In a corner of his Greenwich Village apartment, the artist Jack Pierson keeps a photograph by another artist, 19th century Frenchman Louis Igout. The picture shows a naked man in repose, his hands and feet carefully splayed at his sides, his small dark cloud of pubic hair a sort of center of gravity. Pierson explained to me that Igout’s project was to photograph all the possible poses a human body can strike, the sum of which would form a reference guide for life drawing. Igout photographed every type of body; male, female, old, young — one form, the human form; endless variation.
Pierson too likes multiples, and this is why he collects. He has, for instance, a forest of crystals in front of his fireplace. He has not one home but two, the apartment in Greenwich Village and a house in Twentynine Palms, California. His studio is full of antique letters, some as big as a wheel on a Mack truck, grouped according to color or alphabetic character. He uses these in three-dimensional word assemblages, either wall-mounted or freestanding, not quite sculpture, according to Pierson, but something like it. He has what he swears is a whittled-down stack of original prints from Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild, a photographic agency founded in 1945 that produced prints of oiled, sculpted nude men in what were euphemistically called bodybuilding poses.
And then there’re Pierson’s photographs. From a stack on his dining table, he shows me his most recent work: young nude men, almost classical-looking, leaning on plinths or set against roughly rigged backdrops. They are beautiful, perfectly muscled and smooth, but it’s not quite Mizer, and it’s not quite Igout. It’s Pierson’s own exploration of the possibilities of form, the human form, and the collection is still expanding.
I’m fascinated by the way Americans — New Yorkers, particularly — live bi-coastal. That to me is a completely Northern Hemisphere idea, that you can maintain two homes. But that’s how you live, right?
It seems like it, yes. For the last 14 years I’ve had the house in California, but I don’t spend that much time there. I should chart how many days I actually get there, maybe like 30 a year.
But does it feel like a home to you there?
Yes, super. Kind of even more than here, only because you walk around and it’s your land and it’s sunshine and you feel your feet on the earth And I guess part of what makes the desert more homely for me is that I can actually entertain people there. I can have company and people staying over. Here, I just have a one-bedroom apartment, it’s mine and maybe somebody stays over once in a while or sleeps on the couch, but I could go there for 10 days with a few people and hang out and really have a home life. I have someone that stays at my house in the desert, my dear friend, Chris, and he lives there, and when I come out, I live there with him. And it’s great and we love it. But when he comes here even for like 10 days, if he sleeps on the couch, it’s like, “What are you doing?” What the fuck are you doing? You are going to watch TV now? It’s 6 o’clock at night!”Just because I have to walk by, it’s just a different, weird dynamic.
Did your parents have a lot of people around the house when you were growing up?
Well, no, not necessarily. Even though we lived in a summer town, we had a summer house that was sort of like camping. It didn’t have electricity or water, you had to pump water, and it was by a lake. It was only 13 miles from my house, but we’d go there on the weekends and that’s where I would have one of my friends sleep over if they were going to sleep. It was very, like, you could depend on a Sunday in the summer to just show up there, and there would be food, you would bring some food, you could swim and everybody would be there. And there is that sense at my house in the desert a little bit.
So, I was thinking about the desert, because your place is really in what you’d call the desert.
Yes, it’s sand. I mean, people call Palm Springs the desert and, in fact, it is, but you don’t really get it. You’re not confronted with sand. In the summer, I spend a lot of time on Cape Cod, which is the beach. And people sort of think, “Oh, he’s such a beach person. How can he like the desert?” But the desert seems a lot like the beach to me. I never really spent much time on an island, but I feel like I have a grasp of an island sensibility or even a beach sensibility, where it could attract the same kind of people who feel like they just want to live well and — could be — cheaply. I think there is an enormous amount of peace in being able to see a horizon line, which I think is part of what makes New York especially frantic and maybe creative. Very few people [in New York] have access to a horizon line. In the desert, you see it 360 degrees. It feels exotic to me. Where I live, it’s basically the same microclimate as Afghanistan — that’s why there’s a big military base there. So it’s exotic compared to where I grew up on the Northeast. If I go straight from the desert and drive up to Massachusetts on I-95, it feels like you’re in Amazon but it’s just some oak trees or scrub. It’s like, “How can they have so many trees? You can’t even see off the road!” But, you know, the main reason I’m in the desert and I can be there is because it’s so incredibly cheap where I live. It’s really at the end of where you would want to live. It’s almost at the end of the middle of nowhere.
There must be a powerful spatial element to it, work-wise. You’re living between two extremes: one is endless space to the point where it’s almost a void, the other one is New York, where it’s…
Right. Does being in the desert impact how you think about making things?
I wonder if it’s had too much of an impact on me out there.
What would be too much?
I don’t know. I mean, not too much at all. I think with these last pieces I did, last year, things got enormous. It had something to do with spending time in front of the ocean and in the desert where you’re just like, “OK, it can get big.” But where I live is also near Joshua Tree and I have the experience of always wanting to try to photograph Joshua Tree and I feel every time I’ve ever done it, it’s always weak or something. There’s just no point trying to. It never looks like how I feel it when I’m there. You know, there’s a million pictures of a sunset and you can sort of get the sunset to at least be a signifier of a sunset. But I never feel in Joshua Tree National Park that I can get anything that looks like an adequate signifier of what it is, because you don’t get the scale, you don’t get the… I don’t know what it is. That’s the other reason I’m there. I live in close proximity to really incredible landscape. My immediate landscape is kind of a wasteland, but it’s still pretty because it’s vast. But then there is this thing out there that is just magical, that can bring tears to people’s eyes.
Is that frustrating, to live right near this thing that you continuously try to capture and just can’t?
No, because I don’t even care that much. It makes it better for me because I’m a very lazy photographer. So, for instance, hiking three miles into Joshua Tree Park, I’d rather not carry a camera. And I’ve learned now there’s no point to it for me anyway. I mean, maybe somebody can do it. Probably somebody can do it, but I haven’t been able to do it. I’d rather just be there to experience it.
Cell phone cameras: thumbs up or thumbs down?
I’m so into them. I would like to have the balls to just do everything with them.
I feel like some photographers hate them because it means that anyone can…
Yes. I guess with that it’s like, the secret’s out. Anyone can. Get with it, photographers. It makes people up their game, I think. I mean, no one can do Ansel Adams until you’re willing to trudge in there with the 8 x 10, figure it all out and do that — and then maybe you’ll get a cool picture of Joshua Tree.
I know that you don’t think of your word sculptures as sculptures, exactly. Do you think of them as almost a form of poetry?
I do, I guess, necessarily. I sort of don’t like to find myself saying that.
I don’t know, because it’s like saying you’re spiritual. One hopes that somebody else will say it, maybe. I was a teen poet and I read poetry and I thought about being a poet for a couple of years when I was a teenager until I realized I can’t really do it. And then, right after that, I wanted to be a graphic designer. So it’s halfway between the two. It’s this ultimate commercial non-art design and ultimate art-ified, rarified ivory-tower-poet thing.
Do you still write poetry?
I’ve been trying to recently in a weird way, because somebody asked me to read my work. They wanted me to come to a poetry reading and read the words I had done and I was like, “No fucking way, that sounds like it’s going to be me reading a list of the names of my pieces.” And so, I started to write little bits. Again, you can call anything poetry. I feel bad for poets if all of a sudden I’m saying, “Oh, this is poem.”
Then that begs the question, what is the criteria for a poem? For you, it sounds like the criteria is that it has to be written by a self-identified poet.
So did you do the reading?
I didn’t wind up doing it. I’m so sad about it. I wonder if the guys are ever going to ask me again. I just couldn’t work it out in the schedule to do it. But I have read things before and I’m kind of a writer. I can write a little bit on demand. My poems are not… I don’t work on them. It’s more like I have one line that comes out of my mind. It’s basically a sentence with spaces, and that’s what makes it a poem to me.
You’re saying Poetry with a capital P is more like this work that’s been shaped and worked over.
Exactly. Which I will do with one sentence a little bit, but not in the way I think poets do it. Or maybe exactly in that way, but not on a daily basis.
Tell me about the letters. I saw them in your studio before, they’re these really powerful enormous physical forms, but they’re also just letters, but then they end up…
So they’re really like relics.
Yeah, like pieces of civilization, I guess. And when they are all in groups like that, people get so seduced by it somehow, and I guess I did too. The first time I ever saw them laying around some place was here in New York — there used to be a kind of permanent flea market on Houston Street and Second Avenue. I just walked in and there was a box of them. I don’t know why they are so compelling. I just immediately — with the box of letters this big — started playing with them. I made my first piece in the flea market and bought it, sort of.
And now you have just letters upon letters upon letters. Is it like having a box of old postcards that you feel compelled to go through and sort out?
There’s lots to do with sorting and collecting and a lot of my aesthetic is about collecting. I come from a very collector-y impulse. I don’t collect in a way where I’m documenting or even researching, it’s just, “OK, I want a lot of this stuff around.” Like those crystals. The guy tells me as I buy them, “Oh, this is rosette verisimilitude,” or something, and I’m like “Really?” And he goes, “Yes, it gives you good powers of seduction and finance,” or something like that. And so, I have a collection. I don’t pay attention to it really, but I like the idea of a mass of things. With the letters sometimes I’m like, “Put all the green ones here,” and then I look for what can come out of that. With that piece Late Afternoon, in a million years I never would have thought, “I’m going to do a piece called Late Afternoon,” but I put all the gold letters together and there were two big Os. I was thinking, “What’s a word with two big Os?” Noon? What the fuck is noon? But that’s how it came out, and it has all kinds of resonance for me.
Tell me about your relationship to old things. With the letters specifically, I think your work is more about preserving than repurposing.
There were three brothers, born one year after the other in my family. And then 13 years went by and they had me. My mother was sort of the same way; there had been a whole family of five before her and then 13 years later, in 1925, she was born. So I had access to this mother who had access to an older generation. She was sort of a trinket, a very sentimental person. I had a sense of the past because of that and it seemed sort of cool to me. And having teenage brothers, I worshipped what they liked and skipped over what I was supposed to like.
I like the idea of adopting a history that’s not your history.
When I went to art school in the 1980s, we were obsessed with the ‘50s. And you could go to the thrift stores and find all this stuff from the ‘50s. We lived the ‘50s down to the socks and underwear for a couple of years. We only went to places that look like the ‘50s, I feel like I lived in the ‘50s because we did it so well. But then, in the 2000s or something, I noticed kids were into the ‘80s, which was everything I was trying to avoid. In the ‘80s, I was like, “Oh, we live in the worst time. The ‘80s are so gross. We have to live in the ‘50s.” And most of my friends agreed. And it’s just because every 30 years, the mothers dump everything into thrift stores. So whatever is in the thrift stores is what you end up thinking is cool. You’re like, “Look at this weird Members Only jacket, I’m going to wear it.”
My ex-boyfriend used to wear Members Only jacket.
It’s like the letters. They’re so not of our time that they feel modern. They’re continuous. They’re of the past but they’re also of the future.
Right. They’re too far in the past, but at the same time, they look beautiful to us now. They have this kind of resonance in the present.
Your recent photographs are of boys in almost retro poses, or maybe it’s more classical. Classical gestures.
I stopped taking pictures of boys until a year ago or so just because I thought it seemed unseemly for an older gentleman, or something like that, and with most of my work up until then people had the feeling that maybe [the subjects] were my sex partners or something, which was never usually the case or sometimes it was. It was a blurred line. And usually I tried to get it to look like that — that intimacy. But then I thought, “I still want to be in the presence of naked young people. How do I do that?” So I make it clear that it’s a studio situation and try to be formal about it, so it’s clear that, yes, this is about the body, or this is about ‘50s things. A model can go there for you, and it’s a set up situation but it’s also a moment. I guess it has to be somewhat sexual that I want that, but it’s also just eternal somehow. I want to be part of the system that preserves this gesture for a minute.