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b 1961, is known for combining paint and collage. He works out of a space occupied by his mother when she owned a hair salon in Los Angeles.
Where are we exactly in LA?
Leimert Park, which is part of South Central Los Angeles. I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Santa Monica. I was a surfer kid and a boogie-boarder. I did fine in school. I wasn’t into drugs too much; I wasn’t into being good or bad too much. I was lukewarm in everything. I hadn’t found anything that grabbed me.
Were you looking for anything special?
I was fascinated with airports and airplanes. I spent a lot of time walking around the airport. I spent a lot of time walking the boardwalk at Venice Beach and looking at people. I spent a lot of time in bookstores. I developed a real love of reading in high school. Reading opened up the world.
Could you afford to buy books?
Oh yeah. My mom made enough money to take care of us. My mother’s like a gypsy. She came to Santa Monica in the ’70s, she joined the co-ops and we had an organic garden. My mom’s eighty and she looks like she’s fifty. She was into bees and pyramids. My mom’s always lived in the moment and there’s always been enough money for that. I’ve always said that Mom did not have an artistic practice, but her life was an artistic practice. It was one big project.
And your dad?
I never missed my dad. I never had a journey to know who my father was. I figure if you have one person that loves you, that’s enough, growing up. You just need one person in your corner.
Were you a free spirit?
I never expected to run into a room and suddenly I belonged. I figured people who live on the fringes of society, they’re more free, they can choose to visit anywhere, they don’t belong to anywhere. It’s like being without a nation in a way.
But you are part of a nation, aren’t you? Aren’t you an American?
I feel North American; I come from that tradition. I understand who John Wayne is, and Marilyn Monroe, and I understand popular culture and the political trajectory of being North American. When I’m in Cairo or Istanbul or Berlin and I run into a North American, we share things. It doesn’t matter about colour; we’re from the same tradition. In North America, what happens often is that they put race before nationhood. Everyone here is Hispanic-American, Chinese-American, African-American. But really we’re just North Americans of all these different descents. The only time I notice North Americans becoming national is when a war happens or a crisis happens.
As a teenager you used to go out to LAX, and now you are making a major installation for Los Angeles International Airport. Did you ever imagine such a journey?
I didn’t. The first inkling that I was interested in other people and other cultures was when I was about thirteen years old. I would see in the back of the travel section of the paper where it said, “Send away for a brochure to … Lebanon.” So I would fill out my name and I would send away, and lo and behold! A brochure would come about Lebanon and Egypt. I started having this file of all the countries, and every once in a while I would take out all the A’s – Athens and Amsterdam. And I would look through all the B countries – Belgium, some cities, Brussels – and just look: Oh, these are the streets in Brussels ... oh, these are the streets in Amsterdam. I didn’t think it was going to lead to anything. My interest in going to the airport was just an organic extension of that, I suppose. My favourite airline was PanAm. I would love to go to the arrivals desk and watch people arrive from Kenya and Indonesia. I would look and I would say, “That person has been in Kenya.” I enjoyed seeing what they would bring back. The dress was different; sometimes the way they would greet people was different.
In a manner of speaking you had wanderlust of the imagination.
Then you went, for ten years, on the road in Europe …
I went back and forth. I would come back and work for a little bit, get more money. It was the ’80s, it was Reaganomics, so you could live so long for such a little bit of money. The ’80s also brought the Aids crisis. It was very difficult to be twenty and see so many people die; you can’t really process being young and old. You think dying is for old people and you’re going to funerals, but you’re young, and being young is being reckless, but now there’s a disease and they’re telling you, “Don’t be reckless!” But youth is reckless. And there was a drug in the black community – it was crack – that I had never seen. I saw cocaine, I saw heroin, but crack to the African-American people was like alcohol to Indians. Somehow it got into our DNA in a different way.
When did this journey of yours into art begin?
I’ve always been creative. I’ve always been a researcher, a creative anthropologist. My mother’s job was about materiality and texture and colour and shape and line, so I was born into that. And then I had this inquisitiveness; I was constantly curious. When I was seven years old, my mom bought me a little rat. I designed this cage for it and I built it, and it was blue and it had glass and I made pictures on it. I was always that way. There were always bolts of fabric in the house, textures; I was always touching things. My mom would say, “Honey, you’re going on my journey; I’m going to do my thing.” And I said, “Mom, why do we have to?” She said, “Look, I’m into this, and you’re coming along, ’cause you’re my kid.” So I learned early on that you make sure you have a reason to be here, and I had one. I had one.
Did all of this affect your art in any way?
My mother was always taking my hand and saying, “Do you feel this? This is good fabric. Do you feel that? That’s not good fabric, it’s cheap fabric.” She was developing an incredible sensitivity in my hand very early that I think I use when I’m painting. I kind of know the temperatures.
When did you go to art school?
I came back from [travelling around] Europe at 28 and had seen a lot of things, met a lot of interesting people, and I started taking art classes. It was very easy for me; I understood what they were talking about. I got it, as a tribe. I got a scholarship to CalArts. That was interesting because I heard about postmodernism and people living outside of modernism. I heard about feminism and all this stuff that I had pretty much lived my whole life: “Mom, oh my God, did you know you’re a feminist?” And she goes, “Oh, okay.” She said, “You have words for everything now!”
How did the city figure in all this?
Everything I’m talking about has to do with the archaeology of the city, the history of the city in print, the cultures that are left, the politics that are left. I like city life because so many people leave their familiar, family roots and move into the city. It’s why I like the airport. It’s a sort of vulnerability. You’re away from your comfort zone.
Talking of stereotypes, you’ve been quoted as saying, “When I tell people I’m a painter, they ask me if I have a card: ‘Yes, we’d like this room in this colour’.”
Constantly! And I dress … you know, I dress like a housepainter.
Is that intended as a tease?
No, it’s a way of being invisible. I like to be invisible when I’m going to the hardware store, when I’m going to the paint store. I like to just be a merchant. When you’re as tall as I am, you have no public privacy. People are constantly coming up and talking to you. Constantly. You have one of two ways to go: you engage with people or you become really bitter. I choose to engage.
What sorts of people did you hang out with in Europe?
Young people, some squatters – it was the ’80s. Hostels, campsites, whatever was cheap. I would go to cafés, I’d go to discotheques. I’ve probably been in every discotheque from Berlin to Bucharest.
So you came back from Europe, you went to CalArts, and you didn’t even know how to draw at that point?
I learnt all that before I went, actually. I went to a junior school and learnt to draw and about colour – oh my God, colour theory and still life! I thought: “This is not for me! Who cares if I can draw a realistic Evian bottle? That’s not what I’m trying to express.”
When did your career really take off?
You keep asking me, “When did you … ?” There’s never a single moment …
When somebody gives you a big check, that’s a single moment!
But before I got a big check, I was getting smaller checks. It wasn’t like one day someone just gave me a big check. I make one painting, then I make another painting, then I make another painting.
Is it true that you used bed sheets when you couldn’t afford canvas?
I did. My mom was always a second-hand shopper. Second-hand stores were part of my life. When I became an artist, I didn’t have much money, but I knew how to survive. Bed sheets were cheap; I’d buy a bunch of them. I’d go to the hardware store and buy house paint. You’d paint three or four layers on the bed sheets so they got really hard. It’s funny, I’m still making things look like materials and my hands are still in water, which is interesting because I started working when I was 11 – I was a shampoo boy. I think it just all weaves together.
Tell me about your mentor, Daniel Joseph Martinez.
I wouldn’t say he was a mentor, because he was my friend. He was altruistic; it came from his heart that you could share information, that you could help each other, that you could give.
And how do you give back now?
Mainly I do programs with high-school kids who are self-identified as being creative. Young artists are more sensitive. They’re more fragile. We get handed a very interesting pass in life, shall we say. On Career Day, they bring a lawyer, they bring a doctor – all successful, of course – but they never bring an artist. I recognise them and they recognise me. I’m just down the path. Whenever you meet your tribe is always wonderful.
b 1940, is shown here in his NoHo New York studio with one of his trademark grid paintings. Close suffers from prosopagnosia, a condition that prevents him from recognising faces. He starts by photographing his subject. He then divides each canvas into grids and painstakingly fills each cell with layers of tiny brushstrokes.
What has your journey been as an artist?
Everyone tells you: “Don’t be an artist! It’s a stupid thing to do! Why don’t you get a profession? It’s more likely to make you financially successful.” So I think it’s odd that us people who are too stupid to realise that go out and accomplish something. This is all I ever was. This is it. There was no fallback decision.
The journey is the journey of a young kid who was slightly disabled in the 1940s and ’50s. Nobody knew about dyslexia or learning difficulties; you were just dumb and lazy. I wasn’t good at anything. My teachers thought I should get a trade, like taking dents out of car fenders. [But] for my fifth Christmas, my dad made me an easel – you couldn’t buy them then. Then he got me a set of artist’s oil paints from a catalogue. My father helped me find an art instructor at the age of eight, drawing from nude models. I figured, “Wow! Any profession that lets you hang around a lot of naked women sounds pretty good to me!”
At the age of 11 you went with your mom to the Seattle Art Museum and had an epiphany of sorts, is that right?
Yeah. I’d been studying with a very academic view of what painting was. Seeing Jackson Pollock’s work challenged everything I thought I was supposed to be, and I was really outraged. But I came home and within a few days I was dribbling paint all over my realist paintings. I guess the real epiphany was later. I got into college through open enrollment; any taxpayer’s son or daughter could go to school. There was a Van Gogh show at the Seattle Art Museum, and that was the first time I had ever seen a whole show of one artist’s work. The cover of the catalogue was a self-portrait made up of a lot of little strokes, and I fell in love with it. Something about that painting stuck in my head. Recently, I was in a portrait show at the National Portrait Gallery in London and I was hung next to that Van Gogh self-portrait. That just meant the most to me.
What year was the Van Gogh show?
Did you find art school at all instructive?
I learned a few things. One is that you’re never going to use anything that you learn. Nothing that they think or you think is essential ever is. The things that you do learn are work habits and how to find information when you want it. And camaraderie, colleagues who were also artists all being tough on each other and having to defend our work. But that all came from the students; it didn’t come from the faculty or the school.
In the summer of 1961, I was the University of Washington’s candidate to attend Yale University’s summer school. The Cuban Missile Crisis was big for a while and I was told that I would never be drafted. But then they lowered their standards so even I was qualified to stand up and catch bullets. So I had to get my ass into graduate school or go into the army.
I managed to parlay having done the Yale summer school and get into graduate school there. It was the most amazing two years of my life. My classmates were Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, Bob and Sylvia Mangold, Newton Harrison, Rackstraw Downes, Janet Fish, Jennifer Bartlett, Michael Craig-Martin ...
How come a group of such stellar names jumped suddenly out of the same year as classmates?
A number of things conspired to change the art world in 1968. That’s when everyone kind of burst on to the scene. We didn’t go straight to the galleries right out of graduate school; most of us had fallbacks and just flopped around for a while. What people think were the ’60s were really pretty much the ’70s. The ’60s that people think of started around 1968, after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Then we all were marching on Washington for civil rights, and there was big anti-war involvement as well. The next thing was Malcolm X being assassinated. I spoke to Malcolm X when he was walking on the campus at Yale. I asked him what I could do, and he said, “Get out of the way.”
I moved to New York in 1967 and was working there when Martin Luther King was killed. Then there was Eugene McCarthy trying to change the Democratic party. Bobby Kennedy got involved. I’d watched the police let the dogs go on African-Americans in the South. I’d watched them being blown away with water cannons and lynchings and all that. Why everything seemed to change was that you could no longer believe in any institution. No authority figures, no government, no anything. That extended to art. Every convention was up for reassessment and everything was thrown out the window. We didn’t want to make art like the art our predecessors made. Not that we hated it or thought it wasn’t any good; we just didn’t want to be associated with it, and we didn’t want anybody standing in front of our paintings thinking about someone else. We were totally driven to find something that was our own, something personal. A sculptor like Richard Serra didn’t want to, would not, work in wax, wood, bronze, stone, all traditional mediums. He would haunt shops on Canal Street and he’d get some lead or he’d get some rubber and he’d take it back to the studio and see what he could do with it. Composers like Morton Feldman were trying to make music out of seven notes … so they were sort of about limitations.
As for me, I just tried to move on. In order to move on, I tried to do something that was as diametrically opposed to what I’d been doing as I possibly could. I was told I had a good hand. I was told that I had a good sense of colour, which meant that I made colour combinations that looked like art. I got colour out of there altogether, just used black paint on white canvas.
Did you hang out with Serra?
I helped him make his first things with lead. Phil Glass was his only paid assistant, Spalding Gray was one, Steve Reich, all kinds of entertaining people from other fields, and we extended our ideas. Elizabeth Murray, Joel Shapiro, they’re all our generation too. We all lived within a few blocks of each other and we all helped each other. There was no career to have anyhow, so we might as well help each other. If somebody had a pick-up truck and a show, then everybody would help get the work up to the gallery. And when a dealer or collector or curator came to your studio, all the studios were stacked on top of each other so you’d say, “Oh, you know, so-and-so is upstairs.” Before I’d ever had a show, I was in collections in several museums just because people were coming to look at somebody else’s work and would come into my studio.
So we are talking about seminal, violent change …
We were trying to close down the museums and trying to be more political, not in art but in ourselves, trying to make things be more relevant, to have something to do with the lives we were leading. Had Kennedy not been assassinated, we probably wouldn’t have gone the way we did when Johnson took over, but nobody liked what was happening anywhere so you were driven to your own devices. We had tremendous passion.
The reason to live as a person is that you surround yourself with other people who have convinced themselves that this is an important thing to be doing. If you live in America, in your community how many people also believe that your activity is an important and valuable thing to be doing? Probably not very many. But in major art centers you actually can make a whole community of people who think, This is a great thing to be doing. We’re not necessarily going to change the world, but we changed the art world.
How important do you feel your group’s contribution has been?
Our group was interesting in that we were not like the artists of the ’60s or the ’80s. The artists of the ’60s were superstars and the artists of the ’80s became superstars. No one really cared about the artists of the ’70s. Everyone hated the ’70s. But it was the perfect time to be an artist because there were plenty of chances for people to do totally different things. That unfocused nature left the door open for a lot of people to strike out and find their own little part of that world. But when you do that, you either are doomed to follower status or you try and make something personal and idiosyncratic and not like anyone else’s. If you manage to do that, and if enough people think that that thing you did was significant, you can actually deflect or bend the course of history.
But hasn’t art always challenged historical narratives?
One of the mistaken ideas about successive generations in the art world is that they are reacting against the work that came before them. I have never found that to be the way it works. Often you want to move on because those guys and girls did so well that there doesn’t seem to be any elbow room for you. So, when you go into the studio for the first time, there are all these other people in that room with you. All your heroes, all the people who have influenced your work, and you can’t find yourself in that room. So you’ve got to do battle with your heroes. One by one you have to purge them from that space and find where you are in that room.
How do you choose your sitters?
At first all I did was paint anonymous people. Then they got famous! Now, in a world that’s painting superstars, I don’t do celebrity. I don’t do commissions. Nobody can pay me to make a painting of them.
But do non-famous faces inform your work?
I have face-blindness. I need a face flattened out and made two-dimensional before I can remember it, and most celebrities have existed in flat space for a long time. I’ve never seen a photograph of you, so for me it’s a whole new experience looking at you. I’d have to see you 10, 12 times over six months or so to even begin to put your face into my memory well. Celebrities are already sort of there because they’ve been flattened out.
Earlier you said that by painting nondescript people you made them famous …
Artists have a dual role. We don’t know who the Mayor of Florence was, but we know the artist who defined Florence. Yet those artists could have walked the streets in Florence in total anonymity. Local politicians and priests and cardinals, none of whom we know about anymore, they were the famous ones. So we both are anonymous and yet in some ways confer some kind of status. It’s an odd relationship between the patron and the artist.
Is it a painful relationship?
I never wanted to meet any of my collectors because I thought, What if this person’s an asshole? That asshole is a fan of my work. So for years I never met my collectors; I wouldn’t allow dealers to bring them to my studio. I’d have the painting sent to a warehouse and they could go see it there. Then slowly I began to meet some of these people, and then I needed to borrow works from them for exhibitions, and I found that, lo and behold, there are all these wonderful people out there who own my work and who are very generous, amazingly philanthropic. So I changed my adversarial view because I think we are in it together. I was a poor white-trash kid from a little town and humble beginnings. I could go into any gallery in New York City and say, “I’m really interested in so-and-so. Can I see their work?” They would drag the paintings out from the back for me. They knew I wasn’t going to buy them. In museums there was an entrance fee. If you were an artist you could always talk them into letting you in. So there was this unbelievable smorgasbord of stuff that was available for me as a kid. I determined that I did not want my work in private collections to fall off the edge of the earth, that I needed collectors who were philanthropic.
You once said that a mark on the surface of a painting is like rubbing dirt on the end of a stick with hairs glued all over it on to some cloth wrapped around some sticks.
That’s why I never liked the word realist. I was always as interested in artificiality as I was in reality. It’s ripping back and forth between the two that is so exciting.
When art speaks to you in a personal way, you’re a colleague with every artist who ever lived, and that fraternity outweighs short-term fashion and style. It’s senseless to worry about stuff like that when you have the whole sweep of art history. Seeing how, in any given time, people were finding ways to make something that would transcend the horizontal, you can never predict what’s going to make it to the vertical.
I don’t give a shit how many collectors, how many critics, how many art historians there are. If artists don’t respect it, it won’t pass the test of time.
For every successful artist there are tens of thousands who never made it. You say that truly great art is determined by other artists …
On the other hand there are tens of thousands of artists who get immense pleasure from what they do.
You’ve come through all these extraordinary trials in your life …
I live a charmed life. I’m a lucky guy. I’ve always been lucky. People say, “How can you be, in a wheelchair? Your hands don’t work, you can’t walk. How can you consider yourself to be lucky?” Well, one reason is that I have an absolutely wonderful, drop-dead gorgeous, 37-year-old girlfriend. Right there I’m definitely a lucky boy. Everyone has problems. If you are by nature optimistic, you put yourself in a position to be lucky. ▶
b 1927, is seen in the SoHo, New York home-cum-studio that he has occupied for the past 45 years.
You’ve been here since, what, 1968?
A group of artists bought the building in 1968. I wasn’t too enthusiastic because it was like you were in the ghetto. But when I saw the top floor – 19 windows, the building was beautiful – I couldn’t say no. It was an industrial slum with lots of fires; they serviced the clothing manufacturers. Downstairs was a machine shop and this was the silkscreen factory. We actually got it for the price of the land; the building was tossed in. It didn’t look safe. Taxi cabs didn’t want to come here; friends didn’t want to come here. It was desolate. At the time, it was known as Hell’s Hundred Acres.
What was SoHo known for at that time?
It was zoned for light manufacturing. You can’t live in a light-manufacturing area, but once we had about eleven artists’ co-ops, the mayor made a variance, which means you could live here as artists-in-residence. We’re protected because it’s still zoned for light manufacturing, so they can’t build here. The neighbourhood has become one of the most desirable places to live.
Has art had anything to do with the transformation of the neighbourhood?
Yes. There was art, then there were restaurants, then there were clothing shops. It’s changing every year.
How did you get caught up in art?
When I first started to paint, it was a fugitive activity. If a girl brought home an artist, her parents would cry. Now they bring home an artist, he has a degree from Yale and everything’s OK. America has gone downhill with this proliferation of education. Education is very theoretical. It’s been OK for conceptual art, but it’s not very good for painters.
You were born in Brooklyn in 1927. Your parents had moved from Russia to America after the Revolution. Which year was that?
I don’t know; they keep lying! My mother was an actress and she was on the Yiddish stage, so she came with her brothers, and her brothers opened an import business. My father came a little later. He had a factory in Russia. Because of the Revolution, he lost the factory. I think the only thing he could do for a living was gamble.
He tried. Actually, there’s skill in billiards. He used to play billiards all day long. My father was a very slick dresser. He would say, “Who is the best-dressed woman in the park?” I would make a statement. “No, you’re wrong!” he’d say. So I learned.
What else did you learn from your father?
When he came to New York, he got into time-and-motion. He worked in a sweatshop when he first got here; he had no money. He said he liked it because he was so much better than everyone else; he was very competitive. So I have some of that. He had a wholesale coffee store, and I worked for him. He explained how you have to move your hands. When you pack coffee, you only bounce it twice. Three times is a waste of time; once, you won’t get it done properly. He cut his grass concentrically when everyone else cut it back and forth, because it was quicker. I have that same urgency about time. I work very efficiently; I don’t work regular hours. Like, I’m going to paint a painting today, and it should take two and a half hours. If it takes twelve hours, I’ve done something wrong and I’m in trouble. If I get out of it a little quicker, it might not be done well.
You’ve been talking about gambling and your father. Do artists have a gambler’s instinct?
Yeah. I gamble all the time with paintings. A good artist has to gamble. A bad artist finds truth and paints truth for the rest of their life. Truth in an artist is very boring.
There was an older boy on our block who was very talented. We rode 20 miles by bicycle to paint some watercolours and then came back and showed them to my father. His was pretty good, but it wasn’t good enough for my father, who told him, “You’re going to be a great commercial artist.” Then he looked at mine – it was pretty awful – and said, “You’re going to have to be a fine artist.” Then he said, “Why don’t you paint your own backyard?” The backyard was a mess. We had traveled so far to find a scene that looked like a painting. It was an interesting lesson.
Was your father an important aesthetic influence on you?
Not too much. We painted together when I was really young. He was convinced he could do anything better than anyone, and he was athletic and very smart. So it was kind of intimidating. If he asked me a question, he would answer what I was thinking, not what I was saying. He was pretty unusual.
You yourself have been called a maverick …
I’ve been in the current, but I’m isolated. I have arrogance and ambition. Painters differ on what their ambition is. You’re trying to do about five things … there are at least five different audiences. The people who come in off the street and look at a painting, they say, “Oh we like it, it’s flowers, I love flowers!” Then you have dealers. They come in and say, “Can I negotiate this object?” They’re seeing something of value. Then you have museum directors. They’re asking, “Will this make a good show? Will this painting attract an audience?” And then you have painters and poets. They’re not interested in any of those things; they’re interested in your ideas about the painting. Then you have critics. Critics are interested in something they can write about. And there are the journalists. Journalists are interested in something you can make a story out of; they’re not interested in explaining art.
But gallerists and institutional leaders often define what the public sees. So those interlocutors can actually cut off public interest.
Well, they can shift it. It’s a competitive world. You have 250,000 people getting an art degree in America every year. And you have 6,700 galleries, and they’re like a peer review. Art has become an industry where it used to be almost like a hobby.
So who manoeuvres through this minefield?
It’s a big cultural wave. In the ’50s the cultural wave was to break down a line. Max Beckmann was working with black lines. [Then] all of a sudden the line broke down with Pollock; there were no longer enclosed forms; they opened up. Then you had bebop music. Bebop was wide-open stuff. And you had stream-of-consciousness writing, like William Faulkner ... so there was a breakdown of linear thought. Dancers – Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor – were doing the same thing. No expression, no content and, most of all, no form. That’s the early ’50s. That’s a cultural wave. How you relate to the cultural wave is what defines an artist.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “I’ve always been interested in fashion because it’s ephemeral.”
Ephemeral, yes. Art historians freeze time. Nothing’s as good as Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo. Artists, like anything else, change. The early abstracts are all about progress. Art doesn’t progress, it just changes. Fashion doesn’t progress, it just changes. Art is just a matter of change.
So the artist is capturing the moment?
That’s what I try to do. The idea I have in painting is to try and get into the immediate present. Music does that much more easily than painting, I think.
Is your art important?
I have no idea. I hope to make art that people see the world through. I saw a Cézanne show – he was one of my earliest heroes – in Philadelphia four or five years ago. I was looking at the paintings and saying, “Gee, he couldn’t get through a volume very well.” He would start on the edges, and in the middle he wasn’t sure of himself. And I’m saying, “Gee, I didn’t know he could do that.” When I was going back on the train, I looked out the window and it was all Cézanne. He completely dominated my mind with his vision. That is the highest thing an artist can do.
You have a place in Maine where you have another studio, is that right?
Yes. I bought this place in the ’50s; it was a falling-down cottage on a small, unsuccessful farm. We fixed it up. After a certain point, I’m living in this small house and a friend of mine comes over, a fancy guy from Europe, and says, “But Alex! This is a poor man’s house!” That’s exactly what it is. But it’s very charming, and it looks nice, and I really like it, so I go back every year. I can stand up and touch the ceilings. When I finally made some money, I told my wife, “Hey Ada, want to live like the Gatsbys? Let’s get some servants and do it that way.” And she says, “Get yourself a big studio!” So I built myself a big studio, a gorgeous studio on a pond, and we have a very charming little house. I don’t see why I should move.
How does the studio environment affect your work?
I don’t know. I always like to be in a beautiful place, you know? I like a place that’s orderly and clean. When I was living in my first loft, it was $35 a month with no heat and there was a lot of coal dust in the city so I used to paint it every year. It would take eighteen hours to paint the place.
You painted it yourself?
I painted it myself. I had no money.
When did you start earning in the real sense of the word?
Fifty years ago, I decided not to take a job teaching full-time at Yale. It was hard, but I had a low cost of living and could survive. A few years later, I began to really sell paintings.
Is your painting process complicated?
It’s convoluted. It has to do with painting large paintings; I found I couldn’t paint them directly anymore. Picasso or de Kooning, they paint and then they destroy, they paint and then they destroy. The other ones are like Barnett Newman; they have an image and they just put it on the canvas. I was painting direct from nature so it didn’t work. I went out to about 6-foot-square paintings, painting direct, and I wanted to go larger than that. I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I also wanted to paint these big faces. So I had to figure out another way. I started out with direct and ended up with these big impersonal things.
You don’t feel that as time has passed it’s become more laborious?
There are some things I don’t have the energy to do, but basically I think I’m painting stronger than anything I did when I was young. My father was full of compressed energy, and I find that’s the way I work. I don’t work with sustained energy. There’s kind of an inside difference. Some people can work on a painting for three, four days, a week, two weeks. I can’t do that. My energy is explosive so I channel it into my paintings. I have no patience and my mind wanders, but if I’m painting I can hold it together for a while.
What’s the calmest space you have during the day?
Reading the morning newspaper. I read the sports section, the arts section, the obituaries. And I drink my coffee.
CHARLINE VON HEYL
b Germany 1960, is shown at her studio complex in Marfa, Texas. She lives and works in New York, but goes to Marfa regularly with her husband, the artist Christopher Wool.
What brought you to Marfa? Is it an invented town, or did it exist before Donald Judd arrived?
It continues to invent itself. Judd discovered it when he was stationed at the army base here, which he bought later to fill with his art and the art of his friends. Now people come here for the art; it is a real and quite overwhelming art experience. I had the Chinati residency [at Marfa] in 2007, and soon after we found the perfect house and built the studio. Now I do most of my painting in Marfa.
You were born in Germany and grew up in Bonn. What’s there to fall in love with here apart from the light?
It is the light, but also the landscape and the silence. The light is sublime and the space metaphysical in a way. Suddenly you can tune into a microcosm, suddenly you have to deal with a lot of insects from scorpions to, I don’t know, grasshoppers, and suddenly you see more stars than you could ever have imagined. Suddenly you are aware of the macrocosm. You pay attention in a different way. In New York one is constantly overstimulated. Here in this skyscape you fall back into yourself in a way that I find allows my brain to relax. I need that to produce. I never knew how much I needed it, but I need it very much.
You mentioned earlier having to deal with issues related to the art world, including people like me knocking on your door, and you said that it is draining to deal with the whole concept of the media’s infatuation with contemporary artists. Is that a proper way to spread ideas to the general public, or is it a particular audience that is being attended to?
I find it one of the most vexing paradoxes of being an artist that you have to deal with both those worlds. Most of us become artists because we are loners. It takes energy from me to open up doors and connect. For the longest time I was refusing to do it. I was just saying, “Okay, those are the paintings. Deal with the paintings.” I started to realise that it is a fantasy that you can take yourself out of the equation. Now I consider it part of an artist’s real work. That’s the sacrifice I have to make to sustain what I like to do.
Then who is driving the narrative of the contemporary art scene?
There is not one art scene; there are different energies at work.
Is your art then necessarily driven by these different constituencies?
The reason why I make art is to do with my curiosity, not to make a product to enhance any idea of self that I want to promote. If that motor is not going to be fuelled by desire anymore, I am going to quit as an artist.
Do you remember how old you were when you first became interested in art?
Yes, strangely enough I do. I was already at school so I must have been seven, but I had never painted before. I remember going to school or, after school, lingering and watching somebody paint a mural on a restaurant. I remember thinking, Yeah, but I am a real painter; he’s just a house-painter.
What made you that distinguished at such an early age?
I have no idea! It was only much later that I actually did any painting.
Is it down to chance that some artists make it and others don’t?
It has to be the right time. It’s chance, it’s drive – there are so many facets to being an artist – it’s passion and luck
Did you have to do a lot of waitressing when you were starting out? What was your first job?
I was a night-porter in a seedy hotel in Hamburg. I was 21. I studied in Hamburg and then moved to Düsseldorf. There was an interesting vibe; it was [artists] Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen and, on the other hand, a conceptual counter-world that was extremely alive. I was involved in both. But what made me the artist I am today was probably the freedom that I encountered when I came to America. My mother is French, my father is German. Maybe having parents coming from such different backgrounds set me up to look for that charged and energising space of in-between.
How did your mother influence your outlook and your art?
She made it clear very early on that being German is not something to be proud of. That gave me a kind of identity doubt that is very much part of me now, as an artist. You want questions, not answers.
You’ve described art as being “like bending bones”. I love it! Is this a euphemism, a metaphor, or what?
I was just thinking of one impossible thing. That is exactly what I want when I am in front of a canvas: to force something to happen that I thought would not be possible to do, something that transcends what I think I can do into something more, other and surprising.
Are you ever satisfied with a piece of work?
Yes, my goal is to make myself happy with my paintings, even if only for a moment. I only let a painting out of the studio when I am satisfied with it, when I look at it and think, I could never have done that.
That must be taxing …
Well, the arsenal of tricks and weapons is growing, so I am not completely naked in front of the canvas anymore. And I know that I can trust myself more to talk now than I could ten years ago.
I always thought that, if I put a painting out there, the work should stand on its own. I still think so. My ideal is still to take me out of the equation. It doesn’t make sense to me to start to explain the paintings, but I realised when I was teaching that there is a need for discourse, and I actually enjoy talking about the process, or about all the strange stuff that catches my attention and goes into the work. I like to share my way of seeing.
You’ve observed that there is an aggressive undertone to your work. In what sense?
In the sense that it’s aggressive toward myself. I am very impatient with myself; I don’t cut myself a lot of slack. Sometimes I spend, I don’t know, three or four days on something that I patiently work up, and it looks glorious. If I have a gut feeling that it relies too much on its materiality or effect, I will just destroy it. That’s a very aggressive act.
My aim is to make a painting that belongs not to me but to anybody who is willing to get into dialogue with a painting. Though I need my subjectivity to make it, it needs to be an object that lives on in the subjectivity of the beholder. A good painting should hold attention for more than a glimpse and look like a different painting when you look at it again in different circumstances.
So you answer hidden questions by completing a painting, but then leave it to time, circumstance and the viewer to find the answers, or to find no answers?
Yes. It’s dangerous to explain too much when it comes to painting. All I want to say is that the work I do as an artist regarding the painting is an activation.
For how long have you had this large, sunlit, white-walled studio in Marfa?
I was always lucky with studios. This one I have had for five years.
Given that your partner, Christopher Wool, is also an artist, do you have adjoining studios, or do you have to go outside to come together, at least metaphorically?
We don’t go very much into each other’s studios. We do when we need somebody in the editing process for a catalogue or at crunch time, because we are lucky enough to have partners whose taste we respect. But there’s not much dialogue when it comes to actual studio practice.
Is there a particular studio that you still have fond memories of?
Everything in the studio has to be perfect as a world in which to think and be an artist. The studio always fluctuates. I am creating energies by putting words up or slogans or energising photographs. I take it very seriously as creating working conditions to motivate myself into a certain state of thinking.
Almost a state of mind?
A state of mind, yes. But it would be good if people knew that this is just a glimpse of the moment.
What inspiration do you draw from this bleak Texas landscape?
It’s been something else every year. At first, I was like an urban girl suddenly confronted with the countryside. I was excited about the smell and the plants and the animals and the wildlife. Then it was the way that the space did something to me, the way my brain relaxes so that there is space between my thoughts and I am free of the urban guilt of always thinking that you should have gone somewhere or done something or that you are in the wrong place. This whole obsessive tyranny of being part of happening and uprising … that all falls away. That means I can work with more freedom.
You have said in the past that beauty is so attractive that it’s what limits you more than anything else.
I am certainly not an expert on beauty. It is more a question of desire. Something that I find interesting about Marfa is that all the stuff that is considered ugly (like trailers with a lot of junk) gets transformed in this sublime light into something that radiates as beauty. That is a strange paradox that only happens here. It teaches you something and it opens you up to the idea of beauty in the larger sense. I find that to be a big part of why I love to be here.
Has your artistic methodology evolved over time or do you change direction on impulse as you go along?
Obviously I did a lot of experimentation with materials from the beginning. I was looking for a surprise, a new painting that would be personal to me. The surface of the painting and what is painted on it are inextricable from each other; the meaning of what you are painting and the subject are rolled into one. What you paint and how you paint are the same thing. Artistic methodology and changing direction on impulse as you go along are not mutually exclusive.
And what you paint is what you are?
That is correct.
Does this “what you are” change as you grow older and wiser?
Some artists get deluded by their image of themselves or their work or by people’s agreement about their work. They start making the same work over and over so that people recognise that it’s theirs. They stop growing that way. Some artists have one really good thing to say. If you think about John Chamberlain, he made different kinds of sculpture, but basically he came back to his crushed-car sculptures; those were the best pieces he made, his biggest achievement. Does that make him a lesser artist than someone who is more multifaceted or whose work has many different appearances? I don’t think so. It’s the quality of that moment of excellence that occurs when you hit that note (if you are a musician) or put those words together (if you are a poet). You put objects and materials and your being together, and the residue is a painting. Art is the opposite of death.
What has been the high point of your painting life thus far?
I would say that now is the best time. If there is anything good that happens when you get older, it is that you get more free and understand more what you were doing when you were younger. You understand how to take that to a place that’s new to you. If you look at late Picasso or late Matisse or late Titian, there is a rebirth that occurs. If you live long enough to see how your work withstands a few decades, it’s a good litmus test.
How important is the contemporary art-collecting world in determining trends or directions?
There are many different people that have entered the art market. The art world was much smaller when I started showing my paintings. I knew where all my paintings were. Most of the collectors that have paintings of mine have been consistent and have had my paintings for awhile and lived with them. Those people don’t put paintings up at auction. They are not in it for some kind of short-term thing; they actually have a feeling for the painting or a relationship with the artist.
Do you care where your art goes? Do you resent people who you think do not deserve to have your work no matter how much they pay for it?
Yes, I care where it goes. And no, I don’t think like that. You can’t make moral judgments about people who can afford your paintings. You can only really be responsible for what you do and what you put out into the world, and be true to that. When Sean Penn was working in Haiti and trying to help people after the hurricane, there were fifty thousand people living on a golf course. I thought I could be more helpful making a group of works that could be sold and the money could go to them than if I was living in a tent over there. But when people ask you for things for auction, it usually bites you in the ass because people might have good intentions but are not necessarily set up to protect these objects that go into the world. But I don’t really think about that too much. What I like to think of is what the next painting is going to look like. Do I have something that is some sort of epiphany that I am being drawn to, or am I blank? I see paintings everywhere.
How many epiphanies can you have in a lifetime of creative endeavour?
As life affects you, comes at you in waves, these things open up opportunities. When I was in Mexico in 1985, driving down the road, there was a truck broken down. The tarp covering was in a pile on the floor next to the tractor-trailer. It looked like an elephant skin. I bought it for $70 and made a painting out of it. It was 17 by 23 feet. I then went to a gas station and bought two other ones from two other truck drivers. Those were the beginnings of the dark tarp paintings.
So is art accidental or a purposeful act?
People are always talking about the great accident. Or you have a system, or you feel like doing something. I think it is a combination of the two: you are prepared by what you know to get to that point where you take everything you know and put it at the feet of something you do not know anything about at all and proceed from that. Out of that you can surprise yourself. What constitutes a painting? That tarp looked like a painting to me. It was something that was used to cover a truck, and the marks made from creases and use formed the drawing. I also took a dog and actually pressed the dog on the painting so that it had another kind of topography that was going somewhere.
You don’t have a problem with pissing people off in the art world, do you?
Should I have cared more? I don’t want to piss people off. I am trying to share something with them; I am not interested in confrontation. A work of art affirms or reaffirms or contradicts something else that existed, so there is a battle going on. It’s the nature of art’s relationship to time. It changes and is very exigent. It criticises other art by the mere fact of its existence. You do something and other art becomes obsolete. In the time that the Plate Paintings were made, there was a lot of super-realism going on also. Clement Greenberg and his friend Bill Rubin were at the Museum of Modern Art and were interested in, say, lyrical Abstract Expressionist artists. The guys they were showing basically disappeared. You don’t hear much about them. Cliques of power are just as transient as the staying power of the art that they support.
Do you worry about disappearing from the map of art?
Where does your confidence come from?
If I was twenty-eight years old and you asked me that question, it could be a form of arrogance. If I am sixty years old and you ask me that question, I’ve been doing this for at least thirty years, probably longer, and I can only use myself as the guinea pig and the critic. If I think it’s good, I have to be confident in it. My parents were very loving; they didn’t know a damn thing about art, but they were very supportive. Either you have an interior life that this thing comes from, or you are copying someone, or you need to go out and steal something in order to survive. People might not understand, but they will at some moment, or maybe they can’t fit it in their house, but you don’t care. There is also just the pleasure of working, the joy of doing it and the opportunity of art. That is really what it is: to have something that you can access. That’s why people do yoga or whatever they do to make themselves feel better. I don’t have a hobby; I don’t have another thing that I want to do. I don’t get done at seven o’clock and then forget what I have been doing. I am not interested in the business of art; I am interested in the making of art.
But you have been extremely successful in the business of art …
I guess so. I mean, there are other people that are more successful or richer, but they have probably co-operated more with people and that has made it easier.
Going back to the tarp paintings, I see alliterative transliteration in taking a piece of rag for $70 and transforming it into a $700,000 piece of art.
I’ve never thought of it like that. I am in the school of throwing everybody and myself into a pit, and if we can crawl out together we go home. Art gets made in the process.
You have also been extremely successful in the movies.
The deal is that when you make movies you have to talk to too many people and you have to really want to do it. I don’t like all the phone calls and meetings. Sir Laurence Olivier said that he acted for free and they paid him to do the press. You have to think that after you make a movie, you have to go around and deal with the distribution of it. People put a lot of money into that, and you have a responsibility to them. So you’d better be making a movie that you are interested in, because if you are sitting there for two years talking about something you don’t care about, that is a death sentence.
We’ve talked about the highs … have there been low points, periods when you’ve felt disheartened?
The only low parts are when you are confused and you are working on something that maybe you end up thinking is not as good as you hoped it would be. In terms of highs and lows where you are talking about the agreement of the public, probably making the movies was something that the art world didn’t like. Other directors have been very nice to me. If you win the Cannes Film Festival Best Director, you are not getting it from an academy or winning a popularity contest; there are ten of your peers voting for you. I don’t put too much importance into winning awards and stuff like that; it is a weird thing for a painter to win that award. I always wanted to make movies when I was younger. I made them, but I don’t necessarily feel that, if I love a film, I have to be its author.
I guess that film is an extension of my painting …
… which is an extension of you?
Well, if I wasn’t painting, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.
You’re reputed to be a collector of extremes?
I collect weird things and I make weird things. What artists usually say is, “I make beautiful things.” But I don’t want to say that; it’s too normal. I enjoy being able to create weird things.
You have the luxury, because of your success, of being able to do that. If you were not a successful artist, would you continue making weird things?
Maybe so. Maybe I am not weird enough yet!
So what is the height – the nirvana – of weirdness?
I don’t know! Maybe making weird things is not the highest level. Maybe the weirdest thing to create is not creating anything, just to be myself. Well, I have to create something to express myself, right? At a certain point, a human being can be able to make nothing and still express their thoughts, like Jesus Christ or Buddha … like John Cage trying to show nothingness, like a Zen idea.
Do you aspire to a state of nothingness where everything is clear and nothing is said?
To show nothingness, you have to create a space which nothingness contains. To show nothingness, you have to see where nothingness stops. So there’s already a boundary concept involved.
For thousands of years, art was totally not weird. It was structured or it was representational …
Like the type of people who painted cows or oxen? That’s weird enough!
What in contemporary American art do you think represents little change from cave drawings from 35,000 years ago?
Humans have changed the landscape so much, but images of the sea could be shared with primordial people. I just project my imagination on to the viewer, even the first human being. I think first and then imagine some scenes. Then I go out and look for them. Or I re-create these images with my camera. I love photography because photography is the most believable medium. Painting can lie, but photography never lies: that is what people used to believe.
Many would say that photography is just the representation of single moments whereas paintings represent forever.
I don’t think so. My photography tries to do the opposite, tries not just to capture one point in time. Painting is just a representation of history, like Napoleon riding on a white horse. German Romanticism captured the sea in painting, kind of expanding the tense of history. Documentary photography starts in the same way, as the painter’s job, but photography can represent a longer span of time.
So in fact you are trying to represent the past as opposed to the moment?
I don’t care about the moment. What is more important to me is that human memory itself can be represented by photography. When we think back, we can focus on the future.
You’ve shot nearly three hundred seascapes, is that correct? How many different locations has that included?
It depends how you count them. I move every day, so even on the Black Sea coast I moved from one location to another. Sometimes I don’t shoot, sometimes I shoot. I just keep moving.
Do you find it difficult to stay in one place?
Sometimes. I find particular locations and then I stay, sometimes for a week or ten days, to see the weather change.
Can you describe your technical methodology?
I’ve mastered my own style of technicality. I learned a lot from Ansel Adams. He published a book of prints and negatives and lights and processes, all of his secrets. I follow his chemical formulas. He is my technical master.
Adams shared all of his technical secrets; you, on the other hand, are a secretive personality with hundreds of ideas kept hidden in your mind.
Yes. I wait until they hatch. Some ideas I keep for many, many decades. Then occasionally, one idea … I find a way to deal with it, to make it happen. I’m always searching for technical ways to realise my ideas.
I have many, many ideas for the future, but to make them visible I need physicality in the moment. The light moves where I have been standing for years, but I’ve never told anyone I was interested in that particular moment.
Do all your ideas eventually find technical foundations, or are many lost?
Many are lost, of course. Many keep continuing.
Do they torture you at night?
Sometimes I hear a voice saying, “This is what you should do.”
Do you argue with the voice?
Mostly I say, “Oh, thank you very much!”
So you are grateful to the voice?
Yes! Some weird voice is driving me.
Do you consume ideas from your surroundings?
Even though Isaac Newton is from the eighteenth century, I follow his instructions. I make my own epiphanies in my studio in Tokyo. I study the light … my curiosity is everywhere.
So you do need a studio?
I need a studio. Here is the best place.
In New York?
I’ve spent so many years in New York; my suppliers are all here. So I cannot move. In Japan my studio is not a workshop, just a space that I designed. The space itself is my art. It’s not an apartment; I don’t even live there. I have an apartment and in the same building, I have a space.
Why did you move to New York in the first place?
I came to the US as kind of an accident. I left Japan in 1970; at the time I was a flower child, like a hippie. I wanted a bohemian lifestyle, just wanted to hang around the world. I was traveling and ended up in California. I decided to stay there but had no long-term plan or anything. I didn’t have any ambition so I just enjoyed my life there. To stay in this country I needed a visa, so I decided to become a student. The easiest school to enter was art school. I was a very handy person, and photography had been my serious hobby since I was twelve years old, so I thought I could make myself very presentable to an art school. I enrolled and they checked my portfolio and I skipped the first two years. That’s how it started.
After two years, I got tired of California and graduated so I decided to move to New York. At that time the only way to make a living was as a commercial photographer. But when I came to New York, I gave up on the idea of being a commercial photographer because it was not for me. At the same time I was seeing so many interesting shows of weird things that could be sold at high prices as contemporary art. Wow, this is my job, I thought. This is the field I should step into.
So you took a shortcut to weirdness?
There are very weird-minded people called artists and I am very weird-minded, so this was the only place I could go.
Is New York the weirdest place in the world?
Yeah, creative-wise and also because of the stock market and those sorts of things. It’s weird how human beings can make wealth by gambling in that way. When I was in Japan, I majored in Marxist economics so I am curious about how human beings created this artificial market.
Taking that weirdness a step further, where do you think the American art scene will be in fifty or a hundred years?
I don’t know how long human beings may survive. That’s the first question. Civilisation may end.
Do you anticipate that possibility or are you optimistic?
Everything has its beginning and everything has its end. I’m fatally pessimistic.
So you are a futurist living in the moment?
The dioramas I make are like big scenes of nature coming back. If we end our civilisation, there will be no humans left. It only takes a hundred years for nature to get back to normal.
Are you saying that nature will take its own course?
Skyscrapers won’t stand by themselves. Grass and all the trees that are coming up will make New York like it was before we discovered Manhattan.
Do you think God’s made a mess, then?
He made a mess, yes.
Don’t artists make messes?
I don’t know. Artists’ visions are also messy and weird … Artists are looking for disturbing images – that’s the trend.
But you never know what the next trend is going to be. Maybe so-called “beauty” might be back again.
So we essentially live in the clichéd universe of the weird?
Oh yes. And I enjoy this weirdness.
Your work is post-solo-artist-in-their-garret, yet you are developing this fantastic space within your community. What is the premise behind a non-studio with 25,000 square feet of space?
When you use the term “post-studio”, it still has the word studio in it. If there is any ambition, it’s that a practice could encompass more than the studio, but it includes the studio. I’m as committed to what one would consider a traditional studio practice as I am to expanding that practice. So the expansion asks, “What else can my studio do besides produce works of art?” It could house libraries, it could catalogue information, it could become a carpentry-workforce training program, it could build furniture. The studio could solve policy problems because of the investment of the studio to do more for the culture in this neighbourhood.
So it’s actually, instead of “post-studio”, an “expanded studio”.
It is not the failure of the studio, it’s what else can the studio do in addition to the things it’s done in the past?
You even have showers for your co-workers. Is this in fact a community at work as artists?
Yeah. The opportunity is to incubate other artists’ practices who maybe don’t have the resources to buy the equipment that they need but have the ambition. Why not also create opportunity for them? We’ve seen movements (especially the YBAs) where people made decisions to think collectively. Even though we know that that moment won’t last, that moment could put Chicago in a position that it hasn’t been in for a long time as a great artistic centre where artists want to come instead of leave.
Is that artistic community black or multicultural?
Some artists have been marginal to the art machine. I’m curious to see if there are artists, whoever they are, who have great ideas and who have need or interest, if there’s something that we could do together. Then we should.
Have you seen changes in Chicago as a centre for visual arts?
Well, the contemporary art fair was in some ways born here in the early ’80s with the shows at the Navy Pier. People from around the world would stop what they were doing in the late summer to be here. And there was a moment of great galleries – people like Rhona Hoffman, Donald Young, Richard Gray and the Randolph Street Gallery. There was also a core of collecting believers who could support a big fair. Also there were creative-art collectives that were doing interesting things in visual art, theatre, film, music. There has just been a slow departure of the great artistic talents, a slow erosion of the venues, a slow resistance to contemporary art in favour of public art with a certain bureaucratic tone to it. It felt like experimenters in conceptual practice were smacked on the wrist. If you wanted to be successful, you had to leave and go to the coasts.
Only two Chicago artists are being profiled in this book. What does that say about the art scene in the second-most important city in America? What is lacking?
I don’t know if there is lack as much as there is just not amplification. There are great artists in the city, but Midwesterners are just fine to be left alone and under-discovered, under-publicised, underground. I hear these great artists saying, “Be careful of your public-ness! Be careful of your exposure!”
You yourself appear to have chosen a challenging, exposed practice instead of a more studio-centric mode of production, unless I’m mistaken …
We can choose to live uncomplicated lives by keeping it super-tight. But the messy stuff is so much more interesting. If I couldn’t enjoy the one freedom that art offers, which is to constantly cross boundaries and do the wrong thing, I imagine I would give myself that agency (whether there’s permission or not). It’s my right to cross any territories that could be landmines with the understanding that I cross those territories at my own risk. It’s very much that risk that some people (politically, culturally, socially, financially) are not willing to take. People are like, “Hey, I had a good year last year; it’s time to be quiet.” But in fact what is urgently needed is a willingness to take the greatest, broadest risks imaginable. It’s like jumping, but blindfolded. Risk and belief sit so close together. The more belief you have, the greater the risks you are willing to take. From the time we bought the Anheuser-Busch building to now, people have become believers. They’re like, “Oh! This is going to work.” At first they were like, “Hey, this is a lot of space!” If the belief muscle says, “Try it, this is important!” then you try it.
You were born in Chicago. At what point did you begin to get a sense of being creative?
I understood I could talk about things without talking about them in my early twenties.
You were good at school. Did you get in trouble as well?
No, I was nice, learning to work hard and watching my parents make a way out of no way – that’s the phrase they used – or make a thing out of nothing, or turn nothing into something. My dad was a roofer, and my mom was a lover. To have watched my mom love and my dad work, to watch them constantly make ends meet when ends just wouldn’t, that felt like the real work. If at the top of the day there was a concern about food and at the bottom of the day we were always eating, whatever happened in the day was art.
Were you somehow being taught about creativity?
Yes, about belief, resourcefulness, the ingenuity of making flour and butter and water and sugar taste good and get us through.
And now you have held a fellowship at Harvard University, you teach at the University of Chicago, and you sing with The Black Monks of Mississippi …
There is a lot to do in a day. We should all be busy.
On the common human scale, that certainly measures as a whole lot of things.
People have hobbies and intellectual interests. Lots of people are in glee clubs when they get off work. The difference is that I really, really believe that all of the stuff that I do needs to be done with a certain kind of directedness, toward what end I am not exactly sure yet. I’m an artist. There are some skills I needed to learn in order to be a better artist. They included different professional practices that were related, and not related, to art. As a result, I have a practice that reflects something more than what a traditional MFA would offer.
An art practice with a social conscience?
Maybe social conscience is just a by-product of an expanded art practice. Do I have conscientiousness? Absolutely. Do I want great things to happen for the folk around me? Yes. Do I want to be a good person in the world? Absolutely. But I don’t have a political platform. I don’t need one.
In the context of the Dorchester Projects, the buildings you have converted into multi-use cultural facilities, are you not acting as an arbiter of social conscience?
I don’t know. You go to your job, you work, and you get a check every two weeks. You feel redeemed, you feel restored, you feel reduced to a salary. I don’t know if the corporation that one works for, the self-employment that one engages in, is the redeemer, but in fact when you work you feel dignity. You get that check, you can pay your bills, and in absence of that opportunity, you have need. In this case, if there is an arbiter to anything, it’s just understanding the connectedness in the world, that materials are connected to buildings, are connected to opportunity, are connected to the possibility of a more skilled South Side. I’m connected to my neighbours, but if I were to try to disconnect from my neighbours and my neighbours see the opportunity that I have and they feel disconnected from it, they’ll make a connection, they’ll bust you out. Better to be on the redeeming side than on the abandoned, distancing, marginalising side, because when people feel marginal there’s violence.
You’ve said that a big part of your art practice is creatively investigating what happens in neighbourhoods. Would you explain how that works?
I would love to think that on my block I function as a neighbour, not as an artist, not as a saviour – as a neighbour who didn’t leave. I don’t know how else to say it. If I’m mowing my lawn, I might mow yours too, and if somebody gives me some extra wrought-iron fencing, I might ask my neighbour, “Do you need some wrought-iron fencing?” in the same way that people used to borrow salt. People don’t do that as much as we used to. We don’t need each other anymore, and even when we need each other, we don’t know how to be humble enough to allow our need to be known. So the Dorchester Projects feel like an act of neighbourliness more than they do an attempt at being exemplary.
Were you always destined to be an artist?
No. I didn’t have the ambition to be an artist like that. I was a potter, and the biggest thing for me was to be recognised by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. I wasn’t invested in the contemporary art world as a maker.
I was invested in the contemporary art world as a person who thinks about contemporary life. I was excited that there were artists who were taking on hard issues like money and national identity and world challenges. Then it got to a point where there were things I wanted to say that were complex things, and clay alone wouldn’t allow me to say them.
What was the trigger for that realisation?
I could no longer afford to say it in clay, that was one thing, and then the things that I wanted to say I thought I could say better if I used this empty lot, this abandoned house. I thought, Why don’t I expand my practice from just imagining myself as an urban planner? Why don’t I expand my studio so that it encompasses not just my own practice but other practices? Why don’t I expand to not just make objects but to also think about archives and cultural production at large?
The result being Theaster Gates Redemption Enterprises?
I’m just a man.
Where else do you travel in time and space in this borderless artistic quest?
I go where I’m called. It could be that a city calls and says, “We don’t know what to do with this area. Can you help us think about it?” I would love to spend some more time just cleaning my studio, but I’ve never been to Venice, so I’m gonna go to Venice this summer. I’ve never been to Hong Kong. Someone called me and said, “You should come to Hong Kong and bring some things,” so I’ll go. I’ll be forty this year. I’ve never felt more excited about the possibility of an expanded practice, and I still feel that I’m at the very beginning of it. I feel that I’m still gathering my thoughts. I’m just playing rudimentary games as a way of gaining muscle memory and learning that play is the way we start to learn how to involve ourselves with other people, how the nature of our body works in relationship to these larger apparatuses.
How would you describe your journey of political discovery through art?
I don’t think it has been a question of choice. Like many Iranians, my life has been defined by the question of politics and political realities, the Islamic revolution, separation from my family at a young age and life in exile. In fact, my art originally developed as a way to cope with my unresolved anxieties.
When exactly did your art become political?
It started when I returned to Iran in the early 1990s after being absent for nearly twelve years. I experienced the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, which had transformed Iranian society from what I remembered as “Persia” to the “Islamic Republic of Iran”. The questions I framed stemmed from issues and themes related to my private life, yet slowly grew to a larger discourse. I was desperate never to disconnect again. I can see now how this desire subconsciously affected my point of view, which became neutral while looking into the ideological basis of the Revolution. I was not there to point fingers but to try to comprehend the rationale for such social realities and atrocities.
What realities and atrocities do you mean?
The dark side of the Revolution: oppression, corruption and violence.
Did you not have hopes for change at the time of the Revolution?
I found it both terrifying and fascinating. Living in the West gave me a rather romantic, naive perspective, but once I traveled to Iran, I discovered endless tragedies imposed on the people and a totally unjust regime.
When had you left Iran to begin with?
I’d left when I was seventeen, in 1974. I didn’t have any family living in the United States. The Revolution, the consequent breakdown of the diplomatic relationship between the US and Iran, and the Iran–Iraq War caused a devastating separation between my family and myself.
How did you cope with these traumatic changes?
I was young and preoccupied with surviving my difficult circumstances. When I did go back to Iran, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider.
Why did you come to New York?
I found California frustrating, not challenging enough. I moved to New York in the mid-1980s and found myself at the heart of bohemia. I met my ex-husband, Kyong Park, the founder of a non-profit organisation called Storefront for Art and Architecture. I worked with him for about ten years. Both Storefront and Kyong influenced me a great deal. I always say that I earned my art education from Storefront, not from art school. At that time, I wasn’t making art; I took some philosophy courses at New York University and devoted my time to Storefront’s programs. The highlights were my encounters with artists, architects, cultural critics and other interesting minds.
You come from a secular-minded, fairly prosperous family. You had access to education, but were you politically engaged from an early time?
It was my generation that eventually brought about the Revolution. I had a few friends who became active politically even when we were in high school. So, while I was not active myself, I was conscious of the various underground movements. I didn’t have the mental preparation to become involved myself. Now I understand why my family rushed to send their children away to study abroad; perhaps they were fearful of us turning into political activists.
How much of being an artist is socio-anthropological, a search for aesthetic interpretations of human nature?
Without a doubt the artist’s personal history and cultural background inform their art. I’ve always been conflicted about my personal instinct as opposed to worldly issues. I am still bewildered about why I became an artist to begin with; there is no artistry in my family history.
Are you in any way escaping from your inner being through your art?
No. Actually the opposite. I hide my personal issues within my fictional characters and narratives. All the women in my work mirror myself. They are outcasts, fragile and lonely yet determined, strong and rebellious. I’ve come to see how, subconsciously, the theme of exile has developed into a constant pattern.
So are you exploring your psyche when you’re making your work?
Every artist does that in a way. I have a hard time believing that any artist can entirely remove their own issues from their subjects and characters. Some artists are more direct, for example Woody Allen, all of whose characters and narratives seem to be about him.
When did your artistic journey begin?
Ever since childhood I had some sort of artistic inclination. I remember at home and school everyone calling me “the artist”. So I grew up with this dream that one day I would become a professional artist without really knowing what that meant. Living in a small town in Iran, I had never been exposed to art, galleries or museums. My family (and most Iranians at the time) identified art as decoration, and artists as entertainers. Art was particularly suited to women since men were typically expected to become doctors and engineers.
Once I moved to the United States and started to study art, I quickly lost that romanticism about being an artist. My work seemed immature and unsubstantial, and once in New York I felt intimidated by the art world. That made me abandon making art altogether.
Unexpectedly, a new chapter opened ten years after graduating from art school, after my first trip back to Iran, when I felt compelled to create a body of work that conveyed my experiences. By then I had found the passion, subject matter and maturity that I had lacked before. Some curators noticed my work and invited me to participate in exhibitions. My career evolved from there. I had professional gallery affiliations, a following and critics who were looking at my work seriously. So I felt a new sort of responsibility, the pressure to maintain a certain standard that satisfied both commercial and critical expectations. I was in my early forties, and I had found a new set of collaborators. Together we enjoyed a fantastic and productive period, and made some of my most important video-based work.
By 2000, after a few intense years of galleries, museums and biennial participation, I felt exhausted by the art world and had the urge to take a break. So, in 2003, I decided to make my first film. I spent the next six years directing Women Without Men with ShojaAzari.
Wasn’t that a naive move?
No. The transition gave me a healthy distance from the art world without abandoning it altogether. It was important for me to get away from my signature work, to avoid repeating myself for the sake of the market or the audience and the critics. I felt free, and, as a total beginner in cinema, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. This was the same feeling that I had when I first started to make art.
But art has always been more or less of a commodity. (A worthless commodity, we might add, because it has no value outside of its intrinsic aesthetic value, just a cultural value or cachet that society determines for it.) So what is its purpose?
I am not sure how to answer this question without oversimplifying. The art world has become too dominated by the market; artists are valued more for their prices, not always for the quality of their work. Artists themselves are guilty of being seduced by fame and money.
I find a democracy in cinema that is missing in the art world. Cinema by its nature is more grass-roots and accessible to the general public. The film audience can appreciate a film without an education in film history, whereas it’s hard to imagine anyone walking into an art museum today without needing some understanding of and background in art history.
When did the art scene start to change, with Andy Warhol?
All I know is that when I first came to New York in the early 1980s, artistic culture was very different and far more radical. The gallery environment was not about big corporations but about taking risks, about being engaged socially and politically. Art belonged much more to the public domain than it does today. Artists even looked more interesting and colorful!
This is an edited extract from “Art Studio America: Contemporary Artist Spaces”, edited by Hossein Amirsadeghi, executive editor Maryam Eisler, with essays by Robert Storr, Benjamin Genocchio and Mark Godfrey, photographs by Robin Friend, published by Thames & Hudson on November 11 (£65)
All images: © TransGlobe Publishing from ‘Art Studio America: Contemporary Artist Spaces’ published by Thames & Hudson