The Man’s Last Grind: Pinetop Perkins, 1913–2011
Contemporary Art /
Despite his Grammy and acclaim, bluesman Pinetop Perkins long ago ceased to be best known for his rollicking piano style or casually spoken singing. At the time of his death last month, at the age of 97, Perkins’s true art was his improbable existence: A 21st-century man who had played with Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson; a man who knew Robert Johnson (well, at least apocryphally, and in the blues, that’s all that matters).
Pinetop’s playing was still good, his singing still decent, but Perkins the man himself? Now that was the stuff of legend.
And perhaps no one appreciated Perkins’s role as legend more than Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist whose exhibition Ragnar Kjartansson: Song is currently showing at Carnegie Museum of Art. To Kjartansson, Perkins wasn’t merely one of the last links to the oral tradition of the blues, Perkins was the blues. An incarnation of every myth and folktale we know distilled into one man who could never escape that connection—and who long ago ceased trying to.
In The Man, one of four video installations included in Song, Pinetop Perkins sits alone at a piano in a Texas field near a shotgun shack, playing, singing, and spinning yarns. Like the blues as an art form, Perkins repeats and references himself throughout his hour-long informal session. His rhetoric constantly turns to women, music, and Perkins himself, all punctuated by age-old Vaudevillian licks—jingle bells, shave and a haircut. “They call me Pinetop Perkins,” he sings, “sometimes the ladies call me the grinding man…”
At first blush, an African American, near-centenarian “grinder man” from Texas may have little in common with a 34-year-old visual artist from Reykjavík. But Kjartansson’s work is rooted in a similar place—the oral tradition. As he points out, his work is in many ways a response to Iceland’s lack of a visual-art history. What they have instead are sagas: the stories, songs, and myths of their land. In Kjartansson’s descriptions of Iceland, every turn, stream, and hillock has a story attached to it, no matter how nondescript it may appear—that rock is where Eric Bloodaxe fought Egil Skallagrímsson…
The true art of Pinetop Perkins, Kjartansson implies, is that of an American saga. It’s in his stories and swagger, and in the blurry lines that separate truth from myth; “the blues” from the man. Perkins was a man forever trapped in his role as “blues legend.” I like to think that Perkins understood this, and in a way knew he was a martyr. Perkins gave his life wholly to the culture, to ensure that this uniquely American tradition survived a nation and an age that too often equates “old” with “dispensable.”
This martyr is what The Man illustrates through its simple honesty, and in its own way, celebrates. Through Kjartansson’s piece, the artist compares America’s sagas to his own. And thanks to the definitively cool Pinetop Perkins, we come out looking pretty good.