To celebrate the recent launch of An Excess of Quiet: Selected Sketches by Gustavo Ojeda, 1979–1989 (Soberscove), Printed Matter hosted a conversation this past December between co-editor and poet, Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué, and writer, curator, and critic Jarrett Earnest. An Excess of Quiet, co-edited with Erich Kessel, presents over 200 sketches by Cuban American painter Gustavo Ojeda, who passed away in 1989 at age 30 from AIDS-related complications; his work can be found in the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry. In their conversation, Ojeda-Sagué and Earnest discussed, among other topics, queer archives, alternative art histories, reconstitution of artistic lineages and legacies. We are pleased to share the edited transcript of their dialogue here.

Jarrett Earnest: To begin, could you describe how you came to make this book, An Excess of Quiet, and what you wanted from it?

Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué: It's funny, what I wanted from it is probably the last question that got answered. In the catalog for your exhibition, The Young and Evil, you say, “Curating The Young and Evil, I [dove] into sources of unpredictable size, scope, and location, and resurface[ed] with stories and, only at last, themes,” and it’s a pretty similar case here. I have lived with the art of my uncle Gustavo Ojeda for my entire life. My uncle was a relatively well-known New York City East Village painter, mostly recognized for these almost-impressionistic nightscape paintings of the city. He exhibited with people like Wojnarowicz and Basquiat. I never met him—he died in 1989, from HIV complications—but I grew up with a lot of his paintings.

One of the things that happened in the aftermath of his death was that his art was distributed to family, inventoried, and stored away, though there were a couple retrospectives in the years after his passing. But after a certain point, his work stopped circulating in exhibitions. It did live in my home, other family members’ homes, and in the home of his longtime partner, Lester, who was like an uncle to me. At a certain point in my life, Lester introduced me to the sketchbooks, which I had never seen before, because he kept them in boxes in a storage space. What was interesting about them was that they were really nothing like the paintings, but they shared something: a mood that was, as I’ve described it, like electric sleep, a low-grade charge. So tranquil and meditative, yet also pulsating and a bit anxiety-producing. And when I saw them, I was just like, whoa, what the hell?! How did I not know these existed?

Lester died in 2016. And when he died, he left me the sketchbooks, among Gustavo's papers, paintings, and other objects. I know books, but I don't really know the art world, and I don't know the exhibition world at all. And so, I realized I had something that I could do: take the sketchbooks and arrange them, as a way to reintroduce Gustavo in the 21st century, reintroduce him through that private work, instead of the work that was once his calling card. And that became this book, a collection of 240-something sketches. I brought Erich Kessel on to help me take about 10,000 sketches and bring that down to a selection that would make sense as a book object.

Earnest: When someone dies, when anyone dies, it becomes a huge production: what happens to their stuff? And that’s when human beings behave like their best selves or, mostly, their worst selves, because all of the psychodynamics about the relationship that they did or didn't have with that person can then be mapped in their absence onto this collection of things. And because of that, the history of how artists' estates get moved into the future, how the works get valued or not valued, preserved or not, and the ways in which that happens is very fraught; the result of very real decisions that human beings make about them. And so, the thing that I liked about this book, from the beginning, is that this is someone's project, right? This book would not exist were it not someone's project to make it exist. There actually isn't—and I mean this in an extremely positive way—but it's like there's almost no audience for this book….

Ojeda-Sagué: I agree with you. I understand what you mean.

Earnest: In a way, making the book envisions or coalesces an audience, like a fantasy audience, around itself, rather than saying, there's an audience for this book, I'm going to give them what they want. And so I'm wondering, at what point did you look at this body of work of your uncle and start thinking about it as something that you really wanted to take on as a project, rather than to say, I love this work, I understand the importance of this person in my family, and just leave it at that. But to take that extra step and say, no, I'm going to make sure that this work has a life.

Ojeda-Sagué: I'll answer the direct question in a second. I think you're totally right to mention the unfortunate drama and logistical hell of estate things. And I think, people always say, oh, art, it's who you know, but it's also who takes care of your shit. And Gustavo was very lucky, actually, that Lester and his friends, when he passed away, inventoried a lot of his work and made slides of all of his paintings, kept his sketchbooks, and organized his papers. Even though my family, which for various reasons we don't have to get into, couldn't really do the work of exhibiting or distributing or circulating the art. What Gustavo's network did well, when he died, was keep things. Basically, this book became my project when I realized just how much was actually there. I always thought of my uncle's life narrative as interrupted in some way. But I realized that his story could be told differently, in the sense that there was a lot of material that needed to be cared for and curated differently now, rather than how it might have been when he was alive, in order to achieve something that resonates today. So I really agree with your estimation that the book imagines an audience. However, I also want to say—and I'm sure that this has been true for your own curation work as well with The Young and Evil—that one of the experiences of putting this book out into the world is suddenly meeting all these people who already knew Gustavo, but who I never knew about because some of these relationships are just not on paper. So, although I am imagining an audience and trying to fight to coalesce an audience, I'm also meeting the audience that is already there. And they're coming into conversation with me. There are these cross-communications where I meet somebody, and they say, I knew that scene, I knew Gustavo, I knew these people. Did you know he did this? Did you know he didn't do that? It’s an ongoing back-and-forth.

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Gustavo Ojeda in 1982 in front of his painting, Central Park Evening, 1982. Courtesy of Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué and Francisco Ojeda

Earnest: I'm going to ask this question again, and I don't mean to make it too personal, except for that I mean it to be personal. I think to say that this is a project about your relative is a shorthand that seems to provide an answer to what I want to know but doesn’t quite, which is: for your own project—as a scholar, as a poet, as an artist, as a human being—what was it that connected you to this work, and to the legacy of your uncle, that led you to want to make sure that both had a future life?

Ojeda-Sagué: I get what you mean. The first thing is that my father and uncle had a relationship that heavily parallels my own relationship with my brother. There’s also the connection I have to Gus as a gay working artist myself. But more importantly, when I saw the sketchbooks, which also included some journal entries, which are left out of this book very purposefully, one of the things I noticed were statements by Gus about feeling, especially as he got sicker, disappointed in himself, in his output, in his productivity, that he wasn't as successful as he thought he could be or should be.

I’m a poet, so I recognize a lot of that anxiety. But I also, as a person in a different period of time with a different perspective on the work, I just saw that he was wrong. Wrong in the sense that there’s so much that we might count as productive now that didn't count as productive to him then. What I saw in the sketchbooks was a volcanic—dormant volcanic—potential. So I was just like, there's something here, and I'd like to bite into it for a little bit. I started by digitizing everything. I literally scanned every page of all of his sketchbooks, and it took me probably a year. And then I sent everything to Erich. And I was like, Erich, what the heck is here? It started there. It started with a hunch that there was something, and eventually it coalesced.

Earnest: Sketchbooks are very particular things, and they're very rarely remarkable in the ways that we're trained to understand individual works of art as telegraphing something like “artistic achievement,” because that's not what they're about. What they're about is almost a way of thinking or a way of being present in a space in which you are relating through a line; calibrating your visual perception with your consciousness and your bodily perception in the moment that you're making the drawing. What I think is really powerful about the number of drawings that you brought together is that in going through all of them, you really do start getting the sense of a consciousness, or of the mind of the person who is making the drawings, that far surpasses the quality or skill of any single given drawing, although they are very beautiful sketches. I want to know more about your experience of that. You said as a poet, I know books even if I don't know exhibitions. And in this particular book, what was it that you found when you brought it all together, that either showed you something else about the work or about what the project itself is, that you might not have thought of when you were approaching it?

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Gustavo Ojeda, 1983. Courtesy of Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué and Francisco Ojeda

Ojeda-Sagué: When I saw this sketch, what struck me was the instability of the figuration, the fact that it was clearly drawn over and worked over and erased, and that a lot of the figure was done in basically one line running across all her features. This sketch, for me, captured a lot of the themes that I was seeing in the sketchbooks at large. I agree with you that one of the things that characterizes this book is that the sketches work better together than they do apart. They’re remarkability is actually based on their collectivity and the fact that they're being re-found as a body of work rather than as pieces that are capital G, Great. This sketch was one of the first ones that I saw, and I was like, I'm seeing something about the practice of representing that body and how tenuous and difficult that is, but also how the result, partly because of its incredible fractured nature, has a unique shine to it.

I think that this is one of the reasons why I wanted us to be in conversation, because your recent curation and research, specifically on queer modernism, is really about bringing these private pictures—portraits, photographs of the body—into a new collectivity. The work of somebody like George Platt Lynes, or the paintings of Paul Cadmus, feel really in dialogue with Gustavo’s work, because there's a lot at stake about getting the erotic right or representing it in some way. But, also, it's generally not exhibited work; it's daily, it's practice. So, one of the things that I hope comes out of this publication is, for audiences that both did and did not know Gus before, that people see that there's something here that signals not just a vast potential, but also a maker who was struggling over this practice, and who was successful because he was struggling.

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Paul Cadmus, Monroe Wheeler, 1938 © 2019 Estate of Paul Cadmus / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Earnest: When you start actually mucking around in the archives, you find that there are many people who had careers and had shows and were friends with all the famous people and whatever, and you never hear about them. And that's not unusual; that's normal. And actually, the reason why you know some things and not other things is frighteningly arbitrary. Usually it's about the relationship of the people who are entrusted with taking care of the things and the relationships that they have, et cetera. But normally, if someone were trying to resuscitate a “forgotten” artist, one might say, I'm putting together a catalogue raisonnée of the major paintings that are in important collections and I'm reintroducing them to the world. What is very touching about this book, I think, partly, is its intellectual and emotional honesty, that it’s not working to make those kinds of claims. These are sketches, which are almost always considered “minor.” Sketchbook drawings are even below drawings as a category of art object. One of the things that you point out in the introduction is that these sketches don't even justify themselves as being work toward a final painting. They're in and of themselves a kind of practice that an artist has to do in order to make, in order to be.

The sketches in the book that struck me immediately are of people asleep on the subway, or on the bus. And I think these works turned a key in my understanding of what was interesting to this artist. The works that he is known for, as you explain in the book, are these large cityscapes that are empty, and they're at night. And thus the beautiful title for this book, An Excess of Quiet, is immediately resonant as talking about these images, these unpopulated images at night. But when I started looking at these drawings of people's faces, when they're asleep, they showed how he was after a kind of relationship and connection and vulnerability. There is intimacy in looking at someone in public who is absorbed in sleep. I have many times been that “drunk girl” late at night on the subway who was falling asleep and thinking, I hope I don't miss my stop, while nodding in and out of consciousness, or whatever. There's this weird agreement that you have with the people around you on the subway, that you're all there together and hopefully no one's going to fuck with you. And you're visible to each other, you don't have the fantasy that you're not in a room with other people or on a train. And I think there's something about this collection of sketches that you put together that so beautifully captures that feeling, of the strange aspect of being in New York, where you are alone in your consciousness while intersecting with this very complicated social world.

Ojeda-Sagué: I completely agree with you, Jarrett. One of the things I learned, actually from Gustavo's peers and friends, is that a lot of these drawings were made quite quickly and without the close attention you might have in, say, a traditional portrait or something. One of Gustavo's friends mentioned to me once that the way that some of these were made was, basically, take a look at a person, and then, so that they don't get offended because you're staring, look somewhere else, and then draw what you saw. So a lot of these were made with a notebook in Gustavo's lap while he quickly drew. This is something that Jonathan Katz wrote about in his blurb, that there's an incredible speed to a lot of these drawings that doesn't feel like—the drawings don't feel anxious and rushed, though they were in practice. They feel tender and quiet and simple. That's one of the things that is really appealing to me about these sketches, how provisional they were, how they didn’t have to be something better than just themselves. They were there to be sketches, just a way of going on, just a way of being in public space and sharing air with people.

Erich and I populated the first chunk of the book with just those sleepers, because they were, to [us], the most unique feature of the sketchbooks. So the first 80 pages or so are just people sleeping. This is something that draws together our concerns, because I feel like one of the things that you've been writing on is—I'm going to take a fashion word here—the idea of “the basic.” Something that is fundamental, lived with, lived in, practiced, as a form of art. It's not what lives on as the “great art object”—the basic is almost never going to be the great art object. And that's how I think of these sketches, as a kind of basic.

Earnest: You are a poet and you are a scholar and your scholarship focuses on pornography. The history of sexuality has a particularly precarious relationship to archives and how things get saved or not saved or remembered and the stories that get told about them or with them. And I'm sure that this, in many ways, seems like a discrete project which is separate from your scholarly work, but what is it that you carry from your impulses as a scholar and as a researcher, into the way that you’ve engaged with your uncle's work?

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Gustavo Ojeda, 1980. Courtesy of Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué and Francisco Ojeda

Ojeda-Sagué: One of the things that comes up in my introductory essay to the sketches is that they populate Gustavo’s painting practice. The paintings are empty; it's just urban space. But the sketches are populated with people outside of space, almost without space. It's this weird counterpoint that makes for this meditation on what it is to live in a city. Why that matters for sexuality studies is that gay people have, especially in the last 100 years, been major innovators in the relationship between sex, space, and the city. And, to me, this is a book that has an echo of cruising cultures in it, even though it's a very—I don't know, I would say that it's a pretty vanilla book; it's not a sexy book per se.

As a PhD student in Chicago, I write about the history and aesthetics of gay pornography. Any time something is porn, it has an archival problem. “Porn,” for many people, automatically means that it shouldn't be archived, it shouldn't be preserved or protected, though there are a lot of incredible archives of pornography, like the Leather Archives here in Chicago. One of the issues that historians of pornography face is that your object of study is always deteriorating, in the sense of your ability to access it and view it. Can you find the video? Who saved it? Was the distributor of that video actually the distributor of that video, or did they use a pseudonym because there were a ton of legal issues? So the history of gay pornography earlier than 1975, is always about, how did they get the stuff that they got? And it’s a similar problem for the erotic photography you catalog in The Young and Evil. So, I think the connection is that both pornography and Gustavo’s work, and queer archives in general, are always in some way provisional, are always in some way troubled or contingent or ephemeral. And I think much of the work of queer historians, and of queer people just dealing with archives, is staking a claim that something matters without presenting it as canonical great with a capital G. That's a very hard balance to strike.

Earnest: Well, I think that there is also an aspect to making a book and putting it in the world which is hopeful in the way that…like a child who puts a message in a bottle and tosses it to sea...there's always this hopeful fantasy to it, like, go little book, maybe someone will find you and then circuitously that will come back to me. And I think that's one of the reasons why I really was happy to be introduced to you and to collaborate on this conversation with Julia Klein at Soberscove. Because, just as a little plug for this publisher, I really feel that the books that they're publishing are those little hopeful messages in a bottle for the future, that don't really make any sense other than that this very specific set of people thought it was worth doing. Which is actually the way that anything gets done. But we've naturalized the forces of intellectual history as though it unfolds in some way that makes sense, which it doesn't. I really have treasured a lot of the publishing that Soberscove has done. And this book is such a perfect example of it, because you don't know, one can't imagine the world that this book will be found in 20 years from now. But by making it into a book, you make available the possibility that it can be received in 20 years or 50 years, when the discourse that we have around art is completely different, and culture and politics and identity, etcetera. And, so, in a way, to me, it's just the most nakedly tender-hearted gesture to have done this.

Ojeda-Sagué: I appreciate that. With this, there's a slight difference in the sense that I knew that there was a community around Gustavo before, decades ago. I had the evidence that there was a community that rallied around, not just Gustavo’s art, but also Gustavo himself, and one that he really cared for. There was a scene, there was a real social circle. I think one of the things that's hardest for people like us, trying to recuperate queer history or queer historical moments, especially from the height of the plague years or the modernist period, where there's a lot of loss—how do you recover the social circles that were there? Because sometimes you can recover the art, sometimes the art gets cared for, but social circles, not so much. That’s one of the most revealing things, too, if you can get it. I find that much of the recovery of social communities happens as a result of other recovery projects, often working in tandem. I've already met, and actually ended up putting back into contact, people who knew Gustavo, because they heard about this book, or something like that. And I realized that much of the work that we call recuperative is not only about solidifying something into a form that can go into a library, but also that brings co-conspirators into a new relation with each other, even if it's so many years on.

One of the things that you mention in The Young and Evil, as an introduction to how you went about the project of curating that work, was that you needed “pure attention” to your materials. “Pure attention” is a phrase from D.H. Lawrence, if I'm not mistaken. You say pure attention was what you needed to get the material— contingent, erotic, private, daily material—to have some kind of new life. The perhaps unanswerable question I want to ask you is: what does that pure attention look like?

Installation view, The Young and Evil, David Zwirner, New York, 2019. Courtesy David Zwirner

Earnest: Well, in the case of that line of D.H. Lawrence, that comes from an essay that he was writing about Etruscan culture. There are no historical texts we can understand that were written by them, because the language is undeciphered. The textual sources we have were written by the enemies of the Etruscans. It's all Roman conquer stuff, calling the Etruscans “barbarians,” which is a very skewed perspective. And so beyond that, you just have a bunch of stuff. And the stuff was prized very early on as an exotic trophy—extremely elegant. Lawrence had a kind of Etruscan obsession, and fortunately for him the most incredible paintings were discovered in Etruscan tombs in the late 19th century. And he was visiting these tombs and asking himself, how do you write this history? How do you start accessing the story of these people whom you will never know, and you don't even know anyone that could possibly know what they were like? Because it was thousands of years ago. He said, it's almost like a form of divination, it doesn't matter what you use, whether it's tea leaves or eagle entrails or looking in the fire. But, if you use this phenomenon to devote yourself to paying attention, you can divine some information, you've got the direct connection to the great mystery. And the result is a sense of the past that is a response to the living present that is conjuring it up.

On one hand, that's really goofy. But what’s useful about it as a tool is that it doesn't say, this is hopeless. It says: you can try to tell the story differently than you seem able to, through a certain kind of devotion and imagination, and that just might be the very story we need to go on. And in terms of what that looks like, the other line that is my mantra that is related to this, comes from the French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil, who said, in Gravity and Grace, “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” And so to me, that is a lot of my attitude towards dealing with stuff. How do you find a way to tell a story that's different than what exists, that allows the people involved who are not-you to be as complicated and full as possible? And stuff is one way.

It sounds like a very healing process, meeting these people who knew your uncle and connecting with them. You enter into this story that precedes you. And it's not like you can fill the hole, but there are ways that you can take threads that were artificially broken, or necessarily broken because they always get broken, and reunite some of them. A very close friend of mine died in March. An artist, who I was very close to as a person, but also as a writer about he/r work. And what I realized was when that person died, there was a group of people who all had very different relationships with he/r and had different understandings of who s/he was. My friend held together this very complicated network of ideas and experiences and people and relationships, and when s/he was gone, that web had this big hole in it. And now we all had the choice to try and make new connections across that web to hold it together or to just pull away. And so, I think that my interest as a writer is a historical interest precisely in that problem: what does it mean to try and forge new connections to maintain some semblance of a shape? In the face of so much loss, endless loss, and impossibility.

Ojeda-Sagué: That's such a good answer to the question. I like that you use the word stuff, because it's a non-technical term, but it is totally the feeling sometimes when you're in it, because there is just an enormous amount of stuff. I think that the line between when something is stuff and when it is not stuff, or when it's stuff and when it deserves your sacramental attention—it's just so thin and political and as you said before, frighteningly arbitrary. I think one of the things that we end up doing in an archival project is moving that line around and saying this is stuff and it's useful, it is stuff and it deserves your attention. And not saying that stuff is the bad thing and something else is the good thing. Not to sound like Miranda Priestly, but, the pile of stuff is incredibly useful.

Earnest: How has working on this project and it's attending issues changed your own relationship to the stuff in your life and the way that you keep ephemera and archives?

Ojeda-Sagué: I haven't thought of that before! Well, first of all, I have been anti-drafts for a long time—writing drafts, I mean. I have always been a get-rid-of-everything-except-for-the-stuff-that-I-put-out-into-the-world kind of person. One of the things that the project has helped me with is to take less seriously the impulse to “publish or perish.” And I have begun keeping letters from friends. I've also started a letter correspondence with my grandfather, Gustavo's father, who is completely deaf. We can't talk over the phone, so we talk over letters, and I've been describing the book to him. He doesn't speak English, and he doesn't totally understand my interest, so I'm also describing to him what I say in my intro essay. In various letters, I’ve been saying, look, this is what the book is, this is how it came about, blah, blah, blah. Our correspondence via the compromised, but wonderful, USPS is…it feels like another, I don't know, material instantiation of this thing. Also, when Lester first passed away and I got many of the papers, I had to stop a voice in my head that was telling me, that's junk, this is important, that should be trashed…. I had to turn that off. I was like, wait a minute, I need to wait and see for a lot of this.

*Soberscove thanks Kyle Croft and Tracy Fenix at Visual AIDS; Keith Gray at Printed Matter; and Julia Lukacher and Haley Parsa at David Zwirner for their assistance with this project.

Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué, the nephew of Gustavo Ojeda, has published several collections of poetry, including most recently, Losing Miami (The Accomplices, 2019). He is also a PhD student at the University of Chicago, where he focuses on sexuality studies and the history of pornography.

Jarrett Earnest, whose criticism and long-form interviews have been published widely, is the author of What it Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics (David Zwirner Books, 2018), editor of Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2017 by Peter Schjeldahl (Abrams, June 2019), and curator of “The Young and Evil” at David Zwirner, NY (2019; catalog published in 2020) and “Closer as Love: Polaroids 1993-2007: Breyer P-Orridge” at Nina Johnson, Miami (2019; catalog by Matte Editions). The Young and Evil recovered a queer history left out of early 20th-century American modernism as we know it, through storytelling and the presentation of little-known work, much of which had not previously been exhibited or reproduced.

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Gustavo Ojeda