The urgent art of Dewey Crumpler
A conversation with the painter and art professor, a prophetic voice on America's psychosis and the possibility of liberation
Some people know about wine. I just drink it. And that’s kind of how I am with art. I take it in regularly and with great joy, but I don’t Know About Art. This I confess.
Not long ago, one of my best friends invited me to an art show in New York organized by one of his best friends, Jordan Stein, who runs the San Francisco gallery Cushion Works. I went to Dewey Crumpler’s exhibit at the Derek Eller Gallery mostly just because I go where my friends are. Seldom have I made such a good decision.
From the moment I saw Dewey’s searing, haunting, galvanizing paintings that night, and then when I met and spoke to the man, I felt in the presence of a great spirit.
Dewey is an artist, a professor at the San Francisco Art Institute who has taught such luminaries as Kehinde Wiley, and I have found him to be an oracular voice in a moment that begs for insight beyond the obvious and vision beyond the dark horizon.
The other day, we spoke for a good two hours to make this interview for you below. I hope you enjoy it and share it widely.
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“Art is not about pretty shit. Art is about beauty”: a conversation with Dewey Crumpler
I want to ask you about your origin story. How did you become an artist at the angle that you are?
It was an organic process in that my mother was a very creative person and a seamstress. She created amazing clothes for herself, her sisters, and our neighbors. Every time her mother would come from Arkansas to San Francisco, her mother would gather all of her daughters into our living room, and they would erect what first looked to me like a tent. But over the years, I came to understand it to be a quilt.
She would make these quilts as a way of bringing family, ideas, and thoughts together — about history and our family's history, about the people whose clothes were being torn to shreds and recomposed into a new garment that would cover and protect people in our family as they snuggled up to go to sleep or watch television under these quilts.
Everybody in our family wound up getting quilts, and my grandmother ultimately had her daughters work on them with her until, as she got older, she started making them for herself. I would sit up under the quilts, looking at the light shining through the colors. In between these reds and greens and blues and all those colors, I would hear stories that animated my imagination.
Did she conceive of what she was doing as art, or did she conceive of it as care?
It was never art. It was always my grandmother's way of keeping her daughters and our family connected to history. It was a way of passing on lineage stories and ideas. I think the art aspect came from my mother's sensibility for the garments she made and the stuff she did with fabric.
Once she saw that I was really interested in drawing and painting and couldn't be torn away from it, she started to cultivate it by bringing books home from her gigs and getting them from the Goodwill and bookstores with interesting encyclopedias or art books. I would tear through them.
Later she paid for me to have this subscription. They send you art supplies and instruction; it would cost a certain amount of money every month. That made me interested in art as a framework to tell stories.
Then, as I matured and started junior high school, I became involved in the civil rights movement. I went to demonstrations as a kid and followed what was going on in the news.
From the time I was born until I was in the middle of high school, my parents used to drive back to Arkansas with us kids every year. We spent almost every summer in Arkansas and traveling through the South. That experience made me very aware of what it meant to be driving through California, then Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas. With my father, we never stayed in a hotel. We always parked on the sides of roads and parking areas. My father would take a nap for a couple of hours with his restless kids in the back seat.
I used to think, "Why can't we stop and get a hotel like normal people? How come we keep doing this?" My white friends would tell me about trips they took and the hotels they would stay in. We would often go to the bathroom in the environment. Now, sometimes we would go to a toilet in a filling station, but not when we got to certain states. The reason was that my father and mother did not want us to have to be humiliated by those signs.
That really shaped my experiences, which tailored the way I would develop as a young person with a deep interest in beauty and a real interest in politics. Because as a 12-year-old, I was watching public television because I wanted to see adults talking about some of the things that my parents used to talk about and that I could hear from my bedroom. What was happening when we went to the South became more and more important to me by 1962, '63. I was beginning to understand why my father never stopped on our road trips.
Politics explained so much — why he left Arkansas, why he stayed in California, and why he never stopped?
That's right. He was a big, tall, real dark Black man, and, like my mother, he was really handsome. Like his own father, he didn't take shit from anybody. It was liberty or death in a real sense for him. After all, his father was one of those gun-toting Black people whom everybody respected because he owned land. He owned automobiles in the '30s. He grew cotton and peanuts. He was a really important citizen because he had an incident with a white store owner when my father was a kid. When my father told me about this incident, I got a picture of why my father was like he was and why my grandfather was the source of it.
My father was a very gentle person when he was gentle. But when he was angry, he would look at you with these eyes that came out of his head and hover until they locked onto your eyes. They would let you know that you made a wrong move right there, and you better correct it.
My grandfather was a very tall, six-foot-six, very dark Black man with a bald head. He looked to me like pictures I would see of pharaohs. He had a deep, gentle voice. My father told me about this incident when the two of them were in the only store Black people could use in Smackover, Arkansas, which was owned by a white man. My father picked up something and the white dude told him, "Don't touch that. If you pick it up again, I'm going to take care of you in here."
My grandfather took the thing out of my father's hand and showed the white man the side of his body that had a gun on it and said to him, "If you touch my son, you will not see the sun as it rises tomorrow."
This white man replied, "Mr. Crumpler, I didn't know that was your son. I'm very sorry." Now, I understand he said that because my grandfather owned land and was known never to have bills. He paid his bills and was known not to take shit, period. Therefore, they left my grandfather alone.
I saw him as a kind of giant. I saw my father the same way, not only because he came from Papa Dewey, but because he had a different sensibility than Papa Dewey. Because Papa Dewey was no joke. My father was much softer as a person.
I want to ask you about the San Francisco Art Institute. You have this rare experience of both studying in a place and then teaching in it for such a long time. Tell me about your initial encounter with the institute.
Before I arrived at the Art Institute, I had won a scholarship to two schools. One was to the Art Institute, and the other was to CCA. I visited the Art Institute and loved the environment, but the school itself frightened me because it was too weird and wacky. It was too full of hippies and pot. It was too free and loose, and it was all about new things, new energy, new ways of looking at the world. I wanted to go to college to be able to make art and become a commercial artist, so I could make a living. I didn't want to starve like the artists I had read about. So I decided to go to Arts and Crafts, which is what CCA used to be called at that time.
CCA was a very rigorous school that excelled in teaching traditional realism. I wanted to learn how to make realistic work like Norman Rockwell — just piercingly realistic. So I went to Arts and Crafts, and I learned that.
By that time, I was firmly involved in the civil rights movement, and my work was showing it. My interest in liberation was complete and absolute. The idea of freedom from the movement extended for me into a notion of freedom as an artist and as a maker. In that process, I tried to set up an African-American studies department.
Of course, getting a Black studies department in an art school was not going to happen, because art was not about politics in those days. Any art that tried to function inside politics would immediately get slammed down. But a politics that reflected the streets spilled over into those institutions. Eventually, the school capitulated, and we set up a Black studies department that later turned into an ethnic studies department. That was happening all over the country. As this was going on, I started to understand that I had no interest whatsoever in commercial art.
In 1962, I also received a letter from the draft board saying that my number, 68, was about to come up for the draft. I said, Oh, no, I'm a student. First of all, I'm not going. I'm trying to finish my education. Secondly, I'm a pacifist, and I do not believe in murder of any kind. So that meant I had to start a campaign to stay out of the service. I went to the Art Institute to avoid the military, and when I got there, I knew exactly what I was interested in.
I knew how to draw and paint in the way I wished, but I did not understand my deep interest in abstraction, not in the way it was made in the West. I was more interested in conceptual devices related to abstraction that were practiced through ancient African ways of knowing and being. So I began to intensely study philosophy and ancient philosophies in Africa and India. I was studying all these ancient religions and ancient thought processes and the kind of imagery that emerged from it.
I got involved in mural painting. By 1968, I was beginning to make political work in the streets to combat the negative imagery I was confronted with in popular media. The stereotypes that were so pervasive in the ’60s had to be disrupted. The way to disrupt them was to be clear that Blackness was not a pariah condition.
On top of attending demonstrations in the streets, I wanted to join those African-Americans who were bringing change to the public arena, and I wanted to do it through art. Schools like the Art Institute and CCA had no way to force students to do anything they didn't want to do, but they weren't supportive of you creating work about African-Americans because it was seen as political. But when we painted works about white folks, it was just regular. For me, this was a nonstarter.
As a student, I was intolerant of the notion that I'm here making work about Black people, and you're asking me whether I want to be an artist or a Black artist. This wasn't true of all of my teachers, but it was a general sentiment because people would refuse to critique political work. We were all being taught that art was about quality and art was not about politics. That art and politics don't mix.
Now that is the complete opposite of today. If I'd gotten knocked out in 1968 and woke up today, I wouldn't recognize this idea of using art as political activism.
I want to ask you about the mural you did at George Washington High School in San Fransisco in the sixties. There was an existing mural cycle called “Life of Washington,” painted by Victor Arnautoff in the 1930s. It shows Washington in various forms of life, with Native Americans and enslaved people and others. It was widely understood as a subversive painting that critiqued American colonialism.
But, again and again, some students at the school have critiqued the murals and asked for them to be removed on the grounds that they are degrading to some groups. In the 1960s, the students were persuaded to let the murals stay if they could be supplemented by new art. And you were chosen to paint those new murals.
What did you learn from that experience about our relationship to our problematic historic figures and the question of what to do about their problematic legacies?
The authorities didn’t want to give me the job, because I was completely unknown and irrelevant as an artist. So they were vehemently against my doing it. The students threatened the school that if they didn't hire me, something would happen to all the murals. The Black Panthers at the school who had seen my work in the community and had watched me on television talking about my work decided that only I could do the work.
In order to prove the authorities wrong, I went around the country studying murals and then wound up in Mexico so that I could learn to make real work, because the students were going to destroy the George Washington murals. I told the students that I would not make an artwork if they destroyed the existing work. But if they let the work stand, I would make a mural greater than the one that is on their walls. So they agreed, and I went to Mexico.
I told the school the controversy would re-arise if they did not properly explain the history and relationship to this mural, which is a historical document talking about history. If they don't deal with it, every new generation is going to make this argument because the wall in that other room, Arnautoff's mural, defines the founding father of the United States.
It defines the contradiction. The founding fathers, brilliant as they were, were schooled in the ideas of the great philosophical arguments of the Enlightenment, and all of these rhetoricians had truly noble ideas about liberty and equality. And all those words were spoken while those shiny patent leather boots stood firmly, with all the weight of their historic contradiction, on the necks of thousands of Black people in every part of the American landscape without whom not one shiny shoe, not one buckle, not one frilly collar, not one powdered wig would be on their heads.
They put it all on parchment and sealed a contradiction that would never leave us because they didn't have the courage to do exactly what they said. They didn't have the courage to stand up and say, "We mean this from the top of our heads to the bottom of our feet, and we mean it for every breathing human being in the United States, including the people we have ravaged in our demand for this land."
But at that moment they were not thinking about every human being, not about Black people, not about Native Americans, not about women. Of course, they saw their wives, daughters, and mothers as appendages of them, but no other skirt-wearing woman came close to being respected.
I made the mistake of believing that the change and all that struggling we were doing in the ’60s paid off. But today, the country is staring in the face the possibility of a complete repeat of post-Reconstruction, when Jim Crow was used to provide whiteness with an automatic pass.
In your art, you often settle on an object and then dwell on it as an extended metaphor, sometimes for years. Your hoodies series is such a powerful example of this. You were doing this in the ’90s when hoodies had some of the same meanings, but they hadn't acquired some of the other meanings they have now.
Can you talk about the hoodie series and its meaning as the country's understanding of the hoodie evolved?
After returning from Amsterdam in the 1990s, I was deeply moved by the tulip and its history. I began to explore the tulip as a document of history, particularly in the way in which it had been venerated for its beauty and manipulated for its economic purposes. It had been genetically manipulated so that it could create different varieties that favored whatever European interests were. That became metaphorical for me.
One day I was researching the Middle Passage. As I was reading, I could see this shape from the corner of my eye on the right-hand page. It was a kind of tulip shape — a void. But as I turned my head to look at the page, it looked like a body floating. Looking down on it, you had an omnipotent position because the void in the center was not a hole to me. It was a head, and the expansion on either side was like shoulders.
I saw this image and was immediately fascinated because it had the same oval property the tulip had. The tulip looks like a head when it's in a closed position, as a bud. That's what attracted me, particularly when the tulip is pulled by gravity toward the earth early in the morning before the sun hits it and it turns open to the sun. That gesture was really powerful to me. So when I saw it in this thing, it was perfect.
Dewey Crumpler ©, Tulip Notebook, 1995.
Some time later, I found this object that had the exact same qualities. Books described it as a slave collar. But I found out that wasn't originally what it was. It started as a ritual object from Africa used to produce sonic sounds when the body moves in dance. It was worn like a wrist band or anklet, or, in its larger context, it could be worn on the neck.
That tripped me out. I bought both of the objects and brought them home. I started painting it to understand it and grasp its shape and form. Then I started carving and sculpting it. I saw its volume, and I heard its sonic sound. So I really became intrigued by it as an object.
I put it on tables and in various places to observe it. I would lift it up and notice that it kept making these shadows where there was a hole in the middle.
Then I thought, OK, what would this object look like? What was the history that turned this from an object of spirituality and extraordinary transformation into one of misery and subjugation? What was that psychotic episode that could turn it into an object of ridicule that it would become a slave collar? What kind of mind could do this? Some European saw this object that could propel a form of domination. I thought, This object is not a slave collar. This is a psychic condition. How does its shadow speak to its memory?
Collar used on enslaved people. Undated.
One day I was admonishing one of my sons about leaving his stuff all over his room. I looked in the corner, and a hoodie was caught between the chair and the wall. It looked like a person. That's when I thought, Ah, that open part is the light.
I started trying to figure out what kind of form could animate this object and began drawing how the hoodie opened. Its pockets expanded, and together, they made this shadow object. So it was the shadow object that created the hoodie. For me, the hoodie represented the Black mind and thought. It represented how freedom and liberation are in the void.
I saw an image of a Black man when I was 16 years old. He's been whipped on his back, and he has these murderous whip marks that have turned into calluses. When he posed for the photo, he opened his arm and created this void. Why that void? Why did he do that? The same sensibility was happening when I saw the slave collar and its void.
The hoodies became animated consciousnesses and represented the captured condition. It does not at all look present on the outside, but on the inside, there was a consciousness that rose out of the psychosis of slavery into the liberation of the universe.
This is where my study of Buddhism and ancient African philosophy come in. The power is in the mind. There is power in imagining outside of a condition. So the hoodies became objects of liberation.
Dewey Crumpler ©, The Complete Hoodie Works, 1993–Present, Cushion Works, San Francisco, 2021.
They had no boundaries — they were boundaryless. They existed in any context and at any time. Their scale was relative, and their relationship to time and space was relative. They could live in five dimensions simultaneously.
But the hoodie became an instrument of empowerment in the Black community. It closed off the outside by adorning itself with a covering. African-Americans created this thing called hipness. For the youth culture involved in sports, the hoodie became an object of identification and hood hipness. Black athletes adorned the hoodie because it could close the exterior off when you put it up around your head. It could let you shape your own dimension to ward off the psychosis coming at you 24/7. It could be worn in such a way that when you see a sports figure like Michael Jordan wearing it, it represents this high level of excellence.
Muhammad Ali trained in it in the ’60s and made it a garment of power. He's sweating in it, which means he connected it to those Black people in the fields. In its shaping darkness, the garment permitted you to imagine in your own framework. It deflects psychotic power so that you can move freely in the world.
But for that, you had to pay a price. As it empowered you, it angered the captive circumstance because it identified your stance with Muhammad Ali. He was hated by America, hated as a Muslim and as an uppity Black man talking about "Ain't I pretty?" It was a reflection of what was going on in the streets, with the "I'm Black and I'm proud" mantra. He turned it into a personal dance that had beauty and straight-up African power.
He animated this hoodie as an object of hipness and veneration. Jordan gave it wings. That's why my children adopted the hoodie as a cloak.
I want to ask you about your “Crossings” series. We're in this moment where the most powerful country in human history cannot get baby formula, and gas prices may push America into fascism because people are angrier about gas prices than they are about fascism. Europe is debating pipelines and whether to punish Russia or not because of the supply chain of oil. So your work in “Crossings” on commodities and globalization is so powerful.
Much of the rhetoric around globalization has been so boosterish, with statements like "The world is coming together as one." There was this enmeshment of the world through commerce that was given this gloss of "One love, one humanity." Yet the only thing that was actually coming together was commerce. Can you talk about what you're trying to say in the “Crossings” series about globalization?
At the same time that I was working on those hoodies, I began painting shipping containers because the transmission of that collar object from Africa to the new world happened over the seas. Ship navigation and the development of the caravel created our modern world. It was a historical development owing to commerce, political interest, and the flow of power.
When I started making these ships, I began by using what was attractive to me. I saw the container ship as a symbol of global free-market capitalism, and capitalism looks beautiful. You are constantly given the benefits of capitalism and shown that capitalism is a good process. The problem, of course, is that deregulated capitalism, where the markets are free and have no constraints and no concerns about anything but capital gain, is a catastrophe. So that is why the ships have to fall off their axes.
Dewey Crumpler ©, Collapse, 2017.
Every ship is teetering on the frailty of this economic system, which shows you that it is stable. But if you look at it closely, it's rickety as hell. Therefore, it loses cargo. Take Ronald Reagan's theory, developed through the Laffer Curve, that rising tides lift all boats. Well, it raises the boats for the wealthy. For the rest of us, those tides turn into tsunamis. That is precisely what we wind up with because our boats are not worthy of the tides they are creating.
I wanted to get an image where you can see all the beauty connected to the color, which is also what attracts me to being around the containers. They're beautiful. The mass of this huge object blocks out the light when it passes by, puts you in its shadow, and envelops your body. But its massiveness and beauty distract you from what's happening.
I started using gold leaf and silver leaf as the materials because they have dual meanings, including a spiritual meaning like any iconic painting, because there is a religiosity to the light of God. But like all religions, they also distract you from deep thought. They wind up acting as distraction vehicles so that the power structures in the church can have you fund their interests, which don't always align with your interests. Distraction is an essential tool power uses to maintain its position, authority, and wealth.
In a world where, as you have said, the few are so successfully grinding down the many, where any semblance of liberal democracy this country has had feels like it could go away very soon, where there is so much despair, do you think art is up to the task of fighting this distraction and fighting power? Can art achieve that?
From the first human being that put their hand on a wall and left an imprint of their spiritual presence that has lasted for thousands of years, from the moment that the pharaohs constructed a religious order and demanded people build pyramids that leaped into the heavens hundreds and hundreds of feet, from the very moment that the Pope told a fledgling young kid, "I want you to put down that anvil and that sculpting tool and I want you to get up there on that ladder, and I want you to paint a picture of God so that every human being from now into centuries ahead will bow down every time they come in this building," power has always been part of art's job.
When you get power, your first job is maintenance. Otherwise, you're a dead duck, and somebody more powerful than you is coming after it. That's why the powerful always use art. Art is about power. Art is infested with power. The powerful will always use it to do their ends.
Now, what does that mean?
Art becomes the thing the powerful can call on when they need to distract. It's the thing they call on when they're trying to show you they're the baddest on earth. When that doesn't work, they go to hard power. But soft power keeps them going, and that's why artists make great art.
One thing that America has learned is that soft power is more powerful than hard power could ever be because the goal is not land. After the 1960s, it became clear that colonial powers couldn’t do that anymore. This is why all great powers turned to soft power.
America was the supreme soft power-maker, and it has brought its version of the world to everybody in the world. Everybody is trying to replicate American power and striving for it through the arts. Art made them want to have skyscrapers dotting every landscape. Art made them want to have the tallest building in the world. Art made them want to have movies and museums in every developing country in the world. Why? Because in the 21st century, art will be at the center of power.
Art will be used by power because the powerful need to try to get into people’s heads. That's where the arts come in. Get in that head. That's why artists have to keep trying to challenge power. Part of the reason you have to keep making is because they're going to try to co-opt your power. You have to transform to push the power even deeper and farther away because that's art's job. That's what art will do because art is never casual. Art is always powerful. Art is not about pretty shit. Art is about beauty, not pretty shit, because beauty is not pretty.
Dewey Crumpler is an artist and associate professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he teaches painting, jazz history, and African Studies.