Jack Pierson remembers the ‘90s at the Aspen Art Museum

Andrew Travers, The Aspen Times, 20 February 2017, Visit External Site
Jack Pierson, 'Diamond Life', 1990.

Jack Pierson has re-created his first five New York City shows for a new Aspen Art Museum exhibition, revisiting work from the 1990s and the beginning of a career that’s moved between photography, painting, sculpture, installation and drawing but which the artist himself often describes in the terms of poetry.

Spanning 1990 to 1996, the shows track Pierson’s early evolution from seedy nostalgia and playful narcissism to (almost) earnest art-making.

“I’ve always been nostalgic,” Pierson said as he installed the shows, which run through May on the museum’s ground floor. “Even at 30, I was nostalgic for 23, like, ‘Oh, those were the good old days.’”

Pierson made most of the pieces in this massive exhibition while working out of a studio on 42nd Street in New York — in the bad old days of pre-Giuliani era Times Square — when the young artist was exploring questions of identity and sincerity.

This precisely curated exhibition of Pierson’s shows is the latest example of what’s become a cornerstone of the Aspen Art Museum program in recent years: reconsidering and re-contextualizing decades-old bodies of work by major contemporary artists. (Another, the monumental Julian Schnabel exhibition filling two basement galleries with his iconic “plate paintings” from the late ’70s and early ’80s, closes today).

The earliest of the Pierson shows is a photography exhibition that opened at the Simon Watson Gallery — a modest SoHo loft space — in 1990. It showcases 15 enlarged snapshots from Pierson’s brief time living in Los Angeles. They mix kitsch and Americana with a dose of absurdity in street scenes, still lifes and portraits soaked in dreamy California sunshine.

Pierson made them in a one-hour photo shop that charged $9.99 to blow up the images to poster size. He put $500 on a credit card he couldn’t pay off to make the posters and the show that started it all.

“I thought, ‘That’s so good. It’s just big enough to be arresting somehow,’” he recalled of his decision to enlarge the photos and pin them, unframed, on gallery walls.

The most recent works included here, from a Luhring Augusine Gallery show in 1996, are similarly tied to the technology of their historical moment. These pink paintings — displayed in a pink-floored gallery modeled after the studio where Pierson created them — were made using a mid-’90s computer imaging process that transferred photos to canvas with paint.

A show from 1991 at the Pat Hearn Gallery includes Pierson’s installation work “Diamond Life,” which reproduces a tumbledown bohemian living room space inspired by Pierson’s crash pad in Miami Beach in 1983.

It has a specificity that makes it feel real — from the record player and stacks of vinyl on the floor, to the three packs of different brands of cigarettes (from three roommates with different tastes) to the beaten-down tables and chairs and lovely, shabby homewares like a Maxwell House coffee jar functioning as a flower vase.

“I was trying to create reality — to show you that reality was a style,” Pierson said. “I wanted you to know it was false but I wanted you to be here as if it was real.”

The installation is likely to strike a chord with the Colorado ski bum (or former ski bum) crowd: replace the blue bathing suit Pierson has tossed on the floor with a pair of ski pants and swap out the cigarette butts for vape pens, and this could easily be the 2017 living room in any Aspen seasonal employee housing unit.

These five shows also include several of the plastic word pieces that have become Pierson’s best-known work, and which he’s still making 25 years later.

The earliest Pierson words, from a 1992 show, were assembled with mismatched marquee letters that he salvaged from the Times Square peep shows and theaters that were shutting down around his 42nd Street studio. They spell out words like “STAY,” “SEXLESSNESS,” “HELPLESS” and “HOPELESS.”

Pierson recalled breaking the bank and spending $40 on the first four letters, “STAY,” marking the beginning of his signature body of work.

“I asked my roommate for the money,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Come on, man, we’re broke. We can’t do it.’ But I did.”

This breakthrough ’92 show from the Tom Cugliani Gallery also includes drawings that Pierson made in the mode of a lonely, lovesick and tormented young man doodling in a diary — they mix images of cigarettes and Hollywood with laments like “I cried for you now it’s your turn to cry over him.”

“It was like I was method acting, ‘What if you were a broken-hearted loser staying up late in your rotten apartment writing in your journal?’” Pierson explained, adding with a laugh: “And that helped me get to the point that I realized, ‘I am a broken-hearted loser.’ So these came out of that.”

Chronologically, the body of work that follows is from the Luhring Augustine Gallery in 1994 and from a period where Pierson was getting hot and making a name for himself in the art world. They’re the most straightforwardly beautiful and painterly works in the Aspen show — blue finger paintings and blue watercolors and blue portraits of hands holding cigarettes.

They seem less self-conscious than the works that preceded them, but Pierson was still putting on an act.

“I made a transition into a fancier gallery,” Pierson said. “I had some success, I started to feel it and to become an artist with a capital ‘A’ as opposed to a latter-day beatnik poet. So what do artists do? I thought, ‘I’ll have a blue period.’”

Though they’re the most traditional works in the show, even these — made during a residency in Provincetown, Massachusetts — are a riff on self-identity.

“Some of it was a performance of ‘I’m an abstract painter now!’” Pierson said, “in the same way I was a broken-down denizen of 42nd Street (in the lovelorn 1992 drawings.) I’ve always had this thing of ‘acting as if.’”