Sometimes, art runs in the family, and throughout history, there have been lots of examples. Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a famed artist; so was his son (the Younger, of course); then there’s Renaissance master Hans Holbein and his dad, an accomplished Gothic painter.
There are lots of latter-day examples as well, and to celebrate Father’s Day, artnet News is running a two-part series of interviews with famous father-and-son duos in the art industry. We wanted to know: what do fathers and sons learn from one another? How do they spend their time? And when it comes to ways of looking at art, how far does the apple fall from the tree?
For this edition, we spoke with artists Ed and Eddie Ruscha; Sandy Rower, Alexander Calder‘s grandson and the president and founder of the Calder Foundation, and his son, curator and sound artist, Gryphon Rue; and artist and professor Charles Gaines, whose son, Malik, has followed in his footsteps. (Oh, and don’t miss our Mother’s Day edition!)
What role would you say art plays in your relationship?
Ed Ruscha: We share common notions like art or music that arise from anger, art that’s from the dark side and even art that is a little stupid, hilarious, and hopeless.
Eddie Ruscha: Art’s always there somehow. There’s just no escaping it. I think we’ve even tried on a few occasions, but to no avail. Even on a simple trip to a cafe, we can’t help but comment on the wall hangings.
Would you say you look at art in fundamentally different ways?
Ed: He can carry a tune. I can’t. He can surf, surely an art. I can’t. He can cook in a kitchen. I can’t.
Eddie: Besides having two separate sets of eyes, our brains are also separate. Aside from that, we always have fun trying to talk each other into our corners.
Are there any art-related things you like to do together?
Ed: Eddie introduced me to a zine cartoon called that put a twist on language. Examples: “Strictly Personal” would be pronounced “Zdrigdly Bersonal,” “Safe as Milk” as “Zave Az Milg,” and “Clear Spot” as “Glear Zbod.” We spoke to each other like this for years. Is this any sane way to pass the time?
Eddie: Filling out New Yorker cartoon blank punchlines with the most ridiculous things we can think of. Going to the desert and watering trees. Listening to two radio stations overlapping or watching TV shows with poor reception.
What about shared insights? What would you say you’ve learned from one another?
Ed: I think we taught each other that absurdity and paradox are at the core of the human condition.
Eddie: I think I learned to innately believe in what I am doing from my dad. Also, on a more technical level, I learned how to prime and stretch canvas, mix paint, and clean airguns.
How do you want or expect your engagement with art to grow over the years?
Eddie: I hope to never think I’ve figured anything out.
Ed: My boy is my champion. He knows me so well, he can finish my sentences and even my paintings. I’m okay, but when it comes to lots of things, maybe son knows best.
How would you describe the role of art in your relationship?
Charles Gaines: Since we are both artists, art plays a central role. For me there are two relationships, one in which I’m a father and the other, a colleague. There are experiences that fall under “family” that tie us together; these things relate to our history together, as father and son. But there are also experiences that are produced by our practices as artists, and experiences that happen as a result of Malik’s life as an academic and a public intellectual. These two categories are not independent of each other: as I learn things from his academic work, and as I experience his art practice, I have the single feeling of pride as a father. In spite of this, I believe I can be an objective observer of both his art and academic work. In many ways the role of art in our relationship, from my point of view, is not much different than what it would be in any family relationship. My own identity as an artist offers a unique dimension to my situation of being the father of an accomplished son. This is because, sewn within the fabric of our father-son relationship, is the fact that we can talk about art and critical thinking, as colleagues. This is a unique situation that turns out to be for me, and I hope for Malik, too, a gift.
Malik Gaines: We have mutual friends in art, and know many of the same artists, curators, academics, and so on. I suppose that’s an atypical part of our relationship, that we can talk about things going on in our overlapping fields. It’s like family-business stuff. I didn’t originally intend for it to happen this way, but I ended up with the same job as my dad, as an artist and professor. My boyfriend Alexandro Segade did, also, and we both “grew up” around Charles’s work in one way or another. So we all talk shop. Of course our projects are pretty different. But even those have some areas of overlap. Charles copies me a lot. Just kidding!
Would you say you look at art in similar ways?
Charles: I think that our tastes are similar. Also, I think that our critical interests are similar. But at the same time, these things are expressed differently in the way we talk about art, and in the art that we make. For the most part I chalk this up as a generational difference in the formal language of our practices. I am not talking so much about differences in genres; I am an object maker and Malik is a performance artist. It’s more in the area of representation and means of expression. I think of both of us as having a postmodern outlook with respect to culture, identity, and race. But the manner that I choose to deal with these issues critically is located in Conceptualism, whereas Malik’s narrative is driven by an interest in a type of critical experience that interrogates the cultural moment through the tropes of performance and performance history.
Malik: We’ve talked about different approaches to expression, which I see as somewhat generational. Charles comes from a Conceptual mode where expressive choices are deemphasized. There was a critique to this turn, offering a way out of the autonomous, white male genius artist trap. I absorbed the criticality of that mode, but brought to it a kind of queer subjectivity that separates expression from any Universalist source. As I understand it, he is interested in critiquing the way a viewer constructs a seemingly expressed narrative out of disparate pieces of language. I’m maybe more interested in the ways narrative can communicate a critical expressivity between different, specific locations. That’s a simplification, but it begins to address something.
Do you spend time together doing anything art-related?
Charles: We live on different coasts, New York for Malik, and LA for me. Because of our traveling, we are often in New York or LA together. As a result, our most common activity, aside from family gatherings, are art events. We used to perform together; Malik would invite me to participate in curated performance events organized by himself and his partner, Alex. I hope to do more of that.
Malik: When I stay in LA I try to get up early, though never as early as Charles does, and we drink coffee and chat in his kitchen while MSNBC idles in the background. We talk about art issues and controversies, updates on each of our projects, family stuff, and politics in an undifferentiated mix. Right now we’re sitting side by side at laptops, answering these questions while Trump mouths off on the TV.
What can you say you’ve learned from one another?
Charles: Probably the biggest thing I learned is reflected in a note I sent to Malik two years ago. It said, “Reading your book, Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left, I ran into this amazing Brecht quote you cited. ‘A man’s stature is shown by what he mourns and in what way he mourns it. To raise mourning to a higher plane, to make it an element in social progress: that is an artistic task.’ This answers something about my series that I could never answer before, and had always plagued me: the role of the emotions that the music produces. It seems to me now, in , that the music rhetorically makes the text an expression of mourning. And if I were to believe Brecht (and I do), this is a political expression, not just sentiment. That’s the part that has always evaded me; I knew (felt) that making the music a product of the text (system of translation of letters to notes) was a political gesture, but I did not have a theory that explained why it could be read politically. Thanks to you and your book (and Brecht, and Nina Simone), I figured it out. For me this is huge. Thanks.”
Malik: One thing that I tell people: stick to your idea! Charles came up with a concrete idea about working around the time I was born and committed to it through decades of a career with ups and downs, stubbornly ignoring obstacles. Of course, there are other variables at play beside tenacity, but still, it’s inspiring and instructive to see the way his work is now being recognized, appreciated, and supported, against odds.
How might your engagement with art change in the coming years?
Charles: If it continues along the path that it has been traveling, I would be very satisfied.
Malik: There are bigger platforms for each of our works, but I expect both of us to remain much the same. We’re both pretty obstinate.
What role does art play in your relationship?
Alexander S. C. Rower: Each of us has our fingers in many pots, and there is always something to talk about. In fact, we are giving answers to each other’s questions right now, so you could say we enjoy swapping roles and points of view!
Gryphon Rue: Without art, what is any close relationship? Many new relationships begin with a museum visit. Dad and I recognize art as a shared access point of understanding.
Do you look at art in fundamentally different ways?
Alexander: In addition to being a curator, my son is a composer and a “sound experimentalist,” so he brings a knowledge of audio culture to each project. I had a small press that published artist books, and I worked as a photographer. I have practical knowledge about physics, mechanical engineering, architecture, and far too many other things. (My dad is an autodidact; he makes me proud.) We are fundamentally different in some ways, like all dads and sons.
Gryphon: My dad thinks more about a historical contextualization of art, and he particularly resonates with dead artists. I delve into historical research that informs my thinking about peers and contemporaries. I’m most attracted to art that is intermedia or bends my perception, and I admire artists like Thomas Ashcraft, who explores ginormous and microscopic atmospheric events.
What art activities do you enjoy doing together?
Alexander: Sitting on the couch, discussing what Marie and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein were doing when the suburban lights turned low. And how many centimeters to the right is that painting off the emotional center?
Gryphon: Sitting on the couch discussing the complexly ordered patterns that emerge from chaotic systems, and how that plays out in relationships. My dad is deeply committed to the Calder homes and studios, especially those in Roxbury, Connecticut. We find crystallized garnets there. Alexander Calder found them, as did my dad and uncle when they were kids, and I’ve found them. In the last few years, we’ve unearthed Native American artifacts from the Clovis culture of 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. We even came across a banner stone, which is sculpted from an aesthetic rock—in other words, it is beyond utilitarian. Perhaps it is “art.”
What about what you’ve learned from one another?
Alexander: Gryphon approaches Calder in surprising ways. He has an ongoing contribution to the noisy, musical sonics of Calder’s legacy, which has really expanded my reality about my grandfather. He wrote an essay, “Calder and Sound,” which I hope he turns into a book someday (Inventory Press and Ballroom Marfa will publish Strange Attractor, which he edited, this fall). I admire his determination to pursue these complementary passions.
Gryphon: My dad is really challenging. He challenges everyone he cares about. We used to play an observation game when I was a little kid, about perceptions and presumptions. My dad got me started on a path of how to deeply connect with and see art.
How do you want or expect your engagement with art to grow and evolve over the years?
Alexander: You can’t spell “heart” without “art.”
Gryphon: My relationship to art is tempered or filtered by sound, recording, and performing, and I will always be focused on growing my community in New York.