Cecilia Alemani, Donald R. Mullen, Jr. Director & Chief Curator of High Line Art, and artist Jordan Casteel discuss how the subject of Casteel’s High Line mural is more relevant than ever before and the power of art in challenging times. This talk debuted live on Zoom for High Line members and donors on Thursday, May 28, 2020.Become a High Line member & receive access to future virtual events
Robert Everyone on this call is one of our supporters. You’re what enabled us to keep the High Line open. I never had to say “reopen the High Line”; I never thought that’s something we’d be talking about. And so you’re the reason we’re going to be able to reopen the High Line. It’s great; we have a few of our staff on the line, too. Can y’all see some photos that are on right now? OK, so these are some photos that were just taken yesterday or the day before of the High Line. So, this is what I saw walking over here at Gansevoort [Street]. No one has been up—the gardeners haven’t been up on the High Line since about mid-March when we closed, because when we had to close because of social distancing, we couldn’t do that on the High Line. They’re going to actually start going up on Monday. So they’ll be up in a few days. The plants are in great shape, as you can see. We’ve been really blessed that we had a cool, wet spring. And you can see—if you look in the middle—you can see where the plants are growing through the grating of the Flyover. And we were about halfway through Cutback—so you can also look on your left and that’s where you can see some of the plants that didn’t get cut back. So it’s sort of an interesting case where normally we cut everything back in the spring. We were halfway through that when we closed. So it’s one of the things that— the High Line is going to look different; I think it’s going to look great.
Robert And then the big question is, when are we going to open? We’re working with the city on that. We have to figure out a plan to be able to—we’ve been trying to think about all these different scenarios. We’re going to have to figure out how to reduce occupancy so people can social distance. So it will likely be reduced numbers. It’s tricky because we’re a building and so we have over a dozen entrances that we’re going to have to staff. We can’t close any of them off because they’re all fire [exits]—we need them for the fire escapes. I hope it’s this summer and I’ll probably have a better update middle of next month. But I can tell you that is our main priority is how do we open it as soon as possible, but make sure we keep it safe for for visitors and staff. Here, we were also in the middle of the art deinstall. So luckily, not all the art was deinstalled. This is one of, I think, two or three pieces that’s still up, this Sam Falls piece. One of the benefits of this time has really been connecting with a lot of our neighbors. We just had a call with Alex Poots at The Shed and we’ve been talking to Adam Weinberg about how we can work together as we all reopen, and then going forward. I think we’re going to need each other more. We’re going to have to do more with less. And that’s the case of all the culturals in the neighborhood and all over the city. It’s great to have partners at each end. I think that’s all on my side. I’m going to turn it over to Cecilia Alemani, [who] is the Donald Mullen, Curator of Art—I don’t have it on my screen—Chief Curator. What are you, Cecilia? She’s a master. She’s it. She’s in charge. She’s—my favorite is that people always come to me and say, “oh, I have an artist, you know, that wants—can you tell Cecilia?” And I’ve suggested hundreds of artists to Cecilia, and Cecilia is always very polite, but has never shown any artists I’ve suggested. So she is the true master of the High Line. And it was probably one of the most important hires we ever did. We had a good program to begin with, but she’s taken it to a completely other level, and she’s one of the reasons I love coming to work. So Cecilia, I’ll turn it over to you.
Cecilia Thank you, Robert. Thank you for the nice introduction. Now, thank you all for being here. I’m sorry I don’t see you, but I know you’re there. I want to welcome and thank Jordan for being here. I’m very excited about our conversation. Before we dive in, I have a few thank yous to make. First, I want to acknowledge the entire High Line team that has been working remotely so hard to put these amazing presentations together. The Art team, of course, with Jordan Benke, Henry Murphy, Melanie Kress, and Janelle Grace. I want to also acknowledge the people that helped us make the mural possible, including Morgenstern Capital and Canvas Property Group and Colossal Media that is the company who painted the mural. During this talk, we’ll chat for about half an hour, but throughout our conversation, please feel free to use the Q&A function on the bottom of your screen if you’d like to ask questions or send comments, and we’ll try to answer all of your questions at the end of the talk. Throughout the talk, we show some images of Jordan’s work and also some videos. I am actually going to start by showing you a little snippet of a video, part of a documentary that Art21 did on Jordan, which I think is a great introduction to you and to your work.
Cecilia I love seeing you in this video because I think [it] really captures your personality and your energy, and I’m really excited to be here today talking about your practice and your project for the High Line, which opened in mid December. And that was on view until the High Line closed in March. Before we talk about the High Line project, I’d love to go back to the beginning and start from if there was a specific moment when you understood that you want to become an artist.
Jordan I think the specific moment—I was just joking with my students recently as we were winding up the semester, that I didn’t use the word artist to describe myself until maybe into the middle of my Yale graduate experience. I was really hesitant to use that as a phrase. I felt like there was a seriousness to that title or labeling, that I didn’t see myself as being a part of that history, the history as I knew it of what artists were and what they could be. That I had always, as long as I can remember, been inclined to make things. I was always baking for my family or I would be knitting or I had a little crafts corner and all I wanted was my mom to get things from the craft supply store, Michaels, and I could glue things together. I found great joy in the oasis and the stillness I found in the process of making things. So I think my passion for art and my inclination towards the visual language was always there. But it wasn’t until I fell in love with the material of paint, which happened in undergraduate school, that I was like—oooh—this is something I haven’t experienced before and I’m really quite in love. And I would love to figure out a way to keep this as a part of my repertoire, of my life moving forward. I didn’t think that it could be my full-time career.
Cecilia And what did you study as an undergrad?
Jordan I was studying sociology and anthropology for the first three years of my undergraduate degree, and then I studied in Italy and Cortona in Tuscany. That was a really transformative experience. That’s when I first discovered oil paint. I came back from that trip my junior year, and that’s when I changed my major. I had my awakening that ultimately it was a liberal arts degree and I was going to get all the skills—it was going to be a B.A., not a BFA, so I could study anything and I would have all the skills that I needed to successfully pursue whatever I wanted in life. And, that’s where it started.
Cecilia And was your family and your closer environment supportive of your choice of becoming an artist?
Jordan Yes and no. I think it’s terrifying for anybody to say, “I want to become an artist.” There’s a very rare few who know someone who’s living and working as a professional artist. And I definitely was not one of those very few who knew somebody who was in this profession. So I didn’t have a road map to what that could be like, nor did my parents, although my family has always been huge supporters of the arts. My mother was always encouraging me in the summers to spend my time with nonprofits that work specifically in the arts sector. I was working with kids in low income communities in Denver every summer and teaching them art. I was always pushed into the realm of my interests, but my parents were absolutely terrified by the notion that I would be an artist, because the vision is that you’d be starving and broke somewhere with no real support. But I pursued a degree that I felt like could give me the skills to communicate my ideas effectively. And I felt like if I could do that, then I could do anything. If I could be a critical engager of the world, that I had the capacity to do meaningful work. I think they always trusted in that.
Cecilia And I imagine they were also supportive of you deciding to go to Yale, one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
Jordan Yeah; none of us thought that would ever happen. My mother was very much like, “you shoot for the stars, baby, and I will support you. You should always try for whatever the best is and throw your hat in the ring. The worst thing to come out of it is you end up in the same circumstances you’re in now, which are quite fine in the spectrum of what life can be like. You’re very privileged in many ways.” I think none of us expected that a real acceptance [to Yale] would come. And once I got that acceptance, of course, everybody was like, “if you get in to Yale, you go.” There was no question about it at that point. But when we were driving on the way there with my three paint brushes, I thought that it maybe was a bigger mistake than we were letting on.
Cecilia What was it like? I’m sure that was a moment of shock….
Jordan Shock, horror, confusion, imposter syndrome—which is something that I still continue to feel, even with the success and the visibility of my career at this point. But especially then, I felt lost. But I was a learner. My parents had raised me to be a learner. I’m very passionate about learning and education as a whole and taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. So very early on, I went into that experience like, “this might be my last chance to be around this many brilliant minds who care about art and making art as much as I do. So I’m just going to be a sponge and soak it up.” I just listened to my whole first year. I didn’t speak very much in [critiques]. I was an observer of the environment. I tried to understand the art speak that I was seeing before me that I wasn’t familiar with. I felt like there was a way that people were articulating their ideas that was different than my own. I built a sense of confidence in knowing that if I wanted to describe the work that I was making in really plain terms, that that is just as valuable as putting a lot of words to it. I really built a sense of confidence by the end of that experience, because I had been beat down enough that you really do want to stand on your own two feet by the end of it.
Cecilia And is there a moment, an event, or a person that you think you remember as being like a “wow” moment or a moment in which they really helped you step up in your career and showed you the path?
Jordan Yeah. At the time, one of the deans, Sam[uel] Messer, and also Rob[ert] Storr, but Sam Messer in particular, very early on, took me under his wing. He was like, “you can’t paint or draw to save your life, but that’s OK. I’m going to show you how. And there’s room to grow and I’m going to shepherd you along the way.” And he really did that. I remember quite a few conversations. He would come into my studio and instead of having conversations, he said, “you just need more practice painting; your classmates have had more time with the material than you have. So instead of us talking about your work, you’re going to paint me every time I have a scheduled critique with you. And then we’re going to talk about how you’re going about making that painting while you’re making it,” which was a very fruitful experience for me. I think that’s exactly what I needed. I needed to catch up. I needed to make a lot more bad paintings in order to figure out what “good” could look and feel like. That was a particular moment.
Cecilia What was your work like in school?
Jordan It was very similar to what it is now. The greatest difference is—if there is a difference at all—I was painting classmates, I was painting my environments, and a lot of the nudes that came out of the “Visible Man” series that I first became recognized for here in New York City. Those paintings came out of my time at Yale. They were paintings of people that I was meeting at the School of Drama. I had a green chair in my studio that I would ask people to come and sit in. They would hang out and I would paint from life. Then eventually, I made the decision to grow in scale as I started to embark on the journey of painting the Black male nude. That was a really important decision for me, to scale up and to go into the homes of the sitters. And that meant that I had to bring photography into view within the practice.
Cecilia Since you mentioned photography, when you were in school, or were you also trying other mediums, like sculpture, or photography, or…?
Jordan I made a video once. I very much remember this critique, too, because everybody was giving me such a hard time about my paintings that I was like, “maybe I’m not actually meant to be a painter.” And that’s a very common thing in graduate school: all my classmates were trying other mediums and sculptures. I decided to make a video and it was so bad that—literally—at the beginning of the critique, Sam Messer started that critique by saying, “I know this thing is in this room and that you intended for us to talk about it, but I’m going to vote that you do not, that it’s not actually worth our time.” And I was like, “fine.” But in my head, I wanted to prove a point. I wanted them to finally leave me alone to try other things. Then I tried that other thing, and we all got real clear that I should stick to my lane. There was more potential for growth and growing within painting than there could ever be with video work. I can promise you, at least at this point—
Cecilia I want to watch it now.
Jordan I did find it the other day. It’s very, very, very bad.
Cecilia And when you were at Yale were you part of an extended community of artists? I know that [being at Yale] feels like being a part of a big family, but are some of your colleagues at that time still your colleagues now or your friends? How was the atmosphere in school?
Jordan It’s a hyper competitive environment and by nature, I’m not very competitive. That was really difficult for me. The introvert in me, even if I am very friendly and outgoing and care a lot about people, I pulled in a lot during all of my educational experiences. Even in undergraduate school, I was the leader of everything. I was the president of the Black Student Association. I was the head of the diversity and inclusion office. I used to do mediations on campus with disputes. I always had like a very visible face, but my social life was very secluded, to me in the studio. And it was very similar at Yale. My friend Wade always joked with me that I’d have way more paintings that I needed for every crit. And even right before crits, I’d still be painting and people would be like, “why don’t you stop? You have like enough to show.” My mentality was very much like, “I have to make up for this lost time.” I was the class president. My second year I ran admissions; I was the representative. I was very involved and cared a lot about the systems at play and the relationships I was building. But I wasn’t, and still am not much of a partier or socialite; I saw my classmates as resources. There are a small few who have followed me in my life now. As I mentioned, Wade; I was texting him earlier and he’s one of my best friends and he was a year ahead of me. I actually spent most my time at the School of Drama. I found my oasis in dark rooms watching stories be told on stage. It was a way for me to exercise my ideas in an exciting way that was outside of the pressures I was feeling in the studio. I made a lot of friends in other departments.
Cecilia After that, you moved to another well-respected and prestigious residency, which is the Studio Museum residency program, in 2015. How was that? Of course, it’s not a university, it’s a different environment, but how was the atmosphere there? I’m sure you worked very closely with the other artists in residency there. How different was it to be in a museum in the heart of New York City?
Jordan When I first left Yale, everybody was either going to New York or L.A. That was the sense I got from my classmates: if you’re graduating from a program like this, you follow it through by gritting your teeth in New York City or spreading your wings in L.A. I had family [in New York]—my mom grew up in New Rochelle and I have an aunt who lives on the Upper West Side. So for me, the easy answer was move to New York because I had a support system already in place. My goal was to be here maybe two years, max. If all else failed, I’d move back to Denver and be an art teacher. I never really thought that getting into a place like Studio Museum would be in the stars for me, but I continually surprise myself with how naive I am. I have my head in the dirt sometimes; I’m so focused that I don’t always see the potential for the movement that can transform my life. The Studio Museum was one of those places that literally transformed my life. I was probably depressed; I was feeling that new New York living, overwhelmed, sense of being. I was scrounging around, had this studio…. everything felt exhausting. Then all of a sudden, Studio Museum appeared in my life and provided me with safety from the art world, from New York City itself, that I hadn’t felt up until that point. I found home in Harlem. I literally found home in Harlem. I have committed to being in Harlem as a result of that initial move. It started with feeling seen by the other residents. I’ve always thrived in very intimate settings and that’s exactly what Studio Museum provided me: an intimate space to learn about the art world in New York, to meet people and to kind of expand my practice.
Cecilia Who were the other two artists?
Jordan It was Jibade-Khalil Huffman and EJ Hill. EJ and I, in particular, became very, very, close—
Cecilia —but working in completely different mediums.
Jordan Oh, completely different mediums. I would go over to his side and he’d play guitar for me and show me the sketches for an idea that he had, which was profoundly unbelievable to me that he would use his body—for the entire exhibition [duration], he was laying on this platform. I was so in awe of him, and that entire experience, to have an intimate connection to someone who had the capacity to do something like that. We learned so much from one another. I work in very traditional ways and I learned a lot from the ways that he was working. We found that, ultimately, our goals are not very dissimilar; we use mediums in different ways to exercise those ideas about the world.
Cecilia Have you ever collaborated with an artist, in an official way?
Jordan Not in an official way, no. I always feel like I’m in collaboration with other artists, in the way that we have conversations about the way that we’re thinking about the world or thinking about the work that we’re making or thinking about our practices. I think being an artist is a very singular act, but it’s also a very collaborative act because we’re always in conversation with each other, whether in actuality or theoretically. There’s always these conversations happening about how we’re navigating our galleries, or the commercial art world, or how we’re navigating our studio practices and the support we need within them. There’s collaboration on a real emotional level, even if it’s not a physical form.
Cecilia Sure. I want to start a slideshow with some images of your previous works. We don’t have to talk about specific ones, but just so that our audience can look at some of your paintings. Let’s talk about them. Do you have a routine? Do you go to the studio every day? I guess you are in your studio right now.
Jordan Yes, I am here right now. I just started coming back here about two weeks ago, which has been a breath of fresh air in the middle of quarantine. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed the act of coming into a studio. So I have found through quarantine that I am not a person who could step out my pajamas and start working in the same room. I think I need the separation that much of my practice is that of a job. There’s a real practice to the way that I have to execute the paintings: that I wake up, that I have my tea at home, that I change my clothes, and then I move into my physical working space. Once I transition into this physical working space, I can function in the realm of thinking of my life and the work that I’m making in the practice as a whole. It’s a practice space—and then there’s my living space. When I come in here, I often sit on my computer in my little seating area and answer emails for an hour up until noon, I’ll do computer work. Then after that, I change my clothes or put on a smock or transition again to standing in front of the paintings and getting to work. I work in long chunks of time, so I like to get three to four hours in, in one sitting at the very least.
Cecilia And walk us through that process. Do you work with sketches, with photographs? Do you have a very clear idea of what a subject will be or what kind intuition or intuitive processes do you also embrace?
Jordan It happens a few different ways. For the “Visible Man” series or even “The Practice of Freedom,” the most recent body of work that I did featuring my students, I had a very clear intention of a body of work that I wanted to make, highlighting the lives and the stories of the students that I teach at Rutgers University in Newark. I identified those students through a long interview process because I needed to make it like a job so that I could figure out who specifically I was going to paint. Then, once I figured out who I was going to paint, we set up dates and I went to all of their homes and spent 30 to 45 [minutes] to an hour with them, a chunk of time. Up to an hour, some of them, I would spend, photographing them, getting to know them, asking them where they would want me to photograph them, that they had thought about the painting. Then those preparatory images get brought back into the studio. I might print five or six from the hundreds that I’ve taken in the time that I’ve been with somebody. I’m printing five and melding that experience into one image that is the painting. It’s not a one-to-one relationship between the photographs and the painting. I’ll bring things in from three feet to the right to be in the frame because they told me a story about it and said that that was important. I really see the canvas as an opportunity to reframe that experience. The initial sketch happens on the canvas. I don’t do preliminary sketches. I go from that photograph straight into paint. I’ll use a really watered down—it’s not water, it’s Gamsol, a liquid version of the paint to sketch and then erase and then sketch and erase until I build a composition that I like.
Cecilia Do you ever paint from life?
Jordan No, not so much any more. I think that to say never would be unfair because who knows if sometime in the future there will be opportunities for that. For painting from life, what has challenged that is that I’ve become very interested in the landscape of the subjects and the spaces that they occupy. In order for the space to be as integral as the person themselves, I have to go into that space. Painting from life—in that instance—I have to use photography as the liaison between me going to where people are as opposed to asking them to come to where I am. That that’s a really important part for me.
Cecilia I’m interested to hear you talk about who you’re looking at in terms of other artists and other techniques. I know someone you’ve often quoted is Alice Neel and I’m curious—of course, I can see the connection with portraiture—but I’m also interested in her amazing use of color, which is also important in your painting. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jordan Yeah. Alice Neel was an early painter that I fell in love with. I was very familiar with the work of Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Jacob Lawrence, Dawoud Bey—his photography was something that really influenced me and continues to. My computer is sitting on top of his book Seeing Deeply, actually, as we speak, and an Alice Neel book. So I should just look at what’s underneath here—there’s an Alice Neel book, there’s a Dawoud Bey book. Those are the things that are constantly in the repertoire of my brain, circling around, thinking about how we represent community and our relationships to space. And color is a huge part of that. For me, it’s always been the case. My mother jokes that I used to spend hours trying to decide what color to paint my room. I had a periwinkle room. I had a yellow room. I had a red room. My room in her house is still like bright yellow—lemon yellow. She had always thought that that was a very particular thing for a child to be attached to. She kept a journal entry for me at six months old, describing my clear fascination for colors and cartoons. She recognized in me at a very young age that I had a propensity to draw myself towards color, that I loved color. It has continually been the thing that has brought me great joy in my life. I tend to be inclined to bring color into my everyday life and practice. I’m always pushing to try to explore new relationships between colors and the depth of color itself and explore what it can bring when you really push or pull color into space.
Cecilia When you talk about color, do you also experiment on sketches before or do you just do it on the final canvas?
Jordan So I do—that’s also right next to me because I was looking at it there. I use Color-aids, which are glorified, overly expensive paint chips. That’s why I tell my students, “just go to the hardware store and grab a whole bunch of paint chips.” They’re expensive versions of paint chips called Color-aids. I throw them on the floor and I begin to pick up and pair. The first color that catches my attention, I’ll hold onto it and begin to grab colors that I think will complement. For example, in this painting of Jahi, I was thinking about the light, that lime green—I remember seeing and being attached to the lime green in his cheek first. Then I built the rest of the color palette around that, using Color-aids to help me define the colors in advance. I do a lot of mise en place in my painting. I think really intently about how color is going to function in the painting before I actually put the colors together, mix them, and then use them on the canvas.
Cecilia Talk to us a little bit about the people in your paintings. You often, of course, portray people. There is also, as you said, a very specific attention to the landscape or the surroundings. But let’s start from the people.
Jordan Yeah. Is there any one in particular you want to talk about? Because I could just …
Cecilia I think we can also look at the pictures of your recent show at the gallery because I love the fact that you painted your students.
Jordan I think that’s a great place to start. When I graduated from undergrad with my degree in studio art, having studied sociology and anthropology, not knowing how to become an artist, I decided that the logical thing to do was to figure out how to teach. I had spent my summers teaching art; I was passionate about education. I did Teach for America for a year and that year between undergrad and graduate school when I prepared my portfolio to apply to Yale, I was making paintings of my students at that time. I was teaching special education and I was making these portraits of my students that I was really connected to. But then they kind of got lost in the ether. I’ve now returned to teaching—I’m now finishing up my fourth year at Rutgers University in Newark. My role as an educator is one that, those who know me most intimately know my passion and compassion around it. It is an integral part to who I am. I always felt like when I enter the classroom space with my students, that I feel a sense of safety and connectivity with them that other people never really get to know. I wanted to bring the two worlds of my life—me as an educator and me as an artist—together into one space. This show in particular, “The Practice of Freedom,” was taking all the philosophies that my teaching pedagogy is based in seeing, and entering the classroom, knowing that the learning is existing within that space. It’s not me who’s bringing knowledge to them: the knowledge exists before I even get there. They are knowledgeable long before I appeared in their life and believing that my job is to coax that out of them, to turn the mirror on to the things that they already know to be true about themselves, but maybe lost confidence along the way. This painting practice, particularly this show, became an opportunity for me to get to know them in a way that I hadn’t known previously. I entered their homes! So, for example, the painting on the right hand side of Karina and her mom with their arms around each other, sitting in the kitchen—I think they might have been the first people that I photographed in the process of this series. When I entered [their home], her mom had cooked me an entire meal. I still talk to Karina about these black beans that were the best beans I think I’ve ever had in my life. She told me the recipe, sort of offhand, and I’m still thinking about them. But that experience was a really important one. I remember being in lower education, teaching sixth grade, where it was very encouraged that you do home visits to get to know the families and build relationships. But once you enter undergrad or graduate school, there’s this assumption that there’s been a detachment from the family, that they’re adults now and that their sense of belonging is just in the ether. So it was really special for me to go into all of their homes and the relationships grew as a result.
Cecilia I remember the opening of your show, that so many of them were there and they seemed to me completely moved and in awe, but was there any interesting anecdote or moving moment that you want to recall?
Jordan There were so many. Like you at the opening, particularly at Casey Kaplan, all of them were there and they were standing in front of their paintings, but then most of these paintings also traveled to the New Museum for the exhibition “Within Reach.” That opening, in particular, brought some moments from the students that really affected me. One being Emmanuel, who’s featured at the very center of this image in the middle: He arrived in the lobby of the New Museum and he said that somebody recognized him and said, “oh, you’re one of the subjects.” He was completely taken aback by being recognized. And they said, “well, we’ll bring you upstairs.” So he got brought upstairs by this person who recognized him and he said he entered that space and that although he felt outnumbered in terms of him being maybe—as a person of color in the space, he felt outnumbered by the number of people in the room and the people in the space, but that he felt a sense of belonging that he had never felt before entering the museum space. That he would look around and see all his friends and be like, “oh, no, I got this.” I got Jahi over there, Cansuela, over there, Jenna over there. This is this is my house, all of a sudden.” That’s a pretty profound experience. He told me that the week after we went as a class to go see the show. He told me in class and he had been at the opening and he told our class. He just graduated a few days ago. He was telling me about how profound that experience was for him. And that meant a lot. I mean, it’s really kind of overwhelming, seeing those kinds of reactions.
Cecilia Of course. I think you could really feel it in the room at the opening. I’m interested in your teaching because it’s something that has always fascinated me, teaching artists. What have you learned from your students?
Jordan I think the thing that I learn the most frequently is to not be so concerned with myself and whatever I think is most important. It’s pretty humbling. To be an artist is a very egocentric act. It’s very involved with the self, my sense of self and time with myself and my feeling of my need to show the way that I see the world through the act of making work and thinking that is valuable. It’s very self-involved. Being an educator, for me, is the balance that is necessary in my own practice of engaging and giving back that I’ve always been raised in. The thought of giving back is a huge part of who I am. The thing that they teach me the most is the ability to stand on one’s two feet with a certain amount of confidence and knowing that everything’s going to be all right in the end and that nothing can really happen without a community. The way that they take care of each other continues to astound me. There can be a student who has come in because they’ve had some kind of traumatic instance at home and everybody will come to their rescue. I think that that’s always a beautiful example of what humanity could be and should be. I see those kind of essences of what true humanity—the power of our tenderness—in the classroom. I think I’ve learned and continue to learn how to be myself every time I enter the classroom because they give me the room to be that, that I feel confident all over again every time I’m in there. I also see in the way that they make—the freedom and the uninhibited way that they’re just like, “here I go, I’m going to make this painting. I don’t know what this red mark is, but we’re going to figure it out later.” Reminding myself that there’s freedom—why I loved painting in the first place. Things don’t always have to be so serious, that there can be real joy in the process as well.
Cecilia Are you still in touch with your first very first class?
Jordan Oh, yeah. I just got a recommendation ask this morning that I looked at from Zumar, who was one of my first students. Jenna, who is featured in the show, is the only student I’ve had every single semester that I’ve taught at Rutgers University in Newark. She’s the one sitting on a rock with the flowers behind her. She was there the first semester that I taught, and she just graduated a few days ago. The two of us got emotional on a Zoom call just a few days ago because she and Emmanuel called me the day of their graduation on Zoom just to check in. That’s what I thought it was, actually, but instead, I got cornered to them expressing their love and gratitude and I became very emotional. I’m proud of them.
Cecilia Are you still teaching these days, via Zoom?
Jordan We were teaching remotely, but our semester ended.
Cecilia What does it look like?
Jordan It’s nightmare. It’s sort of crazy to teach painting remotely. We’re just trying to save lives and each other at this point. It was triage, the end of the semester, that’s how I looked at it. A lot of them are immigrants coming from low income families. They’re working full time jobs even in… they are the essential workers in their families and needing to work. So I had to be really accommodating to whatever their needs were. So I created a lecture series. I invited Aaron Gilbert and Amy Sherald and Genevieve Gaignard. I reached out to all of my community and said, “hey, will you guys spend 30 minutes with my class on such and such day?” That ended up being a really amazing experience. Nina Chanel Abney… we had some really great folks.
Cecilia I want to move to the High Line project. And show another video also from your documentary, because I think it’s a great introduction to and gives a sense of how you interact with your subjects, which I think is very important for the High Line project. So let’s watch these couple of minutes.
Cecilia So I think we’re going to get a photo of your project for the High Line. How does it feel to have one of your paintings enlarged to 50 by 30 feet wide on one of the most visited parks in New York City?
Jordan It’s insane. Cecilia, I think when you first approached me about this project, it was like, “yeah, okay, a mural….” Then the day that I saw it being done, I was totally astounded by what they were able to achieve and how familiar the brushstrokes felt that I felt like I got to reengage with my way of mark-making on a different level that I could have never imagined. Then also, completely aside from the painting, to have this for Fallou, as an immigrant to the States, as somebody that I built a really meaningful relationship with, whose T-shirt reads, “I’m not interested in competing with anyone I hope we all make it,” someone who was one of the first people I met in Harlem. But because I was like so centered on painting men at that time, my tunnel kept me from giving her the light that she really deserved. And I had come back to her saying, “you know, I think the time has come for me to paint you.” In 2017, I made this painting of her and her brother. She was just texting me—just actually right now—because she just showed up at my house to deliver masks because she’s a designer and she’s now designing masks for people. So, I have something waiting for me from her. But that goes to show that the relationships that I’ve built have gone far, far beyond what I could have ever imagined in those first instances of saying “hello.” She and I have been in constant contact as COVID has been going on, making sure we have shared like each other’s back, because she’s a neighbor. She lives 20 blocks from me, but still, she is my neighbor in essence.
Cecilia Tell me more about them, and about her.
Jordan So she first— This photograph was taken and this painting was made representing her in front of… She was, she had a table [where] she sold the hats that she designs and jewelry right in front of the Burger King on 125th [Street], which is maybe two doors down from the Studio Museum in Harlem. And she was somebody who always smiled and said hello as you walked by. So we had built this repertoire of people that you see everyday and acknowledge. It was that relationship with her that really sparked my interest in photographing and building relationships with people on the street in Harlem. But she was on this particular day with her brother, who was in town from Senegal. And I was walking by and he came out—the sun was setting—he came out from this dark awning and was like, “hello, I’m Fallou’s brother. “I was like, “what is this?!”—he looked like a god. I wanted to represent the deep blue in his skin. I wanted him to feel as ethereal I felt in that moment with him in the painting itself. He was regal. He was on his way to the airport, which was—the timing was divine intervention. I don’t know how else to put it. To have the opportunity to capture them together. It was a real gift for me and for her.
Cecilia Is it your first public art project?
Jordan Oh, this is absolutely my first public art project. Without a doubt, it’s amazing. I mean, I can’t wait for the High Line to reopen. Even in the short time that it was up, the amount of love that I was getting on Instagram or seeing people… There were a few days that I went and just sat on the steps and watched people go by. It’s a pretty phenomenal thing to watch people engage with the space in that way: that they’re backing up, that they’re looking down and looking up… I think the High Line provides so many beautiful opportunities for that.
Cecilia Have you ever heard a strange comment or something that shocked you?
Jordan Actually, I haven’t. But I’m sure they’ve happened. The strangest moments to me are when people are like, “oh, that’s cool, let’s just take a selfie.” They don’t really get the context, but they’re like, “that’s an interesting thing and I want to be a part of it and take a picture.” Those are always weird moments where you always wonder how much people take in. Sometimes they don’t need to take in a whole lot to feel the experience of feeling a part of something, and that’s the most special part for me.
Cecilia What is the relationship, thinking about public space? The painting portrays a street scene in Harlem and then here we are on the High Line, one of the most beloved and visited parks. How do you relate these two very iconic New York places?
Jordan Well, I think at this time in the world, specifically to be representing a woman of color, an immigrant, so centered on an iconic street and so accessible, I think the thing that first comes to mind with the beauty of participating in a project like this is that it literally becomes for everyone; that Fallou can just walk on by with her friends and family and there’s no restriction—well, I guess there might be, post-COVID—but no restrictions, in essence, of how many people can come up there or not or who she brings or doesn’t and how she engages with it. There is a sense of belonging when it’s on the street and that’s a really special sense of engagement. It’s about accessibility. It is the most accessible way art could exist. And it’s a part of our everyday lives—that we don’t have to buy it, we don’t have to go into an institution to view it. We just get to live with it.
Cecilia And we look very much forward to seeing it, too. So you can actually see part of it from 22nd Street.
Jordan Somebody did send me a picture from the street. You can see the tops of their heads, I think.
Cecilia I want to show and share with our public some of the production photographs, because, as with everything on the High Line, also the installation and production of artworks is very public. So you see here a sequence of the installation phase, which involved painting the previous mural white, and then tracing the profile and the outlines of your painting, and then rendering it in color.
Cecilia We also have some other pictures that our amazing photographer Tim Schenck takes, sneaking up on the rooftop of the building. Then here you see the painters that work for Colossal Media matching exactly the color of your painting with the color of the mural. I really love these amazing pictures, but also it’s always a very, very public event. You see how many people are watching. This was also in the midst of December, so it was pretty cold.
Jordan Yeah, it was very cold.
Cecilia Some people spent hours on the Seating Steps watching the act of painting this giant mural. I think we also can share— we do a fun time lapse video that we captured, where you can see the entire process, which I believe lasted about a couple of weeks. [VIDEO PLAYS – silent] So this is the Dorothy Iannone painting that was previous to your work. And then here you see the team drawing the outlines of the painting. And here they come with colors. It’s a really incredible experience to witness. You see also the weather on the High Line—I think here it’s snowing—they’re really brave; they face any kind of weather. But it’s an incredible canvas for artwork. [pause] And you can see these videos on our website in case you want to see it again.
Cecilia I want to wrap up by asking you a couple of questions about now. You had a tremendously busy year, with your traveling show, your gallery show, the New Museum show, and then the mural on the High Line, and then all of a sudden the world stopped. So how are you readjusting? How is this global crisis affecting the way you’re thinking of your work? Not just your routine, because, of course, that’s obvious, but are you thinking of that in terms of the content of your artworks, as well?
Jordan Yeah, I think that this has been a really jarring time for us all. And you’re right that I was doing, especially when you list everything like that, I was definitely doing the most. And I was functioning at a really high level of—a sprint. I feel like I was just about to gasp for breath. That I could see that I was going to crash if I didn’t figure out how to level myself out. And this opportunity, quite frankly, emotionally, has definitely given me the opportunity to pause and reflect into re-center the practice in a way that I think all the other goings-on had kept me from being still here. I can be still now. I get to think about the landscape of my life in the ways that my environment directly influences my practice. The practice has always been centered around my observance of space and time and the people within that space and time. I see that the practice will evolve into that, that there might be more reflections of work, such as Amina, where there is not a physical body represented, but there are multiple faces on the front of a door or even memorial. A painting like that feels particularly poignant in a moment like now, when there’ve been so many lives lost, where we’re unable to point to who and where and when, but we know and feel the gravity of that circumstance. Now, I’m really thinking about how the people that I have seen during this time, what that means and how I could potentially honor and respect and pay tribute to them. I’ve been making a lot of the subway paintings—I had tons of these images and have had the opportunity to paint from home before I was able to come back to the studio. So I was painting in our dining room that I took apart and turned into my studio space. I really felt free in some ways to begin again and to truly re-center why it is that I do what I do. It’s always been about putting those less visible in the front and center of our purview. It’s going to take a lot of different forms, I think. And I’m personally excited to see what it brings, even if it’s intimidating, in that my practice is centered around the public and the public is hiding in their homes. But I think there are opportunities to enter their homes, as well. It’s not impossible. A lot of us are thinking about our homes now more intimately.
Cecilia I have a question from the audience: “I love your work, energy and your excitement and dedication to what you do. I’m wondering how it feels to be a representational painter and portraitist in the art world today.”
Jordan It feels exciting right now. This is the moment to be a part of a conversation around representation and to be pushing the boundaries of what representation looks and feels like and who can be represented within what frames. I feel really excited to be a part of a community of artists and practitioners who have dedicated their practices towards seeing their environment and re-representing it in the frame of their practice. So for me, it’s painting. Yeah, I love it. I feel really excited by it.
Cecilia And then a follow up question: “Can you talk about the use of text in your paintings? Any kind of secret message?”
Jordan Yeah, that’s a good question. Especially in the painting of The Baayfalls. There’s this really intricate relationship with text that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the way that the communities around us use language to I think honor and protect themselves at any given time. We all choose to put—whether it be a sticker on our chest or a t-shirt on that says, “I am brave,” today, or whatever it might be—that we use language in our lives to express the way that we feel about our environment and the people or the things around us. The language in all the paintings is always exactly what existed in the world. I’m not changing, I’m not putting any secret messages. I’m just allowing people the time to slow down enough to re-observe the language that’s oftentimes already in front of them in their day-to-day existence or commute.
Cecilia I’m going to read the last question. It’s about scale: “Is scale and size of space, you feel, an integral part of what you create?” I think it’s interesting, also, thinking not just of the mural, but going back to when you started enlarging your canvases.
Jordan Yeah. It’s definitely been an integral part. When I made the decision to scale up in graduate school, when I was painting the nudes of black men in their homes, I was thinking really explicitly about their bodies feeling like they could exist in space in their entirety, that they could step out of the frame of the canvas and exist in the world that we live in today, that they could not be ignored. I think I also really selfishly—or not—I enjoyed the fact that people would have to make room for my paintings, that people would literally have to make space for these Black and brown bodies to live with them. That they had to be conscious about their decision to invite them into a space that they might have or own or occupy. If they’re going to bring them in, they have to make room for them and they will live in that space in their entirety. There’s my sense of humor, and then there this practical, thoughtful decision about how I can use all the tools in my tool box to convey whatever it is that I’m trying to convey to the viewer.
Cecilia Thank you, Jordan. This evening was such a thoughtful conversation and we all look forward to enjoying your amazing mural as soon as the High Line opens, during the winter and next year. I’m going to pass it back to Robert for some closing remarks.
Jordan Thank you, Cecilia.
Robert Thank you both. It was magical watching both of you. You both have an amazing energy and it’s fascinating [Jordan] to think about you as an introvert because you convey so much. I feel the same way—when I took the little quiz and I realized I was an introvert. I was shocked. But, someone said you can live an extrovert life but be an introvert.
Robert But how much you give, how much your painting has given, and how much you give, it’s incredible. It’s mesmerizing to look at your work, but also to hear you communicate. So, thank you. And thanks for giving this gift to the High Line.
Robert I want to thank everybody for joining us. This is the last in the first three of these that we’re going to do.
Photo credits: The Baayfalls mural photos by Timothy Schenck, other Jordan Casteel painting images courtesy of Casey Kaplan, New York