Graham studio, acrylic on canvas, 2006, Venice CA. (David Novros on left.)
TB: In your interview with Phong Bui, You are talking at one point about the difference between Rothko and Newman?
TB: And you used the word presence? Which is a word I love.
DN: Yeah I like the word too. It explains the things you can’t explain.
TB: Yeah. That’s why I’m coming back to it.
DN: You are going to try and pin me…
TB: Nah, I’m not trying to do that. I think that even if you can’t talk about it, there are ways to talk around it. This can be illuminating. Somehow this has to be able to be done, otherwise things are incoherent somehow. Right? I think I understand that you want your work to come to us through the senses, empirically- my senses, or your senses. But that is a way of talking about it.
DN: But the issue is, for instance (how can I state this?)- the distinction between the senses and perception- what I was trying to say before- is a very badly understood issue. I don’t understand it, I’m interested in it, I’m intrigued by it and it has something to do with my paintings, but it is only one of a lot of different things that have to do with my paintings.
TB: OK but you still don’t want to talk about it too much?
DN: I still don’t want to talk about it too much. My father always tried to get me to talk with him about (quote, unquote) color. He was a very bright guy, very interested.
TB: What did he do?
DN: He had been a painter, when he was young, sort of Cezannian, and then he became a filmmaker. He worked for Disney as an animator. He was quite well versed in all these sort of things we are talking about, and he was writing a book. He would want to talk about color in film and he would ask me about color. And I kept refusing to answer him, because I didn’t like the distinction being made between “color” and “light”. And color as this, or that- (here David Novros moves his hand along the edge of the table, patting the surface in an interval). I don’t like the distinctions made between various kinds of elements. I prefer the interconnectedness of the elements, as expressed in the painting, not in some other form of expression. I told you a lot about the paintings here in the studio, didactic things about them. But as I say I would never repeat it as a kind of explanation. It is only talking about- “this is my thumb”- that’s incontrovertible. This is my thumb! (laughter). I’m happy to say that sort of thing. But beyond that, even kicking and screaming, I won’t go there. If you like I’ll read you some poetry…
TB: Well OK, I would, but I want to go to another place. I’m not going to try and pin you down…
DN: That’s what everybody says…and that’s probably the reason you’re going to another place…
TB: No, no, I want to hear your poetry, I just…
DN: But the poetry would explain a lot to you, I think. It would explain the kinds of things you are trying to talk about.
TB: OK. I’m not going to talk about those things, quite. I just want to move sideways a bit.
TB: To the history. I’m a kid in art school, in the early ‘70’s. I’m reading about Donald Judd. This is the Philadelphia College of Art. Raphael Ferrer is there, Italo Scanga is at Tyler.
DN: I spoke at Tyler one time. The painter Stephen Greene was there and he invited me. He had been a big influence on Stella at one point, I was told. Anyway I’m sorry you were saying…
TB: No that’s OK. I had started reading about contemporary art. It seemed so crazy. My teachers, a couple of them had been educated at the Barnes Foundation in the French tradition…
DN: That’s interesting…
TB: And all of a sudden I realized- “This is really something else…what is going on with “Minimalism”?”
DN: Yes. I had something of that experience. I went to Europe and came back to the United States. Before I had left, I read had Judd in Arts Magazine. There was a very bright librarian at the University of Southern California. He stocked “It Is”, he stocked “Arts” and he stocked the most radical kinds of magazines, and the best writing on art at the time. I started reading it, even though I had never seen the painting that was being discussed. I was interested, fascinated, and obviously dying to get to NYC and check it out. So then when I went to Europe, I had a totally different kind of experience: huge paintings and these big monumental fresco cycles- things that were outside of the historical lineage that one is taught- because they are not “pictures”. Many of them are made by anonymous artists. That put them outside of the interests of most people. I love Fra Angelico. But as much as I love Fra Angelico, there are any number of nameless fresco painters I like just as much. So then when I came back to the States, I began seeing work by people like Judd and Stella in Los Angeles in the San Paulo Bianalle Exhibition. It was exhibited at the LA County Museum. That stuff made perfect sense to me as related to the kind of thing I had seen in Europe- I don’t know why, I can’t tell you why. I had been looking at Roman floor mosaics, and wall mosaics in Madrid. I had spent a lot of time looking at them. I was very influenced by them. These paintings, especially those by Stella, you would see geometric, free-floating things on the wall- they reminded me of the mosaics, the things I had seen. The shaped, one-color paintings, not so much the black ones, but the purple ones, the silver and copper ones…I liked those paintings a lot, they meant a lot to me in the same way that Judd’s work meant a lot to me. Not that they had the same feeling. But they were fresh, they were new- what you are trying to talk about. Judd’s writing was the same way. Judd’s writing cut through all the bullshit, went right to the experience, it was profound.
He was a great writer.
DN: So there’s this confluence with what I had already been thinking and what was going on in New York. At least there was in my mind. Maybe there really wasn’t, but in my mind…It seemed like the same idea. You wanted to do away with the paradigm of the art object bought by a collector, hung up on their wall, shown in a white space, with the single lights, soulless, no use. The use had to be built into them. I think that was true of the Abstract Expressionists. I was trying to make that point about Newman, and Rothko, Still, Kline, Pollock of course. They seemed to be muralists (I’m retracing my thoughts). They seemed to be muralists who didn’t have walls. None of them wanted to buy into the WPA concept about how to use art, which is understandable. But they were all interested in that kind of public expression of a private idea, on a huge scale…They were unable to get the jobs. They tried: if you read their histories, you see them trying to do wall painting, or architectural things, but never able to really get it to happen. So I think they built that into their paintings. So their paintings became places.
TB: That is really interesting. When you say-“a private idea”- for them, is it more private than it had been?
DN: I think so, yes.
TB: Would it be Existential then? Was that part of the thought then, was that in the background? The notion of the level of responsibility each individual has…I have always wondered…
DN: “Existential” is a loaded word in regard to painting. I’m interested in it. I won’t deny it. I think “existential behavior, existential thought” has a specific meaning that can be ascribed to a lot of these painters we were talking about. I don’t think they were Existentialists. But I think all of them were involved with questions of being that had been talked a lot about on a literary level by the Existentialists, but had not been painted.
TB: It was in the air, right?
DN: I think so. I think the music, the jazz, the poetry, in America, specifically is what I’m
talking about. I think it was a very exciting moment in a very repressive culture. These people were able to find their existential selves within their art.
TB: It is inspiring. I missed it, I was too young. But looking back it is inspiring. I met Judd once, he was very nice to me. It was in Philadelphia, I went up to him, it was a thrill for me.
DN: Hmm. It is curious. Everybody has a “Rashomon” circumstance with Judd. Everybody has their own attitude towards Judd. I loved him, he was very tough. He was a tough guy, and there are some aspects of his ideas I don’t agree with…I think he was limited, in some kind of way, after the mid-‘70’s- he really cut a lot of stuff off. He and I had been close, and when I made the fresco (at his place in SoHo) he was encouraging, he really liked my work.
But the moment I began exploring other ways of painting, that was it, I was no longer doctrinaire. Although we remained good friends, there was never that kind of interchange again, he was never interested in coming by and seeing what I had made, anymore. As long as it supported his concepts about things, he would be interested. That’s not true all together, because he loved Chamberlain, and he loved Kenny Price, and Larry Bell. He loved a lot of people’s work. You know what I’m saying...but in my case I guess he just didn’t like where I went.
TB: He loved Bontecou, and Kusama.
DN: Yeah he was odd…In painting he liked Reinhart, he collected the Swiss color grid painter- I can’t remember his name. He liked his work. That all made sense based on who he was. But he did like all this other stuff, plus he was so generous because he was willing to share his space, and money, and time, with other artists, and give them a chance to do other work. Which almost nobody does- other artists’ ego are so gigantic that almost nobody is willing to make that kind of gesture.
TB: Right. I asked him- “What does that phrase mean, “root, hog, or die”? He smiled and said it was a Missouri farmer’s expression. It was great.
DN: That’s right! Yeah there was that. People tend to forget that he was a philosophy major at Columbia- Shapiro was there- it was a great moment. He got turned on initially by painting. I mean, how can you give the Don Judd history lesson?
TB: I know…OK, you want to read some poetry?
DN: Do you want me to?
Untitled, 1969, oil on canvas, 15 panels, 9’ x 9’, collection of the artist
DN: I’ll only do it because I think that it is a way of moving the discussion outside of the jargon of the art world. And the constructs. I first started really allowing it to be published for a catalog that Michael Auping did for an exhibition called “Geometric Painting”. I really objected to the title, and told him I wouldn’t be in the show if it was going to be about geometric painting.
TB: At the Albright-Knox?
DN: Yes. Because I felt in the same sense that Newman didn’t like being included in geometric painting shows- not that I felt that my work looked anything like Newman’s, or was about Newman’s- but I thought that is was a broad and meaningless categorization. I felt it was bad- like being put in a “minimal art” exhibition. All these conventions are just there for the purposes of sales…and I objected to them. So I included a poem, instead of a statement. Instead of some sort of formal writing, which I could do…I wrote a poem, which says more about how I am thinking, and where my paintings are coming from, than if I were to make some sort of statement. As I say, all the statements I have made, for example, in ArtNews, I find embarrassing in retrospect. And if I were a better poet, I would probably find my poetry embarrassing too.
(lots of laughter)
But I don’t. And it still seems true to me. A friend of mine died recently, a sculptor named Robert Graham, he was my closest friend for many years. His dying has been very tough for me. He had a role in my life no one else has had. I have been very, very close to Brice (Marden) or to Paul Mogenson, or my friend Bob Duran who died as well. Graham was in Los Angeles. In fact the last thing he did was to build a new building, and make very interesting new kinds of sculpture before he died. This building is a huge place. He, like Judd was an incredibly generous guy, and he would say- “You come, and paint paintings all over the place in my building.” And I did, I painted 5 murals for him, shortly before he died. That was the last fresco cycle I have done. I did a lot of writing about them. I was thinking, not about death specifically, but certainly longevity (laughs) was playing a role in my thinking.
TB: Do you have pictures of that work?
DN: Yes I do, I can show you some pictures…hand me those two little notebooks over there. See that building on the one? That’s the building that he built.
TB: It’s beautiful. Did he design that as well?
DN: He designed another earlier one for himself and his wife, Angelica Houston. Then in the adjoining lot he built this other huge studio as a workspace with a foundry for himself and a space for her as well. His son designed the 2nd building, and saw to getting it built. It was very important for Bob to tell people that his son, Steven, had been responsible for doing it.
Bob’s influence was everywhere to be seen- he is the only person I have ever truly said I have collaborated with on a painting. I have never done that with anyone else. I have wanted to collaborate with architects, but I have never found one I could deal with…but I was willing to accept Bob’s needs on this job. He would say- “What about…how about doing another one over here? Do something else over there.” I would say- “OK!” And I would do it. It actually worked out OK.
TB: What was the new sculpture he was working on?
DN: I can show you a piece. He was no longer making things based on verisimilitude.
TB: Oh really! That is very surprising!
DN: He was making very loose drawings and sculpture. Drawings and wax. They are figurative. They remind me a bit of the DeKooning sculpture. They are somewhat like that. You now this guy had been looking hard for 50 years at women and other subjects to make his work, so all that information morphed in his psyche to make these new, very different works. I think people have a lot of trouble with them because they have expectations.
DN: That is unfortunate. I am hoping eventually people get a chance to see this stuff. At this point a woman, Noriko Fujiyama is still manning the phones and his son is still there. It is not really open to the public, it is going to be a while. Very complicated. I am hoping maybe Jeremy Strick, who is going to the Nasher Sculpture Center, will be interested in doing something with his work because he liked Bob and he knew him…Strick has expressed an interest in sculptors who use video and photography, which Bob had done since the ‘60’s. In the mid-‘60’s he was showing with Nick Wilder and he made some films- sort of semi-pornographic using these wax models he had made…they are quite beautiful, really terrific. And he always used photography. And then the last 10 or 15 years he started using video and computers a lot, and he began making movies about his work. He had a couple of exhibitions with Doug Christmas at Ace in LA and they showed some of those, they were running through the exhibition.
TB: How long ago did he die?
DN: He died uh, now, two months…
TB: Oh wow! That’s really close.
DN: He died quickly- he was sick for about 5 months.
TB: I’m sorry.
DN: Yeah, me too. So I wrote a poem that was published in the “Brooklyn Rail” that is not really about Bob directly. I think it has been misunderstood. People think it is about seeing Bob’s place, but it is not really. It is about being at a table in my studio and seeing how much of what was going on in my life was influenced by him. The odd back and forth about what happens here and what happens outside his windows in Venice. The back and forth between them in my mind. I’ll read it.
The noise has stopped
but the police remain on the street
Where the Japanese women clapped hands yesterday
Two Greyhound boys stashed their packs
In the shadows of the parking lot
That was outside.
Inside the same light illuminates…
books, drawing pads beer bottle openers
right angle on a drawing board
The postcard 69 Windward
Chaloula Hot Sauce, empty glass,
There is music
Pottery shards collect
ashes of marijuana
as the telephone rings
I had forgotten the knife
Robert without a knife
without his suitcase
full of passports and cash?
The knife completes the poem.
So that was a poem for Bob Graham. Not really a poem. Here’s one that has never been published, I haven’t really shown it to anybody. But I have been thinking a lot over the last few years about the observable universe- what is black in the sky? What are the colors of the stars? Because we are given a scientific reference for many of these things, even though the scientists just don’t really know what the black is. Nor do they really understand how to calculate the color of the stars because they don’t know where to start from. It is about time, it is a philosophical issue, it is not really an issue for physics or cosmology…I was musing on that when I wrote this poem.
The Observable Universe 1/12/09
I am an orange star
soon to be harvested.
My green star son
neither recedes nor advances.
The spectral stars remember
those that became black
and, in remembering,
they form our inheritance.
My yellow star wife,
My red brother,
Do you want to hear another one?
TB: Sure, I’m enjoying it.
DN: Yes, I like reading, and I like what they are…these are some earlier ones…sometimes they are just a single sentence and are references for paintings. This is one:
The turquoise sadness washes the splendid forest.
I wrote that a long time ago, also this one:
For Marley 7/7/93
How much dark before night?
Cobalt violet on white.
(Mixed with yellow and gold)
of the dogwood.
(For the moment between fire and water)
Tell the children the truth
DN: This is Melville:
“To perpetuate ones name it should be inscribed on a stone and sunk to the bottom
Of the sea, since depths last longer than heights.”
Untitled, fresco, originally Penzoil Building, TX, now collection Huston MFA, Houston, TX
I was drawing in your beautiful sunroom
and it was raining.
The windows were slightly open
and the sirens were screaming through the early morning
I was thinking about the Diesis
when I made this drawing.
First something is seen
and, then it is named
with the first and last light.
Standing in the abyss
at the end of the day
wading through the fire.
That was one I published in the catalog for a “Geometric Painting” show at the Albright-Knox.
Light Cave and Water Wall 8/7/93
Man I am, Man
I would not be
You, you know the beauty of light
I have been burned
I will burn
Too die while swimming
as my aged father sleeps.
Eyes on eyes.
DN: That’s for my father. This one’s called “Must Locate”.
Must Locate 7/24/02
Sometimes after black and white
the rush is so strong
Later in the sad questioning moments
the truth screams
This is “The Boathouse”.
The Boathouse 7/24/02
On the path to a new country with a bag full of Egypt No reason to be frightened or optimistic
This too shall pass said my Dad
This pond will pass into me
I am a student of students
Barracho en la tarde
How many days have been spent
Turning my ambition to face the wall.
Allow the ancient orchard to hold
The glowing golden memory
Ask no more
This is one that was published in The Rail, and it is the last one I’ll read:
People I Wish I Had Known 8/20/08
Tarkovsky, Bolano, Marley, Palermo,
Life and Death, Yin and Yang, East and West, North and South
Snake eats tail
The magnetic fields continue to be benevolent
And in this instant
Circular seasons are the same as the instant
I believe my neighbor is dying
Do you understand the point I am trying to make about the way the content, or the meanings- those sorts of aspects of the painting develop poetically? To mention any one of them is out of the case.
TB: I do.
DN: I think the poems are clearer, they are really about how I think about what I am doing.
TB: I understand that. I mean I understand why you don’t want to step back into that other mode- what you are calling jargon.
DN: Right. That has “0” meaning to me! I read the art criticism of today. All of it is meaningless to me. It doesn’t resonate. There is nothing there. There is no poetry. The language is bad. Especially when you compare it to people like Judd or Harris Rosenstein, people who could really write, who really understood.
TB: Yeah Rosenstein has amazing phrases in his piece-
DN: He was brilliant! He was really…in the end he wasn’t so much interested in painting. He loved Rothko, he loved and understood in a kind of Jewish rabbinical sense Rothko’s moral conditions-and that made him a really wonderful friend to have- somebody who could understand things in a way that had nothing to do with the art world. He was very close to Mogenson. He had a great sense of humor, he was very funny! A kind of intellect there aren’t many of these days. In that regard, I recently have been becoming friendly with Phong Bui, and through him people like David Levy Strauss and Bob Hulot-Kenter.
TB: Whenever there is a large thing moving in one direction, there is something else moving in the other…
DN: Right. I don’t want to start knocking a whole bunch of stuff - that’s not why I am raising that point. I’m really talking about literature- anybody who writes is involved in a potential art. Why should literature not be journalism, poetry, art criticism? They are all potential art, and if you don’t do them well, then you are a hack. Like with any other art. Why should they get away with it just because they write for Artforum, or for one of the magazines, or critical writing for museums…catalogs that sort of thing. I don’t think they should be excused. They should be held to a high standard…
TB: The problem is that the people who write about art often are imitating philosophers without having the depth or knowledge or education. Real philosophers become technical very quickly, so it is complicated. There is a guy I studied with at the New School, Jay Bernstein, specializing in Adorno, among other people-
DN: That’s funny because Hulot- Kenter, is an expert on Adorno…
TB: Right…Bernstein writes about art in a very interesting way…it is unusual. Visual art carries with it a lot of heavy philosophical implications…it is not as true with other art forms it seems to me. That is also true certainly with fiction and poetry but…
DN: I think that is particularly true for non-narrative painting- non-representational painting-
TB: But Cezanne carries huge philosophical implications…
DN: Enormous. But I am talking about now. Not about Cezanne or Mondrian.
TB: Oh, OK.
DN: One of the problems with most painting, you know, is that narrative painting never leaves. Rothko has this great line- he was showing with some Op artists and some Pop artists, I don’t know who they were, and he said, “I thought we got rid of this stuff 30 years ago!” (laughter) That is the way I feel- I see a contemporary version of that or someone else, and I think, “I thought we got rid of that stuff. Why is it still here?” It is like having the Republicans still here…
TB: But even Guston came back pretty hard with his late work…
DN: I’m not interested in those paintings- they give me the creeps. And I like some of his “Monet-esque” paintings. But he has never been one of the painters who really got my attention.
DN: I think it has to do with the scale of his ambition- and it is odd because he had been a muralist- But I don’t think he understood the implications of mural painting the painters who weren’t muralists did…like Pollock. He never knew where to go with it. He just retreated back into picture making.
But I am having a lot of trouble thinking of living representational painters whose work is profound. What do you do if you have an ambition to be a be a figurative painter, for instance, today? How do you deny the existence of Piero Della Francesco or of Cezanne? You can’t deny them, you have to come to grips with them in some way and with that whole aspect of the figure within the history of art, all the way back, from the beginning. I think that would be an interesting thing for somebody to do…if they really took it seriously. Then you would have a life’s work- it would be profound.
DN: But a lot of work isn’t ambitious enough in the way I am interested in…I am interested in stuff that is really hard.
DN: Meaning it isn’t something that is part of the general culture…it can’t be understood within the framework of all the stuff that is happening. It is outside of it. Usually made by somebody who has been doing it for a very long time, and who hasn’t changed much. I like Paul Mogenson’s paintings. But they are very un-charming…it’s not about touch. I think, for instance everybody loves Johns because of the touch, I can’t stand that kind of thing…
TB: How about Stout, Myron Stout?
DN: There is something about the scale and the fussiness of them which really turns me off…
TB: John McLaughlin?
DN: Same thing. Everybody tried to make McLaughlin into a “minimalist”- but he was very very different from the painting of the people…even Newman. An enormous difference. He was the West Coast Orientalist, essentially…he came at it from that kind of attitude I think.
TB: How about Hammersley- I just became acquainted with that work?
DN: (Shakes his head.) Nothing. I knew all those guys, you know, because I grew up there. There were a lot of California abstractionists, you know, like Feitelson- names you wouldn’t know. They made murals on the sides of banks, Feitelson had a TV show…he would talk about Picasso on Saturday mornings in Los Angeles, in the ‘50’s. This group of people were very well meaning and good guys and all that. But they never had an idea about painting that was very interesting. Especially when you compare them with what was going on at the same time in NYC, or Europe for that matter. But I have extremely high standards for painting. And I am not interested in compromising them out of some sense of friendship or out of some sense of regard for the moment. For me in the last 100-120 years there have certainly been some great master painters…Cezanne, Van Gogh. Mondrian. And then the Americans. I like Leger for instance, I like a lot of other painting, a great deal of other painting…Picasso obviously, and Matisse. I like it, very much. But there are only three of those people who really have shaped my life- Cezanne, Mondrian, Pollock, Rothko. They have had the biggest effect on me among contemporary artists. But in general I don’t distinguish between painters who are modernists as opposed to painters on the caves. Because the impulse is the same, and to me the cave paintings are the most powerful thing I have ever seen.
Untitled, 1975, oil on canvas 7’ x 20’ (approx) collection- Rice University, Texas
TB: I have only seen them in pictures.
DN: I never saw them when I was in Europe, in only just the last 5 or 6 years I started to go see them in southern France, and in Spain. I have only seen maybe 8 or 9 caves. I have never been to Lascaux...I feel a real closeness. I go in and I see somebody making this image on this wall- and I say, “Oh man, that’s me, that’s what I want to do.” But if I go into the Guggenheim and I see some picture hanging on the wall- it might be a nice picture- I don’t feel that that is what I want to do. I just feel that it is a successful (or unsuccessful) painting…a picture. But it is far away from the kind of idea I have about being a painter.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org website: www.tombutter.com
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