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McArthur Binion’s “Route One: Box Two” at Galerie Lelong & Co. in New York closed just before Christmas. The solo exhibition of new work included a continuation of the Chicago-based artist’s “DNA” series, and his largest painting to date. The title of the show referred to his birth home address in rural Mississippi, images of which created a background for his gridded works.
Binion’s dates back to the 1970s, when was living in New York. Over the past several years, however, his abstract pieces have garnered a greater attention. Walking through the gallery with him last fall, he told us that his practice began in a drawing class. The first day his teacher said to a classroom of 20-odd students, that only one would still be making art in 20 years. He wanted it to be him. “I still want it to be me,” he told us. “I think that’s why the work is resonating now. You can see that I want it.”
Binion shared with us his story, why he likes to challenge himself, and what it’s like in his studio.
On appropriating his own life.
“It took me 15 years to figure out how to use my address phone book in the work. Everybody, every relative, my entire social DNA was in that book. I was the person that kept the same book. Plus, I’m a very social person—I knew everybody. Because I was fun!
[It’s about] how do you make abstraction personal? This DNA study, is based on my telephone book.
And then you look at the rawness of the birth certificate. The terminology from the 40s, “colored” and all that. I did a body of work called “Black” paintings, all about not race black but the color black. That’s how the birth certificate started. It was an obvious thing later to add the birth house.
I’ve been around long enough to appropriate myself, I don’t need to appropriate another artist. Doesn’t interest me at all [laughs]. I purposefully made my story happen this way. I could have appeared on the national scene many years ago and I chose not to. It wasn’t on my own terms.”
On challenging history.
“It’s not so much about the solitary genius working by himself but, I think a good painter, a good painting has to challenge what history is. It has to do with what kind of emotion can you rise up to in your studio consistently.”
What it’s like in his studio.
“I’m in the studio every day at 7, prepped and working by 8. I only have two hands on my work. Two. That’s very important to me.
Whatever is there is all coming out. I don’t listen to music, I don’t read anything, nothing is going in. Except ambient sounds and birds. I have a big garden, I’m not a bird watcher yet but I’ve been feeding the birds. I started feeding birds when I lived in Detroit, in the winter time when I was growing up and it snowed in October and you didn’t see green until May. So, I feed the birds. I still relate to the birds. It’s the sound. That’s one of the sounds I’ve always loved to hear.”
On challenging yourself every day.
“It’s a desire, but then desire becomes a need hopefully. And this is how I live. The emotional content is the one that’s hard to sustain. It’s thick and it is a powerful emotional tool.
I set out to do this after school for another 60 years. The only goal was that I get a chance to do it. If you don’t have that, you’re never going to get to your height. You’re just a regular painter. Which I guess is not bad, but not for me. You want to challenge until the end.
You challenge yourself every day. Every day I come to the studio, I choose somebody and I beat the shit out of them—Cy or Jasper! [Laughs.]
I was raised in the tradition that healthy competition is good. I love having an argument with a painter I respect, to verbally fight it. Those days are over, but we used to do that!”
On what’s next.
“I’ve already fully developed and am working on in my studio two new projects. And I’m preparing for a show at Massimo De Carlo in September of next year. The others, I can’t say, because, for me I’m climbing still…”