About Thor Rinden
The following interview with Thor Rinden was conducted by Elizabeth Cohen-Scheer, daughter of his close friends, in Northampton, Massachusetts, on February 18, 2006.
Let’s start with an obvious question. Where were you born?
Marshalltown, Iowa: The hospital where I was born is now an old age retirement home called "The Embers". I don’t know what that means, but it’s kind of ironic.
A few years ago, my old high school girlfriend and her family commissioned me to do a painting to give to that retirement home when their father died there. So, I have a painting of mine in that place that I just saw when I went to my fiftieth high school reunion.
Marshalltown is a small town in the middle of Iowa, central Iowa, and it’s a town of 20,000. My high school graduating class was 170 graduates.
It’s a very small town – what was the esthetic like?
It was right in the middle of corn fields and it was a retail town. On Saturday nights, everybody — all the farmers and the people from the surrounding towns — would come into town, and the farmers would sit around the square and talk. Their wives and kids would go to the 5 and 10 cent store and sit at the counter and drink phosphates and sodas and ice cream and eat ham salad sandwiches. Then they would shop until 9 o’clock. My father was a retail clothing store salesman, and he worked every Saturday night. My mother and I would visit him and I would see him waiting on customers in his bowtie; he wore a bowtie every day of his life. I was so proud of him. Then we would meet him afterwards and they would take me to get a butterscotch sundae, then take me home and put me to bed.
How old were you at this point?
Well, let’s see, I probably was five or six; it was in the forties. In those days, in the forties, you had breakfast nooks which were like booths in a restaurant with a table sticking out from the wall and high backed wooden seats on either side where my parents would play bridge and drink beer and eat hamburgers with the people upstairs in the house that my father managed. There were three apartments. We had the whole downstairs and then there were two above. Erma and Harold Cunningham lived above us. They would come down and the Meeches in the other apartment would come down. Erma would later become my step-mother. I loved her before my father did.
We’ll come back to this, but you were talking about your father’s outfits and working in retail with the bowties and I’ve seen a lot of that play out in your canvases. So do you feel like your art was influenced by your father’s job?
Definitely. Most definitely.
What kind of kid were you like in high school? Did you know you were interested in art as a teenager or did that come later in your life?
One of my favorite pastimes was playing with my friend Jim Stahl, who lived one street over – we were separated by an alley. One time we burned the little patch of corn that his parents had planted on the alley. We were inside smoking corn stalks wrapped up in notebook paper. We caught the cornfield on fire. And the fire trucks had to come down and we were in big trouble that time. No, but you asked me about what kind of a kid I was.
Well, maybe. We liked to draw Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck copied from comic books, and then paint them with watercolors. And we dreamed, believe it or not, of having artist studios way up in the trees, you know high up. Like we dreamed of a studio
Sounds like you’re an artist based in Brooklyn.
Well yes, the irony of that, you know, with it so high. But we did think of that. And we loved going to Disney cartoon movies, Snow White and Bambi and all those movies. And we became very skilled at reproducing cartoons from comic books on manila school paper.
So when did you first become interested in art in terms of knowing that it was something that you wanted to do the rest of your life? Did you have like a teacher or mentor or an influence?
Well, you mean as a profession, or just
Really serious about art.
In those days, in the elementary schools, Miss Lentz would make it to each school one day a week and then we would have art lessons, or art period. And I remember at Woodbury and Abbott schools where I went to elementary school, she came on Friday. And it was always the best day of the week for me because Miss Lentz would come with all our art supplies and one of my favorite things was when she would tack butcher paper all over the walls and have us paint a grocery store or a bus or something. And everybody would be painting on this mural around the walls. And I loved that.
With poster paint. You know, the powdered stuff you would mix. Anyway, she always gave me A’s and of course any teacher that gives you A’s, well you start thinking that you’re real great at what you’re doing. And she gave me a lot of confidence that I was skilled in doing art projects.
Describe your decision to come to New York. Was that a hard decision to make; was it a hard shift to make? Because you were going from the tiny little town. How did you support yourself initially?
Well, I went to the University of Iowa and I majored in business because I was going to be in my father’s clothing store. So in my four years at the University of Iowa I had a couple of art courses, including a freshman art history course. I really loved that course. And I loved writing the essays that we were assigned on certain topics through the art history. They were more the philosophical kind. But it never occurred to me that art would be important to me in the rest of my life. And I had a couple of drawing courses as electives in college that I enjoyed. But then I came home after a pretty dismal first semester as a freshman in college and I remember I had flunked a couple of essays in a couple of courses.
Just because it was hard?
Yeah. I was adjusting, you know, and I wasn’t doing well. And I came home at Christmas break and I was telling my father about my problems and he said: "Well, if that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you, you’re going to live a great life." So I went back for the second semester, relaxed a bit, had a bit of a social life and did pretty well that term. Then I came home for summer break and I said, "Oh" to my father, "thank god that I’m finished with ROTC!"
Reserve Officer’s Training Corps. In the fifties, all the land grant colleges got government money. In order to get the government money, they had to have a reserve officer’s training course because they figured that college educated kids were going to make the best officers, which was a reasonable assumption. But I hated the drills we had as freshman. We had to go to these classes two hours a week. One was drill and the other one was studying military history. And he said, "Oh, no, you’re not going to give up ROTC. This is a wonderful opportunity for you. You don’t want to be drafted as an enlisted man. You’re going to be in the military someday," which was not necessarily so, but that’s what he thought. He said. "You’ve got to continue this. This is a great opportunity." So I said, "Yeah?" And I went back and I continued ROTC for the next three years. And so you go to a summer camp between your junior and senior year. I went to Fort Reilly, Kansas for, I think it was six weeks of training. I came home and finished my senior year, and became a second lieutenant.
After you’ve completed the training?
Well, no, after I graduated from college. You’ve got another year of studies. And you also have to lead the freshman in drills– "Hup, ho, right turn, hup," and all of this stuff you learn. And so after that I was assigned to the army at Fort Benning, Georgia, which was the officer’s training school. At the end of the six weeks they gave you a form to say what you thought you were skilled at, where you would like to be in the military, and what you would like to do. All my friends said, "Oh, they put you wherever they want you; you’re going to be a platoon leader. You know you’re going weapons and leading your platoon up the hill and all that." Well, that didn’t interest me. Also, the rifle training I had had – the rifle scared me. I wasn’t interested in that at all. So I attached another page saying I would like to be on the east coast and I would like to be with artists and writers in some kind of publications or something. And everybody laughed when I showed them what I wrote. When it came down to being assigned, most of my buddies wanted to go to airborne school; they wanted to be able to jump in parachutes and they wanted to go to guerrilla warfare school. But I had no interest. So, they sent me to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and assigned me to the First Radio Broadcasting Leaflet and Loud Speaker Company, which had to do with propaganda leaflets and radio broadcasting. Then they sent me to Washington, DC to study communism. Well, during those weeks I spent in Washington I fell in love with city life. Although
Was that the first big city you had ever been to?
No, no. My parents took me every summer, when I was a child, to Chicago. We would spend a week shopping, going to restaurants and baseball games.
Museums, yes. Although not heavy on museums, heavier on the baseball. I loved Chicago very much. And I looked forward every summer to those trips. So, being in Washington, DC was fun for me. I lived in an officer’s club very near The Phillips’ Collection. The Phillips’ Collection in those days had a Richard Diebenkorn painting, much like your mother’s painting. They were always of
What did it look like?
People. His wife would be lounging in a chair and then you’d see this green San Francisco landscape in back. Well, he loved Matisse. And he loved the way Matisse would make a drawing and then instead of rubbing it all out or painting it all out, you would see the early workings coming through, the transparency. Your mother does that. I do that because I like that sort of thing, too. I fell in love with this painting. And also at the University of Iowa, when I was there, I had studied a lot in The Union music room, which was a really cavernous room with lounge chairs. And believe it or not, in those days, Peggy Guggenheim had given an early Jackson Pollock, before the drip period, but leaning towards that time. She had given it to the university. There was a Jackson Pollock, and a Max Beckmann triptych, in this music room. And that was my first sight of real, modernist paintings.
What did you think of it when you first saw it? Did you like it?
Yes, I did. I was excited by being in that room, listening to classical music, surrounded by these pictures. The Max Beckmann I really took to. I don’t know if you know his work.
What does it look like?
Well, he grew up just before the Nazi era in Germany and he did a lot of really quirky kinds of German expressionist paintings of society people. He did many self-portraits of himself in tuxedos with cigarettes. They’re wonderful. Harvard has a great self-portrait of his. Anyway, I loved it. And then the Diebenkorn made a great impression on me at The Phillips’ Collection, along with all of the other modernist works that they had. When I was there, I was studying communism. Well, then one thing led to another and I was asked by my company commander if I wanted to go to Colombia.
In New York?
South America. No, no, the country. Remember I was in the military. And I was involved with leaflet making – propaganda leaflets. And the guys that worked for me were artists and copywriters and we would make these propaganda leaflets. Well, there were all sorts of guerillas causing problems in Colombia in the jungles, so the military was asked to assist in dropping leaflets. So I said, "Yeah, oh I’d love to go there." So they put me into a Spanish class. I started studying Spanish. But I wasn’t there for more than two weeks when my company commander called me in again and said, how would you like to go to Laos? I said, "Laos, where’s that?" Well, it was in Southeast Asia. It was part of Indochina at the time, where the French had a big influence. There was Vietnam and there was Laos and there was Cambodia. I said, "Yeah, I’d like to go to Laos." So we started studying. President Eisenhower had formed the "Special Forces" at Fort Bragg and the Special Forces were, you know, the green beret guys; jungle warfare and all that stuff. Special Forces. We were attached to them. So, I went to Laos. After President Kennedy was elected, he sent more. I went to Laos and I was there for a year. So, the boy out of Iowa and out of high school and the University of Iowa all of a sudden ends up spending a year in a Buddhist country. I remember my father’s family were Quakers. They were Quakers in Norway who had been converted from Lutheranism to Quakerism by an American Quaker.
What were you raised as?
Nothing, really, because my father and his siblings were all so sick of the strict religious Quakerism of their parents that they just forgot about the whole business. My father would haul me off to some Sunday school and he’d go back in his t-shirt and do wonderful things like mow the lawn and rake and all that, which I was jealous of. I thought why do I have to go to this Sunday school; what am I being penalized for? Anyway, I grew up with no religious training whatsoever. Let’s see, why am I going off into this?
Going back to Laos, you were in Laos.
Oh yeah, well, here I was in this Buddhist culture and all the religion I ever remember in Iowa was that you were making yourself miserable preparing for the next life. You know, the afterlife. The Buddhists were interested in making themselves productive; no, you didn’t even have to be productive: interested in making yourself enjoy the moment. And I loved this philosophy that the most important thing was not the future or the past, but that you’re doing something that you enjoy and feeling good about yourself at the moment. And other things can be put aside until tomorrow, like the mañana theory in Mexico. I was very much taken with the fact that Christianity as I had known it in Iowa was not the only thing going in the world. Everybody had their ideas about religion and who’s to be right? And so that made me even more skeptical of religion. Then I went back to Iowa to work for my father and I soon knew I couldn’t live in Iowa after getting around so much. Oh, and then in the army I had a roommate at Fort Bragg who had gone to Princeton and was from New Jersey. He had a Triumph sports car and when we had a three day pass we would drive all the way to New York and go to a couple Broadway shows.
That was your first time in the city? In New York City?
No, while at the University of Iowa, I came out here one time to Swampscott, Massachusetts, and we happened to go through New York when Leonard Bernstein’s musical, "West Side Story," was there. I got to see that on Broadway in 1957. I was knocked out by New York and Broadway and all that stuff. So that was my first time. But then we would come up to New York for three day passes and I loved the city. Well, I had met Jane just before I had gotten out of the army. I was at Fort Bragg after going to Europe for a while, Alaska, and Laos. And I liked her very much.
Where did you meet her?
My roommate at Fort Bragg was engaged to her roommate in college. They were at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia. They would come down on Saturday mornings after driving all night from college. And I had another roommate who was a good cook and he had all sorts of interests in wines. We were "the odd threesome." Like the odd couple. He would make waffles with strawberries and champagne. Well, Jane and her roommate loved this treatment and then at night we’d go to the officer’s club for dining and dancing. We had a good time. Then I got out of the army and went back to Iowa. Jane was graduating from college that spring and she called up and my father answered and he said, "There’s some southern woman on the phone." I got on and she invited me to her graduation from college. I thought, I’ve got to drive all the way back now, out to Virginia? But I wanted to. So in the end, I did. I went to her graduation. Afterward, her parents invited me up to Metuchen, New Jersey, where they lived. I stayed in her room. They kicked her out of her room into her sister’s room and I stayed in her room. And here I was surrounded by all her books, which I was impressed by and her pictures; she was interested in art. Her formal from her prom was hanging in the closet where I hung my clothes. And I thought, I’m in this room of this nice woman who is obviously wonderful and there’s her formal gown hanging in the closet. I don’t know, it did something to me. I went back to Iowa and she was going on then to NYU in New York so I moved all my things into my Volkswagen and drove to Princeton where I stayed with a friend for about two weeks until I got a job at Brooks Brothers clothing store in New York. After about two weeks in New York I was having so much fun meeting women that Jane and I broke up for something like nine months. Then I saw her on the street in The Village, where we both lived. For about nine months I hadn’t seen her, but that night we knew we were going to get married. That one night. We went to a bar
So you ran into each other in The Village?
On the street.
And that was that?
That was that.
So, and that’s
So I followed her really.
You followed her to New York
So, I have questions for you about Jane, but I was going to get to them later.
I’m in your hands.
When you got to New York, how did you initially support yourself? You said you worked at Brooks Brothers.
I got the job at Brooks Brothers
So, I know that you’ve had several other jobs to support yourself, side jobs, while you were doing art over the years. Maybe you could innumerate them and also how do you feel about doing conventional work, like on the side of doing the stuff that you actually love? You know what I mean, work out in the world versus the work that you’re doing in your studio.
Well, I was a very lucky high school kid because I had a summer job for a sign company – billboards on the highway. Each summer they had to go out and repaint the signs, and so I started out getting all the materials together, cleaning the brushes, and painting the backs of the signs. Occasionally I would help the sign painters on the front. We also hung beer signs all around central Iowa and we hung and repainted store-front neon signs. This was a wonderful job for a high school kid because you got a tan and you could impress your girlfriend and I made extra money; my parents were proud of me for that. It was a job that I had for several years, even summers in college. Then when I got the Brooks Brothers’ job, I was a miserable failure as a buyer’s assistant. I didn’t understand the figures and projecting what one would need in the future, sales and all of this. My mind just didn’t work in that way. And, I wasn’t all that happy. I liked the esthetic part of working at Brooks’ Brothers and the glamorous idea of it. Brooks Brothers in those days was really, you know, the place. I remember in my dad’s store at home when I was a kid reading men’s wear magazines; everything seemed to take place around Brooks’ Brothers, around Ivy League colleges, and around Southampton and the Cape. So, my mind was really attuned to East Coast culture. I liked all this a lot. But working at Brooks’ Brothers wasn’t a great job. When we got married, Jane saw that I wasn’t happy and this was not going to be a future for me. So she said, "What you really need to do is work with crayons and paints and scissors and canvas and paper—you ought to be an art teacher." So, I took the New York City art teacher’s exam and I passed that. Then I went for the interview. At the interview you had to
Where was this interview?
It was at Brooklyn Tech High School. I remember it was about five o’clock at night in dead winter, and it was very dark by the time they got to me. I sat out in the hall and I went into this room and I was supposed to conduct an imaginary class for forty-five minutes. Well I had planned a lesson while I was sitting there, writing out things that I was going to do. But when I went into the class, I kind of froze in front of these three guys sitting out there in the dark. I went through my lesson in about fifteen minutes.
What were you teaching?
It was some art project. Fifteen minutes went by, but then I had another twenty minutes to fill. And I panicked. How I ever got through it I don’t know. I failed the interview. So, that was a dark time in my life. And Jane said, "You’ve still got your job at Brooks Brothers and you’ll take the interview the next time it’s given." So another six months passed and I took the test again in bright sunlight, in the spring, at Music and Art High School. And since I’d had the experience before, I knew what I was getting into. Well, I passed the test with flying colors. So I became a junior high school art teacher. I made a résumé out and I sent it to several schools to substitute teach. I got a call one morning to come into this school in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, PS 296, and I’ll never forget, Tom Wesselmann had just left teaching there. He was a famous pop artist. And I remember that a teacher who still worked there had a painting that Tom Wesselmann had given him. I stayed at that junior high school for nine years. I had a pretty miserable, rough first year, learning sort of how to do it. Then, I was very satisfied. I liked the kids a lot, and that age group. You know, they were still naive enough and open enough. It was a good job and I liked it. But, I had decided I wanted to become a painter. I was trying to paint on the side. But it was such a hard teaching job that I was always worried about the next day at school. So, I didn’t get much painting done except in the summertime. Finally in 1974, I would have been it must have been some turning point age, my math is not good. I must have been nearing forty by then. I said to Jane, "You think I could paint full-time, since you are doing very well and we don’t have children?"
Was she at Chapin yet?
No, she was at Packer Collegiate Institute, which is why we got our Brooklyn house. She walked to work. She was there about fourteen years. So I stopped. But I felt guilty; I was getting paintings done, but I wasn’t making any money. So I got a part-time job at the Guggenheim Museum, helping to hang shows and preparing for shows with a lot of other artists. The problem was, we would work for two weeks solid, really hard labor, and then nothing for months. We’d have to paint the whole museum and sand it and all this. It wasn’t working out well. So, I thought, I need something where I go in once or twice a week. I got an ad out of the New York Times and I hooked up with Manny Leventhal, who was a textile broker in the garment center. I would go in and cut swatches and label fabrics that he had to sell and send them out. I would work two days a week. Well, I did that for nine years. And we loved each other very much. He was awfully nice to me. And flexible; if I couldn’t come in on Thursday and Friday, I could come in on Wednesday and Thursday, and if I had to go someplace, he understood. It was very good. Until finally, I guess, I turned fifty and again said to Jane, "Well, can I stop this?" So I quit the job and then I became a full-time painter.
Your style of painting has changed several times over the years. What factors bring on your style change? And looking back on your work so far, do you have a period or style of painting that you’ve gone through that you like the best? So, we’re going to start with part one. Your style has changed, and so what factors have brought on each of your different styles and the changes in them?
When I was very young and went to graduate school at Hunter College in New York, I had really wonderful teachers. It was in the sixties when there was minimalism and Frank Stella’s early work and Pollock and all of these what they call "all-over" painters, where you didn’t have an object backed by illusionistic space. The paint covered the canvas and it had no relationship to the real world. It was completely abstract. I had this wonderful teacher who later became the curator of modern art at MoMA named William Rubin. I had him for my modern art history course. He traced what was then the leading philosophy about a painting, that it is essentially a wall and it’s flat, and that’s it. It’s nothing else. Because, in Old Master and Renaissance painting you had this illusion that you’re going into a landscape or there’s something here and then there’s something back here. That’s sculptural, that’s not flat. That’s not painting. I mean this is all baloney, but I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I loved all these courses. And so I wanted to be a flat painter. I wanted to be an "all-over" painter. I didn’t want little objects and chachkies here and here and then backgrounds. So, I thought, how am I going to be flatter than flat? You couldn’t have a canvas that was horizontal because that was a landscape. You couldn’t have a canvasno matter if there was nothing on ityou couldn’t have a canvas that was vertical because that was a portrait or a human form. It had to be square, neither here nor there. And I fell for that. So everything I did was square and it was all over. And what had happened was, canvases had become one color. Or in Pollock’s case just all this stuff all over the canvas.
Yeah. In other words, there was no part of the canvas that was the focal-point. It was this flat piece on the wall, that’s what it was. What you see is what you get. There was some kind of saying like that. And so I thought, how can I be flatter than one color on a square? And I thought, well, the canvas; in those days Frankenthaler got it from Pollock, you stained the canvas. You didn’t put a primer on it where the pigment sat on the surface. You stained house paint, or a very thinned oil paint into the canvas, raw canvas, and it all became part of the weave. You were very aware of the weave of the canvas. So I thought, why can’t I weave pieces of canvas into a basket weave? In the Midwest we made, this sounds very corny, but in school we made May baskets, where we would take construction paper and weave them into little baskets. I loved that. So, I started weaving strips of canvas around a frame. Jane would iron the edges, so it wasn’t a raw edge, and then I would stain these and weave them. Well, that was okay a couple of times, but most of the time after I wove it, the painting was lousy. I mean it didn’t work. And so that was the end. There was nothing more I could do. And I would take these things to class and my classmates would laugh. They called me "the potholder painter" because my canvases looked like potholders. Soon, I stopped doing the folded edges and the ironing and painting them first, or staining them first. I started just taking strips, raw edged and gluing them down.
Gluing them how?
Well, I’d pick up the edge and I’d stick glue, carpenter’s glue, underneath, then press it down. So, all of these woven edges were now, you know, structurally stuck together. I could paint this with normal oil paint. I even gessoed and primed the canvases. No more staining for me. And I could sand them, I could scrape, I could wipe away. I could do all the things on this woven surface that any painter would do on a canvas. But you had all those ribs set up by the woven-ness. Now, the one I have at Smith College is probably the best woven painting I ever did. You asked me, do I like those the best? I liked everything I was doing at the time the best.
Those woven paintings?
Well, I think those were the most innovative paintings that I ever did. But they’re not necessarily my favorite. Other things I’ve done at the time have seemed to be my favorite. If you can get the gist of what I’m saying.
No, I do.
I don’t have any favorites. But I do think that the woven period, during the seventies, was the most innovative painting I ever did, in the entire context of what I’ve done.
What about your slab paintings, when did that come?
Yes, because I got sick of doing grids all the time. This curator of a Brooklyn gallery came to see my work. She looked at all the woven paintings, and said, "You know these are too jewel-like and look prissy and worked on. And they just don’t seem free enough to me." I was devastated by her criticism. But, on the way downstairs from my studio, she saw a paper one like you have in your kitchen; those three. Those are woven paintings, only they are made out of paper. She saw that framed with one of the white frames I made for those out in your kitchen. And she said, "I don’t know, with that white frame around it, it opens it up. I like this." Well, I didn’t sleep that night and I was thinking about what she said. The next morning, I went up and made a white frame. I stuck a slab in the center of it. That was the beginning of the "slab paintings." I never made another woven one. And I made the slab paintings for the next ten years.
So the idea of setting the picture within a frame seemed to open it up?
Well, that’s what she said. I just liked the idea that you had an outside slab and an inside slab. Then, I made maybe three or four of them all the same size, with the same size inside. What collage does is give artists the opportunity to take a piece of color and move it around until they find the right place for it. Then they can lock it in. You surprise yourself by that. In other words you don’t have to spend a lot of time painting it out here and painting it again over there. You can just move it over. So what the slabs did was allow me to take a center slab that had nothing to do with an outer slab and surprise myself by how these two incongruous pieces worked together. You couldn’t imagine it in your mind, but if you did it physically, you found a place for it that was surprising. It’s like choosing a tie for a man’s suit. You see wives going to buy their husbands a tie. They always have the shirt and the suit and they’re out on the counter, trying different ties. They’re usually thinking of matching the colors. Oftentimes what really gives something zip is if you don’t match it. It’s like if you went in your tie rack and pulled something off and put it on. It sounds horrible to you, but it can work esthetically. Well, that’s a lot what happened with these slab paintings.
We were just talking about the slabs and you were saying you made the connection setting up the outfits and having a clashing tie, or clashing
Well, I don’t mean to say "clashing." I’m just saying some surprising color or pattern combination may occur. I remember my mother always telling me green and blue are not good together. Well, there are a million shades of green, a million shades of blue. And sometimes together, they’re wonderful. There’s just no way to know that in your mind, you have to see it. And so to plan to match something is not always good.
Do you think about it, your house in Brooklyn, as a work of art? It’s beautiful.
What’s your relationship to that house? And what’s the process been like to make it look the way that it does now?
Well, I know every nook and cranny of the house because we renovated it ourselves and I did most of the carpentry work. We had plumbers and electricians rewire and replumb the place, but it was a crumbling nineteenth century row house that we bought for practically nothing in today’s terms. But then we were hard pressed. Jane was making $4,500 a year in her teaching job and I was making $7,000 in mine. The only money we ever borrowed was $10,000 from my father to have all the fireplaces relined at once, rather than having over the years to mess up the house every time we wanted another working one. We paid that back in a few years. So, it took us so long to renovate our house, we really never went into debt. And the decoration is just something you do organically as a couple. Probably the reason you’re a couple has something to do with esthetics. You like the same I mean married people, most of the time end up looking like each other. So, the taste in our house sort of organically grew between the two of us. Why it looks like it does, I think it’s just because of that. We never liked the idea of buying anything, any furniture, or decorative objects as a "suite" of things. We found a couple of lamps on the street. Several other things Jane’s mother gave us. A couple things came from my parents and friends. We bought a couple things. So, I don’t know. I can’t tell you. If you like it, I’m happy. We’ve been comfortable there. This is something like our thirty-eighth year in the house. Well, the paintings, that’s another story. The paintings I just did over the years. And sometimes, they work in a certain place. Like your mother has done.
So would you both agree on which paintings were going to be hung?
No, we used to have terrible fights. But, you know, we would compromise and come to an end of the fight. But no, we’ve had a lot of decorative conflicts in our marriage. Not to the point of divorce, but conflicts nonetheless.
In the last ten years, you’ve begun to move back to more representational art.
So why is that? Yeah, let’s start with that.
I don’t know, I’ve thought about this a lot, because Jane has been disappointed in this development; she liked the abstract things, the loose, geometric things the best, I think. So, I’ve asked myself that and I think it’s because once you’ve done geometry my idea is that geometry is realism because a square or a triangle or a circle is what it is. I think abstraction occurs when I do your portrait; it’s really not you, you’ve become a painting. I mean, I’m inspired by you. But since I’m not reproducing you in three dimensions, there are all sorts of quirky little things that are me that come into making the flat painting. So, what I’m doing is abstracting your shapes into something else. To me, that’s abstract painting. The two words are reversed. Geometry should be "realism," and representational painting should be "abstraction." I mean look at your mother, the way she does your legs folded underneath your rear end, and your arms; sometimes she does amazing arms that are hardly realistic.
It’s a projection.
Yeah, and it’s her. Anyway, beyond that, all through history, what are the images that artists have produced? Well, usually the human figure is the most interesting. We’ve had all sorts of periods in our history of geometry, but they’ve usually turned out to be decorative rather than really significant, things of human interest. They’re mostly decorative. But the figure, the landscape, the objects with which we live; these things appear in every historical period. Well, I think I just got tired of doing this realistic geometry and I longed to draw the figure again, to paint the landscape and trees. I think they’re classic subjects and I just have more fun at this time in my life doing that than weaving or slabbing or all that. I’ve done that.
Is there a favorite subject that you like to paint? Would you say the human form is your favorite?
I would say the human form is my favorite, but that’s hard to say. Because when I’m at Stone Harbor, I like the beach and the bathers. If I were to hang around here for a while, I would like doing the trees in the back and the plants. I would say, however, I’m more inspired by human subjects than anything else.
Speaking of places, you’ve traveled so much in you life, and you’ve lived in so many different places. And I’m assuming that all of them have been important to you in different ways. Can you talk about how the idea of place has influenced your painting?
Well, that’s interesting. I come from an open, rolling countryside, where I grew up and lived my first 21 years. I don’t know if the sparseness of my paintings has anything to do with big sky country and lack of forests or any of that. But, in your portrait back here there’s a plainness to it. Now, your mother has the more Matisse way of painting where she likes to fill the canvas in with things; mine have been more sparse than that. I don’t know if that has anything to do with living in the Midwest or not. When I first came to the city, I was intrigued with charming neighborhood architecture and I drew buildings like most artists do, in a French kind of impressionist way. But it didn’t last long. Where the loose geometry came from, I don’t know. Except, I do have a facility for visualizing how to make something: how to stick this board onto this board. And there is an important "constructionist" part to the woven paintings. Way back you asked me about my father’s clothing store. Is this a good time to talk about that? I love fabrics. And because of his store, I think I liked clothes a lot. I was always reading the men’s wear magazines that he had in the back of his store. Anyway, fabrics were a favorite thing in my life. I think that has had a lot to do with my paintings. I love looking at Vogue and all those magazines. As a matter of fact, the Vogue comes to me at home rather than Jane because she doesn’t have time to look at that stuff and has little interest in it. But I love looking at and drawing the models. Women tend, in their dress, to be able to experiment more. They have more fun with clothes than men do. I love looking at all that stuff. Now, what was the original
I was asking about different influences in your art. Also I know you’ve been to Japan and you spent that year in Laos. Do you feel like your painting was influenced by the minimalist esthetic that goes along with Japan and Buddhism?
No. No, I was quite old by the time that all came about. No, Japan didn’t influence me, I don’t think. I mean, everything probably goes into making your whole being. I don’t think I could separate anything out that had any significance. And I don’t think I’m truly minimalist necessarily, but there is a plainness to a lot of things I do.
Over the years, could you speak about how and where you’ve shown your art.
I have never had a one-person show. And in my graduate course at Hunter College we were all very ambitious to have shows. I remember I was going to kill myself if I didn’t have a one-person show by age thirty. Well, age thirty came and I didn’t kill myself. Age forty came and I still hadn’t had a one person show. Age fifty came, age sixty, so I think I’ve overcome that. But I have been in group shows in New York with my artist friends and that’s been okay. My greatest claim to fame was a show that I had about eight or ten pictures in at a gallery called Artists Space in New York, which in the seventies and eighties was a very, shall we say, "hot spot" because it was run by these really good curators and they were looking for new artists, emerging artists. I’m now a submerging artist, but emerging artist at the time. An art critic from New York Magazine chose the people to be in the show from slides that were in their slide bank at Artists Space. She picked me out of the slides, came into my studio, and chose eight or ten paintings. And the show had a catalogue. I also think there was a piece in the paper, not about me, but about the show. I got to invite all my friends. That was my one exhibiting claim to fame.
And what about this painting that’s hanging at Smith now, Boomerang?
Oh yeah, well, thanks to your mother and father. That is the crown of my showing history! All the paintings that I ever did that I liked, I never wanted to part with in a group show for a few hundred dollars. This seemed to me to be crazy. I could have sold a lot of things for cheap prices if I’d wanted to. Jane gets sort of frustrated with my lack of making any money from my work. I had no ambition to go out and try to drum up exhibition places; I would rather be in my studio working. I just had no aptitude for that, it seemed. Then I became a cancer patient in 2001. My life sort of passed by me and I thought, what am I going to do with all this stuff? So I sent out a letter to all my friends, including your parents, asking if they had any ideas about what I should do with my pictures, because I have all the best ones now at my age. That’s unusual for an artist, because usually they’ve sold them or they’re in museums or collections. Well, I am in collections of friends, including your parents. But most of my best paintings I still have.
Yeah. So there I was in pretty good shape, because if somebody wanted to, let’s say, "discover me" now, I had all my paintings. Whereas, if I’d have sold them early on, they would have been in somebody’s house and I would have had nothing to show. So I had all my best paintings and I sent this letter out and one of the responses I got was from your parents. Your mother said she was going to put the heat on the curator at Smith, and sure enough, out of the slides that I sent, which is very unusual, this curator said, "We’ll take that one, Boomerang," which I’ve always thought was the best woven painting I ever did.
Want to describe what it looks like?
Yeah. It’s canvas strips woven diagonally around a stretcher. The surface grids are diamond shaped. It’s all black and within these diamond grids are white L’s. I don’t know, I named it Boomerang. It has nothing to do with boomerangs, but that’s what I named it. And it’s just a black and white painting. If you ever had a painting where what you see is what you get, that’s one of them. Because it’s just the canvas strips painted black and then these white things –"boomerangs"– placed all over the canvas. And I always loved Mondrian because in his Broadway Boogie-Woogie and all those kinds of paintings, the painting continued around the edge. I’ve always had this thing about frames becoming part of the painting. Sometimes they’re windows into which you look, but still they’re part of the whole thing. Frames can do a lot for or can take away from a painting. For Mondrian, the frame was nothing. A lot of times he just had a slab of wood in the back painted white with the canvas hooked up against it. You know, the wood didn’t come forward around the edge of the canvas. You’d see the painting continue around the edges. That made a lot of sense to me in doing away with the Renaissance illusionistic space. And so with the woven strips continuing around the edge of the canvas, it made all kinds of sense to include the edges in the painting. I would paint all around the edges and Boomerang is one of those where it works the best. Then I got to thinking, why can’t we see the edges at the same time we’re seeing the front? So I did several paintings where the edges are beveled toward the wall – in other words they don’t go 90 degrees back, they splay out this way But, then I got tired of including the beveled edge all the time in the picture, so I did that only for a while. That’s the story of Boomerang. And it’s one of the highlights of my life that this afternoon we’re going to go see it hanging because of your parents’ belief in me and the fact that they took the time and made the effort to get this thing accepted by Smith.
It looks so beautiful, I can’t wait for you to see it.
Well, believe me, it’s going to be a treat.
You were talking about my parents, so speaking of friends, you have a large network of friends. Have they influenced your work? I mean obviously like my mom and dad have contributed in advocacy to get your painting into the museum, but any other anecdotes to add in there? Any other friends who have influenced you along the way?
Well, I told you about that curator who came and made that comment about my pictures which changed me from the wovens to the slabs. Jane has been the most influential critic. Our relationship is such that whenever she says something negative, it doesn’t offend me. What it does is make me think. And she has good esthetic sense and has helped me through rough times with a picture by suggesting things. I think she’s been the most influential. But I have a very thick skin about being able to work by myself and continue to work all these years and not being disappointed in myself for not showing or not selling. And, you know, trusting my own value judgments. Some of the best paintings I’ve ever done exist despite Jane’s not liking them. But I’ve felt that they’re best the way I have it, and not changed it. In other words, she’s questioned it, but I have enough self-confidence that I think she’s wrong.
So, you’ve had an amazing marriage to Jane. Could you speak about her as your influence throughout the years. How would you characterize your relationship? What was it like?
What can I say but, having a partner who is your best friend and you love her physically, and emotionally — you know, this is our 43rd year of marriage — you’re just so grateful you knock on the wood and you wonder why this is happening to you. It’s as simple as that.
It sounds like she’s been a real voice of reason for you, too. With getting jobs and influencing your art.
Well, yeah. We’ve had to be frugal. I mean we didn’t have children which, in the most cold-hearted sense, allowed us both to do things. I think she has enough relationships with kids at school to satiate her motherly instincts.
Is that something you regret?
No. We don’t regret what we don’t know. And since we’ve had people like you that we’ve watched grow up from birth on, I think that’s been wonderful for us. There are no regrets. And I know I wouldn’t have been able to indulge myself in what I’ve done all these years. I would have wanted my kid to go to Amherst or Smith or Randolph-Macon. And when I think it costs $42,000 a year to send your kid to one of those schools, well, I would have been working my tail off in a remunerative job and I wouldn’t have been able to make paintings.
You’ve dozens of really beautiful, wonderful notebooks and you fill them with sketches and poetry. Can you talk a little bit about these notebooks and explain their relationships to your paintings?
Well, they’re really important to me because I write quite often. "Poems" might be a little hefty a word for what I write. "Jingles" is too self-deprecating. They’re better than "jingles," but I would never call myself a "poet." But, like your mom, I love writing short things like that. And so my ideas for pictures and poems come at odd times. And if you don’t have a place to write them down, you forget them. I’ll get up at 3 o’clock in the morning if I have an idea and write it down. Because many times I’ve thought of something and the next morning I think what was that good idea? I can’t remember it. So I started keeping a notebook. Then, I thought now I’ve got to have a cover. So I cover the notebooks with canvas and paint on them. Well, that became a thing. I thought, they’ve got to be all the same size. Now I’ve got all these books that are the same size and it’s a fascinating history of what I’ve been interested in at the time. They range from about 1970 to 2004, and you can see the stylistic changes you were talking about on the covers of the notebooks. I take one to Lincoln Center; I love drawing the performers. This one is when we came back from Guatemala and were sitting in Starbucks in the Charlotte, North Carolina airport drinking the coffee from the plantation we had just visited in Antigua, Guatemala. Starbucks had it for sale. So, there we are sitting there, drinking that. I just have to have a notebook. So, when I take the time to look back on one that’s earlier, it’s fun. It’s like a diary, I suppose.
A visual diary. Who has been your greatest influence as an artist? In terms of other artists?
Well, many. But as I said, seeing the Pollock, the big Pollock that Peggy Guggenheim gave the University of Iowa, the Beckmann triptych, and then the Philips’ Diebenkorn. And later on, visiting The Barnes’ collection in Merion, Pennsylvania. I fell in love with Mattise. American artists from the twenties and thirties I really like: Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keefe. They have been very Stuart Davis. All these people I’ve liked very much. I can’t tell you specific influential aspects, but you just absorb all of them organically and I’m sure that what I do has something to do with them. I’d like to think that.
What advice would you give to a high school student who is interested in becoming an artist?
I’m not very good at advice. Oh god. I can come up with a few thoughts, I suppose.
Anything not to do?
Well, I wouldn’t say to go to one of those undergraduate art colleges. I think you ought to go to Smith and you ought to study history or English literature or languages; you ought to have four years of liberal arts and take an art course or two as electives and not think of yourself professionally then. I think you really ought to study something significant. And then if you want to become an artist, just to do it. It’s like anything. If you want to become a writer, write something down every day and you’re a writer. You don’t need to go to school for it. But if you want to go to school, that’s okay. But I wouldn’t do it as an undergrad. I would do it afterward; graduate school, the Art Student’s League, study with someone or become some painter’s or sculptor’s assistant. Being an artist requires some skill, but whether you’re a good artist or not depends more upon your sensibilities, your emotional condition and the confidence you have. It’s just that you have to do it and have the confidence and feel good about what you’ve done. And then you just continue to do it. And you know, there’s some skill involved, yes, but you don’t have to have a lot of skill. Frank Stella never made a drawing in his life. He just started making these paintings with these lines and figured out how to do it with tape, compass, and protractor. And yet his confidence and esthetic sense were wonderful. So my advice would be not to think of yourself professionally too early.
And if you really do art, I guess the art
You’re just going to do it. You’re going to do it later on one way or another because you can’t help it. And that was my case. But I don’t think I would study studio art for four years in college. But studying history would seem to me to be worthwhile.
What has been the best moment in your life so far?
Best moment in my life. Well, that’s easy. Marrying Jane would be. Because, as I said before, having somebody who’s physically attractive sleeping with you for 42 years, where you don’t feel lonely, who’s your best friend, and to whom you reveal yourself the most is heaven on earth! And if it’s the one you live with for all those years, well, you’re lucky. Nothing else matters. And friendships seem to me to be very important. Having friends and talking to them and seeing them is the best. Eating and drinking with them, exchanging ideas. We went to Guatemala over the Christmas holiday. We hadn’t seen these friends for 15 years when they invited us. When you go to stay with someone, it can be kind of dicey if you don’t have a lot to say or your chemistry has changed over the years. Like an old girlfriend, if you see her in a different context it can be awkward. So, we thought, is this going to work out when we see these people in Guatemala in their house for a week? Well, it turned out to be so wonderful and that friendship led to this wonderful trip to their house in Antigua, Guatemala. Anyway, your soul mates, whoever they are, whatever sex, dogs even, cats, all these are the best things, I think, in life.
Wise words. Yeah. The old wise one.
Wow, we’re plugging away here. Now, what’s been the worst moment in your life? Can you speak generally about the challenges you’ve faced in the last couple of years and how you’ve been able to contend with them.
Yeah, well this hasn’t been the worst time in my life. The worst times in my life have been when I’ve hurt someone and then I spend sweaty nights not sleeping, feeling remorse for something I’ve said or my perception that I’ve hurt someone. I think those have been the worst times in my life. Luckily there aren’t that many. But I’ve had rough times. The cancer, or course, was a shock, but
You were diagnosed in 2001?
Yeah. Same time as 9/11, so it was not a good year. But, you know, with these things you tend to get philosophical. You look back on your life and you say, my god. I’ve lived almost 70 years and it’s been wonderful. Am I going to mope around worrying about dying since I’ve had a wonderful life? I should be thankful for what I’ve had! And what you’ve got to do is get yourself together and try to enjoy, as the Buddhists would, the moment. Just go on and do what you have to do. And you never know, you may feel well and live a long time or you may not. And with my views on dying, once you’re dead, you’re not going to know anything anyway so why worry about it. Woody Allen always said he didn’t mind dying, but what he hated were the preliminaries. Well, I try not to worry too much about the preliminaries, eitherI mean, it’s not easy, but you know, my doctor’s visits and hospital stays have only taken up maybe 1% of my year. So, even though they’re unpleasant and scary, I just can’t worry about it. Or I try not to.
You’re very noble.
Noble, yes? Well, it goes back to Laos. What I forgot to tell you was that after I got back from there and moved to New York, I went to the Buddhist temple on the West Side and took meditation lessons every Friday night. But, when Jane and I got back together, she wanted to go to the movies on Friday nights. So that was the end of my Buddhist training!
That’s funny. Thank you so much.
Pleasure. You’re a good interviewer. A curious person. You find out when you talk to people, things you’ve never thought about have happened in their lives. And most people love to talk about themselves.
You’ve truly led a remarkable life. Really, it makes me want to go do some art.
More than that, the whole esthetic.
You don’t plan on these things, you know; you filter. And one thing leads to another. And you say, how was I so lucky to do that at that time. Well, these things are not outlined for you early on; you filter. And you’ll be sitting there, you’ll be an old woman talking to some young interviewer and he or she will think the same thing. Elizabeth led this amazing
I hope so.
I know so. No doubt about it. There’s no doubt about it in my mind. Absolutely you’ll have a good life. However long it lasts.