The Weave of Memory
Larry Schulte Intertwines Loss, Reflectiveness & Survival in His Art
by Philip F. Clark
Larry Schulte is an artist whose graphic, layered works over the past forty years have been as much about context as they are about subtext. A long-term AIDS/HIV survivor, his remarkable range of work, which over time has continued to develop his practice of physically weaving strips of painted paper as well as images into single works, have a confluence of the tangible and the ephemeral. A supreme use of color, and the “looming” practice of his method, combine in works that evoke both the presence of the human, and the celebration of the spirit. Yet, these works are empowered by a kind of vulnerability, a risk any artist takes to create and pay tribute to memory as much as to the act of documenting the present. Two periods of pandemic, the AIDS crisis, and the current coronavirus crisis, have given him a context of survival, in which to remember lives lost, and it also provides him with an ever-present subtext of strength in the urge to live and create. His work powerfully attests to both.
Philip F. Clark: I was thinking back to the first time I saw your work, in the ‘80s, when you had your studio in one of the old spice factories in Brooklyn, under the bridge (I can still smell that scent!). I was really struck by the beauty of the work, but also its composition—strips of photographs, I believe?—that you wove into a final composition. I loved the way that the process lent to the idea of layering and juxtapositions—collages of multiple meanings. The way that the images were a whole made of many parts. Has that continued to be your primary method of making your images and if so, how?
Larry Schulte: I love those observations. My primary method of making art the past forty-plus years has been weaving strips together, as you observed “layering and creating juxtapositions—collages of multiple meanings”; images of a whole made of many parts. I could never describe the work that well. But I do have one variation from your observation. I have been primarily weaving paintings together, rather than photographs. You happened to visit my studio at a time when I had diverged from that primary method. The woven photos were a separate path that I went down during the AIDS crisis. Mostly, they were to create images for pre-serving memories of friends, many of whom were dying or had died. It was the first time that I had made what I call portraits, though still interspersed with color and pattern. I have sometimes since then used photographs to weave, but photographs of patterns and architecture, not of people. The only other time that the human form has entered my work is in the current Covid Pages project, created during isolation. Both of these periods were times of pandemics.
Your move to Albuquerque, New Mexico was a big change—how has a new geography enriched or changed your work since your move?
My husband and I retired to Albuquerque in 2015. My work immediately changed in that I was using brighter and purer color. The light here is wonderful, a reason that many painters over the past century have moved here. That bright sunny outlook changed the past year during the Covid pandemic.
How has your work in this time of isolation, evolved in terms of subject or processes?
Since the pandemic hit in March of 2020, I have not been working in my studio, where I create large woven painted paper pieces. I needed to find something smaller, that I could work on at home. I had already been considering a project that included collage and machine stitching, and had completed a stitched collage piece in the studio. To that end, I had purchased several used books with interesting images, with the thought of cutting up the images for collage. One of the books was titled Fritz Kahn. Fritz Kahn (1888–1968) was a German doctor who was interested in illustrating how the human body worked as if the body’s systems and organs were machines. The book is an oversized coffee table-style volume. In looking through the book, it occurred to me that rather than cut up the images, I could simply use the pages as a base for works on which I would collage and stitch. Though my work has always been about color and pattern, it seemed appropriate during Covid-19 to include body images, as a statement on the frailty of the human body—the same as I used photographs of friends during the AIDS crises. The completed works are all 12 by 9 inches and over seventy have been completed. The publication Surface Design has just published a blog that describes my work during this time. It is available at: www.surfacedesign.org/pandemic-projects-two-worlds-of-larry-schulte. The blog describes both my primary work as well as current work. “Two Worlds of Larry Schulte” will be exhibited in solo exhibits this fall in New Mexico and Nebraska.
As an HIV long-term survivor, how has your art responded to, or been inspired by HIV/AIDS as a subject? Certainly not all of your art directly relates to it as a main subject, but how as an artist has it been a part of creating your work? The ‘pink triangle’ portrait series—these were created in memory of friends in your life, lost to AIDS. How did these first come about?
Most of my work does not relate directly to HIV/AIDS. But I don’t think any artist’s work can be separated from life experiences, so all of my work has been affected by HIV/AIDS. There are a few works that are direct responses to HIV/AIDS. The photographic works you referenced are a case in point. The first one, Peter Dances, Silent, was a response to the AIDS death of my best friend from graduate school at the University of Kansas. Peter had a PhD in psychology from KU but was also a ballet dancer. The work consists of two identical photos of him in a dance pose. On one photo, I painted a pink triangle—the symbol Nazis used for internment camp prisoners during WWII who were homosexual. On the second photo, I painted the word SILENT, a reference to the then popular ACT UP trope, SILENCE = DEATH. The word silent referring to the fact that Peter was dead. A series of these works included those two symbols painted on the photographs before they were cut into strips and woven. In some cases the person had died of AIDS, in others I was simply worried about the person. The self-portrait in this series reflects my knowledge that I was HIV-positive and had expectations of an early death.
Some other works also refer more generally to HIV/AIDS. That reference is less obvious. They consist of my regular woven painted paper pieces that then had black paint applied to most of the surface, obliterating underlying work. It took me many years to realize that this dark paint over the top of the work was a response to the volume of death around HIV/AIDS, the darkness and depression that was a result. The painting Look Around Gone: Christopher, Peter, John is one of those works. The Light Peeked Through is another.
The subject of HIV/AIDS has created a vast archive of past and ongoing work in this subject. It is a documented history of not only the disease and its aftermath, but also a document of the artists creating it. Are there specific artists whose work relates to what you are doing, or are creating work that inspires your own?
There are so many inspiring artists who have addressed HIV/AIDS that I admire. Frank Moore (1953–2002) directly confronted HIV/AIDS in remarkable detailed paintings. Two other artists whose work immediately come to mind: Ross Bleckner’s floating orbs of light against a dark background and Eric Rhein’s exquisite wire sculptures of hummingbirds and leaves. Somehow, for me, these less direct responses carry more grief, speak more directly to human vulnerability. A number of amazing writers also addressed HIV/AIDS in inspiring ways. Poet Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir made me cry.
As readers of our magazine know, you are also a poet. How do poetry and art find
context or relationships between your work, the verbal and the visual? How much of your visual art includes the verbal or linguistic?
My poetry and visual art works have always remained fairly separate. In the year 1995 I was finding it particularly difficult to create visual art. I had taken a class at MoMA about John Cage and his ways of creating. I wanted to try some of his ideas, so I set up a random number method of choosing words from written articles and arranging them in lines of words equal to numbers in the Fibonacci Sequence. I then used obituaries from the NY Times that listed AIDS as a cause of death as source material. In a way, this is a tribute to those brave enough to make public that cause of death, as there was still much stigma associated with AIDS. Using these “rules” that I had made up, I was able to create without the angst of thinking about the work. I simply followed my rules. I kept up this project throughout the year, and ended up with a book of poetry. Removing the process to arm’s length allowed me to keep creating.
Picasso is once quoted as saying, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” but I tend to believe that some of that dust is very elemental to the creative process; even when we need renewal and replenishing. How do you replenish and renew?
I have always worked in more than one medium, so that when one blocked me I could simply move to another. I have a loom, and love weaving—usually mundane things like scarves and rugs—but the repetitive process slows me down and lets me think. Also, I created screen prints at Manhattan Graphics Center (an artist-run cooperative print shop in Manhattan) for many years. And of course the poetry is another outlet that takes me away from the visual to another world. These separate media refresh me, give me time to think before moving back into the woven painted paper work.
What current projects are you working on, or would like to develop?
The Fritz Kahn, Covid Pages, project from isolation is winding down, and I think will soon be finished. I have created a few abstract works that use a similar process: using one of my screen prints as a base and then adding collage and machine stitching. I will pursue this as one direction. As always, I will return to woven painted paper works. The Covid pandemic seems to be waning, and I will return to my studio to do larger work.
Philip F. Clark, A&U’s Poetry Editor, is the author of the poetry collection, The Carnival of Affection (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). He currently is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at City College, New York, where he received his MFA in Creative Writing. He is an Associate Poetry Editor at The Night Heron Barks, and the editor of The Poet’s Grin. His poetry and reviews have been published in Lambda Literary, Vox Populi, (Re:) An Ideas Journal, and HIV Here and Now. His other published writing has been included in Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book (ITNA Press, 2019), and Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares and Rebels Press, 2019). His poetry in Tiferet Journal has been nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize.