Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Cora Roth

Atlas, oil, acrylic on canvas, 74"x 142”

By JONATHAN GOODMAN, December 2019

Jonathan Goodman: Please describe your early education in art in New York. At what point did you know you wanted to be an artist?  Did you study art in college? How did college orient you further toward the practice of art? 

Cora Roth: The greatest gift I could receive as a youngster was a big box of Crayola crayons, which I used at every opportunity. In my head, I was always an artist, and as a teenager I spent just about every Saturday afternoon haunting the galleries of MOMA. Following morning rehearsals of the All City H.S. Orchestra at Brooklyn Tech, in which I played violin, I hopped on the train to meet a friend at the museum, where we spent the remainder of the day. 

While I enjoyed meeting other like-minded teenagers there, much more was happening. The paintings became familiar friends. In those years one could quietly occupy the bench in front of a Rothko or Pollock for an unlimited amount of time. This was the world in which I felt happiest. Given my upbringing in Brooklyn, being an artist simply wasn’t an acceptable part of the script. So I went to Brooklyn College, majoring in music and education, only to learn years later that Ad Reinhardt was on the faculty in the art department and I’d completely missed him. 

It wasn’t until many years later that I began to resurrect the dream of actually being an artist, and took art classes with Lois Tarlow in Newton, Mass. Everything she taught me was solid, lasting, and filled with wisdom. When I enrolled in The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I studied painting with Domingo Barreres, who opened up a whole new world of art making and painting techniques. 

Dandelion Seeds, Oil, acrylic on burlap, 36” square

JG: At what point did you move to Los Angeles? How did that move affect your painting style?

CR: When my three sons moved to Los Angeles, we were left with an empty house. So ten years ago, we left Boston to move to Los Angeles. The arrival of our grandchildren was a deeply important event because I needed my family near me to continue working with the same degree of emotional truth. For example, the “Grandmother’s Garden” series was based on a beautiful moment, during which I taught my granddaughter a song I had learned as a young child: “In My Grandma’s Garden.”  Blow and Dandelion Seeds were painted following an afternoon during which we were doing just that: blowing dandelion seeds together. 

My motivation is always interior driven so it’s fairly consistent; it’s not a matter of location that affects my style or content. The content does shift and change, but style? That continues to evolve. I still harken back to the tightly constructed grids I did years ago, but they evolve over time. Perhaps they are an outgrowth of my New York youth.

Loose brushwork gives me respite from the carefully constructed grids, requiring a different choreography. These paintings are usually landscape related; perhaps it’s the city dweller in me that needs respite from the urban environment. 

JG: Who are some of your valued influences in contemporary painting? Why are they important to you? Your art is resolutely abstract--its inspiration comes from the New York School, fully active generations ago. How does it feel to paint lyric abstractions in 2019? 

CR: Yes, indeed, my work is resolutely abstract. I began my art education in the heyday of the abstractionists in New York. The great artists who most profoundly influenced me are those whose work had mystery coupled with clarity and directness. To name a few: Robert Ryman, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, Milton Resnick, Cy Twombly, and of course Robert Moskowitz and Ellsworth Kelly. Each has a strong, mesmerizing point of view that has guided me. 

My imagery is a distillation of early visual and psychological memories and feelings that have been filtered and condensed into a cohesive system of language. The narrower we focus, the deeper we dig, so I don’t stray far from my own life experiences. Moving abstraction forward is not my concern; making paintings is. The rest is up to critics and historians. 

Night Rain, Oil, acrylic, neon light on canvas, 62”x62 1/2”

JG: Many of your paintings address the surface of the work, which is often highly tactile. Can you comment on the impastoed brushwork we find regularly in your art? Technically, how do you achieve the effects you want in your painting? Also, your works are divided into several series. Is there a specific style and esthetic for each body of work? How did you work out the different sequences? By trial and error? By conscious design? 

CR: My paintings are, in a sense, realist. It’s painting about paint. I want my work to boldly stand up and be dominant. It relies upon materials, form, and color, and their relationship within the painting to convey whatever it is a painting conveys. But the experience must hang on a paradox: it must be enigmatic, clearly conveyed, and as simplified as possible. Across the broad spectrum of my art I see a relationship to my earliest drawings and paintings; the individual esthetic keeps on surfacing. Many years ago, I acknowledged to Ivan Karp that my work didn’t fall easily into any recognizable movement. He answered: “So? Who cares? Call it ‘Patterned Abstraction’ if it makes you happy.” It didn’t.  However, a luscious surface has always been important. 

Louise Glück, in her beautiful poem The Wild Iris, states: “Whatever returns from oblivion returns to find a voice.” All my current paintings bear some relationship to my early work; the tondos tap into the landscape pastel drawings I did for years. All art materials are uniquely useful, but oil paint is what delights me, so all my paintings are finished in oil. 

Thin washes of acrylic used to seal the canvas or burlap bleed out and are visible in areas of the finished painting. Achieving specific effects happens through experimenting with materials and being willing to endure colossal failures in order to push through until something positive happens. 

What I’m seeking in a painting is a sense of peace and serenity, but always with a slight undertow. My show at OK Harris Gallery in September 2001 brought this home to me. The Twin Towers disaster occurred just a few days prior to the opening, but the determined staff hung the show, and we opened. It was one of my most profound experiences; it made me understand that art has the power to connect and even to condole. Remember, the gallery was at 383 West Broadway, very close to ground zero. People were wandering in from the street like zombies. Most just sat silently for a while; some even cried. There were some somber pieces in this show, which accompanied the general mood of my audience. 

Rosebud, Oil, acrylic on burlap

JG: Today’s art is steadily heading toward conceptual ideas, politics, and computer technology. How do you feel about this new bias, given your vocation as an abstract painter?  

CR: Conceptual art, computer-driven art? I prefer to talk instead about soul, which I have done, because these are just tools, tools that I don’t relate to at all. If the results are soulful and speak to the human spirit, I have no argument with it, but they’re not my tools and it’s not my world.

Politics is ubiquitous and has always been important to art as far back as history can take us. But while It’s important to be tuned in to one’s environment, the artist cannot be led around by the nose. So much of what passes as art feels like propaganda to me because it has a pre-programmed agenda seeking to convey a specific message.  For me, art grows out of a distillation of one’s own cumulative life experience, and, like dreams, seeks expression and materiality.  Artists must give vision to these ineffable feelings. Dreams are rich examples of what I mean, as are the films of David Lynch, which walk the viewer through dreamscapes. 

Abstraction leaves so much room for viewers to enter and participate, bringing their own life experiences to the experience of looking at art, which is an interactive endeavor. Milton Resnick said, “It’s a question of seeing,” but I think it’s a question of feeling as well. Looking for meaning in art is chasing a false idol because it’s polysemous; it means different things to different people. Sometimes it doesn’t mean anything, it just is. Many years ago, I brought my very aged father to my studio to show him a large painting I had just completed. He looked at it for a while, scratching his head, finally saying, “But what does it MEAN?” I asked him what it meant to him, to which he replied, “Not a goddamned thing.” I’ve heard people say the same thing about Agnes Martin’s work and Cy Twombly’s work. You can’t please everyone. 

Night, Oil, acrylic, and encaustic, 48”x49”

JG: What is the role of women in art today? 

CR: With the recent appearance of transgender artists, the landscape is changing, and the issue of women’s place in the art world may soon become moot. We all owe a large debt of gratitude to the achievements of first-rate women artists throughout history, but it always comes down to the individual. We must also recognize and acknowledge the men in our lives whose efforts help us break down the formidable barriers that existed and still exist to this day. I do realize that many women go it alone and they deserve all our respect. 

JG: What do you want to do in the next five years?

CR: The next five years?? Ha! I’m 80 years old, and I can only hope to stay alive, and well enough, to continue doing what I love to do. WM

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


view all articles from this author