Arthur Russell was living in Northern California in the early ’70s when he met the insurance salesman who would become his Buddhist teacher, Yuko Nonomura. Having fled his home amid the Iowa cornfields as a teenager, Russell was residing in a San Francisco commune where he went by the name Jigme and played cello while people chanted at fire ceremonies. Nonomura would inspire Russell to leave his strict ascetic life and practice Buddhism within greater society. Not long after, he gave Russell a picture of a cloud. The cloud came from a batch of nature-focused photo slides that, at Nonomura’s suggestion, inspired Russell’s sky-like, sweetly rolling Instrumentals set, an ensemble piece that could be expanded for 48 hours.
These elemental slides are on display in Do What I Want, the first public exhibition of materials from Russell’s archive, which opened last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. One corner of the exhibit is covered floor-to-ceiling in a rendering of Nonomura’s pillowy white and cerulean tones—an invocation of the infinite—as a wall-card calls the cloud “a common symbol in Tibetan Buddhism representing the creative power of the mind and the ability to take any form.” Russell’s musical philosophy, too, was that of the cloud, of serene mutability. Like the shape of sound to come—or more to the point, its non-shape—he was boundless. When Russell moved to New York in 1973, an original motive for “making it” was to help Nonomura finance a new temple (BAM displays letters from Yuko where he thanks the artist for sending some money), but his art process was itself spiritual, diffuse. Russell made conceptual Buddhist chamber pop alongside country love songs, power pop, and mutant disco. He revised constantly but rarely managed to complete recordings. And it is this endlessness that made Kanye West’s sample of World of Echo highlight “Answers Me” last year both triumphal and heartbreaking; Russell’s inability to finish things is poignantly echoed in West’s ongoing Life of Pablo project.
How to house an endless artist, then? How do you wall-off the uncontainable? The curators of Do What I Want wisely nod to the impossibility of such a task, but the show is an inspired example of how to present a person unconcerned with straight workflow. “Arthur’s process was very nonlinear,” says co-curator Nicole Will. “He didn’t think in terms of hierarchies.” The curators settled on a conceptual timeline in which the various avant-pop strands Russell worked on concurrently are arranged by collaborators (Allen Ginsberg, the Necessaries, Dinosaur L among them), rather than a chronology—which would be impossible. Everything would be stacked on top of each other.
In two rooms, Do What I Want manages to maintain the beautiful disorder of Russell’s anarchic art logic, the way he approached all manner of sound with a powerful air of democracy. “Everybody has their own moments of connectivity with Arthur’s music, and there’s no way that you could possibly contain the essence of someone…” Will trails off. “More or less, we were trying to not be so didactic in an informational type of way, and focus on the variations in the process, and how the different moments inform many other moments. Arthur’s music does not necessarily hold a nostalgia of a time past—it holds much more a feeling intrinsic to the music—a longing, which is distinct from a chronology.”
Arthur and his notebooks; courtesy of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Yuko’s clouds overlap with slate-grey practice cassettes for Russell’s ever-changing song “Lucky Cloud” and yellowed loose-leaf sheets from his composition notebooks—pages Russell tore out and folded into quarters so he could always keep them close in his shirt pocket. Fittingly, Russell was also infatuated with water and sailboats; hanging on the walls at BAM are copious posters for his country-pop duo the Sailboats, as well as a photo of Russell and his mother on a sailboat. Across the top of one composition book page, he’d written maybe a potential goal: “A job where you drive a boat.”
Will mentions the “love affair” that people have with Arthur’s work. For existing fans, there is an almost surreal tactility to interfacing with Russell’s tapes and sheet music, his letters and a recording studio receipt—among the clouds, “it’s showing a little bit of something concrete,” the curator says. A snapshot of the downtown art scene in the ’70s begins to emerge. There’s a poster-size blow-up of Russell’s comped Paradise Garage membership ID (the wallflower beatmaker looks endearingly overwhelmed), and an envelope addressed to Russell at his apartment, “the Poet’s Building” on 12th Street (Allen Ginsberg and Richard Hell also lived there). There are flyers for gigs at Tier 3 and Max’s, postcards for Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face” and Dinosaur’s “Kiss Me Again.” A large swath of wall space is dedicated specifically to photographs and flyers for his power pop band with Modern Lovers’ Ernie Brooks, the Necessaries (whose “More Real” is one of Russell’s most affecting melodies ever). There is a listening station at the center of the room, but you can’t skip tracks; if you want to hear stuff from his practice tapes—one track called “RabbitsEar / HidingYourPresentFromYou / NotCheckingUp / CanvasHome,” an Instrumentals rehearsal, and “Let’s Go Play Baseball / Let’s Go Swimming” among others—then you have to hang out.
Do What I Want contains revelations both grand and oblique. BAM Director of Visual Arts Holly Shen was particularly taken by Russell’s notebook riffs: “You would see a phrase repeated,” she said, “And you’re like, ‘what does ‘fashion duck’ mean?!’” Elsewhere, the collage-like manner of his work comes further into focus with notes outlining what he called “P-Ideas,” or parenthetical ideas, which could be drawn upon like colors from a palette. On one wall, a graph outlining minimalist classical work Tower of Meaning contains the line, “The question is whether or not this kind of music is going to hypnotize you.”
Arthur performing with Ginsberg; courtesy of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
For me, the artifacts from Russell’s Buddhist practice were bracing. A copy of Chögyam Trungpa’s poetry book First Thought, Best Thought was on display, as well as Ginsberg and Russell’s sheet music for “Padmasambhava Mantra” (“om ah hum vajra guru padma siddhi hum,” it goes). Arthur is a quintessential New Yorker, but his foundation in the Bay Area—with Yuko, Buddhism, and discipline—formed the pluralist prism for all that followed, as his art fractured out with light. Buddhism seeped in on a molecular level, present in how Russell was curiosity incarnate and, as Ginsberg said, his “constant preoccupation” was “illumination.” His angelic vocals on “Arm Around You” are an especially sublime representation of that, but consider even the witty domestic charm of a folk-pop tune like “Time Away,” the most spirited song ever about cleaning one’s room, and it’s really about clarity. “It became very apparent how important his Buddhist practice was to literally everything he composed,” Will says. “The music can sound so different, but there is this continual thread of things he was working through—things he was after.”
The scholar Matthew Marble recently used Russell’s archives to write an exhaustive 271-page dissertation, Buddhist Bubblegum, centered on the artist’s spiritual practice. In its opening pages, Bubblegum mentions Russell’s cello teacher Margaret Rowell, with whom he studied at the San Francisco Conservatory. Rowell fostered an “emotional relationship” with the instrument and taught through kinesthetics; her tactile approach was not unlike “the visualization and sadhana techniques [Arthur] was learning through Vajrayana Buddhism,” Marble wrote. One student recalls that in order to get a “pouring tone,” she encouraged filling up a pitcher; for a painterly one, she instructed the student to pretend paint a wall. I thought of Arthur’s exquisite expressiveness. The exhibition at BAM sparked my curiosity and made me want to keep investigating well after I left its walls. Perhaps it is not contained at all.