Bill Gersh is a legend in these parts.
Among both the people who knew him and those who did not.
This month you can see some of his lesser known and most striking work, including five pieces from a couple of his earliest collectors, Larry and Lisa Singer.
“Aside from the five pieces from the Singer collection, the show will be all canvases.” His daughter Georgia told me when I visited her at Magpie recently.
Nora Anthony’s beautiful show was still hanging in the side gallery, with a few of Peter Parks’ canvases displayed on the wall at the entry to the open gallery space adjacent to Magpie’s main room. This is how Georgia transitions the artists who show in her gallery.
“That way if people miss the show, they can still get a feel for it and see some of the work for a month longer.” She explained.
Smart. And apropos coming from the daughter of one of Taos’ most legendary artists, Bill Gersh whose work is currently hanging at Magpie through July 31st.
“Even all these years after his death, my sister Rachel and I still have a lot to go through,” she told me. “Trying to determine what is valuable and what is disposable.”
“This show will feature some very important canvases as well as five pieces selected from the collection of Gersh’s early collectors and dear friends, Larry and Lisa Singer.” She explained.
For a time Bill Gersh was identified with what was perhaps the only school of contemporary painting in Taos, entitled (with more than a little irony), Junk Art.
Gersh and David Pratt were the most prominent members of this school of painting which was distinguished by being a bit rough around the edges, using cheap materials – whatever was on hand basically – filled with tremendous energy and bold painterly gestures. These were true outlaw artists who rejected the traditional trajectory of fine art.
By the late 70s the Taos School of Junk Art was already dead. Pratt moved to Santa Fe, and Gersh began to create the work he is known for; powerful, emotionally charged work that often took on the mythology of the American West as its subject matter
He had no interest in romanticizing the West – he wasn’t following any earlier schools or associations. Like Sam Shepherd, who also spent time up here in Northern New Mexico’s desolate landscape, Gersh explored its dark side.
Born on July 15, 1943, in Charleston, South Carolina and raised in Kerhonkson, N.Y, he earned an art education degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz. He then spent some time teaching high school art in upstate New York, before moving to Berkeley, Calif. In 1968.
He arrived in Taos in 1970, where he co-founded the Reality Construction Company commune in Arroyo Hondo, later moving up to Lama, co-founding and building the Magic Tortoise Foundation .
“We had four households living there on 40 acres that backed up to national forest, a communal garden, communal larder; we shopped at the old Amigos Co-op,” Georgia recalls. She and her older half-sister Rachel would leave the house after breakfast and come back at dinner. “It was a really wonderful, free, imaginative upbringing.”
While Gersh built the communal space, he continued to write and make art. His sketchbooks and journals have multiple daily entries
His first studio in New Mexico, was in Talpa (during the same year he co-founded the Reality Construction Company), and while building experimental adobe and wood dwellings, he continued working on extensive drawing studies, incorporating primitive iconography.
Once he had moved into the home and studio he designed and built in Lama, he resumed painting, as well as making sculpture and collage, focusing on figurative work, portraits, and imagery drawn from diverse cultures.
While Georgia and I spoke, I noticed a book I’ve long loved on a shelf. Africa Adorned is an exquisite documentation of the tribes who once populated Africa, before colonisation.
“That was my dad’s, “ she said. “He had a library of books on different indigenous Peoples and cultures.”
“He loved exploring other cultures.” She recalled.
He was constantly engaged in an ongoing investigation of Mayan and other Meso-American cultures, Greek mythology, Tantric imagery and African art,and anything visually related to these informal studies.
“He was so curious and knowledgeable about culture, religion, humanity, art. “ Georgia noted. “I think all this translated into his work as an artist.”
Gersh spent a lot of time going back and forth between New York and Taos, and spent time as an artist-in-residence and lecturer at numerous universities throughout the United States, along with several months spent in Switzerland painting for a private collector.
“There was tons of art, tons of openings and it was so fun,” his daughter Georgia recalls fondly, remembering the freedom she had growing up on Magic Tortoise commune in Lama.
“Granted, my sister Rachel has her own equally relevant opinions about it, but I think growing up (in Lama), gave me a really unique perspective on Taos and its art scene.”
A perspective she has parlayed into her very successful gallery which continues to show the best of Taos’ artists and artisans.
Bill was also a fine poet which is how I initially got to know him, when he began to show up at the Sunday night open mic I ran in various cafes here in Taos for five years beginning in 1990.
Bill would occasionally get up and recite a poem or two, but mainly he came to enjoy the scene and brought other visiting poets with him.
He was very involved in the literary community in Taos. Actively involved with the Taos Poetry Circus (in fact designing the limited edition print entitled Chant, for the first Poetry Circus in 1982), the Taos Review and alternative publications such as The Taos Times and Horsefly.
His life was dedicated to art and creativity – he knew how to connect with the creative wellspring in order to inspire constant creativity. He was a force.
Paul O’Connor whose portrait of Gersh covers his award-winning book, Taos Portraits, says that “Gersh was an intense guy, he lived large and hard… his artwork like a self-portrait reflects that intensity, but right behind the surface was a sense of humor ready to laugh… his work has that going on too.”
Painter, poet and performance artist, Bill Gersh was an artists’ artist, who worshipped at the altar of creativity.
Talking about himself with the late, great writer, thespian, and art dealer, Steve Parks in a mid-’80s Artlines interview:,he said,“I want to make people more aware.”
“Some people can deal with it, and we have a dialogue, others just call me crazy. But I can’t categorize myself. If somebody wants to, fine. I build houses, I irrigate the alfalfa fields, I paint. I do whatever needs to be done so that I can be a free spirit.”
Bill Gersh lived hard and died tragically young in 1994. He was 51. His incredible spirit lives on, immortalized by his work which is as vital and relevant now as it was when he made it.
Bill Gersh’s show at Magpie is up through July, with an opening reception tomorrow (Saturday, July 7th), from 5-7pm.
For more information please visit Magpie’s site linked below this post.
Photographs of Bill Gersh by Patrick Finn and (book cover) Paul O’Connor
Other images thanks to Georgia Gersh