The Campbell Lecture Series: Michael Petry
April 7, 8, & 9 at 6
Rice Media Center
6100 Main St., Entrance 8
When pioneering installation artist Michael Petry was applying to colleges in the late 1970s, he was accepted by a number of famous schools. At none of them, however, would he be able to double major in studio art and mathematics—none of them except Rice University. In some ways, Rice was a natural choice. Petry’s father was from Houston, and his great-grandfather had worked as a chef at Rice in its early years.
Growing up in El Paso, Petry displayed a precocious interest in both art and mathematics. “I felt very strongly from a very young age that I was going to be an artist,” he told me. “At the age of 5 I asked my parents if I could take classes at the El Paso Art Museum.”
After graduating as the valedictorian of his high school class, he matriculated at Rice, eventually earning his BA in 1981. This week he returns to his alma mater as part of Rice's Campbell Lecture Series—a prestigious annual humanities series that has previously brought to campus poet Robert Pinsky, novelist Zadie Smith and literary critic Stanley Fish. Petry’s three free public lectures—which he’ll deliver tonight, Wednesday night and Thursday night at the Rice Media Center—will, like the previous Campbell Lectures, later be published as a book by the University of Chicago Press.
At Rice, Petry worked with Dominique de Menil, helping install shows at the Rice Art Barn (which was demolished last year despite protests from faculty, students and alumni). After graduating, he moved to England, where he’s lived ever since, earning degrees from London Guildhall and Middlesex universities while rising to acclaim as a leading avant-garde artist and curator.
During Petry's time at Rice, neo-expressionist painters like Julian Schnabel and Jules Olitski were in vogue, but their brand of flamboyant (and highly lucrative) exhibitionism didn’t appeal to Petry. Instead, he gravitated toward creating temporary works of art meant to be ephemeral—which also meant that they were almost impossible to sell.
“Back then we didn’t really have a name for what we were doing,” Petry said. “In New York it was the big flashy paintings of Schnabel, and it was all about money. And I was doing things that couldn’t be sold—people told me I was crazy.”
Eventually, what he and his friends were doing did get a name—Installation Art (1994), the title of Petry’s first book, which helped popularize the new multi-media art form. He also undertook daring artistic explorations of homoeroticism in the arts, publishing Hidden Histories: 20th-Century Male Same Sex Lovers in the Visual Arts in 2004, the first major survey of the subject, in conjunction with an exhibition at The New Art Gallery Walsall.
In his Rice lectures, Petry will look back on his long, productive career. “That’s been the most difficult thing,” he said. “How do you take 35 years of work and make sense of it in an hour? It’s just impossible. And the work looks very different over the different periods—it looks like it’s been made by about 30 or 40 different people. However, it’s all very conceptual, and it’s all been made in response to what’s been going on in my life.”
One constant for Petry is his interest in mathematics, the subject that brought him to Rice in the first place. “I thought when I graduated from Rice that I would never use mathematics again, but of course I’ve gone on to use it throughout my career,” he said. “In mathematics you can refer to a proof as beautiful, and what you mean by that is that it takes the minimal number of steps to get to the solution. That’s different from what most artists would think of as beautiful. If you tell an artist today that something they made is beautiful, they would generally take that as an insult, because that really means it’s vapid and superficial. So I’m trying to sort of rehabilitate the idea of beauty.”