A True Story: Interview with David True

David True, <em>Cut Flowers</em>, Unexpected, 1989, color woodblock print. Courtesy of the artist and Crown Point Press.

David True, Cut Flowers, Unexpected, 1989, color woodblock print. Courtesy of the artist and Crown Point Press.

When David True was a young New York artist in the 1970s working on industrially fabricated glass sculptures, his thoughts one evening settled on transparency, and then invisibility. He was alone, and sober (according to his account), when he decided to will himself invisible. He thought very, very hard, and then it happened. Or, at least, something happened that made him feel separated from his body. He panicked and clawed himself back into the air, into his body, and back to his desk.

That would have been a fairly interesting evening for a young man with no drugs on hand, on the cusp of notoriety as part of the New Image group that formed around the Whitney’s legendary New Image show in 1977. But then something else happened. That same night, True thought he felt someone sitting nearby, though no one else was in the room. He looked around and saw a man—of sorts. As True recounts in a 1989 interview with Margaret Wrinkle while in residence at San Francisco’s Crown Point Press, the man in the room was made of smoke. He was almost solid but without features and sitting on a pile of lumber near True’s desk. Naturally, the smoke man was smoking a cigarette. True asked him who he was.

“He said that he had been in the bodies of artists for centuries,” True told Wrinkle. “When the artist died or for some other reason, he would leave and wait for the next host. … I said, “Why me?” and he didn’t really tell me. But I had the sense that I have a propensity toward the things that he was interested in.”

The smoke man stayed to talk about art for awhile, then told True he would be living in his body now, and that later True would start making art that was a “manifestation” of the the smoke man’s world. “He asked me to stand up, which I did. I stood sideways to him and stretched my arms out,” True said. “He stood next to me, also sideways, and slipped his hand into mine and walked into my body from the side. For several days, it really, really did bother me quite a bit.”

I came across this account recently at my job at Crown Point Press. In the 1990s, I was a student at Cooper Union, where True teaches, but I had never heard this story. It’s the kind of thing I can only imagine would have circulated if he’d ever told his students. The only advice I can remember hearing attributed to True was that we should not waste our money if we make it big in the art market, because it doesn’t last forever. Buy real estate, I’d heard he’d said. I never took his class because I wasn’t interested in real estate. Of course, if I had heard about the smoke man, I would have been there in a second. Why was he sitting on this experience? Why didn’t he warn the rest of us that this might happen and that we might not like it very much? Was he embarrassed? Did he want to pretend it didn’t happen? Did he make it up for the interview because he didn’t want to talk about something else? I had to ask.

KB: In a 1987 interview you did at Crown Point Press you told a story about a spirit who entered your body. Can I ask you about it? Is he still there?

DT: That story was originally from the 1977 New Image catalog for the show at the Whitney. It was a somewhat controversial show. They wanted artist statements. I never liked artist statements, so I told a story instead.

KB: So, that’s all true as you told it to Margaret?

DT: Well, he really was sitting on 4x4s, and he was relaxing. I didn’t make that part up. And he had a cigarette. He did smoke it.

KB: There are some sillhouette figures in your work, Did you ever depict him?

DT: No, I never would presume to do that. I wouldn’t try to paint God either.

KB: He’s not God though, right? He’s more local?

DT: Yes, but he would have revealed his face plainly if he wanted me to see him.

KB: Did he look like he had weight?

DT: He was as smoky as the smoke he was producing. Which is kind of funny, really. Some of the reviewers of the New Image show saw the story about him as an appropriate metaphor for art-making. Roberta Smith did. John Ashbery was somewhat cool on the work itself but he liked the story of the smoky man smoking a cigarette.

KB: It’s a good story. When did you start making his work?

DT: Around the time of the ships that I painted for the New Image show, I felt that presence. I also saw it as a metaphor for art-making.

KB: Okay, but did it really happen? Can it be real and also the lens that you see your work through? Does it have to be one or the other?

DT: I remember it. For me it was very real. It acts as a weird trippy hallucination. That kind of experience, whether it is a contrivance of the mind or actual, becomes part of your memory. You use it.

KB: Did you ever tell your students about the spirit? I don’t feel like I ever heard that story circulate.

DT: No. I left it alone until Margaret interviewed me at Crown Point. A student did find the New Image catalog once and asked me about it. I did a little quick-step around it.

KB: Why didn’t you tell them?

DT: I never wanted to sound hokey, to be too invested in the paraphysical, but I accept it. I know that ESP and those things exist. I am interested in the magical—in that world.

KB: It’s fine to say that you like it, it’s another thing to say you’ve been there yourself. People with jobs are seen reading Harry Potter on public transportation all the time.

DT: It’s more of a quiet appreciation.

KB: Why quiet?

DT: Movies have cheapened the metaphysical. It’s connected to horror stories and so on. It is the kind of thing you have to keep private. It’s delicate, it’s personal, fragile.

KB: You have to keep it safe.

DT: Yes.

KB: You said in the Crown Point interview that you think of yourself as a conduit for images, which is a cliche, and so you “interrupt” the image. What is that interruption? Is that style? Are you talking about the way that you New Imagists present images—with one hand tied behind your back?

DT: Well it is a cliche, and it’s a well known notion of art-making. You just don’t want to sound pretentious or absurd.

KB: You are already an artist. Isn’t that bad enough?

DT: I guess it’s a fairly odd thing to do, being an artist. My great hero is Giorgio de Chirico. He invented surrealism, with his friends. I really am a great believer in the power of the unconscious process. It’s often set aside. People say, that’s too murky, too soft, objectivity is important, you know. I do believe that science has come around to understanding the power of the unconscious.

KB: They’re on our side now.

DT: Yeah. The idea of “sleeping on it” has been accepted—when you have a problem and you think it over before you go to sleep and in the morning you have come along with the problem, you make progress in your sleep. There is some new thing happening around that query. I think it helps to have all this stuff talked about from the position of science. It is a different lens. It helps.

KB: What would happen if you let the image totally run you, cliche or not?

DT: The image does run me. Ideas come into my mind and I work them. I wind up eliminating some parts of them, painting over things. I always feel guilty when I cut those parts out. I think these secret images hiding back underneath the painting are still part of what the viewer experiences.

KB: Do you think that the received images connect better with people than things you make up in a more conscious way?

DT: I don’t know. All I know is some paintings have a certain kind of resonance and others don’t.

True’s answers were not what I expected. I will admit to being influenced by J.K. Rowling’s vision of a world divided into magical and non-magical people. I am not alone here, even in the realm of art criticism. Ken Johnson in The New York Times said the members of the Historic District Commission in Fairfield, Conn., were Muggles for forcing Andrew and Christine Hall to remove their 42-ton concrete-and-rebar Anselm Kiefer sculpture from their lawn. According to Johnson, the commission couldn’t see that the wreckage yellowing the premium sod was a site of magical transformation.

I lived in Connecticut long enough to think that the problem with Muggles is that they actually have magic in their lives. Childbirth, deaths, prayers, curses, ghosts and transporting flights of jealousy are common to most households. Most people just don’t want to talk about it. I thought that silence about magic was the whole problem. Our world is sad and small, I said to myself, because nobody wants to talk about the extraordinary lights that break into our lives if we let them. When I read True’s account of his diaphanous friend, I thought that his own long silence about the encounter, at least around his students, meant he had been trying to pass as non-magical.

Instead, it seems he was protecting his experience, which turns out to be more honorable than I thought. As the Philip K. Dick scholar David Gill has written in these pages, it hasn’t helped Dick that everyone knows about the angel who told him what to write. Once the public hears that, they’ll never talk about the work itself again. But the angel did not do the physical writing. Dick did. And the same holds true for True, who is better judged by the quality of his work alone and not by people calling him up to bother him about his angel.

At the end of our interview, I asked True was he was doing. He said he was starting a new body of work: “I’m sitting in my studio, trying to get my head open.” While I feel a bit bad about re-exposing his story to air, and respect his choice to keep quiet about this man of his, I personally think the muses are vain, and like publicity. At the risk of being indelicate, I’ll just ask. Mr. Man-of-Smoke, what have you got in mind for David True’s next show? We know it will be wonderful, and we will be waiting.

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