Remarks on Julie Ault

Triple Canopy honored Julie Ault in 2016, and the nonprofit’s director, Peter J. Russo, asked me, among others, to make brief remarks about this amazing artist, writer, editor and curator at its benefit dinner. This event took place on November 16th at a Chinatown restaurant in New York. Here is some of what I said:

In the early 1980s, Julie Ault and the artist Doug Ashford were involved in the Artists’ Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, a programmatic campaign “to raise consciousness and funds in support of popular movements” in the region. As most of you know, Julie and Doug were part of Group Material, a collective formed in 1979 at the proposal of artist Tim Rollins. The Artists’ Call campaign involved many people and materialized in a range of programs held in nonprofit spaces and commercial galleries alike. One of the projects presented in that effort was Group Material’s 1984 exhibition at P.S.1, which was titled Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America. (You can find installation shots of this Timeline on Doug Ashford’s website.)

As was the case with the collective’s later and more widely known AIDS Timeline (first done in 1989), this P.S.1 installation juxtaposed material culture and political events. It gathered topically related artworks and ephemera, as well as commodities like coffee and bananas, because, as Group Material stated then, “the desire and struggle to acquire these [were the basis] for much of the oppression in the region.” That was a matter of fact. To date, this Timeline continues to be discussed in Latin America; it was actually the framework for an exhibition of art from the region recently held at Tate Modern in London, which was co-organized by TEOR/éTICA, an independent art space in San José, Costa Rica.

It mattered. Art. Economy. People. Their relationships. Their visibility. Their struggles. Their well-being. Their joy. These mattered. And these have been precisely the matters that Julie Ault has cared about.

The recent exhibition of Julie’s collection at Artists Space, Macho Man: Tell It To My Heart in 2013-2014, made these relations palpable, featuring loaned and gifted artworks from longtime friends. And while friendship may have stimulated the connections there presented, these affective bonds were not insular but singular, a chain of engagements and influences made visible through art. In a different way, in her Alternative Art, New York book from 2002, Julie surveys how artists of diverse backgrounds but with shared intellectual affinities organized and came to work together in this city between 1965 and 1985.

Making visible and sharing publicly are key features of Julie’s work. But perhaps what most characterizes her artistic, curatorial, and editorial work is how she approaches subjects and materials—people, ideas, things, events—and how she draws relationships between them, bringing them closer. I am referring here to the care and honesty with which she responds to questions around proximity and timeliness; as well as to the thoughtfulness she gives to distinctions between subjective and objective knowledge, without subduing one or the other in the process. I am referring, then, to the emotional dimension of Julie Ault’s work, to her ways of working, to the workings of her experience.

More than once, Julie has raised the question of the privileges of firsthand knowledge, and of the responsibilities that come with it. More often than not, her investigations have focused on what grand narratives have omitted and on what has yet to be learned and shared, considered or reassessed. She has put into question personal narration, without removing her heart and experiences, and she has listened attentively to the testimony of others and has mined archives deeply, while being mindful that these may also be regarded as “false evidence,” as it was noted to her once by Marvin Taylor, another of her collaborators.

These predicaments about the authority of representation and the authorities presumed through interpretation are layered and unfolded succinctly in her influential work about her friend, the artist Felix González-Torres—work that, for many artists and curators, and I include myself, has been formative for considering identity politics relationally, which necessarily involves connecting biography and cultural production with context, all that helps shapes an artwork and that no less governs its level of visibility or circulation.

Julie is inspiring. Her work is finely knit with a thread of affection that is rare in our times—a thread of affection that is hard to produce and cannot be faked. This delicate thread is made up of singular strands of artistic gestures and communal experiences. And with it, Julie has been able to weave a social fabric, interlacing the life and work of artists, their ideas and communities, and, most important, their values and political contexts, regardless of whether these have been contentious to hegemony or cast aside by the cultural mainstream.

Her work, this social fabric, always feels intimate. It is personal. But no less is it publicly embodied. Social fabric is ultimately culture.

As you know, in the United States, a new Culture War is impending upon us. Shall we hope for—or expect—peace in the next couple of years? I think not. Maybe this is a time for more symbiotically aligning our artistic interests with our working processes, so these come to terms more honestly with our political tenets. Perhaps this is the one conciliation that’s worth entertaining now. It is a time to face more consequential conflicts. And for that reason, this is a time for coming together, for working collaboratively, for reaching out to others, and for lending a hand to strengthen our social fabric – as Julie Ault has so effectively and affectively done with art.