Artful Circle curated Richard Gachot: America at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington New York in 2014. See below to read part of the catalog we designed for the exhibit….
Richard Gachot: An American Original by Franklin Hill Perrell
Meeting Richard Gachot a decade ago, I regarded him as one of the handful of North Shore Long Island artists (among them, Richard Lippold, Christian White, and Frank Olt) whose reputations I knew from New York. Gachot was to me an enigma: an artist I regarded as famous yet who lived in Old Westbury. I had seen his work in successive shows at the Frank Miele Gallery, along the upper reaches of Madison Avenue in Carnegie Hill. It turned out that my Long Island friends all knew him well, but for whatever reason I had never met him before: maybe I was the only one.
Miele, I did know. He had been the flamboyant and dogmatic impresario of Hirschl and Adler Folk Art before setting up his own gallery. Thin and elegant, he was the epitome of the Madison Avenue dealer whose word and endorsement were golden. Gachot’s work always sold well, in exhibitions and at the Outsider Art Fair, and had begun to appear in texts on contemporary folk art. A distinct recollection from the 1980s is a display of Gachot’s sculptures, which I recall as whirligigs. They attracted attention because of their humor and content, representing a Calder-meets-Duchamp aesthetic linked with folk art but clearly something else as well.
An introduction yielded a visit to Gachot’s eighteenth-century Quaker farmhouse to see the abundant collection of his art that makes his “ice house” an installation piece where early and recent works dialogue with each other and the curious visitor. The complex of disused cow barns, creamery, chicken houses, and utility farm buildings next door provides an agrarian context that became a significant factor in the development of Gachot’s aesthetic. The artist’s role in historic preservation on Long Island likewise emerges in the aspect of his work where not only physical objects are rescued from oblivion by being repurposed for art but salient historic themes once central to America’s cultural history are addressed as subjects. Nature and horticulture are similarly among the artist’s abiding interests. A visitor to the Gachot property can enter a space, seemingly outside of time, comprised of a tranquil series of garden rooms, some formally planted, or wander out amidst meadows and forest trails that reverberate with the murmur of traffic on the Long Island Expressway. Gachot has described this noise to visitors as “a great waterfall and river stocked with fish.” It is a strangely romantic yet paradoxical setting for the creation of his works.
The present survey at the Heckscher Museum, Richard Gachot’s America, does not purport to be a retrospective but rather focuses on works that reflect a common theme of politics, satire, and subjects germane to the historic particulars of American life. Perhaps most conspicuously, they embody and celebrate the American proclivity for “make-do ingenuity.” It has been observed that his works are transformative: the formal properties and prior use of each element—typically found objects—suggest, in combination, other forms of reality. Thus an oil can becomes a bee’s nose, tiny filters become a bug’s eyes, eyeglass arms suggest antennae, a cheese grater becomes the body of an alligator, and so on.
This was the assemblage method of the surrealists as exemplified in the constructions of Picasso and Miró. Speaking of Gachot, Helen Harrison has written: “For him, found objects are the medium, not the message. He uses his finds the way Kurt Schwitters used eggshells and bus tickets, and although the result is figurative instead of abstract, it is just as conceptually based.” Gachot’s subjects and themes are perennially American, explored by pop artists and, further back in time, by Grant Wood, Reginald Marsh, Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows, Thomas Moran, Winslow Homer, and many others.
For every artist there is the issue of studio practice—the tools of the trade acquired by the artist as necessary to art’s making. In Gachot’s case this comprises a vast, seemingly chaotic gathering of flotsam and jetsam variously washed up by the ocean and found upon the beach, or left out on the street for collection, or given by well-meaning friends, or bought in antique shops, or in one celebrated instance secured by a dive onto the Long Island Railroad tracks from the platform at the Westbury station, to retrieve a likely looking coil of wire that called out for inclusion in the piece he was working on (it ended up Miss Liberty’s earrings).
In Gachot’s cellar, down a steep and irregular flight of handmade wooden stairs, the cave-like studio-lair unfolds as a labyrinth of rooms stockpiled with these objects, hung from ceiling beams, piled into boxes, gathered into drawers, typically grouped by color, shape, or material. Much as Tiffany had his collection of glass sorted, like an artist’s palette, according to color, a curious logic asserts an order over this hoard. Here, alone, with limited light and in constricted space, Gachot uses pliers, drills, saws, chisels, and other rudimentary carpentry tools to bind together the disparate elements that metamorphose into his sculptures.
In its manner of making and materials, a resemblance to certain manifestations of American self-taught art is inescapable, but the layering of references and meaning in Gachot’s work deny this designation. They are sculptures in the American tradition, whose formal properties and arrangement arise out design impulses that have much in common with a diverse group of artists including Alexander Calder, David Smith, and Louise Nevelson. The figural and narrative emphasis, rather than abstraction, and ultimately the use of found objects that retain some of their identity, however, produces an important divergence. The fusion of these impulses characterizes the unique character of Gachot’s art.
So how is it that Gachot’s informed approach became identified with outsider art? We may start by bypassing the outsider stereotypes: narratives of doom and salvation in car parts; hillbilly architects of huts made of Coke bottles; the “art brut” of children, postmen, prisoners, and the insane; even the sublime janitor Simon Rodia with his magnificent mosaic towers in LA. Whether primitive, childlike, or grand, extreme independence characterizes folk or outsider art. The notion that the outsider is someone who hasn’t absorbed traditional academic methods (let alone the negative view that the outsider’s originality is rooted in ignorance) is only one side of it. An artist can decide quite knowingly to work outside the dominant, concurrent art practice. A broader scope, embracing links to traditionally acknowledged high art, may provide some insight into Gachot.
The willingness to function in isolation for long periods enabled artists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne to go their own way despite an awareness of the major trends and achieve original oeuvres that were decades ahead of their peers. Though their work remained largely resistant to comprehension during their lifetimes, history has sanctified them for the enormous influence they have ultimately wielded, for the most part after they died.
Gachot, like those three, is not lacking in artistic training. He does not care to be portrayed as a student of Josef Albers, though he was. Like another former Albers alum, the posthumously acclaimed master Robert De Niro Sr., the works of these two students are nothing like those of their famous teacher. Albers had acolytes who did emulate him, such as the neo-Bauhaus op art painter Richard Anuszkiewicz, whose precisely rendered squares within squares and repeated crisp thin lines pay tribute to his mentor. The classes with Albers at Yale were for Gachot an invitation to think visually and ask rigorous questions about art. He remembers that Albers opened the first class by writing his name backward on a blackboard with each hand at the same time. What struck Gachot in this was Albers’s capacity for putting the mind above habitual practice. At Yale, he familiarized himself with Albers’s color studies, became trained in one-line drawing, built models of geometric solids, and studied graphic and industrial design.
Like the “Sunday painter” stockbroker Gauguin, Gachot did not at first pursue art as his chosen career. The story of Gachot’s conversion is a legend among those who know him. After twenty years in advertising, with five children in school, his mounting anger over the endless commute to New York and a sense of wasted talent was emotionally and practically unleashed by a car crash on the LIE. Crawling out of his demolished vehicle in the shadow of the Elmhurst tanks, Gachot declared that he just wouldn’t take it anymore. This was his epiphany, and a calling to focus his life on art.
Two trips to the restored historic village of Williamsburg, Virginia, made an impact on his stylistic development. He noted the eye-catching character of colonial tavern signs from the perspective of his advertising background. He also saw the two museums of American vernacular art and absorbed the techniques of painting and carving that he observed. He was impressed by the way this mode of art negated chiaroscuro and other traditional features of illusionistic realism.