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by Elana Hagler Profile, 12″ x 12″ 1995 Living Room, 8″ x 6″ 2000

Katy Schneider is a painter and art professor at Smith College. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and of awards from the National Academy of Design and the Academy of Arts and Letters. Schneider grew up in New York City in a family of nine. Her work focuses on themes related to her upbringing: making the most of a small space, organizing chaos and uncovering family dynamics. She has always been interested in the power of light to tell a story. Her work is in numerous collections, including The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the New Britain Museum and the Smith College Museum of Art. She has also illustrated several award winning children’s book. Among various awards she received the prestigious Bank Street College of Education’s Book Award.

It was an honor to interview painter Katy Schneider. Her work is densely packed and deeply observed. Her paintings are scented with traces of Manet, Vuillard, and Velazquez, while remaining idiosyncratic and profoundly personal. Schneider composes with strength and authority…her hand imbues the weight of history onto the fleeting moment.

Studio, 8″ x 10″ 2002 Self Portrait Mae, 13.5″ x 15″ 1997 Self portrait, pregnant – Olive and Mae, hand on belly, 10 x 12″, 1999 Self Portrait with Olive and Mae, 6.5″ x 10″ 1997

Elana Hagler:     At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a painter? Was this a direction that seemed to grow very naturally for you, or was there any internal or external opposition?

Katy Schneider:     I planned to be a doctor. After taking a really rigorous painting class sophomore year, I realized that all I wanted to do in college was paint. To get a Yale degree doing something this fun actually felt like cheating. That was the internal opposition/questioning I felt. I wondered if I was avoiding “hard work” by steering clear of classes which were heavy in reading and writing; I was constantly zoning out. But I was hyper-focused with painting. I wanted to work all the time and was completely engaged. It felt so good to have what felt like a brain massage. This didn’t seem “right.” Work could equal pleasure? That’s not what I was taught. I got used to it though.

I don’t think I ever reached a point when I knew I wanted to “be” a painter. That’s true today. I just know that I love to paint, a lot of the time. But I’ve come to love doing many things. And I treat most everything I do as a creative endeavor, an artwork in the making. This semester for example, my teaching (Smith College) is transforming. I’m extra-fascinated by it suddenly. Like painting, (or making music—another interest of mine) teaching is about effectively communicating. Recently, I came up with a couple of new assignments and just shifted the order in which I present various ideas. Even adding one new color to your palette can dramatically change your paintings. This semester, the class feels fresh, more fun, more surprising; but it also fits together better, flowing more easily than ever before. I feel clearer and lighter. There aren’t as many paintings in my studio this month but I feel really full and very energized.

Looking back, the direction towards making my particular paintings grew very naturally. Early on I loved crafts. We didn’t have many materials so I became good at recycling and repurposing. I’d make little dolls out of our old cloth diapers and random scraps of felt. I painted about a zillion eggs. I’d blow them out and create ornate patterns with magic markers. When I was eight I made “the Mr. Smith series” of little books. As a teenager I drew my many siblings. I sewed, crocheted and played guitar. Everything fit in my lap and could be stored easily. It was a small, loud, busy place (nine people in a two-bedroom apartment). My work as an adult harkens back to this place. It’s all about making the most of a small space, ordering chaos. I repurpose scraps of board to paint on, no matter how tiny. Recently I made a bunch of one-inch paintings. Eggs and holey t-shirts from high school find their way into still-life set ups. People are crammed into 8 x 10 inches. I even spiraled back to books, illustrating several when I was in my forties.

In retrospect, all the making as a child probably functioned well to create some internal peace and quiet when there was very little externally. The act of making, even just sloshing paint around, calms my mind. The world is no less quiet now, so luckily I have my outlets.

Self Portrait, 9″ x 7″ 1997 Self Portrait with Olive, Mae and Patterned shirt, 1997 7 x 9” 9th Month, 10″ x 7″ 1995 Self portrait with Olive and Mae, pregnant, 1999, 8 x 10”

EH:     Many of your paintings have a very warm light to them. Do you tend to paint at night under artificial light?

KS:     Yes, I always paint with artificial light. My lamps are the most important ingredient in what I do. I could paint with spaghetti sauce as long as I had my lamp to orchestrate the light and shadows and to construct the geometry. I usually paint in a corner of my basement with the window covered. Newer energy saving lightbulbs have been problematic. I like “old-fashioned” ones. I am often frustrated by how the paintings look when I take them out of the light in which they were painted. Lighting my easel as well as the scene I’m painting is a challenge. I often huddle to share the one light source. Adding two seems to wreck the drama I’m after.

EH:     When I look at your work, I start to think of Manet, Vuillard, and even Velazquez. Whose work do you come back to again and again?

KS:     I am a huge fan of all three painters. Vuillard is always in the back of my mind while painting. My teacher Bernard Chaet gave a talk in which he said we all have our own personal sense of geometry. This comment was memorable. I recognize something in a Vuillard (and in a Chaet) which feels familiar and powerful. The way he divides his rectangle resonates with me.

These shows really stuck with me: The Morandi and the Piero della Francesca shows at the MET in NYC. Stunning. I was really blown away by the Lawren Harris show of Canadian landscapes at the MFA in Boston (curated by Steve Martin). I was forever changed by the Alice Neel show which came to the Smith College of Museum. I hadn’t seen paintings of pregnant women before. All the portraits were so unpretentious, humorous and human. That show made me relax. Just plop people on a chair and start painting. I love the Dutch painter Gerard ter Borch. I am thrilled every time I come across one of his paintings. This month I found one in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Again, the abstraction, the geometry in all these painters I’ve mentioned, feels familiar, comforting and right. And, to be able to achieve this level of abstraction while being so detailed, so (seemingly) faithful to reality, is astounding to me. It is horribly easy to get illustrative while painting from life.

Self Portrait with Olive, Mae and Basketball, 1997 8 x 10” Basement, 10″ x 12″ 1997 Townsend Family 12″ x 10″ 2005 Levys 14″ x 12″ 2007

EH:     You paint scenes of families, domestic chaos, portraits, and flowers, all in times past often misguidedly downplayed as feminine subject matter. The scale of your work is also as intimate as the genres. What stands out to me, however, is that you paint with a very bold hand, stressing shape and form over detail, with the strength of design and a rugged surface holding off any sentimentality at bay. Can you talk to us a little about your choice of subject matter?

KS:     Thank you. I try hard to avoid cliché and sentimentality. I grew up with Kathe Kollwitz posters over my crib. Her lithographs of mothers and children were stories of depression and loss. They were dark portraits, the farthest thing from cute. Raising children is not all sunshine and I try to capture all aspects of being a mother in my work: love, boredom, sadness, distraction, mess, work. I will unabashedly paint babies, flowers and puppies. They have gotten a bad rap because too many people stop short, simply illustrating them. Aside from Kollwitz and Neel, most of my heroes for this type of subject matter are actually men: Manet and Fantin La Tour for flowers; Rembrandt, Velásquez and Stubbs for animals; Picasso and Sargent for toddlers.

I cried when I last saw Picasso’s First Steps. Sargent’s Neopolitan Children Bathing at the Clark in Williamstown is one of my favorite paintings in the world. It is deeply human. I have never thought of subject matter as feminine or masculine. I paint most everything except landscape which I leave to my husband, brilliant landscape painter Dave Gloman. Typically I am interested in painting a particular scene because of something formal I’m seeing—the abstraction (light, color, shape, etc). I’m interested in a balancing act between volumes and flat shapes, fuzzy and hard edges. I paint pregnant bellies for the same reason I paint peony buds. I paint smooth baby heads for the same reason I paint eggs–I love spheres.

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Lute, ca. 1662–63, Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 18 in.

I adore Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Lute, Check it out- She is such an egg. The one delicate, glowing orb of a head is so special because it is contrasted and supported by the flat, straight stuff—walls, map, chairs). 5% volume to 95% flatness. It’s so fake and so real. I can’t say I hear or think about music looking at her playing a lute. I think about an egg shell.

White Peonies, 2017, 12” x 12” Pink Peonies, 2017, 8 x 10” White Peonies on Green, 2018, 5x 7”

EH:     I personally struggled with getting illustrative quite a bit, especially as a very young painter. What advice can you offer young painters on avoiding getting illustrative and why it is important to do so in the first place?

KS:     Hmm, that’s a hard question. It might actually be helpful to say, “Hey student, I think you would be a great illustrator. You love detail. Your work would come to life, feel even more complete if it was accompanied by words, poetry, stories etc.”

If the student was sure they were not at all interested in illustration, 1. I’d suggest they copy great paintings using a big brush. 2. I’d suggest they tone a board, set up a strong spotlight on their subject and give themselves a (maybe a half-hour) time limit on painting the scene, starting with just the brightest brights. (Often this shows students how less is more.) 3. I’d suggest they do blind contour drawings and study why they might be enjoying looking at those. 

Sometimes an overly illustrative painting can feel like a grocery list. One lemon, one egg, one cup. Sometimes it feels like lyrics that aren’t yet put to music. Melody and arrangement elevate and transform the lyrics. Light, color and geometry enhance the subject matter, creating the mood. There are so many songs I love but I must admit I have no idea what the words are. I feel the song, I don’t read the song. I remember my sister breaking up with her boyfriend and blasting “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak on a drive. I know those words and combined with the melody and..

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Oakland Studio 18, 12×12 inches, oil on panel, 2018

I’m pleased to share this interview with the wonderful Bay Area California painter Gage Opdenbrouw where he talks at length about his background, process and thoughts on making his landscapes and views of his studio in Oakland, Ca. I would like to thank him for his generosity in responding to my email interview questions.

His website’s general statement is a great introduction for those who may not be familiar with him and include it here:

…painting is a way of drawing close to moments, and an attempt to pay homage to the fleeting beauty of everyday observations. Regardless of the subject, whether a figure or a moment of light in an interior, the sweep of a sky above an industrial neighborhood, the goal is, as Joseph Campbell once put it, “to reveal the radiance that lies hidden just beneath the surface of every day”. I’m hoping to use a brush to create some poetry from mundane materials, and if the paintings resonate with the viewer in the eye, the heart, the gut, then I feel I’ve been successful in sharing some small aspect of my experience.

His list of solo shows includes: John Natsoulas Gallery, Davis, CA, 2017 and Luna Rienne Gallery, San Francisco in 2016, and has shown widely in group exhibitions.

Larry Groff: How did you first decide to become a painter?

Gage Opdenbrouw: I always drew a lot, as a teenager I found that I couldn’t paint in a way that equaled my command of drawing. So I found myself frustrated because I was lacking an understanding of the concept of masses.  My work was essentially linear, just drawing in color. But at the same time I had some great teachers. I was one of those smart but somewhat maladjusted kids in high school that was always getting in trouble–the type that was capable of getting A’s–but mostly getting detention.

I was in a group show a few years ago that Kyle Staver had several paintings in, and her artist statement recounts someone pulling her aside, a teacher, I think, and saying, ‘I know what’s wrong with you, you’re an artist!’ Her remark really cracked me up because it was a similar experience for me, only I had to figure it out myself.

My last year of high school was at a sort of alternative program at the local city college, where I got to take college level art and philosophy classes. I’d always been a big reader, and had been really drawing a lot and keeping a sketchbook, looking at a lot of art since my early teens. So I think a couple of the teachers that I had at San Jose City College were really big influences in encouraging me to dig deeper. I had several figure drawing and painting classes with an artist named Luis Guiterrez, who, as far as I knew from his classes, was sort of a Franz Kline-like painter. I was shocked to see after knowing him for a couple years that he had done Frederic Remington type cowboy paintings in his youth, very well, at that. But he always encouraged us to work loosely, to collaborate with the material, to draw in ways that were barely within out control. We worked from a model frequently but he encouraged our response to the model to be more intuitive rather than descriptive. I started to see recruiters from art schools in San Francisco and Oakland on campus, I was very receptive…I had both enough experience, and enough encouragement; to dare to think that maybe I could be a painter.

Walnut Lane/Philly Window #1, 16×16 inches, oil on panel, 2018 Oakland Studio 8,rainyday,bluedrapes,

LG:You studied painting at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco? What was that like for you?

GO: It was interesting. Going into it at 18 or 19, what I really wanted was a very traditional education…I think I saw being able to draw what was in front of you as a certain sort of visual literacy…not to say I valued realism especially, but it seemed to me important somehow as a place to start. it still does. Anyway, it was, and still is, a very commercial school. I started as an illustration major, as some sort of nod to practicality. I admired a lot of illustrators, and loved graphic art, especially Goya, Kollwitz, and the like. My taste was dark and dramatic, romantic…Turner and Friedrich were both revelations. At the time illustration was still seen as a viable option, when in a lot of ways it was really beginning dying off from a much healthier period. Anyway, the illustration program was great as a foundation–we drew from life constantly, mostly the figure, clothed, nude, and mostly quick drawings…I had some really great teachers. After a couple years I switched my major to painting, which was a much smaller department–between painting, sculpture, and printmaking majors, there weren’t more than a couple hundred fine art students, and really there was a core of several dozen that was super dedicated. I hung around that group and soaked up as much as could, often with a bruised ego. It was great. We would have 6-hour studio classes, and then draw or paint the figure another 3-4 hours in the evening, be back at it by 9 the next morning. It was immersive, and competitive, and I met a ton of very talented artists I’m still close with today.

On the downside, the education itself was as close to purely technical as it could be, which was great in a lot of ways–but there was, I think, no real intellectual rigor or philosophical discussion as part of painting classes…in some ways that was good, to my mind, that was what drinking beer with my friends was for, and I think we have all found what we need in that respect since, but I’d say that was the big glaring deficiency, but it’s not like it wasn’t obvious going in. I got what I wanted out of it. But it’s just now, 20 years later, that I can stand Sargent, or Sorolla, or Zorn…everyone emulated those guys with the slashy brushstrokes and a little too much cadmium…by the time I was done with school I was painting from memory and imagination primarily, as I was really sick of the idea of a painting having to be this particular kind of photographically derived, brightly colored, modern day impressionism. But I had great teachers, Craig Nelson’s quick studies class taught me SO much that is still a fundamental part of my daily practice…we would do 4-6 paintings a day in that class, usually from life, some as short as 20 minutes. I think we did 20-minute paintings before lunch and 40s in the afternoon. Just building mileage. I learned a ton about economy, paint handling, focus–how to make an observation count in one mark. How much you can do quickly, if you can attain the right level of focus. That’s still important to me–not speed for its own sake, but the keenness of observation that sort of work teaches you.

I had a great anatomy instructor, for several semesters, got to do a lot of sculpture, which really informed my way of seeing and translating forms, I made prints…All in all it was a great education, and it gave me the time and foundation I needed to begin to develop as an artist.

Studio Sink, oil on canvas, 22×24 inches, 2009-2010 Oakland Studio 23, 18×20 inches, oil on panel, 2018 Oakland Studio 19, 18×18 inches, oil on panel, 2018

LG: What have been some of your more important influences that have led you to paint the way you do?

GO: Expressive artists who were also great draftsmen heavily influenced me; such as Goya, Kollwitz, and Daumier…their drama and the sense of visual force has had a major impact. German expressionist painters, Munch, etc. were also huge. I was a pretty alienated kid so the sense of social critique, the angst, all clearly spoke to me.

Cezanne, Giacometti, Vuillard, Bonnard, Degas …Morandi…the Bay Area figurative painters have all been important to me. There was a show at Santa Clara University last year, that was really great, it was a juried show of figure paintings, “Honoring the Legacy of David Park”, they had a great panel, including Jennifer Pochinski, and several members of Park’s family. My painting “Garden”, from the series “Garland of Hours”, won a prize, and that was one of the greatest honors I’ve received thus far. It was amazing for one for his daughters to say she thought my painting was lovely and the one her father would have chosen. Fairfield Porter and Matisse have been big for me lately. Edwin Dickinson is another, we have that incredible big The Cello Player painting in the De Young Museum in San Francisco, and that’s a treasure. Andrew Wyeth is a giant for me. I grew up with books of his work, and that 100-year retrospective last year was incredible.

nude Study, 2009, oil on Canvas SB-backlit, 17×17 inches, oil on panel, 2017

LG: How important is working from observation to your painting process? Would you say you spend more time looking at the motif or the painting?

GO: It’s important, absolutely! It remains a touchstone. But I don’t have any dogmatic feeling about it, and I use photographs and drawings, usually all in some sort of combination. Initially, I tend to spend more time looking at the motif, but overall, yes, looking at the painting dominates. So observation is important as a source for inspiration, rather than a be and end all type of philosophy… and so that’s really just an everyday habit of looking, noticing. In that sense, I think it is all truly from memory, even when we work from life or a photo. Just in looking away from the canvas, and looking back. And I think that’s good. Working from life I find it easy to be overwhelmed by too much information…it’s rich, and amazing, but I need to take some distance from the motif at a certain point, and just develop it as a painting. It should get to a point where it begins to have its own momentum, its own internal logic; that starts to tell me what it wants.

I find sustained painting from life to be a bit overwhelming in the amount of external input…that pressure is good in forming the first session of a painting, but it can often cause me to lose focus in later sessions. So often I will only work from memory or photos or drawings from that point, going back to life only if I’m stumped on something, something where more information is needed, or need a new input to force a more radical change.

Twilight Blooms, 18×24 inches, oil on panel, 2017 Sing Out, Sing Out, Garland of Hours, 24×24 inches, oil on panel, 2015-2016

LG: What are some of your considerations for deciding on what might make a good painting?

GO: The most important thing is getting a strong feeling for the motif or sharp idea that I am excited to dig into. It’s all dominated by light; the subject matter is incidental in a way and not necessarily my driving concern. Right now I’m most drawn to landscapes and interiors, both focused on color and space. And in certain ways these paintings are formally driven. I’m driven by simple arrangements of shapes of color.

There’s such joy for me in the visual world, such frequent surprise and resonance, that I think being able to put some of that down, just the pleasure of a few simple shapes, a chord of color, a visual rhythm, something very abstract in nature, that drives it as much as anything. But ultimately it’s a matter of being receptive to whatever I may notice, and respond to. I suppose compared to my earlier years, I don’t look for drama–I look for quiet, peace, radiance. The famous Matisse quote about a painting being “…something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” seemed decadent when I was younger, now I find it refreshing.

I think that quiet art–small, modest with everyday themes–is becoming a radical notion. I read a review of Rackstraw Downes’ most recent show recently that was entitled something like “the radical possibility of seeing what’s in front of you”. I loved that. I want to be radically engaged with the small things of every day life, incidents of light and shadow. I feel pretty strongly that for me, art has a very particular purpose, and that’s to keep us engaged with wonder and joy. Beauty does that. It calls attention to the miracle of our lives. And that joy is what will sustain us through the storms. That probably sounds corny. Art helps me, in a very deep way, to stay connected to what’s important. But there is a Mary Oliver poem that says this much better;

Don’t Hesitate –by Mary Oliver (from ‘Swan’, 2010)

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,

don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty

of lives and whole towns destroyed or about

to be. We are not wise, and not very often

kind. And much can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this

is its way of fighting back, that sometimes

something happens better than all the riches

or power in the world. It could be anything,

but very likely you notice it in the instant’

when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the

case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid

of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Oakland Studio 7, 12x12v, oil on panel, 2017 Oakland Studio 4, 20×20 inches, oil on panel, 2016

LG: Do you make a lot of drawings before starting?

GO: Not usually. Or if I do they do not bear a very literal relationship to final painting, although sometimes I’ll do a thumbnail or two. However, time spent drawing, as a way of getting close to the subject, is never wasted. I love to show students Andrew Wyeth’s drawings, they way he would do sometimes dozens of quick pencil drawings, before doing a tempera. He’d draw a room 20 different ways, and in the painting it would be different yet again, but synthesizing all those impulses, and responses. And all those observations just seep into the intimacy, the empathy with the subject. And that quality, I think is key. For me it’s all about that depth of feeling.

The way I work, the drawing often comes in last, edges are often the last thing I..

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Threshold, 22×30 inches, pastel, digital photo, acrylic on watercolor paper, 2018 Streetwise, 22×30 inches,mixed media, metal, photo on paper, 2018

I am pleased to post this email interview with the NYC based painter Carol Diamond. I have been following her work on Facebook and have been continually struck by the original and dynamic way she paints urban structures with her modernist, abstract sensibility. Some of these works evolve out of observed, on-site engagements others are studio inventions. Taking the urban theme even further, she also makes assemblages and collages from found objects that were discarded onto city streets.

Diamond explains more in her website’s artist statement:

…“I feel a strong parallel between the making of a painting and the building of a wall, or a structure, an edifice. Each involves construction and deconstruction, and provides refuge, a haven. In the case of my interest in religious architecture, there is the element of sanctuary and sacred geometry”. For years Diamond painted directly from street scenes, churches, bridges and boats. Through abstraction she found her way back to city sources, collaging found debris into ready-mixed concrete on wood panels. Diamond divides her compositions with large movements such as arcs, diagonals, and verticals which combine her deep connection to early Modernism, in particular the works of Malevich and Lissitzky with her axial drawing methods related to Renaissance linear Perspective. Anselm Keifer’s work which unabashedly uses linear perspective, has been inspirational since her youth, where emotion and history are transformed into the most rugged images of materiality and depth by any living artist.

Since 2000 Diamond has taught at Pratt Institute where she is an Associate Professor. Diamond studied at the New York Studio School in Manhattan and received a BFA in painting from Cornell University. She has lived in Brooklyn since the late 1980’s and currently lives in Manhattan. She has had solo exhibits in the Gold Wing Gallery and the Alliance Gallery, New York City, as well as many other group and solo shows in New York City, Upstate New York and nationally.

She recently had a solo exhibition of her work at the Kent State University in Canton, Ohio – Threshold: Selected works by Carol Diamond

This show was reviewed in the ARTWACH blog by Tom Wachunas who stated:

“… There are several methodologies or modalities present in this impressive collection of works spanning (I’m guessing) at least several years: Large-scale abstract paintings, mixed media works on paper, relief collages, plein-air drawings of architectural sites, and sculptural assemblages of found debris.

Radiating from most of this formal diversity is an aura of vintage Modernism. It’s a visceral kind of tenor – alternately gritty and refined, delicately ornamental and muscular, literal and symbolic – which binds all these works together into a collective embodiment of a distinctly urban sensibility. These are fascinating explorations of facades, spaces, structures, and metropolitan detritus, comprising something the artist knows intimately – something you could call big city zeitgeist.”

I would like to thank Ms. Diamond for agreeing to this interview and for sharing her thoughts on her art with the readers here.

125th Street Arches, 38×50 inches, graphite on Strathmore paper, 2017

Larry Groff:        What made you decide to become an artist?

Carol Diamond:        That’s the easy question. I never decided, I just always did it. Always took an interest in art classes and making things, from doll clothes to papier-mâché animals in my after school art class in the basement of a family friend, Joan Silberbach in the Cleveland suburb where I grew up. We worked with enamel, tin foil relief, a lot of papier-mâché, and I did my first oil painting (I still have it) all in browns, with dried flowers and a skull!

Then High School it became real, going to a progressive prep school with a great arts facility; theatre, pottery, photography, painting, fiber art. So much experience there, inspiration from teachers, amazing creative friends, and freedom. I was pouring paint on unstretched canvas in my parent’s garage, thinking I was Pollock. I did a painting for school “in the style of” Dali, where a cloudy sky turns into a blue curtain entering a window. A rose sits in a glass vase. My sister and I took outside classes at the Cleveland Museum of art.

LG:        What was art school was like for you?

CD:        I decided to go to Cornell to get a university education and have a Fine Arts Department with no emphasis at all on Commercial Design. The Cornell School of Architecture Art and Planning was that. It was relatively hands off atmosphere but I did bond strongly with a few teachers, one of whom (Gillian Pederson-Krag) vociferously encouraged my 2 closest friends and I to stay away from studying abroad for our junior year (“If you go to Rome you will want to be buying shoes and not be in your studios”) and instead to attend the New York Studio School, where she felt sure we would benefit enormously.

So in 1980, my sister joined us from the U of Michigan and together the 4 of us walked day to day from our 6th floor walkup apartment on West 10th Street across Christopher Street to 8 West 8th Street, wherein began my true education. Though it was not even the tail end of the New York School era, we thought it was.  We were in the wake of Pollock and DeKooning, Cedar Bar stories told to us by our great mentor, Nick Carone, the draftsman and voice of the Hans Hofmann School practice, along with European history. We read the Hofmann’s  Search for the Real, and Kandinsky, but the daily practice was all about drawing the figure, Giacometti, plastic space, form, both classical and deconstructed.

Nick Carone, Mercedes Matter, Rackstraw Downes, Paul Russotto, Charles Cajori and others showed us passion, pushed us to see; cared enough to be frustrated when we couldn’t see, and celebrated us when we could.

Brooklyn Navy Yard, 24×30 inches, oil on canvas, 1997, Hess Oil collection Low rise, High rise, 22×30 inches, oil on canvas 199? Fire Escape, 50×38 inches, pastel, conte on Strathmore paper, 2018 Ladder, 36×24 inches, oil, latex, glass on canvas 2011 Direction, 30×22 inches, oil, latex, dirt on canvas 2012

LG:        Can you say something about how your work has evolved over the years?

CD:        Art follows personal growth and emotions, along with artistic influences. And these artistic influences are affected by what an artist is needing/trying to say, all unbeknownst to the artist. It’s all intuitive. Our interests, psychology, predilections, skills and training all guide and lead us. I feel lucky when I’m able to follow myself into terrains of expression and discovery. But as the perspective changes from the young to the mid career artist: my dreams have subsided and I’m every bit as unknowing about what tomorrow will bring as ever. There is no safety.

Mia Familia, 16×20 inches, oil on canvas, 1993 My Street, 24×36 inches, oil on canvas, 1996 Williamsburg Bridge, afternoon, 24×28 inches, o/c, 1997, Collection of the Portland, Oregon Museum of Art 14th St. Interior, 22×28 inches, oil on canvas, 1992 Cornwall Coast, 18×24 inches, oil on canvas, 1998

LG:        In the 90’s you worked a lot from life making painterly, gestural landscapes, figures and still life what where some of the reasons you changed and how was your transition from working perceptually to more studio-based abstraction?

CD:        At the Studio School I learned that Abstraction could come from elements of perceptual painting, such as the abstraction of Picasso and the cubists. Non objective painters used shape without observation of form, and abstract expressionists integrated emotion through gesture into abstract space.

I do have a group of early abstract paintings I did in the late 80’s, but I was always looking at a set-up of some sort, even a chair against the wall. Then the set-ups and objects became more clear and I maintained an aesthetic of perceptual painting a la Giacometti and Cézanne, destined to follow the existential side of modernism related to making a thing exist in space, often by a deconstruction process.  I was dedicated to plein air and still life/interior compositions, painting in a tonal palette, and then through that developed my love of cityscape and gritty urban areas albeit with a somewhat romantic glaze. This culminated in a series of works done in Williamsburg, painting the East River bridges, the Domino Sugar Factory and ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Something happened though after showing these works, where I felt too comfortable with my process, I had “gotten it”. I was afraid to become a traditional landscape painter going from scene to scene.

I segued to studio paintings with a trip to Southwest England painting and drawing the rocky coast and in Brittany, France, finding a more organic overall approach to line and shape. The abstract paintings I began on my studio floor involved poured curvilinear movements, and scratching through layers of paint as a way of drawing, finding content. The space was compressed, cubist inspired, while also favoring early Northern Renaissance sense of flatness and rich color.

My still life and landscape work had mainly used short vertical and horizontal strokes, the plus/minus Giacometti structure. Here I was now using mainly Circles and Arabesque motions.

I got pregnant soon after and began raising my baby! My husband died two years later to illness, then my mother in the same year.

My paintings became more spare, with a strictly black and white palette. Then broken glass found from the street and other debris entered the palette and I have since been experimenting with relief elements and collage materials in my work. I had worked as an Antiquities restorer in the late 90’s, and was lucky enough to have helped repair broken Greek Attic vases, Chinese Bronze objects and much more. This relation to materials from Antiquity had a strong but indirect influence on this direction in my work. For some years now I’ve also returned to architectural drawing to continue with my interest in concepts of Structure and the building/deconstructing process.

So the genres of representation and abstraction are fluid, and keep following conceptual needs in my understanding/expression of form and space and SELF IN THE UNIVERSE!

Fences, 25×38 inches, digital photo, pastel, charcoal on paper, 2018 Abonica, 30×64 inches, oil on canvas, 2016,

LG:        I just read your brilliant recent (7/27/18) essay Carol Diamond on Al Held   on the Painter’s on Painting site.

With this in mind I’m curious to find out more about some how you juxtapose flatness and deep space in some of your current works, like in your Fences  or Abonica. I am seeing some connections to Al Held’s use of perspective in his black and white paintings and his later works with abstracted geometric forms in space. Of course there hugely obvious differences but it struck me that many of the collaged shapes have these dramatic linear perspectives that are cut and positioned in such a way to induce a dizzying array of spacial movements not unlike some of the compositions he was involved with. I always loved how he thumbed his nose at the rules about not violating the integrity of the picture plane or modeling form as a big no-no. 

Anything more you can say about this?

CD:        Well you basically said it! And I’m very glad you can see this connection. As you said, Held “thumbed his nose at the rules about picture plane integrity or modeled form” and this is how I see him and I feel this gives license to my work to play with these rules as well. While I am impressed and enamored by..

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Studio XLIX, 44X48 inches, Oil On Canvas, 2018

I’m delighted to share this new interview with Peri Schwartz where she talks about her background and process as well her studio explorations with color, space and composition. This September she has a solo exhibition titled Color and Process, at the Gallery Naga in Boston. A previous interview, given by the writer Cody Upton was published on Painting Perceptions in May 2013 can be read here.

I am particularly attracted to the vibrancy, clarity and resonance in these new works.  Schwartz studio investigations arrive at just the right tones for these color shapes surrounded by space and light but also leaves behind residual clues of where her journey took her;  how colors and shapes were changed and shapes reformed in her open and painterly applications of paint. A formal movement which balances exactitude with lyricism. The bottles and studio fixings are just a starting point, the true destination is in achieving a balance and unity and artful resolution. 

In an essay for the 2010 Page Bond Gallery exhibition catalog Lulan Yu wrote:

…Though making works of art is a thoughtful and deliberate process for Peri Schwartz, it also is one that involves much doing and re-doing. After she has arranged objects for a still life or interior, she often rearranges them while she is working in order to resolve problems and achieve her desired outcome. She also is carefully attuned to the effects of light and color that occur from the arrangements of elements in her works; she experiments by moving bottles and jars to different positions, creating subtle changes in the value and color of the liquids they contain. Although Schwartz seems to enjoy the unpredictable nature of creating works of art in this way, she is very sure and deliberate in her intentions. As a result, these seemingly quiet, contained still life and interior pieces have a dynamic, intriguing quality that invites the viewer to thoughtful contemplation.”

Larry Groff: Can you tell us something about your latest body of work and your upcoming show at Gallery NAGA in Boston? Does your new work continue with the theme of arrangements of light and reflections from transparent colored liquids in your studio space?

Peri Schwarz: My new work uses the same elements that have been my subject for almost twenty years. The difference is that in the early Studio paintings it looked more like an artist’s studio, with canvasses leaning against the walls and stools with books piled on them. In the more recent Studio paintings, the books are shapes of color with no bindings to indicate they are books. The canvasses have now been replaced with wooden boards that I paint with sample colors from the hardware store. I’m still captivated by the color I get from liquids in bottles and jars and how they are reflected on a glass tabletop. The grid that I have been using in my work for over thirty years is as important as ever.

Bottles & Jars III, 15×23 inches, etching, 2015 Jars I, 15×22 inches, etching, 2017 Studio XLIV, 48×38 inches, Oil On Canvas, 2017

LG: In previous interviews you’ve talked about the influence of Diebenkorn and Morandi on your art. What aspects of their paintings have impacted you the most with your current work? 

PS:  I love Morandi but in this group of paintings I’ve been looking mostly at Diebenkorn and Mondrian. For example, in one of Diebenkorn’s still lifes, I was especially drawn to the orange/blue relationship and how he looks down on the table. In Diebenkorn’s Berkeley years the subject and space are recognizable, giving it a more realistic feel. I’m striving for the same balance of abstraction and realism. It may be more difficult to see the connection with Mondrian. When I’m arranging the colored rectangular boards on the back wall I’m thinking of how he used color in such perfect proportions in his paintings.

Studio XXXIV, 54×44 inches, Oil On Canvas, 2013 Studio XLII, 44×38 inches, Oil On Canvas, 2016 Studio 13, 30.5×36 inches, monotype, 2018

LG: Would you call yourself a formalist? What does that mean for you?

PS: Here is where I admit I didn’t exactly know what a formalist meant when I first thought of this question. I looked it up and found this definition–Whether an artwork is a pure abstraction or representational, a formalist looks for the same basic elements and judges a painting’s value based on the artist’s ability to achieve a cohesive balance in the composition. Based on that definition I am happy to be called a formalist. About the same time I read your question I found this recent article by  Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books. I know I don’t easily fit into representational or abstract art. I’m obsessed with getting every proportion right as I observe it. At the same time, I am thinking how is this fitting into the size of my canvas and would moving an inch to the left or right improve the composition.

Studio XLIII, 46×38 inches, Oil On Canvas, 2016 Studio XI, 54 x 42 inches, oil on canvas, 2006

LG: You likely got a strong foundation in traditional painting during art school. Did your experience at BU back then also encourage modernist approaches?

PS:  I don’t know if all your readers know that we are both BU alumni. It was rigorous and intense and I loved it. Figure drawing, anatomy and tonal painting were the backbone. There are three professors that stand out in my mind for their interest in abstraction: Joseph Ablow, Jim Weeks and Robert D’Arista. All of them worked figuratively but emphasized how important the abstraction was in painting.

I loved Ablow’s class in composition. He had studied with Albers and modeled a lot of his teaching on him. I learned so much from his slide lectures and remember how he paired Vermeer with Mondrian and Morandi with Guston. He taught us how your eye travels through a painting and the important concept that a diagonal can lead you into the space of the image and also be on the surface.

Jim Weeks was part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement and introduced us to Diebenkorn, Olivera and Bischoff. That was a breath of fresh air from the old masters the other teachers were talking about.

D’Arista taught us about the Golden Triangle and how to use the proportions of the paintings in our composition. He would come into class with a bagful of objects and set up the most interesting still lifes. We could only paint with black and Venetian red and no curves- only verticals, horizontals and forty-five degree diagonals.

Studio XLI, 52×36 inches, Oil On Canvas, 2016 Studio XLV, 52X44 inches, Oil On Canvas, 2018

LG: Your paintings often switch back and forth from sharply defined imagery to work that is abstracted and loose; colorful configurations but still recognizable shapes. Does your painting’s tightness or looseness evolve on its own terms or do you start by being in a certain mood, which encourages a particular direction – and go from there?

Bottles & Jars #2, conte on Mylar 18×26 inches, 2012

PS: The tightness and looseness evolves as the painting progresses. I would say that instead of a work evolving because of my being in a certain mood, it’s more about color and spatial relationships. It takes me at least a week or two to set up a composition. I begin with a drawing, which for the last five years, has been on Mylar. Working with a combination of charcoal and conte crayon, I get beautiful blacks and the erased areas looks bright because of the Mylar’s translucency. The drawing is “tighter” than the painting will be but serves as a useful guide while I work on the painting.

Bottles & Jars #2c, conte on mylar 19×20.5 inches, 2016 Studio 23, conte on Mylar 53 x 39 inches, 2017

There are many versions of the composition before the painting is done. I know I’m not alone in struggling with knowing when a painting is finished. I also know that as I get closer to finishing it I care less about resolving everything. That would explain why some areas are clearly defined and other areas are looser. When some time has passed from when I’ve finished a painting, I find I really like the loose and unfinished sections but know they only work because I’m clear about the spatial relationships

Woman in Studio, 72×42 inches, Oil On Canvas, 2000 Studio Self-Portrait, 66×48 inches, 1996

LG: Your engagement with the colored liquids on a reflective glass table subject-matter, as well as your self-portraits have lasted many years.

I’m curious to hear what you might be able to say about the merits and risks of working thematically like this for so many years?

PS: You mentioned that my self-portraits lasted many years. I don’t think you know about the group of pastels I did in 1989-90. It’s relevant because it only lasted two years and is not something I want to go back to. To take a break from the self-portraits I was working on, I started drawing my son’s wooden blocks. After I tired of their hardness I picked up a sweatshirt and wrapped the blocks. I had worn sweatshirts in many of my self-portraits and loved the way the fabric could be molded. The idea of wrapping objects in sweatshirts developed to the point that I was making complex sculptures and then drawing them. Unlike the self-portraits or the Studio paintings, after two years I had exhausted the subject. The Studio paintings, which I have been working on for almost twenty years, feel open ended. When I compare the earlier ones to my new ones, I’m surprised at how different they are. It’s obviously the same physical space but the color and scale of things has changed

Two Wrapped Objects, 27×29 inches, pastel Studio 24, 44×52 inches, 2018

LG: When I was in school I remember hearing people say that galleries prefer artists that have coherent and consistent body of work that is uniquely identifiable.   However, I also heard artists say having a signature style is something to be wary of – that is might risk looking too commercially driven and could stifle authenticity. How would you weigh in on this issue?

PS: I think style is something that has to be earned. I know in my own work before I make a mark either with charcoal or paint, I’m confident at the time that it is right. The next day it no longer seems right and I will replace it with something else. The scraping or wiping out of an area and the repainting it might translate as a style. Color relationships also play into what you might call a style. Is the way Bonnard used color his style? It seems to me that if you like an artist’s work, you like their style and the two things are intertwined.

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Summer Pond, 24 x 30 inches, oil on panel Garden from Above, 30 x 24 inches, oil on linen

I have had the pleasure of meeting Dean Fisher once, by accident, in the Frick Museum in NYC during a visit to the east coast. As I recall, I was staring at a Degas when he tapped me on the shoulder asking are you Larry Groff of Painting Perceptions? This was remarkable as we had never met but he recognized me from a photo he had seen online. I had written several years prior about a painting show I saw of his in Anaheim, California–in one of my early humble attempts to write about painting for this site. Talking with him at the Frick was unexpected but a delightful conversation with someone who cares deeply about painting and with expansive knowledge and insight. I’ve been a great admirer of his paintings and the way he viscerally transforms paint into painterly monuments to nature and art. I am very appreciative of his willingness to answer my questions to him by email and for taking the time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts and experience with the readers of this site.

Dean Fisher studied at the America Academy of Art in Chicago, and since, has been exhibiting nationally and internationally in prominent galleries for more than twenty-five years. Some of The galleries he currently shows with are: Susan Calloway Fine Art  in Washington, DC, Thomas Dean’s Fine Art in Atlanta Georgia, George Billis Gallery in Los Angeles, CA, John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis, CA, Tregony Gallery in Truro, Cornwall, UK and Jessica Carlisle in London, UK.

Dean teaches painting at Silvermine Art Center in New Canaan, Connecticut and privately. He also teaches an amazing landscape painting workshop in Dordogne, France (see the link to his workshop website https://deanfisherworkshops.com/ ) and has plans to offer it again in 2019. He also plans to teach in Tuscany, Italy in the Spring – details to be announced soon.

Dean Fisher painting in the Dordogne Valley Workshop in France

Larry Groff: What led you to become a painter?

Dean Fisher: My father Shell Fisher is an artist, kind of a Jack of all trades in the visual art world, with interests in painting, drawing, the graphic arts, illustration and cartooning. He’s an especially wonderful draftsman. One of my fondest memories as a child was watching my father create a drawing; with a very deft hand and a few economical marks, a convincing realistic image would begin to appear. It was like magic seeing a three dimensional figure or portrait begin to emerge on a completely blank piece of paper.

I think this was the initial spark, creating something from nothing, in such a skillful manner, which inspired me to begin drawing and eventually start painting.

He was my main teacher throughout my childhood and youth, always instilling in me the importance of developing a sound technical language.

LG: Can you tell us about what art school was like for you?

DF: I went to the American Academy of Art in Chicago, it was and still is a school with a strong focus on commercial art. I wanted to go there because, at the time, it was one of the only schools in the country offering life drawing and painting as a major component of the instruction. There were a couple of very inspired and knowledgeable instructors in the fine arts department, Fred Berger and Bill Parks who gave so much to their students.

But actually, the most enriching aspect of being at school were the interactions with a few other talented students who were studying painting at the same time. Several times a week we would go to the Art Institute museum, which was a couple of blocks away. We looked intensely at the paintings, did drawings of them and had fantastic discussions about what we thought about the work. They were a major influence on me and without this interaction and sense of camaraderie, the time at school would not have been nearly as interesting or educational.

Silvius Krecu, one of the most talent people I’ve ever met, was one these students and is still one of my closest friends. We had a very healthy rivalry in terms of pushing each other to develop our skills and understanding of art further. We would stay at school after everyone had left and draw plaster casts and when they kicked us out head over to coffee shops to sketch people for hours.

Garden, 24 x 14 inches, oil on panel oil on panel

LG:  What are some ways your paintings have evolved since art school?

DF:  At art school our focus was somewhat limited but at the same time pretty intense. The primary aim was painting and drawing the model from life with a heavy emphasis on a painterly a la Sargentesque approach, it was about very careful observation of the model and translating what we saw into paint. This is still a major part of what my work is focused on, a faithful perceptual account of what is in front of me.

A major flaw of this school is that there was virtually no discussion about image making, what inherent aspects make a painting interesting and successful. But fortunately, I did have some of these discussions with my art school friends. Silvius was very open minded and was the first of us to embrace twentieth century movements in art. He always expressed himself very eloquently and helped to open my eyes to these things.

The most pivotal aspect of my artistic education was moving to Madrid, Spain after art school and setting up in the Prado museum to copy paintings, this was fantastic in so many ways. I went with Silvius and our primary focus was an investigation of the work of Velazquez.
An unexpected part of being in the Prado were some of the young artists from different parts of the world who were also there to study paintings. Their art school educations were very different from mine and their artwork was too, with many more modern influences in their work.
I had excellent interactions with many of these people and started to look at a lot of 20th century art. I soon began to let go of my 19th century approach to painting to experiment with paint, shape and color much more…approaching abstraction but never fully letting go of representing real forms.

I also spent a year in Paris copying at the Louvre and two years in London at the National Gallery. Along with the continued copying, I was also developing my own work., working from models and painting landscapes.

While in Madrid, I met Josephine Robinson who was living there and teaching English. She had a background in history and filmmaking and was preparing to move to South America to make documentary films. Soon after we began spending time together she became interested in painting. I was very impressed with her ability to put colors and shapes together beautifully and encouraged her to continue painting. Several months later she returned to her home town of London, England to continue with her film studies. Shortly after, I showed up at her doorstep with my entire studio in my van…yes, I was planning on staying.

Josephine soon picked up painting again and decided to study it full time.
Jo took to painting very naturally, I really think it was her calling. We eventually moved back to the US and got married and have been together for more than twenty five years. Artistically and in many other ways she has played a major role in my development, with her unique, independent and very sophisticated way of looking at the world. Her excellent paintings are a reflection of that.

After returning to the US after living in Europe for eight years, I went through a period of painting figure compositions from photos while under the spell of Balthus but after a period realized that my true love, is having the forms I’m interested in painting in front of me. Now I almost never paint from photos.

So in a sense I’ve gone full circle and am painting from life exclusively, but now filtered through a great appreciation of modernist movements as well as the entire history of art.

In Between, 36 x 30 inches, oil on panel Tightrope, 48 x 32 inches, oil on panel Amandacera, 20 x 16 inches, oil on panel

LG: How do you decide on what is the right subject for a painting?

DF: This for me is fairly easy. There are certain things I see which I know I have to paint, this can be many different subjects but is usually an assemblage of forms and colors which create a compelling compositional structure.

Just about any object bathed in light is extremely beautiful to me, this can be difficult because I want to paint everything…but I try to keep it limited to those subjects which scream “paint me” the loudest.

I really don’t want to analyze beforehand why a subject speaks to me so much because this is very complex, so many things enter into this equation. By defining the reasons too much I fear that my response to the subject will be too pre-meditated, based on assumptions and a fragment of what is really there, all which I believe can inhibit the outcome. Instead I just jump int and with my knowledge, experience and skills try to put everything I see, think and feel about the subject into the painting.

Vertical Still life, 42 x 18 inches, oil on panel

LG: Do you work out the structure of the painting with studies and drawings first or do you prefer to let it evolve more spontaneously while working directly on the canvas?

DF: Once I decide to paint something, I usually can’t wait to get started so I don’t do a lot of preliminary work, except perhaps a thumbnail sketch or two in pencil . As I mentioned, I don’t want to dissect or analyze the subject too much for fear of limiting myself, I feel my intuition is much more powerful than my rational mind. As the work unfolds, many of the important qualities which are present in the motif begin to reveal themselves to me and I work hard to make sure these things are clearly communicated in the work. The painting also begins to take on it’s own life and then things get really interesting, it then becomes about making decisions based on what the painting is asking for as well as responding to the motif.

Over the years (decades!)I have undergone a long process of coming to realize which qualities I feel must be present in the work for me to feel connected with it. I’m mainly talking about the quality of the mark of the brush, edges, thickness of paint, transparencies all those things which make up a painting language.

I also want the canvas to be a place of investigation and discovery and am very happy when this sense of searching and process is present in the painting, I think this is very interesting for the viewer as well.

I want the painting to look as if it’s being painted before one’s eyes, with a very active surface…the search for a resolved image is all part of that.

Portrait of Josephine, detail, 48 x 24 inches, oil on panel

LG: What do you think about with regard to getting a feeling of light and space in your work?

DF: Well, if it wasn’t for the challenge of trying to capture light and space in my work I wouldn’t be a painter. These qualities are the main subjects of my paintings. If the light and space doesn’t end up working in a particular painting, I usually consider it a failure.

I concentrate on color and tonal relationships as well as using all optical devices available to me in the painting to capture a sense of breathable air and the type of light which is present. When I decide to paint a subject it has so much to do with the quality of light which i see. I find these aspects of perception fascinating and am not interested in capturing an approximation of it. This is why I haven’t worked from photos in years.

I strive to keep all the forms open while developing a painting. When I feel that the edges around things are becoming too uniform, which I feel inhibits air and space, I’ll take a palette knife to it and by scraping the area or entire painting. This almost always greatly improves it and suggests new directions that the painting can follow.

Summer Pond II, 6 x 18 inches, oil on panel Autumn Pond, 12 x 36 inches, oil on panel Figure by a Redbud Tree,  48 x 40 inches, oil on panel

LG: How important is direct observation in your work? Have you always painted from life?

DF: As a child, I did a lot of drawings and pastel paintings from photos, but as I remember the best work was done from life. I did a carefully observed and rendered drawing in graphite of a milkweed seed in the 5th grade which won an award and was published in a regional arts magazine. This was memorable for me and fueled my enthusiasm for representing things I found fascinating from my surroundings.

In art school we worked strictly from life and while I was in Europe I was only doing observational painting. After returning to the US, for a period of about five years I often worked from photos doing Balthus inspired figure compositions. I learned a lot during that period but eventually came to realize that I’m always more inspired and do my best work while in the presence of the subject.

During the past ten years or so I haven’t worked from photos at all. In fact, I’ve grown to wonder why figurative painters would choose to work from photos rather than life. Why someone would want a machine to do the editing for them rather than feasting ones eyes on the subject and employing all ones senses while painting or drawing.

A trained eye sees so much more than a camera does, why only work with 60% of what is present in the subject. That coupled with the fact that an artist’s vision becomes sensitized to observing nuance while working from life, this takes many years to cultivate and is an ongoing process.

I was gratified that Antonio Lopez Garcia said almost exactly the same thing which I’m saying here and tell my students, while I was recently working with him at his workshop in Pamplona, Spain.

I also feel there is a tendency for artists to fall in love with a particular photo, so the work becomes about doing a rendering of the photo rather than an investigation of observed reality and the resulting trail and error process over time which, in my opinion, always results in richer surfaces and a more interesting work of art.

When an artist paints a painting from a photo, I rarely feel their presence in front of the subject, there’s almost always a disconnect because of the above mentioned reasons. These are qualities which cannot be faked.

In short, being in front of the subject while painting is a completely different experience than working from a flat, 2 dimensional photo. I do think however that a very experienced artist who has worked from life for years can work creatively using photography as the basis for a work. Degas is a prime example of this. But if that experience isn’t there, the artist’s shortcomings are usually clearly revealed.

March Still life, 24 x 12 inches, oil on panel

LG: Would you say you have a more tonal approach to color in your work?

DF: When I’m attracted to paint a particular subject, it’s usually because I see a strong compositional structure in the subject as well as beautiful color harmonies. I’m often so enamored with the colors relationships I see in nature, I strive to get as close to them as possible. To really come as close as possible to capturing the subtle nuances of the colors which are present and how they relate to each other is a real challenge….it’s so difficult. I’m not sure if that..

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The Artist and His Daughter, 48 x 36 inches, 2016, Acrylic on Canvas (images courtesy of Gallery Henoch and the artist)

After my recent discovery of a PBS documentary on the New Jersey painter, Mel Leipzig, I was fascinated by his story and wanted to find out more about him. I am very grateful (and lucky) that he agreed to take the time out of his busy painting schedule to have a telephone interview with me.

Mel Leipzig is a renowned New Jersey painter who for over 40 years has painted people in their working spaces from observation. He paints family members as well as many other painters and artists of all types, from graffiti artists to major NYC painters such as Lois Dodd as well as students, janitors or cafeteria workers he’s became friends with over time. Leipzig’s inventive spacial compositions and delightfully quirky details visually project the sitter’s personality onto the canvas and connect us in ways that transcend traditional portraiture.

Leipzig paints people without irony, pretense or propaganda. His straight-forward manner forgoes displays of verisimilitudinous display or technical bravado; instead seeking an honest, enthusiastically painted response to the people and places in front of him. Leipzig talks in this interview about coming to maturity under modernism which often frowned upon painting the observed figure. He also discusses his early lessons in how important it is to follow the path best suited to your sensibilities, despite lack of approval from the art-world intelligentsia. 

Gregory at Gallery Henoch, Acrylic on Canvas, 48 x 36 inches

Dan Bischoff states: If Leipzig feels like something of a discovery, that could be due to the lingering prejudice against portraiture. Modernism threw portrait painting into history’s dustbin for nearly a century, despite portraiture’s central role in secular art ever since the Renaissance.

After all, portraitists are required to more or less produce a likeness, which ties them to realism and not abstraction. And while portraits have always been made in every era, the process of building a career in portraiture has always involved a certain amount of patron flattery and therefore compromise — not what the Modern revolution was about.

Leipzig pursues portraiture without commissions. He paints directly from life wherever his sitter is at home, and pays his subjects $25 an hour, no matter if they are rich or poor. Flattery isn’t necessary (though he is usually kind to his subjects). The only limit, Leipzig says, is he finds it difficult to paint “anyone I don’t like.”

“They used to say ‘It’s been done,'” the painter says of realistic portraiture, “and you would not be able to do it any better. That was supposed to put you off the attempt.” … from Mel Leipzig’s ‘As They Are’ at Aljira — portraits of artists, friends, and 21st century fellows Jul 16, 2015 by Dan Bischoff For The Star-Ledger (full review link here)

Mel Leipzig shows at Henoch Gallery in NYC, please see his extensive bio information at the end of this article.

Larry Groff: Thank You for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with me.

Mel Leipzig: You’re welcome.

LG: I’d like to start with asking, how did you become a painter and what where your early days like as an art student?

ML: When I was in high school, at about 15 years old, I got a scholarship to study art at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturdays. So I went to MOMA the guy who taught it there said that Symbolism was the most important thing in art. He showed us great paintings and he explained things in terms of the symbolism in the paintings.

After I left that class I started doing a lot of realistic portraits, which I was paid for (not a lot of money) Actually, the most famous person I painted was a guy named John Giorno, who went to high school with me. He later became part of Andy Warhol’s group.

And I did a painting of John there. I put all sorts of symbolic things in the portraits I did in high school. For instance I made a painting of a friend’s grandmother with a candle going out. At the time I thought all of this was important but I was really moving towards realism. I knew nothing about non-objective painting, but then when I went to Cooper Union, in 1953 after I graduated from James Madison High School. Bernie Sanders also went to Madison. He’s younger than me. I think I remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg, because she went there also.

Two Reflections, acrylic on canvas, 1987, collection of the New Jersey State Museum

ML: I went to Cooper Union where abstract expressionism was the dominant mode of painting. Morris Kantor and Nicholas Marsicano were my painting teachers and Will Barnet was my printmaking teacher.

They all had certain things that they were hung up about. Like, when I was in Morris Kantor’s class, I decided that I wanted to do portraits of people because I really wanted to paint the figure, and anybody who knew me knew it was obvious. Morris gave … he had a very thick Jewish accent. And he said, “Vat do you mean, you’re gonna try to get a likeness.” I’m thinking ” so what?” He says, “No.” Cooper Union was free in those days. If you failed one class you were thrown out. So I painted still lifes in Morris Kantor’s class, but one thing I learned about from Kantor, I must admit, I learned how to use the color–pure white. That has stuck with me throughout my life. And then I studied 2D design with Neil Welliver … do you know who Welliver is?

LG: Sure. He’s an incredible painter.

Homage to Neil Welliver, 48 x 48 inches, 2014, Acrylic on Canvas

ML: I loved him. He was wonderful and he’s the one who told me to go to Yale. When I went to Yale, it was the time Josef Albers, from the Bauhaus, ran the art program. The majority of the students were painting color dots, whereas at Cooper Union the majority were influenced by abstract expressionism.

At the Cooper Union Nicholas Marsicano was my first painting teacher. There was a setup, a figure or still life, I was trying to figure out what to paint so I kept turning the painting around. It was a mess of incoherent lines. Marsicano came up to me and said “You know, You’ve got something there” and I was thinking that’s how they got you to move away from figuration or any form of realism into doing non-objective work.

I never did a non-objective painting in my life. I just didn’t want to. Another one of my teachers at Cooper was Sidney Delevante. How have you heard of him?

LG: I’m not familiar with him, no.

ML: Yeah, well he was my drawing teacher. While I was painting one of the still lifes from Morris Kantor’s class, Delevante came up to me and said, “Mel, what are you doing? This is not you. You’re a figure painter, that’s where your heart is.”

And so when I got to Yale, I decided on doing the figure. I should say that it was my still lifes, especially the one of leaves that I did in black, white, greys and with a touch of green along with my woodcuts that got me into Yale.

The Woodcut (detail) 58 x 68 inches, 1994

Josef Albers, ran the school in those days. He was very authoritarian. The difference between Yale and any other art school I’ve been in, is that everyone, including the teachers stood at attention when he talked. In some ways, I admire him. You know, I like his paintings and non-objective painting. I have nothing against it. I just don’t want to do it myself.

Francesca at the Door, 57 x 36 inches, 1992, Acrylic on Canvas, collection of The National Academy Museum, NYC Portrait of a Marriage, 54 x 71 inches, 2008, Acrylic on Canvas

ML: Why should you paint what somebody else tells you … if you do that, you’re selling your soul. It’s just wrong.

I really struggled to do the figure at Yale. Neil Welliver was teaching there and was also trying to break away from Alber’s influence. Welliver had been doing color abstractions, that were very pretty but he was trying to move into painting the figure so he defended me. It was a hard time. You know, if you are actually fighting for something there’s something good about it. That you’re sticking to your guns.

Tracey Jones, 48 x 48 inches, 2014, Acrylic on Canvas Selina Trieff, 48 x 36 inches, 2008, Acrylic on Canvas, collection of The Provincetown Art Association and Museum

LG: After Yale, you went to Paris on a Fulbright. Any interesting stories to share about this time in your life?

ML: When I graduated from Yale I had gotten a Fulbright for my woodcuts and went to study in Paris. I was having something like an aesthetic nervous breakdown. All these voices were in my mind. I remember an incident once when I was in Paris and watching an opera production, I think it was Tosca. I was sitting up high in the theatre, and all I could see was the negative shapes coming at me. You know, because in non-objective painting, the idea is not to get an illusionistic space, but to get the background to come forward.

I didn’t do any woodcuts when I was in Paris. I didn’t want to–all I wanted to do was to paint. One good thing that came from Albers was this: Because Albers didn’t approve of concentrating on the figure, he didn’t encourage or provide for figure drawing, you never had a model in the class. We used to have models, at Cooper Union, but there was none at Yale. So I got into the habit of sort of inveigling people to come to my house to model for me. I’d give them a spaghetti dinner in exchange for posing for me… this was during my time in Paris.

LG: That’s a good way to do it.

ML: And so that helped me a lot because that is actually a method that has lasted all my life. I go to places. I find real people, and they pose for me.

Robert Henry, 48 x 36 inches, 2008, Acrylic on Canvas

LG: One thing that struck me when I was looking at your early teacher Morris Kantor’s work and who also discouraged you from painting the figure… anyway it struck me that he was doing a lot of figures similar to what you’re doing now. Paintings of people in their surroundings, perhaps people he knew. There was a wonderful painting he made with a ship captain sitting in his home with a landscape in the window. Seems odd that he would discourage a student from painting the figure if he was a figurative painter himself.

ML: What year was the painting done?

LG: I think it was in the 50s. Maybe 40s. I don’t really know his work very well at all.

ML: He changed his style constantly. His most famous painting is called, “Farewell to Union Square“. It’s a rose being thrown out of a window on Union Square. He was doing abstractions at the time that he was my teacher.

But he believed, by the way, you should constantly change. But I did learn how to use white. That was the one thing and that has stuck with me.

The Sun Room, Director of Photography and Narrator Aubrey Kauffman and his wife Michele

LG: Many painters seem very opinionated during that time, true believers in the modernist doctrine. I don’t know how much things have really changed.

ML: Yes, they were very dogmatic. There were a group of us who wanted to do figure paintings. Actually one of my friends dropped out of Kantor’s class because she couldn’t take it. It was a time where you were learning your teacher’s opinions. That was it. I’m a teacher, so I think I can say this. They thought that painting should be what they were doing, in fact.

LG: That sounds about right. Let’s switch gears a little now, can you talk about what artists have influenced you the most over the years?

ML: Manet is my favorite painter, that actually started when I was introduced to him at Cooper. I also like, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Piero della Francesca and other painters of the early Renaissance. In fact I named my daughter Francesca after him.

LG: Do you travel in Italy much to see these paintings?

ML: Yes, my wife and I … My wife passed, over ten years ago, but we went to Italy–we went to see everything.

LG: Have you painted there? Or just traveled…

ML: No, I don’t do that kind of painting.

LG: I see.

ML: Also I don’t do sketches. I have to have a person; a figure in the painting, no matter what the painting is about.

But the main thing that interests me is not just the figure. It’s the way the figure related to the background. That has led me to what might be called environmental portraits. It’s mainly the composition of the painting that really excites me, but I must have a person. It’s an essential part of my being, I guess.

LG: Some of your paintings of people in their surroundings reminds me of Vuillard, a portrait of a man in an office with books and papers all around – I forget the exact details

ML: No it is. You mean that Vuillard in the Metropolitan Museum, that painting? I love Vuillard. But I also love Matisse… I love his paintings.

Let me give you a little more of my history. I was doing paintings in grays, black and white when I was at Cooper Union. And it was one of my still life paintings in black and grays that got me into Yale. Albers loved the painting. I mentioned this before. I couldn’t paint realistically at Cooper Union. They literally would have thrown you out.

So I was using bright color. I ended up using a lot of bright color. I thought I was being under the influence of Matisse, Vuillard and Bonnard. Those were painters from the modern movement I was drawn to.

When I got back to America from Paris, I was going back and forth with color in my painting; sometimes with bright colors and sometimes with grays. And then around that time …my good friend and great painter, Bob Birmelin came and said, “You know, Mel, your paintings are schizophrenic.” He said that because my drawing were completely realistic and my color was abstract..

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I’ve long been intrigued by Carol Heft’s drawings and paintings that she frequently posts to Facebook. Many of her landscape drawings are spontaneous creations that begin from rapid observations of tree configurations seen out a bus window on her long ride to work from NYC to Allentown, PA. I’m particularly intrigued by the relaxed way she traverses the borderlines of abstraction and representation–observation and imagination; it feels as natural as breathing in and out. Her abstractions are imaginary worlds lyrically filled with light, atmosphere and life.

Heft has several solo shows at Blue Mountain Gallery in NYC where she is a gallery artist. She has had solo exhibitions at Dakota State University, Mattera, Italy, University of South Carolina and LaCuca Gallery in Easton, PA. and Fairleigh Dickinson University among others. She has also been represented by the First Gallery Grassina in Florence, Italy. She attended the Madison Art School where she studied with Robert Brackman, N.A., studied at the Rhode Island School of Design where she received her B.F.A and Hunter College for her M.Ed. She teaches at the Muhlenberg College, and Cedar Crest College, in Allentown PA, and St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York. She currently lives and works in New York.

Her recently launched website can be viewed at carolheft.com

I’m delighted that she agreed to this email interview and want to thank her for her time and generosity in sharing her story.

Larry Groff:  What was art school like for you?

Carol Heft: I started studying when I was about 12 years old. My first painting teacher, Anne Tuttle, brought me to a school in Madison Connecticut where Robert Brackman did a summer residency program. Brackman was an American master of traditional academic painting, who taught at the Art Students League in New York. I was his studio monitor for the next three summers, and made lunches for the students, mostly adults from his New York class. I was very lucky to have had that experience at such a young age. A follower of Eakins and Bellows, Brackman’s teaching style included demonstrations. Watching him paint was like watching a great dancer, inspiring and beautiful. My high school had a lithography press and an intaglio press, and my teacher and mentor, Gary Stanton, encouraged me. I always loved to draw and paint, and when I started learning about printmaking, I thought I had found my calling. I was a printmaker. I loved it. Later, when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, I returned to painting under the tutelage of Leland Bell, Louisa Chase, Lorna Ritz, Victor Lara and other great teachers and classmates. In spite of my difficult passage from adolescence to adulthood, which included some personal trauma, I liked school very much. I have always loved being in an environment dedicated to learning and study.

Self portrait, 1973 (?) Self portrait, 1979 Self portrait (2018)

LG: What were your first few years like after getting out of school?

CH: I moved to New York in 1976 after I graduated from RISD. I moved into a loft on the Bowery and went to meetings of a group of artists known as the “Alliance of Figurative Artists” or the “figgies” as Lisa Chase called them. I painted and drank a lot as I clumsily negotiated my way through a failed marriage, and various survival jobs. Finally, when I was about thirty, I came to a turning point in my life; a spiritual awakening. It seemed to me that I had been in a daze for most of the past decade, and now, with eyes open, I was able to look at my work with some sense of humility and understanding of what was (and was not) important to me.

42 x 84 inches(approx.) Bowery drawing, 1977-8

LG: What artists do you most often draw inspiration from in your work?

CH: Too many to mention here. The Paleolithic cave artists, Paul Klee, Pieter Breughel, Rembrandt, Kandinsky, Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Berthe Morisol, Mary Cassatt, deKooning, and some contemporaries: Karen Kappke, Ginny Greyson, Heidi Rosin, Vered Gerstenkorn, Francois Dupris, Jean Pierre Bourquin, and Martin Campos, to name a few.

Incident #19, Homage to the Masters of Lascaux, Altamira and Pech-Merle,
ink and wash, chalk, and colored pencil on paper Diptych, two sheets, full size 18 x 48 inches,
5.28.18 Study of Breughel’s, Dulle Griet, 9 x 12 inches, pencil on paper, 3.31.18

LG: How do you start a new painting? Please tell us something about how you go about making your art?

CH: When working from observation, I usually follow the traditional approach of working out a composition with charcoal (Brackman used to say that composition was the most important part of the painting; “no matter how badly it’s painted, if the composition is good it will be worth looking at, and no matter how ‘well’ it is painted, if the composition falls apart, the painting falls apart.” Next I work up a chiaroscuro underpainting with yellow ochre, still composing, establishing shadow patterns and tonal descriptions. I think that is my favorite part. You can see the painting, its essence, its orchestration of shapes and movement in this phase. It is the most beautiful to me. The drawing disappears, and there is a tonal impression of what is possible left on the canvas.

Chiaroscuro underpainting of my sister Heidi, 1970 (?)

When I am not working from observation, the first step of looking at the subject is replaced by making marks. The subject is either on the paper already, and I have to find it, or it is in my head or heart, trying to get onto the paper through my hands. I usually make a few marks and then look at them, and go back and forth like this until I feel I can’t learn any more from the work. Then I stop. It’s very different than finishing a portrait, for example, where it is often clear when the last stroke is applied, that no more need be done, and any more would be counterproductive.

Incident #21 or On the Surface, pencil, pen and ink, oil pastel and watercolor on watercolor paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches 5.23.18

LG: What role does your mark-making play with your work? Is this a way to access or deny your mood or is it more exploratory investigations of formal art concerns – are there connections between these two things?

CH: I don’t really think my mood plays much of a role in my work. Self-expression is not necessarily connected to a person’s affect. As a professional artist, I think of my work as an ongoing organic series of events in which I participate, but do not entirely direct. The decisions I make while painting or drawing are intuitive. It is only afterward, during reflection, that I begin to understand what those decisions mean, how marks, tone, value, texture, color, how they all work together to create a world, a universe really, with its own parameters.

Automatic Drawing #11, watercolor, pen and ink, and oil pastel on watercolor paper, 9 x 12 inches, 5.7.18 Papier-mâché, yarn, and “shrinky dink” plastics, oil paint, 20 x 22 inches 1992

LG: I’ve read where you’ve talked about your work being an interactive process. What helps you to better listen to what your work might be saying?

CH: Spending time reflecting on the impact of what I am doing has had or will have on the work. It’s such an enigma, two dimensional art. It’s flat, and you see it in an instant, but it exists in time. It is made in time, can be looked at over a period of time and has visual space and movement, all with temporal analogies. Sometimes I try to visualize a specific change or revision in a piece, but often I need to physically make the change in order to really understand the impact it has on the total. The whole is different than the sum of its parts. Photographing a drawing or painting and putting it in a program like Photoshop is helpful, you can change colors and move things around instantly. It speeds up the thinking process, but to me, it is not a substitute for the physical pleasure of getting paint and glue on your hands and feeling it move from the brush to the paper or canvas.

automatic drawing #4, 12 x 9 inches, 4.24.18

LG: What things might you consider when you start re-working a piece you hadn’t looked at for some time?

CH: When I go back to a piece after many weeks or months, I see it differently, it gives me a chance to integrate ideas that span a period of time, creating temporal layers, while keeping my eye on the unity that is intrinsic to the world of that particular work.

Incident #22, pencil, pen and ink, oil pastel and watercolor on paper, 18 x 24 inches 5.23.18 Visit to the the Veterinary Physician’s Office, pen and ink and watercolor and oil pastel on watercolor paper, 11 x 15 inches, 4.29.18

LG: Many people, especially those with limited art backgrounds, tend to judge representational art by its fidelity to what they think something appears to look like, its photographic likeness or if it follows expected visual conventions. What are some similar ways people wrongly judge abstract works and how would you try to dissuade them?

CH: I think helping people develop an open mind about art is a critical aspect of art education. One of the things I am grateful for having had the opportunity to teach art history is that it forced me to look at and study work that I may have overlooked or dismissed otherwise. This is compatible with having good taste and good judgement. With my traditional academic background (Brackman) it was hard for me to look at non-representational art. For years I could not see Matisse or Leger, or even Picasso. It wasn’t until I had teachers like Lisa Chase, Judy Pfaff and Lorna Ritz, who helped me see beyond the limited scope of what I had been taught. I never judged work by its fidelity to the subject though. In fact, I always thought “realism” was silly. It was painting the surface of something, rather than finding its essential qualities. A great photographer knows the difference between “taking pictures” and composing with the camera. A painter has the same kind of aesthetic choices to make with his or her eye, brush, and heart.

I think of most of my work as figurative and nonobjective at the same time. The figure ground relationship fascinates me in and of itself, but also as it serves the subject. Relationships between shapes, colors, line, all play a role in how the work is experienced. It takes an open mind and engaged viewer to appreciate any work of art, and often these qualities are a function of education and willingness to see things from diverse perspectives.

 Pen and ink, 9 x 12 inches. 2018
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Larmor Plage (2018) Oil on linen, 24 x 35 cm Summer, the Seilleraye (2017) Oil on linen, 35 x 50 cm

I’m delighted to share this email interview with Beth Bernhardt who wrote from her home in France. I was fortunate to meet her a couple of times in the JSS in Civita program in Civita Castellana a few summers ago and wanted to find out more about her life as a landscape painter in France.  I would like to thank Beth Bernhardt for sharing these highlights of her background and thoughts about how she goes about transforming pigment into these stunning visual celebrations of light and air.

from her website…Beth Bernhardt has lived and worked in France for the past seventeen years. After earning degrees from Yale University and Boston University she moved to Jerusalem where she spent a year as artist in residence at the Jerusalem Studio School. The sharp contrasts and brilliant contours of the desert light shifted her attention to the landscape where her focus has rested ever since. She subsequently moved to France where she established her studio in Lyon for a few years before moving to Paris for a decade. Recently she settled in Nantes with her family and began painting the surrounding Loire Valley and Atlantic coast. Landscape has remained the center of her work, seeking to capture form and light and achieving a painterly description of place. She has exhibited widely, participating in various group exhibitions throughout the United States and Israel, and in France has had solo exhibitions at the Ile de Versailles in Nantes and the Nabokov Gallery in Paris. Her paintings and prints are held in various private collections worldwide.

Worth Matravers, (2016) Oil on linen, 100 x 120 cm

Larry Groff:   What made you decide to become a painter and what early influences were important to you?

Beth Bernhardt:     There was no single event that made me decide to be a painter but a number of influences that pushed me in this direction. If I were to start at the beginning, growing up in Baltimore, I suppose I encountered my first influences at home and also at school where it was normal to talk about and look at art and where creativity was nurtured, it was normal to just make things. My mother taught elementary school art and also gave tours at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore so we went often to the BMA, the Walters and also to the National Gallery in DC to look at paintings from a very early age. I remember falling in love with the Matisse cut-outs in Washington and also as a child liking the Roy Lichtensteins, his blown-up, painted comic strips really appealed to me at this early age. In Baltimore there were Matisse’s Pink and Blue nudes in the Cone collection and a certain aura about them that made me extremely curious. As far as school went, I had always followed the art courses throughout my public school education and was extremely excited to begin painting in 10th grade. At my high school in Towson and in the Art program led by Theresa (Terrie)McDaniel, there were many students who were painting, developing interesting bodies of work, and graduating with the intention of pursuing painting as far as I could tell. The quality and sophistication of this high school program played a critical role in my decision to become a painter. It was exceptional in both the way painting was taught—we were taught to see big relationships (versus learning a technique)—and for our exposure to other painters—Terrie had a library of hundreds of art books for us to consult and take home. So you could say I got hooked on painting in high school and have been with it ever since.

To answer your question about early influences, during this period when I first started painting, I looked a lot at the Bay Area Artists including Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Nathan Oliveira and also a lot at Fairfield Porter. Fairfield Porter was interesting to me because of his color choices and also the subject matter that he painted—a world that was familiar to me, almost mine. These are painters that I still love and whose paintings bring me lots of joy.

The Cliffs, Civita (2017) Oil on linen, 29 x 40.5 cm Interior with Bluebells and Landscape, (2017) Oil on linen, 97 x 130 cm

LG:   You studied at Yale for undergraduate degree and BU for your MFA. Were you studying with John Walker then? What was art school like for you?

BB:      I knew before choosing to go to Yale as an undergrad that there was a strong art department with a long history of painting. One conversation I remember having in particular before enrolling at Yale was with then chair of the Art department, John Hull. He said that a major asset of attending Yale was the proximity of two great museums (The Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art) and that it was an advantage to study painting at a place that had access to such a great collection. He wasn’t wrong. I did spend a lot of time in both museums and especially with Constable’s landscapes and seascapes.

When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 1993, the climate was somewhat different and the art department was in the process of transition. Nonetheless, as an undergraduate I was less directly impacted by the fluctuations of the Graduate School. During my freshman and sophomore years I studied painting and drawing with Robert Reed and Richard Ryan and during one summer worked with Bernard Chaet and Barbara Grossman at the Vermont Studio Center. We were encouraged to spend our summers at places such as the VSC because as art majors in a university setting we did not get as much studio time as students at art schools.   There was a major emphasis on drawing from observation and working on a particular subject or theme in a series. If you are familiar with Bernard Chaet’s book, The Art of Drawing, much of the work I did at Yale came from Chaet’s teachings. Another teacher who had a large impact on me was Natalie Charkow. We worked in clay in her class, sculpting from the figure—we were learning how to see and the experience was invaluable. I would have loved to study painting with William Bailey or Andrew Forge but unfortunately I did not get a chance as they were no longer teaching by my Junior year.

I jumped straight into an MFA program after graduating from Yale and working with John Walker was an extremely positive experience.   The graduate community was also something of a dream come true upon arriving in Boston—a positive and nurturing environment. At some early conjuncture in my first year at graduate school both John Walker and Al Leslie encouraged me to get outside to paint (I had been working on some invented landscapes in the studio). John had a place near South Dartmouth on Buzzards Bay and I would drive there from Boston and spend half of the week painting outside. Sometimes I would work on very large canvases outside that basically only fit into the back of a pickup truck. The paintings were very energetic and had some interesting passages. Working outside pushed me to synthesize things extremely quickly and nature found its way back into the work. Although I continue to work outside, my approach has evolved since this period.

Chateaurenard, (2006) Oil on linen 27 x 35 cm Civita from the Valley, (2015) Oil on linen 27 x 41 cm Sand Hill, Oil on linen, 25 x 22 cm

LG:   You later studied with Israel Hershberg at the JSS in Jerusalem why did you feel the need to go further with your training? What was that like?

BB:      When I arrived in Jerusalem in February of 2000, it was thanks to a traveling grant and not entirely a decision to continue studying, although Israel Hershberg definitely opened my eyes in ways that I hadn’t foreseen. It all began out of a desire to travel after graduate school and to create a project that would give me time to paint. I was inspired by a recent trip John Moore had made to Israel and the landscape paintings that resulted from this trip.   John put me in touch with Israel Hershberg and I began formulating some applications for traveling fellowships. Eventually it was Israel who came through with funding and managed to put this traveling and painting dream together. The JSS had formed a few years before my arrival and the school was located in Talpiot where students were working in a large north lit studio essentially from the model.

Upon my arrival, I assisted to a few of Israel’s classes but mostly worked from the landscape and brought my work to the school when Israel was teaching and available for critique. From these sessions I definitely got drawn into his teaching because he made sense to me in ways that six years of study at American universities can do just the opposite! He talked about hitting the right note, and about color-spots, a word that I had never heard up until that point in time and also about giving more attention to what I was mixing on the palette.   My work started to shift because I became really intent on painting the light of Jerusalem and not just some random situation.   I wanted people to look at the work and say, that’s Jerusalem because of the color, not because of something tangible like a recognizable building.

Sunrise in Rehavia, (2000) Oil on linen, 25 x 22 cm Jerusalem Trailer, (2005) Oil on linen, 27 x 41 cm

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve gone through with your work?

BB:      I think you could qualify that year in Jerusalem as a major changing point, one when I became quite intent on describing things with more specificity. My landscapes became less concerned with the gesture, or gesture became something I was willing sacrifice in my process in order to move my paintings forward. Otherwise I have periods where I work more outside or more in the studio, but I don’t think you could qualify that as a major change. The approach has always been the same, although I do feel somewhat recently that these two ways of working are finding more common ground.

Afternoon by the Cliffs, (2018) Oil on linen, 24 x 35 cm The Valley, (2017) Oil on linen, 24 x 35 cm The Aquaduct, Nepi, (2014) Oil on linen 27 x 35 cm

LG:   You have been an artist resident in Civita Castellana, Italy as well as painting in many other locations in Italy. Please tell us something about your experience there?

BB:      Painting in Civita Castellana has been a great experience for me on many levels and I have managed to go back every year since 2013. Stepping into the Italian landscape, one sees the obvious correlation with the paintings that were made there by Corot, Valenciennes, Thomas Jones and others I admire. I can’t really underscore enough the impact of such an experience. It is like coming back full circle in my relationship with these painters because it’s possible to see how their language and their mark-making are directly tied to the subject—how the the landscape led to the work…

In Civita I also connect with painters over an intense two week period in ways that don’t seem to happen here in France. I am definitely invigorated by a town that is crawling with close to one hundred painters over the summer. I find myself surrounded by painters with similar concerns and motivations and this community in turn pushes the dialogue forward, brings the conversation to a new level and helps me to stay close to my center, basically what is important to me as a painter.  

The Cliffs, Civita Castellana, (2015) Oil on linen, 24 x 33 cm View of Vignale, Civita Castellana, (2014) Oil on linen, 31.4 x 38.2 cm
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27 x 50 inches 60 x 72 inches By Tina Engels

A couple of summer’s ago Tina Engels and I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing Dan Gustin in his incredible home and studio in Italy. A number of delays prevented us from finishing and publishing this wonderful interview that Tina Engels wrote until now. I would like to thank Dan Gustin and Tina Engels both for their time and energy in putting together this insightful look at his background, process and thoughts on painting. – Larry Groff

Dan Gustin has been a Associate Professor of Art (tenured) at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago since 1984. He has been a visiting artist for many years at the International School of Art in Umbria Italy. He received his M.F.A. at the Yale University in 1974 and his B.F.A. at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1972. He has had numerous solo shows at the ISA Gallery, Umbria, Italy, Geschiedle Gallery, J. Rosenthal Gallery, and the Lyons Weir Packer Gallery in Chicago, Forum Gallery in NYC and Alpha Gallery in Boston, the Paul Mellon Arts Center, and the Rockford Art Museum. and many others. He has shown in over fifty group exhibitions throughout the United States.

Gustin’s work is in the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., Art Institute of Chicago, The Huntington Museum of Art, West Virginia, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA and in private collections in New York and Chicago. Mr. Gustin is a recipient of the Purchase Award at the annual Arts & Letters Show in NYC and is a member of the National Academy of Design. He has also won grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Faculty Enrichment Grants and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dan Sheridan Gustin spends his summers painting and teaching near his home in Umbria, Italy. While there Gustin paints the landscape often working on three or four paintings a day. During the rest of the year Gustin is an associate professor of art at the Art Institute of Chicago. While home in Chicago the artist focuses on his large scale narratives.

William Bailey

William Bailey wrote about Dan Gustin and Langdon Quin in September 2017: “…Each has found challenge and meaning in this Landscape so often painted throughout history. They bring their own histories, as did Claude and Corot in their time. They paint with conviction and imagination, shunning the mannerisms which conventionally assure contemporaneity. Gustin and Quin share a subject but find completely different content….Dan Gustin’s landscapes are typically large-scale, and executed entirely within the setting portrayed in his paintings. Using a full range of vigorously applied color and tone, he fills his canvases with the space, light and atmosphere which characterize each particular place. Gustin’s painterly presence and mastery are his own, but one can sense the extravagant Courbet lurking nearby – urging him on.”- William Bailey

30 x 40 inches 24 x 40 inches Dan Gustin painting in Umbria

Larry Groff: Please tell us how you came to be to Italy?

Dan Gustin:  Initially I was hired by Helaine Trietman, Mark Servin and Nick Carone to teach at the International School in Italy during the summer. The first month I was there, I just stayed in my room and could not paint. I had never painted landscape and I had no ideas or desire to do it. I thought I had to paint large narrative paintings here and I just couldn’t. I was depressed and completely blocked. I didn’t know what to do. One day I just kind of peeked out and started doodling away. One thing led to another and I was soon out in the landscape and totally fell in love with the place.

I think people who paint landscapes are looking for a home. I know I was. I found my painting home was here in Italy. The light the spaces, the land and sky all became familiar in some strange way and it was what I wanted to paint about. Then I had to do hundreds of terrible paintings. But, everyday I am here I learn more.

48 x 84 inches 72 x 108 inches

Tina: You certainly found the perfect place to do this work. These enormous vistas appear cinematic, spectacular. Your translation seems fitting.

Dan: It took me years to do paintings here in Italy, meaning paintings that I could look at or exhibit. I believe you work from where you are. I had many ideas about how I should paint, and while co-teaching in Italy with many terrific painters. One starts to believe in certain rules and devise certain ways of working. You want to fit in. One wants the work to stand up to other painter’s ways of working and painting from the landscape. You get into this thing of what can you do vs. what do you want to do. It took me years to try to even get away from what do I want to do as opposed to what I can do.

Tina: When you go back into the studio, do you imagine or recall the landscape to paint back into your paintings?

Dan: You know how we all tweak things. You pull things out; push things around, little things, but not a lot. I don’t work a lot away from the landscape and I’ve learned only do this in natural light. When I use electric light, the color shifts are all off and I end up with two different paintings.

Tina: I’ve heard you say before that being capable of creating scale is more important to you than the physical size of the painting. For example, a small painting can look big.

Dan: The idea of scale became so apparent to me in Italy. Landscape painting for me is so much about seeing from here to there and about how one creates relationships that work or fit together in this vast space.

24 x 42 inches 36 x 80 inches 48 x 84 inches

Larry: So a miniaturist could do it?

Dan: Right. A lot of people think scale means the size of the picture but it doesn’t at all. It’s the relationships to the parts. If you look at a Van Eyck, the painting looks immense, but it’s physically it is really very small.   I’m not that good, so I can’t do that. In a way, I use size to get scale. Which maybe is a problem, but I’m okay with it.

It’s that battle between your intuition and what your mind tells you to do. For years I kept doing these smaller pieces and then I realized it’s like an ocean out there. How do I paint the sea? Do I want to paint a little part of the water? It started to extend the painting both horizontally and vertically. The wider it got, the deeper it got. Again, it’s that thing, a lot of people paint shelves and others paint distances.

Tina: That’s a great way of talking about painting the landscape. Thinking of the landscape/ sky as a sea. It’s a wonderful metaphor.

Dan: There is a kind of arrogance too. There’s a kind of extreme narcissism to try to take in all of this. And the more I would distance myself from other painters to see how they saw and painted Italy, the better my paintings became. That was hard for me because I had to find a way I could believe in making a painting from a landscape, yet, still feel I was making my own paintings.

Larry: Why do you perceive of it as arrogance?

Dan: Maybe it’s not arrogance, but the hope that you can do something so difficult and still get it somewhat right in relationship to what you are seeing.

60 x 108 inches 60 x 90 inches

Tina: How does one of your paintings near completion? I’ve heard you say you don’t make drawings, or preliminary studies.

Dan: If I look at something and there’s kind of wholeness to the experience, and I know that I don’t want to reopen the whole painting and/or I stop having ideas about it, things don’t jump out. I wouldn’t say it is finished, but I would probably say the painting is resolved. I think for me, drawing sets up the finish idea, the completion, and I think more about the color idea and the disposition of masses on a plane set up a different expectation. In a way, I can never finish a painting. I stop working on it, but they always seem open-ended to me. That’s why I work on paintings for years sometimes. Constantly changing them to the conditions present, yet hoping and believing in the resolution in the end.

Tina: We asked you about composition and abstraction. I’m wondering if the organization or if the abstraction reveals itself as you are initially looking at a vista or as you paint it?

Dan: Because I am so involved with seeing this world, I don’t believe there is anything really abstract out there, its all real to me. I think that’s pulling in an idea of painting into the landscape. Again, I don’t see anything in the world as being abstract. I mean they’re formulations of an image based on seeing. Obviously it’s not the thing I’m seeing. It’s a re-presentation of the thing I’m seeing, and of all the decisions and changes that I make while “seeing” what I am painting.

60 x 72 inches 60 x 96 inches

Larry: Isn’t that just another way of saying abstraction?

Dan: Yes, possibly, but abstraction is not the way I think about making a painting. What I am trying to do is to visually link together successive moments in what I see in front of me. Or, you might say a specific piece of the world as it is in that moment. Each moment is based on trying to find that equivalent in paint while always fighting assumptions to what I am looking at. The painting is built, then, from that succession of decisions and corrections until I find a kind of unified resolution of the whole painting. This is why the weather is so important to my landscape paintings, because that determines in the most specific sense what is happening in front of me, yet is constantly changing. That is the chase I am on.

12 x 20 inches 48x 86 inches 50 x 60 inches

Tina: Your paintings require a slow read, or a process of getting to know them. I also find the periphery of your paintings charged. Are they seem to be meant to see not from one point of view, but from all sides.

Dan: I like to move the canvas so that you come in from the edge on different angles, so that you don’t get a static vanishing point. I don’t create a space where everything leads in to one point and try to take different points of view from varied angles of the painting to get different things happening, from different sides and different angles of vision. Lester Johnson talked to me about this.

It also shakes up your idea that..

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I am very pleased that the renowned painter Robert Birmelin was able to join me for a telephone interview recently and thank him greatly for his time and involvement in sharing his history, process and thoughts on painting.

Robert Birmelin has long been painting highly personal, realist cityscapes, which he continues to explore through complex representational devices. Independent of photography, Birmelin constructs his detailed urban scenarios mentally. Placing himself in the role of pedestrian observer, he frames a street scene as a momentary perception: looking over people’s shoulders, for example, glimpsing events through their hair, or, in dramatic works from the ’80s, watching from between gargantuan fingers, through which we see streams of jostling figures. In the ’90s, he turned to psychologically dynamic interiors, introducing Magritte-like tropes–upside-down passages or interpolations in scale.” – From P. C. Smith’s review, “Robert Birmelin at Luise Ross” Art In America, February 2007

Robert Birmelin has works in collections in leading museums such as The Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY; The Museum of the City of New York; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Nagoaka, Japan; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; The Library of Congress; the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Arts; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the San Francisco Museum of Art; and National Academy of Design.

He is the recipient of many prestigious grants and awards including a Fulbright grant in 1960 followed by a Prix de Rome at the The American Academy in Rome in 1961. He has received Childe Hassam Fund Purchase Awards, American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971,1976 and 1980; the Carnegie Prize for Painting, National Academy of Design in 1987; Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, Rhode Island College in 1996, and the Altman Prize for Landscape Painting, National Academy of Design in 1999. He has had numerous solo shows at major galleries such as the Luise Ross Gallery, New York, NY, Peter Findlay Gallery, New York, NY, The Columbus Museum, Columbus, GA, Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, Claude Bernard Gallery, New York, NY, Alpha Gallery, Boston, MA and showed his works during the 1960’s in the Stable Gallery, New York, NY.

Birmelin attended the Cooper Union and Skowhegan art schools and received B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees from Yale University. A 1960 Fulbright grant followed by a Prix de Rome in 1961 enabled him to study for a year at the Slade School in London and to spend three years at the American Academy in Rome.

A realist with a fascination for existentialist literature, Birmelin is perhaps best known today for his panic-tinged New York crowd scenes. He draws his imagery from the disparate environments of New York City, where he teaches, and his summer home on Deer Isle, Maine. Birmelin controls visual experience through viewpoint: the panoramic sweep of his light-suffused landscapes provides the serenity of distance, while in the crowd scenes he crops images and truncates people at picture edges to create an immediacy that perfectly coincides with the compelling urgency of his subjects.

Virginia M. Mecklenburg Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1987)”

It is not unusual to find that a relative or friend’s memory of a past event clashes with one’s own. Indeed, how often do two witnesses to the same crime contradict one another as to what really occurred? As an artist, I found myself seeking a visual structure that would be an active metaphor for such a state of mind – a structure continuous and spatially rich that initially seems to offer an uncomplicated, expected orientation and then self subverts, challenging the observer to recognize the claims of another equally visually insistent counter-reading. Our minds are restless, making choices, fluctuating between possibilities as we strive to interpret, to judge between contending truths. These paintings live in mid-thought, in the space of that uncertainty – an all too familiar space in a world of bewildering choice.” – Robert Birmelin talking about his work at the 2012 Winter Contemporary Show at Old Print Gallery

Larry Groff:     What were your early years like, and how did you decide to become a painter?

Robert Birmelin:      Like many kids, I always liked to draw and by good fortune, I had a very cultured and helpful high school teacher. Coming from a working class family in northern New Jersey, I wasn’t that clear about going to college. She told me about Cooper Union, I applied, was accepted and that made all the difference in the trajectory of my life. I attended 1951 to ’54.

A Subway Experience, 1966, Acrylic on canvas, 2 panels 79 1/4 x 137 x 17 1/2 inches

LG:      Their tuition was free back then, right?

RB:      Yes, it was free. They again have a plan for free tuition in ten years. They’re going to work toward it. I think that’s good. It’s a wonderful institution, and its founder and his idea about free education for working class New Yorkers was a noble one. When I was at Cooper, the Whitney Museum was on west 8th Street, near Cooper Union, and I became well acquainted with the art happening at the time such as de Kooning, Kline and the rest of the avant garde as well as Hopper and the Social realists. Also, our teachers at Cooper were oriented toward the Abstract Expressionist milieu.

I went to a meeting in the last year I was at Cooper and listened to a recruiting talk by Bernard Chaet, a faculty member at the Yale University Art School. Josef Albers had recently become head of the school and was in the process of changing its nature completly. I went to New Haven with seven other Cooper Union students to show our work. I remember vividly, it was the second turning point in my life. We went into an empty classroom and were asked to stand up against the wall and put your work in front of us on the floor.

We’re waiting around, and in comes Josef Albers, in a gray flannel suit with a yellow tie, shock of white hair, with his assistant. He looks around silently. Looks at the artwork around in the room, mostly drippy, expressionistic work, mine included. And he says, “Vell, who vill speak first?” Nobody said a word, and he looks at me and he says, “Vell, boy.” Extremely nervous, I tried to start talking about my work. I got about ten seconds into it, and he just cut me off and went into a five minute lecture about how New York painting was rotten, how he hated the drips and so forth.

I was devastated. Here I am, this 19-year-old kid, and just been blitzed by Josef Albers! He then looked at other Cooperites and left. So we’re all standing there, in a few moments he comes back in and he looked around the room at each person and then he pointed to me and said, “You.” then he points to two other people, “You and you, go see the secretary.” We were now students at Yale. Can you imagine that for an application process!

LG:      What a difference from today!

RB:      Anyway, that’s how I got there. At Yale, Bernard Chaet was a very important teacher, who later became a friend and advocate. I started drawing with him, and that was very constructive and important. But I had difficulty painting. Albers, in his talks and critiques, was very clear about what he was about, but I couldn’t adapt myself to it. So I fled, as students often do, to the print room and got very involved in making etchings. My enthusiasms were for Goya, Redon and Max Klinger among others. I made a series of etchings and I graduated in 1956 on that basis rather than painting. Those prints were the first works that I really felt were in my own voice. I graduated from Yale in ’56.

I had my BFA, but was tired of school. During that summer I was doing some commercial artwork in the city, probably not very well, and not well paid. I then got a draft notice to report in a couple months. I was drafted in January ’57 and I was in the Army for two years.

Northern City, 1974, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

LG:      Did you get a strong traditional figurative training?

RB:      I’d never painted from the figure; not at Cooper, not at Yale. It wasn’t available, though I’ve drawn from the figure a great deal. I had seen Edwin Dickinson’s paintings in the 12 Americans show at the Museum of Modern Art, sometime in the mid-’50s. I went to study with Dickinson for a couple of months at the Art Students’ League. He was a very interesting kind of man; through him I got an insight into tonal painting, about building a painting with patches of color rather than line. This was something I couldn’t have gotten from anywhere else.

LG:      Dickinson was such an amazing painter.

RB:      He was a marvelous exponent, not so much as a teacher. This had more to do with his painting–building a picture without line, with patches of tone and color. That was very important to learn for me, though I couldn’t use it immediately.

When I was finally discharged in January 1959 I was admitted back into Yale’s MFA program. During that year and a half I made prints, and very large drawings. For the final review of the year there were no formal exhibitions for students graduating, but rather you put your work up in an empty classroom and it was looked at by the faculty, then you took it down. I had made these very large black and white drawings, seven-foot drawings on very crummy photographic background paper. Bernard Chaet brought Eleanor Ward, owner of the Stable Gallery, in to view these drawings. In the 1950’s thru the 60’s, the Stable Gallery was the premiere avant garde gallery of that period. They showed the first Rauschenberg’s, Abstract expressionist painters and even early Warhol.

This would have been in April, May of 1960. In April I married Blair, my beautiful and smart wife, who has been my most loyal advocate and most perceptive critic ever since.

Eleanor Ward comes in and looks around and said, “I’d like give you show.” I was so naïve Larry. I thought, “Oh, that’s really nice.” Here’s somebody who’s running one of the best galleries in New York coming in to see this graduate student show and says, “Oh, I’d like to give you a show.”

I said “Yeah, that would be nice”. Then I thought, these drawings are all on crumby photographic background paper that tears every time I unroll it. When she left I carried them home and stuffed them in a garbage can.

LG:      Oh my goodness.

RB:      Blair and I got a positions teaching that summer at the Yale Norfolk Summer School. During the summer I painted a whole damn show in black acrylic on canvas, white canvas. It was a black and white show. I painted 15 big paintings in eight weeks, some good enough to exhibit. We got back home to New Jersey, my father helped me stretch them in the garage and we shipped them off to gallery in August. The gallery didn’t open until September, but they were stored. I had a Fulbright scholarship. Blair and I were scheduled to leave for England, the ship leaving at the end of August. We were on the boat, we’re going to London when the show went up in New York, it gets reviewed, and I thought, “Oh that’s really nice.” I was so naïve. It was a time to enter the scene… I should have been there. Right?

LG:      Sure, right.

RB:      I should have been meeting people, making contacts but that’s the way it is sometimes. When things come easily, sometimes you don’t know what’s going on. Well, I’ve had a history of lacking the entrepreneurial spirit.

Black and White Photo of first crowd painting. London, 1960-61, 54 x 84 inches, unfinished

LG:      So you received a Fulbright and the Prix de Rome in the early 60’s. How did that influence the directions you took after living in Rome and London?

RB:      We spent a year in London, where I started to paint. I felt released from the entire Yale environment. To start, I decided to paint colors they way I saw them rather than worry about color theories.

LG:      And you were at the Slade School there?

RB:      I was assigned to Slade school at the University of London. I drew from the model there a couple of times. They have this tutor system; I went to see my tutor, who turned out to be Andrew Forge, who later became the dean at Yale.

LG:      Was Coldstream also there at that time?

RB:      Yes, he was there but I had no contact with him. My tutor, Andrew Forge wasn’t that interested in Americans at that time. Frankly, he sort of brushed me off. I didn’t mind, because we’d found a rather nice apartment and I did a number of large paintings of crowds, the first crowd pictures I did. Also we traveled to the continent, Belgium, Netherlands, France and Spain. It was my first sight of the “real thing”, so different than the reproductions in art books. Later we also traveled in Germany, Switzerland and Austria and the Scandinavian countries.

Cityscape – The Stadium Alight, 1980-1981, Acrylic on canvas, 47 x 71 inches

LG:      What painters from art history did you see that have been most central to your concerns?

RB:      There are so many… a big Daumier exhibition was the first discovery we made after arriving in London. It made a lasting impression on me. To risk sounding like a laundry list, in no particular order I would say: Breughel, Goya, Rembrandt (particularly the etchings), Signorelli, Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Degas, Caillebote, Piranesi, Max Beckmann, Picasso’s Analytical Cubism, Futurism, Magritte, and the early films of John Cassavetes (“Shadows”). And at certain moments Balthus and Bacon.

In the 60s, Balthus, Giacometti and Bacon were really the contemporary figurative artists that one tended to look to–painters for suggesting ways forward. Of course this was all set against the context of the dominance of abstract and Pop art.

In American art schools their work seemed to suggest a way to something else, something different, something more radical… Most certainly, the model of Balthus of rang through American figurative painting, in that period and later, probably sometimes in embarrassing ways

After London, I got a grant to go to the American Academy in Rome and we got to Rome in 1961. I was fortunate enough to continue there three years.

It was still a kind of Ivy League-ish kind of place. More weighted toward art historians, archaeologists, philologists, and so forth and so on, though, there were several painters, composers and writers–some very smart, interesting people. I took over Lennart Andersen’s studio as he was leaving. It was a big, beautiful studio on the second floor on the highest hill in Rome, with a skylight that had been built for mural painters.

LG:      Terrific.

RB:      It took me a long, long time to realize how I was lucky beyond belief. Anyway, I started to paint there. I painted a whole variety of paintings influenced by many sources; a little de Chirico, Cubism, Futurism Surrealism and even the emerging Pop Art. Of course we were also devouring the great historical works of Italy and the rest of Europe on our frequent travels. I was doing a lot of drawing. Drawing was, and is, a major part of my production, maybe the best part.

In the last years I was at Rome, I did several large paintings, six or seven foot paintings of different kinds of multiple figure situations and also some interiors. I was opening up as a painter in a way that I hadn’t before. That was good.

You asked me before about what influenced me; there are works that influence you, and there are other things that you just admire immensely. I’ve had certain reproductions of Pontormo, and Rosso Fiorentino, that had been up on my wall for years. Being in Italy and standing before them is so, moving and amazing. There are a couple of pictures by Rosso,” Moses and the Daughters of Jethro” and his phantasmagorical altarpiece in Volterra with their jagged forms, anti-naturalistic space and color dissonances that engaged me deeply.

Another case was Caravaggio’s “Seven Acts of Mercy in Naples. Do you happen to know it?

LG:      I’m afraid not.

RB:      Go ahead and look it up sometime. I’ve drawn it several times. It’s an impossible, impossible painting. It made me realize that certain works, which disregard existing canons, look like they have something “wrong” with them. But that “wrongness” gives that image its power.

There’s a painting, in the Metropolitan Museum, by Ludovico Carracci, it’s a dead Christ mourned by the Virgin, St. John, and saints. Every time I go to the Met I look at it. Christ’s broken, dead body is cradled by Mary and is painted in this painfully naturalistic way. But, all the other figures in the painting look like they come out of a different world. Was he experimenting? Perhaps… It’s disturbing. It’s the clash of two kinds of incompatible worlds. The tension between the two holds me every time I see it.

Seeing Max Beckmann Among Commuters Near Penn Station, (Large Version) Acrylic on canvas, 48 in x 78 inches, 2008 The City Crowd – Night (The Hat), 1980-1981, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 inches
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