The Insistent Artists: A Halsey Homecoming
“I wasn’t allowed to go to King Street north of Calhoun by myself when I was growing up. It was a scary wasteland up there,” recalls Shepard Fairey, who will be creating an art installation in a King Street storefront as part of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art’s May exhibition showcasing his work.
Clearly, a lot has changed since the mid-1980s when Fairey was a teenage skate punk posting his now iconic “Obey Giant” stickers around Charleston and beyond. Those changes run much deeper than the refreshed building facades and influx of retail and foodie havens that have overtaken King Street, and perhaps no one recognizes this more acutely than a homegrown artist like Fairey, who says he fled the “duck print-dominated, watercolored, watered-down” artistic milieu of his youth to pursue gritty, provocative street art way out of town. He eventually landed in Los Angeles and then in the national spotlight when his Obama “HOPE” poster went viral in 2008. Over the last two-plus decades, Fairey has matured from guerilla street artist to commercial success, and likewise Charleston’s cultural and artistic DNA has also evolved. There’s an undercurrent that eagerly peers beyond the provincial; nostalgia is making way for new ideas.
And so the once dis-Obeying bad boy comes home to headline the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art’s 30th anniversary exhibition, alongside none other than Jasper Johns, a fellow South Carolinian and one of America’s most influential and iconic contemporary artists. Irreverent youth and revered godfather, native sons returning to native soil at the Halsey—a former fledging gallery within the College of Charleston’s Simons Center for the Arts that has evolved into a full-fledged, multifaceted institute named for William Halsey, the “Dean of Abstract Art in South Carolina.”
If art conveys power through symbolism, then the confluence of this trio—William Halsey, Jasper Johns, Shepard Fairey; three Palmetto State artists from three generations—adds up to more than an anniversary celebration. It’s a symbolic triumph of artistic insistence and integrity and an exploration of what it means to return. To return to an idea or an image, as both Fairey and Johns do in their work, as the show’s title, “The Insistent Image,” suggests. To return to a place and find what is revealed when one revisits and looks again. That’s what anniversaries do—they invite us to return, to reflect, to reconnect, to rediscover.
“This exhibition is a career highlight for me,” says Mark Sloan, Halsey Institute director and an “avid admirer” of Jasper Johns. “There’s a power, an undeniable quiet, subtle, intellectual power to his work. What I like about it is that I can’t explain it. Words fail. It’s enigmatic, and I enjoy that sense of being confounded. I enjoy where it takes me—to a space pregnant with possibilities and multiple meanings that shift when you come back to it at different times.”
Along with his excitement at presenting an artist of Johns’ stature, Sloan notes the irony; his entire career, including the last 20 years at the Halsey helm, has been focused on scouring the margins and “shining a light on artists who aren’t exactly mainstream—what I call ‘the oddly overlooked,’” he says. “This show is an anomaly in [the Halsey’s] history. Shepard Fairey and certainly Jasper Johns are not the oddly overlooked.” And yet, Sloan explains, the bold pairing of these two for this anniversary makes perfect sense, given the fact that both are “consummate graphic artists, in the highest sense. Each have specific graphic vocabularies and archives of imagery and symbols,” he says.
But what makes the pairing all the more powerful is the context of the Halsey. The show’s glue is the strong personal affection and professional admiration that William Halsey and his wife, Corrie McCallum, felt for Jasper Johns; it is Johns’ artistic influence on Shepard Fairey (evident in Fairey’s portrait of Johns), and Fairey’s long relationship with Charleston and the Halsey (which gave Fairey his first local show in 2002). And especially, it is William Halsey’s “pioneering legacy of providing an alternative view of what art might be,” says Sloan.
A Great New World
William Halsey (1915–1999) grew up in a large house on George Street where four generations of his family had lived. He loved art as a child and studied drawing with Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, the heralded Charleston Renaissance artist of the 1920s. She recognized his talent and her limitations in nurturing it and encouraged him to pursue art at the University of South Carolina. Halsey did so, only to find that the university’s art program in the early 1930s was slim, conservative, and uninspired. The only benefit, Halsey once said, was meeting fellow artist Corrine McCallum, who was slim, not-so conservative, and very inspired and would become Halsey’s wife, artistic partner, and inspiration throughout his life.
After four semesters, Halsey left USC and eventually went to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, which was a life-changing, eye-opening experience. “Going from the University of South Carolina art department to Boston Museum School was like coming into a great new world. All of the sudden, you had a great museum, and you had art galleries, and you had people who really had some background and training. And you find out things like contemporary art, which you never heard about in South Carolina. It was really absolutely wonderful. The difference was just incredible,” the artist said in a Smithsonian Institute oral history of him and McCallum.
The couple left Boston to travel for a few years, before returning to Charleston in 1941 with little money and two little children. As modern art mavericks amidst a plethora of conventional landscape realists, they carved out a small niche on the city’s fringes. While other local artists were finding commercial success selling “tourist” art, McCallum and Halsey insistently pursued innovative abstract works and scraped by teaching classes at the Gibbes and later at the College of Charleston. Despite the financial challenge and loneliness of being among the few modern artists in Charleston (“it was pretty desolate,” McCallum noted), they stayed true to their passion.
“As far as I’m concerned, art has never been about what people want. It’s about what you want to do and some things you find necessary to do,” said Halsey in the oral history. “I felt I could be more useful in my native state than anyplace else. If there was a wider distribution of creative artists working in smaller communities, there would be a wider interest in and understanding of contemporary art in this country,” he once wrote. Through teaching, exhibiting, and continually painting against the prevailing tide, Halsey and McCallum created a small clearing for Charleston’s art scene to eventually expand into, a clearing that 50-plus years later is broad and robust and sustains a well-regarded institute dedicated to providing “a multidisciplinary laboratory for the production, presentation, interpretation, and dissemination of ideas by innovative visual artists from around the world,” as the mission of William Halsey’s namesake gallery proclaims. How fitting, given Halsey’s desire to “be useful in his native state,” that the Halsey Institute marks this anniversary milestone by bringing home two “innovative visual artists from around the world” whose roots, like Halsey’s, are local.
The Only Avant-Garde
The name Jasper Johns hardly needs introduction. Even if your art history is dusty, you likely know that you should know it. A quick Google search confirms it: Oh that artist, the one who painted the white flag, the target. The one in the litany of famous pop artists: Warhol, Rauschenberg, Johns.
Unlike Halsey, Jasper Johns, who was born in 1930 and grew up in Allendale and Richland counties, knew he would suffocate artistically if he did not leave South Carolina. Also unlike Halsey, Johns only made it through three (not four!) semesters as an art student at USC before dropping out and moving to New York. But much like Halsey, Jasper Johns felt a creative compulsion, an artistic insistence; he knew “this image of wanting to be an artist—that I would in some way become an artist—was very strong,” Johns told biographer Catherine Craft.
Johns not only became an artist, he became one of the most iconic and successful contemporary artists of his time; his work has been exhibited at the Whitney, MOMA, and the Met and is included in the permanent collections of major institutions around the world. In 1980, his Three Flags was acquired by the Whitney for $1 million, then a record-breaking price for the work of a living artist. In 1998, the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid an undisclosed sum (experts estimate $20 million) for White Flag.
Johns was influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg, the latter with whom he had both artistic and romantic relationships. He and Rauschenberg lived and worked amidst the fizzy creative sluice of the Lower East Side, where Johns partnered with artists pushing the envelope in other mediums: John Cage in music, Merce Cunningham in dance, Samuel Beckett in literature. Like Halsey, Johns’ work has been a counter to realist and abstract expressionism. “I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings,” the artist once said. Johns, who will turn 84 on May 15 (the date that Shepard Fairey delivers a lecture for this show) and is notoriously reclusive, has created a body of work marked by conscious control rather than spontaneity, a bold, abstract appropriation of the obvious, of common symbols (the flag, the target) that “the mind already knows.”
During the 1960s, Johns frequently returned to the Lowcountry, where he owned a house and studio on Edisto, the island where his much younger half-brother, Robert E. “Bobo” Lee, a (pit) master of the Southern art of barbecue, still lives and works. And when Johns did come to Edisto, he would visit William Halsey and Corrie McCallum in Charleston. “At the time, there was really only a small art scene in Charleston, and my parents were the only ‘avant-garde’ of the city, so if anyone was to meet Jasper, it would have been them,” says Louise Halsey, the youngest of the three Halsey children, who is now a textile artist in Arkansas.
Louise remembers Johns fondly: “a true Southern gentleman, he wrote thank-you notes and responded to Christmas cards. He was always gracious and generous, and you were keenly aware of his intelligence.” He occasionally joined the Halsey family for drinks, dinner, and lively conversation and had a particular fondness for Corrie, with whom he shared lithography techniques as she was becoming interested in printmaking. When a teenage Louise embarked from New York on a European trip with her parents, she stayed at Johns’ Riverside Drive apartment the night before they left. “There was art everywhere; there were Andy Warhol Brillo boxes used as side tables,” she recalls. After Johns’ Edisto beach house burned down in 1966, his visits to Charleston dropped off and his interactions with the Halseys dwindled to periodic correspondence, including a telegram Johns sent Louise on her 18th birthday. “Theirs was a private friendship; I’m not even sure they talked all that much about art,” says Louise, noting, too, that it predated the era of ubiquitous picture taking. “I’ve always wondered what he thought about William’s work,” she adds, “but I know he expanded my parents’ view of what was going on in the art world.” When Corrie McCallum died in 2009, Johns made a generous contribution to the Halsey Institute in memory of his friend. This gift began a correspondence between the artist and Halsey director Mark Sloan, who years later arranged for the college to offer Johns an honorary doctorate and invited him to have an exhibition of his work in 2014. Johns politely declined the doctorate (he has declined dozens) but agreed to having an exhibition, humbly replying that he “would be happy to show in your gallery in May 2014.”
For Fairey, the invitation to present a new body of work for the Halsey’s anniversary, and to do so alongside Jasper Johns, is also a career highlight. “I am honored and humbled and really grateful to be having this show with one of my heroes,” says Fairey, who was first introduced to Johns when he was a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1986. “To me it’s proof that there’s hope to be in the contemporary art world even if you’re from South Carolina.”
A Serious Engagement
Fairey’s work is renowned for addressing social and political issues, for questioning authority and ruffling feathers of the status quo—a bent for which growing up South of Broad gives good fodder. “My work is about the seduction of an aspect of a compelling image that at first might seem escapist, but then upon closer inspection there’s a very, very serious engagement and conceptual provocation,” he says. “All my favorite artists, from The Clash to Bob Dylan to Rauschenberg and even to a degree Jasper Johns, have that mix of seduction and agitation to what they do.”
His work for this show, titled “Power & Glory,” explores “the importance of letting go of impractical elements of our history—whether that’s our reliance on oil and gas, or our belief in America’s industrial dominance, or the idea that the American dream is accessible to everyone when the gap between the middle class and the wealthy is growing,” he explains. “For me those ideas have been bolstered by growing up in Charleston, where there’s South of Broad and North of the Crosstown—two very different worlds.” The imagery in the work also celebrates the natural beauty of the Lowcountry—familiar images of waves, coastline, and flowers, “but rendered in such a way to say, ‘Be cautious if you love these things,’ because the danger to them might be closer than you think.”
Like Johns, Fairey works with repetitive motifs, drawing much of his visual vocabulary from aesthetic elements common in Charleston, from wallpaper patterns to wrought-iron fences to tile work. These give his new pieces a pleasing elegance that invites the viewer in. “A lot of my early work was only confrontational, designed to look like propaganda and to raise people’s hackles. This new work is driven in part by being married and having kids [daughters Vivienne, eight, and Madeline, six] and realizing that if you have any hope for the future, you have to be able to find joy and beauty in things.”
For Fairey, using repetitive motifs gives his work visual and conceptual cohesiveness, a practical necessity in the early days when he was collaging small posters into street art. “I’ve always felt that my work was not about the individual image but the cumulative effect of a body of work that people would recognize as related,” he says.
The cumulative effect of the body of work that the Halsey Institute (née Gallery) has brought to Charleston over the last three decades is, like Fairey’s and Johns’ work, a celebration of insistent creativity and expression, an artistic impulse and compulsion not limited by geography or time and place. By featuring the work of South Carolina’s native sons, this show, says Sloan, underscores the fact that important contemporary art can originate anywhere, even in Charleston. Just as William Halsey and Corrie McCallum taught us back in the more “desolate” days when Jasper Johns was passing through. And now he returns, as does Shepard Fairey, as does our gratitude for these bold pioneers.