It’s a perfect Saturday morning for a visit to the museum: chilly, gray, rainy.
Although its administrators may argue that any day is a fine time to peruse the collections of the Knoxville Museum of Art, there’s something about the low clouds and wintry lack of green foliage that sparks an instinct to seek color, warmth, and inspiration.
Off to the right of the entrance, inside the first-floor gallery, Knoxville artist Jered Sprecher is busily working to provide just that—and more. The room is in a state of intentional disarray as he prepares for his first solo museum exhibition: paintings are propped along the bare walls where they’ll soon hang; hammers, pliers, and measuring tapes lay scattered around; scraps of newly trimmed paper clutter the floor. In the middle of the space, six tall paintings stand like obelisks in a circle, creating a room within a room.
But, as Sprecher rummages through a bin of thrift-store finds and some playground fossils contributed by his children for a tabletop still-life yet to be constructed, he does wonder if he’ll be able to communicate just enough of his intent to viewers.
“Probably my biggest worry is how I talk about it—am I making it relatable enough and giving people enough of a handhold to get into the work?” he says. “I feel like that’s part of my job, too. Not to be like, ‘Here, this is what it’s all about,’ but maybe get them to voice their observations or questions about the work. And oftentimes, I find that people are in the right ballpark—they just haven’t allowed themselves to realize that. I think that’s when people feel challenged by an artwork. But when they start talking about it, I’m like, ‘You got it!’”
Such thoughtful musings about the democratic nature of art and its creation come naturally to Sprecher, who doesn’t match any of the usual preconceptions of how a creative genius should behave. If you saw him walking on Market Square with his picture-perfect family or leading a class at the University of Tennessee, you would be hard-pressed to identify him as one of the country’s leading abstract artists. With his full beard and stubbly shaved head, you might guess him to be a craft brewer. Beyond some rather stylish glasses, the only outward hint of any potential unconventionality is the fact that he still wears a wristwatch.
However, one visit to KMA’s ongoing contemporary art display, Currents, will reveal the complex, dazzling nature of Sprecher’s art. On loan is “A Plane Is a Pocket in the Corners of the Mind,” an 8-by-20-foot explosion of color, geometry, and nature—simultaneously chaotic and orderly. As the culmination of his 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship and his 2013 residency in Marfa, Texas, it is an absolute mind-blower—a painting that immediately sparks the imagination and invites long study to discern its mysteries.
Sprecher’s earliest memory of being impressed by art himself was at a sixth-grade field trip to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Amid the surprising collection of Roman statuary, works by Thomas Hart Benton, and Caravaggio’s John the Baptist, Sprecher discovered the singular expressions of contemporary artists Willem de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, and Robert Rauschenberg. He was amazed.
“I think some people are shocked by those types of things—‘I’m not sure if that’s art’—but it was just completely enthralling,” he says. “I’ve been back to that museum so many times it feels like old friends when I visit those works there. But back then I was like, ‘This is crazy—you can do this? And this?’ It opened up a whole other world of possibilities.”
At 40, Sprecher is still eagerly exploring those vast possibilities, and with his solo show at the KMA, he is sharing his latest discoveries—Outside In should be another milestone in an art career that’s making waves far from Knoxville.
Christine Bergt Sprecher remembers the first date with her future husband as getting off to an awkward start. They had friends in common at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., where they were both undergrads. She was studying math, while he was an art major—an odd-couple match-up that made her a bit wary. His plan was to take her to a coffeehouse in Lincoln, about a half-hour away, for some live jazz.
“He called me an hour before we were going to go, and he was like, ‘Well, the guys on the floor are all going to Pizza Hut,’” she says—their goal was to each bring a date on this spontaneous Pizza Hut adventure (cue eyeroll). “Then he called me back a little bit later: ‘None of the guys can get dates. So do you still want to come?’”
She acquiesced, and they did still manage to hit the coffeehouse where they talked, and she found him to be quite different than what she had expected.
“He was kind, and engaged in thinking about things that are really at a mature level,” she says. “I was sort of freaked out by the fact that he was an artist initially, just because it seemed a little bit eccentric—and then when I got to know him I realized that he wasn’t eccentric in a negative way. Our minds work so differently that it was really fun to see the way that he would perceive things.”
His unique way of viewing the world has led them on a circuitous journey to Knoxville. After graduating in 1999, they got married. (“We knew we had each found the person we were going to spend the rest of our life with,” she says matter-of-factly. “Why not get married?”) They decided to enter graduate school together, and they chose the University of Iowa, where Jered earned a master of fine arts degree in 2002.
His first “big” break came the next year, a two-person show with Dan Attoe at the Wendy Cooper Gallery in Chicago. Cooper, now the owner of Cooper Contemporary/Artworld Services, launched her namesake gallery in 1999 with a focus on emerging artists who demonstrated a mature vision—ones that had the potential for long careers, which she sensed in Sprecher.
“I liked the subtle, minimalist work we first showed, but the real draw was that Jered was highly experimental and that excited me,” Cooper says. “He made a lot of different-looking abstract work by pushing boundaries and integrating color and space in sometimes uncomfortable ways. He made some really beautiful drawings, minimal, on odd sheets of paper that he would pin up to the wall in a grid. They looked really great.”
Cooper booked Sprecher for multiple solo shows through 2007, when the gallery finally closed. She recalls one experienced collector who very much disagreed with her assessment of his work.
“He couldn’t understand why I was interested in it,” she says. “And even though this sounds like a negative story, I remember feeling absolutely certain that Jered was going somewhere—and that my disagreement with this collector was a sign that I really believed in Jered.”
If there’s one constant running through Sprecher’s career, it’s his uncanny ability to connect with people who believe in his work. Since that first show, he’s appeared in scores of significant galleries and museums, from the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center to the Irish Museum of Modern Art (where he was artist in residence), and from Gallery 16 in San Francisco to the Jeff Bailey Gallery in New York, where he’s had three solo exhibitions.
“There is a quiet intensity to Jered’s paintings and works on paper—a tension and balance achieved through manipulation of form, color, and touch,” Bailey says. “Whether the image is abstract or partially representational, the works feel like a window into something felt or observed.”
Sprecher’s art career gained further velocity with another unique opportunity in 2003. While Christine was getting her second master’s degree in math, he got work as an $8.50 per hour art handler for UI Hospitals’ Project Art, while also producing his own art and applying to some 80 jobs and residencies. None of them came through—until the day Christine took her comprehensive exams for her second master’s. That morning, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation left a message on their answering machine, offering Jered a free studio in New York City for one year. “So he picked me up from the test, and said ‘Guess what? We’re moving to New York City!’” Christine says.
Moving from Iowa City to New York widened his eyes—and the scope of his work.
“I know was I was pretty afraid of going to New York, but it was the push that I needed,” Sprecher says. “I think when I look back at work I was making, say, when I was 25, it was a lot more modest in scale, and I was definitely skeptical of things that would be more complex or maximalized. If you compare it to architecture, maybe I was more in favor of the Quaker meeting house rather than the Grand Cathedral.
“I think over the years I’ve come to understand that it can be like the singer/songwriter or the full orchestra—it’s not like one is good or bad, they just feel different. So definitely, the work has become a lot more visually complex, and I think it took me a while to mature into that.”
Still, throughout the two years they lived there, with Christine teaching math at the Chapin School for girls in Manhattan, Jered stayed true to his own compass.
“I think he’s just always been ‘Jered,’” Christine says. “Whether we were in the middle of a cornfield in Nebraska, or in the graduate program at Iowa, or we went to New York City, he just kept doing his own thing, but taking little pieces of things he would learn everywhere we went. I think that work he made in New York was certainly influenced by his environment around him, but he is not somebody who would try to become a ‘New York artist,’ whatever that means. He just did his own thing.”
And that included randomly applying for a job teaching at UT’s School of Art even as he was making connections in the New York art world—and then accepting the unexpected offer and moving to Knoxville in 2005.
If there’s such a thing as a “rock star” in UT’s art program, Sprecher fits the bill, though he’d be uncomfortable with such a label. While he’s been able to advance his way in the national art world from here in Knoxville, Sprecher has also made himself an integral part of the UT art faculty, becoming a full professor with tenure last year.
“Jered is someone who really has a deep commitment to East Tennessee,” says Dorothy Metzger Habel, former director of the UT School of Art and now professor emerita. “He’s really thrown himself into teaching here with great abandon, with a strong ambition to building a stronger graduate program.”
And he’s done that not only by teaching and managing, but also by building a national reputation that reflects well on UT. Winning a Guggenheim Fellowship (awarded to those who “have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts”) and earning a residency with the famed Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, are no small shakes.
“We’ve become a destination for visiting artists and graduate students, and I think Jered was really the beginning of some of that,” Habel says. “He’s out and about a lot, he does a lot of visiting-artist stints at other colleges and universities, and that’s a way of recruiting star grad students. The higher profile your faculty, the more competitive you are for graduate students. And certainly our undergraduates have been great beneficiaries of Jered and the strength of his teaching—he has students going off to Yale and Columbia pretty routinely now. That speaks volumes, too.”
UT graduate teaching assistant Austin Pratt helped Sprecher prepare his new work for the Outside In exhibit. He stretched canvas and linen on 100 substrates ranging from 8 by 10 inches to 7 feet tall—and for those large pieces, Sprecher wanted to expose their backsides to the public rather than hanging them on a wall, so Pratt had to “elegantly stretch” six of them into place and keep them neat. It was an unusual and somewhat difficult request—but it wasn’t a problem, Pratt says.
“I was aware of Jered’s work before I knew him personally, and was initially slightly surprised by his personality in relation to his work,” he says. “Getting to know him and his practice better, I’ve realized that they are very similar. His work is meticulous and insightful, deeply considered and researched, generous to the viewer, open-minded, and rich with wonder and a genuine curiosity that allows it to grow.”
Although Habel has certainly seen Sprecher get stressed—whether it’s from being a harried administrator or dealing with a sometimes cutthroat profession—she says she’s never seen him lose his sense of humor or throw a temper tantrum.
“He just lives with this wonderful sense of balance in his life. He has this level-headedness about him that I think is so endearing,” Habel says. “He is not a neurotic person, and he’s not somebody who has to be left alone. When he talks about his work, I think he projects this wonderful aura about how exciting it is to him. He doesn’t see his work as a burden, and I think a lot of artists do find that it becomes a burden—they’re not always ‘on,’ they get buffeted around, and they can be insecure at times about their own work. He takes everything in stride. But the core thing is that the most exciting thing to him is to go into the studio and work.”
Lindbergh Forest is a unique neighborhood, and not just for South Knoxville—it’s a shady enclave of Tudor-style marble houses from the 1930s mixed with midcentury Lustron prefabs and pleasant Cape Cods. Roll up the Sprechers’ steep driveway, past the basketball hoop, and you’ll find a detached garage that hasn’t had a car (or banished household detritus) in it since 2013, when it was remodeled into an artist’s studio.
Twelve steps away, in the house, the Sprechers’ three boys—Ezra, Levi, and Avram, each adorable in his own particular way—are in a constant flurry of brotherly activity. Here, he’s a dad, overseeing all the chaos that this entails. To stay on track, Christine and Jered sit down each week and compare Google calendars, carefully balancing their schedules between parenting, working, and creating art. After his familial duties have been attended to each day, he uses the garage for quick hits of guerrilla painting. If he’s stymied, he tackles an odd job just to keep his hands busy. Or he’ll stare at a work in progress before bedtime to keep it mind while he sleeps.
Inside the garage studio, things are a bit calmer, with one corner offering the refuge of a turntable, LPs, and an Eames-style lounge chair. However, this small oasis is crowded by a riot of creativity: art supplies, paint-splotched rags, masking tape, sketchpads, color everywhere. Currently encircling the room are the six large paintings that will soon serve as the centerpiece for Outside In. Just a month away from the show, they appear to be related pieces, but the artist is still trying to figure out how to make each of them work together as a whole.
“I know that I want these bands of blue, yellow, and magenta through them. I know that I want them to have this sort of textile-like quality, or to look like a computer printout where the ink is losing its charge,” he says. “So I’ve got lots of things that I’m carrying in my mind that I’m trying to evoke, but it’s part of the puzzle—I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out.
“I want [painting] to be a challenge, and have its own complications. So I’ll purposely do things to paint myself into a corner. Like, what’s a silly idea, or something that I’ll have to work against?”
Although the ever-curious Sprecher makes lots of sketches and photographs wherever he goes, he does not create specific mock-ups or plans for his paintings. He’ll take one of his source images, sometimes years old—in this case, a photograph of a window reflection of himself and the architecture behind him, with foliage and trees—and expand from it with a combination of composed patterns and improvised splatters and smudges, creating a friction between what would seem to be very disparate styles: figurative and abstract.
“I really like these in-between worlds, so I think when I go to make a painting or a drawing, I’m trying to find something that lies in that in-between milieu,” he says. “You can think of a poem by Walt Whitman where there’s a figure and it might be the father, the son, the comrade, the lover—it can change or morph through the poem. I like for that to happen in a painting. When you first see that something, and you say, ‘Oh, it looks like a wall.’ But it’s also this geometric shape, or it’s also like a curtain—it can allude to more than one thing.”
Not long after Stephen Wicks returned to KMA as curator in 2006, he came across some of Sprecher’s work and knew immediately it would be only a matter of time before they worked together. Wicks recognized the traditions at play on Sprecher’s canvases—the abstract mark-making, the pop-art synthesis of images, the unfinished feel of provisional painting—but was most struck by how it all melded together into a unique personal expression. In 2009, Wick raised the money to buy Sprecher’s “A Type of Magic” for the museum’s permanent collection.
“I was amazed at the way he’s able to take all of these elements—pictorial elements, pure brushwork—and make them co-exist on a canvas in a way that seems resolved, but yet also seems unresolved,” Wicks says. “He gets it all in there, and somehow it makes sense pictorially, but it still seems to be forming and dissolving before your eyes. There were passages there that were geometric and architectural, they had clean taped-off lines, and then you look over here and there was spray paint in gold and you have other areas that are brushed on with clear traces of the human hand in these organic dabs. Again, you sense all these different tools being used, all these different sources, the colors, the way they were hanging together—it was just really alive.”
After Sprecher’s return from Marfa, Wicks felt the time was right for a solo exhibition at KMA. As they began discussing it and he got to know Sprecher, Wicks realized just how much his art reflects who he is, a persona that’s in sharp contrast to the usual mythology of angsty abstract artists. Rather than using pigment in a violent way, Sprecher’s work is marked by an absence of violence, he says—it offers balance.
“To be able to juggle all these facets of his life, to me, is mirrored in his ability to juggle all these facets within a single composition so seamlessly, so beautifully, in a way that seems to allow for infinite possibilities,” Wicks says. “What I think people need to understand with Jered’s work is that so much of the story is right there embedded in all of the gestures, the way the pigment is laid down. Anybody should be able to look at one of his paintings up close and begin to find this exciting track of decisions that were made in the studio using luminous pigment on a flat surface.”
In the studio, Sprecher still doesn’t feel like the story is coming together for these new pieces. But neither does he want his works to be completely done. “I don’t want the paintings to feel so locked in that it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s tightened all the screws.’ It’s almost like I want one shoelace to be untied, or there’s a feeling that maybe the sweater is being knitted or taken apart. I always want there to be a loose-end quality to them.”
Back at the KMA, five days before his exhibition preview, Sprecher continues to putter with the found objects for his tabletop still-life, moving a sphere of concrete a few inches one way, the mound of fossils another way. He knows that this sort of art is not for everyone.
“I want to think about how people are going to react to things, and find ways to make things relatable or have a crack in the door where people can see in. But then I know that things like the tables here—I’m arranging objects on a tabletop, and for some people, it’ll be like, ‘What? I can do that in my office or dining room table!’” he says. “But for me this is a way of talking about another sort of analogue to the practice of painting and drawing. I’m arranging the tabletop and also thinking about where the paintings are in the room and the conversation you can make between two paintings or two objects.
“There are certain places where the architecture is just right and it makes your body feel different or more aware of yourself. And I like for that type of thing to happen with how a painting is hung in a room or how an object is placed next to something else.”
Jered Sprecher: Outside In
Jan. 27-April 16
Exhibition preview Jan. 26, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Knoxville Museum of Art (1050 World’s Fair Park)
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