Jon Kessler is a veteran New York-based mixed-media artist, teacher and musician. He has exhibited his mechanical marvels at MoMA, lectured at Columbia University, played with his band at the Highline Ballroom and dressed windows for Hermès in Tokyo.
“Every day is different. This morning, I went to my Pilates class before I got to my studio here in Williamsburg. This is a new schedule for me. When I was running the visual arts programme at Columbia, I was at school all day long for five days a week and I would come to my studio at night to work. Now I only teach two days a week, so no more all-nighters.
Today I’m off to Columbia to teach graduate critique. I go to students’ studios and talk to them about whatever they do. It’s very intense, but you’ve just gotta keep it going – like, ‘OK, next!’ You go into someone else’s world, someone else’s head. I also teach an undergraduate sculpture class: 15 young ’uns who are learning how to make sculpture for the first time in their lives. Most of them are totally privileged kids who have never used a hammer before. My job is first to make sure they don’t cut their limbs off. Then I teach them to start thinking about what sculpture is.
Otherwise, I’m here in Williamsburg getting my own work done. I got my studio here in 1980, after living in a cramped, piece-of-shit East Village apartment, paying a lot of money. My Polish-American friend who was brought up in Williamsburg said I should check it out. I had never even heard of the area. I got off the first stop on the L train and that first day found this place – a 370 sq m building that had been abandoned for 20 years. I paid $150 [€110] a month rent for the whole building and when the lease was up, I bought it for $85,000 [€60,000]. I had the experience here that artists had had in SoHo and Tribeca in the 1960s and 1970s, getting an industrial space really cheap. Now, across the street, one-bedroom apartments are selling for $1m [€700,000].
There’s a mixture of all my different worlds here in the studio: I’ve got my music – my amp, guitar and my pedals and my art – my video monitors, motors, circuit parts, paint, all my stuff! The front room is where the magic happens. I could write a whole book on the way artists’ studios are laid out. It’s not laid out rationally, but for the body. Tom Sachs and I share studio visits all the time. And he comes over here and says, ‘Why is this here?’ And I show him: ‘Because I do this, I turn like this and so that’s where it should be!’ But he’s got a different body and he does it differently.
I’m working on a piece for this German collector who has a castle in Düsseldorf. It’s a wheel which will hold a camera turning at a 90-degree angle on this mechanism that will be the centrepiece for all these other mechanisms.
Germany is my biggest market. Germans like their art tough. They like it kick-ass: it’s not just about what’s beautiful. I’m well known in Tokyo and have a steady gig at Hermès, doing their windows. I always use a moving element. The last window’s theme was a river: I turned the clothes into fish and they moved on these waves. Clothes were popping out. It was cool.
I play guitar in a band called the X-Patsys, who are doing a concert in November at the Highline Ballroom on 16th Street, so I’ve got to rehearse. Four years ago my friend Robert Longo and his wife Barbara Sukowa started a band, The Patsys, playing just Patsy Cline tunes. We renamed ourselves the X-Patsys because we stopped just playing Cline tunes.
Today we’re starting to ship the exhibition for my upcoming gallery show in Berlin. I’ve been working on it for a year – in my head it’s together, but I’ve never seen the whole show together. I’m a bit nervous, but in a good way.
It’s called ‘The Blue Period’ – a play on Picasso. In my case it’s not melancholic blue but the blue of displacement, the blue of removal. The show is based around the idea of our addiction to the image. We start to think about the world as a kind of prop for the constant production of image that we need all the time. The whole gallery will be surveilled: as soon as you come into the gallery, you will be caught on camera. It’s going to feel like you are caught in this crowd scene, in this mob of hundreds of real – and not real – faces that are all coming at you. It will be overwhelming.
I have my first two-dimensional show at the Drawing Center in New York. This is the first time I’ve ever shown my drawings – it’s a proper show, everything is framed. It’s a strange sensation walking to the opening and not having to worry that something’s not working. I always worry about things not working.”
1983 - Artist Space, New York
1985 - Whitney Biennial
1991 - ‘Metropolis’, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin
1993 - Opening exhibition, SCAI The Bathhouse, Tokyo
1996 - Guggenheim Fellowship
2000/2005 - Chair, Visual Arts Division, Columbia University
2004 - One Person Exhibition, Deitch Projects, New York
2005 - PS1, New York
2007 - Jon Kessler’s Works on Paper at The Drawing Centre
2007 - ‘The Blue Period’, Arndt & Partner, Berlin