Archives of American Art
Transcript of a taped conversation between George Deem and Peter Simon.
The tape was made by Dave Meschter on August 3, 1998.
Click highlighted words for image and information.
TAPE ONE, SIDE ONE
Questions: Peter Simon. Answers: George Deem
Q : This is August 3, 1998, George Deem's studio. A conversation between George Deem and Peter Simon about the large studio painting ("Easel Painting," 1993, Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches).
I'd be interested to know how you see it, both subject-wise and technically, in any way you want to respond.
A : I'm very pleased with the under-paint. And I thought it was an earth-red of some kind, a transparent earth-red. Because you can see by the self-portrait how thin it is. That's just one coat of paint. And then how it can be concentrated to be the stripes on the wall at the left. So I started off painting everything with this particular color. It's a very transparent. It 's called capucine yellow. I've looked it up, and I can't find any material on capucine yellow. It almost is like flavors, the manufacturing of colors, there are so many varieties. I knew that would be a nice undertone. So that's why the mood of this is a warm, earthy color. And I did have one, two, three, four images in mind, not the egg. Not that "Still-life with Egg." And I wanted to ...
Q : Four specific images? The four being ...
A : Yes. The self-portrait, the "Portrait on Demand," "Studio Visit," and the landscape painting. I had those in mind, and I wanted them to be arbitrarily kind of poured on the canvas, unrelated to one another, like the underpainting. I had done ...
Q: What do you mean, "related to each other like the underpainting?" Or, unrelated to each other.
A: Unrelated, yes. Arbitrarily put down.
Q: You're saying the underpainting was an element arbitrarily chosen.
A: Yes. When I got that color going, and started drawing on the portrait on the upper left, and I had some idea where I was going to put, let's say, the focal figures (because they're figures that are a particular focus), in "The Studio Visit," where that easel was going to be. I started at the upper left hand, with my self-portrait, because it was like a letter. That is the way we write. I always start at the upper left hand. Your right hand is not in the way when you keep moving that way. I move from left toright when I paint. Then I knew I could make a horizontal, and then I knew where, about, the "Studio Visit" was going to be, and planned in the landscape painter.
I had done this "Still Life With Egg" on paper, oil on paper, and I had that around. Then I decided to do a painting of it on canvas, and I found this frame and I put it together and I was overwhelmed that that frame fit the painting. It was sitting around. Then one day I climbed up on the table, put the canvas on the floor, and started pushing that "Still Life With Egg" around on the canvas, to see if I could get it, in any way, on there. That' s when I decided to screw it on; to apply it so it was an object. But that came late in the development of the painting, and the latest thing was the stripes. That's really the last part that I did.
Q: How did it occur to you, or how did you ... Are you aware of any conscious thoughts which possessed you to include the egg painting in this painting?
A: In the studies for "Studio Visit," I had pushed around many pictures, many ideas of pictures on the wall and was not entirely satisfied with that. Because always, when you paint a picture on a wall, I have to worry about, is it a picture of something? These kinds of things turned into squares on walls. In none of the paintings ...None of the things that are illustrated as paintings are showing any images. The easel painting isn't, the ...I got tired ... I found it uninteresting to try to fill in those things, and that's when I found something unreal going on there and it ended up being something actual.
So this painting was an adventure all the way through. Like the lower part. I just could not solve the problem of the table. There used to be a table with a landscape on it, and I liked the idea so much because ...
Q: That was three-dimensional. It appeared to be a three-dimensional landscape.
A: Yes. Now a dream. It's kind of a miracle. And I couldn't conclude a table on the bottom like this, with having to work with this somewhat of a border. And the table kept getting out of hand. It became much too close to us. While I worked on the painting, the "Still Life With Egg" was not on there. There's nothing under that. There's a pencil-drawn square where I had designed to put it. And then the idea of a teardrop, or the idea of a raindrop. There is a Vermeer painting in which there is an orb hanging from the ceiling, on a blue ribbon, and if you look at that orb you can see his studio in there. I can. I don't know whether it's there or not, but there's two big windows, and I got something out of that. Then I decided if I made a circle and not finish the top of it, I think that would take care of it. So the yellow chair at the left is the last invention. Because I didn't have that.
Q: And there are three chairs in it.
A: Yes. They' re all the same. They're all from the same interior that I found.
Q: You were saying there were no images on the canvases.
Q: However, on one of the canvases there is a shadow of the artist, and on the other one, in front of it, you see, against it, the woman who's posing.
A: Yes. [cross-conversation] Yes, I think that is very much how I wanted to handle that.
Q: To what extent did you know that several works led up to this? And I'm curious at what point in that process you became aware or committed to doing a large painting on this subject.
A: I had done drawings, oil-on-paper drawings, that I knew I could ...that would turn into paintings. Oil-on-canvas paintings.
Q: Of some kind. They were different paintings.
A: Yes. Well, the things we're going to be seeing. The "threshers."
Q: Yes, but I'm saying, when you did those, were you thinking that they might be related in a single painting, or ...?
A: Finally, yes. Not at the beginning.
Q: And it' s the finally I'm asking. I'm wondering at what point they coalesced.
A: Now that is interesting, now that you ask me that. Because it seems to me I thought of something ...a series of paintings all put on one canvas, at one time. And I didn't know what in the world they would be. I couldn't get it out of my mind. Most ideas come in my mind, and if they stay I start answering them. If they vanish ...I used to write them down, but I realized that if ...You don't have to write them down, because the ones that are valid will never leave you. Yes, and I had that idea. And that's how I got into such a genre kind of subject--interiors --and what kind of interiors? Studios. Easels. Now what kind of interior? I'm always working on ...often working on interiors, and putting other artists work in those interiors. This was going to be interiors which I was going to occupy, which I'm going to occupy ...
Q: With your own subject matter.
A: Yes . With my own subject matter, my own ...
Q: Is this the first painting you've done that had several different images in this kind of ...It's not really a collage. I don't know what you would call it.
A: Yes. Montage. I don't know what to call it, either. No, I've done them all my life. I've done unrelated subjects anywhere on a canvas, in many ways. The only thing that was consistent about it [ was] that most of the time it was the same painter. I would quote from the same painter. I just found an old photograph from the '70s. It's called "Composition With Women," and it's haunting, familiar portraits by impressionist artists. And the King of Finland ... I found him in a very faded, little painting, the king of somewhere, Norway or somewhere like that. And then a man on a horse. Somebody sent me an old, practically tintype photograph. So that' s another montage; of just pushing images around until I have a visual composition that hits right. No message.
Q: A lot of your work, if not all of your work, is about painting.
Q: Is this the first painting in which your own work, or the subject specifically of a working painter, or working painters are the subject?
A: This is the first.
Q: Can you talk about that at all? Why now? Or ...?
A: It's because I had done, and published, and exhibited and had traveled with the schoolroom paintings. Everything was over. The book was finished, the tour was over, all the paintings were back that didn't sell. I had painted a few more schoolrooms, but I was working very hard to get away from that. I knew I would have to one day, so I started going on another tack and I got away from quoting painters. I started to stay away from that for a while, and that's how I got involved with ...that' s why I chose what is someone encouraged to do when they're a writer? Well, write what they know is always what the lesson plan is. Well, here I'm going to do something. I'm a painter. What can I do that's like that? What do I know I can do? Well, I know I have a studio, and I like easels, and I like the manufacturing of painting. So I'll kind of look inside myself. What's around here? And it's me painting myself. It's the people in my studio, in front of my easel. Then it's a picture of a painter. Not me. It could be me; that's not the point. Then there's this fascinating "Portrait-on-Demand," that came in, because it's another story of a man at an easel. Instead of having two things that are so similar-- mean, two interiors with easels--the third one is another easel but it's in a different atmosphere, and I like that very much.
Q: It's also an exterior. You made it.
A : Yes .
Q: I mean, well, it started as an exterior on a rooftop ...
Q: ...and you made it an exterior in the desert, or out West, or ...
A: Yes. No, it's really far out in the West, and the other sketches are closer to Indiana, it seems.
Q: There are certain dreamlike aspects, I suppose to all paintings, but particularly to your painting and particularly this painting.
Q: One way of looking at dreams, it's been said, is that everything in your dream is an aspect of yourself.
A: Yes. I don't think the subconscious manufactures ...
Q: That's all you've got to work with, in a sense.
Q: And that seems a very powerful way to look ...I mean, it's only one way ...
A: It's also interesting ...I've used those chairs and that kind of room, which is in the "Studio Visit, " which have no relation to this. But when I invented a room I had to find some kind of wall, two walls, and I went back to that particular photograph of an interior. It doesn't have the stripes. But then I was familiar ... I keep ...Well, in Chicago we called it a "morgue." You keep pieces of your photographs or illustrations, not readable material but visual material ...
Q: Yes. I think it's an old newspaper term for the archives.
A: Yes. And I have ... when I'm inventing something, I know exactly what reproduction or what photograph I need to get out of this problem, or to get into the problem. And that comes from that photograph of an interior, which I now call the studio visit.
Q: And what was that photograph?
A: It's a photograph of an interior in Rome. It's the academy, the French academy in Rome. There's an artist named Balthus, who's an incredible painter, and I've done a school of Balthus. And that's where I found ...
Q: Excuse me. Are you talking about the studio at the bottom or ...?
A: No. The "Studio Visit." The one in the center. I've had articles on him, and one time a magazine did photographs of his residence. No paintings on the wall, just these walls with these chairs . No rugs. And it's such a good skeleton of an interior that I've used it many times in different ways.
Q: But the light seems to be coming from a "Vermeer" direction.
A: Well, that's also why it's interesting to me. Yes.
Q: And it was in that photograph?
A: Yes. Certainly. Certainly.
Q: And also, the woman posed against the canvas comes from a photograph in Wyeth's studio, doesn't she?
A: The idea does. Yes. It's Wyeth's sister, in some kind of small magazine, like a small format. I believe it was National Geographic. There's a photograph of her sitting in front of her easel, and this captured me. I've carried that photograph around.
Q: Of her easel.
A:... source of light, and that's where the tree is in this painting. That source of light makes the shadow for everything in the room. I took one corner out for this painting, put one of Balthus' chairs in the left side, used the same easel that's in the print but there was no artist. But the big canvas on the right that' s leaning against the wall is in the print, and so is the shadow design. So it's that kind of floor.
Q: Yes, because the shadows on the right side of the painting go off to the right, and the shadows on the left side go off to the left.
A: Because of that one source of light. There's a whole mathematical theory on light, measurement and perspective. I can't understand it. I've read a few articles on it.
Q: And he's a landscape painter, but he's working inside.
A: Absolutely. Yes. That's at play. The landscape has come to him. Yes, those are the dream qualities that I like. It's not that they're incorrect, they're just not possible.
Q: I don't know why. There's something very familiar about the painter, about his pose, his look.
A: Well, it's from an N.C. Wyeth character, a dramatic poet or something like that it is. That's why I like his gesture. We all think painters paint with a lot of gesture and hope as they work. Sometimes that's true, sometimes that isn't. I think those who are not painters prefer to think that way. I mean, we hear Charles Dickens never sat when he wrote; he always had a high, writing bench and he would walk around, get a sentence, and write it down, then stand by the window, thinking. Which is true or may not be true. An artist is the same way. We all try to think ...I think Pollock is important because he was such a moving artist. He was really a gestural artist. He cursed and hummed and spilled and drank and all this kind of thing, while he was painting. The conception didn't come that way, the rendering came that way. And it's all right if you want to think that way, but there are times when you just sweat and get that article in there, whether it' s true or not, whether it's happy or not. You just get it in, because it's the painting that's talking to you. You're not talking to the painting anymore.
Q: You said you were talking about the idea of painters painting with gesture and hope.
A: Yes. People always say, "I would like to come and watch you paint," and I say, "Impossible." Because I don't know what I look like when I paint and I don't want to know. And if there's someone watching me I'll start thinking, "What do I look like when I paint." Then I'll start talking to them. Then I won't know where I am. These things are one-to-one. The art of doing portraits ...
Q: Painting is one-to-one, between the painter and what he's painting.
A: Yes. You don't know where you are, you're just with it. The art of portraiture starts with being able to talk while you paint. That's the very important part of portraiture.
Q: Do you think that's pretty universal?
A: I do. I really do. Unless I do portraits from photographs.
Q: To involve, to make the subject alive and spontaneous?
A: I'm talking about proper portraiture. When Beverly was posing for me ...That's how we got to know one another. I really liked that time. But that's a different world than painting. That's portrait painting.
[Beverly Emmons, Mrs. Peter Simon, Portrait of Beverly Emmons, 1981]
Q: And the function of the sitter is not to observe you, but ...On the contrary ...
A: Certainly not, but the sitter can get up and watch any time they want if it's set up that way. I had a woman named Mary
Deem - 16 O'Connell, and she watched me as I painted with her. The setup was like that. [ ? ] She was in my focus in the easel, and the canvas was in the middle.
Q: And when Mary O'Connell watched you when you painted, how was that?
A: We became extremely friendly. I then began performing with her. She was a performer, and I sang while she danced. Oh, it was a very close thing. Because I approached her. I followed her around, and I thought she was extremely beautiful. I asked her if she would be a model for me. She said, "What kind of painting?” “I don't know. I'm just going to visit with you until we find out." The painting is not important by this time.
Q: Did you go to her or did she come to you?
A: She came to me.
Q: A couple of things occur to me. You were talking about how it makes you self-conscious or pulls you away from your concentration with your relationship with what you're doing when someone is observing you.
Q: I'm teaching a workshop on photography right now. I have a student, a woman who' s a teacher, and shy ...She's interested in photographing, she has a terrific eye, but she's a bit shy and self-conscious . I tried to give her, as an assignment--because she has been working this summer in a day-care place with kids, in a summer day camp with kids, and she's been photographing children. Some of them are gorgeous photographs. I said I wanted her to, in addition to that, get out, get into a more spontaneous place where there is less control, and see what she could do. And she finds that more difficult. I said, "Well, what's the worst thing that could happen? You' re photographing something and somebody would be watching ..." She said, "Well, somebody would be watching me." I said, "Well, what's the worst part of that?" and she said, "Well, they'd be thinking about me and ..." She sort of wasn't clear. I said, "Well, you've got to shift your concentration from the person watching you to what's happening in the rectangle; the viewfinder." Just forget about that. Unless you felt you weren't safe or something. I think that's one of the very exciting parts of photography; that that rectangle, if you happen to be shooting 35mm, is the whole world. That's like your canvas; that's where you are; that's what you're concentrating on, what's happening in there. It's a very solid-system kind of thing. That is reality at the moment, and your ability to interpret it and control when you take the picture, etc. Because I get high when I'm shooting. It serves many aspects, it's a total kind of involvement.
A: That' s interesting because Mr. Peterson, my photographer who photographs my paintings, tells me when he was being taught that the first lesson was don't ever go anywhere without a camera. From now on you have a camera with you. I thought that was kind of interesting.
Q: I know one of the most extraordinary photographers I know, Jay Meisel, does that. He's photographed all over the world.
A: Yes. It isn't "I think I'll photograph today." It's that you are a photographer at all time, and a painter is the same. It isn't, "I think I'll paint something today ..."
Q : Or maybe I won 't. "
A: Yes. I can't get out of that. I paint every day. It just doesn' t work. My life doesn' t work if I can't paint every day.
Q: Norman Mailer has said something I find interesting that sort of relates. He' s said, "If you decide you're going to write tomorrow or yesterday, if you said you're going to write today, you'd better do it because your unconscious has already picked the words. "
A: That's nice. Those are lovely lessons on how to get away from the fright of creation. Yes.
Q: One thing that interests me a lot about this painting is how the two-dimensional aspect ...The wall of the studio in the middle, how three-dimensional that becomes, and how the edge .. how three-dimensional that is, and how it flattens out above it. And how this transformation of space, from two dimensional space to three-dimensional space ...There are lots of examples of it in this painting.
A: This is a pleasant painting because of its transparencies, as well. The stripes in the background, because they're continuous and repeating, they look like they really are solid. But they're painted very sketchily, and that's always interesting to a painter; to put down the first brushstroke, and it lives all the way through the painting, instead of overpainting and overpainting and overpainting. The overpainting side can be just as rewarding, but in this painting, as I was saying, the washy, transparent red that I started with still shows. The first washes still show. Speaking of that wall and its three-dimensional quality, the vertical white line that seems to be a window is the major core of that. I finally investigated it in the photograph, by looking at it through a glass, and it's a shutter. It's a white shutter. But I've always thought it was something to do with an indentation of a window. What I really concluded was, ''This is my white line. I really want that white line. I don't care what that is. '' Because it puts room between the two designs of the stops.
Q: You mean the back wall and the left-hand wall.
A: Right. Then it makes that lip of that indentation on the back wall work, and that's the abstract delight of that. And those stripes can go on forever.
Q: In other words, it starts white and then it becomes grey. It becomes a vertical grey like the horizontal grey on the back wall.
A: Yes. I didn't want to overstate it, and I think that the white line on the bottom isn't painted, I think it's raw canvas, and that's another quality in this ....It's tinted. It's painted on a bit, because there's pencil marks. But I kind of turned the higher part of that white line into the stripes of the far wall. I think that was agreeable. Because suddenly you're on somebody else's territory. You're in the man-in-the-portrait's territory if you're not careful ...
Q: ...which blends in or transforms into the earth in the ...
A: Yes. That really still scares me. I think it works, but I sure don't know how it works. I just quit there. I said, "I'd better not do much more. "
Q: I think that's part of the successful magic of this painting.
A: Yes. That's what I want to push all the time. On the lower painting, the studio painting, there is a very rigid "quit" of the room and its picture, and the chair on the left, but it never does solve itself on the right.
Q: Or on the top.
A: Or on the top.
Q: Or on the lower right.
A: Yes . And then, of course, is when I started having to have that "Still Life With Egg," because I had to have an entirely different subject, something else entirely. That's why I didn' t have to finish the right side of either the wall on the studio, the artist in the studio, or the wall of "The Studio Visit.” That's all vacant right there, that whole area.
Q: You feel that would have been unsatisfying somehow, without the reality of the finished egg painting?
A: I think it would have never worked had I painted a painting on there, or had I painted decorative, small paintings on the wall, like in the artist's studio at the bottom. I could have had ...I even played with the idea of putting more of those empty canvases on her wall, and using the light from the landscape technique to light those up also, if you know particularly what I mean. Now I blend in everything, and said no, there must be ...Could I cut a hole in it? Could I do anything but put something new, something else, or just the big square with nothing in it. That's when I started collaging.
Q: And what it is ...It's a square. It's a three-dimensional object, being a framed painting ...
Q: And it's a painting that has a painting in it.
Q: A framed painting in it. So it pulls you in this incredible dimension, that pulls you back.
A: Yes. Because nowadays ...I can do a still-life like that. Once in a while I do, because I think I'm relying on reproductions so much, I'm gridding off everything ...Why can't I just do something today? Like a real egg, or an apple or something like that.
Q: By "do something," you mean just paint something ...
A: Just like I was taught.
Q: ...that's out of yourself, and not a reference to anything else.
A: Yes. And I have drawings of the interior of the studio, and I have drawings of apples sitting on tables and things like that, just because...My sister has one of my best pictures, a selection of dishes on a white tablecloth. They're just really nice, and i worked for days on that. I really, really worked on that. And this is the same thing. I started off painting merely an egg on a plate. I love that egg on a plate. Well, I've got to do something to make it a painting, not a study. There's a difference between a study and a painting. A study is kind of an idea that you can abandon, but I wanted this to come through. So I thought of, oh, I could paint it again and later added the picture of an egg on a plate.
Q: There's also something which as a photographer I am very fascinated by. there's a suggestion, though not the reality, of reflection. Because you have the reflection of the egg on the plate, and then you have the egg on the plate repeated in a frame, as if that frame held a mirror rather than another painting. Because you don't see the back, you see the repeat of it.
A: Yes. Yes, I'm so glad you're seeing it that way. Because it could have been the other way. It would have ...
Q: Well, maybe if it was leaning ...If it was angled toward us a little bit, it would have been the right angle to pick up the reflection.
A: Oh, that's a nice challenge. Let's work again together. I want a photograph of an egg, and I'll paint one in front of it, and we' ll call it "Mirror." Yes, I sometimes thought this was too strong a painting to put on this canvas. First of all, it's very much not like me to adhere something to a canvas. Although I work in collage thinking, I really don't push pieces of paper around and glue them on.
Q: But you have included three-dimensional objects in your paintings for this . Something with flowers?
A: The flowers are much later.
Q: Later than what?
A: Than this. You're talking about my real flowers in the Matisse? Those were done after this painting was finished.
["Artificial Matisse," 1994]
Q: Is this the first time you included ...?
A: Yes. No. Years ago, when I first got to New York, I did a few ...! used to paste parts of frames on paintings and adhere them, and paint landscapes over them. They were patterns, and they could be made into bushy-looking images and things like that. But that's far, far away. (Construction, 1961).
Q: It's interesting to me that you said when you put the egg painting, "Egg on Plate" painting on this painting that you had a feeling that it would be too strong and would dominate, would be distracting or something like that.
Q: And I don't feel that at all. I feel that the painting is so strong that you almost have to work to discover this other painting on it. For me, that's the experience.
A: By the way, I agree with you all the way now, but it really ...I put the painting away for a long time after I did this. I just didn't know what to think. Because this is a painting I did immediately, without ...I did research, I knew what I was doing and working with. But I did it immediately without ...
Q: The painting itself.
A: The painting itself. An example is, I actually did have a table in that lower painting, with the artist in the studio, and it didn't work. I didn't know what to do about it because the rest ...some of the other painting is working; this is not going to get me down; I'm not going to lose this painting because of that. So I reconsidered and I changed and changed and changed, but my ideal was to have the table there. But that's when the painting starts telling you what to do.
Q: It's lighter this way.
A: Oh, it's buoyant, yes. I really like that.
Q: With that circle floating.
A: That circle comes from "Saturday Evening Post" covers . I'm very interested in ...
Q: And "Look Magazine."
A: ...early illustration. When I was a kid we got magazines all the time, and I didn't read so much as I would look at the beautiful illustrations for stories, and I have a nice collection of them. When in doubt, the big illustrator for "Saturday Evening Post" would put a circle around his main characters, and two parallel, horizontal lines. It was a kind of a stamp of the times, '30s into '40s, and every other illustrator ...Many other illustrations took it up. Or did "Saturday Evening Post" say, "Illustrator, you must comply with this circle/horizontal line design." I don't know. But when in doubt, make it into a circle, and it'll float, it'll be in front, and that' s what I figured out. That, by the way, is what makes it look '30s, or romantic, like the romantic painter. But I wanted it to be like a romantic painter.
Q: And there's something about him and his pose that says to me that it's very romantic. More so than the painter at the top.
A: Yes. That's a certain date, with his bowler hat. And the "Studio Visit" lady has no shoes on. I don't know why. The photograph I have of her is without shoes that day. I like the idea of her feet being bare on that rug, is what I like.
Q: Because of the sensual quality of it?
Q: And also, it's sort of a counterpoint to the way her hair is done, which is so neat and bordered and traditional.
A: Yes, very traditional. It's almost Victorian. But the clothing she's in--trousers--I think you can see those trousers. It's not a long skirt. I like the idea of her being in the way of the easel, her being in front of an easel, in front of a canvas, and there's an easel in front of her.
Q: So she's sandwiched in there.
A: Yes. She's sandwiched in between. It makes it look less posed. It makes it look ...It's like your ideal photograph; something there, let's take it and there it is. That's what I want to do. I want that kind of interest in that particular ...
Q: Then it's real life.
A: Yes, indeed. Not too posed, not too ideal. And technically I'm very pleased, because the canvas she's in front of has not been painted on, which I think I told you.
Q: And there's something wonderful about the landscape painter in the bottom, with the blank canvases on the wall. Well, there's another one in the "Studio Visit," as well. There's something about a blank canvas on the wall ...
A: Yes, that's very exciting to me. Now I think it came from Chicago. I was so excited to be in a painting room, in the painting school ...This was after the army, and I was not a trial student, I was a devoted student by this time, and ...
Q: When was this, more or less?
A: In 1952. The grand teacher, a German man from the Bauhaus [Paul Wieghardt, 1897-1969]...We all got together in this big room, everyone was given an easel, and we all got along very well. But each day one put away a painting, in a rack. The teacher came by and he would say, "Let's hang this painting on the wall. " And everyone would leave, or I'd go early to work, to the painting class, and there would be five or six paintings on the wall, and they were all paintings the teacher had chosen to put on the wall. He never said why, it was just a compliment. So anyone who went into those rooms, looking at the paintings on the wall to see who was answering the problem well ...That was what that was. We painted from models, by the way. There was always a nude model or something; a clothed or nude model.
Q: And how does that relate to the idea of the blank canvases on the wall?
A: The shadows, and the idea of, "I'm not going to look at what the paintings are. Let's look at the room and see all these paintings hanging on the wall." This was supposed to be a painting room, and I got very involved with the painting room. Sometimes they were half finished. Sometimes they were barely started.
Q: Well, is it also the idea of the potential?
A: Oh, boy, isn't it? It sure is. And sometimes I call these paintings ...They're paintings, but the light is on them so you really can't see them, like a mirror; like they're shiny. And I've concluded that in the woman sitting in the "Studio Visit," she is looking at a painting. That is not a bare canvas on that wall. It must be Ad Reinhardt, or one of those fully, one-colored canvases. I don't know what it is, but I got tired, in the drawing of it, making it look like something, so I decided just to cover it.
Q: Are you talking about the painting that's opposite her?
A : Yes .
Q: It's dark.
A: Yes. I didn't want that ...The answer is, if it's going to be bare ...If all these canvases in the painting are going to be bare, the one should not be bare. Well, all the canvases are white, so the one she's looking at is black. It's "out," or it's "there."
Q: Is this because you felt compassion; that you didn't want her to be looking at a blank canvas.
A: No, I never thought of it that way. I wanted her to be interested in something.
Q: Well, that's the same thing.
A: Oh, I see. Yes. It must be that. It must be that. I didn' t want her looking at ...Yes . I didn't want her looking at a bare canvas. But you're right. That is not what she's doing.
Q: I'm still at a loss, in a way, to explain to myself why I find this painting so satisfying. I think partly it's that I never tire of looking at it. I find I discover more things about it. It's deceptively simple.
Q: There are so many rhythms, visually and conceptually, which I think is something about all your work.
A: Thank you, because I want that in there.
Q: Yes, because it's absolutely very, very strong. So these things ...It's partly that there are aspects that are extremely specific, and there are other aspects that are just suggested. Somehow that lets you enter it.
A: Freely and uninhibitedly, and without guard. It's exactly what I dreamed would happen in the history of my life, after finishing those schoolroom paintings. They were all done ...After I did ten I realized I could do more, so I got into a ten-year assignment of doing paintings on purpose, because I had, wow, another idea to do a schoolroom. And I didn't look up. While I was painting one I would go to an exhibition or get a catalogue or say, "Oh, my next one is going to be School of de Chirico, or School of Degas."
TAPE ONE, SIDE TWO
Q: You said, "and I don' t know how."
A: Yes. I want to do something entirely different, and I don't know how. And, as I said earlier, I am not a painter · who goes to a canvas and starts experimenting with hope and belief that at the end of a certain time, you're going to come out with an important painting. I am one who thinks, when I put a canvas on the easel, it has to turn out to be an important painting. I don't know what artists think this. I do. I have other artist friends who paint paintings, and don't know whether they're important or not. They just paint them and then go on. Every painting I paint is the most important painting I've ever done, and it's got to work. I kind of got over that when I worked on this. I said, "What if it doesn't?" So I got very much looser. I don't know how I did it, for I don't think I can go back to this. I really don't know if I can go back to this kind of thing again.
Q: I thought a moment ago you were going to say something else. You said some painters don't know what they're going to accomplish, or what they're going to do when they paint, and I thought you were going to say that you normally have a very clear preconception of what you were trying to accomplish, before you started.
A: Yes. And I also know what it's going to look like. And this is where this is different. I had certain ideas of what to do, but I had no idea what it would look like. It looks entirely different than what I would have thought.
Q: Can you talk about the ideas (I can't remember what you just said) that ...You said you had ideas that were in your mind, as you approached this.
A: As I approached this, yes.
Q: Can you talk a little about that?
A: Well, I think we've gone through the idea that I had ...through the point that I had an idea of an artist working-- studios, easels and canvases--and I wanted an unarranged deposit of them. It was sort of like walking up to the canvas blindfolded, and putting your thumb down on one part and saying, "Here. I'll put that one here." Its a vertical canvas; that makes half the conclusion. If it's a horizontal canvas, it's a different problem entirely. A vertical canvas ...I've got this material I want to put on it, and as I said, I had that portrait of me on it way before the rest of the painting came about, where I didn't know which part to put. I think it was easy after I got the "Portrait on Demand" on there, because that took care of the top. I didn't know the sky was going to be that big, because it kept oozing up into the border. Then I kind of realized that the corner, with the man painting at the easel, should be at the bottom, because that's the heaviest. That' s most of the floor. And I had done lots of different rugs and ideas for the woman in the "Studio Visit," and felt a way ...But, like, the black line around the rug is very important because it makes the horizontal for that particular deposit, that particular composition. Then it turns into wall or the sky, of the man painting in the studio. Those were very grave problems, where they met.
Q: It also, somehow ...The dark line around the rug reflects the frame around the egg painting, also.
A: That's beautiful. That's really nicely said. I didn't see that, but I really agree. And also, that trapezoidal shape makes a nice space, because there's two amazing spaces (walls and rugs) in that particular piece.
Q: Yes. I just thought of the fact ...When you see where a building is being torn down, and they've torn off a wall, and you can see into people's apartments, on different floors. This has some of that.
A: It has something to do with that. Yes, it does.
Q: So they're almost voyeuristic. He could almost be on the floor below, in an apartment building, even though I
hadn' t had that association ...
A: Ironically enough, the "Portrait on Demand" is on a roof, to begin with, in reality. That's very interesting.
Q: I think that's one of the fascinations. It's that idea that the fourth wall (it's like theatre), that the fourth wall has been taken away. You wouldn't think that by looking at the "Portrait on Demand," because we're outside and there are no walls, but that's another aspect of the transformation, in which we go from interior spaces to exterior. So this business of limited space, sort of these interiors have back walls, or what started out to be back walls and floors, and then ...
A: Corners are very important. This is very interesting to hear you say that, because it's true. And I think ...It just happens that that is not repeated too much. That's what I was afraid of in this painting; that there would naturally be la, la and la. So you're going to have, let's say, two or three ways of looking into interiors, like those partially destroyed buildings. But it's saved by the bell, because the exterior doesn't have to have a corner. I just found, by looking at this as well, that trapezoidal black line on the rug is in entire agreement with the plate that holds the egg, and I didn't notice that until now. They're on the same level.
Q: The same angle.
A: The same angle. And I think that's good.
Q: Yes. There's a movement that goes from the lower, left-hand corner of that rug, right back, all the way, through the farthest egg painting.
A: So I say an artist doesn't wait for an inspiration. An artist doesn't think that if they paint and not look up there will be a masterpiece. And, you know, those things are not rules. They're reality, for me. But in a painting like this, there is inspiration. There is magic that occurs. The masterpiece word is a difficult word to use. I'm not terribly concerned about that. It's the idea that it works, and the only way I know it works is when somebody else says it works; or you see that it works; that somebody else sees it's working. But it doesn't occur until you're finished, and as the artist, it does not occur until I'm finished. Because if someone says it works before I've decided it's finished, I'm irritated. I'm bothered. I'm irritated. That's not any help. That's why I can't have anyone watch me paint. So, I get heated up and realize this is ...All of that romantic hope and what-is-art? sacredness that I try to pooh-pooh but I can't, because it is an inspiration, and it is something; it is magic, and that's why ...
Q: Even when you're pooh-poohing it.
A: Even when ...I have to take all that back, because that's what art is in the end, anyway. It's untouchable. It's sacred. It's all that.
Q: I was going to say that it's very interesting ...One could imagine (And I'm sure there are) painters who finish something and either they know it's great or it isn't; that what people' s response is is totally irrelevant, let's say ...
Q: You're saying that that's a very important aspect of your work, people's response, and ...
Q: If it works for people. It's like opening night, when people work on a show. I've heard a thousand times writers, actors and writers, say, "The audience decides. If they laugh ...
A: Then you know there's communication. It's human communication. Because I have taught very slightly, and I had one student who wouldn't show me what they were doing. They said, "I've done it at home and I don't want to do it ...I'll draw here, but the real painting I'm working on is at my home." Then I said, "Well, you're not an artist. Why are you not an artist? It's because you don't show your work. Art has to be shown, an artist has to show their work in order for them to know they're an artist. I don't know if you're an artist. You don't even know if you're an artist. Because there's something else you do besides make art. You leave it for someone to see. You don't hide it."
Q: It's connected to the world.
A: It's connected to the world. It's connected to culture. Yes. Those people I just can't communicate with. Then· she started coming to class but wouldn't paint. She would only draw. That was very undoing.
Q: Did she ever bring her things from home?
A: I had to step in on a teacher who had gotten ill, and I think that was a great shock to her. I think she was showing her work to him, but not to me. Yes, that's it.
Q: Have you done paintings that you liked, that you felt worked, that people didn't respond to?
A: Yes, oh, yes. There are quite a few paintings I have ...
Q: And what happens to those?
A: I keep them. I keep them because I learn from them. Then once in a while somebody sees them, and it's a different response.
Q: Does time change that? Do you have things that work for you, and then later it has a life of its own?
A: Very much so. Like I have a collection of, I think, about five paintings depicting different compositions to do with
Mayakovsky, that Russian poet. I won' t show them ...I won' t show one, I'll show them always the series, and nobody's interested in them. And that really stifles me. But every time I show them I find they are so interesting. There are certain people who find them interesting, but not enough to get them shown somewhere. And those paintings are very personal.
Q: I find that with my work, when I do something that I'm really excited about, that sooner or later it's going to have a life.
A: Yes, I feel that, too.
Q: For a long time I got involved in these sort of surreal ...Technically, they were special effects photographs, combining images and distortions, etc. Then I would experiment and try something. Then, often, the latest experimental thing I did that I was excited by, people would respond to it. Other times they wouldn't, but I knew sooner or later they would.
A: One has to. One has to. I have a little painting, using that wall that there' s no stripes on, and it's painted with a border, like I masked the border around it. A collector was very interested in saying, "But you would cut out the border, wouldn't you?" and I said, "Never." And the collector said, "Well, I'll never buy it ...” It was not this harsh, but the collector said, "Well, it's not a painting if it's got all that unpainted border around it." I said, "No, you've got to see it this way." And that was one part ...Then I really considered, "Why don't I cut this down?" I had it photographed, and the photographer said, "Do you want that mess around?" Yes, yes. The whole thing. No, I'm not going to cut it down. Because there's something there, that I don't understand but I prefer it there. I know why. If I were to cut it down, it would look like just any, ordinary Victorian interior. That' s what it is.
Q: I love in the ...I don' t know what you call it ...The large painting of the Vermeers? I saw the Vermeers in it, and the spaces between them, where you have dabs of paint, etc.
[Seven Vermeer Corners, 1999, 50 x 86"]
A: That' s a very much loved ...That's something to do with this. Something to leaving deposits, if you possibly can. Because I'm different since I painted that one, I think.
Q: You hadn' t done that before?
Q: Really. Really.
A: Wash drawings, yes. Paper, yes. There' s something about an American artist, and they [ ? ] tightly when it's time to paint on canvas. Most of my Chicago contemporaries will tell you that. They can do anything on paper, and it's loose and it's beautiful and it's immediate. But when it comes to painting on canvas, it's so expensive, it's so special. Oh, masterpieces are on canvas! Don't waste it! You've got to be good this time. We all get tense.
Q: But you mentioned Pollock before. Didn't he sort of blast that notion?
A: Yes, but he's not from Chicago! [Laughter]
Q: Yes, but they've heard about him in Chicago!
A: It's my generation. Yes. Benny Andrews is a painter. He will cut up a canvas and use it as collage before he will call it okay. If he doesn't like it, he' ll kill it by cutting it up, then using it again.
Q: You said that you're different now ...
Q: In the process of creating this painting, having finished it? How would you ...?
A: Having done it, and finding it's okay, then finding it's really very good. Why? Well, because it's full of rules I've broken on myself. Not finishing the border. My earlier paintings have perfect borders when they have borders, or painted borders. A real good example is this, done in the '70s.
Q: Just say what that painting is.
A: It's "The English Quilt," and it's full of borders, because I wanted to paint this quilted pattern. Then I wanted to not finish it, so it's a part of a quilt, or it's the other side of a quilt. If I'd made it an all-over pattern it would have been an uninteresting composition. But look how carefully I painted the unfinished. See, why didn't I quit? No, I had to get that one color. I had to get that one color so the two empty squares would be empty. Instead of stopping ...
[The English Quilt, 1971, 31.5 x 27.5"]
Q: When did you do that?
A: In the '70s. Then working on the Vermeers, because Vermeer is so finished, it's very difficult for me not to be so finished, even to the very end of the canvas. Upon seeing this exhibition of Vermeer at the National Gallery, I looked to see where he painted, especially, and where he didn't paint especially, and I finally found out. His almost camera-focus is extraordinarily detailed. His peripheral painting is very loose. All is very tight.
Q: You mean the main subject matter, and then the outer areas ...
A: Yes. The outer areas are neglected, or not so intensely, thoroughly painted. It's very nice to see.
Q: Would you attribute that to conscious or unconscious painterly effect, that that helps create something? Or that he got tired [laughs] , or ...What would you attribute that to?
A: Oh, I think literally and definitely, he concentrated on his main visual and didn't concentrate on the peripheral. He was very conscious of that. You can see, I can see, where he quit, or began to quit.
Q: Now is this an artistic ...In other words, does this help make Vermeers what they are?
A: Verrneers? Yes, yes.
Q: And was he aware of that, do you think?
Q: It dramatizes the focus of the central image.
A: Especially, it's tiny ...These are very small paintings, here. They're very barren.
Q: But how can you tell where he ...?
A: Oh. Because there are washes that have never been ...There are slight washes that have never been returned to. As far as the value is concerned it's fine, because behind those washes there' s nothing anyway. Why build it up? Then sometimes he' s so self-conscious that he overpaints, because he' s painting something out. In a lot of paintings he has out, and there' s a little bit a chair that he has to paint too much paint over that. Or you can see on the side there's a little silhouette of something that he' s painted out.
Q: By looking at paintings, Vermeer particularly, you can see, reconstruct how he painted?
A: Yes, you can, lots of times.
Q: Do you think that' s...I mean, it strikes me that that ability would be unusual, even for a painter.
A: To see this? It came to me because there are many experts writing on Vermeer. Therefore, they'd X-ray a few. Not all. The National Gallery has two and they've X-rayed those (that's where I got this material), and in those paintings there's a rearrangement of things. So you can look at the painting and see, "Oh, I see now why and where it was rearranged." Or you can look at another painting, and you can see a little bit of where it was rearranged. I had to find out from the X-rays. The world supplies you with so much information that you can take that little idea and look at something else and apply it, yes.
Q: Would that be an interesting subject for a painting? The notion of pentimento and ...
A: Oh, yes.
Q: Now you see it, now you don't and time, etc. I see a lot of interest in time, in many aspects of time in your paintings.
A: Yes. That's very true.
Q: There' s historical time, there's ...
A: Historical images in contemporary times. I like doing that. We could do a bit of that now, but we'd have to go to the other room.
Q: It's not a problem. Is there anything more ...We can always come back to this, because I think this is ...
A: Well, now that we've looked at this so carefully, anything in the studio I refer to, you' ll know what I'm talking about.
Q: Yes. And it's not going anywhere.
A: No, I just don't want to take it off the wall. Or take it into the ...
Q: No, no, that's fine.
A: I just came in here, into the studio. I just wanted to say that some of the braveness, or the reliable ...My reliability on accuracy and immediacy on that painting in the other room is because of doing the studies for them; the studies first; taking the chance of painting, arbitrarily, just washes on that big canvas, hoping the placement will work right. And when I got to where the placement was, the ability to render the images so easily comes from having done the studies first. Now I was painting on all of them--not the drawings; not the works on paper--but any of the works on canvas, I was painting on all of them, all during the time I was painting. As I was painting the large painting, I was painting the small oil paintings, as well.
A: I had them pretty well finished. I had them on canvas but I wasn't finished with them. I had a little bit more to do with them before ...and I had a little bit more to do with the big painting. They all finished, but the big painting was finished last.
Q: When was it finished?
A: In '92, I think.
Q: And when was it started?
A: I wonder. Oh, '91, '90, yes.
Q: One very flat-footed question I have. I don't know quite how to ask it. The ten-year period of the forty school-of paintings, more or less, had come to an end.
Q: Or at least you were ready for something fresh, something new. And all of these drawings and paintings, works on paper, related to the studio painting that started after that.
Q: And did you have in mind that this was a specific project? That these works were relating, moving toward something specific? Or it was more that than you were trying something here and something there, then it evolved out of that. Can you talk about that?
A: Yes. I came up with the idea of getting material from the studio--easels and paintings, illustrations like that ...
Q: That idea preceded any of these works we're going to talk about.
A: Yes. So there's nothing in here. So what is here in this studio--easels and paintings and ...There's me, so I started thinking of me in a self-portrait. And I really started thinking of where that would be on a big canvas.
Q: And that portrait of the hand, painting your picture, was done at this period.
A: At this period. Quite on purpose, yes.
Q: And what was that? When did that start? When did this project sort of start?
A: I imagine in '90, in 1990, because I remember '91 and '92 going by. And it was meagre. It was hard to get the dust up, because it was so hard to do that. You'll see the timidity in my washed drawing of my self-portrait. It's timid.
Q: And that's the one you started with?
A: That's what I started with.
Q: And do you want to talk about that?
A: I just knew I'd have some three or four paintings that were paintings, small paintings, that were seeable. And I knew I was going to collage them on a bigger stretcher. And I had the stretcher, because it's an old, old stretcher that I took a painting off of. So I started setting all these traps around for me to have to answer, and it was really a little force, a little determination. I didn't know what in the world I was doing. I knew I should be in it, because an artist paints a subject (I had a whole thing on it). An artist doesn't paint a portrait of himself because he thinks it's going to be a good-looking painting, or because he's interested in seeing himself. He paints a portrait of himself to see if he could possibly do it. Possibly make a painting that looks like himself, in the way that he paints . It's really very important. I love any artist who does a self-portrait.
Q: I always imagined it was done, in a way, as a record, both of that moment, that stage, that age, set of mind--all of that. That aesthetic where one was at that moment. It must be all of that, as well as a challenge.
A: It's a surprise, where my self-portraits come in, with those Mayakovsky things. I have Mayakovsky sitting in a chair, and me standing by him, in a painting. That was one of my first self-portraits. I got very interested in that. There are a few other self-portraits just on purpose, like anybody's, any other self- portrait. But I think this was very important because I was pushing myself forward instead of my schoolrooms, you see. I was walking out of that, and I was pushing it very hard. I wanted to take a chance, and this was taking a chance to me, doing a self-portrait.
Q: When I look at that ...I don't know whether I should or not, but I think of "Escher." There's a painting of a hand drawing ...
A: I do, too.
Q: Yes. Is that ...?
A: There's another famous drawing of someone drawing a hand that isn't Escher's. Yes, I'm quite aware of that. They were showing that in school, at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were showing a particular artist and his drawing a hand, but I think it was pre-Escher, somehow. I was fascinated with that. And also, it's like the egg. I don't want to do a still-life and say, "This is a very nice still-life. I want to do a still-life that is surrealistic, somehow. Unusual. The reason I did this "Still-Life With Egg" is because I knew I had a visual problem. This is not a common still-life. This is not in a still-life art store. And it's the same way with the self-portrait. There's all kinds of artists' faces, but it's seldom that you see a hand working on it, getting into it, and that I knew was a good idea. I didn't want to keep the drawing. I wasn't interested in keeping the drawing.
Q: I want to say something. If we have any mind that this tape would be used for some other purpose, this noise would be very distracting. Now maybe you don't care, because we'll be able to hear what's on it, but if at all, somehow ...I'm just mentioning that ...
A: I've got an idea. We can turn this off and ...
Q: We're rolling again. Is that okay?
A: Yes . And I can be heard. Yesterday I found this.
Q: This being ...
A: This piece of paper.
Q: I mean, just for the tape. Describe what we're talking about.
A: It's a drawing done in '81 of a studio that has one source of light, and the source of light is a bunsen burner or something.
Q: This should be included, absolutely.
A: Yes. I didn't realize I had it.
Q: For a lot of reasons.
A: Because it's the same room as this. It's the same room as this.
Q: With the blank canvases on the wall.
A: With the blank canvases.
Q: Now where did that come from?
A: An 18th-century ...But I didn't know I still had the drawing, until I ...I was starting to write about where this interior came from, and I always say it's an 18th-century print showing one source of light. To my surprise, I still had the drawing.
Q: Why would you be surprised?
A: Because it was done in '81.
Q: Don't you keep things?
A: Yes, I do, but I don't know I have them, or some get away. I sell one, or I give one to somebody, but I have that, and that's very important for the series.
Q: So in addition to the large studio painting, how many other pieces will be included in the show?
Q: Eleven. And how would you describe ...?
A: Two are oil on canvas. The rest ...Three. There's a self portrait. There's the "Portrait on Demand," "The Artist in the Studio," and "The Studio Visit." Four oil paintings on canvas. The rest are oil paintings on paper, or just wash drawings on paper. Ink wash drawings on paper.
Q: Do you want to talk about these chronologically? Is that possible? Well, maybe not.
A: I can, yes.
Q: Well, let me put it another way. Having talked at some length about the finished studio painting ...
A: Yes. It's a good idea to talk about the starting.
A: Well, we were onto portraits, and I decided that if I'm going to do a self-portrait, it's not going to be just a general self portrait but something ...
Q: Why don't you just pull up a little bit, halfway at least, or something. That's fine.
A: ...something unusual about it, like this "Still-Life With Egg," and that's when I got the idea of painting my hand in front of my face. Even though I used the same photograph ·for the wash drawing, for the small oil painting, for the end, the upper left in the large painting, each rendering is extremely different. I think the wash drawing of myself, in which I'm quite frightened looking, I'm very uncontrolled, very much unsure ...
Q: The hand looks more sure than the face.
A: Yes. And then I did the green one, and that was interesting to do because it's one color, and the values have to be measured out, and that was interesting, making a solid form. But those two were finished by the time I got to the one on the large canvas.
Q: '92 for the green one.
A: I got this in '93. I'm not terribly curious about what the chronology is, but that's the way I made it, and I don't know why I've got the mistake on the ...I knew that all the time, too. Because it could not have been another way. I could not have done the green one and then the wash one.
Q: Was it that you went back and finished it, or were still working on it?
A: No, it's that I signed and dated it arbitrarily. I put these things away, and then it's time, and in '93 I signed it. I don't pay attention to that. But it's all in a '91 to '93 period.
Q: You were saying that in the first one you looked more tentative.
A: Yes, I think it looks a little bit mechanical, I think it looks a little bit like ...The self-portrait part isn't there.
It's just a face. That's what I was really trying to work on. When in the green one, the small one, I feel like I look like that. And the final one, I feel like I look like that one.
Q: The final one is ... I was going to say "softer, " but that isn't really the right word. It's more ....comfortable.
A: It's a little bit more comfortable, yes. Because I was concluding that I was going to work on this canvas, now, and that's where I started. I did another ...
Q: That' s really interesting, because if you compare the first one you did, where the hand is more prominent, and confident, and more realized, visually, detailed ...
A: Yes .
Q: ...and in the final one, the confidence has shifted to yourself ...
Q: ...and it's much more detailed, and the hand is more of a suggestion.
A: Very true. That is interesting.
Q: You're much more in control. The face. The feeling is.
A: Yes. That's what' s so exciting about this canvas. Each of those things came ...I started saying this big canvas wouldn't be so sure of itself had I not gone through the studies and the sketches, because it sets one up to do ...
Q: Well, I would imagine there's so much to work out.
A: Yes, there's so much to work out. That's what it has to be.
Q: And in every aspect--of design, and color, and subject matter, and lighting, and ...
A: The color's pretty consistent, because I've used this particular underpaint all the way through.
Q: To what extent (this may be a silly question) do you identify with the other painters in this painting? In other words, the painter in the "Painting on Demand." It's not somebody who, normally, I would think, he's a painter ...you would identify with, except that he's a painter...
Q: ...and he' s under certain obligations.
A: Oh, that is so interesting, because when I do a painting like this, a whole dialogue begins, all kinds of stories of what's going on. Now it does ...
Q: Now you had not done anything with this situation , which is based openly on a photograph on a New Jersey rooftop, of a man in cowboy garb, aiming a pistol. And there's a man in a bowler hat, a jacket and a collar, etc ....
A: ...and a palette with the canvas showing, for the viewer to see.
Q: Right. Just about the start.
A: Just about.
Q: "The Painting on Demand" is your title?
A: Yes. When I found that photograph and I started working with this image--that little drawing over there has it in, and that little drawing over there has it. I did it.
Q: It's very funny, because without that title you see a man posing as a cowboy, and a canvas, and a portrait-painter about to start the canvas.
Q: Whereas "Painting on Demand" suggests one possibility, as if he' s being forced to paint it, at gunpoint.
A: "Portrait on Demand."
Q: "Portrait on Demand."
A: Yes. My fantasy is ...
Q : "My portrait, or your life."
A: ...this guy ..."My portrait, or I shoot." And I really like the characters, because this guy has no idea what art is. He just knows his assignment. He's even holding the pistol a bit strangely.
Q: His assignment?
A: He only knows his assignment is to get a portrait. What his station in life; to get a portrait, or get a dead body ...
Q: Oh. He's been assigned by someone else?
A: No, I don't think that. He's got one purpose in life, and that's to get a portrait.
Q: And this is the only way he knows to go about it.
A: Yes. And you can see he knows nothing about art. And this man is an itinerant character, going around the countryside, painting anything anybody wants to. So I think he's cool. I think he's never done this one before, but "we'll do it." And he walks around with his little frail easel and that little thing, the bucket; that little painting can-supply-box.
Q: Now where are we in this painting?
A: Well, I wanted to be in Texas and things like that, but I realized that this is Indiana. This is my father. It's so easy to see that. He had a stance like that. He didn't paint. He didn't have a hat like that, but he had his marriage ...During his marriage, when he was first photographed, he had a hat like that. So I got a lot of that from Indiana sun.
Q: Son, s-o-n?
Q: What did he do, your father?
A: Farmer. So that' s nice to see. I like this little, delicate color, and he's in harsh color. He's in shadow more than he is ...He's not good. He's okay. That kind of thing. So that' s what one thinks. I think his color is...He's a disturbing character.
Q: What' s he going to do with this portrait, when he gets it? You said he doesn't know anything about art.
A: He doesn't know anything about art.
Q: He wants a portrait?
A: It's kind of a play like that. "I don't know what you have, but you give it to me, because I've got a gun." And the man says, "All I have is my talent," and the man with the gun says, "I want that talent, now." And all he can do is paint his portrait.
Q: So you were aware that this was painted to look like your father. He' s the character.
A: No, when we' re doing things like that, that's ...
Q: It's all a blend.
A: ...that comes in. Like, all these studios are my studio, is how I take it. That's why I'm so pleased about putting stripes on this, because that came because I needed to handle that texture, somehow, in working on ...
Q: I'm not sure I follow you.
A: Working on these studio-visit paintings, the problem that came up was how plain the walls were ...
Q: In your studio.
A: ...in these paintings. Oh, no. I'll get to that. The problem was how barren these walls were, and how I don't want to make a ceiling. I don't want to end the walls. The ceiling is a dreadful thing to do, so in one I make the easel too big for the composition. I think that's a nice thing to worry about, because that strange machine is out of control. But the painting part ...I can't put a border around that painting. I want the oil painting to paint all the way to the end. I'm not playing border on this piece, so I make the easel touch the top and the bottom of the canvas. In the drawing I have two pictures on the wall, and each picture has an art nouveau pattern in. I was doing School of Art Nouveau at the very last, and I had these patterns in mind. In the drawing, the vertical, white line stops, and a window or a part of architecture begins. There's also another character in the drawing. There' s a woman at a table, at the left, by the window. Upon doing the painting I eliminated the woman by the window, and put just one character in.
Q: Who was she?
A: Lily Brik, who was Mayakovsky’s girlfriend.The table is from an interior, with Lily Brik.
Q: And what was she doing in the first one? Why was she there?
A: They were sitting together in the studio. He was a painter at times, Mayakovsky, and they were lovers. She was with him a lot. And I liked the table and I liked her little being, sitting by a dish on the table. But then when I decided to purify the oil painting ...Remember, I'm getting tense, because it's oil on canvas now; you can't ruin this one. You paint so much for the canvas, it's got to be good, and what are you doing wasting your time? Can' t you get a good painting going? Well, clean that other one up. Get this better. You've got to have it better.
So I'm not going to put any illustrations in the paintings. That' s better. You don' t want to clog your eyes so much. I'm not going to put Lily Brik in there, because that corner is too valuable; to watch the wall go and come up and turn and disappear behind that white line. And the wall on the left is very good, and I'm going to subdue that painting. It's not going to have anything in it. And there it is, working much, much better. I even made the painting on the wall a little crooked, because that makes it more real. That's the real studio visit. That painting is hung on the wall for storage reasons, not necessarily for decorating the house. That's when I started thinking about my own studio.
So when I threw it onto this large canvas I said, "How can I make it more my studio? Not have to put up with all these paintings on the wall? And yet make the wall interesting? Well, stripe it," because I know the left part of it that goes toward you will be a very nice illusion, to get the painting to move forward.
TAPE TWO, SIDE ONE
A: I had developed the studio visit in the large canvas far more than I had developed the painting at a certain time. The last painting on ...The small painting of the artist, you know, is the clouds; the clouds below the easel, the landscape below the easel and the clouds above. Because I had just painted the clouds in the big painting, above, in the very top of the painting. I loved the color, I loved the freedom of it, and I wanted to get some strange air in that study. That' s why I put a small landscape at the bottom of the easel. There' s no other reason except it just looks better than the easel coming down and touching the floor.
That's when I got the idea that I could "feed myself up," and I did a lot of generality--filling in--when I started that; when I got back to this painting.
Q: What do you mean, "generality."
A: Turning the corner with the stripes. Not paying attention if they' re very rigid or not. Because it's the only real work on the border. The rest are layovers. They're layovers, somehow or another. But I wanted those few stripes to turn the corner, so that would give you a place to sit to look at the painting. Because the egg, the portrait of the egg, comes out so far. So all the information one gets it helps to apply to the final piece. I don't know whether I'll ever do anything like this again, but I certainly will do it by doing a drawing, a painting and then a painting. That's the lesson learned.
And this. This is called "Western Study." It's the beginning of using “Portrait on Demand." This is another kind of collage situation, in which I'm just arranging any kind of Western-looking color or form--horses, children and a canoe (that' s all Western)--putting it together in any way. Well, I had it all pretty well worked out, and I realized that ...And this is the way a painting is kind of born. I realized that the man on the horse was too small , so I painted him again to his right, to make it larger. Then I realized the two of them looked nice together. It's like I could leave that. Well, I had those boys at the right ...They're playing tag. They're playing that thing in which children ...
A: Crack-the-whip! Crack-the-whip! And I suddenly ran out of them. I ran out of space and I just left them there, because I liked the idea of them being there. These are ideas put on top of the drawing while the drawing is at work; while the drawing is being worked on. I put that "Portrait on Demand" years later on this piece, because I had no ...I had a bunch of no-reference images that looked like the West.
Q: You' re saying that you had done this painting without the "Portrait on Demand" on it previously.
Q: So you had it. So this is something you brought into this project.
A: I was interested in using it. I was interested in using it, yes. Because I had painted the little horse, the little man and his horse, years ago, and said one day, when I looked at it, "The horse should be bigger." So I made the horse bigger.
Q: Also years ago?
A: Also years ago.
Q: So everything on that had been painted, except the "Portrait on Demand."
Q: And what was in that ...? It just continued up ...?
A: Yes. It's green, and I think I had a little part of a porch. I put those boys on a porch. I have a porch I use all the time.
Q: The whole painting, except for the "Portrait on Demand," feels very different than anything else connected with this project.
Q: It's always ...Until now it felt ...
A: Yes. It has nothing to do with it.
Q: It's confused me, because I thought ...So, in fact, it wasn' t painted. I mean, it was brought in to sort of cast the ...or try out the ...
A: "How am I going to finish this collage-like painting, now that I ..."
Q: It is collage-like.
A: This is a collage-like painting, and this is a collage-like painting.
A: That's why it's in the series, because it's arbitrary areas put together. That' s why there are two horses. One year there was one, another year there was two. One year there·was two boys on a porch and I don't like the porch because it doesn't rhyme with the canyon over there, the Western prairie ...the cliffs. And I'm interested in this "Portrait on Demand" and I want to draw it whenever I can. I'm going to draw it there because it's arbitrary and it' ll fit that space, and I'm finished with this piece.
Q: So you're sort of killing two birds with one stone.
Q: Is that fair to say?
A: Yes. I've got to get this out of my system. Somehow I've got to finish this number. And upon putting that, I had control of the "Portrait on Demand." I knew I could manipulate that "Portrait on Demand" picture, and that' s when I started ...Then I started the painting, and I did that drawing to begin with. The drawing which is the first drawing of all.
Q: And where are we?
A: We' re in front of Edward Hopper' s "Night Hawks."
Q: Which you had been working on.
A: Yes. I was doing a painting on it, and I was going to extend it and make it part of the city block, because I found out where it was. But because of St. Vincent' s Hospital ...
Q: It was in Manhattan.
A: It's in Manhattan. It's the right side of St. Vincent' s Hospital. There' s a big, red wall there and I can't make up anything except that big, red wall, so I abandoned it. But my drawings never die. I put that away and one day, when I was looking for some reason to draw a "Portrait on Demand" again, I put it on there. So you use it like a logo. I put it around until I get a hold of it; I use it again and again. And that's why that's in this series. That's why we' re showing that in this series.
Then the painting became divine, and I didn't think I could possibly paint it again, when I painted it up in the large canvas . Can it bloom like it's been blooming? So well? And it has. Very limited color, again.
Q: You don't have any notion of showing the photographs or paintings that inspired any of these things, in the show?
A: Oh, I've considered that so carefully, but I don't think so, with using your photographs, you see. Also, I don't think that's a good idea.
Q: Probably it isn' t. I was just curious what you thought about it.
A: Each time I show (you're an exception) ...Each time I show, generally, people where I got the idea, the whole interest dissolves.
Q: I did magic when I was a kid, and people would say, "How did you do that? How did you do that trick? How did you do it?' And as soon as you showed them how ...Oh!
A: Yes, yes. It's very true in this kind of thing.
Q: There's a very powerful magic that's important to maintain. Because it really doesn't explain it. It's something else. Completely something else.
A: Once in a while they show an exhibition ...I saw an exhibition of a French painter in Paris, a very nice exhibition, and then a little chest. It showed his palette, old paint, his brushes, and maybe a cloth or two, and I just thought that was terrible.
Q: You know what that is? It's like showing a trick that it would seem to explain it, but it doesn't really explain it. If it really explained it, it would be as exciting as the thing itself. But it doesn' t. It just sort of ...
A: Yes. It's too many words, saying it too many times. It's not the point. It's not the point.
So I want to go ...
Q: Yes, go ahead.
A: The landscape painting. Because I had such mental reward with "Still Life With Egg," and I was warmed up to do something exceptional to all three of these images, all four of these images, all five of these images--the five images we've got on this canvas. I've explained the "Still Life With Egg" and why it's not a normal still life. Now I'm concerned with the landscape painter. In my original drawing the canvas is vertical. In the original drawing from an eighteenth-century print. The easel is sitting in the middle of the room and the canvas is vertical. So I had to ...If I had to put a man ...
Q: Oh, you' re saying that the canvas in the painting is vertical ...
A: Yes, the canvas in the painting is vertical.
Q: ...not the painting itself.
A: No. That's good. That' s good. And I'm going to use this as my studio for the man who' s painting the landscape. So I take the easel ...That has an easel in it. I'm keeping the easel there, but I'm putting a man behind the easel, painting, and the painting has been turned so it's horizontal, because that' s what a landscape painting is. So I've then created in this drawing a table in which there' s a floating landscape, and this I knew was going to be good because it's depicting the studio, again, in an unusual way; a dreamlike way, a forced way, imaginative way, and this tickled me. To begin with, I had a cup and saucer under the tree; to the right of the tree, on the green, because it's a table with a cup and saucer on it, and he' s imagined the landscape has come in. But it got to be so "cute" (you've got to watch these things) that I painted it out. Later, when you look closer, you can still see it. I know where it is, still. I kept a border around it because it could get bigger at any moment. I'm experimenting, so I put a tinted border around it, so when I scoot out I'm able ...Like the biggies in the studio visit. I'm kind of interested in doing something that will go out of the proscenium, so to speak. So I paint a border around there, so that when I squeeze it out it's not on just a blank paper. That' s how that green border got there. It ended up that I didn't use it, but upon framing it I thought it was a nice idea to use it to frame, with that border. I've no color conclusion here, yet, except the landscape is green and the sky is blue. The painter is grey, and I've had two pots of acrylic paint. I'm not going to go into color now. Now that was done ...
Q : . ..in '91.
A: And the day I made it, it was on an easel, on a board, and an English friend came in to visit, like he does every year, looked at that and said, "Can I buy it?" I said, "No. I just did it. I don't know what it is yet." So he asks to see it every time he comes in, and I won't sell it because I want to keep it with the series. Then I realized I had a new composition to go in my collection of compositions. Now we can go to the canvas. Most of the time I have stretchers on hand, and I had no determination of how big the study for the landscape painter would be. But I had nice, thick stretchers and I don't know the size of it but it's too long. It's too wide. It's too wide.
Q: It's almost like a 35mm frame.
A: Is it?
Q: Well, but it's actually a little more square. A 35mm frame is 2" X 3", and this is a little more square than that. I mean, it's a very long rectangle.
A: It's a very difficult challenge ...composition to solve, because of the table. You've got a horizontal table, a horizontal landscape, and a horizontal shadow under the table. Because this is one light source. And this bothered me a great deal. And then I've got a lot on the right, so I made up that rug. And that' s why, if a composition is good, you make it good. I think it's a charming composition, it's just too long. It's not too long, because I had landscape in mind. I wanted it to be long like a landscape. And these are little secrets that bothered me, but I'm over them, because I think it reads quite well.
Q: You said if a composition is good, you make it good.
A: If the composition isn't good, you make it good. If the composition is good, it's because you made it good is also a way of saying it. It just doesn't "happen." It looks like it's going to happen. There's something that comes up that you didn't expect. On analyzing it, I thought that oval canvas was a neat thing to put on the wall because it has such a nice shadow. But then it started looking like a badly-drawn moon.
Q: To me it looks like an egg.
A: There you go. It's an unusual format. In the laws of hanging and exhibition, take all irregular paintings away--any oval paintings, any triangular paintings--take them all away and hang everything. Then if you have room for the unusual shapes, hang those. That' s what I started doing here. I thought it was a very nice idea. Then when it came down to transferring it to the next painting, I didn't want to do that.
Q: But the egg shape remained.
A: Because I already have an egg.
Q: You didn't have an egg at that point, did you?
A: I don't know that. I don't know that. I didn't realize that ...
Q: Something in you wanted an egg in this painting.
A: I certainly had to have an egg.
Q: It was hatching an egg.
A: Conception, don't you know.
Q: That's interesting about the exhibition ...
A: Yes, that's interesting ...
Q: ...about hanging your show, in the odd shapes .
Q: And then it wasn't in the final version.
A: No. That's why it's fun, or very interesting, and I don' t know if necessary, but a really good idea is to do a drawing, do a painting, then do the painting. I usually do a drawing and a painting. This is that one step further, putting them all on one piece of paper, or one format. I have to stop.
Q: Something that occurred to me when you were talking about the Western painting (and then I began to see it everywhere) is the idea of twinning. The idea of two. You were talking about the horses.
A: Is that interesting?
Q: The two men in the "Painting on Demand," and the two boys playing, and the two men in the ...
A: And the two trees, which I didn't ...
Q: The two trees.
A: I never wanted to paint those two trees. But ...
Q: And the two men in the canoe.
A: ...the [ ? ] won. The two men in the canoe.
Q: And in the final painting, you know, two eggs ...
A: Two chairs.
Q: Two chairs. The man in the shadow ...
A: The man in the shadow ...
Q: The two like canvases on the wall. It's there ...
A: You're the second person who said the twin ...easels ...
Q: Well, I picked that up from, I guess, the introduction to ...Something that was written about you.
A: Oh, good. Because I was just going to refer to that.
Q: That' s where the idea came from.
A: It's the book on schoolrooms.
A: And I learned from that, because this woman came to interview me in order to write the book, and she says, "Tell me about yourself," and I said, "I was a twin." I'll never do that again. When I tell about myself I'm going to start with New York, because I don't like reading it. It's a nice story, but I don't want to take that time up for that.
Q: You were talking about ...
A: And that thing is happening right below the “Portrait of an Egg;” between “Portrait of an Egg” and the two paintings on the wall of the artist in the studio. That worried me for a long time until the logical, relaxing words came to me, "There has to be some place where nothing is happening. " That 's when you mentally clear it up. You don't do anything about it by going through it with a brush. And the lower part of the artist in the studio, that unpainted, just drawn-in floor, I am so proud of. Because there's no need to finish it; it's already there . That's where I got it from Vermeer. Vermeer will wash it in, render it, but not pick it up and put it in his ending details.
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