When I described Jerry Gretzinger to an art dealer friend as “kind of brilliant”, he responded “you can’t say someone is kind of brilliant, that’s like saying someone’s kind of pregnant!” I quickly rephrased my comment. “Ok, he IS brilliant. And completely amazing.”
If you can imagine a physical and tangible version of Minecraft or SimCity, where every day new boundaries of cities are created, then you have an idea of what Michigan-born Jerry Gretzinger has been building for more than 50 years. Instead of building digitally, Jerry draws everyday on A4 sized panels based on instructions (or rules) that he has generated and written onto 114 playing cards, which he shuffles whenever a card in the deck instructs him to do so:
“I have a waitlist of changes that I’d like to make to the cards. But I’m very strict about adhering to the instructions. If I don’t like one of these instructions, when it comes up, I allow myself to change it, but not this time around, I’ll change it for the next time it comes around.“
“[The game-like quality] is what keeps me going —That it’s a mystery— my curiosity.
The cards have gotten modified. Like this King, see it? It used to be a king, but it’s been modified so many times. It tells me to make map blanks. The blanks are collaged pieces of paper that I use as the starting point for any single panel of the map. And then there’s a painting instruction, there are these bands of paint on the panels… and this says: “do the same style of paint as the previous band. And then the last instruction is social media. It means go tend the Twitter site or the blog or go do some of that stuff.“
Despite the generation gap, if Jerry and I were in a competition for most prolific use of social media, Jerry would leave me in the dirt. While most of my parents’ friends are mastering the use of texting, Jerry is actively on Reddit, Facebook, his blog, and Twitter.
I met Jerry through another artist, Stephen Hannock, who was including his monumental artwork in the River Crossings show in upstate New York. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of Jerry, because I remembered watching the video about his process when I was looking through current exhibitions at MASS MoCA in 2012. And now that he was going to be included in Stephen’s show, I wanted to know more about the man who took an OCD hobby to the next level, creating a fictional world that hasn’t stopped growing since 1963!
Jerry started this map over 50 years ago, but only now is it getting recognition.. why?! Well because at the time, Jerry didn’t think the map could turn into what it is now. He was busy studying architecture, then working in an industrial factory, then making a lucrative career as a fashion designer…
Jerry, how and when did you start this map??
Jerry: Basically, it was the summer of 1963, I had just finished 3 years at the university of Michigan. I had started there as a freshman in 1960. I got tired of being in Michigan and had decided I wanted to see more of the world, I’d never really traveled. And so I applied to Berkeley, and that Fall, September of ‘63 I was headed out to Berkeley. In the meantime, during the summer I had a boring job in a ball-bearing factory. And that’s when I started making the map.
JG: It was a ball-bearing factory.
[Jerry explains to me what ball-bearings are]
JG: Yeah, I guess you have to take my word for it. Basically it was a big machine shop. And I sat in an office all-day and there were mechanical counters in the office. And when they did a run of a certain part- say they wanted to make 800 of a certain bearing- they’d set the machine up and in my office there was a mechanical counter that clicked every time one of those bearings were made. And when the 800th had completed, I was to page the foreman out on the factory floor and get him to shut the machine down. That’s a really long explanation for a silly thing, but anyway, in this office with all these hours to kill, I started drawing a map.
And these drawings just got bigger and bigger with time, and when the drawing ran off the page, he would find another piece of regular 8.5″x11″ typing paper, tape it to the other one, and continue expanding the map.
When did you start realizing that this map could be a serious work of art?
JG: There was an interesting phase in there. It was in the mid 80s sometime. I lived in a loft on Broadway in New York. I had to be registered as an artist. It was an AIR loft, and so I had to apply to the New York Bureau of Cultural Affairs to be a certified artist. So I got out my map and laid it out on the floor of the loft and photographed it. And made that part of my application.
All the while thinking, “ho ho ho, I’m not really an artist, I just made this thing. But maybe I can convince them, even though I had never shown it. And never been published.” And they were a little skeptical. They sent one of their examiners to my loft and she walked through and said, “ok, alright, I guess so. I guess you’re an artist.”
But I didn’t believe it at that point.
It wasn’t until I picked it up again. You know, it was put away for 20 years. I didn’t work on it for 20 years. (During this time, Jerry started a fashion company with his wife)
Then in 2003 I started working on it again. And a friend of mine, who’s an artist in the city, came up to visit, and I was showing it to him, and he said “you have to show this!” and that hadn’t really occurred to me. And the first little show was at the Garrison Art Center, Garrison, NY.
Fast forward to today, and Jerry’s map is still going strong. Most recently, a portion of Jerry’s map (now about 3300 panels) was included at 516 Gallery in Albuquerque, NM as well as at River Crossings. Both ended by November 1st. The upcoming exhibitions will be at the Urban Institute for the Contemporary Arts (UICA) in Grand Rapids, MI opening November 21, and at the Aichi Triennale in Nagoya, Japan in August, 2016.
Jerry tells me that there are now 3 complete sets of the map, one for the studio and two for exhibition, 3300 panels, which provides the land for a growing population of 17,075,340 inhabitants (!), even while new ‘voids’ keep popping up.
I could go on and on about how brilliant Jerry Gretzinger is, but it’s better if you just see for yourself:
What do you think?