DETROIT — It is difficult for a young artist to think about her legacy. When you’re just starting out, piecing together a voice, a practice, and some means of support is a full-time hustle; having time to think about the bigger picture is a luxury afforded to few. Legacy is the concern of the older artist, and as longtime stalwart of the Detroit public installation art movement, Tyree Guyton, who turned 60 years old this year, implied that he’s gearing up for the future when he announced last week that he would be taking down his iconic work, the Heidelberg Project, which has been 30 years in the making.
Working on his own and in a largely unauthorized fashion for decades, Guyton transformed Heidelberg Street, host to his childhood home, into a sprawling surrealist landscape, adorned with his paintings and sculptures of found objects and debris collected from around the city. While the city has in the past demolished his work, having bulldozed the unsanctioned installation in 1991 and again in 1999, in more recent years it has received international recognition, transforming into a nonprofit that has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors.
But it’s the beginning of the end, as Guyton unveiled somewhat opaque plans to “dismantle” the Heidelberg Project over the course of the next two years. While the artist and his organization are quick to stress that some version of the project will remain within the original footprint, there are plans to deconstruct the work, piece by piece, with some of it going to museums, and other parts slated for an as-yet amorphous reconfiguration into something more community-based and less dependent on the animating spirit of Guyton himself. More often than not the artist has been found working on the grounds or posted up in the on-site Information Booth, receiving an international coterie of visitors, asking them to sign the guest book, and expounding on his vision and his process to all who ask.
In many ways, it’s astonishing that Guyton has kept the project going this long. First off, there’s the sweat equity invested in the expansive installation, which includes abandoned houses covered in stuffed animals, painted polka dots, toys, and vinyl records; shopping carts lofted impossibly high into trees; scrap metal arranged in mini-Stonehenge formulations, a buried Jeep, and innumerable paintings on plywood featuring Guyton’s recurring subjects: taxis, clocks, faces, and the word GOD — among other things. Then there’ve been the multiple stumbling blocks, including pushback from the city and, more recently, a string of 12 unsolved arsons that targeted and destroyed many of the project’s most iconic structures, including the “Party Animal House,” the “Taxi House,” and the toy-covered “Obstruction of Justice House.” But it’s Guyton’s day-in, day-out commitment to creation and maintenance that amounts to a kind of art-farming. Guyton has demonstrated the true meaning of creating his life’s work.
Few people have the courage to look at all that sweat equity and decide that all good things must come to an end. While it may seem paradoxical for Guyton to consciously dismantle the very thing he has worked so hard to create, there is something to be said for arriving at closure on your terms. Whether Detroit is ready to see the end of a project that has been a part of the landscape for so many years is a different matter entirely, but with respect to Guyton himself — an artist who has spent his life making unexpected moves with little need to justify them to others — this latest decision is true to form. And in the spirit of Detroit, whose city motto translates from Latin as “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes,” maybe some new inspiration is preparing to emerge from the Heidelberg wellspring.
Tyree Guyton is celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Heidelberg Project with a career-spanning solo exhibition Face-ology which continues at Inner State Gallery (1410 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit) through early September.
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My reactions to the news of Tyree Guyton & the non-profit organization of The Heidelberg Project planning a staged withdrawal is at two poles 1) wha? that’s redix! and makes no sense considering the years and years of struggle and doing it without “proper permission”, “why give up now?!” and 2) This declaration makes perfect sense and is one of the most unique opportunities for unsanctioned outdoor art (what Vince Carducci declares “Art of the Commons”) or outsider/folk-art to have a controlled, socially & economically viable denouement.
What are the ways that Tyree is not an outsider artist? Superficially the work fits many people’s criteria for folk art. In terms of labor hours & ceaseless dedication: folk-art. The seemingly obsessive use of iconography and the artists own words portraying his work as a visionary process: folk-art. Doing it regardless of “permission”: folk-art. Where Tyree is not an outsider artist is the establishment of Heidelberg as a professionalized arts organization that has development officers and volunteer coordinators to protect and promote the work and the artists. Very unlike the history of folk artists who work-work-work, get some attention shortly before they die (maybe somebody buys their work/supports it towards the end), then they die and someone is left to pick up the pieces. For instance Kohler Art Center has a great collection of outsider artists, or the Grassroots Arts Center in Lucas KS, much of it collected posthumously or at the tail end of the artists’ lives.
As a non-profit arts organization, Heidelberg Project is thinking long-term and it is likely thinking about liability: I know I would not want to be responsible for the sprawling project that as we’ve seen in recent history is a legit fire-hazard. This makes perfect sense. Condense the whole thing into a very manageable site that can be secure and maintained (hopefully in perpetuity as a museum) Sell off tons of objects to museums and collections around the world (which has the triple benefit: sharing the story of the work around the world in different formats, generates lots of revenue for an endowment, disappears all the stuff without having to add it to the waste stream) And then protect the originating artist financially so he can have a nice remainder of his life, and maintain his legacy and future projects with or without him.
In the end I think the positive perspective on this is through the lens of social justice: how many artists of color throughout the history of the U.S. have gotten notoriety for contributing to new art forms or locational identity but never received a sweet pension & economic recognition for their work. Here’s a creative individual that many people think of as synonymous with Detroit, even though for his first 20 years he fought getting run out of town by the officials. Now there is a plan for him to have economic remuneration more equivalent to his cultural impact, PLUS by disappearing the project, it’ll mean Heidelberg street can return to its neighbors. I can’t imagine just how difficult it must be to live in the middle of it all or even adjacent to the project: lots of signs requesting that neighbors shouldn’t be photographed or Tim Burke’s ardent declaration that his studio & sculpture park are NOT Heidelberg Project. By scaling it down it means that they can be “better neighbors” by cleaning up all of the potential liabilities. Cleaning up one’s “mess” seems like the just & right thing to do.
When Guyton’s name or work comes up I think of other artists I associate with either his ideas or work: Joseph Beuys. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Robert Rauschenberg. I’ve no idea to what extent, if any, what they did had any effect on Guyton. It doesn’t really matter because Guyton made his own way and it’s an authentic one, including this most recent development.
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