Interview with Eric Booker by David Ebony
The late 1960s and early ’70s was a time of social upheaval, civil unrest and protests around the world, including in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement were well underway here, and social activism in many forms shook the status quo. The dynamic cultural climate and heightened social awareness at the time fostered numerous progressive ideas as well as ideals. One group of New York artists sought to bring about social change by means of abstract sculptures and mural-scale abstract paintings, enhancing public space, and illuminating the exteriors of housing projects and other buildings. The collective known as Smokehouse Associates produced over the course of three years public projects in underprivileged neighborhoods in central and East Harlem that would engage the entire community.
The four core members of Smokehouse Associates—William T. Williams, who initiated the endeavor, Melvin Edwards, Guy Ciarcia, and Billy Rose—all maintained solo careers as artists and educators. For Smokehouse Associates’ projects, however, they wished to remain anonymous as they explored the revolutionary potential of public art. As part of their efforts toward unity, they encouraged the participation of the Harlem community.
The name Smokehouse Associates was borrowed from playwright Walter Jones, and refers to a type of building found throughout the South, which is used as a storage space for food and other goods, especially during the winter months and hard times. It serves as a metaphor for art as a resource. Aided by the energy of the local community, the group introduced into the urban landscape a vibrant visual language of monumental, brightly hued hard-edge geometric compositions. Formally, the works corresponded to contemporaneous developments in art, including Color Field, Pop Art, and Minimalism. The unique efforts of the Smokehouse Associates, however, echoed the pulsating beats and jaunty rhythms of jazz.
Unfortunately, none of the group’s nine projects have survived, due to a variety of reasons over the past fifty years—from the ravages of natural elements to the wrecking ball of urban developers. A wealth of archival information and images has been preserved, however, especially in the collection of William T. Williams. In 2017, Eric Booker, then assistant curator and exhibition coordinator at The Studio Museum in Harlem organized Smokehouse 1968-70, a show of archival photos.
Since then, he expanded upon the information and images presented in that exhibition, resulting in the recently published book, Smokehouse Associates. This unique volume, the only comprehensive study of the collective and its activities, contains essays by Booker, as well as scholars Charles L. Davis II and James Trainor, plus an extensive interview with Smokehouse artists Williams, Edwards and Ciarcia, by curator Ashley James. In a recent phone conversation, I discussed with Booker the new book and this short-lived but unforgettable artist collective.
David Ebony The Smokehouse Associates was an important collective, and until now, an often-overlooked subject for books or exhibitions. Can you give a brief overview of the group?
Eric Booker The Smokehouse Associates was envisioned by artist William T. Williams in 1968. He formed the group with sculptor Melvin Edwards, artist Guy Ciarcia, and a younger artist named Billy Rose, who left the group after the first year. They came together at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. There was so much happening within this social movement, of course, and also within the intersecting struggles of the art world. The idea was simple—to change the urban environment and to open up a set of possibilities for all who lived and participated in it. Smokehouse wanted to bring about these changes through abstraction, which makes the group rather unique as Black Power and Social Realism were on the rise. The Smokehouse Associates produced this abstract idiom that allows for a democratic reading and participation. They created environments throughout the Harlem neighborhood. They would go into vest-pocket parks, as they were known at the time, or derelict lots, and connect with community members and block associations, and really listened to what they needed from these sites. Smokehouse would create abstract designs for each site based on the surrounding architecture and landscape, drawing on the colors present in the neighborhood. They would then ask community members to make or complete them. They were site-specific, meaning that the group was constantly adapting and riffing according to the nature of the environment. They would create these incredible chromatic environments of large-scale geometric wall paintings that brought the community together. The spaces would be transformed into gathering places for concerts or other community events, and as a result gave residents a sense of ownership of place.
Ebony It was a rather short-lived enterprise—just about three years.
Booker That’s right—from 1968 through 1970—and mostly during the summer. Working outdoors, they had to take into consideration weather conditions and other practicalities. They frequently used a fifteen-foot-tall ladder, which often dictated what the height of the murals would be. It was important to them that the wall paintings were sited at ground level, so that they would not alienate the community around them. You could walk by and have this sort of anamorphic experience, as the mural’s appearance would change according to the time of day as well as the movement of your body through the space.
Ebony William T. Williams studied with Al Held at Yale University, and the hard-edge geometry of the Smokehouse Associates murals seems to me to be most closely related to Held and to Williams’s own paintings, compared with Edwards’s work and that of the other artists in the collective.
Booker Al Held, along with Knox Martin, were both teaching at Yale and exploring ideas around abstraction and monumentality. While Held was Williams’s advisor, Martin taught a course on collaborative environmental projects, though William didn’t take his class. But you can see that the Smokehouse Associates represents a synthesis of ideas from this time. Williams adopted some of these teachings and took them out into the built environment through Smokehouse. One statement that I often return to is his notion of “decentralizing the arts.” For Williams, that is what Smokehouse was all about. He had this elite education, but could not separate this from his experiences as an African American. He was navigating this duality experienced by communities of color that were excluded from places like Yale at the time, along with museums and other institutions. He really set out to break down these barriers. The Smokehouse Associates sought to create art that was rigorous in its conception and process, but was intended for all.
Ebony In the interview section of the book, Williams talks about geometry as a “neutral language” that appears in all cultures.
Booker Yes, he talks about the universal language of geometry, and in the subsequent conversations we had, art-historical questions start to arise around the relationship of Smokehouse to movements like Minimalism, and if or how we should receive and read these forms from an art-historical or an academic standpoint. Smokehouse pushed against this tendency to classify. Melvin Edwards, for example, says that “Everything is abstract,” and that the only thing that’s real is when you bring a baby into the world. It’s this idea that abstraction is found across time and culture, and therefore it has the capability of being a unifying language. This democratic capacity contradicts the ideas around art idioms like Minimalism and Conceptualism as strictly belonging to an academic or artworld landscape. It is interesting that all of these ideas were in play at the same time, but Smokehouse was really trying to transcend these barriers and bring their work to a wider public.
Ebony In your essay, you highlight some of the differences and contrasts between abstract and figurative works for Black artists. You mention an idea from Kellie Jones, that “abstract artists were committed to equality, but equally to their right to esthetic experimentation.” Can you say a little more about that?
Booker I go on to say that many artists, including those in Smokehouse, have referenced jazz as an experimental impulse or a force—a kind of abstract space in which one is allowed to take in existing forms and remix and recontextualize them. It’s important to consider what the artists say about this work now—fifty years later. In the context of the book, we’re discussing works that, as you have noted, no longer exist, and these environments were meant to be experienced in the round. So how do you do justice to this incredible undertaking? We have to rely on archival materials, photographic documentation, and the artists’ own words.
Ebony As you say, the Smokehouse Associates thought of the work as environments, and they did not even like to use the term “murals” in reference to the wall paintings.
Booker For Smokehouse, there was a real practical sense in making the work, in that the process or the experience was the most important. They were out there cleaning up the sites, transforming these spaces, and engaging the entire community. Painting the walls of these buildings was just one part of the endeavor. To them, the word “mural” invoked static wall paintings of a different order. Theirs was an esthetic approach, but one with very real pragmatic social applications.
Ebony There were other Black artists working in abstract idioms at the time, who seemed to be like-minded, such as the sculptor Richard Hunt in Chicago, and you mentioned the painter Ed Clark, who you note toward the end of the Smokehouse years had traveled to Washington D.C. with Williams and Edwards to propose integrating art into public housing in an effort to humanize public housing. Did the Smokehouse members actively seek other artists to work with on various projects?
Booker The group’s membership was open, meaning that anyone who wanted to help could do so, but we only know of the specific people and activities that were documented. The book brings together all that exists, or is known to exist, in terms of documentation of the Smokehouse projects. There were four core members, but the Smokehouse Associates was basically an anonymous group. They really wanted to avoid the situation where individual artistic egos rise to the top. There were perhaps many other contemporary artists, friends or relatives, who participated in their activities in some way—who lent a helping hand with certain aspects. Ed Clark was involved in the effort to approach the Department of Housing and Urban Development in DC; but the way he used his body in creating his own abstract paintings [large gestural compositions using brooms] could be thought about in relation to the physicality of the Smokehouse artists in making these environmental works. There are many connections that could be made concerning like-minded peers; but after speaking with the Smokehouse artists, I realized that it was important to emphasize that this was a truly communal project. I didn’t want to place too much emphasis on individuals, and their specific contributions to Smokehouse, because that wasn’t how the group chose to operate.
Ebony In the book, you do give some attention to the more conventional—maybe that’s not the right word—gallery exhibitions that the Smokehouse artists participated in with other established artists. Works by Sam Gilliam, for instance, who was not part of the Smokehouse Associates, appeared in a number of group shows alongside pieces by the Smokehouse artists. And his beliefs were certainly allied with and complimented those of Smokehouse. You say that these artists aimed to “create work that was not codified by race, canonical histories, institutions or mediums.” You mentioned that Gilliam’s abandonment of stretcher bars, flat surfaces and brushes to create his paintings was all part of the kind of revolutionary improvisation that all of these abstract artists engaged in.
Booker I thought that reference was helpful when considering a group whose work hasn’t been shown or examined in over fifty years. A group that exists at the intersections of abstraction, public art, and civic engagement. Of course, we don’t know these artworks firsthand because they no longer exist. So I found myself looking at the Smokehouse works in the context of what each member was making on their own, as well as the work of their contemporaries. There was a conversation happening among these artists, and many connections in terms of energy and experimentation (to use Kellie Jones’s important Studio Museum exhibition of the same name). They were all interested in creating an experience for the viewer with unconventional materials, techniques, and immersive environments.
Ebony Did you get to know the Smokehouse artists as you worked on the book?
Booker Yes, I had many conversations with Williams, Edwards, and Ciarcia over the course of the project. I wanted to make sure that their voices were well represented in the book. I was also interested in what archival material each of them had to share related to this work. I was fortunate that they were all so committed to the project and still share a true collaborative spirit.
Ebony In the book there are a number of photo mockups of planned —and wonderful looking—but never realized projects by the Smokehouse Associates. I wondered, with all of the construction going on now in New York City—new apartment buildings and housing projects and the like, isn’t it a good time to get some of these projects completed?
Booker It is certainly an exciting idea, and something that the artists have thought about as well. But there was a certain energy around the work as it was envisioned in the ’60s that is fundamentally different than today.
Ebony I’m sure that would be challenging.
Booker There was always a question of how much funding, labor, time, and effort was involved to secure permits and such. It was a huge administrative burden for Williams and the other artists. It was a job in and of itself, and that’s part of the reason why there was a collective decision among the Smokehouse artists to stop making this kind of work. Also, after three years, they recognized the limits of what they were able to do in these specific environments. They wanted to envision projects on a macro scale, to engage entire cities and societies in order to bring about change starting from the ground up.
Eric Booker is former assistant curator and exhibition coordinator at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Currently, he is associate curator at Strom King Art Center.
David Ebony is a contributing editor of Art in America, formerly its managing editor. He is the author of numerous artist monographs.