In February 2015 I had the pleasure to sit down and talk at length with the painter Julian Kreimer while he was the artist in month long residence at the Lux Institute here in San Diego. He took time out from his busy painting schedule of making one painting each day, many works done from observation of the surrounding coastal chaparral and nearby structures as well as painting abstractions. I am very grateful for Julian’s generosity with his time in talking with me about his process and thoughts on painting.
Julian Kreimer is an assistant professor of painting and theory at SUNY Purchase College in New York and is a frequent contributor to Art in America. Kreimer had reviews of his show at the Lux in Hyperallergic, Art Critical, and Two Coats of Paint
His artwork has been exhibited in multiple shows around New York City, as well as in Charlottesville, Virginia, London, Washington, D.C., Providence, Santa Barbara, Boston, Philadelphia, and Newark.
You can read more about Julian Kreimer’s residency from the Lux Institute page at this link
Larry Groff: How did you get into painting from observation?
Julian Kreimer: There was a Lennart Anderson painting of a pie tin. Pie dish. That was at the old Knoedler Gallery before they went under. I remember seeing that. I drove down from Providence to see a few shows in New York in grad school and I remember just that one pie dish painting. I had been doing big, semi-abstract paintings that got me into grad school and then 9-11 was at the start of grad school and after a few months none of that made sense anymore. I slowly went back to observational painting. I think that Lennart Anderson pie dish really had something to do with it because it was so convincing as a declaration of what observational painting could be. It such a meaningful, such a powerful experience just to stand there looking at that painting.
LG: When you were in graduate school was observational painting encouraged, discouraged or neutral about it …
JK: It was interesting. It was a weird thing. I got in making this kind of work that came out of the 90s even though I started in 2001. My first day of grad school was September 11, 2001. That was literally the first meeting we had was right after the towers came down. The meeting became about that. I spent the first semester making those big, ironic Kippenberger-type paintings.
LG: I’m not familiar with Kippenberger …
JK: He [Martin Kippenberger] was from Germany, Cologne or something, he comes out the Sigmar Polke tradition. He was a very good draftsman and he would use that facility and make these paintings with slap-dash decorative backgrounds and then he would paint over them with some sort of photo-projected image. He was also a drunk and he died of liver failure in his 40s. I had first hated his work and, of course, as these things happen, became obsessed with it and I started working with that.
At the end of the my first semester, the night before the crit, I put up all these big door-sized paintings that I had made in my first semester and once I put them up I felt there was no air in the room. That was not a good thing. I think I hit that kind of wall. I started the crit by saying, “I put these works up, when I made them I believed in them. Now I realize they’re dead and I need your help to figure out what’s wrong and how I can move forward.” Basically they said, “You’re right, they are dead. They’re not alive and we don’t know how to … It’s for you to figure out how to move forward.”
So right on schedule, I had the typical grad school crisis and I watched My Dinner with Andre and then I re-watched it. I think I watched it three or four times. It made so much sense to me that you could make a film about something so mundane as a dinner, but it was also transformative.
That movie opened me up and allowed me to go back to observation. I had started doing observational stuff in high school and in college when I had the possibility of doing plein air I was doing almost entirely that and nobody told me that you couldn’t do that … It wasn’t an art school. I think if it had been a BFA program I might have had more resistance but when I got to grad school and I started … the thing was it had been awhile since I had done observational painting.
I started with these little pencil drawings that I would work on for a few days and I started looking at Rackstraw Downes and I think I saw Lennart Anderson’s show then. I think I went back to Antonio López Garcia with that movie, Dream of Light. A lot of it became about seeing and that sort of Cezanne triangulation of where things can be translated from 3D to 2D.
Those drawings took awhile and at the end of that first year, I started going out and painting again but in the overgrown, weed-filled backyard of my rental house in Providence. Actually it was funny because I kind of go back to the same motif every time. It’s basically a painting of my car seen through the weeds in the backyard. I had one of those four door hatchback Honda Civics, the ‘86, which I loved. It was a portrait of the car but also of the foreground given as much importance as the car. Not all the paintings, but I’ve been making versions of that painting ever since.
LG: The painting where you have the chain link fences and other dominant structures that somehow are blocking or obscuring your view in some manner? Where you have to look through or past it in some way.
JK: Well, we learn to ignore them. Or we look for the vista, the view.
They’re always there, we just learn to ignore them so the paintings are just giving kind of … I don’t know if it’s the right word, but a more accurate percentage of our view that’s actually taken up by those things we learn to ignore. A lot of them, it’s about this weird way of addressing this injustice of the foreground that we ignore what’s right around us.
This a very long winded way of getting back to your question which was how were those paintings received. When I made that first car painting with the overgrown backyard, that was sort of the breakthrough. It was a black and white painting because I was still learning how to paint this way and I thought I would work on that very methodical Lopez Garcia way so I just took the black and white because I thought wow, it’s going to take me months to be able to do this in color, so I’ll start with black and white, keep the variables limited.
That painting was like the first painting I made in years that was really alive. Everyone could see it. Everyone was excited about that one painting. I was very excited about that painting. That kind of opened it up and in a way that painting was sort of the first real painting that I made, that I’ve been kind of working off that first leap ever since, at least with the observational stuff.
LG: You’re one of the few people who paint both abstractly and representationally. I was looking at your work, and I noticed that there’s a lot of similarities in your approach. That they’re not that divergent. You’re really in a way almost doing the same things except in different subject matter. It’s not really that the process is so … I don’t see it so much as observational painting versus painting from memory or abstraction or total invention. It’s kind of the same thing or would you disagree? Talk to me how they differ for you.
JK: There’s definitely a border there and I don’t cross it yet. I might. I keep getting feedback from people who ask, “Oh, are they headed towards some kind of merging?” There seems to be a kind of enthusiasm towards them merging, and they get closer and then they come apart, but you’re absolutely right. Some of the things are really central to both. The negative space is probably the main link in both: if there’s a kind of formal structure that has heavy symbolic meaning, it’s the way that the foreground that we tend to ignore becomes present in the paintings.
It’s all about negatives. I would say two-thirds of my work is negative space to one-third positive. The figure-ground, not just reversals, but in both bodies of work, I really like when the figure and ground are sort of switching off. Sometimes I can think of an Alex Katz painting or Bonnard, where the figure really becomes almost like the background. I’m really interested in them … The painting’s always moving back and forth with that.
When I do these residencies, I really try to use them as a nice opportunity to paint observationally. I pretty much just do that, because it’s so much harder logistically to do observational painting in my regular life. It’s funny, because I’ve been painting so intensely here and now I feel really excited to go back to the studio. To not necessarily paint from the paintings I did here, but just with all the visual stimuli I had here, I’m super fired up to go back and just make some big abstract paintings that I have all ready in mind some starts for jumping off of this point.
The main difference for me is the abstract paintings I allow myself to paint over and over and change entirely. With observational paintings, I give myself this rule, not always and it’s not super strict, but 99% of the time, I start and finish them in the same day. They’re alla prima, one-shot paintings. Even the big one in the show was a one day, it was the biggest one day painting I’ve done since college.
LG: These are all oil paintings? Are some acrylic?
JK: No, it’s all oil.
LG: Some of them it seemed like you had painted like a ground like a bright really saturated green and you’re painting on top of it, but it didn’t seem like it was wet into wet, it seemed like it was more … What do you use? A dryer or something?
JK: No, no, I keep it super simple. I’ve figured out how to use those thin greens or the bright colors and sometimes I’ll do certain things like I’ll bring a squeegee and I’ll squeegee it off so it’s still there, but it doesn’t get sucked into the next layer. Early on in grad school, when I started painting observationally again, I developed a reliance on very soft brushes to be able to avoid pulling up the previous layer. I use hog bristle for the earlier layers, but as the painting progresses, I’ll go to softer and softer bristles, so I will literally go from hogs to horses to sables over the course of the day.
LG: You seem to use fairly large brushes.
JK: Yeah, I use a whole range. I mean the other thing about the residency that’s easier here than in New York is that I can bring more stuff out. I can come back and get more stuff so I can bring a couple boxes full of brushes of different sizes. I’m trying to increase … I used to use all the big brushes and the wide range of brushes in the studio, but then for outdoor painting have a more limited set of brushes, and I’ve tried really consciously in the last couple years to use the residencies as a kind of time to experiment, because in a residency you can treat the grounds as your studio in a way that you just can’t elsewhere.
If I leave my stuff out no one’s going to take it here. Not that I have, but I did that at Yaddo. I would leave the tables and the easels out and I could leave some stuff out and it would be there the next day and fine. That allowed me a kind of flexibility. Also, just a lot of it is silly practical stuff. If I’m at a residency, I can use huge brushes and then take an hour to wash my brushes at the end of the day, because I’m a little obsessive about washing them everyday and getting them super clean, for the next day’s work.
LG: Yeah, sure.
JK: The colors, you know, makes a huge difference in the color. I can do that.
LG: Yeah, it’s the little thing in Southern California, we’re all nervous about the drought and wasting water. I have this issue where I like to wash my brushes every day too, but it uses just an insane amount of water that it makes me think I’m wasting and where is all this toxic paint going? The whole thing that you don’t often want to think about as a painter, but …
JK: I don’t really use much water, because I have another method. I did this painting trip in China where I was backpacking and painting oils and staying in little guest houses through the west of China. Often there would be almost no water so I developed some tricks of how to wash brushes with very little water. It’s actually a very … I basically …
LG: Use a lot of solvents?
JK: Yeah, first get most of it out with rags and solvents, I reuse both forever, and then I’ll just pour a quart of warm water into a container and then a few tablespoons of Murphy’s Oil Soap or something. I can go through like a whole day’s of brushes unless I’m using huge brushes, but for a regular day of brushes I can go through … It will take me two quarts of water to wash the set.
LG: Wow, I’ll have to try that. I just do it running under the sink. I hadn’t really thought about it that methodically. Good to know.
JK: Yeah, I have a whole ritual. At home I use Gamsol because I have a studiomate and I don’t want to make it smelly for her. Here, to clean the brushes, I just use hardware-store paint thinner which works really well. It’s super strong and I can do it out in the back so the fumes aren’t so bad. It gets most of the paint off and then the Murphy’s is really just to get the final bits.
LG: Ever try … Lately actually I’ve been trying what someone recommend is just to put it all in a bunch of oil, vegetable oil. I usually use walnut oil.
JK: I tried that for awhile, yeah.
LG: It works for me.
JK: I usually make my paintings in one day, I’m so used to my little method.
LG: There’s no right way. It’s the way that you work with, and I’m not 100% happy with it, but I like it because I work more …
JK: Don’t your brushes get colors carrying over from the last use?
LG: They do. They do a little bit.
JK: That’s my big problem.
LG: It doesn’t bother me quite as much because I work through the grays in my color mixing, so I’m often always putting in a little over almost every color on the palette anyway I mix to adjust the saturation and hue. If I need a pure color I’ll use a new, clean brush. I think your colors tend to be more saturated.
JK: Yes, I use the oil like water color.
LG: Right, so it’s a different way of working. You would likely need to have very clean brushes with that.
JK: I need to start from fresh brushes. For me, a lot of the painting is just learning logistics … I guess the chefs call it mise-en-place, like having your certain sequence of colors on the palette, I know where stuff is, I know the brushes are going to be clean. If I need that hit of pure orange, I’ll just grab it. I always bring extra brushes, I’ll know there’ll be a clean brush, and I bring extra palettes so I can mix a really fresh cadmium orange or something, and sometimes it will just be like one dab on the wet on wet. I need to mix a bunch, a little bit more than I need, get it really loaded, and just pop it in and that will be a one-use brush that day.
LG: There you go. Having lots of brushes helps. It’s a drag to wash them at the end, but it’s nice having them when you need them.
JK: That’s what’s nice about the residency … I don’t have to rush to pick up my daughter. If I’m in the studio, let’s say I paint till … Sundown here as been around 4:30 or 5, so let’s say I’m painting till 5, I get back around 5:15 into the studio, I can wash brushes till 6 and clean the palettes off because that’s another part of it, and I don’t have to rush off anywhere. In New York, it’s often not the sun that’s determining the length of the painting it’s the brush cleaning plus the commute to where I’m painting plus getting changed and all that.
LG: Well, once you get further along in your career and you’ll have assistants to wash them for you.
JK: The funny thing is when I did the big painting, I thought there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this in one day myself and I really wanted to try to tackle it in one day. There’s a really nice guy who’s working at Rhino, the art supply story, a guy named Brian Weisz, if you give him a little shout out. He was great. I hired him and I thought I’m going to splurge. I’m going to get the assistant for one day, because I got this huge canvas and I really want to go all out. We went for it and had been working since early morning and at the end of the day he was clearly beat, and so I said I guess it’s not worth $15 to pay you to wash the brushes, so even though I had the assistant for the day, I still ended up washing the brushes myself and I thought, “No, I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to …” It’s going to have to be a whole other level. That would be really nice if somebody washed the brushes.
LG: I’m sure it’ll happen. To back track, when you were talking about the negative spaces in your painting and the similarities between the abstract and the observational, that was the one thing I was thinking about when I was looking at your work is that not only did the subject matter and especially in many of your earlier paintings that I saw on your website where you’re looking through the chain link fence or some other like parking lot structure or something, you’re sort of looking, it’s not just the subject, it’s also the paint. You’ll have like a flat area of a lighter color and then you’re sort of looking through these overlaid darker colors or shades and sort of looking through the various layers in the same what they you’re looking through the subject matter and I found that really interesting. Then obviously, in your abstract paintings a similar thing going on.
Now, it didn’t seem like you were using any kind of mask. I don’t know if you were masking off the shapes or it’s just the way that you painted. I know you say you use the squeegee.
JK: Yeah, a lot of the harder lines are squeegees.
LG: I just find that very intriguing and this dynamic very curious, and I wasn’t … I couldn’t really think of anyone that had done quite like that.
JK: There was a Lois Dodd painting. There are a few of hers where she was looking through … She’s been a huge influence.
LG: That’s interesting, I just had an interview with her a couple days ago.[link to the interview with Lois Dodd]
JK: You’re kidding.
LG: Had a long conversation.
JK: On the phone?
LG: On the phone, yeah.
JK: Oh, wow, yeah, she has a show opening next week.
LG: Yeah, I’m hoping to have it all finished for her show at the Alexandre.
JK: That’s great…She’s fantastic. I mean she’s such a good painter. She’s like a zen master.
LG: You wrote an article about her for Art in America.
JK: I had done a feature on her. It was more of like a celebration of Lois Dodd. I felt like here I was a younger painter. I mean I’m a better painter now then I was then, but I felt it was important for a younger generation to discover her. She’s turned out to be such a huge influence on younger painters in the last 10 years.
I can think of any number of people who go for her directness, her freshness, the sort of no nonsense… the lack of bullshit in her paintings, but not in an aggressive way and sort of how hard it is to be that simple. I think that’s something I see sought out in a lot of paintings today. Some obvious examples are Josephine Halvorson and obviously me. Different career levels, but there’s a lot of younger painters who are really looking at her.
There was a painting of hers, and I had actually been thinking about this for a long time, of where you see right through a house. I always liked that experience of walking by old clapboard houses. This is something that would happen in DC when I was growing up, where you walk by a house and there was that weird moment where it’s stucco or something and then clapboard and then you look and there’s that green that in DC is so intense and you see that backyard green zoom right through the dark inside of the house. Even before I knew Lois Dodd’s work, I actually tried to make a big Alex Katz rip-off painting when I was studying in London for a year of that experience, with the white foreground, the black window and that burst of bright green popping through that.
Then I discovered Lois’ work and I realized that was a motif she had done a lot of, these flat planes where each of them describes a different set of yardage and space. The issue of space became central. It’s central to my work, of things that are close and things that are far and pushing and pulling them back and forth … I could spin out all kinds of symbolic things about what do we think is important? Shifting the emphasis on things that we want to see versus things we chose not to see, but it’s a very simple, it’s almost in a way a very simple idea and yeah, I think that drives both the abstractions and the observational paintings.
But they’re separate bodies of work, because they have a different sent of rules. The abstractions don’t come from a specific compositional idea. Maybe the rule is that they come out of free play or often, they’ll start with the worst possible composition I can make just so I have something to play off of. The observational paintings almost always I have to find a motif I find intriguing to start.