Contributed by Kylie Heidenheimer / I spoke to John Molloy recently about the unusual programming at his eponymous Upper East Side gallery, where his exhibitions often include work by contemporary artists from the New York area alongside antique Native American art, and how studying with Marshall McLuhan at Fordham still influences his perspective. Currently, the gallery is hosting a vibrant three-person show with work by Stephen Maine, Melissa Staiger, and Naomi Cohn called “TECHNIC/ Color.”
Kylie Heidenheimer: The John Molloy Gallery brings Native and Euro American art together in a compelling way. You said in a video interview with Dr. Mark Sublette, that you studied with Marshall McLuhan at Fordham, and that he was a formative influence. Did his influence help shapes your exhibition program?
John Molloy: Professor McLuhan postulated that media forces of the “electronic age” would tribalize Western communities. We have witnessed this in the last 30 years with the break-up of the Soviet Union and emerging U.S. prides including White Supremacy. McLuhan maintained that the artist, first and foremost, would see these changes. Euro-Americans had uprooted and displaced Native American societies prior during the second half of the nineteenth century. Many, varied art supplies came from this rupture. Native American art for trade subsequently flowered while remaining true to indigenous/ tribal motifs, design elements and world views.
KH: Your 2016 exhibition “GEOMETRIES American Geometric Abstraction 1880 – 2016” aligns with your suggestion above, namely that there was no pollination between Native and Euro American art at the turn of the century. “GEOMETRIES” contained painted (non-tradeable) Native American parfleche items and European-originating geometric works on paper and canvas. In the exhibition essay, you mention that Ilya Bolotowsky taught in Wyoming from 1947 to 1957. While he admired Native American art, it did not directly influence his already-developed geometric abstraction. You say accordingly, that “artistic traditions often travel separately to their neighboring destinations”.
JM: Professor McLuhan would discuss this via points of perspective. Perspective was fixed or literary for Euro-Americans and Euro-American artists of the 19th century. (This was true for all Western art until varying points within the 20th century.) McLuhan cited baseball as emblematic of this outlook. It was invented at the turn of the twentieth century. Players had fixed positions; they ran bases and scored runs sequentially.
Native American peoples viewed the world more non-sequentially or simultaneously. Artists of the electronic age also began to do this. McLuhan would say that basketball and soccer, where things occur all at once and illogically across a field, reflect our era best. Similarly, while traditional western art reflects a literary view, modernism and art of traditional tribal cultures mirror one that is frontal and simultaneous.
KH: Matters of perspective tie in with McLuhan’s claim that no form [of media] is neutral. Regarding Modern art, McLuhan said Cubism was “instant sensory awareness of the whole rather than perspective alone.” It is compelling that Native American art and Euro American abstraction arrived at similar vantage points via differing routes. I wonder if your gallery’s impactful presence comes from bringing together arts that are foundationally dissonant. The latter despite otherwise strong visual corollaries. Were any of these reasons why you began to bring Native and Euro American work together?
JM: I confined my business to antique Native American art for nearly thirty years. I decided to also sell contemporary Euro American art in 2012. This had no direct relationship to the Native American art I was already working with. However, I soon discovered that my aesthetic choices in contemporary art were clearly shaped by the Native American work. As McLuhan would maintain, it’s a matter of perspective!
KH: Most of the gallery’s exhibitions, including the current “TECHNIC/ Color” featuring work by Stephen Maine, Melissa Staiger and Naomi Cohn, are of paintings and sculpture. In past exhibitions, the gallery has shown work by Kyle Gallup and Ginger LeVant (collaged paintings reliefs on panels and paintings on canvas), Ron Baron and Sarah Walker, Kate Teale and Dave Henderson, Theresa Hackett and Shari Mendelson as well as others, including a solo show of Suejin Jo and a larger group show with Jacob Cartwright, Daniel G. Hill, Mary Schiliro and Patricia Zarate.
I imagine the matters of perspective you describe earlier also determine the combinations of painting and sculpture?
JM: I have exhibited at more than one hundred antique and art shows, invariably displaying items on tables and walls. I think that the mix of sculpture and paintings in the shows you cite grow out of that experience.
KH: “TECHNIC/ Color” brings three as opposed to two artists together as does another recent exhibition, “BUBBLE THEORY” with Melinda Hackett, Sarah Lutz and Beth Dary. In both shows there are two painters, one sculptor. In “TECHNIC/ Color” Maine’s paintings and Cohn’s sculptures have a tight dialogue. They also engage jointly with Staiger’s paintings. In “BUBBLE THEORY,” Hackett and Lutz’s paintings seem to have a similar dynamic, with one another and also with Dary’s glass and wire forms.
Are these current and recent three-artist dialogs a way to expand simultaneity?
JM: “BUBBLE THEORY” had a thematic basis. The other shows you cite developed as conversations where works reinforced each other. The current show “TECHNIC/ Color” exemplifies this. The color and texture of the paintings by Stephen Maine and Melissa Staiger in conjunction with the color and texture of the ceramic sculptures by Naomi Cohn make the room come alive. It jumps with color! Also, the surfaces of the pieces by each artist are so different from each other- not only the sculpture from the paintings but also the paintings of each artist from the other. There is a vibrant conversation going on!
KH: What is the next show planned for the gallery?
JM: There will be an exhibition called “TESSELATIONS” in spring 2023 that focuses on motifs recurring from prehistoric ceramics through contemporary painting and sculpture. The premise will parallel “GEOMETRIES” and will include work by Jacob Cartwright and other contemporary artists. The latter will be paired with Anasazi (ancient one) pottery. A difference will be that the parfleche in “GEOMETRIES” was from the turn of the twentieth century. The Anasazi pottery dates back to approximately 1000 AD.
“TECHNIC/ Color,” with Naomi Cohn, Stephen Maine, Melissa Staiger. John Molloy Gallery, 49 East 78th St., Suite 2B New York, NY. Through November 12, 2022.
About the author: Kylie Heidenheimer is an abstract painter who divides her time between New York City and the Hudson Valley. In 2021 she received the New York Studio School Mercedes Matter Alumni Award.