BY GEMA ALAVA, APRIL 2022
When I moved to New York in 2000 I couldn’t have imagined that Lawrence Weiner and Ted Mooney would be like part of my family. I’m still processing the fact that they recently passed away, only a couple of months apart. This April I feel like an orphan.
I never called Lawrence “Larry,” and sometimes I called Ted “Mooney.” What we call the pillars of our life is important. Because we all need pillars.
I was aware that their names echoed, and sometimes we joked about that, but whenever we engaged in conversation our minds would challenge one another. Later, in the solitude of our studios, new ideas would arise.
I’ve been asked several times what I learned from them; how they impacted my work; what support and advice they gave. But somehow it was the other way around. Let me explain.
I met both Ted and Lawrence by pure chance, not knowing at first who they were. From the first conversation I recognized that they were sharp, quick, extremely intelligent, respectful, and most importantly: intrigued by life itself and in search of fuel for artistic imagination.
Later I learned that sometimes, when you are famous or influential, you take the risk of people not being interested in you or your health, but in your reflection instead. “I am very confused, Gema,” Lawrence used to say when we commented on the state of the Cultural World.
I met Lawrence during the making of my project Tell Me (2008-2009), which was based on having one-on-one conversations in an art museum when it was closed to the public. The performances would be recorded by the security cameras. All that you need is the presence of the artist, I used to say. The project ended when I personally invited the director of the museum to participate in this ephemeral art project. (Ted Mooney would be the witness of that moment. Artist Robert Ryman was one of the many participants who left their mark in the notebook that documents this artistic adventure.)
One year before meeting Lawrence, I met Ted. He participated in Tell Me and knew about my first novel, which I had written when I was nineteen years old—structured in sequences that moved across time periods. He knew the work of the writers I used to have coffee talks with in my hometown, Madrid. Ted could read Spanish and had studied the outcome of the Spanish Civil War in great detail, so he was able to connect with the many layers of my work. I felt so grateful.
Lawrence loved to hear what children had to say about his work at MoMA, where I worked as a museum educator. I would call him after my tours. Once I got so impressed by Lawrence’s words in a video that I told him: “Your students were so moved. What you said to them was so deep and sharp.” But he replied: “Come on, Gema. We both know that you can do the exact same thing I did.” I laughed and said: “You are right.”
Neither Weiner, nor Mooney nor Ryman wanted to teach me a thing. They wanted me to get to know myself. This was their biggest lesson. They encouraged me to share what flew around in my head, and then they’d say: come visit soon! That was our ritual.
In college I was made to believe that without the approval of a critic, a curator or an institution, an artist could not move ahead. But they proved me wrong with their admiration of my work. That’s how they supported me.
When great minds see you as their equal, breathing air is all you need. Within your uniqueness your voice will be unique. No one can teach you how to be who you are.
When Robert Ryman died in February 2019, I wrote on my platform HexagonsGlobal.com the essay The Light of Robert Ryman, in which I explained the previous paragraph.
I learned from them by example. Many of their actions were master classes. When Lawrence made a piece for my project Find Me (2009), which consisted of asking nine artists—including Robert Ryman—to create an artwork in order for me to hide it in secret places, I gave Weiner a stack of invitations for the presentation. A week later he told me: “I walked all over Chelsea and handed out your invitations personally.” I couldn’t believe it.
Ted didn’t give me any artwork to hide, instead he wrote a story about the loss of artistic innocence—as a reaction to how the museums behaved with regard to our projects—to be published in my upcoming book Hexagons: Pollinate Culture. “The price of maturity is that you must lose some of your ideals. But that only makes your imaginative work better,” he wrote to me when he mailed the text.
Mooney would talk about battlefields, Weiner about storms and big waves in the ocean, Ryman about being in the right light. And I understood what they meant. If I believe in my own potential, regardless of pandemics, or cultural or financial crises, it is thanks to them. When Ryman died I concentrated on my project HEXAGONS: Cultural Beehive, which focuses on how artists can persevere even in the most extreme conditions.
Do you want to step on me? Go ahead, because with that I’ll make an art piece. This is how I began to place 24 carat gold hexagons around the globe, marking locations and individuals who inspired me and could inspire others; as if metaphorically I had melted my previous installations of golden shirts and poured them inside hexagonal honey bees’ panels.
Mooney, Weiner and Ryman had at their homes installations of my golden shirts. Weiner had his shirt placed above his working table. Mooney talked about living hanging by a thread. What’s important is asking questions, not answering them, I would say. And they agreed with me.
It is in their memory that I keep working while leaving space for interpretation, and searching for artists who believe in the power of their own potential. Because artists supporting artists is the essence of Culture.
Copyright Gema Álava, 2022
*Thank you to both Snap Editions and writer Cristen Hemingway Jaynes for generously editing Gema Alava’s text in honor of Mooney, Weiner and Ryman, and their support towards artists and writers.