New biography and retrospective exhibition celebrate artist Earl Biss
If you go ...
What: Earl Biss exhibition.
When: Tomorrow and Friday, 4-8 p.m. / March 8 to March 9, 3-7 p.m.
Where: C. Anthony Gallery / Gib Sinlgeton Gallery.
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Aspen times. Dates, times and locations have been edited to reflect upcoming showings.
When the famed Crow Nation painter and longtime Aspenite Earl Biss selected Lisa Gerstner as his authorized biographer in 1994, the groundbreaking artist and notorious local character unsurprisingly told the writer he did not want to be subject of a straightforward historical treatment.
“Earl was so unconventional, he didn’t want it to be a conventional biography,” Gerstner, whose book has finally been published by American Design Ltd, said in a recent phone interview. “He didn’t even care if it was in chronological order, because he didn’t live his life that way.”
Gerstner’s long-gestating “Experiences with Earl Biss: The Spirit Who Walks Among His People” is a fittingly nontraditional biography about a decidedly rebellious artist. C. Anthony Gallery and Gib Singleton Gallery is celebrating its publication with two days of events with Gerstner and a retrospective exhibition of Biss paintings selected from his voluminous holdings of his work.
“Experiences with Earl Biss” is told in short but vivid first-person vignettes about Gerstner’s days with the artist as his biographer in his final years.
She recounts watching him paint in his mesmerizingly fast-paced and improvisatory style. She reproduces conversations with Biss about his aims as an artist, both visually and spiritually. She chronicles his long professional relationship with gallerist and American Design president Paul Zueger. She brings readers into gallery openings across Colorado and out for drinks with Biss at the Woody Creek Tavern. She joins him for a court hearing (Biss’ attorney balked at the artist inviting his biographer along) and on one rollicking day in Aspen as Biss plotted to flee his legal troubles to Venezuela and had her tag along as he sought out an old girlfriend, his attorney and a machine gun.
It’s a subjective and selective view of the artist, trying to portray his soul rather than recount biographical detail (a chapter on Biss’ marriages states he was married at least eight and perhaps as many as 11 times). It is a lively read.
Biss made untold thousands of oil paintings and serigraphs in his 30-year career as a painter, which mirrored the boom of contemporary Native American art in the second half of the 20th century. Many of his works now hang in international museum collections.
Gerstner argues that Biss, who died of a stroke at age 51 in 1998, broke new ground by merging indigenous American subjects with the advanced painting techniques of the old European masters. An extraordinary colorist, he had studied in the Netherlands as a young man—following work at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute—and used the old-world traditions of oil painting to craft a contemporary vision of Plains Indians and scenes from the Crow Nation’s land in Montana, where Biss grew up.
“It wasn’t a nostalgic look, like ‘Oh, here are some cool Indians from 150 years ago,’” Gerstner said. “It was a vibrant presence that is alive today.”
His more abstract works of horsemen were made in a kinetic and improvisational action-painting style that’s captured thrillingly in footage from Gerstner’s in-progress documentary film about Biss, a 12-minute excerpt of which she will be showing at the galleries. Those paintings have the uncanny effect of evoking animals in motion on the windy plains.
“He was trying to reach beyond this world when he painted,” she explained. “All of those splatters in there and loose brush strokes—it’s not fixed. It’s not saying ‘here is a horse.’ It’s descriptive, but not so tightly defined that it doesn’t let your mind roam free. His paintings let you have your own experience.”
Biss himself said his improvisatory tactics were a way of transcending self-consciousness and tapping into the spiritual.
“The lack of thought brings the greatest inspiration, in my opinion. I work so fast and so spontaneously that it would be physically impossible to think,” Biss said the year before he died. “I try to keep everything out of my mind so that I can act like a conduit with this energy flowing through it.”
The splatters of paint that pepper so many of Biss’ paintings, Gerstner recalled, Biss would refer to as “atoms” and “sparks of consciousness.”
Gerstner began working on the book 24 years ago when she was living in Glenwood Springs (it opens with a colorful story of the late Nancy Pfister introducing Gerstner and Biss). The biography’s long journey to the page was complicated by Biss’ often-messy and still-mysterious life, as well as legal battles over ownership of his work that ensued after his death.
“A life like Earl’s, which is very controversial, it takes years for the dust to settle,” she said. “At first people didn’t even want to talk about him.”
Through the 1980s and ‘90s when he lived in Aspen, Biss was a revered artist but also known to run afoul of the law.
“He was in the newspaper often for good things and sometimes for being in jail for a fight or tax evasion or drinking too much,” Gerstner said. “A lot of people characterized him as a wild character, and he was.”
As Biss once put it: “I use the Indian ways an awful lot in the white man’s world. They can’t figure it out.”
He encouraged the author not to sugarcoat his life.
“He said, ‘Put in the good with the bad,’” Gerstner recalled. “He knew who he was. He didn’t like to follow rules. They were, to him, ‘the white man’s rules’ and he didn’t feel he should toe that line.”
But his unconventional lifestyle and his troubles, Gerstner said, ought not overshadow his genius.
“People misunderstood the depth of what this guy was about,” she said. “The depth of Earl Biss—of him as a human being and the mastery of his art—was profound and it was an honor to be trusted with this story.”
Biss was unafraid to admit that he cared about his artistic legacy.
“It’s very important to me that I be recognized for something that I put my entire life into,” he says in Gerstner’s documentary excerpt. “That it was not all in vain.”