If I were asked to describe Jimmie Durham in one sentence, I would say something quite simple—and definitely not new—but very true: he’s an artist’s artist. In other words, he’s one of those artists who is loved, respected, and emulated by other artists, both emerging and established. This is possibly the highest compliment to give any artist.
Durham has had a wide influence on more recent generations of colleagues ranging from Abraham Cruzvillegas to Rachel Harrison, Paweł Althamer to Gareth Moore, just to name a few.
He returns the respect given him not only by teaching and mentoring a large number of artists in his life, but also by creating quite a large number of works that pay homage to colleagues from different generations with whom he feels an affinity, either because of their formal innovations, in the case of Alexander Calder and Constantin Brancusi, or because of their conceptual rigor and sense of mischievousness, as with Marcel Duchamp and David Hammons.
I’m sure that many who encounter his work for the first time, or who haven’t spent time delving into his background, might think that Durham is a self-taught artist, judging by the DIY appearance of his work. As a sculptor, essayist, and poet who has made and exhibited work since 1963, Durham has a long history of studying art and engaging with the dialogue around contemporary art through both his works and his writings. His first solo exhibition took place at the public gallery of the University of Texas at Austin in 1965 during a period when the cultural and political uses of material, objects, and space were central to his practice.
Since then, his substantial career has deftly bridged the space between art and activism. He moved to Europe in 1969 and studied at L’École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva. Along with three other sculptors he formed a group called Draga, which researched ways to bring sculpture into the public realm. At the same time, Durham worked with indigenous friends from South America to form an organization called Incomindios, which attempted to coordinate and encourage support for the struggle of indigenous peoples of the Americas.
In 1973 he returned to the US to become a full-time organizer in the American Indian Movement (AIM). During this time, he served as director of the International Indian Treaty Council and representative to the United Nations. In the early 1980s Durham went back to his initial and pure interest in art. He was living in New York City, working with a loose group of artists who were Puerto Rican, African American, Asian American and American Indian, following the encouragement of his partner, Brazilian artist, Maria Thereza Alves.
At the core of his practice lies the attempt to deconstruct the fundamental concepts of Western culture and dismantle stereotypes and constructions imposed by dominant cultures. This deconstruction results in a wide range of cleverly combined eclectic materials that trigger a reflection on the component parts of art and reality. Using a variety of languages—such as drawing, writing, video, performance, and sculpture—Durham orchestrates cultural symbols and commonplace objects, creating a constant dialectic and struggle between beauty and destructiveness.
His work is strongly related to matter; it possesses a raw force that comes from the recognition that a material—often readymade wood, stone, or iron—has an evocative power in and of itself.
It would be impossible, in such a small space, to attempt a synthesis of Durham’s artistic thought, but we can undoubtedly recognize the will to break every convention, to practice both mischief and decontextualization, in all his works.
In many of his sculptures and installations, the symbols of modern life and well-being (furniture, refrigerators, cars, aircrafts) are crushed beneath the weight of stones and boulders, which Durham describes as references to architecture. He believes that architectural structures deceive us into living under the guise of stability.
With his intellectual stature and the aesthetic choices he made in his career, Durham has been able to avoid any crystallized reading of his work, becoming instead an artist who defies labels, avoiding the oversimplification that plagues many established artists. Jimmie Durham defies categorization, emphasizing that personal identities should not be used as flags or coats of arms, but should instead be personal and existential ciphers that resists a world that insists on division rather than inclusion. As he told me in April:
I’m not yet old, but I’m beginning to get old. And I’ve noticed that traveling around, half the world is in front of me and half of it is in back. Therefore, I must be at the center of the world. And, I like that feeling. I like seeing all the different things, here at the center of the world. The flowers, the humans, the dogs, the stones, everything. Because I don’t like to be in one place. I never have liked to be at home. My ambition in life, I have said this many times, is to become a homeless orphan. And it’s not so easy, because there’s such nice things to love in the world. And one easily feels at home in every place, where I’d rather not feel at home. I’d rather be a stranger.