Recently Boo-Hooray and Envoy Enterprises partnered to exhibit a selection of paintings by Ben Morea entitled, Ben Morea: The Line Between - Paintings of The Early '90's in New York's Lower East Side. Nathan C. Martin spoke with Morea recently about his life since his well documented time with The Motherfuckers to now.
A resurgence of interest in Ben Morea’s life and work in the 1960s has occurred in the past few years with books and exhibitions related to his participation in the anarchist-artists groups Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfucker. Interviews have appeared about his activism in New York, a solo show of paintings from the 1960’s exhibited at Boo-Hooray, and there was even a characterization based on him in Rachel Kushner’s novel, The Flamethrowers. This interest has taken place since he re-appeared, in a way, from decades of anonymity spent mostly in southern Colorado where he relocated after repeated clashes with police prompted him to leave New York.
Less has been said about Morea’s time in the West.¹ Upon arrival in northern New Mexico in 1969, he joined forces with a group of Chicano activists embroiled in a struggle over land rights. Afterward, he spent five years in the wilderness on horseback, hunting and gathering sustenance and in the intervening years since, he’s delved more deeply into himself, into nature, and into a non-materialist mindset.
Through it all, he’s remained an artist. Though life forced him to take extended hiatuses from art, he was an accomplished abstract painter in New York in the 1960s and resumed working in the ‘80s, after settling down a bit. He’s continued painting to this day. An exhibition titled, ‘Ben Morea - The Line Between: Paintings of The Early 90’s’ opened September 10th at 33 Orchard as a joint presentation of Envoy Enterprises and Boo-Hooray thru October 4th.
I spoke with Ben Morea recently over the phone from my home in Wyoming:
Nathan C. Martin: You left New York for a variety of reasons and came out West. Why did you stay out West?
Ben Morea: There was something I was interested in prior to my leaving New York. Part of my development, my psyche, was seeking something other than what was available in New York—something beyond the artistic or political, and I could never quite formulate it, even what the question would be. I just felt uneasy. There was something missing. So, when I felt it was time to leave New York—or, I more or less had to leave—it was not only the impetus to leave, but I thought that was my chance to see what this other thing was.
I’d been really drawn toward Native American culture in New York. It was always part of my thought patterns, but I never could really understand it deeply. So, I thought since I was coming out West to get away from one thing, I may also seek out the other thing. Having sought out the other thing and having found what I wanted, there was no reason to ever leave.
NCM: What are some of the things about life out here, the way you can exist, that seemed better?
BM: First of all, it’s not rooted in material. I lived in the wilderness for quite a while. So that was the extreme, and that was the best way to sense that there’s a life not attached to material—that it’s quite the opposite, in fact. I stayed in the wilderness about five years, and after that experience I homesteaded. I left the wilderness but I stayed close to the natural world. Even twenty years later, I moved into town and I’ve re-entered the New York art scene and political scene again at some level but I’ve always remained most comfortable in the natural world, the non-material world.
NCM: People have been coming out West in America since the beginning of European settlement to escape their pasts—debtors or other people ducking authority or people seeking to reinvent themselves or start over. Do you feel like you fit into this tradition?
BM: Absolutely. I totally reinvented myself.
NCM: Were you thinking of the West as a place to escape?
BM: It was a parallel. There was the interest in escape but there was also the interest in finding an alternative. They were actually both extremely important to me. It was not just the escape but it was the chance to find the alternative.
NCM: When you were transitioning, when you first arrived out West, you got involved with Alianza and some of the things they were working on with land rights.
BM: Correct. That was actually—you used the correct word—transitional. Because that was not only the natural world, paralleled with what I was seeking, but it was also connected to my past, the political activist past.
There had been an uprising in northern New Mexico based on the land grants. People had been given the access and use of the land communally without ownership but the Western American judicial system was based on ownership, so they were already in conflict. The folks up there believed in the communal use of the land, not in ownership of the land—they owned their little plots where they lived, but they had open range that they worked and used communally. Nobody felt ownership. But slowly people from Texas and more traditional American or Western environments encroached and they brought with them this strong ownership instinct. So there was an immediate conflict.
NCM: I just moved back to Wyoming, where I grew up after living the past decade or so in cities. It seems as though while real estate development and gentrification are closing up cities, a similar process of closure is taking place in the open land of the West. Do you see this parallel?
BM: Oh yeah, obviously. But in the deep West where all this transpired, the encroachment was not a gentrification or the city encroaching, but it was rather a consciousness of ownership encroaching. These giant ranches were formed by land ownership of people coming from Texas mainly assuming that all land was within their domain was theirs. So rather than an encroachment being a city encroachment, it was a consciousness encroachment. Does that make sense?
NCM: Sure, the land is still there, but now someone owns it instead of everyone owning it.
BM: Correct. The use of it was then restricted so there was an uprising against that. And that northern New Mexico Alianza area was occupied by the National Guard. It was open warfare, back and forth for a ten-year period. Eventually the ownership movement was dominant and won.
NCM: That’s a trend that’s continued in Colorado. I was wondering if there’s even enough wild land left in that state to live in the wilderness for five years.
BM: Probably not. When I did it we’re talking almost forty years ago. Everything was different. You didn’t have the technology you have now. You didn’t have cell phones. So if somebody came across you, there was no way they could call. There was no intrusion into the environment as there is now. Now, you can’t make a move without people either knowing about it or being able to find out about it. There was no GPS then, there was no ability to scan land. Living in the wilderness was illegal then, but not only could they not find you, but they couldn’t even tell if you were there. That’s not the case today. So if a lot of people went into the wilderness to live, they could just tell immediately through GPS. A lot of people followed me into wilderness living at one point there were hundreds of people living in the mountains. There were bands of people. That couldn’t happen today. We didn’t travel in large bands, but just like Native Americans we would assemble occasionally. So there would be several hundred people in the wilderness in one spot. You couldn’t do that today. It was illegal to live there, and I lived there for five years, but they could never keep track of me. I moved across state lines and through territories of different jurisdictions. But that’s gone, that’s over. They could tell immediately. Jurisdictions are completely shattered now into some global visibility.
NCM: Who besides Alizana did you interact with when you arrived out West? I know some of the Motherfuckers spent time at Black Bear Ranch and other communes.
BM: Right. I visited the communes that I was friendly with, like Black Bear, but I didn’t stay there. Being out West on horseback, I would arrive at a commune and I might stay a day or two, a couple days or a couple weeks, it would depend, and just keep going.
NCM: Black Bear is still around. Do you feel like that commune model has some potential to be viable or transformative today?
BM: No. There are elements of it that are useful, but I never really valued or was in favor of the commune, per se. I like the idea of communal land, but I never really got along with the commune idea personally.
NCM: Why’s that?
BM: My personality maybe. I don’t know if it’s within my ideology, but my personality was more individual. I liked sharing and having a communal aspect, but I didn’t like the full communal attachment. I think I’m still that way.
NCM: In interviews about your time in New York, you talk about being influenced by The Living Theater, Dada, the Beats. Have there been any people or groups in the West that have influenced your similarly?
BM: Native people. The whole way of thought: the non-materialist, the non-codified religion, the animist perspective is my whole world, my whole life. I’m totally opposed to all structured religious thinking and I’m clearly an animist. I believe in a spirit basis rather than a material or ideological or codified basis. And that’s all influenced by Native American thought.
NCM: Have there been any individual Native Americans or groups that have been particularly influential?
BM: Lots of them.
NCM: Can you talk about some of those?
BM: That’s something I’ve always avoided. I’m still involved with them. I’ve been involved for 45 years. But that’s something I always shy away from, because I hate to exploit my presence with them. I see, for instance, all over the Internet there’s these people who want to be shamans or this or that. I’m totally opposed to that whole absorption of Native thought to make a living, so to speak, or to enhance one’s ego, or whatever they use it for. So I shy away from being specific other than saying that, to me, the animist way of thinking and the animist belief system is the way to go. All religions based on books and writing are totally false as far as I’m concerned and have to be overthrown, and thought has to return to an experiential connection, to spiritual being rather than a codified attachment. But I don’t talk about the specifics.
NCM: How has being in the West, the experiences you’ve had, the new perspectives you’ve gained, influenced your painting?
BM: My work over the last 50 years has slowly evolved. I’ve added elements and I’ve modified some of the others I’ve used. The environment did have a big effect on my painting. The paintings I’m going to show coming up in New York, they’re from the 80s and 90s, a time when I still had some connection to my past work. I quit painting in New York in the 60s when I became totally involved in activism because you couldn’t paint. Then I continued the non-painting life when I was in the wilderness because you couldn’t paint. As I homesteaded, you couldn’t paint. It was only in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s that I started painting again. So those paintings when I initially returned to painting had a closer affinity to what I had done earlier. But since then my paintings have kept evolving and they are more and more based on a natural, organic element.
The last show Boo Hooray did, for instance, there were five big canvasses. Three of them were more constructivist, but two of them were clearly organic—one was an eclipse almost, and one is like a fireball. So, those two were more organic. Now my work is totally organic but it’s even less structured than it was back then.
NCM: The ‘60’s seem like they were a time of intense optimism, and that’s something that’s almost foreign to me. I know that you’ve come back out of anonymity because the shit has gotten so bad. Do you feel optimistic at all right now?
BM: I remain optimistic all the time, because that’s what motivates me to keep interacting with whatever, the political world now, again since I’ve reemerged, the artistic world since I’m now back in it. It’s optimism that propels me. I’ve been going to Europe a lot to speak about animism and a change in consciousness from material consciousness to an organic consciousness. I have to be optimistic because that’s what is fueling my motion. It’s my gas, so to speak, my fuel to keep moving.
¹ The exception is Marcy Saude’s film Sangre de Cristo, which features five minutes of interview audio with Morea. Unfortunately this film is unavailable to view online.