Interview: Barry Gerson

This article appeared in the July 5, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Late Summer (Barry Gerson, 2013)

There is perhaps no cinematic history as precarious as that of the American avant-garde, where the likes of Barry Gerson—a truly self-taught polymath whose art encompasses 16mm films, photo collages, and, more recently, digital works and musical compositions—can easily get lost in the cracks of time. While also highly accomplished as an installation artist and sculptor, Gerson—whose work has been praised by the likes of Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow—rightfully belongs to a tradition of minimalist film artists that includes names like Ernie Gehr and Larry Gottheim. Even though his films screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney, and The Guggenheim Museum throughout the 1970s and ’80s, there is little to no information available online on these titles—none of which are currently in distribution—or even much at all on Barry himself. This scarcity (as well as my own interest after seeing his name frequently referenced throughout vintage Whitney Biennial catalogues) prompted me to message him completely out of the blue on Instagram, where I asked if I could come up to his studio in Preston-Potter Hollow in upstate New York and watch some of his films with him. He happily agreed.

When I arrived, Gerson showcased an impressive array of his work, including 16mm films, “digitals” (his term for his digital, studio-based films), photographs, and sculptures. Witnessing these diverse pieces across various mediums in such proximity was a revelatory experience, providing deep insight into his overarching methodology in crafting, as Barry himself calls them, “otherworldly images.” More importantly, it demonstrated that Gerson, who has been creating art since he was a toddler and is now in his mid-eighties, shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. When I met with Gerson, besides continuing work on several digital projects, he was in the midst of preparing for an extensive retrospective of his film work at Anthology Film Archives, held this past May and June—and had recently returned from Mexico, where he’d been shooting an autobiographical film based on his life, inspired by Don Quixote, titled Don Barry (directed by Paul Smart). About a year after my original visit, we spoke on the phone about that project, as well as his upbringing, his love of Edward Hopper, the dreamworld, and much more.

I know you’ve been keeping yourself busy these past few months with various projects. Can you tell me about Mexico (2023), your most recently completed film that you shot in Mexico while filming Don Barry?

As you know, I’ve been working on this movie, Don Barry. In that film, there’s a series of clips of my films, but they’re not whole. There are parts of my films intercut throughout the movie, and at the end, there’s Mexico.

[Until now] I have never had to make a film or part of a film that had to meet any criteria set by someone else. This was the first time—and it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It had to have a Mexican flavor, so I had to figure out how to do that considering the very abstract way that I’ve been working. So I filmed some stuff there [in Mexico] and decided to start off with two or three shots that are more or less realistic, or, as they say in the business, “establishing shots.” [Laughs.] Then I transitioned to some indoor footage, similar to the studio films that I’ve been making. It all worked so beautifully.

One of the things that struck me was that it [Mexico] has a flavor of Edward Hopper, whose work I always loved. Even if everyone considers him a realist, I consider him the doorway to abstraction.

Have any of his paintings in particular inspired you?

There’s a painting he did [Cape Cod Evening, 1939] that features a dog on a lawn in front of a house, with someone on a [doorstep] looking off into the distance. The grass doesn’t look like grass; it looks like this churned-up stuff. That’s what I mean: he abstracts certain parts of the painting. You interpret it as a realistic element because grass is supposed to be there in front of the house, but the way he paints it, it doesn’t look like grass. That has always impressed me, and most of my films actually come out of that idea.

In your own work, you start with these “realistic elements,” but then you abstract them in subtle ways, usually through camera focus or natural lighting, that disrupt their immediate representational qualities.

In Late Summer (2013) and Fogged Windows (2013), practically every shot features recognizable settings, but they’re abstracted to a certain extent; it’s never completely one way or another. My new films deal with that idea even more, as they’re made with objects only. You recognize them as objects, but not the specific objects they are. I’m interested in creating a sense of another world—this other world that exists parallel to ours. We look at what we call the “real world,” but that’s only part of what’s there. If you look deeper, you see there’s a parallel universe happening, and that’s what’s really behind this work.

When I visited you at your studio last year, you mentioned that you believe there are an infinite number of parallel universes happening simultaneously to ours. I have to ask: is there a universe where Barry Gerson is not an artist?

[Laughs.] That’s an interesting question, because I have always felt my purpose is to be an artist. I’ve never been good at making money, and I can’t even make it off my own work, but somehow I’ve managed to survive.

I was born into a family of movie-theater owners, and my father would take me in the evenings to go around to check on the theaters. I would go in with him, sit down, and watch whatever was on the screen. Then, after about 10 minutes, there would be a tap on my shoulder, and we would leave to go to the next theater. We would repeat this process, and I would watch whatever was on the screen for a few minutes before moving on. So I saw hundreds, maybe thousands, of different film segments in this manner as a child.

Tell me about your earliest artworks—what you call your “light sculptures,” correct?

Yes, right. I was making those when I was 3, with glasses of water mounted on the windowsill in my bedroom. I probably got that idea from going up into the booth in one of the theaters and watching the projector. They were carbon arc projectors, so they had these “arcs,” as we called them, that would burn inside the projector, and that made this very intense, sharp light.

Anyway, getting back to the original question, I believe, based on all of this, I was meant to do what I have been doing. I’ve always seen myself as making a visual language of sorts. And I know that sounds a bit, well, much. [Laughs.] But I can’t see any other explanation.

Many of your 16mm films from the late ’60s and early ’70s are very short, usually under 10 minutes. Do you see any connection between your experiences as a child and this phase of your artistic practice?

It was always satisfying to me, because of that early training, that I could pack exactly what I wanted to say into a small space, without going on and on. That I could take an idea, or even a space, and use that itself as the structure for a film.

How were your films received when they premiered? I’ve seen your name and work associated with the structuralist film movement, but I get the feeling you wouldn’t agree with that assessment. 

Well, I’ve always been more or less ignored. When I first showed my films, the main audience was other artists. I used to get a lot of painters at my shows, but no other filmmakers. There was support, so it wasn’t like I was completely or totally ignored, but it’s just in comparison to others I was ignored.

There are “cliques” in the art world, and people in these cliques make certain kinds of work. And that work eventually catches on, and that’s what gets written about. Now, what I was doing was so individualistic that it didn’t fit nicely into something like the structuralist film movement, which my work has been attached to. I don’t call my work structuralist at all. What I did instead was borrow a concept from Michael [Snow] that solved the problem that I had been working on in the 1960s. My film Automatic Free Form Film (1968) is different from my films after, and that’s because I saw Wavelength (1967) and realized I could do what I’ve always wanted to do: make a film that was concentrated in one direction, that was constantly attentive to that one specific direction. Before then, I thought I needed many shots and images, but I wasn’t happy with where it was going.

Automatic Free Form Film does indeed feel like the film of someone right as they’re on the verge of a creative breakthrough, where the camera’s near-constant motion conveys a sense of restless energy. How do you view this film in relation to your broader artistic development?

I finished my first 16mm film, The Neon Rose, in 1965, and the period of time between then and ’68 was when I was realizing that I needed to go with what I was doing poetically in that film. I was also influenced by [Stan] Brakhage at the time, specifically Anticipation of the Night (1958), and many others. So Free Form came about bit by bit, and some of it was shot at the Sherman [Grinberg] Film Libraries in New York, which is where I worked at the time with [the avant-garde filmmaker] Andrew [Noren]. I had given that one a lot of time, and it felt right when it finally came about.

You made a film about Andrew, called Portrait of Andrew Noren (1972), where you pay tribute to a self-styled “light thief” by playing a trick with light. Could you share how this came about?

I wanted the film to resonate with the special qualities that I felt he had to offer, and somehow, it all happened in a matter of 15 or 20 minutes. I didn’t plan the film in advance as to what was going to happen, but when he came over to my studio, I turned around in my living room, and I saw his reflection in this mirror of mine as he was talking to me, and that’s when it all came to me at once. And then we shot it.

Considering how quickly this came about, how important is spontaneity in your film work?

Extremely. I find that I strive for this combination of forethought and spontaneity, and if it’s not there in a piece, then it’s not alive. There are so many things I put into consideration when I make a film, and that’s one of the basic precepts of how I work.

One of your most otherworldly films, Episodes from the Secret Life (1982), largely depicts two different activities occurring simultaneously on the same screen, by a man and a woman, but from different sides of the frame via mattes. Can you speak on how this relates to your separate photo-collage work, which often features many jarring juxtapositions of this sort?

That’s a very astute comment. That particular film does feature many elements of my photo-collage pieces.

When people think of dreams [in general], they often think of Dali, where solid things become liquid. I don’t have dreams like that, and never have. My dreams are just like my living time, except they have this edge to them that makes them a little bit different. They’re like Hopper paintings—just a tad off. So, I was interested in getting that kind of feeling into Episodes from the Secret Life, and that’s where the “Secret Life” gets its name: that’s the dreamworld.

After you finished that film, you didn’t complete another for almost two decades. Could you talk about the circumstances that led to this prolonged break?

What happened was that I moved from Brooklyn to Lexington [in upstate New York]. I was planning on making films, and for some reason it didn’t happen. I was also teaching at the time. After leaving the Rhode Island School of Design, I went to the Art Institute of Chicago for one semester a year, and I did that for a couple of years. I was conflicted in what I had to do because in teaching, the whole thing about the dominance of narrative film was very strong. But that’s not what I did. So I felt like I was living a lie to make a living, and felt very uncomfortable with the whole situation, which is mainly why I eventually left teaching.

After your films screened at Anthology at the end of May, the process of preserving and storing them as part of the archives began as well. What made you reach out to them to start this process? 

Well, I was concerned that I could die at any time. [Laughs.] I wanted my work to be in a place where it would be appreciated. If I left them at my house, who knows what would happen then.

You’ve been making art for several decades, and, despite what you just said, you show no signs of stopping anytime soon. How do you approach your craft now versus when you were making 16mm films?

I’ve honed in on what I find important, and for that reason I find it easier to do what I do, especially now that I’m making these studio films where I’m able to make images that seem like they’re done with a split screen when they’re not. I work with spaces, and I try to make them come alive, to stretch them, and I love when the image seems to be pulling to one area. I also have a clearer concept of what I’m after. And what I’m after is what I’m living 24 hours a day.

Paul Attard is a New York–based life-form whose writing on experimental cinema has also appeared in MUBI Notebook and Screen Slate.

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