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Monday, July 1, 2013

Inside of a Wound (on the death and art of Gregory Gillespie)

inside of a wound

Abram Lerner Gregory Gillespie (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977)

The other day, Howard and I read that the artist Gregory Gillespie had died on April 26 of this year, a victim of suicide by hanging. He was found by his wife, Peggy, in his Belchertown, Massachusetts studio.

      Howard and I gotten to know Gregory quite well back in 1977, when Howard worked as an assistant to Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden director Abram Lerner during their preparation for a retrospective of Gillespie’s work that year at the museum.  With Lerner, Howard interviewed Gregory during two sessions on March 24th of that year.

     Gillespie was born in Roselle Park, New Jersey in 1936, the son of a couple who devoutly practiced Roman Catholicism, to which the artist later reacted in his many transgressive paintings. After high school, Gillespie studied at Cooper Union in New York before moving with his first wife, Frances Cohen, to San Francisco, where he continued art studies at the San Francisco Art Institute.

     In 1962 he received a Fulbright-Hays grant to study the work of the Italian artist Masaccio. Living in Florence for two years and in Rome for six years, Gillespie grew increasingly interested in the works of Renaissance masters such as Carpaccio, Mantegna, and Carlo Crivelli, the last a particular favorite.

     With great realist craftsmanship, Gillespie created Roman landscapes that were also filled with surrealist-like images, perverse sexual activity, and adult-children relationships that were difficult to comprehend. Although his painting seemed highly realistic, the heavy impastoing of his surfaces, along the inclusion of photomontage, collage, and materials such as newspapers and photocopied materials, made his works highly original, and in retrospect, fairly postmodern.

      As Gillespie recalls his own art-school training, he suggests that he was not truly influenced by any of his teachers: “I was painting tight, and they all believed in spontaneity, openness, and surprise—coming out of my big brush.”

      Even after the very successful Hirschhorn Museum show, and several shows at the Forum Galley (New York) and in Whitney Biennials, the artist seemed situated somehow outside the US art world. Even his still lives somehow seemed to be pointing to a strange, outlandish world, a world laying outside of more audience-relatable spaces. Gillespie described his work as coming from an inside of a wound, “and if I’m painting the inside of a wound it feels different than if I were painting on the surface of some other thing. It’s a very intuitive, emotional process. Lerner responded:

It must be exhausting…. When I first looked at your paintings I was struck by their ferocity. They seemed to me to be full of brutality and aggressiveness. And yet, as I became more absorbed in them, I sensed more and more sadness and hurt…suffering, a quiet and chronic suffering in the paintings…..

Gillespie answered: “I think that’s true. The feeling of being trapped. My background was Catholic and I grew up in a very restricted and repressed environment in New Jersey. And there’s a lot of anguish and pain in that. Like a delicate organism being born in the world and the kind of violence that’s done to us as a matter of course. On April 26 that violence apparently overwhelmed the man.   

Los Angeles, April 28, 2000
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (July 2013).  

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