An art project begun in outrage in 1972 led Buzz Spector to discover what he really wanted to do. In his last undergraduate semester at Southern Illinois University, he came across an Artforum article on Robert Ryman’s all-white paintings. “The claim was being made that these white paintings were art,” Spector says. “I remember thinking, This is a joke. The article was accompanied by hilarious reproductions in black-and-white half tones, in which you can’t even get white.” He decided that if a white painting was art, then so was a gray drawing.

Spector describes his art before that point as unoriginal. “It was emotionally cold,” he says. “I could draw a still life or a model realistically, but I didn’t have anything to say.” When he sat down to make a gray drawing, he was surprised how difficult it was to get an even tone. Shading one row after another in pencil, he discovered the overlap created a darker area. As he kept drawing, “it stopped being a satire. After 18 hours I finished it and had an epiphany. The paper covered with graphite ended up feeling uncannily spacious rather than like a block of metal. I realized that art didn’t have to be an image–it could be a surface, it could be an atmosphere, it could be brute materiality. These simple shading exercises looked like the reflection of light on water, the bulbous forms of cumulus clouds, piles of rock and rubble–all of them and none of them.” Spector also changed his mind about Ryman. He continued to make gray drawings, with variations, for nine years. His exhibit at Zolla/Lieberman, opening tonight, in part represents his return to earlier work: it includes three gray drawings from 1975 and three recent ones. One early variation involved placing torn edges of paper on top of his sheet, which produced jagged borders between areas of different density. He later achieved a similar look freehand.

Spector, a Chicago native, is now the chairman of Cornell University’s art department. His other works often involve books or words. An avid childhood reader, at 11 he wrote “a 44-page history of life on earth focused on blood, gore, and fangs, ending with the early cavemen.” In high school he wrote poetry influenced by William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley, and he entered college planning to become a poet until he got a D from a very conservative instructor–then he switched to journalism, and later to graphic design. His poetry survives as framed “word works,” a number of which from 1975 and 2005 are in the show. When Spector changed from a graphic design major to art, he started a literary journal that included imagery, Grassroots, prefiguring the Chicago journal Whitewalls, which he cofounded in 1977. After college he worked odd jobs in Chicago, including freelance design, door-to-door sales, and the second shift at an auto-parts factory. He enrolled in grad school at the University of Chicago in 1976.

Spector’s best-known pieces are what he calls “altered books,” in which he rips the pages. This method was also an unintended discovery: testing the feasibility of a book with pages of unequal size, he began tearing pages and became fascinated by the “accidental half words that started showing up from the serendipitous juxtaposition of letter forms on successive pages.” He’s excluded books from this show, however, to emphasize lesser-known works, including recent ones using handmade paper. Actual Words of Art–one of two pieces that reflect on his own artistic practices–has its title embedded in yarn on white paper. The yarn runs off the paper’s edge, accumulating in a dense skein at the bottom; art and language either become chaos or arise from it. In the other, Chapman’s Homer, blue and white strands of yarn make squiggly lines on the pages of a book outlined in black yarn, then continue off the page and fall like a waterfall to a pool at the bottom. In the sonnet that gave Spector his title, John Keats uses the discovery of the Pacific as a metaphor for discovery in reading, and Spector calls his yarn pool “the Keatsian ocean.” Both works are also homages to his mother, who ran a knitting shop and taught her kids to knit. “I used to love the play of expressions on her face” while she was knitting, he says. “I loved how she was so attuned to her body that her hands could work the needles while she seemed to be free to think other thoughts.”

Buzz Spector

When: Through Sat 10/15

Where: Zolla/Lieberman, 325 W. Huron

Info: 312-944-1990

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Fred Camper, Cornell University/Robert Barker.