Sunflower Phonebook Momento Mori No. 11 and No. 14
Pastel on phonebook page
Each 11 x 9 inches (27.94 x 22.86 cm)
Courtesy Fierman and the artist
Jimmy Wright (b. 1944, Union City, Tennessee) studied at the Art Institute of Chicago where he became friends with the False Image group, including Philip Hanson, Christina Ramberg and Roger Brown. His early work was lost in a fire in 1970. Wright settled in New York in 1974 and started making pastels and drawings of the city’s gay life in bathhouses and bars until about 1976. Wright renovated a three-story building on the Bowery where he set up a studio and he and his partner Ken Nuzzo lived together. For much of the 1980s, Wright documented his dreams in ballpoint sketches on yellow library cards. In 1988, Nuzzo was diagnosed with AIDS, prompting Wright to begin his “Flowers for Ken” paintings of sunflowers, which were made during the course of Nuzzo’s three-year illness and eventual death in 1991.
Even though they were born from a moment of profound loss, Wright would eventually begin to understand his flower paintings as capable of transforming tragedy through camp, believing sincerely in their ability to hold registers of affect without denying the kitschy sentimentality of the form. He came to think of his paintings as a kind of drag of the floral still life. Working within that tradition depended on understanding painting’s clichés and repeated motifs, in other words, knowing the rules in order to break them—a strategy not unlike a drag queen’s grasp of the intricate trompe-l’œil illusion of femininity…. In these works, Wright conceives painting as an affective record, a method of survival, and a campy disruption of one of art history’s most staid and established forms.
The sunflower drawings on phonebook pages continue these themes. Drawn over the names and phone numbers of Manhattan residents, most unfamiliar but some known to Wright, these sunflowers record the large network of connection and loss associated with AIDS.