Ted Purves, 2017. Photo: Jim Norrena

IN THE CONTEXT OF ART HISTORY AND THEORY, Ted Purves will likely be best remembered for the anthology of texts he edited on relational art practices: What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art. It is an important tome (first published in 2005 and recently revised and expanded), which grew out of a conference the artist, scholar, and professor organized at California College of the Arts, where he founded the first graduate program in social practice in North America and later served as chair of the MFA program in fine arts. For those who were lucky enough to work with or study under Ted, however, it may be less his academic work on the topic of generosity that endures than our memory of his daily practice of it. Indeed, the theoretical topics he worked on—for example, the ethos of the gift economy and the possibilities inherent in reimagining communities—also animated almost every one of Ted’s encounters with everyone from the students who learned from him in the classroom and studio to the faculty whom he led in meetings to bandmates in various musical outfits, as well as the diverse staff of medical personnel caring for him at the end of his life. In knowing Ted, we all witnessed a radical integration of scholarly interest, artistic practice, pedagogy, and everyday politics centered around meaningful interpersonal exchange and a presentness of experience. Ted’s death this summer at age fifty-three leaves a gaping hole in many far-flung communities.

Ted was a leader, who believed that any community circle would benefit from greater inclusion. He knew that to foster diversity was generous, radical, and critical all at once. This ethos was connected to a fundamental and deep-seated belief in equality, and his varied practices blurred the boundaries between the forms and theories of exchange. Importantly, Ted worked to implement this ethos in ways that were accessible to all. His ideas, while informed by highly complex academic philosophy and theory, also held within them the fundamental DNA of punk music and the commune.

In an art world in which value is increasingly determined by market forces, and auctions of contemporary art repeatedly reach evermore inaccessible and exclusive prices, Ted’s passing provides a fitting occasion to reflect together again, per his book: What do we want? And might it (still) be free? For many of us, what we want is to be part of a conversation we respect, in which we can participate collectively in pursuit of the common goal of something better, and maybe even transcendent. While it is hard to know exactly what form this “something better” can take, Ted believed the category of “art” was a place to start. He dedicated so much of his professional and personal energy to the pragmatics of this fundamentally utopian, and elusive, endeavor. I know Ted succeeded in large measure, for he made many of us feel that we are indeed in it together, and that art may be one way to affirm and communicate. This in itself is a generous gift. And it is one Ted freely gave.

Jordan Kantor is a San Francisco–based artist and professor at California College of the Arts.

Lee Friedlander, Richard Benson, 2009, gelatin silver print, 14 13/16 x 14 11/16". Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

I FIRST HEARD ABOUT RICHARD BENSON decades ago in an Aperture article on the portfolios he printed with Paul Strand at the end of Strand’s life. From Calvin Tompkins’s 1990 profile in the New Yorker, I discovered that Benson had started his career in the mid 1960s as a camera operator at the legendary Connecticut printing firm Meriden Gravure. What he inhaled at Meriden, you might say, was a tradition of exquisite printing for illustrious clients. In 1972, he left Meridian to make his own photographs and to work as freelance halftone cameraman and printer. Over the next few years Benson and a handful of other innovative offset printers (Sid Rappaport was another larger-than-life personage) helped revolutionize printing black-and-white photographs. Benson’s major books, Lay This Laurel (1973), which featured his own photographs of Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw Memorial; The American Monument (1976), with photographs by Lee Friedlander; Charles Sheeler: The Photographs (1987); MoMA’s Work of Atget (1981); the National Gallery’s Paul Strand, An American Vision (1993); and the magisterial Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company (1985), are the apex of black-and-white, offset lithography presswork.

When I met Benson in 1996, he was just beginning what would turn out to be a ten-year tenure as dean of the School of Art at Yale. He sat me down in his office in the Paul Rudolph A+A building and explained how Photoshop curves worked as he adjusted a Friedlander photograph he was preparing for publication. At that point, Benson was scanning his 8 x 10 transparencies and printing them on a Hewlett Packard DesignJet plotter. Prints were casually strewn all over the office. After the Photoshop tutorial, he barked, “Oh take some, if you like them so much,” and I gathered up a few prints. Over the next few years, as Yale MFAs made their way to UCLA to teach for me, I carefully quizzed them about Benson’s ideas on all things digital. In the early days of scanning, ink-jet printing, and digital SLRs, all the tricks and protocols were passed on by word of mouth. There were plenty of knowledgeable printers and digital gurus on the West Coast, but for me Benson was always the last word on this stuff. He spoke the machine language, as it were, of analog and digital photography—and made his prodigious knowledge accessible.

Over the years, Benson printed his 8 x 10 negatives in platinum and later on an offset press. In the 1980s, he perfected a process to print his photographs in acrylic paint before switching over to working with ink-jet printers. In the early 2000s he began fiddling around with a digital Canon single-lens reflex camera, and his work exploded. The subjects of these new pictures were pure Benson: oil wells, trucks, irrigation systems, snowplows, cemeteries, houses, boats, apple trees in snow, cinder blocks, aluminum siding, pumpkins—pulsating with color. Then came his shows at Pace/MacGill, where he exhibited these new works as multiple-impression ink-jet prints made on a kit-bashed 4880 Epson printer. In 2011, North South East West was published, collecting these photographs. As revolutionary as his earlier duotone and tritone black-and-white printing was, North South East West upped the ante. It is easily the most beautiful book of color photographs ever printed. In a postscript, Benson described how the ink-jets and the book were produced: The wall pieces went through the Epson printer three times, and then, in an unorthodox workflow, the signatures of North South East West went through GHP’s presses in West Haven, Connecticut, three times, mirroring the multiple impressions created with the Epsons.

Stories of Benson’s technical smarts abound, and not only on the pressroom floor. Consider the platform he constructed to photograph the Shaw Memorial in Boston or the precise adjustments he made to his Epson printer for those multiple-impression ink-jets or the Model A that he drove or the incredibly painstaking photographs made using acrylic paint. These were technological problems solved by someone with arcane know-how and gumption.

Richard Benson, Newfoundland, 2008, multiple impression pigmented ink-jet print, 11 5/8 x 17 1/2". Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

The last time I saw Benson was a few winters ago on an early morning train to Boston. We bumped into each other in the café car and reflected on our respective mothers’ struggles with dementia. And, of course, we talked about photography too. Benson said he’d stopped printing his pictures on paper; he was now creating images to be displayed on 4K monitors. And, of course, he was the one writing code. After I recovered from the shock that he wasn’t making paper prints any longer, I marveled at the incredible distance he’d traveled, starting by assisting Paul Strand in the darkroom and arriving at 4K display.

While Benson loomed large in my creative imagination, I really knew him only slightly, and this meeting on Amtrak was typical of our brief conversations. There was, however, one memorable afternoon I spent with him in his backyard in New Haven in June 1998. I’d become obsessed with his acrylic-paint photographs after seeing them in an astonishing 1981–82 show at Washburn Gallery. Benson had cobbled together this unique photographic process by combining halftone separations with elements of the gum-bichromate process. He had invented what was simultaneously a straightforward and cheap way to make color photographs, and an overwhelmingly time-consuming process. Each image was made by exposing a sheet of thin aluminum coated with bichromated gelatin with a halftone positive and UV light. The gelatin resist that formed was then dunked in watered-down acrylic paint. When dry, the paint covering the resist was washed away, revealing a faint positive image. Each cycle of exposure, coating, washing off, and drying took about an hour—and the process itself was repeated multiple times to build up an image.

This approach was clearly not for the impatient, like me, but I stumbled along, making some very unsuccessful pictures. After I peppered Benson with questions over the telephone, he said, “Oh just come over and I’ll show you the damn things.” By this point—it was 1998—he’d already abandoned the labor-intensive process. When I arrived at his house, he rummaged around, located a half dozen acrylics, and poured two glasses of red wine. As I looked at pictures of railroad tracks vanishing into a verdant forest; murky, emerald-green Alaskan waters; furrowed fields and a farmhouse in the Midwest; a weathered, blue-and-white staircase in New Orleans—their bas-relief layers glistening in the sunlight—I was absolutely stunned. Of all Benson’s well-deserved laurels, it is these photographs, for me, that are his very great achievement. But it was not only their rectos that had floored me. On their versos, thin rivulets of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black pigment crisscrossed the unpainted aluminum. Like the fingers of a great Merlot running down the interior of a wineglass, these inadvertent ribbons of paint indexed the creative intelligence that had crafted some of the most sumptuous and challenging color photographs imaginable.

James Welling is a photographer and a visiting professor at Princeton University.

THE WORLD IS SUDDENLY POORER without Xavier Douroux, who recently succumbed to cancer at the age of sixty-one. A curator first of all, his engaged practice led him to also became a community organizer, a book publisher, a film producer, and a friend to many inside and outside the art world, including me.

Xavier had a remarkable knack for starting improbable projects, well outside existing institutions, only to have them become indispensable to the larger world they touched. In the late 1970s, at the age of twenty-two, he and Franck Gautherot founded a center for contemporary art in Dijon, resisting the impulse simply to add on to what was already happening in Paris and New York. The result, Le Consortium, is now a celebrated institution, known for its independent-minded programming.

In tandem with overseeing the activities of the art center, Xavier began the publishing house Les Presses Du Réel, which expanded its list to become perhaps the foremost publisher for art and culture in France. With typical independence, the first art-historical publication produced by the Presses focused on the art of the peasant war of 1525, a reissue of Maurice Pianzola’s out-of-print Peintres et Vilains from 1962. He told me recently that publishing that book was, he felt still, one of his proudest accomplishments. The book chronicles the way disenfranchised communities of peasants across a wide German-speaking region were able to organize and signal to one another through the visual imagery developed by peasants themselves and by artists of the period attuned to the peasant struggle. I think Xavier took this integration of art and grass-roots social organization as a model for his own efforts, in particular his involvement in the Nouveaux Commanditaires.

The Nouveaux Commanditaires (New Patrons), developed in the early 1990s by the artist François Hers in close collaboration with Xavier, was and remains a new modality for organizing contemporary production in response to a demand for art issuing from outside the art world. In this sense, it in some ways recalls a precapitalist mode of art production in which art was actuated by commissions, requiring a constant attuning of artistic gestures to external realities. This model of “engaged” art is quite different from the forms of participatory works that have been dominant in the United States, where artistic output is typically formulated by the artist or the artistic institution and then becomes a platform for public use. The New Patrons have produced hundreds of works across Europe and are now beginning to work in the US. The 2013 compilation of essays and conversations by Hers and Douroux, Art without Capitalism (Presses du Réel), stands as a manifesto for the project.

Xavier was a self-effacing leader, one of those people with the magical skill of making things happen through engaging and collaborating with others. He never made one feel how influential and important he was, which is part of the reason he so often got the best out of people. He was simply curious, and when he became interested in an idea, he seemed to always know how to go from its conception to its realization. If the process was smooth, he knew how to move very fast. If it was complicated, and that was part of the work the conception had to go through, he knew how to stay with the process and see it through.

I fondly remember a trip we took together in 2009, with Hers, to the town of Grasse in southern France, where we spent some time looking at paintings by Rubens in the cathedral. Xavier was curious about the fact that the paintings were originally made for the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome and arrived in Grasse more than a century later. When I informed him that the paintings were not a cycle so much as a series of scenes designed to highlight the importance of Santa Croce and the relics contained there—that the works were held together less by a unity of narrative or style than by a cat’s cradle of references that connected them to their original surroundings—his eyes lit up, though he said nothing. A bit of art history had offered him a provisional model for thought. There was no need to crush it by formulating a principle or throwing out easy parallels to modern and contemporary experiments with site-specific art. He quietly took it in and let it spin in his mind.

Alexander Nagel is a professor of fine arts at The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

Derek Walcott, 2012. Photo: Jorge Mejía Peralta.

DEREK WALCOTT WROTE, “ANSWERING DEATH, EACH WHISPERED, ‘ME?’” He died in March where he was born, in Saint Lucia.

A Nobel laureate, Walcott taught poetry at Boston University. Along with poets including Édouard Glissant, who died in 2011, Walcott bore the legacy of the previous Caribbean generation’s poetic icon, Aimé Césaire: Glissant, through a philosophy grounded in pastoral abstraction; Walcott, through a Shakespearian epicism that measured the region’s history with a “hymn’s metronome” (to use one of his own phrases).

Both writers were animated by the spirit of opacity—a term Glissant defined as the character of that which is irreducibly singular. For the Caribbean, this meant an existence in its own right despite, if never beyond, colonialism. Of that history, Walcott wrote:

I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive.

In a commemorative essay on Walcott this spring, the philosopher John E. Drabinski responded to the poet’s refusal of explanation and forgiveness as an affirmation of the Caribbean present’s singularity:

If we imagine life after to be the restoration of a whole, then we cannot but conclude . . . that the Caribbean—and the black Americas more broadly—is only broken, never whole. But . . . an orphan narrative is its own kind of story. It sees a world already made out of fragments.

In the light of these fragments, I have thought lately about a conversation I had with my friend the artist Andrew Ross, who observed in his own life the way that African and Caribbean blackness are elided in the American imaginary—a dynamic that contributes to undermining the possibility of an undivided belonging. It may be in the work of artists in the Americas—those, such as Ross, seeking their own claims to opacity—that Walcott’s orphan narratives of a whole in fragments are finding their next being.

This paradox moves dialectically through Walcott’s work, between singularly Caribbean images under the “benediction of a shark’s shadow” and the persistent grasp of black and white ghosts who reduce beings to their derivations: justifications, explanations, expiations. In his 2007 poem “The Sea Is History,” these figures meet, in one stanza placing the expiating “whisper ‘history’ ” into the mouths of creatures, and another giving voices to the land:

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote . . .

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.

Abraham Adams is an artist and the founder of the gallery Time Farm.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Portrait of Edit DeAk, 1981. Courtesy of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Collection of MOMA and MFA, Houston.

I FIRST MET EDIT DEAK IN 2000, in a place she lovingly dubbed the “salt mines.” The salt mines, to be exact, were the studios of Donald Baechler.

Baechler’s 1980s paintings were a massive influence on me, so after college, when I went to apprentice with him, I was already super excited—but imagine my surprise when this subterranean sphinx rolled out of the wings.

Edit was like a 1920s film starlet. Someone who could use the word darling perfectly. She had a wonderful Cleopatra haircut that was a deep, fiery maroon. She spoke in a “Hungerican” accent in an incredibly deep and brassy vocal range that could scrub the wax out of your ears. Her ideas would quake your mind and finish in laughter. She spoke in riddles, and you would be judged on your responses to her poetic concoctions. If you could play . . . your head was spared.

Words were her playground, her fireworks display. Slangwiches were what Edit served for dinner, lunch, and breakfast. A mixture of observation plus humor melted mundane words and yielded nicknames for all of us, and she renamed the world around us. I was “Fuzzy” not only because of the unruly beard but because I made nonsensical noises all the time. Baechler was, of course, called Maestro: the don of the salt mine’s denizens. She herself was Edito. An assistant who wore ripped shirts and was always on ladders—she called Tarzan. But the best act of naming came to her when she mistakenly opened another assistant’s mail, which contained a dainty slender ladle . . . that’s when James Franklin was quickly nicknamed “Princess Ladle.”

Edit really valued the hangout. She was a historian. She had seen styles come and go. Her job at the salt mines, other than being a muse and court poet, was librarian. Often, a line from a book or piece of ephemera in Donald’s massive collection could launch Edit into telling a story, but soon one story sprouted into two, and on and on, until a shrub of stories got all laced up, and in between our laughter, we’d discover it was time to head home.

Who (and what) were these stories about? Well, Donald Baechler, Rammellzee, Rene Ricard, Peter (her husband), her Wooster Street loft, Ingrid Sischy, Peter Schuyff, “Francisco Clemeta,”* her hairdresser, James Nares, Jack Smith, her favorite uncle from Hungary, “Uncle Mustache,” her Cadillac she couldn’t really drive, Alan Vega, Basquiat, Warhol, as well as Art-Rite, Artforum, Art Random, and Printed Matter, to name a few. 

At the salt mines, Edit’s relationship with Maestro was humorous bordering on the absurd. Well—hell! It was a Beckett play. Edit couldn’t hear and wore a hearing aid that was constantly falling apart and buzzing. Donald mumbles. Edit never heard mumbling, so Donald would have to repeat his previous sentence, sometimes twice, now screaming. Edit would scream back in her bass tone. Seeing Donald and Edit exchanging concepts in this manner was like watching a grammar-school band in slo-mo. Very soothing. Misunderstandings abounded—which was perfect for Edit’s poetic riffing skills: more meanings meant more stories. And what would an employee who couldn’t hear do? Answer the studio phones, of course, screaming loudly, “Hello! I am deaf!” And most of the time she would pronounce it “death” to get a second laugh.

I remember one particular story that made an impression on me was about her friend—the cutting-edge pioneer of Hip-hopisms—Rammellzee. A kindred spirit to Edit, no doubt, because of his own obsessions with language. In his paintings, sculpture, raps, and graffiti, intergalactic battles that stretched back through time and space took place against the standardization of alphabets forced on present society by fourteenth-century monks. Edit wrote a comprehensive article about Rammellzee’s wild style theories and practices in a May 1983 Artforum article, “Train as Book.”

To accompany his performances, Zee created elaborate shogun-style armored outfits made of repurposed hubcaps, children’s toys, and costume jewelry. Edit mentioned that one day he roller-skated into her apartment on Wooster Street wearing one of these outfits with a backpack full of fireworks launchers, and left seven years later.

I was lucky enough to hear Edit’s personal cassette recordings of her and Rammellzee talking about his work. These recordings gave me an entirely enriching view of Rammellzee’s art. You think Peter Halley’s semi-idiotic* texts are jam packed! Zee’s language was as theoretical as it was electrified by 1980s street culture, and armored to take no shit from anyone, anywhere. A funky backbeat lexicon logic that no one else could compete or keep up with—that is, other than Edit deAk.

The librarian knew that I was particularly hooked on the Rammellzee stories. So, one day, while salt-mining* she hit me with this cartoon. She and Rammell were in Italy. It was night, and they had broken into the Colosseum ruins. Oh my God! Zee was at high volume, seething with visions of history of the mighty gladiators who fought and died in this very arena; with his eyes full of tears, he pulled off his ring and whipped it into the center of the dark Colosseum.

“That’s how cool he is! That’s how possessed!” she told me.

In later years, I think it was truly difficult for this purest of punks to navigate the fact that many of the horses she had bet on had now become wealthy New York Institutions. Finding herself becoming frequently allergic to making public appearances, she would stay home and watch La Femme Nikita on TV, or a PBS special on seals. It’s a difficult question: How does a rock star/punk/anarchist keep their edge? Or city for that matter, in the face of money? That’s why I feel deeply lucky to have been a part of the Workfarce* at Donald Baechler’s studio, when I was to meet this amazing figure who chronicled her magical, wild exploits of a New York long gone and whitewashed. Her wildness outlived literally everyone’s. 

That was what drove the psychology behind her regular, over-the-top statement, “I have wanted to die for years.”

Well, you finally got your wish, and I return to you. May the farce* be with you, always, Edito!

[Asterisks signify Edit-isms]

Brian Belott is a Brooklyn-based artist whose new theater-based performance piece will appear this fall in Performa.

Liliane Tomasko and Oisin Scully with Michael O. Kewenig in Salzburg in the summer of 2016. Photo: Sean Scully.

HE WAS/IS THE PERFECT PARAGON OF THE IRREPLACEABLE SOUL. Immensely tender, and brightly endowed with an aristocratic sense of relaxed and kind, considerate, loving, allowing entitlement. A man who loved his artists, unconditionally. A perfect Prince, who never considered himself better: better than you, better than me, better than them, or better than she. A perfect Prince.

Sean Scully is a US–based painter and printmaker.