David Ryan

 

 

Talking Painting

Talking Painting

 

Interview with Mary Heilmann New York 1996

 

David Ryan: Do you feel uncomfortable with the term abstraction in connection with your work? Many painters today, I think, feel the term limiting and unhelpful in many ways, maybe because it seemingly contradicts painting's possibilities for representation in the fullest sense of that word....
 
Mary Heilmann: Well...I don't feel so uncomfortable with 'abstraction'. It's just that we have to do a lot more talking around it in order to properly define what we do.
 
DR: In the past you've suggested the term 'geometric' as a clearer way of describing your activity...as being more specific to the work....
 
MH: Right. Although I think we use these words as conveniences and think they do serve a purpose. Usually, y'know, when somebody like the guy in the gas station, or my brother, asks me about what I do...I say, "I do oil paintings that are abstract, and that means that it is not really a picture of anything specifically in an outwardly obvious way, but sometimes when you look at it, references to the everyday reveal themselves and with more looking, they get stronger."... I think people get that, y'know, I think we do know the difference between, say, a realistic painting and one that is 'abstract'; so for that reason it's still a useful word, at least for a marker.
 
DR: You once mentioned that when you started painting, you treated each painting as an 'object'....
 
MH: That's right. Because when I was at school, I studied sculpture and when I first came to New York, I started doing sculpture and nobody really seemed really engaged with painting. I was involved with people who were initiating early performance art, music and also sculptors. To try to find my own voice, to do something original, at least in my immediate environment, I turned to doing painting in order to separate myself off from the others, but I still saw myself within that continuum of sculpture.
 
DR: Was the notion of process prevalent at that time?
 
MH: Sure. In sculpture certainly...more than painting. Although people like Ryman were working of course, and Ryman was really about deconstructing the materials of picture making. And I was, too, though not really deconstructing, in my case because I didn't come from a painting background. I was constructing the materials of painting from naivetÈ. As an undergraduate I was a literature major, and as a graduate student I was a sculptor, so I had to find a way into painting 'from scratch' in many ways....
 
DR: You also maintained a physical connection, in a sculptural sense, with the primacy of materials - many of the earlier paintings are made with the hand directly....
 
MH: That's right, like finger painting, almost like a child's painting in fact. Also I worked with the stretcher frame and made paintings where the image was at the back of the canvas, the cross of the stretcher bars. And I made pieces where I would peel acrylic paint off a glassy surface, or maybe an oil surface and then re-apply it to the canvas....It was really like doing sculpture with the materials of painting.
 
DR: Going back to this notion of the object...was it the idea of making an autonomous work or was it more a notion whereby this object/ painting might also connect with, say, other objects in the real world?
 
MH: Certainly now, I'm interested in a situation whereby a painting will connect with the architecture of the room, and also the objects that a person might come across in the space of that room; it becomes a kind of 'conversation' between these elements. I might add that this takes on a domestic feel, it's about the kind of objects one might have in a home, and this feeds into the ceramic work I've been doing recently. Also I have a new home in the country and I'm beginning to work out there, in fact the whole home will eventually become the studio, so the work will really end up "speaking" to the home as part of the practice. I feel quite comfortable with this as it brings together long standing interests. There is so much happening with this now as well, there's a guy doing a house project in Los Angeles He's building the house that will contain his decor-inflected pieces, and Richard Prince, he did a house piece a couple of years ago. But, going back to your question...I'm trying to think about whether earlier on this was such a concern. I think it's really the last five years or so that it's become so important. Having said that, the earlier shaped canvases were also about similar concerns to an extent, that's what really showed me that the drawing of the edge of the canvas which uses the wall as part of the subject, can in fact embrace a larger conception of the work's 'world'.
 
DR: Thinking about your 'hands-on' approach to form, de Kooning once made a marvellous analogy between painting and the construction of a clay sphere, made without rulers or callipers or such instruments - so it is done completely by eye - the creation of a perfect sphere. So long as you avoided the measuring instruments, who is to say it's a perfect sphere? One day it looks right, the next a little flat on one side, the day after someone comes round and says it's a little lumpy over here and so on. this delicate balance of addition and subtraction together with the idea that you never know for sure that it's 'right', fascinated de Kooning. Such an image for me also conjures up the kind of very plastic approach to geometry that your work possesses....
 
MH: Yeah? Great! Well, in a sense that whole approach to intuitive balance is important. In designing the composition of my paintings I reflect a process of cutting up the rectangle in several different ways at once; firstly, by means of grid structures with their almost anti-compositional overtones and also in the more fractured sense that we've just been talking about. So on one level I've managed to avoid the problem of composition, but when we think, say, of these diptychs and multi-panelled pieces in relation to the articulation of the whole space then a kind of composition re-emerges in a different way, and one can think of Japanese flower arranging, which is both disciplined and intuitive, in relation to all this. What has also been very significant is doing shows with other people, where different artists' works speak to each other. That has become a very exciting part of the practice.
 
DR: Has all this made you reflect more specifically on the active participation of the viewer?...
 
MH: Completely...as equally important as the discrete objects themselves. When you get those kinds of group shows where pictures are just put on the wall one after the other, and the sculpture is stuck on the floor - I just hate those. Similarly, I've often gone into collectors' houses and they'll have everything on show in their house filling every inch of the space, and I always thought it looked so awful...very hard to see the work, I could never figure out the logic of this, it seemed so arbitrary. But for me, that is why this sense of 'arranging' is so crucial and also intuitive, y'know very subjective kinds of criticism are brought into play here...you'll say, this works and that doesn't, etc.. In fact making installations is very close to doing decor...all that 'bad' stuff that was not considered as serious.
 
DR: How do you think about scale in relation to these ideas around installation?...
 
MH: Of course, scale is affected by the room that the work is made in, and then the exhibits are designed in accordance with the room where they are going....So if I'm going to have a show somewhere I will familiarise myself with that space and reflect on the relation to the scale of the work in the studio.
 
DR: Going back to the notion of composition, or placing, you once said that you liked playing with form ‘like a kid playing with building blocks’. Is that interest in very basic formal manoeuvres still relevant?...
 
MH: Well, this is even important for those installational concerns I was just mentioning, that sense of arranging; it must never look fussed over or too obvious, so in that sense you could say that if it didn't really look like a kid stacking blocks, then it's wrong. Of course, really, it's much more complex than that and there's more behind it, but there's a lot to be said for that simplicity and as you can see, my approach to form is still pretty basic. Actually line has become more important to me in some of these paintings - and a freehand line rather than masked. Over in that painting [pointing] you can see a kind of 'baroque' motif sneaking in; I like that sense of line, and how it travels across the surface.
 
DR: A sense of time seems very important for your paintings and I wondered whether you consciously set this up and if so, how?...
 
MH: You mean a kind of compressed time and memory?
 
DR: Yes. It's a complex issue, I know, and there are many ways of looking at this, but thinking about the object/ painting in relation to these ideas throws up certain contrasting approaches; the object might be a catalyst, a springboard for a flow of memories, and we can think of Proust's ‘Madeleine’ as such an object, or the reverse: the memory in search of an object that might correlate in some way, we might search for an object that might act as a container for such memories, that holds them in such a way that translates them into a concrete experience for someone else....Is that compatible with your approach?
 
MH: Yeah, I like that. They are certainly about memory, and they also have these titles that help to cue the memory, in which the viewer is invited to reflect on the relationship between this verbal framing and the visual experience of the work, in this way it is a kind of translation with this inter-personal thing going on. I like to think of painting as 'imploded', whereby this chunk of matter can contain many different layers, a kind of compression of experience. The painting behind you is called 'Like Sleep' and knowing this you probably experience the painting differently. Actually I've started putting their titles on the side of them, so they are literally inscribed physically, and I guess it's only one step to writing the title on the surface, and I've considered this.
 
DR: Wasn't it Robert Motherwell who felt he 'painted with titles', considering the verbal element as much intrinsically part of the materials of the painting process as pigment or canvas?
 
MH: Actually he's not one of my favourites, probably because of the verbal thing coming before the fact. I feel that the memory or the imaging of the memory is not so deep with Motherwell as it is with some people. But he wrote on them sometimes, didn't he? All those ‘Je t'aime’ paintings...that's something good though, I'm probably going to start doing that...if I can get away with it without being too hokey! [laughs]
 
DR: You've often spoken of a relationship between your work and other media: film, television. Is this still a positive relationship for you?
 
MH: Sure. That's the great thing about painting. It's funny, though, I'm not so interested in the movies at present. Now, my obsession is with music. I teach also, and I like to talk about non-objective or abstract painting using the analogy of song, because songs often tell incredibly complex and sometimes long stories utilising very few words. The music, as the aural imagery, is a big part of this, setting the scene and structuring the narrative. On another level, there is a dialogue going back and forth between the visual arts and music very much right now, with people trying to figure out how to make good music videos, and the visuals are part of the whole package. Also guys like David Bowie and Brian Eno both do artwork, and many current bands went to art school, people like David Byrne studied art originally too. Currently I'm particularly interested in 'world music' and how this has affected rock and pop recently.
 
DR: What interests you about 'world music'?
 
MH: I like the fact that it's colonialism going backwards. I mean, geographically there is so much more interplay, and with the social complexity of the metropolitan centres, there is a process of the 'colonised' colonising the colonisers, to the point where the so-called 'first-world culture' is no longer owned or dominated by a white middle class, and that is very exciting. In our country this has resulted in an empowering of what was an underclass, you only have to see how white youths are partaking in, and imitating codes that are laid down for them, culturally hybrid so to speak; and the other thing is that through music, art and culture in general, it's all being envisioned in clothes, style and colour, etc.. So 'world music' celebrates, for me, this increasingly complex situation, reflecting a more nomadic cultural orientation.
 
DR: I'd like to go back to your point about using song structure as an analogy for painting...how does this relate to your own work?
 
MH: I think about this in terms of a painting being like a song, in that a painting will have different elements to it which add up to something like a story, or at least a narrational structure. One of the elements would be the title, which is the verbal aspect that can 'frame' the other elements, which might include a sense of light; particular culturally encoded colour combinations and actual physical layers and shapes which you could also pick apart, rather like a puzzle....
 
DR: So this is a 'narrative' level - the process, how it is made, this tells its own story?
 
MH: Sure. What you did first, second etc., and so if as a critic or student or art-lover or whoever, would simply look and reflect on the experience of the painting, perhaps even simply describing this experience, saying what's there, they would, ultimately, come up with the meaning of the piece. For them, that is, this is of course relative. But, such a process is not so different from taking apart a poem, of analysing a poem, and arriving at a sense of meaning.
 
DR: Towards the end of the text that accompanied your 'Greatest Hits' show at the Pat Hearn Gallery a couple of years ago, the inference was, here, that you were concerned with particular formal outlooks and re-examining them from a more gender specific perspective. We could think, for example, of Donald Judd's work and the kinds of discourse that attached themselves to that work or that outlook - notions of universality, distance, etc., together with his own terminology for the work: the ‘pure power’ or ‘pure presence’ of the object. Such terminology would be unacceptable in many ways today, and many artists involved with a formalist approach might stress a more reflective, subjective, resonant mode; we might perhaps invoke Shirley Kaneda’s term, ‘the feminisation of formalism’, here. Are you sympathetic to such a reading of your own work in this light, or do you subscribe to a gender-specific position?
 
MH: Yeah, well ... it's something that's fun to talk around, because you could go to a Judd piece now, and analyse the experience of that work, take it apart, and ascribe it as being a very reflective and feminine, intuitive and engaged work, not monolithic, solid, powerful, self-contained at all. it's funny, because Judd's work is very domestic; he made furniture, he made his whole home base encampment in Texas and took great pleasure and care in viewing the works in relation to each other and the architectural environment, with a very post-modern kind of attitude, which he would have ultimately denied, I think; but it was there. It wasn't in his personality, certainly not. But then the whole thing is complex, which is why I see this whole ‘gender’ discussion as interesting only for conversational purposes. To go back to Judd and say it's ‘feminine’: it isn't really, literally, it's just from the perspective of a new point of view. you could equally powerfully and deeply speak of it in his terms. Both positions are ‘true’, so to speak.
 
DR: In one sense we are also talking about how an artist might relate to certain traditions within the genre of abstraction, and how these might be re-figured. Much has been written about the seemingly endless repetition of the ‘emblems’ of abstraction - the tradition of monochrome painting, the grid, etc., and more recently appropriational strategies as a re-figuring of the past. How do you view your own positioning within the continuum of tradition?
 
MH: Well, I think my work does speak to the history of art, and more specifically, to the history of modern art. There are elements of appropriation: maybe the titles or colour, references to other paintings etc., but these are not used as ‘"strategy’, but rather part of the whole process. I like to think that each piece has my own work inside of it but also, my experience of the whole of art history as well. In this way I think time is relevant again, a kind of compressed time. As I said earlier, all this experience can be sucked into one chunk of matter. Painting can offer this, and it's a new way of taking apart time, of thinking about time.
 
DR: What is your relationship to theory?
 
MH: I think theory - or rather the writings of the great thinkers who have provocatively attempted to describe the nature of our reality - I think we can use these ideas in our lives, not just our art. It can become part of it, like, say, music does. Sometimes I find I recognise my own thoughts in these ideas, after the fact. For example when I was writing on film and sentimentality, I didn't know Frederic Jameson's marvellous essay on the same subject, where he says sentimentality can be a route to true sentiment. I'd said much the same thing in my own way. I often read things after I've heard about issues that I recognise as part of my own thought processes, or through the general ‘buzz’. In this way, I see theory simply as part of popular culture, ironically, I guess.
 
DR: Finally, what is your perception of contemporary painting?
 
MH: Well ... when I switched over from sculpture to painting, I really did believe that painting was dead, that it was finished in some ways that enabled me to do what I did. That would be around 1969. Thinking back to my student days, none of the interesting people did painting, they were involved with performance art, ‘happenings’ or conceptual art. But what happened was, that this process of ‘destroying’ painting, of taking it apart, really re-energised it, and has ‘eaten’ all of that material and used it to make new work, which is often unashamedly visually gorgeous, and manages to do something powerful and moving with something that can hang on a wall...and very popular: the imagery, the touch, the colour it can reflect popular taste, fashion, etc., so it's not dead at all. Now many interesting students are doing painting....
 
DR: It's interesting that you say when you started painting, you were also convinced it was dead. Was this a kind of playing around with the remnants of a dead language?...
 
MH: Yes. And I felt it was a very perverse thing to turn to, for me, at that time. It was really denigrated by the people that I associated with, like Carl Andre and Robert Smithson....Smithson, I remember having provocative discussions with him about certain painters just to see what he'd say....I remember us having a conversation about David Hockney, and he said, ‘I can't believe I'm even talking about David Hockney.'...[laughs]
 
DR: ...And Andre?
 
MH: Yeah...I can't remember anything specific ... he was just generally contentious [laughs]. The other person though, who I had conversations with, was Joseph Kosuth, who of course was really anti....I would try and provoke him, playfully...I used to suggest he take up painting in his spare time, and for a long time after, we didn't speak [laughs].