A Life in Music and Art

Don Christensen was selected for the recent “Artists Choose Artists” show at the Parrish Art Museum
Don Christensen in his Springs studio Mark Segal

    Don Christensen’s studio in Barnes Landing recalls the way New York City lofts looked before they became high-priced “loft-apartments.” Storage racks, worktables, tools and materials, and walls hung with paintings identify it as the domain of a working artist. At one end is a drum set, a clue to the other career — musician — that has figured as prominently in his life.

    At present, the balance is tipping toward painting. Mr. Christensen was selected for the recent “Artists Choose Artists” show at the Parrish Art Museum, where he exhibited painted wooden tables, step stools, benches, and other objects, deployed on the walls as both an installation and individual objects.

    Mr. Christensen’s work will be included next month in “Paper and Canvas,” a group show being organized by Denise Gale at Ille Arts in Amagansett. Switching roles, he himself will curate “Self-Taught Artists” at Ille Arts in September.

    His experience as a musician, composer, and audio engineer continues to seep into his art. Last year the East End curator Janet Goleas came to his studio to look at his paintings for possible inclusion in the Moby Project, the ambitious two-part exhibition she organized last summer at the Mulford Farm and Neoteric Fine Art.

    “I told Janet I had an idea for an audio piece,” Mr. Christensen recalled, “thinking it was something she should do. But she said, ‘You’re doing it.’ ” The result was his recorded reading of the last chapter of “Moby-Dick,” the sound emerging from a rundown shed.

    In August he will be creating an audio environment for a show in Berlin of paintings by Mary Heilmann and David Reed. “The Moby thing opened me up,” he said. “It made me realize I don’t have to be just a painter or just a musician. I can do a lot of different things.”

    There was nothing in his upbringing that encouraged a pursuit of the arts. Mr. Christensen was born in North Platte, Neb., where he lived on a farm until the age of 6. “All my aunts and uncles and grandparents were farmers. I worked on farms when I was a teenager, and my older sisters both married farmers. I really came from an agrarian society.”

    Mr. Christensen’s father left the family when he was 8 years old. His mother went to work, and his sisters had families of their own. “So my brother Dan, who was a teenager, became my caretaker. Our relationship was strained then. From an early age I was the artistic one, the kid who drew and painted. Dan was the athlete. Then he went away to college and after a while changed his major to art. It pissed me off! That was my scene.”

    Dan not only majored in art but also, after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, moved to New York in 1965 and soon established himself as an important abstract painter. His younger brother, meanwhile, was getting involved with music and playing in bands, having been inspired by the Beatles, Motown, and the rock ’n’ roll explosion of the mid-1960s.

    “I was a junior or senior, and the guys in the bands I was playing with were all a few years older than I was. There were five of us, and the other four got drafted.” His mother enrolled him at the University of Nebraska so he would receive a student deferment. While there he took some art classes, and eventually submitted some drawings to the Kansas City Art Institute and got a scholarship there.

    The institute offered traditional Beaux Arts training. By that time, Mr. Christensen was traveling back and forth between Kansas City and New York, where he would stay at his brother’s loft. “Dan went away a jock, but now he had long hair, the same records as I did, and was this hip guy. We became friends, and he was very good to me.”

    In the summer of 1971 Mr. Christensen sublet a loft on the Bowery and never returned to the Art Institute. Through his brother, he met Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Larry Zox, and other color-field painters whose work was ascendant in the art world at that time. “They were at the top of their game and making a lot of money and had a lot of people working in their studios, including me. I had a real close-up view of the art world, and the time I spent in the studios with those big painters helped me understand the handling of art materials.”

    From the late 1970s into the early 1980s, lower Manhattan was the site of cross-fertilization among young artists, musicians, and dancers. CBGB, the Mudd Club, and the Kitchen were among the venues where everything from punk to avant-garde music and performance could be found.

    “I found myself drawn to the music scene,” Mr. Christensen said. “I was going to CBGB and meeting other musicians and playing music, and it seemed more fun than the art world.” He became part of the No Wave scene, and played with the Loose Screws, James Chance and the Contortions, the Bush Tetras, and, from 1979 to 1984, the Raybeats, who recorded three albums and toured extensively.

    “That world was as creative as being a painter in the studio,” he said, “and I started having some success, which is another thing that pushes you along. I got to make records with some good people and while I didn’t get rich, I made a living doing it.”

    At the same time, life on the road was increasingly difficult. “I was approaching 40 and running around the country with the Raybeats in vans, playing the same songs over and over to 20-year-olds in clubs. I had friends who died of drug overdoses. It was unhealthy.” The group disbanded while still on speaking terms.

    Music continued to play a role in Mr. Christensen’s life. He was a partner, along with Philip Glass and others, in the Looking Glass Studios, whose client roster included Lou Reed, Beck, David Bowie, John Legend, Sheryl Crow, and Patti Smith. He also wrote 15 film scores for Faith Hubley, an acclaimed maker of experimental animated films and a three-time Oscar winner.

    He resumed painting in the early 1990s, while continuing to be involved in music. “I had just finished a soundtrack for Faith and I was kicking back at my brother’s place in East Hampton. I was collecting pieces of wood from Dumpsters and construction sites without really knowing why. There was plenty of paint around at Dan’s studio, so I began fooling around with these pieces of found wood. When I got back to the city, I wanted to keep doing them, so I started taking it seriously, and I was lucky. I got grants from [the New York Foundation for the Arts] and the N.E.A., and I’ve been painting ever since.”

    In the late 1980s Mr. Christensen added the role of collector-conservator to his resumé. In 1975, Dan Dryden, an old friend, was running his family’s pharmacy in North Platte when a farmer named Emery Blagdon walked into the store and asked for some “elements.” Mr. Dryden subsequently went to the Blagdon farm and discovered the farmer’s “healing machine,” a shed-sized installation of paintings on wood, boxes full of found materials, and intricate wire hangings.

    In 1986, while both were in North Platte for a high school reunion, Mr. Dryden took Mr. Christensen to the Blagdon place. The shed was locked and the farm was deserted. Mr. Blagdon’s nephew stopped by when he saw them snooping around and told them his uncle had died two weeks before. He opened the shed and, Mr. Christensen recalled, “My mind was blown. That was one of the major experiences of my life.”

    When they learned the work was going to be auctioned off bit by bit, along with the rest of the Blagdon estate, Mr. Christensen and Mr. Dryden determined to buy it. “The piece caused a sense of wonder,” Mr. Christensen said. “It looked sci-fi and weird, and yet sweet and charming. The gavel went down, and suddenly we were the stewards of this man’s life work.” They warehoused it, cataloged it, photographed it, insured it, and placed it in 15 different outsider art exhibitions over the next 20 years. In 2004 the work was purchased by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis.

    Pointing to some of his own paintings on wood from the early 1990s, Mr. Christensen said, “I wasn’t trying to use his geometry in my work, though I thought about it a lot. He was a great influence in the sense of confirming that you have to listen to yourself and follow your desires.”

    Speaking of his longstanding attraction to technology, he said, “Early on, I had an eight-track recorder in my studio and decided to record a jazz band called the Microscopic Septet. It was really fun, and I thought it was like painting. Both are about making things balance, and layering things up and then stripping away layers. With a painting, you look at it and work on it, look at it some more and work on it, look at it some more, and then ruin it.” He laughed. “It was the same with recording. For me, there are a lot of similarities between the two.”