Artist's map an evolving beast

Friday October 12, 2012


For the first time since the inception of "Jerry’s Map" in 1963, Jerry Gretzinger is seeing his work in its entirety. On the floors of Mass MoCA’s Hunter Center, thousands of painted and collaged sheets of paper lay on the floor, creating his world. Documenting Gretzinger’s work-in-progress is friend and filmmaker Gregory Whitmore, whose most recent film of the artist will be on view alongside "Jerry’s Map."

The museum installation, consisting of about 2,000 pieces of now-uniform sheets of paper, is Gretzinger’s always-evolving beast. Consistent earth tones sweep across the plains as the totality of the map can be seen from a stage, as well as platforms, encompassing the work. Once close enough, details of the map begin to emerge on each sheet of paper -- cross-hatched rectangles representing houses, lines of roads and interstate connectors, farmland, airports, lakes, cemeteries and anything else one would find in an atlas.

Gretzinger grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., and attended the University of Michigan, but after three years, he applied to transfer to University of California-Berkeley. In the summer 1963, he began working in a Hoover ball bearing factory, sitting in a room as parts were counted. During his frequent downtime, Gretzinger would read and doodle. One drawing, a map of a small imagi

nary town, was unknowingly the first of many more to come.

"Š there was this moment when I came to the edge of that sheet of paper and got out another sheet of paper and Š I taped them together," he said during an interview at Mass MoCA. "That’s when I kind of realized it had a life of its own."

From 1963 to about 1985, Gretzinger worked on his world off and on, but then put it away as he and his wife, Meg, started a women’s clothing business and Gretzinger began to analyze stocks.

In 1990, Gretzinger moved from lower Manhattan to Cold Spring, N.Y., and his incomplete map moved to the attic.

In early 2003, according to Gretzinger, his son, Henry, was in the attic and found the old, dusty box filled with the hundreds of precursor tiles from his father’s earlier years.

"He said ‘Dad, what is this? Can I have it?’ I saw that it was my map Š and [said] ‘No, you can’t have it.’ And I got it out and started to dust it off. I got inspired to work again and I just took off," Gretzinger said.

Since then, Gretzinger has been working every day on his map when he’s with it.

Expanding its borders with calibrated acrylic greens, browns, grays, reds and blue -- part of his daily process -- he added churches and canals, farmland and railroad stations. The "people" of his world had to eat and travel somehow.

In the last 10 years or so, Gretzinger added to his process a complex deck of cards with hand-written instructions on them to help with inventory and housekeeping.

Each day, the artist draws anywhere between one and four cards, which dictate how he will continue with his work.

This dictation of evolution is what Gretzinger calls his "future predictor." For example, in Whitmore’s documentary, Gretzinger pulls a seven of diamonds with the word "scan" written on it. He’ll take the current stack he’s working on, count down seven sheets and place those seven at the bottom of the stack. Taking the eighth sheet, he makes a color copy of it, archives the original and proceeds to work on the new copy.

Gretzinger’s process with his sheets of paper is both artistically functional and mathematical. With the influence of the cards and based on populations, he’ll add to certain towns and cities on his map an airport or a capital building. He looks to see what his parishes are missing and adds what is necessary. All of this is done with the help of a spreadsheet of a personal computer.

In 2009, Whitmore began filming Gretzinger in his basement studio for a short film that aids in a viewer’s ability to understand where Gretzinger is coming from with his elaborate work.

"As I’ve been working on this, coming to understand Jerry’s process, more things are illuminated about the pro cess," Whitmore said. "There’s some philosophical ideas that come out of our conversations."

In several interviews, Whit more tried to make sense of Gretzinger’s procedure. Be cause Gretzinger’s methods are constantly evolving, Whit more has spent years with him to record, understand and produce a film that portrays his friend as clearly as possible.

"It’s really hard to grasp something that size if you’ve never seen it," Whitmore, a Williams College graduate, said of "Jerry’s Map."

Whitmore is nearing a stopping point for the documentary, but continues to film during Gretzinger’s exhibit at Mass MoCA.

The mystery and intrigue of "Jerry’s Map" lies within his process of fate. By creating his set of rules with his cards, he knows what an outcome could be and what it means when it happens, but he leaves it to chance as to what card he will draw.

"I make up the rules. That takes me one percent of the time, and then 99 percent of the time, I’m just executing according to those rules," he said.

A reverse God complex, Gretzinger says he is not the ruler or the god of his world. He is just as much in the dark as to how the map will develop as anyone else.

"I’m a secular humanist. ŠSecular humanists are basically agnostics. They believe human beings Š make the rules, that basic laws are not god-given but formed by us and we’re responsible for ourselves."

As this is the first time either Gretzinger or Whit more have seen the map in its full form, both are excited and in awe of its totality. Since 2003, Jerry’s Map has tripled in size.

Looking out at his work, Gretzinger maintains one hope for those who choose to view his creation.

"One response is that Š ‘I’m going to persevere. Look at this guy. He’s been at this for 49 years and he’s still chugging along,’ " he said. "There’s a lot of hope and the will to live that’s in there and that I hope people feel or see. It’s a little glimpse of the big human story, the past, future Š construction and rebirth."

Additional information online: Greg’s Vimeo: http://

Mass MoCA site: http://www.


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