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.
LG: Do you make thumbnail studies or drawings or view finder?
JK: Yes. I’ll make these little thumbnails. These are for the tennis court paintings. This one was of the construction down the hill. Usually they’re pretty abstract. I mean they’re in a notation that I understand and what makes sense for me.
LG: These drawings are a more linear type of thumbnails.
JK: Yes, there’s a lot of negative space. I got one of these brush pens When I started I was using the thinner pen and that was fine, but then I got one of these brush pens and I started using that. Then I could do more of the value stuff with the negative space just like a little sketch or something.
I’ll do the thumbnails and then here I’ve had the luxury where I could do little oil sketches on boards, which I normally don’t get to do. In New York it’s so hard to find places to paint where the conditions are all right. I’ll spend a few days just going around on a bike or walking or driving or subway, whatever, and just scout out spots. This summer I spent probably three solid weeks scouting out spots, and found about two. It was terrible. It was really just swinging and missing. In New York if I find a good spot, I’m just going to go bring a good canvas the next time and go for it and hope for the best, because a month later that site will be destroyed or it’s going have some disaster. I’ve learned to move fast in New York. Here at Lux, I could take a day and do a small painting or a little sketch which is really ideal, because then it really helps figure out the color and the composition and I can sort of figure out the details.
Also, working from observation, a lot of it has to do with the site you’re working on. Not just what you’re looking at, but where you are, because you have to think about if you’re going to get baked by the sun? Are there thorny bushes that are going to get all over you? In the city you worry if you’re in the line of traffic? Are you in a place where people are going to really bother you? I don’t mind that a little bit, but it’s easy to get too much.
LG: Cityscapes can definitely become more problematic logistically.
JK: Well, the city, it’s almost … Some of the paintings I did here have the intensity of the city ones. The first three I did in the construction site have it, because I snuck in and I really didn’t know if it would be okay. I was really very nervous about getting busted and I’ve done paintings that are sort of borderline, are illegal before. In the city you’ve got to really … It’s partly you go, you do it as fast as you can and you get out, because the longer you take, the higher the chances that it’s all going to get messed up through something because the factors are so many.
It’s harder to make this work in the city, because I have to think about my lunch. I have to get that ready. I can’t step away from the painting to go get food and just getting there is a whole issue. If I bike an hour and I’m lugging this gear, it’s going to be exhausting.
LG: Is the light much of a factor for you? I mean do you limit to like a certain window of time where the light is the way you want?
JK: I favor afternoon light just because by the time you get out there, It’s nice that the light is ideal. If it’s good in the morning, I’ll figure out a way to do it. It might mean that I get everything set up … I don’t know. Sometimes I would start … I guess I really don’t start the night before. I read in Rackstraw Downes’ diaries that he leaves at five in the morning or whatever to get that morning thing, but with a kid and everything, it doesn’t really work out that way for me. I would say the only painting that I do in a morning light, I do at residencies, because the practical issues are so overwhelming.
I do a lot of the sketching and a lot of the scouting of spots in the morning. I very much am thinking about where’s the light going to be at 3 o’clock? That’s kind of the sweet spot where the painting’s composition is laid out, I can really push the tonal values back and forth and predict.
LG: The light and the structure of the motif that you’re looking at is really … I get the sense, correct me if I’m wrong, is perhaps more of a taking off point for you, it’s not really about a specific moment of light or a specific thing in the landscape. It’s really more about the painting or would you say that’s not true?
JK: No, that’s not true. I think it’s really that the motif has to click. I made paintings where the motif is so-so and they just end up so-so. I mean I’ve made so-so paintings out of good motifs too, but I really have to find a good motif to work from. Occasionally if I work from a bad motif, it will become a good motif, but almost never. I have to really see a motif with a sociological kind of history of it, who’s looking at this thing that is being painted, where is it? What are all the signifiers? With the paintings here, Southern California landscape, it’s such a known landscape from TV. Even before I’d been here, I knew this landscape in a very deeply superficial way of seeing it my whole lifetime. Three’s Company was in San Diego, right? I think so, somebody told me that.
LG: I never saw it.
JK: Somebody told me the Regal Beagle was in San Diego, but this landscape is so televised. It’s such a big part of the culture I grew up with in the 70s and 80s and 90s. Being here is kind of an amazing thing. It’s like I’m in the set of some movie or TV show that I know from deep memory.
All these concern the issue of cliché. With landscape for me, a big part of it is the issue of cliché and how do I negotiate working this very old-fashioned way.
LG: Speaking of cliché, many observational painters that I’ve talked to, in some way or another have felt that by close looking at nature helps you to sort of dissipate clichés. It’s like what you’re actually looking at it, if you’re really looking; it transcends any of this other stuff. It’s just like you’re finding more formal things out of that particular shape. It’s a very particular shape, a very particular sense of light, and when you really go for it, it frees you up from the obvious solutions. You’re making something that’s uniquely yours. Intense looking can help you tap into something unexpected. Do you find that? Do you think about that?
JK: Yeah, I do, I do. I feel like when I’m painting a lot and charged up and really on fire, like when I’m painting in residencies… I partly set up my making-a-painting-a-day project, because I know it just forces me to go out and paint super intensely and get into really good shape with painting and observing. I always feel like the better I get in a certain set period of time, the better painting shape I’m in, the more clichéd an image I can take on and make it authentic somehow, like what you’re describing. If I’m just kind of coming from drawing or I haven’t been painting observationally for awhile and I tackle something that’s a very known image, it just stays as a cliché. I suddenly noticed in the past 3 or 4 years where a lot of artists have been using the chain link fence which has become such a common motif … I actually did one of them here, but even something that had seemed not like a cliché becomes a cliché.
LG: It seems like everybody’s doing something a little different. I can imagine in a way how Lois Dodd being an influence with your chain link fences, perhaps how you could use the negative shapes inside the links to make up composition, similar to how she uses the window panes as a compositional device. But I don’t know how much you move around your head and everything would change.
JK: Yeah, it doesn’t work quite that way, but the…
LG: Rather than just making marks to represent the idea of a chain link fence, which is more of a cerebral process than a visual process if you get my meaning.
JK: I don’t, because actually it’s funny, I don’t work … I know what you mean in certain ways, but with the fences in particular and with a lot of these, I don’t so much think about sort of the puzzle pieces inside each little square. I really think about it in terms of like almost a printmaker with plates. I think about the space as plates so I really go through the planes, the spatial planes, of what I’m painting. I’ll literally paint from back to front a lot of times, not always, but a lot of times. The farthest thing is the sky. I’ll start with that and just work my way forward to the vine on the fence. The fence will be the penultimate thing and then vine is the last thing.
LG: Is that like a rule for you or is it just what interests you?
JK: It’s not even … I don’t know if it’s even what interests me. I think it’s just the kind of working method I’ve developed. So with a chain link fence, for me the game is that whatever is behind the chain link fence is going to get painted over with this chain link fence, but how do I do it in a way that I preserve that thing behind it and still give the feeling of the fence?
LG: If you got into a situation where …
JK: I don’t do the Lopez Garcia thing where I find where the fence intersects with this little…
LG: Yeah, no, I knew that. I was sort of throwing it out there to talk about.
JK: I’m curious about … I didn’t quite get what you mean about the cerebral vs. the visual difference.
LG: Well, one thing … It’s like you know sort of like here goes, I painted all this background, the various layers and space and here goes the fence. You’re not really looking at the fence, you’re drawing a conception of the fence.
LG: You know what I mean? It’s not this one is a little bent more this way than this other little notch, who cares really? It’s like it’s not about that.
JK: It took me a long time to be able to say that, “Who cares?”
LG: Well, anything really. I mean who cares that the branch goes this way or that way? It’s how you do it in the painting, but the fact that you would care is in itself very transformative I think. That no one would care, but the fact that you cared makes it special and it brings you out of yourself to make something different, but not everybody does that. If somebody could do that, it would still suck. It’s not guarantee of anything other than some people do it and they love it and then some others don’t. I don’t mean to imply one way is better than another rather I’m just pointing it the difference.
JK: It’s interesting, because with Lopez Garcia or Euan Uglow, they have such a big influence on a lot of observational painters, and it is that insistence in getting that right and almost like the lineage of Cezanne of these endless series of relationships, these infinite series of relationships and trying to get some sort of handle on that. I think I went through that for a while.
In my second of year grad school, after deciding that I wanted to work observationally, it became a question of how do I do it in color? That became my second year of grad school, was basically learning how to paint observationally in color. I spent three months on these two paintings that were painted every day within a certain hour-long period that the light was just right.
I worked for three months on these two paintings trying to nail everything down and I think once I hit that level of hard edge realism, something between Antonio Lopez and Rackstraw Downes. When I moved to New York I realized there was no way I was going to be able to work this way. I started trying to work that way on the street, and there was no way I was going to be able to go back to the same spot for over three months. Rackstraw manages to do it, and it’s amazing, but I wasn’t able to do it. I realized that I would have to figure out how to paint them in one shot and when I made that realization, it kind of closed off a whole set of doors and opened up a whole set of other doors.
I basically embraced the one day thing and it forced me to do a certain kind of … Have a certain kind of rigor in the painting, but also I became very ruthless. A lot of it is … If I’ve got an hour and a half to nail the light before the sun gets into afternoon mode, it’s really important that I have that gestalt feeling of how do you make the most impact with the least effort. I think of this as making a judo edit – which is what my wife, who is an editor, calls it.
LG: How has being an art writer affected your own work
JK: Yes, my writing has influenced my work a lot. I have the luxury that I generally get to write about stuff I am interested in writing about, so if I see a show … like I just wrote a Stanley Lewis review (for Art in America)
LG: I read that.
JK: … and he’s somebody whose work I’ve been interested in for years. An editor assigned that piece , and I was super-excited to get that assignment because it gave me an excuse to really mull over his work for a few days in a way that I just wouldn’t otherwise. I’d go see the show, and look at the paintings, but something about writing it makes me chew on the work in a different way.
The same afternoon, I went to see the John Walker show uptown, another end of the observational painting spectrum, but equally an observational painter and probably somebody closer to my lineage of observational painting. That one I pitched to them, because I was just so excited about the show and I thought, wow, this is really great work. I can’t really put my finger on why it’s so strong, but it’ll give me an excuse to figure it out in a few hundred words. If I can’t figure it out in the process of writing about it, then forget it. I’ll never figure it out. The writing has been really nice to be able to really …
LG: Have you met him? John Walker?
JK: Yeah, I met him and ended up having a studio visit. I’d visited his studio years earlier and was impressed. I’d known his work before and really loved it. I’d seen his show at the Phillips Collection, and just seen his shows over the years. The studio visit I did was a few years ago, when I was at BU for the day, and then seeing this new show, I sort of expected the work to be like what I saw in the studio but it blew me away that it was totally different. So being able to write is a nice opportunity to really chew on something, it’s a very digestive metaphor.
I like writing about people who make stuff that’s not like what I make. I’ve learned a ton from research for longer pieces, about Lynda Benglis, or the Chilean video artist, Juan Downey, who were so open in their practice. He would do video drawings, performance, architectural stuff. He came out of architecture school, and just had a very open practice, and that gave me a lot. Writing about him and researching his life and his career really opened me up in being able to make observational paintings and abstractions, and stop having anxiety about these two different bodies of work. Yeah, so a lot of them, it’s almost like a great chance to learn.
Occasionally I write about something I don’t like, and that’s also interesting, just to figure out what is it that’s missing here. I always think about it. The negative reviews … I always think about why doesn’t this quite click? It’s almost like a detective thing, finding what’s the missing ingredient for me, and obviously, I’m sure the artists don’t agree with me on that, but it’s like what’s not happening there for me?
LG: I often get the impression that the art world, especially in print magazines, doesn’t pay much attention to painting these days, especially observational painting. I’m sort of curious if you can throw some thoughts out there why that is, or perhaps you think that’s not true and perhaps unfair for me to say that. I’m not sure that you’d consider yourself an “insider” but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this subject.
JK: I think the art world, there’s so much more stuff that’s made and discussed and so the column inches per medium and per sub-medium within, or per sub-genre within the medium, are just proportionally smaller. When Fairfield Porter was writing, like seventy percent of what you saw in serious galleries, in all galleries, really, was probably painting. Now, within the galleries, let’s say the several thousand galleries that would conceivably get reviewed in print magazines, let’s say, painting probably gets shown forty percent, and so I’m not entirely convinced that the column inches aren’t proportional to just how much is being shown of it in any given moment.
I think observational painting, and this is something that I think we all wrestle with, it labors under a pretty heavy burden, the same way that Vivaldi … having him played in malls around America for decades hasn’t helped him. It’s pretty hard to hear the Four Seasons, and not, for me at least, think of malls. When I heard some performance of it on the radio, and it was truly amazing, I actually could hear the song again, without this kind of overlay of having it … sort of this cheesy overlay, and I think observational painting, because it is default “art” for a lot of people, has to deal with that.
JK: It’s also really hard to write well about observational painting in any interesting way. I always think about how easy is it to write a pretty straightforward press release about some sorts of work. I think observational painting is one of those things that you really have to understand well to be able to make an interesting argument about it.
That’s not necessarily true of appreciating it because I actually think a lot of people like observational painting because they think they get it on some level, but it’s very hard to put that into words. It often quickly gets into philosophy, about who we are and our relationship to the outside world. A lot of it, in my way of thinking about observational painting, goes back to what you were talking about earlier: how do we experience the world differently and similarly to other people and how is one viewpoint speak in a convincing way? I think it’s one of those genres that’s particularly hard to write about in a way that people who aren’t already observational painters would find engaging.
LG: One reason for that, for good observational painting anyway, is about the formal painting issues, visual issues rather than narrative. Issues like socio-political-psycho-sexual or any of those other concerns are far less relevant to what you see in the paint. You would need to to have some background in art history or knowledge of painting to appreciate it fully.
JK: I don’t know if I agree entirely in that I think in a way observational painting for me, the formal issues are the way that you get to all the other stuff. You can’t get to the other stuff, the other stuff is not in the foreground. You have to go through the formal understanding of the work to get to those other things. I think people respond to good observational painting because on some level it’s speaking to those bigger life things.
I think for example all those formal issues are at play in pure abstract painting, but the audience for pure abstract painting, I would guess, is smaller than for observational painting. Not necessarily in the art world, but just in general. I think people respond to observational painting because it speaks to issues beyond the formal, but you have to have the formal there to be able to get to that other stuff.
It’s like hearing one concert pianist play the same song another one played, but you get a whole different set of concerns. It makes you think about childhood and death versus thinking about dreams and materialism or whatever. I think the really good writers that I like about observational painting, and Fairfield does this, can read the formal stuff and then take it to the next level of understanding a larger picture with it.
I feel like sometimes observational painters now, I’ve heard of a few, they’ll do something where the other stuff, the psycho-sexual or the socio-political or whatever is foregrounded in a way that makes it very easy to get to in a press release-able way. I find that disappointing because it seems like a shortcut to me. Like they should get there through the formal stuff that you were describing and have it there as opposed to getting that payoff right up front. Then you get tricked back into enjoying the formal stuff.
LG: What about somebody like Rackstraw Downes? You mentioned him a few times. When I see his work I don’t really think of any narrative other than the visual narrative that he’s set up for him, his process, the whole thing. Now I’m sure people writing about it can think of stuff, but it really I suspect would have no relation whatsoever to what he was thinking about.
JK: I don’t know if that’s true.
LG: I can’t say that for certain but that is the impression I get.
JK: I read some of his books. Yeah, actually it’s funny you mention him because he was one where it really did click for me that you could do these two things at once. He’s so formally strong. There was a painting I saw at a group show at the Yale art gallery and it was also in grad school when I was trying to figure out how to make observational paintings that I could stand behind. He had a really small painting of a suburban New Jersey neighborhood with one of those oil tanks that rise, you know those ones that rise and fall depending on what’s inside?
JK: He had really nailed the light. The tank was really low, and he had really nailed the light and shadow on those little lines of metal on the empty armature of the hexagonal structure . To me that painting was so strongly about a kind of way we live in the environment that it seemed like a painting version of … you know the photographer Robert Adams? He’s one of those New Topographers from the ’70s who shot a lot of development in the west. It was this western landscape. I mean this is the same thing I’m really interested in, this western landscape that we sort of know and adore from the 19th century and then the way you have all these ticky-tacky houses everywhere and the inevitable, seemingly unstoppable encroachment of development.
I felt like Rackstraw was doing it, and Adams, they’re beautiful photos but in a way photography has this tendency to foreground the socio-political or whatever. Rackstraw was doing that too. When I see those Rackstraw paintings I think about urban planning, maybe because my mom is an urban planner, but I think a lot about class and the way people live in New York. The way that for example you have tennis courts and tenements right next to each other. What dreams went into thinking about putting those tennis courts there and the layers of urban planning that create these big highways and then what gets torn down? What are the old buildings that get left behind?
For me those Downes paintings are formally amazing, but they’re really, even before I had … I’ve never written anything about him, so I guess without having written about him to me they seem very much to engage with these other external concerns. Then with somebody like Lois Dodd there’s the whole issue of her being a woman and a single mom, I think a lot of the writing about her from the ’70s, like Pat Mainardi who wrote a lot of great stuff about her, and they were strong feminist statements in both the way she was painting, which was very anti-macho, but also the subjects. They were paintings of laundry drying or domestic interiors.
There were paintings of the woods too that had a strong formal… The external stuff was there. It’s less on the surface for me than Rackstraw. The way she paints the nude figure in the landscape with those paintings she does of the woman with her laundry. Observational painting is all about the gaze. She does not sexualize that figure at all. It’s hard for me to think of a male painter who paints the female nude in such a unsexualized manner. It’s a totally different way of looking at the female nude. The gaze becomes very important. Who’s looking? How do they look? Is it different? I feel like I’m a city guy looking at the country out here. That comes through in the gaze. I don’t live in the country so it’s a very different relationship.]]>
March 26-April 25, 2015
Lori Bookstein Fine Art (Gallery website has online exhibition)
The painter John Dubrow has already made his mark on the New York art scene. But what is especially rewarding about his latest work, currently on view at Lori Bookstein, is the way it continues to explore and evolve. In his case, the evolution isn’t towards a more provocative technique or motif – if anything, these aspects of his work have taken on a more utilitarian cast. The articulateness lies elsewhere, and in a trait that may not be evident to every viewer: in his forceful and eloquent arabesques of color. If your definition of active color is simply high-chroma hues or academic, volumetric modeling, his particular gifts may not be apparent. But if you see in color a chance of compositional purposefulness – as evidenced by painters ranging from Chardin to Matisse – Dubrow’s work will consistently impress.
Color has always been the moving force in Dubrow’s paintings, which to my eye has been strongest when recording nature in its broad, stark contrasts: overhead canopies of leaves, hanging viscerally above receding planes of lawn. In more complexly modulated motifs—portraits, hillsides of houses—the duty of representing seems to slight cramp the synthesizing of the purely optical. But this appears to be happening less in the newest work, which turns figures and buildings with equal dispatch to planes of nuanced, weighted color.
Increasingly, Dubrow’s paintings reveal an intriguing disjunction between heavy mark-making technique and fleet articulations in color. The textures of his crusted, almost-crater-like patches of pigment can feel clotted, as if applied and re-applied with dull deliberation. (In point of fact, the artist worked for several years on most paintings in the show. His favorite means of applying paint is with a hand.) But this misses the paintings’ intent. All attention clearly bends not towards technique but to how each color leverages every other color. And this is where Dubrow consistently excels.
At a glance, a painting like “Playground” (2012-14) is an enigma. In terms of framing a motif, it practically inventories a scene, much like a camera’s split-second recording of a slice of life. Yet these objects are not the least bit frozen in place. Each element, reduced (or is it expanded?) to a facet of color, struggles against its location, acquiring in the process a particular character—looming, receding, insisting, rising—within a larger orchestration. In other words, objects acquire meaning through rhythmic intervals, not illustrational or stylistic means. The painting becomes a living mesh of shapes, each uniquely responding to the transformative pressure of light.
At bottom left, the grayer forms of figures hum amongst the absorbent blue-grays and purple-grays of a broad shadow. One surmounts the shadow, her shirt abruptly shifting from deep earthy brown-greens turn to a brilliant chartreuse; in an effect unique to artist’s paint (and not reproducible in print or on a monitor), one palpably experiences the weight of light.
Dubrow continues, in coordinated fashion. A trail of figures, overlapping in their illuminated and shadowed portions, slips into the distance at right. Between these two zones, a series of mid-toned horizontals—various medium-toned violets, reddish-beige, and ochre—establish the receding ground plane that supports from below. Overhead, extending the canvas’ entire width, a lowering canopy of leaves—churning through degrees of shadowed green—compress the space beneath, already animated by the luminous shifting facets of people and ground.
In “Audrey, Weavings” (2015), hues of pinkish-terracotta, ranging through a variety of tones imposed by light, carve the subject’s facial features. Quietly luminous against a sofa’s more subdued hues, they culminate as a mass barely surmounting the sofa’s tide of purple-gray. Again, deprived of the more superficial means of description—feathery or smooth modeling, polished or slashing strokes—all elements reflect, with startling directness, the unadorned force of color.
Best of all, “Leaning Trees, Winter” (2015) captures, in ragged horizontal bands, the four states of light within a street scene: the remote ultramarine glow of sky; the hard pinkish-browns of sunlit ground; their shadowed counterparts in deep retiring purples; in-between them, a clattering horizontal of building facades, turned yellow-beige, brick red, and off–white by the vicissitudes of sunlight. Impossibly different, but bound together by the circumference of the painting, each zone presses against the others, charging the space. Streaming across the entire proceedings are the vertical trunks of trees, holding far aloft their forking branches, and melting into the forms of striding pedestrians below. Like the best paintings here, we have the sense of being brought suddenly, unblindered and blinking, before a sunlight-animated vision.
Optical sensations, maximized within a contained arena: this summarizes the powers of the language of painting to recreate what we see. If you’re the type of person who wonders at how Corot exceeds Daubigny and Harpignies, or how Matisse transcends Max Weber, it’s a gratifying experience.
“Leaning Trees, Winter” is notable for the clarity of its hierarchy of colors—it’s top-to-bottom apportioning of pressures that spins off each element in its own unique and lucid moment. Not every painting in the show is quite as decisive. In some other canvases, the on-the-fly-responses seem to slow down to accommodate a complication here or wade through a diffuseness there. This is only to say that at points the color lacks the supreme articulateness of Chardin, or the certitude of Matisse. But every painting impresses with its priorities. Many a painter can deploy an evocative technique, or quirks of subject and style. But to speak with color—this is a different, higher order of expression, one Dubrow is clearly driven to pursue.
Please see John Dubrow’s website for more detailed images of the paintings and much more.]]>
I am looking forward to meeting Kurt Moyer in July and August of this summer at the JSS in Civita in Civita Castellana, Italy where he is teaching an affiliate workshop. I am grateful to him for taking the time to have this email interview with me about his painting. Moyer lives and works in Rochester, NY and is represented by the The Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia and the Warm Springs Gallery in Charlottesville, VA. He has shown in the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania State Museum, Penn State University, and the Phillips Museum at Franklin and Marshall College among others. Moyer will be having a solo-show at the Gross McCleaf Gallery in January 2016 and will also be featured in a “Landscape” show there July 2015.
Larry Groff: What were your early years like as a student and as a painter? How did you become a painter?
Kurt Moyer: I had a great childhood, but not one particularly steeped in art. My parent’s property backs up against the French Creek State Park in Pennsylvania, so as a boy I had miles of woods to explore. I am certain that those childhood experiences with nature helped form my direction as an artist. Like many other young artists, I can remember being singled out as somebody who could draw well. My parents were very supportive and enrolled me in extra art classes at an early age. These classes at local art studios, and later, figure drawing courses for high school kids at the Moore College of art and Design provided me with a good foundation. I was also fortunate to attend a public school that had a well-funded art department including separate classes in Drawing, Painting, Ceramics, and Photography. Both the art teachers were very good, but it was Mr. Kuhn, the Ceramics teacher, who provided me with the clearest model for what a career in the arts could look like. Tragically, he was killed in a car accident in my junior year of high school. It’s hard to know how much of an influence this had on me, but I followed his earlier advice and enrolled in Kutztown University (his alma mater) as an art education major.
LG: Who have been some important influences for you and why?
KM: It was at Kutztown that I really discovered the enormity of painting.
My focus quickly shifted and I discarded the idea of being an art teacher and a ceramicist. I discovered a different path in painting and printmaking, and fully recognized the lifetime of study and work that lay ahead of me. At that time, there was no way I could pursue a teaching degree, or stand in front of a class and teach something that I had only just discovered myself.
Although there are many artists and teachers who influenced me, George Sorrels is the person I credit most with forming me as an artist. He had already been teaching at Kutztown for almost 30 years when I enrolled in his class and he was nearing the end of his career as a teacher. He taught me that painting was capable of embodying our most profound emotions—that both making and viewing painting can transport us in a spiritual sense. George opened my eyes to artists of the past and gave me a faith in the language of painting that I have never lost.
At the core of my education were regular painting excursions that he and I would take out into the countryside. It’s hard to underestimate what you can learn by watching a great artist build a painting from start to finish. He was a true mentor and supported me in many ways, including passing down materials and even hiring me to deliver his (sometimes still wet) paintings to his gallery in New York. We kept up with these painting sessions for many years after I graduated, often meeting up with other area artists and KU grads, John David Wissler, Michael Allen, and William Kocher.
LG: What are some of your most important considerations when starting a painting?
KM: When it comes to landscapes I am looking for a connection to a place, and every now and then I find a location that’s perfect for me. I have a couple of sites that I feel like I can go back to over and over without ever losing interest. Partially it is because the light or color is so beautiful and the structures form a good composition, but these places also have something else special, something harder to identify.
In the summer I work from outdoors as much as possible. Recently we moved to a house where I have a few good subjects right in my backyard. This “Edge of the woods” painting was made only a few steps from my studio.
I am also fortunate that about six years ago, just before my daughter was born, a great friend and talented artist, Jason Tennant, invited me to build a small cabin on his land. I jumped at the opportunity to build what I thought could be a great source for my paintings, a sort of studio-in-the-woods. I knew that after my daughter was born I might not have the opportunity to build it. So every day I would load up my truck with as much lumber as I could and drive the hour or so to the site. I spent the next couple of months hammering the cabin together. It’s a tiny structure, only one 12’x12’ room with a nice deck to paint from. I positioned the cabin to overlook the pond and almost immediately started a series of large canvases that represent the light at different times of day.
LG: In your paintings of Bathers there are many wonderful groupings of figures in the landscape. Can you tell us something about how you came to this subject matter? Are there certain painters you reference or are inspired from when posing the figures? Can you tell us something about some of the issues you are thinking with regard to your composition and the placement of the figures? Do you make studies from life or use photographic references of models with the bathers in the woodland landscapes? What kinds of reference material do you use with the beach figure paintings and can you say something about your process of making a larger figure composition?
KM: When I was growing up in South Eastern PA I would often visit the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of art. These collections house many of Cezanne’s bathers, including two of his important “Large Bathers” that he worked on in the last years of his life. These museums and their extensive collections of French impressionism had a huge influence on me and certainly helped shape the kind of art that I am making today. In fact, The Barnes and Philly collections are so full of bather-themed paintings by Cezanne, Renoir, and Matisse that I just accepted “Bathers” as a subject for painting that was as common-place to me as “Landscape” or “Still life”.
I admire Cezanne’s approach to the subject above all others. Particularly, I like how the figures in his paintings exist as a representation of humanity. I don’t see them as individuals nor do I see narratives to be figured out—especially in the later works. They are not all about abstraction either, his figures seem to exist to echo our sensuality and to serve the overall effect of his painting.
For me this subject feels right and I plan on following it wherever it wants to go.
My bather paintings often start with some small kernel of an idea—not a clear vision of what the piece will look like in the end. Usually I begin with an arrangement of male and female figures that feel at least plausible. I have discovered that more than three figures seem to work best—any less makes the painting feel more intimate than I want.
Then I start directly on the canvas in full color and without a lot of preplanning—letting all the elements move around until they finally settle into their place. I often reference my earlier landscape paintings for color, and sometimes I will dig through piles of old figure drawings to help me fix poses. In the summer I occasionally hire models to pose outdoors. These sessions are wonderful and produce invaluable color studies, and sometimes, under the best of circumstances, they even contribute directly to a larger work.
I use photographs rarely, mostly for landscape reference. I try not to rely on them for my drawing and never for color.
LG: How much does observation inform your work?
KM: My year is split roughly in half—generally the summer months are spent working directly from observation and painting from life. While the winter months are focused on studio-generated work. Almost as soon as the leaves start to change color I go into my studio and I don’t paint from the landscape again until spring. Of course I see the beauty in winter but, at least for now, it’s not a part of my work and I have almost no desire to paint it. In the summer my feeling towards the landscape is very primal, and I work frantically to drink it all in. Then it switches off like a light and I return to my studio.
The feeling that I want to achieve with my bather paintings is clearly a “summer feel” so I am able to use my plein air work as resource material to get me through the winter months. We have pretty drastic seasonal changes here in Rochester, NY and I have learned to adapt.
LG: Anything special about your painting technique? What paints do you put out on your palette? Anything note-worthy about how you paint?
KM: I don’t think so. I have included a photo of my palette if it’s of any interest to you or your readers. I have been buying almost all my paint from RGH, a small paint manufacturer from upstate NY. I use a pretty common set of about 20 colors. This is the order they appear on my palette:
I use a very small amount of medium: 1/3 cold-pressed linseed oil, 1/3 Linquin, 1/3 Gamsol
LG: Many of your paintings, especially your landscapes, have an impressive level of naturalistic light and color, why is this important to you?
KM: That’s very simple. The world is a beautiful place!
People connect very quickly to paintings with naturalistic color. It reminds us of our shared experience.
LG: You are teaching a painting workshop at the JSS in Civita this summer in Civita Castellana, Italy.July 20th—August 3rd. Can you tell us something about how you go about teaching your workshop there? What has been your attraction to the JSS in Civita?
KM: I am very proud to be associated with the JSS. And I am honored that Israel Hershberg has asked me to come back to teach this year. I think that Israel and Yael Scalia have set up an amazing program in Civita. It’s hard to imagine a better opportunity for someone interested in landscape painting than to go work from the same sites that Corot used to make such pivotal paintings. Of course there is no shortage of amazing landscape to paint in Italy, but the opportunity to study alongside so many other artists is what makes this program special. This year’s guest of honor is Ann Gale, who I think is a fabulous painter. I purposely scheduled my class so that my students and I will be there at the same time as Ann. I am also looking forward to meeting some very impressive master class students and artist-in-residence painters as well. I really think this confluence of people is the real reason to go. As I mentioned earlier, I feel like painting with other artists is the best way to learn. Even if you only get a glimpse at the way they approach their craft.
We are all such visual and experiential learners—so in my class I will do a lot of demonstrating. I often paint along with my students so that they can see how I think my way through a painting. The core of my teaching is helping students to see and translate what is important to them into a successful painting. Often this means simplifying a complex landscape into more manageable pieces and identifying which colors are most crucial for creating space. My class is open to anyone interested in working directly from the landscape to improve their painting. It’s going to be a great experience—and I still have a few spots left!
LG: What is most important to you about painting?
KM: At least once a month I walk into my studio and I feel like my paintings are all wrong. I never feel like I have been wasting my time -but I often feel like I am standing at the bottom of a big mountain and I have a long way to go.
So I feel like the struggle has important role to play in painting. But so does the feeling of connection to a larger world and the moments of pure joy that come when everything seems to be falling into place.]]>
Langdon Quin, a highly respected painter living in both Italy and upstate New York is having an exhibition of recent landscapes at The Painting Center from March 31–April 25, 2015.
Quin has exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally. Since receiving his MFA in Painting from Yale University in 1976. He is the recipient of many awards including a Fulbright Fellowship, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and two Ingram Merrill Foundation grants. He is also a member of the National Academy of Design in New York City.
His work is in prominent public and private collections both here and abroad. In addition, he has had a distinguished academic career teaching and is currently a Professor Emeritus of Painting and Drawing at the University of New Hampshire.
Quin has had numerous one person shows in galleries on both the east and west coasts. These have included The Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta , the Kraushaar Galleries, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, Alpha Gallery, Boston and Hackett Freedman Gallery, San Francisco.
I am very grateful to Langdon Quin for spending the time and energy in talking with me about his background, process and thoughts on painting during our Skype call from his home in Italy.
Larry Groff: The Painting Center has an essay about your upcoming show on their website says that you recalled vividly that Fairfield Porter “likened painting to poetry in urging the consideration of “particularization of experience” Porter also said along this line of thinking: “You can only buck generalities by attention to fact,” Porter continued. “So aesthetics is what connects one to matters of fact. It is anti-ideal, it is materialistic. It implies no approval, but respect for things as they are.” I’m curious to hear what you might have to say about how this thought has affected you.
Langdon Quin: Yes, Porter gave a talk at Yale that was, I think, taken from an essay he published “Technology and Artistic Perception” in the American Scholar journal; this was shortly before he died, so it later seemed to me a summing up of his idea about why painting was important in an age where everything was changing by the minute.
At that point it was 1975, and it seemed, in retrospect, just incredibly prescient that he could identify and insist on a place for painting likening that activity to poetry—both forms filling a need has to do with specifying the particular experience that people have in relation to something seen, felt, remembered, imagined, whatever it was, because technology and its generalizing tendencies was eradicating those important subtleties.
The thing I remember distinctly was this rather simple analogy that worked for me, and stays in my head: He said, “Most of you here [but I wasn’t one of them, because I was/am old enough] are too young to remember a soda fountain, a place where you would sit on a stool and somebody would mix a Coca-Cola for you with a certain amount of seltzer and a certain amount of syrup, and that became your drink. So, it was particular to that place and one would perhaps prefer one soda fountain to another because of the way they mixed the Coke, or made a cherry Coke or some other variation.
Then, Coke became bottled, and in doing so it became uniform, and it all tasted the same. So, it just stays in my mind as a kind of metaphor about Porter and his identification of the primacy, and importance, he placed on distinct material realities, that were worth celebrating in at time when new technology was seeking to blur such distinctions.
it gave me a way of understanding Porter’s work, because he just wanted to be terribly specific about not just what he was seeing, but also what he was feeling about the things he was seeing. Like all of us, he made stronger paintings as well as making some pretty ordinary paintings, but this intent of his to particularize experience seems most clear in the late work. In these, it seemed there was something inspired in a kind of materialistic identification with the paint in reference to whatever he painted, not just to make it illusionistic; but to make it feel like the place, something that was imbued with another layer of physicality and intervention, made manifest in the paint handling itself.
I’ll say that. I’ve always been drawn to people like Corot and French painting of the 19th century and other periods. The 19th century French model for me of late however is less Corot, than Courbet. Courbet’s landscapes look like observed places, they breathe light and air, but they also have a transformative power that’s palpable. So that’s the kind of landscape painting, that I’m admiring these days; I see it in Courbet, I see it in Balthus’s Chassy paintings, I see it in Hodler, I see it in Soutine, Bonnard, Morandi, and others. Our conversation is prompted by my landscape show coming up, but I do paint figures and still lives as well.
Larry Groff: What lead you to become a painter and what were your early years like as a student and young artist?
Langdon Quin: I had the benefit of a wonderful high school teacher who passed away some years ago. His legacy is felt today at the school, in the form of the gallery that is dedicated in his name and memory, the Mark Potter Gallery at The Taft School. It hosts terrific shows in the school’s beautiful space.
More than anything, I think he was a model for me as a way to live a life and to embrace all kinds of experience. I was swept up with my enthusiasm for him and his passion about life’s possibilities. It was as simple as that. I was a suburban kid from Atlanta, and I had won a scholarship from some Atlanta people to go to that boarding school in Connecticut. No one in my family that I can think of had any artistic inclinations. So, this teacher was the person that got me moving early on in the direction I took towards becoming a painter.
Like most of us, as a child I showed some propensity or talent for drawing and doing things in classes that, from third grade up, sooner or later got recognized. But this certainly didn’t make me feel like I could, or would want to become an artist.
I’m wasting too much time telling you a perfectly, as I say, ordinary story, but Mark was important to me. Fast forwarding quite a bit to 1973, Caren Canier (my wife) and I, without knowing each other previously, met in a summer program at The Tanglewood Institute in Lenox, Massachusetts, where we studied with Gabriel Laderman.
We had an intense, long summer with Gabriel in our faces for a couple of months. There was really a big door that opened for me there, thanks to his auspices. I am forever indebted to Gabriel. We became friends later, and I’m still in touch with his children. Gabriel died a couple of years ago, but he was a wonderful teacher and very important to me. I certainly would count him as a major influence.
Without totally discouraging me, he made me realize that I really didn’t know anything, and that I had a lot of catching up to do. I remember distinctly,(I was 25 at the time) when. he said, “You should go back to school and enroll at KCAI. ” In those years, he was very enthusiastic about the teaching of Stanley Lewis, Wilbur Niewald, Lester Goldman, and other people at the Kansas City Art Institute. He said, “You should go back to Kansas City and start over.” I said, “I’m 25. I’m not going to start over as an undergraduate.” I guess he was okay with that, but he may have been right with that recommendation.
Larry Groff: I’ve heard that the painter William Bailey has been an important mentor and friend. Can you say something about what that has meant to you and your work? Who have been some other important figures for you?
Langdon Quin: Eventually, I was accepted at the Yale Graduate program and I studied there with a number of people, including William Bailey.
Bill and I are very close friends. He was enormously important to me. I would say that he gave me an understanding of color theory, based on Albers, that I hadn’t really understood in spite of some study.
My understanding of color was, up until that point, completely intuitive. I could mix warm and cool, but I didn’t know about the qualities of color juxtapositions and how they can be weighted against each other abstractly and also drawn from observable phenomena. Bill really gave me more than a clue—he gave me a vision of the way that can happen and be used expressively. His belief in the importance of drawing was also very meaningful to me.
My other teachers there, to whom I am also indebted, were Gretna Campbell , Bernard Chaet, and Lester Johnson. This group, together with Gabriel, I would say, were the significant influences as I was developing as a student. I later came to know James Weeks very well, when he taught at Boston University. He and I shared an office, in fact. I was an adjunct instructor at the time, and he was a full-time professor at Boston University. I taught at BU for five years, and throughout my time teaching there we were good friends and quite close.
Larry Groff: Where you at BU when Philip Guston taught there or he had already passed away?
Langdon Quin: My wife, Caren, was a grad student there finishing in 1976 . She had been an undergrad at Cornell and then went to BU. She was very close to Guston and counts him as one of a couple of very important teachers.
I met him on a number of occasions, when he would come back to Boston from Woodstock… At that point, he was pretty much cutting the cord with BU and would appear a couple of times a year to do a critique or a conversation with people. He was not present on a regular basis in the late 70’s. I spoke to him a couple times in those last years before he died in 1980. But, I won’t say that any influence came from a direct personal connection.
My years in Boston were good years, but I think of them especially positively because of my association with Jim Weeks. He was a wonderful man, and the things that he did in his work I came to understand and appreciate in subsequent years. I looked at Jim’s work and thought about the things he said, and later decided, “He was right!” It’s a shame that he’s a neglected painter, at least in terms of the public awareness of him.
Larry Groff: What was some of the things that you remember the most that he might’ve said that was important to you, in terms of moving your work forward? Is there anything in particular he would say?
Langdon Quin: Well, if I could make a connection in terms of “Boston” people, and what they meant to me, I’ll say that Jim’ s idea of spatial compression with shifting play between two and three dimensions is one of the things I also admired in Guston. Everybody these days seems to love Philip Guston. Unfortunately, he’s been the progenitor of a particular kind of cartoony imagery one sees a lot of today, but I think the thing that’s missing in most of the people’s understanding of his contribution is that his paintings had a surface tension that was so considered and so taut. One really feels the heft and pressure of the forms he made and their juxtaposition. The subject matter has an offhand look to it, but it’s really quite charged in formal terms. That was true of Weeks, as well. Weeks’ paintings, to me, had this wonderful surface tension. I mean, the way he would compress two and three-dimensional things together, and then separate them and relax them, open them up, close them down. It’s not a language I really understood at the time, but I’ve come to understand it better. That is the way it works with good teachers, I think—it takes a while to get what they are talking about and trying to do in their work.
When you’re first hearing something from someone you admire, you’re trying to get it from the back of your head to the front of your head. so you can use it .But you don’t quite get it because that takes some time, and when finally you do start get it, you can’t thank them, because they’re gone! Nonetheless, I feel that way about Jim Weeks and Gabriel, certainly, who’ve both passed on. I think they were both terrific artists and educators.
Larry Groff: Does William Bailey’s involvement with classical arrangements and composition from a modernistic perspective have much influence on you? I think I can see similar concerns with a more classical sensibility in your compositions.
Langdon Quin: The question is of great interest to me, Larry. But, in a way, I can’t comment intelligently. I suppose Bill and I do share a classicizing instinct, but I don’t really know what that looks like. I mean, Bill’s not a landscape painter, and I am, and surely the ideas about color and drawing he passed along to me have found their way into my landscapes. We’re all drawn to people that have a form sense that we identify with and admire. In Bill’s case, his sense of interval, pace and arrangement, exist in worlds he makes up. On the other hand, just about everything I do is grounded in observation. Nonetheless, his form sense is something I really respond to, and maybe I reflect something of that influence in my apprehension of landscape motifs. My work, I don’t think, looks so much like his. But, I take it as a compliment however; that you think there’s an observable connection. I’m thankful for my training with him and greatly admire his accomplishment.
Larry Groff: Not the outward appearance, I meant more that what you might select to paint or how you might place emphasis on the horizontality and intervals has a classical feel to the composition at times. Of course the subject matter’s completely different. Like you said how color affects his. I think of his color as very subtle and subdued. His color is deeply felt and wonderful, but completely different than yours. I wouldn’t easily see a connection of his color to yours at all until you brought it up.
Langdon Quin: No, I think Bill probably likes aspects of my work and appreciates our shared history and respect for particular painters. But I’d guess he thinks my color is in a very saturated range that doesn’t always work. It may be that I’m trying to reconcile things that he’s tried to reconcile as well, but with a totally different palette and approach. I’m interested in the possibilities for more saturated color in the landscape, more in the spirit of Bonnard than say, Corot, both of whom I consider great colorists. But, I mean, compared to everything else that is out there in the art world that passes as experiment and color, my efforts fall in a pretty narrow traditional range, and that is fine with me.
Larry Groff: : Can you talk about your process in painting the landscape? Does it differ significantly from how you go about making your figurative work and still lifes?
Langdon Quin: I think people think of me as a landscape painter but I do make other paintings. The ideas for those paintings have a different, slower-forming genesis. But in my day-to-day experience, the landscape seems to intrude most and calls out more for its recognition and observation.
Whenever I make a painting of any kind, whether it’s landscape, figure or still life, I have to have seen that situation in the world. I have to have experienced it. Even if it’s just momentarily, even if it’s just a drive- by event; if I have seen it, then I can believe it and I can develop it, or try to, at least. That pertains to the landscape, figure, still life, whatever. It all starts from there.
But returning to your question about my landscape process, I start from small oil studies done on the spot. I have a few French easels and I just set them up. I do quick paintings and drawings. Then my practice these days, certainly for a landscape, is to bring those things back and develop larger paintings in the studio from them.
What could be more traditional than that? It’s so historical. That’s what just about everybody I admire did. It’s not set in stone; it just seems to work most easily like that. I had up until the last 10 years or so, occasionally set up big canvases outside and tied them down with guy wires and things. I just don’t care to do that anymore. Too much bother!
I enjoy painting more if I can develop pictures in the studio based on plein air sketches and then make the compositional choices and color changes that the painting suggests to me. So, at that point, it’s not what is dictated by allegiance the actual motif, and studies from it, but what happens after those initial encounters.
I want keep the life and quality of the motif alive, but I don’t want to be tethered to it. I want to be able to change it and move things around. I’m more of a studio painter in that sense, than I used to be in my 30s and 40s.
Larry Groff: So you don’t feel restricted by the particulars of the scene that you’re painting in the studio? If a house were in one location, you’d be willing to move it to an entirely different place if you wanted?
Langdon Quin: It usually doesn’t amount to a change as big as that. I don’t make dramatic changes in the alignment of forms so much as the color and the importance of different forms, the elaboration of the form. They pretty much stay in the same place. The drawing and the positioning of forms is more or less what I start off with. It usually stays that way, although I do make changes like that sometimes.
The main changes have to do with the palette and the kind of articulation of passages, whether they’re pronounced or diminished or played up and down in terms of their importance. But it’s all grounded in a set of things that I’ve seen and then manipulate.
Certainly this is accurate with regard to landscape; the figure paintings are a different thing. The show coming up is all landscape. It’s more appropriate I guess that I talk to you about that.
Larry Groff: Feel free to talk about whatever is important to you. I was asking you kind of more all about landscape because of the show, but I love your other work just as much. In particular I was admiring your still lifes. I was looking at your catalog again and I’d forgotten what incredible still lifes… Like the still life with 2 tables from 2004, a fabulous painting.
Langdon Quin: Thank you. The still life… I would say of the 3 forms, if we can simplify it and say the 3 forms, that the still lives are the most dependent on direct observation. When I paint a still life I’m sitting there in front of it, and stay put in front of it pretty much from start to finish.
When I’m painting a landscape, I start them outside. I draw, paint from the motif, I bring them in and they become studio paintings. If I’m doing a figure painting, it’s a similar thing. I’ll paint from a figure. I’ll make a figure painting, a little figure painting, then I’ll think, “oh, well that one would look like something possible if I could put it with this other figure painting that I’ve also done from observation, and then some grouping and/or narrative might emerge in pairing the two”.
The two of them then start to take off as a combination that becomes complete invention. I don’t have the same models back or anything like that. It becomes another studio enterprise altogether. They’re slower to develop and I don’t think I’m very good at it, in the sense that I can’t resolve them (figure compositions) as comfortably or happily as other things.
I’m a little more tentative about those things and their successes or failures. After this show, I want to paint more still lives and get back to some figure painting ideas.
Larry Groff: I loved your Danaë painting, a fairly recent figure composition, I think. Another incredible painting.
Langdon Quin: That’s a weird painting. I don’t think of it as being terribly successful, but something I got very involved with. It was almost completely invented. I had a model at a certain point but the model wasn’t doing what you see in that picture. It was all-associative. When I thought about all the images, whether Titian, Correggio or the many other great Danaë paintings that artists have made, I wondered, what if Danaë was angry at being disturbed when Zeus appeared in whatever form he chose, and she was irritated and refusing him rather than acquiescing? It was just a kind of whimsical departure from the traditional idea. It was based on some figure paintings I had done from models but then changed dramatically. I don’t know about that picture. I don’t want that to be my last figure statement.
But another one that you might see on the website is called La Capriata, which is a group of 6 men perched on some precarious scaffolding, working on a construction project. That was something I actually saw, and I looked at it and said, “That’s a painting!,” After I watched them, I immediately sat down and made some drawings from memory… The workers disappeared later, of course, They’d gone home for the day, but the memory of their grouping against the sky was very intense.
I developed that out of a very crisp, clear memory. It wasn’t the fantasy that the Danaë painting was. It was based on a very compelling, searing visual thing that I saw and I thought, again, going back to what I said earlier—If I’ve seen it then I can believe it. I know it happened. Then I can think about developing it.
The times like the Danaë painting where I haven’t really seen that situation. I don’t really totally believe in the fiction nor my process in picturing it. Those are the ones I’m more tentative about because, I don’t know, they weren’t grounded in something seen, something observed.
Whether it’s still life or figures or landscape, I feel most comfortable if I initiate something from direct experience. Those are the things I can get behind because I know they exist or existed.
Larry Groff: You had an earlier painting, the La Bottega, the family portrait that was on the cover of your catalog. That seemed like it probably involved this painting from memory yet it still seems very specific.
Langdon Quin: That’s a good example, as those are all people I know. That’s a place that I know very well. I know what everything looks like there. I have seen those people go up and down those steps and I’ve seen those people working in the background.
The development of that image perpetuated a kind of painting experience because it was informed by an awareness of those people and their interaction with their environment. Also, I could re-visit the place, just drive over there with my car, sit there and say, “Oh yeah. That looks like this. That looks like that.” Go back, make a few drawings, and keep working on it. It was all part of an observable place and time, even though the picture was a studio painting.
Larry Groff: I curious to hear how you might reference other art in your work, especially the color. Some of the color in your landscapes brings to mind early renaissance Italian fresco painting to me. Is that something you think about or is it more just your personal color sensibility? Or has it more to do with your location that is particular to Umbria? I’m hoping you could talk about the relationship of your color and other art.
Langdon Quin: Well, I remember many years ago somebody saying to me, “Your palette is so unique.” I thought, really? I didn’t feel that. I’m not at all objective, or aware of that. I can’t answer your question except to say that whatever affinities may appear in my palette or my view of color or how color may be operating, they’re not conscious or calculated on my part. I’m not trying to mimic someone else. The things I do with my own palette and the things I admire in painting are wedded in some way that I’m just not really aware of.
Larry Groff: It’s not a conscious process then?
Langdon Quin: Not at all.
Larry Groff: I suspect that for most people, it’s just their sensibility or personality that comes through without their control. But perhaps what makes up your personality comes out of your love for particular kinds of situations and particular types of art.
Langdon Quin: I’m impressed by the luminosity and the intensity of light in lots of different kinds of painting. French painting, but also Italian painting. The idea of a painting giving off light enchants me. I‘ve read of Alex Katz asking the same kind of question—how much can the painting act as a container of light, how much light can it emit? In terms of the painting’s luminosity, in terms of its color’s expressive suggestion? How much can it push out from the wall? Those are things I really like about certain painters.
Again, Balthus comes to mind. Especially the paintings from his chateau in Chassy, and his other 1950s works. Bonnard is another major figure to me. He makes a painting glow. I want my painting to glow and I want them to contain a light. They need to be tonal but they also need to be luminous in terms of the modulations between their tonalities and their local color identifications.
I suppose this is a late modernist idea about color. It’s not a 19th century or earlier idea about a directed light moving through time, space and different narrative moments within the frame of a single image. I want the whole thing to be materialized and a container of light that acts at once. This is a modernist idea even if not many people in our postmodern art world value that, or see it as such.
I would say that in the last 20 years or so, the tonalities of my paintings have gotten much lighter. That effort has been purposeful—to make the paintings as positive, meaning pushing away from the wall, as they can be.
Larry Groff: Many of your landscapes have an open, scrubby quality to the brush strokes that lets the white ground of the canvas show through, at least from what I can see on the computer screen. I’m hoping you might say something about this.
Langdon Quin: I don’t paint on toned canvases. I start a painting on a primed white canvas, lead primed white canvas. I really believe that referencing the whiteness of the canvas is important to keeping the glow of the paint present because the more you paint on them, the darker pictures get naturally. They run into all their problems with muddiness, chalkiness, etc.
If you start on a white canvas, you’re constantly referencing the white canvas. I purposely leave a piece of white canvas available somewhere in the painting so I can keep cueing things to that piece of white canvas. Keeping the value structure up because if it starts to get too dark then I know I’m in trouble.
I never paint on a toned canvas. I think it’s a mistake. I was a teacher for many years; I wouldn’t let students tone their canvases. I said, “Start with a white canvas. Always. Divide it and refer to the white as a moment on the scale of light to dark. Use that as a key of how to develop the rest of it.”
Larry Groff: Do you work fairly thin, thin paint, to utilize the transparency of the paint over the white ground to get luminosity?
Langdon Quin: The rougher the canvas, the better to me, whether it’s a quick painting or a long painting. I think that the roughness of the canvas enables me to create accidents that then suggest things and I can follow the suggestion and run with it for a while.
In answer to your question, I do start things pretty thinly, but just to lay them in. Then I drop the paintbrush and I pick up the palette knife and I start just trying to build a surface that feels right. That doesn’t mean that it stays that way. I scrape it down, build it up, scrape it down again, build it up. That activity of going back and forth between thick and thin is part of the process.
There’s a painting, a very large landscape I did a number of years back that I worked on for a long time. There are places in it where the paint is quite thick and there are other places where bare canvas is showing. It stayed bare in those places only because it keeps feeling right in terms of its value and strength in a color way.
Not that I’m trying to, I don’t know, trying to make a quilt of thick and thin paint at all. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s thick or thin. If it works, it works. I do enjoy the process of building up the paint and tearing it down, building it up again, tearing it down. Seeing what all those scumbles can come up with. That’s the pleasure, especially in studio painting
Larry Groff: You work on canvas, not linen generally. Is that the case?
Langdon Quin: It’s all linen.
Larry Groff: On the catalog it said canvas. I was…
Langdon Quin: I say canvas but I use the term loosely. It’s all linen. I don’t paint on cotton duck anymore. I haven’t for years. Although, I have no objection to it. Good cotton duck is certainly better than bad linen. For the most part I use linen, and I used buy Utrecht linen. They made/imported a kind of linen I loved. But they don’t anymore. I buy my linen here in Italy for the most part, and use it here and back in NY. My practice really these days has to do with starting paintings here in Italy and then taking them back to the U.S., I roll things up, I take them back, I work on them there, I bring them back, I go back and forth with tubes under my arms all the time.
My paintings rarely get more than 4×5 feet because that’s all I can carry on a plane. Oftentimes they’re a lot smaller, but that’s about as big as they get. Sometimes I’ve done paintings joining two side-by-side 4×5 panels that are more comfortably broken down and rolled up.. I’m moving back and forth between 2 different places. That’s my life these days and that’s what I do. Tubes and more tubes!
The linen I prefer is rough and has a lot of imperfection in it. That’s what I like. I like it almost like sack cloth. Just something that creates plenty of accidents as I put the paint on it and play with it.
Larry Groff: Do you, this is an aside really, for my own problem. I have been using linen most of my life, too. Lately I’m getting a little disenchanted with it because I have so many problems with it sagging out here. You would think it’s relatively dry, it would be less of a problem. It’ll be tight as a drum, it’ll be perfect, and then a few days later I’ll come and it will be all sagging and waving like a flag. It drives me crazy.
Langdon Quin: Yeah, I know. I know. It’s a problem certainly. That’s one of the reasons I stopped buying stuff from Utrecht, I would get linen that the warp and the weft, I don’t know what it was, they weren’t the same fibers or something. I would get all these little bows around the edges of the canvas. I said, “Screw this. I’m not going to buy their stuff anymore.”
I eventually just stopped. Yeah, linen is always subject to humidity and other things. I have a guy in Queens, New York who makes stretchers for me. He’s great, prompt and careful. His name is Victor Anchissi. I key them out when they get saggy. It hasn’t been a problem. I do know what you mean however.
Larry Groff: So, maybe it’s the quality. Regretfully, I’m using cheaper linen. Perhaps if I used better quality, it would be less of a problem?
Langdon Quin: Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. It’s mainly a matter of, seems to me, of using stretchers that you can key out. The problem is once you finish a painting and you’ve got it all keyed out and it looks fine, you put it in a frame then you attach the framing, then you’re stuck with it. If it starts to sag then what do you do?
Larry Groff: You and your wife, Caren Canier—who is also a painter, divide your time between living in Troy, NY and Gubbio in Umbria, Italy. How long have you lived there and what is your place in Italy like? Have you become close to your neighbors? What is it like to live there?
Langdon Quin: It has been a major component of my life and hers. I can’t think of a better way to put it, really. We’ve been here for 33 years,. I taught in the US for 30 plus years, finishing up at the University of New Hampshire in 2010. I always came here in the summertime in those years, but since I retired I’ve been able to come for shorter periods in the winter as well. I do that whenever I can, and I’m here right now for several weeks, which I usually do every February and March. Then I leave, go back to the States, and come back from May through mid-September.
Our place is an old farmhouse that has seen better days, but we keep picking at it and keeping it lovely and pretty much in the vernacular, historic form for this kind of house. It’s sort of a “farmette”. We have gardens, some grapes, some olive trees, and it’s lovely. It’s very nice. Our children have grown up here as well, so they have attachments to it, but probably nothing like ours. We’ve been doing this for a long time. I have a studio here, and I have a studio in New York state, where I live in the US. We’re pretty close to New York City, so we’re there for a couple of days just about every week.
We’re triangulating between these places, and we’re lucky to be able to do that. I spend a lot of time traveling, a lot of money traveling, but at the same time it feels good to move around. I generate a lot of painting ideas here in Italy, and as I said before, I roll up the canvases, and build ideas with those starts I can make, and take them back to the States, work on them there, and often bring them back here. I have sets of stretchers in both places that fit these paintings, so I try to make the transitions as easy physically as I can.
The house in Italy is in a very quiet, rural place. We’ve been here a long time so we have plenty of Italian friends and neighbors that we see a lot of. As with any home, we have our problems with household things, but it’s still nice. We don’t have central heating, which makes it uncomfortable sometimes in the winter and we live with woodstoves and fireplaces going all day. It’s a bit rough, but lovely. I will never complain about it.
Larry Groff: That sounds like such a wonderful life, I’m very jealous! This leads to my next question, which is, does having a deep personal connection to a place, such as in Umbria or Troy, NY is essential to the life or success of your painting? Or is that connections more just a point of departure? That the painting then takes a life of its own, and it becomes more about the formal issues and about the painting itself, rather than the actual thing that you’re painting, or are they inseparable to you. I’m curious for your thoughts about that.
Langdon Quin: In a way, I would like it if my paintings were seamless, that is, a viewer might see that it’s a painting of Italy but that would feel incidental; it wouldn’t look terribly different from a painting of New York State insofar as its feeling. I do paint the landscape in New York State. It’s more dictated by seasonal restraints however. The New York State landscape is quite beautiful, and I value it. The light there is different than it is here in Italy, and different kind of forces on view, and certainly not uninteresting. It’s not like I’m saying,” oh, I can only paint the landscape in Italy”.
It’s about the painting. The initiation of the painting has to do with the place, but the continuity of its development is particular to the painting and not the place. I can do that wherever I am, as long as I have the materials to do it. I do have another kind of feeling about surroundings in the US… at least where I live in New York State,. The culture and history of the relationship of the people to the landscape is very different from the Italians I know about.
I’ll just try to simplify this by saying that one is a sympathetic relationship, and one is an antipathetic relationship, the latter, representing the American side of it. We beat up our world there, and treat it badly and abuse it. And certainly that happens here in Italy as well, but you don’t sense it as much in the countryside because rural people are still so careful about their cultivation and land management, and they seem to prize it more. It’s more part of their patrimony, and lives, and I admire that and respond to that. In America, at least in New York State where we live, it’s a more problematic relationship to the land, which is not uninteresting as an idea in terms of developing something narratively/pictorially, but at the same time it’s kind of a bummer in any social sense.
Larry Groff: I would think Troy would be closer to Italy than any other places. I’ve heard that Troy is one of the few smaller towns like that that have retained its identity. It hasn’t changed quite as much over the years.
Langdon Quin: Our mailing address is Troy, but we live in the country, east of Troy, towards the Massachusetts-Vermont line. We’re out in the landscape and it’s really quite lovely where we live, and we’ve been blessed not to have a lot of rampant development. The last major battle we had locally, was over a Wal-Mart moving in nearby, a decade or so ago. And, as in every other place in America, you can’t stop Wal-Mart. So we tried, but it’s there. But so far, our immediate surroundings haven’t changed too dramatically. However, it is a landscape that’s definitely threatened.
Farming has stalled statewide, and local Hudson Valley farms are shutting down and closing. It’s just a very transitional world there, and you feel it. I don’t sense that as much where we live here in Italy, so that’s among the positive things about being here. I paint the landscape in New York State, but I hold off in the winter, especially in this terribly brutal winter we’ve had this year. I really enjoy being in my studio upstate, but I just don’t get out to paint the landscape much, because it’s just so tough to do that. It’s not very inviting or hospitable.
I’m usually focused more on other forms… I draw a lot from the figure, and paint from the figure, and try to develop more figural ideas when I’m in the States. The ideas are slower to develop, so it’s not a period that I tend to I produce a lot in. Here in the summer months, I can get things rolling more quickly. The days are longer. It’s 8 o’clock in the morning and I can be in the studio if I choose to, and not return ’till 8 at night…
Larry Groff: Who are some of your favorite contemporary living painters?
Langdon Quin: Although I try to look at everybody, I can’t say that I have any particular contemporary heroes right now. There are certainly lots of painters out there whose work I admire. I’m reading a little biography by Phoebe Hoban about Lucian Freud Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (Icons).
But whereas I like Freud’s work. I don’t think he has had any influence on my work, it’s just … He’s a celebrated artist that I respect, and I certainly admire others such as Antonio Lopez Garcia. Their work is impressive to me, and I admire much about their ambitions, and I respect them, but I’m not exactly worshipful. There are lots of people I can mention. Leonard Anderson, Stanley Lewis, Leland Bell, Louisa Matthiasdottir… Another painter who comes to mind, whose lovely show I saw a show about 6 months ago, is E.M. Saniga, whom I don’t know personally.
Larry Groff: He’s a great painter and person. I got to meet him in Civita Castellana, when I was at the JSS in Civita program.
Langdon Quin: Yeah. I saw a show of his, and I thought, this guy is something special. Gillian Pederson Krag is another person that I do know quite well. She’s under many people’s radar, but she’s a terrific painter.
Larry Groff: She’s great, Elana Hagler had an interview with her on Painting Perceptions…
Langdon Quin: She’s wonderful. In fact, she’s my wife Caren’s former teacher, and they’re very good friends, and I am as well. There are plenty of people that I see on Facebook but I don’t know personally, but impress me such as this guy, Emil Robinson’s work, I admire his work (http://emilrobinson.com/home.html)
Larry Groff: Another excellent painter. I also got to meet him a couple of times and had an interview with him.
Langdon Quin: I don’t know him personally. I have to say that I’m pretty negative about aspects of Facebook, but the good thing about it is that it makes you realize that there are lots and lots of people out there who are painting with great intelligence and great sensitivity, that you’re probably not necessarily going to see in Chelsea or anywhere else in New York City. But, it’s gratifying to know that such good painting still flourishes. That feels hopeful; to know that there are people out there that can respond. That’s the way it is when you teach, as well. There are always students that still want to make pictures of people or whatever, and they either do it, or don’t do it once they move on. But they want it at the outset, and need it then, and come to you for that information. You know, life goes on.
Larry Groff: Do you feel optimistic about the future of representational painting, as you’ve grown to love it, the kind of work that you do?
Langdon Quin: No, I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic at all. Actually, I would say I’m a bit cynical about it. For the following reason: I think the saddest thing is that for a lot of people that I know that for a lot wonderfully talented artists who are capable of doing great things, the marketplace and the art world do a lot of damage. They combine to dull the sense of urgency to paint for some very fine painters. If you’re not going to sell the work, you’re not going to show it, then why do it? That’s depressing, and yet most of those people, including myself, just try to keep doing it because that’s what we do. No. I’m not very positive, I’m afraid.
I talk to people about it, and some people say, “Well, all it would take is one or two perceptive art world critics, or dealers, or this or that, and suddenly the whole thing could change positively.” I don’t believe that. I think that the culture is losing its capacity to really embrace painting as a poetic, and essential form. If at all it’s embraced embrace it as something else: celebrity, style, or whatever…
Larry Groff: Fashion.
Langdon Quin: Fashion. Yeah. I don’t like to think about that part of it, so to answer your question, no, I’m not optimistic at all.
Larry Groff: A thought I’ve had for quite some time is the art world’s elevation in importance of conceptual-based art and the fall of painting about visual concerns feels like we’re heading toward some kind of neo-medievalism, in that the painting has become increasingly more about ideas that one contemplates not unlike what people did with the icons during the medieval era. Irony is becoming a new catechism of hipness and beauty no longer has much relevance. Of course visual imagery is still there, but often more to illustrate a concept than to celebrate beauty.
Langdon Quin: Exactly. Even though it’s said that “irony” was over years ago as the expressive vehicle of the art world, it still appears to me that it’s driving the bus !Is distance from any sort of poetic interpretation of things, or an earnest interpretation of things is so huge. And that’s really disturbing. I don’t know when it’s going to change, or if it’s going to change, but it’s certainly seems bleak these days.
It makes me think that, in spite of its power in the marketplace, New York is a terribly provincial place because that’s such a singular attitude that prevails. And that’s just small-minded, and doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s why I say I am not encouraged. I do know that there are places in the Midwest, on the West Coast, everywhere, where people are doing good things and feeling productive and positive about it, so maybe I should cheer up.
Larry Groff: I understand. It’s particularly difficult for people who live away from the bigger art centers. Where I live in San Diego, I think there are a lot of people in the art world here who want to emulate the New York scene. They’re getting at it from maybe 10 years ago or something, but they are even more dismissive of people doing work from observation or other kinds of a sophisticated relationship to the history of painting. They all want to be about the cutting age, but they don’t really think about art history, I think, in a way, and it makes it really difficult for people who are, because you can’t get shown. If you can’t get shown, because they think you’re old fuddy-duddies or something, then you can’t sell your work or get hired as a teacher and it becomes very difficult to make it as a painter.
Langdon Quin: That’s why, at this point in time, some 35 years or whatever it is after speaking with Fairfield Porter that I just cherish that encounter with him—because he seemed to be taking such a stand in opposition to what you describe… Even then he realized what the lay of the land was, and how important it was to embrace an idea about painting that would really transcend trends, time, and shifts in popular culture. I think he was very important in that way. That does make me feel like there is a conversation still going on, however attenuated, and that’s good. This is part of it, you and I talking like this.
Larry Groff: Other people get to read this, and it gives them ideas, so we’re helping to perpetuate this continuum of ideas about making good painting.
There is a poetic quality to so much of your work. I think all really great painting has that, for me it’s the visual poetics that really makes the painting succeed more than anything. Much more than the level of skill in depicting things or the level of realism, or whatever, it’s has to first engage me from the feelings, the mood, the poetics.
What would you suggest for someone, a young person just starting out, wants to do this kind of painting, representational painting, whatever you want to call it, to really appreciate the sense of poetics, the visual poetics. Is there something you would recommend?
Langdon Quin: I don’t think you can really recommend so much. I think It’s nascent or it’s not nascent, meaning that if they want to image something then they have to figure out how to do it, and have to seek out somebody that can teach them how to proceed, or look at something on the walls or in books. The will to image something is pretty hard- wired in many people. That’s what students bring to a beginning painting or drawing class. There’s some fundamental wish to do it, and they don’t know about the art world, or culture, or anything else. They’re just following an intuition that feels important, and that’s what a good teacher will have to build on.
I guess the answer to your question is: if you don’t feel it and you don’t really look around the world and think how beautiful this or that is. Or, “gee, wouldn’t it be nice to image that”—if that’s not there in the first place, there’s no way you’re going to just decide that that’s what you’re going to do. It has to be there in the first place, and I think it is for many people. I think it’s part of our makeup, that we want to image things, and how quickly you get swept up in fashion, or trends, or this or that, is going to dissuade you from doing that, but the people that want to do it are going to find a way to do it, I hope.
It gets harder and harder, but I think that will go on, and remains the refreshing thing about teaching. When I taught in New Hampshire, all these corn and milk-fed young people who were my students came from pretty conventional backgrounds, and weren’t particularly sophisticated, but they wanted to make images., They wanted to make pictures and they wanted to construct figures. Whether or not it continued in their lives in any way later is a different thing, but I think the will to do that is often there. That’s what’s hopeful, I suppose.
Larry Groff: Right. One thought that I had, kind of a grim thought, but I see many things in this society falling apart, and are not really being sustainable. It’s too much to get into now, but it feels like … The one thing that can be real is painting, and it gives you a reason to live. The whole world could be falling apart, but you’ve got a great painting in front of you that you’re working on, it’s sort of, like, so what? I’ve got this painting, and it gives you a reason to keep going. It gives hope and it gives a reason to live.
Langdon Quin: Painting is a political act, and if you paint that harbor, Larry, and you say, ‘I saw this and it looked like this, and it felt like this,’ and, again, paraphrasing Porter, ‘You particularize an experience and you make it an individual stance in a form that can be shared,’ it’s essentially a political act. You are saying to other people, “I want you to see this the way I see it,” and when you do that, it may or may not resonate with a viewer, but it means something to try. Again, to reference Porter, because I think that’s what he was saying, it’s that ‘this is what you have to do. You have to communicate the particularities of things that life in its visual realm presents’
I was fortunate to become good friends with Christopher Chippendale while we studied with George Nick during our undergraduate years at Mass Art back in the mid-80’s. Christopher and I also both went through the same graduate degree program at Boston University, however not at the same time. We continue to keep in touch and it has been a great pleasure to compare notes and observe the paths both our works have taken over the years.
Christopher Chippendale is represented by Soprafina Gallery, Boston and has been a member of the Painting faculty at Mass Art for twenty-two years. In addition to his work as an artist, Chippendale has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards, published critical essays on art, curated and juried many exhibitions.
The Soprafina gallery will have a solo exhibition of Christopher’s new work in November of this year and he will teach a summer landscape painting workshop this July at the ART New England summer program.
I am grateful to Christopher for putting the considerable time and effort into such thoughtful and articulate writings in response to my questions.
Larry Groff: What led you to decide to become a painter?
Christopher Chippendale: In the summer of ‘74, my brother, who had himself studied painting before becoming a photographer, wanted to stage and then photograph a tableau vivant based on Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe. At the time, we were living at a place called Wood’s Ranch—a sprawling, ranch-style rambler on an old estate, surrounded by magnolias and lemon groves at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California. For the tableau, it was decided that I would take the part of the young gallant who, in Manet’s painting, reclines on one arm while gesturing casually with the other. My brother took the role of the second dandy, seated in the “picnic” center, whilst my then girlfriend sat for the female nude to the left, looking out at the viewer. Atop her discarded habillements, we arranged the same objects as seen in the foreground left of Manet’s Le dejeuner: a picnic basket, some fruit (they appear to be lemons), a hat (we apparently had no bonnet). An over-grown thicket of scrub and lemon trees served as our Bois de Boulogne. My brother set the camera on delayed timer, jumped into his pose and, with the click of the shutter, our playful re-enactment of Manet’s once-scandalous painting joined us to it—in California fashion—forever.
In the following months, a couple dozen prints of our mise-en-scene were produced in the darkroom and, that December, reflecting the wittiness of my brother’s conceit, we sent these out to friends as our Christmas greetings. Ten years later, when I enrolled in art school in Massachusetts to study painting, I came finally to realize the vocation that had been eluding me. Becoming a painter was the first vocational decision I had made in my life with absolute certainty and resolve. Like any momentous decision, it reframed the significance of events that preceded it, making them clearer and necessary, in this case fitting them into the larger narrative of my becoming a painter. Even minor events like our staging of Manet’s painting—which now took on an affectionately prophetic significance—looked fateful in light of my painting decision.
A few years earlier, when I was seventeen, I set out hitchhiking from my home town in California with a vague notion that I was “going abroad.” Nine months later I was in Afghanistan. I had wandered, alone and without an itinerary, through much of Europe, into Turkey and across the Black Sea to Iran, to Herat and as far east as Kabul. I have always been a wanderer, much more drawn to voyaging than to destinations. The openness of setting out with only marginally described objectives engages me still, as a painter, and it informs my work. I do not know the destinations of my paintings. I seek my subjects in the work itself. Like Cezanne, I seek in painting (“Je cherche en peignant”).
I returned to California from Europe and Central Asia and lived for five years in a remote cabin, high in a mountain canyon in the Angeles National Forest. This was my return to, and embrace of, the idea of living a “natural life.” It was also a retreat from the world such as I’d experienced it during my travels abroad, and a place for me to reflect upon them. I read literature and philosophy, wrote poetry, took long hikes, played music, drew and painted, swam daily in the stream outside my cabin door, communed with friends, and worked building trails and fighting fires for the National Forest Service. During one interlude from this period of my life I posed, with my brother and girlfriend, for the aforementioned Le dejeuner.
Looked at in one way, this was a paradisiacal episode of my life. I came eventually to see in it, however, an untenable future. I realized that I needed to be in the world, which I knew little about. I had grown less ambivalent about the value of a formal education, and was drawn to the history I had experienced in my travels, and in the literature and philosophy I read. I decided to move across the country to New England to go to college.
College was in many ways an extension in formal terms of what I had begun on my own already. I majored in French and French literature, writing my thesis on the idea of consciousness in Proust. As part of my program, I went to study in Paris. There, I took a cheap garret room in a five-story walk-up in the 6th arrondissement, and enrolled in French language classes. My interests, however, were in the life and culture around me. I would often cut classes and, as if this prefigured what lay in my future, spend my days wandering around the city, drawing and going to museums. In my daydreams I imagined myself returning to Paris to study painting at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Some weeks before my scheduled return to the U.S., I ran out of money. With no prospects of formal employment, I spent my last twenty-five francs on a book of early English ballads transcribed for alto recorder, and I descended into the metro. I busked there, two hours each day, for pocket money and to pay my hotel bill, changing venues daily to avoid harassment from the local gendarmes. To hold up my sheet music while I played, I used a collapsible stand which I fabricated, ironically enough, from the legs of a broken French easel I had found on the street one night.
You ask what led me to decide to become a painter. I think I was always predisposed to become a painter, but it took some important side-roads and divagations along the way for me to discover the rightness of that decision.
Larry Groff: You studied with George Nick, who has been a leading figure and advocate of painting from observation. What can you remember about his teaching that has been most influential for you?
Christopher Chippendale: On a practical level, Nick instilled in me the core conceptual and foundational tools that would continue to serve as a cornerstone of my painting to the present day. On a personal level, his way of thinking about painting helped orient me to a more outwardly focused, concrete way of looking at and being in the world. His was an existential influence and, therefore, for me, an influence of the most crucial kind—one that began with, and was ever refocusing my wandering attention to, the facts of the observable world directly in front of me.
Nick urged me to adopt a clear, that is to say, presuppositionless view of whatever I painted. I was not to presuppose anything in addition to what was actually given. Emphasis in his studio was upon immediate perception, upon what was there, before us, and upon seeing it as such, without past and without future. Nick wanted his students to make an effort, in a deliberate way, to cancel or put aside the normal habits and assumptions with which they approached the world in their everyday understanding. Our charge was to take visual sensations simply as they presented themselves, and only within the limits in which they did so.
To accomplish this required, besides an undistracted Zen-like focus upon the immediate world before us, an examination of the processes by which we, as individual painters, saw the world and transcribed it. Our outwardly focused concentration upon the given had also an inward, requisite component—call it self-examination—through which we should aim to discover how our conceptions of things colored, like tinted glasses, what we saw within the motif. Thought itself, in other words, had the power to transform the visible. One of my duties as an observational painter, I learned, was to understand the manner and mechanisms by which my own individual conceptions of things, whatever their origins, acted upon and informed my perceptions. As Nick’s own teacher, Edwin Dickinson, put in a phrase reflecting the richness of his own circumspection: “The seen distortion is what a thought did to the sight.”
Nick guided us like a courtroom lawyer to question the veracity of what we saw, as evidenced on our canvases, and to question how our conceptions of things distorted how we saw them. Observational painting, I learned, was geared towards something much more essential and original than representing the motif. In my best work I didn’t presume to know what the motif was. Painting, as Nick taught it, was oriented away from the known world, towards the phenomenal one, away from our conceptions of things and towards things themselves. Painting did not serve a mediating role—it served an investigative one. Its function was not to express the predetermined, but to determine, in fact, what was, and to express that directly in ways that only painting could, and as accurately as possible.
Nick’s approach to observational painting reflected a defining 20th century philosophy, existential in nature, and committed to the truth of the unmediated. “Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself,” as Wallace Stevens put it, in a late, great poem of his by that title. It was a philosophy with which I resonated. I found in painting, moreover, a means to express it. I found there a palpability, a physical process that clarified for me a need to locate and express my experience of the world in concrete terms, which is to say, in things themselves.
Observational painting, I learned, was not a mimetic art form. We were not in the business of copying or duplicating what was before us, but of transposing it through paint, and through the forms we each adopted as individual painters. Our goal was not to match or try to outdo what nature did best, but to interpret it through metaphors that were “parallel” and in every way “true” to the facts we perceived, except in being literal about them. Ideas of “truth” in observational painting were, accordingly, not limited to ideas of “likeness” or verisimilitude. One could be absolutely true to the richness of one’s perceptions without being literal about them, in the same way that poetry can bear witness with great precision to truths and realities that lie far outside of, and are in fact inexpressible within, the jurisdiction of the literal.
I found observational painting richly full of paradoxes and contradictions, often vexingly so. Nick taught me to think more with my brush. I learned from him that making was itself a form of expressed thought, and that solutions were to be found in painting itself. Standing before the easel, considering the variables that arose in my paintings with every passing moment, I learned that it was ultimately important to act—to paint—in clear material terms, and sooner rather than later. If recklessness was the consequence, and errors and mistakes the result, then these were simply the facts and uncertainties of painting. Risk, in Nick’s view, would forever trump cautiousness, and I inferred from his approach, which I came largely to adopt myself, that being overly guarded and calculating in painting was ultimately a dishonest act.
The existential overtones of this approach to painting were clear and compelling. Nick’s insistence on the need to paint in the face of paradox and ambiguity, moreover, underscored the importance he placed on intuition, and he suggested a place for us to apply it. He encouraged us to paint at the threshold of the unknown, where there were no ready answers. “Paint more like a Martian,” he might say when we were painting too literally, implying that painting beyond what we already knew, and forgetting any preconceived ideas we had regarding the motif before us, would push us to see and reconstruct the world around us in fresh and original ways.
To illustrate the kind of painting I am speaking of here, which Nick modeled in his own work and encouraged us to essay in ours, I can share with you an important exchange I had with him on the occasion of his forty-year retrospective at Mass Art in ‘93, four years after I had left his studio. I was standing alongside him in the gallery before a long and narrow painting of his called Muddy River, in which a heavy-handed build-up of light-valued pigment in the middle of the canvas served to represent a wind-blown highlight reflected on the River. Seen up close, from the position where Nick had painted it, that ungainly chunk of paint struck me as overly two-dimensional in its effect and weirdly out of place: it sat brazenly upon the canvas surface and did not conform at all to the three-dimensional plane of receding water upon which it so obtrusively lay. Yet, as one backed away about ten feet from the painting, that seemingly coarse application of pigment sat right down into the illusionistic, three-dimensional space of the river where it seamlessly took its place. So I asked him: “How did you know, when painting that passage, while standing, that is, directly before the canvas, that that crude chunk of paint when seen from ten feet would sit right down into the three-dimensional world you were also describing? Speaking quickly, as though he were still flush from the victory of having just painted it, Nick turned to me and said, in clear, declarative terms: “I willed it! You have to will these things!”
Flummoxed by his response, and embarrassed that I couldn’t grasp straight away the sense of what he had just told me, I said nothing, while my thoughts swirled. Was this some kind of Buddhist riddle? What did Nick mean, “I willed it”? What mysterious powers did he possess that, by simply wanting something badly enough, and forcing his will to achieve it, it came to pass? Surely this was no fantasy; the canvas before us did not lie. The passage in question was clear and marvelous. Its construction, as paint, was tangible. This might be an example of wish fulfillment, but it was the opposite of wishful thinking. How, then, did this notion of willpower fueled by artistic desire correspond to the notion of craft? How did one learn how to do such things?
In time, with more experience of my own as a painter, I came to appreciate the sense of Nick’s response to my question. I came to grasp the nature of his accomplishment, and to understand its relationship to craft. I came to see this particular passage in Muddy River, moreover, as an emblem of his painting philosophy, and a distillation of much of what I had learned from him. Nick’s philosophy of painting, and the source of his success in Muddy River, lay in a dynamic recipe of several components: hard work and the state of preparedness hard work engenders; an absolute commitment to the terms of the instant; a willing embrace of the adventure and risks of the unknown; and a concomitant reliance on intuition to guide critical action when painting outside the provinces of acquired knowledge.
In stressing the importance of hard work, Nick insisted on the discipline of finishing every painting one began, however bad, or good. He once told me I ought to be “chained” to my easel, after I had abandoned a painting that was causing me too much pain and difficulty, and had gone to him for counsel and sympathy. When it came to matters of importance in painting—like finishing a painting, like pushing harder than one could possibly imagine to find and give shape to one’s subject—Nick was single-minded, hard-nosed, and a realist. He knew full well the inherent resistance of oil paint, that vexing, “oleous paste in its sticky inconvenience,” as Lawrence Gowing called it. He knew, also, the undercurrents of despair that accompany many artists’ realizations of the gap between their ambitions, on the one hand, and their actual achievements on their canvases, on the other. When, in no uncertain terms, he gave me to understand that the endeavor I had embarked upon as young painter would be unremittingly tough and full of setbacks, he was speaking from experience. He was also introducing me to the code and honor of being a painter.
Being a painter, he was saying, meant owning up to the privilege of contending with the struggles which shape and define one’s voice and one’s calling. Being a painter meant shouldering, proudly, and without expectation of outward recognition, an unconditional belief in the value of what one strives for in one’s work, and in the efforts needed to obtain it. Being a painter meant persevering in one’s darkest hours—the St. Crispin’s Eve many painters know—and believing, no matter how bad things look, that with faith in oneself, and with a new day approaching, one will find an answer. Such moral agency, as I found studying under Nick, had a profound impact upon me. It was one thing to study and learn the craft of painting in many of its objective manifestations. It was another to feel compelled by the greater purpose underlying it.
Like Cezanne, or FDR, Nick himself was a person of action, of doing, not of theories and speculation. He believed that finding one’s way to solutions and discoveries in painting was best facilitated through the only agency over which an artist has significant control: the production of a high volume of work. As his daughter, Katya—herself an artist and a keen and intimate witness to her father’s daily practice—once observed: “Creating a high volume of work…[was] for my father a moral obligation.” Of all the modern painters, I think, in this, Nick most resembled Cezanne. The image of his decades-long routine of setting out each day an hour before dawn in his oversized studio truck, so as to be on location and set up—his paint laid out, his brushes in hand—and poised to paint as the sun’s first rays broke upon his motif, mirrored Cezanne’s commitment and ultimate sacrifice.
Famously prodigious, Nick’s productivity in and for itself was not, of course, the goal or end-game of his practice. The goal of always producing was the state of readiness such practice produced. The goal was the greater potential for success that such conditioning made possible. Being prepared made more viable the chances of his succeeding when out on the frontiers of his own painting, where it mattered most, where there were no well-trodden roads, nor familiar stars to guide him. Nick painted for these moments. He trained for them, prepared for them and, when they arose, he was ready for them.
Through Nick I was thus exposed to a kind of painting that was geared to the uncharted, the unexplored. His was a kind of “frontier painting,” one which demanded of its practitioners a frontiersman-like preparedness and a come-what-may openness to whatever might lie ahead. I knew first-hand about improvisational modes of creating, about working extemporaneously with contingencies as they arose in real time. I had practiced and performed improvisationally for many years as a jazz string bassist. Nick’s approach mirrored for me also the openness of my setting out to travel years before without a set itinerary. It was an approach that did not prematurely foreclose upon the possibilities to be discovered by an overly determined agenda. It validated a way of thinking about painting where, as the Welsh novelist Gwyn Thomas put it: “The beauty is in the walking. We are betrayed by destinations.”
Nick did not teach painting as a performative art form in which something already known and mastered was simply repeated, however marvelous or accomplished such repetitions can sometimes be. Painting, as he taught it, was never about a particular “look” or brand or style. He taught painting as a performative art in that it was geared to the moment, to painting, literally, alla prima: at the first, at the beginning, before time. For me, Nick’s approach offered a compelling rebuttal to the notion that, as a human being, I wasn’t able to grasp my experience as it unfolded. In Nick I saw someone for whom action was more than a translation, a mere echo of the original. Even if one held to the absurdity of an instantaneous painting, Nick’s approach presented the possibility, at least, of narrowing the disconnect between language (whatever its form) and life. Such ideas would simmer and percolate and, years later, take on a critical role in my work as a painter.
The kind of time Nick painted in, and taught his students to pay attention to, was present time. One learned to respond to conditions before one, not as one would hope or wish or conceive of them to be, but, as immediate revelations. Even when I would sometimes return to a passage a fourth, a fifth time, in my efforts to get at something which eluded me, Nick urged me to approach that passage each time as at the beginning, as a vehicle for the exploration of the now. I learned that I wasn’t in front of my easel to “fix” things already made or given, but to discover them anew. In such a philosophy, each day is a new one. I wasn’t to be bothered or hampered by what went before. This was a progressive attitude, one which looked forward and was forward-looking. This was painting about the now, about one’s thoughts and feelings now, about the light in its particular aspect now, like his wind-blown highlight upon the Muddy River.
Painters paint as a condition of not knowing. This, at least, was one credo I took from Nick’s classes. I learned that I wasn’t in front of the easel to arrange or to construct meaning, but to discover it. Preempting craft (what I knew and could perform already) in the moment of a painting’s execution, was a requisite of painting in the moment, a requisite necessitated by the exigencies of the moment, when there simply wasn’t time to figure things out. When, however, having put out from safe harbor—from all that is known and familiar—and finding myself, as upon a wide open sea, “boldly launched upon the deep,” as the narrator in Moby Dick says of the Pequod, and “soon…lost in its unshored, harborless immensities,” I had better be ready. Nick, I would argue, in his best paintings—and as a condition of them—has thrived most on these moments of being “unshored” and “harborless,” and it is precisely at such moments that “willing,” funded by the preparedness, hard work and intuition underlying it, played its critical role.
In painting, as in all the arts, there are epiphanic moments: particular pieces or passages that stand out or rise above in an artist’s work. The promise such moments hold out is an important—perhaps the most important—ingredient that keeps the painter going to the next painting, and to the next: the idea, the feeling or hope, of breaking through. Nick’s attitude towards inspiration was emphatically unromantic. He knew there were no conjurer’s tricks, no incantations with which to summons the Muses. But he knew how to be ready for them if they arrived, and he knew how to trust his intuition as his guide. As Robert Frost once said, “You’ve got to act on insufficient knowledge. You’ve got to have that kind of courage.”
Larry Groff: In your essay, “Fluidity in Focus,” you discussed why it has been important for you to “forget what you know,” and engage directly with visual sensations, translating those sensations into color patches, and that you need to be in tune with the immediacy of the moment.
You stated that this “is an approach to painting based in finding rather than making, in perception rather than in preconception.”
Doesn’t “finding rather than making” also mean that plein air painting is just more fun than studio based, more purely conceptual work? Or, to put it another way, aren’t you saying that a big attraction to painting outdoors is the visual excitement of changing light and other surprises of nature that challenge you in a way that is more meaningful?
Christopher Chippendale: I see my work in a tradition of painting where the notion of forgetting plays an important role. In that tradition, forgetting is a technique employed by painters in the service of discovering things in an original way. It has an established history in the discourse of observational painting. Constable spoke of his desire to “forget that [he] had ever seen another picture.” Corot wrote of the need to “[detach] yourself completely from what you know,” and Monet told his student Lilla Cabot Perry to “forget what objects you have before you.” When Hawthorne taught students to translate objects into “spots” of tone-color, he added, “Don’t think of things as objects. Think of them as spots coming one against another.” He thereby encouraged students to forget what things were, while prompting them to consider what they saw solely in terms of the tone-color sensations that things presented. My own teacher, George Nick—himself a recipient of Hawthorne’s counsel as transmitted through his teacher, Edwin Dickinson—routinely doled out phrases like “forget what you know” and, borrowing from Mallarmé, “abstract your eye from memory.”
Each of the above utterances was shaped by the specific historical circumstances that gave rise to it. Taken together, however, they echo a consistent theme. For each of these painters, the idea of forgetting was an intentional strategy employed to help them disrupt the easy, homogenizing channels through which visual sensations were resolved by conventions and habits of mind into symbolic forms. The idea of forgetting, then, as I intend it, has been employed by generations of observational painters as a means to circumvent the familiar, culturally determined ways of looking at things, which dominate and make possible the normal conduct of our daily lives. It is the tyranny of such conventions and habits of seeing that these painters have sought to sidestep through the practice of forgetting.
As a tool of seeing, forgetting has an atomic interest; it is concerned with origins, with trying to locate and express the basis, or bottom, of what is perceived. Importantly, its use by painters presupposes a foundational trust in direct visual impressions as a basis for their work. Both “finding” and “making,” as I use these terms, relate directly to this notion of forgetting. Making concerns the execution of an idea, something determined beforehand. Finding, as I mean it here, presumes no such predetermination. One “finds” things precisely because one doesn’t expect to. The work of the finder is neither goal—nor destination—driven.
You ask me whether finding, rather than making, also means “that plein-air painting is just more fun than studio based more conceptual work.” In response, I want to acknowledge, first of all, that the terms of your question do not disguise your intent to be at least a little provocative. Painting out-of-doors, or anywhere else, as I’m sure you know, is not like going to the amusement park. I do, certainly, sometimes feel a special kind of excitement when painting out-of-doors in a direct, improvisational manner. My excitement is partially propelled, I think, by my feeling on some such occasions an evaporation of a barrier that I often feel separates me from the world. I put in abeyance my critical mind, my skepticism, my penchant to analyze, and give myself over as completely as possible to the process of painting. Perhaps the excitement of such moments is that, being completely absorbed in the moment, I lose all sense of time and, with it, all sense of my being a sentient creature in time’s passage. I forget, that is, my own mortality. Painting, in such moments, “outside of time,” I do sometimes feel as though I existed, not in mortal clock-time, but in the originating moment of the experience that I am simultaneously depicting.
To be clear, though, I don’t find painting out-of-doors to be in the least lacking in intellectual rigor, or in any way conceptually deficient, as your questions suggest. Those were the criticisms leveled against the Impressionists: that they were mere passive recorders, that they were sensual, anti-intellectuals, that their work lacked thought and planning, that, by accepted standards, it was formless, lax and without structure. Wherever I am painting, but in particular out of doors, I am engaged with a fundamental problem: that of trying to make sense of (that is to say, to make order of, to structure) a number of shifting, unstable variables of both an objective and subjective nature.
Standing before the easel, I am looking both for a synthesis of vision and a concurrent means of transposing to the canvas a representation that feels true to the changeable qualities and complexities of what I see. I am working with and against my own history as a painter in my efforts to see clearly and respond honestly to what is before me. I am working with and against the schemata of painting approaches of the past. I am letting myself go, one moment, reacting to the immediacy of my enterprise, and then checking myself, the next, stepping back from my easel, attempting to make sense of the interpretations I have set down upon my canvas. I am trying very hard to get at my subject, to determine what it is exactly that I am painting, all the while fabricating a form to express it. These are complex procedures, procedures of the mind as well as of the hand.
All that said, I think the “big attraction” for me in outdoor painting is its amplification of a fact that I find always present: that, try as I might to see or interpret the visual world as something fixed and finite, there is ultimately nothing ever stable or fixed about appearances, anywhere. Some situations (painting indoors or under controlled lighting) may offer the convenience of seeming to be unchanging, but all studio-based artists working perceptually know that the more you look at something the more you see, and there is simply no end to it. In conditions such as these, what becomes obvious is that it is not the motif that is changing, but the painter—his perceptions, his feelings and his projections upon the motif before him. Such changeability in the painter confirms the truth of what Zola meant when he wrote (in 1866): “A work of art is never anything but the combination of a man, the variable element, and nature, the fixed element” (my italics). This subjective and self-reflecting “variable element” in painting, and its relationship to the perceived world, is where many of my interests stem from in my work as an observational painter.
Larry Groff: Why is the painter’s experience before the sensations of nature so important? Why should we care about what some painter feels while painting outside?
Christopher Chippendale: I think the short answer to your first question is that we wouldn’t have art of any kind if we didn’t have artists’ experience, whether those experience were before “the sensations of nature,” as you put it, or before anything else. Speaking for myself, I cannot separate my experience from the work I produce. Yet I should say here, in answer to your second question, that I neither paint nor reflect upon my painting process in order to elicit interest in my painting experience. I paint and I reflect upon my process in order to get at my subject, to define it more clearly and—as far as may be—efficiently.
In this regard, I am not concerned if others care (or don’t care) about what I myself feel or experience when painting outside, or anywhere else. I am glad if people are interested in my paintings, but my efforts are not geared towards communicating my experience to others. My efforts are geared towards ascertaining what that experience is, what its perimeters are, what forms and aspects it takes, the colors it assumes. My focus is on what I see and on trying to get the stubborn paint to do what I want.
As I’ve suggested, perceptual painting for me is not a mimetic art form. I am not involved in copy work, but in trying to find and shape the right expression for my experience before the motif. I am not involved with copy work because there is never one thing for me to copy, any more than there is one fixed point in time, or one given form, or one given color. There are only forms and colors and experience that change and modulate the more I look at things, or the longer I do.
I am an observational painter. I am engaged with the art of trying to find and lay down upon my canvases accurate translations of what I see. I want to show how things really are, or how I experience them to be, yet how things are is attenuated by my awareness of their mutable character, and by the fact that my experience of them, as defined by the attributes of a particular moment, changes from one instant to the next. These changes may be generated from the outside (as by measurable shifts of light as occur when working out-of-doors) or from the inside (as by my changing moods or sensibilities) or by the simple fact that the more and longer I look at something the more I see. My experience, like my motif, is unfixed, variable and ongoing; it exists over time and, as such, it changes over time.
What is of consequence to me is not my experience but the work that arises from it, the achievements and qualities which that work shows. I am the ultimate arbiter of its success. I will look at my work and find that it either does or does not succeed in showing (according to my terms and understanding) how things really are, or how I need or want or them to be, in order to express what I am after. Usually—nine times out of ten—my work falls short, which keeps me going to the next painting, and to the next.
Larry Groff: Why is it important for the artist to paint what is “true”? Isn’t getting such things as the “right color” measured differently by each painter? That if Corot, Cezanne, Van Gogh all painted exactly the same scene, each would make a completely different painting, but all would be equally true?
Christopher Chippendale: The fact that the criteria of “what is true” is determined differently by each artist does not alter the importance of painting what is true, or of trying to do so. What is true is, after all, not a given. In the case of observational painting, determining what is true depends upon site-specific information and highly individualized processes and ways of seeing which are unique to each artist. Accordingly, we can appreciate work from a wide range of styles (you mention Corot, Cezanne, Van Gogh) without calling into question whether the work of one or another of these artists is more “true” than that of the others.
In the tradition in which I work, observational painters scrutinize the world that is immediately before them. They check and cross check like doubting Thomases what they see. They adopt a skeptical, circumspect eye both towards their own assumptions and towards appearances. They train themselves to let go of their acquired knowledge in the interest of seeing things “truly” as they are, without prejudice. And they do all this to establish, as unequivocally as possible, the terms of the particular truth of the particular painting before them. The British painter, Rodrigo Moynihan, put it this way, while considering (in a 1934 essay) the late work of Cezanne. In Cezanne’s scrutiny and approach, Moynihan recognized what he termed “that skepticism of the true ‘eye’ painter, whose creative spirit must proceed by assuming nothing in its search for a synthesis of vision, which, while not pretending to be absolute, is true under the particular laws which govern it.” Not absolute, but true under the particular laws which govern it. That, to me, seems like a pretty good recipe for one’s goals for a painting. Such an approach necessitates, Moynihan goes on to say, “The visual attitude in painting, as opposed to the conceptual or idealistic [one] and… the artist… directed not to the perfection of a pre-conceived form but by the appearance of his painting.”
Most of the problems with the concept of “truth” for observational painters (as for everyone else) stem from its appropriation as an absolute concept. Even your phrase, “paint what is true” carries an overtone of a compunction to paint something already determined, something fixed and established, as though “what is true” were some fixed notion existing independent of the painter’s efforts to determine it. For some—for those who hold “the conceptual or idealistic” attitude towards painting—“what is true” is in fact a fixed, preexisting notion, to whose standards they feel their work should conform. From my point of view, what is true does not exist independent of my efforts to determine it.
Ideas of truth in observational painting, at both the institutional and individual levels, are not sacrosanct, irreproachable, singular, beyond question. Most histories of painting tell a history of orthodoxies of truth and of challenges to those orthodoxies. The most famously quoted modern example was the institutionalized painting of the French academy and the Impressionists’ reaction to that orthodoxy. The same kind of struggle, between the purveyors of institutionalized ideas of truth and those marginalized by those hegemonies, continues today. In the field of representational painting, for example, a monopoly of today’s curators, galleries, art theorists and graduate painting programs have preferred on the whole to follow the trend of championing a kind of painting based on the meanings of represented subject matter, rather than on how things are made. Understandably, this does not sit well with those observational painters for whom the emphasis of their art remains upon the how of painting as a primary means of expression. As Andrew Forge said of Monet’s later work: “To unravel its meaning is in a sense to enter into its making.”
We are surrounded at every moment by institutions, sciences, policies, schools, religions that have either set themselves up in the name of “truth,” or claim to speak in its name. Such a proliferation of “the truth” or of “true discourse” (oral, visual, what have you) has had a pronounced effect upon us. “We must speak the truth,” Foucault said, adding, “We are constrained or condemned to confess or to discover the truth.” Foucault’s larger concern was the analysis of power. Who sets the standards of truth? Who are the purveyors of truth? What relations of power are involved in the production of discourses of truth? Observational painters, including the schools and spokespersons for the particular styles or brands of observational painting, do not operate independently from this will to truth, nor from the powers it serves. We all have a stake in it, and our individual practices are implicated by it. We understand the social construction of the individual today much more than we did a generation or two ago. One of our obligations as individual painters, I believe, is to identify and question the standards and ideas of truth that our own work serves.]]>
Lois Dodd has been painting her everyday surroundings for sixty years. Her current exhibition, from February 26 through April 4, 2015 at the Alexandre Gallery in NYC shows twenty-four recent small-scaled paintings that depict familiar motifs such as gardens, houses, interiors and views from windows. Dodd, now eighty-seven, is an iconic figure of the early New York Tenth Street art scene, along with her contemporaries, such as Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein. The Alexandre Gallery has the current exhibition online as well as many earlier works for view that you can view from this link.
The late painter Will Barnet talked about Lois Dodd in an interview with Barbara O’Brien. (From the Kemper Museum catalog, Lois Dodd Catching the Light)
…”What she has is something that belongs to the language of painting that actually only a very few artists really understand and know about. She has that feeling that the flatness of the canvas, and the verticality or the horizontality has to be met in a certain dynamic way. And she can arrange her forms so that the verticals become alive in relationship to the horizontal. So there is a certain wedding of the two. And so her work has a structure that you miss in most painters. In other words, you have a feeling of solidity and that the forms really belong to each other, where they’re in the distance or in the front. They combine in such a way that they come together and form a whole picture, and that’s what is exciting about—one of the exciting things—Lois.” –Will Barnet
With a career that spans six decades, Dodd is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Academy of Design, and a past member of the board of governors for the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Among many honors, she recently was awarded the Benjamin West Clinedinist Memorial Medal in 2007 from the Artists’ Fellowship, Inc. and Cooper Union’s Augustus Saint-Gaudens Award for professional achievement in art in 2005. Her works can be found in museums, including the Portland Museum of Art, Maine and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, among others.
The excellent catalog, Lois Dodd Catching the Light can be purchased from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art from this link. This catalog is from her Kemper Museum retrospective where more than fifty paintings were shown from 1955 to 2010.
I wish to thank both Lois Dodd for agreeing to the phone conversation and for her time and thoughtfulness with answering my questions and to share her experience and ideas with our readers.
I would also like to thank Elizabeth O’Reilly for the many ways she helped make this possible.
Larry Groff: Do you spend a lot of time looking and thinking about the subject before you start to paint?
Lois Dodd: It’s more about what I see when I’m walking around looking for something. Then after that it a matter of what size I want to work with and the proportion it will fit into. Then I try to isolate something that would make a good painting, a good subject. I look through my pile of gessoed panels that are different sizes and different proportions. They are all rectangles or squares and I always take a few of those when I go out so I have a variety of panels to choose from because that is the first decision. If you’re looking at something you want to paint and it looks exciting, the lighting is good and then you have to decide what size what shape of a panel will it fit onto; you ask yourself, is it a horizontal thing or vertical or square. Those are the first choices.
LG: How do you start a painting? Do you make studies or thumbnails first? Do you use a viewfinder of some sort?
LOIS DODD: I don’t really use a viewfinder but I can put my hands up to frame the view or something like that. I don’t make thumbnail sketches, I’m more interested in starting right on the panel. I start with thinned out yellow paint and draw with the brush. So it’s pretty minimal, general and not tight. You asked me if I scrape off, I don’t use a scraper but I don’t use heavy paint either I really paint rather thinly so we never get to the point where I can scrape. But if I don’t like what I’ve done I can rub it off with a rag with turpentine and rub it all around and then I have a nice colored ground to work into that I can use.
LG: When you find the motif that interests you; do you form the composition in your mind before you start? Or is it something that evolves from your prolonged looking at the thing?
LOIS DODD: I do see a geometric breakdown of space of the rectangle so it has an underlying geometric structure so that is pretty basic to what I’m looking at.
LG: but the rest of it: the color scheme, the mood, the positions of things; they sort of evolve?
LOIS DODD: No, the position of things, that configuration, is what attracts me and what I find exciting to begin with, so I don’t move things around. They’re either already where I want them or I might get up and move my chair and easel, it might be a little better a couple feet this way or that way. What I’m looking at more or less dictates the composition. I don’t really take any liberties with the subject, if it’s no good to begin with, that’s it.
LG: Do you measure things to get everything right in terms of the relationships between things?
LOIS DODD: No, Did you see that film about that painter in Madrid, Antonio Lopez Garcia? Speaking of measuring?
LG: Victor Erice’s Dream of Light http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_of_Light
LOIS DODD: Yes, do you remember where he’s standing in front of the tree and marking where his feet are going to be and where the leaves are and all of that? I’m certainly not doing that but I’ll move few inches this way or that before I start if I don’t like what I’m getting at. Standing or sitting down makes a big difference too. Once my position is set it’s usually fine.
LG: So it isn’t as important for you to pursue getting the underlying grid of horizontal and vertical geometric relationships? Is it more that you want to get the overall feeling or pictorial expression of the thing you first saw, your first impression of why you were attracted to the motif?
LOIS DODD: Yes. It’s the way the light is hitting the subject and is creating the composition. The big thing is my paintings are done in one sitting; partly because of the light and partly because of the weather. I can only be there a couple of hours because after that the light changes the whole composition. The sun will have moved and everything is different in two or three hours so my paintings needs to be done in that time.
LG: Do you use larger brushes and smooth surfaces so you can work quickly and broadly?
LOIS DODD: My panels are up to 15 by 20 inches or smaller panels that are 12 by 18 or 12 by 12. I have a whole pile of gessoed panels, they’re not huge, 20 inches is largest I would go, as larger Masonite panels tend to warp or be weird. They aren’t reliable when they get too big. Once the painting is bigger I paint on linen.
LG: You also work on aluminum panels?
LOIS DODD: The little tiny ones are aluminum step flashing that you can get in the hardware store.
LG: Step flashing? I’m not familiar with that.
LOIS DODD: Step flashing is for putting flashing down the bottom of a chimney where it goes under the roofing material to keep water out. That’s what they’re made for and they come in these really small sizes. You can buy big bundles of the stuff for very little money.
LG: What a great idea! Do you gesso these?
LOIS DODD: It’s a very good idea. I sand them like mad because I think they’re too smooth and then I gesso them.
LG: What kind of gesso do you use?
LOIS DODD: I use Liquitex usually. Step Flashings are very convenient when you see something and you’ve got 20 minutes. I do a lot of them at night when the moon is full.
LG: You must simplify things a great deal to get everything in one sitting.
LOIS DODD: Of course, I’m not looking for details or surface description that’s for sure. But I am looking for the light, how it hits volumes. I am looking for the light and the color.
LG: Is what you’re looking at the main concern or do you also think about how other art might relate to your scene? For instance, if you were painting a scene and thought ‘this reminds me of an Arthur Dove painting’ or someone like that would you ever push it in that direction a little? Or does all that great art history in your head come through more intuitively?
LOIS DODD: I think so, sometimes you see things that are like somebody else’s painting so you stay away from it. Have you ever had that experience where you think, ‘oh my god this looks like something so-and-so would paint’? So I’m not painting it. It’s somebody else’s subject matter.
LG: Interesting. So you wouldn’t want to do your take on that subject?
LOIS DODD: Well, if you don’t notice that it’s someone else’s subject, definitely, you’re always doing your own take. Sometimes I see things that looks like other people’s paintings but that’s not interesting to me to begin with. It’s not for me.
LG: What tends to grab you most as worthy subject for a painting? For instance you’ve painted windows for a long time.
LOIS DODD: That’s true; I’m still painting windows. This winter I’ve been doing a lot of painting out the window because of the weather and the window structure is so nice, you’ve got this perfect Mondrian construction there in front of you. Windows are a great device and are endlessly fascinating. I do go back to them from time to time.
LG: When you’re working on a painting is there a point that you arrive when you know this is exactly what you want and the painting is done or is it more like the time is up and this is what I’ve accomplished. Do you adjust it once back in your studio or do you not touch it? How do you determine when the painting is finished?
LOIS DODD: Usually when I put the last stroke down it’s done. There is nothing more to say; there is nothing more to put down. It’s pretty clear. It’s not a problem of when to stop; if I start dickering around with details I know that ok “you’ve gone over the top, now you got to stop”.
I was doing portraits for a couple of years of friends, they weren’t really portraits, I thought of them as heads. I wouldn’t want to promise anybody I could paint his or her portrait. In the process of doing that, I would work for a couple of hours and I would have my painting and I would think I could really perfect this now if I worked on it longer. But if I did that it would no longer be my painting, it would be fixing my painting. It would be repairing, trying to improve and that doesn’t really work. The minute I start doing that it starts taking apart or destroying what I already had to say. So it doesn’t work, for me. The work ethic is not a good ethic is what I’m trying to say.
LG: You qualify that by saying “for me”, another painter who might obsessively revise and repaint you might not have a problem with? You might still like their work?
LOIS DODD: Oh yes. Sure. I think it’s a mystery. Every artist works so differently out of something so different. It’s very hard to understand what even your best friends, what they’re doing and how they got their palette, and how they selected the color. The whole thing is always a big mystery. But you can certainly enjoy and appreciate what other people do. What I envy are people that ladle the paint on thickly and juicily. I see that and think that’s so gorgeous, just look at the paint quality. But here I am with my thin paint and the idea of putting on a second coat on my painting would ruin it. It would shut out the light. I get a certain amount of light that is coming back from the white gesso panel , it comes through the painting. If I go back and put more than one coat then you’re suddenly in the position of having to paint light into surfaces. It is a completely different process and that just doesn’t work for me.
LG: I’ve read you don’t like setting up still lifes and prefer to find things as they naturally occur. With this in mind I’m curious about your thoughts on Morandi. His carefully arranged still lifes have a pictorial genius that would seem to have many affinities with your work especially with regards to intimacy, simplicity and directness of organization. His landscapes could almost be considered found still lifes from nature.
Has his paintings ever been influential to you? What can you say about his work?
LOIS DODD: Morandi hasn’t been an influence on me but I love his painting; they’re wonderful, so amazing, they are surprises every time. I’ve looked at his landscapes and I think their influence is in keeping it flat, keeping it simple. That seems to be the message in his landscapes. All of his paintings are wonderful but he’s probably not the person who has been that influential to me.
LG: Who would be influential?
LOIS DODD: That’s a good question. I look at all the American landscape painters but I probably look even more at the abstract landscape people. Like Arthur Dove and John Marin. I look at a lot of stuff. I don’t feel like I’m besotted with anybody that I would try to imitate what they do. I don’t think that is a good idea to be totally in love with so-and-so’s painting. No matter what you do, you have to make your own stuff. Influences are great but they’re not too useful really.
LG: But perhaps you would be influenced by the issues other painters were exploring? For instance, Cezanne, you might not be interested in painting like him but you might be interested in what he was thinking about?
LOIS DODD: I don’t know what he was thinking about. I have no idea what he was thinking about! (laughs) He definitely was an influence, especially when I was first out of art school. I think we all looked at Cezanne, he was perhaps the biggest influence for landscape. Between him and Picasso. When I graduated from art school Picasso was the big person who influenced everything that was going on. Back then there was Cezanne and Matisse. There are so many good painters. It was French painting that people looked at most. I remember the galleries uptown when I was in art school; the few galleries there were basically showing French impressionist paintings. The big move to open galleries came sometime in the fifties.
LG: You were one of the founders of the influential Tanager Gallery, one of the first artist coop galleries around Tenth St. Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Fred Mitchell, Lester Johnson were among the many artists who showed there. These galleries were influential as they gave opportunities for a wider variety of art to be seen than just what was seen in the more conservative 57th street area galleries.
It must have been exciting with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Milton Resnick having studios nearby and where many younger artists sought them out at the nearby Cedar Tavern. Alice Neel, Paul Georges, Lester Johnson, Al Held and many others were showing in the various other coop galleries that started there soon after yours. The art critic Harold Rosenberg, wrote in 1959, said that the purpose of the “the art colony on Tenth Street’ was to “transmute the ranks established by social class into a hierarchy based on talent or daring.”
I’m curious to hear what that time was like for you. Can you share a memory of one of your more influential meetings or events with some of the luminaries of that era?
LOIS DODD: As you say it was a very exciting time, we were running our own show, so to speak and made a gallery out of it. We first started on Fourth Street and were there about a year. It was a tiny place. Then a friend told us about a space on Tenth St that was bigger so we moved. Around the same time other galleries began opening. The Hansa Gallery opened and gradually the block filled up with galleries, even around the corner. There was a lot of going back and forth to the galleries and the activity of people going in and out and talking about the art. It was a very social scene for about ten years there, from 1952 to 62.
The Tanager was there from ’52 to ’62, other galleries came a little later and lasted longer. There is nothing there now; it is very close to where I live so I walk through that block every so often. It’s unbelievable how it has completely become another place.
LG: How would you compare the co-op galleries that exist today in Chelsea with the original co-ops from back then?
LOIS DODD: We closed up after ten years because it looked like the galleries uptown were beginning to look at our generation of people. A number of the people that were a part of our group got themselves uptown galleries. We started asking why are we doing all this work, painting the floor, painting the walls, keeping the door open and tending to this place when it looked like the world was opening up and we could all get galleries for ourselves and not have to do all this work. So we closed up. But actually, newer co-ops opened within seven or eight years. I think the uptown gallery scene wasn’t all that great as it turned out and people did the co op galleries all over again.
The thing is there are never enough galleries and if you want to have a show and you know other people in the same situation you can try to do it yourself. That was an exciting time. People came there and talked about stuff. The artist’s club was nearby. We used to have openings on Friday nights and then people would tend to go to the club and hear the panels. So the whole thing was a real community effort.
The art world was smaller back then. In the end you knew every artist in New York City except maybe for the uptown-type people. That was a different world.
LG: The Cedar Tavern was nearby I’ve read, did you meet a lot of the personalities that went there, like de Kooning?
LOIS DODD: They had studios in the same block we had the gallery in. I never went to the Cedar Street Bar myself but we saw them in the galleries. All those people would visit.
LG: Were they open to talking to young painters?
LOIS DODD: Oh sure. Sure. Guston was around before he moved upstate. Franz Kline was there some. de Kooning moved out to the country at a certain point. At least before they became really famous. I think the trouble started when their paintings became worth real money and had uptown galleries and then the evils of jealousy and backbiting entered the picture. And you would see some people not being very happy about other people’s success and the like. But up to a point it was great.
It was always interesting but by ’62 we felt like we’ve done this long enough and we don’t need it anymore so we stopped then. But the next generation had the same problem, they again started a number of co-ops and their co-ops, interestingly enough, are still in existence over in Chelsea. The ones in Chelsea now started up probably in SoHo, The First Street Gallery was originally down at First Street on the Bowery. The Bowery gallery likewise, they were both down near Houston Street on the Bowery. They’ve been in existence a very long time. They started when the members were just out of art school and set up these places. Of course it’s been so long there are other people who are in these galleries now. There is still a real need for co-op galleries.
LG: I was recently in Chelsea and saw many of the galleries. I came away thinking that a large percentage of the work I saw then seemed to have a commercial appeal, seemingly chosen for its marketability or because of fashion. But the co-op galleries this seemed less so. Maybe the paintings there had a more uneven quality but it didn’t have the same commercial appeal.
LOIS DODD: Yes, you’re absolutely right.
LG: I’m curious if you might have anything to say about that? Seems to me that great painting comes more from a freedom to experiment and being about the art rather than just how well will it sell.
LOIS DODD: Many of the galleries in Chelsea are there to be a business. What sells is what they are going to show. That’s something else and has another motivation.
LG: It’s sad though because so many of these sellable paintings have a kind of slickness that is off-putting.
LOIS DODD: Probably a lot of students go to art school with the thought that they can make a living doing art and if they get into that, maybe they can make a living for awhile, but then the fashion in art can change and things aren’t so certain. If you’re in it for the long haul, and get something out of it for yourself. Which is why we do it, then you’ll keep doing it. There are all kinds of art in this world. There is art and then there is painting. I sometimes think it’s split now. There is the “Artworld” that has all this really hot stuff and it isn’t all painting, in fact most of it isn’t painting. There is a lot of other kinds of stuff now. Then there is the world of painters who as always are a kind of medieval group doing their medieval thing and getting something out of it.
LG: I’ve often thought it would be a good idea to start a secessionist movement for painters to get out of the artworld! But people tell me I’m crazy
LOIS DODD: (laughs) There is the art world and there’s painting world and it is two different worlds I agree with you. It’s totally another thing.
LG: Well, it’s what we have so I guess we have to work with it.
LOIS DODD: It’s what we have. Exactly.
LG: Many early Abstract Expressionists, such as de Kooning, Pollack, Kline and Rothko had strong traditional skills. How important is being able draw and paint representationally to the making of great art?
LOIS DODD: I don’t think it’s that important that you can draw and paint representationally to make great art. Think of all the great geometric art that exists in the world, the total abstract stuff that there is and it has nothing to do with representing the figure. I’m not so sure that that’s it. It still is a great thing to be studying. The fact of being able to do that is quite wonderful.
I think that sometimes people come out of art schools thinking that they are going to make a living maybe. Maybe that’s what the art schools are after now. They don’t even seem to teach the Bauhaus basic design stuff anymore. Which is what I was getting at Cooper Union when I attended there, they had a basic design course and it was based on the Bauhaus. You came out of school with a vocabulary about line, shape, form and color. All those thing have been separated out now so it is more difficult to study the vocabulary of art and put it together into a painting. The Bauhaus people invented this wonderfully useful thing to study, what, this visual vocabulary. Very good stuff, which I’m not sure is being taught as much anymore.
LG: From what I understand the emphasis is more on art theory.
LOIS DODD: Oh, we’re going to talk art now. Not do it, just talk about it. I’ve always wondered about that. I’m too much of a cave-woman type person to go for that. If you’re working with your hands, we’re hand-workers and you use your head too, of course, but you can’t just use your head; where’s the joy in that for a painter? I guess there is if you’re a theoretician and you’re going to write it down but then you’re a writer that’s not a painter. Maybe that’s an artist, maybe that’s what art is now, right? A discipline for theoreticians.
LG: Sometimes the explanatory text label is more important than the work itself.
LOIS DODD: Remember that period awhile ago, a short movement, where that kind of art was popular, what was that called? Where you just read the art that was on the wall.
LG: With like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger and all those people?
LOIS DODD: Right.
LG: I forget what it was called. I was never very interested in that. One thing you said a minute ago that caught my attention was the word joy.
LOIS DODD: I said that?
LG: (laughs) You said it the context of saying what is the joy in that… I think that is an important thing, there doesn’t seem to be as much interest in joy so much. Or beauty. It’s more about irony or heavy, grim, psycho-sexual, socio-political kinds of issues and there isn’t much room for beauty and joy. I suppose that would be consider passé or sentimental. The whole visual joy one gets from looking at good painting is lost. Is there any fix to that?
LOIS DODD: I don’t know either. Maybe it’s just how much of it you need as a person. Maybe it’s all very individual. Some people seem to get painting and some people don’t see it anyway, they could be surrounded by paintings and don’t really get it. Other people do. It’s an odd trait and it’s not universal. The trait of the visual thing of being able to relate the visual stuff in a way that seems to speak to you.
LG: Do you think that people get it naturally or do they have to study it first?
LOIS DODD: I think it is a natural thing, I remember once I had a painting and a woman who was passing by and saw the painting and really seemed to get it, a sudden reaction. Other people wouldn’t react at all. I think it’s almost physical.
LG: Sometimes I think people just don’t get enough exposure to learning about art in schools anymore, less exposure to art history in a meaningful way.
LOIS DODD: That’s probably true.
LG: But on the other hand people do naturally respond to great things. They see a great painting, like one of your paintings next to something like text art or video and it’s a totally different feeling. It might be intellectually engaging but it doesn’t give you that astonishment, that visual joy or magic.
Do you feel optimistic about painting?
LOIS DODD: Yes, I do. Look at cave art. Human beings can’t stop doing it. There is always somebody making something. It could go through a low period maybe. No, I don’t think it dies. I don’t think it can. There are always a certain number of people who are just going to have to paint. They have to. I don’t see how it could die.
It’s funny, one time I was over at the Studio School and ran into a woman in the hallway who had just enrolled there and she said that she already had a degree but whatever school she went to they were up to the minute and it was all computers and she hadn’t had a chance to paint and she was dying to try to paint. So she came to the New York Studio School. There are people who just have to try it, have to get into it. I think it must be pretty basic stuff.
LG: It’s a good remedy for many of the world’s ills. It gives you a reason to live.
LOIS DODD: That’s true!
LG: Everything else takes on a secondary importance if you have a great painting you’re working on. Who cares if you have or don’t have all this stuff if you have a good painting?
LOIS DODD: It puts it all in proportion doesn’t it? It makes you able to face whatever it is better after you’ve had a painting session.
LG: Right! Absolutely. You can get all bent out of shape over the headlines in the newspaper but then think “there isn’t much I can do about that” but I do have my painting, I can do something about that. That makes for a great quality of life that can maybe make up for the fact nobody buys your paintings and you live like a homeless person…
LOIS DODD: Yes! Oh god… (laughs) hold on to that thought.
LG: You taught painting at Brooklyn College from 1971 to 1992. How much has what you taught to students affected your own painting and conversely to what extent do you try to teach your own approach to painting to the students?
LOIS DODD: I taught at Brooklyn College for 25 years. I didn’t try to teach my own approach to painting. It wasn’t convenient when your teaching in a college, for the most part we were in a room and I paint outside. There weren’t many opportunities to ask the students to go and buy setups like folding French easels and take them outside. I didn’t do that so it was a completely different experience in the classroom. However it was good, I enjoyed teaching. It was more to try and figure out what they needed not that they should learn to paint like me, which they weren’t going to anyway. They all had their own selves to work on. I wasn’t trying to push my approach. A few people really wanted to do that, a couple of the graduate students that are friends, who I paint with now.
LG: Like Elizabeth O’Reilly?
LOIS DODD: Yes, like Elizabeth. That’s where I met Elizabeth in the MFA program. There are people like that, who keeps in touch. But otherwise I didn’t want them all to be painting like me, that doesn’t seem like a good plan at all. In a way maybe you have more to teach when you teach somebody to paint exactly what you’re doing. Then they can reject it. I don’t know, it’s always been a question in my mind but it’s not my inclination to do that.
LG: What advice would you give a younger painter today?
LOIS DODD: Today there are artists and there are painters. They are two different things and you ought to understand that before you get into it. Artists are not limited to paint, the way painters are. They can do anything they want just about and call it art. It’s a big wide field. But painters are involved in this ancient craft that keeps going on. But I don’t know what advice I’d give anybody. It’s a hard thing to do. If you have to do it, you have to do it. That’s your problem you know? If you have to be a painter you’re going to get the satisfaction out of it that we all get out of it. And you’re going to get the frustration that we all get. And you’re going to have to figure out some other way to make a living. I guess my advice is to figure out some way to make a living.
LG: There are so many people who assume they’ll get a job teaching or something but it’s hard to do
LOIS DODD: There aren’t that many jobs. That’s hard to find.
LG: They don’t always want to hire painters in the art programs either; they often prefer to hire ‘artists’.
LOIS DODD: Yes, Nowadays that is true. Right.
LG: I understand that for many schools the Studio time the students get is much less. They want to have more lectures and fit in more with the academic environment.
LOIS DODD: Right, they want to build up their brains.
LG: I imagine it’s more expensive, it’s likely cheaper to have an adjunct teacher lecturing than it is to fund a whole studio. I don’t know but what that’s going to mean. Before it was almost mandatory you had to go to art school on some level but now it seems such a dicey proposition to shell out 80 or 100 grand for art school and when you come out with such debt, and perhaps not even learning how to really paint on top of that!
LOIS DODD: I don’t know, it really is a strange time.
LG: Have you given workshops?
LOIS DODD: I was doing some up in Maine at Rock Garden Inns. There were people that would come there that wanted to paint outside. So I got invited. Every week they would have another artist come and paint with the people there. So I was doing that for a week in September. That was very enjoyable.
LG: Do you think people can really learn painting through that?
LOIS DODD: Usually they are older ladies who are doing it on their vacation or whatever. They are serious but they also have another life. They can’t dump that life to become a painter. There is no way for the people to give it all up to become painters. It’s a good question but I don’t know what’s going to happen. Whether people will just go study with other painters or maybe the schools will turn around and start going back.
People are still painting at places like the Studio School that is full of painters and drawers. Painting and Drawing that’s basically what they do. And there are some good ones there too. There are a few places but you’d have to know where they are and find yourself getting there.
Lois Dodd talking about her paintings in a 2007 video by Bill Maynes
courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York
courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York]]>
Corot’s view of Civita from Terrano
I recently decided return to Civita Castellana Italy for my third time, this summer (2015) I’m planning to go for the artist residency for six weeks with the JSS in Civita. At first I was unsure I would could afford it but the rewards were so great from my previous visits that I made it a priority and it is starting to come together. Making this a priority lead to brainstorming ways I might get the funds for the airfare, residency and other expenses. I have a crowdsourcing idea that I will be announcing very soon.
The Deadline for the Avigdor Arikha Memorial Scholarship is almost here The Application deadline is February 28th, 2015 This scholarship is merit-based and is for four weeks of Master Class studies at the JSS in Civita Summer Art School & Residency in Italy the Scholarship recipient to be announced March 2nd, 2015
Full information and registration for the 2015 summer session in Civita Castellana is available on the JSS in Civita website. The JSS in Civita website has a wealth of information and images about every conceivable issue with regard to the program and traveling to Civita.
This summer should prove to be an incredible experience with the amazing painter Ann Gale who is the guest of honor this year. I recently interviewed Ann Gale which you can read at this link This incredible opportunity to take a workshop with Ann Gale should not be missed. The review of her latest show in Hyperallergic by John Yau is another insightful discussion of her painting which you can read here.
Replaying my memories of Civita’s unforgettable views isn’t enough to sustain me, I need the real experience again to recharge my creative batteries. For centuries painters have also felt this need to come to Civita, drawn to the visual magic of the Roman Campagna. Civita had been a central location for Grand Tour open air landscape painting for painters; Corot, Ingres, Turner, Granet, Michallon, Valenciennes, Dughet, Bertin all painted here. Many of Corot’s best Italian paintings were made in the nearby vicinity and Corot made Civita his home base (you can see the ruins of the hotel where Corot stayed here in Civita).
Of course you can find wonderful places to paint right outside your door and great painting doesn’t require achingly beautiful vistas for success. For me the great visuals of the town and countryside are just one part of the appeal. Of course the powerful art of the Romans, Giotto, Piero, Masaccio, Caravaggio, Morandi and the many other great artists in Italy’s fabulous museums and churches also never ceases to inspire and inform. What makes the JSS in Civita so special is the combination of not just the visuals and art history but the gathering of so many terrific painters in one place to learn and socialize together.
There is an uncountable number of masterpieces and great museums, enough for a lifetime of study. The JSS in Civita rents buses for weekly trips to various locations in Rome, Florence, Naples for the Archaeological Museum and the incomparable Pompeii frescoes, Bologna for the Morandi Museum and the Piero della Francesca tour which included Urbino, Arrezo and Sansepolcro.
The center of Civita Castellana, where the hotel and school are located, is a 3000 year old town, the capital of the pre-roman Faliscan people. A few steps from the hotel brings you to a the edge of a steep gorge that looks out over the incredible Monte Soratte. Civita seems to have been built for painters.
Unlike many other towns that are on the tourist circuit, Civita is inexpensive friendly and authentic. There are no ugly hordes of tourists madly photographing and pillaging souvenir shops before getting back on the cruise ship. The town is peaceful, where you can walk uninterrupted through narrow medieval cobblestone streets lined with building that have hardly changed since Corot’s time here.
The old town sits on a boat-shaped plateau that overlooks steep gorges where it’s distinctive orangish tufa that Corot painted so well pokes through the vegetation in fascinating configurations. You can easily reach the edges of the city on foot and nearly everywhere you look opens up to astonishing vistas. If the city itself isn’t enough, the JSS in Civita arranges transportation to nearby villages for additional painting vistas. Just when you think it can’t get any better; the school sets up short trips to paint views in place like: from on top of Monte Sorratte in Sant Oreste, the aqueducts at Nepi, or the incredible gorges at Castel Sant’elia. If you haven’t already seen them, you can see several images and video footage of these sites in my video that I put at the end of this article.
There are two train stations and it is very easy to get to Rome in back for the day. The fare is very cheap and only an hour and a half to Rome. There are several great restaurants in addition to the meals provided by the program ranging everything from the cheap and fast to elaborate gourmet affairs. I plan to buy my food in the local market and cook most of my meals to help reduce the cost. There are many farmer’s markets with fresh, local produce as well as a terrific bakery and cheese store.
The group suppers at the hotel are excellent and they also have weekly dinners for the whole program attendees at different restaurants – often with an excellent menu involving several courses which starts around 8pm and last well into the evening with lively conversation. In the center of town there are a couple of nightclub/coffeshop places in which you can relax and socialize in the evening by an ancient fountain with other students along with the townspeople over wine, coffee and gelato while making use of the free WiFi.
The art and people of Civita Castellana and Italy is more than reason enough to return but my main feeling in joining the JSS in Civita again is the hope that being around so many other terrific painters will continue to push my work further. I’ve been painting for over 30 years, although many times work and life interrupted my painting life. I’ve now gotten to a point where I can focus on my painting more or less full-time. My study at the program in Civata, especially with getting feedback from Israel Hershberg in his Master Class has been invaluable in getting greater clarity and fresh insight into my work from the point of view of one of the world’s greatest living landscape painters. I’ve said before and I will repeat here that studying with Israel Hershberg is the closest a painter today could come to studying with Corot.
Painting is best started in early morning when there were cooler temperatures and the light was best, mid-day was often too hot to be painting and that’s when we met for the daily critique. Most of the town’s stores closed mid-day and everyone took it easy. Around 4pm life started back up and people resumed their paintings until dark.
JSS in Civita offers the option for a private studio space at least two studio areas fairly close to the hotel and in the center of the town. I’ve heard these spaces offer terrific light and is a great way to escape the hot sun and to work in privacy.
Affiliate workshops by many leading painters with a wide variety of approaches and styles for a full listing see this page on the JSS in Civita’s site, below are links to the affiliate workshops with links to thier individual webpages and individual course descriptions on the JSS in Civita site.
Video overview of the Jerusalem Studio School Summer Program in Civita Castellana, Italy in 2013.
Video produced by Larry Groff, interviews with Israel Hershberg, Yael Scalia, Tina Engels.
HD video – best seen in full screen!
I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth O’Reilly by video skype and email and would like to thank Elizabeth for her generosity with her time and energies with this interview. Elizabeth O’Reilly shows at the George Billis Gallery in NYC, NY and her tenth solo show there is planned for October 2015.
Larry Groff: You studied to be a teacher in Ireland before you went to art school and moved to the United States. What led you to become a painter?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Drawing and Painting were a constant in my life since I was a little girl. My mother died when I was three years old, and my father had already left for work in the US, so 8 of the 9 children were placed in State Schools in Dublin. The State Schools were basically orphanages, and we were placed there even though my father was alive. He stayed in the US until he retired. In the school there was a seamstress who made uniforms and all the clothing we needed. She said I would sit beside her while she was sewing and I would draw with pins on her pincushion. It drove her crazy. But that’s how far back my urge to draw was commented upon. Painting and drawing were the things I got attention for all the way through school. Praise was thin on the ground, so it meant a lot to be singled out for my artwork.
The State Schools were closed down when I was ten and one of my sisters and I were sent to a regular boarding school at that point. There was an art room and an art teacher, and that’s where I spent my free time. My dream was to go to art school. My portfolio was accepted and I got a place. There were only two art schools in Dublin, and maybe three in the entire country at that time, so it was a big deal to be accepted. Reality hit though and I knew I couldn’t attend as I had no money. Teacher Training college was completely subsidized, and I had the grades, so I had to settle for that. I was heart-broken. I graduated and taught at the elementary level in Dublin. I always took art classes at night and on the weekends. I studied watercolor, and drew onsite at various locations in Dublin, and made color and value notes, and painted the cityscapes in class from my notes and sketches.
I continued teaching and my boyfriend moved to the US in the mid 80’s in the last recession. I had the option of taking a career break, so that I could leave my job for up to five years and still have it back at the end of that time. I followed him to Brooklyn, and taught on the lower East Side for 3 years. That job got us our green cards, and eventually citizenship. I took a teaching job in a private school in Park Slope where I was living.
I took art classes at the Art Students League on Saturdays while teaching school Monday to Friday. I took a painting class at night at Brooklyn College in the Continuing Ed program, and decided to apply to the MFA Program, even though my undergraduate degree was in Education. My teacher there, Sam Gelber, was very supportive and said he would back me up. He knew I was serious about my painting. One professor dashed my hopes as I didn’t have the undergrad credits I needed, but I don’t know what inspired me to go to the art office to plead my case. I spoke with Joe Groell. For some reason, he chose to give me a chance. Last year I ran into him at an opening in the city, and I walked over to him and said, “I don’t know if you remember me but you helped me when I tried to get into the MFA Program at Brooklyn College. I didn’t have the credentials, but you supported me. You changed my life, and I wanted to say thank you.” He said, “I remember you. My wife and I had just been to Ireland. There was something about you….” And his voice trailed off.
While I was talking to Joe Groell back in the art office Lois Dodd walked in, so I met her also. We chatted briefly, and she was also willing to give me a chance, and now I had three people backing me, and I was accepted into the program. That was my big break. It’s amazing what can happen when you show your face. That’s a big life lesson for me. If I had just mailed in my application I’m positive I wouldn’t have made the cut. That was 1990, twenty-five years after losing my first chance to go to art school.
A year into the program I gave up my teaching job and studied full-time,though I continued to teach art at the elementary school where I had been working. The US was a huge culture shock, but I got the opportunity that had slipped out of my hands in Ireland.
LG: You got your MFA from Brooklyn College in 1992. What was your experience in Graduate school and/or what were some important or memorable experiences you learned early on that helped make you the painter you are today?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Brooklyn College changed my life. I had never had an art history class and was missing the background that the other students had, but I worked hard, and I did well. Everything was new, but I was eager. John Walker was teaching in the MFA program at the time. He was incredibly supportive of all the students. For the most part I painted from observation and I know I felt like a second-class citizen because of that, but John Walker supported all of us, regardless of whether we painted abstractly or figuratively. I won a prize at my final review that was an opportunity to co-teach a class with one of the professors. Lois is a very non-hierarchical person, and she didn’t intimidate the students in any way, so I asked her if I could co-teach with her. She agreed and thus began our long friendship that has endured for two decades. I co-taught a 2D design class with her. When I’m relaxed I learn more and so it was a good fit.
Lois would invite any grad students who wanted to paint the landscape to her place in Blairstown, NJ on the weekends. Several of us would go out there with her, and it was never a student/teacher set up. She has always enjoyed painting buddies. That continued after I graduated. As I’ve said, Lois is very non-hierarchical which is an impressive trait in a very hierarchical field. During grad school I started to paint large still-lifes. John Walker had ideas about how I could develop these and that really helped me to move forward. I then went through an abstract period. Bill Williams encouraged me to look into my own culture for subject matter, and I got very involved in painting abstractly from the burial mounds at Newgrange, a megalithic tomb in County Meath, in Ireland. That was a great experience. I did a lot of monoprints and large oil paintings based on those.
I graduated in ’92, and got a studio that summer in the Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn which was a 20 minute walk from where I lived. It was a dark and unsafe neighborhood back then. I painted still lives in the studio but I continued to go to Blairstown with Lois, and before I knew it I was back painting the landscape again. I would say the time spent painting abstractly enriched my subsequent landscape paintings. At first I only painted the landscape with Lois in New Jersey, and on other painting trips to Vermont, Maine and Ireland, but one day I painted out the window of my studio, and another day I painted the alleyway behind my studio. Suddenly a whole new world of cityscapes opened up to me.
Prior to going to Brooklyn College I painted landscape and cityscapes in Ireland. My classes at the League were figure drawing and watercolor painting. I took color notes and drew out in the landscape. I drew all the time, and then used that information to paint indoors. That was great practice for honing my observational skills.
LG: Lois Dodd has been your mentor and good friend and in 2002 had a 2-person show with her at Swarthmore College. Can you tell us something about how her teaching and work has influenced you?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Lois has indeed been a mentor and friend and important influence in many ways. She is an amazing painter. I am impressed by her painting practice. She is excellent at getting started. The world is full of excellent landscape painters, but Lois distinguishes particularly by her way of looking at the world. Her choice of subject matter is really very original and personal. She has great integrity, is smart, kind and generous. I learned more from her after grad school by seeing how she lives her life and how she fits painting into her day. She doesn’t get side-tracked the way I can. We have a lot in common, similar interests and similar politics and taste in food. That makes it easy for us to be around each other for long periods of time. There is trust, friendship and support. Lois likes to have a painting buddy. It’s always easier to start painting if there’s another painter around, though she is more disciplined than I am. I was fortunate to have Lois as a close friend for more than twenty years. We’ve had many painting trips together, from Vermont to Wyoming, Maryland to North Carolina. I think we had three painting trips to Ireland and I’ve been to her place in Cushing, Maine every summer since I graduated from Brooklyn College. She’s a very loyal friend. I don’t get out to Blairstown as often as I used to, but even if the weather is really cold we paint looking out her windows.
It’s been really helpful seeing how she chooses what she paints. On a day that I might consider not a painting day, she will paint patterns of raindrops or frost on her windowpane.
Lois and I were invited to have a two-person show at the List Gallery in Swarthmore College. Andrea Packard, the director, thought a student/mentor show would be a great idea. It was fun. We showed paintings from various painting trips we’d had together including Ireland. We talked about how we would look at the same subject and how different the paintings would look. Lois can find subject matter everywhere. That’s interesting. A friend says she makes a painting, takes one step in another direction and finds the next subject. We paint at the same pace so that makes things easy for us.
LG: In addition to Lois Dodd, I would think that the simplifications and abstractions from nature that Milton Avery, Fairfield Porter and Edward Hopper were involved with would interest you. What can you say about these painters in relation to your work?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Milton Avery is someone I looked at a lot in Grad school. I’m very interested in simplification and abstraction from nature. It’s all abstraction really, an arrangement of shapes and colors on the rectangle. And the illusion of a 3D space on a 2D surface. But I need and want to look at something outside of myself. I need that visual stimulus. I’ve been painting cityscapes a lot and I often point out to students how Hopper paints windows, everyone is different. It helps students to really observe what they are seeing, not to just repeat the same window shape in each building. Fairfield Porter is a terrific painter too. I wish I had the confidence to paint large paintings the way he does. His figures and interiors are really inspiring.
LG: You said you need outside visual stimulation to get out of yourself … I find that a very interesting thing to say. I’m very curious about whole notion of looking at nature closely as a means of getting out of your head, can you talk more about this?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I think that it stops me being self-conscious because it’s not something that I carefully set up and have this serious thought about which object goes where or even if it’s just shapes, I can get paralyzed pretty easily with that. If I’m outside, there is all this world of things that I’m stimulated by so when that self-conscious element is gone I’m freed up. I suppose it offers new solutions all the time because you’re looking with a fresh eye even if I go back to the same place over and over, which I do. It’s never the same. It’s a different day, the light is different, something has changed, something got moved; especially in the city. It changes daily and even along the canal it changes a lot. I go out one day and I notice a particular plant hanging over the canal, I go out another day and see a yellow truck sitting by a building, so I’m stimulated by something without a preordained idea of what I’m going to paint. I wander around and think that looks interesting, it presents itself.
LG: So each time when you come back the same painting spot, you’ll often focus on a different problem. Even if the scene hasn’t changed you may see a whole new set of relationships that you want to explore. I suppose if you were a real die-hard you could paint only at the same place and never run out of compositional possibilities.
I’m curious, do you make your landscapes usually in just one sitting or come back over multiple sessions?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: It depends, if it’s the city, they take multiple sittings. After picking my spot I will often spend the morning just figuring out my drawing. I draw with raw sienna on a gessoed board so I have everything placed. I may or may not start the painting that day. The cityscapes are complex so often I’ll just work on a particular area for awhile and then I can leave it and come back another day and work on another area. It could be three sessions for the cityscapes and I have my whole drawing laid out so I know what my composition and plan is but it tends to be too complicated for one sitting. Other situations, like when I’m in New Jersey, Ireland or Maine they are very often one-shot deals.
LG: What other painters have been most influential to you and why? Do you have a community of painters there you go painting with and talk about art?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: The painters I look at change from time to time, but it can depend on what exhibitions are on view at a particular time. Matisse is a staple. The Inventing Abstraction show at MOMA a few years ago was fabulous. The Picasso Guitar show was memorable too, to see how he worked for two years on a single object, breaking down the form and arranging and rearranging the shapes. He took the guitar apart and then put it together again. Recently I saw the Cezanne show of Hortense portraits at the Met. To see the range of paintings, the way of taking a familiar subject and painting it over and over again and how it allowed him to move beyond the familiar so that he could really take chances and try new things.
The Lauder Cubist show was also terrific, at the Met.
I have friends I go to see shows with, and also to openings though I don’t go to as many openings as I used to. I catch up with my painter friends by going to shows with them. It’s fun to talk about the work together and to compare notes. I have one friend I go to see shows with a lot, but also if friends come from out of town it’s fun to go see shows with them also.
My work was in a benefit show at The Painting Center recently, and I really responded to a painting by Gwen Strahle. She was a colleague of mine at the MassArt Program in Bennington College. It was a very dark painting of a ball of black rope. It was intriguing. I emailed her about how much I loved it and she wanted to trade paintings. So now I have her painting hanging in my apartment. She made 100 paintings of black rope. I love that idea. That painting reminded me of Victor Pesce’s work but with more texture. I love Victor’s still lifes also. I have one of them that I bought at a benefit show for Haiti. I love Louisa Mattiasdottir’s full length self-portraits. I love Vuillard’s interiors, and Bonnard. And I love looking at Mondrian’s entire body of work, as I find it so inspirational to see how his work evolved. I loved John Walker’s recent show at Alexandre gallery too.
LG: How much does your watercolors, collage and oil paintings inform each other? Do you make them concurrently or go through periods of each?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I generally go through periods of oil, watercolor and collage. Oil is the most natural medium for me to pick up. I teach watercolor a lot and so I will often work more in that medium if that’s what I’m teaching. Watercolor is the hardest of the three as it takes more warm up time. Collage is more of a winter project, but when I get into it I get totally engrossed. Oil is what I take on my painting trips. The three mediums certainly inform one another. I think my oil paint is thin, and I use the transparency of the white board underneath, which is really a watercolor concept. Watercolor is a very unforgiving medium and it has taught me to be decisive and leave things alone. In graduate school John Walked used to say “Don’t approximate. Think about what you want to put down and leave it there” I’ve always found that very helpful. Working in collage has helped me to pare down my shapes even more. The black houses I painted in Maryland are a prime example of that. I’m really not putting in detail or much tonal work.
LG: Can you explain how you go about making your watercolor collages? Are they based from previous studies from life, photos and/or memory and invention – or do you mix it up?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I wanted to make collages for a long time. It’s a really great studio project for a plein air painter in winter. I made two very simple small square collages first and I pinned them on the wall in my studio, and I looked at them for a long time. And a couple of years later I started again. I used my own oil paintings of the Gowanus as subject matter, printing out copies of paintings from slides, though the collages are much smaller.
The nature of collage forces a lot of changes because of cutting out the shapes instead of painting them. The person whose work I looked at a lot was Alex Katz. I’d seen a couple of his early collages and then a friend sent me the catalog of his collage show at Colby College. The reproductions are life-size…very tiny, and very simple. His collages are of landscape but often with figures in them. They were a way in to the process for me. I combine watercolor with my collage in two ways. Very often I will make a graded wash with transparent colors as my base, particularly if there is sky and water. I carefully make a tracing from the print out of the painting, and then I reproduce the shapes and colors, and paste them down on watercolor paper, which has the graded wash.
I really simplify and flatten the shapes. The graded wash creates the illusion of naturalistic space, but the shapes themselves are just flat colors. I love the quality of the color one can make with watercolor, as it really sparkles. By cutting out the shapes I need when the paint has already been applied I eliminate of one the most maddening characteristics of Watercolor: the edge problem. I use Jade adhesive which I buy at Talas, a store in Williamsburg. It’s archival. I add a little water and use an old oil bristle brush. It’s like a jig-saw. The process is slow and meditative, totally different from the immediacy of the plein air experience.
I generally start with the larger shapes and move to the smaller ones, and often move from the distant shapes to the foreground. Watercolor has a jewel-like quality and I use a utility knife to cut rather than a scissors, as I like the quality of the cut from the knife better, the straight edges it makes and also the lack of control the blade gives. It’s really fun to re-create reflections in water with cut out pieces of paper. The collages take a long time to make but I really enjoy making them. Sometimes they become really complex and other times they are really simple.
LG: The cut-out shapes are very hard edged and flat however your collages often drawn with a naturalistic space, the perspective looks observed as if you were painting directly in response to an observed scene. You don’t seem to distort or flatten the picture plane like you might expect to see in some other types of landscape collage. Why is that?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: The cut out shapes are hard edged because I focus on shapes and flatten and simplify the color. The graded wash, the gradual diminution of the size of the shapes, and atmospheric perspective create the illusion of deep space. The perspective looks observed because my own paintings that were made on site are the source material. I think I am still involved in creating naturalistic space so they still feel like observed space. It’s the objects that I flatten.
LG: Have you seen the big MOMA Matisse Cutouts show? What are your thoughts? Who are some great contemporary painters making collages that you admire?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I’ve seen the Matisse Cutouts show three times. I loved it. It’s great to see them in person to see the scale of some of them that I expect to be smaller, like “The Snail”, “The Swimming Pool” is also wonderful. When I went early in the morning, my trick was to start at the end of the show and work my way back and that way I very often had rooms to myself. I ran a collage workshop out of my studio recently, and on the Friday night I met the students at Matisse’s cutouts. It’s good for the students to see how Matisse drew with a scissors, and how he approached the shape of the figure in such a minimal way. On the Saturday morning I had a model for the students to draw gesture poses, figure in motion and the clothed model. In the afternoon they chose a drawing from the morning session and used it to make a collage. On the Sunday the students worked on a project of their own. Some students brought in a landscape they wanted to translate into collage, and another wanted to work on a series of self-portraits in collage using foil. We looked at various artists’ work for ideas on how to proceed.
I love Sharon Etgar’s collages. She shows at Davis and Langdale.
Mark Strand has beautiful collages too. He’ just passed away recently. And of course Alex Katz’ collages from the 50’s. They are landscape and still life, and gave me a way in to the process. I really responded to John Heartfield when I was in graduate school. He was a pioneer of modern photomontage. And of course Romaire Beardon.
2011 Video about Swarthmore College’s List Gallery exhibition of five collage artists including Elizabeth O’Reilly and Ken Kewley, Chie Fueki, Njideka Akunyili, and Arden Bendler Browning. Andrea Packard, Artist and List Gallery’s Curator, narrates this film and discusses insights into how these artists use collage in very different ways to explore space, color, and representation. (discussion of Elizabeth O’Reilly starts at 7:28)
LG: You are so lucky to be able to paint the Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn, NY. It appears to be a visual treasure trove of painting motifs and an important part of your subject matter over the years. The great variety of shapes, patterns and colors in the industrial waterfront are perfect for the raw material in which to explore compositional possibilities. What has keep you painting here for so many years?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: My studio is right on the Union Street Bridge, and my windows overlook The Carroll Street Bridge. The other bridges that cross the canal are within walking distance of my studio. I’ve been in that building for 23 years now. At first I didn’t think of the city as a motif, but I painted the alleyway behind the building which has a bridge connecting one building to another. It has some broken windows which initially caught my eye. Lois and Arthur Kvarnstrom came to paint with me a couple of times and we painted in the vicinity of the studio, but then Diana Horowitz and I got together and we painted a lot over the years over the entire area. For several years, Arthur, Diana and I would paint together most days. Diana would often choose the spot and we would each show up when we could. It was terrific. It’s very motivating to know there’s another artist there already painting. Arthur would show up at 5 or 6AM, and Diana and I would show up later. It was a most productive time period for me. I’m not far from Red Hook which was a place I used to paint a lot also. It has the same kind of abandoned buildings, but like the Gowanus a lot of what was intriguing to an artist is now gentrified and changed. Even the Gowanus canal itself has lost a lot of what I loved to paint, as Whole Foods came in, and the beautiful red rock crusher is gone. The Hamilton Avenue bridge used to be a stunning blue, but now it’s a nondescript beige.
LG: How much does the place make a good subject for painting as opposed to the painter bringing the subject herself? Is there something intrinsic in a place, perhaps its history or mood that goes beyond just a visual attraction to create emotional connections that might give the attentive artist a greater connection? Or would you say the best painting spots are picked less from the specifics of the place and much more from painter’s personality and interest in some particular aspect of visual investigation?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: That’s an interesting question. Painting the landscape requires an urgency that painting in the studio does not. I find it easier to get started when I’m outside and I know the light is changing and the weather and so forth. Those practical things are good motivators for me. When I started out I looked for a new spot each time, but the longer I paint the more I go back to the same places over and over. And I find even if I go to another country, and even places like Ireland which are so scenic I find myself drawn to the discarded place. There is beauty in the rundown, and there is a poignancy to it that I am attracted to. My childhood had a lot of abandonment and so possibly without even being aware of the impact of that was that I found myself choosing abandoned houses and canals and bridges. There possibly was some identification on my part. That said I also paint in Ireland and enjoy the beaches and coastline. I used to go to the Ballinglen foundation for years. I was born in a very remote area in the most South Westerly part of Ireland by Mizen Head, and my family still goes there. That’s a recurring theme. I also like to paint the snow, though I’m not as hardy as I used to be. I used to go out to the Delaware Water Gap with Lois no matter how cold it was, and quite honestly the physical limitations forced us to work fast and to be very decisive.
LG: What does getting a sense of place in a painting mean to you?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I think getting a sense of place just happens when you paint in the same spots over and over. Like the Hortense portraits with familiarity there is room for mood to come into the work. I painted in St Mary’s City in Maryland about two years ago, and it was very productive. The houses were rebuilt just as they were originally, and I believe it’s the second oldest colony in the US. I painted those houses from every angle and in every light. Often by the end of the day I knew exactly what I wanted to paint the next day, so I would quickly lay it out on my board so that the composition was all figured out. It really gives a sense of place if one can make many paintings in the same locale. They feed and inform each other.
LG: You’ve talked about your need to work fast and decisive and how Lois Dodd also worked in that way, very decisive. You also mentioned John Walker saying putting something down and just leaving it. I was hoping you might expand on this a little on why being decisive like that is important in your work as well as what about so many other painters who work with an opposite approach, who constantly revise and fuss over everything, do you find their work less interesting?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: That’s how I keep it fresh, and I also feel that the decision I make one day is different to a decision I’ll make another day, where that would become another painting. It’s a whole other thing. I don’t think my work gets better by laboring over it but of course I don’t think this means that this is the only way to work. I find this works better for me. It’s not that I don’t sometimes make a correction on a painting.
I remember doing a long narrow painting by this place in Brooklyn where the subway’s elevated, I had the painting for ages and then I realized I actually don’t like blue skies. They have a way of pinning this down as a landscape, somehow there’s not a way in. After ages, I thought to myself, I know I just don’t want all that blue sky. So, being that it was painted on a board I sanded out the sky and I totally repainted it in a color that wasn’t what I saw that day but it was a much better painting. So, once in awhile I can improve on something if I redo but for the most part I feel that’s where I was that day, I trust my responses on that day 99% of the time.
LG: Your freshness is admirable and fantastic as well as the many other painters painting decisively and who don’t tend to revise much later, like Lois Dodd. However, do you feel this approach could also lead to having a greater percentage of the paintings not working out?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I think that’s normal, I remember a teacher at the Art Students League years ago, she said “Out of the 10 paintings that you make maybe three of them will be like ‘Wow! Did I make those?’ and then another four will be like ‘Ok, they’re passable’ and then that three will be dogs…That’s interesting but I think that’s fine. You get lucky and sometimes it’s like you get ahead of yourself and something new happens and it’s ‘Wow, I made that’ but you can’t rely on that all the time. I also feel like whatever works for each person is ok and this is important for teaching. We are all different and there is no one way to do it. There is room for however, whatever, fits us as individuals. If it takes ages and you rework it that’s just who you are. That’s not how I work but there is no right or wrong.
LG: I remember hearing some art students admiring the freshness and bravura brushstrokes of John Singer Sargent in many his oil paintings. I once had a teacher who said what you see in Sargent’s painting is last brushstroke not the first. That his freshness didn’t always come right off his brush on the first shot, he arrived at the freshness by scraping off all that didn’t work beforehand.
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Have you seen his watercolors? There was a recent show of his watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum. Oh my God they were stunning. You know they were on the spot, there’s no room there to redo.
LG: He has incredible sensitivity and facility with watercolor that is on a genius level. His oil painting, drawing and watercolors must all have influenced each other a great deal. That makes me think how your practise of mixing it up between the watercolor, collage and the oils must feed off each other and help them find the perfect one-shot notes more readily.
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Exactly, They really do, I am concerned with simplification and I do think it’s all abstraction because it’s just a rectangle and you’re trying to make this an interesting arrangement. To make people think this is space.
LG: In the paintings you did more recently in Maryland, the Saint Mary’s City paintings. These painting to me have a stronger, darker emotional presence than a lot of your other work. I’m curious is there some other level of meaning other than just the formal, visual response. Why did you chose this place and can you speak a little more about them?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I painted there with Lois Dodd at St Mary’s College and next to it was this colony. I felt like oh my god, I really hit the jackpot with this one. I just know it was a really lucky find; when you see a place and you think there is so much material for me here. I imagine your mood comes into play but it’s all unconscious, it’s not like I went out looking for a colony with a lot of black houses, it just happened and I got excited. I got so much work done there, it was just a really lucky, good fit for me.
LG: I understand you are leading painting workshops there this winter. You and your students must be very serious and dedicated to be painting outside in the cold. Anything more you can tell us about your upcoming workshop?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I have been running workshops out of my studio on the Gowanus for about five years now. The plein air workshops are in the spring and summer, and fall, but in the cold weather I run workshops indoors. I also run workshops out in East Marion in Long Island. Many of the students come back year after year. This winter I was able to take over a room in my studio space and I’ve been teaching watercolor classes once a week. I keep the numbers low so that students get a lot of attention. And I also run weekend workshops in Collage and Oil Painting for people who work Monday through Friday. The workshops are all listed on my website
I also teach at Rock Gardens Inn in Maine every summer, and at Bennington College through the MassArt program. My next goal is to run a workshop in Ireland. Students ask me all that time about doing that.
LG: You also teach painting the figure in watercolor. I enjoyed reading the October 2007 article in Artist Daily by Lynne Moss Perricelli about your watercolors and teaching. One thing you said in this article I found interesting was:
…“Being fixated on technique is a trap,” she emphasizes. “Other things are more important, such as color, value, and movement. Understanding those is what makes a painting work.” To that end O’Reilly is cautious about demonstrating, seeking to ensure that her students find their own way as artists. “I like to put up the paintings at the end of a class and see that each one is different. Each student is approaching the work in his or her own way and finding unique solutions. It’s no help to them to paint as I paint. Painting is really about problem solving.”
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Watercolor is the medium I find I have to warm up in so I used to go to Spring Studio in Manhattan with my watercolors to paint the figure. I love the clothed figure the most because I enjoy the color. I don’t sketch first, and that’s the fun part, just working from shape to shape, and often the poses are only a few minutes each. It’s a great way not to intellectualize, and to just make a ton of sketches. Students are confounded by the medium, but painting quick studies from the figure forces one to just work and work. There’s nothing better than brush mileage. The work just gets better from doing a lot of sketches. It’s helpful to know about what makes a composition work, positive/negative shapes, unity, variety, repetition, as well as color knowledge. In watercolor I rely a lot on transparent colors. If you really know the qualities of certain pigments it’s so easy to make exquisite grays instead of mud.
I prefer to demonstrate after the students have made their paintings rather than before. I find it limits and often paralyzes students as they somehow think that I have all the answers, and instead of finding their own path, they follow the same composition and choices that the teacher makes. I think it’s a disservice to students to turn them into clones. I always say that they get to take themselves home, and what they need is to find a way in, without me directing every step. Independence is what’s needed. I feel gratified if, at the end of a painting day, every painting looks different. People are all different and we bring our own experiences and knowledge to everything we do. It makes sense that the paintings should be different and not pale versions of what the teacher does. You can tell I feel very strongly about this. Final group critiques are very important also as the students learn as much from each other as they do from me, and when it’s not their own painting that’s being critiqued they can listen more intently. In the final group critiques I draw attention to the strengths of each student’s work. I try to be respectful and nurturing as a teacher as that’s the kind of teaching that helped me most.]]>
St John’s College
The Mitchell Gallery
Exhibition lecture by curator Matt Klos will be given on February 17th at 5:30pm and there will be a panel discussion with some of the artists on February 22nd at 3pm. All are welcome
Opening Reception on January 25th from 3:30-5pm
This exhibition is curated by Matt Klos, Associate Professor, Anne Arundel Community College, with assistance from Lucinda Edinberg.
Matt Klos is a member of the Perceptual Painters group and has been interviewed on Painting Perceptions.
Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978) once said, “The more I’m influenced, the more original I get.” Painters often learn first by looking at other painters; however, a perceptual approach to painting is not based purely on rote observation but rather the subjectivity and interpretation of sight. Painters also learn through the passing down of knowledge from one artist to another. Many perceptual painters of the early 20th century and later worked closely together, either as student-and-teacher or as colleagues, influencing each other’s work and artistic process. The Mitchell Gallery exhibition “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters” focuses on the relationship between artists; in particular, Charles Hawthorne (1872–1930) and his student Edwin Dickinson, and the line of painters that were influenced by Dickinson.
This exhibition includes works that reveal concise connections between the artists involved as well as works that may not directly relate. For example, Dickinson’s and Welsh painter Gwen John’s work both hold a special regard for touch. In John’s paintings, fragmented touches were scumbled or dabbed, building to a gauzy wholeness, whereas in Dickinson’s paintings, vigorous globular daubs, slashes, and slabs were often scraped away and fused at the edges to create a misty wholeness. And each artist’s influence is filtered down into works such as Neil Riley’s Late Winter Aspens. The painting is divided between a deep warm gray mixture and a light blue swath of snow. Many areas of the surface reveal the tone of the underlying painting board or are covered with only a thin veneer of paint. Other areas of the surface are covered thickly with fat pads of paint which lay, unmodulated, on the surface accentuating a flicker of light on a snow mound or a patch of sky unobscured by an aspen’s branches. Broken linear slashes are dragged into the wet paint suggesting both fallen limbs and snow covered ground between trunks. John’s and Dickinson’s disparate senses of touch converge here.
John and Dickinson share a direct engagement of working from life, then diverge; in particular, in terms of different practices, techniques, and responses to what they are observing. As each artist goes through their own way of “figuring it out,” the resultant artwork becomes more than a simple or mannered representation. Each of these artists contends with empirical representation, and through the process of careful looking they build a unique sensation that goes beyond the veneer of representation. These paintings are accumulated moments. Some were made in an afternoon and others were made over the course of many months or years. When engaging with these paintings one can sense both brevity and timelessness. Mark Karnes’s Dining Room into Living Room presents a totality
of the interior scene, and in our revelry we can imagine the undulation of light that occurs in such a room on overcast days.
The painting is complete and whole yet not static or crystalized. Dickinson’s complex studio constructions combine his love of the Venetian Renaissance with modern modes of painting. An Anniversary, a swirling cacophony of still life objects, figures, and furrowed spaces, reveals both a fidelity to painting naturalistically and a romantic dreamlike quality. Like Dickinson’s other epics, this visionary painting combines clearly definable objects and figures in mysterious environments that contain aspects of both interior and exterior. In spite of the naturalism in An Anniversary, and the space that is created in the work, there are elements of flatness, too. The King of Nails by Gideon Bok. In the painting, Bok uses multiple viewpoints and combines them by interlocking each beam of this sprawling frenetic interior. The effect is both rhythmic and closely observed; lending a sense of movement and transience that is amplified by thinly painted apparitions in the space.
In contrast to the expansiveness of Downes and Bok is the pensive inward pull of the portrait Rubin Eshkanian by Lennart Anderson. The geometry of the surface is revealed in punctuating darks and blooms of color: blues, orange, pink, and violet, hedged in by neutral grays. Susan Jane Walp’s Doublemint similarly turns in on itself. The small scale of her work does not diminish, but rather it accentuates the painting’s density. Upon first looks the pattern of the leaves on the bowl, the type on the gum package, and the image of fork tines exert themselves. A slower read, though, shows that these patterns are echoed in other subtle patterns: the deckled edge of the flattened bag and even the organic patterning of the surface these carefully arranged objects are sitting upon. The viewer is entranced and drawn in.
When looking at Edwin Dickinson’s work, it is striking that he painted with such range and that his creativity seems wholly nonjudgmental. He painted with the joy of large color spots and the severity of tightly observed achromatic passages. Sometimes he painted quickly and sometimes slowly over the course of years. Some work was significantly abstract and some highly realistic. Some paintings were dreamlike and poetic while others were mathematical and geometric. When taken on the whole, Dickinson was a painter that seemed more interested in the connections of things (objects, people, landscapes, history, and stories) than in the divisions between them. His art was that of wholeness. Dickinson left a broad creative legacy that has been proved a fertile resource to many painters throughout the 20th century as seen in “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters.”
This exhibition will be held at Anne Arundel Community College in the Cade Gallery. The exhibition runs from January 26th through February 26th with a curator’s/artist’s talk in the gallery on January 28th at 11am, an artist’s talk by Matthew Ballou at 1pm in Cade 326, and an opening reception that evening from 6-8pm.
Perceptual painters do, in some sense, have a mannered approach to their work. The mannerism is related to their sensing and becoming increasingly aware of the visual character of sensing light, form, color, focus, and space; these are the core subject matter of the perceptual painter. An area of light may become as dense and impenetrable as stone. A solid form may be seen as diaphanous as atmospheric space. These are but two examples of the syncopated intersubjectivity of our senses.
The focus of this exhibition is object studies – perhaps singular, perhaps in tableau – that are aimed not at the slavish presentation of the appearance of objects but rather find their true subject in the scanning, flashing, point-to-point-yet-all-over arrangement of visual and material phenomena. These works move beyond the notational or the schematic to embrace an experiential subjectivity. -Matthew Ballou
This past August I was fortunate to meet with Margaret McCann in her studio in NYC for an interview. My good friend and fellow painter, Matthew Mattingly, joined the conversation with many brilliant observations and comments.
Larry Groff: Thank you, Margaret, for talking with us about your painting, background and the new Skira/Rizzoli book you edited that came out last fall, The Figure What does it entail?
Margaret McCann: The Figure responds to David Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge” to some degree – several artists, among them Judy Fox, F. Scott Hess, Jerry Kerns, Edgar Jerins, Alex Kanevsky, Steve Mumford, Richard Phillips, Rona Pondick, Judith Schaecter and Nicola Verlato openly describe how they use traditional as well as modern techniques like photography, Photoshop, or 3D computer programs. The book focuses on painting and sculpture with some discussion of drawing and printmaking, with amazing artwork by NYAA alumni like Leslie Adams, Ali Banisadr, Amy Bennett, Bryan Drury, Alyssa Monks and Jean-Pierre Roy alongside established artists sharing their views and methods. We were lucky to have the contributions of Steven Assael, Will Cotten, David Ebony, Natalie Frank, Mark Greenwold, Eric Fishchl, Bruce Gagnier, Hilary Harkness, Anne Harris, Trenton Doyle Hancock, F. Scott Hess, Jenny Saville, Irving Sandler, Ted Schmidt, Robert Taplin, Jerome Witkin, Eric White, and many others.
Larry: How did it come about?
Margaret: The New York Academy of Art asked me to project-manage a book Rizzoli was interested in doing about the school. Since it’s an academy that has been supported by both Andy Warhol and Prince Charles, and prides itself on both traditional methods, such as anatomy and indirect painting, and on contemporary discourse, I thought it would be compelling to take the long view and explore how and why the classical academic tradition has impacted the present state of figure-based art. I asked various knowledgeable people (who have in some way been involved in the school, teaching or visiting) to write on figurative topics. To mention a few, Lisa Bartolozzi’s essay on painting techniques shows how incessantly experimental painting has always been; Vincent Desiderio looks deeply into figurative painting’s ”technical narrative”; Alexi Worth’s hypothesizes “the invention of clumsiness” after photography hit the 19th c. painting world; Donald Kuspit describes some of the impact Freud had on the figure; Kurt Kauper explains kitsch and Jule Heffernan “the male gaze”; Laurie Hogin examines the politics of figurative painting; and John Jacobsmeyer and Nicola Verlato each discuss the meanings of spatial organization via perspective, the camera obscura, 3-D modeling, and cyberspace. With the supremacy of the internet today, the role photography and computers play can’t be denied.
The book doesn’t touch much on art springing from the modernist trajectory that reacted against that academic tradition -color-based, expressionist, or perceptual work. In my own paintings there is an emphasis on drawing but they are more modernist in their play between perceptual objectivity and surrealist whim.
Larry: Seeing your work and still life setup here in your studio greatly enhances the interview experience. I’ve long found your paintings fascinating but your work is much better in person, especially in color, surface and scale.
Margaret: It used to look better in slides, but over the years I’ve gotten much better with color and value and they look better “in person”. The images on-line look more cartoonish than they actually are, because texture doesn’t translate well on the web.
Larry: Also the scale; true of most images of paintings you see online. A tiny image becomes the same as a big one. You don’t see the net impact of that much paint in your face.
Margaret: People have said they thought my paintings were larger than they are; probably from how I toy with scale relationships, which is partly inspired by what I’m looking at, like architectural models, which were inspired by living in Rome for eight years among the monuments. Over the years I’ve collected various objects, stored by category. After I finish this still life of wooden objects I can get rid of some. The bizarre ones, or those most interesting to paint, are keepers. That wooden tree from Marshalls still has its price tag, so maybe I’ll return try to it.
Larry: Good plan! So, the store’s return date policy for the object influences how much time you get to work on the still life?
Margaret: I wish; that would be much more efficient than I am. In this composition I’ll probably wind up putting that odd wooden mirror on the bottom, so it will be both a still life and function as one of my “headworks” series, like Carmen Miranda Still Life (2009).
Larry: I see what you mean; I now see the self-portrait underneath.
Matthew Mattingly: Do you work the composition and drawing out on canvas, or from sketches?
Margaret: I rarely make more than idea sketches, but do draw it out in pencil on canvas first when working perceptually. At the NY Studio School I developed an appreciation for the process of painting, making a mark and then another in response, then questioning that – sort of “Giacometti meets Cezanne”. At its worst this way can lead you into a black hole. In grad school, as a perceptive critic Sidney Tillim pointed out, I was just making many paintings on one canvas, and Jake Berthot told me to read The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac, which addresses obsession with process.
Larry: Can you explain more?
Margaret: Giacometti’s fetish of uncertainty can certainly lead to authentic depth. I remember the dark gloom over NYC when I visited the WTC site in fall of 2001. Right after that I saw a Giacometti show at MoMA, and was surprised it didn’t feel frivolous; his work probably in part reflected living in Europe during the world wars. But following purity can make you remove anything unnecessary and get carried away with “less-is-more” – or never finish, as Giacometti did not.
Ideally, it’s “two steps forward, one step back,” a forward progression. Textures build up richly this way, as in Cezanne, who never arrived cleverly or quickly at decisions, but almost sculpted, investigating decisions from different angles, so to speak. Sometimes he left non-objective marks that read like possibilities. I love the way his paintings are both solid and open. But I still can get locked into the present tense of process. Working from observation can bring you out of that loop because there is a perceptual “truth” you can always aim for.
An old school chum of mine, Julie Heffernan, called Shiny Still Life (2012) apotropaic – something that wards off evil. That’s basically the opposite of the inviting, rococo deep space Dave Hickey described in “The Invisible Dragon”. The compressed and congestive space in my paintings does push the viewer away, but also draws them in closer to investigate. I like the viewer’s eye to bounce around, which doesn’t gibe with Matisse’s directive for painting to feel like a “comfortable armchair for a tired businessman” – I wish it did because business people buy paintings!
Larry: One great thing about today’s art world is its diversity. Some like it simple, some complex. However, I think it’s tough if you’re a student trying to figure things out like what is good drawing or color, or if that’s even important. Are you teaching currently?
Margaret: I’ve been teaching at New York Academy of Art, Pratt, Montclair, and I’ll be teaching at U. of Virginia spring semester, and job-hunting.
Matthew: The organization of your painting is complex but it’s not chaotic at all. It’s actually highly organized. If you look at it for a while you can learn the pathways and algorithms for picking your way through complexity, which can then give you a way of seeing the complex world that’s right out there.
Margaret: Oh, I like that; makes me feel more normal. I’m very interested in politics, and our multi-faceted world.
Larry: I definitely see pathways and geometry that pull it all together. But you don’t seem bound by a particular compositional system. Each one of your paintings seems to explore structures unique to that painting. That’s very refreshing to see.
Margaret: My compositional spaces are shaped around my experience looking and painting, rather than from a believable deep space in which objects are placed. I’m only sadly just now reading Svetlana Alpers’ wonderful The Art of Describing (http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Describing-Seventeenth-Century/dp/0226015130), about the more optical way space was composed in the North, vs. Italian Renaissance painting’s geometrical model. At Yale I took a class in Netherlandish painting (along with John Currin) but we were assigned Panofsky. At Washington U. in St. Louis, Amy Weiskopf and I took a lot of art history classes. Larry Lowick had us read Michael Baxandall’s great Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy. http://www.amazon.com/Painting-Experience-Fifteenth-Century-Italy-Paperbacks/dp/019282144X I also read art history while living in Italy – I went there first on a Fulbright and then stayed eight years, teaching and painting.
Larry: I read that Piero della Francesca, when his eyesight was failing in the last ten years of his life, wrote a whole treatise on perspective and mathematics.
Margaret: Yes, which business students studied to better understand quantities, for trading purposes. Baxandall describes how, before “universal” systems of measurement were standardized, science and art were fairly equally advanced as ways of expressing knowledge of the world. So objects like Piero’s chalice had intellectual appeal in Renaissance paintings. Alpers also shows this in Northern painting, which didn’t use strictly-pointed perspective, but engaged the inquiring, human eye, rather than relating everything to the absolutes of math, or the all-seeing eye of God.
Larry: The tipping up of the picture plane in your work, which flattens the space, relates to Northern Renaissance painting
Margaret: Yes, and to Cubism. I like foreshortening because it suggests deep space, but also lets flat shapes assert the picture plane. I suspect, having grown up in the middle of ten children, that I grew accustomed to constant motion in my visual frame. I generally find visual situations that are complicated and dense appealing. After I saw Glengarry Glen Ross and The Player I loved the way complexity arrives at harmony in them so much I went back and saw them again the next day. I enjoy looking at paintings with deep space, but it’s never been something I’m consistently interested in. Scott Noel, who I also went to undergrad school with, suggested I put more space around things. I have gone through periods doing that, but wind up squishing things in tight spaces.
Larry: The main thing is, does it work for your paintings, and is it successful?
Matthew: I think there are believable spaces in Shiny Still Life, but they are small spaces. The way the little bathtub thing is in front of whatever the hell that thing is –
Margaret: – a duck cooker I bought in a flea market in Rome –
Matthew: – there’s definitely accessible and believable space. You probably couldn’t fit your finger in there, but you could fit a piece of cardboard in there. You know that between the whale’s tail and the bathtub, there’s a little bit more space. There’s no problem of space; there’s plenty of space. It’s just miniature space.
Margaret: That’s what I want for the viewer – at first you’re overwhelmed, then your eye experiences everything intimately; maybe that’s how I see the world. That echoes the way I prefer to be close to what I’m painting so stereoscopic vision is activated, and I fully see around things. I’m also very near-sighted, so there’s that.
Larry: I’m curious if you ever think about a hierarchy of highlights in a painting, or naturalistic light qualities and the degrees of the reflectiveness of things, and such?
Margaret: I’m very sensitive to light in the real world but in my paintings it’s secondary to the description of form and space. I follow it closely for certain color relationships or to create textural illusion, like metallic surfaces, but my sense of light is largely conceptual and circumstantial.
Larry: I really admire Mom’s Accordian (2013). Tell me how this came about. It seems more straightforwardly perceptual.
Margaret: I inherited this object from my mother after she died a few years ago, and wanted to do an homage. I set it up under a blue light but didn’t really have enough space in my studio to control the viewing light. I also had to finish it for a deadline for a Zeuxis show, so I painted it at all hours with daylight and artificial light, so the light is less naturalistic. The abalone was fun to paint.
Larry: Tell me what’s going on in terms of the narrative in this large boardwalk, Atlantic City painting. What led to it?
Margaret: Living in Atlantic City for four years was such a trip. It reminded me of an R. Crumb cartoon because so many of the visitors looked dressed for a bad outfit contest. You see all the clichés, people passed out outside casinos from a bender, drinking and gambling. It’s a very wacky, but very friendly, place. Once while waiting for an early bus to New York, a policeman told passengers about how his feet got really sore near the end of the night shift until he started getting pedicures. It’s hard to imagine that conversation happening in New York.
In Follow the Money (2010) Uncle Moneybags is getting away by implied helicopter (inspired by the Yogi Bear cartoon), but everybody else is having fun and doesn’t notice that the piggy-bank is about to surf over the edge, or the impending flood.
Matthew: That’s you in the prison uniform with 3D glasses painting the whole thing? Cool.
Larry: So, what does that mean? It caught my eye too. Wow, that’s different.
Margaret: Maybe that I’m the only one seeing things in 3D? That’s a space joke – kind of like the bit of extremely deep (looking from outer) space in Call Me Marge (2004), which is otherwise pretty flat. That’s mostly synthetically painted – I observed the head, but based the rest on where appropriation led; R. Crumb, Guston, Hopper, The Simpsons, Cezanne, and – what is that from?
Larry: The Little Engine That Could, right? Would there be a sequential way to read these, or does the viewer make up their own story while looking at the painting?
Margaret: I’m leading the way with the big blue shape and yellows moving throughout, but the viewer can make their own subjective way. Obviously all the “headstuff” has psychological implications. My compositions, beyond an initial design, form intuitively, part to part – like a surrealist. Sideshow (2013) has perceptual moments, but most parts, like the Monopoly board and the boat, are invented. I left some areas sketchy, which play off the thornier areas I reworked.
Larry: I’m curious how you respond to someone like Gregory Gillespie, another person who combined surrealism with perceptual work.
Margaret: I like his early Italianate self-portraits, but am otherwise not crazy about his color or the heavy reference to the photograph. Peter Blume or George Tooker interest me more. Better yet, Edwin Dickinson, who uses the Cezanne-Giacometti thing somewhat.
Matthew: Can you talk about the Ratfink? Haven’t thought about him since about 1966.
Margaret: I’ve put him in several paintings; fun to paint and a fond childhood memory, along with Basil Wolverton bubble gum cards. I like the mixture of serious technique and silly motif. He appears in What We Worry? (2009) too with Alfred E. Neuman on a soapbox, and others on the boardwalk. After a while you notice a tsunami entering the casino. This situation has an apocalyptic end, but it’s also fun so people will enjoy looking at it.
Larry: You often seem on the verge of a political statement but then thwart it with whimsical, cartoony elements. I’m always puzzled with the question of art as a realm for politics.
Margaret: Picasso said all art is political. In “The Figure” I wrote an essay about how history painting has morphed in response to socio-political and technical changes, including the Industrial Revolution, photography, and the Cold War. In the 20th c., after its profound corruption by Hitler and its adoption by authoritarian governments, heroic figuration was viewed suspiciously in “the free world” as reactionary. Eventually any figurative painting was suspect as potentially colonialist or oppressive in some way. After the western art capitol moved from Paris to New York because of the wars, critics like Greenberg posed American abstraction against Socialist Realism, and the standpoint of Social Realism became confused. But the Cold War notion that abstract art is a-political is too purist; any style of art can be exploited – or be academic. AbEx meant to its promoters (not to its creators) the freedoms promoted by capitalism. Who patronizes art and shapes cultural values has always mattered. It’s interesting to think about why extremely wealthy still buy art; it speaks to its spiritual value.
Matthew: There are some great technical realists like Jacob Collins who are in effect reactionary – back to the age of Bouguereau, as though the twentieth century didn’t happen, feminism or communism or anything, really. Nothing threatens assumed ownership of the land in landscapes; female nudes have a tasteful “come hither” look, and males show off their big muscles.
Larry: Some of the current crop of neoclassical painters coming out of the atelier seem to want to get back to a world where issues like racism and sexism weren’t discussed. The French Academy went far beyond technique. It defined beauty, what could be considered art.
Margaret: It’s ironic that those people would probably be very opposed to Greenberg’s advocacy of pure abstract painting, yet in a sense they’re heeding his conclusion, retreating from the world in an “art for art’s sake” way.
Larry: But isn’t making a political painting like waving a banner at a rally of like-minded people? Guernica isn’t going to convince anyone who didn’t already agree that war is evil, it’s just an affirmation that the world needs changing. Is that enough?
Margaret: The nice thing about museums is that everybody goes there, artists and “normal” people. Some who see Guernica might only think about Picasso, but others might actually google that event, an opportunity for the Nazis to show off their fire-power. Art can remind us of the depths to which people can go; it gives us the courage to act.
Matthew: The tapestry of “Guernica” was in the room that UN delegates passed through to remind them war is horrible, so the Bush administration had it covered up in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq was discussed. That’s how powerful that painting is.
Larry: In a lot of recent political painting the ideas may be interesting but often the way it’s painted or visually communicates is lacking.
Margaret: Lots of postmodern, political art is not nearly as exciting as that done by the Constructivists a hundred years ago.
Larry: Our lives are often distracted and can interfere with giving a full commitment to the art work. Painting should strive to equal the depth, intensity and craft of the masters.
Matthew: Regarding the idea of finding the path of complexity, and teaching people a kind of dance, as it were: Promoting a form of thinking that’s not just binary, not just oppositional, and not just “going for the most obvious enemy to attack” could be a kind of effective political way of being.
Margaret: That’s really interesting – let’s write a manifesto! – that painting can teach people to think in more complicated ways, making them more effective agents in the world. Beyond dialectical.
Matthew: It’s trilectical, multi-lectical. What happens in the end is determined by all these things pushing at each other; that’s what the world has to deal with. People tend to lump everything into the good guys and the bad guys –
Margaret: – the Cold War mindset, black and white thinking. Lawrence Weschler gave an interesting talk last year suggesting that the knowledge of big events and of their iconic photographic images in “Life” magazine and newspapers may have generally or unconsciously influenced artists: Hiroshima on Pollack, the moon landing on Rothko. These possibilities don’t fit the formalist paradigm, but they were in the air.
Matthew: Pollock isn’t about destruction as much as energy, which in a sense relates to Hiroshima. Pollocks aren’t chaotic; they are organically organized. Pollack was saying, “This is my life force in the purest form I can give you.”
Larry: Pollack explored the ideas – thinking through paint – of Freud and Jung. A strong political painting may have also started with a now outdated idea or event, but the inspiration for the formal structure is still meaningful.
Margaret: Historians of the future, if they/we exist, will consider what was going on in the world when there was this big 20th c. divide between figuration and abstraction, and technology was becoming an uber-behemoth.
Matthew: It all comes from somewhere… Crumb was about popular culture, but he got his stuff from Renaissance drawings; cross-hatching. The zeitgeist is eventually created by a few influential artists who start the ball rolling. That’s your job as an artist, to aspire to become one of those people.
Margaret McCann’s book “The Figure can be purchased from this Amazon.com link – (if you buy this book from this link a tiny percentage will go to help Painting Perceptions)]]>