A Conversation with Michael Brewster

Michael Brewster in his studio, Venice, California (c. 2011). Photo © January Parkos Arnall  for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts  and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

Michael Brewster in his home studio, Venice, California (2011). Photo courtesy January Parkos Arnall for Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

Interview conducted in the artist’s studio at Venice, California, July 20 and August 4, 2011 by Jill Thayer, Ph.D. “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art” was presented in an exhibition Sept. 4-21, 2013 at CGU East and Peggy Phelps Galleries. The series was curated by Dr. Thayer and sponsored by Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities.


Michael Brewster is a visual artist who works with sound’s spatial effects to promote sculptural sensations of space. He has been making sound art since 1970. His two main series, the Sonic Drawings and the Acoustic Sculptures, both use sound in space to generate expanded experiences of drawing and sculpture ideas. Brewster received an MFA (Sculpture) at Claremont Graduate University; a BA (Sculpture) at Pomona College; and graduated from high school in São Paulo, Brazil.  His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Orange County Museum of Art; Santa Monica Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art; Ace Contemporary Exhibitions; and Artist’s Space in New York City, as well as at sites in Australia, Canada, Holland, Austria, and Italy. 

In 1988 Professor Brewster was named a Fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation. He is also the recipient of four Artist’s Fellowship Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (’76, ’78, ’84, ’90), and a City of Los Angeles Artist’s Grant (COLA 1996). His works are in the permanent collections of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art; the Orange County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Three of his sound installations are on permanent public display in the Panza Villa in Varese, Italy. Brewster’s work was featured in “It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-1973,” at Pomona College Museum of Art. The exhibition presented works by faculty and students who collaborated with curators of the day, Hal Glicksman and Helene Winer. For the past 40 years, Michael Brewster has been pushing the perceptual boundaries of the sculptural experience. Throughout his career, he has advocated the notion that sculpture is an inner, visceral awareness that evokes sensations in mind and body

JILL THAYER: You graduated from São Paulo [Graded School, São Paulo, Brazil in 1964]. Any memories of the Art Department in your high school working in the arts?

MICHAEL BREWSTER: High school was a highly boring experience for me until a man named Jim Colby came to São Paulo. He was an actor from New York and came and taught drama. And he found that I had some talents he could use so I became his technical director and stage manager, and set designer and lighting designer. And, I wasn’t too stupid as a student and so I had kind of done most of my requirements and I had my junior and senior years, you know, I had two or three classes and loads of study halls. So Jim arranged that all my study halls were taken on stage and in my last 18 months of high school, I took drama and study hall and just spent the whole time building stuff on stage. And when I entered Pomona College, I came in as an English major working the theater.

JT: That was your first experience with the Arts on that level?

MB: Well, I had made little figurines in my parent’s garage. I had been a serious model airplane builder, I made a lot of very accurate historical boat models, none of which I have. We sold them [laughs]. They were good enough to sell. So that all contributed very much to these abilities I have and if you stop and think about installation art for awhile, you see the theatrical component very clearly. An installation is a stage, a set that people operate (perform) on. The viewers come in and they are the protagonists in that little play. Being both protagonists and audience, you know, and in my pieces, that is definitely the case. So that’s kind of the answer there. High school set me up for sure, but it was Jim Colby who gets all the credit and he was one of my truly great teachers, one who dared read the bawdy (original) Shakespeare to us.

JT: Oh, yes.

MB: He was cool. And Dr. Rehl . . . Ronny Horning who taught me poetry––I just connected with him recently, he and I liked Dr. Rehl a lot. T.S. Elliot, we learned from Dr. Rehl, and so much more. He also liked William S. in the raw. These guys were the real thing. We learned about the real thing. Colby was a consummate actor director. Rehl was a ‘coke-bottle glasses’ intellectual and he could quote all sorts of stuff. I met a guy like him at Pomona College. This professor and his “then-wife” would spar across dinner tables with Shakespeare. She would come up with the line and he had to have the riposte. And you know, Shakespeare is an extensive collection of words. The fact that they could do these things and Mr. Rehl was a bit like that too. Yes, high school was a big deal and I had a lot of fun in high school. It was kind of a come down to come to Claremont.

JT: So here you are in Brazil, it’s 1964, what brought you to Pomona?

MB: My high school advisor told me I had a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting into Pomona College. I was told that I could probably get in to Redlands and that I shouldn’t apply to Pomona.

JT: The University of Redlands?

MB: Yes, and that I shouldn’t apply to Stanford and I shouldn’t apply to Brown because that was my East Coast hole-in-the-wall. The little secret I didn’t tell anybody was Brown was next to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and I figured if Brown didn’t work, I would go to art school [laughs]. No one figured that out, I kept it a dirty little secret . . . and, I got in everywhere, and Stanford was too big. And so I went to visit. We were up here looking at colleges that coincided with my dad’s home leave and we were visiting my great aunt in Ontario and she said we should go look at those Claremont Colleges. And we went over and it was in the dead of summer, but we were toured a dormitory called Clark Five, which was really nifty, it was like a monastery . . . the rooms had balconies that overlooked courtyards and I just suddenly had this vision of me doing all this intellectual work, ala Dr. Rehl. So I went back and said, Well, I’m definitely applying to Pomona College. But I’m leaving part out. We went down and interviewed the Dean of Admissions.

JT: Do you recall the Dean’s name at the time?

MB: Absolutely. Dean Wheaton, William Wheaton.  And William Wheaton and I talked about Sao Paulo and the hotel Jaragua and what a great bar it had and he had been there. So we talked for 45 minutes or so, Pomona was a very personable place. And so, I went back and said, “I’m definitely applying to that college!” then Krauss said, “You can’t get in, don’t try.” I said, “Count my fingers,” [Laughs] and I got in. Like I said, I got in to every place I applied, and, then I went to Pomona College.

JT: Did you live in an apartment?

MICHAEL BREWSTER: Turns out you had to be a senior to get into Clark Five.  I learned a lot of things the first week of my stay at Pomona College. One, was about the seniority system and two, was about reputation. When they sat there and told us we were the greatest geniuses in America I knew they were wrong. I’m not a great genius. I knew then I wasn’t a great genius. And so, thus began, what I thought was four years of being the dumbest guy on campus. I learned a huge amount at Pomona College and the time I was there was really hot. William Wheaton was the Dean of Admissions and he had a terrible job. Everybody who applied to his school had 800 SATs . . . everybody had been president of their class, me included . . . everybody had excelled in sports, me included . . . everybody wrote a stunning essay, me included . . . and it went like this . . . [speaking as the dean] “How the f— and I gonna make a set of choices here? I have to let in 300 people here out of 6,000 applicants!”

JT: So there’s a definite cap.

MB: That was the class. Pomona College is 1,200 students in four classes . . . that was the deal, no room for more. It was a really select college. And it kept itself secret. A lot of people, you would say, “Pomona College,” they’d go, “Hmm.” And then there would be the ones who knew . . . “Wow!” You know? “Way to go, kid.” So Wheaton decided that he would let in all the students who exhibited unusual passion. This was Bill Wheaton’s folly. So starting with the class before [James] Turrell’s and ending a few years after . . . Wheaton’s Folly lasted 10 years. Pomona College was a freakin’ hot bed! So you want to know why Jim Turrell came out of there? Why Chris Burden came out of there? Judy Chicago, and we’re only talking art people. Those ten years were very . . . people went out and took over America. Unbelievable. And it was Bill Wheaton––Wheaton’s Folly. We’re proud to be Wheaton follies! You know, we’re starting to die now . . . Bill Wheaton was like a Bill Colby or Dr. Rehl. I mean he was inspiring! He was in education a long time. He really liked taking care of young, inspiring people. Pomona was like that in those days. You couldn’t walk down the street without a professor greeting you. There never was a week that you didn’t have a dinner at a professor’s house. You know, I had many a dinner at Nick Cikovsky’s house, he was Chair of the Art department. I started out as a theater major but by the end of my first freshman semester, I just decided that there were too may prima donnas on my stage [laughs] and so I took my ball and went and played alone at the art department where I could do more things, but then I landed in Salvatore Grippi’s painting class, which was death on wheels. I had classes in everything. Sculpture was a fun class. That was with John Mason. Painting with Salvatore Grippe was an agony. He cured me of painting.

JT: Can you elaborate?

MB: He made us paint still lifes with limited palettes. And I just found it hopelessly boring and dull, and you know, I thought he academicized painting to the point of making me numb. And John Mason was a wonderful teacher though he never said anything, I don’t know how the f— I ever learned anything from him, but I learned a lot. One semester, he said three words to me, “Pretty bizarre, Mike.”

JT: How did that feel?

MB: Awful . . . I’m sort of, or was, particularly then, a bit of a fighter, so you know, push me and I’ll push you right back [laughs].

JT: Yes. It’s important. It was a pivotal time.

MB: I grew up in a city four times the size of Los Angeles. It’s the second largest city in the Western Hemisphere now.

JT: What was the culture like at the time, socio-political climate? Did that influence you? Were you aware of what was going on in the outside world outside of college?

MB: At Pomona?

JT: This was in the mid-sixties.

MB: ’64 to ’68 were my college years.

JT: Kennedy was just assassinated in ’63.

MB: Well, Kennedy had just been assassinated two years before and that was extremely upsetting to the American community all over the world.

JT: Martin Luther King?

MB: I was here when that happened already. But when I arrived at Pomona College it was the peak of the free speech movement. Mario Savio was making big noises in Berkeley, and we were organized and I became a member of SNCC, (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) . . . went to San Francisco on one of those overnight deals to go support the rally for SNCC and discovered that mostly at that level it was about getting girls. And I didn’t think that was worthy of my goals, I thought I didn’t need to go upstate to get girls. Besides, I’m a frickin’ freshman, nobody wants me anyway! [Laughs]

JT: Did you find that whole influence of what was going on politically, did that have a bearing on your work or maybe your engagement with college?

MB: We were sort of an iconoclastic generation, you know, it was the free speech, hippie, anti-Vietnam, war protesting . . . there were letter bombs on Pomona campus, a woman lost her hand. It was pretty serious stuff. “Hell no, I won’t go!” was deeply engrained and so making things within a tradition was simply not conceivable. There was also, in the art world, this pervasive notion of progress that we . . . you know, this was still Modernism, and we were still possessed of the notion––and I still am, that there are heroes, and there are heroics. I don’t think there have been any hero artists. I think, that’s like calling a rock ‘n roller a charismatic, you know? Christ was charismatic . . . Buddha was charismatic . . . Gandhi was charismatic . . . not some bozo on stage with a guitar! You know, we’ve stretched this too far. So, a certain kind of rebellion . . . a certain kind of push it forward. There was this notion, I think Larry Poons said it, “So and so did that, now I don’t have to.” Something that’s really missing in the art world now was this notion that we were all kind of pushing the same front forward. There was an esprit de corps, especially around Pomona College in those days. Mowry Baden came in my senior year and he was like a lightening rod. He was like, wow! Suddenly. We weren’t just looking at art stuff we were looking at philosophy. We were looking at, not so much poetry with Mowry . . . Minimalism kind of had a . . . it was very macho, and so poetry was looked at as a bit effeminate and once that . . . and I liked Contemporary Art better when effeminate things were okay. As Norman Mailer said, “We’re all a bit of a woman.” Even Norman Mailer would say such a thing!

JT: Well, it’s interesting . . . it sounds like you were part of the greater discourse of what was going on in art at the time. It seemed like Pomona connected you. Do you feel part of that?

MB: Well, that’s because our teachers were all looking out, they were looking outward.

JT: So that kept you informed and you were engaged.

MB: They said, “You really need to pay attention to these things.” And, prior to that it had sort of been, you know, kind of a pot shop mentality––crafty, and at Scripps, it was still that way. I mean, Soldner was the only really international ceramist and he was extraordinary, and un-usual.

JT: Paul Soldner, right.

MB: Yes. But it was still a pot shop. You know, there were little kiln gods, you know, you had to get drunk before you unloaded your kiln . . . I don’t know what the rituals were. The ones we really enjoyed were the naked girls in Steele Court pond. That was fun! Yes, that little walled-garden.

JT: Yes, the beautiful murals.

The secluded garden, which is located on Scripps campus includes a small prayer chapel surrounded by vine-covered trellises, a fountain, and mural painted walls.

JT: Also, describe the campus and your environment during this period. What about your studio? I wanted to ask if you lived in an apartment. What was your living arrangement? What was the environment on the campus at the time?

MB:  The first year I was at Pomona I had to live in the dorms. And then we decided that if we couldn’t get into the best dorm––we being a group of guys who lived on the same corridor, they were called sponsor groups, never mind what our sponsor group was called––so four or five of us decided that if we couldn’t be in Clark Five, the best dorm, (rooms with fireplaces and balconies around a small tree-shaded courtyard) that we wanted to be off campus. And so, being from Brazil, I said, “We should rig the room selection.” And they said, “We will never get first choice because we are so far down.” And I said, “You don’t understand, you rig the room selection so we come out absolutely last. We lose!” And they looked at me and I said, “There are not enough rooms, they would have to put us off campus if we lose the room draw.” Oh! You wily Brazilians! You know, one of the skills you learn in a country like that. It’s like, let’s look at this upside down. So, we lost the room draw and four of us went off and lived in our apartment in Upland.

JT: It was in Upland, do you recall the area?

MB: Oh, yeah! It was off Foothill before Baseline, north of . . . on the north side in a former grove. It was just before you got to Stinky’s, which isn’t there anymore. Stinky’s was a hamburger joint that was outside of . . . well it was in the next county. {Laughs} So Pomona had a hard time controlling it’s students when they misbehaved at Stinky’s.

JT: Tell me about your transition and interest in your media . . . some of your colleagues . . . how the coursework evolved that further informed your career.

MB: When I was working with John Mason, I still thought that sculpture was statuary. And John was having a real hard time with this because he firmly believes that’s bullshit. But he allowed me to work on in clay because he’s a ceramist so we would at least have, you know, rapport based on the material. And at that point, I was still like most people thinking that sculpture and materials are sort of one in the same. Gradually I came to believe, as is obvious now that sculpture is a set of sensations, not a set of objects or materials necessarily.

JT: Did Mowry have any insight to that from his perspective of art that contributed to your understanding?

MB: Yes, very much so. Mowry Baden is still very involved in object making and object-like qualities, and I kind of bit the dematerialization-of-art idea pretty hard. I liked that idea . . . because the part about being an artist that I don’t like is making baubles for those who don’t need any more baubles. Okay, I have a disdain for that kind of art, which is really snotty of me, and I shouldn’t have that attitude. On the other hand, I would have more respect for those artists whose work does decorate if they would embrace the notion that to decorate is divine. I mean, ask any Catholic! [Laughs] You know, the most ornate churches. But what this would do . . . go into to one of those rooms and see how it works on you. I think that the decorative has really gotten short shrift and I think that it does so because American artists have a problem with art just being art. “It’s gotta do something,” they say. It already does! But they don’t pay attention to what it does. They want it to save the world. Well, I’d like lead to be money, you know? Well, actually, I’d like dirt to be money. I have no lead . . . I got lots of dirt. [Laughs] So, I have a real fundamental objection to art being a commodity, something that is bought and sold. Under Mowry, particularly, or with Mowry, perhaps is more accurate, I thought art was something that provided insight. I still think art is something that provides insight. It just doesn’t happen very often. Why?  Because most of us are really shitty artists, [laughs] you know, that’s it. Not everybody is a great artist. Many many poseurs around, Let’s face it. The great artists remain few and far between. That’s what makes them great. I mean it’s their greatness, you know? It’s not something we’re all gifted with, and, conversely the notion now that there is no talent . . . that we have no gifts, that’s pure baloney! That’s democracy run rampant, run berserk. We all should have equal opportunity; but we’re not all equally talented. You know, some people are really good at making airplanes and some people can only fly in ‘em. Come on!

JT: That’s a great analogy.

MB: And we need all kinds, you know? My doctor, my surgeon gave me a CD of his music. It’s just like his surgery, really precise, almost bloodless, just like his surgery. It’s not art . . . it’s a beautiful piece of technical precision. It leaves you absolutely emotionless. There’s no sensual content there. And I like the guy, he’s real good to me and really worked hard to make my hands work again. God love him forever. But he’s a surgeon and I’m an artist and you know, I couldn’t do his work and he obviously can’t do mine. My noises are imperfect and that’s part of what tickles your “heart”.

JT: Absolutely.

MB: That’s why a drummer will never be replaced by a drum machine because you can always pick out the drum machine, it’s just dutifully perfect.

JT: The real, the experience as opposed to the manufactured, you know, the technologically facilitated, it’s interesting.

MB: Well, I find it all very confusing because there’s the notion that was reiterated by [Marshall] McLuhan that all tools are extension of the human hand. And therefore, the computer is just an extension of our variety of abilities and I believe that to a certain point. I also believe that we have succumbed, that Americans, more than any other group of people, are owned by their stuff and that we begin to think that stuff is the solution to everything. You know, what was the solution? We either drop bombs on it or we drop money on it and we think that that’s gonna solve it, and what’s really wrong in the world is an attitude problem. Neither technology nor money will fix that. It’s a huge political problem. All my life, all this culture has done is thrown money at its problems and they just kind of go under the carpet, but they’re there. You know, the carpet moves when you walk on it.

JT: Always, look at the deficit.

MB: Well, two-thirds of our deficit was given to our President and no one says anything about that, it’s ridiculous.

JT: That’s another story, but, getting back to Pomona, Michael, tell me about some of your colleagues and you going through the program, a little bit about your evolvement.

MB: Well, the Art department was pretty much fun because we had people in it like Chris Burden and Bill Leavitt was a graduate student, he came in and out. The graduate students came in and out and talked a lot to John Mason and quite a bit to David Gray too, who replaced John Mason. The milieu was such that students were making art for each other.

JT: Was there a comradery? Was it a competition? You said making art for each other.

MB: It was both comradery and competition in the sense of buddies trying to one up each other. It was fun. We never thought about selling the work, we just thought about blowing each other’s minds. 

JT: So you think about this, how did the professors fit in to this rubric?

MB: they were completely to blame.

JT: Yes. [Laughs] See, that’s the thing. Did they step back and let you go at it? Did they move you along?

MB: Truth be told, we were mimicking them. Okay, we saw dad do it . . . we did it! We thought this is how it was done. You know, we would go in and see David’s show and then somebody would come up and say (in a low voice), “You know, I could do a better show than that f——.” No disrespect, you know, they drink together, but it was the spirit of the kind of scene that art dealers beg us to tell them about now. “Where is this secret enclave? Where are the artists that nobody wants us to know about?” Well, I don’t know right now, I think there’s one called Summer Camp, but they were a little silly in graduate school. I hope . . . you know, I trust that they will get more serious. And silly isn’t bad, we have an over abundance of it. Do we need to make more irony in Los Angeles? Geez, I’m breathing irony here. So yeah, it was show and tell all the way.

JT: You graduated Pomona’68, what did you do the next two years?

MB: I went to graduate school I just stayed in Claremont, stayed in the Pomona studios, was the T.A. [teaching assistant] and do what graduate students do, which is you know, in that context, continue to do the same thing, try to blow each other’s minds.

JT: Okay, so you’re going through this, developing, honing your craft––your art, your work––are you connecting with what’s going on in the L.A. art scene?

MB: Well, reading at this point, I’m reading a lot of national art magazines. Art in America, Artforum, ARTnews. There were a couple of others, there was Avalanche, which doesn’t exist anymore . . . that was kinda cool, Willoughby Sharp and Liza Béar put that thing together, it was out of New York. And, it was in touch with a lot of people in New York.

JT: Can you remember some names?

MB: For some reason, Martha Wilson of Franklin Furnace comes to mind.

JT: This is in the early ‘70s?

MB: Yes.

JT: And others?

MB: That South African critic, RoseLee Goldberg . . . Helene Winer . . . But, I didn’t know here until I came back to Claremont because she came after I graduated from grad school. I did my sound piece where I put 40 clickers in the walls of Montgomery . . . that was my MFA show. Then in typical graduate student fashion, I didn’t patch the walls very well. What I did was I had put these clickers in the wall and covered them over with model airplane paper. The piece lasted three days. It was a pretty effective illusion, people walked in while we were painting the gallery, “Where di you get this paint that clicks?” And I though the illusion was pretty complete.

JT: And Hal Glicksman?

MB: Well, Hal was director of the gallery at that point and he loved the piece. But then, he went off to the Corcoran, I think that’s where he went, I’m not sure . . . Helene Winer showed up. But I had already left, then a year later, I quite my job in Illinois and came back to L.A., just to wing, it and wound up as a sabbatical replacement for David Gray at Pomona College.

JT: You’re starting your career as an artist, and transitioning into teaching and education. Did you find that difficult?

MB: I had been teaching Art Appreciation to misbehaved young boys at Webb College when I was a graduate student . . .

JT: Outside the studio practice?

MB: Yes. All I did was think about all the teachers that I didn’t like and make sure I didn’t replicate any of that. And, I had some outstanding examples okay? I mean, Jim Colby was a brilliant teacher. What did he do? What was his brilliance? He gave the students their head. And, as soon as I heard Mowry Baden say, “Well Mike, what do you think we should do here?” I thought, I’m in the presence of a Colby. You know, he wants to know what I think! Now, this is a teacher, again, at it seems like a teacher is supposed to be dictatorial, not all of the teachers are supposed to be Socratic. You elicit, you make your student think. And people say, “And what if your can’t convince ‘em?” I say, “I trick ‘em!” [Laughs] I’m supposedly the more experienced mind in the room at that point, right? You lead you student, you know, and [sounds like – hammer] this stuff.

JT: It’s definitely a skill set––that professional acumen that one develops as an artist, but then as an educator.

MB: See, I often don’t know where the line between teacher and artist is.

JT: That’s what makes you a good educator . . . and an artist.

MB: I think there’s always something to learn in/from art. That’s the bait actually. So we saw our teachers being professional artists. They weren’t professional teachers who made art, they were professional artists who occasionally taught. And that was the difference, and they also thought there were lessons, but things to be learned from art. And you know this is absolutely true. I mean, it has to be a really, really crummy work of art to not learn something.

JT: It’s very metaphoric to life.

MB: I believe so, absolutely. And, you know, ancillary and useful, so, I didn’t really see a dichotomy there. I saw a difference in delivery. The artwork, you know, you don’t say a lot of words over it . . . you hope it does its trick by itself. And the teaching you do with a lot of words because it’s very expedient. The student could learn it on his or her own, but if one of us is in the room, we could make it happen 100 times faster. That’s the whole point. If we all had to learn everything from the beginning all over again, we’d be dead before we knew it, so it’s very important that way. So, I don’t really see a difference. I bring people to the studio––if you will, civilians, to the studio––people who are not teachers or artists or collectors, really civilians, people from other walks of life, and I’m teaching them from the minute they walk in. I go through life figuring I’m going to learn things from everywhere, and I do. And, if they ask me what is my passion? Truly, learning new things. That turns me on more than anything else.

JT: Absolutely. Tell me, who were some of your colleagues when you were teaching?

MB: Well, Burden, Turrell, Baltz, Williams–who was a teacher but I shared a studio with, Guy Williams . . . He brought in John Baldessari when he still lived in National City! And that was something else. They also brought in Nick Wilder who pissed us all off enormously . . . possibly one of the greatest art dealers in the history of California. Really! Wilder was something else entirely. He was stunning. He was competition to Ferus and they all knew it. Mowry Baden was around . . . Steve Davis . . .

JT: This was as a graduate student.

MB: Yeah, Ted crazy (Ted Kerzie) . . . Not this space . . . [chuckles]. But there was this milieu there and you know, then living out here, there was the local “Venice Mafia,” Me and then Burden . . . a bunch of people who are no longer in the art field . . . Tim Nordin and Jim Cherick . . . John Miller still paints. For a little while, Max Newhouse, that was a phone relationship mostly.

JT: In teaching, some of your colleagues?

MB: Well, Roland . . . Roland and I have had our differences over the years because, well, we were associated for 30 years, we were colleagues and so we had our ups and downs. But I will always say, he’s the greatest art teacher I’ve ever seen in my life. Bar none . . . bar none. And, I miss him. The level of dialogue is not as high as when it was him and me. We played off each other beautifully. Well . . . I think some of the problems that he and I had were evil people whispering things in both his ears and mine, you know, [whispering] “He said this about you,” and “He said that about you and I don’t think it’s true . . .” Because, I don’t love him as much as I love Karl [Benjamin], okay? Karl is a truly genuine full-bred, 112-degree artist. Roland is a genuine full-bred, 112-degree artist. Roland is an artist 40 hours a day.

JT: Why are certain artists more successful than others in gaining recognition.

MB: Because they’re better at hustling, they’re better businessmen. If they were selling shoes, they would sell more shoes than me because they would hustle it more now. But when I was young, I sold more shoes than a lot of people, so to speak, you know? I was out there. I went to lots of openings. I listened to people who bored me . . . I listened to people who interested me. I called people up. I almost never call people anymore.

JT: How would you distinguish the difference between a professional and an amateur?

MB: In art that’s very difficult. In other cases, one takes money and one doesn’t. Traditionally, division between amateur and professional is one takes money and one doesn’t. In England, in the century before last, it was upside down. The professional was the whore and the amateur was full of virtue. And the amateur actually did all the work and made the discoveries. Darwin was an amateur. He was an amateur in the original sense of the word, a-ma-teur, “lover of . . .” Too good to do it for money. It’s too noble to take money, what do you think I am, some kind of hooker? You know, I do this because it must be done.

JT: What about the legitimacy in critical success and financial success?

MB: Well the dollar is its own legitimizer. So we don’t really need to talk about that, you know? But it is the way America measure success. It isn’t the way I measure success. I’m one of those few people that believe you can have enough money if you’re careful with it. And I came to that because I needed time. Time is the real asset.

JT: It’s true.

MB: And money will buy time.

Michael Brewster, “See Hear Now:…” 2002. Detail showing single loudspeaker and touch screen selector. ©2012. Courtesy of Michael Brewster. 

JILL THAYER: To a point.

MB: It won’t buy heath. So actually, health and time are the assets. ‘Cause if you’re sick, you got a lot of time but you’re no good at it. Anyway . . . it’s like bastards. I never understood how a person could be called illegitimate, they’re there . . . they have all the parts . . . they can walk and talk. You know, if we were talking about ducks we’d say he’ a duck! But no, he’s an illegitimate person, why, because his fatherdidn’t get a license?

JT: Well again, it’s that whole socialization . . .

MB: Yes. So whether we’re legitimate in the culture or not, what legitimizes us in the culture right now is the Jeff Koons phenomena. He who makes the most money is the best artist. Well, I don’t subscribe to that! As a matter of fact, I think, the best artists right now, are probably known to no one yet . . . known to no one yet. And all the ones you get, you can’t really believe what you see because of the prevalence of hype in our society that an artist can hype themselves because of the Internet? Hallelujah, no one else was doing it before. It’s like, “Well, who represents you?” Well you can’t answer that truthfully except by no one because galleries don’t really represent you. They represent themselves and they pay for that with you. It’s completely misunderstood. We don’t have agents and if we did, they would want to take a percentage. The reason we don’t have them is there’s not enough to take a percentage of. By the time you get through paying the dealer, I mean dealer overheads are extremely high and they have to pretend to be wealth when they’re not, and the ones who are wealthy enough to really do it, they don’t need to do it so how driven are they? ‘Cause . . . I mean, I’m not going to name names now, I’ll probably get in trouble. There’s a lot of vanity galleries . . . there’s a lot of vanity artists. And there are a lot of artists supported by a spouse who otherwise wouldn’t be able to survive on their own. There are artists like me who are supported by a university who otherwise would not be able to survive on his own. I would have to make different kind of art. I would have to sell stuff, but because of the university’s patronage, I can do engage in what I consider to be research without a target. So called, “pure research,” which shouldn’t be called that. It should be called, “painless research.”

JT: Of all of the artists that I interviewed for my dissertation, about 8 % supported themselves strictly through their art. It was a very small percentage. The others were augmented by teaching, by a spouse, by a trust . . . by whatever.

MB: It’s a tragedy that in America, you have to be very well off to be an artist. It’s a tragedy in America that you think you have to have a graduate education to be an artist. Although I think it’s an expedient way to get information, to get a formal education.

JT: Let’s talk about your work. How did “Lewiston,” a collaboration with Mowry Baden come about in 1982?

MB: Many of the shows I’ve been in have come to be via Mowry’s contacts. Mowry’s been very generous that way. Atypically in the art world, people don’t really share their contacts. Mowry’s a prince of a man. And so, he was called upon to do a project at Artpark and he said he wanted to do a collaboration and could I be the collaborator.

JT: In Lewiston, New York.

MB: Lewiston is a city next to Artpark. And Artpark just put out a new catalog. I don’t know if you know about that. And so I said, “Yes,” and what we wound up doing was making a 1,200-foot wood chip path that meandered through the now overgrown front yard of a mansion taking you to the remaining wall-work masonry at the back of the mansion, which was a stone wall that had some stone steps that came down to a platform, kind of an apron area. Walking through the forest on the wood-chip path you were very aware of the sound of the forest––the birds and the rustling of the wind and the little rats underneath and all that stuff. So by the time you got to this area, you were pretty [audibly] aware then, you go down a couple steps and then there would be some crooked steps and you would push down on this––you would grab a banister and you didn’t know it, but the banister was an on switch and it would turn on a sound that would come out to the very top of a tall tree overlooking this little wooded apron.

JT: I understand that you had sound stations set up but you have the natural environment.

MB: There were three of them. The first station was really the pathway, as there wasn’t a station in the sense, either that or it was a very distended station. The second station was that apron at the foot of the stairs. And the third station . . . actually, I take it back, the pathway was just a pathway though I thought of it as a station. The first one was the apron area where you had that dieseling sound and when you were wandering around there, you looked up at this enormous, almost a cliff, a big embankment, which was known, not metaphorically, as the Spoils Pile––on the curb of which we planted a 7 ft. culvert pipe that had no electronic sound in it but it was the most synthetic of all the sounds because that echo inside that size of tube. So you got up there and it was much steeper than it looked to get up there [pants] and it had this kind of synthetic buzz coming off because the area was too short. And sitting there you would look up across the face of this thing and see a turquoise diving board jutting out from it and you would walk out on the end of that and see these two stupid buttons on the end of the diving board and you say, “What the hell are those?’ And you mess with them with your feet, and they trigger the sound of a chisel that would bounce off the forest and come back.

JT: What prompted your collaboration with Mowry?

MB: Long friendship. Deep respect. We talked about it many times. He liked my work, I adored his work, I thought it was the coolest shit in the world and so when he tapped me, I said, “Of course.” This was like, “Hey, do you want to play God for a couple of weeks? Or play with God a couple of weeks.” It was great.

JT: Your Sonic Drawings of the ‘90s?

MB: They’re begat by the “Clickers,” and they were called the “Whistlers.” They’re the pieces that use the EPROMS to program the sound into them. They’re the next step that I always wanted to make after the ‘Clickers,” but until the EPROMS came along I was a prisoner to miniature tape recorders, which are just too much trouble and too bulky, and not satisfactory. And then I did two sets of “Whistlers,” and then the technician decided he wanted ten times as much money and I told him he could do something to himself, and he then moved to Vermont and so there was never any peace to be made . . . and his sin was to try to remake my work. You just simply don’t do that. If you want to do it better than me, go do your own piece better than mine, but don’t be muscling in me especially if I’m paying you to do my work for your particular skill that I don’t have.

JT: Drawing with sound, that sounds like such a unique concept.

MB: I can explain that pretty simply. It will sound like I’m being excessively clever, but I don’t mean to be. A drawing is basically points and lines, yes?

JT: Yes.

MB: When a click is made in time, it is kind of a point in time. If it clicks here, and another thing clicks there in succession, no line is drawn but you hear one. All puns intended, it draws your attention from one click to another click to the next click to that click, and it does that three or four times in perfect succession and you think, “I got it.” And the next ting you know, it’s not doing that pattern anymore. Now it’s not going left, right, back, left . . . it’s doing something else because of the sloppy circuits. Now you can graph this out, it takes a really long piece of paper. But, one interval is five inches and one interval is 5.1 and 5.2 or 4.9 and you just start plotting them out, and you’ll see how these blips line up and spread apart. Guess what? Standard deviation. We’ve learned about it someplace in college. It never made quite so much sense to me until I realized, “Oh, I’m just playing the deviations game.” And so, mathematicians like these pieces . . .

JT: I would think!

MB: Well, it’s absolutely illustrative of this principle. To a civilian it illustrates nothing at all because they don’t have the theory to understand it that way. There’s nothing wrong to having the theory to understand the painting except that it’s not very democratic. You’ve got to be a cognicente and we have all these artists who don’t want to be elitists selling to the most elite in the nation, it’s a mess. Most of the artists are Communists until they start making money and then they become Republican. My grandfather was Republican and he was a wonderful guy . . .

JT: I’m just thinking in my mind, listening and hearing the clicks, it’s almost like that visual perception. I can see the line connecting from one to the next, but it’s just all in my mind. It’s this perception, and then when it starts to become random and then it’s like, “Wait a second.”

MB: You have to readjust yourself.

JT: Yes.

MB: So how many times a day do you have to reorient?

JT: Every moment. Every day.

MB: So there it is. Life-like, eh?

JT: Very much so.

MB: I just thought drawing it around the room like that was schematically accurate to call it a drawing and then there’s the percept of it. Not the perception but the percept. The idea that’s left in your mind from your perception . . . it’s not an idea that you would read in Kant or Kierkegaard or anything like that. It’s a perception idea. It’s almost an object. It’s a sequence of realizations.

JT: It’s like a construct.

MB: Absolutely! It’s exactly like a construct except instead of coming from concept it

comes from percept. Arriving at very much the same place. This mental picture, which is why I don’t give you an image––you already got one.

JT: That would mediate it.

MB: It would completely limit it. It would take your authority away from it. You’re responsible for your perceptions and your perceptions are within your purview. They are your authority and I deeply respect them and I’m very interested to hear them especially if they don’t run the insect perceptions only because I’ve heard the cricket analogy more times than I care to tell you. That’s alright, if that’s the Dorian, I don’t care . . .

JT: What artists have influenced you?

MB: Naum Gabo . . . Kurt Schwitters . . . Julio Gonzales . . . Rodin when I didn’t know any better. There’s more but I’m just drawing blanks . . . Irwin, Turrell . . . Eric Orr a little bit. Irwin, Turrell, and Mowry would be the main influences. I’m the bastard child of those three men.

JT: And what genres do you align with?

MB: Installation.

JT: Light and Space . . . Minimalism?

MB: Sound and Space. Minimalism. David Gray was also a big influence when it came to influence, as was John Mason. Sometimes my memory doesn’t recall things in chronological sequence. I learned a great deal from Minimalism even though I thought it was extremely difficult at first. And then, I actually had insights into Minimalism at Dr. Ho’s Asian Philosophy class though in those days it was still “oriental philosophy.” Reading a 5,000 year-old Chinese tract called, “The Way of the Tao” by Lao Tze. Suddenly, one day I thought, “Wow,’ I can grok Minimalism. Now, I don’t know if you now about “grok,” that’s from a Robert Heinlein novel that we all read with great glee called the “Stranger in a Strange Land,” and groking is knowing beyond understanding. Groking is “one with the idea” in a way that none of us know how. None of us really grok but some of us want to.

JT: How do you view the relationship of your work to contemporary culture?

MICHAEL BREWSTER: Peripheral. In a word, I’m peripheral. I wanted to be a fringe artist and now I know the pain of being a fringe artist. Absurd, isn’t it? We are some of the most self-contained––­­not hermitic, though that too . . . Hermit types and yet vulnerable beyond belief, but we put out most dearest creations out for the world to stomp on and we are so desperate for that kind of love. But it isn’t love and I don’t want it anymore. I’ve seen it for what it is and it goes dry in your mouth. If You want love get it from someone you can touch. People who buy your work are not really your lovers and are not going to treat you that way.

JT: Art is a commodity, art is an expression . . . all these different monikers.

MB: See, I missed something in the translations. I was in my thirties before I kind of got . . . you need something to sell. The milieu at Pomona was such that it was the adventure. It was the finding out . . . it was the making and the discovering and my model was the professor doing research. And when people said, “What gallery are you with?” I thought, “Gallery?” I don’t need no stinkin’ gallery! You know, in an “I don’t need no stinkin’ badges” kind of approach? Of course, you do! But I hadn’t really considered that. That was the more mature realization when I finally became an adult and understood that everybody had to support themselves.

JT: What drives the work?

MB: What drives the work is our own kind of impassioned connection to the world, either a frustration with it or . . . right now, they stupidly have it all reduced to a binary. You either are a critique artist or a celebratory artist, which leaves out the research artist. It leaves out just finding out for finding out . . . it leaves out the descriptive artist. It’s a really moronic thing––you are either “A” or “B.” Well, my alphabet has more letters than that.


The audio recording and narrative transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Roland Reiss by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 July 20 and 2011 August 4. Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. Photographs courtesy of Michael Brewster are copyright protected and require expressed permission by the contributors for use. Other photographs and art images are copyright protected and may be used without permission, and cited as follows: [Image title] ©2011 [Artist or Photographer]; Oral history interview with Michael Brewster by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 July 20 and 2011 August 4, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

The above is a partial transcript from the original interview. The full transcript is included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution. For more on the work of Michael Brewster, visit: http://sites.cgu.edu/art/faculty/michael-brewster/; and “‘In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” see: Jill Thayer, Ph.D. – The Artist, Emergence, and Culture: http://www.jillthayer.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/in-their-own-words-oral-histories-of-cgu-art/.

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