On February 19,1972, Richard Landry filled the Leo Castelli Gallery at 420 West Broadway with the running sound of his electric piano as well as tenor and soprano saxophones. Alongside six other musicians and with the aid of a sound engineer, they played for over 5 hours. The audio from the event became Richard Landry: Solos, a double LP that was published by Castelli Gallery shortly after the concert. We recently digitized the album and posted it in its entirety on the Castelli Gallery website. Solos was originally released on the Chatham Square label. Unseen Worlds, a record label based in New York City, will be re-releasing the two-record set in the fall.
Releasing digital content can feel like whispering into a void. Yet shortly after posting the audio, we received an outpouring of responses and among them an unanticipated and quite wonderful message from Richard Landry himself. What follows is the result of several conversations held at the end of April and in the early weeks of May. He spoke to us from his pecan farm in Louisiana, where he currently resides.
Richard Landry was born in Cecilia, Louisiana in 1938. Three decades later, he moved to New York to continue his musical career with the Philip Glass Ensemble. Landry, whose polymathic output has earned him the titles of musician, composer, photographer, and painter, shared some of his recollections of being a young artist living in New York during the 1970s. Here, he recalls his first encounter with Leo Castelli, as well as the band of artists with whom he lived and worked.
What was your first meeting with Leo Castelli like? Did you know of the gallery before arriving in New York?
I met Leo through Richard Serra while I was working with Richard on his first show, which was at the Castelli Warehouse [December 16, 1969 – January 10, 1970]. Leo came to see the progress of this very complicated and dangerous installation. The day before the opening, the entire exhibit of all those 400-pound lead plates fell. Leo ran from the building thinking it was collapsing. We had to reconstruct the entire show that evening in time for the opening the next day.
Of course, I knew of the Castelli Gallery, even before I arrived in New York. Several months before I graduated from high school, I saw a work of Rauschenberg’s in Time Magazine. I was having a debate in my head, What do I want to do when I go out into the world? Do I want to be a jazz musician, classical musician, and or a classical artist, on and on. When I saw what Rauschenberg had done and was receiving worldwide attention for, it was that moment I decided I could be whatever I wanted to be . . . Bob had painted his “Bed” and hung it on a wall.
Do you remember how the show turned out, despite all that falling sculpture?
It put Richard on the art world map. Just seeing those pieces and the ideas behind them. I don’t remember too much of the opening except we were all worried that at any minute any one of those lead pieces could have fallen.
How did the concert [held at Castelli Gallery on February 19, 1972] come about? Was it Leo who asked you to perform?
One evening I was at a dinner with Leo and Ileana at Rauschenberg's loft on Lafayette Street. and during the conversation Leo looked at me and said, “Would you like to do something at the gallery?” I said, “Like what?” He said, “Well, anything you want to do!” I said, “What about a concert?” He said, “Great, I always wanted to have a concert at 420!” I’ll never forget him running around the gallery while we were playing, just jumping up and down. He was really excited about what was going on. We did a five-and-a-half-hour concert. I believe we took a 15-minute break at some point.
So, the concert extended beyond what is recorded?
What kind of audience did it receive, do you remember who showed up?
It was a mixed audience, a lot of my friends, musicians, artists, poets, actors and actresses. As far as I know people sat there for the whole thing, actually I have no recollection of what people did; I was too busy concentrating on the music.
A few years later at the end of a solo concert at 420, I opened my eyes, there was Ornette Coleman sitting on the floor. He came up to me and said, “I can’t believe you’ve been in my back yard for five years and I didn’t pay attention to you.” He told me about an upcoming concert in Lagos, and invited me to start coming to rehearsals. So, I started going to rehearsals, but at some point, there was a military coup and the concert was canceled.
Let me tell you a story about how I first met Ornette.
I drove to New York in December, 1968 and parked my car, went into to a diner and had a cup of coffee and when I came out, all my clothes and saxophone were gone, so I got a hotel room at the Broadway Central. I looked in The Voice, which was about a four-page magazine at the time, Ornette was playing around the corner at the Village Gate on Bleecker. So, I went, and going down the stairs to the club Ornette was crossing my path, we started talking and after a few minutes he said, “Your accent, where are you from?” I said, “I’m from Lafayette, Louisiana.” “Oh, I got beat up in that town once,” he said. “Well, I got beat up in New York today,” I said, and I told him about the situation with my saxophone. So, he took out a piece of paper and wrote his phone number down and while handing me the note said, “I have a lot of saxophones, if you need a saxophone, call me.” We were friends till he died. When Gordon Matta-Clark opened the restaurant Food on Prince Street, Ornette often ate there as he lived on the 6th floor in the building next door.
Do you remember anything about the performance itself, how you played?
Before a solo concert, I start playing and I am thinking, why am I putting myself in this position? What am I doing? These thoughts are in my head as I am playing. And so, I think, there are people here, you’re getting paid, and this is what you do. And the next thing I know, the concert is over.
Was it common for musicians to perform in the gallery? Did you perform in any other art spaces?
Composers and musicians had been performing in the galleries for some time. Neither I nor Phillip were interested in performing in night clubs. My whole time in New York City, I only played twice in a nightclub. I never wanted to do it again as I had done that when I lived in Louisiana and I had had enough of that life. Phillip Glass' music was so new that no clubs or concert halls would hire him. After he and I had performed at 420 West Broadway, the European art world became interested in our music and we began to tour Europe performing mostly in museums and art galleries. Phillip, Steve Reich and I began to perform at art venues in SoHo, 112 Greene Street, The Kitchen and others spaces. I performed a lot at 112 Greene Street. 112 was one of the first alternative art spaces in New York City. It was owned by Jeffrey Lew and was open 24 hours, artists could do whatever they wanted to do in the space (cut the floors, the walls etc.).
You assembled a group of several musicians to perform with you. [Richard Peck, tenor sax; Robert Prado, trumpet and bass; Rusty Gilder, trumpet and bass; Jon Smith, tenor sax; Allan Brafman, alto sax; David Lee, drums; Kurt Munkacsi, engineer] Did they also move in the same group of artists that you were involved with at the time?
Four of us were from Lafayette, Louisiana and one from New Orleans. We had been performing together for years in South Louisiana. Once they realized I was carrying my own in New York City they decided, one by one, to come. Eventually, three of them were in the Glass Ensemble. Richard Peck retired after 30 years with the ensemble. Actually, seven musicians from Lafayette went through the Glass Ensemble.
The album itself is dedicated to Bobby Ramirez—
Bobby Ramirez was a drummer friend from South Louisiana that played with Edgar Winter’s White Trash group. He had died a few months earlier so I decided to dedicate the concert to him.
At that time, all the musicians were basically living with me in Chinatown, at 10 Chatham Square, and we would free-improvise nightly from nine or ten o’clock at night, until two or three or sometimes four in the morning. Every night.
When Leo said, “Do you want to do a concert?” and I said, “Yes,” I went back to the loft and said, “We’ve got a concert!” they asked, “What are we going to do?” And I said, “The same thing we’re doing every night, we just start playing.” I respected everybody in that band so much that we didn’t have to come up with songs, arrangements, tunes or anything else. It was improvisation, freestyle.
The reason why it starts off with such a rush is Kurt Munkacsi, the engineer, was on the first floor behind the gallery at 420. He had a video hook-up and he had his back turned to the T.V. screen and he didn’t have the sound on. When he turned around and saw that we were playing, he pressed record. That’s why you get this flood of incredible sound, we had been playing for maybe five or ten minutes without him noticing that we were playing!
So, there is no score and you could not really replicate exactly what you played that day?
Total improvisation can either be great or disastrous. With free improvisation you are free to do what you want to do but one cannot replicate it. With Philip, every note is written down and there is no chance for improvisation at all, except for the very first composition that he released, Music in Changing Parts, where there is an underlying written part and we were free to improvise long tones. No jamming, but more like pick a note, or a couple, and hold them.
Do you remember who photographed the concert at Castelli?
Tina Girouard and Susie Harris. The set up and the energy shows through in the photographs . . . All those great microphones were compliments of John Lennon, and also the 16-track mobile studio. Kurt Munkacsi, the recording engineer, was working with Lennon at the time and asked to borrow the mobile studio and Lennon agreed.
What about your recollections of the spaces themselves? What do you remember about 420 West Broadway and the Warehouse?
The Warehouse space was a gigantic two-story concrete building. And the second floor was maybe six or seven thousand square feet. [Leo] stored all the artwork up there. I remember Richard Serra and I would take a break from splashing lead or doing something and would sit on this couch in front of all the racks of paintings. We would bring out a Frank Stella and critique it, and then we’d bring out a Warhol or a Jasper Johns painting. We would haul it out and put it against the wall and critique it. This is what we did when we were taking a coffee break.
And 420, remember the galleries in the 70s were tiny spaces, so walking into that beautiful space was a new experience. I’m sure it changed the size of works. It would, compared to what people could do at 77th street. In fact, the first show I did at 77th street with my Clapping Hands, I showed individual photographs. But when I got down to 420, I made this wall of photographs from the videotape, because there was enough space.
You helped Keith Sonnier with his first show at the Warehouse in 1970, and you were responsible for photographing what were quite ephemeral works. All of them were destroyed at the end of the show. It is thanks to your photos that we have a record of the exhibition at all. When working as a photographer, were you aware that you were saving something that would become historically valuable?
I photographed Keith and his work for five years. He did in-house performances, which were never publicized, and we did a lot of these performances at the Warehouse. I never thought of anything as historical, I was just in the moment. I am a musician first and a photographer second. I never thought, I’m capturing history, or even of myself as working in a documentary mode of photography. Photography was another way to make a living in New York City.
How did the two of you meet?
We are both from Louisiana, and he was enrolled at the university in Lafayette. I was taking an art class with his teacher Calvin Harlan, and Mr. Harlan suggested that I meet Keith, that we might have things in common. So, I heard he was working at the campus telephone switchboard, I went and sure enough, he was sitting there with all these wires, plugging things in and connecting people. And he said, “I know everything about everybody on this campus.” Those were his first words to me and we’ve been friends ever since.
I enjoyed working with Keith, I used to help him install the major glass works. I remember one time we were transporting a huge round 3/4” glass plate about eight feet in diameter in the back of this U-Haul truck. I was in the back with a couple of other guys. One of them was smoking a cigarette or a joint, I don’t know which, and the rugs we had used to transport the glass caught on fire. And there was no way out, we were locked in! So, I’m banging on the side of the truck and Keith stops and opens up the back.
Did you document your own work in the same way you took photographs for other artists?
I took photographs of my own work because I needed photographs for an article or something, I never thought, I’ve got to keep this. In fact, there are a lot of things I didn’t photograph that I wish that I had.
In a previous interview you mentioned that Leo Castelli bought Bruce Nauman, Lawrence Weiner, and Keith Sonnier a “very inexpensive black and white Sony tape deck with a little camera that looks like the security cameras now,” and it was with this camera and tape deck that you were able to create your video work Clapping Hands. Was it common that Leo provided the tools that artists needed to produce their work? Did you often share materials with other artists?
Some of the artists were making films. In producing a film, let’s go through the process. First you have a 10-minute roll of film, you shoot the film, it goes to the lab for several days to be processed, you get it back and you might have something or nothing. With this inexpensive tape deck, we could videotape for an hour or more and edit on the spot. It gave the artists who were on tight budgets something affordable to make their art.
I knew Leo was supporting his younger artists with monthly salaries, taking money from his successful artists and spreading the money around to his young artists in the gallery.
I shared my knowledge and skills with whomever asked.
Do you have any memories of Castelli / Sonnabend Videotapes and Films? The first publication assembled by that division of the gallery lists 6 of your works for sale or rent [Sax I, 1970; Sax II, 1972; One Two Three Four, 1972; Six Vibrations for Agnes Martin, Hebes Grande Bois, 4th Register, 1972-73; Divided Alto, 1974; Terri Split, 1974].
At the time, Castelli/Sonnabend tapes was a great idea. The problem was, there was no artistic oversight . . . whoever was in charge of allowing tapes into the catalog was not qualified for the job.
Something you wrote got my attention. You said:
“I worked in the back room in the gallery. Basically, editing Keith Sonnier’s video works and also working with Lawrence Weiner on his video work To & Fro. One evening I was editing videotape in the back room and I noticed Leo walking around the gallery, sometimes sitting and looking at an installation of Jasper Johns paintings. My curiosity got to me so I asked Leo what he was doing and he said, "I put this show together and this will be the last time in the history of art that these paintings will be together in the same room.”
What else do you remember from this moment? Did Leo often mention or seem to understand the historical importance of the gallery and the exhibitions he held?
I remember he mentioned to me, “You like painting, right?” I said, “Yes.” He then said, ‘I will turn you into a painter!” I said that I always wanted to paint but I was too busy with the Glass tours and my tours.” In the early 90s I moved to Florida and started painting. On one of my trips back to New York City, I met with Leo and I told him that I had started painting. He said, “I want to see them first, do not show them to anyone else!” Unfortunately, he never got to see any of my paintings.
Of course, Leo understood the historic importance! I often think of this conversation with Leo.