Sarah Charlesworth The first impression that I feel your work gives is one of being abstract. Its immediate impact depends on its presence and its physicality as an abstract object. There is no specific use of figuration or imagery per se and yet the work does clearly have a sense of connoting a specific experience or a topology of an event and I wondered how you feel about abstraction vs. referentiality—if the two can be compared that way.
Carl Apfelschnitt Do you want me to define the terms?
SC Can you talk about content in relation to your work that way? Or imagery?
CA Whew . . . In the sense of symbolism? In the sense of a symbol coming through the paint, of the cracks being some sort of a symbol?
SC No, there are several artists around whose work has a degree of abstraction and yet they still make use of images that are very clearly recognizable as images. Whereas, in your work, there really isn’t something that functions as an image—there is not a picture of something and yet they’re associative.
CA They’re references to the Universe—and in that sense there is an image. I have a difficulty with images of this plane. I’m not painting thingness.
SC Your working process requires a lot of labor, there is obviously a building up of surfaces with materials which creates a very specific look to the finished work. Is this look something you’ve pre-imagined or that you’re in a process of evolving as you are working on the painting?
CA It evolves through paint.
SC Is there content?—Do you have the idea that you want to make it look like something?
CA No, I’m totally unaware of that. When I’m painting I feel part of the paint. I’m not aware of anything but the paint or the chemicals I’m using.
SC And yet it’s not simply about the gesture in the sense of a Pollock or about formal abstraction in the sense of a Minimalist painting. Do you understand your work as pure physicality, pure materiality, or is there an allusion being made to something other than itself?
CA There are no allusions being made. The painting is just that. What they might do is spark a reference, whether it be some distant memory or . . . . People say it looks like flying over the deserts of Africa or they see the ruins of civilizations—but the paint is just the paint. I’m aware of what I’m doing with it in so far as the movement of the paint . . . there’s no reference.
SC You’re talking about dreams or distant memories . . .
CA Or distant Future.
SC These are just associations one might have with the work. You don’t specifically have a dream and then attempt to recreate an experience.
CA I might dream of flying through consecutive vibrations of energy and I might do drawings of consecutive spheres within spheres, but in the painting the physicality is very direct. I’m like a primordial monster. I do the paintings to feel why I did them.
SC Are there specific symbols in your work? Symbols that are specific to a culture, our culture?
CA It’s really more symbolic forms than symbols. I respond to the energies, the whirling energies. I see those symbols running all through history, from ancient art to Malevich. They’re references in space and time and an important part of 20th century art. Kandinsky wrote a pamphlet called The Spiritual in Art in 1917 and there’s Malevich’s The Artist, Infinity, Suprematism. Then there was this thing that began in Milan, La Pittura Metafisica. It’s quite fascinating. Groups of artists—it was pretty world wide, from Mondrian to Kandinsky, from Russia to de Chirico, became obsessed with alternative realities. And then the Abstract Expressionists here in New York . . . and that whole Jungian . . . when Jung talked about the visionary mode . . . Pollock.
SC Do you feel your work is expressionistic?
SC What’s the difference between the type of Expressionism involved in this work and other forms of expressionism?
CA We see things prismatically now.
SC What do you mean we see things prismatically?
CA It has to do with the fracturing of the spectrum, the attention on color. Eighty years ago, before the Impressionists’ things were seen in primary ways and then with Impressionism, people went crazy. They thought Renoir was trash. There was a change in the vision around that time. And of course the advent of photography changed the way we see. Painting became more expressionistic—Art in general became more expressionistic—Art in general became more . . . direct, less pictorial. German Expressionism was very surrealistic, a gutteral expression of the consciousness in Germany. They were responding to the imagery and what was happening in Germany at that time. Then everything got fucked up during the war . . . and then in New York, that show at the MacMillan Gallery in 1942—Pollock and Kline, de Kooning and Clifford Still’s yellow and red painting; Jackson Pollock’s last figurative painting. It just smashed painting open and there was no excuse for figurative painting at that point.
SC It is interesting to try and differentiate between a form of expressionism that evolved in America in the 1950s . . .
CA In the ’40s…
SC Let me finish here—that kind of Expressionism which was a reaction against a very formalist, academic tradition of Modernism, specifically European; Abstract Expressionism in the US, a social gesture within the context of a Modern Art tradition and expressionism as it exists today.
CA Now it deals with a more direct knowledge, it’s no longer so academic. Ouspensky talked about the forms of knowledge—the third form is language and mortality; the fourth form, telepathic communication, symbolism and immortality—direct knowledge.
SC Oh boy, O.K., would you say Expressionism today seems more personal or less self-conscious?
CA Yes, less self-conscious. You must realize what happened—painting has gone through a tremendous transition. Robert Smithson hated painting but to me, what he was doing was painting with the planet—which is a kind of symbolism—direct contact . . . hmmm.
SC Maybe the word expressionistic is misleading.
CA Very misleading and academic.
SC I’ve always found my own work to be involved in a social and cultural sphere larger than myself. The meaning of making art for me has very much to do with the meaning of making a statement about art or the world at that particular moment in time.
CA Sarah, I am trying for the paintings to illuminate. For paintings to have an illumination—to bring some kind of light, here.
SC Do you feel that as an artist you are working in isolation, apart from a more intellectual or literary tradition of art or do you feel that your work addresses this tradition specifically?
CA I think it deals with tradition. I always look at history as stepping stones. The idea of art being a re-definition of the surface of a canvas—that seems to be very important—it seems to be my obsession. That’s why I stopped doing figurative work.
SC Why the re-definition of a canvas?
CA That is my obsession—my addiction to paint.
SC But that doesn’t fully explain why you stopped doing figurative work.
CA I needed something with more endurance than an illustrated image of man.
SC So you feel figurative work is by its nature illustrative, or do you feel that the work you were doing . . .
CA I feel that my personal work was illustrative. Not all figurative work is. It’s all very personal, the artists, what they’re obtaining, what information is coming through, whether it be Malcolm Morley or Richard Serra. The idea that it all is equally important and at this point synchronistic—in all realms of painting, art or . . .
SC You’re not saying that all work is equally important?
CA What I’m trying to say is that I am not placing a judgement on figurative work.
SC Do you think there are specific trends in painting now? Do you feel any particular connection with ideas developing in Art?
CA Most definitely I see a new vision, a new consciousness, well not so much a new one as an old one . . .
SC In New York at this time?
CA I’m thinking about the planet.
SC If you can call 20th-century art visionary, do you see a specific kind of consciousness—a freedom from restraints, or a kind of focusing of attention, energy?
CA The awareness of another nature of existence. Pop Art taught us about the material—that we are Pop Art, the awareness that there are other realms has also been given to us. We are gaining a logic of the unity of all that is, and we are all that is.
You see, I think you could take one of my paintings to an aborigine or a thousand years into the future and they would understand . . . its not about a single moment in culture, its more about a spark . . . of humanity.