PRINT March 1972

An Interview

What led you to the form your work takes now, and why did you choose paper as your predominant material?

I DON'T LIKE MATERIAL as such, whether it’s oil paint or anything else, because it leads you into a trap. The trap is that materials, in themselves, present a certain truth which one has to work with. I didn’t want to work with the truth in materials, except in a very limited way. The paper curls because it comes on a roll, and I don’t mind that. It can have that much license but not too much more, because I’m interested in the ways in which I can experience myself, and my work is really about making myself.

Yet it isn’t possible for me to work without materials. There are some artists whose work I admire who don’t use materials as such, but that’s not the way I think. Among the various levels of thought, the visual is paramount. So, when it came to dealing with materials, I chose paper because it has no weight and isn’t a bother to store: all practical reasons. Also, I didn’t want to manufacture antiques and I like its impermanence.

Materials present situations which are unexpected, and I enjoy that. It is possible to think things out beforehand and know the answers, but the materials will then present unknown visual systems that could not have been anticipated. It is a kind of dialectic: I have an idea and the material; then I put them together, and it is always dreadful—invariably it’s just dreadful. There is a separation between the idea, the materials, and me. The work is there, so it’s a matter of understanding all aspects more clearly. How to bring it together? It is taken down and put up several times. When near completion, it’s as though the work and I exchange places; I no longer contain the information, the work does. Then there is a process of small adjustments, to make the ideas and the work more cogent.

Your work has a strong evolutionary character; one work leads consequentially to another.

Yes, I seem to have been doing the same thing always. My thinking deals with the involvement of experience. Then experience accumulates to become phases of information. While it is being ingested it takes on a new form which then goes into the work. Once settled on, I don’t veer from the original concept; the idea is followed through. The reason for this is purely subjective: the procedures and functions become my focus, and one step leads to the next. When I did the work Intersection, it was the intersection of Disjunction/Or and Group/And. It took in all the parts of both works but I didn’t want to use graphite in it, so following the original concept there is a substitution.

Do you make a distinction, as I find myself doing, between the pieces using brown paper soaked with crude oil, and the graphite and white paper pieces? Or are they the same kind of work to you, in terms of idea and execution?

No, they are not the same. When I used graphite in A, C and D from Group it was purely for identification purposes. I didn’t want to use three boards all with the same surface because A, A1 and B needed separate identifications.

How do you view the process of staining with the crude oil?

Although I’m sure I’ve used that word, I really don’t think of it as “staining”—that’s just other people’s vocabulary—because it isn’t staining. It really is just applying one sheet of oil onto, or between, or through, one sheet of paper.

The pattern of marks that it makes doesn’t interest you?

No, it’s a question of letting the material do what it will; however, I am the author of my work and sometimes don’t like what it does, and so censor it. I am not completely free of esthetic criteria.

You don’t seem interested in color.

My work deals with color very clearly. I am interested in color but in such a way that what the color does, in terms of identity and what it physically is, are not separate. That is to say that graphite is a surface which distinguishes one part from another. The oil is a permeating sheet of its own color.

Then you deal with color in an aleatory way, according to the natural colors of the materials of your choice?

Yes. When I used the crude oil in Disjunction/Or, I used it because the nature of the oil presented a procedure which indicated the nature of the function of disjunction. If sky is blue and grass is green, and you want to prove one of these statements, you must first disprove both in order to prove that one or both are true. I equated using oil with this procedure and it worked very well. Again, from that, because the oil does deal with procedures, I felt that Set Membership was defined.

In your studio I’ve seen many photographs, notes, and drawings. Does empiricism play any part in the execution of a work, or is it all absolutely preconceived?

I do plan. But the reason that art holds my interest is that there is no map, and there is always that dialectic wherein you take two parts and from them you get not just a third, but a fifth, sixth, and seventh. An opening occurs into an infinitely more diverse experience.

I know that Set Theory is an important factor in your work; can you say something about its relationship?

My interest in Set Theory is not that Set Theory has to do with art, because it doesn’t. I am an artist and it is one of my tools, the way graphite is. The usage of it comes from personal experience. In college I had the good fortune to meet a theoretical mathematician. Mathematics didn’t interest me but somehow Max Dehn’s enthusiasm was contagious. He erased the panic and showed me how to put one foot in front of the other. He introduced me to math as a consistent history of thought, the thing I responded to in art.

Then too, I was angered by the fiction I read, because to read novels, on no matter what level, requires some empathy with the people who are being portrayed. Women are usually depicted as plodders, fools, or victims. I couldn’t in any sense identify with them, and started to read books on mathematics. Math, by contrast, was straight, simple thinking and it never enclosed its own situation. If it did, it was only a situation to be set aside for later consideration in relation to something else, which would again open the total concept. I was excited by this and bored by art school instruction. I knew, though, that I was an artist and not a mathematician.

We began earlier to discuss your working methods, can you elaborate?

One area of interest to me that I see no one else working with (this is not a critical comment but simply a choice) is work which occurs in units. I make parts that make units, and in forming a unit I make combinations. I try not to make useless combinations. After arriving at certain combinations, that will in themselves make one unit, I join units, so that a work is a combination of many parts, units and then larger units. This of course comes from math, which deals with combinations of parts and units.

Most work that I look at I can take in at a glance—that’s not a denigrating statement—some of it I like very much. The experience I want is of going into the work. Perhaps that is the reason for the crude oil; I really want to look at the layers of correspondence through the work. Therefore I work for complexity of ideas. When my work is seen one can’t possibly find out what is going on at a glance, but that does not mean it is complicated.

Do you think that people “read” these qualities in the work?

One of the things that disturbs me is what happens with new work. Either it is completely rejected, because it’s new, or it is read in an old way; a way that wasn’t intended. Often my work is misread as painting.

Your recent trip to Peru made a strong impression on you. How has it changed your attitude to your work?

In Peru I visited the ruins at Sacsayhuaman outside of Cusco. The way the stones go together got to me. It’s not about huge stones. The experience of the object relates to particular intellectual inquiries: the decisions of mass and interstices, one never dominating the other. The “Set” of stones sits there quietly, an experience of information.

Had you known much about Inca and pre-Inca civilizations before you went to Peru? Had the trip been planned for a long time?

I had known about Machupichu, and always intuitively known that a relationship between Machupichu and the work wherein I was trying to define Set Membership existed. To specify a set, you must identify the objects in the set, that is the members or elements of the set. The work called Leveling deals with how parts can be similar and yet maintain their differences; this is a consideration in Set Membership. For example, what constitutes sameness in the citrus family and yet what is the difference between an orange and a lemon? That was an aspect of the level of thought I was working with in Leveling. Seeing Sacsayhuaman was a reaffirmation; until that moment I’d been working in the dark. I was impressed by the way in which the work, the ruins, function in the space they occupy—a beautiful, fertile valley. They turned the place into an object. Whichever ruin one looked at one was in a circular situation: always in the center.

Do you have any idea of directions your work might take in the future?

In a way, yes. For instance there is a piece in the studio now that is quite incomplete. I don’t know what the hell it is doing, only that it comes from Sacsayhuaman, and a matrix system. There are two different sizes of boards. The smaller boards have oil on them and the larger do not, because I don’t want any uniformity involved. There is a random order working which I’ve never used before. It’s really hard to find it, it’s been taken down and put up several times and still it isn’t formed.

Your work takes shape according to the place of its installation, taking into account the surrounding architecture.

The place and the work should be an integrated thing that presents a point of change. To turn the place in which I work into the object; by object I mean object as experience. My aim is to integrate the place without making it in any sense atmospheric or theatrical. As I work I devote a lot of my time and energy to what I personally think of as horizontal growth. This horizontal growth, the result of constant study, accumulates to an enormous degree. Although in Peru I was not sitting down with books, the time there was an intense period. This precedes vertical growth. To exhibit is the result of vertical growth. My work habits seem to depend on some kind of interior timing. I work all the time and do very little. It’s very slow. I find a great joy in working.

Jennifer Licht