Gene Beery"I like when there’s nothing wrong."
Interview by Asher Penn
Portrait by Florence Beery
For the past 50 years, artist Gene Beery has been making paintings that can’t help but speak to whoever is looking at them. Composed almost exclusively of text, Beery’s paintings are magnetic in their point-blank simplicity both in terms of material and content. With humorous titles like “What is Beyond So What?” or “Folk Art Limit (Three Minute Masterpiece),” these works create puzzling sites for contemplation. A veteran of both New York’s pop and conceptual art scenes of the late ‘50s, Beery has maintained a sustained commitment to what he describes as the core values of both historical movements: accessibility, communication, and, above all else, originality.
Whereabouts do you live?
Our house is in the foothills of the Sierras near Sacramento. We’re in the woods up here.
How long have you lived up there?
We’ve been here 30 years now. My folks were up here first.
What first got you interested in art.
I’ve been doing it all my life. When I was a kid it was the thing that separated me from the other kids in a good way. I liked the creative part of it. It was the Second World War, and I was drawing airplanes, tanks and stuff.
Did you take art classes?
I took art in high school. After I graduated, I took some classes at Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at nights after work.
What was your day job?
I worked at an electronics factory in Racine. I was making working drawings for engineering changes. It was a simple job.
What inspired you to relocate to New York?
I used to read the art magazines, and that looked like where the action was. I just got in the old Volkswagen and split out of there without graduating.
It sounds like you were serious about being an artist.
I was willing to make all the sacrifices. Like not make a good living. I liked the idea of the freedom of being an artist, doing what I wanted to do and creating stuff. New York drove me sane. It wised me up as a Catholic jerk from Wisconsin. I got my eyes opened in New York.
You had a Catholic upbringing?
Yeah. That was the best thing I ever did—get rid of that baggage.
Were you always into pop art? Conceptual art?
That was really just beginning when I was there. I was hanging out at the Cedar Tavern. Franz Kline, de Kooning, and other art stars of the ‘50s would be there, and you could talk to those guys. James Rosenquist was a pretty good friend of mine. Eventually I saved up enough money for a studio down on Hester Street. It was 45 bucks a month, I couldn’t beat it. Eventually Sol Lewitt moved in upstairs. And he was a good guy. His career just was starting. We used to bullshit all the time about art.
What would you guys talk about?
Getting away from abstract expressionism, which was hot at the time. Pop art was just coming in.
You didn’t like abstract expressionism?
That was too much like driftwood to me. Just like beautiful driftwood.
At the same time, your work really sets itself apart from Pop Art.
Well, the pop artists had their own bag. If there was one thing I’d really gotten from art school it was the idea of “being original.”
What about communication?
You mean with art or personally?
I try to do it through my art probably more than anything. Words were a good way to do it. It was very satisfying painting words. I felt like I had something original going there.
What was your first word painting?
I was doing female figures, and would add words like “breast.” One of those was shown at this open show at MoMA.
Wait, what is an open show?
They don’t do them anymore, which is a real pity. Anybody could submit three slides for ten bucks. There were a lot more of them around, and they were on a pretty high level. And that was how they curated the show I was in. It was about figure painting and I got in! I was working as a guard there at the time. I guarded my own painting.
You were a guard at the MoMA?
Yeah. That was where the idea of text painting came from. People were interested in words. They’d see a canvas with words on it, and they’d go over and read the words. Which were in French, or German, or something. I thought I should do that so people pay attention. Just about everybody can read.
What were some of your favorite artworks at the MoMA at the time?
Matisse’s Red Room was a favorite of mine. I was never impressed by Picasso. Cezanne was interesting—as a guard you stay in one spot for a while, so I would stand there looking at this Cezanne and the god-damn thing would become three-dimensional!
What were some of your other early text paintings?
“This painting is temporarily out of style,” “Watch for a grand reopening,” “This is my last serious painting” “N.F.S.” “Note make a painting of a note as a painting.”
How important was it that you do your paintings by hand?
I like the soft edges. And it’s easy. I like to do it because it’s efficient. I prefer that to messing around with a machine.
It’s a conscious decision.
Yeah. You know, I can make pretty good portraits if I want to. I know about beauty and color. I’m not bragging or anything. But people wonder if I can do that traditional stuff, and I can, I have done it.
I’ve always like how direct and funny your paintings are.
I like humor. Humor’s a good connection. I can relate to other people through my work. I think my work connects with people on some common themes about life.
There is a lot of truth and honesty in humor.
There we go. Two of the best. They’re relative, but they’re still good.
Do you ever get writers block?
Not really. I don’t have many “flops.” If I am working on them I make them succeed.
Is there something cathartic for you about making your work?
Well it’s too late to be a political cartoonist. I’d like to be a serious artist humorist.
Are you cynical about the art world?
I’ve gotten to the point now where bitterness is turning into a sunset or something. I don’t know, it’ a mixed metaphor, but over the years I’ve become pretty indifferent to the world associated with art success. The art part I’m still nuts for. It’s a wonderful life embellishment, being an artist.
What do you spend your time doing when you’re not making art?
Well, we live in the woods here. There’s a certain amount of wood-cutting. I had to work, too. I used to work part-time as a gardener at the Country Inn. I was a cab driver in the ‘60s and ‘70s in San Francisco. Now I’m getting a government grant called social security. It’s not much, but we’ve been puttering by.
Do you have many creative peers where you live?
Everybody kind of hangs by themselves around here. Most of my friends that I hang out with are writers. They’re nice people and good friends. Honestly, though, my family takes everything pretty much. It gives a lot back, too.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I like to read about Zen and the Tao. You know, I’m surrounded here by Christians, if you can believe that, even my own kids. They always ask if I’m an atheist and I say, “no, I’m am incomprehensibilist.”
And some of this comes from Zen and Tao.
I like when there’s nothing wrong. I hate all that Catholic guilt and shame. I like things better when there’s nothing wrong, and I think that’s what I got out of the Oriental religions.
What are your thoughts about Folk Art?
I once wrote a little book, and one of the subtitles was “Folk Art for People Without Folk Art.” Folk art is sort of done with available materials. It’s something that relates to the people who it concerns. Advertising is probably our folk art. Or car design.
Does Folk Art relate to your paintings of t-shirts?
Using Tees as a painting backdrop was kind of a folk art- they could be eventually done as wearable objects to be sold with the ideas diseminated in the culture. Several were made and I wore them till I gained weight. I've been painting Tees for 10 years or so. Much easier and cheaper than runs of actual tees.
You’ve been painting for over 50 years. How do you think your work has evolved in that time?
Well, originality is always one of my bugaboos. At some point I realized the most original thing I could do is to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m pleased with, over the years, what I’ve done. I’m sort of satisfied, too. But you never get satisfied if you’re an artist. There’s always new damn thing you wanna do.