“Go West, young man” was the catchphrase for generations of young Americans, urged to throw themselves into the rush of America’s Manifest Destiny. A century later, Tom Judd decided to go East, but the myth of the West was never left far behind, and this month the Salt Lake City “expatriate” brings to Modern West Fine Art a new collection of work focusing on when (and how) the West was settled.
Don’t Fence Me In is filled with a number of small, collage-based works, and some larger ones, too. While Judd works in both acrylic and oil (doing the backgrounds of his large paintings with acrylic, the foregrounds in oil), on his collage works (he has always incorporated a lot of collage) he uses only acrylic “because I want to work fast. Those small pieces are dependent on my striking while the iron is hot – not going in and refining them. They are the lynchpin of the show. They are slightly subversive: out to deconstruct the [Hollywood] myth, to turn it on its head – the noble thing about our national character while we were wiping out the Indians. This manifest destiny shit; the whole macho Marlboro man stuff. I want them fresh.”
Judd allows, however, that he loves the myth itself “as long as it stays a myth and is not sold to us as the truth.
Judd’s roots in Utah are deep. He did not grow up in a Mormon household, but his great-grandfather was LDS Church President Heber J. Grant (who served for nearly 30 years), something that has always “fascinated me and is very much part of my artwork and, indeed, my life,” says the artist.
Judd, 64, knew he was an artist at age 7 when his family moved him from the hillside of Mount Olympus to a suburb of Chicago for a year. “It was traumatic and I remember that my escape was obsessively drawing battleships. And I decided that my only option in surviving life was to be an artist.” He says he always took the artwork seriously.
Judd attended Olympus High where he started a folk group called the Louisville Burglars (he played the autoharp) and dated a girl for about six months who was a year behind him: the delightfully quirky local artist Susan Kirby who recently relocated to Mexico. They always have remained close friends.
His childhood buddies included Phillips Gallery artist Mark Knudsen. Both ended up at The Salt Lake Tribune when Judd was at the University of Utah in the early ‘70s, Knudsen in the art department. “I was just a copy boy,” Judd recalls. He is remembered to this day by longtime staffers for his role in starting a series of cartoons called “The East Side of Mexico,” where donkeys stood around contemplating life in a deviant manner, as donkeys are wont to do. The entire newsroom made contributions.
He left the U in 1973 to go to the Philadelphia College of Art. Upon graduation he knew two things: he didn’t want to teach and he “wanted to do his artwork and was going to make it work.”
He couldn’t find a gallery to take his stuff and, three years out of school, Judd made an incredibly audacious move: he called the curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Anne d’Harnoncourt, cold, with no introduction (he thinks the gatekeepers thought he said Don Judd instead of Tom Judd), and talked her into looking at his portfolio, such as it was. (Daughter of MoMA director Rene d’Harnoncourt, Anne would become – a female! — director and CEO of the Philadelphia MOA for 25 years.) Six months later, after a studio visit by some high muckety-mucks, Judd was not only included in a show but, at 25, had a piece purchased for the permanent collection of that prestigious museum.
However, that didn’t resolve day-to-day needs. So, first, he tended bar. Then, because he had always painted houses, he started his own house-painting company and did that for 15 years. “It really worked great in that I could design it and set it up and I’d get the crew going and then go to the studio.” He also sold a lot of art to his house-painting clients. By 1994, Judd was making half his earnings off his art sales and decided that if he put all the energy he was putting into the house-painting company into his own painting he could make it as a full-time artist. So he did.
Now he has a huge studio where he works as a 9-to-5 artist. Well, actually he has breakfast, takes 9-year-old daughter Astrid to school, hits the studio by 8:20, makes a fire in the wood-burning stove in winter, and picks up his daughter at 2 or so, when his painting day comes to an end. Still, he says, that’s a pretty good day of painting.
He has shown frequently in Utah, though for the past 40 years he has been in Philadelphia. His wife, Kiki Gaffney, also an excellent artist, shows mostly in Philadelphia, but, like Judd, has had several exhibits at Park City’s Julie Nester Gallery. Astrid is an artist, too, though she hasn’t shown anywhere yet. Judd’s son Will, 27, studied international business at Drexel University, about as far from the tree as one can fall. (This happens in the best of families, of course.)
Judd lives by words of Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs,” adding that the quote continues: “the rest of us just need to show up and go to work.” Which, for some reason, immediately reminds him of the oil on canvas he terms “the star of the show” at Modern West: “’Mount Shasta’ – 6-foot square and the largest work there.”
He invariably works on a series, “never, ever” on just one piece. “It’s always an idea I go at by doing a lot of different things within an idea. I work on several different paintings, often in several different media, at once.”
The artist’s early work reflects an interest in the billboards and other imagery along American highways back when he went on family vacations as a child. “Man’s Head” (1985) has been included in two museum shows and is now in the permanent collection of the Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia. Another, from 1994, called “The Billboard Project” (subtitled “The Lost Vacation”), was in fact a 20’ X 60’ billboard installed on an interstate highway in Philadelphia.
By 1996, Judd was beginning to incorporate what he terms “recycled imagery” into his paintings: collaged found photos made their first appearance, mounted inside a series of found frames or, using pictures from his senior class yearbook, comprising the background of a piece called “Graduation.” He explains that “there is often the sense of things being painted over other things in a very haphazard way, again imitating the way billboards get painted over with little thought or intention . . . I wanted to capture that same essence of a chance association of images which brings about a sort of visual poetry.” “Attribute” is one example.
About this time, on a river-rafting trip on the Salmon River in Idaho, Judd found a hermit shack where a man named Sylvan “Buckskin Bill” Hart had lived for 40 years. His sleeping quarters had old wallpaper samples glued to the inside walls and the setup reminded Judd of exploring similar places as a kid in Utah and imagining who had lived there and what their lives were like. Along with some paintings, Hart’s shack inspired Judd to create his own “Hermit House” which was first exhibited in 2005 at the Stremmel Gallery in Reno and later displayed for six months at the Nevada Museum of Contemporary Art. It eventually was purchased for a corporate collection. Another installation piece, “Tijuana Weekend,” included a shack similar to those Judd had seen people living in in that largely poverty-stricken Mexican border town.
“The work from this period was a series of collages and fragmentations of surfaces and imagery,” says Judd. “It speaks about memory and metaphor. I combined landscape, still life, patterns and figures in an effort to imitate the eclectic nature of our memories.” He used wallpaper, old recipes, found photos, and ephemera in such works as “Peach Pudding.”
Influences (or “fellow travelers”) are Walker Evans and Joseph Cornell. “[“Village,” for example,] suggests the finding of an artifact from another time . . . [imparting] a contradictory sense of loss and discovery on the viewer.”
His next series, beginning in about 2009, drew upon the pink cinder block “modern house” his father had built in 1958 with large windows and a rock garden and carport influenced by the ideas of early modern architecture. Judd’s love of early modern architecture led to “portraits” of such buildings: “They are homage to a time of great ideas, from a distance. Beautiful things . . . left out in the rain.”
Finally, prior to the works he did for his most recent shows, Judd created paintings in a limited palette that he terms his “Manifest Destiny” series, “hymns for a mysterious American landscape that we have steadfastly conquered and depleted.” He explains that most of the “melancholy” images, like “The Central Flaw,” come from 19th-century photographs from artists like Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan and that his paintings “conjure up a longing for the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains that I played in as a child. An imagined wilderness that was the West that was. Perhaps a fantasy, cooked up by a man living in Philadelphia, many miles and years away from his childhood. I have always considered myself a sort of expatriate, living far from my home.”
(Some readers may recall a 2011 Judd installation at the Dixie State College museum entitled “The World is Flat,” a 12’ high X 25’ wide piece constructed of cardboard boxes with a painting of a map of the world.)
Before signing him to her gallery, Diane Stewart flew to New York to see Judd’s show there, titled Myth of the Frontier. “More of the same,” he says. But she obviously was impressed. As was Judd with her: “I walked into her gallery and she was showing some artists from New York, and she has an apartment there. And to me Salt Lake has been a disconnected kind of place. And I think it’s important that she is connected with and interested in other art markets,” he says.
“She is looking at all kinds of stuff that expands on the physical gallery,” he continues. “The art fairs, Facebook, Instagram. That’s really where it’s going on right now. If you’re not into that stuff you’re really not in the game. She is always looking for what’s next and I felt like I was part of what’s next.”
Just recently, Judd gave a lecture on what they don’t teach you in art school:
“It’s about creating a world that supports what you’re up to. What most artists don’t do is create that world. The house painting worked because I was never tempted to be a house painter. You don’t want [what you do to support yourself] to be horrible but you don’t want it to be too good either, because you will never be an artist. . . .
“You’ve got to collect ‘nos’ and not take it personally. You get no until you get yes, and that yes changes everything. When you are in this game you have to be pushing it all the time in terms of taking risks.
“The other part is that it’s not that people don’t like your work it’s that they don’t even know who you are. That’s why Facebook and Instagram are so great: you can get your work in front of people. That’s a huge thing, it’s changing the way an artist can approach a career.
“You literally can reach people all over the world, instead of just taking a portfolio to a gallery.”
Or even to the curator of a major museum.
This profile appeared in the April 2016 edition of 15 Bytes.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.