The artist on the meaning of time and the gift of teaching.
A lot of your paintings take many, many months and layer after layer of carefully applied paint to complete. You even call some artworks "forever paintings." What role does time play in your practice, and has it changed over the years?
Time is a critical element in my work in several different ways. I am not a fast worker, and the speed with which something is done rarely enters my mind. However, what is a focus for me is for a painting to hold up in an elongated temporal sense, to present itself and be perceived slowly by encouraging immersion and prolonged looking. I want the work to breathe spatially and slowly reveal itself while presenting challenges.
To slow perception down slightly, I rely upon the application of paint, which yields a tempo that is deliberate and engaging while hopefully still being fresh and spontaneous. I have always been focused on the importance of a single brushstroke and how many accrue, mass together, and interact with one another, having color, space, and light fuse and emerge. Interacting with the linen and its ground also helps to fracture space and tends to slow things down. As my work has developed over the years, the brushstrokes have continued to change direction and now tend to be shorter, more staccato-like and fracture the space more than previously.
I work on a number of paintings simultaneously over time, sometimes putting a work aside and coming back to it weeks or months later. By doing so, I gain a degree of detachment from the artwork, even though, once I re-engage with a piece, that temporal distance disappears immediately.
I am also explicitly involved with the process of making a work, which transpires and clarifies itself as an artwork evolves. That process unfolds, develops and reveals itself as I work, always seeking more clarity.
You very quickly mentioned a deep interest in black holes. When did that interest start and what fascinates you about them?
I have always been interested in physics and various astrophysical phenomena in our universe. Black holes exist and yet are very difficult to conceive of, even with clear evidence of their existence. In a parallel and metaphorical sense, I am intrigued with the idea of making a painting that implodes space – the opposite of a painting with expansive space, which also intrigues me. Small vs. large: how far can one develop that contrast, paradoxical as it is, and still make a unified body of work? In engaging this idea, I have made paintings as long as 14 feet and smaller than one inch in each direction.
You once spent the day with Barnett Newman many years back. Is there anything about your time with him that really sticks out in your memory?
The day I spent with Barnett Newman left me with numerous memories. He was extremely cordial, engaging and direct and not condescending in the least, even though I was in my mid-twenties and he was in his sixties. No singular thing stood out, even though we were together for more than six hours. I was fascinated by the sparseness of furnishings in the apartment, with his paintings positioned on bricks in the living room.
We spoke at length about paper and ink, and he advised me that when I found a paper I liked very much, to buy as much of it as possible because it may not be obtainable in the future, which I have found to be very true.
There was one small incident near the end of the visit that was very human and humorous. He has work in a group drawing show that was opening that evening at 78th and Madison, and he wanted to go to the opening, even though his wife, Annalee, futilely tried to dissuade him. She finally relented, and when we went downstairs to catch a cab, he realized he had left his wallet upstairs. To remedy the situation, he simply borrowed $10 from the doorman.
Even though you're a working artist, you also teach art to students in the city. What's something that teaching has taught you?
I never intended to teach and still don't regard myself as a teacher, even though I have done so for many years. My relation to the activity has changed over time, and I probably enjoy interacting with the students more now than ever. Every student is different, comes from a unique situation and learns differently. However, what I care about most is for them to have a good attitude and show improvement, which matters much more to me than the quality of their work. Making art is always about trying to do better and never being content, and it is wonderful when that attitude takes hold in a student.