In 1988, during his tenure as director of the Clocktower Gallery in lower Manhattan, Tom Finkelpearl oversaw “Outside Insight,” an exhibition of work by outsider artists from the area around Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The show was curated by Ed McGowin, a New York–based sculptor, and David Hammons, an elusive artist known for his use of found materials. Hammons and Finkelpearl traveled three times to North Carolina, visiting artists in their homes and studios, taking copious photographs, and spending nights in roadside motels. Hammons’s experience inspired his creation of homelike installations that were built in the Clocktower to display each artist’s work.
Although “Outside Insight” has received relatively little critical attention, the exhibition captures an important chapter in the development of Hammons’s artistic sensibility. “Outside Insight” evinces his identification with vernacular African-American cultural forms, self-effacing relationship to authorship, and profound sense of the value of everyday objects and gestures. In later years, Hammons has often staged absences from the art world, skipping his own openings and appearing infrequently in public. Thomas J. Lax, an associate curator in the Department of Media and Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art, spoke with Finkelpearl, who is currently commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, about Hammons’s affinity for those deemed “outsiders,” his improvisational methods, and his time in North Carolina.
Thomas J. LaxHow did “Outside Insight” come about?
Tom FinkelpearlEarlier that year, a collector named Robert Lynch had visited my office with a stack of hundreds of amazing photographs of outsider art from North Carolina. The Clocktower Gallery was planning a series of three exhibitions called “Here and There: Travels,” involving artists who had somehow used travel in their work. The theme was rather loose. I thought that this group of outsider artists somehow fit the bill, especially if I would be able to engage artists to visit them in North Carolina and then curate a show. I knew that David Hammons was really interested in outsider art. He’d always said that his own artworks were a combination of outsider art, Arte Povera, and Marcel Duchamp. But he’d never been to the South, as far as I knew. I thought it’d be great for him to go. And then Alanna Heiss, the founder of the Clocktower, suggested we also engage Ed McGowin, who is a Southerner and well versed in outsider art.
David and I took three trips down to North Carolina. McGowin joined us on one of the trips; so did a photographer, Ari Marcopoulos, and A. C. Hudgins, a collector and longtime friend of Hammons’s. The first trip, in the fall of 1987, was a research trip. The second, also in the fall, was the pickup trip—and then in the spring of 1988, after the show, we returned for a third time. We were an eccentric-looking team. I remember Ari wearing this really over-the-top fur outfit, David wearing some ridiculous hat, and me wearing dirty work clothes. We went to a pizza joint and got terrible service. Ed, the most respectable looking of the group, went up to the counter and told the staff that he needed to get us back to the penitentiary, which they seemed to find plausible. Service improved.
LaxWhich artists did you meet on that first trip, and how did you meet them?
FinkelpearlOne artist whose place we went to a couple of times was Vollis Simpson, who lived in Lucama. He was one of the better artists, but he didn’t end up in the show, because it turned out to be impossible to move his stuff. He ran a machine shop for several decades, during which time he built relationships with local industrial-salvage businesses, junk men, and transportation workers. He scavenged extra road signs and made astonishing sculptures out of them.1 They were incredible pieces, forty or fifty feet tall. They were luminescent at night since they were made from road signs, so people would drive up to them with their cars. There’d be ten cars parked at his family’s farm, where they were installed. Simpson was retired; he was doing this to keep himself busy. But the farm was famous for Simpson’s art. It wasn’t some obscure site.
LaxDid Simpson build these sculptures himself, or did he have a team?
FinkelpearlHe built them himself. He was an elderly white guy, whereas almost all the other artists we met were African American. Except for Clyde Jones, a former logger from Bynum, North Carolina, all the artists who ended up in the show were African American. The show also ended up being all men—there was a quilt artist who was a woman, but she didn’t end up in the show, which was too bad.
LaxDid you have a sense, at the time, of some artists being more talented than others?
FinkelpearlWe thought Herman Bridgers, who lived in Enfield, was the best artist. He was a preacher. He had a church—kind of a Holy Roller church, but you couldn’t even stand up in it because the ceilings were so low. It was a tobacco warehouse, I think. He painted these figures, these amazing little people, which had some sort of religious significance.
David was really interested both in the art and in the artists—how they got along, their sensibilities. I remember once A. C. Hudgins, Hammons, and I were sitting with Jeff Williams, an artist from Salemburg who was in the show. Jeff, describing his work, said, “This is a warlock.” David said, “What’s a warlock?” A. C. said, “David! It’s a male witch!” David snarled, “I don’t want to hear it from you! I know what a warlock is. I want to hear it from him.” He was trying to listen. He was trying to figure out what these guys’ knowledge was like, what their sources of inspiration were.
LaxWhat was their knowledge like? What sense did you get of how art figured into their lives?
FinkelpearlWilliams had been to prison and went to prison again at some point afterward. It was a real tragedy. He was a nice guy, but he was an alcoholic. Once he took us to get some moonshine. We thought we were going into the hills, but he took us to a nicer part of town, to a house in a suburban area. There were police cars out front. Rumor had it that the sister of the police chief was selling the moonshine. She opened the door to a warehouse with thousands of gallons of moonshine. I still have some.
LaxHow did you approach these people? Would you just drive up and say, “Hi, I’m Tom Finkelpearl, I’m a curator from New York”?
FinkelpearlYes. There were no cell phones, no Internet. The first time we went, I think Robert Lynch had called beforehand. But there was still the question: Would these people trust us to put a whole bunch of their art in a truck and drive it back to New York? Typically, as a curator, when you visit an artist’s studio the deal is very clear: The artist is hoping to lend work for an exhibition, and she trusts that you will handle it properly. But these artists did not normally put work in shows. People drove to their houses and bought stuff. We brought loan forms with us to show that we intended to care for the artworks, but we had to do a little more convincing. Some of the artists had had lousy interactions with exploitative collectors, and we couldn’t just show them that the form said that the work would be insured. But Lynch had a really good relationship with the artists, so it all worked out—though there were some tense moments at the time of the pickup.
LaxHow did they respond to David? Did they have a sense of him as an artist?
FinkelpearlI think they knew that he was an artist. But he was not there as an artist, he was there as a curator. So no one was asking him about his work.
LaxYou mentioned David had never been to the South before. What was his experience like? What did he especially appreciate?
FinkelpearlOnce we pulled up to a motel—one of those inexpensive, Indian-run motels in the South, a really funky place—and decided to stop for a few drinks. (David doesn’t drink much at all now, now, but back then we went out and had some beers a few times.) We were walking back from the bar and saw a Ford Galaxie, a futuristic, protomuscle car from the 1960s. David said, “Galaxie! I like that name! Everyone has to call me Galaxie.” So for the rest of the trip everyone called him Galaxie. Later, at the motel, A. C. and David were in one room and I was in another with Ari. I could hear A. C. saying, “I can’t believe Tom let us stop at this place! This place sucks.” I said, “A. C., I can hear you! These walls are paper-thin!” When we got up the next morning, we realized that the entire roof was covered in Clyde Jones’s sculptures—so it was the perfect place to stop. If only it had been a bit cleaner!
LaxIn the Clocktower exhibition, each artist’s work was shown in a distinct bespoke installation that was made to look like a home. Ed designed some of the installations, David designed others. How much did Ed and David discuss the installations, and how did they decide who would be responsible for each artist’s installation?
FinkelpearlDavid just designed his installations without any discussion. It was almost like choosing teams: “Which is your favorite? Which is your favorite?” That said, the way we presented the works was colored by our interactions with the artists—we’d seen their studios and their homes together. Those environments were very different from white-cube galleries. We thought that simply hanging the works on white walls would suck the life out of them. David and Ed decided that it made sense to try to evoke each work’s original environment. One ended up including a rug and lamp from my house. David just kept saying, “I need a rug, man. I need a rug!” And so I finally said, “I think I’ve got something.” I still have the lamp.
LaxDid David approach installing the works in ways that mimicked his installation of his own work?
FinkelpearlDefinitely. It was very improvisational. For one of the installations, he included a typical wallpaper, which he used a lot—and which is not actually wallpaper, but paint applied with a rubber roller with a pattern on it. When we did the exhibition of David’s work at MoMA PS1, “Rousing the Rubble,” two years later, he used these rollers to cover a bunch of walls.
LaxWere the patterns original, or were they readymades?
FinkelpearlHe purchased the rollers; they were readymades. You could buy them in hardware stores in New York City, mostly in Latino communities, as I remember. You’d see it on the walls if you went to low-income housing in East Harlem. This was one of David’s tricks: You had to be careful when using the roller to make the paint look like wallpaper.
When we were in North Carolina, I remember David walking into a cotton field, something he had not seen before, and picking some cotton. Nobody knew if he had plans for it. He also took some dirt and some of the beautiful red clay they have down there. At the entrance to the show, David placed the cotton in a planter and then spread the red clay and dirt on the walls behind it.
LaxThe brown of the clay is so beautiful. It looks like gold and shit! Was that work attributed?
FinkelpearlNo. You wouldn’t have known that David Hammons was the artist. That was classic Hammons. The whole exhibition was undertaken a bit more loosely than it might have been now. David and Ed worked really hard on the installations, and there was no discussion of rights or authorship. They were just trying to make the best show possible, to create the best environment in which to appreciate the art. Other than a wall label with the names of the artists involved in the show, I don’t think there was any didactic material at all in the gallery. Instead of text describing the exhibition, we had a silhouette of North Carolina on the wall, which we filled with photographs taken by Ari and me on the trip.
LaxDid anything stay in New York after the show?
FinkelpearlI bought a cat sculpture from Jeff Williams and gave it to my mom. A. C. bought a couple pieces. Ed bought a beautiful little sculpture of a man from Jeff, and then it split pretty badly. He tried to get back in touch with Jeff because he wanted to fix it, but I think Jeff was in prison.
David had helped me wrap the artworks down in North Carolina. He was so impressed with my packing skills that he gave me a new name: The Wrapper. (It did not stick.) We had loan forms for some of the pieces, and with others it was about trust. We gave the artists lists of the works with values assigned. One piece got damaged, so we bought it and sent the artist $350. I don’t know what happened to that piece; we should have sent it back to him to be fixed. Nothing in the show was worth more than the deductible, so insurance was irrelevant.
LaxDo you remember how you set prices for the works?
FinkelpearlWe just asked the artists what they would sell each piece for.
LaxWhat was the show’s lasting impact on your relationship with Hammons? How was the exhibition received?
FinkelpearlThe show didn’t get that much attention, although the dedicated community of collectors of outsider art in New York showed up and had good things to say. The Clocktower had its own audience as well; they were a bit perplexed, though generally appreciative. Regardless, working with David and Ed really was one of the most interesting and enjoyable experiences of my career as a curator. I’m not sure what image people have of David, but he’s incredibly hardworking, and he’s a perfectionist; sometimes it seems like he wants to hide the labor. His process is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite improvisational. It was often relatively easy for us to handle challenges, because if the most obvious strategy was not working out David would just find another way to do it—often by using materials that were sitting around the gallery or in a back room. And unlike other perfectionist artists I’ve worked with, the final solution was often less expensive than the original idea.
LaxHow do you make sense of this show in terms of David’s work as an artist?
FinkelpearlHe was always interested in outsider art, but his interest had been more theoretical. This exhibition was a bigger immersion, and I imagine it cemented something. At the time, David was much more of an outsider himself. He obviously had much more of a relationship to “art history” than these artists did, but he was a little off the grid. I think he was living part-time with his girlfriend in Brooklyn and part-time in a studio on 125th Street—not in a residential building. I don’t think he was paying for electricity. He had extension cords plugged into the hall. I’m not sure where he was with his taxes. He had no credit card. These artists were similarly outside the system. Everything was cash. Everything was on their terms. David liked that.
1 Simpson’s work later drew widespread acclaim: One of his sculptures is on permanent display at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, and his work is part of several permanent collections, including the American Folk Art Museum’s.In 2013, the city of Wilson, North Carolina, established the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park to permanently display his work.