Monday, December 16, 2013

Talking Art with the Tweed's Bill Shipley

 Beginning the first Tuesday of October the Tweed Museum initiated a new program called Tweevenings in which guest speakers would discuss works from the Tweed collection and help the public gain a greater sense of art appreciation. Bill Shipley, who spent his career in the midst of the burgeoning New York arts scene from 1974 into the 21st century, was the presenter that first Tweed evening, discussing a sculptural aluminum relief by abstract artist Charles Biederman called “Redwing #29.” This was my first encounter with Mr. Shipley, and I’ve already concluded he is both a rich resource and welcome addition to our arts community.

EN: You had a friend who had a studio at a place where Hans Hoffman once had his studio. What was it like for a young Midwestern art student to be living in the heart of the New York art scene?

BS: When I think of moving from the Midwest to New York I remembered visiting the city many times before moving there. Once you live there however it is a very different place and you find that your neighborhood is a little like a small town within the scale of Manhattan. It was like that in the East Village and on Sullivan Street where I first lived. My next door neighbor was Marcia Tucker but I didn't know who she was until later when the New Museum got going. I had friends who worked for her in the early days.

St. Mark's Church in the Bowery was a vital part of the art and literary scene in those days. My apartment was almost across the street from it and when it burned badly we all mourned the loss. It was rebuilt but never quite the same after. And the neighborhood changed as New York University took over more blocks. Always though the artists led the way for the development and gentrification of the surrounding blocks and I would say that the biggest changes that I witnessed in the New York art world came from artists and galleries who were pioneers in SoHo and Lower Broadway and later in Chelsea.

EN: You had the privilege of being in the center of the New York art scene right after the Pop Art revolution had shattered all the rules. In what ways did the art world change over the thirty years you were there?

BS: In the 1970's and 1980's I could visit every single gallery in New York at least once in the art season. I would go to SoHo on Friday afternoons and then Madison Avenue and 57th street galleries on Saturdays. When I left the city in 2000 it would have been an impossible task. By then Chelsea alone had over 300 or more galleries. I also saw the development of what I call museum level galleries like Gagosian and Pace. Many dealers could open a gallery to represent small niches in the art market and find it profitable. Galleries devoted to just one part of the history of photography are a good example of this.

In Minneapolis, especially in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District and the Northrup King Seed Building, similar things are happening now. In April I had my first show in a commercial gallery there at Carbon Chroma Gallery. Right now Steve Sugarman at Gallery 13 at 811 LaSalle in downtown Minneapolis has a few of my recent paintings. They are acrylic works on an abstract landscape theme - horizons and sky ideas mostly inspired by Lake Superior's variable atmosphere.

The Tweed Museum of Art is my second "home" so to speak as I continue to give tours of the museum collection. I have also taught classes on art history and the history of the Tweed Collection for University seniors at UMD. I hope that the students I meet now remember me as a mentor and fellow artist in the same way that I was helped by Myron Stout and Jack Tworkov and Judith Rothschild when I was starting out. The artists from Provincetown continue to inspire me now – from some forty years ago. Many other artists from that time I did not know personally but their presence nonetheless kept me going and kept me working and re-working my pictures. I can now look back on what I was living for and for what I still see ahead of me.

EN: Why is it important for us to support the arts as a community? 

BS: It is troubling that a question like that should even be asked in our society. A civilization and a country is defined by its laws and its art. No way to get around it. For a long time I have thought that art history should be part of a school's core curriculum -- from primary school age onward. What is really awful is that too often a school cuts art and music and theatre and dance and writing and poetry completely, or relegates it to an after-school program. No excuse for that.

Art was as central to the life of the students at the private school where I taught in New York as it is to New York City itself. As educators we make a big mistake in not realizing how crucial art is to a child's development at every age. The emphasis lately on testing and math and science is very short-sighted to say the least. The "will" to make something, to build something, to paint something or write something is at the heart and soul of every one of us. We can decide to support it or not but the consequences in both situations are real and tangible, for better or worse.

EN: Your time in New York overlapped Basquiat's rise to significance and sudden end. You mentioned crossing paths with Warhol on more than a few occasions. What's your take on Basquiat?

BS: I was not a part of Andy Warhol's inner circle but I knew people who were. At a lavish party in the downtown loft of the artist Arman and his wife Corice I noticed two large portraits of Mr. Arman and his wife painted by Warhol. My last sighting of Warhol just before his death was at a soda fountain coffee shop place just off Astor Place. As I walked by I saw him sitting by himself at a table by the window eating a large ice cream sundae. As for Basquiat (who was later mentored by Warhol) I always think of the importance of having children in museums at early ages because Basquiat literally grew up inside the Brooklyn Museum. But very talented young artists often fall into traps they cannot get out of and it takes their life way too early.

EN: Thank you, Bill. And it's good to hear that you're still very active in your studio. Keep it going.

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