PRINT January 1966

An Interview with Jack Youngerman

Q: Were your early paintings, in Paris after the war, geometric?

A: No, not really. When I started painting, I hadn’t seen anything that was happening in America. I’d been to the Modern Museum once and that was all. I went straight from Kentucky to Paris by way of the Navy, because in 1947 all the art schools in New York were full. In Paris I really wasn’t in the art world. I lived in a fantastically removed way. I knew a few American painters like Ellsworth Kelly and Bob Breer. At that moment, two kinds of abstract painting were being done in Paris a soft kind of abstract impressionism—by Bazaine and people like that—and the hard-edge painting of Herbin, and the artists of the Salon des Realites Nouvelles. Neither was a direction for me. But that was what I found to relate to. So I ended up using hard-edge or Constructivist elements in a lyrical way in those early Paris paintings. Perhaps that was their weakness, because perhaps that’s not the way those things are used best. It became clear that geometric painting did not provide a context for my romantic statement. In the end, I’m a very restless person, and I could never express myself fully through such pure means, such predefined means, such austere means. So I went through a period of groping that lasted several years in which I kind of oscillated between two kinds of painting—one more strict and hard-edged and the other more painterly and lyrical. The last time I showed paintings in France was in 1952 at Denise Rene’s. Those pictures were linear for the most part, not geometric in the orthodox sense.

Q: Do you think it was helpful to be outside New York while Abstract Expressionism was gathering momentum?

A: I don’t know because I don’t know what it would have been like to have been in New York then. I think I would have painted very much the same had I been here. So it was, on my return in 1956, that what interested me most was the use of mass in the work of Kelly, Rothko, Still, among others. Also, the rough use of paint, but already I had moved out of the “purist” way of putting on paint, to which I have not returned, incidentally. But perhaps those early New York paintings are difficult because they correspond to a difficult period in my life.

Q: Why did you give up using a heavy impasto?

A: What I needed in 1958 or 1959, I don’t need in 1965: again, my ideal is the use of every means necessary to a full life expression. What no one has noticed is that in every gallery show I’ve had, there have been paintings painted in different ways, flat, brushed, heavy, even with a knife. In my show this fall, some colors are painted on in transparent coats, even a thin wash. I decided long ago to take every liberty I needed. The large India inks, and the use of acrylic paint both contributed to the present surfaces and edges, which are not “purist,” not really “flat,” which are nervous and move, as they always have, since I left “purism” behind me. But I’ll paint rough again tomorrow, if I feel like it.

Q: How do you proceed in making a painting?

A: I work from many little drawings usually done with ink and brush. Working this way allows me to make forms that have volume from the beginning, as opposed to lines that circumscribe shape. I never fill in, I start with volume. So the edge is not a circumscribing thing. Line rarely exists for me, now, as it once did, even at the sketch stage but perhaps I will return to line some day. I start out with lots of little ink drawings—when I say lots I mean literally hundreds. They’re like shorthand notes. I do them rapidly, save them, go back to them, modify them, perhaps use them in the future. I use lots of sources for provoking these drawings. Any number of diverse visual impressions or combinations might serve me as a point of departure for generating new shapes. In any event, the origin of the paintings is almost never directly in things seen. I’ve never abstracted anything in my life. I’ve nothing against it, but nature doesn’t furnish me with “subjects.” I can invent a much greater variety of shapes that I can use than I could ever get from observation. If sometimes people see “references” in my work, it is perhaps because the mind works to suggest some familiar image in any new shape.

Q: Do you think of yourself as a “conceptual” painter?

A: No, but perhaps my use of shape has its importance as a new concept. What matters to me is the high road of painting. In making the drawings I try to let things happen spontaneously, to allow the shape to burst into being. Think of it in this way, when people could draw what was around them—from the enormous variety of visual experience—even so they chose to paint only a few of the things that they saw. The choice was very selective. In abstract art, this choice is eliminated, and the problem becomes: where does the generating idea, or inspiration, if you like, come from? How can you provoke it? For me this is a crucial question, one that I have answered, for myself.

Q: Did you find the Surrealist principle of “automatism” helpful?

A: Yes, I found it very useful as an approach, but I think it has been misunderstood. This germinal beginning process of making or allowing things to happen is mysterious; it is so intimate and close to one’s work that it is as yet uncharted, and perhaps it can’t be. But this making things pop into being is the big thing. Once I have something I’m excited about, like a particular sketch, then developing it into a painting involves more conscious choices and decisions, but even these have their roots in mystery, as does everything.

Q: Do you think Greenberg’s term “Post-painterly Abstraction” adequately describes Abstract painting today?

A: Perhaps, but it’s too short-term historical for me. It makes the painting being done now depend too much on a very short moment in the history of art. Abstract Expressionism affected me in the sense that everyone is affected by everything that happens. Perhaps this sounds romantic, but the Lascaux grottos had a bigger effect on me than Abstract Expressionism, more immediate at any rate. Other things, too, interested me, like Utamaro, some Chinese paintings, the romantic geometry of Arabic art, Arabic tiles with their repeated motives and color combinations like blue with white, or a particular kind of tomato red. The melting of edges and inventiveness of the shapes used interested me, too, as did Arp’s and Kandinsky’s woodcuts. Arp’s are hardly known, and they’re much more complex than his other works, more expressive. So you see I’ve found everywhere I’ve looked things that I’ve used. I think it’s just too simple to look at things merely as a historical progression. We all have our own history and our own personal “art history.”

Q: Are you concerned with painterliness?

A: With me, it is incidental, an effect of my primary concern, which is the creation of shapes. It is not central, but results from my attempt to weld a shape to the two-dimensional surface. My shapes are too complex to be cut hard if I want to preserve the two-dimensional character of the plane. What I want is a kind of marriage or welding of the shape to the surface.

Q: Because you and Kelly had studios on Coenties Slip people have tended to link your work. Do you find similarities?

A: The things we have in common have been noticed. Now I think the things that separate us will be increasingly apparent because I don’t think our paths are converging but separating. We shared an insistence on economy of means. There are a lot of people who paint that way now, but there haven’t always been. For me it’s a question of what I can handle. I have to reduce things in order to control them, not out of my desire for purity, although I do believe less is more.

Q: Aren’t you and Kelly both concerned with figure-ground relationships?

A: If you make a shape on a flat plane, it creates another shape around it. My obsessive interest is with shape; the other considerations are problems that must be solved in order to present The kind of shape that I want to present, because shape means the space surrounding the shape, too. I am not primarily interested in the division of space. The division of the canvas space has never been a preoccupation of mine. I see what you call figure-ground relationships in terms of active and passive shape. I may allow the passive surrounding shape to seep into the active shape and then in turn to become the active element itself, as you’ve observed. The tension caused by reversing the relationship, and making it possible to see it either way, charges it with life.

Q: Is this equally true of your most recent work?

A: The recent large ink drawings, and those paintings derived from them, represent a further simplification. In most of my paintings, the rectangle compresses the image, whereas in the drawings, the shape floats free in open space, with more expansion and less tension. However, there have always been two thematic lines; one concerned with gripping and contraction, the other buoyant and soaring, although this is something of an oversimplification.

Q: How do you determine your colors?

A: Values are usually the determining factor in my choice of colors. I think in terms of values first, which are then translated into colors; maximum contrast is a frequent occupation. Looking through JAZZ, by Matisse, I realized that even though every plate had black or white or both in them, you don’t think of black and white at all, but of the other colors. I almost always need black or white, often both, as components of 2 or 3-color paintings. My wish for maximum contrasts corresponds to the tension I want to create in the opposition of passive and active shapes. Shapes demand their own colors. You can’t put any color on any shape, particularly organic shapes. Some shapes will take more than one color, but none can take any color. But the emotional value of my shapes means that, for example, a dramatic menacing shape will often require black. You can’t paint it blue, yellow or green. I might try out different combinations in color studies until the right one imposes itself. White for me is really involved with space, a sense of breadth.

Q: How do you decide on scale?

A: If you’re excited about an image, the urge is always to make it mountain-size. Like the colors, however, there is a right scale corresponding to each image. Occasionally I’ve made paintings that don’t work on a certain scale, and I’ll change the scale until I find one that works.

Q: Why do you make reliefs?

A: If I want to do something not concerned with color or value, but with shape only, I might make a relief. I make a relief just high enough to show the contrast between shapes. The light on the edge gives the sense of a line without actually being a line, an effect I like.

Q: Why do you concentrate on shapes?

A: For me, shape is the central issue in painting. Abstract art was brought, on the one hand by Mondrian, and on the other by Pollock, to the abolition of shape, a very odd moment in painting. I won’t say that these are dead ends, but they are extreme positions, like Malevich’s, that don’t seem to lead anywhere. At this point I feel I’m perhaps the only painter who is concentrating on the creation of new shapes. Those who are the closest in their preoccupations seem mainly interested in the division of space. I’m not questioning the value of that. But the “mainstream” of world art has been involved with shape and the invention of shape. People seem to have noticed my surfaces, edges, etc., but not my primary concern, which is finding and inventing new shapes. I am working for something organic and lyrical. I like the expressiveness of locked, meshed or tension-provoking shapes in opposition, a union in combat.

Q: Do you strive for the elegance critics see in your work?

A: I like real elegance; I also like crudeness, its opposite. What I really strive for is that wide range of expression that Picasso and Klee, for example, gained for themselves. I choose what I think are eloquent shapes. They must provide some revelation.

Q: Is your work mainly decorative?

A: I think of painting as an “expression” beamed to the world. Besides, anyone who has really looked at the windows of the Sainte Chapelle, or at Arabic art, knows that the meaning of “decoration” is not that easily defined. For me painting is a question of a response to life.

Q: Are your titles significant?

A: Mainly they serve to identify the paintings, though sometimes I use them as a provocation perhaps, to say I’m not buying something, or as a way of relating to the world outside the art world of people looking at my paintings, even if the message never gets out of town.

Q: Do you find art in America different from what you knew in Europe?

A: Art here is very different from what it was when I moved to New York, nine years ago. As to Europe, parallel work seems to continue in certain art directions, but not in the direction I’m involved in. I withdrew from art activity after a group show at Denise Rene’s in 1952 because I felt increasingly unrelated to what was happening in Paris art. But art always surprises the experts, so perhaps it will spring up there again. Even now, I know a few lonely searchers doing interesting things.

Barbara Rose