A Brief-and-to-the-Point Conversation with Sam Messer on His Collaboration with Jonathan Safran Foer

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Sam Messer, Jonathan with Animals, 2010-2013;  oil on canvas, 84 by 72 inches.
Sam Messer, Jonathan with Animals, 2010-2013;
oil on canvas, 84 by 72 inches.

Sam Messer, artist and associate dean of the Yale University School of Art often collaborates with writers, such as Paul Auster and Denis Johnson, on art projects. The show “Hanging Correspondence” features text and portraits made with the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and, most recently, Tree of Codes. The two previously collaborated on “Retrospective of S–,” a survey of a fictional painter, which was on view in summer 2012 at Fredericks Freiser gallery in New York. “Hanging Correspondence” is on view at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro through February 21. 

Perennial Properties

Katie Geha: How did this show came about?

Sam Messer: Jonathan and I have been working together for years now, and so it is more of a casual conversation. The work is really done when he is writing, and I’ll be drawing him, and then he works on the drawings. It’s just about conversation. It’s about two people. There are other things we’re working on that are not in the show, which are portraits of other people.

KG: How did you start working together? Were you friends?

SM: We weren’t friends. I started drawing him, and we got to know each other. It was before he had published anything, and he let me read one of his books, a draft of Everything’s Illuminated, I think in the year 2000.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

KG: The title of the show includes the word “correspondence.” How were you imagining the text and the portrait relating to one another?

SM: Well, it’s really more of a conversation. Correspondence, I think, implies that you are not together, but normally we are sitting at the same table together.

Drawings by Sam Messer of Jonathan Safran Foer, in "Hanging Correspondence" at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.
Drawings by Sam Messer of Jonathan Safran Foer, in “Hanging Correspondence” at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.

KG: Is the process generative? Are you writing and drawing together or does one happen before the other?

SM: I’ll draw, and he’ll get out his magazines and cut things out.

KG: I’m wondering about the relationship between drawing and painting and text. Were you interested in connecting these forms?

SM: It’s more casual. I’m a big fan of William Blake [who illustrated texts and collaborated with artists and writers], but this is more about different kinds of spaces, and this work is a conversational space. It’s not a theoretical project. Both are languages; drawing is just as much a language as text.

KG: Yes, absolutely. Do the portraits illustrate the text? Or does the text rely on the portraits?

SM: Neither illustrates the other. They’re interior drawings. The only drawing in the show that is in relationship to any of the text is one of the very large drawings, and that is made up of stories that Jonathan wrote.

KG: So sometimes the text would come first and sometimes the drawing would come first?

SM: In that large drawing, the text came first.

KG: You’ve worked on many projects with writers. For instance you did a series of works about Paul Auster’s typewriter. Why his typewriter?

SM: I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure that out for 10 years.

KG: So then why do portraits? Why not, for instance, make work about Jonathan Safran Foer’s computer?

SM: I like to make portraits because I like to draw what is in front of me.

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Left to right, Sam Messer, Untitled (J4 with Bubbles), 2009, mixed media on paper,
25 by 18 inches; Jonathan Safran Foer (Thinking Words), 2009; mixed media on paper, 104 by 58 inches.

KG: This exhibition is just one part of your collaboration with Jonathan, correct? You two are still working together?

SM: Yes. It’s a years-long project, hopefully decades. It’s an ongoing conversation, so the drawings get more complex because our relationship becomes more complex, and we’re getting older and we’re thinking about different things.

KG: It seems this project would lend itself well to a becoming a book.

SM: Eh, sure. I love books.

KG: Books are a big collaborative process and your work tends to thrive in collaboration with others.

SM: Yes, I like working with others. I like being around people who are smarter than me.

Katie Geha is director of the galleries at the University of Georgia Lamar Dodd School of Art in Athens. She holds a PhD in modern and contemporary art from the University of Texas.