Saturday, March 31, 2012
Crrraaack! Portentious thunderclap as I open the car door in front of Bill Bomar’s sprawling, old adobe Talpa home. Yapping of dogs at his front door. No answer. Around to the side of the artist’s high-ceilinged studio. “Come in,” calls a voice. Enter. Silver hair and beard, the artist in a blue jump suit wheels up in a motorized wheelchair. Smiles. Classical music loud. One wall full of books, the rest covered with work from all periods of a long and wide-ranging artistic career. Where to begin? He’s returned only the day before from a trip to New York
How was it?
“I saw Baryshnikov twice. Marvelous. An extraordinary young man, but he doesn’t have the animal magnetism that Nureyev had.” You’re a ballet aficionado? “When I lived there I would go three or four times a week to see Nureyev and Fontaine. They’d just arrived. They could make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and wiggle.” Smile.
Born in Ft. worth, 12/30/19) with cerebral palsy, and then stricken with a near fatal case of spinal meningitis in ’45, confined, more or less permanently, to a wheelchair since the late ‘70s, Bomar’s eyes are bright with memory, recent and old, of Russian ballet stars. Does physical infirmity create a soul well-attuned to Beauty? A deficiency balanced by intense perception, sensitivity and appreciation?
He lived at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, for two months short of 30 years. The infamous Chelsea? “There was a time when you could get out of the elevator on the fifth or sixth floor and take a deep breath and never have to smoke your own grass.” Laugh. “John Sloan, one of my first teachers, lived at the Chelsea, and I studied with him (early ‘40s). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a room, then Sloan told me that they were throwing out some poor son of a bitch because he was overdue on a couple of months rent. So I moved into his place. I’m glad I never met the fellow. I spent a week at the Chelsea two years ago. It was terrible. I then realized it had to exis6t in my mind as a memory.”
The long years in New York were made bearable, enjoyable, by his yearly three or four month vacations to Maine, Cape Cod, northern New Mexico. But what about the beginning? Early influences?
“When I was seven my mother had my portrait painted. I was fascinated. So . . . being spoiled, I started with oils. I wouldn’t draw or touch watercolors. Just oils until I was 16.” He finally touched watercolors under the tutelage of Joe Bakos in Santa Fe where his family often vacationed. He attended the Cranbrook Art Academy in Michigan from 1940-41, then New York and Sloan. “For the first six or eight months, working with Sloan was a painful experience. He said to me one time that until you can draw a line that is a thought, and not an imitation, you can’t begin to solve a problem. You have to connect what you see with your head and then to you hand. The connection of vision, head, and hand. Sloan made me aware of that process.” Studies with Sloan were followed by a year of criticism from Ozenfant and further studies with master abstractionist Hans Hoffman. The work from the ‘40s and ‘50s, as that of any young artist searching for himself, is sometimes experimental, derivative, immensely diverse, but always passionate and whole. There is in them a kind of personal history of art. Cubism, Constructivism, Impressionism, all laced with an almost mystical, visionary power. An oil painting of his mother entitled Modigliani-esque Portrait of Jewel, vibrant watercolor landscapes and still lifes date from this period. His first show, presented at the Weyhe Gallery where he exhibits still, was in 1944. He participated in two Whitney Biennials.
Why so many startling leaps in style?
Laugh. “I don’t know. It just suits my temperament. Maybe I have a multiple personality. I work on a thing for w while, and then move on to something else. It’s a response to a feeling not to remain in one area too long.” Pause. “I have no great theory. If a painter sounds too good on paper you should start to wonder. Barnett Newmann was a fascinating talker. His paintings . . . If what you have to say is not from visual experience it should be written. People who talk too much about art are usually disappointed artists.”
For three years now he’s had an intense and exhaustive concern with collage, the results of which will be shown at Tally Richards Gallery, Taos, beginning June 4. No longer under the influence of the Cubists/Dadaists, Braque, Picasso, Schwitters, but something different – an organic harmony and synthesis, an unerring sense of completion in random design. “I found an old box in my studio one day. It was full of all these trimmings, remnants of past works on paper that I had done. So, I found this box and started gluing.” Smile. “I’ve been doing it now for three years because there is a playful enjoyment in collage that I find in watercolors. The nice thing about collage is that if it doesn’t come out in a day or two, you can always start over again. It’s like solving an equation. I ran out of ready-made remnants about a year ago, so I’ve been making new ones since then.
“You know, it’s the doing of the thing that’s important. It must be something you do because it either relaxes you or enlarges your sense of the world. It’s splendid if other people like it, but it’s . . . A show, too, is nice. But you’re surrounded by all of your mistakes, and nobody knows it better than you do. It’s a bloody bore, and everybody lies to you.” Laugh. “All that socializing, all that talk, it doesn’t have anything to do with it. Great groups of people have never been my interest. So I’ve never found it a great difficulty being along.”
What about Taos?
“It feeds me through my feet.” Silence. “It’s not a ‘joining’ community. It’s not a people-oriented place. Taos is just not arranged that way. It’s a place for doers, not for social butterflies. It’s a place for loners.”
He just returned from New York, New York. He’s steeped in the classic tradition of art and art history, in training and perceptions. What of the new trends?
“I had the most repugnant visual experience at the Whitney! It was insulting. Even Johns was sloppy. Look, once it’s bad, if it’s bigger it’s worse! They’ve rediscovered German Expressionism. The think if you slap on some red, some green, and some purple, it’s saying something. It makes you ill. So negative. Not even that positive-negative thing, you know. If it’s a reflection of the world, if the world is in that state, then we’re further gone that we think. Advertising has become . . . . American culture is ruled by it. Advertising and art have been moving closer and closer together in the last 10, 20 years. You have to have an act to go along with the work . . . Art becomes fashion. Like Castelli – he’s doing the same thing that Duveen did with the Morgans and the Mellons. It’s all social one-upsmanship and competitive. A form of intellectual flattery. I think what they’re going to say in future years is, ‘There was a culture that was told what to think, what to buy.’ The influence of advertising on the creative field has become a major motivational problem.”
“I think I’ll start painting soon, to see what effect all this gluing has had.”
-- Thom Collins, June, 1983
Your paintings appear more real than reality, and I can never quite isolate the particular visual ingredient that makes them look that way. Is it the lighting?
No, it’s not the light. It’s a feeling I have for the subject matter. That’s what I want to paint. The reason I left Los Angeles was that the culture was so alien; it had no ethnic quality that I could relate to. The first time I painted a Southwestern still life something clicked, and I knew I found what I wanted to paint.
But your painting actually shows more than what I’d see if I was looking at the objects themselves. Each little bump in the warp and woof of a woven cloth is individually high-lighted and shadowed.The longer you look at something, the more you see. I see all this in the time it takes to paint it.
Where do you get the patience?I don’t always have the patience. It isn’t a matter of patience. More than that, it’s the desire to paint like this.
Even though you’ve already done so many already?Oh yes. Until I reach that point of the absolute painting, I’ll keep trying.
What’s an absolute painting? Is it like the Great American Novel?Probably. It’s something all artists are trying to do. It’s alive. It goes beyond the surface.
But they already look alive…They are, but they don’t fall off the canvas. I’m not there yet – but I’m on the way. I have to cross that edge.
I imagined your studio would be covered in Indian pottery and bric-a-brac, with photographs stuck all over the wall, but it’s very austere.I don’t care to own a lot of things. I usually borrow the objects that I paint.
Your mother is an Indian, isn’t she?A half-breed. She grew up in Alaska, where I was born. We lived in McGrath, a little town in the middle of nowhere; 125 people and a river. My father went up there when he was 21, for adventure and wild times. He met my mother, had three kids, and when he got tired of the town and the drinking and the outhouses we all moved to San Francisco. It was very different. I was five and I remember it all. I wasn’t used to all the cars, and when I saw a television for the first time I wondered how they got all those little people in there. I liked California. . . but here I am back in the middle of nowhere.
Did you ever actually live in Taos, within the town limits?
Why did you come to this area?I wanted to get away from Los Angeles. A friend told me I should see Santa Fe, and so I came out here for a visit. I had heard about Taos, and I was trying to find out all I could about Southwestern art, so I came up here, found a place to live and stayed.
Why?I knew this was the place where it was all going to happen. The first year I was here I just came down. I settled in, chopped wood, read books, ran and painted; simple things. I could feel my nervous system slowing down. I was getting to know myself. I knew this was what I had to do, and when I went back to California to visit I couldn’t stand it.
And in February you’re scheduled to be on the cover of Southwest Art. I guess now you’re ready for publicity?Yes.
What do you expect will happen in the next year?My work will get better, and it will sell as well as it does now. The prices will double in a couple of years.
What do your paintings sell for now?Average? $3,500. I sold one recently at a closed bid auction for $6,700. My record is $11,500.
Why don’t you increase your prices?I do, but apparently not enough! They’re selling as fast as I can paint them.
That must make you feel secure.Well. . . I don’t base security on finances. I think I’d be secure if they didn’t sell. It makes a difference, but. . . there’s always going to be problems. The more pure I am – maybe that’s not the right word – the more together I am, the easier problems are to solve. Problems overtake you when you’re weak.
I’d like to ask you something that may be difficult or too personal. I’ve heard you’ve overtaken gravity. Can you really levitate?It’s more like hopping. And at this stage in world consciousness, many people have learned it.
You really, physically, levitate? Does it involve drugs?
What is your technique?
And once you’re settled, what happens?
Do you settle into a meditative state when you’re painting?
It seems that no matter how you feel, the painting comes out very evenly.It does. The only time I think I would suffer would be if I hurried. I can’t hurry.
You describe everything meticulously in a painting, yet it seems as if there are also hidden – or invisible – presences.That’s the absolute, the silence that permeates all things, the soul of all things. I feel something when I look at objects. They’re all old, and they all have a story. If they could talk, they could tell so much! But I’m the one who’s painting. I’m the creator. I’m painting myself, and what I feel about the objects is what emerges. If I felt superficial about the objects I paint, the painting would be superficial.
Are you ever tempted to paint other objects?Not a horse running down a hill, nothing like that. Landscape painting, maybe. The life and dimension I put in a still life, I’d like to put in a landscape.
Do you think you’ll get bored with realism?No, I don’t think so. I haven’t reached the whole. . . wholeness of realism. I’m just under the surface of realism. There is always evolution, a growth toward more, and there’s no end to it.
I’d like to see an Acheff landscape.Someday you will.
-- Lois Gilbert, January 1981
Bea Mandelman first came to Taos in the mid-1940s with her late husband, Louis Ribak. Together they were the pioneer contemporary painters in Taos, a town previously known primarily for its school of Western realism. She was one of the founders of the Stables Gallery, where she still shows. She is also represented by Lutz-Bergerson Gallery which has just opened a one-person show of her work, “Celebration Series.” We sat and talked in her bright studio, a few steps from the house perched on a hill a few blocks west of Taos Plaza.
The first thing I want to say, I’ve put in 40 years of hard work.
Tell me about them. When did you start?I don’t want to talk about that. People will figure out how old I am. I want to talk about now.
Who cares?About now?
No, about how old you are.Okay. I started painting when I was a child. I hate to get into the past. Just say that my training was between the Bauhaus and the Ecole de Paris. I’ve been here 36 years, and when Louis and I first came, there wasn’t one gallery in Taos.
You and Louis started the Ruins Gallery, didn’t you?It was a very romantic notion. It was in the early 50s. I don’t remember just when, but it was a very important time in Taos. There was a lot of experimental work going on. Agnes Martin was living here and showing in the gallery, and so were Clay Spohn, Ed Corbett, Tom Benrimo, Mike Klein. Wolcott Ely was with the gallery, doing very good work. Some of them came from San Francisco, some like Louis and I came from New York. Oh, and Louise Ganthiers was with us, too.
Why The Ruins?I was nothing but an adobe ruin in Ranchos. I think we paid $10 a month. We just painted the walls and hung the paintings. No water, no electricity
What about security?Who worried about that? It was the most avant-garde gallery in New Mexico. We had parties, openings. Poets came. I don’t know if anybody sold anything, but there was a nice feeling about it.
What kind of work were you doing when you first came here?I started at the beginning, with the Renaissance. Louis and I both did. I’ve been trying to get simpler and simpler ever since. Abstract art is the end, not the beginning. But when we first came, we both got involved with the Indians. We went to their dances, we were fascinated with their psyche, and intrigued with the elemental essence of the land. I began by painting the landscape. I spent five years getting acquainted with it. Then I started painting my own direction: I painted the feelings I had of New Mexico. I’ve become a New Mexico painter after 36 years! My work has the sophistication of the European tradition, but it also reflects the spirit of the land, the ancient feeling, and also the Indian and Spanish cultures. I think it’s all here.
Your last show was two years ago, at the Stables Gallery. I remember the paintings as very bright, musical paintings. The new work, this “Celebration Series,” is somewhat heavier, denser.These paintings are a celebration of life, and of Louis and his life and his work [Ribak died in 1979]. I think they’re very different paintings. I’m not painting happiness anymore. I don’t know, I let a lot of things go.
Is it tragedy that you’re painting?
Is there any conscious symbolism in your work?No, it’s totally non-objective. The time of the ego is over. I’m not saying I’m a good artist, but I am saying that I think I’m communicating something important to the world. Something that everybody knows, but few know that they know. It’s a basic thing we’ve got, but can’t put into words.
Do you know where the work comes from?No, I don’t know. I feel like I’m on call. When a painting is ready to come out, it comes out. While I’m waiting, I sometimes get depressed, spaced out. I can’t remember . . . Then all of a sudden I just have to do it. I wonder, “Who’s doing all this work?”
Where do you start?With empty space. Then I put down the first notes in the space, and make the melody, and then I weave in between.
But you’re not writing music. I mean, those aren’t notes . . . they’re shapes, and color.What’s the difference? Is there one? I’m painting symbols. I’ve created my own language. The work is full of meanings that have no words. It’s like music.
Can you be more specific about the language?I’m trying to get new meaning, new experience from the oldest, most primitive symbols – circles, squares, triangles. And the colors are elemental, basic. I’m using the most basic things, but using them in a sophisticated way. I don’t know what I’m doing. I just do it, and it comes out clear as a bell. It seems right, sure, good. Do you know anybody who’s paintings like this? In New York or anywhere else?
No.Nobody works like this. Georgia O’Keeffe sees symbols in the landscape and makes them her own. I don’t. She will use a mountain, a gorge, a flower. I will use a triangle, a circle, a line. Out of it I make music. And I do hear the music. Since I’m a painter, I communicate it with paint.
Can you think of any painters who have especially influenced your art?No, not really. Although, in looking back, I’ve recently been very startled by the similarity in attitude and thinking between my work and what the Russian avant-garde was doing around the time of the Revolution, the work being shown now at the Los Angeles County Museum. Malevich, especially, and some of the women painters. They were turning inward, while Picasso and the other moderns in Europe were turning outward.
Larry Bell once said that one of the reasons he’s an artist is because his studio is a refuge from the outside world, which is often a very unsatisfactory place. Does that strike a responsive chord with you?Larry’s right. The whole thing’s a mess, politics, economics . . . The quality of life is not good. We’re living in the middle of a big revolution. But, in the midst of it, or out of it, a new world is evolving, too. Man is going ahead. I’m celebrating that, too.
Looking back at the work you’ve done over the years, the style has changed drastically, and so has the color, and yet there’s some basic rhythm that looks common to it all, some basic ‘Bea-ness.’Yes, I think it’s true.
The work you did a few years ago, the “Balkan Series,” had a lot of swing – those quick, energetic, light arcs.And now there’s more Beethoven, more weight. I don’t feel fanciful.
You said earlier that abstraction was the end, the goal, that you were trying to get simpler and simpler in your work. Do you feel you’re getting closer to the essential Bea Mandelman?Yes, I think so. Though as I look now at this older work, I see that it was there then, very essential things, and I wonder just how far I’ve come. It’s a search for the essence. You spend your whole life eliminating. You have to in the world that’s so unsure. You have to eliminate the frills. It’s a paradox, though, that you have to work so hard to get the simplest expression.
Can you say what the essence is?I’m not a verbal person. This is very hard for me. I think you can see it in my work. Or hear it.
What do you want people to get from your work?I hope people that look at my work get a real experience. It requires new thinking, maybe. The observer has to bring as much to it as the painter, but the result is an experience. I got a real experience looking at the Hopi painting show that was at the Kress Gallery. There was real communication, not from the literal symbolism, but the poetry of the work, the basic things not said but implicit.
Funny question, but do you like your own painting?My own painting turns me on. I feel it in my heart, the same feeling I get when I hear good music. I feel warm, I get a lift. But it’s intellectual, too. I’m trying to work from chaos into order, stripping away, using the basics. That part is intellectual. We’re all different, but I think all real artists are working toward the same thing.
What kind?All kinds -- emotional, intellectual. Where you can just fly. There’s a certain detachment there that comes with freedom, that’s harder for a woman to attain than a man, I think.
Are you saying it’s harder for a woman to make it as an artist?Of course it is. But that’s really not the point. The point is, I did. I am.
Rumor has it you read palms. Would you read mine?Sure.
Stephen Parks, September, 1980
Thursday, March 22, 2012
|Bruce Nauman, One Hundred Live and Die, 1884|
Controversy is nothing new to Bruce Nauman. Regarded an enfant terrible of the avant-garde in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, his work has consistently confronted public standards of taste and art world notions of the proper parameters of aesthetics.
Nauman’s work is pushy and unpredictable. A decade ago he made a film called Bouncing Balls, and its subject was jiggling testicles. He set up a sound environment in which a taped voice heckled the listener, “Get out of this room. Get out of my mind.” One early neon work, done in pale purple tubing, was My Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically, and that’s exactly what it was. His first neon was a lovely spiral of words, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.
Some of his current sculpture has a sharp political edge. A large piece of a few years ago, constructed of I beams and a steel chair, Diamond Africa with Tuned Chair D, E, A, D served as a bell tolling the death of political prisoners.
In the last few months, some La Jolla, California residents have been up in arms over a proposed Nauman piece to be installed on the exterior of a U.S.C.D. building. “It’s neon graffiti,” said one angry university neighbor at a public meeting. “I’ll shoot it out with a slingshot,” said another. The fuss is over Nauman’s plan to wrap the building with a neon sign which, in four-foot letters, spells out the Seven Virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, hope, faith, clarity, justice), overlapped by the Seven Vices (pride, avarice, gluttony, envy, sloth, anger, and lust). Words would randomly fade in and out, and, undoubtedly, at times present such mildly provocative juxtapositions as hope and lust.
One might well get the impression that Nauman is an outlaw artist. Much of the work is antagonistic, serving as a burr under society’s saddle. Yet, I suspect, the principle antagonist in Nauman’s art confrontations is himself. Through the work he is making public the questions, the conundrums that he himself struggles with. But the art is not narcissistic. The enigmas with which he is fascinated have a significance that ripples through the culture. What is art? What is the artist’s responsibility? What is anyone’s responsibility? What is responsibility? Where is meaning?
Nauman makes public his private questions, and he lives a very private life in the hills outside of Pecos, a tiny town about 20 miles east of Santa Fe. A big name in New York and Europe, represented by Leo Castelli, his work in many museums and blue-chip private collections, he is virtually unknown in New Mexico. Many who know his work are surprised to learn he lives here.
He is shy and friendly, articulate and enigmatic. When we called him to ask for the interview, he said, “You can come over and try.” We found virtually no signs in his house that would indicate it was occupied by an artist, not to mention one of his stature.
Another enigma: he makes pocket knives. Some of them will be included in a group show of knife-makers at Elaine Horwitch in Santa Fe, December 14 to January 3.
You’re going to have a show of your pocket knives. How long have you been making them?
About ten years. A friend of mine, George Stumpff, a jeweler, has been making knives in my shop for about three years, and we’re having the show together. Maybe some other people, too.
Have you ever shown them before?
I know several artists in the state who have your knives, and they’re very proud of them . . . but I wasn’t aware how serious you were about them.
I always figured that all the fine work I don’t do in the art goes into the knives. I find that if I start making knives for a while because I can’t do the art, I get very frustrated because there’s a lot that goes into the art that just doesn’t go into the knives. The art part. Usually I don’t figure it out for a while, but finally I know I have to go back into the studio. It’s curious, the difference between really fine craft and art. It’s real hard to define the feeling I have about the separation. I can’t make one into the other.
Could we see one? (Nauman reaches in his pocket and hands over his pocket knife – gleaming metal, bone handle, four blades, his name inscribed on the largest blade.) You’re kidding! It looks like a store knife.
Ya, that’s the first step. You have to make them look as good as the ones you buy in the store, then you can make them different or better.
How much of them do you actually fabricate yourself?
All of it. The only thing I don’t do is the heat treating of the metal. With this particular steel it’s too complicated for me.
A knife seems to be such a utilitarian object. Are you conscious of a balance between that and your art which is so heady, intellectual?
I’m not particularly interested in the old argument about the line between art and craft. I couldn’t decide for anybody else.
But for you there’s a difference.
Yes. In my own work, there are those two different kinds of things. I see a knife as a tool. It should be well-made, and I make it as well as I can. A good knife is more pleasurable to use. But it doesn’t fulfill whatever intellectual and emotional demands art makes.
What are some of those emotional and intellectual demands?
(Long, thoughtful pause, about 30 seconds) I don’t know. I think that’s part of what keeps art interesting to me, going inside the studio and trying to figure it out, just what it is that keeps me going into the studio and trying to figure it out, just what it is that keeps me going back to the studio. In some broad way, I’ve always thought of my work and art in general as trying to solve that question of how does a person function in the world, however narrowly or broadly you want to define that. And then how, specifically, do I function, and what is an artist’s role? It’s examining that all the time. What does it all mean? What do I want being an artist to mean? How do I think I can fit in the culture?
Does being an artist involve a pursuit of meaning?
Yes. It has to come out in the individual works, of course, and those particular questions aren’t necessarily available in the finished work. There has to be a more specific motivation to get one job done, one thing made. But that broader question is what gets me back in the studio over and over.
Looking at the question so broadly, do you think there’s less meaning in 1984 than there was, say, 50 or 75 years ago?
Less meaning in . . . ?
Life in general.
I don’t think so. Why would there be? (laughter)
Well, it used to be that a lot of meaning was contained in old world structures. The church, the family, the neighborhood, the nation – they’ve all weakened , and more and more people have been thrown back on the individual as the source of meaning. That seems relatively new in the history of man.
I think that’s probably what’s called the political situation. It’s so conservative. People are worn out from it, they don’t really want to have to figure it out for themselves. And I think the other thing that’s perhaps a mistake to assume that things were more clear in the past, better, more defined, easier, secure, more straightforward. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
Maybe the nature of the problem has changed.
Yes. When I look at most of the art that I see, it’s very conservative. The kinds of problems that people are taking on are very much within the structure of what art has already been defined as for a long time, hundreds of years. I think there is that nostalgia for, or wanting to say that art in the past fulfilled a very clear function in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and that function is not here or it’s not clear to me or anybody I talk to. It looks like it was easy for Michelangelo, but it probably wasn’t clear to him what art ought to be. Maybe it was to him because he was such a powerful person, but I don’t think good art gets made without a lot of questions, backing up, and starting over.
It seems in much of your work you’re more concerned with the questions than the form.
Well . . . I don’t think so. You don’t get something without it being made out of something. There are always formal problems in presenting a question. It has to be presented in a way that it can be understood. Formal problems and questions of structure have always interested me quite a bit, too – manipulating materials and manipulating ideas, as a poet or however anybody presents ideas.
Is there a public or social intention behind your work?
Yeah. I mean the work certainly . . . I don’t think I’m clear about who the audience is exactly. I think when I work, I work for myself. If someone came into the studio and saw what I was working on, I’d think of one other person seeing the work. But the questions themselves because they have importance to me, I have to assume that they will be of interest to people in general, at least some size of audience would have interest in them. Some of the work is obtuse enough that it limits the audience quite a bit. It’s never been important to me to have a huge audience, so I don’t worry about it too much.
I followed your work in L.A. in the ‘60s and you and Larry Bell were the last people I expected to find in Northern New Mexico. Do you still identify with the art centers of the two coasts?
When I lived in Los Angeles I showed there, but most of the work either went to Europe or the East Coast. Where I made it didn’t seem to matter too much. It’s still that way. When we were there, Larry was a very social person, and one reason he left was to get away from all that. I never was. All my life as an artist had been in big urban areas, and you begin to assume that art is an urban activity. Or I did. Friends said I’d never do any work here . . . but part of that is their being angry that you’re leaving. Others would say, “You’re an artist, you’ll be an artist wherever you go, “and that was nice.” The work doesn’t seem to have changed in any way that has to do with being here specifically. It might have made a difference if I’d been younger. I seem to be doing as much work as I ever did.
Why did you leave?
(15 second pause) I don’t think I was getting much from the city anymore . . . Living in Pasadena, the air was bad, and it really does get to you after a while. You can ignore it for a long time (laugh), and if you don’t move, you can ignore it for a lot longer. The real problem was where to go. I didn’t want to go to another city where I’d get into the same kind of situation. We ended up here, partly because Harriet (Nauman’s wife) has friends and family in the area.
Has it been important to you that you pursue your career in your own way, on your own terms?
Probably. Being perverse . . . (laugh)
How does a piece evolve? Where does it start?
Well, some pieces come directly from other pieces. Those tend to be the easier ones. But I also mistrust that way of working, so even when that happens, I do everything I can to take it apart and make it as hard as possible. Even though, when it’s finished, it looks pretty much like it came from the other piece. One thing that’s always interesting, there’ll be pieces that I’ll do, and there will be some part if it that I wasn’t particularly paying attention, or that seemed a very small part, that turns out later to be the most important part of it. And maybe that will become the central part of a new piece. I’m always interested in that, how work has things you don’t know you’re putting in. You find them later.
Can you give a specific example of that?
(20 second pause) Nope. (laugh) Gosh, it happens a lot, and I can’t even think of one. Amazing. Maybe I’ll think of one as we go along.
Neon has worked for you for a long time, almost 20 years.
Yeah. (Eight second pause) It was a way . . . The first time I used it was that spiral neon piece, “The true artist helps himself by revealing mystic truths.” It was making a statement, saying it out loud to see if people believed it. At the time, not very long out of art school, it was partly tongue in cheek, and partly believing it . . .
You were testing it.
Yes. More specifically, the idea of using neon. The studio I had was an old grocery store and still had some of the neon beer signs hanging in the window. I often had the door open, all this plaster and junk everywhere, and people would come in and look for milk, they’d take a while to figure out it wasn’t a grocery store anymore. So, the idea was to present it, just as a window or wall sign, like advertising this idea, this thought, instead of advertising anything else. Almost all of my neon pieces have been signs. I think of them that way.
Flashy. My show in New York has a huge one with a hundred three-word phrases about live and die, all listed in four columns, 10 by 12 feet. They all flash on and off at different times.
It sounds like a concrete poem.
I’ve never known quite how to think about that. At one point I did a number of pieces that were environmental structures, some stone blocks that had writings to go with them. I have a kind of interest in language that would make me a poet, whatever that is. Most of my time my work isn’t organized in that way. But there is a part of my interest that does involve the use of words and their structure, and that’s the closest I can feel comfortable to concrete poetry, that period of time. I don’t even know if people still do it.
Do you make a conscious effort to keep virtuosity out of your work? I remember the Smoke Rings you showed a few years ago (at the Hill’s Gallery in Santa Fe), with their ragged edges, rough plaster . . .
(15 second pause) I think there’s a certain amount of virtuosity to letting the piece function formally and not have that stuff be in the way, and , on the other hand, to have that stuff there to give it scale and weight and density. If there’s too much of it then you can’t find the thing, and if there’s not enough of it the thing becomes a different kind of object. My idea has always been to have an object made just well enough. I don’t know, people do complain about it, so maybe there’s too much of it. (laugh)
Or not enough.
Yeah, something. But I don’t like the idea that the cleanness of the object gets in the way of seeing it. When my pieces are fabricated by someone else, they look like they were made in a neon shop or whatever, which is what they were.
And there’s no attempt to disguise that.
No. More of that facility may show in my drawing. They tend not to be very polished and clean drawings, because I have to do quite a bit of work to make them make the point I want to make, and then I like to stop. There seem to be two ways of finishing anything. One is it’s finished when the statement’s clear, and the other it’s finished when you’ve worked so long on it it’s ruined. (laugh) I don’t seem to have any midway on that. There’s almost the same kind of satisfaction. When I work on a drawing for a long time, and I get to the point where I realize all I can do is throw it away, but getting to that point (reflectively) – very curious – has the same kind of satisfaction as getting one that you still have. Thinking through something until there’s nothing left.
Do you have any problems with the gap between the analytical idealization of an idea and the concrete realization of that idea?
Yeah, often there’s the question of what something ought to be made of and how it should get put together, because that has to be done, even in a drawing. Should it be pencil, charcoal, pastel, paint? Sometimes I do it wrong, and I have to start over. But I don’t think there’s really a problem of having an idea about something . . . The strength of good works of art is that parts can be changed and the strength is still there. You could take Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which has always seemed to me one of the most powerful pieces of modern art that I’ve ever seen, and change lots of things and I wouldn’t notice they’d been changed. Somewhere between the way he made the painting and the ideas and the courage and whatever it took to do what he did with the structure, holds up beyond all kinds of . . .
And it doesn’t have to do with perfection.
Not in the sense of craft. It has to do with the art part of it. You work until you get the things that concern you absolutely right.
(We discussed the political and other extra-aesthetic difficulties Nauman was having with a work commissioned for installation at the University of California, San Diego – wrapping a theater company on the campus with neon lettering that spells out the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues. The sins are, apparently, attracting unfavorable attention.)
One problem is that the sins aren’t sins anymore. A reporter called here and asked about the piece, and he said, “Now, lust – a lot of people go to analysts for years trying to develop some of that. Why would you think that’s a sin?” (laugh)
There are problems, too, with the UNM project (entitled Abstract Stadium, it was selected by a National Endowment Art in Public Places panel). Do you take problems like these personally?
Well, you can’t. You can, and I do up to a point. We’re still struggling with the UNM project. They’re supposed to have a meeting to decide if we’re going to go on with a new project in a new location, not deal with the original one at all. They didn’t like the project. Part of it was I was only dealing with a couple of people who had initiated the project, gotten the funds, and then you have to go before this campus committee . . .
When I first got involved in this stuff I had to figure out how to draw up a contract, so I asked (Claes) Oldenburg how he did it. He’s been doing it for a long time, so he told me. But he had also said another thing you have to remember is when somebody asks you to do this, no matter what they say out loud, in the back of their mind there’s a ground plan and it’s got an X on it where the sculpture goes, and they’re thinking about a medium-sized Henry Moore. They may not even know that, but it’s back there. And when you don’t bring that in, it’s very confusing. By keeping that in mind you can save yourself. A little humor helps.
I was fascinated by your Trust Me Only/Big Studio 84 (a neon piece at the Madison Gallery, Albuquerque. See October ARTlines). In trying to decipher it, I wondered if its price wasn’t part of the work.
I don’t know. Was it?
Twenty-two characters in the piece, a $22,000 price tag . . .
I didn’t even know that! Are there? Boy. (laugh)
How did you get the price?
I called Castelli . . .
And they counted them! Like pricing a painting by the square inch. (laugh)
That’s basically it. “How big is it? Does it flash on and off?” There was another piece I’d done a year or so before, roughly the same dimensions, and the retail price on that was $25,000. I said I didn’t think this piece was quite as good as that one, so I just picked that figure (more laughter). You never know . . . Maybe it was back there somewhere, who knows.
What was that piece about, as far as you were concerned?
Actually, that was about as close as the knife and art business ever got. I decided I would try and do an edition of knives, there would be two blades, and I would have them etched at Gemini (in Los Angeles). They were interested, they would publicize and sell them. One blade was going to say “Big Studio 1984” and the other blade would say “Trust Me Only.” When you look at commercial knives – they don’t do it much anymore –they used to say things like “I am sharp” or “I cut for you,” all this weird stuff etched on the blade. “Trust Me Only” is in the line of those kinds of things – “Don’t tread on me,” a little bit threatening, are you supposed to trust the knife or the guy who owns it or what? Basically it was the kind of knife I would use in the studio, one blade a real good general cutting blade, the other one good for cutting paper. First I was just going to say “Studio Knife,” and then I thought this was 1984 and I’ll make it “Big Studio 84,” which was political enough, Orwellian. I made a drawing for the etching, Gemini did a photo copy and reduced it, sent me a copy, and it looked so good I thought I would make a sign out of it. (laughter)
Could we see your studio? Is it big?
It’s big, but there’s nothing in it. I sent everything off to Castelli’s.
Did you study philosophy in college?
No, mathematics and physics for a couple of years, and then I switched to art. I grew up in the Midwest, Indiana and Wisconsin, mostly small towns.
Do you think of the word pieces as knots, idea knots?
I was trying to make a piece once that had to do with knots, but I hadn’t thought of the words in that way. It seems applicable. I can’t describe how though.
As wonderful as language is, so often it’s so inadequate.
Except that’s where the mystery . . . I think that’s why I relate it to poetry, because there’s always the gap between what’s said and what it means, and the meaning is not in words or in the object, it’s somewhere between you and the structure. What you imagine and what you intend and what you make, and then what’s there . . . What’s really there is often so different from what I thought I was putting in. As long as there’s that surprise there of something you hadn’t realized in the work that’s interesting . . . that’s the part I like.
Do you think of that as being at all mystical?
No, I don’t think mystical is the word I’d use. It’s the part of you that operates without your control. It’s a way of getting at that part of yourself, me getting at that part of myself, learning to trust it.
Nicole Plett, Stephen Parks, Winter 1984/85