ArtWeekend

Are Joe Massey’s Prison Drawings the Next Big Thing?

A remarkable cache of drawings by a now-deceased, African-American prisoner in Ohio might be just what the art market has been waiting for.

Joe Massey, “A mixtre” (1946), ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches (all images courtesy of Ricco/Maresca Gallery)

Dealers, collectors, and others in the outsider-art field are no different from their counterparts elsewhere in the art world when it comes to longing to discover the Next Big Thing.

The Next Big Thing, which may well be the Real Thing, too, could be a recently surfaced cache of ink-on-paper drawings made by Joe Massey, a self-taught African American artist who spent the latter part of his life in jail. His unusual, vivacious creations are now being shown, through October 19, in Shut Up: Joe Massey’s Messages from Prison, at Ricco/Maresca Gallery.

This presentation kicks off the current New York exhibition season with an unmistakable reminder that, sometimes, less really is more, for there is no stopping the expressive power of a skilled draftsman with little more than a nib pen, a bottle of ink, and a deep well of imagination.

The facts of Massey’s life are sketchy at best. Much more research needs to be done to fill in the gaps and to uncover this clever autodidact’s aesthetic motivations.

Joe Massey, “Why rase sand” (1946), ink and tempera on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches

Alejandra Russi, the head of Ricco/Maresca’s publicity department and publishing program, has assembled an illuminating introductory text for the exhibition’s simple, attractive, must-have catalogue based on background information gleaned from a limited number of magazine and newspaper clippings, and archival documents, along with her own research. The bulk of this material was provided by the collector who is credited with rediscovering Massey’s work — more about him momentarily.

In her catalogue introduction, Russi notes that Joseph Cyrus Massey was born in Texas in 1895 — that much appears to be certain — and that, in 1918, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for murder. He had intended to kill his wife with a gun but missed and instead struck another woman. A headline in Little Rock’s Arkansas Gazette noted: “Shoots at Wife: Kills a Negress.” Massey soon escaped from jail; a fugitive from the law, during the Great Depression he somehow landed a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Years passed. Russi writes that, in 1938, in Toledo, Ohio, “Massey shot and killed his second wife, Jessie Bates, and injured her male companion. […] Massey escaped the electric chair but was sentenced to life and remained in the Ohio Penitentiary nearly sixteen years.” He finally left the big house in 1965, but thereafter, the trail of his life’s journey runs cold. No one knows exactly what Massey went on to do after his release from jail or when or where he died.

At some point during his incarceration, he began making drawings, which perhaps may not be so unusual, but sometime during the early 1940s, Massey began mailing letters, including samples of his artwork and poetry, to Charles Henri Ford (1908-2002), a high-school dropout from Mississippi who became a modernist poet, novelist, and artist.

Joe Massey, “Less go to that show dear” (no date), ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches

Ford published a magazine about blues music in the late 1920s and frequented Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris, where, in 1933, a novel he co-authored with Parker Tyler, with the deliciously subversive title, The Young and the Evil, was published. It became what is now regarded as the first modern, unapologetically homosexual-themed novel.

In 1934, Ford moved to New York with his partner, the Russian-born modernist painter Pavel Tchelitchew. For several years, beginning in 1940, Ford edited and published View, a chic, colorful magazine of the arts, which promoted Surrealism and became an outlet for contributions from a range of modernist experimenters, including poets and artists.

Ford’s circle of fellow homosexual artists and aesthetes included the photographer George Platt Lynes, the impresario and philanthropist Lincoln Kirstein, the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, and many others. (A recent historical-survey exhibition of early-20th-century, gay-themed art at David Zwirner, The Young and the Evil, which took its title from Ford and Tyler’s book, included the work of Ford, Tchelitchew, and Lynes, along with that of Paul Cadmus, Fidelma Cadmus Kirstein, George Tooker, and others.)

How did Massey learn about View, which published the jailed man’s poems and drawings (which he always signed with his prisoner number, 75209, following his name)? Editor Ford even published excerpts from Massey’s letters, such as this one, which appeared in View’s December 1943 issue:

Sir in regards to the no. after my name This no. emphasises the fact that I have made a mistake in my life and I am trying to make the best of it I was charged with second degree murder. I am trying to overcome my past mistakes, And to rehabilitute myself by learning and writing.

In that sincere-sounding, irregularly spelled missive, Massey also informed Ford that he had been studying the tenets of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and that, in the past, he had worked as a bellboy and “a table waiter.”

Joe Massey, “Yes. you. who. me.” (1947), ink and tempera on paper, 11 x 9 inches

As remarkable — and perhaps as unlikely — as Massey’s falling-in with the urbane homosexual “mafia” at the heart of the era’s avant-garde might seem, in retrospect, the enthusiasm of this circle (many of whose members were émigrés from Europe) for his distinctive creations makes sense. Massey’s drawings, with their sure, whimsical, even daring line (a knowing, “reductivist” line in modern-art-speak), give clear, simple form to male and female figures in athletic or occasionally amorous poses, often in active groups, and to real or imagined animals.

Their sense of whimsy, combining a childlike appearance with handwritten captions referring to adult themes (“YES You – Who mE – TELLINg ME What To do”; “Sit down. aNd doNt gEt huRt.”), must have appealed to their Surrealism-purveying love of unexpected juxtapositions.

Perhaps more pertinently, too, Ford and his associates appreciated Massey’s status as an “other,” like themselves, on the margins of mainstream society — even though their educations, personal and professional connections, and other privileges obviously placed them much closer to dominant social and cultural power structures than the jailed artist could have ever hoped to come.

Ford and his cohorts were probably also aware of art brut, a label the French artist Jean Dubuffet had assigned, in the mid-1940s, to the hard-to-classify creations of self-taught art-makers. Certainly Massey’s peculiar, captivating pictures fit into such a special category.

Joe Massey, “What a man” (1946), ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches

Their imagery includes a trio of bare-chested women stretching their legs up toward the sun with the caption, “I hi, so high. as the sun. STand by.” Elsewhere, a man wearing only shorts supports a large, unfamiliar-looking animal on his head; on the beast’s back, an acrobatic woman, also clad only in athletic shorts, balances herself on one leg, her body in a horizontal pose. Their caption declares, “What a man. LITTLE.buT sought. NO ONE. caN NocK hiM ouT.”

Another drawing shows the conjoined bodies of a woman and a man, dancing on their four legs and spreading their two arms (“PUT ME down. aFTER I TURN you a RONd,” one partner tells the other). Other pictures depict women astride a barnyard animal (“TWO ON. ONE. MuLE. aRENT NO FOOL.”), a sea creature snapping at a cow (“I Eat. You UP.”), and two naked women, their arms and legs outstretched, performing a synchronized exercise (“TELL ME I CANT do ThE SPLIT I SEE The way you LIT.”).

Only 40 drawings by Massey are known to exist, and they are all on view in the current gallery presentation. The artist normally drew with metal-nib pens dipped in ink on sheets of paper found at the prison; only a few of his pictures were made using tempera paint and they are boldly colored. The drawings were found several years ago by the longtime, New York-based art dealer Keith de Lellis, whose Manhattan gallery specializes in modern photography.

In a recent interview at his gallery, de Lellis recalled, “By chance, one art-world contact led to another, and I met an heir of Lincoln Kirstein’s who had inherited the drawings. In the past, this heir had been friendly with the American painter Paul Cadmus and the artist’s partner, Jon Anderson.” (Cadmus was a homosexual American painter, whose sister married Kirstein; Anderson, a former cabaret performer, was one of the artist’s numerous romantic partners, a category that also included the painter George Tooker.)

Joe Massey, “A mixtre” (1946), ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches

“I was familiar with outsider art and when I saw Massey’s drawings, I flipped,” de Lellis said. “I felt that the time to bring them forward publicly had come, given current discussions about race, gender roles, and a reconsideration of how American history has been written and taught. In its own ways, Massey’s art sheds light on how these subjects were perceived or understood by a person of his time and of his background who lived in his particular circumstances.”

De Lellis added, “I’d like to see Massey’s work earn a place in outsider art’s canon.”

That just might happen — sooner rather than later, and despite the fact that so little is known with certainty about his life’s story. Indeed, often in the world of so-called self-taught art, less can also be more when it comes to an artist’s biography. Sometimes the mystery surrounding a particular artist’s origins only adds to his or her work’s allure.

In Massey’s spare line and simple, flat shapes, some viewers may find affinities with those of the African-American self-taught artist Bill Traylor, while his quizzical fantasy characters find echoes in the art brut drawings of such non-American creators as the Austrian Josef Bachler (1914-1979), the German Ernst Kolb (1927-1993), and the Iranians Davood Koochaki (born 1939) and Mehrdad Rashidi (born 1963).

In one of his earnest poetic ditties, Massey wrote:

A picture is so beautiful,
When it is truthful.
It makes one’s friends,
That never shall end.

Apparently, posterity was listening. However incomplete its backstory, Massey’s distinctive oeuvre constitutes one of the most exciting discoveries in recent years in the outsider-art field — it’s big news; artistically, it’s the real deal; and now, thanks to the documentation Ricco/Maresca has produced and the interest among collectors known for generous loans to museum exhibitions who quickly bought out the current exhibition, it’s a body of work that is here to stay.

Shut Up: Joe Massey’s Messages from Prison continues at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 19.

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