On the occasion of a screening of James Crump’s Spit Earth: Who is Jordan Wolfson? at the upcoming edition of Lo Schermo dell’Arte in Florence, the artist talks with Josseline-Barnett Black about nonfiction films, New York City as a character, and how social issues affect the way we perceive an artist’s work.
Josseline-Barnett Black: How’s your psyche?
James Crump: It’s fine. It’s been really beautiful here. We just finished another film called Breuer’s Bohemia, about architect Marcel Breuer’s experimental houses after the Second World War and the people who commissioned them. I call it modernism meets The Ice Storm. It’s a lot about the history of architecture, but also the personalities and the people who were Breuer’s clients.
JBB: You just finished another piece, Spit Earth: Who is Jordan Wolfson? You work with documentary as a medium, format, frame, as a way of thinking, focusing on enigmatic personages. What for you is the distinction between documentary and a kind of “biopic”?
JC: What I try to do as a director of these nonfiction films is create something that is beautiful and factual but also entertainment. This film with Jordan, it had to do with having met him. I started tracking his work around 2013. He’s this amazing, seductive, entertaining, controversial, some have said sociopathic personality, and having met him in 2017 at his studio, I was so impressed with how he presented his work. He was so articulate and intelligible and very forceful. We eventually started thinking about it as a motion picture, and thinking… He is such a live-wire kind of character. It’s so loaded, why not consider it as a feature doc? So that’s how it got started. What’s different about the film is that it’s a character who is living today; so many of my projects are about historical characters.
JBB: For context, you released a film in 2007, Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, and then you released in 2017 Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco. Mapplethorpe and Lopez are both notoriously misunderstood. What do Robert Mapplethorpe, Antonio Lopez, and Jordan Wolfson have in common?
JC: There’s a film between Black White + Gray and Antonio Lopez 1970, which is called Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art. It’s about these artists from New York who break out of the city in a really tumultuous time in American politics and culture, and are also very misunderstood. I always thought about those three films as a kind of trilogy, about New York between 1968–73. I’m obsessed with that time in New York City. New York is a character for me. I consider myself a New York director. With Jordan, there is some affinity with being misunderstood, being outré. Jordan is a perfect foil to tell a story about the condition of the hyper-speculative contemporary art market. Who thought that the kinds of things that happened here in the states would happen at this particular moment? The pandemic struck simultaneously, and affects the way we perceive Jordan’s art.
JBB: Jordan adamantly states that transgression leads to transformation. In your practice, do you feel that the converse is also true? How would you define transgressive as related to provocative?
JC: I don’t feel transgressive. I’m always pushing the envelope. I’m trying to contribute to the language of cinema, and in doing that I set the bar high for myself in trying to produce and direct films that have my mark on them, which is to say that they’re not linear films and incorporate a panoply of storytelling devices; they have different through lines that intersect with a set of characters. I don’t find that transgressive. In cultural production it’s an affront to orthodoxy. It’s the inability to care for someone’s feelings or beliefs and their sensibilities, or their sense of aesthetics. I’ve experienced Jordan literally making physical affronts, which in a strange way are consonant with his practice. After we showed him the film at a special screening in a billionaire’s mansion in LA, Jordan accosted me on the sidewalk outside Matthew Marks Gallery. Provocation is something that Jordan Wolfson refutes, but he is doubtless a provocateur. In some of the interviews, Jordan has actually referenced Robert Mapplethorpe and the sex pictures, which is interesting because I was one of the first to publish them, and I know that body of work very very well. By pinning himself to Mapplethorpe’s legacy, Jordan hopes his transgressions will be accepted as legit and defensible.
JBB: I had a visceral response to a particular scene in your film which follows Jordan at his farm in upstate New York, with his horses and dogs, walking barefoot and talking about his upcoming work Cube — its complexity in terms of animatronics and scale. We remain in contact with this very self-possessed, explicit, highly articulate artist, but we suddenly gain access to him as a subtle, defenseless being, producing a kind of subsequent dissonance. Can you discuss the placement of this scene in terms of montage?
JC: Jordan would have liked to take control of the production and have storyboarded it and directed it himself. You understand aspects of Jordan that you’ve seen in the city and in social contexts, and then you see him there in this bucolic, pristine farm. It struck me as multiple personality disorder. It was a personality that I’d never seen before, as if he was performing. I was taken with the footage, and this new mien. It came at the right time: it was a jump cut, and the first thing you see is almost out of Brideshead Revisited. He’s in the pond and he says something like, “The pond is so beautiful now. I don’t think I’ve seen it any more beautiful than today.” I think he was swimming in his underwear, and he was very concerned that I would show too much of his body, and I thought that was interesting. But he’s always sharing, oversharing.
JBB: Wolfson’s Female Figure (2014) has been called disturbing, magnetic, and literal. In discussing this work in the film, Jordan elucidates boomeranging between subject and object, object and subject, in which eye contact is the domain and threshold of negotiation. What are your thoughts on the way gaze is implemented in this work?
JC: I saw that piece early on, at David Zwirner Gallery, before the public had access to it. It was just me and my partner and one of the gallery directors, inside this enclosed space. People tend to overuse the word immersive in today’s art-world parlance. In terms of immersion, this was off the charts. When you walk in and begin to experience this animatronic sculpture, at first it’s not saying anything, it’s just making this electronic sound, rhythmically turning its head and gathering a sight line to lock with your eyes. You were talking about that Mapplethorpe quote that beauty and the devil are the same thing — maybe Jordan’s Female Figure illustrates that connection. There was something, for me, supernatural, a little demonic about the experience, because of the mask and the tactile aspects of the figure’s soiled, stained dress, the dishevelment. It epitomizes the uncanny.
JBB: You have worked predominantly on deceased subjects with whom you couldn’t directly communicate. Has this helped insulate you from artists’ narratives about themselves? Jordan is a living artist. How did you meet this challenge strategically?
JC: I’ve done many projects with nonliving creatives over decades. I would say that working with dead architects and dead artists is a less challenging field. It’s more challenging when you have a living subject who is incredibly manipulative, mercurial, controlling. Once the production was going, one had to block his calls and texts if necessary. There was his obsessive need to try to steer the film in a certain direction. I don’t think you could make this film after the experience we had with Jordan, because I don’t think he’s going to allow any filmmaker to do what we did, because the process of looking into that mirror was just too much for him. We were fortunate in that we made the film at a particular moment when we could limit the noise.
JBB: Would you do an epilogue to the film? Is the film done? There is something cautionary about what you produced, not in a vindictive or pedagogical way, but it gives one pause. In this sense it’s emancipatory, because I have to attend to the way I am relating to trauma, violence, and limitation.
JC: The film is totally done. I wouldn’t return to it. It’s like an exorcism. I tend to move on creatively. If you went into this film knowing a little about Jordan Wolfson and his output, I think you would come out of this film knowing a lot more about who this artist really is, his desire, his place in the world. I made it clear that this would be an honest portrayal, that I wasn’t interested in any kind of puff piece, so to speak. I think Jordan reveals so much, and I think there is regret in that. I was always intrigued by the protests Jordan makes, or his beseeching fellow artists about not giving into fear and doing that on Instagram and other social media. He says in the film that he can’t make his work if he gives into fear, but to me Jordan is one of the most fearful artists that I’ve ever met. In this particular moment, after the #BlackLivesMatter protests in May, the tables are turned with a renewed recognition of the divisions and inequities in the art world. As a privileged white male artist himself, Jordan’s fears of being cancelled are real.