“The best way to go into the future is … to bring the past with you”
Interview by Frédéric Caillard, October 2017
You are mainly known for your three-dimensional saddle-shaped canvases, which you started to make in the late 1960s. At the time, a group of Italian artists such as Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri and Dadamaino had started to make holes in their canvases, and to challenge the flatness of painting. Were they an inspiration to you?
Yes definitely, I am very fond of their work, I looked at it carefully and they did help me form my own idea. But I didn’t want to alter the canvas. All I wanted to do is to change the rectangle so that the corners weren’t 90 degrees. I was mainly interested in an argument with the rectangle
At the time there were two major critical discussions about painting: one about the end of the flatness of painting and one about the end of its painterly touch. Your shaped canvases are extremely interesting because they fully embrace the end of the flatness trend but swim against the current by keeping a very painterly touch. One could say that they were at the same time cutting-edge and conservative.
Yes, I feel the best way to go into the future is definitely to bring the past with you.
You are known to be an ambidextrous artist. How do you actually paint your canvases? With a brush in each hand?
I don’t use both hands at the same time, I have never done that. I can use my left hand if something is easier to reach on a large painting or if I want to work on the left side of a form so I can see the form when I am painting it. I change hands but I don’t use both hands at the same time
Your works are often composed with two rounded shapes that seem to float on the painted background…
… Either the form or the ground can be the foreground…
…That’s an interesting point of view. In any case the impression of floating is impressive in your work, as the canvases themselves, with their depth and their smooth angles, also seem to be floating on the walls. There is a double floating effect. Could you also tell us about your other signature works, the stacked canvases?
I wanted to merge the idea of painting, of sculpture and architecture. I am very interested by the idea that they have a sense of architecture about them.
One could also say that with the stacked canvases you are composing your work with paintings, that your actual media is paintings – that your stacked canvases are artworks composed of individual artworks?
The paintings are first stretched and primed ready to put the color on. I don’t put the color on first and then have it assembled. The stretcher has to be built to conform to the color that I am going to use, because the intervals are changed a little bit. Then I start with the top color. In a way it is somewhat improvised, each color comes to me, followed by what the next one should be. Sometimes the color is not right so I have to scrape it off and reprime it again, and then put what I hope will be the right color up. Every now and then I don’t get it right, so I have to make changes.
In your career, what is the exhibition that you are the proudest of? Which one would you recommend to visit if we could travel back in time?
Really, it is hard to me to rank the shows I’ve done… The last show I had at Cheim & Read, earlier this year, is the show I like the best. Every show I’ve done, when I did it I thought it was my best. Every show I do, I like it better than the last one.
In which way do you prefer your more recent paintings?
I wouldn’t want to rank my earlier work piece by piece… I don’t think individual painting have gotten better. I just think that my last show, as a show, was the best show that I’ve done.
Were the works more consistent with each other?
For me the element of surprise is very important. I thought a couple of the paintings surprised me.
Are you interested in the contemporary art scene?
I follow what’s going on, what people are doing. The last show that I liked was Peter Halley. He painted the walls yellow and hung his paintings on them.
Do you find some inspiration in the contemporary art scene?
I think it is really good, if you are an older artist, to keep in touch with the new artists, to see what they are thinking and to talk with them. I can’t say I always understand it perfectly, but it is exciting to keep in touch with younger artists.
Do you have an upcoming show planned?
I am planning to be at a group show in Hong-Kong with Pearl Lam Gallery in March.
Are you working in a specific direction?
No I don’t. I just keep painting paintings. I am thinking about the work itself and not where it’s going to go. I don’t visualize the work, I do the work. And I work a lot. I can do pretty much a painting a day if I have the stretchers. So with a lot of work around, gallerists are going to come and use what they want, to do their own shows. I like to leave it up to them I don’t like to do my own installations or think about them. The people who know their own space can do it better than me. I usually make suggestions on what I think might work. Or sometimes I may actually say “no, I don’t want to do it that way”, but that is rare.
You are willing to remain in the artist’s role. Is this also true about the critic’s role? Do you leave it to others? Have you already written about art?
No, I don’t write about art. I don’t like reviewing or being critical. I would never discuss or criticize another artist’s work without talking to them about it first.
Do you like to hear people talking about your own art or do you prefer to remain shielded from outside comments?
I like it a lot, some reviews and discussions have helped my work. I like criticism. Some of the best reviews I have read have been negative. I have never read a review that did not help me in some way.
Could you share an example of a negative review that helped you?
I can’t say exactly how I improved but I enjoyed reading a negative review that Mario Naves wrote. I actually think he liked the work because he did a very close examination of what I did, in a show I had about 12 years ago. The show was very successful and he wrote a very thoughtful essay on the show – I think it helped me.
Illustration images (from top to bottom): Left - CYBELE, 2016, Oil on linen, 121.9x172.7x35.6 cm. Right - ARCTURUS, 2016, Oil on linen, 242.6x110.5x43.2 cm ERINNA, 2016, Oil on linen, 48.3x67.3x17.8 cm MARKAB, 2016, Oil on linen, 237.5x111.8x26.7 cm BERTILAK, 2016, Oil on linen, 88.9x114.3x22.9 cm All images courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York. Pictures by Brian Buckley.