Conversation with Hank Willis Thomas
City Talks: New York
PLUS: What is the ﬁrst thing you do when you wake up?
Phong Bui: Since we began to understand the full scope of the pandemic around March 16th, 2020, my daily routine changed significantly to the following: I go to bed at 12 am, wake up at 6 AM every morning with a light exercise for 15 minutes. Then I have my coffee while listening to Morning Edition and BBC News Hour on WNYC and working on my meditation drawings until 9:30 AM. From 9:30 am to 10 am, is tending to and organizing the Rail’s daily and weekend calendar of our immersive to-do-list, which gets carried out after our staff’s 30 minutes meeting at 10 am.
P: Where is your go-to place to eat (in NY) and why?
PB: I go often to Glasserie, a famous Mediterranean restaurant directly below where I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It is, in fact, the Rail’s official restaurant. The food is light and simply splendid. Their smoked Eggplant Griddle bread, Half-Roast Chicken with Lentils, Turnips and Cider, Roast Lamb, Garlic and Winter Vegetable, Potatoes Husk, among other dishes are to die for. Also, the ambiance is elegant, and the staff is warm and impeccably mannered. As for Manhattan, I love skipping gallery dinners to go to Grand Sichuan on 24th Street and 9th Avenue with a few friends. I recommend the Aui Zhou Chicken, Shredded Pork with Celery and Dry Bean Curd, and of course their famous Pork Soup Dumplings and Pea Shoots. Equally savory is Sautéed Prawns with Ginger and Scallion. The environment is super low-key and unpretentious, and the staff is nice and friendly.
P: What neighborhood of New York attracts you the most?
PB: I love Greenpoint, where I live, naturally. I love Industry City, in Sunset Park, where the Brooklyn Rail Headquarters is located. It’s a complex of 16 gigantic buildings in 16-acres of repurposed industrial space, filled with incredible eateries, inventive retail stores, artist’s studios, and features ongoing cultural events, including music, art installations, art exhibitions, etc. It’s an astonishing creative ecosystem like DUMBO. I also love Jackson Heights for being the most ethnically diverse place in the world. The food of different ethnicities is just unbelievable. There are something like 170 languages spoken in 25 blocks radius.
P: What inspires you to do what you do every day?
PB: Years ago, because of the pressures of family expectation, I once aspired to be a hedgehog (whose world view can be mediated through a singular vision). Hence, I was trained to become an art director with a dream to work for the late Alexander Liberman at Conde Nast. But as soon as I came to New York in 1985, and especially after 2006 when I interviewed the legendary artist, writer, critic, novelist Brian O’Doherty (who had five different identities), I was liberated to be my true fox-like personality (whose worldview cannot be boiled down to a singular vision). In other words, I love everything. Poetry, music, dance, theater, visual arts, everything that appears in the Rail. How can we love the arts and humanities without being well-informed of our social and political life? I am therefore a natural publisher, editor, writer, curator, poet, artist, musician, political activist. I’m learning how to make film, dance, and performance at the moment so everything cross-pollinates while feeding each other with exciting ideas, and so on.
P: What publications and news outlets do you read most frequently to stay up to date?
PB: I read The New Yorker for its insular cosmopolitanism, The Nation for its unflinching critical commentary on political events, New York Review of Books for its rigorous analysis of academic publications—although it should be called New York Review of Each Other’s Books. I also read The TLS (The Times Literary Supplements) for its insightful and wider reviews of all literature. I continue to read and browse through other newspaper, magazines, journals, and other printed matters in my collection such as The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The Baltimore Sun, New Masses, Marxist Quarterly, Partisan Review, The Paris Review, Dissent, Blast, The Seven Arts, Verve, Minotaure, Cahiers D’Art, Derrier Le Miroir, View, Gentry, among several others, and of course the Brooklyn Rail.
P: How has your role as a publisher changed over your career?
PB: There’s a Vietnamese proverb that says, “To live in a long tube, be thin. To live in a barrel, be round,” which has been the view of my creative life ever since I came to the U.S. in 1980. The aspiration is to be fearless of changes, hence my role as a publisher metamorphosizes perpetually. Because of this, the Rail’s anti-mission statement is simply to reflect the artist’s journey, channeling his, her, their inner freedom. Every month, while having the structure of meeting deadlines of immersive contents within our different sections, in addition to vast public programming, such as curatorial projects, book publishing, etc., we are poised to adapt to each project’s requirement. My colleagues and I at the Rail admire John Keats’s“Negative Capability,” the ability to live in uncertainty, mystery, and doubt, without the need to reach out for a reason to justify our action, and Hannah Arendt’s term “Thinking Without the Bannister.”
P: What (art)work stopped you dead in your tracks and grabbed your attention recently?
PB: Rather than a singular work of art, Theaster Gates’s exhibit at Gagosian, Black Vessel definitely expanded my thinking about art, partly because it wonderfully combined the visceral power of Theaster’s huge heart and the clarity from his conceptual mind. The evidence of his body is equally present in his sense of touch, especially in his ceramic works. I interviewed Theaster for our December/January issue, which should be included in every young artist’s reading list.
P: What is the one thing you would like to see more in creative industries?
PB: I’d like to see more cross-pollination among our creative fields of discipline. For far too long, the visual arts, poetry, fiction, dance, music, etc. have been kept separate from one another, probably since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, from which time almost all of the progressive thinkers, bohemian artists began to migrate to the academy hence losing the discourse of national politics. As specialization encourages more esoteric and insular communication, it inevitably led to the division between our greater communities. This is the sole reason the Rail was created, to bring our friends and colleagues from the arts and humanities to cross-pollinate. This is our only arsenal against any social and political oppression.
P: What purpose do you think art serves in society today?
PB: Every work of art has not only an inherent capacity to correspond to our current social and political events, it never fails to express the artist’s inner freedom. In the political or business sectors, failures in their agendas are not to be repeated, whereas the greater the failure in art, the greater a work of art becomes. Art is a way of life, not about making a living. As Charlie Parker said when asked to define jazz in one sentence, “It’s an easy man. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”
P: Three things you are thankful for?
PB: First, my grandmother, whose home I stayed in every weekend and almost every summer; I essentially grew up with my grandparents in the countryside outside Hue, the Imperial Capital of Vietnam. It was she who encouraged my drawing skill as a child. At every 4 o’clock in the afternoon when her friends came for tea, she would ask me to make a large drawing with color chalks on the floor of a historical battle scene from Vietnamese history to amuse her friends. As a reward, she would give me kisses and money. She, therefore, fed my confidence and my eventual love for art when I grew up.
Secondly, in meeting the great art historian Meyer Schapiro, and his wife, Dr. Lillian Milgram Schapiro, in 1986 when I was an art student at the New York Studio School on 8th Street. Ever since then I would spend every Saturday afternoon from 5 pm, walking with him for half an hour in his neighborhood in West Village then joining Lilian for early dinner that lasted till 7 pm. This ritual lasted until he passed away in 1996 at the age of 91. The same can be said with Lillian until she passed away in 2006 at the age of 104, except in the last two months of her life, I would see her three or four times per week. They were definitely my adoptive Jewish grandparents. I was vastly fortunate to be exposed to their circle of friends, which included philosophers such as Sir Isiah Berlin, poets like David Shapiro, Louis S. Asekoff, art historians (mostly his students at Columbia University, including Frederick Hart, Barbara Rose, Barbara White, David Rosand, Joseph Masheck); literary and music critics like Elizabeth Hardwick, Charles Rosen, the legendary publisher of Dissent Magazine Irving Howe, his equally legendary publisher George Braziller; his artist friends, Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Wolf Kahn, Emily Mason, Robert Bergman, among endless others.
It took me a while to realize that their community is exactly the very community which I have aspired to re-create through the Brooklyn Rail, without “nostalgia” however. Third, I am grateful for the community I have helped to build through the Brooklyn Rail. We love what we do at the Rail for it’s not work; it’s rather a labor of love. Here, it echoes Eleanor Roosevelts’ remark which I admire to this day, “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.”
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