obelisk-shaped posts and against paint splattered, gold-foiled walls, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times at the time called it “degrading.” Pruitt took a six-year hiatus because no one would show him, though in recent years has made a massive come back with his art awards show at the Guggenheim and exhibition at Gavin Brown. Early, however ceased making work and did not step foot in any art gallery for over thirteen years. Like any good story, this one ends where it began. As the Tate Modern made plans to re-enact the Castelli show in an entire room as part of its exhibition, Pop Life: Art in a Material World, Jack Early had already started creating his newest work Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine. Greenpoint neighbors Early and ArtSlant editor Trong G. Nguyen caught up at the artist’s studio/apartment.
Jack Early, Jack Early's Ear Candy Machine, 2009-2011, album 1994-2011, installation view; Courtesy of Daniel Reich Gallery.
Trong Gia Nguyen: The current installation of Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine at Daniel Reich was first shown at Southfirst Gallery in Brooklyn. What is the difference between the two iterations?
Jack Early: The piece consists of a glow in the dark rainbow, a prism, a beam of white light, and a 7 foot tall white Victrola. The rainbow has variable dimensions because it takes on the shape of the space it is in. At Southfirst Gallery I painted the rainbow on the floor and you could walk on it. I liked the yellow brick road vibe that it gave off, especially with the well-known match up of The Wizard of Oz and the Dark Side of The Moon album. At Reich Gallery it looks like the rainbow is shooting down from the sky and into a black hole, presumably continuing underneath the floor, then shooting up and out another black hole and reaching across the space. These are changes I made to suit the space best. I’ve been thinking about the Beatles Yellow Submarines’ Sea of Holes lately. So I was digging the black holes. A lot of people didn’t get to see Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine at Southfirst. Everyone that did said it touched them in a positive way and made them feel really good so It was cool when Daniel proposed the idea of installing it again to bring it to a wider audience.
Pruitt-Early, detail from Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue, 1992; Courtesy Leo Castelli Gallery
TGN: Was there a moment in that firestorm following the Castelli show that triggered your reaction to leave it all behind, or did you not expect the work with all its political suggestiveness to not be agitating?
JE: Well we certainly did not see that firestorm coming. When it did, everything changed, most of all I didn’t want to be an artist anymore.
TGN: How did Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine originally come into being?
JE: Well, I promised myself I would never make art again. I didn’t step one toe in a gallery for over thirteen years. I couldn’t even look at an art magazine without feeling sick. I sort of just went off and painted houses, became a doorman, worked in a thrift shop, raked yards. I suppose I should have been sad, but something happened, I began humming songs in my head, nice songs with melodies and everything. I can’t read or write music or anything like that, this just kind of surprised me. I had never been happier in my whole life. I began recording them. Back in those days everyone had answering machines, so I would call a friend’s house and hum the melody on their machine in case I forgot it. They’d get home, call me back and ask, “Why did you hum this message on my machine?” And I would say “Can you hum it back to me?”
I’d see a musician in the subway playing a flute or a guy carrying a violin case and I’d asked them to lay down a song with me. I paid them with what I could – coffee and ice cream. I made a lot of musician friends along the way. I’d teach them my songs by humming out the melody and usually they would play it back to me wrong but much better. Someone passed a recording of a fairytale I wrote in song this way to the top guys at Disney and Disney actually called me on the phone with offers of animation for TV and Stage. I had been eating fruit and oatmeal for years and I thought two things, I’m not crazy these songs are good and I can get some real groceries now.
A deal was struck, Disney sucks, and it never happened. I really didn’t care. I was happy enough and hey, at least I wasn’t getting fat. So many years had gone by and I was painting a house one summer day and it hit me – I am an artist. I am making these songs in the oddest way and maybe that’s what art is, making beautiful things out of what you have. I realized then my art never left me. It just turned into something new. I wanted to put my songs in a safe place where I could share them and I built Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine. The Victrola is me, standing in the gallery again, singing these songs under a beam of white light. If you listen to the songs, my whole story is there, what I went through in the last fifteen years. It’s all in the music, the notes, the lyrics.
Pruitt-Early, Sculpture for Teenage Boys, Pruitt-Early Suck Pabst Case, c. 1990, mixed media; Courtesy of the artists.
TGN: Finding Pruitt-Early, the painting of Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock... In Hollywood they are always doing revivals of classics, and constantly remaking themselves, where hopefully the new version is better than or a successful departure from the previous. Was it deliberate to use that particular early work as a metaphor for your journey as well, reinventing yourself not unlike different actors playing the same role and all the stand-ins being you? It felt very apropos.
JE: Pruitt-Early made those two for a project we called Finding Pruitt-Early. It was an ongoing project where we would find couples working together that reminded us of us. Beavis and Butthead, Abbott and Costello, Bert and Ernie, Stiller and Meara, and Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock. Dakis Joannou showed Spock and Kirk. I like your take … but I like to think it’s the classic Spock and Kirk and they have simply been beamed back … into my future.
Pruitt-Early had a number of ongoing projects like this. Some have never been shown at all. Like our self-portrait throw pillows, or the daily portraits we drew of one another. Another was Pruitt-Early’s Autograph Collection. We carried a piece of linen and magic marker at all times in a backpack when we first moved to New York and whenever we bumped into someone famous on the street or coming out of a restaurant we would actually run over to them, unzip the backpack, whip out the marker and have them autograph it. It was a really nerve wracking project. It’s scary to interrupt someone for an autograph but I stopped at nothing. We had about 300 signatures, from Grace Jones to Carol Channing, to Tom Cruise, to Keith Haring to Johnny Rotten. Once I hopped in a limousine with Lenny Kravitz and Vanilla Ice to get theirs. It was a crazy project but as we became more well known it became way too easy to get famous names. I was surprised Rob continued the idea calling it Rob Pruitt’s Signature Series.
TGN: That’s nuts…
JE: You don’t know the half of it.
TGN: Tell us a little bit about your new combines, your new body of work. They are much more singular pieces, like paintings on the wall.
JE: I have a wall now! I lived in 140 sq. feet for the past ten years. I just moved to Greenpoint with my boyfriend Geoff. I have a studio again and a huge wall I can work on. The combine concept works well for me, the way my brain makes connections. I can work on a few ideas in one piece. In the combine I’m showing at Daniel’s I made an almost life size puffy fabric piece of Paul McCartney and I put him in the painting along with some wooden cutouts of the Manson Family. Again an easy connection but also two things I’ve loved since I was a kid. I added other objects too like an antique wooded beer barrel I painted in rainbow stripes and an old farm rope tied like a noose.
TGN: It’s a continuing thread musically too, with the Paul McCartney reference?
JE: And think of the crates of vinyl albums that have Pink Floyd stacked just behind Paul McCartney. The Family was real musical too, writing, singing and recording songs. Charlie had one of his recorded by the Beach Boys.
TGN: I was happy to hear you on the Thirteen Most Beautiful for Andy Warhol’s screen tests, with music by Dean and Britta accompanying their favorite screen tests. The song you wrote is played to Edie Sedgwick. How did that end up there?
JE: I was at a party one night at my best friend Richard Agerbeek’s house. Richard was Pruitt-Early’s assistant back then and he’s still my best friend. Richard and his band Sweden and the band Hit and I had just laid down this song called It Don’t Rain In Beverly Hills. I told Dean Wareham to give it a listen. I handed him my iPod and he left the party and went into a back bedroom for about an hour. He called Britta in and about another hour goes by. I knew they were digging it. They came out and asked if they could take the iPod home. As soon as they got home they played it against Andy’s screen test of Edie and it was a perfect fit. Dean told me the song made him cry. It was released as a single. I hear it on the radio sometimes. I later asked Britta to cover a song I called Making Me Smile. Britta sings it on the charity album Sing Me To Sleep. All the proceeds go to the Valerie Fund, an organization supporting children with blood disorders.
TGN: Is the visual and musical blending more and more, and what are you up to next?
JE: Yes… and I am becoming more spiritual. I’m making work for a show this summer in a beautiful old villa from the 1800s in Cortona, Italy. I am recording a song for the space. It’s like a Tubular Bells sort of thing but more Godspell. I’m putting a lot of light in it.
TGN: Sounds like you’re right back where you started…
JE: Or I never stopped.
ArtSlant would like to thank Jack Early for his assistance in making this interview possible.
Poster for Jack Early's Ear Candy Machine; Courtesy Daniel Reich Gallery