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Who was Julius Eastman?

POSTED: 23 May 2023

“A talent and a life so perfectly and maddeningly attuned; so deliberately and defiantly crafted”

For Autograph’s current exhibition Fixing Shadows – Julius and I by Eric Gyamfi, the gallery has been transformed into a monochromatic cosmos, examining how photography can shift meanings and histories – ‘fixing shadows’ of legacy, absence, and revival. Thousands of cyanotype prints densely cover the gallery walls in the first UK solo exhibition of Gyamfi’s work. In each one, Gyamfi blends his own image with a portrait of the transgressive, African American composer Julius Eastman. Here, we introduce Eastman and explore his life, work and legacy in more detail. We’ve also provided a playlist, with a selection of tracks Eastman worked on in his lifetime.

Eastman was a forerunner of post-minimalist music composition, whose sound incorporated classical, free jazz and pop elements. As an openly gay and Black composer working in the 1970s who was making music that provocatively explored these aspects of his identity, Eastman’s story is one that has been censored, lost and revived numerous times since his early death in 1990.

Born in New York City in 1940, Julius Eastman grew up in Ithaca, New York. He took up the piano at the age of 14 and excelled in his learning. He studied piano and composition at Ithaca College and later went on to teach music theory and composition at the State University of New York (SUNY). He pioneered ‘organic music’ – “an additive process of accumulation of harmonic materials that proliferates and grows organically across considerable time spans.” While at SUNY, Eastman joined the Creative Associates programme, and co-founded the S.E.M. Ensemble. It was during an S.E.M. Ensemble concert in 1975 that Eastman notoriously performed Song Books by John Cage (a leading figure of the avant-garde music scene), incorporating a homoerotic performative lecture element which shocked and thrilled the crowd, though displeased Cage, who was in the audience.

Eric Gyamfi, from the ongoing series Fixing Shadows – Julius and I. A cyanotype image blending the artist's own face with that of Julius Eastman

Shortly after, Eastman left behind the conservative music scene of the academy, and moved to New York City where he tried to make inroads into the city’s more experimental scenes. Eastman was under no illusion about the rarity of his presence within musical academia (no matter how experimental it claimed to be) and refused to deny his identity or experiences in his work. In a 1976 interview, Eastman proclaimed “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”

The late '70s and early '80s proved to be Eastman’s most prolific years, gaining notoriety in the underground post-disco scene of New York City, performing as a keyboardist and vocalist for Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L collective. It was also during this time that he wrote some of his more famous works exploring his identity, including Gay Guerrilla which was released in 1979, ten years after the Stonewall riots took place and about a year before HIV/AIDS was first clinically recognised in the US. The transgressive titles of his tracks provided Eastman with the opportunity to confront and detoxify slurs that were frequently used against him. In the words of R. Nemo Hill, one of Eastman’s lovers, “he lived the titles of his music... He was fearsome … He took aspects of his identity and foisted them on people in this provocative way.” However, upon performing the works, and to Eastman’s frustration, concert halls often refused to publish the titles of his work in their programmes.

In many ways, Eastman’s life was one of contradiction. He was a highly regarded Grammy-nominated musician and composer and, for a time, a respected faculty member at a major university. At the same time, he risked disgrace in his unabashed representation of his life. By the late '80s, Eastman encountered a distinct lack of professional opportunities. Eastman’s last job was at Tower Records, after which he suffered from mental illness and addiction. Most of his scores and manuscripts were lost when he was evicted from his apartment and became homeless, living for a time in New York's Tompkins Square Park.

Eastman died alone of cardiac arrest in Buffalo, New York on 28 May 1990. His death went almost unnoticed; it was almost eight months later that music critic Kyle Gann wrote one of his few obituaries, published in The Village Voice. For many years, Eastman's music was forgotten. However, in the late 2010s his work began to be revived, receiving new performances and a cult following. By 2021, more than ten of his works had been recorded and the Los Angeles chamber group Wild Up issued a recording of Eastman's album Femenine, which was named one of the best classical recordings of the year by the U.S. National Public Radio network.

"The transgressive titles of his tracks provided Eastman with the opportunity to confront and detoxify slurs that were frequently used against him"

In 2018, artist Eric Gyamfi stumbled upon a portrait of Eastman on the back of a DIY publication he’d purchased during the Dakar Biennale in Senegal and was immediately moved by Eastman’s life story. Gyamfi describes a strong almost spiritual affinity with the figure of Eastman, who died the year he was born, and who experienced a level of prejudice and volatility that Gyamfi could have also reckoned with: “Seeing that he was an artist, that he was homeless towards the end of his life, that he had lost a lot of his work – those were all things that could easily happen to me. So that was a connecting point; I identified with the figure of Eastman and his precarity.”

But the connection also runs deeper, as both artists’ work centres on the idea of relinquishing control and being open to the interpretation of others. Gyamfi explains: “what separates the living from the dead is time, and sometimes there is a level of sensitivity that can connect you to people that are on the other side of time. Perhaps this image has insisted on a presence in my work over the years because there is something I have to do with it, so I try to give up control and I try to receive whatever comes to me.”

All quotes discussing Julius Eastman have been taken from Renee Levine Packer and Mary Jane Leach (eds.), Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, University of Rochester Press, New York, 2015.

Part of the exhibition


Eric Gyamfi: Fixing Shadows – Julius and I

28 Apr – 2 Sep 2023
Free exhibition

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Banner image: Eric Gyamfi: Fixing Shadows – Julius and I exhibition at Autograph. 28 April - 2 September 2023. Curated by Bindi Vora. Photograph by Kate Elliott.

Images on page: 1) Eric Gyamfi, from the ongoing series Fixing Shadows – Julius and I. Courtesy the artist. The original photograph of Julius Eastman used in this series is by Donald W. Burkhardt. © Eric Gyamfi 2) Eric Gyamfi: Fixing Shadows – Julius and I exhibition at Autograph. 28 April - 2 September 2023. Curated by Bindi Vora. Photograph by Kate Elliott.