Profile: Frederick Weston (1946–2020)

Frederick Weston was a self-taught interdisciplinary artist whose work spanned various media: collage, drawing, sculpture, photography, performance, and creative writing. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1946, and raised in Detroit, Michigan, where he participated in the club scene before moving to New York City in the mid-1970s. Over the course of his time in New York, he developed a vast, encyclopedic archive of images and ephemera related to fashion, the body, advertising, AIDS, and queer subjects through his various jobs and social presence in hustler bars and gay nightlife. His early collages and photography, which often utilized likenesses of patrons, highlighted the social and communal nature of such institutions. Continuing this theme, in the mid-1990s, he became co-founder of guerrilla artist group Underground Railroad, which produced street art and outdoor installations. In his lifetime, he exhibited to small audiences in non-traditional art spaces and only in the last two years of his life did his work become widely known and appreciated in urban art circles.

His early ambition to write fashion reviews for a living later took new life when an AIDS therapist encouraged him to express his feelings in poems. Reviewers later saw influences of his poetry in the collages he made. When the Foundation for Contemporary Arts gave him its Roy Lichtenstein Award in 2019, its announcement praised his collages as “a form of visual poetry, which explore individualism and the ways in which identity is shaped by community” and on the occasion of his first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery a curator wrote, “Weston embraces collage for its immediacy as a fluid form of tactile poetry”.

Weston was modest about the late recognition he received. In a 2019 interview he said, “I’m getting recognition as an artist now basically because I’m 73 and a professional AIDS patient who has managed to survive and has been practicing art all this time”.

Early life and training

Weston spent his childhood in Detroit, Michigan, where his mother had moved soon after his birth in Memphis, Tennessee. As a child, he met his father only once and, due to the youth of his mother, he received most of his parental care from her parents’ home. He was educated in integrated public schools and, while he was a student in Detroit’s Commerce High School, one of his teachers encouraged him to pursue art as a career. However, when his mother emphatically told him he could never support himself as an artist, he did not pursue that recommendation. Instead, he took business courses in high school and, after graduating, attended Ferris State University in the small mid-state city of Big Rapids where, in 1971, he obtained a B.S. degree with a major in marketing. Having learned to make clothing by watching his mother’s highly skilled sewing technique, he designed clothing for himself while earning his living at an all-Black modeling agency in Detroit. In 1973, he moved to Manhattan where, failing to find work in the fashion industry, worked in low-paying off-the-books service jobs. In the early 1980s, he began study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, taking courses in menswear design and marketing. He graduated from F.I.T. magna cum laude in 1985 with an A.A.S. degree. He worked for a time with the African-American designer, Stephen Burrows, but grew frustrated with the fashion industry’s discriminatory practices and abandoned an ambition to become a professional fashion writer. During the 1980s, he continued to survive on low-pay service jobs such as checking hats and coats at midtown gay bars, all the while collecting and organizing source material for the collages he had, by then, begun to make. Although, as he later said, he had never learned to draw, by the middle of the 1990s an unexpected sequence of events led him to believe he could become a professional artist.

In March 1995, Weston received a diagnosis as a victim of AIDS. At the time, a friend directed him to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an AIDS service organization in Greenwich Village. An acquaintance at GMHC suggested he become a participant in the AIDS Adult Day Health Care Program, located in the same building and run by a social services organization called Village Care of New York. On applying, Weston was accepted into the program and began participating in the Medicaid-supported services that it offered. As a participant, he received health services and substance-abuse counseling, and was given food he could take home thereby ensuring that he ate two meals a day (where before he only had one). He also received help toward obtaining financial assistance via the New York City welfare program and, significantly, was given encouragement and supplies for constructing art projects.In 1998, Weston brought photographs taken by a deceased friend to Visual AIDS, an organization that supports artists who have AIDS. Recognizing his artistic ability, the organization invited him to join the organization and participate in exhibitions it sponsored.

Career in art

In a strange kind of way my dreams are always coming true and I’ll usually wind up landing in very good places. And I really feel like I was blessed to have like all of it. I mean GMHC at the right time, AIDS Services at the right time, Village Care at the right time, and Visual AIDS at the right time. Stella’s bar at the right time, Trix bar at the right time.

Frederick Weston, Oral history interview conducted for the Archives of American Art in 2016 Installation photo of “Night Blooming Flowers” by Frederick Weston at Trix Bar, 1996Frederick Weston, “Blue Bathroom Blues #13”, collage on color photocopy, 1999, 8.5 x 11 inches

At about the same time he became a participant in the AIDS Adult Day Health Care Program, Weston took an off-the-books nighttime job in a Midtown gay bar called Trix. Weston mounted large panels on the walls of the coat-check cubicle where he worked with Polaroid images that he had taken of young gay men he had met at Trix whom he had dressed in second-hand clothing he had accumulated and assembled into outfits. Weston later described Trix customers as “a fabulous mix of high and low and the best drag queens you ever saw”. Out of this collection of photographs he created what has been called his first solo exhibition. In 1996, Trix relocated to another block in the midtown theater-district and changed its name to Stella’s. Continuing to run the coat-check operation there, Weston produced what has been called his second solo show. Called “Night Blooming Flowers”, it was a selection from the display he exhibited at Trix. An installation photo of this assemblage appears at left.

Weston picked up a low-wage clothing store job in the late 1990s where, as he said, “they were giving me a title (art director) because they weren’t giving me any money”. Asked to design a blue-themed presentation for the front of the store, he brought together a variety of empty containers he had collected, all of them painted blue, to simulate an abstract urban setting. When the shop’s owner rejected the plan, he installed his project on the sidewalk in front of a blue barrier at a nearby construction site. This proved to be the first iteration of what became one of his best-known works, “Blue Bathroom Blues”. He drew the title from an evolving series of poems he had written first called “Blue Bedroom Ballads” and eventually “Blue Bathroom Blues”. In presenting the poems, he included slides showing versions of the sidewalk art project. The project evolved from empty containers assembled outdoors to collages on foamcore made up of small slips of paper. These collages were similar to the photo boards he had first made while working at Trix.  A 1999 version of “Blue Bathroom Blues” is shown at right.

During this period, Weston continued to show collage projects in non-traditional gallery settings, including Village Care (“The Hats” and “I Am a Man” in 1999, as well as “Underground Railroad” in 2000), Stella’s (“Presenting Stephanie Crawford” in 1997, and “Whatever Happened to Freddy Darling?” in 2003), the AIDS Housing Network Art Gallery (“The Lost Language of Men’s Clothing” in 2002), and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and, Transgender Community Center (“Go Figure” in 2002). Frederick Weston, “Sambo Schema I”, mixed media on foamcore board, 2006, 40 x 32 inchesFrederick Weston, “Body Map I”, mixed media on paper, 2015, 65 x 32 inches

In 2000, Weston showed a collage called “Little Black Sambo” at Village Care.Like “Blue Bathroom Blues” this project evolved over a period of years. One version from 2006, called “Sambo Schema I”, is shown at left. It is significant that the Sambo character in the children’s book of the same name is a person of color from South India. Because many people who were labeled “Black” came from South India and other places in Asia as well as the biodiverse island of Madagascar, he resented the widespread practice of labeling all Black people African-American. Because of his dark skin color, Weston had to endure the taunt “African” during his childhood and as an adult, he rejected the label, saying “I don’t know what I am. But I’m not African. I’m not from the deep dark jungles. I’m not a savage, you know. And that’s what they taught us about Africa”. Weston knew that the Sambo story was seen as racist, but he did not read it that way. He said, “it’s about clothes, and going somewhere you didn’t have any business… when the fear’s in my face and someone is threatening my life, can I use my wits, you know, to keep my life?”

In 2003, Weston showed collages in a group exhibition called “Release” that was organized by Visual AIDS and appeared in the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts. Sally Block and Laurie Cumbo were its curators. In 2011, he was given a retrospective exhibition called “For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When All You Ever Needed Was the Blues”. It was held in the Rankin Art Gallery of Ferris State University. Later that year, his work appeared in a group show called “Stay, Stay, Stay” sponsored by Visual AIDS at La MaMa La Galleria and three years later he showed with another group in Davidson College’s Van Every Gallery.Other group shows in this period included “Out of Bounds” at Leftfield Bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (2015), “Art AIDS America” at the University at Buffalo and three other sites (2016), and “Persons of Interest” at a Manhattan bookstore called Bureau of General Services—Queer Division. He showed collages in four group shows during 2017 (“Intersectional Identities” at Clifford Chance in New York, “Found: Queer Archaeology; Queer Abstraction” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York, and “AIDS at Home” at the Museum of the City of New York, “Cut Here: Matt Keegan, Siobhan Liddell, Frederick Weston” at the Gordon Robichaux Gallery). The following year, he appeared frequently in group shows and in panel discussions in which he often showed slides of his work. These included a panel called “Fag, Stag, or Drag?” with John Neff at Artists Space in New York, a panel of poetry readings at Gordon Robichaux, a group show called “Proposals on Queer Play and the Ways Forward” at University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, a panel on “Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a group called “This Must Be the Place” at the 44 Walker Street Gallery in New York, a group called “A Page from My Intimate Journal” at Gordon Robichaux, a group called “Queer Artist Fellowship: Alternate Routes” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, and a two-person show called “Inside, Out Here” at La MaMa La Galleria.

In 2019, Gordon Robichaux mounted a solo retrospective exhibition called “Happening”. The show included the then-current version of Weston’s “Body Map” project, a collage begun in 2013, it was made from images and other small paper objects that he had, as one commenter said, “amassed over the last 30 years and cataloged in binders in different categories of race, gender, class issues, color, and other devices for organizing images”.”Body Map I” of 2015, shown here at right, contains images of prominent African-American men, including the face of Tom Morgan, the first openly gay president of the National Association of Black Journalists.

In 2020, Weston received a $40,000 prize, the Roy Lichtenstein Award of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. That year he also showed “Blue Bedroom Blues” in an exhibition at the Ace Hotel Art Fair in New York and appeared in a groups show at the Parker Gallery (“A Page From My Intimate Journal II”) and at the Tom of Finland Foundation, both in Los Angeles.

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