September 20, 2017- Interviewed by Mimi Thompson


MT: I want to ask you about your use of musical notes and letters in your work. You seem to treat them as if they are the same thing.  Is that an accurate statement?

JS: It certainly is. I see them as very similar. When I use sheet music, the beautiful thing is, I don’t understand the notes. Musical notes might as well be Arabic, it’s their shapes I’m interested in. That side of it frees me because I’m only looking for density and pattern rather than sound.  Whenever you enter a rectangle or a square you are confronted with infinite space. What I’m trying to do with the notes and the letters is to create density, and by creating density create depth.

MT: Are you interested in creating a space that’s immersive, one that you can enter?

JS: Somewhat, yes. If you look at drawings by Seurat or Matisse, it is the line that controls and creates the space.  And using the letters I’m trying to accomplish something similar.  And when I began to use musical notes and sheet music, I discovered something that impressed me. For La Mer, I thought I’ll use Debussy’s scores for “La Mer” and I’ll make a sea. The literal truth of it appealed to me. The symbology is pretty straightforward, but when I listened to Debussy I realized the sounds he created are all about deep space. His music reminds me of how a seagull flies sideways -you know that lovely thing when they just hang in the air?  I hear it in Debussy, and I hear it in Miles Davis too.  But what blew me away were the sleeve notes for Debussy’s “La Mer”. Reading them I discovered he was inspired by James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes. I thought to myself – full circle.

MT: You saw that connection yourself before you read the sleeve notes.

JS: I felt like I was blessed by Debussy. It was liberating- he would love it I think. So I did the piece that’s in the show and it’s a dialogue between the wind and the sea. You see the clouds, you see the horizon line, and you see the sea behaving accordingly-  it’s harmonic. A musician could look at that with a fiddle and perhaps knock out a little segment of it.

MT: It’s amazing how both individual letters and musical notes can be so abstract in your work when in their normal roles they have specific jobs to do creating sounds or meaning. And in these works of yours, the letters and musical notes go back and forth- presenting both concrete and abstract knowledge, as well as visual and aural information. When I look at your work I often imagine you thinking mathematically, or at least geometrically.  Circles and rectangles are omnipresent.

JS: I got on the wrong side of mathematics when I was young. I had a great fear of it. I think I got it mixed up with morality because the answers in math are either right or wrong. You either got a cross or a tick and it scared me! So I started copying other student’s answers and then you are in deep trouble. Not only were the answers right or wrong but then morality came into play due to the copying. Now I see the beauty of mathematics.

MT:  Your work is very sculptural and geometric.

JS:  I’m very formal in some ways. I even like the proscenium arch.  But symmetry isn’t as intriguing to me as asymmetry.  I like the music of Thelonious Monk because it’s slightly skewed; the music is never quite centered and has edges that don’t meet.  I’m kind of the opposite of Donald Judd. I like disintegration and edges that don’t touch.  I also like weathered materials that show mileage and do my best work when I trust the material.  You might pick up something on the street and bring it to your studio, and then one day you notice it in a corner and suddenly you know where you want it.   When I found the sheet music I was inspired. I had a show at the Brooklyn  Library, and there was a woman there who was in charge of getting rid of stuff.  When she saw I was interested in collecting materials she gave me tons of sheet music.  So I have this stash of 18th and 19th-century sheet music, and some of it has lyrics. There was some weird stuff- the lyrics are culturally and socially revealing. You find out about the attitudes at that time towards love and this, that and the other thing. There isn’t any pressure with found material. You didn’t buy all of this sheet music-the chance encounter with it was liberating for me.  I like the whole business that Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg,  and Marcel Duchamp were involved with- the act of making the familiar unfamiliar. Take a familiar object and present it in a slightly different way.  Then you are off and running.

MT: Your spatial concerns seem to hark back to earlier times…

JS: I am very interested in the continuity of art. For instance, you look at work by Paolo Uccello and his formal perspective is really extreme and nutty in a way.   In his paintings of the hunt, he makes everything disappear down the pike at what looks like high speed. And then I look at Agnes Martin and the grid and there is a continuity that links these different time periods and artists. And in between those two, you have Pierre Bonnard and Edgar Degas changing the viewpoint.  All those things fascinate me – it has to do with space. What I like about the activity of painting, drawing, and music is there are no winners. It’s not a competition. The act of making art of any kind is a big act with many differentials. And after you do it for a while you think “Well, I might as well relax”.

MT: There is no right or wrong way to do it.

JS: That brings me back to Thelonius Monk and error. James Joyce, in his great arrogance, said: “The man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery”.  But it’s good to remember errors are volitional. Jim Rosenquist taught me that too; he taught me not to be afraid, there is always another blank canvas or sheet of paper if you mess up the original. There’s always another chance.  So I often paint over things and start again.

MT: Then you have the energy of the initial work available as well as what is on top.

JS:   You can put things aside thinking they are no good and then pull something out 10 years later and think, well, that’s a beginning.  I feel that the process in the studio is organic, and if you aren’t being visited by the muse then you should be thinking about next week and putting your house in order. Just like in the garden, you can’t always be planting, you have clearing up to do as well. But it’s all grist to the mill. When I worked for Helen Frankenthaler, I would go to the studio in the morning and there were always notes from her telling me what to do. And when I was in my studio working for myself, I would write myself notes about what to do.  I learned really good studio habits from Helen. She came into the studio ready and she knew what she was going to do. We had a few laughs. She used to tell me I was streetwise.

MT:  You spoke with me about your admiration for Henri Michaux. What ideas of his influenced you?

JS Well, this isn’t the most salient part of his work, but he did a lot of mescaline and post-mescaline influenced drawings.  He was attempting to record an altered state of consciousness, which to me is laudable. The resulting drawings vary greatly depending on how altered his consciousness was.  An elevated, or altered, state of consciousness is interesting to me.  It returns me to Georges Seurat, Toulouse Lautrec or any of the good draftsmen. You see drawings of people walking down the street and they are all rendered very economically.  Back to calligraphy again. They could convey the outline of a person in one, two, three strokes. But with Henri Michaux you get anthropomorphic shapes that look like figures, but not quite. The imagery in his work seesaws between representational and nonrepresentational.

MT: Don’t you feel that Henri Michaux was attempting to join the atmosphere that surrounded him? It’s almost like he was erasing the line that separates the body from its surroundings.  He tossed away any classical training and just responded directly to his visions, feelings, and senses.

JS: Which brings me to Outsider art. These artists are outside the framework and create amazing works. They turn it inside-out like Henri Michaux does. I’m fairly didactic- that’s part of the reason I use my father’s letters. They are part of his truth and reveal his world which was vastly different from other people's worlds. And the letters are completely unselfconscious because they are written to me.  His letters are straight off the nervous system, like Henri Michaux.

MT:  You manipulate his world a bit by concealing parts of the text and revealing other parts.  The sections of his letters that you show jump out at the viewer and are very affecting both for their content and geometry. Even though he often is discussing everyday life it feels like you are being let in on a secret world.

JS:  A wonderful thing happened when I showed my work in England and my father’s letters were in some of the work. People he spoke about in the letters came to the show, many had never been to an art gallery.  They were reading the letters and commenting about each other’s mentions in the letters. It felt like a wedding.  

I’m a great believer in commemorative art to an extent. I don’t know if you know what a hurley is. There’s a game in Ireland called Hurley. Players use a flat wooden blade called a hurley.  I went to the bar and was looking for a hurley and luckily the bartender gave me one. It’s made from an ash plant and is lovely wood. My cousin was in Ireland and their team was in the Hurley final so I made a piece for them. The team’s banner has a rose and their colors are blue and yellow. So I painted a yellow rose with the bluestem coming down the hurley and on the other side I collaged the faces of the whole team. It’s up in the family house. The bishop liked it so it must be good.

MT: Your ancestry and where you come from is so specific and emerges in your work constantly. It seems to be a very deep connection.

JS: Well it’s culture. I was completely immersed in Irish culture, Irish dancing – my mother was determined that it would be thoroughly in me. And then I went to the north of England where the culture was very strong too, but there it was coal mining and ship building. I embraced both cultures; they are both full of juice.  England and Ireland are very parochial because of their scale. I prefer the anonymity of New York City.

MT:   Tell me a bit about The Rumble- it’s an unusual piece in this show.

JS:  Well, it is. When I first came to New York I thought I would be an illustrator. I could draw and was witty in a way. I took a course in illustration and at the time I was working with rapidograph pens and working from life while listening to a lot of reggae.  The rapidograph section of The Rumble came first and then I reworked it and put some collage elements on. The blue came later also.   I once shared a studio with an Italian guy who was classically trained and we used to draw together. He would say “Take, put”.  And I thought it was so on the money. That’s just what you do in drawing. I drew a lot of still lives because I had no formal training, and I knew I needed practice. Mercifully, through working with other artists and working at galleries I learned a lot. I once listened to Clement Greenberg critique Helen Frankenthaler’s work. That was hilarious and invaluable. Many expletives.

MT:   Tell me a bit about the work 777…

JS:  In 1995 it seemed to me that we started to look at airplanes in a different way. I was interested in what deconstruction was as well and I wanted to see if I could do it. And I was also thinking of Duchamp and his notion of erotic machinery; I was, and still am, interested in the sensuality of machinery.

MT:   And the Heart of Darkness, were you referring to the book of the same title by Joseph Conrad?

JS:  That’s a map of Harlem in the center of the work.  I feel that the material did the work for me in Heart of Darkness. I often use circles in my work and the circular templates that I choose to use are everyday objects that we handle. The templates I used in this piece were vinyl record albums and 45’s. Then I started using compact discs and dinner plates. The dimensions of plates are comfortable because they are designed to be handled daily. These are simple maxims that helped me along. You can get vinyl discs anywhere.  If you need a 12-inch circle you know you can find it in your own house.

MT:   You are also using a physical object whose importance is its ability to make sound – it circular shape seems secondary but actually is the reason it can make a sound.

JS:  I like to use materials that are around me, both as tools and possible imagery. If you were in prison you’d be making boxes out of old matches or something. You see amazing things made by people who are in confinement. Less is more has always been part of my thing. I like trios, I like quartets and maybe I like quintets too.  In a lot of my work, you only have three or four colors and it’s enough if the dynamic is right. It’s the kind of decision that would be forced upon you in prison. You wouldn’t have an extensive palette or an extensive anything.  When I started I had no money and I used to use blueprints. I had a job cleaning offices on Canal Street in the 1980s and they would give me cocaine and blueprints. It was a contractor’s office; they were a wild bunch who came in daily from New Jersey. I would arrive in the morning and clean the offices and bathroom and they would say “Hey John have some of this” and then gave me the blueprints. You have blueprints in front of you and it’s like a map. It’s a two-dimensional map of a three-dimensional space.   Making art is social living … do you think I could have that beer now?