Making Strange: The Chara Schreyer Collection

DelMonico Books’ new publication asks us to rethink the world through art. Its curator, Chara Schreyer, tells us more

Carrie Mae Weems

In a new publication from DelMonico Books, the viewer – moreover the whole of society – is tasked to see the world through a refreshed lens. Entitled Making Strange: The Chara Schreyer Collection, the magnanimous tome collates nearly 250 artworks that span over 100 years, formulating a deep and comprehensive study brought to us by Chara Schreyer, the curator of the project. Compiled over three decades, Chara examines the definition of perception, where we, the audience, are encouraged to rethink the everyday in accordance to the trailblazing and irreverent work of French painter Marcel Duchamp plus the Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky and his conception of ‘making strange’.

A multitude of works on this topic are brought to the fore, including Andy Warhol, Glenn Ligon, Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman among many others. The book is edited with text by Doulas Fogle, Hanneke Skerath and includes a foreword by Chara Schreyer with an introduction penned by Fogle. Additionally, the tome features newly commissioned essays by Geoff Dyer, Briony Fer, Russell Ferguson, Elena Filipovic, Bruce Hainley, Eungie Joo, Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, Annie Ochmanek, Jenelle Porter, Joan Rothfuss, Lynne Tillman, and Mika Yoshitake. Below, I speak to Chara on the topic of the collection, how she curated such a vast project and the specific ways in which art can be used to change the course of history: “We all really need to be challenged today whether it’s by visual artists, poets, or musicians. The world needs artists to shake us up.”

Richard Artschwager

What inspired you to start working on this book and collection, was there a reason or moment that sparked it?

Regarding Making Strange, I was motivated to commission a book about the collection for two reasons: one, the works in the collection are spread out over five different locations, so I was curious about what the works that are not in the same house might say to each other when brought together in a book format; and two, I realised that, one day after I’m gone, these works will be dispersed with a number of them promised to museums, and so on. I wanted to have a record of their intimate relationship with each other together in this collection before they one day go on their own individual journeys to new homes.

Having worked with the collection for 30 years, what challenges or surprises did you encounter?

One of the most interesting things for me in seeing the works brought together in Making Strange were the serendipitous synergies and unexpected conversations that came about from bringing these works together virtually in a book format. I really loved seeing how the authors Douglas Fogle and Hanneke Skerath brought very different kinds of works together under provocative curatorial propositions. It was really thrilling, for example, to see Ruth Asawa’s hanging wire sculpture Untitled S.437 (Hanging, Seven-Lobed, Two-Part Continuous Form within a Form with Two Small Spheres) (1956) in a chapter called ‘Minimalism and Its Discontents’ with Donald Judd’s Untitled stack (1969), Catherine Opie’s landscape photograph Untitled #5 (Icehouses) (2001) and Felix Gonzalez Torres’s light string sculpture Untitled (Tim Hotel) (1992). And there are many more surprising moments in the book.

Renate Bertlmann

What was the curatorial process like over this period; where did you source your artworks? What did you seek to include and what didn’t you?

The motivating factor in all my collecting has always been one simple idea: I’ve always wanted to collect works by artists that changed the course of art history. Early on, I worked with an advisor with whom I had a fantastic curatorial relationship. We purchased a number of core works in the 1990s including an example of Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935-41) that was once owned by Andy Warhol (who is also in the collection), a classic stack by Donald Judd and Robert Gober’s iconic Deep Basin Sink (1984) which turns the Duchampian readymade on its head by recreating an unplumbed sink fixture completely by hand. In a sense, everything in the collection flows from, around, or into the work of Duchamp. Even Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove, two American modernist painters we would never think of as ‘Duchampian’, were friendly with and often showed together alongside Duchamp at the time. But it’s not just Duchamp’s contemporaries. The lineage extends in all sorts of ways up through the likes of Andy Warhol to younger generation of artists from Kaari Upson, Glenn Ligon to Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Dan Flavin

What artworks can we expect to find inside, can you pick out a few favourites or key pieces?

As I always say, choosing your favourite works is like choosing between your children. It’s really impossible as you love them each in different ways. With that said, I do find myself continually enamoured with Eva Hesse’s Top Spot (1965) and Robert Gober’s Basin Sink (1984). Is Top Spot a painting or a sculpture? It pushes itself outside of the boundaries of the canvas into the space that you’re inhabiting. Hesse exploded the boundaries between sculpture and painting and did it as a woman in an art world still dominated by men in the 1960s. Gober’s sink also asked all the right (or maybe wrong?) questions. It is proudly hand-crafted as opposed to machine made. It was created as a non-working sink with all the melancholia that this suggests. It’s ghostly. As the artist created it in the middle of the AIDS crisis its lack of functionality also became a metaphor for the individuals whose bodies were no longer working correctly and who ended up losing their lives to the disease. This work has so many levels.

In many ways though, the spiritual guiding force of the collection (and of the book Making Strange) is Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935-41) as it is a collection/retrospective in its own right with its miniature reproductions of the artist’s major works including his ready mades. In some ways, this work, which is the inspiration for the title and first chapter of Making Strange, is the defining core of the collection. Many other artists in the collection can be seeing as operating in the conceptual wake of Duchamp.

Francesca Woodman

The topic of defamiliarised art is an interesting one. In what ways can art help us rethink the world? How can this be applied to a modern context?

I think a lot about many of the women artists in the collection and the way in which they’ve made the body strange, from Hannah Wilke’s vulvic ceramic sculptures, Renate Bertlmann’s photograph of the tips of two condoms that seem to resemble a pair of knees to Alina Szaponikow’s lamp sculpture Lampe-bouche (Illuminated Lips) (1969) with its alien-like disembodied mouth or Louise Bourgeois’s abstracted marble female torso Harmless Woman (1969). Each of these artists was working in a way that we might call defamiliarised. They really questioned the role of the female body in culture and how we objectify it. They made the body strange in a way that challenged us to rethink our relationship to gender. It’s clearly an extremely relevant way of looking at the world still today. In the end, I love art that has that edge that makes you get out of your comfort zone. We all really need to be challenged today whether it’s by visual artists, poets, or musicians. The world needs artists to shake us up.

How do you hope your audience will respond to this book, what can they learn?

I really hope that the readers will enjoy seeing the art historical connections between the various works in the collection. I also love how Douglas Fogle and Hanneke Skerath edited the book as a series of visual essays. The works speak to each other and have conversations that run parallel to the wonderful commissioned texts on individual works in the collection by 14 art historians, curators and critics around the world. 

Ruth Asawa

Lee Friedlander

Gilbert & George

Harmony Hammond

Glenn Ligon

Christian Marclay

Jean-Luc Moulène

Frank Stella

Kara Walker

Andy Warhol

Making Strange: The Chara Schreyer Collection is available here.

The World of José Parlá

Opening the doors to his studio, the Cuban-American artist discusses identity, underground culture and art as politics

José wears long sleeve tee and tack slim selvedge rigid denim Levi’s® Made & Crafted™

Artists’ studios are always personal spaces. Hidden in plain sight in warehouse lofts or behind pull-down steel grates, they don’t reflect their residents’ personalities and practices until you get inside and see what’s on the walls.

The studio of the Cuban-American artist José Parlá is no different. A single-storey industrial building in the southerly Gowanus neighbourhood of Brooklyn that’s surrounded by mechanics and manufacturers, the facade is completely nondescript. But once you’re in the door, everything changes.

Parlá, who bought the building in 2014, works in the centre of the space, a wide sky-lit arena hung with the artist’s vibrant, gestural paintings in progress, which recall urban walls as much as art historical reference points like Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha. The paintings have been shown in galleries and museums from New York to Tokyo; a mural of Parlá’s can now be seen in the new One World Trade Center.

Above the studio arena off to one side of the space is what Parlá calls the ‘nest’: a lofted aerie that holds an office with a wide desk; a circle of sleek chairs; a couch for meetings; and a DJ setup currently spinning Marley Marl, an artefact of the energetic New York culture that first brought the artist to the city. Records spill on to the floor: Celia Cruz, the Last Poets, the Warning. ‘In terms of the quality of rhythm in my work, a lot of it is informed by music,’ Parlá tells me.

Below the ‘nest’ is a neat box composed of a library, bathroom, and full kitchen. Light is plentiful, even on a dull day, and the walls and fixtures are painted a warm industrial grey. Altogether, the studio forms a perfect machine for art, life and anything in between.

‘I don’t live here, but I pretty much feel like I do,’ the artist says (his apartment is in nearby Fort Greene). In his paint-spattered black jacket and jeans, Parlá looks as comfortable as he would holding court at home.

The studio’s design was the result of a collaboration with Snøhetta, the buzzed-about Norwegian architecture firm responsible for such structures as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s recent iceberg-like expansion, and the Oslo Opera House, which won the 2009 Mies van der Rohe award.

Parlá met the firm’s co-founder, Craig Dykers, at a Pecha Kucha slide-presentation event in 2010. The two appreciated each other’s talks and Dykers invited the artist to his office to see if they might collaborate. The first result of the partnership was a piece installed at North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library. The intention is to team up for spaces like a public library in Queens and the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. But Parlá’s studio is the biggest collaboration so far.

‘When I bought the property, I was having a beer with Craig and he started drawing right away,’ the artist says. The space’s openness, both in terms of scale and the presence of other cultural forms, is perfect for Parlá’s practice, which draws on influences as diverse as graffiti and the French situationists.  

Joaquin, Parlá’s studio assistant, brings two Cuban coffees, the kind that you can only get outside of Miami if you know someone who can make it for you. He serves them in espresso cups emblazoned with Cuban flags. ‘As a kid we weren’t allowed to go to Cuba,’ the artist says.  ‘I was born in Miami and grew up in Puerto Rico, so I understand the culture from the perspective of being a Latin American and of being from Cuban parents.’ The country itself was still off limits, however.

After President Obama opened Cuba to United States citizens in 2014, change came in earnest. The country’s cultural landscape is changing, too. Parlá is now becoming a public creative force in the homeland he didn’t know until later in life. He participated in the 2012 Havanna Biennial in a collaboration with his friend, the French photo-based street artist, JR. Parlá had just returned from Havana to work on new projects two weeks prior to our meeting.

During this gradual transformation, the Cuban identity has persisted. ‘Cuba’s still Cuba culturally,’ Parlá says. Not everything has changed, certainly not like the overhaul Brooklyn has seen since the artist moved here decades ago. ‘You see one or two hotels refurbished, some young people opening up their own restaurants. It’s not at the scale you see in the first world.’

However, Cuba is not the easiest political environment for artists. ‘There’s still a lot of tension. It depends on how far you take your message with the art, how much you can get away with,’ Parlá says. Making art there is an opportunity, however, ‘to go back and have a dialogue with my soul country.’

In 1980s Miami, Parlá was exposed to the nascent movement of street art and graffiti that was growing in New York and Philadelphia. Friends and family passing between the two cities would bring back photos and art books. He started painting walls when he was 10 years old, learning from older writers on the scene. ‘It was really important to be original,’ Parlá says. ‘We used to say, this guy “bit” somebody; somebody’s a “biter”. That was a big no-no, to copy somebody. If you didn’t have a respectful attitude, you might get beat up.’

José wears crewneck sweatshirt and chino pants Levi’s® Made & Crafted™

Parlá followed the trail of hip-hop and wall-painting to the Bronx in 1995, then moved to an empty loft in downtown Brooklyn in 1997, all the while writing under the name Ease. The energy had shifted downtown with DIY exhibitions. The scene, as Parlá describes it, became an international export. ‘I started out showing in galleries and doing bigger projects in Japan, Hong Kong and London,’ he says. ‘There was an appreciation for New York underground culture there. Here, the museums weren’t really trying to look at what we were all doing.’

Parlá doesn’t appreciate the label of “street art”. To him, the work is all part of an art historical continuum. The abstract expressionists were urban artists, after all, responding to the street. Parlá is as likely to reference artists like Joan Mitchell or Antoni Tàpies, as the graffiti legend Kase 2. As for the Banksy-style boom, ‘We got grouped in with artists who were painting a bunny rabbit hopping over a dragon. That was not the same,’ he says.

Today, the artist shows in estimable galleries like those of Mary Boone and Bryce Wolkowitz – the latter being the New York gallerist who walks into the studio during my visit to check on work for upcoming art fairs. Exhibitions are coming up in Italy and London, as well as a project at the University of Texas, Austin. Parlá is entrenched in the art world, reinforcing a now well-established path from graffiti to museums, just as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and KAWS have before him.

Yet Parlá is still focused on reaching a wider audience, particularly through his murals and other “public art”. ‘You’re having a connection with the public that’s different, than with someone who’s searching for art,’ he says. ‘They might discover that they really love art.’ One can easily imagine the next generation of painters arriving in New York inspired by Parlá’s work, just as the city once drew him in.

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Photography by Mark Mahaney
Styling by Yety Akinola