Jamie Nares on Creating Space for Fluidity in Life and Work
For the past five decades, the British-born, New York–based artist Jamie Nares has been capturing the passage of time, the physics of motion, and the essence of self through a wide variety of mediums, including film, painting, music, photography, and performance. Many of Nares’s films, such as Pendulum (1976) and Street (2011), play with rhythm and speed as they distill the streets of New York City and the movements of its inhabitants. Merging art and science, she has often invented, repurposed, and built many of her artmaking tools; her paintbrushes are practically works of art in their own right.
Nares’s vast body of work shares a common theme: the recording of a specific moment in time that gives the viewer an intimate look into a human experience. Her famous brushstroke paintings are both powerful and delicate, capturing the mere seconds of a single, continuous bodily motion using a repeated swooping gesture. One of her recent projects, “Monuments,” pays homage to the workmen who, centuries ago, chiseled marks in the huge granite blocks of downtown Manhattan. As life speeds up following the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, Nares’s work serves as a beautiful reminder to slow down, and to more deeply explore the many movements around us. This fall, from October 6–22, during Frieze Art Fair, a survey of Nares’s work will be on view at No. 9 Cork Street, where Kasmin Gallery is organizing a presentation.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Nares talks with Andrew about her decades of work exploring time, rhythm, and movement; her journey transitioning to womanhood at age 65; and why her daughters and the next generation give her hope for the future.
Nares recounts two films she made at the beginning of Covid-19 lockdown—one a silent movie of the last days of her friend’s life, the other a bird’s-eye view of the street movement of a Manhattan block.
Nares discusses the ideas behind her film Street (2011), in which she plays with concepts of time and truth to highlight the vibrant energy and nuanced behaviors of New York City street life.
Nares talks about how, from the very beginning of her career as an artist, she has focused on marking time in a specific way and making space for viewers to reach their own conclusions.
Nares shares the process behind her vivid, fluid brushstroke paintings that appear to float across the surface.
Nares explains how the gilded works of her recent “Monuments” series connect viewers to the literal, granite block histories and stories of New York City’s streets.
Nares explains her journey to womanhood and the visibility that it has brought her. She recalls a childhood event that remains vivid in her mind and how so much of the artistry she has created throughout her life has been about creating a space for fluidity.
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ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Jamie, thank you for coming into the studio today.
JAMIE NARES: It’s my pleasure.
AZ: So it’s always the question of where to begin. Five decades of creating art concerned with time and the self, investigations into who and what we are. When I got the opportunity to really deeply re-engage with your work the last couple weeks, I thought, What do we talk about? It’s so elliptical, but it’s all about the things that we care about and we talk about on the program.
JN: It does go in circles, the way I’ve moved in circles myself, with that big freehand one that a lot of people seem to like.
AZ: Yeah. But I thought we could start with Street. Because we’re in New York, we’re coming out of a time when things were still, and that we were in a moment of stasis, and a piece that you had explored where you slowed New York way down and let us see the people, the interactions, and a kind of equivalence of humanity. I was wondering, before we get into the piece specifically, how was [the Covid-19] lockdown for you?
JN: I like the equivalence of humanity. That’s good.
Lockdown was great because it started off in a bad way. I was up in Millbrook [New York] where my longtime friend and gallery owner and dealer for—
AZ: Paul [Kasmin].
JN: Paul. In a word, Paul, was dying and I actually made a film. He wanted me to do it. I had a whole bunch of sixteen millimeter cameras and a few others besides, and I just shot every kind of film stock. I made a film of Paul dying.
AZ: Oh, wow.
JN: Which is called Love, Paul, and I balanced it with the garden that he loved coming to life in the early spring. So it was one going and the other appearing. I think it’s a very beautiful film. It’s silent. It seemed appropriate that it should be silent.
AZ: Paul was not a man of many words.
JN: [Laughs] No, it’s very appropriate. His texts were always really good.
AZ: He loved trees, too.
JN: He did. He did.
AZ: And cared a lot about the trees on the property.
JN: He did. It ends actually with the cherry blossom, which is flowering just at the right time. It’s such an extravagance of color, and everything fades to blue, blue, blue sky.
AZ: So that’s where it started. That’s where lockdown started for you.
JN: That’s where it started for me. Then I moved. I stayed there for a couple of months because Covid was happening, and then I moved back to New York. People were still yelling out the window at 7 o’clock to herald the doctors and nurses who were giving their lives for us. One of whom, a dear friend of mine—she was a nurse up at Columbia Presbyterian—she died right there at the beginning. Such a sweetheart. But then I came back to my apartment, and there was an enormous construction crane. I’m on the twenty-fifth floor and this thing was reaching way up above me. They had started to build the building, which is on the site of Jeff Koons’s old studio, which I had a—
AZ: Right here.
JN: … bird’s-eye view down. Yes, I had the bird’s-eye view from the twenty-fifth floor and it was like an architectural plan come to life with all the workers color coded—electricians and carpenters and metal workers and all the rest. I started filming with my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which just makes such a beautiful image. I filmed it all the way until they built it up, and eventually it comes parallel with me, and then it disappears into the clouds, and the film stops.
AZ: So in a way you were still, during that time, visiting movement of the city and—
JN: I was. I was filming like crazy. I have hours and hours of footage. It was just so fascinating to watch. Plus, I always have great respect for the people—the unseen and anonymous people—that have such an effect on our lives. You’d normally see buildings being built from the ground looking up, and that’s not seeing very much of anything. This was the opposite. I was from the top, looking down. I was impressed by a number of things, how hard they worked for one, which was a real surprise to me. They’re just going all-out the whole time, then they break for, like, a soft drink, and then they get back to it. How hard they work, how incredibly organized it is, it’s like a military campaign or something. Anyway, I filmed this thing being built. Now I have more footage than I know what to do with, and I’ve begun editing it.
AZ: Well, the idea of looking at people is a very New York thing, right?
AZ: I mean, this is what the city’s about. It’s sort of a New Yorker’s recreational activity is looking at people.
So, aside from the obvious fact that the film Street, or the film you’re working on now, was made by looking at New York, do you see this as a piece about New York at that time? Because when I thought about 2011, I mean, things were becoming super fast and divided. You had Occupy Wall Street, Instagram was taking off, it was a year old. But the film, it’s almost like an antidote to that. It’s a celebration. It’s also, for me—and I think many others who have watched it—it’s about oneness. You really begin to feel this idea that every one of them is in us in some way. I was wondering if you were thinking about this idea of the infinite selves and the multiplicity that we all carry with us?
JN: There’s a number of very good questions in there. It was an extraordinary multiplicity of selves. As a viewer to my own film, I realized very early on that it was going to be in some measure more than I had intended. I didn’t realize that it was going to be quite such a strong, emotional experience for people. The film started with myself in my car, driving around the city, pointing a very low-res, inexpensive high-speed camera out the window, and just shooting stuff.
AZ: Just curious what would happen?
JN: Just curious. I realized very quickly that there was magic happening on the street, and that the high-speed camera had the ability to catch little nuances of behavior and interaction, which the naked eye couldn’t see. Just those cameras are made to reveal the unseeable—the hummingbird wings moving, or the thing vibrating.
AZ: Bullet through the apple and all—
JN: Exactly, bullet through the apple, the drop of milk—
AZ: The [Harold Eugene] Edgerton, yeah.
JN: I wanted to… I kind of reversed that. But I realized very, very quickly with my little cheap camera that there were things happening and it should be looked at further. I applied for a grant from someone, describing the film I wanted to make. I’m amazed looking back on it, how it’s perfect, my description.
AZ: You knew what you wanted to make, but didn’t know the effect of it at the time.
JN: No, I knew the effect and everything. I’d realized by that point. But I didn’t get the money, so it lingered for two years in my mind. Then I showed it to someone at my gallery, and they just loved it. This was a little teaser that I had made from my cheap camera, and they gave me the money to make the film.
I’d originally intended the soundtrack to be a kind of sonic version of the visual to try and reveal something about the sound of the street that was unhearable. I tried driving through the street with a shotgun mic, pointing out the camera, catching snippets of conversation. I tried a number of different things and none of them worked. Then one day we were editing and just happened to be listening to music, and realized how music affected the film. Music had been the last thing I thought about putting on this thing, but then it just seemed to have this very palpably strong effect. I very often try in my films not to maneuver people’s emotions this way or that. I thought that I’d been doing that with this film.
AZ: Like, too much.
JN: … objective, yeah. But it just worked so well with music. I wanted the music to be solo, one person, as a kind of counterpoint to all the hundreds and thousands of people in the film. I just knew that Thurston [Moore] would be able to do it because he knows the city, he knows the attitude. He was just perfect. I wanted him to do it acoustic, on the twelve-string. So he did. He was going off on tour, and he had a couple of hours the previous night. He sat down and just knocked off this music. I mean, I say knocked off this music, there’s obviously a lot of—
AZ: Took him sixty something years to get there.
JN: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It’s beautiful. Then my sound editor crafted the music into a soundtrack and did a beautiful job. That was Bill Seery from Mercer Media. We sat together and… What were some of the other fifteen or twenty questions in that first…
AZ: When you’re watching that film and you realize that, and I think a lot of your work is about this, is that it’s not documentation. It’s somehow trying to present an equivalence. When we look at those people, we create all sorts of things in our mind about them that have nothing to do with reality.
JN: It’s true. And I love that about this film—that at the same time it reveals things that you cannot see, it also creates things in the mind that weren’t there. There are a few examples that I choose to illustrate that. One of them is this guy who when you see him, he’s walking down the street and he’s looking at his shoes. It was in Chinatown. He’s looking at his shoes—or he’s looking at the ground. He’s just looking down, and he seems to be so dejected like his world was completely falling apart. He looks so sad. Then you play it at real speed and he’s just making sure his shoelaces are tied, you know?
AZ: Well, your job is not to tell the truth.
AZ: It’s to help us find a kind of truth, right?
JN: A kind of truth in ourselves, yeah. I love that about that. It makes you think about all photography. It reveals the truth and the blindness in all photography, in a way. In a sense, it reveals the moment before the photograph, the photograph, and the moment afterwards. All of which color one another, because the actual time frames in which these little clips and scenes are shot are almost equivalent to the exposure of a photograph—two seconds, three seconds, that sort of thing.
AZ: Right, because you sort of burst it, and choose a period of time.
JN: Yeah. We had to be very on our toes and quick, agile with everything—the eyes, the mind, and the fingers—all of that at once.
AZ: Because you’re making choices actually, when you’re making it about what you choose to save and what you choose to move on from. You also made this film, which people really talk about consistently still, which is Pendulum, when you first came to New York, which is also about the street, and how things move through the street, and of course, about time on a surface level. But it’s imbued with a lot. I was hoping you could describe the piece for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, and how you came to make it, and what you were concerned with at the time.
JN: Well at the time, I was concerned with weights and measures. I had just moved to New York in 1974. I was living in the same neighborhood as all the artists who I admired and respected. It was just wonderful. I had a very blessed arrival in New York City.
The person whose work really grabbed me more than anyone’s at that time was Richard Serra. He was a neighbor, and he would come over. Everybody, you just ran into people in the street the whole time. I was very taken with Richard’s work. It was kind of my understanding of what he did, interpreted in my own way. It was like I brought movement into the mixture. I think Amy Taubin said something about it being—it was essentially a minimalist film. But there was movement, and there was a kind of visceral groan to the film, which, of course, is in the soundtrack, but… It’s quite a strong film emotionally.
AZ: It looks like a wrecking ball.
JN: It looks like a wrecking ball, but it’s not a wrecking ball. Sometimes it gets called a wrecking ball, and what am I going to say?
AZ: But it’s a copper sphere with water, right?
JN: Exactly. It’s copper. It’s got water inside. Like I have said before, if it hit the wall, it would’ve cracked open like an egg. But it didn’t hit the wall.
AZ: Right. And it hung from the famous [sky]bridge on Staple Street, where you lived.
JN: I lived in that. I lived in the covered part. What you can’t see, because it’s been taken down, was one floor above that, joining the two roofs, was a walkway bridge. And that appears in the film. So that enabled me. The pendulum was strong from the walkway bridge. It had a really long wire on it. I think over the course of a weekend, just filmed and filmed, and then made a soundtrack by tying a microphone to the harmonic point on the—
AZ: On the wire.
JN: Like a great instrument. That’s what makes that sound like the creaking of rigging on an old sailing ship or something.
AZ: Well, it’s terrifying. I mean you’re watching this thing rip through public space and shared space. One of the things that I was thinking about in revisiting it was: I was curious if it, in some way, was about limits of control, and about this idea of control for you. What were you personally looking at with this piece?
JN: I think I have a penchant for setting something up and then letting go and seeing what happens. There’s an element of that, for sure, in Pendulum. Some of the earlier films and some of the later films are like one idea. I think of a film like Block, where my hand’s just tracing one city block across from one avenue to the next. That’s a very simple idea, those kinds of flourishes in the mind as you watch it, because it’s shot at five frames a second. Each frame is like a still, like a painting of them.
But Pendulum was… Oh gosh, it has accrued a lot of meaning with time. And some of the meaning was, I guess, impossible to have predicted when I made it, but it has the kind of clock-like connotations of a giant pendulum swinging. Thesehave really come to mean something more now as we look back, which is something I quite like to do.
Oh, you asked me if Street had been made as… I made Street, definitely, as an instant historical document. I meant it to be about New York there and then, and I meant it to be something that we… In fact, when I was raising money, I said that I wanted to make a film to be seen a hundred years from now.
AZ: Like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City or something?
AZ: These turn-of-the-century films that have just become more and more important over time.
JN: Well, maybe that’s why I didn’t get the money. [Laughs] Because I kind of shortchanged myself. But yeah, there was intention in that. Of course, Pendulum itself is very unpopulated, and that’s partly because of the glory of Tribeca in the early seventies, which was pretty much unpopulated. There were a few artists living in this building or that building, and the rest was egg and butter factories and stuff.
AZ: Just a little bit more on Pendulum before we leave it. At one point the perspective shifts and it shifts from objective to—
AZ: Yeah. Were you aware at that point of the tools you had at hand? Or was it just, Oh, I wonder what happens if we put the camera on the pendulum?
JN: It was a little bit of both, but I would say more of, I wonder what happens if I do this. I wonder what happens if I do that. There was a measure—I knew that it looked beautiful from when I shot from above and it’s moving in a great circle. It just seemed like the next, last thing to do.
AZ: But what effect have you noticed it had on the viewer? What is the outcome of shifting from the objective to the subjective?
JN: This, I couldn’t say for sure. You’d have to ask a viewer other than myself. [Laughs]
AZ: Right. [Laughs]
JN: I guess it is a radical shift. To me, it’s like in the same way that I’m not really so emotionally affected by the film. It doesn’t seem terrifying to me or anything because I made the damn thing. To me, it was just what I did if I look back on it.
AZ: I think what you’re getting at is so important: that your job is not to figure out the effect it’s going to have; it’s to ask the question and do the work.
JN: That’s true. If you’re trying to second guess yourself, you kind of grind to a halt, at least I do. It’s just the way I work. I’m sure you could try and calculate the effect on the viewer very precisely if you wanted. I tend to let go of it with the hope that the viewer will have the same excitement and sense of discovery that I have when I do it.
AZ: Makes a lot of sense. In a conversation with Christopher Wool about it that I read last night [in the James Nares Rizzoli monograph], you said Pendulum’s one of your favorite films. It’s really the summation of all of your thinking pre-1977. I was wondering, what do you mean by this? What thinking are you referencing?
JN: ’76? Oh, actually ’75. Pendulum was really made in ’75, but I got the date wrong when I made the titles. So I thought, well, what does it matter? ’76, ’75. But when I said that, I think I was thinking about my interests since arriving in New York. It was a very, very intense learning curve for me at that time. I came of age on the streets down there, I think. And I’d been interested in physics and flight and I made things around the three words: yaw, pitch, roll. A kind of total movement, summation of flight, I guess.
AZ: Well, you grew up in London?
JN: I was born in London.
AZ: You were born in London and you spent your teenage years there?
JN: Not even. I was born in London, and I moved to Sussex [England] when I was 3 or 4, and my father died that same year. Then I was sent off to boarding schools when I was 7, in the great British tradition of: “Get ’em young and you got ’em for life” kind of thing. I think that was part of the reason why I took such pleasure in saying goodbye to London when I did, although I hadn’t intended it to be such a long time. I realized immediately after arriving in New York that this was my home. A lot of people used to feel that. I don’t know if they still do, but—
AZ: At that time, for sure.
JN: At that time, right? You just felt like, Oh my God, this is where I belonged all these years.
AZ: Right before you moved, you made this piece that I love called Red-Handed, which is a self portrait. It’s very beautiful. Probably aesthetically unlike the work you made when you got to New York in a way, in terms of it was color and-
JN: That people know about. I did do stuff, yeah. There’s a lot of early, yeah.
AZ: It’s a conceptual piece. It’s about performance. It’s about the body and-
JN: It’s a language play.
AZ: Yeah, it’s a language play. There’s a joke in it, in a way. But in hindsight, now, as we talk about how much your work leaves room for meaning to change over time, when you look at that piece now, what do you think of?
JN: I’m very immediately taken with the importance of hands in my work, how important it’s been to me ever since. Before I made that piece, the hands were always a great touch point for my creativity. In the paintings, I talk about language being thrown back in from the throat, back into the body, and curtailed into the hands. All the meaning of the spoken word and the mind coming through the hands. So I love that. In that photograph, it’s like my hands are red hot or something. That would be a nice photo, too. Glowing like a furnace.
AZ: It’s interesting because you always have an intermediary between your hand and the work. I mean, that you’re using—the famous brushes you make, the cameras you use, the tools you build to make your work. The hand in a way, rarely touches the work itself, correct?
JN: That’s true, yeah.
AZ: Also, your forearm figures in your work a lot. There was another piece that I looked at in that context, from that time, which is called A New Vein.
JN: Oh, yes, yes. Yeah.
AZ: Did you make that in Europe or when you were here?
JN: I made it just before I came, and that’s where I embossed the part of the arm that would be mutilated in a suicide attempt or something. I embossed this jagged line in it, half the length of the forearm, which is made by impressing a little plastic map, a solid plastic map of the United States of America, into my arm. I must have made it when I knew that I was coming here. It was like I knew that there was something new about to happen.
AZ: That there was like a death of an old self and the birth of a new one.
JN: Yes, exactly.
AZ: You arrived in New York. What did Tribeca feel like? What was the feeling of that time as you remember?
JN: Well, I had nothing to compare it to. I hadn’t really lived in a city until—
AZ: Because you were in Sussex?
JN: I was in Sussex. Although I went to art school in London, so I lived and I was always in London, but I had never really lived in the heart of a city until 1974 when I arrived here. That part of New York—the city was bankrupt, as we know, and everything was very run down and depopulated and abandoned and neglected. It was just the perfect place for an artist to be because there were all kinds of things you could do that you probably couldn’t do now. I’ve said that it was like a kind of playground by which I mean that anything was possible.
AZ: How did you survive?
JN: I did a collection of strange jobs. I worked with a friend of mine who was a plumber. First job was to fix Philip Glass’s toilet, I remember, which was a bit unfair because he’d been a plumber himself. But yeah, I did stuff like that. I did carpentry. We had a little carpentry outfit called The Three Aces, which was me and my two friends. I pity the people who employed us to build stuff, because we did not know what we were doing. We winged it all the way. We also had a method for pilfering… We were living in this neighborhood with places that were filled with giant cheeses and legs of ham and stuff, and it seemed like there was a little for the taking for others.
We found our way through the sidewalk into this one building right next to us, which was filled with just such things. We had a method. We had a little ladder that we pushed out of the car, down into the street, and we would scurry down like rats and come out with gleaming silver cans of ham. Out like Excalibur, coming out through the lake or something. They would quickly be thrown into the car. Bazzini Nuts was a great supplier of—that’s the only one that’s still there, I think, Bazzini. But yeah, we were kind of wild and broke a few laws, but none of them really seriously. [Laughs]
AZ: Yeah. You weren’t out to hurt anyone.
JN: We weren’t out to hurt anybody.
AZ: You were doing so many different kinds of work. I think about how you were making these drawings, the sort of physics drawings, these very graphic drawings, you were making these films, and you were also playing in the Contortions.
JN: That came a little later in 1977.
AZ: Yeah, but sort of that period. Which is amazing when you think about that band. I know it was short lived for you, but—
JN: It was great.
AZ: I mean, Brian Eno produced—
JN: Yeah. No New York, he called it.
AZ: Yeah. All of this was very rhythmic, very percussive. All of the work, the film work, the kind of James Brown funk band you were in. All of that rhythm is also about marking time in a very explicit way. And so, again, and I know I’ve been asking this, but I am curious if at the time you were thinking about that or is it just something that occurred that you’re seeing now in aggregate?
JN: I was thinking about it at the time. My notebooks are full of stuff like “marking time” which is kind of a nice play on words, too, because it means standing still and moving in the same phrase. But that was a key element. I think rhythm, time, touch, tone, are all present throughout the work. The idea of measuring, even the films like Block, there was measuring a city block in a very physical, human way.
AZ: A sort of primordial, much like Giotto’s circle, which is this kind of repeat drawing of a circle on the wall that you make, which sort of, has to be about Vitruvian Man and da Vinci on some level—the perfect body.
JN: Yes, although actually at the time, that one wasn’t foremost in my mind because it seemed so much less symmetrical than Vitruvian Man. Although, actually I used to do it with both arms. I could seamlessly switch the tool from one hand to the other and reverse. That’s an interesting point. Yes, I’d forgotten that.
AZ: This idea of time and rhythm and control and the body and what is, also explored the in-between, the non-binary, the space between. All leading to what you’re probably most known for, at least maybe in our listeners’ minds, which is your brush paintings. They follow a kind of line.
JN: They do.
AZ: And it’s this repeated gesture.
JN: I always thought you could just put my paintings end to end and you’d have the story of the latter part of my life. It’s a trajectory. It’s very often like a horizontal tracking shot of a brush stroke. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end. They are marking time. They are marking me. In fact, I’ve written a book that’s called re.Marks, which we’re going to be putting out soon.
AZ: What is that about?
JN: It’s a facsimile of my notebooks from 1992 of all times, and I’ve been trying to finish it ever since. I’ve been working on it for decades now. And that’s only because… I don’t know why.
AZ: It seems that you don’t ever complete work.
AZ: That you want things to be able to be returned to. You want them to continue to be something that you can play with.
JN: That’s a very nice observation and I’ll take it. I used to—
AZ: It’s not like you did the brush paintings and then you’re like, “No, I’m going to do the next thing. I need to do something new.” You’re not concerned with that, which I think is one of the things that—
JN: Oh, I see what you mean.
AZ: —gives you this sense of agency, this feeling of this is an actual, authentic reflection of my interest.
JN: Yes. I do wonder a bit, but this kind of circles within circles. It always, like you were saying, comes back to the same thing or picks up on something that was abandoned years ago.
Many of the films which people know now, including Pendulum, I made them and… Pendulum, I showed quite a bit, actually. But a lot of the shorter films were just thrown into a cardboard box, and I thought they were lost. It hurt me that they were lost because they’d always been very important to me and dear to my heart. When I started to digitize some of my earlier films, I was like, “Damn, I wish I could find those films. I wish I knew where they were.” I was going through deep storage in my storage place, which had moved wholesale, from a barn out in Long Island to a place where it was flooded and burned from a fire, from one storage place to another, and somehow a lot of it survived.
AZ: Oh, so you lost a lot of your storage in a fire?
JN: I lost some of it. I lost some of the early work, which still kind of cuts. It cuts a bit, but that’s okay. There’s plenty around. There’s plenty of stuff.
AZ: So you actually found all those films in the early eighties at a later point?
JN: I found them, yeah. I was so happy. It was the best. It was a really, really good feeling, particularly Ramp, the one where the concrete ball—this time, a bonafide concrete ball—rolls down the old on-off-ramp of the West Side Highway.
AZ: The importance of video also coincided with that in terms of the art world, the acceptance of it. In the early days you were part of the No Wave Cinema movement. You actually had a movie theater.
JN: We did.
AZ: On St. Mark’s. I think people don’t often understand that now video art is…
AZ: At the time it was totally radical, right?
JN: There weren’t many people doing it. All the people that were doing it were big heroes of mine and I was well aware before I came to this country of Bruce Nauman and Bill Wegman, and just about anyone who’d used video. I was at Chelsea Art School, and I tried to persuade them to get a porta pack, but they weren’t going for it. So, I came here instead.
AZ: Everything happened once you came here. Monuments is another piece I wanted to bring up for a number of reasons, both because it is another ode to the city or response to the city that sort of brought you up, and also because—
JN: Brought me up, I like that.
AZ: It’s about time in a very deep way. So, can you describe what that work was about and tell me a bit about how it came to be?
JN: I’d always loved the big granite paving slabs that formed the sidewalks down in Tribeca and parts of SoHo, and then parts of Brooklyn and other places, but in Manhattan, mostly, right there. I’d always loved the marks on them, which are chisel marks made by the same guys that laid them a couple hundred years ago. I mean, they’re massive, those stones. They’re like fourteen feet by ten feet and twelve, fifteen inches thick. They’re absolutely—they’re brutes of stones. They would put them down and then go in with a hammer and chisel and decorate them, or so it seemed to me. It was a functional decoration in that it was to prevent people’s feet from slipping when the stones got wet. But inevitably, you start making marks and they start to form patterns whether you want it or not, despite the way the body works and the mind. These big guys, I have no idea who they were, but I imagine, like, guys from Italy and Hungary and Ireland, and who knows where, coming here and decorating these stones together.
I just imagine them sitting around smoking with an old clay pipe or something, and talking about their wives, and chiseling these blocks of stone into these patterns, which I found very beautiful and very immediate because they were a representation of a moment in time—a day’s work, a day’s thought. Maybe they didn’t even think of it as work. It was like a day’s something, laid bare for all to see, for many, many, many years. The same stones that have been walked on, in some cases, literally by Abraham Lincoln, for all I know, or General [George] Custer. People who—
AZ: Yeah, yeah, it is New York.
JN: There’s a connection, a very tangible connection, with the past, which I like, and which has appeared in a lot of the work. So I did rubbings of wax on a kind of tough, synthetic paper. I had a little crew of people. Then we brought the rubbings, like English brass rubbing in a church, we brought them back into the studio and gilded them. I wanted them to be gilded in twenty-two karat gold, because I wanted the best for these guys. I didn’t want no cheap stuff. So I spent a fortune on twenty-two karat gold leaf. We gilded them and each painting is the size of the original stone. If there’s a corner missing or a crack, it’s well seen that that’s absent or present. They’re facsimiles of something real presented in a way that changes them. These monuments to these anonymous workers who made this city great and just happened to do it during the gilded age. Which I like.
AZ: Yeah, and you gilded them.
JN: Yes. [Laughs]
AZ: I wouldn’t want to miss the idea that beauty is important to you, and you came through a time when beauty was, in a way, dismissed. If it was beautiful, it couldn’t mean anything.
JN: It was suspect.
AZ: Yeah, and you kind of never seemed to care about that because you pushed on.
JN: I kind of never cared about that. Beauty has always been important to me for reasons other than the obvious ones of being attracted to something beautiful. There’s almost something unbearable in beauty to me. It can evoke almost a sense of panic, like a low-grade panic. Anyone who wants is free to bring psychology to that. But I can’t really explain it, but I find beauty very compelling and very disturbing at the same time.
AZ: It also seems to be an instrument of control a little bit. I don’t mean control in a bad way. I mean that in the way that you use beauty from a surface perspective causes people, inevitably with your work, to stop for a second.
AZ: And to take a closer look.
JN: Yes. I don’t plan it that way, but it inevitably ends up having an element of that because I can’t present it if it’s not beautiful in some way. It doesn’t seem right.
AZ: Or worth the time. [Laughs]
JN: I mean, with Monuments, I wasn’t trying to make anything beautiful, per se, but I did want to make something a kind of equivalent to walking into that museum in Cairo that has all the national treasures, where you walk in and you’re surrounded by a sea of gold. I wanted to evoke those kinds of ancient texts and ancient tablets and objects that you don’t know what the hell they are.
AZ: Well, they remind me of the Lascaux cave and the idea of the primordial marking of our experience. This very deep time thing, and I think a lot of your work is about this, the things within the human experience that don’t change based on culture.
JN: Yes. I like to see the similarities between people, I think. And just quickly, there’s a strong connection with the act of writing and language in a lot of the work. These guys hacking at the sidewalk are, in a sense, making—it’s a kind of graphism. As I was saying earlier, I do think about the paintings as in some form being a kind of re-presenting of language or of a kind of deeper language. There’s a lot of dance in there. There’s a lot of music in there—and rhythm, like you were saying. Rhythm was always the thing I was best at in the band.
AZ: Back to the paintings, the brush paintings specifically, and how you’ve always thought that if you connected all of them, it would be like one painting. You once said that your “deepest being is contained within the brush strokes.”
JN: I think that’s true.
AZ: What does that mean?
JN: To me, it means that my core being is present because they’re unfiltered. Within the frame that I’ve chosen to work, all is revealed. I can’t hide things within the paintings. Because I just can’t do it. So if I make a mistake, or something goes wrong, or I don’t like it, I take the whole thing off and begin again. I can’t fix the end or retouch the beginning because it’s very important to me that these paintings are made in the same timeframe as a photograph is made. There’s a kind of instantaneity to the paintings. Again, it’s anywhere from five to fifteen seconds or something to make a brush stroke. I might work on that brush stroke for days and days, I might get it the first time, but I have a method of erasing and repainting in a very quick time. I can erase as quickly as I can make a brush stroke. I just squeegee it off.
I think my dual nature—the femininity, which has always been with me—I think that’s very present in the brush strokes. One person has written about it, and that was in Milwaukee. The paintings are very sensual. They’re very strong, but at the same time, they’re very delicate. They’re transparent. I only use transparent paints because I can’t get the same kind of tonal modeling without. But, there’s a transparency. There’s a delicacy. There’s a sensuality. There are—
AZ: For sure. They’re full of curves.
JN: There are a lot of curves and sort of body parts. I think it says a lot about who I am.
AZ: Yeah, I mean this theme across all the work and it’s most obvious in the paintings of the brush stroke, all of it is about fluidity. All of it, everything we’ve been talking about up to now, has something to do with creating a space for fluidity. And actually, stepping away from what happens within that space. That’s not what you control. What you make is the space for it to happen.
JN: Yes. Even the brush strokes, I’m not exactly controlling. I’m not exactly not controlling. I’m riding that very fine line between one and the other, where I’m kind of leading and following at the same time.
There are a couple of lines in my notebooks in this facsimile that I was telling you about, it says, “Things in motion, motion in things.” “The body has fluid, the fluid has body.” End of story, that’s my— [Laughs]
AZ: Which pretty much summarizes what you’ve been saying for so many years. When you presented yourself as female in the beginning of your Milwaukee [Art Museum] show [in 2019], which I want to get into—you said a lot at that time. There were clues everywhere. The billboards you were putting up everywhere, your whole career, that it wasn’t a kind of—
JN: It shouldn’t have been big news to many people. It was to some. My friends, it wasn’t really big news to my friends. Although maybe the extent of it was, or the depth of it, or the importance of it. The pain and confusion of it wasn’t something I talked about.
When I showed up in Milwaukee, I’d just come out to the world, such as it is in my universe, at the opening to my show at Paul’s gallery, the Kasmin [show], five days before, and then I was off to Milwaukee. It was a whirlwind. It was a total whirlwind. This newspaper article greeted me on arrival as “the inadvertent activist.” I was the inadvertent activist, which I kind of like now, but at the time it was like, I’m not an activist. [Laughs] I’m just, little old me trying to figure things out. So that was—
AZ: At 65 years old.
JN: At 65 years old, yeah. Go figure.
AZ: I mean—
JN: I couldn’t get there—
AZ: In 2019, you mounted your first retrospective. So let’s just back up for anyone who doesn’t know the story, organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum by just an extraordinary curator—
JN: Yes, oh my God,she’s wonderful.
AZ: … Marcelle Polednik. How did you approach that period of time? Because I know that we can get into a lot about the show and a lot of people can read in other places about how it’s organized in a very unique way and all of these things. But when I think about it, you worked on it for six years and transition doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. It coincided with that. There’s this unbelievable parity between you putting your life’s work organized for the first time and this experience of transitioning.
JN: I hadn’t planned it, but at a certain point I realized, Oh, these are two trains on different tracks and they’re going to collide and there’s nothing I can do about it. They’re going to collide right then. When I realized how inevitable it was, I told Marcelle, and to her eternal credit, she just went right to bat on my side or on my behalf. She was incredible. She put out memos to the museum. She changed some of the bathroom signs to read “All Gender,” stuff like that. It was very important. So I was greeted by total acceptance. It was a very, very special experience. Especially as I really didn’t know very much about who I was, or where I was going, or what I wanted. I knew that I was on this trajectory. I wasn’t going backwards, but I had no idea what lay ahead. It was perfect that it coincided with the opening of my retrospective. It just was too perfect to try and avert. [Laughs]
AZ: The retrospective was called “Moves.”
JN: It was “Nares: Moves.”
AZ: Movement is about transition. And like I was saying, you once said, “I’ve been sending messages my whole life that no one picked up on.” In what ways do you see your transition and your understanding of it over time—which is, I imagine, every day you learn more—in your work, when you think about it through the lens of now, looking backwards?
JN: A very good friend of mine, Lucy Sante, who used to be Luc Sante, a wonderful writer, Lucy said that one of the reasons she’d never wanted to come out about it was because she wanted to be a writer, and she knew that if she came out, she would be assigned the trans beat always. She didn’t want to be confined by that. I think, possibly, there was an element of that in me. I didn’t want to be defined in my work about it. And really, my work hasn’t changed much. Over the years, I’ve taken photographs. I could do a book of photographs. I did a lot of self-made photographs, like the Red-Handed one with the camera on self-timer.
AZ: Your first show ever you presented yourself as female.
JN: My very first show in London, at somewhere called the Art Meeting Place [in Covent Garden] that was organized by a wonderful guy, who some people may know, called David Medalla, who was Filipino. David was just wonderful and supportive, and he opened this place.
And yeah, I took photos of myself. Again, on the self-timer, wearing my sister’s clothes, and then clothes that I had summoned the strength to go and buy myself in department stores and things, and some crude makeup. I took sequences of photographs of myself and then doctored them a little bit. I did some touch-up. I made the waist a little narrower. Why not? It’s like, this is an ideal we’re after.
At the time, I was doing a job as a motorcycle delivery person. I spent my days roaring around London on my motorcycle, delivering letters and things. Finding my way around London because I didn’t really know my way around.
AZ: It’s a tough town to get around.
JN: Yeah, it was interesting. [Laughs] I did a nice piece from my motorcycle. I signed my name across London by choosing roads that would write my name, and then recorded it on a little cassette, and drew a map, and that’s the piece. That’s the kind of thing I was doing in London. So I was always kind of grubby and sweaty. I do remember one time these two guys came in and one of them was very keen to show the other one my photographs, my work. He was like, “Look, look, look,” because he thought, I don’t know what he thought, but he wanted to show his friend. Then I walked in ,and said, “Hi.” They said, “Is this your work?” And I said, “Yes.” They were like, “Oh,” turned around, and left. I think they were hoping for some very cute trans girl to come in or something, but that wasn’t me at that time. It amazes me that I could have done that, just put this thing out.
I did a lot of stuff using theatrical makeup. I would change my face and take photos and things. I was still doing that when I came to New York. I think there was a spirit of that in the air.
AZ: Yeah, [David] Bowie—.
JN: Cindy Sherman, I think it came from probably the same kind of places, Vito Acconci and others.
AZ: But when you look at all of that work, you realize now how much you were dealing with this idea of there being no empirical truth or reality or binary thought.
JN: Yeah, I think so.
AZ: This idea of the self portrait, the first image you made, many people who have experienced transition talk about the need to see yourself and the image as a tool.
AZ: Tell me about that process of making oneself visible.
JN: I think it’s more obvious when you take a photograph of yourself, but it’s the same search really in anything you do as an artist, I think. In my photographs of myself, I have photographs that I have taken over the years, a great number of which are lost when I lost everything on my computer before I was smart enough to back it up, so there is a whole chunk that’s missing. But there are photographs I would take of myself. It’s a way to sort of prove that you exist, or to step aside from yourself and see yourself as though from the outside. It’s also a way of saying, in a sort of mute way, to the world, “Here I am, don’t you see me?” I think I longed to be seen, and for acceptance.
AZ: Just further to this, you also came from this culture that had no understanding or tolerance.
JN: There was no word even, yeah. Well, except in comedy. There’s a lot of men playing women in British theater, always has been since Shakespeare, and I’m sure the times before. When I was at school, they were until the age of 15 exclusively boys schools, and the boys always played the girls parts, much to my eternal envy. I always wanted to be chosen, but they never chose me. Actually, if they had chosen me, I probably would’ve said, “No way! No, not going there.”
But yeah, there’s a kind of tradition of it. But at the same time, it’s like, it stops here, clunk. Like I said, there weren’t even words for who I was. I realized at a certain point that I was different, that there was something possibly “wrong” with me, but there was nobody to talk to about it, or to question about it, or not even any place that I knew of to read about it.
I’m sure there were texts of one kind or another, but the first I heard of it was when I was sort of in my late teens. Actually, that’s not true. Well, fuck, I don’t know. I remember when I was 15, I went to live in Italy because they didn’t know what else to do with me. I remember these trans girls there.
It’s funny. Most of the most intense memories from my entire life have to do with this aspect of myself in one way or another. Usually in little moments of things that happened. Like when I was about 5 being presented in front of the whole school and the parents and all the teachers with the prize, because I ran fastest in the running race. My prize was a little pink purse. I was appalled and delighted at the same time. It was like this feeling of being seen and of being humiliated at the same time. Of course, it was snatched away from me. There’d been a mistake. They’d given me the girl’s prize. But for a moment there, I was in a state of suspension, and I knew it. I was very young. Things like that. I’ve got millions of them.
AZ: I’m sure. And you had daughters.
AZ: You had the experience of being a father. Through all of that, did you feel that if you made it through this transition, or if you decided to go through with it, you would lose these things?
JN: At a certain point, I was bringing up…. Raising children is such a monumental task. I did have three girls who are still the delight of my life, and who support me a hundred and fifty percent. They are amazing.
Growing up, I do remember moments like taking them shopping, which they liked to do rather a lot. And I would sit, like the dutiful husband or something—in this case, the dutiful father. I would just sit around while they tried things on and said, “Ooh, look at this.” So there was a kind of longing inside me. There always had been a kind of longing inside me when it came to any kind of accoutrement of femininity because it always seemed untouchable. Like, just not for me. I couldn’t allow myself that. I couldn’t be seen to want it. I just smothered myself.
I’ve joked with them now about how difficult it was sitting around while they went shopping and stuff. But it’s funny, I used to have dreams—dreams of there’d be some beautiful dress I wanted to put on, but I couldn’t put it on. There were dreams of denial on other people’s part, of me being denied something. I haven’t [recently] had those dreams, so I must be on the right track. [Laughs] I haven’t had them in a long time.
AZ: You’re on your track, which is the right track. What I was also curious about is this idea that in your work you have wanted it all: “I want to be a painter. I want to draw.”
JN: That’s true.
AZ: “I want to perform. I’m just interested in things. I want to do things.” I wondered if your decision to not transition until later in life was because you wanted it all.
JN: Not really. My decision to not transition [earlier] was simply because I didn’t know how the fuck I would be able to do it. It just seemed like it was for everybody else.
I mean, I would go to Nan Goldin’s place. She had this lovely big loft on the Bowery, and she lived with a bunch of, I guess, they would have called themselves drag queens. I never thought of myself as a drag queen, but certainly the gender fluid environment of New York City in the seventies—it was everywhere. I obviously supported it and I had friends who would… I didn’t have many friends who were trans, but I knew quite a number of trans people, from Jackie Curtis to, I don’t know, International Chrysis. I was connected, but it was like not for me.
AZ: What has ultimately shifted in your understanding of the female experience since the Milwaukee show?
JN: It’s a very good question. One of the things my kids asked me when they first learned of this. They always kind of knew it, but when I first sort of became more official, they asked, “So, what do you mean you ‘feel like’ a woman? How does it feel to be a woman?” I would try to explain that it was a mental state, but I don’t think I really understood what. I didn’t understand what I knew. I didn’t understand, in some sense, what I was letting myself in for, what I was doing.
AZ: I think we forget, it’s not that one minute you decide and the next minute…
AZ: It takes a long time. Kind of like birth. Ten months to get used to the idea that you’re going to have a baby.
JN: Emotionally, I’m like, how many years has it been, four years? I’m like a 4-year-old child, a 4-year-old girl. In some ways, my mindset, my mentality, or what I know, is not very much. I mean, it’s a strange, convoluted, mixed-up kind of thing, but in some ways I think that’s true. I don’t know how to dress sometimes. I don’t know that you shouldn’t wear bobby socks with pigtails or something. [Laughs]
AZ: As you’ve gotten older, I’m curious if you notice the change in terms of what you accept and what you reject now. So, kind of like what you care about, what you don’t, does time for you create a truer self?
JN: Yes. It just does by virtue of being able to strip away the things that aren’t important, or aren’t really mine. With time, you can do that more and more until you’re really old and then you can just do whatever you want. People be damned. Hopefully by then, you’ve learned that you’ve got to be nice.
AZ: Before we let you go, I did want to ask you one final question, which is: So much progress has occurred in your lifetime. There’s language for it. There’s movements around it. There’s a huge amount of dialogue happening right now about not just transitioning or transgender people—
JN: Kids, school, sports.
AZ: Everything. What gives you hope looking forward, in time, for others that may not fit into a predetermined category?
JN: I have incredible hope for the future when I consider young people today who’ve grown up with computers. They’re way ahead of us. They’re way ahead of anyone who came before. They’re so smart. They’re so wise. When I look at my girls who are really concerned about climate change and gender rights, and just all the right things, as far as I’m concerned, I’m astonished. I’m astonished by how capable they are. Incredible. I believe that there is, despite the kind of pullback from people on the right—religious people, nutcases, more than nutcases, really sinister in many ways, racists, just awful people—there’s so much pullback, but I don’t think it’s strong enough.
I think the movement, to coin a word, of the culture is just—it’s inevitable. There’s this trajectory that we’re on, which—you can’t wind it back. You can try and they will, and they’ll succeed sometimes, but I have great hope. I’ve seen this thing appear, and the way it has appeared in America, in particular, seems to be in the great American tradition of spearheading something that then takes root over the world, like blue jeans or something. There’s something which is the best of this country.
That’s not to deny the work of people in other places. No, not at all. But I’ve watched it from within this country happen from again, nothing when I first came here. When I consider how kids, younger kids these days, don’t care if you’re gay or straight or somewhere in between, or on this side of the spectrum or that. It’s not that they actively don’t care. They just don’t care. It’s not an issue. They don’t think that way. That, to me, is a sign of something incredibly powerful and something that’s not going to just change because a few total assholes in other places want to try and pull us all back into the Stone Age.
AZ: A recent guest on the podcast [Baratunde Thurston] quoted someone else [Valerie Kaur] as saying, “A stranger is someone in us that we don’t yet know.”
JN: That’s nice.
AZ: I think that is the issue. That that’s not totally understood.
JN: Yeah, I think that’s true.
AZ: Jamie, thank you so much for sharing today. This was really beautiful.
JN: You’re welcome. Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on July 27, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.