April 2012: In Conversation with Dickie Landry
Dickie Landry: Heart
Countless musicians have passed through Manhattan, but Dickie Landry is unique. He is the only person in the world who can say he played his first New York gig at Leo Castelli Gallery, and his most recent, over forty years later, at the Guggenheim. This last performance, Solo, was a memorial tribute to John Chamberlain whose career retrospective is currently on view at the iconic musem. It is one of the more wonderful machinations of fate that the Guggenheim performance was organized by Ned Smyth, who Landry first met in the early 70s on New Jersey's Route 9. Smyth was hitching a ride to Soho, little more than a kid, and it was Dickie Landry and Keith Sonnier who picked him up, tipping him off en route to Gordon Matta-Clark's restaurant, Food, for a job. The art world they were heading to that day was small and it was poor. To be on the scene you simply had to be savvy enough turn up. Both Smyth and Landry speak warmly of a community in which everybody knew and helped each other. Work that would influence generations of artists was produced on shoestring budgets without any expectation of the million dollar sales and unfathomably steep financial backing that are part and parcel of today's most successful careers. No one had business cards back then.
Collaborating with James Salomon at Salomon Contemporary, Smyth has been introducing New York to its former self. At the beginning of 2011 he organized an exhibition of the early artists at 112 Greene Street, and in 2012 he has launched American Responses, a series of solo shows focussed on the same generation of artists. For Landry's gallery show, Smyth has chosen to recreate an exhibition that originally took place at Leo Castelli in 1975. Landry's is the type of restless creativity that can't be satisfied with a single outlet. Beyond his music, he is a painter, a video artist, and he has thoroughly documented the incredible cohort of people around him with his camera. This exhibition consists of a projected video featuring the artist's hands beating out a rhythm under pulsing light, as well as a large amalgamation of photographic stills (1,2,3,4 1969). It is simple, cool, and effective. It eloquently demonstrates how much can be accomplished, artistically, with a bare minimum of resources, and in that sense, exemplifies its era. The show, and the series as a whole, offer an invaluable perspective for young artists working in today's struggling economy.
Landry spoke to Whitehot Magazine from his home in Louisiana.
Dickie Landry: I had just arrived in New York city and I was working with Keith Sonnier, who is also from Louisiana and was with Leo Castelli. We were doing in-house performances with foam, rubber, glass and neon and so forth, and using a strobe light. I always did like strobe lights because I was in a rock and roll band back in Louisiana, with the whole light show... I was also beginning to take photographs and experiment with video, so I asked him if I could use the light and borrow a video camera, and tape it. It was one of the first Sony reel-to-reel tape video decks, an obnoxious little camera. We were have lunch, or taking a break, I'm not sure which way it was, and there was a big piece of foam just sitting there. I started beating on it, turned the light on it, and I immediately stopped, got the tape machine together, and continued. So about seven minutes later the film was done.
Kordoski: And how did it end up actually being shown in Castelli's gallery ?
Landry: I was at a dinner at Robert Rauschenburg's one evening, and Leo said 'Would you like to do something at the gallery?' And I said 'What?' He said, 'Whatever you want to do.' At the time I had five or six musicians living with me, all from Louisiana, we were doing jazz jam sessions all night long so I said, 'Well I could do some music.' We agreed to that and my first concert in New York was in Leo Castelli Gallery.
A few months later he had heard that I was working on photographs and such and he said he wanted to see what I was doing. I showed him both photograph and the video, and he immediately said 'Lets show them in a few months uptown at the 77th street gallery.' Video was becoming sort of an art form, Bruce Nauman and Keith Sonnier and Lawrence Weiner were using it, and Leo had decided to have a section in the gallery where he would show and sell the videos that his artists produced. The uptown gallery was a small gallery, it was similar to the Salomon Space. The video was on a small tv monitor. We didn't have video projectors in those days.
Kordoski: Why did you decide to show it again now, and what's it like experiencing the work in New York of 2012 as opposed to New York of the early 70s?
Landry: I had done a show with Salomon a year earlier as part of the 112 Green Street exhibition. I showed a couple of drawings. Ned Smyth actually decided, 'let's show the old video.' So it was included in his American Responses series.
In the early 70s I was a very naive kid from Louisiana. When I arrived in New York I knew exactly two people, one of whom was Keith. Little did I know that I'd arrived and immediately gone to the top of the contemporary art world with Keith and Leo Castelli, and with William Fischer I went directly to the top of the music world with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records, and Aretha Franklin and that hole stable of artists up there. In 2012 it's a whole different ball game, Leo isn't there anymore and everybody's diversified and gone elsewhere, so it's a privilege to be included in these shows. You know, I left New York several years ago and kind of didn't look back, but it was great being here again. I mean the Guggenheim show was... I'm honored.
Kordoski: You'd been wanting to perform in the Guggenheim rotunda ever since playing a few notes there while preparing for a Philip Glass Ensemble performance over forty years ago—was it what you expected?
Landry: It was in some ways frightening. I hadn't played the tenor saxophone in a while and I took it out four months before New York and said, 'well I guess I've got to practice.' The first day my lips were fine, but my hands, after about a half hour, began to annoy me. I went back the second day and said, 'you know, what you're going to practice is not what you're going to play in the Guggenheim.' It's not like I prefer to have the music written down like Philip Glass, so after a while I just put the horn on the stand, and walked by it every once in a while thinking, 'I'll see you at the Guggenheim.' But it was fantastic, a dream come true. I've thought of the space since 1969. People wanted me to use equipment, my quad delay and so on, and I decided, no, I'm not going to do that. I think the building will do me right. And I heard the recording, it sounded terrific. John [Chamberlain] was a good friend of mine, not extremely close, but we hung out a lot together so it was quite an honor to do this for him.
As far as the rest of the night, I'm getting my cataracts taken care of, but right now I can not see faces... so people were coming up to me saying 'Hi Dickie' And I was like, 'Who are you?' When they got up real close I could tell, but it was quite embarrassing. [laughs] But it was really good to see so many people.
Kordoski: As far as all of the creative media you use, is there a real difference for you as far what you can express with each, or in how the different processes affect you? Or are there any definite overlaps?
Landry: When I was in the city and doing photography and drawings and music and video, a lot of artists were really pissed off that I was doing too many things, like you have to pick one thing and concentrate. And my answer was always, I get bored very easily and I like to be creative. With the photography, it was a way of getting paid without getting my hands soiled doing plumbing with Phil Glass and/or cutting floors with Gordon Matta-Clark. I love photography. It's just fun. And I was always interested in painting. I can't draw worth anything, I've tried to take lessons and it's impossible, so my thing is sort of minimal abstraction, not abstract in the De Kooning way but... the paintings are the paintings, the music is the music, some people see connections but I think of them all differently.
Kordoski: What else are you up to these days, besides landmark solo performances and gallery shows? Are you still painting?
Landry: I haven't been painting for about a year but I'm about to get back into it. I always wanted to put images in my paintings, but back in the day you'd have to do some kind of chemical thing, or silk screen, and I thought silk screen was too derivative, and using the chemicals was a huge process. But now with printing machines I'll be able to put images in my paintings.
I've been taking a lot of photographs and I've been going through my seven books of black and white negatives trying to come up with a book. When I first arrived in New York I met Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Bruce Nauman, Susan Rothenberg, Nancy Graves, Joan Jonas... I documented them all. They're very personal photographs because I worked with so many these people, I didn't just take their photograph and go home. In hindsight I shouldn't have sold the photographs to them, I should have taken a piece of work. [laughs] When I went on the road with Rauschenberg to play at the openings for his Rocky Mountain Tour, we never talked about money and I got treated real well, but at the end of the tour he says, "Do you want money or you want a painting?" and I said, "Uh... I'll take a painting." I had learned my lesson. I'm still trying to find a publisher for the book project.
I'm playing a lot of music. I play with a group called Lil Band o' Gold. It's a Swamp pop group, early rock and roll, rhythm and blues. We're touring a lot, we'll be going to Australian and New Zealand in June, and we're coming out with a CD attributed to Fats Domino. And I play with Reggae bands here and punk bands here and Zydeco bands here. So I've got my hands full.
And also, I just planted my first spring garden ever yesterday.
Kordoski: Oh that sounds so nice—I wish I could see it! Thanks so much for your time, Dickie, and all the best with everything.
Landry: My pleasure, hope to meet some day.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief