When Seattle artist Gregory Blackstock died on January 10 at the age of 77 after a series of strokes, he had achieved a level of success far beyond many of his peers. Of his hundreds of distinctive, catalog-like drawings, only several dozen remain unsold, according to his dealer, Greg Kucera. His work was the focus of several documentaries, a book and a solo museum exhibition in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“He was the truest of the artists I ever worked with,” said Kucera, whose namesake gallery has represented Blackstock since 2012. “He had no idea about the art market; he made work that interested him with the attitude that “if I like it, others will like it too.”
Although Blackstock was never officially diagnosed, his family believes he had autism spectrum disorder with cognitive skills. A noted autism expert who spent time with Blackstock as an adult described him as an “amazing savant,” said his cousin Dorothy Frisch. This was not an identification available to his family when he was young, leading them to send him for five years to a school for “troubled” youths, an experience he later recalled with great displeasure, said Fresh. When he eventually returned to Seattle, he took a series of low-paying jobs, including 25 years as a dishwasher at the Washington Athletic Club.
A turning point occurred around the age of 40, when Blackstock began to create the characteristic drawings for which he became known, where his remarkable abilities as a prodigious savant came to light. When cousin Frisch brought him to his first gallery in Seattle in 2003, he had several hundred works on paper rolled up in his closet, carefully categorizing and fluidly depicting any kind of subject. The gallery, Garde Rail, jumped at the chance to show his work, according to Frisch. A dozen one-man shows followed, first at Garde Rail, then with Kucera, and Blackstock was eventually able to live off the sales of his art and his union pension.
A typical Blackstock work announces its subject with a bold, hand-lettered title: “MONSTERS OF THE DEEP,” “THE DISNEY MARRIED COUPLES,” “THE COMPLETE HISTORICAL CONVAIR LINER AIRCRAFT.” The rest of the sheet contains rows of neat, straightforward renderings of the objects in question, often with helpful captions, based on his painstaking research and prodigious memory – “The world’s largest ray, but harmless”, “The 2.n.d leading source of maple sugar,” “Fastest outboard motor record holder.” Few subjects were too obscure or technical for his attention; in addition to collections such as shoes, knives, and knots, he also devoted an entire sheet to National Park Service warning signs. His interest in order- and description systems even extended to the thesaurus, focusing on sheets covered with hundreds of lines of text, clearly as much of interest to the artist as his more visually compelling collections, such as flags, carrots or architectural landmarks.
“Feeling things was really important to him,” Frisch said. “He couldn’t start a drawing until he had titled it and added all the captions; then he would fill in the artwork.” Much of his research took place in the library, and according to Frisch, “the librarians would later show up at his displays with maps and flowers.” Even the Washington Athletic Club honored him after his retirement with a show in the lobby.
Blackstock was also a well-known figure as a street performer, indulging his love of accordion music outside sports stadiums and downtown theaters. Given his shabby dress and strange mannerisms, Frisch said, “you would never dream that he could manage multiple languages, quote entire movie dialogues from memory,” or, according to Kucera, “remember the location of every drawing he had ever sold.”
What is clear from the recollections of those who knew him best, Frisch said, is a man “who was never bored,” whose intense engagement with the ephemerality and diversity of the world gave him the most intense pleasure, and who, in his own way, , basking in the praise his artwork eventually won for him, proudly embroidering shirts with his name and artistic bona fides.
Blackstock is survived by nine cousins. Memorial gifts may be made to support the University of Washington Autism Center.
Information from The Seattle Times archives was used in this report.