Whitehot Magazine

January 2009, Thomas Butter Interviews Jack Sal



Jack Sal- “Re/Vision” 
Zone: Contemporary
41 West 57 St. NY, NY 10019
(212) 255 2177
JANUARY 22, 2009-FEBRUARY 28, 2009

TB: Last night you opened a wonderful exhibition at Zone: Contemporary- 41 West 57th Street New York, NY, which runs until February 28, 2009. Could you talk about how you chose to structure this exhibition?
 Jack Sal- “Re/Vision” Installation view- front room-Zone: Contemporary Art
JS: The idea is to make use of the main gallery space as a site-specific installation. At first it might appear to be a traditional painting show, but on further inspection it becomes apparent I am using the language of painting in the context of a gallery for other purposes. What I am interested in most of my work is to question the conditions of how we experience things, including art, using the language of our formalistic experiences of looking at art. We are all taught by being exposed to a modernist experiences, for example going to MoMA as a kid, or looking at “Mondrian” dresses and the like, and to experience things on a formal level, but not necessarily to question the contextual aspect of what that formal language might be. For me the idea of doing an exhibition on 57th St., 15 years after having had my last exhibition in a photo gallery (Light Gallery), is to make use of the language of painting, but still keep the ideas of perception and vision that have interested me in photography. Ideas of time, space, and measurement. 


 Jack Sal- “Re/Vision” Installation view- main room-Zone: Contemporary Art
TB: You said to me at the opening that they are not really paintings.
JS: They are objects that make use of the materials and language of painting. So, for instance they are all “formatted” canvases- 5’ X 6’ units, or 2’ x 3’ units, made as diptychs- two units placed together, and then, divided. 
TB: The joint is very important for each one.
JS: The physical division of the canvas goes along with the formal division of the canvas. The drawing and the object are one in the same…they are not separated. They are both figure and ground- similarly, gesso is used as a painting material…as opposed to using pigment in oil, or acrylic. Gesso is part of the vocabulary of painting as well. 
 Jack Sal- “Re/Vision”
TB: That makes sense to me. It is important to also understand that you also added a surface.
JS: Tape, which I have used as an element in my work for almost 10 years, comes from the idea of using a physical element (the tape) to create line. Drawing with objects, as opposed to drawing with my hand.
TB: You are referring to the tape as an object, then.
JS: As an “object element”, instead of drawing a graphite line, you put down this piece of tape and it becomes both a line- which is abstract, but also a physical object because it also occupies space on top of the canvas.
TB: It’s a little thicker.
JS: And it has an edge, and has its own format the way the drawing surface has a format. It reiterates not only its own self, but makes a reference to its support at the same time. In the canvas pieces, it goes even further, because the tape takes on the color of raw canvas, at first.
TB: At first.
JS: At first, and then it changes as well. It changes positions as the viewer moves in relation to the painting.
TB: You see that it is reflective, that it has a different weave.
JS: It has a dominant weave. The canvas has an interlocking weave, but the tape has a “plus and minus” weave- one direction over the other, one layer over the other. In the silk, you can see the dominance of one weave over the other…
TB: Depending on the angle of viewing.
 Jack Sal- “Re/Vision” detail
JS: Yes, in the light…so it comes back to photography. The idea of using the vocabulary of photographic practice; frame, light, object/image has always been a touchstone in my work.
TB: I have known you for many years, and after having looked at your website and studying the show last night I feel I finally understand that your work is incredibly close to formalism, but you also diverge radically from it. I never understood this before.
JS: It always looked too formal?
TB: Not too formal. Formal.
JS: I’m a skeptical formalist. 
TB: I was going to say “conceptual formalist”. You have the feel, and the taste, and the look, but not the thought. The thought diverges slightly…
JS: It doesn’t have the rigidity of thought, in the sense of an ideology…
TB: It doesn’t adhere to the ideology.
JS: It questions the ideology.
TB: But I had an idea I wanted to propose to you.
JS: ok…
TB: It is seductive to me. The thing that modifies the “received wisdom” or “rules” of formalism is touch. Touch is the thing that travels through all the work…what you call “mark-making”, described formally, is actually touch.
JS: Yeah. It is touch, and it is the humanity. In the “hand work”, there is the evidence of a kind of non-control, of accident, of things that are allowed to happen through interaction, rather than reaction. 
TB: Are you willing to say that interaction is an aspect of touch?
JS: Oh yes! To me, formalism is reaction, and the touch, or the “hand mark” is interaction. 
TB: It brings to mind a piece you made titled “Re/Place”. It is a piece about your parents living in that city after the war to a building that wasn’t bombed. You have a piece of bronze embedded in the sidewalk, that people touch with their feet, now. For me the point is that people can touch that as they walk by…

 Jack Sal “Re/Place” 1998
JS: Yes. The text is above, but there are marks inscribed into the bronze. Part of the idea is the question of whether or not the Germans would walk on something, almost desecrating it, but also that they would have to look under their feet, instead of just walking along. 
JS: Whenever I talked about doing something about the war in Germany people would look down, when you would talk to them. The idea of doing something on the ground made sense. The piece is placed directly outside the building where my parents lived after the war, in Max Weber Platz. The concept was to do something that is not up on a wall, or on a column, but actually part of the surface of the everyday…
TB: The other piece I was thinking about connected to this question of touch is the one in Kielce, Poland- called “White/Wash II - A Memorial for the Victims of the 1946 Pogrom”
JS: I had an exhibition 3 years before called “Whitewash”.
TB: Right. You worked with students.
JS: Yes, from the Academy there…using materials from the Jewish industrial district existing before the war including a lime quarry which was owned by a Jewish family…This quarry was nationalized after the war and turned into a “nature park”. And so wasn’t returned. For the monument, I made a structure out of hand-made concrete blocks because before the war there was a Jewish factory operating in Kielce that made concrete blocks. The ones for the monument are made in the same way they would have been before the war. The structure is built up out of units having irregular surfaces; it looks like a monolith, but is actually made of many separate elements.
TB: It has metal parts…
JS: Lead. Just like what is hung on the wall as you get off the elevator at Zone: Contemporary. Part of the controversy is that the city of Kielce and Poland itself have difficulty confronting a massacre, which happened in 1946. This was a year after the war was over. The rumor was that Jews in this building in Keilce were killing Christian children for blood to make matzos. Even though this was July, and Passover is in March…To this day, the Polish government refuses to acknowledge the number of people who died in the riot, which occurred at this site. When I did this work, the official “truth committee”, the committee which deals with war-time events, refused to acknowledge the 42 victims of the massacre, claiming, for example, that some victims died outside of city limits, or they wouldn’t count the fetus of someone was pregnant, even though she was close to term. On the official bronze plaque for the monument, there is no number. Instead as part of my original concept, and one that I held to, there are 42 lead plates, each one representing a victim. They are attached randomly to all 6 sides. The monument is in the shape of a “7” on its side because the pogrom occurred in July, the 7th month, at 7 Planty St. The building where the Jews were living is actually an L shape. The monument is a visual representation of the date, the street and the physical shape of the building.
 Jack Sal “White/Wash II-A Memorial for the Victims of the 1946 Pogrom” City of Kielce, Poland
TB: The form derives completely from events, and in that sense is political.
JS: That is due to the context. If I were working in a gallery, it would make absolutely no sense to make a political statement. 
TB: So by applying the same elements to different situations, your intent is to illuminate the various situations.
JS: Yes, I think that is what one does in all one’s activities. You use your sense of self, and your sense of thought and you apply them to all your activities.
TB: But this is not exactly the modernist program.
JS: No, and that is part of the collapse of modernism-which is a democracy of language, but not a democracy of intent. This is where it breaks down. As an artist, one has to accept history, but not the consequences. Even within aesthetics or concepts within art, you can accept, be interested in, and apply, the ideas of modernism, but not necessarily accept the conclusions. Hopefully you will be able to break out and expand the vocabulary. 
TB: So for example I’m thinking of the Barnett Newman piece made of the barbed wire….
JS: It was commemorate/protest the ’68 riots surrounding Democratic convention. It was so un-Barnett Newman-like that it was brilliant! If Barnett Newman had made a “Barnett Newman” for the ’68 political riots, it would have been redundant, like the Picasso dove…but Newman was so aware of the power of image and symbolism that he new that what he had to respond to wasn’t himself, but the event. The same goes for the “Obelisk”. I think Newman’s “Obelisk” was his response to his culture: historical, personal, being a New Yorker, learning about art at the MET. That was his symbol representing “Barnett Newman as a cultural being”. Whereas the paintings were about being Barnett Newman as a spiritual, cultural man, represented as an individual, not as a member of society.
TB: Newman is a touchstone for you…
JS: Newman is a pivotal personality the way Cezanne was, because he accepted the limitations of his vocabulary for its profundity, and not for its limits.
TB: Not as an end in itself.
JS: And he was willing to take on those limits even when they led him astray aesthetically. For example, those triangular paintings are horrific. But he was willing to invest in them. 
TB; Because it was an expansion…
JS: It was an expansion, and then he goes back to what he knows and does. That’s interesting to me. Larry Poons is an example of the reverse in a secondary, narrow viewpoint. He does one thing, and when that thing stops, his work just implodes. Those blips really worked, and there is an idea there. But then it implodes on itself. It doesn’t go anywhere. And then, there is this whole other thing happening in his work we don’t want to talk about. (laughs)
TB: So getting back to your show. The lead pieces coming off the elevator, “Whitewash III”…the lead has a very tactile presence, and they are screwed to the wall in a very particular way. I took it as a reference to Ryman, which was amusing. But I found them to be very direct and satisfying to have them bolted that way, with small hex-head bolts. You mentioned the piece in Kielce earlier having the same lead elements- I take it that your reference here is a deep reference.
JS: Yeah. I take the 7 pieces in the gallery as representing 7 of the 42 pieces. For me, the idea would be to bring those 42 victims out into the world. The work in Kielce is permanent.
TB: Right.
 Jack Sal detail,”White/Wash III” concrete blocks, lead sheets, lime wash, 2009
JS: Hopefully those 42 pieces of lead installed there won’t go anywhere. They will remain a marker of those victims there. But the idea is that you could bring those 42 victims out into the world, and they would get distributed to museums and other venues, is for me part of the power of art. It literally transports them.
TB: That is very direct.
JS: But it is also very subtle. I don’t want to be didactic- I don’t want to say, “Whitewash III the 42 victims of Kielce” I try to limit the references in the work to the direct experience of it, rather than focus on an explanation of it. I try to keep the titles very site-specific, and then use my “word-play” in a very tight way as well.
TB: You are not averse to making the connection with me today.
JS: No not at all. But I am averse to creating some kind of “language sign system” for the viewer.
TB; You want the experience to be a direct empirical experience.
JS: Yes, and the reference is intended to be made by the viewer’s interaction with, and connection to the work over time; not by me guiding them by the nose! When I title it “Whitewash III”, unless someone is totally out of touch, and doesn’t want to do any kind of research on the contextual implications of my work, they would make the connection between ”Whitewash II” the monument, with its lead pieces, and these lead pieces.
TB: Right. And the lead piece in the back room?
 Jack Sal “ Untitled“1989
JS: That comes from a series I did in 1989, which were part of a large installation (New Art/New Material-North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC). Some of it was lead, and other panels were made of a material that blocked ultraviolet light. They had photo paper under them, and that made a black mark. The panels were unattached, so you could see the image being exposed on the photo paper. The lead pieces like the one in the gallery had white marks. I have shown these lead pieces over the years because the pigment has interacted with the lead, and left a trace of the mark. So after years, the lead has also become chemically photosensitive, and interacted with the material. There is the trace of my hand-mark left. I have been using lead because photo paper is essentially silver suspended in gelatin. I have always tried to treat the photo paper as both an interactive retainer of light, and as a physical object: it tarnishes, gets a physical patina, and reacts. The lead is an extension of that interest- to be another kind of reactive material.
TB: So the photo paper can be touched by light, this is another kind of touch that becomes visible.
JS: Exactly.
TB: I want to keep emphasizing the qualities of “touch” in your work. It flies below the radar, and I think it has a constant repeating force in the work.
JS: It’s true. Even when there isn’t any “hand” touch in the work, there is a reactive element of paper, or salt, or some physical thing that causes things to happen beyond the control of the maker, or the viewer. The art has a life of its own…either materially, or conceptually. We are all viewers, whether makers or not.
TB: Well art goes on, it continues. But aren’t you talking about inserting something that is subversive?
JS: What I am doing questions the permanency of things. Our experience in the 20th-21st centuries is that we recognize and acknowledge the ephemeral qualities of life. Part of the problem of modernism is that it tries to arrest the ephemeral. Ironically, sometimes the best touchstone of that ephemeral quality is the very permanency that modernism proposes. I’m trying to make things that look as if they are in the legacy of modernist iconography, while they are actually changing in front of your eyes. Either they are changing because they have physical qualities that when you move they change, like the way the tape does on the large pieces, or when you assume you are looking at a painting but then realize the space between them is a drawing although it isn’t made like a drawing; suddenly the space becomes line, which is a division. Without sounding too self-referential, the idea of using panels like this not only comes from modernism, but also comes from spending time in Italy, and looking at Renaissance, and pre-Renaissance panel painting. I live part of the year close to Assisi, where the Giotto’s are. The Franciscans implemented the use of a panel-narrative style. Understanding that many people were illiterate, they used methods of preaching through illustration. There was an emphasis on episodic events in sequence. The connection between them comes from a kind of program. So the format of things is not the by-product of architectural structure, they do not serve as decoration. Programming is part of the language- in this case, it serves a dogma. Painting is not used merely as illustrative means of depicting a story- but by its very framing, its presentation it is used to direct a certain point of view, a certain program.
TB: And you are saying that is separate from narrative?
JS: Yes, it’s separate from narrative because in earlier painting overlapping events would take place simultaneously on the same canvas/panel- a donor would show up twice in the same painting- in 2 different events. The Franciscans broke that down because they knew that by making the stories more focused, more episodic, you could preach from one event to the other. You could go through the year preaching sermons following the panels.
TB: So how does that bear on your thought?
JS: That our experience of art objects is also episodic. Even though we carry with us a history of art, a history of our own experiences in life, when you approach an object you have an episodic experience. That experience is framed by the space, by the time, and the object in front of you. It is similar to site-specificity, or installation, but it uses the language of the traditional art objects and their formal qualities as well- i.e. Painting. I am not “breaking the glass” between art and reality the way that occurs in other art installations. 
TB: So that the installation becomes the only world there is…
JS: And it comes to occupy what I would call a “furniture world; I’m interested in creating a site-specific aesthetic experience that recalls formal art.
TB: Recalls looking at art in a museum.
JS: Yes, that’s our alter; going to a museum is like going to church. That is where we are quiet and pay attention, and think of the past. Bruce Nauman is a very important influence because Bruce’s interest in the life of the studio is paramount in his work. He is about what happens in the studio. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t like the studio. It was too private. What goes on in the studio for me did not have enough of the experience of what excited me about going to see art. 
TB: Is the studio a space which is too subjective, or inward or mental? Did you want a social vector?
JS: It really came down to the experience of standing in front of a Rothko at Yale Art Gallery, and being overwhelmed. Thinking this is what art is about. I didn’t get that experience standing in front of my drawing table. The context added to the experience. Nauman’s take on studio activity is phenomenal! He talks about the life of the artist making decisions in the studio that is, for me, parallel to Beuy’s work in a political and social setting. By letting go of the studio experience and literally bringing the studio into the gallery is how I wanted to expand. In this show, as in others, I make the work in the gallery. It allows me to make work that is site-specific in a literal sense, because it makes use of the physical qualities of the room. But also that allows me to frame the work in the context of where it is being shown. It breaks from the traditional idea of making something in the studio and transporting it, putting it up, and then bringing it to the next space. So here, it is about experiencing the art as a cumulative totality.
TB: So when one of these objects leaves the gallery we will remember where it was, as part of its nature?
JS: You will. It will have its trace. I am a real believer in the idea that as soon as an artist makes the work the artist reenters as a viewer, with everyone else. Although you may have a privileged position as a viewer, you are never again the maker. So it is the object that has its trace in context. Your will doesn’t impose that.
TB: The object carries that.
JS: Yes, if it is a good work, it does it like every cultural object of merit: it retains its history. Bad art is bad because it does not connect. It does not have a cultural history.
TB: Right. There is a reversal here- the (recent) tradition is that the art object is portable.
JS: Yes and that comes totally out of what we assume (which is wrong) to be a long tradition of bourgeois, Impressionist based, dealer-collector assumptions about objects. The assumption is that paintings are made for private viewing, and that museums are essentially “public/private” spaces. They are the expansion of the private connoisseur into the public realm. Why else would the MET re-create people’s homes in the museum? They glorify the connoisseurship of the private. If a sane person did that, they would be institutionalized. If you spent millions of dollars to re-create your house somewhere else, just so you could show the things you bought, you would be put into therapy. The idea of reproducing an aesthetic experience to the level of reproducing furniture and rugs is a scary concept. It does show the influence of art and artists on museum practices, because it shows the importance of context. But it also shows the inverse: the hierarchy of where the power lies- with private connoisseurship and patronage. What I’m trying to do is double back on that, so that the public display creates such a strong context, a fixed context, (ephemeral anyway) that the trace cannot be broken or removed from the work. It cannot be truncated off the back of it. In the strongest modernist works, that happens. I mean, you cannot see a Mondrian, whether it’s in Utrecht, or in NY, or in Germany, and not reattach it to the body of work of Mondrian. 
TB: I am picturing his studio.
JS: Exactly. That is the exit door of modernism. Mondrian shows this, it is what Rothko was trying to get at it with the Chapel. This is where the paintings refer to context that the artist produces in presentation, as well as internally. We show in galleries because it is assigned, it is the given. It is part of our job to use that language of presentation to affix a context to the objects once they leave the gallery. We are not making objects the way 19th century painters were making objects about life. We are making objects about the whole art experience, which includes the art market, and the gallery, and the fact that these are commodities. If this commodity has a history, which is not only about its price, but about its position in the world-where it came from and how it meant something in relation to other objects, then it has a chance not to die as a commodity.
TB: Not to become outmoded, or out of fashion…
JS: Because fashion has to do with wrenching objects from time- that’s why fashion has seasons, and why it repeats endlessly. That is why you can have the same thing come back after 5 years or 10 or whatever because it doesn’t have a context. That’s part of the confusion about art- some of it has bought into that cycle. That always occurs at the fringes of art because it allows people to recycle value, recycle desires, recycle emotions. They don’t have to accept the responsibilities art objects demand. One of the things the commodity value of art allows for a collector or buyer, is to abandon the responsibility of curatorship and caretaking. Because all you have to do is re-sell it. If you were a collector in the true sense of the word, you are signing yourself up for the responsibility of placing the object, in the sense of where it ends up. Wynn Kamarsky, who I really respect, is a caretaker of his collection, not only a collector. He is as much interested in where the objects end up in context- in museum collections, in university collections, as he is in what happens to them in terms of their value- monetary, or historical. The boom of the art market has been very distracting in this regard. The worst thing about the markets is the way they distract from the important things in life. I had a conversation with somebody who was not able to sleep at night because they lost a million dollars on paper. That is a serious distraction from living because this person’s life had not changed- they still lived in the same apartment, still had the same objects around them,
still had the same daily activities, but they were so agitated for something that is totally abstract.
TB: This gets back to your insistence on understanding context, and having that move with the work. Someone leading a decontextualized life.
JS: Yes, it would be someone walking into my room at Zone: Contemporary of diptych panels with tape stripes and gesso and say, “Ah, this is a parody of Barnett Newman.” The distraction would be the image of Barnett Newman’s paintings and their context and content. If you came with that baggage, you would totally miss the point, and be distracted. You wouldn’t see. If that is the person walking in, they are not going to engage, anyway.
TB: This brings up the question of the esoteric in relation to your work.
JS: I think the beauty of thought is thought itself. One tries to do intelligent things to become intelligent. That’s it!
TB: What about the unavailable?
JS: Everything is available for those who want to engage. If someone can’t engage because they are distracted, because they don’t have the references, because they are too lazy to try to find the references, because they are ill equipped to pay attention to the references, it is not the responsibility of the artist to guide them. It is one of the reasons I stopped teaching. My experience with the best teachers I ever had was that they pointed, and then they shut up. They did not try to lead you towards their thought and methods.
TB: There is a beautiful statement you made as part of that piece in Kielce- “Where politics, institutions and debate fail I offer the intelligence and tolerance of art and culture to Kielce and the world.” 
JS: That was at the inauguration, attended by the Ambassador, Minister of Culture, Polish and American, the Israeli Ambassador. I realized everybody was interested in the politic of the moment. But no one was willing to invest in the idea that perhaps the only way to get to the truth, would be to invest in the aesthetic to lead them. The aesthetic might be able to clear the air, get rid of the baggage, of everybody’s point of defense. I believe the aesthetic can do that. I believe that you and I, who have no cultural similarities in terms of background or our experiences with our families, have a common ground that is stronger than Hicksville LI, or Connecticut, or anywhere. This is the background based on Western cultural experience. I believe that is stronger between us than any social, political, or religious touchstone. It has formed us, given us our point of view as people! I do not believe in this separation between art and life…I don’t act when I make my art the way I act in my life…that would be so limiting. I wouldn’t be able to do certain normal things. However, I do believe that what I do in my art affects the choices I make in my life. That is very important. If anything, we understand that culture is able to modify our life. If we are intelligent, we understand our life shouldn’t moderate and change our culture.
TB: So the culture leads.
JS: Hopefully!
TB: This is what you mean by aesthetic. By aesthetic you could mean the contemplation of beauty, but you are talking about something much stronger than that.
JS: Yes, yes. The contemplation of beauty is a subset that allows one to gain access to the ephemeral, beautiful, “broken-off” realm. This is also part of culture, but is not the mainstay of culture- anymore than popular culture is the mainstay of culture. The true understanding of culture is that it is like DNA- it is all linked up. But there is not a hierarchy of one thing over the other. That is why “cultural correctness” or the “100 best books” is misguided. Culture is ephemeral. If we fix its location, it dies. It is the same thing with my work: if I “fix” my work to a point in time, it is dead, it does not work. The only hope I have in my work, is that it attaches itself to a contemporary context.

Thomas Butter

Thomas Butter has been living in NYC since 1977, and showing since 1981. He is currently on the Adjunct Faculty in the Fine Arts Department at Parsons the New School for Design, and has taught at many colleges and universities on the east coast, including RISD, Harvard, Yale, Tyler, MICA, University of the Arts, and many others.  
thom.butter@gmail.com website: www.tombutter.com


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