Rita Ackerman: Marfa or Bust

As part of the Artist-in-Residence program at The Chinati Foundation (a non-profit gallery dedicated to the late Donald Judd), Rita Ackermann packed her bags, headed to Texas and chronicled for BlackBook her adventures with gun smugglers, drug lords and a dog named Mouse. See full gallery.

Marfa is a rather strange place, an artful and artificial oasis in the middle of the Texan desert, three hours from the El Paso airport, a straight road to peace. When Donald Judd first traveled through Marfa as a soldier in the early ’70s, it was just another ghost town. It once housed German war prisoners and was famous for giving shape to Western movies, its vast landscape the background to many films, including There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men.

The Chinati Foundation was established by Donald Judd and his friends, John Chamberlain and Dan Flavin, each of whom had his own art space, either in town or on-site. My favorite is the museum of John Chamberlain’s monster balls created from crumpled car parts. In 1989, the foundation established an artist residency, which, while writing this from Judd’s former studio, I’m taking part in. Hanging around town, working with the elements and interacting—almost exclusively—with the locals can lead to surprising adventures.

I only brought with me one drawing to work on. It has a cave painting–like simplicity to it, showing bodies caught in provocative, violent movements. Mixing the urban primitive with nature’s brutishness, I befriended a man named Ty, an outlaw gun smuggler and El Salvadoran war veteran. A slashed-faced, broken-boned, 7-foot-tall cowboy, Ty has royal style and grace. He is the archetype of cool, the last American gentleman. He lives outside of the rules, as does the painter Christopher Wool, who has a studio down here. One day, the three of us drove around together in Ty’s pickup truck, Christopher sitting in the back next to the giant guns and the beer cooler, me in the front with Ty’s tiny black dog named Mouse. We shared an instant connection, despite our clashing backgrounds, while Ty told us stories about Mexican drug lord Pablo Acosta (his former boss), being bothered by border patrol and bandits, and explained that, in the end, gun size settles most disputes.

It’s on this afternoon that I’ve decided to write this diary. I love driving and have an obsession with wrecked and crashed cars, with their chipped paint and the scratch marks on their metal bodies. These, to me, are beautiful paintings. And there are a lot of them here, blending into the landscape, bleeding into the wilderness and taken apart in backyards. The backyards here scream freedom. Nothing is thrown away; it’s never tidied. Everything is allowed—even games of tic-tac-toe using spray-paint on the walls—which is really what art should be about: freedom.

I Dream of Michelle Obama

In her celebrated black cut-paper silhouettes, Kara Walker unflinchingly critiques the violent and racist Antebellum South. But while dreaming about America’s new first lady, the award-winning artist reveals a less scathing side to her subconscious.

Well, the circumstances leading up to the dream were: Last year, I met Michelle Obama in that brief, scintillating, oblique way of patrons and supporters. We shook hands, and I nuzzled in next to her for a quick snapshot—several others were there, vying to be a part of the picture. I look smug, my hand cinched around her waist like a fresh suitor. Holding my champagne and leaning my head an inch away from hers, we are the same height, or maybe she is taller. I position myself as girlfriend, sister, fond acquaintance. I am hoping that she will realize how good I am to know. I make a lame joke. She responds with a knowing look that, I think, means she understands that I am an artist of some repute who could provide the White House with some art—that I could make it “clean.” I even seem to believe this, my hand gripping the future first lady’s waist. Lord.

Cut to two days later. I am in bed, and in the deepest part of the night, my daughter stumbles into my room like a puppy, all gangly and grown outwardly. But a baby, still. It is dark and she is still sleeping. Is she frightened? Lonesome? Maybe both. I wake enough to turn down the corner of the duvet, and she slips into the spot beside me. I still sleep on the left—I like to drive. I immediately re-enter deep sleep.

Dream—this is the dream: Michelle Obama turns the corner into my room, enters. She gently lifts the duvet up over my shoulders, smoothes it down, tucks down the edges a bit. I am enveloped in an aura of peacefulness and rest like I have not felt in years.

The next morning, I am embarrassed at having had a “mom dream,” but find myself telling it anyway, hoping that some kind soul will share my comfort at having a black mother—I mean being a black mother—both. In my studio, I find myself staring into the sun and worrying that the “Black Maternal” is really not a new presence at all in seats of white power, or even the popular American mainstream. The last thing I want Michelle Obama to be is “America’s Mom” for fear that ancient archetypes from Mammy through Lena Younger will predominate her characterization. But this seems impossible; this woman is actually very good at being herself. She’s not a passive-aggressive construction or some pitifully noble bronze. She’s way too smart and sexy for my narrow anxiety. Maybe I am just jealous, and I don’t want to share her with anyone.

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A few days later, I have a second dream: The circumstance surrounding this dream was “The Election of Barack Obama.”

I am walking down a red-carpeted White House staircase slightly behind Michelle Obama, who has both adopted me and hired me as her personal assistant. I have a clipboard clasped to my chest and am eagerly awaiting her instruction as we head out to a waiting limo.

Oh my god, I really am regressing. The same warm feeling is there, of being the good daughter, the black girl who is real and here and loved—but this time, I am alert and eager. The dream has the feeling that I am putting my anxieties behind me in order to move forward with the work at hand.

Ryan Adams: The Raw Power of Raymond Pettibon

Who is Raymond Pettibon, exactly? For me, he is a monolithic pillar felled, breaking open the wall that separated me from my courage to be an artist, any kind I desired. He was born in Tuscon, Arizona, in 1957, has a B.A. from UCLA, and for anyone who ever drew stuff and also knew what feedback was (in a good way), he probably changed their life. If nothing else, his work hovered menacingly in the bedrooms of thousands of kids who grew up and fucked up the world for the better.

I was just like anybody else from my generation—starved for motive and ready for action. Pettibon’s words and directive-styled art called to me like a wolf to a cub lost in the wilderness of the mall-ridden 1980s. His work destroyed every idea I had about what art could be, in one single, accidental, gravitational album cover explosion. Before I could say I owned my first Raymond Pettibon drawing, xeroxed flyer or album cover pasted above my bed, a moment happened that changed my life, a moment in time forever burned into my screaming teenage soul.

An album slipped butter-finger style from a stack of clumsily carted records just as the dusk turned to Carolina night, all tar-black and twinkling at the edge of the ocean, like the lid of America popped off into nothing. We skaters met on the darkened streets to discuss our days of vandalism, ramp skating and music, our resources very limited. At that time, we were all investigators scouring the record store for anything that looked lost and loud, like we were.

Pow! A Black Flag record (My War) slipped from under the arm of a big-kid skater in my hometown. I admired him for his ability to smoke pot, skip school and avoid being arrested. The drawing on the cover in all its savage glory popped out as the vinyl hit the street and cracked. Loving comics, I said “What is that?”

Enter: punk rock. Also enter: a lifetime of trying to recreate the paranoid, savage, boxy and well, just wow artwork that adorned the album that slipped from the sleeve and broke on the pavement. Little did I know that this was not only the sound of the record breaking, but the feeling Pettibon’s artwork would give me through my teenage fuck-this, fuck-that years to right now. He is, in a word, fuckingbadass.

Pettibon is an award-winning fine artist known for his amazing black-and-white art found in books and illustrations used by legendary hardcore and punk bands such as Black Flag (his brother, Greg Ginn, was their guitarist), the Minutemen, Sonic Youth and the Foo Fighters. His art is a healing, howling fire that broke into the galleries and institutions it once challenged. I, for one, am grateful that he changed my world and the world around us by making art that is stunning, beautiful, sometimes shocking—but most of all, a mirror to contemporary culture, one half-menacing and the other provoking the world, as if wanting to watch it burn some more. Let’s check in with the modern genius, shall we?

RYAN ADAMS: Raymond, I’ve been following your work my whole life. It’s been interesting to grow up with your album covers and posters, and now, to see your work in proper art books. And then there are the awards you’ve won in recent years, like the Bucksbaum Award at the Whitney Biennial a few years back. Has this type of recognition changed the way you work? RAYMOND PETTIBON: I don’t think so, no. More than anything, the work requires things that are necessary and immutable—the research and the grind—which are things that I actually like. That stuff doesn’t change. I haven’t figured a way out of it, at least.

You seem to be one of those habitual artists. By that, I mean someone who goes to work sort of freely. I recognize the same method in myself. I tend to gravitate toward the work first and think about context later. I don’t exactly know what you mean by context.

Well, as an example, you might say that your art existed before it was on albums. But once it’s out there, it creates dialogue with an audience outside of the fine arts community, and even within it. At that point, the works begin to comment on things outside of themselves. Oh, I see. They were never created with a particular context or audience in mind. Punk has influenced my artwork significantly, but I’ve always let the pieces find their own natural audience, if there is one. I haven’t ever given much thought to promoting, managing or selling. To be honest, I’ve never been much of an agent.

Is it strange to walk around and see something that you drew in, like, 1983 on someone’s T-shirt? It can sometimes embarrass me because, well, that’s just my nature. But I’m really thankful for the kids today who appreciate my work. I’m certainly not going to put it down by being blasé about it.

I have a question for you from Sonic Youth’s Thurston More. He said, “I’ve always been kind of curious about Raymond’s pre-’76 years, his youth. What was his experience like as an American hippie?” Well, I was on the cusp of that generation, at best, because I was born in 1957. By the time I was independent enough to do something drastically dramatic like join a community, protest a store or run away, it was already over, really. The influence was there, of course. But as a kid, I just wasn’t in the position to be under that spell. It was a different generation, really, but I appreciate a lot about that period. It was a radical, engulfing time—there was way more experimentation, so many failures and successes.

How are things with your new band, the Niche Makers? We’ve actually done a few art-related performances. I tend to combine rehearsals with recordings. Instead of practicing, I would much rather go through songs with a microphone and hope that we get it on the first take. It’s like jazz.

That first take is always the most important. It’s always the one that makes people stop and say, “Whoa, what the fuck?” Unlike rock records, where you don’t see many versions of the same song, in jazz reissues, you can hear what sounds like pieces, layered fragments.Which brings me to my final question: when Sonic Youth came to you looking for artwork for Goo, had they already seen that image or was it a more collaborative process? If I remember correctly, they said they wanted me to draw some pictures for the record. And I was hesitant, not because I didn’t want to or because I was against it, but because I’m not very good at being commissioned to create stuff. I always freeze up. But that wasn’t the case with this. I think Kim [Gordon, singer, bass player and guitarist for Sonic Youth] probably saw some of the work I had kicking around… no, wait! The Goo cover was a drawing I had already completed. It struck her, I guess, those two kids on a crime spree.

It fits so incredibly well with the record. Raymond, thank you. I’ve been a fan of yours since I was just a kid, so it’s mind-blowing to get a chance to speak with you. Thank you so much for all of your work. I’m out here loving it.

Editor’s Letter: Art Star! Art Star! Art Star!

One of the very first Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs to prick up my ears featured frontwoman Karen O repeatedly howling this line over a glorious racket of drums and machine-gunning guitars. In the intervening years, Karen O has edged closer and closer to pop star from art-rock star (even as designer Christian Joy’s space-oddity couture continues to transform her into a performance art piece on stage with each successive tour). With their effervescent new album, It’s Blitz!, a riotous dance party in 10 tracks, Karen tells BlackBook, “We’re trying to focus on pleasure more than pain, for once.” We’re all for it.

Another living, breathing art piece, The Gossip’s Beth Ditto has inadvertently become the new toast of the fashion world. See her decked out in Alexander McQueen’s outré creations in our shoot, unleashing yet another wonderfully expressive side of her fabulous self.

During a recent trip to Tokyo for Japan Fashion Week, I was struck by fashion critic Diane Pernet’s insistence that young designers should wait until they have something to say before sending a collection down the runway. As cherry blossom season began, we took in many budding talents at many different shows, all of which contributed interesting sartorial additions to the fashion dialogue. The oversize art pieces that came clomping down the catwalk at writtenafterwards’ show made us laugh out loud and cheer wildly for the madcap designs, reminding us that creativity can thrive no matter what materials are at hand (cardboard, cotton balls, tinfoil and electrical tape were employed to great effect here), and also provided a sharp, witty comment on the disposability of the glut of fashion.

For our special art issue, we checked in with some of our favorite artists, all of whom have plenty to say. Kara Walker plumbed the depths of her psyche to understand her recurrent dreams about First Lady Michelle Obama; Rita Ackermann found paradise in the junk-filled yards of Marfa, Texas; Nir Hod created a sumptuous fashion fantasy about the perils of love; and staff writer Ryan Adams checked in with iconic illustrator Raymond Pettibon, whose social critiques thrive even after the death of punk.

Our cover star, actress Rachel Weisz, also collects Pettibon’s anti-authoritarian masterpieces. Few actresses slip as effortlessly into different guises as Weisz, who continues to defy the Oscar curse with three films this year. First up: this month’s uproarious ride in The Brothers Bloom. Our Senior Editor Nick Haramis mines the Bowery’s New Museum with the bee-stung beauty on our cover (an homage to Irving Penn’s Bee On Lips) for signs of new artistic life.

Antony Hegarty’s new album, The Crying Light, and the many pieces of art he created while writing it, offer a quiet celebration of staying present in an increasingly disappearing natural world. His special way of finding poetry in the everyday — even along the highway median and in the holes of his sweaters — is a thing to behold.

Horror-fantasy writer and artist Clive Barker transforms pain into pleasure in his new body of work, photographic explorations of chronic pain through the naked physical form. Barker posted a quote from William Blake outside of his studio door: “Make your own laws or be a slave to another man’s.” The rule-breaker sees it every time he settles down to work.

Inspiration can be found anywhere, from the works we hang on our walls to the wild flowers on the side of the road to the outfits we adorn ourselves in for wild nights out. For inspired choices in nightlife, shopping, dining and destinations, stay tuned to BBook.com or download the BlackBook Guides application on your iPhone or BlackBerry. Go on, branch out — artful happenings are going on all around you.

Warrior Chic at Japan Fashion Week

Japan’s new fashion guard is ready to rumble. At Aguri Sagimori’s awe-inspiring show during Japan Fashion Week in Tokyo this March, statuesque models clad in black military combat boots, trench coats, sculptural shoulder pieces and black net capes, marched with stone-white washed faces to strangely eerie music, like futuristic warriors in the fashion trenches. “I wanted to embody strength with dignity,” says Sagimori, 23, of the stark, sophisticated designs in her “Iconic Memory” collection, which delivered a mega-dose of raw power.

A world away from the wild Tokyo street fashions of the Harajuku girls, the best of the next wave of Japanese designers showed elegant collections with refined construction, following in the footsteps of Japanese masters like Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake. The warrior motif seen in Sagimori’s show was also present in Somarta’s gold chin-guards and beautifully studded, intricately pleated dresses; the sculptural wows from Yuima Nakazato, whose work calls to mind modern gold armor pieces; and the dark beauties in Matohu’s “Kabukimono” collection, an austere line inspired by renegade warriors who roamed Japan’s countryside some 400 years ago and fighting fit for today’s goth rebels.

Photo by Seiji Fujimori.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs & the Amazing Dance Offensive

Feel-good music from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Who’d have thought? “We’re trying to focus on pleasure more than pain, for once,” explains lead singer Karen O, laughing. “It’s about nudging people a little closer to the dance floor,” she says of It’s Blitz!, the band’s third studio album. “We’re working hard to generate as much good feeling as possible, which, you know, isn’t always easy.”

If the nihilism and rough edges of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ early records now sound zeitgeist-defining for their time, the dance-oriented sheen of It’s Blitz is also equally of the moment. With the global economy spiraling out of control and an increasingly doom-obsessed media, there’s suddenly a new validity to the therapeutic value of escapism. Having recorded songs earlier in the day for the film Where the Wild Things Are (directed by Spike Jonze, Karen O’s former flame, circa 2005—she is now happily partnered with video director Barnaby Clay), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were primed for more bombast at the photo session, which segued from the Santa Monica Piers to dingy hotel rooms, where Karen O insisted on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot to add a bit of effervescence to the proceedings.

Critics be damned, a party vibe is where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ heads and hearts are at. Despite all the hubbub online and the grousing from music journalists about the band’s surprising new direction, It’s Blitz still has the hallmarks of classic Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Nick Zinner’s guitars might have the crisp drone of vintage synthesizers and Brian Chase’s drums might sound slightly more like finely tuned machines (“Reports on the death of my guitars have been greatly exaggerated,” says Zinner), but the band’s revelatory spirit—not to mention Karen’s unmistakable shout—still anchor the album in the same art-rock foundation that characterized its earlier work. That said, the band has never sounded more groove-driven than it does on tracks like “Zero” or “Heads Will Roll.” For Chase, the process of discovery was just as invigorating as listening to the final product. “It’s extra-exciting considering that we came into the studio with no songs,” he says. “It was a long process of figuring out how we wanted our new music to sound. We truly worked from scratch.”

Having endured the creation of the classically difficult sophomore album, 2006’s Show Your Bones, as well as a rumored near-breakup, all three members currently appear genuinely relieved to be moving into the next phase of what has already been a tumultuous career. “There were points when it all felt like too much for me, when I wasn’t sure if I was honestly cut out for doing this with my life,” recalls Karen. “But, ultimately, what didn’t kill us made us stronger. Plus, the good things we’ve all experienced as a result of being in this band far outweigh the negatives. It’s really been an amazing gift, this band,even if it didn’t always feel that way.”

On the subject of near-breakups, Nick Zinner echoes similar sentiments. “The fact of the matter is that we all love this band so much and love each other so much, it was just a matter of recognizing the good things in each other and pushing through it.”

Just as the band’s sound has evolved, so will its stage show. A fourth member will be added to the lineup for touring purposes (in order to flesh out the synthier tracks from Blitz). “I could never out-crazy myself from the first two years of touring behind Fever to Tell. That was seriously another level of crazy,” says Karen, a performer infamous for her beer- spitting, stage-devouring persona. “Trying to recreate my past antics would be the same thing as putting on an act, and I never want to do that. I can only do what the music makes me feel.”

“We’re playing much bigger rooms this time around,” says Zinner. “We just had two shows in London sell out in under an hour, which is really crazy to us. Plus, we’ll be playing huge festivals. I’m not worried, though. Karen is such an amazing performer that you can’t ever give her too much space to work with. No stage is big enough!”

Or style bold enough. Karen’s close friend and longtime stylist Christian Joy will once again be creating the wild outfits she wears on the upcoming tour, which in the past have included a skeleton suit with detachable intestines and a giant stuffed shrimp boa. “She usually makes about six different outfits for me,” says the fearless frontwoman. “I’m hoping to have costume changes in our upcoming show, so I need lots of looks!”

Since the earliest days of the band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have always had a carefully considered aesthetic—a thoughtfulness that carries through from Karen’s stage wear to the band’s videos to the album packaging. (The It’s Blitz cover is an Urs Fischer photograph of Karen’s hand squeezing an egg to the point of explosion.) “I was in film school at the time we started the band, so I’ve always been interested in the different aspects of our visual aesthetic,” she says. “Being in a band is the perfect vehicle if you’re also a visual artist—you can do a little bit of everything. I’ve always wanted it all to have a very cinematic quality, be it frightening or beautiful.”

Photos by Shawn Mortensen.

Object of My Affection: KAWS

KAWS, born Brian Donnelly, is a Brooklyn-based artist and designer of limited-edition toys. He has collaborated with clothing monoliths such as Nigo’s A Bathing Ape, Nike and Comme des Garçons. He recently designed the packaging for the special edition of Kanye West’s latest record, 808s & Heartbreak.

I chose this piece, Erik Parker’s Keep It Together, because it’s the last thing I see when I leave my house, and the first thing I see when I walk through the door. As I’ve gotten to know Erik better, I’ve come to better understand his process. It has been interesting to see firsthand how his imagery can slip into your brain and grow on you, the more you look at it and live with it. One night, Erik and I were checking out an opening at Paul Kasmin Gallery — where Erik shows — and I walked into the back office and saw this piece. I knew right away I wanted it and, within the week, it was on my wall. It’s motivating, and I need that sometimes.