Interview by Frédéric Caillard, October 2019
[Interview made on the occasion of Wyatt Kahn’s solo exhibition at Galerie Eva Presenhuber in New York City, September 7 to October 20, 2019]
Your works are made of small shaped canvases pieced together…
…Yes, in some way every painting has twenty or more small paintings within it. Every panel is made and stretched individually, exactly as one would prepare a painting. The whole object and the components that make it up are the same. There are different ways to look at it and to deconstruct it, if you so choose.
Why did you call these works Paintings, at a time when you were not using any paint?
My art education was in Chicago at the Art Institute, as a sculptor, where everything, every material, had meaning. It could be very crippling… I have left much of that behind, but the part of it that I have kept with me is how the painting object should stay within the painting object. So I wanted to have a material that was made for painting, linen or canvas, even if it was raw. […] I used a lot of sculptural techniques to create these works, but in the end, the objects are engaged with the history of painting. They are dealing with the questions that arose in the renaissance. Chapels paintings were taken off the walls and made on panels that could be hung anywhere. They were no longer part of the architecture. I think my paintings are engaged in that history up into Palermo and Polke. Look at Polke and his stretched plastics on a frame. They are involved in the question of what a painting is and how it can exist. I also think that in some way artists get to determine where their practice is vs. tradition, and who they want to be in dialog with. I feel that my work is more in dialog with contemporary painters, Jacqueline Humphries or even Henry Taylor and Michael Williams than it is with contemporary sculptures, for example Oscar Tuazon or Rachel Harrison. […] I feel very much that You and You, within its compositional structure, alludes to a renaissance painting of a Madonna and child. You can talk about Judd or Rodin, but I think you can talk more clearly about Vermeer and Caravaggio.
You also make Lead Paintings, substituting canvas panels with panels recovered by lead sheets. Why did you chose this material?
Lead works are made the same way as canvas works. Every one panel is stretched by hand. When I introduced lead, it was very much about its solemnness and its darkness, its materiality hazardness. It all intertwined with beauty at a time of my life when I was very unhappy and maybe also very concerned with the world in general. I was looking back to 70, 80, 90 years before, trying to take certain aesthetics from these times into the works.
In your last few shows, you started to introduce strong colors in your work. You seem to have avoided color for years, and now it is taking a central place in your practice. How did you get there?
I don’t think the works were ever colorless, I just think that they took the color of the material as the color of the work itself. For example, I had made a few canvases with classic brown linen, but I decided to go to the white canvas because I wanted to have a subtle difference in the white wall. I was always thinking about color, but I was thinking about colors in terms of honesty to the material and honesty to its presentation on the wall. And I guess now I am thinking about color in a more open or more expressive way.
There are several reasons for that. One is that the work was really starting to move into sculpture – with the repetition and stacking of shapes on top of each other -, and I needed something to balance that out. The obvious solution was to paint on it. On top of that, lead is such an incredible surface to paint on. It is very honest, it is incredibly physical, when you paint on it everything stays on the surface, there is no hiding, all your mistakes are there. When you have a surface that absorbs more, the mistakes can go in and you can cover it up. There is also this idea of politics of colors. I think the choice of colors for any period, whether it is the 50s, the 70s or the 80s reflects the moment of the time. I think our generation right now has a certain color scheme, colors that are being used by myself and by many other artists and designers. You can find them in packaging design, automotive design or advertisement. There are colors of the world right now. They are not hopeless but they are a little bit weathered. Even in some of the brightest colors that I used, in the painting Kahns, with very saturated red, yellow and blue, there is a weathered away aspect, related to how it’s applied but also to the color of the lead that comes through and darkens it.
The lead also plays in key role in the works where painted panels dialog with raw lead panels…
The paintings that have both exposed and painted lead in a single object are collages between two previous forms. I create the compositions through collage, with recreational drawings or print outs of those forms, which I cut, shape and put together. In those works, I didn’t want to totally hide the material I was painting on. For example, in my current exhibition at Eva Presenhuber in New York City, I wanted to have exposed lead in Untitled (Green) because I knew it would be next to Kahns, which has no exposed lead except on the side of the panel.
You had actually already discreetly introduced color in a series of abstract works that had a double layer of canvas. What was your approach then?
Originally, the works from 2011-2012 only had one layer. At that point I had been making white geometric abstract paintings for two and a half years. I wanted to try to introduce colors in some way, but I didn’t want to paint on the canvas yet, I did not want to break some of the positions that I had taken. So I introduced color in a similar way to how I had introduced composition. At that time, I was really interested in the idea that the composition came from the object, from the physical space between two panels that formed the compositional line. I also wanted the color to come from within, so I put very bright colors on canvas underneath a very thin piece of linen or muslin that had a transparency. This would let different tones of the brightly colored canvas underneath come through. But I didn’t want the work to get too far into pop, the under drawing was very bright and could be considered very pop. The top layer diffused that. It was a way of creating subtlety in color through the object, similar to how Brice Marden would create subtlety through thin layers of wax paint or Rothko with thin layers of colors. I was interested in pop, I have always had many aspects of pop in my work, but I didn’t want to lose the abstraction, so I worked on those soft line shaped abstract paintings. I also wanted to keep this balance between painting and sculpture. Once you put the layer of canvas over it, everything is coming from within, it is not on the surface anymore, and that is more connected to sculpture than to painting where everything is always on the surface. So I was trying to walk this line. Then I soon discovered that when I applied two layers of canvas to the white geometric paintings – which I still worked on throughout -, it created softer edges. Even the 90° angles had a gentle softness and I began to really like that. The use of superposed canvas and linen also changed the type of white of the geometric works…
There is something fascinating about those paintings with two canvas layers. Formally, the bottom canvas layer could be seen as the support – or the substrate – and the top layer as the medium, but you reversed that by coloring the bottom layer and keeping the top layer raw! These paintings inscribe themselves in the lineage of the Milano art scene of the 1960s, the “post-Fontana generation” who worked a lot on those formal aspects, exploring how canvas could be shaped and stretched. Were those artists an inspiration for you?
Besides Manzoni, I found out about those artists much later in time. The Milan school, Paolo Scheggi and even German artists like Blinky Palermo and Imi Knoebel and American artists like Frank Stella do have structural references to my work. But I think the physical structure of the work is not as important to me. I haven’t pushed the questions of support/canvas the way some of these artists have, like Steven Parrino. These artists allowed me to do it without questioning it. They said “you can do anything with the structure”, so I did anything with the structure. I believe that what is really at stake in my practice is much different, what is important is where the practice is moving to. My influences are artists who build alphabets or narratives within their practice. To me, the manipulation of the physical object is more a means to an end. It is a way to adjust the temperature of which I am in, a way to constantly be in self-reflection about my position within mediums: painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking…
… Could you develop this notion of Alphabet?
The idea of the alphabet came before I started to make representational work. I thought that in my earlier work, I was only making words. I wanted to start making paragraphs and sentences and full books out of my exhibitions and works. But I needed both representational and abstract objects to do so, I needed to combine them to be able to talk about anxiety, stresses and contradictions of life. Many heroes of mine – Rauschenberg, Johns, Murray – had their own alphabet that they repeated again and again. They were all within representation…
…and you often intertwine your representational objects with abstract shapes that you have used before to create new characters in your alphabet, like in the Chinese alphabet… Speaking of your figurative shapes, they are mostly body parts or everyday objects. Why did you choose this scope within the wide field of representation?
There are plants too, but they are like an everyday object. I did some explorations of non-everyday objects too, but the shapes I really reused were the one that were the most personal to me, from my daily life. I was using and drawing the objects that I had: my clock, my houseplant, my foot and my hand, my comb and the telephone I have by my bed. I thought it was harder to make a story about something that was not mine. And most of what is mine is the body, or everyday objects. I don’t have very much beyond that…
I used to see your work as small elements building a bigger shape. But when you started to introduce objects, I started to wonder if you were not actually breaking down big shapes into smaller parts. How do you see it?
I think it is fair to read it either way, there is no clear answer. It is up to the spectator to respond to the work. For me, in the beginning, it starts with a drawing, a line drawing, an abstraction of life. And I don’t think of the panels within a form as a work. I think of those as a material. In the end I may lean more towards the whole thing that is made of many components, but you could see it the other way around…
Lately, the presence of figurative elements seems to be less central in your exhibitions?
That is because I am not sure if I still need the representational part of my alphabet. Maybe I do, I don’t know yet, I have not decided. But I think I am able to convey a lot of what I want to convey by using my own forms that were originally abstract paintings. In my current show, I am reusing paintings from my early practice the same way that Guston might use a pen or a paintbrush or Johns might use a coat hanger or Rauschenberg might use a picture of Kennedy.
Within your abstract works, you have geometric shapes and shapes that are more organic. It has been a while since you last showed organic shapes. Did you give it up or will it come back at some points?
It will come back. There are things in my studio that I worked on in the last year or two. But the exhibitions I have done over the last two years – at Xavier Hufkens and Eva Presenhuber – have a different narrative, a different position. The organic works will have an exhibition, a new one, in dialog with the other works but with different materials. But I don’t know exactly when, maybe my next show, maybe the show after that.
Another element of your visual language are patterns, that you superpose over the shapes of your alphabet. You use those patterns in paintings, where they take the form of depressions or shifts in the panels, but also in a series of photographs that you did in 1997, where they are more like blurry black stamps. What do those patterns mean?
I need to explain how I made those photographs. I would take a picture of an everyday object that I had used in my paintings. For each picture, I would draw on a clear lens cap – with a permanent marker – an abstraction that I thought represented the object. It was much more complicated than you think because you can’t always imagine what you are going to get. So I would draw a lens cap then take the picture and go “oh no, it’s off”, and do it again and again…. The amount of wasted lens cap was kind of silly. The “patterns” are like diffusions in the narrative, almost like rain or static. They are not random, they are thought about to be precise, but they are not overtly direct. They are something that make a lot of sense in my mind but that are not always super transparent to the spectator. For example, the painting that combines two combs, a foot and an abstract shape called Wink is like a morning routine to me: the abstract shape represents a figure who combs her hair and gets ready to run, to leave the house. The depressed rectangles could be the hair that the comb runs through or maybe rain or maybe the movement of time as you are getting ready to do things…
… I was also thinking those rectangles could reference a painting frame that you move around your composition, zooming into details, reframing the work… I would now like to discuss a series you showed in 2014, where you used smaller patterns. What did you want to do at the time?
They were hand-drawn patterns on canvas underneath a layer in white linen. The pattern were diffused through the top layer. For example, in the painting of the hammer, I drew 3 different images and repeated them. One of them was a small drawing of a hammer, repeated like in a checkerboard, the other one was a textual pattern referencing the sound of a hammer – something like “thump” or “thud” – and the third one was an abstraction of the hammer, 3 lines showing nails going in. For the overall composition, I cut-out the shape of a hammer, and the three types of underpainting surfaces allowed to create a foreground and a background. It was important for me to hand draw everything because my work is all about errors. Even though I was trying to be very precise, when you get close you realize there are differences between the individual patterns. It is the same thing with my paintings, they have a handmade quality. I couldn’t do the exact same form twice because the panels change, they shift a little bit. In my current exhibition, there are only two forms that are expressed throughout the show, but they are expressed in many different ways.
Speaking about your current exhibition, can you tell us about the way you title your works? You do not always use the same titles for the same forms…
For example, one of the shape I am using in the exhibition I have now in New York at Eva Presenhuber was originally an isolated canvas painting called Bad Boy. It was never put in an exhibition. Then I showed its lead version at Eva Presenhuber in Zurich in June 2017 as Untitled. I did not title any of the works in that show. In my current exhibition there is a work titled You and You that is using the Bad Boy image twice, big and small. I also have another painting that uses that same image three times, called Kahns. And there is a small painting and a lead rectangle in that show that are called Untitled (Green) and Untitled that contain that same composition. I use this Bad Boy form in different ways, some Untitled, another with a very loaded title, which is Kahns and others in between… I think I have been very dogmatic with titles. All the canvas works were titled, or all the lead works were untitled, but I think I was wrong. I am trying to remedy it now, but you can’t go back and change titles. A show does not need to have a systematic system of titles.
This new way you have to build new works by accumulating previous works is very interesting. You started by accumulating some small stretched canvases into a global shape, and now you are pushing your method further, to a different scale. In the end, isn’t the concept of multiplication at the core of your practice: you multiply canvas layers, stretched panels, full works…?
I don’t adhere to the rules of what my work should be. I am actually looking at what I have made over the last months or years, and I try to see what the next step is. It may be logical or not logical. It often requires multiplication, or taking two forms and putting them on top of each other, within each other, or collaging them. Why should I only have only one layer of canvas? If I put two layers, I am able to have those subtle colors. Why should I not reuse forms, so I can have this very specific reference? I choose to break some limitations while I keep others. I always wanted to get into that area where I feel I can do any kind of swimming stroke. I feel I can move in many different directions right now, which is exciting.
One last question: are you currently working in a new directions?
Yes and no. My next show is over a year from now. If you look at my last two shows, they had continuations but also new directions. There were overlaps but also works that had a different take. For example the square rectangle Untitled that I show in New York is very different from anything I have shown before. I think my next show will have the same approach. Some works might refer to an earlier series but I don’t want all the works to be from the same series. Each painting will be its own thing. And if everything goes right there will be at least one new direction, one new way of looking!
Illustration pictures, from top to Bottom: Untitled (Grayscale/City Paintings), 2018. Oil stick on lead on panel, 52 x 166 1/4 x 1 5/8 inches Blue: 49 7/8 x 42; Grey: 49 3/8 x 41; Lead: 49 1/2 x 41 1/4; Black: 51 1/2 x 42 © Wyatt Kahn. Courtesy the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels Photo: Genevieve Hanson, New York (L) Her, 2012. Canvas on panel, 49 1/4 x 42 inches (R) Him, 2011. Canvas on panel, 43 1/2 x 39 inches © Wyatt Kahn. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich / New York and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels Photo: Genevieve Hanson, New York Kahns, 2019. Oil stick on lead on panel; 3 parts, 223.5 x 406.5 cm / 88 x 160 inches © Wyatt Kahn. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich / New York Photo: Genevieve Hanson, New York Untitled (18), 2013. Linen on canvas on panel, 79 x 56 1/2 inches © Wyatt Kahn. Courtesy the artist Photo: Genevieve Hanson, New York Untitled (Green), 2019. Oil stick on lead on panel © Wyatt Kahn. Courtesy the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels Photo: Genevieve Hanson, New York Untitled (15), 2012. Linen on canvas on panel, 77 1/2 x 55 1/2 inches © Wyatt Kahn. Courtesy the artist Photo: Genevieve Hanson, New York Handy Man, 2014.Linen on acrylic on canvas on panel, 96 1/8 x 80 1/8 inches, 244 x 203 1/2 cm © Wyatt Kahn. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich / New York Photo: Genevieve Hanson, New York Gloom and Groom, 2017. Linen on linen on panel, 63 1/4 x 98 x 3 1/2 inches © Wyatt Kahn. Courtesy the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels Photo: Genevieve Hanson, New York You and You, 2019. Oil stick on lead on panel, 223.5 x 155 cm / 88 x 61 inches © Wyatt Kahn. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich / New York Photo: Genevieve Hanson, New York