… Intersections, street corners,and streets began to take on the appearances of things they weren’t. In other words, they began to look to me like arms and legs, body parts, people splayed out. And then, the metaphor continued with streaks of cars running, red tail lights, blood running through the veins and the city as a big heart. I would do a detail of a painting, to understand it anatomically. I would paint windows or street lamps illuminated at night—then I started painting the oncoming cars at night. For me, it was very radical because they were not illuminated by conventional exterior light sources. They were illuminated like stained glass, from the back, which goes back to an Abstract Expressionist idea of the painting coming alive, anthropomorphizing, to become like two eyes in a face. If the viewer stares long enough, the painting comes alive and stares back at them.
David Kapp Detail is the enemy.
Georgia Marsh Why is detail the enemy?
DK It would cause you to get much too specific; you’d lose sight of any kind of generalizing, of an overview.
GM So why work for a very specific image and avoid that kind of specificity? They are not abstract paintings.
DK Well, the literal definition of the word “abstract” is “to take from it.” There are two kinds of abstraction: abstraction that’s taken from nature and non-objective abstraction. There are two strands: there’s constructivism and then there’s something that comes out of Cubism. My paintings are not abstractions, they’re not. I don’t know if they’re representational, either.
GM It seems to be about focal length. I mean, when you’re sitting as close as I am to one of your paintings, what you see is the material, the strokes, the painterly reality. And yet, from the other side of the room, it’s an undeniably specific image. In fact, the impression of an image. When I mentioned that it was traffic or cars, you said, “No, it’s speed.”
DK Right ... there are specifics that I’m going after in the paintings—the whites, or a reflective metal surface—there are certain things that highlight what the image is about. If somebody does a portrait, how do you get the aura or the feeling of the face? You don’t do every eyelash, right? That kind of attention to detail doesn’t really do it. I guess if there was an individual who had a really long lashes, if that was what epitomized the person, then one would paint the lashes, like Chuck Close doing the pores in the nose.
GM Well, those are each different approaches and no one of those is better than the other. A painting is actually the dross that’s left over from an artist’s thinking.
DK I think what a painting is is possibilities, resolved ambiguities. When you’re painting, how many different directions can something go in? That’s why it’s good to stay focused. And within that arena, given your working method, everything is open to possibilities. It’s like a light or a motion or a speed: it’s maintaining things that are ambiguous, resolving a beautiful state of ambiguities.
GM Is that why you’ve maintained the singularity of this range of imagery over the years?
DK Well, I’ve just focused in. You say, “Why cars?” and I say it implies speed. I’ve just focused in, from doing cityscapes, which, to me, were a literal side to a mood of New York School painting.
GM What do you mean by that?
DK I think that what de Kooning, Rothko, and Kline are about is a place. A cafeteria, an old Horn & Hardart, or a Battery Park, a ferry, or something at night—New York; it’s a place. My paintings are the literal side to that abstract place.
GM You’re putting the content back in?
DK Yeah, in a sense, it’s the other side of the axis.
GM You want to maintain that relation to the New York School.
DK It’s definitely maintained. I still think the New York School of Painting is the best 20th-century painting.
GM So you’re part of the club.
DK Maybe. I mean, I never got initiated. (laughs) I’m a self-appointed member. That’s what I grew up looking at, big drippy Hoffman paintings in the Metropolitan. I saw the Kline show at the Modern in 1965, when I was 12. Black and white images, it had such an impact. I didn’t know what they were, you know, I had no idea. And Elegy to the Spanish Republic, all these big Motherwells.
GM But they kept saying they weren’t “pictures.” You’re saying they are.
DK Well, de Kooning’s were definitely pictures. He’s the most literal of them all. Pollock is abstract. Everybody grows up looking, and when I first started to paint that’s what I started doing—very gestural, ink things.
GM So you learned your lessons early.
DK Yeah, I was reinforced. And for me, I knew what I was looking at. I never, ever questioned this. Then I started doing cityscapes and nocturnes, because to work literally in the idiom, in the language of somebody like Kline or Motherwell, wasn’t personal to me anymore as when I was 20 years old. And besides, it’s plagiarism to work like that, right? Everybody searches for subject matter, for what to paint. It’s the hardest thing that there is, that’s when painters really founder—when they can’t come up with ideas anymore. I had a very burning desire to make paintings, and I wanted them to have the emotional and physical impact of the New York School paintings that I really loved. Another good New York School painting is de Kooning’s Merritt Parkway. That’s an abstract. It’s also a good driving picture. I’d seen reproductions since I was a kid, and I recently saw it in the Detroit Institute of Arts, an incredibly beautiful painting. Anyway, I couldn’t work in their language, which wasn’t my language. And ...
GM And yet is was your language. You’ve been speaking it since you were a child, it’s your mother tongue.
DK OK, but that’s what this may eventually lead to, if I keep focusing in. I continued painting abstractly until I was out of college in ’72. At that point I came to a crisis: how to start a painting and not know what it was supposed to look like. What got stale for me was making a painting that moved towards a preconceived idea. Maybe you can do it once, but how often can you do ambiguity? How often can you make spontaneity? You know what I’m saying? It gets stale.
GM That’s why in the ’50s and ’60s there were an awful lot of young painters who were saying just that. Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning had something to do with that. Jasper Johns was a very critical reaction to Abstract Expressionism. Lichtenstein painted drips.
GM The tool that you seem to be using to make this ambiguity between the Abstract Expressionist gesture and an image of place, seems to me, to be the scale and the focal length.
DK Yeah, it’s fitting an aspect of reality into a painting reality.
GM Because you think that the tenets, the gospel of Abstract Expressionism is, in fact, a reality?
DK Right, yes. That’s a good assumption. I mean, I don’t think that the world looks like Abstract Expressionist paintings. Let me get back to the thread that we were on, about when I came to a crisis making abstract paintings. After I had done these paintings for ten years, there was no mystery anymore. I had a problem: I could not look into the painting that I was making and make more paintings come out of it. There was no pretext; it didn’t mean anything to me after a certain point. So I simply went back to drawing, and I went back to painting what I saw. We moved to Queens and I started making big cityscapes, because that’s where I was. And then—I think I was making cityscapes that were really somebody else’s cityscapes, they were sort of Deibenkorn suburban cityscapes or somebody else’s—they weren’t really mine. I said, “Well, damn it, I want to do the kind of painting that I’ve always wanted to do, which is back to the New York School painting.” I never stopped looking at Kline, de Kooning and everybody, but when I looked again—they looked different, they looked like they’d kind of stayed with the times—Kline’s looked like big nocturnes. Certainly some of the Rothkos looked like nocturnes. I wanted to make my paintings bigger and darker, so instead of painting the city in the daytime, I started painting it at night, which hadn’t really been done that much. As soon as I did it, as soon as I made the first one—a big, black/blue painting, with all the yellows in it that were the lights, and all the reds in it that were the lights, and light blues for inside of windows—(snaps fingers), it came alive. It was like whoa, this is something. It felt just right. I was in wonderful places to do things like that. I was in Long Island City between Brooklyn and Queens. There was a walk bridge over the entrance to the midtown tunnel, and I could go up on the bridge and sketch, or just hang out there and look at the cars go in and out of the tunnel. There were all these places that were illuminated in a really strange manner and that really meant something to me. So then I had the seedbed, that was the touchstone for all this work. And that’s 1978. From those first few paintings on, things began to get more radical.
GM What do you call radical?
DK Well, radical literally means back to the roots, back to original source. I began to realize that I was not just painting something that was stopped, a frozen image—a still, like in photography—I was painting something that was really moving. And, of course, anything that’s moving really has to do with the act of painting, because painting isn’t a sedentary thing. It’s actually almost a pun on action painting. They’re about action, not a stop-action: it’s a literal abstract representation of action and speed. They’re about light and they’re about speed. Where it’s going to go from here I don’t know, but I would imagine I’m going to keep peering into the work, looking at the work closely. That’ll certainly lead me to another place.
GM But it will be within certain parameters, if those original parameters never change. And will it come out, like Einstein’s traveler in space, reversed?
DK It’ll come right back to where it started, right?
GM If there are certain ideas that are never thrown into question, they become a loop, even if it’s an exciting loop. So that by following your nose within that set of rules ...
DK That’s one of the problems. You keep yourself open to possibilities and you keep yourself closed off to other possibilities. It’s about painting, otherwise it’s illustration of some kind of idea. I think painters are painters and idealogues are idealogues.
GM But isn’t there a place where they cross into one another?
DK Yeah, Jasper Johns, that’s the only place. But it’s not about ideas, it’s about painting. With really good Johns, it’s about painting.
GM But actually, from what you’ve been saying, your art is about ideas. It’s about an idea of New York postwar Abstract Expressionist painting. That’s a very specific ideology. And if you’re addressing that as an issue, then you are doing a take on it, and, for all the slosh and turpentine, it becomes an idea painting.
DK Conceptual painting. Yeah, in a way it does, they called Cézanne the first conceptual painter because he painted what he knew as well as what he saw.
GM What about those Pre-renaissance Sienese altar paintings? Simultaneity has been something that has gone on with painting forever It’s certainly not a modernist claim. I think you’re giving the New York School too much credit when you give them the credit for all those ideas.
DK No, I don’t give it to them, I give Cézanne the credit for all those ideas. I think he’s the one that gets the credit.
GM Cézanne made claims for himself as a classic painter.
DK That’s right, he claimed that he was just painting empirically: what he saw. But he actually painted what he knew, as well.
GM I say we all do. And I say you do, too.
DK Yeah, I think so, too. I think so, too. I guess I’m a bit of an ideologue when it comes right down to it.
—Georgia Marsh is a painter whose work is currently exhibited at the Nocturnal Visions show at the Whitney at Equitable Center.