Saturday, July 30, 2011

Larry Bell: "My Work is for the Dreamers" (1984)

            Larry Bell's Taos studio looks like a very clean, orderly factory. It's dominated by a huge, 14-foot-deep vacuum chamber, in which vaporized minerals such as quartz and aluminum are deposited on his art surfaces--usually paper or glass. The micro-thin layers reflect and refract light, and create work of stunning, mysterious and ever-changing color. We've often thought of the artist as an alchemist.
            Things appeared to be coming apart at the seams when we arrived at Bell's Talpa home one Saturday morning for an interview. He and his three children (Zara 10, Rachel 5, and Oliver 2) had just returned from the supermarket with provisions--about eight bags full--to replenish the empty larder. Bell's wife, Janet Webb of Webb Design in Taos, had been working night and day for weeks to prepare a book on Larry's new game edition, Chairs in Space, in time for its premiere at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Bell himself had been scrambling to get the components for the 155 games together.
            The kids were hungry, Bell was harried, several strange dogs prowled about the kitchen. We tried to help out by emptying grocery bags and storing food, and promptly dropped a half-gallon bottle of red wine on the kitchen's brick floor. "You wouldn't last two seconds in the Safeway liquor department," Bell commented. "Good thing you're a writer." We cleaned up our mess, and prepared hot dogs and raw vegetables for the kids. Bell fixed himself a sandwich--three hot dogs with cheese, mustard and sauerkraut ("This is hog heaven where I come from")--and we sat down to talk.

So. What's all this madness about? Is this what it's like getting ready for a museum show?
Well, it's not exactly madness, though the preparation work can be maddening. The project itself is a game [Chairs in Space] to be published in conjunction with the presentation of that game in Los Angeles. It's exactly about all the sculptural considerations that I've been concerned with over the years in my work. It's a wonderful game. I've had terrific, passionate response to it from people. By passionate, I mean people become engaged in thinking about it, what it's about, or how the rules could be changed, or how this could be different or something like that.

            [Young Rachel Bell called out, "Daddy, I din eat very much." "Well," daddy responded, "you got to eat your lunch or you get no popsicle." "I feel sick," she said. "You don't get a popsicle 'cause you're sick," he said. "It's not 'cause I'm sick of ..." she whined. "Whatever it is you are," he said, "it better be full of lunch or no dessert." "I hate avocado," she continued. "Well, they speak very highly of you," he concluded.]

Would you talk a little about those sculptural considerations that are summed up in the game?
The basic thrust of my sculpture has been improvisation. I am, in fact, an improvisational sculptor. The material I use has been glass. I treat the surface of the glass so that it reflects and transmits light in some manner, according to some idea I've got about how I want the thing to look. Let's say I fabricate a piece of sculpture like The Cat, and there were 12 parts to that original sculpture--four rectangular panels and eight triangular panels, all of them six feet tall, and the rectangles had an eight foot base, and the triangles were six foot bases. In a show I did in Detroit [Detroit Institute of Art, 1983] I took the four rectangular panels of The Cat and used them in a manner I'd never tried before, to mix those four glass panels with other things that I have made.

Corner lamps, chairs...
Yeah. Furniture and stuff. What was unique about that installation was that I'd never mixed parts before. I'd always used the glass in a room where I'd tried to remove everything that wasn't part of the architecture. Just expose the glass panels in an interesting manner.
            [Rachel: "Daddy, I finished." Daddy: Well, then you can have a popsicle. Did you drink your milk?" "No." "Well, go drink it."]

You have very obedient children. You're very tough, I can see.
Very. [He made a hangman's gesture and stuck out his tongue.] So this time the panels were treated so that they were more reflective where they sat on the floor than at the very top, and I made a box. Inside that box I put a chair, and placed the box at the very center of a room we designed, built inside a huge gallery. In the corners of the room I put four of these things I call Corner Lamps. All of the relationships in the room were symmetrical, everything the same distance from the other, and so on. As you walked around the space and looked through the glass, you saw the Corner Lamps, but the Corner Lamps also reflected in the glass. At a certain point, you weren't quite sure whether you saw the reflection of the Corner Lamps or the real thing. Another interesting thing that happened--the chair that I placed inside reflected only on the inside, because the mirrors facing each other bounced the light back and forth, and so you saw more than one chair--eight, in fact, one on each corner and one on each side. Apparently. So I decided to put a patch of light, from a projector straight above, on the four reflected spaces outside the sides of the sculpture where a chair appeared to be sitting but really wasn't. So you walked around this box, and it looked like there were all these chairs, but there was really only one chair. This was all a totally improvisational kind of setup.
The improvisation--how much of that took place while you were thinking about the installation in the studio, and how much...
All of it before. I still considered it an improvisation because I'd never done anything like that before. The improvisation could have been much more extensive, but...I don't like to make changes without that intuitive feeling of something wanting to be there. I couldn't tell you why until I'd done it and looked at it for a while.

And the element of improvisation is important in the game.
The game is born out of improvisation. I should carry on my point. First I will finish my milk and light a cigar. [He does.] Where were we?

Sculptural considerations, how they are summed up in the game? [Pause] Intuition.
Most of my responses to the things I do are intuitive, not intellectual, really. I think of my sculpture as very sensate-oriented experience. It might sound a little like it's all an intellectual trip that I've perfected to operate with--it's not. And I screw up right and left. The best thing about the stuff I do--I'm familiar enough with the materials I use and the technique I work with to not be afraid of it. Since I'm not afraid of it anymore, the learning process is much faster.
            Anyway, the Detroit installation was great fun. It was the most stimulating installation I could recall. It was magic. I was so excited about it that when I came back.... We made models of the room before, and then I made a little glass sculpture that replicated The Cat, actually a little bigger than scale. That was an interesting thing to discover, that to my eye a direct transference of scale was not necessarily accurate to the feeling needed. Then the little chairs. I made blocks with a quarter circle cut from them, and painted them. I laid down a checker board with a two inch grid, the blocks were two inch square, and it did the goddamnedest thing. All of a sudden, because of the change in scale, the block colors, things began to happen. I began playing with dice, but still I didn't have a game in mind. It was a like a tool to help me make decisions about the piece.
            I played around with that for quite a while, nothing seemed to be changing, until it occurred to me it was a game. Just the thought--it became a whole different thing. Now I had the ability to interact through this thing with other people. Four sides to the board, four different colored chairs. I started asking people what they thought. Certain things were given--the dice would determine the moves.

And the object of the game is to get your chair on the square that corresponds to the reflected image in the glass...
The object of the game is to teach yourself to see. The object is to teach yourself to see what you are participating in, what you're doing. It's a game about observation. You have to see what you're doing, you have to identify what you see, and you have to make that information be assimilated in your mind in relationship to what to do next. That's what it's about. There's not...I don't see any losing in the game. It's not like chess or poker. Nobody gets anything, except the aesthetic experience of the sensuals, the visuals of making one reflection overlap the spatial relationship of another thing on the board.

Have you ever thought of your sculpture as having this kind of teaching function?
For me, sure, My work is my teacher.

It teaches you to see?
It teaches me what to do next. It teaches me what I did just before. It's the only credible source of information I have. It's the only thing that has any roots. It's the only things I can prove, without a shadow of doubt, came from a certain specific thing, and it happened because of this, this, and this. I can't, maybe, tell you why what I'm doing is what it is, but I can tell you why it's there and where it came from, just like I described the source of the game. It's the only thing I know anything about, really.
            [Rachel, who had missed her nap, raced into the kitchen and threw herself toward her father's lap. She missed and struck her head on the edge of the table. She screamed, and Bell took her into his arms, checked for damage, stroked the hurt head, and quickly calmed her. "I want a pomegranate, daddy," "That's just what I bought them for," he said.]
So you find a great deal of security in your work.
Well, not security, but confidence. Sometimes I'm pretty good, sometimes I can't even believe how good I am. Most of the time I'm in doubt about whether I really know what I'm doing. I can get through the day okay, but I'm not afraid of being challenged on the level of what I do. The only reason I'm so shy about getting involved in social scenes and politics is that I don't know about those things. I'm afraid when it comes to that.

In your talk in El Paso [at a minimal art symposium, spring, 1984] you referred to the studio as a sanctuary.
It is. I don't consider myself a religious person, but in the studio I see God everywhere. I don't need anything more than that. It's not that I'm getting religious or spiritual about any of that stuff. It's real. It's real stuff, just as real as some devout person whose whole life is devoted to the Bible. Now that my convictions are secure, about my credibility in doing these things, I'm not afraid to try and talk about them. I was for a long time.

Your pursuit of intuition is so involved with technology. I find that fascinating.
Well, it's less involved with technology than you might think. A lot of people think that my trip is about high tech stuff. It's not at all. My trip is about the sensuousness of vision. That's what my work is about. The tools I use are the only ones I know to change the way light interfaces with the surfaces I like, without changing the surface. I like the smooth quality of glass. I like the fact you can see through it, and it's reflective, and so on. I can change the quality of that surface anyway I want, but it will still be the same surface, and that's what the tools I use do. If I could do it with cottage cheese and balsa wood, I would. It would be a lot easier and cheaper, but I can't, and that's the way it is. As far as high tech goes, I don't know anything! I am a complete klutz on the technical level, as compared to my skill as an observer of the things I do with what I klutzed at. If you get my drift. One of the reasons I tooled up was I could never afford to have this surface treatment done industrially. Before I got into doing this stuff, I never held a wrench in my hand. I still forget which way to turn the nut. I'm not into that stuff just because there's a lot of buttons to push. I hate it. It's painfully noisy, it can be dangerous, in the sense that there's a lot of electricity around. It's heavy, a pain when minor things go wrong to find where the trouble is. The biggest threat I have working in Taos are the instantaneous power outages that happen when a cow scratches its ass on a utility pole!

I ask this question with some trepidation, but how is God manifested in the studio?
Well, I guess I would have to say, at the risk of sounding a little crazy, through the creative act. Those are the times when I feel closest to God. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm not taking anything away from anybody, I'm putting forth the maximum amount of effort that I'm capable of, I think, and using all of the resources at my disposal, both physically and intellectually, that I was God-given, and that's what I do. I feel very responsible to those kinds of things. I'm not a religious person except for my dedication to my work. That's where my faith and strength come from.

[Rachel: "Daddy, I don't feel good." Bell: "Well, you better go lay down." No!" "Well, don't tell me about it. Maybe you have to go to the potty. That usually makes you feel a lot better."]

You're doing all the work on the games yourself. Why don't you get someone else to publish them?
I don't like involvements with people I do business with unless it's a collaboration. I don't have much faith in the system. I'm becoming convinced that it's not in my interest to be associated with the flow of art merchants' trips these days. I don't like the thrust of most of the work that's being shown. I feel like an old fuddy-duddy, but I don't see much depth in the work. I see the market growing, and the implication of that is essentially that the merchants are conjuring up stuff to fill a big, growing market. That's not art they're selling, it's art-type merchandise, and that's not good for any serious artist, and it's not fair to the honest public.

You once told me a story about Dord Fitz, the Amarillo dealer who occasionally brings tours to New Mexico, and the elderly farm woman who bought one of your pieces. That story seems to illustrate the best of what a dealer can do for an artist.
Mr. Fitz is a wonderful man, a complete lunatic of the highest order. I wish the world had more of him. The group he brings is a highly unlikely one from my experience--farmers and ranchers, a lot, widows, retired people, often living out in the Panhandle somewhere. The tradition of the importance of art out there is not very strong. One time he brought about 40 people to my studio--he calls everybody "honey," whether it's a six-foot-eight rancher or his wife. Anyway a slim little lady comes up to me and says hello, tells me she came through on the first trip with him, and bought a small vapor drawing from me. She had it hanging in her house, a farm-type house. She was a widow, must have been 75, but in good shape, nothing slow about her. The drawing was hanging in the parlor, across from this window where the light in late afternoon raked across and made the thing come alive, and she was so happy with it.
            Well, friends came over for coffee in the afternoon, and they would never mention it, but she felt it made her good friends uncomfortable. She knew they had seen it, so she moved it out into another room, her sewing room that had a window just like the one in the parlor, and she moved her favorite chair into that room and would go in there at that time of day and enjoy it. Then she decided the room was too cluttered, so she moved the sewing stuff into her bedroom, took everything out of the room except that drawing and her chair. When she doesn't have company in the afternoon, she goes in there, closes the door, and enjoys it. It was about the most touching compliment I ever got in my life. She got off on it, from the most unlikely background, and I will forever be in Mr. Fitz's debt for setting that up, because that again gives me a real feeling of credibility. That's what I want people to feel about my work, become engaged and like it and enjoy it for the sheer beauty of it and the sheer value of the meditation kinds of things that it allows them to go off on. My work is for the dreamers. It's to stimulate people's dreams.

November, 1984

Lilly Fenichel: "I Don't Make Hemline Art" (1984)

  For a good many years, Lilly Fenichel was caught in the tense strait between the Scylla of being a fine artist, and the Charybdis of making a living. She was trained at the California Art Institute where she studied with some of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism and became infected with the ideals of contemporary High Art. During the '60s and '70s she formed close bonds with artists in the California avant-garde and painted steadily, though with little commercial success or critical notice. Unable to abandon herself to art, early on she steered a concurrent course toward a career in fashion and film. Fenichel worked on both coasts as a photographers' stylist (she got Cheryl Tiegs her first modeling job in an editorial spread--male readers might remember it, Tiegs in a fish net bathing suit in Sports Illustrated in the early '70s) and art director and costume designer for Hollywood movies.
            In time, the entertainment business proved to be as consuming a monster as fine art. Fenichel came to the conclusion that she had to go one way or the other. In 1980 she moved to Taos.
            We visited Fenichel in her cozy adobe house in Talpa, a few miles south of Taos. Of medium height and slim build, we found her an intense but friendly and open conversationalist, an active listener, and a very fine cook. She puttered in the kitchen as she talked of how she was born in Vienna, moved to Hollywood as a young girl, and first visited New Mexico in the '50s to visit artist Ed Corbett, one of her teachers at the California Art Institute. In the intervening years, she visited Taos occasionally, coming, as she said, "when there was a change in my life."
            Of her permanent move to New Mexico in 1981, she recollected: "I was going to get married and live happily ever after in New Jersey--a contradiction right there. I guess I decided to give up on the commercial world and take a chance on myself. I thought I was coming to visit friends--Larry Ball, Bea [Mandelman] and Louis [Ribak]. Larry said I wasn't a success as an artist in L.A., and I should stay here. And I've accomplished more than I could have in the city. I've had four show in three years here! I had only one in ten years in L.A. I don't know if that's Taos or me."
            Through most of her career, Fenichel's work has been characterized by an energized, gestural Abstract Expressionism. Then, about a year ago, through one of those lucky `accidents' that sometimes happen and propel an artist's development, she began to work with wood and fiberglass, creating three-dimensional pieces of striking, minimal form. The simple shapes and the glowing, soft coloring--deep layers of gray with pink or blue underpainting--combine to make rich but quiet statements about the sensual connections between mind and body, art and life, nature and ideas.
            "I think somehow working in these materials has been an emancipation," she said of the pieces first shown in Taos in 1983 at the New Gallery. "If I need to, these little Jewish hands can use a saw! Always before, I'd been terrified of working in three dimensions. Why? In the back of my head, I was not supposed to work with my hands. It was a class thing. The help does that, maybe. I wasn't taught to work with a hammer and nail. I wasn't taught to want to. When I moved into this little house, a friend and I put particle board over the brick floor in the studio. He showed me how to use a glue gun and a saw, and out of the scraps from the floor I made the first piece. Then this friend who has a body shop, Dusty Vallo--what a dear--taught me fiberglass. It became a game, totally unintellectual. But I really don't want to talk about this. Explaining art takes responsibility away from the viewer. It's like reading titles."
            A brief argument ensued about the value of biography in art criticism. We came to no conclusion, but our discussion quickly returned to biography as Fenichel served a delicious chicken cooked with herbs and wine.

I used to teach children at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Saturdays. After a class I could always get into the museum free. Mark Rothko was there one afternoon--I'd met him when he taught one semester at the California Art Institute. "What do you do here?" he asked. "I teach kids," I said.  "Maybe I should send my daughter here," he said. "That would assure me she would never be an artist." I guess he didn't think being an artist was so great. I do, because it's the only thing that interests me. First I wanted to be a dancer, but I didn't like the idea that you would quickly get too old for that, and then you could only teach.

When did you come to this country?
When I was small. Young. [Laughter] From Vienna to Hollywood isn't exactly an easy step, you know? I think my being here [in Taos] has much more to do with Vienna, my connection to the Austrian Alps, mushrooming in the summer.... I moved here three years ago, but I was always somehow from L.A. And now I'm no longer `from L.A.' What that will do in terms of marketing my work, which I have to.... All these years I earned my living doing something else, trying to keep it all pure. When I made the decision that I would no longer do this part-time artist's routine, and I wanted to be an artist and nothing else, it was because I just couldn't stand to do anything else. And I came here. My work grew by leaps, and I don't know if anybody else thinks so, but that doesn't matter. Generally, where I am as an artist, I've never felt...sure isn't the word, because one is never sure, but I've felt better and interested, and I know the other took so much away from me.

When did you first start thinking of yourself as an artist?    
At the California School of Fine Arts, that whole experience with those people at that time, and the energy.

And the focus there was generally Abstract Expressionism?
Yes. Clyfford Still was a teacher there, an inspired one--not my teacher. Hassel Smith and Ed Corbett were my teachers, primarily, and David Park and Elmer Bischoff. I think a lot of my aesthetic was formed in that period.

Formed by those strong personalities?
By the times, and by...yes. Hassel was a very strong personality. It was a mutual development of ideas. I went to New York about that time, but immediately I went to work at Macy's. Again, I was a fringe person.

Why did you do that?
Because my middle class background said that you had to go get a job. I had this terrible dichotomy of knowing I was an artist, and yet on the other hand the push that that was what I was supposed to do. The parents don't have any money, and Hitler saw to it that we didn't have any money. Plus, not only did I get a job, I went for a career when I already had one. You had to have a career or you were really out of it.

What's the dichotomy now?
None, really. Now it's the struggle of making a living, and that's getting old, but I think that's why the work was able to grow. Working in pictures [her last was art director for Lucky Lady with Gene Hackman and Liza Minnelli] and so on, I didn't really have to worry about showing my work. I could be a fringe person, yet I didn't like that, either. I was in a place where I didn't really succeed in either area, because you have to hustle as much in the movies as you do in the art world. And I couldn't deal with either one, so I had this perfect way out. My mother had a saying, "You can't dance at two weddings with one ass." And I was really trying to do that, and the reason was that I couldn't commit myself enough to being an artist.

What kinds of work were you doing then, your painting?
I was an Abstract Expressionist, but with a lot of drawing in it. Quite similar to some of the things that I first showed here in the Talpa show [at the Taylor Gallery, 1981], that kind of mark-making. I did that when I lived in New York, and occasionally when I came here on visits. I had Louise Ganthiers' studio, Clay Spohn was still here, and Clay had taught at my school. Just the other day I found a formula for oil glazes that Clay had given me. Then there was a period in L.A. of work I've never shown. Someday I would like to, it's from the early '60s. I drew a lot, they were kind of surrealist, very personal, demon, abstract drawing and paintings. They were very odd and quite ugly. There was a progression from those into these minimal paintings that were in my first one person show, at the Santa Barbara Museum in the late '60s. And those are somewhat related to the last show, which is strange.

How did the work change when you moved here?
The first show I had here was Talpa. I had to become a landscape painter. When I was here earlier with Clay, the painting was still non-objective, but kind of landscapey, in a way that the Talpa show was. That seems to be out of my system for a little while, I don't know how long.

You're not still doing landscapes?
I'm making fiberglass. You think they're landscapes?

Of a sort.
I don't think so. I'm already into new ideas, but I'm going to continue making three-dimensional things, weather permitting, as they say in the movies. My friend has an unheated garage. Dusty, my mentor. He's wonderful.

            [We discuss a series of articles in the New Yorker on controversy within Freudian circles. Fenichel remarked that her uncle, Otto Fenichel, was a famed Marxist analyst whose book, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, is still used as a text book on the subject.]

Friends of mine who have been on orthodox and not so orthodox couches, have told me that they looked at my name on the bookshelf an hour a day. [Laughter] He was a fabulous man. He brought us to L.A. It was interesting--we were sort of shepherded by various analysts across Europe and England to America, and through America. We took the train, the Challenger, from Chicago to Los Angeles. We stayed with Bettelheim in Chicago. And Erikson, who I met again here in Taos, Erik Erikson. He was here for a summer when I was. He was a painter before he became an analyst, that's why he wanted to come here, to rub elbows. Bill Heaton knew him very well.
            I come from an orthodox Freudian background, and it seems like he's dead in Taos, or at least ignored, which is amazing! Here, you have your aura balanced, or go to a church. Freud was the church I was raised in. That anti-psychoanalysis attitude started in the '60s, and this is still a stronghold of that mentality. I have friends here, artists, who know nothing about Freud. The way they deal with their kids...! But I left the Freudian church and joined another one, Wilhelm Reich, who saved my life. He believed in the connection between man and nature--an organism's connection with nature is the wellspring of human happiness, in the big sense, the connection between the mind and body. Not up here [indicating from the neck up].... "Shut up for a while," I say to my brain. I really think when people are separate from their bodies, they're schizie, out of touch. You see it in kids, which is so sad. I'm here [in Taos] because of how it feel here. This body I live in feels good here.

How do you analyze your own work?
I try not to. I don't look at my work from any psychoanalytic point of view. I don't know if I really see my work. I don't know if anybody sees what they do.

What are you thinking about when you're making the work?
Well, I'm making choices, but when I become too involved in thinking about what I'm doing, I stop myself and let it go. I'm very suspect. It's like going to the movies. I worked in the movies and I'm a person interested in how a picture is put together, yet I know that if I'm in the middle of a movie and I'm conscious of how the camera moves and what clothes everybody was wearing, the movie isn't successful. I might do that the second or third time around. I feel that about what I make, whatever that is. It's not paintings anymore. They're things.

How about after it's finished?
Well, I look at it critically, mainly, what I feel right about, and what I feel not right about. Very rarely do I see something that I wouldn't change if I went back to it, if it still interests me. Usually it doesn't. I looked at some old drawings yesterday, erotic drawings to be exact, that I hadn't looked at for a very long time, and I was quite pleased with them, the quality of the drawing. There was a lot of humor in them that I hadn't remembered. Much earlier work I can look at more like the viewer.
            I had an interesting experience in L.A. last fall, vis-a-vis viewing the work. I took just a few pieces, and found that when I showed them--this happened over and over again, not to serious art people, but to your average, sophisticated buyer--that they would look, and then they would always talk about another artist and another experience, mention the names of other artists and other works, and at first I thought it was people's difficulty with what to say if they don't understand it, and even if they do. There has to be talk going on at all times, right? But I watched, and I think it also partially has to do with people having a hard time confronting a work of art, becoming engaged in looking. I think that's what titles are about. It gives the viewer another way to not really confront the image and become involved with really experiencing it.

Instead, many people become involved in intellectual exercises.
Yes. Talking. And I think titles help that along, to put it into another area where it shouldn't be. You know what I mean? It was fascinating to me, hearing them say, "Do you know Sally Schmuck? She makes work like...." Everybody wants to appear knowledgeable, especially if they're shaky in an area. But part of it is a way of talking away the experience.

Because I don't think there's much emphasis on really having a deeper experience, in any area of our lives. A quality response is not something you learn from 30 minute sitcoms. Really looking at a work of art involves a great deal of `bring to it.' It's a costly endeavor.

You give and you get.
That's right. Most people are too afraid to be open in so many areas. Art is just another one.
Do you think this is something new?
I don't know. I think that's a big choice to make in life--what is of real importance to you. When I was driving around Los Angeles and trying to flog my work to all these dealers, I was told my work was too minimal to be fashionable. Fashionable is my word, they said marketable. That was the usual response. I would say, "Well, I'm not involved in making hemline art." There would be snickering, and they'd say, "Oh, that's very well put." Everyone in the art establishment claims to be not involved with fashion. And now, after having been here, I have no clue as to what's going on and how it operates. It's beyond me. [Pause] I hope that I work it out in such a way that I don't have to be so invisible. If I was a little more of a hippie, I could say, "Well, if you think about it, it'll all be all right. Visualize what you need." I envy that.

This reminds me of a quote I read in the New Yorker recently. "The unexamined life may not be worth living, but living the examined life is only possible for a moment at a time." [Laughter]
Oh, is that true! Who can stand it? I saw a quote the other day from Braque that I thought I should take to heart, something like, "Containment of emotions is a true sign of nobility." Which is a problem when you've spent years believing that you dig up emotions, and I know that to make life easier you have to contain them.

March, 1984

Thursday, July 21, 2011

R.C. Gorman: A Ramble Through Indian Time and Space (1984)

Legend has it that R.C. Gorman's life as an artist began when he was a hungry little Navajo boy, drawing with a stick in the wet sand of Canyon de Chelly. His undeniable talent, his urge to express himself and transcend the aesthetic, cultural and economic bonds of his childhood, have carried him to his current status as our most visible, successful, and influential Native American artist.
            Gorman's art has brought joy--and perhaps even a measure of comfort--to his vast number of collectors. Through lithography, his principal medium of the last decade, he has provided tens of thousands of people with that serene but indomitable image of the Indian woman, the personification of grace and strength, of female function and form. She serves as a root with the past, in an age that sometimes seems frantic for roots.
            Though the theme is essentially the same, Gorman's lithographs have changed dramatically since those first tentative, spare works pulled with Jose Sanchez in Mexico City in the late '60s. From his strict reliance on the patented, sensuous Gorman line, the lithographs have developed into full-blown scenes of sophisticated color, fine drawing detail, and dramatic light effects. Apparently, he has returned to the aesthetic concerns of his youth when, as his father, Carl Gorman, says, "R.C. painted in a photographic style, painting every eyelash."
            He has produced a prodigious amount of work, close to 300 lithographs, an uncounted number of drawings and paintings, and sculpture, silkscreens, woodblock and cast paper prints, ceramics, tapestries.... Always his own best promoter, effervescing at hundreds of openings, book signings receptions and celebrity dinners from Heidelberg to Hong Kong, Gorman has insured his own success.
There has been a price, however. Visiting him in his mansion north of Taos, he appeared bone-tired and bored, in need of a long rest.

Do you feel like talking today, Gorman?
I don't know. There's nothing new happening. I'm sort of semi-retired. I haven't been traveling, I've got my show schedule down to a minimum. I'm just enjoying my house.
Is this semi-retirement temporary, or will you like it and make it permanent?
Who knows. I'm just enjoying myself being lazy.
Have you cut back in the number of lithographs you're doing?
I have to fulfill my contracts, but even there, they come up here to me, so I don't have to go down to the studios so much. [Gorman does most of his printing with Western graphics in Albuquerque, Houston Fine Art Press in Houston, and Origins Press in Tubac, Arizona.] I'm asked to do a lot more shows, but I just can't.
What are you doing besides enjoying your house?
Eating. [Laughter] Oh, no, I'm staying here and entertaining friends, and working as casually as I can. I have a new model, Darlene Track, we get together for drawing sessions. And I'm going back to painting, that takes longer. I'll just take it easy and see how much I accomplish within the year. Painting is nothing new for me....
But you're going to concentrate more on painting than you have in recent years?
I'm going to try. It depends on how bored I get.
How do you feel?
I feel fat as a pig.... Good. I'm swimming. It's bad for my skin and hair, but I'm swimming [laughter].
You're so vain!
            Yes. Well, I have only myself to look at. Did you see me on tv the other day? PM magazine did a national thing. They put together all the various segments they've done on me, and re-edited it. I looked frightful, and yet I was clever, I thought. [Laughter] I've juried a couple of shows lately, a children's art show here in Taos, and one for students at Highlands University in Las Vegas [NM]. That was something different for me. I didn't get paid, they sent me a box of empanaditos.
Have you done any painting in the last couple of months?
Have you been thinking about specific paintings you might do?
Yeah, I'm thinking about doing one based on that pastel on the easel [a seated woman in a red robe].
What's the attraction of painting?
Oh, I think you can work slower at it, it's an entirely different feeling. I do large works when I paint, they take up a lot of space, so I'm having to be very choosy about where I show them.
Do you think that, in terms of your career, it's time to go back and do more large paintings? You've done so many lithographs, and to a broad audience, that's what you're known for.
Oh, yes, I suppose I should come up with something different like paint. I'm doing the bronzes all along, and I'm thinking about working with Shidoni, making bigger than life-size sculptures. [Pause] Politicians have been bothering me. Every charity clear from Alaska to here wants something.
Do you get tired of that?
I think so. I mean I'm all for the cause, but I think I should be given a choice of what I want to do. I work just like anybody else.
But not everybody else is quite as visible as you are.
You can say that again! I've gained so much weight! [Laughter] I could be a Santa Claus this winter. That would be a new venture on my part.
R.C. Gorman and Elizabeth Taylor lunching at Gorman's, c.1982
Are you an Indian artist?
I think so. [Pause] Yes. And I'm proud of it.
Do you ever think about going beyond that in subject matter, doing things that are at least less obviously Native American?
Painting seascapes and landscapes, that sort of thing? I doubt it. It's funny, a lot of artists who don't want to be considered Indian artists, that's the only subject they paint. I think I'm pretty well satisfied with what I'm doing.
Fritz Scholder goes to New York and paints the Empire State Building. You don't have any desire to do something like that?
He's trying to get away from the label Indian Artist. I wouldn't do that. The Empire State Building wouldn't interest me to begin with.
What will you be doing ten years from now?
Maybe I'll truly be retired. I don't think that far ahead, maybe just a year at a time. I hope I'm still working. [Pause] I saw Randy Lee White's show the other day [at the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe]. It was really great, so well-ordered. Very well presented. I think he will emerge as one of the leading artists in the area.
What else have you seen that you like?
Armond Lara, but I've always liked him. I think he's been a little too sophisticated for the area. [Long pause]
Who are you going to vote for next week?
Oh dear, I don't think I can tell. I'm splitting my vote. I'm really still thinking about it.
The country seems to have gotten quite conservative.
Yeah, I'm not really politically minded, except locally. [Long pause]
Let's jump around a little here and do some word associations. Taos.
My home.
Ah...dear. I guess they're a necessity. [Laughter]
Ronald Reagan.
He should make another movie. Born too Late.
Bare feet.
Dear...bare feet. I don't know what to think. I just think of myself, my closeness to the earth.
Canyon de Chelly?
Oh, something beautiful from my past.
Mercedes Benz.
A good car. [Laughter] Should be government issue.
Andy Warhol.
He should be having this interview.
Pablo Picasso.
Somebody said to me on television two weeks ago, that if Pablo Picasso were alive today, he'd probably be called the R.C. Gorman of Europe. [Laughter] R.C. Gorman of Europe.
[Much laughter] My sister.
Salvador Dali. Your brother? [More laughter]
I met him once, in an elevator. I was asked to go visit him in Spain. I went there, but I never did visit him. Now I think it's too late. We're both getting too old.
Ha! A four letter word.
Oh, something people decorate their house with and women put on their face.
Spider Woman.           
She's my theme. She tells me what to do. Spider Woman, I guess, is all women.
Who is she?
Well, according to Navajo mythology, she's the one who gave women the secret of weaving. In a way, she gives knowledge. [Looking out the window] There's my swimming pool girl.
She cleans your pool?
Yeah, I have mostly women working around here.
Lamb is our national dish on the Navajo reservation. I can only look at it as something that is served to me as a lamb chop.
It's been a good year.
It's too far back to remember.
I'm looking forward to it. I hope I will be here to enjoy it.
Oh, I don't know.
No images? Water.
Nothing that would make sense.
I don't care.
Swimming pool.
Keep them three feet away from me. They carry disease. [Laughter]
My favorite color.
Has it always been?
This week.
Thinking of that shawl there [the red robe on the woman in the drawing on his easel]?
What was your favorite color as a kid?
I did most everything in black and white.
Your father [artist Carl Gorman] didn't give you paints?
No, he wasn't around. [Pause] I'm fiddling around more now with ceramics, editions and originals [with Grycner Studios]. The trouble with originals, we're not able to keep any because they're taken right off. I enjoy that [ceramics] very much. My father's book is coming out. It's called Carl Gorman's World [by Henry and Georgia Greenberg, UNM Press]. I'm going to have a reception for him.
Anything else?
I've been entertaining visitors. They've been dropping in from all over. This week, a young artist from Horse Heads, New York is here. Nobody knows where it is. He's an artist who just wanted to drop in. Then I'm having another one from Alaska in December. So I've been busy, giving parties. Gave one for the Duke and Duchess of Albuquerque. They've invited me to Spain, I might just take them up on it. I love Spain, I love being someplace, being in Spain, being in Japan, being in Honolulu. I love being in New York for a little while, but getting there disturbs me. I can't sit still so long. [Laughter] I'm dreading the idea that...a new book is coming out on me, and I'll have to go on the road and promote it. [Gorman's house guest entered] Oh, this is Tom Paine. He's learning how to cook with Rose [Gorman's housekeeper].

            [The artist picked up the new book on his father, and we leafed through it, laughing at pictures--little Rudy bathing in a wash tub, the startlingly handsome young artist in his Mexico City studio in the early '60s, surrounded by his surrealist paintings of that time.]
I've emerged from a lot of different styles. A long time ago, I did a lot of abstracts, and a lot of mythological paintings, everything from unicorns to some of the Navajo myths. One thing I might try and do again, my Rug Series, that was a big joy to me. Pretty messy.
You've done an awful lot of work in the last ten years. It seems to me you deserve to be a little bored for a while.
I think so too. I deserve not to have to do anything at all. I've sort of done it all, so I'll go at a slower pace. [Pause] I've had several interviews this week, one for the Continental Airlines magazine, and the Albuquerque Journal is doing something, so I keep busy.
You must be especially bored with interviews.
Oh...the Albuquerque Journal just wanted to know about some of the celebrities who come in and out of the house. They're making some kind of stir about that. Continental Airlines is doing something on my house, so that sounds interesting--as long as they don't give me a word association test!   November, 1984

R.C. Gorman died in 2005. He was 74.