New York CityPeter Freeman, INC.
March 6 – May 29, 2021
Born in 1930 outside Tampa, Florida, Alex Hay moved to New York City in 1959. His move couldn’t have come at a better time: New York’s art world was rife with experiment, including nascent forms of Pop art and neo-Dadaesque performance. Hay fit right in, marrying the dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay and, through her, developing a relationship with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, eventually joining the company on its world tour as assistant to its stage manager, Robert Rauschenberg. While participating in events at Judson Dance Theater and the seminal 9 Evenings performances associated with Experiments in Art and Technology, Hay also made paintings and sculptures of everyday objects—paper bags, receipts, legal pads—overly scaled and nearly trompe-l’il. As the scene moved through the 1960s and toward more conceptual projects, Hay was already present, developing a deep friendship with Joseph Kosuth and producing “accumulation” pieces that amassed detritus or passively collected abstract imagery from sun-bleached chemical filter paper given to him by the Gemini G.E.L. printmaking studio.
An artist with an eye resolutely toward possibility, Hay has been omnivorous, taking advantage of opportunities as they’ve presented themselves, whether in terms of subject matter or medium. As Hay tells us, “the genesis of my work is circumstances.” My interview with Alex Hay has been edited from our New Social Environment conversation held on April 13, 2021. We talked hearty breakfasts, cats, dance, travel, and the brilliant way that he has made friendship one of his most important mediums.
Amanda Gluibizzi (Rail): I wanted to start with a quote from Peter Schjeldahl from a review of your work in the New York Times in 1968. He asked right away "Is Alex Hay a Pop artist?" I never thought of you as a Pop artist, but I was curious to ask you: Did you consider yourself a Pop artist?
Alex Hay: No. You’re right. I’m not a Pop artist. The genesis of my work is circumstances. Everything I do comes out in circumstances. I did, for instance, the Egg on Plate [with Knife, Fork, and Spoon] (1964) because I love breakfast, that’s it.
Rail: So if you weren’t a Pop artist, then let’s get into this a little bit more: you love breakfast; that I can totally understand. But how did you choose to depict some of the other things that show up in your work, like the legal pad? Like the guest check from a restaurant? Like the paper airplane? How did you choose your subject matter?
Hay: When I first came to New York from Florida, I decided that I was going to do two things. Number one, I wasn’t going to be over-influenced by other artists. And I was only going to do things that were of great personal interest to me. You know, I did Guest Check (1968) because I loved traveling and eating in restaurants. I did Egg on Plate because I love breakfast. And in everything I did, I did because at one point I said, well, if I’m going to do paintings of objects, I have to only paint two dimensional objects.” Also I have a great admiration for legal-sized pads. I just thought they were beautiful. So that’s the reason I did those, plus they were two dimensional objects.
Rail: Did you think about people like Agnes Martin or Frank Stella as you were making these large paintings that have stripes?
Hay: No, I just thought about the paper I was painting. I never thought about other artists as I was doing work. But you know, I thought about other artists because I admired great artwork—that was my association with artists.
Rail: And then what about the scale of the objects, most of which are quite large? Even things that aren’t really overly scaled, like you would feel in Alice in Wonderland or something, are still quite big, like Egg on Plate. Even the drawing is quite large.
Hay: You know when you pick up an object, you have it close to your face, and you’re looking at it? If you’re in a gallery, obviously something that you can look at right in front of your face is not going to appear very big on the wall in a gallery. So, I scaled everything else to make it relate to what an object would look like if I had it in front of my face. It had to be much larger in order to have that same sort of significance.
Rail: It makes sense, but why was that important to you?
Hay: It’s just visual importance, and to show you what an object looked like to me. Basically, it was personal—you look at, well, the Paper Airplane (1968), for instance. I loved paper airplanes when I was younger, so I just started making paper airplanes in my loft on Howard Street and sailing them to see what was the best sailing characteristic of an airplane. I made different configurations, but this one was the one that I liked best, and if you make it, and make it correctly, and then sail it in the air, it goes the furthest because it’s sort of aerodynamic.
Rail: With the Paper Airplanes, are they made from the same materials as the Paper Bags (1968)? Or are they different materials?
Hay: Well, what I did with Paper Airplane was that I took a piece of paper, and then folded it into the shape of an airplane and then folded back out. You set the pattern for the paper. I did it to scale and then painted it and then folded it. And then epoxied it and fiberglassed it so it could be rigid. The first time I made them, I got the center point to balance perfectly. If you see one in a gallery, if you’ll go around the back of the plane, you’ll see two little protrusions of cords to hang it up; if I hung it from those cords, it would be perfectly level, beautiful. But you can’t do this with the fiberglass and epoxy model—it sort of droops, so I had to set it upright. You couldn’t hang it. You could hang it for like five minutes and it would start to droop. I didn’t want that to happen.
Rail: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the thing that was really interesting to you about the paper bag was the stamp on the top. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Hay: It’s basically my admiration of the beautiful logo of an oak tree. When I was a kid all of our groceries came home in these paper bags. The man who invented the stand-up paper bag—a beautiful idea—and the logo he put on the front was an oak tree. I don’t know why he chose that. But anyway, he did. It was just a beautiful image. Beautiful. I loved it. The color of it and everything green. And the little number in the center of it indicating the size of the paper bag. The invention of the stand-up paper bag was sort of a genius kind of thing to do.
Rail: How exact are the paper bags? Are they recreating the design of the original functional objects? Like if we turned it over would we see the bottom folded over on itself?
Hay: Yeah. When I first decided to do paper bags, I did a six-foot paper bag. But in order to do that paper bag, the paper that I could get was only wide enough to do in the height scale. You don’t see the bottom of it. So in order to do them, to use a sheet of paper and fold it exactly, including the volume I had to use, I had to make a five-foot paper bag. That’s the reason: the scale is better. The paper bags I made by unfolding one—I took it apart and laid it down, made the pattern, and then moved the pattern up and then folded it. In working with it, I made certain—you can see certain creases alongside it. I think all of them have that same crease in the paper. I put those creases in it, and then tried to duplicate exactly the characteristics of the small paper bag that I used as models.
Rail: I’m fascinated by these functional, non-functional objects. I want to ask you all the questions that I would want to ask if I were standing in the gallery like, "Oh, can I fold it up?"
Hay: Of course you could, you could do it exactly as it looks. The material I made the large paper bags out of would have had to have been a quarter of an inch thick or something, for them to have the same rigidity that a small paper bag has, so I had to use epoxy and fiberglass. Of course, at this point you would break them apart if you tried to fold them up. But visually it should suggest that these bags could be folded up and put on the shelf.
Rail: I love that idea. I wonder too about the stamp.
Hay: It’s produced from a stencil I made of the logo itself.
Rail: It reminds me a lot of your cigar seal image [Cuban Cigar Seal (1968)]. Are they related to you?
Hay: No, I don’t think so. It’s just that I tried to do everything as realistically as possible. I love the cigar label, and particularly this image of the calculations [Study for Cuban Cigar Seal (1968)]. When I first started doing large-scale objects, small objects large-scale, I did all my own calculations, as you see in the cigar calculation study. And then by hand, I would measure out these tiny little widths of the line and then scale them up as large as maybe 50 times or something, to make the object the size I wanted. I just had a 100th of an inch ruler, a tiny little ruler, that I would measure the line with, and then try to scale it up to the size I wanted the object to be. Then I finally started taking slides of the object and just projecting the image, doing it that way. But those first objects and the cigar label, they are the official Cuban government’s cigar stamp—it’s beautiful. In the paintings I did, you can see the little workers in the field, whereas with the tiny little stamp, you don’t really see them; I thought it was really beautiful to see all these Cuban workers in the cigar field. Anyway, when I first started painting, I did it by measurements. And then I finally started doing slides. I had this photographer, Brenda, in New York who would always take the slides for me—beautiful, anyway.
Rail: Were the little calculations on the Guest Check all of your calculations as well for figuring out the scale of the guest check painting?
Hay: Right. And when I started taking slides, I realized I couldn’t really go on like this making these tiny little measurements and then trying to scale them up.
Rail: Looking at all of these calculations it tells us something about your concentration and your practice as you’re making these things. I first got to know your work through your performance pieces. I was really interested to see a correspondence between the art objects that you’re making, and the performances that you created or that you participated in. For example, the idea of repetition seems to be fairly important if we think about some of your performances, but also if we look at, for example, your plank pieces. I was very curious to ask you about your relationship between the objects that you produce that have staying power, and the performances that you created that were ephemeral.
Hay: The floor pieces were done because the floor in my studio in New York, down on Howard Street, was gray. And so, the first floor piece was gray. It was the best one. The collector Gian Enzo Sperone in Italy bought that piece. But that was my favorite piece. Anyway, the floor pieces, number one, are done to 1:1 scale. There is a sense of place, the floor that I walked on all the time. I did castings of the floor, and they were displayed on the floor. And that was a sense of honesty, of accuracy, of what they are, and their sense of place on the floor and displayed on the floor. And what was the other part of your question?
Rail: I was thinking about the process that was required to make them. I was really surprised when I saw them at the gallery because they’re quite thick. It’s not something that’s just painted in a high gloss; it’s actually built up. I was curious about this idea of repetition and returning to the object. It’s similar to the way that in some of your performance pieces, for example, like the story pieces, you describe something and then you return to it and add more detail and add more detail.
Hay: Oh, that’s very interesting you ask that question. When I was in New York, I did a performance piece that grew out of when we would go down to Southern California, near La Jolla. There was a big, high cliff at the beach there—I don’t know, it was maybe 100 feet above the beach. There was a beautiful path that went down, a very steep path that went down to the beach. We walked this many times. And at one point walking, I noticed certain objects as I went up the path. And then I would, say, make the same trip another time. And I would just fill in more objects, more things that I saw on the path going up. I did this performance piece once in New York. I called it “an accumulation” because basically, the piece was maybe five descriptions of my going up the path, and each time I would describe this path, I would add more details of what I saw. That influenced me a lot in terms of the work that I did. This indirectly relates to my other works, the idea of accumulation of information at different points. There was nothing about trying to duplicate the act of walking up. It was just the information that I observed. I also did a piece where I made some canvas bags, and I staked them out in the desert or on the beach—all around Southern California, around Los Angeles, out in the desert. These bags were rectangular pieces of canvas that had a zipper around the edges so that I could zip them closed. And then I took them out and I put half lying flat on the ground. The other half, I held up the canvas with two stakes on either side. There was a vertical surface and a horizontal surface and anything that accumulated in it, that was the piece. Those pieces are called Accumulations.
I used to go to visit my friends the Grinsteins, big collectors, and they—that’s an interesting story, too, because at one point I was showing at the Kornblee Gallery—Rauschenberg and I had become very close at that time—and he was showing at Castelli, maybe two blocks away from my show. The Grinsteins always went to Rauschenberg’s openings, and he brought them over to Kornblee to see my show. We talked and they invited me to visit them. So I went—and from then on, I would spend summers in California with them. Stanley Grinstein was one of the founders of the Gemini gallery, the Gemini print workshop. And I used to hang around the workshop a lot. I would just visit; I never did any work there. But I was there once when they were doing a series of prints for Keith Sonnier. They were printing them on what they called chemical filter paper, which was really heavy 100 percent canvas, cotton paper that Keith was using for his prints. I liked this paper so much. I said, “Well, that’s nice. Could you give me a decent piece?” So they sent me a whole ream of like 160 pieces of paper, this real thick, beautiful paper. Sun Prints (1968) came out of that. I spread fugitive pigment on the paper and then later set them in the sun and let the sun bleach them out. The sun was taking, accumulating the power from these papers, so they bleached out. The sun had all the color; the sun had the prints, and I had the paper.
And then there was another series that I did called “Ground Drawings” (1968). At that time, I used to go down to Venice where a lot of the artists lived—all the artists had studios down there, so I’d go down. And there was an area in Venice which lay vacant for years and years and years—it was just a big, beautiful area of vacant land with nothing going on, no plants on it at all. I took this paper and I laid it on the ground, and I poured water on it so it conformed to the surface. Then I took a spirit level to the bumps and indents in the paper so that I could read all the degrees from horizontal that the paper had absorbed. I drew a line along those and then wrote that number on it. The “Ground Drawings” are just covered by a bunch of lines that are basically the surface degrees of the ground that the paper had conformed to. Very interesting pieces that came out of that ream of paper I was given; it was a very productive thing—what came out of California was a very rich and productive period for me, those years when I visited the Grinsteins.
Rail: Let’s take a look at one of your performance pieces, Grass Field (1966) for 9 Evenings, which is a famous performance series that was related to Experiments in Art and Technology [E.A.T.]. The artists who were involved worked with Bell Lab scientists to make pieces and to create the products that would help them realize their performances. Alex, if you want to just talk over the clip and let us know what we’re looking at and how we’re hearing sounds…
Hay: I had people at Bell Labs do some differential amplifiers. And what they did is they picked up brainwaves, eye movement, lung movement, and muscle movement; what you’re hearing, that funny sound, is probably my brainwaves. Those were the most constant sounds you heard. My breathing, too, my lungs, almost like a siren—steady, a steady fake siren is going on and it was very disturbing. The sound was very disturbing. I had to close my eyes at certain points.
Rail: You had something attached to your eyes as well. Is that correct that we’re tracking your eye movements?
Hay: Oh, I had electrodes for brain sounds. I had electrodes for eye movement. And I had electrodes on my lungs. So, basically, I think there were three, as I remember, three types of sounds coming up. One was eye movement. Every time I moved my eyes, or I looked in some direction, I would hear a sound, "Zip zip, zip, zip," like that. And the breathing sounds were very loud. It sounded like a constant siren, going up and down, up and down, and up and down. The brainwaves were like a constant sort of—they were sort of pleasant, the brainwaves, because it was, "Bour boohuh boohuh"—like that. In this piece, as well, Rauschenberg was on one side and Steve Paxton on the other side, gathering squares of fabric with long poles. Steve was always very slow; he was incredibly methodical and slow. And Rauschenberg was very fast. Rauschenberg did things like I did them—we worked very well together. He and I thought the same in our performance works, not the same thesis, but the way we put together pieces. In ways we were very similar. We didn’t influence each other. But it was just our natures—we were like that. It’s the reason he chose me to go on a trip with the Cunningham Dance Company. We went on the world tour (1964)—I went with him to help him. The Cunningham Dance Company director was Merce Cunningham, the music director was John Cage, and the artistic director was Rauschenberg. Well, Cage and Cunningham did their thing and they didn’t relate to him. But they expected Rauschenberg to light their pieces and set up their stage so that it displayed the dancers. When I went on the trip with him, we sort of sabotaged the whole thing because Rauschenberg did what he wanted to do. Cunningham didn’t like that very much, but he went along with it because he didn’t have a choice. Anyway, that was Rauschenberg. That’s how we worked together really; basically, we were a great team.
Rail: You mentioned Rauschenberg’s lighting schemes. The reason I bring this up is because we’re looking at an image of the performance that had the turtles with flashlights attached to their backs [Spring Training (1964–65)]. They were the objects that lit the stage.
Hay: That was an amazing piece that we did on Stage 73. After Judson [Dance Theater], Paxton got venues for us. So, this is one at Stage 73, which was a television production studio somewhere on Broadway. That’s where we did one performance, I think. And he did this piece with his turtles. Just amazing. When the lights were all out, suddenly it’s all these lights appearing at one part of the stage, and then they started bobbling around, and they would go into the audience, and the audience didn’t recognize what they were. And they just started giggling—the lights were all out, these really strange things, beautiful beings. Rauschenberg went to a pet store, rented all of their turtles, and involved them in his piece, which was part of Rauschenberg’s genius.
Rail: The New York Times Dance Review described in your piece Colorado Plateau (1964) that you were dragging people around as though they’re “mannequins.” What we’re seeing here is you lifting Deborah Hay, to whom you were married. The left-hand side includes Lucinda Childs and also Rauschenberg appearing in this performance, which makes me just think about the artistic friendships that you’ve had throughout your career. Rauschenberg, Deborah Hay, obviously, and then a little bit later, Joseph Kosuth. Can you talk a little bit about this wonderful way that friendship is a medium for you and your art?
Hay: Oh, boy, yeah, again. In the early days, Deborah and I were married, right? Deborah studied with Cunningham. She took classes with Cunningham. I used to go to Cunningham’s studio because he had a bunch of benches along the wall, and he liked for people to come and watch his pieces. Often, he would rehearse his performances, and I used to go and watch them. At one point, he, Judith Dunn and Bob Dunn—Judith was one of his principal dancers and Bob was his piano player, also a composer—they did this workshop using John Cage’s theory of chance compositions. I went and watched these workshops, and Rauschenberg came too. That’s where I met Rauschenberg, at these things. It was such a turn on, this workshop, this incredible thing. And after the workshop, everyone went down to Judson Church and just continued working, doing pieces. I had no relationship to John Cage. I may have never done performance had it not been for us going down to Judson and doing these things; we just started doing pieces, you know, of our own, and that’s what I did. The first piece I did was Colorado Plateau, and I called it that because it was a horizontal piece, and everything was on one surface. Plus, I used to travel around on the Colorado Plateau, so I named my pieces after places that I had fondness for. I made a voice tape—it said move them in a certain direction, like northeast, and then the voice tape said move them in a certain direction that leaves them horizontal or vertical. Everybody was wearing these numbers. You can see Dunn is number two. I think Rauschenberg was five.
So there’s one through six, there are six people there. And if the tape said go to whatever number, I would go pick up whomever the number was. The instructions were that you’d stiffen your body and I’d stick my hands in at the knees and around the neck, picking them up like a piece of board, like a plank, and carry them horizontally, like I’m preparing to carry Deborah. And then, either stand them up or leave them horizontal. The piece is about five minutes long [AKG: The Times reported it was 11 minutes.]. None of my pieces were very long.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about Joseph Kosuth. Did you collaborate with him on any artworks? Or were you just friends?
Hay: Oh no, that was long past our performance days. I don’t know if he was influenced by me. I thought he might have been influenced by my floor pieces. The sense of “place” I’d get. I remember one of Joseph’s pieces where he displayed an object and then he did a description of the object, and then he did a full photograph. Remember that?
Rail: Yes, like One and Three Chairs (1965).
Hay: In the early days, I spent all my time around Rauschenberg’s group—we were so close, and a whole group of people, Paxton, Deborah, myself, and a few other people just hung out together all the time. And usually we were all together as a group around Rauschenberg’s table on Lafayette Street. Everyone hung out at Rauschenberg’s—that’s all he liked to do. He liked to hang out at home around his table with his friends.
I’ll tell you the story about how I met Kosuth. I had an opening and Rauschenberg had an opening at the same time. Rauschenberg came over to my show at Kornblee gallery. And there was a whole bunch of us. After we left my show, we went all of us—there must have been 25 or 30 of us—and got on the subway and went downtown to Red Grooms’s loft and had a great time. And at that time Deborah, Steve, and Rauschenberg, and I would dance together as a group. We would all dance together and do all these weird things. We’d all go down on the floor and stuff like that. Anyway, we got on the subway for downtown, and Kosuth was there. But we didn’t know Kosuth, and he didn’t know that he was there with us. He passed up and down the aisles handing out his card to everyone. So he came with us to Red Grooms’s. Rauschenberg, Paxton, Deborah and I were in a room dancing, doing our thing together. And Kosuth was with Christine Kozlov. She was a great person; she was a great friend of ours. She was there with Kosuth and was his partner at the time. At some point, we were on the floor. And Christine, I don’t remember why, was sitting on top of me, right? To the point where I couldn’t get up at all. Anyway, that’s how I met Christine. And so that’s how I met Joseph.
Kosuth and I, we would go to Max’s Kansas City, right? And none of us were drinkers, we didn’t drink at all. We’d just go out because Mickey Ruskin loved to have artists because that’s what attracted all the other people to his bar, just filled with artists. I never had a drink in Mickey Ruskin’s bar, but he loved us. It was a great place to be—that’s when Joseph and I started hanging out together. Every day, well almost every day, we would go down to Max’s Kansas City and just sit around and look at everyone, and we’d meet all of the artists or whatever. It was an interesting development in my relationships.
Rail: I’m going to zoom forward to your more recent paintings. Included in the Peter Freeman show are these abstract paintings of your cats, and I just want to know everything about them. How do your cats feel about being painted? My cat would have been really unhappy about this. And how did you make them? And why did you make paintings as opposed to objects?
Hay: What I did is for the cats—I took slides of their fur, and they didn’t object to that at all, they didn’t even know I was taking them. Anyway, when I first started to do the cats, well, they were the circumstances that I was in at the time, and I still am. I have, what, four? Four cats. They’re a lot of work. If you know cats, they’re pretty … but you have to feed them, you have to get their food, you have to clean up after them; basically, they’re a big job. So I was thinking well, if I have to do all this work for them, I’ll do paintings of them, an homage, which they probably like.
So that’s it, I could go through all my pieces and relate them back to the circumstances I was in when I made them. All my work came out of circumstances I was in. Nice way to work, anyway.
Rail: It’s a wonderful way of thinking about serendipity.
Hay: Yeah, it is, it is.