Interview by Frédéric Caillard, February 2019
“I want to maintain the tradition of the flatness of painting, even though my pieces are not flat”
In your work, you play with the 3 elements of classical painting: the wood stretcher, the canvas and the paint.
Yes, they have to be present!
They have to be present, but never like in a classical painting…
No, they are re-arranged, or reversed. Instead of the stretcher holding the canvas, the canvas would be holding the stretcher. Instead of applying paint to the canvas, the canvas is applied to the paint. So visually, new things are happening. I am constantly trying to get behind things, things that we normally can’t see, to find new.
Tell us about how it all started, with your first Inside-Out Burlap Bag pieces.
This was my first body of work in 1989. I took burlap, in opposition to the regular cotton duck canvas that is manufactured. Burlap is all natural, it is the first weave, the pure weave. I am always interested in purity as much as I can go. Spiritually speaking, as well, in terms of making or addressing a painting. So I was thinking of burlap sacks, full of goods and food, how they preserve things in shipment, protecting them from mold and moisture. I sewed the burlap sacks together, made big bags out of them and hung them on the wall. I didn’t really know what to paint. I knew it was not going to be images. So I painted stripes. The idea of the stripes came from the tallit, a religious and protective garment Jewish boys are given when they enter manhood […] Then I turned the bag inside-out, to see the back of the painting, to get behind things. To see the other side became more pure to me. So in the end the original painting was contained inside the work, and then I also put stretchers inside to reverse the process. The painting was holding the structure.
Then your next body of work, the Plastic Bag Paintings, was instrumental in defining what would become your signature style.
When I was doing my burlap pieces, I had plastic on the wall as a protection. When I took the burlap off the wall to turn it inside-out, I was looking at this plastic with paint on it. It was almost like a negative imprint of the painting itself, another behind and another extension. I thought it was quite beautiful and I didn’t want to just throw it out, I don’t like to waste anything. So I took those pieces of plastic and sewed them up into bags again, and put the scraps of wood and canvas that were lying around from the original burlap pieces into the plastic. I was also looking for transparency in the work, I wanted to be even more naked, not hide anything at all. So I made these transparent negative paintings of the burlap pieces.
At the time I was using very cheap paint, and the paint on plastic did not adhere well, it was a natural thing. So when you handled the plastic bag or over time, the paint would peel off and fall back into the bag onto the canvas that was inside. This was a Eureka moment, a very special thing, having the paint hit the canvas in a new way, falling back to where it began. I thought that was beautiful. It resonated with me for about 2 to 3 years, and it led to having the paint fully fill the bag…
And so you developed your Bag Paintings, where the canvas seems to hold a big volume of paint. You started this series at the end of the nineties and you are continuing to explore this format up to today. How do you view those pieces?
I started seeing paint as having form, physical form, and a big mass, with movement, emotion and history. I started to think conceptually about it. I wanted to fill the weight of history, fill the weight of what painting had been through and hold on to it as much as possible, right up to the top rim, where it just comes over. The Sack Paintings are made of burlap. We see sacks this way in stores, on loading docks… I like them on the floor, they almost have a human quality, they can relate to the body in a certain way. For the wall pieces, I may change the material to cotton instead of burlap. I can go in many directions when they are on the wall, I can start playing: I can fold the painting, I can cut it a certain way, section it off, I can cover the paint with a lid that can be lifted up. It is just more options to explore…
… It also relates more directly to the history of painting when it is on the wall.
Sure, absolutely! And surface is extremely important on those pieces. I want a nice flat smooth surface as if the paint is either wet or just dried. I spend hours working on the surface before the paint is applied. I want to maintain the tradition of the flatness of painting, even though my pieces are not flat. I also want the surface to look like paint and not manufactured plastic. If you look closely you can see some tiny drips […].
You were referring to the body when talking about the Sack Paintings. You also have an original way to view canvas…
Yes, canvas is holding everything for me: the paint, the stretcher. In my work, canvas is patchworked, sewn, glued. Basically, I view the canvas as clothing. Putting clothing on a painting, protecting it, healing it…
You even built some type of mattress with multiple layers of canvas in your Bed Paintings?
Yes, it is a way to treat the painting as a living object. Why not stack a whole bunch of fabric, put the paint on, and then cover it with another piece of fabric like a blanket on top, with the wood structure at the bottom under the fabric that holds like a bed? It is a new type of surface to put the paint on, a new configuration between the paint, the canvas and the wood structure. I did 3 or 4 of those pieces, but I am still thinking about them, I am not fully satisfied. I almost made a giant one that might have had more of an impact, which may have been more persuasive…
Would it have been an actual bed size?
Yes, absolutely. It is in my thoughts going forward. It is something new that I am still exploring.
Continuing with the body analogy, can you tell us why you like to hang your paintings low?
Yes, I do like my paintings hung low because it’s more intimate for the viewer and it relates the work to the midsection of a person. The stomach area, it is where people’s feelings are, the emotions. We are all centered here, and it is where I want my paintings to be, in terms of the physical presence to a person. But their position can change; it depends on the space, the height of the ceiling…
“I just need […] one second of illusion”
Now we need to tell our readers that your pieces are not actually filled up with paint, you are using a sort of trompe l’oeil effect. You have this awesome idea, but you don’t really go to the bottom of it, you only give the illusion that you are doing it. Why?
Illusions are important, I love illusion, we need illusion, it is part of the fun of painting. It is the mystery of everything! And quite frankly it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work, you just can’t do it! [laughs].
Have you tried it?
Yes in the beginning. You try it and you realize it is not going to work, for physical and material reasons. But you don’t need to! You can find other ways to achieve your goal.
And it may even be more interesting not to actually do it?
I hope so! Sometimes I feel people are being let down when they realize it is not full of paint. [Joking] “Oh no, do you not like the piece now? Did I ruin it for you?” But more seriously, I just need that one second of illusion, that’s all I need, one quick impact.
Let’s talk about your Section Paintings, where you literally cut through the mass of painting. It is like doing a sort of autopsy of painting, which is in the end what your whole work is about, dissecting painting!
Yes! And it happened when I trusted the work and let it do its own thing, which was at the time, to go very large. My pieces were enormous, they were hard to move, I couldn’t fit them through a door, so I cut one of them. A lot of people were also asking me: “What’s inside, what’s inside?” That was a way to show them what was inside. I just cut the piece and made the sides with flat paint surfaces. The paint was still there!
The sections also introduced geometry into the work, which I was very pleased to explore. Geometry was always too confining to me. The square, the regular rectangular shape of canvas was an end to me. I felt it needed to go further, and I was able to do that by going out into space with the form of the paint and the slicing.
So we are at the beginning of the 2000s, you develop a series of small Section Paintings in 2004, and then you put your artistic practice into stand-by. Why?
At the beginning of my career I was teaching to make money to buy my paint. I had students who needed 100% of my attention and my painting, which needed 100% of my attention. I was able to do both when I was younger, with all the energy, but as time goes, you have responsibilities, a family, and money is important. I wasn’t making money with my painting. There were other circumstances too. My gallery show in Chelsea ended and nothing happened after that. I lost my studio. I had always been teaching during this time, and I decided to go full force into teaching and to stop my practice. But it didn’t feel like I was not doing art. I was still doing art; I was just using a different media, which was education. Education was my paint. I was inspired by Joseph Beuys and what he said about everyone being an artist, and his famous quote “to be a teacher is my greatest work of art”. I started to tutor teachers, have them recognize that they are artists as well. I developed programs for children to experience art on an intimate and relevant level for them. I made an amazing program that was very satisfying, just as satisfying as making a painting that you love, perhaps a little bit more because you are touching another human being. I do feel that every artist is a teacher, no matter what they do, if they are in front of a classroom or showing in an art gallery, they are teaching people, it is one of our jobs, one of the things we need to always continue. It was tough at the beginning to leave my art, but the value was worth it. And then in 2016, I realized I was going to retire in a few short years. My work had not been seen a lot and I felt it needed to be seen, so I started my practice up again. It was a scary thing, I was not sure I was relevant, I was not on the internet, I did not see other people’s work, did not follow art at all, I was totally into the world of education. It was tough at first, it took a year of making crap, and then I realized I had to start from the beginning. I went back to my 1989 work and that’s how I found myself again. I am now seeing new things in the paintings I did in 1989. Today, I am actually working on the oldest body of work I ever made. I just want to continue that. It’s great, I can make a Sack Painting and then tomorrow, I can make a piece that I would have made in 1989 and feel right at home. I see total lineage, everything is one, which is beautiful.
One of your new body of works are the Bandage Paintings. What are they about?
I used to call them Sandwich/Bandage because I was sandwiching the paint between the wooden support structure and the canvas. So the paint was in the middle, instead of being on the front of the canvas. It is again reversing the process, which I do a lot. I like when the canvas is applied to the paint, and the “seepage” that comes through, that migrates to the other side. Sometimes the bandage pieces have holes in the canvas so we get to see the actual paint surface, it can be a line or a geometric shape, introducing some of the traditions of composition and minimal aesthetics.
One word on your recent Inverted pieces?
They are about inverting how a painting is put together. In a regular painting the canvas is stapled to the outside stretcher rectangle. In the inverted paintings we are going to staple it from the inside rectangle and go outwards. So it is just changing the configuration of a painting, always with the same base materials, I also make Reversed Inverted Paintings.
But there is more to it. These paintings grab the weight of paint. If you look at the Inverted pieces, the bottoms are always a bit larger and heavier, especially in the reversed ones. Some are rounded so you can feel paint is a fluid, driven by gravity towards the bottom. Some people will say: “Is it full of paint?”, others will say: “is it wet too?”. These compositions are somewhat reminiscent of Rothko, in terms of weight, and how he divided his picture plane. When you are looking at a Rothko, what can you say? It is a place I always wanted to go. That purity, that “spiritualness”!
Let’s talk about the size of your works. At the end of the nineties, you were doing huge bags, and now a lot of your pieces are very small. Is it an artistic choice?
I always follow the work. At that time, the work called to be large and enter the space. I needed to have that impact. The first piece I displayed was in Momenta Art in Brooklyn, it was a green lime piece that was about 6 feet by 7 feet coming out of the wall. You needed to see it big and feel the weight. And then from there I went to the pieces I showed in Chelsea in 1998. They were humongous. You felt the force, the weight and the form. In that show I had one sliced piece too, it was the beginning of the sections. But you know, as you evolve, and you move forward you start to make smaller pieces, which is just as big of a challenge as making the huge pieces. In fact it is more of a challenge to have a small piece achieve that same impact.
It also depends on the space you work in. Space dictates to the work. I relate to that very much. Any new studio is going to have an impact on the work. The work is living in it and it’s going to change. If I am working in a giant studio and then end up in a small room my pieces are obviously not going to be as big. But that is great; I want to go to different sizes. Currently, my different work areas; downstairs, upstairs, upstate, make for different things to happen.
You have a series of work with no paint, where you use recovered canvases from your students…
These works I call (Left Behind) Student Work. This was my only kind of political piece. I usually don’t go there. It was right at the time when Trump put this lady, de Vos, in as the Secretary of Education. She had no clue about what she was doing and she was destroying public education, trying to privatize it. I am a public education teacher, not a private education teacher. I was teaching my class painting and we needed to reuse some of the old paintings, from the year before, by taking the canvases off to re-stretch them. As I removed them from the stretcher bars, I was looking at the backs of my former students’ paintings; I did not want to just throw them out. I was very emotional at the time and it related to my work because I always like to see what is behind painting. So when I saw the gesso coming through, and some of the paint and the student’s names, I took them and sewed them together in different ways. Some were very tall and vertical; some were only assembled in pairs. It was symbolic of the government turning its back on the children. I titled them according to teaching strategies: Think Pair Share, Collaborative Learning, Scaffolding…
What are your current working directions?
I would like to get back to my drawings and to my works on paper. I have always been drawing throughout my paintings. But most of my drawings are writings. It is easy to say I want to get back to it, but whether it happens is another thing. I also use a lot of biology in my works on paper, I want to explore that some more. I recently worked with algae on paper, as a conduit of energy.
In my paintings, I would like to explore my use of color a little more. Right now I have no discrimination towards any color, in fact color brings out the personality of the piece as it relates to the form. However I would like to narrow down some colors, expand on certain ones. I can look for more conceptual meanings with some of the colors. Pink is a favorite for now, I don’t know why. I need to see where that goes. I could also imagine a whole room with maybe just black paintings. I did – back in 1997/1998 – a series with only red and recently I did a series with only white, which was a homage to Rauschenberg, I would like to see that again. I have also been doing some sketches, test pieces and experiments for my paintings, to see how the canvas would react to different ideas, and I am going to develop some of those.
Illustration pictures, from top to bottom: Installation view of three Inverted Reversed Paintings. From left to right: Inverted reversed painting (Double Grey), canvas, paint, wood, plaster, staples, foam, 50.8 x 50.8 x 16.51 cm (20 x 20 x 6.5 inch) – Inverted Reversed Painting (Canary Yellow), 2018, paint, canvas, wood, glue, foam, 93.98 x 43.18 x 26.67 cm (37 x 17 x 10.5 inch) - Inverted Reversed Painting (Salmon Pink), 2018, paint, canvas, wood, glue, foam, 121.92 x 60.96 x 29.21 cm (48 x 24 x 11.5 inch). Inside-Out Burlap Bag Painting (Yellow), 2018, burlap, paint, wood, thread, 243.84 x 200.66 x 22.86 cm (96 x 79 x 9 inch). Transparent Negative Plastic Bag Painting (Yellow), 2018, plastic, thread, paint, wood, burlap, 200.66 x 60.96 x 22.86 cm (79 x 24 x 9 inch). Sack Paintings Installation, 2018, burlap, paint, wood, plaster, thread, foam. Each piece approximately 66.04 x 60.96 x 48.26 cm (26 x 24 x 19 inch). Bag Painting (Brown with Hood), 2018, canvas, paint, wood, plaster, thread, staples, glue, foam, 48.26 x 33.02 x 21.59 cm (19 x 13 x 8.5 inch). Section Painting (Navy Blue), burlap, paint, wood, staples, plaster, foam, 30.48 x 30.48 x 25.4 cm (12 x 12 x 10 inch). Installation view of Bag Section Paintings. From left to right: Black Hole From The Whole, 2017, Canvas, Paint, Wood, Plaster, Thread, Staples, Glue, Foam, 162.56 x 60.96 x 50.8 cm (64 x 24 x 20 inch) - Positive And Negative Blue, 2017, Canvas, Paint, Wood, Plaster, Thread, Staples, Glue, Foam, 91.44 x 60.96 x 45.72 cm (36 x 24 x 18 inch) - Red Minus Red, 2017, Canvas, Paint, Wood, Plaster, Thread, Staples, Glue, Foam, 160.02 x 60.96 x 53.34 cm (63 x 24 x 21 inch). Bandage Painting (Yellow Slit), 2017, Canvas, Paint, Wood, Plaster, Foam, 11.43 x 11.43 x 17.78 cm (4.5 x 4.5 x 7 inch). Installation view of three Inverted Paintings. From top to bottom: Inverted Painting (Green), 2017, canvas, paint, wood, plaster, staples, foam, 48.26 x 27.94 x 7.62 cm (19 x 11 x 3 inch) - Inverted painting (white), 2016, Canvas, Paint, Wood, Plaster, Staples, Foam, 43.18 x 22.86 x 6.35 cm (17 x 9 x 2.5 inch) - Inverted Painting (Brown), 2017, canvas, paint, wood, plaster, staples, foam, 43.18 x 38.1 x 10.16 cm (17 x 15 x 4 inch). Beige Slice, 1998, paint, burlap, wood, plaster, foam, glue, 152.4 x 274.32 x 121.92 cm (60 x 108 x 48 inch). All pictures by Howard Schwartzberg, except picture 1, 6 and 8 by Abstract Room.