By NOAH BECKER June, 2020
I had the chance to speak with Karen Gunderson, an artist with a unique and potent history. Her work has a tactility to it that sets it apart from the ordinary. The following is our conversation for Whitehot Magazine.
Noah Becker: Your Black Paintings, is that an ongoing series?
Karen Gunderson: Yes, actually it began in 1989. So it's been awhile.
NB: And where were you when you started making those paintings?
KG: I was in New York City in a loft in Tribeca. I had made an exhibition for my dealer at the time, Aladar Marburger, who was dying of AIDS. I wanted to do something special for him - so I made a giant sunset. I made all of the skies various blues, and then I painted the clouds with black paint to show their forms. I let that dry and then I went into them with the colors to look like they were lit. It was actually an installation piece because some of the pieces went into corners and some went around corners and some went up onto the ceiling. The black paintings came out of those under-paintings of the forms of the clouds.
NB: Let’s talk about the term haptic in relation to your work.
KG: Ok sure, haptic is a sense of touch. And when I paint the black paintings, I am aware of the touch of the paintbrush marks and the light reflecting on those brush marks. There is a kind of synesthesia that takes place, where people look at it and they follow the brush strokes with their eyes and can mentally feel how it felt to make them.
NB: Where do the brush strokes come from? Is it an intuitive process?
KG: My brushstrokes themselves come from the place of trying to describe a form in space. Because I'm trying to literally feel what it would feel like to touch the wave or trace an arm with my hand or across a face or any image that I am trying to paint. I was influenced by Chinese painting and I discovered all these wonderful things about Chinese art. Among them were concepts about essence. I try to use a quality of energy that goes with those particular marks that display these different images…sweeping strokes for water, short jagged strokes for mountain rocks, gentle slow strokes for flowers and so on.
NB: And you see it as being cinematic as opposed to sculptural?
KG: One time I mentioned to my friend Michael Brenson that somebody told me they thought the paintings were very sculptural and he said, “I don’t think sculptural is the right term. I think they are cinematic.” They’re cinematic because as you move past them, they shift and change. Each brush stroke captures the light differently depending on the angle of the viewer and the light, making a new image.
NB: And how many of these paintings have you made in the Black Series?
KG: While I have made a number of these over the past 30 years in different sizes each one has its own energy and takes time. I'm still learning. That's what's exciting. It's really a discovery process. And it's been a fascinating pathway for me.
NB: And you're about to start a new series of work called Beneath the Waves?
KG: Yes, I am. I'm thinking that we're not learning enough in our world about what's going on anywhere. And I want to make a metaphor that might make people think about it. Most of my work is kind of political, but not overly aggressive. For instance, I did a whole series of mountains in Tibet because I was very upset about what was going on with the Buddhist monks in those mountains, so my thought process was... I'll make these mountains and they have to do with that area. And maybe people will bring that to mind what's going on there - you know, let's think about that and even possibly someone might do something about it. And at one point, I did a very large series of royalty because I was desperate to raise the archetypes of people who I thought were effective leaders during their times for different reasons. King Christian X was very brave and stood up to the Nazis in WWII. As did King Boris III. King Louis XIV was the King of the Avant Garde….and Alfred the Great began the great literary tradition in Great Britain….they all were great leaders in their own way. Because of their leadership, they brought hope and change to their worlds. We need great leadership now like we recently had with Obama.
NB: You mean leadership in the United States?
KG: Yes. I began the Royalty paintings during George W. Bush - his presidency. His war with Iraq and when he was found reading a Children’s book upside down when 9/11 happened. Politically speaking, another group of my work is about moral courage, for which I did two different series. They were the Bulgarian rescue and the Danish rescue, which told the stories about saving Jewish lives during the Second World War.
NB: So the other series was actually a reaction to George W. Bush's presidency and its lack of leadership?
NB: I see. And you haven't touched upon current politics in the new work? The new work maybe refers to politics in some way?
KG: Well, the changing perceptions of seeing and then not seeing the sticks in Beneath the Waves kind of refers to it because of keeping us all in the dark so much and not really telling us what's real, it doesn't seem like there is real transparency going on. It feels like we're not being told what's true - and it's separating everybody.
NB: I love the way you develop these ideas over time.
KG: Thank you Noah. It’s something I've wanted to do for a while, and I'm trying to figure out what to put under the water at this point. So in this case, it's just two sticks, and they make an X. And they're done in perspective so that you get the feeling that they're down in the bottom on the sand. But then, I painted waves on top of them. And so, as you walk past it, the sticks disappear and then reappear. So it's like you get glimpses of it, but not the whole thing. It is a pretty good metaphor. I’ve only done two so far - and they are small ones.
NB: So, let's talk about the monograph that was done on your work called The Dark World of Light. When did that come out?
KG: It came out October of 2016.
NB: And what aspects of your career did it cover?
KG: Basically, everything from the beginning. It covered some of the work from graduate school, cloud paintings, the transitional work, black paintings, the series on moral courage. I worked on it for three years with Elizabeth Frank, who is a Pulitzer Prize winner.
NB: Amazing, I’ll have to read it. Since we're in this quarantine and now there are a lot of protests and riots happening in New York City and different cities around America, what is it like for you as an artist in the middle of all of this? Has it gotten easier or harder?
KG: It's frustrating just watching the news and it's harder to go about business as usual. Very distracting because I really care about what's going on, so it makes it more difficult.
NB: I can understand that due to my own experience during the Pandemic. I wanted to ask about how apparently you were very close with Sol LeWitt? Could you tell me a little bit about that?
KG: He was a very good friend. I would have to say he's an influence on my work and I was very grateful for his support of my paintings. I remember he wrote me a note telling me that he felt that the black paintings were my best work. He had a show of my work of the moral courage series that he and his wife Carol curated at the Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut in 1991. They were living in Chester and Sol designed the synagogue which is very beautiful. He also included my work in another group show in Connecticut that he curated as well.
NB: I see.
KG: And we traded quite a bit of work too - we would trade art from time to time.
NB: I see. And you also have a connection to Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Breder?
KG: Well, yes. Hans Breder was my teacher in Graduate School at the University of Iowa where I received the first degree in the nation in Intermedia because of him. Elaine was amazing. My husband, Julian Weissman and David and I spent a lot time with Elaine and Bill because of Elaine. She was an important friend and my husband Julian was her dealer at Gruenebaum Gallery. She was the chosen Aunt to our son David.
With Bill it was a thrill to be around him and his paintings. Elaine was a big influence and a big help in my career. She was the one who suggested and basically demanded that Aladar Marberger come and look at my work and I began showing the Fischbach Gallery because of her. Grace Hartigan was part of our little family and she was incredibly supportive to all of us, really. And she was a really deep good friend. She was my son David's Aunt Grace and Elaine was Aunt Elaine to David. So, it gives you some idea.
NB: That’s an amazing lineage. What is it like to be a woman artist? What are the challenges in the midst of all this?
KG: To not focus on it. If you focus on all the discrimination and the lack of support from the larger world, you get really depressed, so you just focus on just what you're trying to do and find people to help you. I was actually very fortunate because I had a lot of really good mentors, including Grace and Elaine, but I also had, when I was younger, Tom Parker who taught me to paint, and John Stephenson and Clayton Bailey taught me about sculpture. There were a number of people who were very supportive and helpful to me as a young artist. The other thing I had going for me was that I come from a small city in Wisconsin where we all thought we could accomplish anything. It was never an option to think you couldn't do something.
NB: And your family?
KG: My dad worked in a factory. My mom worked as a secretary at several places. She even became a yacht broker. I come from a very industrious family with a lot of spirit, so being a woman artist is difficult and you have to keep in mind that you're probably not going to have the advantages that you would if you were a man, but you can't let that stop you from doing what you have to do. WM
Karen Gunderson works currently from her studio overlooking the Hudson in Coxsackie, NY
To learn more about her work and to see new work you can follow her instagram at
Or her website
You can also buy her Monograph published by Abbeville Press on her Life’s Work mentioned in the article done on her life’s work is called
Karen’s work is in a number of major institutions and she is represented by a number of galleries throughout the US and Europe
Santa Fe, New Mexico,
New Canaan CT, Heather Gaudio
Noah Becker shows his paintings internationally. A visual artist, saxophonist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine, Becker has also written freelance articles for many other major magazines. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has also written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010) viewable on Youtube.
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