Art In Conversation
McArthur Binion with David Rhodes
“I didnt come from art history, I landed there.”
On ViewLehmann Maupin
September 9 – October 23, 2021
Several weeks before McArthur Binion’s exhibition Modern:Ancient:Brown opened at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, Rail Editor-at-Large David Rhodes spoke with Binion via Zoom about his upcoming exhibition, his life, and his career. The exhibition comprises a series of paintings that represent the culmination of Binion’s decades long exploration of handmade marks and color. Binion’s work engages language, African American history, identity, color theory, minimalism and geometric abstraction in an approach that is both intensely personal and thoroughly involved in the process of painting. The initial collaged surface, the under-conscious, is a layer of personally significant photographs and documents—pages from a phonebook, his birth certificate, photographs from his childhood, as well as found images of lynchings—all drawn over in grid patterns, typically with paint stick, wax crayon, and ink. Binion’s complex body of work has developed slowly over the years since the early 1970s, and continues today. McArthur dialed in from a hotel room in Chicago.
McArthur Binion: I’m in a hotel. This painting behind me is a hotel painting. Just in case you were wondering!
David Rhodes (Rail): That was going to be my first question, whosse painting? [Laughter] So are you in Chicago?
Binion: Chicago, yeah. I've been living in Chicago. I moved here in late 1991.
Rail: I want to ask you about that, the move from New York in 1991, but could I ask you about Mississippi, first?
Binion: Mississippi. I remember it somewhat from age three. I moved to Detroit at four and a half years old. My memories of Mississippi are better after I went back, when I was seven. And then again much later, when I was 45, 46.
Rail: And you grew up in a family of farmers, is that right? They were involved in farming and your father was a pastor?
Binion: My father was a minister in Mississippi. My grandfather had acreage, and they had tried to own, you know, animals and stuff. And my father worked on the railroad as well. We moved from Macon, Mississippi to Detroit in 1951. He went from making $7 a week to $80 a week. It was crazy. And I’m one of 11 children, so in 1951 there were nine of us.
Rail: So you grew up in a household that had a background in manual labor, in working, and it also had a strong spiritual presence with your father's work. Did that impress upon you as a child, or did that just seem remote at the time?
Binion: It was remote, and also I was the sixth child, and I’m a natural born rebel. I rebelled against the church at a very, very young age. And also my father was the associate pastor. So he always had a job in the auto industry. Because the ministership is a very fickle proposition, if the congregation doesn't like you, you're out. So he had, let’s say in 1955, my father was 47 and he had 11 children. We lived in a two-bedroom house, one bathroom, with an attic and a basement. You learn how to share at an early age. I like that.
Rail: Was it difficult to get space for yourself with so many family members around? Were you ever on your own?
Binion: It’s hilarious to think about that because it was a very weird thing. Even with that kind of intensity—the house was at maximum 1000 square feet; 1200 is really stretching—I somehow found ways to be alone. It’s just who I am.
Rail: How did you get to connect with art and museums?
Binion: You know, the first museum I went into was the Museum of Modern Art when I was 19 years old. I didn’t know the museum from thinking about art or anything like that. I was a really, really good athlete when I was young, at 11, 12, 13 years old. And then somehow I emerged as a creative writing major in college at Wayne State University when I was 19. And, it was that summer that I dropped out of school and I took a position in Harlem with this new, it was called HARYOU-ACT. It was the first anti-poverty legislation in Washington, brought by a man named Adam Clayton Powell Junior. It was short for Harlem Youth Act. And so they had this idea of a magazine, and they recruited me somehow and so I moved to New York, and I had a job as the associate editor. But what I really was, was a glorified errand boy. The editor was this well-to-do upper class Black woman from Harlem. So she sent me to hand deliver something to the president of the Museum of Modern Art. I went into the museum and I saw a painting for the first time and responded to it, and this was the Abstract Expressionists. And so, you know David I ask people, I ask you, I ask everybody, how did the Abstract Expressionists, I mean, like, how did New York painters move from basic Cubism through to pure abstraction so quickly?
Rail: Well, they identified with modern art from Paris, Cubism, and also of course Surrealism, but, yes, that changed rapidly. It totally changed.
Binion: But how to change so fast? It changed so fast, because look, and no one talks about it. What no one talks about is that the New York painters learned improvisation from bebop musicians, but no one talks about the genesis of it because if they do, then they have to change the structure of how art history is set up. So for me, my work begins at that intersection right there. I left the magazine in New York and went back to school. Two years later I dropped out again and went to Europe for the first time. When I came back from Europe I had to make a decision, whether I wanted to stay in Europe and become something like a major music producer and I’m gonna write on the side, or go back to America and take my first drawing class ever. I’d never drawn but I knew I had, as they say, the makings of a painter. That was my speech block as a kid. It took me a long time to realize that nobody really cares about that but you. So, I was thinking that way. But what happened was that it finally clicked, that all those years of me not being able to talk but being the most popular person in my school etcetera, is because of nonverbal communication. And then, it was oh, painting, and bam! That was 1968, I was just turning 22 and I took my first drawing class. And I was in classes with these kids who were 18 and had been drawing all their lives. Every time I tell this story, I start to cry because it’s a really emotional story for me, because it really kind of rules my life. I drew that day and the teacher said, “Look around.” There were 14 of us in a class, “only one of you is going to be doing art in 10 years.” I’m thinking, well, it’s gotta be me, I’d never drawn anything, but I was good at most everything I ever tried. It was the most difficult thing I ever attempted. I left class, rolled a joint, and I was crying like a baby. I decided that day. I drew forty hours a week for two years, and I got it. Something about my approach is, you know, David, I didn’t come from art history, I landed there.
Rail: I can understand. This wasn’t a path presented to you—studying art was not a part of your family background—you just went out, and somehow found it for yourself.
Binion: So for me the advantage is that I, I mean, there’s one of the questions that you sent me, two of the names that you mentioned, those two names are super, super heavy in a world of amazing artists, David Hammons and Henry Threadgill. I was wondering what I would say to you about that and literally I said to myself, “Julius Hemphill, George Lewis, David Hammons. Charles Gaines, it's like we're all part of this second generation avant-garde.” I mean, we were all trained by Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, or Leroi Jones. Those are the first generation avant-garde, and I put that together for the first time. For the first time yesterday, I put it into words, because I still hang out with those guys. Right? It’s alive still, so I never had the opportunity or the need to put it into words and suddenly, I see. Cause when you look at my work, from afar you see the painting and then you get up close, and oh, shit, what’s up? So you see a lot of it right now, the paintings literally have phone numbers and addresses I used over the years for Threadgill and Hammons in them. You would recognize names in there for sure because everybody I’ve ever met is in there.
Rail: Was there an event or a moment when you felt, right; I'm going to use that phonebook? You’ve referred to the “under-conscious” when speaking of this first layer in your paintings. Besides the phonebook you also use photographic images: your birth house, your mother, found images of lynching and also copies of your birth certificate.
Binion: It took me between 12 and 15 years to figure out how to use it.
Rail: It was something that was on your mind for a long time then?
Binion: So they started out in this title. I did five on paper, and I would call them self portraits, because my entire social DNA is in there starting from 1973, when I moved to New York. That was long before you even had answering machines, so everything you had, it was in your book. If you wanted people to come to your show, you had to know some of their friends to get the number. And it just took me a long time to reveal; number one, those numbers are still hot. I mean, people don’t move in New York, you have rent control, you have the same number. Same thing for the last 40 or 50 years. So, you can go into my painting and call somebody. In fact, Stanley Whitney and his wife Marina Adams went to a gallery over the summer I heard, and they looked at a painting and they saw their own phone number there on the wall. And they were like, Oh, shit! So I mean, some people might be angry at me, I don't know.
Rail: I didn’t think of the numbers as actually still in use! I heard a quote from Philip Roth, who said that when he looks through his phonebook, it’s like walking through a graveyard. I thought these numbers became a memento mori?
Binion: Not quite, not quite yet!
Rail: Well, that’s good!
Binion: Yeah, because really, everybody I’ve met from, you know, Flavin to Brice to Jean-Michel like, everybody, Schnabel, they’re there because in the ’70s and early ’80s New York was very small. I mean, really small. And so everyone was out and meeting each other. And what happened in 1980? New York changed overnight. When John Lennon got killed the stars stopped coming out walking the street, they were gone from view.
Rail: What were the paintings like that you were working on around this time?
Binion: You know what, David, the work I did in the 1970s was wax crayon on aluminum built up slowly. They were well thought of by certain people who I really respected. But if you were doing crayon on aluminum in the ’70s, you’re like, what? [Laughter] If you weren’t doing oil paintings in the ’70s, you were out of it basically, right? So I persevered and luckily I still have some of them.
Rail: The first oil stick on canvas paintings, they are earlier?
Binion: Right, those came first. I did the oil stick on canvas as my graduate thesis at Cranbrook Academy, Michigan.
Rail: And you exhibited them in New York I think?
Binion: Those paintings were in the second show of Artists Space, along with Mary Obering and Jonathan Borofsky. And at that time, this is kind of a funny story because the work was really well received, and I’d only been in New York for 90 days. I’d just finished graduate school. I turned 27 on September 1, and I had this first show in New York. Ronald Bladen chose me, and he also kind of warned me that this had happened to me really fast. This is really an important space, and it’s director, Irving Sandler is amazing, and da da da. I said, sure I'll do it. It got reviewed by a young Roberta Smith in Artforum, and while the show was up I got a call from David Whitney.
Rail: That is a fast start!
Binion: I got a call from David Whitney saying, “love the show. I would love if you could be so kind as to show it for the whole spring at the Four Seasons restaurant?” And I had never heard of David Whitney or the Four Seasons restaurant so I called my friends. David Novros, Joanna Pousette-Dart, I don't think I called Brice on that one, but it’s like that. And they said, restaurant? No, no, don't do it. And so, years later, I’m thinking if I had shown there it would of changed my fucking life, right? [Laughter] I also had no idea that, you know, David Whitney was Philip Johnson’s partner for 45, 50 years. I’m so pleased that my career’s been slow. Was that a missed opportunity when I turned down Mary Boone and various other people because it wasn’t on my own terms? I knew that I was the only Black person there and, you know, I don’t want to be the only Black person. Okay. So I said ciao for a while.
Rail: When you first moved to New York, you quickly met some great people like Joanna and David, and you already knew Dan Flavin and Ronald Bladen from Cranbrook. But, hadn’t there been resistance in some quarters toward Black artists working with abstraction? Howardena Pindell said that when she first came to New York from Yale in the 1960s, Black artists making abstract work could be seen as inauthentic. It’s a strange conception, and it implies something patronizing too.
Binion: Howardena is a little before me. She finished Yale, I think in 66, something like that, maybe 67. She’s a couple years older. So in America, maybe in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and part of the ’90s, the National Football League’s thinking was that, well number one, there were no Black quarterbacks, because the thinking was that they’re not smart enough to be quarterbacks. So for me, it's the same kind of thinking. For me to be an abstract painter is like, excuse me. [Laughter] Because my whole thing is that the New York school of painting is based on bebop music. My last Zoom was with my oldest art friend, Judy Pfaff. I think it’s going to be available in September. I talk about certain things that I don’t talk about much, but I just decided I want to get a position within the next couple years to just write my own story, how I see myself in the world, because I’m one of the people who had had a bird’s eye view from the very beginning. This was 1973, that's before there was anything you could call the “art world.” You know, that was in the ’80s. So I saw it happen.
Rail: And you were also getting to know poets and jazz musicians. And, so conversations were around visual art and jazz and presumably politics and that must have been going on every night?
Binion: Every night, but also there weren’t many painters hanging out because painters are good for painting but basically boring people. I mean, like me, now I am boring as hell. I go to bed at nine o’clock and I'm up at 5:30; in the studio by 7:00; rockin’ you know. In the ‘70s man, it was like all the second generation avant-garde Black people in America all moved to New York. All of us, from Julius Hemphill to David Hammons, of course, Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, Steve McCall. And then the poets that came from the West Coast: Ntozake Shange, Thulani Davis, Jessica Hagedorn. Also, you have photographers: Jules Allan, you know, it was really thick. But also then you could actually be a full time artist with a part time job. You could have a part time job, be a full time artist, and it was amazing. I was paying $145 for a whole floor. $145? Come on. I mean, that was before real estate happened, and real estate became, you know—oh shit! [Laughter]
Rail: So eventually you left New York to go to Chicago? That’s a hell of a change, isn’t it?
Binion: Yeah, I mean, the main two things are like, I had had a marriage and a divorce and a breakup with the mother of my child. After our breakup I was working in a one-bedroom apartment off the Bowery, because in the split up I had to give up the loft. Just at a time when all of my peers were starting to soar; Judy Pfaff in the New York Times Sunday magazine, everybody's getting genius grants and boom, boom, and now I’m driving a cab. People that grew up in Detroit are always really good drivers, like me. The reason why it happened was that Hunter College had offered me, I think the chair at the time was not Bob Swain, but Sanford Wurmfeld, and they had offered me an adjunct teaching position. Then I figured out that I could make three times as much driving a cab as I could by teaching art. So I said “no.” And so it happened it freed me up and when I would work, in the ‘80s, money was everywhere. It's like it was dripping off the street. I would work 10 straight days, raise almost three thousand bucks, then fly to Europe round trip for $300. And the dollar was huge then. And so you go over there, stay a couple weeks, spend all the money, have a ball, come back. And so I did that as I kept working small on paper because I love paper. The main thing, David, I never got angry and never got bitter about my friends’ success and all that stuff. Because I realized, if you’re angry, you’re gonna block the love. Right? That's okay, cool. Then yeah, moved to Chicago, I came here to follow a relationship. I didn't want to lose this person. I was married to her for 27 years, and we're now going through a divorce. We have a son 26, and a daughter 22, who just finished at Brown, and they’re great kids. I’m very thankful.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about the origins of the DNA paintings in 2013. I think in your upcoming New York show at Lehmann Maupin, you’ve said that you have now moved beyond them?
Binion: Yes, I did. The first ones were called Stuttering Standing Still. And one of those paintings that I’ve never shown is going to be in the Lehmann Maupin show, and it has music composed for the painting by Henry Threadgill.
Rail: That’s great! Will that music be played in the gallery?
Binion: It’s going to be looped every half hour. I get really excited about it. The DNA paintings, I may have innovated very early in my graduate thesis, the first person to use paint sticks. I want to add to the painterliness, that they’re who I am because of me, it’s very important. This is how it started. When I came to Chicago I got married. The next year, I started a family, got a teaching position, working toward tenure. I realized that I had to have a job and to have income because, even though I’m a natural born hustler, I can’t always do it. For the first time in my life, my work was in the last place to my family, the school, and then my work. I had professor money but you can’t run a studio on that with a family. I was just doing some small stuff in my dining room. I took a sabbatical and went to Lisbon for five months and I became an artist again. It was just bam! I came back and I realized that and I did the first of what became the DNA works because I wanted to expose all of my social history. I have the painterly skills down; I’ve got to add something personal, something that’s invisible and obvious at the same time. I gotta tell you something that is never, and I probably will say this because I don’t really talk to people. Like every time someone writes something about me, I don’t read anything about it because invariably there's something wrong because some editor wants to make my language make sense. I don’t think it does—just leave my language alone, please!
Rail: Editors can change everything around to make their sense sometimes; I get what you’re saying. You had planned a second sabbatical in Lisbon; you were going to find words for your paintings? Was that part of the plan you had, to do work on paper with ink, and to do some writing?
Binion: I mean, the writing was going to be the year that the pandemic started, I was gonna go to Lisbon for five months. But that got canceled. I mean I started. I’m gonna go to Europe for the month of November, maybe late October, and move around from Lisbon, Brussels, or Milan. I have a show in Milan in late November. It’s been a good while, he hasn’t announced anything but it’s gonna be in the last week in November. It’s a show called, I think, “Two Minimalist Giants” or something like that, something wild, me and Sol Lewitt; really it’s an amazing space. He has these rooms and he’s gonna pair me and Sol Lewitt. It’s really interesting. The Lewitt Estate I guess I’m thinking when I read this, right, because his widow is one of my ex students.
Rail: Fantastic. What’s the name of the space?
Binion: Massimo de Carlo. They’re in Milan, Hong Kong, London, and Shanghai. Yeah, and they sold four pieces to President Obama this spring. He knows the work. His best friend is a collector of mine for the last, you know, he bought a painting 15 years ago and so he buys me because he knows the prices are gonna sky in the next five years.
Rail: Yeah, smart man. He had very good works in the White House. Was that his eye, or—
Binion: No, that was his best friend. He has an amazing story but to make it short. At an auction about 10 years ago in Chicago, he was sitting next to me, and Alma Thomas came up and I said, “get it for sure.” He paid $22,000 for it. It was like well, he had never spent that much on a painting ever. It's just funny that, for me, like people say, minimalism may be seen as a shape, and also the idea between minimalism and me, it’s just the minimalists, we’re in denial of content. For me it’s all the emotional content. You know, that’s one of the things that my old friend Brice Marden said. He was saying that the emotional content is the hardest to achieve. I remember he had that retrospective at the Guggenheim, I think he was in his late 30s, you know, still young, mid late 30s, and it was like, he wasn’t able to successfully portray, to give the emotional content.
Rail: A concentration on objectness, with the exclusion of an emotional content.
Binion: I was hanging out with David Novros, Brice, Al Loving, who was from Detroit. He was a fabulous person. Great mind. His hand was almost there. For me, most artists, 99%, their brain is smarter than their hand. For me? No, no, I want my hand to be smarter than my brain. I don’t care how smart my brain is, like, what happened in the last 20, 30 years; smart is not special anymore. I mean, years ago, smart was, woo woo wooh. People like Al Loving didn’t have that hand. Like with someone like David Hammons, has the hand, the concept. I think David Hammons has to be the best living artist. Even though he’s my friend, I haven’t seen him in some while.
Rail: Can I ask you what you’re going to include in the Lehmann Maupin show?
Binion: I gave them 10 paintings. And they can only show, probably there’s only enough room to show eight of them, because two are 8 by 12 feet. I like the size of the gallery because it’s not overpowering. It’s high. So you have room to breathe. I gave him a painting that for the very first time in my life, I said, to a piece of mine, that I loved it. For the first time. Yeah. And it’s about; you'll see the show, right?
Rail: Of course.
Binion: It’s a lynched man, with a circle. And all the circle paintings, they are the hardest thing to do in my life, period. This was completed during the trial of Derek Chauvin, the guy who killed Floyd, it was just happening and it was, like, so very difficult. It’s the first time in my showing career that I have told the gallery I want to control where this goes. Because very, very interestingly, the associate director, and the contemporary curator from Holland, they’d been at the Art Institute. Ann Goldstein and some other guy, they came to the studio, because they want to buy that. They want a certain piece from the DNA series. So I showed them that work downstairs, and I decided, well, I’m gonna bring them up to my studio, and show them what I’m working on now. And I showed them this piece. And, they couldn’t see the lynched man. I showed them the rope. I showed them the neck. And, I inquired further at my gallery who haven’t seen it in person. They have it on the computer. They can tell what it is. So I decided, I’m not telling anyone; but a person that can’t see it, cannot buy it. For sure.
Rail: Is the installation decided already?
Binion: So I mean, for me, I have this big old grand space like some friends of mine, the furthest I can see the painting from is from like 20 feet or so. Maybe 20 feet, and especially the paintings that are 8 by 12 you have to really see from afar, so I will be seeing the paintings for the very first time. So I’m excited. And also I never, I don’t hang the show. I tell people at the galleries, that’s your job. Hang the work and I will come before the show opens and say what’s up. Because I know the one thing I’m going to control, there’s only one wall they can hang on there. So if they can figure that out, I’m going to just shut up. I don’t care about the rest.
Rail: He must know his gallery spaces very well and have a great sensitivity about placing works. The upcoming show here in New York is going to be called Modern:Ancient: Brown. That's also the title of your foundation in Detroit. Where does that name come from? How did you put those words together?
Binion: I've been using that since the mid ’80s. And when I did, I did a group of paintings on paper. They were called Modern:Ancient:Brown. And what it was like, there’s two things going on. I want it to be modern. I want the work to be ancient. And I want it to be brown. Like about me, brown person. But it also is like, Mac-Arthur-Binion. MAB, so bam! And there’s one thing I was gonna say to you, but I kind of backed out of it. No one ever asked me what DNA means. No one’s ever asked me. So I’m gonna tell you for the first time.
Rail: There is a presumption of what DNA means, what that’s an acronym for?
Binion: Detroit Negro Artist. That's how it started. No one’s ever asked me. I’ve never told it, but yeah, I told one friend. Many years ago, Detroit Negro Artist, I was thinking I'm never gonna say anything if they don’t ask. Why? So those are the kinds of things I’m going to expose as a writer.
Rail: In the upcoming show you’re going to show sculpture. Is that right?
Binion: No, I chickened out. [Laughter] Because I don’t want to confuse people. Because right now, for me, actually, I guess, I’m still rising. I met Charles Gaines for the first time in June. He is so together, it just made me want to be a little more together. I mean, we both love each other’s work. Yeah. I met him for the first time. Someone gave me his number 20 years ago, and I never got around to it. And I love this guy. He’s just the best. I mean, the first time you meet someone, and he ends up inviting me to his house for dinner. Yeah. That night was just fantastic.