By Seth Eisen
In 2006 after Remy Charlip had a stroke I was given the task of packing and moving all of his artwork and personal items to storage and to help facilitate the creation of a list of every item in the collection- a massive task. I worked for several months to support the great effort of archivist John Held Jr. who catalogued Remy’s entire collection. Every single item was carefully tended to, preserving the meticulous order in which it was left and to maintain its longevity for research and study of Remy’s work for many generations to come. Little did I know at that time that I’d be one of the first researchers to use the 958 page “finder’s guide” that John created that summer. During those days I worked methodically, night and day, sometimes with the help of a friend to pack every item in Remy’s art collection in archival boxes, packaged with glassine sheets. Each box was labeled and numbered according to where it had lived– which flat files drawers and closets.
Remy kept practically every sheet of paper, journal, photo and drawing- some dating back to the 1940s. I went through dozens of flat files that had original drawings of every one of his 30 plus books, costume and set designs, including singular works and prints. There were original posters, sets and costumes he’d designed for The Merce Cunningham Company as well as for countless other companies and projects. There were 100s of Air Mail Dances and Mail Order Dances (drawings of choreography) he created for innumerable companies over the years. The scope was epic. Each drawer I opened had a whole life of its own–all of it begging for an immense retrospective that would blow people’s minds and hearts. I remember wondering why that had never happened.
Each drawer of supplies was intricately organized in what his son Jules called a “rainbow logic”- pens and inks; watercolors and erasers; fasteners and map pins; all ordered in a perfectly arranged mandala by size and texture and quality. Only an artist/monk of the highest order of Zen could have created such balanced masterpieces, drawer after drawer. A feeling of deep awe and inspiration was building inside me each day as I’d plunged into the deep sea of fine detailed drawings. I was transfixed. And I started to sense the importance of it all on a new level. I knew that my friend Remy was part of a very important movement in American art history but this particular slice of his history arrested me on one particular day with a jolt I wasn’t expecting. I began to sweat and get teary as a realization descended upon me. Besides the impact of looking through the papers of such a prolific artist I was witnessing the resonance of a very sophisticated, wise and evolved human. A tender heart shaped by the many pleasures and challenges of life experience and then reshaped into something artful– at once, simple and magical.
I stared at a poster of the Paper Bag Players from the late 1950s and knew in that moment that someone MUST do something creative with this archive based on research. The work was all about making things up, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, bridging the gap between art and life. It was seeping into my skin and moving me to the core. I never felt such resonance with a body of work quite in this way. I had worked in other collections but something was distinctly different here. Was it because Remy was also my teacher and mentor since meeting him at Naropa University in the early 1990s? Was it the recognition of our parallel paths being gay, Jewish artist/performers? Perhaps, but he had an identity uniquely his own and couldn’t be pigeonholed. I knew in that moment with certainty that someone must do the work of bringing these hidden gifts to the world. I remember thinking, “who knows, maybe someday I will.” It was the feeling of being an archeologist discovering another culture or sacred Buddhist teachings being uncovered for the first time.
Nine years later, after having just finished my show Homo File, my dear friend Adam II (who was also close with Remy) suggested I consider Remy for the next show. The suggestion was daunting. I knew the next piece had to be about someone as equally extraordinary as the last shows (about Sam Steward and Jean Malin and Sylvester) but someone that was uniquely different and apart from them. And when I thought of Remy I remembered that day in 2006 standing in Remy’s home holding the Paper Bag Players poster. What pulled me in was the fact that The Charlip Project would in effect collapse the distance between myself and the subject of the show. And that felt worth the risk. It was in that instant I realized that today was A Perfect Day for that 2006 moment of inspiration to finally come to fruition. After much encouragement by friends and my company manager Alec, The Charlip Project was born. That was November 2014. Thank you for witnessing this process as it unfolds.
Rainbow Logic: Arm in Arm with Remy Charlip
Premiering Nov 4-20, 2016 at CounterPulse
Co-Presented by the Contemporary Jewish Museum
More info at: www.eyezen.org