AA Bronson on Queer Art, Facial Hair and Vivienne Westwood

With his world-class beard (surpassed only by his partner’s), smarty-pants glasses and mischievous grin, AA Bronson has become one of the most recognizable faces in art—and gay—circles. Also because he seems to be everywhere. The director, until recently, of Printed Matter and a founding member of the seminal, now-defunct art collective General Idea, Bronson runs the NY Art Book Fair and will soon launch the premiere issue of a gay zine titled, appropriately, AA Bronson’s GayHouse. Here, he takes a breather to talk facial hair, queer art and Vivienne Westwood…

So what’s the latest?Well, I’ve just resigned from Printed Matter. I was originally asked to be there for six months…six years ago. The board wanted me to, in a way, create a report about its options at the time as it was in danger of bankruptcy. Instead, I stayed on and turned it around, so it’s very healthy now. I’ll remain on the board, but I’m happy to hand it over to my second-in-command, Catherine Krudy.

What will you do in its place?
I’m still involved in the NY Art Book Fair, which Printed Matter organizes. It’s become a massive affair as, this year, it grew to 280 exhibitors. I’m also incredibly excited about a General Idea retrospective opening in February at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. I’m actually on my way there to look at the catalog. While I’m in Paris, I’ll do a book launch for a new publication called AA Bronson’s GayHouse. It’s the first in a series that might include artists like Wolfgang Tillmans. It’s by a small gay publisher in Paris that will be in a 24-page tabloid format in a mylar envelope, so that you can’t see the contents. It allows us to be as pornographic as we want, even though the first issue isn’t.

Tell us about your performance series Queer Invocation of the Spirits. How has it developed?
I’ve been organizing it for two years. We’ve taken it to Banff [Canada], Winnipeg, New Orleans, Governor’s Island and Fire Island. It’s funny that you ask about it because a book that documents it is coming out called Queer Spirits.

I was under the impression that these events weren’t recorded.
They weren’t! It’s funny to do a book about it because there isn’t any documentation to present. It focuses on everything around it, like the location’s queer history and other resource material. The Chicago artist Elijah Burger joined us in New York for the invocation and, afterwards, he went home and made drawings, like courtroom drawings, which are strictly from memory.

What would you say to those men who want to invoke their own queerness?
It’s a difficult question. I would say don’t be afraid. I always think back to 1977 in London, when punk was beginning to explode and the looks that paraded down The King’s Road were amazing. I vividly remember Vivienne Westwood‘s shop. We were doing a piece with her for FILE Megazine [the visual magazine that accompanied General Idea]. Vivienne was, after all, the inspiration behind many of these punk looks.

What are your memories of her at that time?
The strongest is her personality. She is so gutsy and so vital. I don’t remember her from the neck down, which is odd, but I remember her energy, her vitality and her determination to do what she wanted to do. She could reinvent herself in a split second and she still does. I think, in a way, she’s like a witch. She can throw a hex on you and you’re in trouble. I love the way she turns straight men into sex objects. And that hair!

Speaking of hair, tell us about your fantastic beard.
It’s something I wanted to do all my life but didn’t seem worth doing until it turned gray. When it did, my partner, Mark, said he wanted to grow a beard and I encouraged him. Little did he know that I was really encouraging myself. General Idea had ended [in 1994] and I wanted to, I suppose, put on a new mask. It was after [the other founding members] Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal died. I wasn’t making art during that time. Growing the beard and making art again coincided, oddly enough.

How do you handle a creative block like that?
The only way to do anything, to start with what was right in front of me. I was still grieving so what was in front of me were Felix’s and Jorge’s death. I thought I had to make art about their deaths, as unpleasant as that might sound. That’s how I deal with blocks now, too. When I’m writing, I’m quite prone to writer’s block, but I begin to describe what is happening right in front of me. In a way, that’s what I did for AA Bronson’s GayHouse. I put my foot up and took a photo of it. It was a way of taking a photo of the house I was in and where I was at that moment. It isn’t a book of my feet, but my foot does appear in an alarming number of photos!

It seems fashion has moved towards a minimal, focused aesthetic recently. Has the art scene done the same?
That’s very true of the specific kind of art that is associated with fashion. Terence Koh‘s work has become intense and pared-down, and it’s even better than what he was doing before. Ai Wei Wei has collaborated with Comme des Garçons, but I’d say the art scene in general is feeling subdued. There are many cool new galleries opening on the Lower East Side, while in Chelsea there are so many huge spaces with huge art. It’s as if the work has been injected and blown up to suit the scale of the space. It feels inflated.

Finally, on a whimsical note, if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would love to fly. I’m always envious of people who fly in their dreams. It doesn’t happen to me. I did have a recurring dream in which I would test myself to see if I was alive or awake. I was convinced that I was awake and if I concentrated I could levitate two inches off the ground. I think that, in Freudian terms, dreams about flying explain some stage in a person’s development. I hope that doesn’t mean that I haven’t reached where I’m supposed to be.