The Artist Jimmie Durham: A Long Time Gone, but Welcomed Back

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Jimmie Durham in his studio in Naples, Italy. This 76-year-old American artist has his first solo show in the United States in 22 years, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Credit Giulio Piscitelli for The New York Times

By JORI FINKEL ~ NYT

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LOS ANGELES — It was a big night for the 76-year-old American artist Jimmie Durham. That evening, Jan. 28, was the opening of his retrospective at the Hammer Museum here, eagerly anticipated because he has not had a solo show in the United States in 22 years.

Along with collectors and curators, dozens of artists came to see the works firsthand: Charles Gaines, Liz Glynn, Tacita Dean and Andrea Fraser included. Crowds surrounded a small army of gangly, totemic wood sculptures enlivened with clothing, animal skulls and paint. They lined up to see an equally unruly life-size self-portrait — a funky assemblage that parodied a “job wanted” ad, with handwritten notes on a canvas body promoting the artist’s attributes. The words “useless nipple,” “12 hobbies!” and “I am basically lighthearted” ran across his chest. The work had a shell for an ear and a turquoise stone for an eye.

But viewers had to make do with the self-portrait, because the artist with bright blue eyes and a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor was nowhere to be seen. Mr. Durham, a Cherokee Indian, has not stepped foot in the United States since 1995, the year of his last New York gallery show, at Nicole Klagsbrun. Given his history as an activist critical of the United States government, dating to his leadership in the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, published reports have said he was living in a self-imposed exile in Europe.

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“Head,” from 2006. Credit Jimmie Durham/Fondazione Morra Greco, Naples, Italy, via Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

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“That’s not really the case,” Mr. Durham explained in a rare interview, conducted over three Skype video calls from Naples, Italy, where he and his partner, the artist Maria Thereza Alves, have turned a 12th-century convent, more recently used as a leather factory, into a studio with living quarters. He said he couldn’t visit Los Angeles this year on doctor’s orders.

“I wish I could have come for the show,” he said. “I have had many stupid problems over the last three years: strokes and broken bones and this and that. And I’m not quite over them.”

Still, he acknowledged that he stopped living in New York in the 1980s — and gave up having a gallery there soon after, just as he was gaining a foothold in the market — in large part out of frustration with the art world’s increasing commercialization. “I guess you could call leaving New York a statement or position in that I didn’t want to be judged by my monetary success. I didn’t want to be a part of the American dream.”

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