PRINT May 1984


WHEN PHOTOGRAPHY BEGAN TO COMPETE with painting, the new invention which had originally been welcomed by some artists became the monster to others. Just one of the reasons: painters were losing commissions. Painting’s response was to investigate new visual territory, especially the things that cameras couldn’t do yet—color, movement, et cetera. Quickly the two developed many kinds of relationships to each other: antagonistic; independent; documentary; side by side; back and forth. Some artists tried to make their photographs look like paintings; obviously many painters used photographs to work from; certain other artists tried to make their paintings look like photographs; et cetera.

For years I’ve taken photographs that do not have an object status of their own. They are simply a notation system for information to be used later in any number of ways. To me they are not “photographs,” but my work could not have existed without photography. I make paintings; I am building painting experiences for the viewer. One of the obstacles with work like mine is that when it is reproduced it goes back to looking very much like its source. Obviously I think the experience of standing in front of a painting is very different from standing in front of a photograph—otherwise I wouldn’t spend up to fourteen months to make a painting—but I’ve always admitted the symbiotic relationship. That’s why I’ve consistently hung the photographs with the work, to show the differences and similarities.

In eighteen years I’ve made work from the same fifteen, maybe twenty, photos. The photograph is the source, a well to which you can go and from which you can keep bringing back bucketsful. It’s the opposite of the story of Dorian Gray. The person ages, I have something that stays constant. One of the things I don’t like about working from life is that you end up having the mean average of all of the things that happened to the subject, plus all of my own changes toward the subject over a period of time. If I kept on changing the image, it would be the look of change, but the activity in the studio would remain the same. I try to orchestrate my experience in the studio to keep it interesting to me, and I hope I can keep the audience engaged as well. It is a kind of performance, but what we see is the residue of the performance.

I never thought of myself as a portrait painter and I never call these things portraits. These are my friends, people who are very important to me. I don’t do commission portraits. I call them heads. I title the work the name of the person. On the pages that follow is John. The photograph’s been pastels, color acrylic paintings, it’s been used in all kinds of ways. It was taken in 1969. The fact that I’m familiar with it, having worked with it in the past, doesn’t mean that I’m going to be making the same moves in this drawing of 1984. I’ve laid it out as a progression to show how the basic colors physically mix to make the component colors—how they lay on top of each other and what they eventually stack up to be. It’s as if you could pull the layers of the drawing apart. In essence there are three monochromatic steps, red, blue, and yellow, which are repeated and superimposed on top of each other in relative densities.

I work from color separations of the photograph called progressives. I wanted to get away from favorite colors or color habits. Most of the limitations I have imposed upon myself have been more from a point of view of not allowing myself to make the kinds of decisions that I made in the past. I’ve found that the closing down of options actually ends up opening them back up. So the more severe the limitations that I’ve imposed upon myself the more I have to respond to the situation at hand. I want to make judgments right in the arena, right in the context, which is why I have to equip myself with the necessary “information.” There’s nothing about the separations to indicate how I’m going to do it. Someone else may not know exactly what their image is going to look like, but they know precisely what they are going to do in the studio. Mine is an invention of means rather than an invention of shapes or color combinations. No work of art was ever made without a process. The way you make something influences the way it looks and therefore what it means.

There’s nothing about the individual mark itself that determines what you’re going to build out of it; if you take a pile of bricks you can build a cathedral, or you can build a slaughterhouse—there’s nothing about the brick itself that is necessarily going to determine the resultant configuration. You have to respond as an individual and any possibility for idiosyncratic or personal vision comes out of being in trouble and not having history to turn to, or your own baggage to lean on. There is no device that one can rely on to make an illusion. It’s only the way these clusters of marks begin to build a “situation” that stands for hair. I always like the tension between the physical reality—that is, a bunch of marks distributed across a flat surface—and the way they warp into the space and have the life-associations that we have from having looked at people’s faces. Then there’s the whole history of having looked at photographic images, and photographic reproduction. I’ve often wondered whether, in a convention of magicians, the magicians see the illusion or the device. To me there is something very “magical” about the device. Byzantine mosaics are incredibly powerful images of people that are made by pasting little pieces of mosaic. Part of what I’ve done here is break down the steps necessary to build illusion.

All of my work has been incremental. Sometimes the increments don’t show. In the early paintings I would try to put them together seamlessly. For a long time I made paintings with an airbrush, and in those I never actually touched the canvas, you know it was almost like magic—the material shot from a gun, and I made a whole painting without ever touching the canvas. Here I push my right thumb or index finger into the three process lithography inks—magenta, cyan, and yellow—which are rolled out with a brayer on sheets of glass, as if I were going to take my fingerprint for the police department. A finger is a blunt and kind of a dumb tool, but if you’re drawing with a pencil you have to feel through it, or a brush, or whatever you try to have be an extension of your hand. In this case it actually is my hand, so I can feel how much ink I am picking up, and I can also feel how much ink I am putting down. I’m never really further than an arm’s length from the piece when I’m making it, which is closer viewing distance than people normally assume when they’re looking at one of my paintings, but in the same range as the reader of this magazine. The drawing is printed here at exactly its original size and with the same lithography inks that I’ve used.

In the reading of this work I want to imply the same concept of building as writers do with words, a useful analogy offered by my friend the painter Mark Greenwold. I feel aligned with writers. Nobody would say somebody six months into a novel is a compulsive over a typewriter, slamming incremental pieces together, putting words together to build sentences and paragraphs, and trying to have a consistent attitude toward the use of those materials. You could give the same general theme for a novel to six writers, and even though it would stay the same, the experience that each writer conjures up for the reader would vary greatly depending on the individual choices that were made. I use these photographs as themes. As somebody said, there are only a few themes for all the books that exist.

The preceding is a distillation of a recent taped conversation between the artist, Amy Baker Sandback, and Ingrid Sischy.