August 2009, Interview with David Novros, Part 1

Untitled, 1966, 6 panels, acrylic on canvas, Murano pigment, 8’ X 12”, collection of the artist.

David Novros has been painting and showing his work in NYC and internationally since 1965. I visited him in his studio in Manhattan earlier this year and we talked about a wide array of subjects bearing on his work and career.

He will be opening at Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea Tuesday, September 1, 2009 with an exhibition featuring a selection of paintings from the sixties.

This interview will be published in three parts.

Part Two Part Three

TB: Phong Bui did a great job interviewing you for the Brooklyn Rail in June 2008.He covered your development as an artist, important exhibitions you have been included in throughout your career, and your close association with Don Judd, Brice Marden, Paul Mogenson and many other artists in NYC. You explain your involvement with Park Place, Dwan, and Bykert Galleries, and give the details of your recent exhibition history. A fascinating and impressive account. As you and Phong talk, I get a sense of the depth and breadth of your activities. I looked up the shows, articles, and reviews you mention and I learned a lot about the ideas and events shaping the art world during that period in NYC. Artists were still, by and large, determining the way things moved and developed with art in the public sphere: there seems to have existed an active, viable community. Not as true today.  
Anyway, for this interview, I don’t want to go over the same territory you and Bui describe and evoke so well. I thought of doing two things - one is to get further into the meaning of your work, the other is to talk more about your experiences in NYC and what they have meant to you.

DN: I’m happy to talk with you about that. I just finished an interview for the Smithsonian Institution- they are doing an artists’ interview series…I did it for the Mellon and I’ve done a number of these interviews in the last few years. I begin wondering: “Is this the sort of thing you do when you have terminal cancer?”

(lots of laughter)

Maybe I had better go to the doctor, since everybody wants me to do these interviews… (more laughter).

TB: I looked up the one from the Smithsonian- it hasn’t been transcribed yet, so it isn’t available.

DN: At any rate I’ll be happy to talk with you about anything you want to talk about…

TB: OK. I went back to look at an article that you seemed pretty enthusiastic about. It was written a while ago-

DN: Harris Rosenstein.

TB: Yeah, I was pretty impressed with the writing…the guy is pretty good.

DN: Yes… he’s dead now. He was really an astounding person. He was writing for Artnews under Tom Hess - they were friends - he came out of a science and philosophy background essentially. He had known and become friends with many of the New York artists- especially Elaine and Bill DeKooning, Rosenberg- he was involved with a certain kind of milieu. When he went to Artnews, Harris did a piece on Paul Mogenson, Brice Marden and me. Really, I think even today, it is probably one of the best things that has been written about us.  

TB: Yeah I just read it this morning.

DN: It is very good. He then went to the DeMenil Foundation. He was responsible for an exhibition I did with Brice and some paintings of Rothko’s that were left over from the chapel project. I pitched the idea of that exhibition to him, and he bought it.

TB: You had 3 rooms, right?

DN: I had 3 rooms which were one painting. It is not well understood that it is not meant to be three separate rooms…it is meant to be an inter-related cycle. 2 of the rooms are at the DeMenil Foundation, one of them is at the Fort Worth Contemporary Art Museum. I always thought they could be lent back, but they never are…One of them was shown recently at the DeMenil itself, on a single wall. It just adds to the confusion about how the work is supposed to be seen - I am always happy to have it seen, but it would be nice if it were put in a permanent location somewhere…that’s what I would like to have happen.  

“Room” 3- 1975 10’ x 20’ one of three rooms-each 10’ x 20’,oil on canvas, Collection-Menil Foundation, Houston, Texas

TB: And that would be for work throughout your career - locations set up for individual pieces?

DN: Yes, really from the beginning, and even before…if you have read the interviews, you would know that I have always thought of myself as essentially a wall painter without jobs…and in order to do them I have had to invent ways of painting (to make them) acceptable to me as murals.

TB: Yeah I read that- did that come from seeing Fra Angelico at San Marco?

DN: That had a great deal to do with it, but that isn’t the actual… you can’t pinpoint that as the actual raison d’etre for that kind of painting. I have been interested in wall painting since I was a kid. I was encouraged to do it by my father- I used to paint murals in the garage- each year I would paint over the previous one and paint another. I did this for a few years. I liked painting murals. I then forgot about it for a long time, and made “normal” student work- regular picture paintings. After a while, as a student at USC, I saw some Clifford Still paintings-4 big wall paintings. They interested me…then I was able to go to NYC- and I saw the great paintings in person which I had never seen before.

TB: At the Met?

DN: At the Met, at the Modern, at the Albright-Knox…everywhere. I had gone to the Albright Know when I was driving across the country. It was an eye-opener. And then I went to Europe. That was the moment when I understood- through a series of events- the kind of work I wanted to do…I went first to Spain, in Spain I went to Grenada, and I saw the Alhambra, and it occurred to me that painting could have that same quality of being non-pictorial, or being “not a rectangle”, not a picture in a rectangle. But instead, something that worked directly with light and space. I didn’t quite know how that was going to resolve itself in my work, but when I went to Italy and saw the frescoes, I was bitten by the bug to make that kind of work. Subsequently, every time I see a cave painting for the first time, or a new fresco cycle, or mosaic, I am equally encouraged. It is very difficult, almost, for me to look at regular pictures. I adore many, many, many paintings that were painted that way- but my preference is for the other.

TB: In some of your interviews they get very specific about references to nature…not just the light coming into the room, or the light the painting makes, but direct references to nature. I’m curious about other references. Rosenstein says your work is “poetic” but he doesn’t say what the poetry is. He describes the conditions you set up to get things moving, but he doesn’t actually get to the part where he describes what is happening…

DN: Well perhaps when you get to that point it isn’t really poetic…

TB: That’s the question, you know?  

DN: I don’t like talking about that aspect of my work. I’m uncomfortable talking about content directly. I make poems, I write poetry. If anybody reads my poetry, they’ll have a better idea than any specific reference I could make to meaning or content, which I try to avoid doing at all costs.

TB: OK. Um, your poetry…could I have some of that to include as well?

DN: Of course. That would be great. Two of my things have actually been published. I never had any intention of making publishable poetry. What I have done over the years is usually, before I get to work, I sit down, and look at the things and then I start thinking. Certain kinds of language, or other kinds of observations that go on when I am doing this looking begin to make their way into my head. Sometimes this suggests a kind of literary poetic content. So I write them down. And then I go back and I mull them over. But I never sit down to write a poem. They are internal conversations, almost always related to my painting.  

TB: Related to your painting, but really the subject seems to be your mind, the way you are describing it…

DN: No, that distinction between your mind and the external reality that determines your processes is something that is beyond my ability to comprehend.

TB: The distinction.

DN: Yeah you get into the completely Zen conundrum. It can give you a headache. Trying to make that distinction.

TB: So the condition just exists.

DN: Being a painter is a condition. I love that way of describing being a painter. And making paintings that are themselves conditions. In fact, Rothko used to talk about painting that way. That he was really making a condition. I find it is very helpful to think of my own work in that way.

TB: Did you speak with him?

DN: Once. He came to the opening at Park Place (Gallery)- the first show I was part of in NY with Mark DiSuvero, and I was introduced to him- just a handshake. I lurked around, and then I asked someone with whom he had been talking- “What did he say? What did he say?” He said-“He’s OK, but we’ll see what it’s like in forty years.”

(lots of laughter)

And that was the perfect thing to say, because what, I was 24 years old, 25 years old? Who could say anything about a 24 year-old’s work.

TB: Yeah. But he was there.

DN: He was there, and the paintings were good paintings. Those are the ones I will show with Paula- a group of paintings from the ‘60’s. Some of the things she showed when she was at Park Place.

Untitled, 1966-67 oil on canvas, 10’ x 15’ collection of the artist.

TB: She worked there, right?

DN: Yes she was the Director the second year when I was there.  

TB: Do you know Richard Van Buren?

DN: I did very well. In fact, when I first came to NY, Van Buren had a studio on West Broadway and Broome. A very narrow little building, very small. There was a guy there named Dan Dudrow who had been at Yale Norfolk with me. I heard that Stella had a studio there too. I was staying with a friend named Bill Hochausen who was fantastic to me when I first came- very open and welcoming. I had met him that summer of 61 at Yale, along with Marden, Close and Vija Celmins and a whole lot of people. Bill was really, really, sweet to me, and put me up at his place, nearby. I heard through the grapevine there was a room available at this other place. There was a Greek Diner on the ground floor. This is a long way of saying, yes Dick was there. He was very welcoming and nice. We showed at a bunch of galleries together.

TB: So, I don’t want to bug you with this…you call it a “condition”.

DN: I don’t call it a condition, it came up in the conversation and I went with it. I would like to stick with my original….I’m not trying to be mysterious. I’m trying to make the point that the kind of “pinpointing” of intention, or content, seems false to me. It seems like a false way to describe the process as I know it. It doesn’t work that way. Maybe for some people. When I was young I could have answered that in 5 seconds. I could have told you all the things, everything. And if you kept listening to me before you fell asleep, you would have known probably just as little as when I started. But also, my earlier paintings were much more formal than the paintings I’m doing now. They were simple. I was really involved to a great degree with resolving ideas I had had with extremely formal means. Thinking in formal ways. For instance at the time when Harris Rosenstein wrote the piece that’s where my mind was. About 5 or 6 years later I was moving away from that kind of thinking, that way of approaching the paintings.  

TB: They were a uniform color, but what he calls “complex color”.

DN: They weren’t uniform, in the sense of one color, they were made up out of materials and ways of painting that made the paintings shift in light. When I first came to NY and was in the studio, the one I told you about, there had been a piano in that studio. I shoved that piano against the wall, and I got a fan, and I turned it into a spray booth. I was interested in paintings that modulated through the spectrum. They weren’t supposed to be one color, they were supposed to be all colors, and move through the spectrum. They had a lot to do with my interest in Byzantine painting, having seen Ravenna, and seen that kind of color. After a while spraying and doing that, I decided that I was going to attempt to achieve that kind of quality without having multiple kinds of color, chromatic activity. About that point I was walking down West Broadway, and there was a store there- Harry’s Paint Store. All the painters went there. He was this guy who just had house paint for the most part. He was kind of a bullshitter. We would all go there and buy our stuff from him. So I walked out of there one time, and I saw a tin can, and on the edge of the can was this weird stuff that changed colors as I walked by it. I had all kinds of associations with it immediately; I was like, “Wow”. I come from California, from LA, and I had seen paint similar to that on cars. I thought of that. And also when I was in London I had seen “The Cup of Lyserges”. Have you seen that? Maybe in the British museum. It is a Roman glass goblet that, when seen from one side is red, and from the other side goes green. I had no idea how it was done- some kind of refraction/reflection. The thing that killed me was that this material I saw at the edge of the can at Harry’s paint store did the same thing. Depending on the undercoat, and the way you painted over it, or used it in an admixture with paint, you could get different sorts of effects. I began using that. That’s the kind of “simple to complex” stuff Harris was talking about. Before that I had used metallic pigment, and other things that did not simply allow for one reading. I was trying to make paintings that could be seen by people in motion, and by light that was in motion. Not a fixed kind of gallery concept.  

TB: Is that the Murano paint?

DN: Yes that’s the Murano paint.

TB: So the paintings you are going to show at Cooper in September are these?

Untitled, 1966- 8 panels, acrylic on canvas, Murano pigment, 8’x 23’, collection of the artist.

DN: Yes. We haven’t really finalized it, but I’m going to show a green painting I never exhibited. It is one of the earliest paintings I made, and for some reason, I really don’t know why now, I never showed it. But it’s green with some gold powder in it…and I’m going to show a big painting that was in the show at the Guggenheim Museum- “Systemic Painting”.

TB: Alloway, right?

DN: Right. That painting is a kind of big double right angle painting with a little end. It’s painted in multiple layers of everything- it starts with a red and ends up with a blue, with some of this metallic stuff in it. Gold metallic stuff in it. So it shifts quite a lot. I’m not sure about the other ones. I have a group of the pearlescent ones- I may, or may not, show one or two of those. In another room I’m showing paintings that were made later, in ’69-which are oil paint. At that time I was making multi-colored paintings. Also I’m going to show one that I showed there last year- I’m going to re-show it- which was the first time I began…it was one that had been monochromatic, and a couple of years later I painted it as a multi-colored painting.  

TB: The front room has natural light in it, no?

DN: Both rooms have natural light- the big room has a large skylight, the small room has a front bay of windows.  

TB: Right. So that’s good, huh?

DN: Excellent! I love the space. I have to say, because I have known Paula for so many years, it may get easier to want to show again, and also because the space is so beautiful. I think it is a really good space for my paintings. 


Part Two Part Three

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. website:


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