I feel so honored and lucky to have interviewed Jack Pierson for #theFMartini! I was very excited to meet the incredible artist, whose works are collected by major museums worldwide, while he was in Athens for the opening of his exhibition at the Zoumboulakis Gallery. Pierson first began making his word-sculptures in 1991, utilizing found objects – mismatched letters salvaged from junkyards, old movie marquees, roadside diners, Las Vegas casinos, and other forsaken enterprises. His work can be admired in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of the Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among other museums worldwide, while his “Self-Portrait” series was presented in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. He has photographed many well-known celebrities and models, including Naomi Cambell, Snoop Dogg, & Brad Pitt.
I jumped at the opportunity to get introduced and interview him, talk about his love for Athens and his thoughts behind his iconic works of art, famous photographs and his latest project “Tomorrow’s Man”…!
Q & A
Your first artwork with letterforms was “STAY”. Was there a specific meaning behind it?
The word kind of came out of thin air … I had found these letters among a few others and it was the first word that I could write using them; so, I sort of wrote it on the side while I was buying them and it looked right! I spelled the word “STAY” and it really worked for me at the time.
At that moment of my life, I was operating more out of melancholy, I would say.
You’ve lived in New York most of your life. Has this city been a source of inspiration for you?
Absolutely! I grew up in New England, in the country sort of, but coming to New York released a lot of inspiration for me. The signs, the atmosphere of New York and the life you can live there, all had something to do with the fact that I make art the way I do!
What is it that attracts you to letterforms?
I think a lot of people are drawn to letterforms… There is something really attractive about them…. I don’t know if it is primal or if it’s from going to school, as a child, and it is one of the first mysterious things you get to learn as language. I notice that, when people first come to the studio, they engage with letterforms. I believe it’s because of the possibilities, because of the familiarity of them, it is really a natural thing.
You know, I come from a sort of graphic design and poetry background. In high school, I was very much into poetry and then, I began studying graphic design. It was because of these influences, I believe, that I became so strongly engaged with letterforms. But I think everybody, whether you are artistic or not, somehow gets drawn to letterforms or symbols.
How accurately can you study people through your photography?
Well, I aim not to be that psychological when I take a picture… It’s more aesthetical, like I tend to take a picture of a person if I find there is a poetic aspect as opposed to character studies. I see people as actors in this picture frame somehow, rather than trying to make a psychological portrait of them.
Maybe, some psychology comes through necessarily, because in the same way that people love letterforms, they also love the human face, which is kind of the first things you respond to. I feel I choose all these things because they already have a lot of resonance to begin with. Human faces and letterforms are very basic in the things you are drawn to.
You have used a lot of your friends in your portraits. Do you feel that this adds another level of emotional involvement?
It might be so… In the early days, I took pictures of what was in front of me without thinking of people as models. I was more interested in documenting a moment with a person, rather than telling people a story about this person. Even if a story is there, somehow… my main impulse isn’t to tell you a specific story about this specific person; it is to tell you a story about this picture.
On your exhibition “On this Island” you have used a technique called “automatic painting”, described by you as anagogic. What made you go back to this technique?
Well, honestly it was a way of doing something with my hand. I had gone out of the habit of doing things with my hand or gesture… like I used to do these drawings that were language based and I guess it was a way to approach abstraction… I had to believe that if it was coming out of me, it had some meaning or importance, but I didn’t try to put that meaning in, to begin with.
I think there are different ways of making artworks. There are people that have an idea and then execute it, and they sort of know what it is going to look like even before they do it. I sort of throw everything up in the air and I want to see what comes out, and then figure out what it means – if anything…! Many times, I take a picture thinking “this is just for me because I have to…. Because only I know what it means.” And then, the more I do that, it somehow opens its meaning further than you can imagine and the more likely other people will say: “Oh, this means this to me…”
Would you like to talk about your “Tomorrow’s Man” Series?
Oh, sure! Thank you for bringing that up! Just before I started making the “automatic drawings”, I had a lot to do with book making. In fact, one of my first ones was a tiny book called “Angel Youth”. I have always believed that holding a book is different from showing a stack of pictures; books have this thing that makes people believe in them more, somehow.
I was at a point in my career where I had done many books and then publisher, Roger Bywater told me: “Let’s do this book with whatever you want! Let’s do a book with your work!”. And I thought: “Who cares about another book with work of mine?!” I didn’t want to do another book with my pictures, to look through and then add it to your pile of other books on your desk. I don’t know whether I have escaped that fate with “Tomorrow’s Man” … But I wanted to do something different. I decided to do a book with work by people that I’m really excited about. Young people, people that haven’t got a lot of attention or older people that need more attention. And to add to this equation more stuff that I like! Because I find that, in the same way that I’m drawn to letters, I’m also drawn to qualities; there is ephemera and vintage stuff that I like, I gravitate towards flea markets and posters, stuff that has been printed before … I gather them in piles on my desk, it creates a mess unless you formalize it into some book form! So, I combined the above and as for the format, I decided that I didn’t want to do a typical page by page art catalogue… I really just wanted to throw them all together and see if it shines somehow!
So, we did that and it came out great! I had never made my own magazine before and because it was so thrilling to do the first one, I decided to do a second one! I then made a commitment in my mind to do thirteen of them! The forth is about to come out in September.
This summer you visited Athens and Hydra. What are your impressions of Greece?
I adored Athens! It really felt like having spent a month there, one of the most exciting cities I’ve ever been to. It was vibrant, like stuff was going on there and most importantly, people were happy there and people were not distracted there and they were really living life as it happens, as opposed to being on their cell phones! I didn’t see anyone in Athens like I do in New York, where people walk on the street looking into cells phones and only looking up every once in a while, so that they don’t bump into other people!
I realized that in cafes or lunch, people were struggling not to look at their cell phones; they were engaging with the other people, and that speaks to me a lot about being happy and being content in the moment where you are! In New York, I feel that being busy is the most important thing and then, once you are done telling everybody how busy you are… you can live! People are busy in New York, but people are busy in Athens, too. But somehow, in Greece, “the business” was not the main focus, “the being there” was!
*Cover photo feauturing Jack Pierson courtesy of Studio Panoulis