Jack Massey—Light & Dark

Light & Dark II/IV

December 15, 2016 - February 24, 2017

Nothing is more useful to man than those arts which have no utility.[1]
Ovid, c. 17 CE
One of the things I learned from Jack Massey is that there is a lot of light in dark. Jack always pointed out that the stark differences between these opposite ends are far less interesting than the more subtle tones between.[2]
Michael Oatman, former student of Jack Massey, 2016
My collages are only ideas for things much larger—things to cover walls. In fact all the things I’ve done I would like to see much larger. I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long—to hang on walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures—they should be the wall—even better—on the outside wall—of large building. Or stood up outside as billboards or a kind of modern “icon.” We must make our art like the Egyptians, the Chinese, the African and the Island Primitives—with their relation to life. It should meet the eye—direct.[3]
Ellsworth Kelly, 1950
Poetry is not about what is on the page, but relates to something else. The thing you read on the page gets you there in a sense, bit by bit, pointing toward things not seen in front of you.[4]
Jack Massey, 2016
Jack Massey—Light & Dark is the second of three exhibitions to explore Light & Dark from different vantages. The theme for this year’s exhibition series was suggested by the Cambridge School of Weston’s (CSW) English Department and voted into Thompson Gallery itinerary by CSW students. Jack Massey—Light & Dark presents a select group of collages, drawings, objects and an example of one of his installation pieces. Spanning 6 decades between the oldest and newest works, Light & Dark is the largest retrospective of Jack Massey’s work mounted to date and introduces many works that are exhibited for the first time. Whereas the first exhibition, Charlie Nevad—Light & Dark, looked at the traditional artistic trope of light and dark—chiaroscuro, naturalism—to ultimately reveal ideals of “oneness” and self enlightenment, this second exhibition explores the poetic allusions of Jack Massey which illuminate the elusive nature of making connections between seemingly disparate things.
Jack Massey was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. He studied at the Albert C. Barnes Foundation (Merion, PA) and the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Massey served in the military during WWII and fought in the Battle of the Bulge—1944-45—in the 3rd army, 346th regiment, near St. Vith, Ardennes Forest, Belgium, under General Patton’s leadership.[5] After serving in the War, he attended art school and graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine arts in Philadelphia—the oldest art school in the country. After graduating, Massey was awarded a Prix de Rome and spent three years at the American Academy in Rome, later returning as an artist-in-residence there. Massey’s experiences abroad have been a consistent source of reference, inspiration and reminiscence throughout his artistic and professional careers.
In 2014, Massey was honored with the title Professor Emeritus at RISD, where he was a long time senior faculty member since 1963. Massey is esteemed for how he respects and encourages his students, his collaborative spirit, his contributions to the Freshman Foundation program, for being a founder of the Carr Haus gallery and a founding member of the artists/architect design team that rehabilitated RISD’s once derelict Woods-Gerry Mansion—transforming it into RISD’s main exhibition space for student work—and, as an important founding faculty member of RISD’s European Honors Program in Rome, where he was the Chief Critic for several years. Massey’s work has been exhibited extensively in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Yourk, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, California, Florida and Rome. His work is included in many private and public collections including The RISD Museum of Art (Providence, RI), Carnegie Institute (Pittsburgh, PA), Philadelphia Museum of Art, (Pennsylvania, PA), Albright-Knox Gallery (Buffalo, NY), Westmoreland County Museum of Art, (Greensburg, PA), Colgate University (Hamilton, NY), Princeton University (Princeton, NJ), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA) and the American Academy in Rome.
Light in the Dark
The work of an artist is the result of collective memory, a search for individual identity, and a process of discovery.[6]
Diane Waldman, 1996
“Massey also has a more playful side. In fact, many of…[his] pieces convey a sense of amused improvisation…[7]
Unknown Author, Providence Journal, 2002
One might well be inclined, today, to view the “artists’ world of ideas” as an anachronism— There no longer are any hegemonic “schools” dedicated to formal, resolutions of specific art problems and issues…”[8]
John Stephan, 1972
“Reverence for the historical” is “a predominant theme” in Jack Massey’s work.[9] Considering the myriad references to art history, the vast array of techniques Massey employs and explores that mix, borrow, infiltrate, if not blur, the distinctions between art-historical –isms, and, the array of subjects and ideas he explores, along with the artist’s tendency to meld traditionally flat methods of art with architectural possibilities, Massey’s work is easier to reminisce with the history of Modern Art on the whole then it is to pin his work down to any single style of art making. Massey does not however copy artistic genera, but rather, he allows artistic possibility to arise in the work as it is being made, similarly to how jazz musicians allow musical rifts from other musicians and eras to wander in and out of a performance. Massey’s distressed paper collages, for instance, meander around and relate to Abstract Expressionist improvisational brushwork, mysterious Surrealistic spaces, the familiarity of Pop Art’s appropriation, the elegance of Minimalistic patterns and forms, and, the atmospheric Romanticism of painters such as J. M. William Turner and James Abbot McNeil Whistler—which are all immediately evident even before viewers contemplate the artist’s primary poetic allusions, homages and direct references that abound in the works. And then there are the specific references to which Massey knowingly plays with in specific pieces such as Ellsworth Kelly’s minimal structures, attitudes toward space, architecture and human scale, or, the advent of Duchamp’s readymades and idea-based art or Picasso’s sculptural juxtapositions. Massey’s work has never been confined by any category of artistic production—he playfully ventures into any territory in order to bridge the gaps between things—that is the game he plays and he invites his viewers to play too.
Throughout his artistic career, the vehicle for Massey’s forays into the past and back to the present again has always been collage—the preeminent agent of connectivity, ever since Georges Braque’s and Pablo Picasso’s experiments with papier collé in 1912. Everything in Massey’s oeuvre is collage-based and that gives his work a recognizable look, but Massey “avoid[s] the sense of ‘craft’ in [his] collages. As he notes in one of his many artist statements available in the checklist booklets, “I don’t think that quality relates to what I wish to convey.”[10] Massey pushes at many boundaries and artistic tropes in terms of the physicality of the work, but his ideas and musings, the software of his art, so to speak, is the most elusive aspect of his work; what is there is not what is seen before his viewer’s eyes.
In our age of hyper connectivity, today, anyone who is able to wield a smart phone or computer with their built-in world wide network of anti-Socratic recollection software—Socrates was against the industry of writing things down and publishing books, fearing the eventual laziness of memory among the populace[11]—people today have become accustomed to connect with anything that on their minds in a strictly digital way. Considering the ancient philosopher’s guardedness, is today’s world destined to prefer digital retrieval over analog memory in the near future? Massey’s work offers an alternate potentiality. Well before the establishment of the Internet, Jack Massey developed a network of connections between artistic genera that would define, if not explode his studio practice into an interconnected universe. Accordingly, Massey aligns with Socratic skepticism while also being open to possibility. But Massey is carful, editorial and selective, often choosing to work with, overlooked, quotidian, lost and forgotten things.
Working with overused and clichéd imagery is absent from Massey’s work. What is obvious is often a decoy, a trap of distraction that both draws attention to itself and prevents other things from being noticed. It may be said that Massey has made a career of avoiding the obvious unless people are generally blind to seeing or finding something. Massy’s work reminds us of the importance of exercising the powers curiosity, recollection and the skills of connection. His work is about finding if not pointing toward frames of reference and that aspect of his work is best understood though good-old-fashioned thoughtfulness.
Regarding physical frames, with few exceptions, the only works on display in Jack Massey—Light & Dark that are framed in the traditional sense are those works loaned from a private collection of his work. Massey dislikes frames, “they are a problem” for him. Massey often paints over, or builds on top of his frames, never uses a matte, always selects a frame for his various works that has the thinnest sidewalls—minimizing the frames constricting enclosure. And when no frame at all is preferred, Massey uses “glass to serve as a frame over the collages placed on a wall.”[12] Massey wants, like Ellsworth Kelly—and artist Massey deeply admires and a longtime favorite inspiration—to “make [art] part of the architecture of the environment.”[13] In Massey’s work, the physical forms that house the artist’s work transform what are traditionally categorized as works of art on paper, into art objects—treasure troves for the mind—objets trouvés.
When we humans find things, when we make discoveries, the human mind gets a spark of enlightenment—a shot of endorphins that inspires—a light in the darkness. Massey’s art is like an out of body synapse—a bridging between two parallel and previously unconnected things via the thoughts or experiences that connects them. The spark literally creates a bridge and forms the basis for new understanding, even when the things being referenced are nowhere in sight. Visual poetry. As the human mind works to understand, anything that is new, as long as it is useful, exercised, and repeated through reminiscence and the processes of memory, the brain responds by a process known as “myelination.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines Myelin as a mixture of proteins and phospholipids forming a whitish insulating sheath around many nerve fibers, increasing the speed at which impulses are conducted[14] and myelination is the formation of the protective coating around the actual connection. It is rather like the plastic insulation around telephone wires. The reward of using memories and making connections is the increased speed of thought, but more importantly, the protection and storage of ideas. Unless thoughts are repeated, they are doomed to stay in the dark.
Making Connections
It is based on the ancient belief in art as the handmaiden to the intertwined worlds of reality and the spirit and on the early twentieth-century utopian ideal in art that stems from the deeply felt conviction that art can affect life.[15]
Diane Waldman, 1996
It has often been said that art has no utility; art is not like a fork, or a pencil in the sense that it gets picked up like a tool and is used in a practical sense. And yet art has inspired countless ideas and has instigated change throughout the millennia. The playful, connective, and positive spirit of Massy’s work activates and instigates. At 93 years of age, with all the giddiness of a schoolboy enthralled by what he is learning, Massey remains an active artist today and his work inspires much of the same in his viewers. Massey’s work reminds us in a very real sense, that we are always in the dark until we connect with something, anything, so long as it is true and relevant. His work is ultimately an invitation to play—to make something useful of our thoughts if not ourselves or the physical things we construct.
Below this wall text, in the wall-mounted plastic holders, visitors are invited to peruse and return several laminated images of famous things that have been purposefully unnamed and unattributed. Each laminated image refers to a worldly thing that is not inside the gallery physically, but nevertheless relates to one or more works on display in Jack Massey—Light & Dark. They are included as aids to connection—to provide examples of Massey’s inspirations and musings—but viewers will have to do the actual linking on their own! Go ahead, bridge the gaps, make the connections and the leaps of imagination, and then, as Jack Massey would say, “just go make something.”
Todd Bartel
Art Faculty
Gallery Director, Curator
Thompson Gallery

[1] Jack Massey archives: clipping with circled text, page from Forbes Magazine, September 2, 1991, p. 336
[2] Michael Oatman, in conversation with Todd Bartel, quoted on iPhone, December 3, 2016
[3] Ellsworth Kelly, letter to John Cage, September 4, 1950, reprinted in Diane Waldman, Ellsworth Kelly, Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, 1996, Harry N. Abrams, New York, NY, 1996, p. 11.
[4] Jack Massey, December 10, 2016 phone conversation with Todd Bartel.
[5] Jack Massey, November 20, 2016 phone conversation with Todd Bartel.
[6] Diane Waldman, Ellsworth Kelly, in Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, 1996, Harry N. Abrams, New York, NY, 1996, p. 10.
[7] Jack Massey archives: clipping, review of his exhibition, Providence Journal, author unknown, Recent Work: Collage and Drawings, Po Gallery, Providence, RI, 2002
[8] Jack Massey Archives: xerographic reproduction of John Stephan’s introduction to an exhibition at Newport Art Museum, Newport, RI, dated July, 11, 1962
[9] Jack Massey archives: xerographic reproduction of the Introduction by Baruch Kirschenbaum to an exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence, RI, year unknown.
[10] Jack Massey, artist’s statement, Distressing Paper, November, 2016
[11] Note: see Plato, Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett M. A., Vol. 1, Random House, New York, NY, 1937, p. 278
[12] Jack Massey, Frames statement, December, 2016
[13] Waldman, p. 11.
[14]  New Oxford American Dictionary 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, NY, 2005
[15] Waldman, p. 11.

— • — • — • —

Artist's Statement
The work of an artist includes in all his/her images that which he/she chooses to leave aside—much as an athlete implies by his/her performance—all the trial, sweat and practice enabling the goal to be achieved.

Jack Massey, November 2016

Some Notes on Color
There are many ways to engage color. Artists, over the centuries, have approached color in their own ways—not with systems or rigid formulas, but with their own means. Many have written about color; it remains a mystery. The best of them accept the challenge with energy, and by experimenting in their own ways may achieve something that they find acceptable at times—but the mystery of color remains for us to perceive and wonder, as it should be. We are a constantly changing set of experiences. What we saw yesterday is not what we see today or tomorrow—color is a part of all this. Do you think that the painting that you experienced yesterday looks the same today? Nothing is static!

Jack Massey, November 2016

Frames are always a problem for me. Albert Einstein is alleged to have said, “Keep everything simple, but not too simple.” With this advice in mind, I sometimes don’t use frames at all. I allow the glass to serve as a frame over the collages placed on a wall. I know this is an impermanent solution, but things do move on.

Jack Massey, December 2016

Distressing Paper
Water soluble brush cleaner distresses and transforms the photos on the pages, which I tear from magazines—often National Geographic, but also many others. I work with the imagery I find remaining, which is often drastically transformed. The solvent works very quickly on the images on the pages, which requires blotting and washing with water as necessary to stop the action, as every second counts. I lose, of course, many pages and I work with the ones I have left from this procedure—the pages are torn from the magazines and the edges become important in the collage assembly. It is always a surprise to find what occurs as they are continued and shifted about.

I work with more than one collage at a time—what occurs then is a shifting back and forth, turning, and overlapping. A playful visual transformation begins to appear, and some kind of “statement” grows and tells me, “that’s it.” The “it” can be very simple—complexity does not make good things for me. I believe that the elements that I find in this process deserve a gentle handling. I try to get them to relate in the final results. However, in my work ethic, nothing is ever finished, and you can’t always get what you want.

To find what appears usable to me is a fun and a very rewarding process. I work a number of works at a time and transfer elements from one to another. The pages and their photos are transformed into new images. Everything can be changed, and keeping the various combinations changing over some days allows for new imagery.

I avoid the sense of “craft” in my collages. I don’t think that quality relates to what I wish to convey – which is, in part, the pressure of “hands at work.” A thought of mine concerning poetry is that it is not just about what you see on the page. It can take you beyond that.

Jack Massey, November 2016

It is difficult for me to speak about “craft.” It means different things to different people. Personally, I enjoy the processes of making different tools to do things to materials that they weren’t intended or normally designed to do. This practice, for me, becomes an adventure—of trial and error—bringing on unexpected results that I then evaluate and use or not. My use of them changes as this process goes on to make something not seen or experienced before. And so the agenda keeps changing as does the craft managing this. Words don’t explain for me what happens, and I consider nothing ever finished. How it is what it is is what it is.
Jack Massey, December 2016

Some Thoughts that Amuse
Making collage is more fun than picking your nose! You can go further too. And both works are your very own. What to do with your creations is the challenge. Knowing that there will be more makes one feel happy and accomplished; one also knows that there is the anticipation for experiencing more, and that each will have a different imagery and reward for the new accomplishments visually presented.

However, nobody really gives a darn—to reference Franz Kline’s statement about painting—but each time is a new start on a new adventure not knowing the results to be revealed. Both of these creative efforts are best not taught, but are non-structured as happenings, and this ensures that the results cannot be predictable.

So did Picasso pick his nose? And if he did, what happened to the “harvest”? Perhaps the Kahnweiler archives can tell us! There is new work to be done here! One would think that Picasso would be very interested in the plasticity of the nose materials and the ability to transform it into another surprising entity.

I would think that he couldn’t help himself.

Jack Massey, November 2016

The Cambridge School of Weston is a progressive high school for day and boarding students in grades 9–12 and PG. CSW's mission is to provide a progressive education that emphasizes deep learning, meaningful relationships, and a dynamic program that inspires students to discover who they are and what their contribution is to their school, their community and the world.