The second White Box artist was Anthony Campuzano, a 2009 Pew Fellow in Visual Arts. After Gordon tapped Campuzano to explore the Center’s space, word spread quickly that the artist planned on spending an entire night in the office, with only the staff’s belongings for company. In his resulting piece, “Self Portrait,” Campuzano speaks of his desire to channel writer James Agee, who spent late hours in the offices of Fortune magazine, in order to focus on his own work. “I wasn’t planning on sleeping,” he writes. “Staying up late is part of my practice.” Campuzano took photos during his stay and used the experience as inspiration for a new set of drawings. He also polled Center staff on questions of art and practice, stressing that there were “no wrong answers,” a concept that emerges in his work. Following his residency, Campuzano went on to participate in the Center’s Shelf Life project.
When Ain Gordon approached me about doing a White Box Residency at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, I had no idea what it would entail. The one thing I wanted to ask was whether I would be allowed to spend the night in the office. There was a time about eight years ago when I first moved back to Philadelphia and would sometimes walk late at night through Center City, out toward West Philly. I’d look up at all the office buildings and fantasize about having a studio inside one of them. A real night studio, like Philip Guston, like James Agee. In the book The Restless Journey of James Agee there is a mention of how James got a job at Fortune magazine when he was out of Harvard, during the Depression. He would often stay at his desk after hours in order to write poetry. It is a terribly rich (pardon the pun) metaphor. The writer who would go on to create the text that accompanied Walker Evans’ iconic photos of the South in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, writing for a financial magazine during the day and the beginnings of his important work at night. What a place for him to be at such a time in history, to be able to report from all sides.
I spent one evening and five days at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. My days were spread out over about a month but I was there most in mid-January. I had a kind of plan: I came up with a set of questions for the Center staff, as well as a suggestion that they read the first chapter of Nabokov’s Transparent Things. (This reading assignment would spur Associate Director of Programs Peter Nesbett to ask me to put together an installment of the Center’s Shelf Life series.) I also sat in on meetings with directors and specialists from all artistic practices covered by the Center. On my first day I witnessed a very interesting conference and presentation on Millennials. (I felt a twinge of jealousy, as I was born at the very end of Generation X and always felt crowded out by the older members, and now here I am, way too old for the next obsessively examined youth movement. Oh well, boo hoo.)
I was struck during the meetings by the sheer breadth of projects discussed by the staff. In each meeting, they tackled exhibitions, educational goals, and far out, grand initiatives. At the same time, I was impressed by the small talk and asides between the representatives of different parts of the Center. It seemed to me a genuine exchange of ideas, which can often be difficult. During the meetings, agendas were always followed; however, a little meandering was indulged within the bullet points. (I did my share in that regard, on a day after I had seen the Warhol Shadows in D.C. I piped up about the contrasts of the circular spaces in both the Hirshhorn and Guggenheim and why—in my opinion—the former almost always works, while the latter only does when artists such as Buren or Cattelan directly confront the architecture.)
The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage is located on the 18th floor of 1608 Walnut Street. During my stay, I was given use of a beautiful corner office. It is usually a temporary meeting room. According to some at the Center, the reason no one has claimed it permanently is that it gets a ridiculous amount of sun, to which I can attest. But I wasn’t complaining. There was a large glass table in the center of the room and I set about taping color photocopies of things from my studio to the bottom of the table. I liked the idea of moving things that normally surround me on the walls of the studio to the table. As I worked on my computer or drawings, my inspirations were floating beneath.
So many at the Center were curious about the planned overnight stay. Where was I going to sleep? Did I need anything? What was I going to do? I was given a great meal, I reassured everyone I had no intention of rifling through their offices, and the building’s desk attendant checked in on me before he locked the building down for the night. What was I going to do? I really had no idea. I wanted, in some way, to channel James Agee, if that was possible. It wasn’t a séance I had in mind. I wasn’t planning on sleeping, even though I set up a small bed on the floor: a pile of moving blankets, a small blanket, and a pillow. Staying up late is part of my practice. Usually I work in a large warehouse space in Kensington, but I also keep a home office and try and carve out studios like kudzu wherever possible.
I spent a lot of time in that corner office staring out the window. The view was toward South Philadelphia and you could see Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies. There was a work crew repairing the roof of a church a few blocks away and at night, the patchwork lights of other night owls or high-rise apartment dwellers punctuated the sky. My studio in Kensington is on the top floor and there is a good view from Frankford Avenue toward the west of North Philadelphia. This past fall, my brother and I witnessed a pretty intense SWAT team standoff that included snipers and a tank—yes, a tank. Later, the reports of a guy with an assault rifle turned out to be two drunk guys with a BB gun taking potshots at street signs from a rooftop. The building next door to the studio and across the street from the standoff has the best rooftop but it’s just too far away to get a good photo. All over the roof is a bric-a-brac mash of multicolored roofing tiles marking different areas and times of repair.
I crisscross the city pretty often, going out west towards my parents or north to the studio and home, and in other directions for all kinds of things. During the time of my White Box Residency it was impossible to miss the large encampment at City Hall of protestors from the Occupy Wall Street movement’s Philadelphia branch. The group at City Hall was similar to others around the U.S. and the world in that it was composed of many different-aged persons, all concerned with the direction of resources, justice, and the disparity of wealth. I thought about many of these things as I stared out the window. I also made note of the color of a changing night. The witching hour, then the cold bright moon, and finally a warming dawn. Later I began to work on the three drawings below:
The source of these drawings is a photograph I took about six years ago, somewhere on Chestnut Street. The original photograph is really dark and many of the details are just shades and tones. I came across a storefront window and this sign was in the window. In the photo, it appears the sign is maybe leaning against something. I printed the photo and, with a pen, darkened the text. I still can’t decide what the original sign was for; does the “body” refer to physical health? Was the storefront some kind of exercise place? The odd tilt of the D in body doesn’t make sense at first but I wonder if it’s meant to show individuality, as in a self-help manner. Whatever the origin, I have had this photo taped up many times and places. I love the hand on the corner and the way the word “matters” starts to fall out of place. When I made the three versions here I tried to think about a sign being in one place overnight and into the day. I also do believe Everybody Matters.
The night I stayed over in the office I didn’t get around to sleeping until 7 a.m. That morning, staff members tried tapping on my door but I slept soundly. I did manage to wake when they tried one last time, five minutes before their all-staff meeting, and I ran to freshen up and grab some juice. At the end of the meeting I gave a brief report of my stay so far and mentioned the set of questions that I was sending around for the staff to voluntarily answer. I stressed that there were no wrong answers and I was not trying to force a “gotcha” moment. I told them they didn’t have to answer any or all of the questions. More than half of the staff ended up participating. When I came up with the questions, I was thinking of a way I could abstractly make a portrait of the people of the 18th floor of 1608 Walnut Street. Here are some of those questions, with each question answered by a different person:
When did you first see something that you recognized as art, and what was it? It was a 19th-century painting of a bald woman in an elegant dress that I saw at the Wichita Art Museum when I was a kid.
What do you most daydream about when you are working? Forests, desserts, surfing, deserts, buildings, and past acquaintances.
Do you talk to strangers? If so, elaborate on any specific experience. I constantly talk to strangers. Once I was talking to a young girl on a ferry. We had a whole conversation, at the end of which she asked me, in a thick North Carolina accent, “Are you speaking Spanish?”
What is your most treasured possession? (need not be a physical object) It is. It’s an eight-year-old lemon tree. He’s about two and a half feet high. Grown from a seed.