I met Simon Gouverneur in the late 1980s, when I gave a lecture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Something that I talked about that afternoon prompted him to introduce himself — I am guessing it was Wifredo Lam. We sat in a drab conference room. For the rest of the afternoon, before I caught a train back to New York, he and I wandered through dangerous territory, which was the problematic relationship between art and race. He was happy to speak to someone who was sympathetic to his quarrel with multiculturalism, and its ideas of essentialism and who shared his interest in visionary art and painters such as Piet Mondrian and Alfred Jensen.
It was quickly apparent to anyone who met Gouverneur that he neither fit into a mold nor aligned himself with the unspoken expectation that he become a painter-storyteller — the one who speaks for the tribe. But not being part of a group, however small, isn’t an easy position and it doesn’t get any easier as you get older. At the time, I didn’t realize how deeply isolated Gouverneur felt, and how troubled he was by this state of affairs. A few weeks after we met, he sent me reproductions of his work, which I have looked at every so often over the years, but we didn’t sustain our conversation beyond our initial meeting. A short while later I heard that he had committed suicide. In 1997, when I returned to teach at the Maryland Institute, I learned that before he hanged himself, Gouverneur had set his studio on fire. This wasn’t the first time that I came up against the fact that art doesn’t offer salvation nor would it be the last.
For the past few days I have been thinking about Gouverneur’s work. Periodically, something brings it to mind, and I am left with a series of questions that I cannot, and probably never will, answer satisfactorily. This time, I glimpsed his paintings and drawings in my mind’s eye shortly after I went to see Chris Martin’s show for the second time. Two days later I saw them floating before me again while I was walking on 57th Street, having just been to the Glenn Goldberg exhibition. The connections felt inevitable. I decided that I would write about Simon Gouverneur before I wrote about the Chris Martin and Glenn Goldberg’s shows, because I didn’t want to let the conjunction of these three artists to pass unnoticed.
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As far as I know, in the twenty-two years since he died, Simon Gouverneur’s late work has been the focus of three exhibitions: Icon Culture: The Late Paintings of Simon Gouverneur (McClean Projects of the Arts, 2000); Back To The Future: Alfred Jensen, Charmion von Weigand, and Simon Gouverneur and the Cosmic Conversation (Loyola University Museum of Art, 2009); and in 2006, Andrea Pollan, the former Exhibition Director of the McClean Project of the Arts, and the person who has done the most to champion this work, organized Mystic Logic: Works from the Estate of Simon Gouverneur at her space, Curator’s Office, an interesting, innovative, and intrepid gallery in Washington D.C. Icon Culture and Back To The Future both published catalogues.
Pam Ambrose and Carole Celentano organized Back To The Future, which didn’t travel. The catalogue, illustrated with full color illustrations of paintings and drawings by the three artists, contains essays by Celentano and Lynn Gamwell. (Much of the biographical information that follows is derived from this catalogue, which Ambrose and Celentano acknowledge owes a lot to the extensive chronology in Icon Culture.) The thread is resilient if not always visible.
Gouveneur was born in 1934 in the Bronx, New York, and belongs to the generation that includes Sam Gilliam (1933), Joe Overstreet (1933), Amiri Baraka (1934), Jay Wright (1935), Al Loving (1935), and Bob Thompson (1937-1966). Everyone in this group found his own, distinct path, and Gouverneur was no different. The difference was that Gouverneur’s family was Dutch, Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean and Amazon Basin Indian. In a country that classifies people according to color — white, black, brown, yellow and red — under what category do you file Gouverneur and why?
In the 1940s, Gouverneur’s parents divorced, and his life was divided between New York and Caracas, where his father had moved and where Simon spent his vacations. When Gouverneur was in his teens, his father sent him to study music, acting, art and cinematography at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts, Madrid. In other words, he was sent to study in Franco’s Spain, where fascism had triumphed. At twenty and living in Madrid, Gouverneur met his first wife, Manuela Merino, an Andalusian flamenco dancer. They had a son and returned to New York.
A little while later, Gouverneur and Merino divorced and he was drafted into the military and stationed in California, where he met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. While in California, he also met Mariana, a Yugoslavian immigrant, and they moved to Italy where he studied at the Santa Luca Academy, Rome, focusing on a traditional beaux-arts curriculum. On his own, he began studying religious art and traveling throughout Italy. During this time Gouverneur came to view art as a devotional practice that requires belief and discipline. Setting out on his own path, he unintentionally isolated himself from what was about to erupt in the America art world in the 1960s.
From the 1960s until the 1980s, Gouverneur lived outside America, in Italy and Venezuela. He had exhibitions in Zagreb, Palermo, Paris and Caracas, where he served as the director of the Escuela de Bellas Artes. When his third marriage began to come apart, Gouverneur accepted a two-year artist’s residency in Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. While at Hampshire, he met Sam Gilliam. After his appointment is over, he moved from Venezuela to Cali, Columbia, where he became the director of the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Cali in 1978. While living and working in Cali, he continued his studies in Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism, Indian Vedic traditions, pre-Columbian mythologies and Aztec and Mayan calendars. According to Andrea Pollan, “Gouverneur strove to make his paintings objects of prayer.”
In 1979, a crucial year in Gouvereur’s spiritual quest, he met Maria Diaz-Suarez. Together, they visited the Kogi Indians who live on the nearly inaccessible mountains of northern Columbia. The Kogi are the only indigenous culture of South America not to have been conquered by the Spanish, and, despite all that has happened since the conquistadors landed, they have managed to keep their tradition intact.
It is a culture presided over by shamans who are chosen at birth and spend the first nine years of their lives living in a cave in near total darkness, studying the secrets handed down from generation to generation. It is the shamans who use the powerful yahe plant (“the vine of the soul”) — also known as yage or ayahuasca — for divination and healing. Taking part in a healing ceremony, Gouverneur ingests the yahe plant. From this moment on he will connect his art to these vision quests.
At the beginning of the 1980s, as the art world began reveling in the return to representational art, particularly overheated manifestations of it, Diaz-Suarez convinced Gouveneur that they should move to Washington D.C., where she once studied. He got a teaching position at Howard University. He renewed his friendship with Sam Gilliam, who, in 1983, arranged for Gouveneur to have an exhibition at the Martin Luther King Library. In 1985, his work was included in an exhibition at The Phillips Collection, and he had two shows at the Fritz Bader Gallery (1988 and 1990).
At the same time, Gouveneur rejected the widespread belief that a Black artist’s primary task is to produce visual testimony to a personal or collective experience, which can be regarded as representative of Black culture. In its place, Gouverneur sought to author a universal language of signs and symbols, which makes him an heir to Hilma af Klint, as well as places him in the company of artists that includes Forrest Bess, Alfred Jensen, Jess, Myron Stout and Charmion von Wiegand. In this regard, Gouverneur belongs to what might be call the occult or hidden tradition in painting, which has its origins in spirituality.
The influential critic Clement Greenberg denounced this aspect of abstraction in favor of opticality and paint’s materiality — an art of sensation and literalism. He believed that mortality and meaning were extraneous concerns, that art’s purpose was to search for its purest material state. He effectively replaced the desire for spirituality with the telos of verifiable objectivity. Although Greenberg is no longer taken seriously, his belief in a master narrative remains a central focus in today’s art world. There are many reasons why Governeur’s work gets left out of history, but to my way of thinking none of them are justifiable.
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Gouverneur worked in egg tempera, oil, and acrylic on canvas, often in a square format. The fact that he used three very different mediums does not seem to me to be an accident. In the history of painting, egg tempera was prevalent until it was superseded by the invention of oil painting around the 15th century. In the 1960s, many artists switched from oils to acrylics in reaction to the older medium’s myriad associations. Gouverneur wanted to be present at all times in his work; he believed his signs and symbols were both timeless and loaded with meaning.
No matter how ancient the source, he both preserved and transformed the signs and symbols into his own visual language. He titled one of his paintings “Peyote II” (1985). His vocabulary included floral shapes, mandalas, spirals, grids, concentric circles, letters and numbers, as well as a stylized Egyptian solar boat and other arcane images. Symmetry and asymmetry coexist, with neither predominating.
Gouverneur does not apologize because his paintings are replete with esoterica. Why should he? Isn’t time we gave them a longer look?