Cuban American painter Gustavo Ojeda (1958—89) is best known for lush and meditative urban nightscapes that brought him recognition in the 1980s downtown New York art scene. He exhibited works alongside artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz before dying from AIDS-related complications in 1989just two weeks shy of his thirty-first birthday.
Now, Ojeda's nephew Gabriel Ojeda-Sague (a Chicago resident) and Erich Kessel Jr., are co-editors of An Excess of Quiet: Selected Sketches by Gustavo Ojeda, 1979—1989, which (re)acquaints people with more than 200 of Ojeda's sketches.
Windy City Times: You have an interesting background: You're currently at the University of Chicago and you've written about Cher, pornography and even jazzercise. [Ojeda-Sague laughs.] What compelled you to tackle the works of your uncle?
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague: It all feels outside of the [usual] stuff I do, like poetry. I always grew up with my uncle's works around me. There's this interesting situation where a lot of his work fell out of circulation after his death; his works ended up in family members' houses but not in places like museums, so I was immersed in his work.
As I got older, I got more and more interested about why his work fell out of circulation and what it would take to bring it back into circulation. My uncle's longtime partner was Lester Edelsteinwho I also considered my uncle. Lester died in 2016 and left Gustavo's sketchbooks and paintings to my brother and myself. At this point, I knew that I really wanted to do something. I'm not [well-]versed in the world of art, but I am in the world of booksso I wondered how I could bring Gustavo's works back into circulation.
Around 2015, Lester introduced me to the sketchbooks. He didn't think they were very special, but I was so impressed by what was in them. The paintings were very impressionistic landscapes of New York City, but the sketches were these decontexualized, haunting faces of people on public transport. So then it became a major project for me.
WCT: I get the title [which comes from how critics viewed Ojeda's works]. There is a sense of quiet in his works.
GO-S: Yes. The title was never something he used about his works but, for me, there's something quietbut there's something more than quiet. It was said that there's almost an energy moving beneath the paintingeven when it seems like there's not a lot going on. I was using the phrase "an excess of quiet" to describe his works, so I thought that'd make a great title. [Laughs]
WCT: There's something you wrote in the intro that resonated with me: "Growing up near his paintings, I felt that they had something charging beneath them."
GO-S: Yeah. When I was a kind, I saw the kids as almost spooky; there was something imposing about the nightscapes. I saw them as spooky yet calming. They had a real presence that almost seemed a non-presence. It was like something that initially seems simple but is more complex the more you look at it.
I also realized what was making him quite a popular artist at this time. One of the paradoxes about him is that he was a big artist in the '80s New York art scene but most of the other artists were more pop art, like Warhol and Basquiat and Haring. Gustavo's works look more traditional at first, but there's something beyond those traditional impressionist works. When you look at these sketches together, there's something meditative and unsettling at the same time. It looks impressive how the drawings bleed across the pages.
WCT: The sketches span 1979 to 1989. Do you see a progression or evolution in the sketches from the beginning to the end of the decade?
GO-S: Sure. I would not say it's exactly a clean arc, but there's some obsession and it becomes more refined. The works are not arranged chronologically and the dates are not given to the reader, but I can say that the works from '79 to '81 [feature] Spanish parks and traditional figure drawings, like nudes. Once he comes back to New York, he became more interested in the urban landscape. His most productive year was probably 1984, when he was making the nightscapes that would make him famous. But during the mid-'80s, he's also doing all of these facial sketches. It's funny that they both happen at the same time, as the nightscapes don't feature people.
Once we cross the mid-'80s, he developed his style a bit more but stays with relative themes. However, the drawings get a little less simple. A friend of his told me that what Gustavo would not look at his subjects on public transport because he didn't want them to know he was drawing them, so he would just look out and they were done quickly.
He got sick in 1987 and his productivity lowered significantly, and he passed away in 1989. It's unclear to me where his work would have gone if he had lived longer, but I can tell you that his paintings moved to daytime urban landscapes. What I like about this book is that some of the sketches are really technically impressiveand others are not.
I also wanted to keep in how much erasing there was with the sketchesthe screw-ups and do-overs. With some, you can see extra lines and blurring. One of the things Soberscove [Press] did well was that it really shows the extra marks; that was a way of [conveying] a tactile sense of the works to the reader.
WCT: You mentioned contemporaries such as Basquiat and Haring. Do you feel that your unclewith all his talentwas underappreciated?
GO-S: During his time, I don't think he was underappreciated. He was never a celebrity artist, like Haring or Basquiat. When [Ojeda] died, my grandparentsCuban exiles who don't speak Englishtook over, in a sense, and they weren't able to keep up with bringing his work out into the world. Gustavo was very productive and very charming; once he and his friends died, there was a real loss of the foundation of what kept his work goingand my family was not able (or possibly willing) to keep up things. Lester archived Gustavo's works and there were a couple well-received retrospectives. I think Gustavo's works fell out of renown.
So Gustavo wasn't underappreciated at the time [when he was alive] but he was kind of an odd figure. He had a very successful career. I'm trying to bring some attention to his works because I feel they still offer a lotand there's a lot that people haven't seen.
WCT: Ultimately, what would you like people to take away from this book?
GO-S: Good question… I think what I'm trying to do is show people a really tender but yet obsessive practice that artists had during this time. It was private and personal, but I'm trying to bring out [Gustavo's] image and renown.