For the program on Vermeer's "The Art of Painting," Susanna Posnett, Assistant Producer of the BBC2 Television Series The Private Life of a Masterpiece, sent a list of 20 questions about his work to George Deem by Fax October 15, 2004. He replied by Fax on October 17, 2004.
Question 1. Your paintings do seem to be intricately concerned with perspective. What is it about this artistic device that fascinates you?
Answer. Most paintings are concerned with creating an illusion of space, not a flat-pattern design. Perspective is a device for achieving a visually convincing illusion of depth on a flat surface. In my paintings I often quote images by other artists that have been perspectivally constructed by them. That calls for my use of perspective, and furthers my interest in its possibilities.
Question 2. Why do you think Western Art has been so preoccupied with the science of perspective for the last 600 years?
Answer. Although painting is a visual medium, a painting is not a representation of something seen. It is a construction by the artist to create a visually convincing illusion of something seen. Hence the value of perspective to the painter as a device for doing that.
Question 3. Your paintings are not simply responses to works by other artists but they seem to be part of an artistic "conversation" (Deem Vermeer etc.) -- you even talk about "quoting" other works. Can you explain this in more detail?
Answer. Nobody is born outside history. For a painter, history includes the history of forms, and of the genres of painting. When I want to paint a cup and saucer I look at many paintings of cups and saucers so that my still life of a cup and saucer will look like a painting of a cup and saucer. When in one of my paintings I quote an image painted by another artist I am indeed in conversation with that artist. As a result, when you look at a painting of mine you see two things at the same time -- the absent painting that I have quoted (or, rather, your memory of it) and the present actuality of my painting as you are looking at it.
Question 4. What is it about Vermeer that has led you to devote 40 years of your life to his oeuvre?
Answer. After 40 years I still see no end to Vermeer.
Question 5. What in particular draws you to the Art of Painting?
Answer. Da Vinci has the Mona Lisa, Rembrandt, The Night Watch, Whistler has his mother, Vermeer, his studio. These are man-made wonders of the world.
Question 6. The Art of Painting is layered with meaning. What does it mean to you?
Answer. Vermeer painted a painting of a painter painting. This is extremely intimate, like the image of a mother and child. It is a very difficult thing to achieve. Other artists have made studio paintings. There is Rembrandt's Artist in the Studio, painted when he was a young man, a painting now in the Boston Museum. And there are Picasso's images of the artist and his model, especially his late works on this theme. But Vermeer's Art of Painting stands alone.
Question 7. Your work seems to be as concerned with absence as presence. Can you explain what this is about?
Answer. If a checkerboard pattern is reproduced with one misplaced square anyone would look twice at the reproduction.
Question 8. Does it relate to Vermeer's own over-painting of certain compositional elements in his work?
Answer. No. I respond to what Vermeer has painted, not to what he overpainted.
Question 9. During your career you've come back twice to painting Vermeers. Why is this?
Answer. My paintings usually come from the images of other painters. Whether that painter is Vermeer depends upon where I am in my work at the time.
Question 10. Please can you explain your New York Artist in His Studio/Vermeer's "Artist in His Studio" 1979 diptych? Why did you paint a diptych?
Answer. I had been working with Vermeer's images for many years. For a long time I had wanted to make a complete actual-size copy of his Art of Painting. It was while I was working on my copy of The Art of Painting that I imagined doing the same painting with me seated on the stool in front of the easel as a New York artist in his studio. So I made the second painting, which makes the work a necessary diptych.
Question 11. New York Artist in His Studio includes a video monitor on the table, which refers to a way in which an artist might record his own images. Do you have your own theory about how Vermeer may have achieved this?
Answer. There is no reason to assume that the painter depicted in The Art of Painting is Vermeer.
Question 12. Do you follow Vermeer only in his themes or in his techniques as well?
Answer. Clearly I follow Vermeer in his themes. And his color. Technique however is individual. Technique is signature. No two humans paint alike. This is why forgeries do not continue to be convincing.
Question 13. Your more recent paintings on "The Art of Painting" theme concentrate only on the objects -- why is this?
Answer. When the figures disappear, I appear.
Question 14. There is something incredibly iconographic about your work (over and above the obvious "symbols" that we know about in The Art of Painting). Why does a stool, an easel, and a checquered floor become so loaded with meaning in your work?
Answer. All I can say is, Thank you. I cannot offer an explanation.
Question 15. Why are you so interested in the traditional theme of the artist's studio?
Answer. After a lifetime of investigating composition and looking for inspiration, all the answers are at home, where I started, in my studio.
Question 16. In your studio in New York, have you made efforts to recreate Vermeer's studio?
Question 17. According to your assistant Ronald Vance you have two further paintings you are working on, on the theme of "the Art of Painting," can you describe them?
Answer. I do not talk about my paintings while I am working on them.
Question 18. What do you think it is about Vermeer which appeals increasingly to artists and audiences today?
Question 19. People often refer to Vermeer as the "first studio photographer." His work is compositionally photographic but remains painterly. Do you agree with this and how would you describe your own work?
Answer. I do not agree with this. Vermeer's compositions are not photographic. They are only painterly. They are a painter's constructions.
Question 20. The Art of Painting remains the most potent meditation by an artist on what it is to be an artist. Do you agree with this?
“The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Vermeer’s Art of Painting.” Produced by BBC and broadcast on BBC2 in the United Kingdom, 2005.