I have lived in Vermont for fourteen years, the longest I have lived in any one place. Before moving to Vermont, I painted in thirteen different studios. I had two more in Middlebury. The one I have now in Ripton is by far the best.
It’s quiet. I don’t hit my head on the ceiling when I climb a ladder to work on the top of a painting and I can walk out the door and in under an hour be in wilderness, the Breadloaf Wilderness. There’s nothing to compare with that, not even painting. I think the distinction is important.
It may help to know that I paint with my hands. Originally it was just a matter of economics. I couldn’t afford brushes and I’d started to paint wall size paintings, so I just scooped the paint up one day and put it on.
At first the gloves I used were what you’d expect, surgeons’ gloves, but the marks left by my fingers were distracting. I didn’t want any sign of myself, any sign of my effort, in the painting so I began using household rubber gloves, which were bigger than necessary. They actually work like a large brush and they’re easy to slip on and off. I’m not exclusive, though. I do use brushes, a palette knife, newspaper, rags, whatever works.
After four years of learning how to paint at Syracuse University and a summer of unlearning it all at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine (where I met Milton Resnick, Pat Passlof, Ron Bladen, and Vija Celmins)—and because a good friend won a scholarship to the Studio School, and because we were ambitious and willing to share a crummy loft in Chinatown—I moved to New York City in 1981. I told myself I’d give it two years, not being much of a city person, but somehow those two turned into eleven. I learned a lot in those eleven years. I’ve learned even more since then.
Because I was too shy, I missed meeting Betty Parsons who I spied briefly at her gallery at 24 West 57th Street one year before she died. She died in the summer of 1982. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with Betty Parsons, she was a sculptor, a collector and art dealer, who opened her first gallery in 1946 and was most famous for showing every major Abstract Expressionist before they came to be known as Abstract Expressionists. She opened the gallery at 24 West 57th in 1963. That space was my favorite. I don’t think it had changed much since 1963 when I first saw it in 1981. Tony Smith and Barnett Newman designed the gallery, including the cornerless main room. It was so full of ghosts, that gallery. As a painter walking in there you felt embraced by those ghosts. Jack Tilton had been Betty’s assistant for many years and inherited the lease after she died, so I sent my slides to him and I’ve shown with him ever since, even though he’s not at that address anymore.
When I realized I’d memorized every wad of gum, every crack in the sidewalk to and from my studio in New York, I knew it was time to start looking up again. So to make a long story short, here I am. I am very grateful to be here today, and grateful for the invitation to show my paintings.
I want especially to thank all of you for coming today and if you have been to see the show before, thank you for that visit too. To be alone with the paintings is the best experience. It’s not easy for me to talk about them individually so I’m going to try to talk around them for you. By defining the periphery I hope to bring into focus what it is I do.
When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a painter. I never say I’m an artist. To me, saying you’re an artist implies that your talents, your interests, have a wide-ranging application. For instance, if you had a project that required you to communicate some information, you would be wise to ask an artist for help. An artist will be able to offer many ideas, some startling, some original, because artists are master manipulators of the means of communication, and more and more they’re kicking away the last remaining stones that make up the wall that separates art and life.
If you were to ask a painter for help with that project, that painter too would be able to offer some advice, but not in the immediate and practical way you might need. That’s because abstract painters like myself are busy picking up those stones that made up the wall that separates art and life and putting them back in place. What I do is very specific, with self-imposed limitations that serve just one purpose.
My materials are oil paint and canvas, and the process, which evolves from the act of painting itself, is aesthetically driven and works best inside, behind the safety of that wall. If you take an abstract painting out into the world and try to apply it, to use it, at best it’s held up as an example of what is frustrating about modern or contemporary art, and at worst it’s considered decorative.
This is because the way we normally see, the way we look at things every day, is not seeing and looking but judging, and we judge what we see in order to know what to do next, in order to know how to act. When the light turns green, we go. We don’t sit there looking at the colors.
We’re so good at judging, it comes so naturally, that it’s easy to see why looking at abstraction, which offers absolutely no clues whatsoever as to what to do next, can be such a challenge. But that challenge is, in fact, abstract painting’s greatest gift. The kind of seeing it promotes is something we all can do; we just don’t get the opportunity to do it very often.
I’d bet that every one of you has had the experience sometime in your life of looking at something so marvelous that for just an instant, you’d forgotten yourself enough to not act. For just that instant, you were not in charge; the experience itself somehow was. The pursuit of that kind of experience is what I think turns painters into abstract painters, and the awareness of it turns all of us into better audiences for abstraction in particular and art in general.
I hold art, no matter what form it takes, to a very high standard. I want to be changed by what I see, and the art that has influenced me the most has done this: Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, every portrait by Rembrandt, Cézanne’s interiors, Paul Klee’s grids and the black cruciforms of Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, early Robert Ryman and late Monet, the blue in any Piero della Francesca, the pinks in Philip Guston’s abstractions.
Just a few examples from here in this museum: Medardo Rosso’s sculpted head of the Sick Boy, the Greek owl drinking cup just around the corner, and—though it’s not on display right now—Whipple’s unforgettable daguerreotype of the moon in its velvet case.
There are many more. Sometimes what I would walk past on one occasion will suddenly stop me on another, as if I hadn’t been ready to see it until then.
These artworks change me because even if I learn a great deal about them, they remain elusive, which is remarkable because a work of art is usually a still, silent object. You’d think you’d get to know it very well. But a change occurs every time I look at them. This same kind of change happens when I know a painting of my own is finished. Although it takes three to four months to work on, and I know every square inch of the canvas, my painting seems to have happened without any effort at all on my part.
Which brings me to the subject of paint. Naturally everyone thinks of color when they think of paint. I have to admit, I have a love/hate relationship with color. This is because color’s effect is so strong, always pulling one way, then the other.
For about a year I couldn’t use yellow. It seemed as if just the smallest amount would take over and smother whatever I was working on. I knew I couldn’t go on avoiding it so I decided to paint with nothing but yellow. There were about four or five of those paintings. I called what turned out to be the last one Pins and Needles, because even though it was all yellow, it wasn’t anymore. It was paint.
I think the experience of color is like being at the seashore, spending all your time watching the waves crash on the rocks. The feelings colors produce in us are like those pounding waves, never at rest, always crashing around. At some point, however, you look up from all that turmoil and you sense the depth of the ocean itself, and see the endless horizon marking the infinite sky above. That vast uneasy calm is the unchanging yet unspecific emotion that paint produces. Feelings change, colors change, but the emotion, the paint, is constant.
Paint is the catalyst for a unique emotional and aesthetic encounter. It requires a kind of surrender, a kind of transparency on the part of the painter to allow paint to have an effect. When that happens, just like when you let anything alone long enough to be what it is rather than what you want it to be, an encounter occurs which I think is the art of abstract painting.
I have painted a lot of paintings and the encounter is always the same. There is a moment when I know the painting has begun. There has to be enough paint on the canvas to create a kind of space, which is often called the “picture plane.” At this early stage it remains shallow, but it has a unique reality. It’s not real space and it’s not an illusion. Yet it somehow contains all the thoughts, feelings, and memories that haunt me. Then, one by one, they go away. As the painting progresses, my argument becomes weaker and weaker, until there’s only the painting left.
In any painting, you can see its creation in the way the paint has been applied and the heart of the painter by what the painter scraped away. It’s not perfect. I think that’s the real reason I love it. It’s full of mistakes. But what ultimately remains is the sustaining through form and color of something formless and colorless called art.
And if you were to reach out, your gesture echoes the painter’s, you’re standing in about the same relation to the painting as they were when they painted it. You have a strong physical and emotional connection to painting that can span cultures and centuries and somehow that connection informs and brightens our lives. By giving you nothing to judge, abstraction lets you see, and when you see, all your other senses come back too, which is helpful when you’re on the other side, the life side, of that wall.
This essay is a version of a gallery talk, given August 8, 2007, at the Middlebury College Museum of Art in conjunction with the exhibition Art Now: Rebecca Purdum. A detail of one of the paintings in that exhibition appears on the cover of this issue of NER.