Valerie Smith Email Exchange
An email exchange between Valerie Smith and Frank Gillette, between January 5–17, 2011.
VS: I’ve heard that you had an influence on Juan Downey’s work. What do you think about this idea?
FG: Juan and I met at James Harithas’s apartment in New York in spring 1970. Jim encouraged him to see my installation, Wipe Cycle, at Howard Wise Gallery, which he did. The two of us returned several times and we initiated a long, evolving, and expanding dialogue vis-à-vis video and its context. The very most that could be said about "influence" is the somewhat elusive issue of primacy: who arrived first, and, thus, had the advantage of setting the initial tone. The majority of our subsequent conceptual exchanges amounted to chasing down free-floating signifiers while trying to crack each other up.
VS: What did you talk about when you got together?
FG: Our conversations were protean, brimming with conjecture, shoptalk, gossip, art history, and politics. Both of us dwelled in the precincts of the Left and were adamantly opposed to the wars in Southeast Asia. So a significant point of mutual interest was how video could be incorporated into our sundry protestations.
VS: What was the most fun you had together?
FG: What was the most fun we had? Let me yank my memory's tail, let’s see. . .One standout was the 1973 road trip we took with Willoughby Sharp—in Willoughby's funky black Cadillac convertible—from NYC to LA, with a high variety of stops along our merry way. We recorded much of it, straddling the continent with neo-beatnik ways and means. Ginsburg and Kerouac would have been amused.
VS: What do you think is his best work?
FG: Among Juan's most significant achievements are the single-channel tape, Narcissus at the Pond (1981); Plato's Cave (1973), a multi-channel work with live performance; his various "anthropological" tapes about Latin America; and his rather marvelous and classical diagrammatic graphite drawings.
VS: What work of yours do you think he liked best?
FG: This is a delicate, dicey question in so many ways. I believe (based on our talks) that he had considerable respect for my multi-channel work, particularly Tetragramaton, Track/Trace (both from 1972–73), The Maui Cycle (1976), Olaus Magnus (1980), and In the Creeks (1983–84). Perhaps my large-format contact photographs gave him a bump; we traded one or two of them in the late ’70s. Of course, all of the above is pure speculation. . .
VS: What was the single most important aspect of your relationship?
FG: The single "most important aspect" of our relationship was, without a doubt, the tough back-and-forth, dialectical, slippery nature of our never-ending repartees. We were very different characters with similar aesthetic agendas. We were also quite competitive and didn’t always agree on everything. About three years prior to his untimely death, we had an abrupt and quite unfortunate falling out. No details need to be revealed.