Artist Robert Blanchon died in 1999, at the age of 33. Several years before he told me, “A lot of my work questions whether I exist at all.”
Reading this statement today, I thought of his Untitled: Death Valley Self-Portrait, a diptych included in “Minimal Provocations: The Art and Influence of Robert Blanchon,” an exhibit of work by Blanchon and 16 of his students, currently at the School of the Art Institute’s Betty Rymer Gallery. One photo shows the artist nude in Death Valley; the other looks out on an empty road through a bug-splattered windshield.
Blanchon was “one of those incredible students that you can just let go,” says Joyce Neimanas, who taught him photography when he was a graduate student at SAIC in the late 1980s. “He didn’t always make photographs, but he had a photographic mind. He would take something that existed and put it back into the culture altered, so that it was familiar in some ways but in others not at all.” He loved things that looked “gorgeous,” she says, recalling a show consisting only of empty boxes wrapped with bows. His final piece before his 1990 graduation documented the salary of school president Tony Jones and the prices of works in Jones’s art collection.
Soon after leaving Chicago, Blanchon began to attract notice. He had several one-man shows in New York galleries, and he started to get part-time teaching jobs. He also got AIDS. “His work changed a little bit then,” Neimanas says. “He became more introspective. He had this way of trying to mentally conquer the problem of his body deteriorating by seeing the beauty in other things and in himself.” Yet Blanchon once warned me that seeing his art in terms of AIDS was “only one of many readings.”
“Because his work is intelligent, he doesn’t want the viewer to find a simple answer in it,” Neimanas says. “You have to look at it and think about it. It’s beautiful, it’s witty, it’s directed, but it doesn’t conclude.”
Blanchon worked in a variety of media. His shows would typically include a mix of his own photographs, found photos, and modified and constructed objects. For an exhibit at New York’s Drawing Center, he paid street sketchers to draw his portrait.
When the School of the Art Institute asked him to teach two courses in early 1998, he became an adviser to graduate sculpture students. His reputation preceded him. When performance artist Murray McKay asked another student about advisers, she told him to take Blanchon, “a visiting artist from LA. He’s gay, he’s cute, he’s witty, he’s HIV positive–you’ll love him.” And McKay did. “I knew I could put anything on the table and we could talk about it and I’d feel comfortable. I’ve lost a lot of friends to AIDS, and a lot of my work had to do with HIV and AIDS, but I wasn’t admitting it to myself.”
Blanchon was in the later stages of the disease and frequently missed classes due to illness. But his students say he more than made up for his absences. The few who felt they didn’t get the full “Blanchon experience” nonetheless describe how even his small suggestions completely changed the course of their art making.
Neimanas first conceived of an exhibit exploring Blanchon’s art and legacy after working with some of his students. “He influenced them so much,” she says. In the show’s brochure, curator Shay DeGrandis points out that these students “keep him alive–simply by continuing to work.”
An SAIC graduate, DeGrandis never studied with Blanchon, though she recalls their first meeting. “He came into the office where I was working as a student assistant and mentioned something about how awful I was dressed. He was always a bit snide, which was one of the things I liked about him. He wasn’t afraid to tell you what he thought.” But she also found him a bit of a mystery. While working on the exhibit, “I was hearing all these stories about Robert, but every time the story would get unwoven.” She began doubting whether some of the works she was looking for even existed, and in fact Blanchon did an entire catalog, Never Realized, documenting works that were never made. He also sent out invitations to events that didn’t occur. He once invited top figures in the Chicago art world to a nonexistent symposium celebrating the anniversary of conceptualism.
“I had students come to me with these superpoetic visions of Robert, because he portrayed himself that way,” DeGrandis says. One Blanchon work in the show, I Can’t Live in a World Without Love, includes a video projection of a moving hair on a white background. “At the opening a student told me a story about Robert’s friend Mary Ellen Carroll. Robert saw one of her hairs in the bathroom, picking up wind. He saw it dance, chased it outside, and spent time in the garden on his hands and knees looking for it–and told his students that that was the inspiration for this piece. Then Mary Ellen shows up, and I say to her, ‘Oh, one of Robert’s students just told me the story of the video,’ and she looks at me like, ‘Haven’t you learned yet? You are so gullible! None of it’s true. Robert hated it when I came over, because my hair was always all over his apartment.'”
Talking to his former students reveals Blanchon as a bundle of contradictions. Showy and flamboyant, he also encouraged sober introspection. He often taught by telling anecdotes from his own life, but the same students who felt they learned much from those stories often wondered if they were true.
“The very first time I met Robert, he looked fabulous–he always wore incredible clothing,” recalls Murray McKay. “He said, ‘Why are you taking me as a sculpture adviser when you’re in performance?’ I explained that I use puppets, and he said, ‘I just have to tell you I hate performance art.’ I was kind of stunned for about two seconds, and then he said, ‘But my best friend is a performance artist, so I think I can deal with you.’ I went on to tell him about some of my work, and he was very frank; he would say, ‘I hate this type of thing.’ But he was very well-read, and every time he didn’t like something he would back it up with articles–sometimes a campy article in a magazine, other times art criticism. He saw a documentation of a performance of mine in which I’m a drag elf, and he thought it was funny. But he hated all forms of drag, so he wanted me to read something on the campy aspect of drag. Everything that I got from my advisers I took with a grain of salt, but he was so keen that you kind of wanted to put the grain of salt somewhere.”
McKay was pleased to discover a large photograph of Blanchon cross-dressing in the current exhibit, and when student Erin Feder first met him in a class at the University of California at Irvine, “He passed out a business card that had a short little story about how he used to dress up in a woman’s shower cap in childhood. What really struck me about this card, and all of his work, was his ability to make a really heavy situation humorous.”
Just as Blanchon often mixed personal concerns with forms borrowed from conceptual and minimalist art, he tried to get his students to connect their personal and aesthetic lives. Ellen Shershow recalls that Blanchon “had this great way of bringing the personal into your work, without it becoming this flaky ego-building thing.” She says they’d discuss intimate details from her sex life, “but then he had this very easy way of saying, ‘Now let’s see what this means in the context of your work.’ Work that is based on personal anecdote can become boring very quickly; he had a way of bringing these personal things about yourself back on a more intellectual level, analyzing what your work could be.” She noticed that he turned advising into a conversation. “Some advisers say, ‘I see x, and to me x means y.’ Robert would help lead you to a conclusion, but would let you come to it on your own.”
In addition to advising, Blanchon also taught classes in contemporary theory. The reading list included such art-school staples as Artaud, Foucault, and Beuys, as well as a Boy Scout electronics manual, the last letter of an actress who was dying of AIDS, and an essay on the history of underclothes. “We didn’t discuss the reading that much,” remembers Pamela Buchwald. “He talked about his life and his friends. He would come in with this fancy little shirt on and tell us where he got it. At first I thought it was irritating, and then I realized that he was sick and was telling us some of what he thought was important.”
AIDS had already claimed others in Blanchon’s circle. He was devastated after the death of his best friend, Chicago performance artist Larry Steger. “I met him on a street corner one day, and he was just confused,” says McKay. “He said that he was struggling with his purpose of being.”
Rebecca Walz says Blanchon “tempered theory with a lot of hyperbolic stories of his escapades in New York and LA, run-ins with various artists and people in the art world. There were a lot of descriptions of what he was wearing and what everyone else was wearing. I think there were some people in the class who were like, ‘Why am I paying for this?’ but at the same time we were really disappointed when someone else would have to substitute. We got this street-level education in the social machinations of the art world.
“These huge grandiose stories sounded like fiction, because he was always doing something completely outrageous, like being on hard drugs at an opening at the Museum of Modern Art and telling one of the curators that she needed to loosen up and get on what he was on. He told a story about how he met some guy cruising at a club in New York and went back to his apartment to continue with the mayhem; I think they were going to do more drugs or something. And there he stumbled on somebody who was at the time writing for Artforum chained to the table. He had a doggie bowl in front of him, and Robert looked at him and said, ‘I’m not going to say anything about this, but you better give me some kind of review.'”
“How he approached the class was so different from anything I’ve ever learned before,” says Jen Talbot. “He took apart all the crap I’ve learned for years and years in art schools and offered a perspective on how things really happen in the art world. Before that an instructor had never discussed what it was like being represented by a gallery. I think I kind of learned, don’t trust the things you read, do not trust anybody.”
Blanchon’s influence on SAIC students is remarkable considering his brief time at the school. “I had several friends who described him as changing their entire outlook on their work,” Walz says. “A lot of people wanted to work with him; he had a little bit of celebrity about him too.”
But there was more to Blanchon than buzz. He helped Murray McKay realize that his work “is strongest when it’s informed.” McKay was planning a performance that included an enormous praying mantis puppet attacking a male exotic dancer (McKay worked as a dancer for three years in the mid-90s). Blanchon suggested that he research praying mantises, and McKay found a 19th-century book in the Harold Washington Library with “really flowery language.” Its precise observations of the insect’s living and lovemaking habits ended up as spoken text in his performance. “He would bend over backwards to help his students any way he could.”
“On a superficial level, he was very much about style,” says Patrick Hugh LaVergne. “But he could back it up; underneath it there was a whole other level of intelligence and complexity. What made it most interesting is that he was able to mix mainstream pop culture with art history.”
LaVergne had been making black-and-yellow faux street signs with silhouettes of male figures based on such sources as an army manual showing positions for rescuing an injured soldier; he writes of exploring “male social etiquette,” but his merged figures also have a homoerotic dimension. Blanchon saw this work and suggested that “‘If you’re working on something, it’s always interesting to challenge yourself by thinking of the complete opposite thing to do. How would these be as sculptures?’ That’s when I got the idea of doing mattress pieces.” LaVergne’s Imperfect Sleeper Twin Size Mattress is a bed derived from these silhouettes.
“I remember one day he came in and was like, ‘I just saw this stretch limo outside.’ I had seen it too. It was long and white with two little heart-shaped windows in the back–a honeymoon limo. People were stopping, and I was mesmerized as well. Robert asked, ‘What does it say when I’m more intrigued by this white limo than by some of the art that I see?’ I started thinking about making art that was as intriguing as that stretch limousine but that also held up under the art world’s scrutiny. I thought about creating something that the public would be fascinated by on a mainstream level but would still have integrity.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell/Anthony Cunha/.