Dual Vision: In Conversation with Kurt Novak

Kurt Novak was born in Detroit, MI in 1956. He attended Wayne State University and early in his career was befriended by most of the first generation Cass Corridor artists who still lived in the area. After early success with environmental Installations and sculpture, Novak moved to New York in 1982, but within a few years lost personal connection with the art world. He only occasionally showed work, yet continued working in his studio.  In 2006, he started using a flat bed scanner to create large scale portrait photos. He says this medium allows for a more efficient and substantive merging of his aesthetic interests, with the added bonus that they’re physically easier to create than his previous work. 

How did you come to work with your specific collaborator? Did you know them before this? Were you familiar with their work?

Yes and yes. Kathryn Brackett-Luchs is the one who came up with the show because she wanted to do something with Michael, her husband, and they are part of that first generation Cass Corridor group, as is Bob Sestok. I went to Wayne State and eventually ending up in the art dept., where I guess I made a lot of noise. Many of the people in that first generation Cass Corridor group noticed and kind of adopted me. So I’ve known Bob and a lot of the other artists in the show for a long time. How many years that is, please don’t tell me, I don’t even want to think about it (ha). Suffice to say, Bob and I go way back and he is a super nice guy. I had never worked on a project with him before, but I’ve been aware of his work all these years. And it was Kathy’s idea to pair us off.

Before the actual process of making, what was the process of deciding on what to make like? What was the making process itself like?

Well, Bob primarily makes sculpture, though he works in multiple genres, as do I. It’s interesting to note that the one area where our output converges a little bit in terms of how we work with subject matter is public/outdoor sculpture, and we naturally gravitated to that.

The process of agreeing on the particular subject matter for this piece and how to formulate a way to work together was hard, however. 

Me, I’m basically a ‘conceptualist’ in the sense that I decide what I want to make and then hire myself out to make it. Whether it’s successful to me or not is generally a function of how close it comes to what I had envisioned in my mind’s eye. Not everybody works like that….some people need to have the materials in front of them, and they kind of play with them and become acquainted with them, and through that interaction they come up with their concept. I think Bob works primarily in this manner. It’s a personal thing that has no bearing on quality, it’s just the way we are wired.

That made it really hard to work together. We work so differently, I don’t think we ever officially agreed to the terms of the collaboration. We just plugged along butting heads until we were done. The common ground was the simple fact that we’re friends. I flew in from New York and camped out at Bob’s for a long weekend and by the time I left, my part was done, except for a few minor tweaks we both agreed had to be made and which Bob executed. Bob was incredible throughout the whole process, pressing us forward into battle, compass or not, cutting out shapes that I drew with such skill that they looked like I was manning the welding torch, and then I acted as the helper when we tacked the separate parts together with an arc welder. It was so much fun to hang out together and he was such a positive spirit that it more than made up for any speedbumps in the process.

What Bob was going to do next as ‘his’ part of the piece, was unclear. 

But within a couple of weeks he had an idea and sent some pics asking me what I thought, and I thought it was great. We were done. I think we were both relieved.

What new possibilities were offered through collaboration that would not have been possible working alone? Did you feel any disadvantages compared to working alone?

I think the general idea of collaboration is not particularly surprising or interesting. I mean it is kind of like ‘how they make the sausage’ as opposed to ‘is this sausage good and worth eating’.

And we’re always collaborating in our lives. To some extent, when you walk down the sidewalk you’re collaborating with the person who paved it, you know?  Human beings are social animals. Whether it’s with a spouse or a comrade at work, we are always collaborating on some level.

As for ‘do i feel there are disadvantages’, well, absolutely, and I’m pretty sure Bob thinks so too. 

If you’re working for yourself you kind of know what you’re going to get. You always hope you’re going to surprise yourself, but at least you know you’re going to be in the ballpark. But when you work with somebody else, who knows what will happen? You don’t have the same kind of control over either the process or the final result. It can be frustrating. So you just have to cross your fingers.

Did working collaboratively provide you with any insights that could be extrapolated and used outside of art in either a personal or political context? Were there lessons learned that could be used in other aspects of life? What did it teach you about democracy?

Oh sure….it made me more conscious of how important it is to listen and be diplomatic when interacting with anyone!

The closest comparison I have to this interaction, and the occasion when I learned the most about collaboration, was when I was the president of my coop board at my old apartment in Harlem. Before being on the board I was pretty optimistic about humankind in general, and thought that people were fundamentally good and nice. After the experience, I ended up thinking that everybody is crazy and selfish. During our meetings it was very hard to make sure that conversations stayed on point and that decisions were made. It seemed that most of the time was spent babysitting neigh-sayers who just wanted an audience while they complained. It was crazy. The coop board really was a microcosm for how political decisions on a larger scale are made. As anyone in the States who lived through the last election cycle knows, group decisions can lead to anarchy, if decorum is not strictly upheld. To get anything done by committee in this world, you have to know how to behave. You have to listen, let people vent a little bit, but then you have to take the time to draw them out and make them feel comfortable that their views were considered, and that they were part of the compromise. I really learned something from this experience and had to change my conduct.

So, working with an old friend in the context of this show? Comparatively speaking, a total breeze.

Going off of the title of the exhibition, do you and your collaborator see the specific work you made together differently?

Oh absolutely, I mean we couldn’t even agree on a title!  

A little story about the germination of the concept behind my part of our piece:

When Kathy and Bob approached MOCAD, the curators wanted to enlarge the group of people and make it more diversified, and I think some people were not so happy about this, they just wanted a core group. Maybe they thought the show lost some intimacy and the quality level of the pool of artists was diluted a little. And since most (all?) of the original Cass Corridor group are white, I wonder whether some thought that they were being taught an object-lesson.

But museums are civic institutions and it seemed appropriate for them to diversify the cast, so I had no problem with that. 

As someone who grew up with with 60s ideals: “Peace and love, gay lib, women’s lib, etc.”; all the movements that I saw gain momentum when I was a little kid continue to remain important to me.

In my mind, I merged the impulse for diversity with the notion of collaboration as small-scale metaphor for inclusivity and unity, and decided to use this as the primary imagery for our piece. So if you look at the component pieces of the central structure of our sculpture you can see that our fictive ‘everyperson’ is made up of body parts that are man, woman, 1/2 woman-1/2 man, and the race is indistinct. The arms of our protagonist are raised and displaying their forefingers in a #1 symbol, meant to symbolize ‘unity’.

As Bob notes in his interview, he wasn’t necessarily buying this political/sociological meaning, rather reading the mashed up body parts as indicative of the psychological state of our subject (or me, the guy who came up with the idea).

When he added the poetic and atmospheric field of clouds/energy swirling around our person’s head, I think it softened the directness of my concept and added a beneficial emotional component, making physical the psychic turmoil our subject may or may not be wrapped in.

But enough about Bob and me. I forgot to mention the unacknowledged, but most important member of ours and every collaborative team: the audience!

Art is generally made to be shared with an audience. And viewers bring their own feelings and points of reference to their appreciation of art. What they get out of any particular work is a function of this, and the artist has no control over it. 

So in a sense, our notion of what art ‘is’, is predicated on the expectation that all viewers see things a little differently.

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