Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tony Magar: Needs, Greeds, Wants and Ambitions (1982):

Tony Magar, whose show of paintings, The Magical Garden, opens this month at the New Gallery, Taos, has been around the proverbial block.  He began his career as an artist in the late 1950s in New York where he worked with sculptor Mark di Suvero and other avant-garde artists in SoHo. In the mid-60s he left the East and lived awhile in Denver before dropping out of the art scene (“Making art for rich people was turning me off.”) and moving to a commune in the mountains of southern Colorado.  A decade later, ready to plunge back into art, Magar came to Taos and, for the first time, began painting with oil on canvas. 
            Magar quickly developed a skilled, personal expressionist style bolstered by resonant colors that draw the viewer into a timeless floating void of emotional associations.  He has had numerous one man shows in the region, and was included in last year’s Rosalind Constable Invites show at the Santa Fe Festival of the Arts.
Short and aggressive, I’ve often thought of Magar as the reincarnation of a slightly mangy tom cat, characterized by a refreshing and admirable feistiness.  As were the giants of American Abstract Expressionism whom he reveres, Magar is fierce in his uncompromising devotion to the spirit of his own work and to avant-garde ideals in general.  He gives short shrift—make that no shrift—to anyone who doesn’t regard art with the same religiosity. 
            As our discussion began, Magar attacked ARTlines for what he considered lack of interest in abstract art in general, and his work and that of Linda Tasch, the artist with whom he lives and shares a studio, in particular.  We dispatched the subject to our mutual satisfaction, and continued with the general subject of abstract art, what it is, and how the public regards it. 

The moment you say abstract art, people automatically switch to something they saw in the city, they begin to lump it all together.  It’s all one big category.  If you say non-objective, it’s more puzzling to people.

What does it mean, non-objective?
Non-objective?  Non-objects.  Non-object making.

 Put it in positive terms.
The subject matter is coming from a different place than the external world.  You’re not dealing with the external reality, but more with magic.  Personally conceived magic.

How do you talk about it?
I am talking about it.

But more specifically, how do you talk about your own work?
 I talk about it with very few people here because there’s no one here to talk about it with.  I just do it.  I don’t want any rational reasons for doing what I’m doing.  I could talk about it after a painting is finished, in terms of what their looking at.  I want to give an experience to someone, rather than have them identify with something that they already know about.  That’s non-objective.  I want to give them a feeling rather than an Indian or a cowboy or a mountain.  It has more. . . Look at TV.  You see it in every other ad.  There’s the one about looking at a carburetor and what do you find?  Dirt, and then the camera goes in and shows you a blowup of dirt.  That’s a whole abstract world in the head of a pin that people are very concerned with now.  You talk about money, there’s lots of money in things that you can’t even see.  Right?  The stock market is made up of companies that are making things that you can’t even see.  Don’t you think that’s an abstract concept?

 Dirt on the carburetor?
We’re all chemicals, say, and the things we eat, vitamins—have you ever seen vitamin E blow up?  It’s fantastic.  All these things photography is involved with now . . . You ask the man on the street what abstract art is, he knows what abstract art is.  People aren’t dumb anymore.   People I thought were dumb, they come in galleries to look, regular tourist-type people, and I couldn’t believe they could even comprehend what abstract art is, but then they go and buy one of my paintings.  Because they like it, they like the feeling from it.  There’s all this abstract video stuff that backs up rock and roll now.  That was happening when Cage and the others were doing all that modern stuff back in the ‘60s when I was in New York.  They were experimenting with technical stuff.  Cage and Rauschenberg . . . they had a nine day art and technology thing at the Armory where they did nothing else but bizarre choreographed video things, and it’s more so now.  Guided missiles, rockets to . . .

Thanks to technology.
Art and technology is . . . kind of undeniable.  I’m not saying I’m painting technology, that kind of thing, but it’s an experience I’m after. 

 How does religion fit into the connection between art and technology?  Something that I felt retarded the rate of growth in interest in non-objective art, was that all the theories and attitudes of the artists and the critics that came out in the ‘50s were rooted in religious experience, and people just didn’t get it.  They didn’t buy it, because it was so alien. 
Some artists were branded with that, especially the ones who died tragically.  Again, abstract art is all lumped up in one ball and served to the masses.  So we get the Rothko Chapel (in Houston), and everybody trucks down to the Rothko Chapel to have a religious experience.  But the fact remains, whether the commission for the Rothko Chapel was somebody else’s idea for his work, someone who thought that those kinds of paintings would make a nice religious experience for people . . . . It’s open for that, sure it is.  Pollock, I find, is very religious to look at, or spiritually powerful.  I wouldn’t deny that I am painting along those lines, to include some kind of spiritual feeling, because I’ve always felt good painting is a spiritual experience for the artist . . .

 No matter what style of painting? 
I don’t know about that.  In objective painting, you’re painting something, but the style can be categorized as a spiritual style—after someone has written about it long enough.   Like Van Gogh, for example.  He was painting pot and flowers, chairs, ordinary things, but they had the intensity and drive, command of technique that made it go beyond a pot of flowers or a chair.  He went beyond that, and saw God.  On the other hand, people thought he was mad.  He was locked up.  The same thing with Egon Schiele, a German artist, and while he was in prison he painted these horrendous religious paintings, while he was starving.

So an objective painter can also impart the same spiritual feeling as . . .
I can’t say that’s the goal of a very non-objective painter—to convey spirituality. 

But you do have a tendency, and you did it the other day, to say that objective painters are no good.  It’s not as legitimate as non-objective.
Come on!

You did!  That the only legitimate thing to be doing these days is painting non-objective paintings. 
It’s not in the same ballpark. 

 But weren’t you also saying that one is better than the other?
NO, not better different.  I wouldn’t criticize objective art, nor would I expect an objective painter to criticize non-objective work.  So I deny that. 

 Is the point than, that you don’t like objective painting. 
Aah, well, I like Turner.

Who since then?
Wayne Thiebaud, Red Grooms, there’s a lot, along some line that I’ve been looking along for a long time.  I’m stuck here in Taos, right, so I see Fritz Scholder, and I like his work.  (Long pause) Oh, there was a guy I really got off on, he showed a painting at Linda Durham’s in Santa Fe.  It had monkeys and cats with bowler hats.  . .

Donald Roller Wilson, from Texas.
I loved it.  The painting quality . . . he could have painted the Mona Lisa with a monkey face and got away with it because he’s got such a horrendous talent just for the paint quality and portraits.  I like portraits.  I guess that’s why I like Scholder—exciting portraiture.  Then again, he’s some kind of warrior guy who wants to break the Indian tradition and get into real nitty gritty painting.  Oh, Bacon, too.  Francis Bacon.  Everybody loves him.  But my taste is old-fashioned so far as contemporary art.  Giacometti—he’s not really known for his paintings, he’s known for his sculpture, but his paintings are starting to have an effect on other painters.  (Pause) Realistic art. . . I have fixed dimensions on what I like and I probably am biased in terms of wanting to see an exciting painting, whether it’s realistic or abstract . . .

And you don’t see much of that? 
Around here I see a lot, but I don’t get the same buzz I get in other new area because it’s not choreographed—it doesn’t have any choreography, it doesn’t have any space, it’s not dealing with an experience…

But you’re not just looking for an experience, you’re looking for new experience.  Am I right?
Yea, and a certain amount of really good choreography, which I’m after, too, in my work.  Way back in the ‘60s I used to paint with music going all the time—Cage, Bartok—because it helped me with the choreography of what I was trying to say.  Then I stopped doing that.  I stopped listening because I knew what I wanted to see, with or without the music.  The choreography was something inside that had to come out. 

 I remember three or four years ago you occasionally titled paintings after specific pieces of jazz music.
I was trying then to get back into it after a long period of not doing much work, because I felt burned out with the art world.
When did you get burned out?
In New York, and then in Denver again.  It’s a whole story.  Do you want to hear it?

It’s three stories, actually.  When I first came to New York, in ’58, I was doing huge collages with paper, mostly black, ominous, heavy colors, total field painting, and then I would take lacquer thinner and paint with lacquer after the collage was done, and then light it.  The lacquer burns like putting brandy on your apple strudel or something, it vaporizes off and leaves a big crisp thing that you can brush off.  The fact of painting with flames was really getting me off.  So I had a big a big canvas up there, and I was flipping the lacquer, had the Bartok going, I got carried away, and I caught flames on the brush without really looking at it, stuck it in the can of lacquer, and the can exploded in my hand!  I let it go, and it started rolling down the studio.  I had these two big black cats, and one of them came over to sniff this trail of flames to see what was going on, and it got its tail caught in the lacquer, and it started burning.  So the cat was running around with a flaming tail, kind of like a Dali trip, and here I was with a huge painting burning out of control, and it was a question of which to go for first, so I ran for the cat and grabbed it, and ran into the toilet and dumped the cat into the toilet, put the cat out first, then threw the canvas down on the studio floor to waft out the flames.  But I kept going.  I had a love for flame painting.  I’d end up with these beautiful, unusual (laughter) looking canvases, seared art.
            They were tearing down the lower East Side while I was there.  I started giving a lot of wild parties . . . Leroi Jones and all these people started showing up.  The building I was in starting becoming the center of attention—it had a bar downstairs.  Thelonious Monk’s band was in the other lofts of the building.  Occasionally the detectives would come around and see if we were having any dope parties, raid them, but nobody ever got busted.  Then there was a burglary, and a kid made off with a tenor saxophone down the fire escape, and I was coming up!  The junkies started coming in, that was another problem.  One night I was in bed and these two junkies started banging on the door, two o’clock in the morning, and I wouldn’t let them in so they proceeded to start a fire outside the door (laughter), which really shook me up because we didn’t have telephones.  Another confrontation.  That was twenty-five years ago.  It was generally a starving situation.  We didn’t really have any welfare. . . I did have a nice loft . . .
            Before that I was hairdressing, and I met this woman, and she said, “What do you do?” And I said, I paint on the weekends, and she started coming over to the studio, and her husband was John Seagram or somebody, of the Seagram’s building.  Pretty soon all these limousines were coming down to the neighborhood, people coming in, wanting to see what was going on.  This was before SoHo ever existed, and it was this area of devastation, bricks in the streets.  We’d go around and find empty cellars of coal that we were constantly hitting for coal to heat the studio, carrying these big bags of coal up eight flights of stairs.  But we managed, and it was a lot of fun, but I don’t know if I’ve got the energy to do that anymore.
            Then we got together a united front and created the first big contemporary gallery in SoHo called the Park Place Gallery which eventually closed for financial reasons.  On weekends we would open the gallery up for avant-garde music happenings, like Terry Riley, Steve Reich—they’re now famous, but they all realized what the energy was.  We wanted to bust open into a new area for the ‘60s, and after they closed down 10th Street—Kline, Pollock, De Kooning, all got snapped up.  There was nothing downtown . . . In those days I was doing a lot of sculpture and it wasn’t easy to crank out a lot of pieces in a year—six pieces a year, and the amount of money to do each piece was getting more and more.
            Getting back to what I was saying, I was getting burned out.  I went to California, had a show there, came back and discovered that my studio had been burned out by this hot dog man who had been living downstairs.  He left a fire on under his hot dogs and burned the whole building down.  So where to next?  The gallery had to close.  Lucky for me, a couple of pieces sold in California, so I decided, the hell with it, I’ll go West and take a chance.  Denver seemed interesting because of the climate.  There were a few galleries starting up, there was a museum, I had a few introductions there, so I went I was greeted with open arms.

When was this?
About ’65, I could be wrong.  So, anyway, I decided to get involved, got together a show in Burns Park with the help of some local artists, and I got on the phone to some New York artists and told them we were going to raise some money to do this big sculpture show.  Denver wasn’t a big scene in those days, there were maybe eight collectors.  Professionally you have to realize that you can’t live there forever on what you’re doing, so you get a teaching job, which is what I did at Denver University.  I taught a semester, got burned out with that because hardly any of them knew what contemporary art was, so you end up teaching all these ladies how to weld, all that kind of stuff, and pretty soon they’re all knocking out little pieces that look like yours for their backyard.  I was still trying to do it myself, make an image that I could be identified with.  Denver was nice, but it didn’t have the fun in it of the old days when it was much more expansive and I could make things for myself rather . . .

Than for consumption?
Yeah.  For somebody else.  It’s easier to get some flow in your work when you’re working for yourself, like when you’re doing a show.  You don’t worry about what somebody’s going to think, you do it because that’s what you do.  You’re a painter.  Okay, what else do you want to talk about?

Where did you grow up?
In London

How long did you live there?
Until I was 19.

You came to this country then?
To New York

 As a hairdresser or a painter?
As a hairdresser

You were trained in London.
Yeah, I did a course in hairdressing.

How did you get into that?
Well, I wanted to get out of England and see the world, and get paid for it.  If you were good enough when you got out of the polytechnic, you got a ship, a job on a ship.

The Merchant Marines?
Yeah.  So I spent three years traveling around on ships, all over the world—Australia, India, Africa, Mediterranean.

 What were you interested in as a kid?
Drawing.  I still like kid’s drawings.  When I was a little kid, about five, I remember we used to have games, and we’d sit down and see what crazy things we could come up with, and it was some kind of magic we had then, between the three of us.  One of the kids was an American, his father was stationed there on a base, and that whole thing about having a kid from another country was fascinating because, you know, as a kid you have a huge imagination.  It’s not hampered by anything, it just flies, and there’s much more spontaneity in drawing, so I became fascinated by watching other kids draw.  Then I got good at it, and I kind of didn’t like it anymore.  And now I like that rawness of the kids’ drawings.  Kids automatically know how to draw abstract art, and then they take it home and their mother flips out and has it framed.  And this whole thing about wanting to get back to this magical feeling in the work you had as a kid, or other kids had, is what I like about art right now.  I’m tired of most of the art around here because it’s conventional, it’s something you’d expect to see.   So I don’t really identify with art galleries in Taos, because I’m not going to be surprised.  I’d have to go to LA, or hang out in Larry Bell’s studio, to get any kind of hit at all.

Do you remember the war?
Oh yeah.  I was in the underground, in the tubes.  I remember one night I ran away, and everybody got very upset, and I was living north of London, and there was a blitz on.  It was kind of scary because there were no lights, but I wanted to be in Trafalgar Square while the blitz was going, because I figured if the column was going to go, I wanted to be there to see it fall.

What column?
Nelson’s column.  Four big lions around the foot.  I hid in that square, and I had this fantasy that it was going to tumble and I don’t know why but I wanted to see it go.  I wanted to see it collapse—one of those kids’ fantasies.  After I got to New York I took a job with some really good hairdressers, and I hung around with a guy, Ron, who was one of the tops.  A lot of famous people came in, and I was working next to him most of the time, and he was a big influence on me because he didn’t put up with any of my crap.  These women would come in, models galore, every morning at 9 o’clock, would queue up to get off to their gig.  And they’d be calling you on the phone at your apartment, 8 o’clock in the morning if you had a special customer who had to get to a certain show.  It was hectic.  And Ronald used to just whip through them, and a lot of them would try and give him a hard time, and he’d ignore them.  I mean the most beautiful women in the world were there at 8 o’clock waiting for you to do them up.  That was fun.  But after a while you discovered that they didn’t give a shit about you, and it became kind of a nasty business.

Can you remember that point when you made a conscious decision to become an artist?
Well, I was kind of an artist all along, painting on the weekends.  I started to paint the moment I got to New York.  So I got this job at Lilly Dache’s, the famous hat maker, and she had a big collection of art upstairs in her penthouse, and she knew I was interested and invited me upstairs to see her collection, and she had a few nice pieces.  She had a Rothko, Tomlin.  In terms of doing their hair, you were supposed to know about what’s happening in the theater, what’s a big hit, did you see so and so, and I got really drawn into it, in terms of wanting to contribute in some way.  I always wanted to make art—if it wasn’t with hair, it was with brushes.  So then I accumulated about $5,000 after two years, and I wanted to go to Spain, somewhere cheap, and paint.

And you went?
Yeah, spent a year in Spain.  Then I came back to New York, and then it was hard.  You suddenly realize you’re broke, you don’t have a studio, or a regular job that fetches you $300 or $400 a week, and it was scary.  And do I really want to do it?  And I really had to think, now art might turn out to be a risky biz, right?  And it did.

But then you quit . . . After Denver, you stopped and went to Libre.
You’re skipping way ahead.  That was years later.  The reason I quit Denver was I was running into the same thing.  Making art for rich people was gradually turning me off.  It was closing me down spiritually.  Being in that position is okay if you’re interested in bucks.  But at that point, it was Nixon happening, and a whole feeling of the country was getting sold out, everybody was getting a raw deal.  Kids with drugs . . . there were sides, the rich guys and the poor guys.  Kind of like now, only easier to see.  There was a sense that if America didn’t have a revolution in some sense, it would have no spirit left.  So we had to do something.   I just had finished with the Burns Park thing, and I was sick of parties, sick inside with myself that I had tried to do something for the artists, and all anybody wanted was the money.  That was the feeling.  Not that I had anything against it.  Then this idea of the community came up, and I said sure, that sounds like a good direction.  At that point I didn’t really know enough about the American mind, or way of life, to realize that, no matter what, Americans are basically ambitious.  They want to be the best at doing something.  And so off we went to share this beautiful community together, and it started off real jolly, sharing everything, and pretty soon I was rudely awakened to the fact that people were greedy.  They had needs, greeds, wants, and ambitions, and a commune wasn’t really the type of situation that American people could knuckle under to.  It wasn’t their personality.  They were too individualistic.  I could give you lots of examples, but it might get me into trouble.  (Laughter) One guy got a TV, another got a better truck, somebody grew better dope, individual ambitions broke up wanting to be brothers and sisters.  It was a good experience, but it wasn’t worth that much fuss about.  I got Americanized.  What’s inside has to come out.

That’s your ambition?
Yeah.  Talent must out.  You must start becoming a professional about it if that’s what you want to do.

Is that why you left Libre and came down here?
Yeah, five years ago.   Taos was like an artistic-spiritual awakening, a rebirth.  I came down here not expecting a whole lot, but the demands on myself were, I guess, great.  I wanted to find a place where I wouldn’t have the distractions.  I could experiment with what I wanted to do, and devote myself . . .

So Taos in that respect has been successful?
I would say so, more than New York in a way, because I have a comfortable, laid back attitude about my work, not too many people working in the same area so I don’t have those distractions.  It’s taken a while, but I have a really good relationship with my dealer.  That was hard before because I was always wanting to revolutionize the art situation.

Is there the feeling now that the emphasis is more on the professionalism than revolutionizing?
It’s much more concentrated.  Dealing with your own thoughts, not being influenced by other people’s thinking.

Trying to be a revolutionary, I would think, can be a restriction itself.
It waters down group consciousness . . . That’s why I was always getting in fights up there at the commune because I couldn’t go for the group consciousness.  I could go for sharing.  When you’ve got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose.  But the group consciousness thing was always a sham, someone was always trying to pull a power trip.  I find that being myself helps other people much more in society.

You used a nice phrase a while ago—what are your needs, greeds, wants  and ambitions?
Well, I would like. . . it comes down to money.  Each person or artist feels differently about money.   Right now I could say. . . I’ve never knocked money, you can’t.  Money’s money.  It’s energy, it buys you paint and canvas, a house, but once you’ve got those things out of the way, what have you got?  It doesn’t make a good painting or make you think any better.  On the other hand, look back and you’ve had all those bad years, ten or twenty bad years when you don’t sell a goddamn thing, and it starts clicking for you, and it evens out.  If you’re a professional, it’s not going to change your life.  Like Fritz Scholder says, be a warrior.  That’s what I want, what a lot of artists want, having a passion for creating something you haven’t seen before.  And it’s kind of nice that you can charge more for it (laughter) because you’ve reached the point where the product is worth the money.  What interests me is being the painter.  If you knuckle down and do what you want to do, it will show.

And the universe will take care of you.

(Long pause) How do you feel when people say, “Oh, that’s just like Rothko.  Those forms there, that’s Gorky.”  Does that bother you? 
No, because they’re people I love anyway.  We’re all eclectic, and the longer I paint, the more I realize that trying to say something new all the time is okay, but sooner or later it starts harping back to somebody else.  It’s like what you eat is what you are.  That’s a bullshit statement, but there’s a little bit of truth in it in terms of art.  You feel spiritually akin to another person.  When I go to sleep at night I think about a lot of people, local people too, not just the old masters, though you keep coming back to them and what space they created, how they dealt with different spaces.  The moment you put a piece of color on canvas you’re dealing with space.  Another color is another space.  I think about Monet a lot, the big water lilies.  He’s an Impressionist, and I’m considered an Expressionist, yet there is a tie.  I’m not comparing myself to him, but there is a thought tie about how I’d like my paintings to vibrate with the overlay of color.  And Jackson Pollock—the two of them were so intertwined.  Not many people might think so, but in his more dense work, you can see how he must have thought about Monet.  The first piece of art I ever looked at that turned me on that way was in Italy as a kid, 17 years old.  I was in Rome and went into a museum and saw a big Afro.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but I never forgot that.  You talk about conditioning and people not being able to see abstract art, I didn’t know anything about abstract art when I was a kid, and this painting will be in my mind for the rest of my life.  It made me want to paint.  I thought, if that’s painting, I want to paint.  That was in ’58.  Then I came to New York and was bombarded with the same thing. 

There’s been a lot written lately about Giorgio Morandi.  Do you like his work?  It’s representational, but. . .

Are you getting more deaf?

What can you do about it?
Nothing.  Paint.  (Laughter).

What is it?
A punctured ear drum.

 Can they repair that?

We were talking about  Morandi.  An Italian painter.  He painted bottles.
Oh, yeah.  Well, I don’t know.  It’s all right.  My preference would be Giacometti as far as bottles go.  He really socked it to the bottle.  That’s why he’s worth every penny you pay for a Giacometti.  It was like he was standing before the alter of God when he painted a bottle. 

Is that what you’re after?
I try.  It may take quite a few years, but it’s what I’m after.  I want that kind of space.

Is the subject of these paintings (indicating work hanging in the studio) you?
Yeah.  And my eclectic love of art and life.  And space.  When I started out, somebody said, “Oh, here’s another Turner.”  Of course I love Turner.  I’ve looked at everything Turner ever did.  He’s a monster painter that you have to consider.  When you look at somebody who’s very new, you can see all that in there, whether they’ve looked at it or not.  You know, you can read the painting.  That guy who wrote the book, The Savage Eye. . . the guy on TV . . .

The Shock of the New?  Robert Hughes?
That’s it.  It wasn’t really the shock of the new.  When you’ve looked at that much art, you can see where it’s coming from.  Most painters I know don’t do enough study.  You should go to New York once a year and see the painting in the real flesh.  Doing your own thing is what takes such a long time.  Maybe it’ll change next year, but I’m still trying to get after something that’s inside me.

Can you say how much of that painting (pointing at a work from Magar’s Magic Garden series) is you, and how much on influence?  It’s tricky ground, I know . . .
I have a great love for Gorky, but at the same time, there’s a whole wonderful kind of school that came out of Gorky.  John Altoon, a major painter.  I think more about John Altoon than I do about Gorky.  He’s more fresh to my eye.  The only regret I have Is not looking at Altoon’s work when I had the opportunity, when I met him and hung around with him for a week in California, that I didn’t make the effort to go over that.  There’s a comradery, almost, that you’re working on the same lines. . . The only chance for art now is that there be a continuation of that kind of school, from that kind of drawstring, concern for the forms and the spaces.  I don’t get that from any other kind of art anymore.  So much of it is a matter of paint quality.

Who else around here is doing it?
(Bill) Gersh comes out with a good one occasionally—the paint quality is just right, the concentration is high-level.  I think that’s what we need much more of, to be able to cut the umbilical cord, of going into the studio and putting paint on the canvas.  If you discipline yourself enough, or get bored enough, to do it without getting butterflies in your stomach . . . the older you get, the easier it is.

 It’s a very different problem from that of the old masters, whose problems were involved with craft, with transcending craft. . .
No, it’s just the same.  They had their problems, too.  Like Monet, he was going blind, and he would burn a great percentage of his work in frustration and anger, slash canvases.  I would say I burn about 50 percent of my work a year.

Does it hurt?
No, it’s just realizing that what you were after didn’t happen.  You can’t dwell on it.  I recently got a commission in Houston, and the lady was very nice, she didn’t have any particularly rigid demands.  There was one thing that bugged me—no blue, because she already had a big blue painting.  Automatically, when someone says, “could you please not scratch your left ear,” immediately you want to scratch your left ear.  I did a lot of sketches and sent them all down, took me two months, then she picked out one and sent them back, and when I got them I took a fresh look at them and realized they weren’t what I wanted to do at all.  So I burned them.  I started all over again, wrote here a letter saying I can’t do it, we can cancel the commission or I’ll do you some more that I’m happier with, and she was patient and waited.  I just don’t like things going out that aren’t saying what they’re supposed to say.

 Earlier you mentioned comradery.  Do you find much of it here?
Unh unh

Why do you stay?
(Long pause) There’s a nice part about being here, because you don’t have to face success every day, or think about that.  You can even be a failure if you want, you know.   But comradery—ya, there’s a little bit of it.  I like people in Santa Fe a whole lot, (Richard) Hogan, Sam Scott is a hell of a painter, Susan Linnell can turn it on.  You don’t have to know them, I don’t know them.  Allan Graham, he’s taken a new turn, and that’s the kind of thing we all rely on, somebody who’s got the balls to change their slicky stuff into something more gutsy.  His stuff was slightly explanatory to me, like looking at architectural drawings, nice but not cutting any new turf.  It’s a fine line.  To keep the art open, you’ve got to know about Impressionism, Expressionism, all those different kinds of brush strokes, gestures, otherwise you get stamped with a thing like—who’s this guy, the one who paints the squares . . .

Harold Joe Waldrum.
Don’t quote me.  Oh, go ahead.  I like the paintings, but I sure wouldn’t want to be in that bag.  I’m getting off the subject, as far as comradery.  They’re not open-ended.  They’re final.  It’s like life.  You can’t say, well, this the way it is for me, because the next day it’ll be different.  I’m not a religious person, but I also believe that there’s some kind of trip going on, there’s a God of some kind.  Whether that has something to do with the rest of the world, I don’t know, but with me, it has something to do with my painting.

Whenever I see you, you’re wearing a hat.
Paint gets all over my hair and I can’t get it out.  It sticks. 

Shampoo doesn’t get it out?
No, not the gesso, because it dries hard and I slop it all over the place.  It goes up in the air and falls down.  If I soaked it long enough it’d come out, but I can’t be bothered so I wear a hat.

 Is there more form in your paintings now?
You mean you see, like, clams in them?  (Laughter) No.  The Magic Garden has to do with flowers and stuff like that, buttercups (laughter), garden arrangements, water lilies, whatever you want to see in them.  It could be read as a painting, or any other way.

Who buys your work?
Joseph Megnin (laughter), IBM, all kinds of people.  Seriously.   Big collectors from California come through and for some reason they come into the gallery, and they say, “That’s a good one.”  I guess the biggest hit I got so far was getting a piece into Magnin’s collection.  The whole family came in, and Thom (dealer Thom Andriola) tried to sell them a little one, and he says to Thom, “I don’t want no tchotschkes, lemme see the big ones.”  So Thom pulled them out, and he said, “That’s the one I want.”  Fantastic.  People like that come through, and I’m sure it’s that way in Santa Fe, too.  Competitively, I think the thing between Taos and Santa Fe is about even-steven.  I don’t think I’d sell any better in Santa Fe than I do here.

(We talked at length about various galleries, artists, and styles of art, a rambling discourse on what Magar likes and dislikes.)

When this German neo-Expressionist thing is done with, had its phase, then it’s going to swing back.  It goes round in circles.  You can’t get away from it.  Each time a great artist appears, it adds another link to the circle, and it makes life that much more interesting. 

Do you think artists today have some responsibility to push ahead?
It’s like having roots.  If you don’t have roots, you don’t have responsibility.  If you love the masters, then you’ve got some roots, some responsibility to continue where they left off, keep the music going.  I was talking about discipline before, when you go to bed at night and get up in the morning, wanting to go after something, keep that excitement alive, because there’s nothing happening except you.  So you can either waste yourself out in a bar, or try and feed the excitement within yourself, and you can’t always do that by yourself.  You’ve got to do a little praying sometimes.

Does that take a toll?
What do you mean?

I sometimes get the feeling from artists that it takes a lot of drugs or alcohol or something to keep the fire burning, and that can be hard on your body.
I think the only time we fall back on that kind of thing is when the painting isn’t going right or the confidence slips out of your hand, our you have a bum day, those are the times one tries to get a bang out of alcohol or some other stuff.  When I sell a painting now, I always buy a bottle of champagne and celebrate in the gallery.  But that discipline thing is always the hardest part.  Like cramming in college, and thinking about problems at night before you go to sleep, and it works.  Larry Bell—he’s a tough artist, with so much discipline.  That’s what keeps you out of trouble, that focus.  If you slack off four or five days, it’s so much harder to get back.  Drugs are fine and all that, but it don’t get the painting done. 

Let’s talk a little more about magic.
I like that.  Things happen in the paintings and I call them magic.  It’s what I’m after in this Magic Garden series.  I don’t have a garden, I’m not interested in gardening, I like flowers sometimes, but there is a kind of metamorphic thing that goes in my mind about unseen gardens.  Getting back to the thing about microscopic art that you see sometimes in photography—there’s all kinds of worlds down there in that microcosmic thing, and that’s magic to me.  It’s like Einstein, why settle for the ordinary when you can have the extraordinary.

Did he say that?
No (laughter) you said that.  Einstein was the supreme magician.  I always loved magicians when I was a kid.

But we’re talking about reality, aren’t we, not a trick.  We’re talking about exposing the essence of reality.  That’s the magic.  I’m not trying to put words into your mouth, but that’s how I think about it.  Magic is very real.
Right.  There are phenomena in life that you can’t account for.  When I was a young artist, I was eager to get beyond the ordinary, into the extraordinary.  One time I was with this artist friend, and a basket of peyote showed up, and nobody knew how much to take, or anything about it, but there it was and a chance for both of us to go through this trip.  This was in ’63 or something.  We were both living down near the Wall Street area, and we gobbled them down and went for a hike around the tip of the island.  He, Frosty Meyers, and I were talking about Duchamp, and we realized the conversation had transformed and everything around us had transformed.  We got back up to the Chase Manhattan plaza, and we were talking about David Rockefeller and his big art collection, so he said, “I’m going to go see it.”  And I said, “We can’t get into his office, “but he wouldn’t settle for no.  Talk about magic, we walked right through the doors, get into the elevator, press the button for the top floor, the elevator goes up, stops, we get out, and there it is!  Nobody around, there’s a Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, and this view!  We stayed there a half hour, then we went up on the roof and spent the rest of the trip there.  He was  a go-to-the-limit guy, he wanted to walk on the ledge, which he did, and we later did that on several buildings uptown.  He did.  I watched.
July, 1982

Melissa Zink: Transportation to Splendid Places (1983)

Melissa Zink lives with her husband, Nelson, a cat, and a couple of dogs in a clean but slightly cluttered adobe on the banks of the Rio Grande. The setting is idyllic with huge cottonwoods sheltering the house, pristine gardens, grass sloping down to a sandy beach at the river's edge, and, at the south end of the beach, a tall willow thicket. Follow a rude path into the thicket, and at the center is a hideaway, a clearing filled with the sound of the river.
            Inside the house, long shelves are filled with books--history, mostly, and psychology, religion, and art. There are peyote fans and African figurines, an old clock, a lap-size electric piano, a few old prints and a microwave oven. In the back of the house is Melissa's studio, the place where she creates her stories in clay.
            The artist's works are ceramic manifestations of her encyclopedic passions--archaeology, anthropology, art, religion, dreams, animals, plants, books. They are the products of her prodigious imagination at play, at times very serious play, the kind of play that offers the possibility of transcendence.
            Zink's mind is populated with characters, and these characters and the relationships between them are the subject of her art. Some of the characters are historical; William Blake, Edith Sitwell and D. H. Lawrence have appeared in her work in the last few years. Before that most of the characters were `made up' (though no less `real' to her)--Water Dog, the Fox People, the Muffin Eaters, Hattie Maximillian and a host of others. Some characters are lifted directly from art masterpieces that she is particularly attached to--Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, for example, are the subject of one of her recent works, The Arnolfinis at Home, based on Jan van Eyck's 1434 The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Jeanne Cerami. "These people are part of my life," she said. "There's no time difference. They're part of my mind furniture."
            How do they come to life? One recent addition to the cast, the Horse Princess, "started because of those superb Japanese drawings of horses," Zink said. "They always looked like wonderful women to me. Some things seem terribly correct, like dressing a horse in a kimono. It gives me satisfaction." In a more autobiographical mode, there's Edith Sitwell in Refurbishing the Sitwell Wing. "I first saw one of those Cecil Beaton photos of her when I was in high school," she remembered. "I always thought I was very ugly, and so was she, and she overcame. Yet the more you look at her, what a fascinating face and body, like a piece of sculpture. And she was a promoter of herself. She was a great person, not a great writer. Like Warhol, the person becomes the art." There is reverence and even love in the gentle, sensuous rendering of Sitwell. And hidden behind a small gold relief of her profile, is a quote from a Sitwell verse: "The past and present are one."
            Zink's work has become increasingly open and bright. Her art from the late '70s and early '80s was contained, literally, by walls or in boxes. It was essentially monochromatic, and the scenes were set in places that felt old and faraway. Now the work is characterized by open space, and it's set in a time that seems closer to our own. The Zink signature, once small and hidden, is now prominent and bold. She is showing us more of her aesthetic arsenal, allowing the work to become increasingly beautiful and complicated. "Most surreal art is not beautiful," she said. "What I want to do is make beautiful magic. The magic, I think, has always been there, but I'm just beginning to make it beautiful."
            One night we sat at her kitchen table and talked for hours. We began with the subject of money, and how art might be `tainted' by it.

The artist is somehow supposed to stand for something, because of our pure image of, I don't know, creativity, suffering, and all that nonsense. And that's why there's so much anger at selling out, or people being successful. People need some kind of image of purity, you know, and since we don't have religion any more, artists become convenient symbols. And it doesn't have anything to do with the art or the artist. It's a lack in other people's lives. But then when the artists succumb to the myth, thinking they're doing something holy, [laughter] I just want to punch them out! Where do they get off saying that a square of paper like this is holy!

But it's a tough line, isn't it, between doing something because you love it or you have to express it, and doing it for money or because someone else wants you to?
I don't feel any pressure to make things other than what I want to make. I do sometimes feel some pressure to make more, to not get too involved in one thing. But that's the only tension. I really like selling things. It's wonderful. But I don't understand how it works. It's like riding on a bird in an air current. I don't understand it any more than the bird understands the air current.

It seems that many people today are buying art as an investment, or they're buying the artist's name. Fame by association...
I don't think they're spending that much money for the thing. I think they're spending a lot of money for a lot of reasons--because they want to be identified as the kind of person who does that, because they want their friends to know they can do it, a lot of subliminal reasons.

Things that have to do with possession...
That's one of the fascinating things about Francis Bacon, who I'm very fond of. I don't think we could live with a Bacon painting. It would tear you up so badly. Or else it just becomes a patch on he wall. Either way, you've lost.

They belong in museums.
You go there and you get your Bacon hit and [laughter]...

Yeah. But for them to become a patch on the wall, that's terrible.

What are people buying when they buy a Zink?
I don't know. I get more communication from women than men.... Some kind of "I know what you're talking about." I essentially think most art these days is boring, and you can level other criticisms at my work, but it's not boring.

Did you ever make paintings that were boring? That you thought were boring? [Zink was a painter until turning to clay in the mid-'70s.]
Yeah. I thought for a long time that there were certain rules about paintings. And while I was doing them I was working very hard to make them important. When we moved from Arroyo Hondo [to Embudo, 25 miles south of Taos, in 1982] we took them all to the dump.

When did you begin to think they were boring?
After I started making things that weren't boring. I really think that if what you've made is good, people will see it and they'll buy it. That's a very unfashionable way to think. There are a lot of people who are educated, interested in art, and they buy. And if you don't sell, I think you have to look at what you're doing and say, "ah huh." I look at people wanting to be pure, and I think that's a mistake, wanting to make these things only because it's their true nature, and to hell with whoever looks at it.

To hell with whether it communicates or not.
Right. I guess I still feel if I have a show and nothing sells in it, it's my failure, it's not the people who came to see its failure. Of course, when things get more expensive, they get harder to sell.

How much have your working methods changed over the past few years?
I stopped feeling I have to compete with craftspeople. At first I felt I didn't know anything about clay, and I did a lot of research. And all the color was fired color, which has severe limitations, limited palette. I've started painting things, and that is the major change. And I build more complex things.

Has there been any change in the way the pieces are conceived?
Before, there were so many ideas, I did the pieces as quickly as possible. Now, I'm more interested in picking one thing and developing it, exploring all the parts of one scene.

When we talked a few years ago, you said that the first thing that happened in the conception of a piece was you saw the whole scene, and then you got a title for the scene, which served as a reference...
Sometimes it works the other way, I have the title and then see the scene. Sometimes the title doesn't come until it's finished, but I have a kind of personalized title. When I was working on it, this big piece was the Mystic Garden. It was the language, what that meant. It ended up, Predictably, Water Dog Arrived Late For The Scribing Of The Mystic Garden. I'm making two clay books. I think what I really want to do is make books. [Laughter] Why I don't give up and just make books, I don't know.
"When she had finished cleaning the tower, Water Dog would spend a few moments in the hall dedicated to the Flowering Spirit" (detail), ceramic, 1983
Why don't you?
I don't know. I think I get really scared because books are so weighted.
Do you remember the first book you ever read?
Oh sure! [Laughter while she tries to remember what it was] It was about dogs dressed up in clothes. It had captions that told you about the dogs. I remember I knew some of the words, and I underlined them with a purple crayon. I came home from school one day, and I could read the whole book. I used to love those dogs. It's probably where Water Dog came from. I'm making a painting about that. There's a character clutching a banner, the new religion having one--I realized that's myself with a dog face, my favorite shirt, the thing around her head, this big dog nose. I finally said to Nelson, "My God, that's me." He said, "Yes," as if I were slow to catch on. Anyway, the book was pretty. The hats were pretty. It was an elegant, refined conception, French 18th century-looking. And I can't stand it when there's nothing that sort of jars you, just a little. So that's why there had to that funny looking...and that's probably how I feel about myself.

You can't stand it when there's nothing that jars a little?
Right. Like a lizard, or darkness, or a strangeness, something unexplained.

How did that piece evolve [Mystic Garden]? Was Water Dog an afterthought?
Yeah. I'd been wrestling with the idea of a mystic garden for ages. It's from my religious period [laughter] last winter, during which I thought I would turn into a mystic. And--poor Nelson--I got obsessed with words and repeats.... I got really frustrated, I didn't have any visions! A mystic has to have visions, and they have to be real! I mean it has to be the Lady of Guadalupe, sitting out there on the front lawn. For some reason I was absolutely convinced that you couldn't make that up. I could make up anything else I wanted to make up, but I couldn't make it up about religion. That had to be real. And boy has that been wonderful, realizing that's my territory as much as any other territory.

Making up religion--a little of this, a little of that...
Right. One of my true frustrations has been that there's a lot of religious imagery that I truly love-- western Europe, Oriental, everything. It's one of my passions, but somehow I could only touch it very indirectly, hint at it as ritual. But to come right out, somehow, and make my own, I couldn't let myself do that. And now I'm having just a wonderful time.

Thinking you had to have a full-blown vision before you could even begin must have been awful.
You can't lie to yourself, so if you haven't had one.... I'm thinking what I do have is the ability to pretend I have had one, which is more than what most people have. Why throw it out?

Maybe your work serves as visions for other people.
Maybe. [Pause] Why doesn't anyone talk about anything aesthetic? That's when I begin to feel I don't make art at all, I make something else. There's never any discussion of color, arrangement...

Yes, but so often writers get into those subjects when they don't have anything else to say.
That's why I think, in a way, it's easier for people to write about me because writers are good at describing. But I spend a lot of time getting surfaces that I think are just right, and then people think that they just grew there.

When they look right, people don't notice them. What are some of the components of your religion?
I lie on the beach and try and structure it, and I realize it's an error to try and structure it. It has to do with...growth is enough, spiritual growth. I still seem to be stuck with that phrase. But also at the same time, with some kind of very firm feet on the ground. Belief systems that are not firmly rooted in reality are doomed to failure. I think a lot about all the pictures of Christ and how angry they make me. Why didn't we chose an image that was live? Why in God's name did we chose an image that was dead and suffering? So the idea of seeds gave me courage, the magic of seeds in themselves. And nobody can really understand the seed, the excitement of it. If I had to write it down as liturgy or something, it would be about joy, mystery. I've made a design for a banner--I mentioned it earlier--and the seeds on it are like eyes, and written around the border is "The Awakening of the 22 Original Seeds." Don't ask me what they were or why, it just happened. But it was something I really liked, and thinking about this person holding this tattered flag.... But we're not going to go to war with this thing, not going to defend it. In some sense, it just has to be right. It's so correct there's no arguing with it! [Laughter] How can anyone argue with growth?

Were you into dolls as a girl, dressing them up, creating fantasy lives for them?
No, I didn't do that. The important thing for me was the making of the stuff. I used to make the rooms, and the furniture, and paper dolls or stick dolls, and the clothes for them. They never had names or stories in that sense. It's frustrating to try and explain... There are stories without words, and that doesn't sound like it's possible but it is. There are stories in images, and at some point you can make the leap and put them into words. But they don't develop as word stories. That's what makes writing so hard for me, because all this stuff exits on the non-verbal side. I just went through this whole thing with the Mystic Garden, and it got to the point where--I'd written stories about it, and it was getting more and more convoluted. Finally, Nelson said he thought it was becoming so introverted, so personal that I would have to write a very lengthy explanation and that would somehow destroy the magic. I would lie in bed and think about this, wonder what the logic was, and how do you superimpose something logical on something that essentially is illogical. It's like making something and then having to build a frame  of reference for it, why does this thing exist? When you made it originally, you knew why it existed, but then having to explain it... I suddenly decided if you can't see it, it's not working. Essentially, I want to be a great thinker. [Laughter] Why can't I be happy just making stuff?!

The dolls you made as a child, were there visual stories that went along with them?

Do you remember them?
Yeah, only of course I can't tell them! [Laughter] The best I can do...I once made a sofa out of cardboard, and part of the reason I remember it is I lost it. I spent one whole day looking for that sofa. It was a time...[pause, low groan] that the existence of that sofa, looking at it made all the rest of the things that I couldn't make--the house, the people. Does that help any? That by making an object and looking at it, was like reading a sentence in a book. That's why I get frustrated, because I see all that and nobody else does. God, I've made this incredible thing, this sofa, and you see it, and it's only cardboard. But I don't have wonderful stories, strange Chinese princesses or something. I don't have anything like that.

Did the doll's have personalities, particular presences?
I think I should be in hypnosis. I don't remember that. I remember being given a doll that was my mother's, named Daisy, and my mother had a whole story about who Daisy was, and I never felt it applied, I never felt about her the way I should, and it was like being told you should love somebody, and I didn't. The doll's persona wasn't very interesting to me. It has something to do with the physical reality of the thing.... I'm sorry. I think we ought to talk about something else.

What was your house like as a girl? Your real house?
It was a conventional, middle class house, early American things. Everyone had a room with a door that shut. Incredibly private, no emotion, no anger, on the surface very clean, and I think a lot of tension underneath. Very reserved and proper. And then my mother got sick, and that made it different. I didn't play with any kids, didn't know any, until I went to kindergarten, and then I was terrified of kids. I still am. When I see a group of them, it's hard for me to keep from becoming five or six again. It was agony. The only good thing I remember about kindergarten was the paste. I loved to eat the paste.

Did you take to reading quickly?
Oh yeah, but they had read to me always, before I could comprehend anything. The really nasty thing about it was we'd get a regular story when we were good, and we'd get a Bible story when we were bad.

Straight out of the Bible?
No, those awful Egermeier stories. Those disgusting pictures! God, they were ugly. I think those pictures were called chromos, those awful blues, reds--Oh, we've touched a sore nerve! [Laughter] I think, Jesus, how incredibly stupid. If you want a kid to believe something, why don't you make it desirable? Instead of like oatmeal or something? I think people have never understood how to impregnate ideas into small minds. Somehow it became a rebellion. They couldn't make me go to Sunday school, so I had to stay in my room and learn Bible verses. And I would scream and cry, but after you've been in there two or three hours, what are you going to do but learn it. But I saw at the time that I would never never remember them. I made a vow. My mother said, "These will return to you in time of need." I said, "No they won't."

How old were you then?
Nine or ten.

An early rebellious streak?
Yeah. My dog died, and they told me it wouldn't go to heaven. What stupidity. What would it have cost them to tell me, "Of course your dog will go to heaven." But oh no, dog's don't have souls, and from that point on it was all down hill. I mean if my dog's not going, my God, neither am I. There's been bitterness, but it's a lot better now. I think bitter because it ruined for so long a whole area of feeling that you have to shut off because it's associated with all that garbage.

Some years ago you talked about the people in your work, characters called the Muffins, as having pretty definite personalities, family histories...
I think that was misleading. [Pause] When you say Muffin, you can see an English landscape, you can see a building, you can walk into there, you can see them as they move around...

You can smell the place.
Right. You know what kind of weather it is, all of that. In a sense, you can hear them, so that you know whether their conversations are cheerful or cranky, or something like that. But they exist in a microsecond, in that image. And if you continue to think about them, you'll get another image. You might see someone paring his fingernail, maybe, and there will be a feeling about that. But it's not like a personality. It's not like a story in that sense. It's like a magic lantern show.

What's so significance about that microsecond?
Because it's there. You don't exist. You're transported, you have the opportunity to transcend, I guess, and instead of going off into the void, you go into some splendid place you've made up.
Goya's Dream, ceramic, 1984

Have you got a working definition of art?
No. [Pause] Well, currently, I think there are three kinds of art. There's wall art, which is concerned with surface impact, what you see. Maybe it's red marks. Then there's window art, like Impressionism--you're looking at something, but you're not in it. Finally there's door art. You're transported. You're in another place, and that's the most.... You're in the artist's world. When you to into Blake's world, it's different from any other world you can experience. Bosch is like that, Breughel, Goya, Max Ernst.... That's what I care about. That's the experience I want, the magic. That's what I want to make.
November 1983