Allan Gordon

Carlos Villa: Maybe we could talk about the time around Abstract Expressionism—around the late forties, fifties, and seventies. What was the condition like for some of the artists that were involved at that time—maybe not necessarily in Abstract Expressionism—but active at that time?

Allan Gordon: Well, I think the conditions that obtained during this time, for the artist, were not unlike the conditions for those non-artists in this country, in which there was a lot of discrimination, a lot of biases toward people of color—whether you were an artist or not—that it was the lay of the land. Of course, for the artist, with this special category that the artist would place himself or herself in, it did not change. We know that for art, it remained, for a very long time, one of the most closed, segregated, institutions here in our country. You look at the influential moneyed people that control art; it would of course leave people of color on the outside. The board of directors of the powerful museums, the prestigious gallery owners, the magazines and newspapers with influential critics, curators, museum directors—these were all people that were not people of color who control these things. It was about money for the most part. The artist—whether the artist was a black artist, artist of color, or otherwise—would declare himself or herself an artist, would present the work of art, and it had to be validated by outside forces. This is where the moneyed, influential people came in to determine what would be representative of this cultural period and so forth. We can see how that would leave artists of color marginalized. It has changed a bit because now we have The Studio Museum of Harlem. We have had the California Museum of African American Art & Culture in Los Angeles and Lowry Simms was at the Met[ropolitan Museum of Art]. We have had Thelma Golden at the Whitney [Museum of American Art], et cetera, et cetera, and we have had more artists that were shown and things have changed a bit. But, during the time when Abstract Expressionism became the important movement to define American art—to bring it away from the provincialism that had held sway—it was part of the new way American was perceiving itself. During the depression era, Abstract Expression became the kind of art that America thought it deserved—a world-class kind of art that would challenge the European’s hegemony. So, that period was one in which artists of color were marginalized.

CV: Was it just this social phenomenon of prejudice, or was it the esthetic or the kind of subject matter that people were involved in?

AG: I think a little of both because American artists were—before the advent of the war—with many of these immigrants coming over here bringing the European ideas directly to the American shores. America had artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, the regionalists and so-called American Scene Painters—Philip Evergood, people like that, Ben Shahn—doing stuff that was representational, that had a political edge, and had anecdotal kinds of content. But this was different from what [Pablo] Picasso, [Henri] Matisse, and other Europeans were doing. There was of course a very small number of people—say around [Alfred] Stieglitz and people like that—that were doing some stuff that they thought connected them to the avant-garde in Europe. But for most of the American artists, they were doing things that they thought related to being an American. So, when these European artists came over bringing an extension of Surrealism that sort of challenged Cubism, this is when it made a leap away from what most artists were doing. And of course, most of the black artists were doing what the white American artists were doing. They were painting about themselves and trying to create a kind of cultural identity by way of art. So it was a quick leap when Abstract Expressionism came on with this kind of psychic improvisation and so forth. So, it may have caught some of them off guard and so it took them a little while to get into that mode of creating works of art.

CV: Who were the artists of the time that you could say were the speakers of the community? Which artists resonated?

AG: Some of those that had influence were Richard Barthe, a sculptor who had come through that whole Renaissance period; Hale Woodruff, Beauford Delaney—but he had spent so much time in Europe that he had less influence. Henry O. Tanner was a big influence, indirectly, because he had been accepted, marginally, in Europe. Although in France, where he was located, they had gone beyond the kind of salon things that he was getting recognition for. But because he was admitted to the salon there, black Americans found him to be a hero and, of course, he was on the scene and in Europe up until the thirties, when he passed away. He is one of those that one could not ignore. Jacob Lawrence was also one of those. Romare Bearden tried various things. He tried little abstract stuff until he really found his voice with the collages there. So, he went through various changes there. Norman Lewis was one of those too, that I would mention that had, I think, a very solid concept about what they were doing and of technique, but it’s just difficult. Not only was it difficult for artists of color, but for artists period, to become speakers or to be influential or to get on to that fast track that would allow you to make money, to be influential, to get into the important collections, to get into museum collections, and so forth. Being an artist of color just made it a little more difficult for you to become an important artist in this country.

CV: You alluded to the idea that times are getting a little better. I’m wondering about that. I mean, are times getting better?

AG: That is relative because we know what we would like for it to be and we know what it is, but better in terms of more artists. I remember there was a time when artists of color, such as Benny Andrews, picketed the Whitney and some other galleries and museums, trying to get more representation, for artists of color—in terms of exhibits. That is no longer the case because now you find included, in the Whitney and in some of the other biennials and so forth, artists of color. Of course, we know what [Robert] Colescott has done in terms of being represented through representing in a biennial. That is what I mean by some things changing over the years. Not what it should be and not nearly what we would like for it to be, but it is certainly different from what it was in the fifties and during the sixties when Abstract Expressionism hit the scene from the Guggenheim’s people—Peggy Guggenheim and so forth—providing a setting and with the money backing that. That helped to make certain artists that were in that little clique the speakers—as you had said—the influential people that others were looking to for direction. So, it is different, but not what we would want it to be.

CV: What did you think about the debate with Betye Saar and that younger generation and what she felt about protecting what we have and protecting who we are versus the idea of tromping it on the ground and disrespecting it?

AG: I’m not sure I understand what you are saying.

CV: Well, it’s a matter of younger artists taking something that Betye Saar would do, for instance, the Aunt Jemima piece [The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972], and referencing these tropes of racism and holding them up and saying, “Hey, look at this. We want to connect with this so that we possess this.” Meanwhile, you also have the younger generation of African American artists who think, “Well that’s old hat. That’s pretty much in the past.” You know, like, “we have to have more fun with what we’re doing, as opposed to what you were doing, Betye.”

AG: I think that if that is a debate, then I don’t know what it absolutely means. But, what she was doing is the same kind of thing that I think is still going on. Maybe the images might be a bit different but, Kara Walker, who does these cut outs and so forth, is not unlike what Saar was doing back when she was doing her thing. I think that with most black artists there are several things that they tend to do. One is trying to make art that relates, trying to work out a cultural identity that would separate them in some fashion from certain things in America that were objectionable, working on a cultural identity—trying to work out some connection with the concept or idea of Africa. That becomes very complex since Africa is this continent as opposed to a country say, like Italy. It would simplify things for the African American if Africa had been a country rather than this broad, huge continent. So, Africa becomes the kind of idea or an ideal that one strives to connect to, so that those are a couple things that still is found in African American artists trying to work through some cultural things, trying to identify things that would make them unique. Very often, another is trying to protest certain conditions that we find ourselves in, in this country. So, the artist would jump back and forth with those notions as the content or broad theme in their works. Whether it was the Aunt Jemima thing that Betye Saar had done or these cut outs and so forth, you find aspects of that. How much attention is generated, depends on how skilled the artist is technically and conceptually.

CV: In terms of art that inspires, or has inspired you during that time, what can you remember? Are there any pieces in particular that—

AG: I like [Robert] Rauschenberg’s work. That came after Abstract Expressionism, but I always liked the kind of stuff that is closer to-

I always liked [Marcel] Duchamp’s kind of stuff. The notion that-

And that has a kind of African context too in that the African artists or the medicine men and others who were involved with creating things—cultural icons and other things—would determine the value of something and place it in a different context; such as the use of objects from nature. Combining those in a way that Human kind is always the master and Human kind determines how this is to be used and how it can affect you spiritually or otherwise. So, the notion that an object that is inanimate would be moved into a different context and it becomes powerful because you say it is. The artist determines this. Rauschenberg’s use of juxtapositioning various things out of a context, creating a whole new environment and context, always appealed to me more so than making a painting about something; about a landscape, portrait, still life, or historical or classical event and so forth; biblical thing. It was the illusion that a two dimensional thing was never that important to me. I always preferred sculptural things or when one combined that in some way. I responded to the so-called Pop artists—those in between that—more so than abstract expressionists.

CV: Like Sam Gilliam?

AG: I like Gilliam’s stuff, especially those draped things. I like that because that would change each time. No matter what you did it was always going to be different when you moved it from one context to the next because of the nature of draping these painted canvases and so forth. I like Gilliam’s work. Yes.

CV: I remember that Keith Morrison—I don’t have his book with me right now—was referring to Sam Gilliam as having some African aspects of how he dealt with color and things. Do you find any resonance with that?

AG: I haven’t thought about it in that context but we very often want to connect with Africa in some kind of way. So, no matter how tenuous it might be, we will jump on that because Africa is such a broad—Africa is, as I said, this continent. It is so difficult for us to zero in on say Niger or Nigeria or Ghana or any of the other numbers, so we just say “Africa” and we generalize and romanticize much of that and reinvent things for Africa too. I had not thought about Gilliam in connection with something from Africa but that could very well be.

CV: Well, we always talk about the things that we don’t have or that we are in lack of.

AG: Yes. I suppose. Yes.

CV: I think the human mind is very much an amazing thing. What’s left out of the art histories that we know and that we are familiar with?

AG: Well, the people that write the history books follow what someone else has done. For the most part, they try to modify something on that. We are finding more recent art history books including people of color. I don’t see as much from the Latino community or Filipino community as there could be. I hope that is going to change. But, the art history books that came before had nobody but certain white Americans- well not- depends on whether you’re talking about American or what kind of art you’re talking about. It had white men. I would say that. A few white women were included. That is changing. There are more women being included, more African American artists, and there are some Latino but not—there just needs to be different—some more books. I suppose if Latino and African American and others started writing these books we will find that they will address this imbalance, this neglect, of artists. And, you’re not going to be able to include everybody, so you have to select representatives for an era. It depends on the kind of book you’re writing, what you’re trying to disclose or explain, whether you’re going to have someone representing a certain style or a certain era or a certain whatever. You might just mention somebody’s name, won’t be able to go into detail, but even mentioning somebody’s name had not been done, you know?

CV: Yeah.

AG: So those are the things that I think is going to change as we become much more diverse, as we are, and especially in California. Then these books are going to have to reflect that, otherwise they will lose people that they are trying to teach or inform.

CV: Well, this is my personal editorial. I think the books that have to be written have to talk about how to care for what we have as opposed to what to care for, because I think we have to gain new perspectives on what we have, otherwise we will never appreciate all of the things that we do have. I mean, we posses a lot of things. There are a lot of things, for instance, in our garages. There are a lot of things in our attics. There are a lot of things on our bookshelves, but you always need a perspective. What I have not seen is some force that allows us to—maybe not reinvent, but—reassess the things that we have. We have a whole lot and I think that people think that in order to appreciate things you have to just have more of them and I don’t know that that’s the truth.

My own personal experience is that here I am. I’m teaching Filipino American art history at S[an] F[rancisco] S[tate] U[niversity]. It is not a large history, but it is a history that seems to be mushrooming because of all of the pop and stuff that is going along with the practitioners of what we know of as modern art now. There are a lot more younger people that are doing it. But the thing is, there was a period of time between the forties and fifties all the way to the early seventies that doesn’t have a lot of people in it, particularly that are Filipino, who have been making art. What I would like to do is make light of a condition, make light of artists of color and other women who were here in the Bay Area during that time. The people that I am interviewing have forty years experience. I’m not asking young people to talk about what older people have done. I am asking mostly makers and people who are close to makers that aren’t bound necessarily by something theoretical. When you talk to makers, it is just very straight stuff, “This is what was happening. This is what I was interested in and this was going on.” Then you talk to an art historian, as you know, and you are going to get a different picture. Not only a different picture, but you are going to get a different palette of colors, a different connection, and a different composition.

What we are trying to do is create a situation—a window—by which people can take a look and make a linkage or some kind of picture in their minds as to the what and the why of that time. The more information that you can put out and where this documentation is accessible, makes a lot of difference. One of the reasons that I’m doing all of this stuff that I’ve been doing for a thousand years is that somebody told me there was no such thing as Filipino art. So I am trying my damnedest to—if it didn’t exist—at least find a reason why.