George Herms: beat legend, assemblage artist, free jazz enthusiast, Mexican marijuana fan. At a sprightly 75, he's still producing vast amounts of work in his Topanga Canyon studio. He's also the focus of a new show that opened last Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in the Pacific Design Center, entitled "Xenophilia (Love of the Unknown)."
Xenophilia is a group show organized by star curator and beat history enthusiast Neville Wakefield, who met George Herms in Florence in 2008 through menswear designer Adam Kimmel. Wakefield introduced Herms to a flock of young New York artists, many of whom are featured in the show. Artists including Rita Ackermann, Kathryn Andrews, Lizzi Bougatsos, Dan Colen, Nate Lowman, Ari Marcopoulos, Ryan McGinley, and Jack Pierson, all participated and often produced works that responded to the free play and open spirit of Herms' art.
On Friday, L.A. Weekly tracked down Wakefield and Herms, who had long left the gallery for the bar next door. The sound of Brian Eno rippled through the speakers and over the plaza -- we hadn't fully left the land of pink seersucker suits and horn-rimmed glasses yet. All the same, Wakefield and Herms were at ease, joking with each other over their glasses of wine. We sat down and talked.
How did this project get started?
George Herms: A mutual friend, Adam Kimmel, was interested in the beat generation for a clothing line that he was developing. Someone said, "You know, Adam, one of these guys is still wandering around the hills in Topanga," and sent Neville and Adam to Dennis Hopper, who called me up and said, "These guys should buy something from you, a couple of pieces at least." They came up to Topanga and it was an immediate mesh -- this relationship has been a mesh from the very beginning.
Neville Wakefield: It was a strange thing, because we didn't know -- the legend preceded the man, let's put it like that.
GH: They found an all-too-human human.
How did you find the younger artists? Did you have them in mind before you began planning this exhibition?
NW: Most of the artists are people who I introduced George to through this thing that we did in Florence. Three years ago, Adam was celebrated at the Pitti Immagine event in Florence, and the collection was inspired by [artist] Wallace Berman and by George, basically. The way we decided to use the award was to fly everyone out to Italy -- all the people we were working with and liked in New York -- and George, because we thought there was an affinity of spirit. We spent four, five days in Florence with all these young New York artists and George, and everyone hit it off.
GH: Neville is the linchpin in an arch. One stone that everything else floats upon. Everytime we walk under an arch, we kiss. We're starting a new tradition -- what the hell, it's 2011!
How would you describe your new pieces?
GH: Recently the Getty went through all the papers I never threw away in fifty years -- a horrible mess -- nothing was in any order, I just kept things because I liked them. What happens at an archive or a research institute -- if you have a date on a document or a letter, they don't need the envelope it came in. So that's the piece upstairs, called Winow. Those colors of those papers, those were the original collages.
It seems like a lot of the artists are consciously responding to your legacy and your work. Is your work a response to theirs?
GH: The one that started it was a Jack Pierson piece, the one that goes way high into the space. It's called Abstract #4. It's made out of letters, but they're more like a Rorschach. If you're standing in front of it, you look at the next wall, and there's a round piece of mine that has two metal Es above an O.
That's what I thought I would be doing with everyone, but it became an exercise in the unknown. The unknown part of it is the rant which I go on about the xenophobic. They have had their day. It's bullshit, you don't want to give it to your kids -- ever. Get them off the stage, the radio, the TV, and let's have xenophilia, love of the unknown.
NW: From the other side, I think it's been a huge journey and revelation for the younger group of artists, who are trying to collage aspects of their lived lives into their art.
GH: [Artist] Kathryn Andrews came to Topanga, and for two hours she went through my old envelopes and made a selection, and then made her pieces. So she was the closest thing I got to a collaborative piece, other than when Aaron's thing came through. In the fifties, when I tried to work with another artist, we got into a fistfight!