Jason Middlebrook on Rauschenberg’s Party, Tree Roots, and Hitting the New York Jackpot

During a visit to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo a couple of weekends ago, we happened upon artist Jason Middlebrook, behind the museum within a fenced-in area, in the laborious process of placing tiny sharp-edged mirrored tiles — mosaic style — into mortar that had been smeared along the foam-covered steel tendrils of what looked like a giant octopus. He had been there for 25 days and was nearing completion of “Under Life,” the Albright-Knox commission, which is composed of 25 parts, and is set to open to the public at the end of September.

Actually intended to symbolize a gnarled and monstrous tree root system, the enormous installation resonates with its home city, Buffalo, whose spectacular park system was designed by landscape architect extraordinaire Frederick-Law-Olmstead (who designed New York City’s Central Park and Prospect Park). “Olmstead planted 20,000 trees,” said Middlebrook during our visit. “People downstate think of Buffalo as snow — this awful weather. But when you get up here, this park system is amazing.” Despite being in the thick of mosaic-ing, Middlebrook was amenable to a brief on-site chat. Here are some things the Hudson-based artist shared with us during our visit:

1)   On brainstorming with the former director of the Albright-Knox: The second idea that Louis [Grachos] really liked, that I someday want to do, is an upside-down tire swing. So you’d have a branch coming out of the ground and then you’d have a tire swing suspended way up in the air.

2)   On the meaning of trees: The symbolism here — man has cut down the tree. Progress. We recognize what once was a tree, but this is the life force. So literally you pull it up from the roots.

3)   On getting away from Louise Bourgeois: I originally presented the Albright-Knox with five ideas, and it got narrowed down to two. And there were a lot of drawings. I was having a hard time in my studio, getting away from Bourgeois a little bit, The Spider. Getting to the tree, and then animating it, so that it felt like it could be walking or a little more lyrical.

4)   On Robert Rauschenberg: I love what Rauschenberg said. He said, ‘I finally dried up and went to rehab. And now I just drink wine.’

5)   On hitting the NY jackpot: I went to Bill Goldston‘s 60-th birthday party. Philip Glass, Merce Cunningham, Rauschenberg. That was one of those New York nights when you hit the jackpot — I met ‘em all. [When asked for clarification, Middlebrook explained over email, “Bill Goldston runs ULAE prints in Long Island and was a very close friend of RR. Rauschenberg held a surprise birthday party for Bill in his studio. Epic night.”]

6)   On going back to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which he once called home: I don’t recognize it at all. They’re putting a Whole Foods in the building that I lived in for 10 years (right on Bedford). We had this place. Every time I read a new article. I can’t believe the second wave of Brooklyn gentrification. It’s amazing. A million dollars for a loft in Williamsburg.

7)    About his first solo exhibition “Identity Props,” in 1995, at Renee Riccardo’s ARENA gallery in Cobble Hill: I’ll never forget, Renee’s like, ‘I want you to do a show.’ And I was like, ‘Where are you at?’ ‘Brooklyn.’ I thought, I’ve never been to Brooklyn. I’m in the Whitney program. Brooklyn? Now look at Brooklyn. It’s the coolest place to be.

8)    On moving on: I’m ready to make a conceptual art piece where I don’t do anything.

— Rozalia Jovanovic