Earlier this year, the Knockdown Center in Brooklyn organized a group exhibition that was partly comprised by the first posthumous show of works by a little-known American artist named John Schacht (b. 1938). Stacie Johnson, the curator of the exhibition, first learned about Schacht’s work in 2010 when she worked as an archivist for the Chicago-based artist Jane Wenger, one of the artist’s lifelong friends who retrieved and preserved his collection and home décor after he died in 2009.
Schacht, an artist whose eclectic taste has a psychedelic bend, rarely exhibited or sold his work in his lifetime, which was split between Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. He was loosely connected with the Chicago art scene when he lived there in the 1970s, and personally recalls one show of his work that was organized at a gay bar called La Mere Vipere in Chicago, which later became known as the first punk dance club in America. He taught art at The Art League in Indianapolis in the fall of 1975, and the full exhibitions list of the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University in Indiana indicates that a show of his work was cancelled in 1977 for unknown reasons.
Wenger and Schacht were neighbors when they met, but he eventually lost that flat for failing on mortgage payments and not collecting rent from his tenant. At the time, he was estranged from his mother and sister and had a strained relationship with his father, as both parents were alcoholics. According to an undated notebook that Schacht kept about coming out of the closet, titled Signals, the artist quit school when he was seventeen-years-old and was “mostly self-educated, and insecure about his lack of education,” says Wenger. “He was extremely intelligent and well-read, but I don’t think that he believed that about himself.”
In the mid-1970s, the artist lived in a basement in Chicago that housed a Greek Orthodox church service on Sundays, which was presided over by a gay priest. “It was tricked out with an altar, stage, burning incense, and everything evocative of religion—John style,” says Wenger. “He created a mood with his art and the things that he collected and found, as well as the color of the walls and the way the furniture was arranged. Everything was special, wonderful, and exciting—I always loved visiting the homes that he made.” Schacht eventually left Chicago because he couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore.
The artist Ed Homewood, who met Schacht when he was working as a bartender at a gay bar in Chicago, owned property in Thayer, Iowa that had a small, vacant shack on it. Homewood told Schacht that he could live there for as long as he liked. At the time, the artist supported himself financially by selling antiques or found objects. “He was a compulsive buyer and squandered his money when he had it, sometimes selling food stamps for cash,” says Wenger, “But he had a good eye and interesting taste.”
The shack had a wood-burning stove that he stoked for heat in the winter, and there was no running water and no outhouse. “John once sold an antique commode to my mother, who gave it to me,” says Wenger, “I used it as end-table for a time, and when John moved to the shack I gave it back to him. I always had so much fun visiting him— we smoked, took acid, etc. He smoked dope almost every day and drank hard liquor until the day he died, [and] I think [some of] his vices interfered with him doing or accomplishing anything.”
Schacht lived and created work in the shack until 1997, when his neighbors ransacked it. Although he never told any Iowans that he was gay, it was “obvious when they broke into [the shack] and rifled through his things—there was porn, leather and other things.” After the ransack, his once-friendly neighbors were hostile toward him. “It was the generation before Stonewall—gay life was behind closed doors, or underground,” says Wenger, “I would have spilled the beans about it, but to come out then was to be ostracized, not to mention be threatened, sodomized or maybe even murdered.” Schacht eventually moved to Leon, Iowa, where he spent the rest of his life and created work that remains largely unseen.
When the artist passed away, Wenger and other friends traveled to Leon to gather his rich and esoteric collection of works-on-paper—mostly created with watercolor, ink and gouache—and bricolage assemblage, as well as various sketchbooks containing art and poetry. Some of the artist’s work appears folk-inspired, while others are mandala-like and others formalistically sexual, often patterned and sometimes vibrantly-colored. “It’s what I would label as Dope Art,” says Wenger.
Wenger hopes to eventually assemble a retrospective installation of Schacht’s studio and career, similar to what The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Illinois created with The Henry Darger Room (2000) with artifacts from the home of the brut artist that was once similarly unfamiliar in the canon. “I have no desire to sell them—these works belong in a museum or an institution,” says Wenger.
The exhibition organized at the Knockdown Center earlier this year, the first known institutional show of Schacht’s work, paired various works-on-paper by the artist with colorful sculptures by the Ukrainian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Anna Mikhailovskaia. Schacht’s drawings were assembled in groupings that depicted either biomorphic bodies, still life drawings or drawings of ambiguous characters—a collection of intriguing works that reveal an artist that’s been missing from the narrative.
When the show opened, several publications, including the Brooklyn Rail and The New York Times, associated Schacht with the artist collectives the Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who, although Wenger notes that this association has been exaggerated and that it is incorrect, as Schacht did not have those connections. However, the confusion proves that there is still so much about the artist that remains undiscovered.