When did you begin using space imagery? Until a few years ago, I was unaware that it existed in some of your earlier work. How did you come to use it as a subject matter?
I actually made “space” before I made use of imagery from space. In the late ’60s I was making a series of paintings that were attempts to break the rules of painting as I understood them at the time. Instead of “less is more” I was fond of saying, “more is more, less is less, no more no less.” I put together a variety of painterly methods in order to achieve a “contradistinctive” result.
Though I was committed to abstraction, I soon realized that my paintings and drawings were more successful if I used visually accessible sources with which to invent my abstractions. Nature is specific and demands particular responses, even unidentifiable shapes. I began to research stars—nature’s dots—in order to make my distribution of dots more particular. That led me to an interest in outer space as a subject.
Gems. When did they begin to appear, and why?
In 1970 I became interested in how painted dots reflected light according to the location of the viewer, the time of day, the lights in the room, etc. I discovered that acrylic gems made that particularity of point of view explicit with their dramatic reflections. I first used these gems in a series of felt covered “plaques” in 1970–71.
The ’80s works that used gems reminded me of constellations. Was that specifically on your part a space reference, or more a comment/dig/flirt on/at/with glitz, decoration, affluence?
In the early 80’s I completed a series of “pointillist” paintings—Spiral Nebula, Exploding Galaxy, and others—that were representative of specific objects in outer space.
The work you are referring to had become more physical, more sculptural. Though most of the work had its roots in some reference to spatial imagery, I often used space and spatial concepts as metaphor, less attached to specific images. I was exploring the materiality of the gems, the wood, the glue, etc. and continuing to explore my interest in the contradistinctive dynamic referred to earlier.
I wasn’t interested in making a comment on the glitzy or the decorative, or referring to questions of affluence, values, etc. per se, but didn’t mind the associations; in fact, I would often push those associations. My primary interest was in the contradiction between the visual and the physical, the painterly and the sculptural and so on. I wanted to create work that would flip back and forth from possible illusions/allusions to the physical: plywood, acrylic gems and glue.
Art does flirt with you.
What inspired your recent return to outer space imagery?
As you can see by what I have been saying, spatial imagery has been with me in varying degrees since 1969, both explicitly and metaphorically. I do think that writing a book on drawing has been an influence on the more expressionistic process I have taken with these paintings. In hindsight, writing it reaffirmed my basic belief(s) in the visual arts.
Do you think of these new paintings as being your most expressive and emotional to date? I've never before seen you apply paint so freely and in so challenging manner, like a rather pushy abstract painter.
I do believe this to be true. Though people may not think of me as a minimalist/conceptualist, I always felt that my work stemmed from a very intellectual base even while being “glitzy.” As I have become older, my time in the studio has become more limited and therefore more vital. Over the past 15 years I have tried to make my painting process more like theater, more moment-to moment.
Is this new work baroque or rococo?
Good question—and complex. I would like to say yes to both. The Baroque is resplendent with contradistinctives; the weight of materials in Bernini’s "St Theresa in Her Ecstasy" contrasts with the transcendent spiritual content, as does the incredible light order of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, while the Rococo celebrated the illusions of infinite space and the clouds of heaven, alla Tiepolo.
How did you come to refer to outer space as being sexy and romantic and alive—so unscientific!
I know, but look at the names scientists give to these objects. They know how sexy it is. The imagery is both attractive and strangely familiar in its violence, but the vastness of the distance and scale of the objects also contributes to a sense of loneliness at a cosmic level. How could it not be romantic?
Do you make preparatory drawings for your paintings?
Have you always done this?Yes, I make drawings before, during and after the painting. I refer to the initial drawings as “rehearsals” because I am trying to exercise the process on a small scale in preparation for the primary “act” of the painting. In effect, I try to imbed the imagery and shapes in my core muscle memory, so to speak. While making the painting, I will make drawings to help strategize the moves. After the painting is done I sometimes do others in order to explore possible alternate versions of the same subject. For example, I foresee the possibility of ongoing series of paintings of the Carina or Eagle nebulas.
Your educational / how-to book on drawing was just published by Abrams. That you wrote one surprised me as I rarely, except in some very recent works, see drawing or references to drawing in your paintings. Are you a closeted draftsman?
It’s true that I have not exhibited drawings very often. This may be because I do not separate drawing from painting. But I do have a lot of works on paper in my storage. My book on drawing is actually more about perception and how drawing on the flat plane of paper (and, by extension, the canvas) can be a tool for exercising perception. As such it is not about draftsmanship per se.
Why have the gallery walls been painted gray for your exhibition?
I have come to need a value down from white for my paintings. My studio walls are painted this color also. I find that with white walls, the whiteness of the wall comes forward rather then the colors of the painting. With gray walls, the white in the painting is also the primary white in the room and the paintings are easier to see.
What's with changing your name to John?
Well I always have been a John haven’t I? I guess I want to be just John now. It tickles me when I think of it.
Have you been working on any stand-up?
Funny people are always attracted to other funny people, and to funny thoughts, ideas and things. So, to a certain extent, I am always looking for material. Life is theater. I specialize in comedy.
Were you doing stand up comedy before art making?
As a little kid I always made art and I was always funny. However, I decided to be an artist when I was 18. I didn't actually get up in front of an audience until the early 80's. The first time was at a club called Sylvette's on LaGuardia Place. (It was named after the Picasso sculpture across the street.)
Do you think of the paintings and objects as having a similar flat-footedness or deadpan quality as your routines? Your material choices seem related to the way your stand up routines make use of the literal.
I haven't related my artwork and comedy in this way before, at least consciously, but I think you are right. The materials in my artwork maintain their "literalness" in part because of my connection to the "form follows function" tradition of essentialism in modern art. I also have a need to create contradistinction within the work, a conflict between the physical and the spatial. For example, the grain in plywood can create an illusion of space or the reflection from a glass gem can spark distant spaces but the physical fact of the gem or of the wood always remains present. In my comedy I use the literal meaning of words to subvert them. This helps bring unusual interpretations to established ideas.
How about the art = joke/humor dialogue?
The pleasure we have when experiencing art comes from the suspension of knowing. Art lifts us. Humor works in a similar way. By twisting and subverting customary meanings it confronts us with denied realities. In both cases we are delighted by the surprise. Art, like magic, can take us to fantastic places we couldn’t normally go. Comedy takes us for an exciting ride but ultimately brings us back to reality.
What are some of the differences and similarities in standing up to a fresh panel and standing up to an audience?
Both the fresh panel and the live audience receive the action. However, with comedy the audience is there, alive; in real time. The experience is moment to moment. The panel is not equivalent to the audience. It is more comparable to the stage but, with painting, the "real time" action is only experienced by the painter. The audience of a painting experiences the result of the artist’s "performance", all at once. Thus the relationship of the audience to painting is extremely different. With performance the communication is immediate and temporal. With painting the communication can be timeless and infinite. For the painter all art and all artists are contemporary and part of the audience.
What about the relationship of the audience to watching a routine or watching a painting?
The audience of a routine submits to its temporality, to the performer’s action in time. The audience of a painting doesn’t have to submit. There is no action from the art. Therefore, there is no time. The painting remains constant. It can be returned to again and again according to the viewer’s interest. The "action" with the painting is on the part of the viewer, the audience. Therefore, the viewer is the author of the experience. With a routine the performer is the author of the experience.
Are science and decoration your primary influences?
The overriding principle for me has been the resolution of contradictions. Therefore science and decoration would be one of many binaries that I have identified. I refer to them as "oxymoronic," a quality that permeates contemporary experience. Other examples would be: the physical and visual; space and flatness; past and present, etc. Historical images/ paintings also influence me, such as Masaccio, Rembrandt, Poussin, Cezanne, Mondrian, and Pollack. For example, I wanted to honor my debt to Cezanne in C’s Mountain by using a palette similar to his Mount St Victoire paintings.
What’s your organizing principle for the balls and circles?
I always look for a dynamic closure. Therefore the primary organizing principle for any of my "marks," i.e. balls, holes, color sprays, charcoal, gems, etc., is based on the relationship between a mark’s particularity and its organizing contribution to the whole.
How are the color combinations selected or determined?
Most choices are directed toward the self-definition of each painting. The daily process is one of moment-to-moment choice making. Each choice helps construct a locality and, hopefully, at the same time contributes to the painting’s wholeness.
Do you have urges to work directly on the wall?
Yes. In fact I have an on-going series of half-round balls painted and imbedded with gems that can be placed directly on a wall according to the needs of a particular space. That said, I would love the opportunity to do a "site-specific" wall work utilizing all of my tools.
Is your investigation playful, and is playfulness something which helps you work difference and similarity within a limited vocabulary?
A "dynamic closure with particular resolution" sounds like heavy formalist stuff but, to me, pulling it off is exciting and fun. I would not be able to do this without being light, relaxed, and playful when I work. So, yes playful, but like a cat playing with a mouse: focused and attentive, concentrating on each move, and then the next, and then the next...